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

 

 

 


The Bestest 2015: Filmmage

IMG_0319Although in many respects great TV is crippling independent film (https://pando.com/2015/10/02/has-tv-stolen-independent-film/), it is hard for me to remember a better year for films of all shapes and sizes. Sure, I saw many of them on the small screen, but the breadth and quality of this year’s films was remarkable. Many of my favorites were documentaries, more than I can remember in the past, which also happen to be well suited for television viewing. Any way you slice it, actors still love feature films, despite the fact that serialized television is actually reaching a larger audience in many cases, pays better, creates realistic consistency of work, and now comes without a negative stigma. More than anything though, I urge you to continue to see films in the theater where you can check your phone at the door, lose yourself in the story, and have a real life shared experience with other human beings. It’s worth it.

  1. Ex Machina – Dir. Alex Garland (Oscar Issac, Domhall Gleeson)

Although “Ex Machina” is clearly a sci-fi film, it is more appropriately a psychological meditation on the moral and ethical implications of a world teetering on the brink of a very practical and ubiquitous artificial intelligence. Set in a gorgeous isolated compound in Alaska (but actually filmed in Norway) the reclusive and brilliant CEO of a Google-like technology (Oscar Issac) has created a beautiful “robot” (Alicia Vikander) to test whether or not an AI being can experience or at least simulate real emotions.

For this experiment the wonderful Domhnall Gleeson, a programming genius, is recruited to spend a month with this creature to evaluate how successful Issac was at playing God. This is the kind of film a young Stanley Kubrick would have made, but with all the advantages of modern technology. There is a kind of deep, slow burning urgency that pulses through every frame, but in the end director Alex Garland’s accomplished debut is as slick and cerebral as almost anything you are likely to see for a long while.

  1. Dope – Dir. Rick Famuyiwa (Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons)

If Spike Lee were just starting out today, living in LA, and passionate but not yet truly angry, he might have made a film like “Dope.” This is a modern high school comedy focused on three social outcasts who manage to get into the kind of trouble that might seem like an updated version of “Risky Business.”

The film bounces around themes that include the main character’s love of classic 90’s Hip-Hop and setting up of a Silk Road – like website to sell drugs for Bitcoin.  I didn’t see anything as fast moving, topical and just down right funny as “Dope” this year. In an age where young people are increasingly less interested in films, and preoccupied with shorter content, “Dope” reaffirms my hope that the kids will come back around and start watching movies that aren’t sequels again.

  1. The Revenant– Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Leanardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy)

There is almost no director working today that would have dared make a film as bleak, brutal and beautiful as Inarritu’s “The Revenant.” Shot in the pristine expanses of Canada and Argentina in the devastatingly harsh winter months, the story is set nearly 200 years ago in an age of almost unimaginable hardship. DiCaprio, in a wonderful and virtually wordless role, plays a frontier guide named Hugh Glass who is hired to guide a crew of trappers through the a nearly impenetrable wilderness inhabited by Native Americans and bears.

In one of the most violent and realistic scenes ever captured on film, Glass is mauled and battered by a bear and left for dead in the ominous wilderness. Although the film is mostly about his epic struggle to survive, it also seriously explores themes revolving around revenge, loyalty and the shameful mistreatment of the Native tribes who were lived on the land before we did. With cinematography as starkly gorgeous as anything this year, and a kind of relentless violence that is both impossible to turn away from but devastatingly realistic, this has to be seen, and on a big screen.

  1. Room – Dir. Lenny Abrahamson (Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay)

The premise of this film, a mother and child held in a shed for 7 years by a sexual predator, is so sadly realistic and disturbingly commonplace, that it is almost impossible to imagine it being a remarkably hopeful and optimistic film. While the story could have been mired in a shallow kind of “love conquers all” message, it exists in a much more fluid and almost surreally believable space.

But Brie Larson, who is mesmerizing, as the doggedly optimistic mother of young Jack, has created a wonderful world that deflects the reality that exists outside of their tiny shack, and almost extends beyond it. Young Jacob Tremblay has also turned in what will likely go down as one of the best performances by a child his age in long time. This film is pure gold.

  1. Love & Mercy – Dir. Bill Pohlad (Paul Dano, John Cusack)

Film biopics about musicians are rarely as good as their promise. Either their characters are already too rich and well known publically to be played effectively by someone else, or their stories lack any kind of truth worth unpacking. But both the Brian Wilson who really was the genius behind the Beach Boys, and the mid-life Wilson who disappeared from public view in the 80’s, are actually elusive curiosities whose stories have never been very well explored given the impact of his creativity.

“Love & Mercy” is  a masterpiece in both casting and acting. Paul Dano’s “Pet Sounds” era Wilson is a perfectly cherubic doppelganger for the real life Wilson, whose idiosyncrasies and mannerisms seem lifted straight out of the limited archival footage from that period. Mid-life, mid-meltdown Wilson played by John Cusask is also a perfectly realized version of the Wilson who disappeared along the way. This film is both inextricably sad and masterfully redemptive, but the ride is so well crafted you are bound to lose yourself along the way, saved in many ways by that exquisite music.

  1. Me Earl and the Dying Girl –Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke)

 I loved every minute of this film. Despite a plot line that reads like a cliché wrapped in an after school special, there is something irresistibly nuanced and fresh about this story about two outcast buddies Greg (Thomas Mann) and Ronald Cyler (Earl), and their friendship with a dying girl. It is relentlessly funny, cynically clever , and feels at times like a Wes Anderson film with its attention to tiny details and thin layer of surrealism.

