Hey there, world. I haven’t posted here in three months, and here’s why – I’ve been busy writing album reviews for a pair of lovely websites, Slant Magazine and The QuietusThat’s really no excuse to have been dormant for so long, especially when you consider all the hours I wasted watching House of Cards. Hey, did you know politicians are corrupt? Anyhoo, here are some handy hyperlinks to some of those reviews, to prove I’m not lying. Consume away!

Have Fun With GodBill Callahan – Have Fun With God

I’ve gushed about Bill Callahan more than once on this site, so it goes without saying that I approached this dub remix of 2013′s astounding Dream River from the perspective of a frothing megafan. A frothing megafan that expects more than this.

Reviewed in Slant Magazine, 1/20/14

 

Hotel ValentineCibo Matto – Hotel Valentine

On their first new record in 15 years, Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda get nostalgic in an appropriately, oddly imaginative way – through the perspective of a ghost that haunts the titular hotel. It’s carefully crafted avant-pop that’s more than a bit profound.

Reviewed in The Quietus, 2/14/14

 

OxymoronSchoolboy Q – Oxymoron

I had high hopes for this release from a Kendrick Lamar crewmate, especially once I heard the propulsive reggae beat of the single “Collard Greens.” Alas, it is not the Doggystyle to Lamar’s The Chronic.

Reviewed in Slant Magazine, 2/25/14

 

English OceansDrive-By Truckers – English Oceans

A lot of what has made Drive-By Truckers great in the past – incredible story-songs, walls of guitars, a variety of songwriters –  cannot be found on English Oceans. But Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley make up for it with addictive Southern rock tunes that feel instantly weathered.

Reviewed in The Quietus, 3/7/14

Kiss Me OnceKylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once

The Aussie pop legend makes dance-pop whose effervescence belies its lyrical simplicity. On Kiss Me Once, she pays homage to the power of positive thinking so directly and shamelessly, you can’t help but be taken up in it.

Reviewed in Slant Magazine, 3/16/14

131226-beyonce-sales-charts-album

In my day job as an advertising copywriter, it’s common to be tasked with crafting a brand identity for a company that describes itself as “authentic.” It’s a challenging oxymoron – write something rooted in sincerity and hard-won truths, that captures the way real people actually think and talk, for the express purpose of making charts on quarterly reports look different. Yet, as the marketing strategy behind Beyoncé Knowles’ fifth album has proved, this result is not only achievable, but can be responsible for some of the most dynamic, successful, and believable branding in this unrelentingly noisy day and age.

Of course, the strategy behind Beyoncé was to make it look like there was no strategy – the album dropped on December 13 with no advance notice. (When considering it was produced by dozens of people and included a 17-track “video album” featuring elaborate mini-movies shot all around the world, it’s a minor miracle that nobody leaked anything about it.) Even more so than David Bowie’s The Next Day, which pulled a similar trick last March, Beyoncé‘s surprise party approach came readymade with compelling implications – the 21st century artist not playing by outdated rules, the pop star who still believes in shared cultural moments, the independent woman who will only put herself out there when she damn well feels like it. But there’s only so much marketing can do. If Bounty paper towels weren’t all thick and fluffy, none of us would know about “the quicker picker upper.” Luckily for her marketing team (and us listeners), Beyoncé is Knowles’ best work.

BeyoncéA decade into her solo career, Knowles could easily be following the Whitney Houston blueprint – spend your twenties gathering cred as pop’s most dynamic vocalist, then use that momentum to propel you into the adult contemporary stratosphere – but instead, she uses Beyoncé to paint herself as a three-dimensional human being, who feels deliriously in love, discovers how deeply erotic monogamy can be, looks back at her younger self with pride and tenderness, and feels that glorious sense of emotional and financial self-sufficiency that can only come in your thirties.

Everything about the album’s production lends legitimacy to this expression-first mentality; songs regularly break the five- and six-minute mark as Knowles luxuriates in extended segues. Guest spots are limited to the artist’s husband and vocalists who are synonymous with confessional pop. The most instantly infectious track on the collection is “Grown Woman” – an Afro-pop-tinged barnburner that could be our generation’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” – and it doesn’t even appear on the audio disc.

And along with her murderer’s row of producers (Pharrell, Timbaland, Noah “40″ Shebib, Justin Timberlake, etc.), Knowles explores the nooks and crannies of her genre with the same fluid confidence as her songwriting, making stylistic choices that not only keep things fresh, but also deepen the narrative. For instance, maybe it’s a coincidence that “Rocket” pays homage to the devastatingly sultry D’Angelo classic “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” – a song that was recorded in 1999, the year of Destiny’s Child’s stratospheric rise – but Beyoncé‘s breezily autobiographical aura makes me think otherwise.

At a time when it’s easier than ever for people to promote themselves, Knowles (and her marketing team) decided to ignore all of that and let the music do the talking. The result is an album that taps into the feeling you get when you buy a house, or move to another state, or realize you want your spouse just as badly as ever – I’m a grown-up, and I can do whatever I want.

Hello readers of words and listeners of sounds! Here are my 20 favorite tracks from the year that was. The common thread running through them all is that I thought they were good. Enjoy! (full playlist at the bottom)

Prince

20. Prince – “Da Bourgeoisie”

On top of making us feel grateful for new Prince music, “Da Bourgeoisie” almost makes us believe that Sly Stone has finally made that triumphant comeback. On the juiciest riff of the year, the purple one teaches us that funk guitar is like a campfire – if you really want it to burn, you’ve gotta let it breathe.

Danny Brown

19. Danny Brown – “Dip”

Here’s a song about an MDMA bender, that sounds like an MDMA bender. A jittery, propulsive beat built on a distorted memory of Freak Nasty’s 1996 hit “Da Dip” sets the stage for the most addictive thing of all – Danny Brown’s tweaked-out yammer.

Jim James

18. Jim James – “A New Life”

On this sweet, triumphant ballad, Jim James doesn’t just sing the line “There’s more stardust when you’re near.” He pronounces the “t” in “stardust” with NPR-ready elocution. He believes in this stuff, and I’m right there with him.

   Action Bronson

17. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – “Pepe Lopez”

Pee Wee Herman will forever win the award for “Best ‘Tequila’ Appropriation.” But on this song, Action Bronson comes damn close.

Thundercat

16. Thundercat – “Oh Sheit It’s X”

2013 was a heck of a year for ecstasy songs apparently. This vivid, psychedelic synth-funk jam from bass virtuoso Thundercat is the blissed-out counterpoint to Danny Brown’s hyperactive horror story.

1 Train

15. A$AP Rocky (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.) – “1 Train”

Crew songs in rap are like double albums in rock – they’re usually bloated and unfocused, but the ones that work are all-time classics. And this is an example of the latter – with so many creatively peaking emcees one-upping each other over a haunting, string-laced beat, you never want “1 Train” to stop rolling.

Robin Thicke

14. Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell and T.I.) – “Blurred Lines”

Lifting its groove wholesale from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” this juggernaut of a summer jam possessed just the right mix of sunny songcraft and dumb-ass confidence. Even though I heard it around 156,000 times this year, its “you know you want it” refrain always rang true.

Pistol Annies

13. Pistol Annies – “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story”

For anybody who’s ever been touched by a story like this.

