The Best of 2018

Okay, this was a weird year for me.

First off, too many of my friends made kick-ass amazing records.

And then, even as the months passed, I would find myself in a battle with myself as to what was my favorite album of 2018.  There was only one thing that never changed, my favorite song of this year.  In fact, maybe it was the year of the songs, as so many truly stood out, while sometimes the albums from whence they came fell a little short.

I don’t know.  But I am changing things up this year.  Going to start the listing with songs, and then bring on the albums, but the albums won’t have any specific order, and honestly as I write this now on December 26that 6:15 PM, I’m not even sure how many albums will make the list.  So, I’ll be as surprised as you.

Best Song of 2018

Uh-Huh from Jade Bird – This UK singer/songwriter, who released one great EP last year, and a couple of singles this year, delivers the perfect song: short, fast, angry and so to the fucking point.  When she turns up the growl at the 31 second mark, I am a complete goner.  The song gave me goosebumps on that first listen, it gives me goosebumps now.  As good a song as any you’re likely to hear . . . ever.

Runners Up for Best Song of 2018

Make Me Feel – Janelle Monae – Though Prince passed in April of 2017, his spirit was certainly alive in protégé Monae’s funky ode to a subject so close to the Purple One’s heart. If Jade hadn’t growled, this would have been song of the year.  So close. So damn good.

 

The Way She Looks At You – Sarah Shook – Released back in November, one week after What it Takes: film en douze tableaux, the documentary I made on the band was also released, came a track from the Years sessions.  A three-four alt-country classic about realizing what you thought you had perhaps wasn’t yours after all.  Fucking beautiful.  And so authentic I can hear Patsy Cline singing it.

 

Venice Bitch/Mariners Apartment Complex – Lana Del Rey – I love Lana Del Rey.  And when she dropped these two songs earlier in the year I was immediately drawn to Mariner’s, but as the weeks passed something about the almost 10-minue long Venice Bitch started taking hold.  There’s a vibe, a seduction, a play of words, I can’t explain it, and the old punk in me is disappointed.  But fuck him.  Like I said, I love Lana Del Rey.

 

 

Plastic Hamburgers – Fantastic Negrito – THIS is how you sound like Led Zeppelin without sounding like an ass.

 

The (14, it would seem, though one’s an EP) Best Albums of 2018, in alphabetical order:

 

Bottle It In – Kurt Vile – I’ve never placed another Vile album on any best of list because I never truly loved any of his albums. There were a few good songs, but mostly I felt a lot of filler.  Not here. This is all brilliant vibe, a perfect album for long drives in the middle of the night.

 

Boygenius – Boygenius – Technically an EP, but since no one truly understand the art of the EP any more, I’ll let it hang with the long players.  Six perfect songs from a supergroup made up of three of the most talented singer/songwriters on the planet at the moment.

 

Clean – Soccer Mommy – This album honestly almost squeeked past all the rest.  Probably my most played record of the year.  Angst, guitars, most angst. It’s as if everything good about alt power pop from the 90s were still alive and well.

 

Fall Into the Sun – Swearin’ – It feels as if one or the other Crutchfield sister is on this list every year.  This year it’s Allison’s turn.  Just a great fun power punk record with crunch guitars and mostly great lyrics.

 

History of Panic – The Shellye Valauskas Experience – This was the great power pop record of the year.  A collection of songs that stick in your head, but you’re okay with that.  They’re like good friends you want to have a beer with who always make you smile.

 

I Don’t Run – Hinds – You either like this band, or they annoy the crap out of you. I actually love them, and this is their best record.  One that I might even risk playing for other people.  (Maybe.)

 

Kiss Yr Frenemies – Illuminati Hotties – A perfect noise pop record.  And that is my favorite musical subgenre.  Not a weak moment.  And those fucking guitars!

 

No Recover – Eric Bachmann – Speaking of noise pop, the leader of my all-time favorite band put out a record this year that was pretty much the complete opposite.  And though Eric insists all of these songs are about the apocalypse, this is a liltingly beautiful collection, which Bachmann breaking your heart, if not with his guitar, then with his gentle whisper of a voice.

 

Not Tonight – John Howie Jr. – Earlier this year we took the Grand Ole Opry tour, and of course I looked up and listened to a number of artist that I had never really explored, Porter Wagoner being one.  And in a nutshell he’s who I was reminded of when I first heard Howie’s album.  This is about as old time country as it gets.

And for the hell of it, and because I know most of you have never heard him, a little Porter Wagoner.  C’mon, listen and expand your horizons.