Greg and Earl have been making low budget re-interpretations of classic movies like “A Sockwork Orange” since childhood, all the while managing to slip almost unnoticed in the sea of high school cliques , living in a kind of perpetual invisibility. But it is Olivia Cooke’s ” dying girl” who grounds the film with a kind of emotional honesty and realism that elevates it into something truly remarkable.

  1. Spotlight– Dir. Tom McCarthy (Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton)

This is a film that reminds you how great movies can be. It features one of the biggest and best ensemble casts in a very long time. It is topical and modern, but feels more like the kind of handcrafted film a director like Sidney Lumet would have made decades ago. It emanates from a newsroom, but one that sits on the precipice of reinvention, increasingly dominated by the internet- link-bait, and superficial reporting and a race against time to make what’s physical  , digital.

The crimes buried by and within the Catholic Church have dominated the headlines for years now, but untangling the threads, politics and bureaucracy has forced a kind of global complacency. Director Thomas McCarthy whose prior films include the nearly perfect “The Visitor” and “The Station Agent,” has such a careful eye and sets such an even but urgent pace, that you get to savor each of many varied wonderful performances. This film is an absolute joy.

  1. What Happened, Miss Simone – Dir. Liz Garbus (Nina Simone)

It’s hard to know how much of my love for this film is biased by my long time love for the music of Nina Simone. She always transcended race, gender and genre with her otherworldly voice but her career and legacy eventually became tangled up with erratic perhaps bi-polar and self-initiated exile to Liberia and her outspoken defense of civil rights. But this film manages, through a comprehensive montage of photos, interviews and most importantly captivating live performances, to paint a portrait of a complicated and brilliant musician and activist.

Unlike many of the best rock documentaries of the past few years (Amy, Montage of Heck, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me) “What Happened” isn’t the story of an artist overwhelmed by early success, then succumbing to an early death. It is instead one where we watch the pressures of an artist and socio-political celebrity more slowly shape the course of her life. Whether you knew her as a musician or as a political agitator, this is a profoundly poignant tribute to the magic of her genius and depth of her passion.

  1. Amy – Dir. Asif Kapadia (Amy Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mark Ronson)

Even if you didn’t know all of the music of Amy Winehouse, most people probably knew enough to recognize that she was driving on that familiar road to nowhere, the same road that has taken so many rock stars before her right around the same age (Hendrix, Cobain, Joplin, Buckley). What most people didn’t know is that she really was one of the most talented singers to have emerged in a very long time. She was an old soul in a young body, who seemed to understand jazz the way Tony Bennett understood jazz.

But unlike many of her peers whom we lost too early, “Amy” seems to make the point that although the velocity and pressure of today ‘ s hype can be overwhelming and incapacitating, it didn’t have to end this way. Her boyfriend, father and others merely fed the fire, instead of helping to put it out. Music is a business. Amy Winehouse was a business. Perhaps if she w ere merely a singer she’d still be making music today.

      10.  The Big Short– Dir. Adam McKay (Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt)

If you read Michael Lewis’ fantastic book, it would have been unimaginable to consider this book becoming a mainstream dramedy. Against all odds, this fantastic film, aided by an impeccable cast, manages to tell one of the most complicated financial conspiracies in modern capitalism in a totally accessible way. Whether it be CDO’s, the rigged co-dependence of the banks, ratings agencies, mortgage sellers, and other ancillary players, this is a rich multi-layered ponzi scheme whose intricacies could have easily overwhelmed the story, but didn’t.

What makes each of the five main characters, our anti-heroes, so intriguing is that each of them individually is so quirky and occasionally offensive, but under McKay’s deft direction they are all almost lovable underdogs. Carrell, Bale, Gosling, and Pitt are perfect caricatures of themselves. The film plays almost like a series of perfectly realized skits that ultimately hang together as one of the most complete films of the year.

      11.  Mississippi Grind– Dir. Anna Boden / Ryan Fleck (Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds)

I love movies about gambling. I love road movies. As such, this road movie about gambling had an easy path to my heart. The great Ben Mendelsohn, and a surprisingly compelling Ryan Reynolds, play two outsiders who meet at a poker table in the drab gloom of an Iowa winter. From these very first scenes and the subsequent voyage down the Mississippi to New Orleans, the film has a kind of worn and ragged texture that is captured both in the landscape and the weariness of the actors.

As the two travel down south in search of a mythical big poker game, they reveal their tortured disappointed selves to one another while inflecting the kind of inevitable self-destructive abuse that seems to plague those trapped in a classic gamblers dilemma. Even the best of these films always seem to have a kind of inevitability about them. “Mississippi Grind” is filled with surprises right up until the final shots.

     12.  Mad Max: Fury Road – Dir. George Miller (Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron)

“Mad Max” is one of two sequels in 2015 that not only do justice to the originals but in many respects far surpass them. It is also another reason why there will always be movie theaters. George Miller’s post-apocalyptic reboot was easily the most consistently entertaining and enjoyable two hours of filmmaking this year, and when seen on a big screen with massive images and explosive sounds assaulting your eyes and ears , it makes you remember how great the “movies”  are and how not great the “TVs”  are.

From the sumptuous barren landscapes to the bleakly optimistic plight of the survivors, led by the stoic but determined Tom Hardy and the furiously committed Charlize Theron, to the battle worn War Rig that they steer off course in a non-stop race for survival, this voyage is a marvel. As they are pursued through hell on earth by a colorful rag tag band of outlaws in Burning Man-like vehicles, we are forced to think about the world we are living in today, perhaps not so far away from this not so distant future.