Retrograde

12. James Blake – “Retrograde”

“Ignore everybody else/We’re alone now.” On a record full of bald romantic overtures, the chorus from “Retrograde” shimmers the brightest – as does its lilting melody, Blake’s catchiest yet.

Finnaticz

11. Finatticz – “Don’t Drop That (Thun Thun)”

And now for our next entry of Now That’s What I Call Songs About MDMA!: This insanely catchy slice of stripped-down ratchet, which tells us not to drop said drug while educating us on yet another slang term for it. With that chorus blasting, any other high would just seem redundant.

Kanye West

10. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”

Seven notes, synth toms, hyperventilation, and the truth.

Chance The Rapper

9. Chance The Rapper – “Cocoa Butter Kisses”

When Chance talks about putting Visine in his eyes because his grandma wouldn’t hug him otherwise, this self-deprecating, nicotine-stained gospel singalong becomes the stuff of great storytelling.

Janelle Monae

8. Janelle Monae – “Dance Apocalyptic”

If Janelle Monae was on the Titanic, that sad-sack string quartet would’ve been jettisoned right quick, in favor some absurdly, deliriously addictive R&B.

Rhye

7. Rhye – “Open”

When delivered in the right way, few things are sexier than a plea. With “Open,” Rhye takes the opposite tact of, say, James Brown, but its languorous, whispered appeals feel just as deliciously desperate.

pusha_t_my_name_is_my_name

6. Pusha T – “Numbers On The Boards”

Push growls with the grizzled confidence of a junkyard dog, over a filthy-hot beat that sounds like a trash compacter on the fritz – giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “raw talent.”

Disclosure

5. Disclosure – “When A Fire Starts To Burn”

Take a snippet of molten-hot ranting from a guy who calls himself “The Hip Hop Preacher,” add a no-nonsense drum n’ bass groove, and you’ve got an eternal flame of a club jam.

M.I.A.

4. M.I.A. – “Come Walk With Me”

M.I.A. wrote the catchiest chorus of the year, and then pulverized it with an electronic air raid.

Drake

3. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”

The 1988 Marvin Gaye last call ballad that never was.

Kanye West

2. Kanye West – “Bound 2″

You’d think the last noise on Yeezus would be some kind of bloodcurdling scream. But it’s actually the reassuring coo of Brenda Lee’s voice, on a song that anchors a tempestuous album in the same way love anchors a man.

timthumb

1. Bill Callahan – “Small Plane”

Human flight is quite a feat, but Bill Callahan finds something else even more miraculous on this profound ode to love’s triumph over turbulence.

Dear readers,

Before we dive into yet another year-end rundown of music sounds that I deemed pleasurable, I wanted to say that this particular list was most likely influenced by events other than the physical media spinning on my Discman. This June, my wife and I realized a dream by moving to Maine, and the sudden proliferation of beauty and happiness made me more susceptible to messages about life being worthwhile and love being the most important thing. Am I seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, you ask? Well, I just jabbed a pen at my eye area to check, and nope! No glasses. So even though my retina is bleeding, if I had to pick one lyric I identify with from the albums on this list, it would be “I really am a lucky man.”

future20. Future – Future Presents F.B.G.: The Movie

Auto-Tune was invented to be a form of sonic retouching, a way to ensure pitch perfection for any vocalist. But if you’ve heard Cher’s “Believe,” or seen a cover of Vogue lately, you know that the more you hide flaws, the more you’re hiding signs of life. Which makes Future’s artistic identity all the more transgressive and intoxicating. The Atlanta rapper uses Auto-Tune not as a support system, but as a sparring partner, his voice rejecting its attempts to correct it, resulting in an entrancing, narcotic croak that frays and stutters like a YouTube video played over spotty Wi-Fi. So while FBG: The Movie suffers a bit from your typical rap crew mixtape bloat (it’s intended to be a showcase for Future’s Free Bands collective), it has Future delivering pretty much every chorus, sounding deliriously confident and dangerously vulnerable, all at the same time. Like last year’s Rick Ross tape Rich Forever, FBG: The Movie has so many classic, filthy-loud beats it almost feels unfair. But where Ross washed his kingpin tales in bright comic book colors, Future is a decidedly flawed superhero – a man masked in Auto-Tune, fighting for air.

The Electric Lady19. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

Sometimes an artist is too talented for their own good. They operate on a different plane than their audience, seeing things they couldn’t possibly see, and thereby creating things that are difficult for them to digest. Like sci-fi writer Frank Herbert, whose novel Dune is a breathtakingly intricate achievement of the human imagination, and also boring as shit. Then there’s sci-fi R&B singer Janelle Monae, whose artistic vision is painstakingly complete to a level of confusion. On her magnificent 2010 debut The ArchAndroid, the whole Blade Runner-ish concept didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it didn’t matter, thanks to stone cold grooves like “Tightrope.” It’s essentially more of the same on The Electric Lady, which means Monae gives us an album’s worth of monster jams (“Dance Apocalyptic” will make you do just that, for instance), but almost buries them in unnecessary world building. There’s enough greatness here to forgive these failed attempts at concept album transcendence, but here’s hoping her next record is all sandworm, and no sand.

Lousy With Sylvianbriar18. Of Montreal – Lousy With Sylvianbriar

If Kevin Barnes has made a bad record, I haven’t heard it. But it’s not for lack of trying. Over the course of a dozen albums, the driving creative force behind Of Montreal has taken his music in all kinds of questionable directions – he’s written the twee-est of bedroom folk songs, stacked harmonies like Phil Spector on acid, spilled his guts about a divorce over dance-pop beats, and then created a hedonistic alter ego to take that same approach into some seriously apeshit-sounding places. Lousy With Sylvianbriar represents his first major creative shift since that incredible divorce album (2007′s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?) – convincingly appropriating 1970s country-rock vernacular, full of cheerful slide guitars, chiming mandolins and Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris-style duets. It should come as no surprise that it works; in fact, it’s the most focused collection of Barnes songs in years. Whether he’s burrowing in the pocket of a loose, Sticky Fingers-era Stones groove or cooing an Opry-ready ballad, Barnes sticks to the one thing that has been consistent throughout his crazy-ambitious career arc – dense, whimsical, unforgettable wordplay. Like this doozy: “The voice with the synapse that calls blood bats into action has now entered the tablelands.”

Push The Sky Away17. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

If anybody was worried that original guitarist and songwriter Mick Harvey’s exit from the Bad Seeds would be a death knell for Nick Cave’s most longstanding incarnation, the refrain from “Water’s Edge” should’ve quelled some nerves: “It’s the will of love/It’s the thrill of love/But the chill of love is comin’ down.” Lyrics don’t get much more Nick Cave-y than that, and Push The Sky Away, his 15th Bad Seeds record, is full of similar ruminations on romance and death and dark destinies coming to fruition by the seaside. It’s the band’s most beautiful work in this century, a collection of quietly ominous, pre-dawn ballads that are no less frightening for their prettiness. Perhaps Harvey could’ve convinced Cave to prune a lunkheaded line or two, or at least save them for Grinderman 3 (which is a thing that I’m just going to say is happening because IT NEEDS TO HAPPEN), especially the first couplet from the otherwise crushingly gorgeous “Mermaids.” But on the whole, this is a legacy-worthy installment, a deliciously restrained effort from a band that seemed due for an overreach.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze16. Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

In my best of 2011 list, I tried to explain why Kurt Vile’s lackadaisical brand of folk-rock is so damn compelling. The best I could do was the old cliché that “not trying makes you cool” (which, really? come on, self). Luckily, I don’t have to attempt it again this year, because on the warm, rolling dream that is Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile delivers a line that pretty much nails it – “Feeling bad in the best way a man can.” These are songs with narrators in need – of love, vindication, succor, direction in life, etc. Yet instead of wallowing, they’re more likely to step out into the sunshine, make a wisecrack and coast on the reverberating, 12-string acoustic waves. Songs like “Pure Pain,” “Shame Chamber” and “Too Hard” aren’t titled ironically, yet they’re streaked with hope, and anchored by Vile’s singing, which never rises above an “everything’s gonna be OK” kind of murmur. He’s singing about feelings that sting like freezing rain, if only because they make pretty days that much prettier.

