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Since beginning my Catching Up With King project after moving to Maine a few years back, I’ve become a fan of his writing style, stubbornly ragged as it is. At his best, he builds stories like monster trucks. They flatten all the inelegant dialogue and on-the-nose metaphors in its path. It can be incredibly fun to be behind that wheel. But it’s this very quality that makes it nearly impossible to adapt King’s work for TV or film. The natural inclination of a director is to trim the fat, streamline plot threads, give the action a proper cadence. So they strip the monster truck for parts. Usually, all they’re left with is the wreckage.

It would be an understatement to say that the CBS series Under the Dome has this problem. This is the story of the town of Chester’s Mill, which becomes sealed off from the world when a mysterious dome falls from the sky. It’s clear and permeable; impenetrable and soundproof; reminiscent of The Simpsons Movie and directly ripped off from The Simpsons MovieYet derivation is the least of Under the Dome‘s problems. I’ve never read the novel, but there’s just no way that it could be as sluggish, painfully unrealistic, and emotionally barren as this TV show. Unless the dome is a metaphor for writer’s block, and the thinning ranks of the townspeople represent weak thoughts fading from a suffocated brain, I cannot explain why it exists.

Showrunner Brian K. Vaughan is no slouch, having written the popular graphic novel series Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man. No matter. He fucked with the truck, and got crushed.

So, after watching a season and a half of Under the Dome, what have I learned?

 

1. Chester’s Mill is on Ritalin.

The dome comes down, and people seem rather chill about it. I mean, they basically don’t even try to get out. Various car wrecks show that you can’t drive a hole in it, but what about bullets? Or fire? Or acid? Or a pointy stick? Nope! They’re cool just hangin’. Take a look at the press photo of Mike Vogel, who plays our main character Dale “Barbie” Barbera:

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So yeah, this is our main character at his most concerned. He looks like a constipated window washer.

 

2. Actually, maybe they’re on heroin too.

When the government is about to drop a massive bomb on the dome, the town hides in the basement of an old building, where the vibe is pretty laid-back – the local DJ plays a Beethoven sonata, and it’s fitting. A few episodes later, the scorched-earth destruction the bomb caused outside the dome just sorta disappears. The power of disinterested thinking?

When main characters are brutally murdered, people wince for a second and move on.

When people learn that Junior Rennie is a violent psychopath who locked his ex-girlfriend in a bomb shelter, they take it like it’s a fairly normal thing to hear about someone. This extends to the writers, who now seem to think that we can accept Junior as some kind of hero, which, NO. If Alexander Koch wasn’t the kind of actor who only can make one face, and that face wasn’t the face of a dazed pony, then the show would not be getting away with this socially irresponsible character arc.

 

3. Snow globes are a metaphor for thinking your audience is brain dead.

 

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4. If you can’t decide who you are, then you’ve decided to be nothing at all.

For the first several episodes, Under the Dome wants to be a problem-of-the-week procedural. And it’s not the worst idea. We find out how the town responds to fire, drought, and an epidemic. People are still behaving like automatons, but at least there’s some structure.

But then Under the Dome decides it wants to be an allegory about men playing God. Dean Norris, who brought such deep, grizzled insecurity to his role as Hank on Breaking Bad, plays “Big Jim” Rennie, a local politician/car salesman whose hobbies are being powerful and making serious faces. The show tries to get us to hate Big Jim, who murders in cold blood to hold onto his meager power, and who starts acting like the town reverend at memorial services. It kind of achieves this goal, despite Norris’s performance being too broad and stare-y to really inspire us to feel much. The real issue is the flip side of this hashed-together allegory: The show needs us to root for the Wonder (Bread) Twins at the story’s center, Barbie (Vogel, who wears t-shirts) and Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre, who has a hairstyle). Sure, it succeeds in getting us to hate Big Jim, but we already hated him. We hate every goddamn person for being so boring.

Then, Under the Dome wants to be a MacGuffin-heavy sci-fi mystery, complete with chosen-one narratives, screaming eggs, and amateur psychic paintings. This is where the show officially becomes nothing at all, a void, a blackness in our lives.

 

5. I love the severed cow. I blame the severed cow.

When the dome comes down in the pilot, it cuts a cow in half. The show handles it perfectly, using the bargain-basement CGI that fans of Stephen King miniseries know and love. I watched 187 minutes of It so I could see that stop-motion spider. I sat through all three hours of The Langoliers just so I could see those toothy clam screensavers descend on Balki. Under the Dome gave me my fix before the first commercial break. Like a drug dealer would.

 

 

6. I have spent 16 hours of my life watching this show. I feel you, Dean.

 

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SO MUCH good stuff has been in my Discman lately. Like, I’m burning through a 48-pack of Duracell AAs a week just trying to keep up! And that has a lot to do with 2015 being an incredible year for new music. So incredible, in fact, that I feel quite comfortable listing 10 albums that could go head to head against any of my previous top 10s (in the pathetic music-list cage matches that constantly take place in my mind):

10. Goatsnake – Black Age Blues

Sunn O))) guitarist Greg Anderson resurrects his old band and churns out some pure Black Sabbath doom candy.

 

9. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Can an album be a masterpiece and also a tiny step backwards? That’s what this feels like for K-Dot, who gives an inspired, chameleonic, relentless performance over some gorgeously fiery jazz fusion workouts. Maybe if I didn’t know how great he was at rapping, I could accept those poetry slam segues at face value. As it stands, I skip ’em – these ears ain’t free.

 

8. Screaming Females – Rose Mountain

Marissa Paternoster’s voice is a lit fuse. Her guitar is an explosion. And her sense of control is what keeps us from breathing in the asbestos.

 

7. Shamir – Ratchet

“Why not go out and make a scene?” asks 20-year-old Shamir Bailey on his skeletal dance-pop earworm of a debut. His voice is so convincingly, casually joyful, you’re in the street banging pots and pans before you know it.

 

6. Bjork – Vulnicura

The sad dusk to Vespertine‘s blissful dawn. Like that 2001 masterpiece, Vulnicura is fearlessly confessional. But instead of exploring feelings of love and safety and sexual nirvana, it mines beauty from their curdling. An intense, unforgettable listen.

 

5. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

If you need a Vulnicura chaser, might I recommend the last song on Joshua Tillman’s swooningly self-conscious second album. “I Went to the Store One Day” is a love song for the ages, a life raft for anyone who’s been laughed at for believing in fate.

 

4. Drake – If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late

I was ready to give Drizzy a pass on this, an album he basically described as a palate-cleanser mixtape to hold us over until his actual fourth album drops. Unnecessary. Absolutely no one is delivering hooks like this right now. He tosses them off like involuntary functions. He makes moody, icy synthesizers feel bright as ukuleles.

 

3. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

The greatest rock comeback album ever.