     13.  99 Homes – Dir. Ramin Bahrani (Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern)

Michael Shannon always seems to be boiling under the surface, about to explode, leveling anything in his wake. In “99 Homes” his predatory foreclosure agent character seems to be that perfect combination of anger mixed with occasional humanity. He is matched by a wonderful Andrew Garfield, who plays both the victim and eventually the victimizer, in what has become the reality of this latest American saga.

Apparently enough time has passed that it is now safe to reflect on what happened and why.  As such, this year’s two films focused on the collateral damage inflicted by the sub-prime crisis (“The Big Short” being the other). This film is surprisingly and relentlessly intense, playing almost like an action film minus the explosions and CGI. Director Bahrani has crafted a minor masterpiece, a thick chapter in the history of American capitalism and the psychological ambiguity of the modern age.

     14.  Creed– Dir. Ryan Coogler (Michael B. Jordan, Sylvestor Stallone, Tessa Thompson)

It is easy to forget how great those early Rocky films were. Not that many movies can get you both choked up and pumped at the same time, but Sly made it work. “Creed” the hugely entertaining second film by “Fruitvale Station” maestro Ryan Coogler, is cut perfectly from that old Rocky cloth, but newly polished to feel modern without seeming “slick.”

Michael B. Jordan continues to establish himself as one of the most versatile and likable actors out there. This time he plays the orphaned son of the great Apollo Creed, determined to make it on his own. Sure the story pulls hard at the corners of predictability, but manages to stay far enough away from the edges. In the end, this is the kind of film that demands to be seen on a big screen, in a packed house, where you can feel the energy and joy bouncing around the room.

     15.  The Wolfpack  –Dir. Crystal Moselle (The Angulo Family)

Imagine being locked in a small Lower East Side Manhattan housing project with your six siblings and two crazy parents for the first 15 years of your life. Some years you never get outside at all, other years you were allowed out once a month. The one thing you did have was movies. And so you began to devour them – – they were your outside world. You started acting them out with your siblings and strangely you managed to keep yourself sane.

Well, this is the real life story of the Angulo family. Thanks to loads of home footage captured over the years, and interviews with the most of the Angulo clan, we can be a voyeur into one of the most bizarre social experiments that I have ever seen. There are more than a few questions that are never really satisfactorily answered, but you can’t help getting drawn into this tangled web, and rooting for this weird Wolfpack to get a chance to live in the real world.

A few more that are very worthy …

     16.  Meru– Dir. Jimmy Chin (Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk) This amazing documentary tells the story of three talented and committed climbers who embark on climbing a Himalayan peak that has never been summited before. Beyond the harrowing ascent, the footage is filmed by the climbers themselves and has a handful of amazing backstories too incredible to believe.

     17.  Youth– Dir. Paolo Sorrentino (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel)“Youth” is that rare beauty of a film that not only reminds us how lucky we are to still have two of our greatest living actors still making great films, but also that growing old can be beautiful and filled with the smallest and loveliest details that we tend to take for granted while we are young.

     18.  Anomalisa– Dir. Charlie Kaufman(David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh) Only Charlie could imagine a world as detached but honest as this one. Somehow the wizardry of this truly groundbreaking animation makes the story seem even more real than it would if it was merely the real actors. Astounding.

     19.  71’– Dir. Yann Demange(Jack O’Connell, Charlie Murphy) This might be the best film that virtually no one saw last year. It tells the story of a soldier inadvertently abandoned in a sharply divided Belfast war zone in 1971. As he tries to get back to safety, I couldn’t help remembering how I felt watching “The Warriors” as a kid.

     20.  Sicario– Dir. Denis Villeneuve (Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin) Director Villeneuve is a bare-knuckled realist who is not afraid to make an unsqueamishly  gritty, film about the war on drug cartels and the impossibly gray area that exists in our ongoing fight. Like his last film “Prisoners,” this one will have you wondering where we draw the line, and how to judge the people caught in the crossfire.

     21.  The Martian – Dir. Ridley Scott (Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain)A few years back David Bowie’s son made an excellent film called “Moon.” It was eerie and isolating in the same way that Matt Damon’s kinetic energy and higher tech environs is in “The Martian.” But like “Gravity” this story about people stranded in space, alive and in contact but impossible to bring home, will no doubt become more and more realistic.

     22.  Carol – Dir. Todd Haynes (Cate Blanchette, Mara Rooney) Todd Haynes has always made patient and slow burning old-fashioned films focused on complicated characters trapped in confining times and places. “Carol” is a visual feast, and Rooney and Blanchette are spellbinding.

23.  Joy – Dir. David O. Russell (Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro) Under the direction of anyone except David O. Russell and starring anyone other than Lawrence, this story could have easily been mired in feel good clichés and a hugely predictable outcome. Instead it is a true joy!

     24.  The Diary of  Teenage Girl– Dir. Marielle Heller (Bel Powley, Kristin Wiig, Alex Skarsgard)There is almost nothing more compelling than a coming of age tale set in San Francisco in 1976, a much different city in a much different time, but in the end teenagers haven’t changed much. Every year I get a little bit older and they stay the same age.

     25.  Brooklyn – Dir. John Crowley (Jim Broadbent, Saoirse Ronan) Like a kind of wonderfully innocent guilty pleasure that harkens back to an America that barely resembles the one we live in today. More than anything it makes you consider how we became so much less welcoming to the plight of immigrants, than we were not so long ago.

     26.  The End of the Tour – Dir. James Ponsoldt(Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel) David Foster Wallace was that rare genius who wrote impenetrable books of honest but hard to grasp fiction, but despite his rock star status, was never able to find peace. This film deftly explores the man behind the myth.

     27.  Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – Dir. Brett Morgen(Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love) For anyone who doubted the raw genius of Cobain, this amazing film reconstructs his life through his  unbelievably prolific collection of drawings, lyrics and diary entries. Remarkable.