 

Something – Something Young – Long story short, over the summer one of my co-editors told me her boyfriend put out a record and I should give it a listen.  To “be nice” I of course did, never expecting this self-released record from a high school senior would become one of my most listened to albums of the year. It’s the 90s indie rock record that’s somehow missing from your collection.  Fuck, it’s good!

 

Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett – At the time of it’s release this would have been my most likely choice for best album of the year.  But while I still love it, I don’t feel I love it as much.  Still a great collection, but I’m not sure why it hasn’t aged well.  Perhaps it’s me.

 

Warm – Jeff Tweedy – I’m a Wilco fanatic, and this might be Tweedy’s best collection of songs since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (or at least since The Whole Love).  It’s as if Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan had a son, and Paul Westerberg was his demented uncle who took him to a lot of shows he should have never gotten into.  Love this man.

 

What a Time to be Alive – Superchunk – One of my favorite bands of all time putting out quite possibly their most punk record. While not the freakin masterpiece of their last, I Hate Music, it’s an angry, timely, ode to our fucked up times. Send a copy to the White House.

 

Years – Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – My feelings on this band are pretty damn obvious, as the are the subject of my last documentary and I directed the video below.  Love every song on this record.  It’s an alt-country masterpiece about loss and longing and holding onto the bottle for redemption.  And make sure to see them live, Shook and company will make you see God at the bottom of that empty glass.

 

The more observant of you might notice that this is where I usually list my best films of the year.  But I don’t think I’ve seen enough to give an honest opinion.  So I won’t even try to give a dishonest opinion. (Or course, those same observant folks might think I was not completely blown away by anything, yet, and of course you’d be correct.)  I’ll just skip to the next category.

 

BEST TV of 2018

There was so much, but one show stands out.  One show that makes me laugh, cry, keeps me on the edge of my seat, makes me pause it because I can’t hold back comments on how brilliant something (the fucking costume design) or someone (pick any of the cast members) is, turns me on (yes, she’s my TV crush), and makes me angry that there are only ten episodes in a season and I’ve just binge-watched them all, and now I have to wait another 11.9 months for more.  And that show is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  (I love you, Midge.)

 

BOOK OF THE YEAR:

Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. by Jeff Tweedy – This is coming from someone who hates rock bios.  I DO NOT read them.  They almost always make me dislike the artist at hand, which defeats the purpose, because I was only reading the book because I was a fan.  Or they’re written by someone else who puts way too much of their own spin on the story, and I know it’s a bunch of bullshit anyway. Tweedy’s bio is different.  It’s very funny, but it’s also very sad.  So self-depricating, and honest.  It made me like him more than ever, and I didn’t think that was possible.  Read it and find a new best friend.

As for the rest of my 2018:

Tales of an impromptu music video, part one: We had a blizzard back in February.  At around 9:30 am when there was around a foot of snow on the ground, and the roads in the state were about to be officially declared off limits, I turned to my wife and said, I’m going to go out and shoot a music video.  She told me I was crazy and that she was not going to come and rescue me if I got stuck.  I have a Jeep.  Getting stuck was not an option.  So I called up Dean Falcone, whose partner in crime Shellye Valauskas had just released a beautiful new album.  I said, let’s go shoot a music video in the snow.  In the background I could hear Shellye say we were both crazy.  Dean replied, pick us up in an hour.  I said, bring cheap guitars.  And so we spent an hour in the frigid cold wind-whipped snow shooting this video.  I personally love it.  Hope you do too.  P.S. We did not get stuck, and the video was online by 3 PM that same day.

 

Tales of an impromptu music video, part two: a Thursday, later in the next month, I hear my friend Matthew Ryan is releasing an acoustic version of the album Hustle Up Starlings, for which I made the first music video which can watch here:

Now the issue was that this new acoustic record was going to be released the following Tuesday.  I immediately contacted Matt and asked him to send me the tracks. Upon hearing the acoustic version of Aviator I knew what had to be done: an acoustic version of the music video, with just singer and guitarist.  Well, the singer, Chloe, had become one of my go-to film editors after the first music video, so she immediately said yes.  And Carina, the guitarist, was just as quickly on board.  We filmed it in the same location as the original video on Sunday, and Matt had his music video, which was premiered sight-unseen by American Songwriter magazine on Tuesday.  I might love this video even more than the original.

 

As for my feature films

 Pizza, A Love Story– in the works for eleven years is done.  We’re running a final Kickstarter now for the sound mix and E&O insurance, and then we begin the film festival run.  You can find the Kickstarter here.

