I watch a lot of TV …
The Bestest TV
1. Better Things
2. The Loudest Voice In The Room
4. The Sinner
5. The Deuce
6. Dead To Me
9. Ray Donovan
10. Big Little Lies
11. The Affair
12. Silicon Valley
Your Discerning Guide to Modern Culture
I watch a lot of TV …
The Bestest TV
1. Better Things
2. The Loudest Voice In The Room
4. The Sinner
5. The Deuce
6. Dead To Me
9. Ray Donovan
10. Big Little Lies
11. The Affair
12. Silicon Valley
The Bestest 2019: Filmmage
2019 was a dark year for the human race. Politics, fires, floods, war, anger, and sadness were rampant. I haven’t ever seen so many incredible films that were so consistently bleak yet compelling. It’s hard to imagine that we fix many of these problems during this new decade, but at least we are chronicling modern times with a heavy dose of cinematic creativity. Many of the films on this list will be unwatchable for people that just want to be entertained. But if you want a break from the banality of social media and depressing stories on the news, here is a welcome dose of darkeness.
1. Uncut Gems – Dir. Benny & Josh Safdie (Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett)
This is the most frenetic and relentlessly edgy film of the year. If you love sports gambling and the gangsters behind it, the Safdie brothers go deep into the belly of the beast. Set in the diamond district just off of Times Square, this film is about money and our endless preoccupation and addiction to it. Not unlike the brother’s prior full-length film “Good Time,” there is very little levity and joy, instead it is a relentless journey into madness.
Although it is deeply dark, it moves so lightly through the slow-motion implosion of its star Adam Sandler, in very a welcome off character role. With small contributions from Judd Hirsch and Eric Bogosian, this is Sandler’s film, and he runs wild and loose trying to keep the wheels on the car, even though he seems to know he’s at the end of the line. Nothing goes where you think it will which is why it’s such a gem.
2. 1917 – Dir. Sam Mendes (George MacKay, Dean Charles Chapman)
Like the opening sequence of “Citizen Kane” on hyperdrive, “1917” rolls along in one seemingly endless shot. The transitions are so seamless that you have to pay very close attention to even detect them as the camera never stops following the journey through the relentless and often gruesome journey through the burned-out wasteland of Germany and France at the end of WW1.
With a largely fresh faced and a sublimely costumed cast of soldiers, Mendes captures the kind of rugged and noble bonds of the last almost civil seeming war. After WW1, each war seemed to became even more barbaric and political, as the boundaries of the world became more rigid while starting to become more homogenous. Like “Dunkirk” before it, just when you thought there couldn’t be another great war film, “1917” is one of the very best ever.
3. Parasite – Dir. Bong Joon Ho (Song Kang Ho, Jang Hye Jin)
It’s rare for a film that is filled with such scorching social commentary to exist as a comedy, a long con, a thriller, and a blood fest so comfortably. The inequality gap, as seen through the lens of two Korean families, is so shockingly universal, shining a bright light on the struggle and ingenuity of the poor, and the superfluous “problems” of the rich.
Bong is both a master storyteller, and a stylistic genius. Each character is just deep enough to understand fully, but not so deep that anyone steals too much of the oxygen. As the film shifts from light to dark, the camera finds every rich detail effortlessly. There wasn’t a more creative film this year.
4. The Nightingale – Dir. Jennifer Kent (Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr)
This starkly beautiful, infuriatingly bleak, and relentlessly morbid romp through Australia during the 1850’s is as unsettling a film as you are likely to see at the theater these days. It is by no means a mainstream work of art, but it’s oddly watchable, and intensely compelling once you tip-toe through a few gruesome scenes.
Early on in the film a young Irish servant watches as her family is brutalized, while the balance focuses on her unstoppable thirst for revenge. Despite being set halfway around the globe, 175 years ago, all of the themes seem strikingly similar. Her friendship with the marginalized aboriginal guide, echo’s the race relations we still struggle with today. The abuse she suffers from the powerful people around her also seem chillingly familiar. In the end we are all just animals.
5. Marriage Story – Dir. Noah Baumbach (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson)
Divorce isn’t rational. It’s isn’t fair to anyone. It’s people at their worst with collateral damage to boot. For anyone with a generally happy marriage this film might feel like unnecessary and unbelievable drivel. But the story is largely inspired by director Noah Baumbach’s own messy divorce to his ex-Jennifer Jason Lee so there is little speculation, mostly just experience.
Scarlett Johansson plays the unappreciated Nicole, who is largely stripped of makeup and glamour, and is an understated powerhouse, while Adam Driver’s self-absorbed Charlie is filled with a kind of clueless but arrogant intensity. The thing about divorce is that at some point, for outsiders anyway, things can’t get any worse. Rip the band-aid, make the leap, no one is guilty sometimes … Baumbach understands all this.
6. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – Dir. Quentin Tarantino (Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio)
The first two hours of “Once Upon A Time” flow like a laid-back old Hollywood honey, slowly at first until it explodes with that classic Tarantino adrenaline shot to the heart. More “Jackie Brown” than “Pulp Fiction,” Pitt and DeCaprio seem to be having as much fun as we do watching them muddle through their own mid-life malaise.
Part fact, or at least embellished details, part extrapolated fiction (inspired in part by Burt Reynolds and his stuntman) in some ways you know where things are going but really can’t ever be sure about how it will all play out. How do the Manson killings intersect with a washed up actor and stunt man, in Tarantino’s hands you just roll with it enjoying every nuanced twist.
7. Midsommar – Dir. Ari Aster (Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor)
“Midsommar” is one of the slickest most creative horror films I can remember. For starters it takes place in Sweden at a bucolic community and almost entirely during daylight. All three of these aspects create strange textures and scenarios that disorient the viewer who is expecting merely “horror.”
The plot is simple, a bunch of beautiful college students go traveling during summer break and end up at a cult where human sacrifice is still part of the program. That is as much as director Ari Aster needs to build one of the nastiest but most compelling films of the year.
8. The Farewell – Dir. Lulu Wang (Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin)
Of all the quirky, politically correct seeming movies that somehow managed to claw its way above the fray, without a free Netflix or Amazon boost, this innocent family reunion seems like an odd one to take off. Supercharged by its star, Awkwafina, fresh off “Crazy Rich Asians” is a quirky force of nature, but the film is a calm mediation on life, family and the inevitability of death.
For a largely subtitled film, this is a surprisingly easy film to follow. Given the subject matter, a terminal lung cancer diagnosis, it is genuinely upbeat throughout. Even though the cast is aligned around trying to do the right thing, the film makes you second guess whether good intentions can actually justify a lie. Good question.
9. Joker – Dir.Todd Phillips (Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro)
Frighteningly “The Joker” wasn’t even in my top three darkest films of the year. It’s portrait of 1981 Gotham is a starkly apocalyptic nightmare of a city, making it easy to understand how a character like the Joker could come to be. A comic book film in name only, Joaquin Phoenix disappears into the black soul transforming his emaciated body into a fragile shell of horror.
More than just a tragic character study or a plot driven thriller, seeing De Niro in the film makes you a consider the similarities with his own minor masterpiece “King of Comedy” set in NYC and following a delusional unfunny comedian. Although there is no redemption, no soul, and no light, this is a film that will be remembered and although not “enjoyed”, I think will be appreciated for a very long time.
10. The Dead Don’t Die – Dir. Jim Jarmousch (Bill Murray, Adam Driver)
In some ways this might be the most straightforward, and just plain funny Jarmoush film in a long and darkly funny career. For Zombie fans perhaps this will seem too flat and tame, but for those of us that just don’t dig the Zombie, this kind of understated meander is just what the doctor ordered.
Bill Murray and Adam Driver play two small time cops who end up having to save the world, or at least their town from the living dead. They are as dead pan much of the time as the lifeless Zombies who can only be killed by blowing up their heads. Like all Jarmousch films, there is a rather relaxed sense of cool that moves this film effortlessly through its strange landscape.
11. The Irishman – Dir. Martin Scorsese (Al Pacino, Robert De Niro)
If this film clocked in at 2.5 hours, most people would be calling it a classic up there with “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” It would be easy just to love it just for the beautiful nostalgia of seeing the cast and director reunited one last time, but despite its heft it is a killer story impeccably made.
That is was largely made to be seen in you’re living room, made it easier for Scorsesee to get lazy about editing, because like most serialized TV, you could easily break it into four easy sections. But that is why a great film is great, and great TV is another thing all together. In the end who doesn’t love a mob film, and who doesn’t miss Keitel, Pesci, Pacino and De Niro?
12. Jojo Rabbit – Dir. Taika Waititi (Roman Davis, Scarlett Johansson)
This film is a surreal daydream of one of the most despicable horror shows of all time. Seen through the eyes of a young Nazi in training, the world looks more like something out of a Wes Anderson film than “Schindler’s List.” There is a lightness and innocence that saturates every scene in the film as the magnitude of the crime gets lost in the soul of a child.
Roman Davis is a star, wise behind his years, understanding both the rich material and the mindset of his character in way most child actors never even get close to. Taika Waititi again proves that he is an underrated genius, telling a story so bizarre with such a deft touch you almost forget we are watching a film about the Holocaust.
13. Ad Astra – Dir. James Gray (Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones)
Like” Gravity,” and to a lesser degree “Inception” before it, this film has a kind of hazy flow about it and is as much of a modern age space film finally accurately managing to capture movement without gravity. This time this ambiguous motion tends to mirror the broader questions of the film: is there intelligent life beyond earth, is our profession more important than family and the tangible pleasures of the world.