     28.  Son of Saul – Dir. Lazlo Nemes (Geza Rohrig, Todd Charmont) Another bleakly beautiful Holocaust film where mere survival sheds an impenetrable light on the moral ambiguity of life itself.

     29.  Phoenix – Dir. Christian Petzold (Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld) As Holocaust films go, this one is neither sentimental nor merely a recounting of the horrors. Instead Zerhfeld has created a Hitchcockian mystery where nothing and no one is what it seems.

     30.  Cop Car  –Dir. Jon Watts (Kevin Bacon, Hays Wellford, James Freedson-Jackson) This small but harrowing thriller about two kids that accidentally steal the wrong cop car from a terrifyingly good Kevin Bacon, is a wonderful reminder about how fun and creative low budget films can be.

Bestest Television

  1. The Affair
  2. Sonic Highways
  3. Shameless
  4. Ray Donovan
  5. Making a Murderer
  6. Broadchurch
  7. Red Oaks
  8. Transparent
  9. Halt and Catch Fire
  10. Narcos
  11. Luther

 

 

 

The Bestest 2015: Tunage

Coach 2015As I take stock of 2015, it was hard not to notice how many of my favorite albums were filled with what sounded like full orchestras or brass and strings accompanying singers living in some sort of beautiful time warp—a world immune to keyboards and “drops” and laptops. Don’t get me wrong, there is a select strain of electronic music that I adore, but this year’s best music is more a tribute to the past than a nod to the future. Sadly, I bid Rdio farewell and returned home to Spotify, where the rest of the world was listening. And thanks to Sonos and my iPhone, I have almost the full history of recorded music at my fingertips.

1. Tobias Jesso Jr.—Goon (SubPop)

Tobias Jesso is a very tall, shaggy-haired 20-something, who writes and performs near perfect slow piano ballads in the tradition of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and the much lesser known Epic Soundtracks. He is an old soul, with a modern sensibility. He tugs at your heart, but almost with a kind of a wink and a nod. There was no album quite like “Goon” in 2015. It is a rich but spare meditation on love and loss.

Lyrically it is about as vulnerably beautiful as anything I could both stomach and love. On the sublime “ Without You” he croons “I can hardly breathe without you / there is no future I want to see without you / I just don’t know who I would be without you.” But as much as “Goon” is remarkable for its intimacy, the album’s producer , Girls mastermind JP Snow, has created something so warm and close that it’s hard to imagine what it would have been in someone else’s hands. If there is one record to listen to over and over again this year, until you memorize every word and phrase, it is this one.

2. Julia Holter—Have You In My Wilderness (Domino)

On her third full length album Julia Holter channels the best elements from everyone from Bjork, Dirty Projectors, St. Vincent to Sufjan Stevens. Somehow I missed her first two, but this a revelation. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a new voice, especially one accompanied by complex musical arrangements, provocative lyrics and a decidedly non-pop, but poppy take on modern music.

She sings like an angel, composes like Brian Wilson, and writes as efficiently as William Carlos Williams: “Figures pass so quickly/That I realize my/ Eyes know very well/ It’s impossible to see/Who I’m waiting for in/My Raincoat,” she sings on the album opener “Feel You.” This album is simply magical.

3. Destroyer–Poison Season (Merge)

Destroyer (aka Dan Bejar), the lesser known third wheel in the super group The New Pornographers, has been making music for almost 15 years now. His music has always toed the line between sleepily esoteric and jazzily lost in time. Between moments of legitimate brilliance like 2011’s “Kaputt,” and the vocally and lyrically distinctive New Pornos tunes, Bejar has been on the cusp of something resembling a masterpiece.

“Poison Season” is finally the consistent daydream I have been waiting for. His seductively nasal vocal stylings, and reclusive rock star ways, are accompanied by a rock chamber orchestra of sorts. “Poison Season” is part musical, littered with brass and strings, part non-sensical beat-poetry, part love letter to life. On the magical “Times Square” he writes like Allen Ginsburg tripping on Stephen Sondheim : “Jesus is beside himself / Jacob is in a state of decimation / The writing on the wall isn’t writing at all / Just forces of nature in love with a weather station.” Tune in.

4. Sufjan Stevens—Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

There hasn’t ever really been a songwriter and composer like Sufjan Stevens. His hushed vocals and fully realized orchestrations live in this kind of nether world between here and there, now and then, and rock and church music. Always confessional and intimate, his albums have been ambitious attempts to understand the world around him, but also the world that exists in his head.

On “Carrie and Lowell,” his sadly uplifting mediation on his absent mother Carrie, and her second husband Lowell, he unpacks a lifetime of trying to reconcile how he should feel. Even when he sings “When I was three or maybe four / She left us at the video store” he is less angry than merely trying to understand. Yes, this record is heavy, both in spirit and composition, but like most of his work, there is a joy lying right below the surface and that’s what makes this so special.

5. Paul Weller—Saturns Pattern (Polydor)

At 61, Paul Weller might be the only legitimate rock star from the 70’s still making new music that is both vital and groundbreaking. While the Stones, The Who, and Zeppelin are still touring big stadiums on lucrative nostalgia tours, Weller is still writing, recording and performing new music with the same urgency and intensity as he did while leading the Jam and the Style Counsel. Beginning with his eponymous solo album in 1993, Weller has unpacked the history of rock music from R&B, to soul and blues, and the hybrids that live so comfortably in between. Some of these efforts have been legitimately mind bending like “Stanley Road” and the “Heavy Soul,” but others have lacked the kind of recognizable origin that helped create cohesion.