 

2. Young Thug – Barter 6

His Lil Wayne title-biting is pretty stupid. But Young Thug is also the best rapper alive, so it’s within his rights. On Barter 6, Thugga’s incredible sense of melody, squawking banshee ad libs, and sixth sense for syllabic perfection are all on display, without a trace of perspiration.

 

1. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

Only the very best songwriters can describe the everyday and have us hanging on every word. On her debut album, Courtney Barnett writes about going to an open house, staring at a wall, and taking a swim. It’s better than most short stories.

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine in 2013, 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 tackle one of his more recent successes, the turd-of-an-idea-on-paper Kennedy Assassination/time travel epic 11/22/63.

“The crazy people of the world – the Johnny Claytons, the Lee Harvey Oswalds – shouldn’t get to win. If God won’t make it better after they do have their shitty little victories, then ordinary people have to. They have to try, at least.” –Jake Epping

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On my way to work this past winter, I hit a patch of black ice on a winding road. My car veered into oncoming traffic for a split second before I could reverse the skid and slam harmlessly into a snowbank. (Thank you, trio of no-nonsense Mainer-Samaritans who immediately pulled over to help.) Normally I would just take a deep breath and feel grateful. But I had just started reading 11/22/63, Stephen King’s 2011 door-stopper about the Kennedy assassination and the danger/pointlessness of asking “what if?” So I started thinking about what larger forces could be in play – did time itself want me to be late for work?

As the first late-period King novel that I’ve read for this series, I’m relieved to report that, at least here, he is not interested in trying new things. Nobody else could have written 11/22/63, a horror yarn with an intricately woven time-travel narrative that is also an epic love story and a work of research-intensive historical fiction. It strains in parts, especially toward the end when King engages in some clunky universe-splaining, including a post-apocalyptic alternate future where the scariest thing are the clichés. But so much of it is so completely engrossing that it qualifies as a towering accomplishment all the same. King doesn’t just make one of the most heavily trodden moments in our country’s history feel vibrant, and relevant, and new – he spends most of his time elsewhere, and never makes you feel like skipping ahead.

The King stand-in hero this time around is Jake Epping, a floundering high school English teacher who comes off like a sad-sack Sam Spade – while recently divorced and not particularly happy with his lot in life, Epping talks almost exclusively in sharply honed, sarcastic quips, as if he hired a team of writers to zest up his daily banter. I’m not sure if King intended this in order to make his protagonist less likable, but that’s the effect it has, and it’s to the benefit of the story. Which really kicks into gear when Jake stops by his favorite greasy spoon to discover that its owner Al looks decades older than he did the day before. Turns out that Al has been living in the past, thanks to a time portal to 1958 that he discovered in the back corner of his stock room. He shows it to Jake, shares his plan to prevent the Kennedy assassination (now foiled by the cancer that forced the trip back to the present), and asks him to take over.

As far as sci-fi concepts go, this is some weak tea. The portal is a phantom staircase that you have to feel around for with your feet. It’s a rip in the space-time continuum that’s just hanging out, yet no one had discovered it before. Yet King is smart enough to know this. He wrings real suspense and horror out of Al’s “sudden” advanced sickness, and cares way more about the moral quandary at hand – if you had the chance to go back and prevent an atrocity, are you obligated to do so? All the time travel stuff is functional. The creativity is in the tension.

Of course, Jake eventually agrees to take the baton, spurred on by the desire to make things right for his school janitor, Harry Dunning – a victim of unspeakable childhood horror. And once he steps into 1958, the book rarely lets up. King takes his sweet time getting to that titular date, giving Jake a believable amount of time to adjust to a mid-20th century way of life. (He does a bit too much Boomer navel-gazing, opining about the great cars and all-natural foods and folksy store clerks blah blah blah. But we know the ’50s are his jam, so we’ll let it slide.)

The story of Jake trying to prevent the Dunning family tragedy could be a gripping short story on its own. It’s set in Derry, Maine, the fictional town from It. And like that book, it uses a black void underneath the town as a metaphor for the sicknesses and depravities that fuel abuse. Jake does what he sets out to do, but it’s nowhere near as easy – and as bloodless – as he hoped.

From there, the scene shifts to Texas, where Jake settles down as a teacher in the small town of Jolie, loving it to the point where he thinks about Kennedy rarely. When he meets the new school librarian, Sadie Dunhill, he starts to think about ditching the plan for good. Despite a terrible meet-cute that would make Kate Hudson roll her eyes – she’s just so clumsy that she falls … right into his arms! – King handles Jake and Sadie’s courtship with patience and tenderness. Their love is quiet, and sweet, and witty. It’s built to transcend adversities both physical and cosmic. The former comes in the form of Sadie’s psychotic ex-husband, whose presence looms as much as the president’s as the calendar flips over to ’63. The latter dovetails into the time travel narrative in a way that puts King firmly in the corner of believing in soul mates – a corner I’ve resided in for the last 15 years, making me susceptible as hell to loving all of this. Which I do.

I won’t go any deeper into the plot than this (there is a lot more of it). The Kennedy sequence is as riveting as you’d hope it would be. The closer we get to the Book Repository, the more brilliantly King casts Father Time as an omnipotent demon. But whether Jake’s in Derry or Jolie or Dallas, King is always making his point loud and clear – whether you’re nostalgic for it or haunted by it, it’s dangerous to live in the past. If you can convince yourself that there was a time where men didn’t terrorize their families, you’re probably unfit for life in the real world. (We tend to remember the cherry-red Chevys and Moxie sodas from the 1950s, and forget about the sickening hate.) And if you’re thinking hypothetically about the past, and wondering what you could have done differently to improve it? In King’s opinion, that is the most treacherous road.

By the end, it’s a lesson that Jake can’t heed. Because even when we don’t have a magic time-staircase at our disposal, leaving the past in the past is easier said than done.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary

Catching Up With King #2: The Shining

Catching Up With King #3: The Gunslinger

I can’t claim to understand why the Oscars are taken so seriously. How could a voting body honor the likes of Crash, and still be given control over the conversation of what movies were great in a given year? The Oscars lionize as much tepid, whitewashed pablum as the Grammys, but the former remains an Event, and the latter is a punchline. It makes no sense, but I have to admit, I love that unearned cred. I love that my wife and I are planning an entire weekend around the Oscar broadcast, that I’m going to try and make fancy appetizers, that we actually watched The Imitation Game so we could marvel at its foolproof Oscar formula (British accents + misunderstood genius plastering pieces of paper to a wall + moment where a bunch of people say “if you fire him, then you’ll have to fire me” = nominations galore). I love that Birdman could win Best Picture on Sunday, and that some small, illogical part of me will actually be upset. On a certain level, I will care that a stylized PSA about the plight of famous American actors (who sometimes get bad reviews and aren’t taken seriously, poor dears) will go down in history as declaratively better than SelmaI don’t care about sports, but maybe this is why people love them – to have a pony or two in the race, and to be emotionally invested in how they do, regardless of how little sense that makes.