Yoko Ono15. Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band – Take Me To The Land Of Hell

Yoko Ono’s music has a pretty entrenched reputation as the ultimate in avant garde art student bullshit. And while she’s done plenty of that sort of thing – much of it with a man who remains universally thought of as a genius – her actual sonic identity is much more nuanced, marked by hyperactive new wave freakouts, strikingly fragile balladry, and nostalgic 1930s-style romps that make you wonder if she’s been a closet McCartney fan all these years. Her latest album with Plastic Ono Band (which includes son and bandleader Sean Lennon, as well as guests like Questlove, Nels Cline and the surviving Beastie Boys) is a worthy addition to a musical legacy both aggressively offbeat and quirkily traditional. Yes, there are the stereotypical Ono shriek-outs, which make tracks like the opening rock/poetry slam pastiche “Moonbeams” sound off-the-rails dangerous, but there are also meditations on true love that would fit snugly on Double Fantasy (“There’s No Goodbye Between Us”) and a cheeky, cabaret-style kiss-off to an ex that’s as charming as music got in 2013 (“Leaving Tim”). Now an octogenarian, Yoko sounds as feisty and invested as ever – so much so that a trip to hell now feels like one unforgettably whacked-out kind of party.

The Next Day14. David Bowie – The Next Day

If somebody put a gun to my head and demanded I point out a weakness of David Bowie in his prime (which for my money began with 1971′s Hunky Dory and ended with 1977′s Heroes), I’d probably single out his singing voice. In reality, Bowie’s reedy quaver had an enchantingly alien quality that fit all the interstellar/dystopian subject material quite snugly, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful, and hey, this guy’s about to kill me here. And that makes the distinctive pleasure of Bowie’s 21st century material downright ironic – and an argument in favor of the artist being something more than human, like that all-knowing glow-being from The Abyss or something. Because on records like 2002′s Heathen and this year’s surprise release The Next Day, David Bowie’s singing is the number one reason to pay attention – his timbre more resonant, his phrasing more nuanced, his 66-year-old vocal chords responsible for some of the most solemnly pretty noise in rock and roll. The Next Day treads some familiar terrain for Bowie fans – elegant, gothic rock songs about fame, the apocalypse and space dancing – but this time around, our messenger traverses it with a deep, knowing croon, and that makes all the difference. His message used to be “hang onto yourself,” but now that the ride is almost over, he’d rather we sit back, relax, and accept the inevitable with a smile.

Modern Vampires13. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

Like Coldplay, Vampire Weekend is a band that invites an easy kind of hate – for starters, you’ve got the Graceland-aping trust fund ballads, upper crust New England hipster duds, and tween-friendly band name. But let’s pretend that their ’80s Afro-pop hooks weren’t discussed as if they were revolutionary, that they’re all children of Indianapolis schoolteachers, and that they’ve had a good band name this whole time (for the sake of this exercise, we’ll go with “Good Band Name”). And you’ve got a group that can craft a cheerful hook as effectively as anybody, who stuffed its first two albums with so many of them that it seemed unfair, and whose third release manages to work in some stunning mid-mid-life crisis poetry without skimping on the earworms. In this vacuum I’ve created, Modern Vampires Of The City (aka Good Band Name III) is a fantastic work of art, where singer/co-writer Ezra Koenig (aka Frank Stevens) tries to reconcile his faith in God, which is tough to do when he can’t even keep a relationship from falling apart during a cross-country trip. “Wisdom’s a gift/But you’d trade it for youth,” he sings during the lyrical encyclopedia that is “Step.” Considering how compelling his band has become since the days of “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma,” I’m compelled to disagree.

Carcass12. Carcass – Surgical Steel

I suspect my relationship with death is like most Americans – it gives me a hazy, queasy feeling that I quickly distract myself from with the bounty of cheap food and endless entertainment at my disposal. So when an existential coward like me puts on a record like Surgical Steel, he feels a crazed, drooling kind of glee – here’s a group of middle-aged British guys who channel their death obsession into 52 minutes of relentless, chest cavity-collapsing thrash. This is Carcass’ first record since breaking up in 1996, and it’s (ironically) a stunning rebirth, with Jeff Walker’s mostly unintelligible, coked-up-harpy vocals doing god knows what kind of damage to his throat over Dan Wilding’s firebomb drumming, the guitar parts containing just enough catchy Iron Maiden interplay to make beautiful sense of the chaos. And when you listen closely enough to make out a line or two, chances are it’s worth the effort (e.g. “A working class hero is something to bleed.”). Metal has always been a refuge for the insecure, but discovering a Carcass with this much life in it makes me especially, screamingly grateful for every drop of blood I’ve got.

Pusha T11. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name

Even for a genre where boasting is like breathing, 2013 was an especially egomaniacal year in hip hop – whether it was thrillingly unstable, moody and defensive, reeking of flop sweat, or recorded while waiting for the yacht cable guy. But nobody explored the depths of their own awesomeness with the level of measured cool achieved by Pusha T, whose first official solo record completely delivers on the audacious yet matter-of-fact confidence of its title. It’s a feat even more impressive when you consider the pressure to perform – years into his solo career after the demise of Clipse, Pusha T had put out a mixtape and an EP, and landed some prominent guest verses, but hadn’t really proven he could carry a record. While hip hop is friendlier to its elder statesmen than it used to be, a bust from Push here would’ve been a killer. Not that he sounds concerned in the least over the raw industrial clatter of “Numbers On the Boards,” where he lays claim to “36 years of doin’ dirt like it’s Earth Day,” his gruff, laconic flow selling the hardest beat of the year, illustrating the grime and glory of the drug game in a way that’s both romantic and weathered from experience. Even with the murderer’s row of talent producing him (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, etc.) and a top-form guest spot from the seemingly unstoppable Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T dominates with a steady hand, like the lone survivor in a deal gone wrong.