“Saturn Pattern” is something of the completion of a long virtuous cycle that began with The Jam and delivers us to today where artists seem to be embracing the lost genres of the not so distant past as some kind of revolt against the soullessness of electronic music. Vocally, Weller miraculously still sounds like a young man, and his band is filled with the kind of studio super group most artists only dream of. On “Pick It Up,” arguably his best most infectious song in a decade, you are almost transported back to that moment in time when you first heard his deliciously serious groove that hooked you the first time.

6. Shamir—Ratchet (XL)

Shamir is a genre and gender-bending enigma. “Ratchet” is also one of the most hopelessly addictive records of 2015. He is part dancehall diva, part hip-hop, and part melodic electronica. It is an album littered with big bouncy beats, but also one filled with cowbells and Casio’s. The music is hard to place from a timing perspective, but feels as if it could be comfortable in almost any decade starting in the 70s.

Lyrically, Shamir is some sort of weird savant, both funny, “Don’t try me I’m not a free sample / Step to me and you will be handled”, and also a bit angry. But it doesn’t really matter because once you let the beats wash over you on the dance floor it just kind of finds its way to you.

7. José González—Vestiges & Claws (Imperial Recordings)

Like Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and perhaps Simon & Garfunkel before him, González has the uncanny ability to use his voice as an instrument as much as he turns an acoustic guitar into a voice. Both with his band Junip and his solo work, the Argentine Swede, creates a kind of slow burning intensity, serious and heavy but also weightless.

For an acoustic album “Vestiges” has a deep, steady groove throughout it. On the album’s standout track “Leaf Off / The Cave”he takes his own brand of melancholy optimism to a kind new high: “Take a moment to reflect where we’re going / Let reason Guide you / See all tracks lead you out from the dark. “ In 2015 there was no better example of musical mediation than this one.

8. Tame Impala—Currents (Interscope)

If I hadn’t been riding the Tame Impala train from their not so long ago first album, I’m not sure I’d know how to feel about this record. I know I’d love it, but once you know where this band is going, everything they do will be challenged by expectation. “Currents” is a fully realized masterpiece that seems to be following the kind of mainstream psychedelia that only Pink Floyd was ever fully able to pull off.

Not only are they a fully bankable live band with a light show that nods to the early acid tests, their swirling guitars and keyboards seem to have nothing in common with more popular modern music. I guess it makes sense that this group of outsiders in their 20s hail from Perth, Australia. They have managed to write an album of near perfect songs, and I sense that they will have a long creative career bridging the gap between the past and the present.

9. Kurt Vile—b’lieve i’m goin down (Matador)

Strangely, the 35 year-old Kurt Vile has become the flag bearer in the renaissance of a kind of uniquely American music that Tom Petty and Springsteen promulgated in the 70s. This is guitar rock rooted in the kind of blue collar experience where the subjects of songs have real jobs, go to the local bar after work, and drink Budweisers and smoke cigarettes while rock music blares from the battered juke box in the corner.

Along with fellow Philly based conspirators, and sometime band mates and fellow Adam Granduciel (War On Drugs), and the underrated Steve Gunn, Vile writes dark rambling songs all beginning and ending with his silky guitar work. Alternating between stark acoustic numbers like “All in a Daze Work” to the oddly uplifting “Life Like This” where he sings “Wanna live, wanna Live / A life like mine / Well I’ve been doin’ it all the time / To do so you gotta roll with the punches.” This is an album meant to be listened to from top to bottom, and over and over again.

10. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds—Chasing Yesterday (Sour Mash Records)

Who didn’t like Oasis, at least a little bit, in the 90’s. Although they were never my favorite Brit Pop band at the time, they had a real knack for timeless songwriting in the tradition of the best British bands. Although Liam Gallagher was the vocal face of the band during their heyday, it was Noel who was the real genius writing most of the music and lyrics.

“Chasing Yesterday” is one of the most surprisingly triumphant comebacks I have heard in a decade. Songs like “Riverman” and “The Right Stuff” are cut from that beautiful anthemic rock quilt that seems to have been kept alive only by bands like My Morning Jacket and Radiohead with not only the leverage and access to spend real time in a studio, but also with the vision to create rock in an age of electronica and Hip Hop. This is an album filled with long jammy, brass and string?—?adorned guitar driven rock that tend to build into something you haven’t heard since you last really loved Zeppelin and The Who.

11. Matthew E. White—Fresh Blood (Domino)

This wonderfully genre defying retro jazz rock exists somewhere in that nether world between Lou Reed, Hall & Oats, and Flight of the Conchords. It is groovy in a hard to place way, either in the past or deep in the future. It is funny, or ironic or perhaps even a bit sad. It’s hard to say really.

White idolizes the great Randy Newman, and I am assuming Brian Wilson; the music has a kind of similarly whimsical intensity. He creates slow building anthems that tend to explode out of something that moments earlier seemed merely a ballad. Just drop the needle and let it flow over you like a warm bath.

12. Mercury Rev—The Light In You (Bella Union)

Twenty years ago Mercury Rev released an indie rock classic called “Deserter’s Songs.” Along with The Flaming Lips “Soft Bulletin,” these two albums will be remembered as the definitive examples of a very specific moment in time where the druggy beauty of mid-career Pink Floyd met the weird orchestral cousins of 90s alternative rock. It’s been almost a decade since we last heard from Mercury Rev, but “The Light in You” is a surreal day dream.

On one of the year’s best tracks, “Central Park East,” you simply lose yourself in the song “Am I the only lonely boy to ever walk in Central Park … I’m listening to the sound of champagne glasses spilling out daydreams on the ground.” Waking, lucid dreams?—?I seem to remember having them more often when I was younger. Real life happens; thank god we still have music like this to help take us away.