Anyhoo, I’ve put together a list of what I would nominate for the Best Picture of 2014. And goddammit, it’s because I care.

The Babadook

The Babadook

First-time director Jennifer Kent enters a realm of psychological horror in which Stephen King would feel downright cozy. The titular meanie is a horrifying Edward Gorey character gone mad, and as it jumps off its pop-up pages to infiltrate the lives of Amelia and her son Samuel, the frayed nerve endings of their shared family tragedy are painfully exposed. An allegory for the grieving process, and an exploration of how goddamn hard parenting can be, Kent’s film isn’t afraid to show its soul, and is all the more terrifying for it.

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Blue Ruin

On top of being a way to describe a feeling of utter desolation, “blue ruin” is also an archaic term for low-end gin. And in Jeremy Saulnier’s elegantly brutal, Kickstarter-funded thriller of the same name, his main character would’ve been better off medicating the former with the latter. Instead, Dwight Evans – played with quiet, schlubby intensity by Macon Blair – spends years planning revenge on the man who killed his parents. When his target is released from prison, this plan immediately goes to hell. From that point forward, the tension heightens in direct relation to the vacancy in Blair’s eyes. There’s no such thing as payback here. There’s just bankruptcy.

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Dear White People

Using a college campus as the setting for an exploration of 21st century black identity and white privilege – as well as the ways that social media, reality TV and family dynamics can promote the distortion of self – writer/director Justin Simien illustrates the frustrations of living in a deeply prejudiced society that really wants to believe racism isn’t a thing anymore. Weaving through the sharp Spike Lee callbacks and slobs vs. snobs satire are Sam White and Lionel Higgins (Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams, both terrific). Both are hiding elements of themselves, whether it’s underneath some passionate rhetoric or an unruly afro. And both reach new levels of self-confidence at a gruesome, hip-hop-themed frat party (whose basis in reality makes it all the more sickening). These character arcs form the backbone of Simien’s film. Their sweet triumphs are also his.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

When I first saw the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel, it looked like it was gonna be little more than an airy romp – a clever slapstick period piece set in a hotel that looks like a big pink layer cake. I feel for whoever had to cut that thing. Because this is writer/director Wes Anderson’s most ambitious story. He flexes his writing muscles more than ever, stacking flashbacks like nesting dolls until we’re back in 1932, watching wide-eyed lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and kinetic concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, in a hilarious, tender, career-best performance) operate the titular hotel in its prime. What follows is epic and basic, funny and tragic, violent and sweet. But most of all, it’s romantic, in a way that transcends ornate set designs and vengeful Dafoes and vicious Nazi stand-ins. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one big celebration of that moment when you know you’ve found your person. With plenty of cake to go with it.

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Selma

It’s crazy that until last year, nobody had made a major motion picture where the main character was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But it just takes one look at the ongoing criticism of Selma’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson to understand why. These people prefer their condemnations of racism to come from the mouths of white saviors, and Hollywood’s compliance to those expectations has resulted in big box office (The Help made $169 million domestic). Which just makes Selma feel all the more masterful. Director Ava Duvernay has made a movie that – god forbid – credits King for the civil rights victories of the 1960s, by focusing on one event in his life, in a clear, measured way that avoids typical biopic lionization. It’s what Spielberg couldn’t quite pull off with Lincoln – a film that humanizes an icon by jettisoning easy re-enactments in order to focus on how the historical sausage was made. Instead of the typical loaded flashbacks, or they-feel-this-way-and-so-should-you shots of awe-inspired followers, Duvernay shoots meetings between organizers, arguments between planners. She directly addresses King’s marital infidelities. She gives as much screen time to his moments of doubt as his inspirational speeches. She gets a brilliantly subdued performance out of David Oyelowo that never feels like an impression. She depicts the voting rights marches that give the movie its spine with brutal clarity, and haunting relevance. By tackling one of the most emotionally charged moments in our nation’s history with a cool, even hand, Duvernay has made an MLK movie with a distinctly MLK sensibility.

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Wild

This adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir takes the concept of a redemptive journey quite literally. Writer Nick Hornby and director Jean-Marc Valleé let the metaphors fall where they may as we follow Strayed (Reese Witherspoon, in a rich performance that makes her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash feel like a cartoon) through a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. The vastness of the landscapes speak for themselves. As do the moments of toenail sloughing pain, and the unspoken, ever-present threats from the men Strayed meets in the wilderness. Through artfully deployed flashbacks, we learn the driving forces behind Strayed’s journey, in bits and pieces. Her mother, and her emotional bedrock, dies, and Strayed spirals into self-destruction. This backstory is treated with the same restraint as the main trekking narrative, giving us just enough of a glimpse to make a connection. Throughout, Wild is content with showing, and moving on. “How wild it was, to let it be,” muses Strayed as she nears her journey’s end. Here’s a film that takes that line to heart.

What better way to ring in the new year than with a list of songs that somebody else liked? Here are my favorite songs of the year that was. Listen on the fancy playlist that hopefully is appearing below, and/or read my thoughts on each track, and/or stop reading now and start a good book. Like “Watership Down” or something. Got it? Great. Happy new year.

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25. Ex Hex – “Waterfall”

Mary Timony’s new ensemble gins up a dynamite Ramones boogie, and gives us an idea of what it must’ve been like to court Dee Dee: “I want to show you my affection / But you’re on the floor.”

 

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24. Jessie Ware – “Say You Love Me”

The kind of scorching R&B theater we took for granted when Whitney and Mariah were at their peak.

 

 

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23. Kylie Minogue – “Fine”

This underappreciated pop star speaks directly to the people who line the walls of the club, staring at their shoes, afraid of how they’ll be perceived: “You’re gonna be fine/You don’t have to worry.”

 

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22. Mark Ronson ft. Mystikal – “Feel Right”

I’ve heard that Get On Up was pretty decent. But I don’t need a James Brown movie. I have Mystikal. “Feel Right” is no “Hit Me,” but it still drowns our eardrums in joyful adrenaline, leaving you no choice but to believe lines like “I eat flames up / Shit fire out!”

 

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21. Swans  – “A Little God In My Hands”

When this angular funk groove gets pancaked by a dump truck of drunken horns, it makes Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” seem like “I Want Candy.”

 

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20. Run The Jewels – “Blockbuster Night Part 1″

Just in case this beat’s Andre The Giant-playing-the-12-string-guitar thump doesn’t do the trick, Killer Mike is here to shake your ass awake: “Top of the mornin’ / My fist to your face is fucking Folgers.”

 

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19. Jungle – “Busy Earnin'”

Perhaps the catchiest dance track to ever leverage the swagger of hardcore capitalists. We “can’t get enough,” indeed.

 

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18. Mastodon – “High Road”

This song compares those who take the high road to plague-ridden rats. Whether or not you agree is immaterial – one listen to that magnificent, belching riff, and you’re following these guys down every tunnel.