Normal Valid Lives– has it’s third, maybe fourth, editor, and is moving along. Perhaps the story, or my interviews, are a little too disturbing.

Where are you, Jay Bennett?– we hit the motherlode this year.  But I don’t want to tell you how or what.  Let’s just say we found the holy grail to make this film work. It will also double post-production time, but it will be worth it.

Seniors– we’re about half-way through editing.  Just filmed a few almost final interviews.  Our happy animal film is coming along.

And we’re figuring out right now what is coming next…

NHdocs 2018 was a blast.  Difficult, exhausting, but rewarding.  And it’s coming back for it’s 6thyear on May 30thfor 11 days of great films.

Thank you to all of the people who collaborate with me on my films, NHdocs, and other projects: Chloe, Brianna, Dean, Shellye, Lindsay, Jay, Fred, Colin, Charlotte, Charlie, Katherine, Tony, Sam, Max, Haley, Ed, Carina, Kathie, Scott, Diane, and another Scott, plus the amazing musicians and bands, and of course my harshest critic Kristine, whom I love with every inch of my being.  And yes, my four-pawed children Springsteen and Dylan. None of this would exist without you.

Be well, hug your dog, share a drink with people you love and respect, eat good pizza, drink hot coffee, laugh, rock, play it loud, try not to let the political climate get you down, and be kind to everyone you meet (no matter what side of the aisle they’re on).

 

 

 

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Years

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I have been in love with this album since I first filmed the band recording it last year for our upcoming Sarah Shook & the Disarmers documentary What It Takes: film en douze tableaux. As they meticulously laid down the tracks, as Shook turned in sneering, sizzling vocals, as Eric Peterson bent his guitar neck to points from which I thought it night not return, as John Howie Jr redefined the art of drums in alt-country, as Aaron Oliva brought almost a jazz feel to the proceedings with his upright bass, and as Phil Sullivan traded steel licks with Peterson answering every one of Shook’s sneers with one of his own, my crew and I knew we were witnessing a miracle.

There isn’t a song on Years that won’t grab you by the throat and slap you with a line of two that’ll make you realize what a great songwriter Shook is. Instead of going through song by song, buy the record and experience it from start to finish (as all great albums should be experienced — really sit with headphones, press play and for 37 minutes immerse yourself in a work of art). And every time you think it can’t get any better, there’s another track that comes on…and by the time you’re at the half-way point with What It Takes, and the thrilling duel between the strings of Peterson and Sullivan you’ll be crying from the sheer emotional excitement. And then Shook ends it all with the title track, slapping you in the face one more time. “Baby it’s been years since I knew how to move you,” she sings on the coda, But sorry, no, you’re wrong there, Shook. Every note on this emotional roller coaster of a record moves us, kills us just a little with its brilliance, then brings us back to life again with the promise of another song. It’s life support in a time of posers and gutless rock and roll. And yes, to me it’s rock and roll as much as it is country, alt-country, whatever you want to call it. It’s just freakin’ great. And it rocks me to the core of my very soul.

Unadorned

Sometimes things just come together perfectly.  A year ago, in February, I brought together a group of six extremely talented young women to make a music video for a song on the about-to-be-released Matt Ryan record. Everything about “(I Just Died) Like An Aviator” rocked.  It’s one of my favorite shoots, one of my favorite videos. You can watch it here.

Then, last Wednesday, I read that Matt would soon be releasing an unadorned acoustic version of the same album.  He sent me a copy, and I immediately turned on the acoustic “Aviator” and before the song was over I knew what I had to do.

The texting began. I started with my Matt Ryan-impersonator Chloe Barczak as she would have to carry so much of the idea I had in my head.  She was in.  Then co-producer Charlotte Beatty to handle the organization.  And the first video’s guitarist Carina Begley, as the guitar was (except for a few piano notes at the very end) the lone instrument.  An acoustic version of the same team, so to speak.

Then I told Matt we were again making a music video of “Aviator.”  He never even asked what we were planning, and instead got American Songwriter Magazine to agree to premiere the video sight unseen.  He sent me the chords and even a video for Carina on how to play a few of the guitar parts.

By Friday of last week we had a schedule and a location.  The same location as the original video.  We all met at 8:45 AM on Sunday, loaded up my Jeep with almost all of my gear, and drove the two tenths of a mile to the home of Dean and Shellye.