13. Beach House—Depression Cherry / Thank Your Lucky Stars (Sub Pop)

There hasn’t been a band as perfectly consistent and as dreamily accessible as Beach House since the glory days of 4AD and the Cocteau Twins. Although neither of this years’ two excellent releases is individually better than any of the prior three, the sum of the parts, 18 songs in all, more than makes up for it. “Depression Cherry,” the more commercial but still experimental of the two albums, alternates between sonic My Bloody Valentine type rhythms and percussive sounds.

Of the two, I prefer the more stripped down simplicity of the surprise “Thank Your Lucky Stars” release. On it we can more freely bathe in the angelic vocals of Victoria Legrand, letting the gentle keyboards and guitar wash over everything. Most often our favorite bands eventually evolve away from the place where they start (U2, REM) and find themselves lost, unable to go back home. Others like Radiohead make only minor adjustments on that long path while still seeming fresh and relevant. Beach House is one of those bands, making small steps towards a far off future?—?one I hope is lit with many more beach houses.

14. Courtney Barnett—Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom & Pop)

If Stephen Malkmus were a 27 year-old woman from Melbourne, making music today he would sound like Courtney Barnett. Seemingly out of nowhere, she was shot from a cannon in the 2014 hype cycle with a quirky mix of bookishly clever lyrics and addictive melodies. On her first full length she has crafted a kind of survey album filled with all the elements of the 90s indie rock: loud guitars, whip smart lyrics, and a slackerish vibe.

Although perhaps an outlier, on the beautiful ballad “Depreston,” she sings “Now we got that percolator / Never made a latte greater / I’m saving / $23 a week.” This pretty much sums up her approach to music, holding a magnifying glass up to the little bits in life. She makes them funny, but also emphasizes how creativity is just sitting in front of us in the form of the mundane.

15. Leon Bridges—Coming Home (Columbia Records)

Some music just transcends the hype, the novelty and all of the weird inflections that come with breaking out of the convoluted music business in 2015. How would this album have stacked up against all the great R&B-Soul records of the 50’s and 60’s if it came out today? Who knows? Who cares really? Those records aren’t being listened to by youngsters, so if it takes an out of left field effort like this to inspire a look back, I’m game.

In addition to 25 year-old Leon Bridge’s silky smooth voice, and superb backing band (thanks to White Denim’s Austin Jenkins) there are ten legitimately great songs captured here. The real standout is clearly the hopped up “Smooth Sailin” but if you want songs that just kind of have you longing for an earlier life during a simpler time, songs like “Coming Home” and “River” will put you in that contemplative kind of mood.

16. Kamasi Washington—Epic (Brainfeeder)

There must be something in the water in LA these days. Fifty years ago, the jazz greats stomped around NYC, but thanks in part to Kendrick Lamar, space jazz freaks like Kamasi, Thundercat, Robert Glasper and Flying Lotus are picking up those faded clothes left behind by “Bitches Brew” era Miles, and soul jazz era Coltrane, Sun Ra and Funkadelic, and rebuilding the genre.

“Epic” is a three hour (yes three hour) masterpiece of blissed out jazz for the hip hop generation. In the mid-90’s Guru’s Jazzmatazz, US3, and The Solsonics and merged hip hop and jazz into a kind of cultural bridge, but slowly the real players were replaced by synthetic beats, samples and over-produced radio friendly chart toppers. This is as a refreshing and as important an album as any this year. Invest the time. Unpack history.

17. Kendrick Lamar—To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope)

I am surprised that I have fallen for this record as hard as I have. Unlike its predecessor, which was a more traditional Hip-Hop album I am rarely moved by these efforts. But with collaborators like the Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, George Clinton and others, this was bound to be special. This is an album that feels more like a classic 90’s Acid Jazz (Guru, Digable Planets, etc.) than modern Hip Hop.

As an MC, Kendrick sounds almost understated here, letting the players play. This is a record about race, and about how little has changed in America. This especially hits home on the “The Blacker The Berry,” a not so subtle allusion to the seminal Wallace Thurman novel of the same name that explores racism within the black community in the late 1920’s. Sure there is anger, but it is buried into a weirdly wonderful survey course in the history of black music. This is a powerful reaction to the hedonistic trend where the most powerful MC’s end up in public pissing matches with each other, and forget about everything that came before them.

A bunch of other stuff that you must hear … [Read more…]

The Bestest 2014: Tunage

Listen while you read:
It is hard to tell whether the state of music in 2014 was more a tribute to the past than an expression of the future, or perhaps I am just getting older and my tastes are just a reflection of latent nostalgia. The many records that I loved this year tended to lean toward the folkie, the psychedelic, and rustic Americana. There were a few exceptions where synthesizers and thinly disguised electronica or new wave sounds cut through the acoustic guitars. I guess it doesn’t really matter why, what matters is that there was more music released this year that will age gracefully and never sound dated than usual. But in the end, when everyone has 35M tracks at their fingertips for $10 a month, there will forever be more than enough good music to occupy whatever time you manage to find. 2014 was a very good year.