 

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17. St. Vincent – “Birth In Reverse”

What does Annie Clark see through the blinds? She hints that it’s something phenomenal, haunting, and American. Perhaps it’s her own reflection.

 

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16. Nicki Minaj – “Anaconda”

During a summer when Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor were appropriating hip hop tropes in queasy ways, “Anaconda” felt necessary, with Minaj transforming an old pop-rap punchline into something hilariously, defiantly, and indelibly new.

 

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15. Future Islands – “Sun In The Morning”

A stunning ballad that dares to suggest one person can be all you need. It’s “Drunk In Love” for the quavering new wave set.

 

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14. Migos – “Pop That”

Proof that humanity’s instinctual urge to procreate is directly related to our instinctual urge to dance.

 

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13. Tune-Yards – “Water Fountain”

An elegy to a failed public works system presented as a gleeful jump rope chant. Shades of gray aren’t usually this neon.

 

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12. Drake – “0 to 100 / The Catch Up”

A salve for those still irked by the flagrant falsity of “Started From the Bottom.” Drake claims that he left TV for hip hop because the money wasn’t coming fast enough. Then he admits he’s probably not the greatest yet, in a freewheeling flow that begs otherwise.

 

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11. Hannah Diamond – “Every Night”

The chirping synths and Chipmunk vocals of the PC Music collective sound like a robot presenting evidence that it can love. And “Every Night” is its most convincing argument, if only for its charming brain teaser lyrics: “I like the way you know that I like how you look / And you like me too.”

 

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10. Sturgill Simpson – “Turtles All The Way Down”

A ballad about Buddhism and the cleansing power of reptile aliens. Now that’s what I call rebel country.

 

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9. Azealia Banks – “Gimme A Chance”

There’s a difference between an artist making eclectic music and an eclectic artist making music. This track is the latter, transforming from brassy hip hop into a killer salsa tune so seamlessly, you almost don’t realize it.

 

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8. Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”

Hearing Laura Jane Grace’s pain ferment into jet fuel was one of the only things in 2014 that made us believe hatred’s days are numbered.

 

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7. Shamir – “On The Regular”

Throw together some cowbells, a few notes on a synth, and the breezy confidence of the precociously talented – and just like that, dance music feels new again.

 

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6. Cakes da Killa – “Just Desserts”

Listening to a Cakes verse should qualify as an hour of cardio. “Coming at n***as like an avalanche,” he spews here, not even coming close to hyperbole.

 

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5. D’Angelo & The Vanguard – “Betray My Heart”

If you can believe any famous person who claims to be true to themselves, it’s probably the one who waits 14 years to capitalize on his fame. And then does so with earthy aplomb over walking bass and squelching wah-wah.

 

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4. Nicki Minaj – “Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)” 

The Rosetta Stone of being a boss.

 

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3. Sleater-Kinney – “Bury Our Friends”

“Patch me up/I’ve got want in my bones,” belts Corin Tucker on Sleater-Kinney’s first new track in almost a decade. She sounds like a boxer who’s feeling her second wind, a character in an action movie who the CIA convinces to come out of retirement with guns blazing.

 

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2. Clean Bandit – “Rather Be”

When the alarm goes off, you’re holding your person, and you’d trade tickets to Paris for just another hour. Clean Bandit has made a dance song out of that feeling.

 

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1. Young Thug – “Treasure”

Nobody sounds like Young Thug. And “Treasure” captures him at peak delirium, marveling at people who leave money on the table in enchanting quadruple time, his voice squawking and cracking and stopping and starting like a Lil Wayne tape played on a melting Teddy Ruxpin. If you pass up the chance to listen to this, its chorus immediately applies to you.

Honorable Mentions: Azealia Banks – “Chasing Time”; Behemoth – “In the Absence ov Light”; Cozz – “Dreams”; Craig Campbell – “Keep Them Kisses Comin'”; D’Angelo & The Vanguard – “Really Love”; Flying Lotus ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Never Catch Me”; Michael Jackson – “Love Never Felt So Good”; ILoveMakonnen – “I Don’t Sell Molly No More”; La Sera – “Running Wild”; Nicki Minaj ft. Soulja Boy – “Yasss Bitch”; Sinead O’Connor – “Take Me To Church”; Pallbearer – “Worlds Apart”; Robert Plant – “Rainbow”; Rich Gang – “I Know It”; The Roots – “Tomorrow”; Sia – “Chandelier”; TV On The Radio – “Lazerray”; Sharon Van Etten – “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”; Young Thug & Bloody Jay – “Florida Water”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“On The Lord of the Rings we had actors in prosthetics playing the orcs, and I was always a little frustrated by that. If I could have afforded it then, I would have much preferred to have all the orcs CGI. Now, in The Hobbit, I can.”

Peter Jackson

A few months ago, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that as of March 2014, the budget for Peter Jackson’s latest epic – three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit – was $745 million. It’s the most expensive trilogy of all time, costing around $500 million more than Jackson’s last massively successful go-round with Tolkien’s work – those triumphant, absorbing, lived-in adaptations of The Lord of the Rings novels. After seeing the final Hobbit installment, The Battle of the Five Armies, in a packed theater over the holiday weekend, I have no doubt that every penny of that budget was used to make these movies look great. Unfortunately, you can’t finance feeling.

TBOTFA picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with that titular dragon feeling over it after a far-too-long dwarf fight and laying waste to the vaguely Celtic people of Laketown. It’s a gorgeous and harrowing sequence, with Jackson capturing the grand terror of the dragon’s every swoop, both from above the town and in the thick of its clogged and scorched canals. But before you can relax and honestly hope for a stuck landing, the dragon (77-year-old spoiler alert!) is killed by Bard the Guardsman (Luke Evans). Only after the amber light elegantly leaves its body in midair does the film’s title appear.

You’ve gotten your Smaug, now prepare for the slog.

 

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The rest of the film transforms the last five chapters of Tolkien’s book into a battleground strategy manual. It makes good on its title for sure, with the armies of dwarves, elves, men, orcs and deus ex machinas turning each other into CGI slurry for a huge chunk of the running time. There are stunning visuals here; Jackson does not deserve the “video game” taunts. But he’s blinded by pixels. The patience, warmth and good humor of the underrated An Unexpected Journey are nowhere to be found; characters have no time to talk, let alone develop enough to get us invested in them. As a result, those looking for any kind of message from these movies leave with some paper-thin bullshit. Tolkien taught us a simple, poignant lesson – if you don’t lose sight of what’s truly valuable in life, you’ll be stronger than kings. To do so on film would require some quiet, reflective moments, however.