In some ways Brad Pitt is even better here than in “Hollywood,” always cool as glass but this time a bit more distant and meditative, searching for scientific answers that seem to outweigh those of the people in his world. The cinematography is breathtaking, while the story meanders through time and space at a most comfortable pace. There is a quiet distant magic at work throughout.
14. Her Smell – Dir. Alex Ross Perry (Elizabeth Moss, Cara Delevigne)
This is a legitimate classic punk rock masterpiece. Like “Sid & Nancy” before it, Elizabeth Moss becomes a Courtney Love-esque character (the singer for the fictional band Something She), a riot girl messiah imploding in an infuriating brilliance right before our eyes. Like so many of our idles who flame out young (Elliot Smith, Kurt Cobain, Janis, Hendrix) it is so often that it is real psychic pain that births great art.
The pace and chaos of the direction and cinematography so perfectly matches the psychosis of the character that you find yourself woozy and right there in the journey. The first half finds Moss in the midst of a drug and alcohol fueled madness, but the second half is a calmer sadder reconciliation as she works through her recovery trying desperately to live. It is two very different movies, but both are bold and beautiful.
15. David Crosby: Remember My Name – Dir. Cameron Crowe
Our idles are dying quietly and often expectedly. But in David Crosby we get to relive a career and a life filled with massive highs and lows. He is a living legend finally at peace with his journey. For all the beautiful music he made along the way, behind the scenes there was a restlessness and an anger that drove him off the rails for large swatths of time.
Cameron Crowe has always loved music and musicians more than just about any journalist in the modern age. His soft touch allows the camera to give Crosby the freedom to try to understand and make peace with all of the troubles and heartbreak in the past. Fame and ambition is a dangerous drug, and when combined with the drugs that are so often used to soften the pressure, you end up detached, a shell of the person you were meant to be. It’s never too late to make amends.
A few more that are very worthy …
16. Dolemite is My Name – Dir. Craig Brewer (Eddie Murphy, Craig Robinson) It is so nice to see Eddie Murphy again, dominating every scene in this wickedly funny biopic about one of the best comedians you’ve probably never heard of.
17. Harriet – Dir. Kasi Lemmons (Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monae) Although this accounting of the Harriet Tubman’s extraordinary freedom fighter watches more like an adventure film than another bleak film about slavery, it makes this hard road watchable.
18. The Confession Killer – Dir. Robert Kenner, Taki Oldham (Henry Lee Lucas) In this fascinating documentary about a long forgotten serial killer hoax where the filmmakers uncover one of the strangest accounts of our broken criminal justice system ever
19. The Last Black Man In San Francisco – Dir. Joe Talbot (Jimmie Falls, Jonathan Majors) The San Francisco in this surreal indie places a dagger in the heart of the post Internet city of our Utopian future, only it is a sour place filled with haves and have nots, and although there are not real answers the questions are profound.
20. Booksmart – Dir. Olivia Wilde (Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein) The hilarious directorial debut from Olivia Wilde is a pitch perfect accounting of the what it’s like to be an overachieving high-schooler in 2019.
21. Tell Me Who I Am – Dir. Ed Perkins (Alex and Marcus Lewis) This is a heartbreaking and truly remarkable story about two brothers piecing together two childhoods that are remembered very differently.
22. The Peanut Butter Falcon – Dir. Tyler Nilson (Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson) This is a beautiful little film about second chances, never giving up on dreams, and the power of just being good. The rustic setting and naturalistic tones make this an absolute delight.
23. Bombshell – Dir. Jay Roach (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman) The perfect companion to the “Loudest Voice In The Room,” this is a an acting tour de force about one of the most insidious conceptions in the history of media.
24. The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley – Dir. Alex Gibney (Elizabeth Holmes) The finest documentarian of the modern age tackles one of the most spectacular corporate crimes of the past decade in a mind bending film about one of the most intriguing scams in technology.
25. American Factory – Dir. Stephen Bogner & Julia Reichert. We are where we are in the world today largely because globalization has created an interconnected set of overlapping values and traditions. No film has found an anecdote as clear as this to demonstrate our current world.
The last year of the decade was every bit as solid as each of the preceding years. Counter to popular belief, I still tend to think that real artists make albums. Maybe songs turn slowly into albums, but thematically the 32 releases I fell in love with this year were complete works of art birthed usually from a central theme (love, loss, anxiety, hope, politics, etc.). In years past I tended to have more electronic leaning favorites, but this time around I am back to guitars, acoustic meditations and genre-bending creativity that defies most comparisons. In many ways 2019 was a personal roller coaster, so I am incredibly grateful for all of the music that helped me fill the holes that opened and closed along the way. I hope everybody spends some time with these artists independent of your mood.