 

  1. Sharon Van EttenAre We There (Jagjaguar)Along with Neko Case, Sharon Van Etten has one of the most powerful and hypnotic voices in modern music. Lyrically she mines her soul for that triumphantly broad range of emotions that comes with a broken heart and then, like shooting clay pigeons, picks them off with gorgeous but unsentimental detachment.“Are We Here” is an album of wonderfully varied styles, from the ethereal folktronica of “Our Love” to the rustic countrified Americana (think Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams) on “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” to the stinging, soaring rock of “Taking Chances.” Despite covering so much elegant ground there is nothing derivative about anything she creates. In some cases seeing an artist live creates the necessary context to fully appreciate the recorded music, and although one might imagine a dark and quiet show, Sharon Van Etten brings a relentless humor to her otherwise dark and contemplative music. There was no other record that moved me quite as much this year.
  1. War On Drugs Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian)Sometimes you just need to believe the hype and listen to the music and then separate yourself from the ancillary praise. I was too young to really understand the pre-MTV music of Tom Petty and the rest of the early 80’s post classic rock Americana, but with the silky smooth Lost in The Dream War on Drugs have recreated something largely forgotten over time.Led by the hazy understated vocals of Adam Granduciel, the band blends old timey guitar rock with modern synthesizers to create something that transcends the genre. This is mood music, recalling long summer days or cold winter nights. On “Eyes To the Wind” something that resembles a kind of forgotten anthem, the music just takes its time getting somewhere that feels like the kind of dream you remember only faintly. In an “albumless” era, this is a work that is much more than the sum of its parts.
  1. Nick Mulvey- First Mind (Harvest Records)Following in the recent onslaught of precocious brilliant young British folkies (Laura Marling and Michael Kiwanuka to name a few), Nick Mulvey has written one of lushest records of its kind in quite a while. With his intricate guitar fingering, and silky smooth vocals, Mulvey channels everyone from Nick Drake to Sweden’s Jose Gonzalez.His largely acoustic framework often builds to anthemic compositions filled with violins, and subtle electronica and steady percussive beats. Like most Mercury Prize nominees, his music somehow missed both the American hipster set, and the crossover landscape that has embraced Mumford and Hozier. Standouts like “Cucurucu” and “Meet Me There” would be legit singles if they had been released by Dave Matthews, but fortunately will be beautiful private secrets for a while longer.
  1. Future Islands – Singles (4AD)Funny how the modern hype cycle works: Ten year-old band, three records into their critically acclaimed but essentially niche career, perform their song “Seasons” on the David Letterman show (not even Fallon) led by a singer who looks like a young balding Marlon Brando, but sounds more like Fine Young Cannibal’s Roland Gift, dressed in pleated pants, and dancing like a new wave duck. The performance blows up on YouTube, launching them from 200 person live venues to 5,000 seat affairs. Couldn’t happen to nicer guys who seem so genuinely appreciative of the opportunity.Backstory aside, Singles is a great record from beginning to end. It’s 80’s synth-driven new wave pop, but unlike the icy computer music of the late 70’s and early 80’s, this music is rich with emotion. On “Sun In The Morning”, Samuel T. Herring wears his heart shamelessly on his sleeve and on “Seasons (Waiting On You)” you hear the sound of the band celebrating the pure joy of making music for its own sake.
  1. Real EstateAtlas (Domino)Real Estate makes some of the most pristine and oddly upbeat yet introspective music today. Shimmering, but steady guitars and drums create a kind of surreal canvas through which you can almost see time passing slowly before you, but it’s almost like you’re being drawn back into your youth. Like Luna, and fellow New Jerseyites The Feelies before them, the ten songs on “Atlas” are pure dream pop, escapist rock for the nerd set.There is nothing abstract lyrically, but merely perfectly crafted pop songs about people and places and states of mind. Tunes like “Hard to Hear” and “Talking Backwards” just kind of roll along towards some kind of ambiguous destination on the long road of life. Simplicity is the easily the hardest thing to accomplish creatively, but Real Estate make it look so .. well .. simple.
  1. Angus and Julia Stone Angus and Julia Stone (American Recordings)Great records occasionally fall between the cracks. They are too perfect and too complete as a whole to be consumed quickly enough in our attention-challenged world. Aussie siblings Angus and Julia combine rock and folk, are hip but not hipsters, and write songs that just take a little while to get under your skin before making a familiar kind of sense.Under the tutelage of Rick Rubin, this eponymous album is a groovy tribute to all that has come before, complete with jazzy keys and steady percussion. All that has come back in the form of modern guitar rootsiness. Julia sings in a kind of hushed smokiness (“My Word For It”), while Angus seems to take his time meandering through quiet jams like the sublime “Get Home.” That Angus and Julia still haven’t nailed the audience they deserve makes this record even more special.
  1. AsgeirIn The Silence (One Little Indian)Imagine an Icelandic Bon Iver–dreamy, ethereal songs filled with brass, jazzy drums and icy cool electronic blips. Imagine a singer whose smooth falsetto vocals just melts into the music and hangs quietly, the kind of atmosphere you assume defines a wintery island that is home to a volcano. That is what Asgeir Trausti’s beautiful debut album does. It transports you to some kind of peaceful place.On the sublime “Head in the Snow,” if you listen closely, you hear a quiet, fragile optimism that sounds familiar, but is actually quite special. This is not party music. This is not superficially cool, but points to a kind of precious confidence that just kind of works as the diamond in the rough you’ll be able to share with the small handful of people lucky enough to have found it.
  1. BeckMorning Phase (Geffen)When you have been making music for as long as Beck, for a large and both commercial and critical fan base, through many mutations, you have the freedom to make whatever kind of music you want. Although there have been a few Beck records over the years that veered off course for me, it was always the outliers that resonated the most: Mutations, Sea Change and the criminally under heard One Foot In the Grave.Morning Phase is the culmination of everything he has been working on since he started as a fixture on the anti-folk circuit in the early 90’s. It is a gorgeous experiment in mood and tone. It is music by which to watch clouds move across the sky, or snow fall, or suns rise. It is a waking dream of sorts – both melodramatic and mellow.