So instead of letting his universally beloved main character Bilbo Baggins (the perfect and wasted Martin Freeman) steal screen time from the worms from Tremors, Jackson invents the character of Alfrid Lickspittle, the toady to the King of Laketown and sentient insult to our intelligence who spends TBOTFA being cartoonishly cowardly and greedy, pushing old ladies and then dressing up like one to avoid battle (which is funny in 2014, apparently). Instead of letting Bilbo actually have a conversation with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the newly crowned King of the Mountain struck with “dragon sickness,” the character can only come to his senses after a (terrible-looking) CGI hallucination sequence involving a floor of molten gold quicksand or whatever. Instead of having Bilbo do anything, we watch Bard save his “Da!”-yelling kids over and over and over again, because FAMILY. We learn about Legolas’s dead mom, because FAMILY. We hear the warrior-elf Tauriel talk about nothing but love and dudes, because WOMEN’S ISSUES=HALF-BAKED TWILIGHT-TYPE SHIT.

 

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When filming The Lord of the Rings, Jackson had to get creative to avoid blowing his budget. He had to lean on his actors and his script-writing partners. He had to shoot miniatures and build sets and use old camera tricks to make us believe that Ian McKellen was three times taller than Ian Holm. His passion and ingenuity were all over those films as a result; he was Sam carrying Frodo up the mountain. On The Hobbit, with that blank check staring him in the face, he felt like a King. His trilogy that started with such heart has ended in a haze. The dragon lives.

 

 

2014 was a year. A year in which there were records. A year in which some of those records were downright pleasant. A year in which 20 of those downright pleasant records made me particularly happy in my ears and brain:

Dead Congregation 20. Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall

When I discovered metal, I was 12, and would share a Walkman with my similarly inclined Catholic school pal. We couldn’t get enough of Cannibal Corpse’s debut album Eaten Back To Life, specifically one moment when the cacophony abruptly ceased, and singer Chris Barnes intoned in his throaty roar, “Fuuuccccckkkk yooouuuuuuu!!!!!” It made us laugh, but it was also a form of nourishment, a blast of roughly hewn vulgarity to remind us that the world was a ridiculous place, and that if we were born with original sin, well then so be it. Promulgation Of The Fall brings me back to that feeling. Because this underground Greek ensemble is uncompromisingly brutal in a subsuming, freeing way. The riffs are simple and undeniable, layered and deepened to appropriately pulverizing levels. Solos are short and never showy. And singer Anastasis Valtsanis belts his demonic screeds in a steady, guttural growl, on songs that embrace chaos with open arms, jettisoning millennia of human guilt in the process. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus,6/9/14)

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19. Kylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once

Kiss Me Once, Kylie Minogue’s 12th album, continues an impressive streak of ruthlessly addictive dance music that dates at least as far back as 2001’s aptly titled career rejuvenator, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” Smartly, Minogue and her deep bench of producers and songwriters stick with the winning formula of caffeinated synth-pop and disco, with a touch of dubstep tossed in for the kids. When it works best, it results in the kinds of choruses that make platitudes sound like rallying cries. The killer, clavinet-laden groove of “Sexy Love” does something to the human brain that makes us forget we’re listening to a song called “Sexy Love,” with a chorus that goes “Gimme that sexy love.” Kind of like how John Lennon’s harmonica tricked us into thinking “Love me do” was a sentence. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 3/16/14)

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18. Coldplay – Ghost Stories

There are times when a truly great movie is precisely what you do not want to see. You want to watch Reversal of Fortune instead, because it’s Sunday and you’re hung over and there’s something gently entrancing about Ron Silver’s hyperactive yin meshing with Jeremy Irons’ laconic sleazeball yang. Coldplay’s sixth LP was this year’s Reversal of Fortune of rock albums, a well-crafted, well-executed drama that wields clichés like hot water bottles – after a long day grappling with intense, ambitious works of art, Chris Martin is here to soothe those aching joints by singing “I love you so / So much that it hurts.” Ghost Stories is possibly the calmest, unfussiest breakup album ever; it’s far more concerned with sounding beautiful than sounding hurt. By weaving elements of James Blake’s bedroom dubstep into the band’s usual earnest-verse/bear-hug-chorus formula, these nine songs possess a touch of winter that does wonders to Martin’s lyric sheet, which would seem pretty hoary on its own. He sounds like a man who is capable of poetry, but has been made indifferent to it by loss. So he makes simple observations about birds and stars and the ocean, leaving the deeper metaphors to those who feel strong enough to plunder them.

Archibald-Slim-Hes-Drunk17. Archibald Slim – He’s Drunk!

On his debut mixtape, Archibald Slim weeds America’s uneven playing fields until all that’s left are the ugly truths in the soil, proving himself as the most accomplished artist of Atlanta’s ever-expanding Awful Records crew. Producer KeithCharles Spacebar gives the tracks a midnight jazz solemnity that would bend the ear of a young Nas, squashing any expectations that the title of this tape is an entrée to wackiness. In this context, “he’s drunk” is a quote, attributed to anyone who responds to the marginalization and oppression of an entire people by blaming the victims. People who would scoff with a hitch in their voices when they hear “Stay Black and Die,” a song delivered by Slim with something more harrowing than mere fury in his voice: “They tell me, ‘No don’t do it, go and get a job’ / They don’t understand that a fella play the game with different odds / So I know task one is stack dough for your bail / Cause you won’t pass go / Just go straight to jail.” (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

cibo_matto_hotel_valentine_1391874927_crop_480x48016. Cibo Matto – Hotel Valentine

“I wonder how many people know their life is like this / Staying at the hotel, renting times, renting a body,” muses Miho Hatori on Cibo Matto’s first effort in 15 years. The sentiment works to chilling effect as the preview to the one-two punch that closes this satisfyingly strange meta-comeback album – the ominous storm of “Housekeeping” and the fragile rise to the heavens that is “Check Out.” I leap toward the close of this brief record because it’s so compellingly open-ended. Hatori and Yuka C. Honda have great fun setting the stage – the catchiest track, “Déjà vu,” combines their trademark rubbery bass lines with a triumphant stroll of a chorus. But it’s those last two songs that make this more than a ’90s nostalgia trip. We’re lured in by the lulling groove of “Housekeeping,” the playful vocalizing of guest Reggie Watts keeping the disquiet at bay for a little bit. But then that maid keeps saying she’s going to “set us free.” And then, before we know it, we’re floating. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 2/14/14)

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15. Jungle – Jungle

By writing simple, irresistible pentatonic melodies, singing them almost exclusively in falsetto, and pairing them with the kind of moody, heavily synthesized soul grooves that suggest an unhealthy obsession with Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love album, this camera-shy British duo has created something unpretentious enough to energize a dance floor at 2 a.m., yet curious enough to suggest there’s something just a tad thornier under the surface. Jungle is at its best when its clear goal is to get heads bobbing, like when it argues for the cathartic benefits of endless partying on “Time” – “Don’t let it in / Just let it out / Time and time again.” Or when it leverages the swagger of hardcore capitalists on “Busy Earnin’,” explaining how we “can’t get enough” over hooks so insidious that they’d make any bleeding heart understand. It’s no coincidence that both of these songs possess lively bass lines. The duo is stingy with the low end on much of Jungle, preferring to keep its heads and equalizers in the clouds. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters, 7/15/14)