There was no record that mined the history of music from rock to soul to R&B quite as thoroughly as Michael Kiwanuka’s brilliant third full length album. It has a sound that is both undeniably modern yet also unidentifiable as an artifact of any specific era. Produced in part by the incomparable Danger Mouse, Kiwanuka channels politics and passion in a way that is long dormant since Marvin Gaye or the solo era of Paul Weller. Sadly not much has changed since then, the world is still broken, race relations are at a boiling point and hate seems to dominate the news.
Kiwanuka, a Ugandan Brit, has emerged a freedom fighter much the way Marley did in the 70’s, and as a defender of a better future. He opens with an infectious groove on “You Ain’t the Problem” where he sings “Love makes you blind / I hope to find / Who I believe in / Get back in line.” On almost every song he manages to lay down some heavy soul, taking you on a journey to some place that feels familiar, letting it all wash over you like a warm shower. Pure genius.
2. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguar)
It seems like an eternity since this brilliant collection was released (very early in 2019) and had I been listening to it on vinyl the grooves would be worn thin. I’ve been fanatical about her deeply personal and gracefully maturing music for almost a decade now. From the fragile and dark folk of her early work, to this more fully realized effort with songs that encroach on pop, Sharon has arrived in a very real way.
From the infectious, “Seventeen” where she wails “I used to be free, I used to be Seventeen,” to the raucus “Comeback Kid,” and the brooding “Jupiter 4” there is a kind of raw power, reminiscent of the early PJ Harvey, but more polished and melodic. In a world filled with pre-packaged starlets who neither write their own music nor play the music, Sharon Van Etten is a bright light looking back and forward. “Remind Me Tomorrow” touches something close to perfection from the first note to the last.
3. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains (Drag City)
David Berman, AKA Silver Jews, and most recently Purple Mountains, was always more of a poet than a rock star. A long-suffering conjurer of a dark artistic melancholy, Berman left us with one last tragically comic meditation on modern life, depression and laughter. A few nights before embarking on his first tour in a decade, he quietly ended his life knowing that he had given us one last gift.
In a career’s worth of near perfect rock songs, perhaps “All My Happiness is Gone” might be his sadly foreshadowing best. In it he warbles in that familiar baritone “Ten thousand afternoons ago / My happiness just overflowed / That was life at first and goal to go … All our hardships were just yardsticks, then you know.” Great often comes from incredible sorrow, and Berman mined his soul for us.
4. Jose Gonzalez & String Theory– Live In Europe (Mute)
Jose Gonzalez has one of the most mesmerizing voices in music, and has penned some of the most hypnotic songs of the past 15 years. When performing solo, he accompanies himself on an intricately strummed acoustic guitar channeling Nick Drake and letting vocals and guitars just melt into each other sublimely. But in this expansive career retrospective performed throughout Europe, he engages the German avant-garde String Theory to build one of the most important fusions of classical music and folk ever recorded. I was lucky enough to have seen it performed three times in 2019, but this recording captures all of the transcendent joy emotion of the real thing. In a career of starkly beautiful songs, many of his best are present, including “Heartbeats,” Crosses,” Let It Carry You,” and “Down The Line.” Undeniable magic.
5. Angel Olson – All Mirrors (Jagjaguar)
There has always been a darkness at the center of Angel Olson’s music, but not until now has it been so drenched in such traditional gothiness. “All Mirrors” is a sprawling album filled with lush orchestral accompaniments that create an even deeper exploration of the mind and soul. The song of the same name will likely go down as one of the best of the decade building slowly into a black rainbow of emotion.
This is a breakup record, but adorned in something more regal. On “Lark” she sings “To forget you is to hide / There? is still so much left to recover / If? only we could start again / Pretending we don’t know each other.” In a year filled with incredibly strong female vocalists, Angel Olson has emerged as a the Queen if darkness.
6. Hannah Cohen – Welcome Home (Bella Union)
2019 featured so many extraordinary young female voices, but this lush waking dream of an album works as a kind of hypnotic charm. Recorded in Woodstock, there is a rustic dreaminess that haunts each of the 10 songs on “Welcome Home.” A mixture of folk and spare electro-pop, it is as much the effortlessness of her music as the effort that makes such an impactful cohesive work.
On the blissed-out contemplative opener “This Is Our Life” where she croons “This is your life / Don’t let it happen to you / What is your move / The deal’s on the table in clear view” she clearly emerges eons wiser than her years. This is an album meant to be savored from opening chord to closing verse.
7. Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet (Loma Vista)
25 years into a wildly eclectic jaunt through the wilds of indie rock from the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and almost 20 years of solo efforts, this appropriately named release might just be his finest work. For fans of Father John Misty, this is spot on, but for those who find Father just a bit too much, “My Finest Work Yet” is the album you’ve been hoping he’d get around to making.