  1. Temples – Sun Structures (Fat Possum Records)I wasn’t old enough to read when the music that inspired Temples, a band of young Brits literally half my age, was making waves. On the surface Sun Structures shares more in common with bands like The Byrds and Hurdy Gurdy era Donovan than it does anything made in the past twenty years, but despite these older reference points, the music is aggressively modern. The breezy ten songs are a mix of psychedelia and pristine pop.Like Tame Impala and Artic Monkeys before them, what’s old is very much new again. On tunes like “Sun Structures” there are beautifully fuzzed out guitars and silky smooth vocals rising and falling like stars from the late 60’s. On the inevitably classic “Move with the Seasons” it is easy to forget you are living in the internet age, but more the age of Aquarius. Just let the record play.
  1. Yellow Ostrich – Cosmos (Barsuk Records)In a year without new music from Local Natives and Grizzly Bear, “Cosmos” was the album that neatly plugged that gaping hole. Yellow Ostrich plays moody, serious music that mixes soaring vocal melodies with steady drum lines and occasionally stinging guitars.The album drifts between rock jams like “Any Wonder” and dreamy percussive driven ballads like “Neon Fists.” Although “Cosmos” becomes more accessible with every listen, this is a dark experimental album that makes one contemplate the meaning of the relationships that we have and the ones that we wish we had.
  1. Elbow The Take Off and Landing of Everything (XL)For some reason Americans just don’t get Elbow. Perhaps it is that to really appreciate what they are doing takes patience, and Americans are not patient people. More than any band I can think of, they write songs that often start off slowly before exploding like time-lapsed flowers into beautiful walls of sound.On “My Sad Captains” (perhaps my favorite song of the year) there are lyrics that could have been lifted from a Dicken’s novel: “I’m running out of miracles / and the streets alive with one man shows / the corner boys were moved along;” vocals sung by a hipster choirboy, Elbow transports you somewhere else completely. Their music is always grounded in a steady percussive backdrop, but Elbow garnishes each song with a small orchestra of brass and keyboards adding another layer of beauty and complexity.
  1. Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (High Top Mountain Records)This might be the most purely “country” album I have fallen for this hard since discovering the classic Gram Parsons records in college. Metamodern Sounds is cut from a much different cloth than the increasingly popular modern country music that is popular today. It taps into older musical themes like religion, booze, and love lost and found, but lyrically sounds somehow strangely contemporary.This is an album is filled with old-timely outlaw country jams like “Living the Dream” but also meanders between warmer acoustic stories like “Voices” and more 70’s hippie country ballads like the desert island classic “Turtles All The Way Down.” Blues and Country are America’s most original musical inventions. Sometimes you just need to go back in time to understand the present. This is really something special.
  1. Mac DeMarco Salad Days (Captured Tracks)This is a slithering melodic ramble through some sort of hazy modern dreamscape. For all its apparent whimsy, DeMarco (not his real name), hailing from Brooklyn (by way of Montreal) and sounding stony (despite the fact that he claims he doesn’t) is a serious (or seriously good) second album by a guy who wants us to believe “it was no big deal.”Salad Days is part Beck, part Brian Wilson, part something that used to come on late at night at the local college radio station played by some reclusive music nerd. There are weird pop songs like the exquisite ‘Blue Boy’ and jazzier numbers like ‘Brother’ that feel more like Steely Dan than something out of Williamsburg. This is a weird and wonderful concoction.
  1. Hospitality Trouble (Merge)Another infectious 90’s retro throwback album alluding to Luscious Jackson by way of something else strangely contemporary. This is a pop record filled with conventionally standard guitar and drums, but also with endless catchiness and wonderful songwriting. Led by the relentless upbeat vocals of Amber Papini, the band’s second album is a minor masterpiece, pulling no punches but hitting all the right chords.There are a few songs that probably just miss hitting the same main street vein that Haim or MS MR hit last year like the infectious “I miss You Bones.” Unlike many of the more serious records that I loved this year, ‘Trouble’ is 100% fun. It asks only that you enjoy the music, and get lost for 38 minutes in a sea of shiny pop.
  1. Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Wig Out at the Jagbags (Matador)Once a Malkmus fan always a Malkmus fan. There will never be another indie rock run as perfect as the one he cut with Pavement in the 90’s. In some ways it reminds me of what the Grateful Dead did in the 70’s which is why Wig Out’s homage to the Dead seems so perfect. Alternating between straight up guitar riff lifting like the opening strums of “Cinnamon and Lesbians” that channel “St. Stephen,” and the lyrically brilliant “we lived on Tennyson, and Venison and the Grateful Dead” from “Lariat.”Still the cleverest lyricist on the planet, Malkmus seems perfectly comfortable settling into his middle 40’s a hunkered down family man living in the Portland, no longer concerned with keeping up with the cool kids – if he ever really did? He has always managed to infuse a kind of academic whimsy into his music, but this time around we get two great tastes that taste great together.
  1. TV on the Radio – Seeds (Harvest Records)For over a decade, TV on The Radio has been making some of the most challenging, genre bending albums on the planet. Punk, funk, electronic, and new wave – it’s all weirdly there. The band’s earliest records were discordant difficult efforts, hard for me to connect with emotionally, but oddly compelling.Seeds is the bands most accessible, most purely pop record yet. Still edgy at its core, and driven by the soaring vocals of Tunde Adebimpe, the band packs a kind of urgent intensity into increasingly compact pop songs. ‘Careful You’ and ‘Trouble’ are two of the best songs they have ever written, but dark and light and filled with some of their own unique brand of passion.

OLC2b

A bunch of other stuff that you must hear below the fold…

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