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14. Ty Segall – Manipulator

Ty Segall must be haunted by riffs. How else can you explain the absurdly prolific number of sickening garage rock hooks he’s already churned out (five LPs’ worth since 2012)? They must come to him in dreams, demanding to be released. Last year’s autumnal folk album Sleeper was still mighty catchy, but it also sounded like the kind of palate cleanser that could precede a more significant tonal shift. It wasn’t. Manipulator is an embarrassment of classically Segall-ian riches, 15 tracks that boogie you ragged like a forgotten disc from the Nuggets box set. That his Kinks and Stooges jones hasn’t gotten old is a testament to the songwriting – “Ask your bossman for a raise / Tell your mama she better keep her change” nails that classic rock sweet spot between nonsense and bad-assery – and Segall’s evolving gifts as a singer. The hushed instrumentation of Sleeper pays dividends here, with the artist paying close attention to his vocal melodies and intonations even though they’re back in the fuzzbox fray.

Rich Gang

13. Rich Gang – Tha Tour: Part I

Even though he’s only 22, Young Thug’s major label misadventures are already legion. But if there was any doubt that he couldn’t mold his inimitable quirks into universal entertainment, Tha Tour: Part I laid them to rest. Rich Gang consists of Thug, fellow Atlanta mixtape veteran Rich Homie Quan and Dirty South Svengali/Cash Money Records founder Birdman. The latter lays down the recipe for the tape’s luxurious syrup with a spoken word intro about the group’s affinity for “gold turlets,” his pronunciation crucial to his swagger—this is provincial materialism, thousands of miles away from Magna Carta Holy Grail. Thug and Quan sing as much as they spit, over the lush, organ-fueled R&B soundscapes of producers like London On The Track. It’s the lava cake after Black Portland’s backyard barbecue, a satiated dream state triggered by the kind of artistic chemistry you can’t fake. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

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12. The Roots – And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

When The Roots became the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2009, it was such a good thing – for black artists; for hip hop; for television in general. But for Roots fans, it was also a little scary. A year earlier, the band had inflamed our brains with Rising Downa raw, sickening ride on the American merry-go-ground of poverty and violence. Now that they were the next Doc Severinsen, would albums like this be a thing of the past? With And Then You Shoot Your Cousin – the third high-quality Roots album of the Fallon era – those fears have been put to bed. Like 2011’s Undun before it, Cousin is supposedly a concept album, but it’s best if you ignore the “story” and let the poverty-stricken poetry and mournfully gorgeous production wash over you. “Never” is an epic achievement, complete with a scratchy choral introduction, pizzicato-sprinkled breakdown, echoing canyon of an opening verse, and that exhilarating moment when all the elements come together. Keyboardist Kamal Gray remains the perpetual unsung hero, grabbing all the best hooks – the solemn backbone of “When the People Cheer”; the dusty saloon groove of “Black Rock”; the triumphant, cathartic chords at the heart of “Tomorrow.” “Some say that happiness will never find you / Until you find yourself,” sings guest Raheem DeVaughn on the latter. As a band that’s as self-aware as any, yet keeps piling on the challenges, The Roots must be happy as hell.

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11. Lykke Li – I Never Learn

Is it better to have loved and been shot in the head, or to have never loved at all? This is the grim scenario we’re confronted with on “Gunshot,” one of several over-the-top relationship eulogies that haunt Lykke Li’s third album. Those who had their hearts set on another batch of coy, cloudy electro-pop from the Swedish singer/songwriter might consider the song a bummer, but for the rest of us, it and the other eight tracks that comprise I Never Learn make for a stirring, pristinely rendered expression of heartache. The artist isn’t interested in poetry here. She fills her songs with theatrical 1980s adult contemporary visions – rainy days on lonely roads; hearts that shatter and crack; other hearts that are made of steel; the one that got away. Every lyric lands, however, because they’re not the result of laziness – their author is just too wracked with guilt to bullshit us. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 5/12/14)

Mastodon_-_once_more_'round_the_sun10. Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun 

It’s probably unfair to compare Mastodon to Metallica. They’re from different eras, command different-sized spotlights, and play by different music industry rules. But humor me. Mastodon has been challenging its die-hard fans with a less-thrashy, more-accessible approach, at the same point in its career that Metallica did – on its fifth and sixth records. The good news is, they’re doing it in a different way. Once More ‘Round the Sun is the catchiest, most sludge-free metal LP in its catalog, but what it forsakes in lyrical weirdness (no Cysquatch this time around, folks) it makes up for with a clutch of instant-classic riffs, some of the most powerful singing in the genre, and yet another amazing album cover. Its counterpart in Metallica’s catalog is 1996’s Load, that glossy, “bluesy” turd of betrayal that played to all of the band’s weaknesses (e.g. lyrics that aren’t about war/injustice, singing that does not involve growling). Some cries of dismay have cropped up here and there, but Mastodon has avoided Metallica’s fate by embracing cleaner, richly layered prog instead of melodramatic classic rock. And by being talented enough to help us forget about subgenres while we sing along at full tilt. The thrash is gone, but by no means is the thrill.

nikkinack9. Tune-Yards – Nikki Nack

After 2011’s w h o k i l l topped the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll, Merrill Garbus found herself touring arenas with Arcade Fire while trying to maintain her brash, avant-garde sensibilities. Nikki Nack is the result of these warring priorities, with the Oakland-based vocal acrobat railing against social stagnation while simultaneously celebrating the world’s fluorescent beauty. It all works because Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner stick to what they do best: chopped, clattering percussion; sophisticated, bluesy vocal melodies; walls of harmonies that jar and swirl; and spare funk basslines that make thrilling sense of it all. Perhaps nothing possesses the dualities of Garbus’s state of mind more than the album’s first single, “Water Fountain,” an irresistible, manic playground chant of a song, its beat shaped from a Waits-ian junk heap of claps and clangs and Brenner’s punchy bass, with the gusto in Garbus’s voice doing the rest. When the chorus rolls in, it sounds like a nursery rhyme, but then the first verse begins: “Nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and bones.” There’s no water in the water fountain, and that’s not just a catchy turn of phrase. This is a song about a failed public works system and a gleeful sing-along. Shades of gray aren’t usually this neon. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 5/3/14)

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8. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2

The chemistry between Killer Mike and El-P was apparent on last year’s Run The Jewels, which didn’t try to be much more than a document of two talented, wise-ass artists having fun. This second volume represents Run The Jewels as a primary career focus for both. The beats are richer and rangier; more attention is paid to sequencing, and all of that boasting comes from pride and momentum rather than just the desire to blow off steam. That said, part of their secret still has to be catharsis. Killer Mike is a legend of the Atlanta underground, whose most famous moments remain guest verses on Outkast tracks, even though his solo work rivals that of his hometown peers. El-P is a candidate for indie-rap Mount Rushmore, thanks to his work as a member of Company Flow and as the founder/house producer of Definitive Jux records, but he’s never sniffed the mainstream. Run The Jewels 2 is a great listen because of the artistry on display, but it’s the pent-up frustration that makes you want to hug your loved ones and thank god for each breath while you set fire to the neighborhood. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 11/5/14)