Bird is a Chicago born virtuoso violinist and arranger with a voice from a hard to place era. The 13 songs here are jazzy, loungey and bluesy, but injected with a Laurel Canyon looseness (perhaps reflecting his recent move to LA). Any Bird song worth it’s salt features a heavy dose of violin, whistling and lyrics filled not with self-reflective emotion but with an incredible literary journey to places you’ve never even considered. This is truly a special work of art.
8. Jamilla Woods– Legacy (Jagjaguar)
Chicagoan and Brown educated Jamilla Woods is a poet, historian, singer and interpreter of the modern world who combines activism with hip hop lyricism into one of the most unique albums of the year. There is both 90’s acid jazz and 50’s cabaret. Like a modern amalgam of Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and every other African American change maker, she pulls both directly from their words and imagines the ones they never wrote.
On “Giovanni,” inspired by a Nikki Giovanni poem entitled “Ego Tripping”, she sings “Any minute now you get the message / Eenie meenie miney pick an apt description / I’m impressive, you can check my chart for reference.” This is history similar to Hamilton is in some ways. On the banger “Zora” she merely sings it like it is “None of us are free but some of us are brave / I dare you to shrink my wave, I’m on a new plane.” This is an easy listen but a heavy dose of our often-shameful history.
9. Aldous Harding – Designer (4AD)
There is something so seductive and beguiling about the third album by the Kiwi songstress Aldous Harding, that you find yourself getting lost in some kind of enchanted forest, shrouded in fog but filled with odd Tolkienesque characters merging from the darkness nonchalantly. Her lyrical gymnastics and breathy vocals work together in some sort of perfect balance.
On “Fixture Picture” she croons “Fixture picture / I’ve got it, I’m on it / You’re in it, I’m honored” which serves as a kind of adieu to an ex which just calmly drifts into the future. But it’s the stand out “The Barrel” where she continues to mine the strange corners of her soul, but does so unlike anyone “The wave of love is a transient hurt / Water’s the shell and we are the knot / But I saw a hand arch out of the barrel.” This is a waking dream of an album.
10. Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center (Dead Oceans)
Supergroups are usually more pure novelty than anything likely to be permanent. But Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers seem to have created a band with more staying power. Hopefully. The folky rock that both artists have made a career out of as soloists, extends so seamlessly to this near perfect collaboration of lyrics and sentiment.
The band channels a rootsy Americana vibe that feels more 70’s than today, but tends to lean towards something more literary than just SoCal beaches and Laurel Canyon. On “My City” they lament “This town is a monolith / This town is a crowded movie / This town is a depot, I come and go / This town is my city.” Just let the music play, but pay attention to the little moments.
11. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell (Polydor)
Somewhere between too much hype and not enough time, Lana has flirted with real lasting career potential for almost a decade. She always towed the line between sugar and serene, but this time around she has created a masterpiece of patience and ethereal beauty. This one is a gently rolling stream of conscious and emotion. Her vocals are both fragile yet self-confident, adorned with acoustic guitars, piano, and a kind of lazily seductive hypnotism.
The nearly ten minute “Venice Bitch” is the kind of epic that will never find the radio or even that popular indie playlist, but seems to signal her ambition while drawing directly from the pop culture of her youth: “You’re in the yard, I light the fire / And as the summer fades away / Nothing gold can stay.” She is both an Outsider, but also someone perfectly in tune with the modern age.
12. Big Thief – Two Hands & U.F.O.F (4AD)
Releasing one brilliant record in a year is a remarkable feat, but two is almost unheard of in an era where the idea of a double album has been dead for twenty-years. There is no big thematic shift in the two albums, more just twins born a few months apart. The band is bursting with the prolific creativity of a band playing both with a sense of urgency combined and with a kind of calming mysticism.
Although the band was formed in and lives in Brooklyn, the music is born and recorded in rustic locales which explains the raw earthiness of each of the songs. The fragile vocals of singer Adrianne Lenker, creates a kind of intimacy that gives the band raw texture. On the standout “Not” we hear her sing “It’s not the energy reeling / Nor the lines in your face /Nor the clouds on the ceiling / Nor the clouds in space.” The band is a bit reminiscent of The Band – richly talented group of players on a voyage with no particular destination.
13. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen (Ghoesteen Ltd.)
Nick Cave’s music has never been anything other than an unfiltered dose of whatever he’s navigating through. On “Ghosteen” he confronts the death of his son who died tragically a few years back. There is no holding back on the raw emotion that comes with unexpected grief, and as such the album is beautiful but a heavy ride.