Matangi10. M.I.A. – Matangi

It’s always been tough to accept the plight of the wealthy celebrity – “heavy lies the crown” makes more sense when applied to presidents than, say, Super Bowl halftime show performers. But ever since making an indelible, kaleidoscopic imprint on the world of popular music with her 2007 album Kala, M.I.A. has been in active rebellion against the idea of being a pop star, and it has been as compelling as any artistic evolution this millennium. On Matangi, her fourth record, the English/Sri Lankan singer, rapper, songwriter and noise wrangler remains in distress about her position of influence, exhorting her listeners to both dance and revolt over squalls of mechanized drumming. And while no song avoids these thrilling, dissonant bursts, M.I.A. does gives those pop sensibilities more room to breathe than she did on her last record, 2011′s cold, tangled, underrated Maya. Sensibilities that are most evident on “Come Walk With Me,” which pairs a sunny, it-takes-two philosophy with an endlessly hummable chorus, giving us enough time to appreciate those incomparable summer jam chops before the sledgehammer drums shatter our reverie. The crown remains heavy, but M.I.A. has come up with a surefire way to deal with it – make sure her records are even heavier.

Muchacho9. Phosphorescent – Muchacho

Matthew Houck’s albums have always been delicate affairs, perfect for the emotional rollercoaster one goes through while nursing a hangover – confusion, regret, inexplicable elation, then regret again. So it’s quite fitting that his sixth album as Phosphorescent was inspired by a recent lonely, heartsick period in Mexico, where an exhausted Houck mourned the loss of his NYC studio (which had to be moved thanks to re-zoning) and the demise of a relationship. But this time around, the singer/songwriter is just as interested in the party that happens before the pity-party, resulting in the most robust production of his career – in between the fragile, spiritual beauty of the record’s sunrise/sunset bookends, Muchacho contains pedal-steel swathed country strolls, a ragged, swirling Neil Young-ish opus, and 1980s adult contemporary synths. Like all Phosphorescent records, it’s all threaded together by the distinctly earnest, about-to-crack nature of Houck’s voice, which can make a line like “I’ll fix myself up, to come and be with you” sound like the rawest, most solemn promise.

Blue Chips8. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Blue Chips 2

Apparently Action Bronson has been recording his major label debut for Atlantic Records. Here’s hoping they’re saving as much of the budget as possible for sample clearance. Because this mixtape, a sequel to last year’s stellar Blue Chips, contains what is possibly the most entertaining melange of looped pop hits this side of Paul’s Boutique – after Blue Chips 2, any record that doesn’t give Bronsolino at least one ironically applied oldie or ’80s smash to spit over will feel like a disappointment. Not to make BC2 sound like a gimmick, because it’s not. (It doesn’t work because it samples “Sledgehammer,” it works because it has Action Bronson opining, “Uhhh … fly shit … grown man shit” over a sample of “Sledgehammer.”) Like the first Blue Chips, this tape features plenty of RZA-like, scratchy soul loops to back up verses loaded with references to food, sex and 1990s athletes (Nick Van Exel, take a bow). But the whole thing is just more fun this time around, what with the snippets of Applebee’s commercials and beats born from “Tequila” and Tracy Chapman’s “Gimme One Reason.” Few rappers are feeling it like Action Bronson these days, and BC2 is the perfect platform for his magnificent, tongue-in-cheek shit talk.

Neko Case7. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case is sick and tired of your expectations. “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” she asks on “Night Still Comes,” one of many tracks on her stunning sixth album that discover freedom through fatalistic directness. The singer/songwriter has never sounded this fed up – with crummy parents, dumb-ass lovers and those pesky illustrated lampreys – and her scalding sarcasm turns the lovely, warm bath of a typical Case production into a complex, simmering stew. Gone are the love-as-tornado metaphors, replaced by the rallying cries of the defiantly heartbroken – “You didn’t know what a man was/Until I showed you,” she belts triumphantly over the sensational gallop of “Man.” All this vitriol does not change the fact that The Worse Things Get is a joy to listen to on the level of Case’s two previous masterworks (2006′s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood and 2009′s Middle Cyclone). From ghostly a cappella breaks to burbling baritone-sax arrangements, quiet acoustic reflections to finger-wagging girl group choruses, this is as ambitious and assured as Case has ever sounded. On the record’s opening song, she asks herself if she’d rather be a king or a king’s pet. Hearing the absolute power she wields in the studio, you can guess which one she chooses.

Rhye6. Rhye – Woman

R&B is generally viewed as the sexiest genre of music, the go-to soundtrack for doing stuff on bearskin rugs by the fire and the like. And while there’s great R&B that embraces such corny clichés (see Kelly, R.), I think that for the most part, this stuff is at its most sensual when it’s about more than just sex. Enter Rhye, an L.A. duo whose immaculate quiet storm of a debut album is full of excellent pick-up lines, but delivers them with the sweetness and vulnerability of a heat-of-the-moment “I love you.” It’s the same delicate emotional balance that defined Sade at her peak – and listening to how Woman weaves blankets of synthesizers for lead singer Milosh to tuck us in with, there’s no doubt that Rhye is more than just influenced by the queen of slow-burning romance. This album is a tribute to her. So for those of us who find tenderness to be erotic, these guys were the smoothest operators of 2013.

Overgrown5. James Blake – Overgrown

When artists say they don’t really care about attention or awards, it’s usually a lie they’re not even trying that hard to sell. But on the title track of James Blake’s hypnotic second album, his pleas for constancy over frivolity are either totally sincere, or the product of a magnificent fibber: “I don’t wanna be a star/But a stone on the shore/A lone door frame in the wall/When everything’s overgrown.” I can’t help but take him at his word, because Overgrown itself is an argument for the beauty of things that last, a collection of simple mantras about what truly matters woven through a wintry forest of lulling, whispering electronica. Blake has created a consistently entrancing experience akin to his devastating 2011 debut, continuing to draw no lines between moments of transcendence and pain. But there’s a lot more of the former this time around, thanks to a handful of love songs that are as profoundly spartan as a blue collar engagement ring – “To the last/You and I,” he croons, leaving the flowery language to those who crave stardom above all.

Nothing Was The Same4. Drake – Nothing Was The Same

The most compelling thing about Drake is the way he has his cake and eats it too – crafting verses that are drenched in both bravado and insecurity, making references to his days as a child star while also saying he started from the bottom, making music that’s muted and moody, yet somehow perfectly calibrated for the pop charts. These dichotomies could be infuriating in lesser hands – and on lesser Drake albums – but on Nothing Was The Same, the artist’s vision is so thoroughly realized, his collective strengths, weaknesses, priorities and fears make for a story as seamless as its exquisitely sequenced tracks. If the arc of his tortured millionaire persona is a put-on, it’s a fantastically executed one, because on NWTS, the cognac-for-one romantic despair of Drake’s previous work evolves into a grander fear of the other shoe dropping. The more money he makes (which, according to his verse on “All Me,” is so much he’s forgotten the amount), the more he feels like it can’t last. So much of the record finds the rapper revisiting the fantasies of his 1990s childhood, creating a two-song sequence based on Wu-Tang Clan’s most magnanimous single, making Fresh Prince of Bel Air references, comparing his earning potential to Dan Marino’s in his prime. These would seem to be the only things this prodigy-turned-superstar can take comfort in, if it weren’t for all those sumptuous, late-night-neon grooves.