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7. Young Thug & Bloody Jay – Black Portland

If the tidal wave of creativity in Atlanta hip hop has a center, it’s probably Young Thug, whose humdrum moniker is belied by a mesmerizing energy on the mic. Here is the next level of Outkast and Lil Wayne’s alien self-identification—a man who is bilingual in the sense that he’s speaking English and Venusian at the same time. Thugga was on three tapes in 2014, and while Black Portland is begging to be remastered, it’s still the best. At the point where rubber bands break, Young Thug is just starting to stretch out, littering his natural, lackadaisical syncopation with quizzical squawks like a chipmunk Busta Rhymes. He finds an ideal foil in Bloody Jay, who sounds gruffly amused throughout, his DJ Holiday basso tipping the scales of tracks like “Movin’” and “No Fucks” from gritty street theater to one deliriously unique party. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

Swans_To_Be_Kind6. Swans – To Be Kind

If you were creeped out by the snarling wolf that adorned Swans’ 2012 album The Seer, it’s probably best to avoid the cover of To Be Kind—a screaming, Rockwellian baby that David Lynch would hang above the fireplace. The album within delivers on this unsettling entrée, boiling the meaning of life down to basic human needs while it methodically destroys the world. Yet this appeal to our animal selves is belied by the band’s exquisitely crafted annihilations, like when the angular funk groove of “A Little God In My Hands” gets pancaked by a dump truck of drunken horns, making Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” seem like “I Want Candy”. When bandleader Michael Gira screams “I’m just a little boy,” it’s not a performance. It’s an expulsion. It falls somewhere between the sneer of a playground bully and the sickening croak of a bloated raven. Maybe we all are just infants alone in our cribs, pretending that there are things we need other than love and warmth and bread. If so, this record makes for one hell of a blankie. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters12/8/14)

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5. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

“Here’s my report from the edge.” If you’re looking for a premise statement for Annie Clark’s stunning fourth album, well there you have it. On St. Vincent, the diminutive axe-slinger sits on all kinds of edges – between pop and avant garde, satire and confession, guitar solos and blood spatter patterns. In her effortless ability to make her singular personality feel universal, Clark summons the spirit of another diminutive axe-slinger; you know, the one who could claim to approximate the sound of doves crying without sounding like a flake. And while there was plenty to like about the two Prince albums we got this year (especially the sci-fi funk opus Art Official Age), it’s St. Vincent that gives us a closer approximation of the Purple One in his ruffled, enigmatic prime. Its guitar riffs consist of hyperactive clusters of notes. Its synthesizers coat everything with a thin layer of late-November ice. Yet it’s pop bliss through and through, delivered with poetic urgency. Clark makes you feel what it’s like to be chased by a rattlesnake, or hallucinate a conversation with Huey Newton, or understand that somebody out there loves you more than Jesus ever could. If you’re looking for a one-way ticket to the edge, she’s comped one for you.

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4. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

Some voices were meant to convey ache. Like Roy Orbison. Or Hank Williams. Or Sharon Van Etten. The Brooklyn transplant warrants comparisons to such hallowed figures on her fourth album, a hypnotic collection of songs about need, and all the stupid and callous ways that others fail at fulfilling it. “I need you to be afraid of nothing,” she sings on the record’s first song, her voice leaping into a yodel on that second word like an eagle peeking above the cloud line. On a record with a three-word title that contains multitudes (Do we exist? Have we reached those goals that we set? Is this the end?, etc.) the production is appropriately reserved-yet-bottomless, a mix of chiming Americana and muffled electronics that sounds like Raising Sand getting lost on a foggy night. It’s the perfect milieu for Van Etten to sing like she’s holding nothing back. Like Roy, she can sing with the kind of quaver that reveals whatever beauty there is to see in the rawest grief. It’s a voice that can bemoan “your love is killing me,” and at the same time be absolute proof that life is good.

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3. Cakes da Killa – Hunger Pangs

The line separating hip hop mixtapes from studio albums gets thinner every time another gorgeously produced triumph shows up on DatPiff (see #13 on this list, for example). But one listen to Hunger Pangs and you know you’re hearing a tape. The beats are jagged and guttural and loud. The songs are short, muscular, and barely interested in choruses. Whitney Houston’s between-song banter is fearlessly utilized as a coda. And goddamn is the emcee going off, tearing apart every verse like a gymnast with buzz saws for arms. Cakes da Killa is no stranger to tape brilliance, but Hunger Pangs is on another level. Run The Jewels deservedly got a lot of praise for spiking our adrenaline levels this year. They simply can’t touch Cakes on tracks like “Just Desserts” or “It’s Not Ovah” – just listening to one of his verses should qualify as an hour of cardio. “Coming at n***as like an avalanche,” he spews, not even coming close to hyperbole.

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2. Pallbearer – Foundations Of Burden

The greatest poetry tends to spring from the simplest subject matter. Fire and ice. The west wind. Lightness and dark. It’s the latter dichotomy that’s woven through the ravishing gloom of Pallbearer’s second album. If you’ve ever wished that Black Sabbath had a more nuanced lyricist than Geezer Butler, Foundations Of Burden is probably gonna be your jam. “Darkened heart / Enlightened mind / Whole world apart / Remain entwined,” goes the chorus to the 10-minute opening salvo “Worlds Apart,” exploring the human struggle between instinct and intellect with an astonishing economy of words. A feeling of immensity begins here and never wavers, the result of producer Billy Anderson’s shamelessly decadent approach. Every sound is given to us in its richest, warmest tone. Guitar chords fall like velvet curtains. Brett Campbell sings in a gravel-free tenor that would make him a prime candidate for the Church of Satan’s choir director. I know this is technically doom metal, but it sounds more like bloom metal to me.

Azealia_Banks_-_Broke_With_Expensive_Taste_album_cover_20141. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

Broke With Expensive Taste deserves to be the next Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – the careening masterpiece that gets dropped by its shortsighted label and ends up selling like crazy once it hits the light of day. Azealia Banks’s long-shelved debut dares to enter a churning sea of genres and attitudes, and then calibrates our voyage so skillfully, it feels like we’re standing upright on a speedboat with no need for the rails. It cares not for the cycle of intense hype and curdling frustration that preceded it. It doesn’t even remember what an “Interscope Records” is. Banks is always in complete control, even when she needs to sing in perfectly inflected Spanish or summon the spirit of Annette Funicello. If you’ve been following her since “212” shook the earth three years ago, you’ll already know five of these tunes. Yet this particular familiarity does not breed contempt. Yes, we had only been given little pieces for so long, and we were tired of it. But here is the whole puzzle in all its glory. Here are those songs we love, reenergized by the context we were dreaming they’d get. This shit is better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s better than anything that came out this year. Now let’s finally stop talking about it, and listen.