As with most Cave efforts, there are huge soundscapes painted with odd sounds and instruments, accompanying his deep distinctive vocals. For 35 years he has been able to nuance both a dark and foreboding persona but also the world around him. “Ghosteen” is a sublime and tranquil coming to terms with one of life’s most tragic events. I thank him for sharing.
14. Vagabon – Vagabon (Nonesuch)
Laetitia Tamko’s second album as Vagabon, the self-titled work of the same name, allowed her to quit her engineering job and travel the world playing her own brand of indie folk with the odd dash of pop splashed in. Her silky vocals do most of the work on “Vagabon” which is often accompanied by sparse instrumental accompaniments.
It is hard to place any specific point of influence, but this time out she wrote, produced and played most of what we hear. On the standout “Water Me Down” there is bright electronic energy as her lilting vocals just spill out so perfectly: “Never meant to be you / Never meant to be me / Never meant to be us / Never meant for?all?of this.” This is a special wonder.
15. Local Natives –Violet Street (Loma Vista)
Local Natives have been evolving their soaring three-part vocal harmonizing for almost a decade now. They construct songs that build slowly into towering rock pop anthems, flying dangerously close to the sun before transforming into something magical. Although they will never make a record as perfect as their debut “Gorilla Manor”, “Violet Street” is an inspired and welcome comeback.
There is something brighter and more relaxed here than the past few releases. Big polished singles like “When Am I Gonna Lose You” leverage all three vocalists who take turns moving us towards some glorious sunsetting relationships. There is always an optimism lurking behind the curtains of a Local Natives song. On “Café Amarillo” they put it all in context “I don’t want to die before I learn to live / Looking for my exits / Still so bad at making plans I plan to keep / How long has it been?” Indeed.
A bunch of other stuff that you must hear …
16. Whitney – Forever Turned Around (Secretly Canadian) The most relaxed, lushly produced and upbeat album of the year for me was the blissful second album from this quickly maturing dynamic duo. Put the top down and press play.
17. FONTAINES D.C. – Dogrel (Partisan Records) These young Irish punks rock hard and fast and with that accent and attitude that remind me of a lot of bands I used love when my tastes we a lot harder.
18. Weyes Blood– Titanic Rising (SubPop) Of all the old-fashioned Karen Carpenter meets Carly Simon influenced albums that have emerged in their wake, Natalie Mering’s SubPop debut is a marvel of patience and control and unlike anything I have heard in decades.
19. Tycho – Weather (Mom + Pop) Adding vocalist Saint Sinner to the band, Tycho expands well beyond their signature icy spacey instrumentalism into something far more reminiscent and inclusive of Everything But The Girl or Zero 7 era musicality.
20. Elbow – Giants of All Sizes (Polydor) Elbow continues to be the most underappreciated British rock band I can think of. Guy Garvey’s vocals always seem lifted from high above while the band builds him a magic carpet for him to croon from.
21. Bon Iver – i, i (Jagjaguar) Justin Vernon is as brilliant as he is frustrating, daring to stretch out into brave new directions even though you know he’s capable of something so much more accessible and iconic. If you’re not moving forward, you’re not really moving.
22. FKA Twigs – Magdalene (Young Turks) It is rare to find music this sparse yet so full of emotion and understated energy and creativity. “Magdalene” isn’t an always record, but it is a definitely sometimes.
23. Amo Amo – Amo Amo (Amo Amo) LA’s hippie dippy trippy, lazy hazy brilliant throwback California jam band channel’s the freedom of the 60’s with a Jim James produced polish, weaving some kind of misplaced gold.
24. Yola – Walk Through Fire (East Eye Sound) Like Dusty Springfield before her, Yola’s exquisite brand of country soul (from Britain) is a sultry joy produced by the incomparable Dan Auerbach.
25. Nilufer Yanya – Miss Universe (ATO Records) On this impeccable debut, British born indie pop goddess has made album that graphs the past and the present into something totally new.
26. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride (Columbia) In the six years since their last album, many of the Vampires became producers and soloists, but Ezra recruited some new members and released this expansive masterwork filled with a handful of celebrity guests.
27. Orville Peck – Pony (SubPop) On this extraordinary debut a gay, oddly masked, Canadian indie-country singer, who sounds like cross between Wall of Voodoo and Bryan Ferry takes us on a trip down the dusty roads of our collective souls.
28. Mannequin Pussy – Patience (Epitaph) Philly’s reigning and most melodic pop-punk band, whose music seems ripped straight from the 90’s, has delivered a banging bump of nostalgia.
29. Cass McCombs – Tip of The Sphere (Anti-) This sprawling genre defying further cements the legacy of one of the most versatile singer-songwriters of our time blending folk, rock and psychedelia into a warm blanket sound words.
30. Karen O and Danger Mouse – Lux Prima (Lux Prima/BMG) There was no doubt that a combination like this could be anything other than dreamy and delicious. Two great tastes that taste great together.
31. Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile (RVNG) Florida born, Ecudorian Roberto Lange spins gentle cross-cultural gold alternating between electro-pop and Latin jazz on this gentle excursion.
32. Soak – Grim Town (Rough Trade) Irish phenom Soak started releasing music and got a Mercury nomination as a teenager, and eventually released this melodic masterpiece which captures both the spirit of innocence with the pressure of maturity.
To listen to the Bestest of the Bestest 2019 listen here:
The bigger the internet gets, the easier it is to make and distribute music, and the more sub-genres that tend to emerge, the less consensus seems there seems to be. There is more music, more writers and more varied taste than ever before. That said I don’t really care. I like what I like, and this is the bestest for me.
Every year there is always one record that just manages to get stuck under my skin, tug on my emotions and demand something akin to worship. Damon McMahon’s, (AKA Amen Dunes), “Freedom” is a rock masterpiece, in an age of keyboards and laptops. It is a perfect balance of mood and texture, filled with a sadness that somehow manages to sound joyful and optimistic. It is music filled with a patient momentum, building towards a heavy groove.
On the sublime “Miki Dora,” McMahon croons in his dusty soulful way: “Getting on fine / Catch the next wave / Get the move right / Darken the wave” This is quintessential Amen Dunes positivity filled with darkness rolling across a steady guitar and drum line that drifts into a strange new dimension. Like War On Drugs, there is a kind of modern classic rock that transcends time and place, and this time out Amen Dunes has bottled a specific kind of magic.
Continuing with a nostalgic 2018 featuring bands that seem to be more inspired by the music of the 90’s than pop and electronic mainstream of today, Snail Mail’s 20 year-old Lindsey Jordon is mature beyond her age. With a confidently angelic voice and a punk aesthetic not unlike early Liz Phair, her rock solid debut is a perfect collection of catchy pop songs.
On the album’s signature track “Pristine” she sings: “If it’s not supposed to be / Then I’ll just let it be / And out of everyone / Be honest with me.” She balances this coming of age stream of consciousness, with crisp guitar lines and an immaculate production. Sometimes all you need is a great chorus and the naivety of youth to shake you from the reality of the present.
On their Danger Mouse produced 8th album in five years, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Texas, punk savants cover about as much musical ground as possible with these thirteen perfect songs. There are the pure Minutemen inspired bass-guitar dominated gems like “Violence,” “Normalization,” “Total Football,” and “Almost Had To Start A Fight,” perfect ballads like “Freebird II” and “Mardi Gras Beads.” and the Danger Mouse signature funk-retro fusions like “Before water Goes To High,” “Tenderness,” and “Wide Awake.”
But what holds it all together so tightly is the precision and decidedly clever politics that is woven throughout. Unlike the angry punk politics from an earlier generation, Parquet Courts infuse theirs with a healthy dose of humor. Like the Velvets before them, the band has important things to say but drapes them in a cool so blue, the messages just seem obvious.
It’s not very often that a band creates something so original that it literally defies classification. Described by some as “Thai surf rock” or “psychedelic dub” (whatever that means), Khruangbin makes music that is both style and substance. Although “Con Todo” is truly a wonderful collection of songs, it is really what the band does live that adds the necessary context to their brilliance.
As musicians, the band is as technically proficient as almost anyone playing today, but in part it is the theater of their live show (matching black wigs, bizarrely beautiful dance moves, etc.) that gives them permission to play such strange music to an increasingly large audience of zealots. Like Phish before them, they create a mood and experience that is truly revolutionary. Seeing is believing, but listening is the ultimate proof.
Any self-respecting Pavement fan has, no doubt, been tracking the post-career music of Stephen Malkmus quenching their thirst for his hyperliterate lyrics, signature guitar lines, and one of a kind vocal stylings. On every record there are always at least a few songs that bring you right back into that mid-90’s groove, but never a record as complete and satisfying as this.
“Sparkle Hard” is a top to bottom gem – a cynic’s take on the messy politics of today. On “Middle America,” which is probably his best post-Pavement song, he laments “Men are scum, I won’t Deny / May You be shit-faced the day you die / And be successful in all your lies.” You can take the kid out of college, but you can’t take college out of the kid. Malkmus is that rare genius who can take the current state of the world and turn it into an uproarious joke.
On her first four albums, you could tell that if Mitski wanted to make something accessible – almost resembling pop music, she could. Her crystalline vocals had almost always been offset by some kind dark instrumentation leading towards something bleaker than you always felt up for. “Be The Cowboy” demonstrates something of a distant admiration for St. Vincent or PJ Harvey, relegating much of the darkness to the lyrics, and letting the instrumentation create the brightness.