Yeezus3. Kanye West – Yeezus

A casual scan of a Kanye West lyric sheet or Twitter feed will make it clear that this is a man who loves fashion. So he’s probably familiar with Coco Chanel’s famous adage, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” For his album Yeezus, West looked in the mirror and removed almost everything, stripping his ornate production style down to the most visceral noises, accessorizing them only with his rampaging id, intense ego, and super-intense superego. If it’s not his best record, it’s certainly his most exhilarating, and shamelessly human. West, who co-produced Yeezus with an aging Snarf, uses his own gasps for breath as a percussion instrument and features a hysterical scream like it’s a guitar solo. He twists Justin Vernon’s lullaby tenor into something slimy and subterranean. When looking for a metaphor for his song about divorce, he goes with Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit.” It’s a flailing, agonizing, extraordinary experience from an artist whose refusal to be tagged and classified might come off awkwardly on talk shows, but burns bright as diamonds in his art.

Dream River2. Bill Callahan – Dream River

Two years after releasing an album called Apocalypse, Bill Callahan resurfaced in 2013 with the most life-affirming record of the year. Dream River begins with Callahan in full story-song cowboy mode, sitting alone in a hotel bar. But instead of brooding about stuff like how every flower turns to hay, he relishes in the simple joy of a three-word vocabulary (“Beer” and “thank you”), appreciating everyone in the room, just because they exist. From an artist who has tended to espouse a worldview where even the silver linings are tarnished, this is an unexpected, enlightening surprise, like encountering a Larry McMurtry character in a Cormac McCarthy novel. And just when you start to ask why, track two starts playing, and you realize he’s in love. “You looked like worldwide Armageddon while you slept,” Callahan sings in his rich, whiskey-barrel basso. “You looked so peaceful, you scared me.” Fear of losing one’s full happiness is right there in that voice. Fear, and awe, and gratitude. Dream River overflows with moments like these – a cycle of eight songs that represent a metaphysical moment of clarity. Bill Callahan might look at life as one arcing flight through the air, but he’s made an album about the times before you land in which you truly feel weightless.

Chance The Rapper1. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap

Smoking cigarettes doesn’t quite have the cultural cache that it used to – these days, kids need an especially potent sense of mischief, rebellion and self-loathing to get hooked. It’s this precise emotional cocktail that fuels Chance The Rapper on Acid Rap, where he gives a fascinating, charismatic performance that puts him on the short list of young artists who seem primed to leave their fingerprints all over the ’10s. The 20-year-old Chicagoan spent his formative years ingesting Kanye West’s college trilogy and Lil Wayne’s mixtape revolution, and he soaks his second tape in the balmy soul samples of the former, and the effortlessly hilarious, cough-addled wordplay of the latter. But Acid Rap is about way more than influences. Chance has his own fully formed persona here, a laughing-and-pointing playground pest whose vulnerability is clearly visible between all the “nyeah nyeah, nyeah-nyeah-nyeahs.” He litters his verses with a mischievous, nasal quack, which logic dictates should be annoying, but instead is as playful and essential as a Kanye “Haaah!” “Cigarettes, oh cigarettes/My mama think I stink/I got burn holes in my hoodies/All my homies think it’s dank,” Chance sings over the trembling church organ of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” making fun of himself while making us root for him at the same time. I’m addicted, and not just because it makes me look cool.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Atoms For Peace – Amok; Danny Brown – Old; Cakes Da Killa – The Eulogy; Disclosure – Settle; The Flaming Lips – The Terror; Jim James – Regions Of Light And Sound Of God; Paul McCartney – New; Queens of the Stone Age – … Like Clockwork; Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels; Ty Segall – Sleeper; She & Him – Volume Three; Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed; Shugo Tokumaru – In Focus?; Tree – Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out; Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt

Bob Dylan

Being a Self Portrait apologist is an uphill battle. And I understand why – after a run of challenging, zeitgeist-capturing songwriting like no other, Bob Dylan titled his first album of the 1970s in a way that promised new depths of introspection, yet the music he put on there delivered on none of it. A collection of Americana covers, live tracks and roughshod instrumentals with nary a T.S. Eliot reference to be found, Self Portrait was (and remains) his least self-conscious work. To a passionate fan at the time, this album must have sounded like the kind of odds and sods phone-in job artists release to fulfill label obligations.

Lucky for me, I was negative eight when Self Portrait pissed everybody off, including Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus (who delivered perhaps the most famous line in album review history – “What is this shit?”). Listening to it in a vacuum, knowing that it doesn’t have to inspire the hopes and dreams of a generation, I became charmed by its ironic self-remove, by how a man who was once perceived as a lightning rod of revolution in our country was defining himself with cowboy songs. It left me open to appreciate the record’s loose, nostalgic atmosphere, and gave me the freedom to obsess over the handful of all-time great Dylan songs nestled inside of it (e.g. “It Hurts Me Too,” “Wigwam”).

Regardless, to express this charm out loud to another Dylan fan has been a form of pop culture suicide to rival my Coldplay love. Self Portrait‘s suckiness has been a foregone conclusion ever since that Marcus review; it took Blood On The Tracks to convince people that the man’s genius hadn’t mysteriously evaporated, retroactively stocking the ’70s albums that came before it into the “transitional period” bargain bins of our minds. “But, it’s fun!” I’d say. “He’s not taking himself so seriously!” Opinions that don’t exactly hold up against decades of despair.

Another Self PortraitBut I don’t really have to argue so much anymore. Because the latest entry into Columbia/Legacy’s transcendent Dylan Bootleg Series gives us a studio feed into the 1969-1971 sessions for Self Portrait and its follow-up New Morning (as well as a pair of Nashville Skyline outtakes). And like so many Bootleg Series releases before it, Another Self Portrait is much more than some artifact for Dylan completists – it’s a carefully curated and sequenced work, meant to be listened to front to back like a new Bob Dylan release. It weaves unreleased songs, alternate takes, overdub-stripped versions of album tracks, and a few live cuts into a gorgeously insightful whole, revealing how Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning were all different chapters of the same story – a hyperbolically beloved artist turning to the sounds and ideas of old Americana for succor. If you had to pluck a “single” from the previously unreleased stuff, it would probably be “Pretty Saro” – Dylan delivers the 18th century English folk ballad with a close-miked, lullaby tone that would’ve fit snugly on any of his records from the time. Second place goes to “These Hands,” a working man’s prayer of a 1950s country song that Dylan sings with heartbreaking tenderness. These moments of intimacy and full-throated nostalgia put the listener in the right mindset to hear Self Portrait, and this set drives the point home by stripping the strings and horn sections out of songs like “Little Sadie,” “All The Tired Horses,” “Wigwam,” and “Days of ’49,” revealing the earnestness and warmth of the performances underneath. I think I’ll always prefer the original productions – especially the drunken Spanish horns of “Wigwam” – but the quieter versions do make Another Self Portrait sound more like one seamless session. (FYI: I still prefer Phil Spector’s schmaltzy-ass overdubs on Let It Be to that Let It Be … Naked experiment, so perhaps I’m just a big old sap.)

By giving context to a record that disappointed so many, Another Self Portrait gives us precious access to a Bob Dylan that was tired of the swirling stream-of-consciousness poetry slams, a Bob Dylan who just wanted to sing pretty songs he loved and jam on some blues vamps. I’m tempted to say it’s an amazing feat – to force a re-assessment of something long-reviled. But honestly, all it’s done is release this great music in an impeccable package. The most important thing that’s been stripped from the original Self Portrait? Unfair expectations.