Honorable Mentions: Agalloch – The Serpent & The Sphere; Behemoth – The Satanist; Bloody Jay – #NAWFR; Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems; Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata; Future – Honest; Future Islands – Singles; Gangsta Boo & La Chat – Witch; Migos – Rich N**a Timeline; Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke; PeeWee Longway – The Blue M&M; Prince – Art Official AgeSylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso; TV On The Radio – Seeds; Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow; YG – My Krazy Life

ODB50. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995)

Even though there were nine talented rappers vying for our attention on Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, it was clear that Method Man was the one being pegged for a solo career. But while Mr. Meth did deliver that first Wu solo record, it was Ol’ Dirty Bastard who delivered the first Wu solo masterpiece. In hindsight, this was far from a sure thing. Because while every ODB verse on Enter the Wu-Tang is a gem, part of his impact came from the way he recklessly exploded onto tracks, spilling jet fuel in his wake. Not exactly the formula for anchoring a 15-song album. Except Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version wasn’t concerned with formula. It begins with an extended free form spoken word track in which ODB introduces himself, cries about getting gonorrhea, then sings an Andrew Dice Clay-esque spoof of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in a quavering, deep-throated croon. The record lets us spend an extended amount of time with the artist, and it reveals a man obsessed with STDs, the Great American Songbook, and a raw, off-the-cuff rhyming style that electrifies everything it touches. Almost 20 years later, it’s clearer than ever that this is no cheap laugh for hip-hop rubberneckers. This is genius, unfiltered.

Dulcinea49. Toad The Wet Sprocket – Dulcinea (1994)

A band remembered mostly for its crappy name and a pair of wide-eyed jangle-pop love songs, Toad the Wet Sprocket’s only value in 2014 should be to the producers of I Love the ’90s: Everything Else We Haven’t Talked About Yet. Except for the fact that Dulcinea, the Santa Barbara group’s fourth album, is a lush, tender, literally quixotic triumph. Released three years after the band’s commercial breakthrough, fear, the record smartly refines the swooning, alt-rock hamminess of hits like “Walk On the Ocean,” adding delicate strains of folk and country that make the morose, clean riffage feel authentic. It was the perfect accompaniment to the spiritual bent of singer/songwriter Glen Phillips, ensuring that tracks like “Fly From Heaven” and “Reincarnation Song” remain humble in their inquiries. The result is a record with a much longer shelf life than fear, with songs that put us all in the shoes of Don Quixote, elegantly losing our minds with hopes of true love and a higher standard for humanity.

Portishead - Portishead48. Portishead – Portishead (1997)

“Nobody loves me/It’s true,” mourned Beth Gibbons on Dummy, Portishead’s essential, trip-hop hall of fame debut. Three years later, the Bristol quartet’s perspective was a bit more refined, yet no less intoxicatingly dark. “All Mine,” the first single, practically has you thinking it’s an old-fashioned love song, with Gibbons singing, “When you smile/Ohhh how I feel so good” over horns that stab and accuse like a Bernard Herrmann Bond theme. The reverie doesn’t last, of course, with the vocalist taking her haunting, Nico-via-Kate Bush pipes into the upper registers to make a chilling prediction – “Make no mistake/You shan’t escape.” If the first Portishead record was about misery, this one was about Misery. Gibbons’ incredibly effective tone once again finds its soul mate in  producer/bandleader Geoff Barrow, who unleashes a gorgeous array of crackling, unsettling samples, somber keyboards, echoing drums and inspired scratching. It was a gift to lovers of torch singing, DJ Premier and all forms of gothic art, one generous enough to satiate listeners until the band’s next effort – 11 years later.

Fishbone47. Fishbone – Give A Monkey A Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe (1993)

As a 15-year-old person in 1993 who loved AC/DC and Arnold Schwarzenegger in equal measure, it was a foregone conclusion that I would not only see Last Action Hero on its opening weekend, but also buy its soundtrack, which featured not only my favorite Aussies but other bands I loved like Queensryche (!) and Tesla (!!!). And lo, I loved both the film and its music. But I’ll never forget the moment track 10 of the soundtrack came on. It was a metal song, and thereby should technically have been in my comfort zone. But this was a practically riff-less, crazed dirge of a metal song, a song designed not to inspire head banging, a song that whispers to you to lie down so you can become mired in its ooze. The song was “Swim” by Fishbone, which was also the first track on this, its mindblowingly diverse and preposterously entertaining fourth album. Give A Monkey A Brain … may have been the first recorded work that taught me genre rules were imaginary. There was plenty of stunning, melodic metal, alongside the frenetic ska of “Unyielding Conditioning,” the primo Funkadelic-esque freak outs “Properties of Propaganda” and “Nutt Megalomaniac,” and a pair of avant garde punk breakdowns from singer Angelo Moore. Both “The Warmth of Your Breath” and “Drunk Skitzo” made me laugh after I picked my jaw up from the floor; today their energy remains totally addictive, but they read less like comedy, and more like profound expulsions of feeling. To say the least, the rest of the Last Action Hero soundtrack has not held up half as well.

Uncle Tupelo46. Uncle Tupelo – March 16-20, 1992 (1992)

If I was writing about Uncle Tupelo five years ago, I probably would have railed against contemporary country music in that ignorant way that people sound when they criticize something they’ve never given a fair shake. But a gig reviewing concerts for my local newspaper put me face to face with supreme talents like Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley and Eric Church, and I discovered that there’s plenty of incredible songwriting and irresistibly breezy melodies in today’s country-pop. Still, I prefer the approach of bands like Uncle Tupelo and their eventual spawn, Wilco and Son Volt. And I think I know why – they sound like blue-collar guys singing blue-collar songs, whereas today’s average country single sounds like a pop singer delivering lyrics that were vetted for the blue-collar marketplace. (It’s why I can admit that a universal party song like “Red Solo Cup” is a masterpiece, while pretty much anything with “truck” in the title makes my skin crawl. There’s a disconnect.) Or maybe this album is just so good that it’s skewing the larger argument in my mind. March 16-20, 1992 was the purest ode to blue-collar American life laid to tape in the 1990s. From its bare-bones title to its embrace of musty standards like “Coalminers” and “I Wish My Baby Was Born,” this is Americana in the raw. It was recorded and produced in Athens, GA, by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, but his smartest move was to pretty much stay out of the way, letting the songs feel captured, Alan Lomax-style. It’s the most in synch that Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar ever sounded, so much so that the record’s best, most emotional track is one where they just play together, the bucolic instrumental “Sandusky.”

Feel free to check out the whole list so far, and stay tuned for more of my unsolicited 1990s ramblings!

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.

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