Like earlier efforts, Mitski writes mainly about relationships, the raw emotional confessions that tend to happen along the way to settling into adulthood. On the breakout classic “Nobody,” she sings: And I don’t want your pity / I just want somebody near me / Guess I’m a coward / I just want to feel alright.” Don’t we all.
Rootsy Americana tested the mainstream with bands like Head and the Heart, Lumineers, and Mumford, but these bands have struggled to ride that wave and maintain such large audiences. The best of these bands (Wilco, My Morning Jacket) have built sustainable careers to large but not headlining audiences which has given them the flexibility to make the kind of music they want to make.
Almost 20 years into it, Phosphorescent (AKA Matthew Houck) has established himself as one of those artists. “C’est La Vie” is a mix of catchy, almost pop, songs like “New Birth in New England” with more somber country rock anthems like “Christmas Down Under.” Most of the nine songs collected here come in at 5+ minutes, giving the band a long fuse to set the scene and meander quietly towards a spot way out in the distance. Drop a log on the fire, and just listen to it flicker. [Read more…]
If you have Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, Showtime and HBO, you can see almost every film on this list today. In fact, well over half of these films are already free on some combination of the above networks. Because small indie films no longer have theatrical screens, they end up streaming almost immediately. And the bigger ones … well they deserve to be seen at the theater, so perhaps maybe it’s all working out. I still prefer the focus that a distraction free theater provides, but you can’t always get there. I did miss a few (Green Book, Beale Street, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), but here’s what I saw and loved.
Like director Debra Granik’s breakthrough “Winter’s Bone,” this small and patient film’s setting (a cold and bleakly beautiful Oregon and Washington) plays as central a character as the other remarkable performances in the film. A damaged, PTSD stricken veteran father, played with excruciating sadness, by Ben Foster, is trying to raise his teenage daughter off the grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
There is no doubt that this life is not the right life for a child, but the love they share is as believable as almost any you are likely to see this year. Eventually the wonderful Thomasin McKenzie finds the courage to tell her father that his problems are not her problems, and you see a connection as naturalistic as the film itself. The final scene of the film will leave you devastated, but will have you thinking about it long after the credits roll.
A film this big deserves to be seen on a big screen. I was lucky enough to see it on IMAX with an Alex Honnold Q&A afterwards, but even if I had seen it at home on Netflix, it would still be one of the best films of the year, even though you know how it is going to end. Most often predictability is a bore, but here the only outcome you want is the one that you know you’ll get to see. Despite this, the film maintains an almost relentless and gripping sense of suspense. Honnold isn’t so much a character whom you understand as much as he is a person who defies any and all reasonable questions, and exudes a kind of mechanical confidence and precision of thought and mind. Wrap this in some of the most beautiful shots of El Cap and Yosemite, and you have something truly extraordinary.
Following up on two broadly inaccessible works of genius (“Lobster” and “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer”) director Yorgos Lanthimos has finally delivered a more linear historical drama that allows just the right amount of comic modernity to elevate it well beyond the genre. He cast a dream trifecta of female leads, where Coleman, Stone and Weisz are each perfect in their portrayal of a certain kind of person in a certain kind of circumstance.
“The Favourite” intimates that all the cattiness, scheming, self absorption and competition that seems the fabric of today, is a human instinct that has always been there. The film is both laugh out loud funny and tragically real, and deserves this kind of art-house break out status in a age dominated by superheros and sequels!
There is no doubt that this film is a genuinely unique cinematic milestone. From the exquisite black and white cinematography that helps frame the time and place so effortlessly, to the way the story is more observed than staged and acted. The camera seems almost like a welcome voyeur following an endlessly moving and chaotic naturalistic childhood remembrance.
It is as much about the texture pace and setting as it is about any sort of linear plot line, but the emotional journey of the Cuaron’s childhood nanny is what keeps things tethered. She is both loved and appreciated but also hopelessly anchored to her place in society. Both nothing and quite a lot happen along the way, but in the end the world keeps turning just like the way the camera keeps rolling.
The first two thirds of this film is a surreal romp through the ironic hipsterism of gentrified America. Set in a kind of alterna-Oakland, the story follows the charmingly sarcastic Cassius “Cash” Green, from unemployment to the top of a bizarre telemarketing scheme selling a “Worry Free” life. If, perhaps, this sounds straightforward, it doesn’t take long before you begin to see director Riley’s vision and politics run wild.
It’s funny, or not, how inevitably success and money often brainwashes people into believing their own bullshit (a not so subtle jab at tech culture). The final third of the film watches like a kind of tripped out “The Shape of Water” complete with bizarre creatures trapped in a world run by humans. In the end the film is really a love story, a story about gentrification, and taking stereotypes and tipping them over until almost nothing makes sense but everything is crystal clear. Make sense? Probably not. See the film. [Read more…]