DW 3

A new study by a German forensic scientist claims that female murderers are “more creative” than their male counterparts – and that they pretty much have to be, because they usually kill people close to them, and those people are often men who are physically stronger. One would think that this theory would be fodder for a great documentary-style TV show, one that transports us to a different, disturbingly clever world each week. But Deadly Womenwhile being a true crime program about female killers, is most definitely not the show I just described. It’s lazy, formulaic and depressingly exploitative, and does its best to blunt the impact of its endlessly interesting subject matter. So why oh why do I love it so much? Here is my attempt to explain, in list form.

1. It’s camp gold.

Deadly Women

Take re-enactments that make Rescue 911 look like Shakespeare (and are often in period settings, like the screen cap I’ve so lovingly shared here). Combine them with talking head commentary that would seem obvious to a fifth grader. Add clunky, melodramatic writing of highest order – e.g. “Nicki Reynolds saw her mother as an obstacle, on the road … to murder.” Top it off with a penchant for graphic throat-slitting that’s bound to make you wince at least once an episode. And you’ve got a viewing experience like no other – a hysterically queasy formula for a brand new genre of entertainment. We’ll call it “True Crime-edy.”

2. The lengthening shadow of Robert Stack

Stack

One source of my DW fandom is the debt it – and the entire Investigation Discovery network, for that matter – owes to Unsolved Mysteries. I’ll never forget when that show went from being a fun way to get spooked on a school night to something genuinely terrifying. It was an episode that took a break from all the hauntings and alien abductions to focus on a real-life murderer who had never been caught. During the reenactment, the show revealed the killer by having a woman glance in her medicine cabinet mirror to find the psychopath standing behind her. It’s a clichéd trick, but it worked on me like a charm. I immediately looked outside the sliding glass door in our living room, half-expecting to see the frothing maniac standing there, knife in hand. Because this wasn’t just a TV show. This was a true story. And even the husky lullabye of Mr. Stack’s voiceover couldn’t soothe my jangled nerves.

Twenty years later, I think I’m still looking for something to terrify me in a similarly cozy way – and although DW cuts every conceivable corner while turning gruesome true stories into cornball melodramas, it still has the potential to freak me out in spite of itself. It’s a watered-down cocktail at best, but I keep bellying up to the bar.

3. Bad actresses staring at the camera

Every episode of DW is structured exactly the same – three stories loosely grouped under an amazing title, opening with an over-the-top voiceover segment that teases the carnage to come. At the end of this intro, when the title is announced (in a truly horrifying font), one of the reenactment actresses is asked to stare maniacally at the camera for an uncomfortably long period of time. It’s a ridiculous moment that also acts as a threat – “What are you grinning at, shithead?” the deadly woman seems to ask, as those snarky comments dry up in your throat. I’m gonna write captions to some of these classic stares, yet I admit, I’m kinda scared to …

DW Stare 1

When my Harold proposed to me, it was everything I’d dreamed of and more. We were on a sailboat at twilight; the ring was classically beautiful, not too ostentatious; the wine left a hint of pear on my tongue; the moonlight formed a silver border around his raven hair. “A million times yes!” I exclaimed. “I adore you, Harold Murder!!!” … I should’ve seen this coming.

DW Stare 2

You could say I’m a big fan of keeping secrets. But let’s keep it a secret how much I love secrets, because it’s those very secrets that make being secretive so fun! That being said, I’ll tell anybody who wants to listen about my secret to happiness – wearing my best blazer and standing by a lake on a foggy morn in 1987.

DW Stare 4

Even though his salad days were decades in the rearview, Nikki Sixx took the stage more determined than ever.

4. Candice DeLong

Candice DeLong

DW has some exceptionally bad reenactments – but that’s pretty much par for the course for a show like this. It’s when the show gives the spotlight to its commentators that it really hits its sweet spot. Most prominent, and thoroughly fabulous, of all is Candice DeLong, a former FBI profiler with a storied resume that includes hunting down the Unabomber in 1995. On paper, DeLong is perfect for this gig – the expert who can get into the heads of these violent protagonists, both from a criminologist’s and a woman’s perspective. But on camera, her commentary is profoundly uninsightful, yet delivered so smugly, you have to wonder if it’s some kind of performance art stunt. My wife and I have had long discussions on how this could be – Is DeLong just nervous? Is the DW editor a disgruntled ex who wants to make her look as bad as possible? Did she experience some kind of trauma in the field that makes her afraid to say anything beyond the most Perd Hapley-esque observations? DeLong is surely much smarter in real life than she appears to be on DW. But whatever the reason, statements like the following are a crucial component of good True Crime-edy (the italics properly reflect DeLong’s delivery):

Candice on women who marry men for money and then kill them:
“They use sex, and seduction, to get the wedding ring of the person that has the money.”
(“Fortune Hunters,” Season 4)

Candice on a woman who kept asphyxiating her babies:
“She was actually one of the worst people that could ever raise children.”
(“Bad Medicine,” Season 2)

Candice on a police officer who was also a sadistic killer:
“Antoinette Frank was the last person any police department should have ever hired.”
(“Born Bad,” Season 3)

Candace on a serial killer who poisoned her entire family:
“She enjoyed wielding the power of life or death, over another person.”
(“Hearts of Stone,” Season 5)

Candace on some more mothers who kill their children:
“It’s very hard to understand why someone would kill their children. They’re not thinking clearly.”
(“The Sacred Bond,” Season 4)

Candice DeLong Gun

Deadly Women is currently in the middle of its seventh season on the Investigation Discovery network; seasons 2-5 are streaming on Netflix.

And we continue our methodical countdown of some guy’s 100 favorite albums of the 1990s. For no particular reason, either! This next batch of five rounds out #100-51, and it includes a record that’s depressing as all hell, one that confronts sadness and decay in a sweet, kinda triumphant way, and one that’s by Soul Coughing, proving that this is a list about the ’90s. So read away! Or if you like, check out the whole list so far. I’ll be back in a month or so to crack into the top 50! (“Hooray,” you say to yourself flatly, not even pretending to hide your sarcasm.)

Harvest Moon55. Neil Young – Harvest Moon (1992)

In the ’90s, we started to get a good idea of how the legendary artists of the ’60s and ’70s were going to deal with aging. Paul McCartney would dye his hair and keep on writing love songs. Stevie Wonder would pretty much retire. Bob Dylan would shroud himself in mortality and end up resuscitating his muse. But no artist stepped into middle age as organically as Neil Young did on Harvest Moon – an album of gentle country songs about life passing by, made to be listened to on a big front porch in the twilight. The then 47-year-old certainly doesn’t ignore the darkness, singing about the aching desperation of divorce, a waitress haunted by regrets, and a man contemplating suicide in a minivan. But his gently quavering voice, sympathetic turns of phrase, and clear-eyed belief in true love (especially on the title track) tip the scales from depressing to life-affirming. Then there’s “Old King,” a jaunty bluegrass eulogy to a hound dog that’s about as much fun as anybody could have contemplating death. If you could prescribe treatment for the human condition, Harvest Moon would be FDA-approved.

Electro-Shock Blues54. Eels – Electro-Shock Blues (1998)

Moving on, from one ruminative, regret-laden work to what is arguably the Grand Poobah of ruminative, regret-laden 1990s albums. After losing both his mother and sister in a short period of time, Mark Oliver Everett – the one-man phenomenon behind Eels – made a record that wallows in raw cynicism and deep, lying-on-the-bathroom-floor sadness (at its lowest, quietest moments, you can almost smell the porcelain). Lyrically, Elecro-Shock Blues is an open vein (e.g. “My life is shit and piss”), and it would be light years from this list if those often-brutal sentiments weren’t balanced out by the production, which was eclectic enough to make a fan out of Tom Waits. Among the many gorgeous acoustic ballads, there’s the lurching rhythms and crackling found sounds of “Cancer for the Cure,” the dance-folk breaks of “Last Stop: This Town” and the sexy Morphine rumble of “Hospital Food.” Hence, by the time Everett rewards us on the closing “P.S. You Rock My World” by admitting to a new appreciation for being alive, we’re wishing the whole beautiful thing wouldn’t end.

In A Priest-Driven Ambulance53. The Flaming Lips – In A Priest-Driven Ambulance (1990)

Unlike most of the epic rock music released in the ’90s, The Flaming Lips’ magnum opus – 1999′s The Soft Bulletin – was a gorgeously un-ironic embrace of hope and belief. But it was also the natural endgame of a creative impulse that was first exhibited nine years earlier, on the band’s fourth album. In A Priest-Driven Ambulance finds Lips songwriter Wayne Coyne deep in a Christ obsession, his analytical and spiritual sides clashing, adding an exotic tension to the ragged helium of his voice. “While I’m still myself/Your blankets covered me,” Coyne sings on the triumphant psych-folk opening “Shine On Sweet Jesus,” swooning at the beauty of belief. But over the spare chords and insistent crickets of “There You Are,” there’s the sickening chill of doubt –  “It makes you think that God was fucked up when he made this town.” By decade’s end, The Flaming Lips stood firmly on the side of belief in something more. Without stunning metaphysical wrestling matches like this album, that level of peace wouldn’t have been achievable.

Ruby Vroom52. Soul Coughing – Ruby Vroom (1994)

Like countless hypersensitive, white suburban teenagers in the 1990s, I was magnetically drawn to albums like The Chronic and Enter the 36 Chambers – raw, confident, impeccably produced works of art that possessed an egomaniacal energy I could leech off of. But I was just as crazy about bands like Barenaked Ladies and Primus, whose strident dorkiness spoke to the chicken-armed X-Files fanboy in me. So when I first heard Ruby Vroom’s opening song, “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago,” it was like hearing those two factions of my CD collection – and those two idealized versions of myself – gelling, and it kicked more ass than it had any right to. Few bass lines have ever burrowed as deep in the pocket as Sebastian Steinberg’s does here – the groove produced by Steinberg and drummer Yuval Dabay transcends the standard definition of rhythm, inciting a primal, emotional reaction that would make Elaine Benes feel like Gregory Hines. And when M. Doughty tells you that “Saskatoon is in the room” in his flat, nasal voice, you realize that post-ironic nerdy nonsense can play in the same sandbox as supreme-sonic-super-badness. That the silly shit you think is funny might not be the polar opposite of funky. That it’s not 100% ridiculous to dream that you could, one day, bring the motherfuckin’ ruckus.

Homogenic51. Bjork – Homogenic (1997)

Electronic music is fertile ground as a metaphor for sadness. Whether it’s Kanye West undergoing therapy-by-AutoTune on 808s & Heartbreak, David Bowie nailing what a “sense of doubt” sounds like during his Berlin period, or Portishead’s entire catalog, synthesized notes do a bang-up job representing a lack of emotional warmth. Which makes Bjork’s Homogenic a special album beyond the immediate bounty of its lush, philharmonic-tronica production. After the breathtaking genre whirlwinds of Debut and Post, Homogenic finds the artist working in one sonic cul-de-sac for the first time. The production makes you think twice about the originality of 21st century Radiohead – ghostly drum loops and synth patches give way to stunning string arrangements. It’s dizzyingly dour music that would make the perfect accompaniment to songs about winter, or war, or whatever kind of “sour time” you want to moan on about. But instead, Bjork uses them to sing about love as a connection that transcends the physical, that’s as inevitable as the tide, that surrounds us all whether we know it or not. Even when her music’s at its tamest, her impulses are anything but.

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine this summer, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I decided to “cowboy up” – which is a thing you can do, apparently – and take on Book One of the Dark Tower series – The Gunslinger.

“Everything in the universe denies nothing; to suggest an ending is the one absurdity.”
–The Man in Black

The_Gunslinger2

If one wanted to take a swipe at Stephen King, the length of his novels seems to be the obvious place to start. None of the books I’ve tackled here so far have been especially bloated, but his loyal readers are certainly no stranger to shelf-punishing hardcovers. Of course, this invites accusations of King having a problem with endings, or a puffed up idea of his own literary significance, or a celebrity that handcuffs his editors. But I’m pretty sure this line of criticism is a lazy one, because I just read The Gunslinger – the first entry in King’s seven-part-and-counting Dark Tower series, and the opposite of a 1,000 page door-stopper – and it left me wanting so much more.

When this book came out in 1982, it must have thrown King junkies for a bit of a loop. Written in simple, muscular language, The Gunslinger is a starkly different genre exercise then the supernatural/domestic clash fiction that made the author famous. King borrows from an eclectic array of fantasy tropes to build his world – including spaghetti westerns, 1950s post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Arthurian legend and the multiverse theory – boiling them down to the most basic of quest stories, where the obviously good guy (The Gunslinger) follows the obviously bad guy (The Man in Black), across a desert hellscape, getting closer and closer until he finally catches up with him. Plus, there’s a kid. It’s not a bad idea on paper – King writes the weirdo Sergio Leone script of his dreams, adding his own shadows to the good and the bad, but focusing most of all on the ugly, resulting in a Cormac McCarthy-meets-J.R.R. Tolkien mindfuck of a masterpiece. That’s what I wish this book was.

What it actually is, is way too slight. So few characters having even fewer conversations, with the emptiness of the landscape getting more play than anything else. I get that when your main character is the strong, silent, Eastwood type, your story isn’t going to be dialogue driven. But there isn’t much plot here to speak of either – Good Guy follows Bad Guy from Point A (desert) to Point B (mountains). Good Guy picks up Mysterious Boy. Good Guy bonds with Mysterious Boy. Good Guy makes Difficult Choice in regards to Mysterious Boy while following Bad Guy from Point B (mountains) to Point C (fire pit on other side of mountains). The End.

Now, I’m fully aware that context is playing a role here. I read The Gunslinger immediately after finishing The Shining, a gluttonous feast of character development that puts us inside the head of a gifted child, who becomes a portal into the heads of everybody else – while also carefully laying out the dark and complicated pasts of both a haunted hotel and the family trapped inside of it. I also read The Gunslinger with the knowledge that it’s the first book in a beloved fantasy saga – something I usually have a weakness for. So you could say I went in expecting The Fellowship of the Ring, and I got a few chapters of a shorter, picture-book version of The Hobbit.

While there are elements of the story that intrigue me and will compel me to read on – most especially the beautifully regaled flashbacks that make up The Gunslinger’s pre-apocalyptic, pseudo-Arthurian origin story – King’s world just isn’t in the same galaxy as a Middle Earth. Or even a Westeros, for all its obsessive-compulsive flaws. Maybe in future installments, King will abandon the cowboy novelist pose and just write his ass off while losing himself down all kinds of bizarre rabbit holes, fleshing out the scraps of promising meat from this skeletal beginning. Maybe there will be hundreds of pages of stuff that makes the story much longer than it probably needs to be. I can only hope.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary
Catching Up With King #2: The Shining

munchie

There are certain things specifically created to entertain children that I usually find horrifying – clowns, mascots, satanic Chipmunk versions of Adele songs, etc. But then I’ll see how happy kids get when they see a giant anthropomorphic dog hobbling towards them, how they squeal with glee and run to it, delivering rapid-fire high-fives into its bloated, outstretched paws, and I’ll realize how challenging it must be to create entertainment that children truly love. Sometimes, what seems borderline grotesque to a jaded adult can make a kid deliriously happy. How a creator of children’s entertainment can tell the difference between what’s kid-friendly/adult-creepy and what’s just plain creepy across the board, I have no idea.

And neither did the creators of Munchie, a 1992 direct-to-video story of a lonely kid whose life is turned upside down when he stumbles across a motormouthed bat-dog-thing in an abandoned mine. Crafted like a family movie/coming-of-age comedy, Munchie devotes its major plot lines to the relevant, real-life problems of tween protagonist Gage Dobson (Jamie McEnnan). But it’s also a movie destined to horrify viewers of all ages, thanks to the menacing design, bargain-basement special effects and bizarre voice casting of Munchie himself.

We meet Gage during a low point of his adolescence – he’s getting bullied at school, his mom (Loni Anderson) is dating a cartoonishly oily jerk (Andrew Stevens), and his only friend is a demented old scientist who lives across the street (Arte Johnson). Gage is presented to us as an overly imaginative kid, through some fairly un-imaginative fantasy sequences (e.g. he pictures his principal with devil’s horns). It’s a smart move in theory, setting us up to believe that this kid could be fanciful enough to believe that something like Munchie could exist, instead of just puking and shitting himself simultaneously when seeing him for the first time. But this proves to be problematic later, when the movie’s “be careful what you wish for” moral becomes painfully clear.

For now, though, Munchie’s moving along like any competent afterschool special (save the pre-credits sequence, in which we learn that Munchie drives human beings to the brink of insanity). But then Gage gets fed up with life and goes for a walk, finds the conveniently accessible mineshaft, and the nightmare begins – a voice that sounds a whole lot like Dom Deluise beckons to Gage from a box with runes all over it; Gage opens it, and this happens:

mun04

Count yourself lucky that a) I haven’t paid the fee to allow video on this site; and b) Munchie clips on YouTube are scarce. Because as disturbing as the puppet looks, watching it move is what really makes the skin crawl. Director Jim Wynorski didn’t place a priority on the realism of Munchie’s movements, neglecting to sync up his eyes, mouth and hands in a way that resembles a regular living thing. It’s like Gizmo survived a horrible fire and we have to watch as he struggles to regain basic motor skills. And it doesn’t help that he really is voiced by Dom Deluise, whose jovial energy goes over like a hot pitcher of milk when you have the flu.

The movie goes to great lengths to tell us that Munchie is funny – he pulls pranks with banana peels; sings “Hello! Ma Baby;” talks repeatedly about having to “update his act;” throws a Risky Business-style kegger – but every corny gag just adds to the character’s cavernous uncanny valley. Adding to this queasy mix of creature-feature horror and Borscht Belt comedy is a shoehorned “Monkey’s Paw” moral – Munchie has the ability to grant Gage’s every wish, but he causes unintended havoc in the process. For example, when Gage wishes for the bullying to stop, Munchie’s solution is appallingly hypocritical – beat up a kid until he’s bloody and unconscious. The scene gives you a hollow feeling that no pizza skateboard can fill.

220px-600full-munchie-poster

As a result, we have a movie that encourages kids to use their imaginations, but also warns them to be careful what they wish for. It so badly wants us to love Munchie, but also not to trust him. As we’re forced to watch those directionless eyes lolling around on a face forever plastered in a frozen corpse-smile, at least it’s easy to do the latter.

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine last month, I thought it would be fun – if a bit cliché – to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I let the Overlook Hotel tell me what to do – unsurprisingly, it chose The Shining.

“Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future, if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you? Has it?”
–Jack Torrance

200px-ShiningnovelEven though I’m merely two volumes into this little project of mine, I feel like I have a pretty solid grasp on what makes Stephen King’s best work tick. He doesn’t restrict his creepy crawlies to the supernatural realm, and that’s why his stories have struck such a resounding chord with a wide swath of humanity. Just like Pet Sematary, which twisted the intensity of parental love into something thoroughly unwholesome, The Shining takes a universally understood emotion and holds us hostage with it.

The feeling in question here involves the nature of free will, and the frightening implications of its absence. The Shining is as much a classic ghost story as a study of family dynamics, pitting the Torrances – father Jack, mother Wendy, and son Danny – in a battle against not only the hostile spirits of a haunted hotel, but also the rather shoddy track record of its own DNA. After losing his teaching job at a Connecticut prep school because of a violent incident with a student – a job that was already on shaky ground thanks to his alcoholism – Jack takes a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook, a ritzy, destination hotel high up in the Rocky Mountains. The Torrances will be the only residents in the huge old structure for the entire season, during most of which they will be completely snowed in. It’s a setup that hasn’t always gone well – the previous caretaker murdered his family, for instance – but whatever. Jack sees it as the perfect way to get back on track, with his writing career and his family (in that order).

King’s metaphors can be a little on the nose, like the outdated furnace that can’t handle as much pressure as it used to, but the snowed-in hotel works sturdily as a symbol of what stands in Danny’s way. Despite all of Jack’s dreams and aspirations, he ended up a spitting image of his asshole father. Wendy isn’t on speaking terms with her cold, judgmental mother, and one of Jack’s go-to insults is to say she’s acting just like her. Like the Overlook, Danny’s home life is stacking the cards against him, and the obstacles are just getting scarier and more intimidating. Which brings us to the core question of the novel will all of us, whether we like it or not, become exactly like our parents?

The Shining would be one hell of a suffocating read if its answer was “Yes.” Thankfully, King’s opinion on the matter is more hopeful, coming in the form of the titular psychic gift that Danny possesses – the ability to read people’s thoughts, and to go deep enough within one’s self to see visions of the future (courtesy of a figure Danny calls “Tony”). When Danny meets Dick Hallorann, the Outlook chef, he has his first encounter with somebody else who “shines,” and it’s no coincidence that he’s by far the friendliest and most heroic character we meet, other than Danny himself. People who are able to step outside of themselves are more likely to have a greater understanding of others, King posits. And this understanding gives them the perspective necessary to make a deeper connection with their true self – their “Tony,” if you will – no matter what horrors might stand in the way.

The book ends with a conversation between Danny and Dick about how to overcome, and its poignancy goes down all the easier after such a long, dark, claustrophobic struggle. For me, this is what makes King’s novel a more meaningful achievement than Stanley Kubrick’s film (which still trumps the book as sheer entertainment). Where the latter has no regard for the Hallorann character and is satisfied with a purely physical escape for Danny, the former ends with the two telepathic heroes sitting by a Maine lake in the summertime, placing itself firmly on the side of healing, and freedom, and hope.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary

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