As Carina got used to the feel of my Martin acoustic, Charlotte and Chloe helped me set up lights and camera.  By 10:30 we were filming, buzzing from a lot of Willoughby’s coffee, Coke-a-Cola, and salted-caramel Orangeside Donuts.

But this time around Chloe and Carina had their work cut out for them.  My concept was to present the video in one long take.  No cuts.  Just a perfect performance and some precise rack focusing. No sweat.

We worked on blocking the first half dozen times through, as Chloe worked on her emotional delivery.  She felt this version of the song was really sad.  Desperate.  Depressing even.  Both Charlotte and Carina agreed.  I was not about to argue.

We got the blocking just right, the lighting perfect.  And by the twelfth take I started noticing tears in Chloe’s eyes.  That was when I knew we had something special.  We knocked off one take after another, with barely a pause between, and she nailed it.  Take sixteen was fucking brilliant.  Take eighteen was perfect.  We did a few more.  I had a B-camera rolling just in case my impossible one-shot idea would not work.  And after the twenty-fourth take we wrapped.

I got home around 1:30 PM.  I copied the footage onto a drive as I put away the gear.  Then I started editing, going back and forth between takes 16, 18, 12 and 24…but ultimately the fucking brilliant won out.  It would be take 16.  I added titles, the slightest color correction, some film grain, and I exported the timeline.  By 4:30 PM I texted Matt, Chloe, Charlotte, and Carina a private viewing link for the video.

This is what Matt Ryan wrote to me after seeing it for the first time: “My god she’s killing me. I seriously have tears in my eyes.  I love it.  Breaks my heart.  It’s beautiful  Please tell them I love it.  Thank you for thinking to do this.”

His appreciation was appreciated.

Matt stripped down a beautiful song, and allowed us to do the same to the original video.  But this video is unadorned in other ways as well: void of ego, attitudes, rude people (unlike most of the rest of my past few weeks, hell, unlike most of the world we live in). It was just four people working together, all doing what they need to do, having fun doing it, turning a beautiful song in a visual work of art.

Thank you to Chloe, Charlotte, and Carina, my brilliant cohorts on this project. Thank you to Dean and Shellye for again letting us invade their home.  Thank you to Matt Ryan and American Songwriter for the blind trust.

And here it is:  American Songwriter Magazine

Sometimes things just come together perfectly.

The Best of 2017

A very good year in music.

First off nice to see both Sarah Shook’s Sidelong (my co-album of the year last year) and Lydia Loveless’s Boy Crazy collection on many year end lists. They’re not on mine only because they’re reissues. You already know how I feel about both of these artists.

Speaking of reissues, they truly rocked this year. From the Savage Young Dü collection from Hüsker Dü to the amazing deluxe reissues of Wilco first two albums AM and Being There. As did live records. Both The Replacements’ For Sale and Lydia’s Live from the Documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless? (which, yes, I am responsible for bringing to life) are as good, if not better, than any studio album released this year. But that’s not the essence of my top ten list.

It’s about new music.

So, here now, are my ten favorite records of 2017.

Valerie-June-The-Order-Of-Time

The Order of Time – Valerie June – There was no album I returned to on a more frequent basis that June’s brilliant sophomore effort. This record is all about a vibe that just sinks its slightly gritty under the nails claws into you and never lets go. Part old school Americana (think the old 78s that were recorded live in the 20s), part soul, with a voice that sounds wise beyond its years. Add to that the most perfectly subdued production and a collection of songs that seem to get better with every listen, and you’ve got an instant classic. This is a record that will sound even better a decade from now.

Deep Dream – Daddy Issues – Finally a new take on the riot grrl sound. Noisy and sweet at the same time, any band that could make Don Henley’s Boys of Summer worth listening to has to be doing something right.   This is the late night, drive fast, slam your fist against the steering wheel, scream along album of the year. Fuck, yes!

Anything Could Happen – Bash N Pop – The best solo record from a member of The Replacements since Westerberg’s Stereo/Mono seventeen years ago. Tommy Stinson just knocks it out of the park with a great collection of songs. His voice has never sounded better, and that familiar guitar sound is like an old friend coming to visit carrying a bottle of good bourbon and a six pack of beer. I’m not putting this on the list because he’s a former member of the Mats, it’s here because it’s a damn good record.

Out in the Storm – Waxahatchee – I loved Waxahatachee’s first album American Weekend (it topped this list a few years back), but the next two left me bored. So I am very happy to report Katie Crutchfield is back with almost the perfect companion piece to that first record. Except this time instead of haunted lullabyes we’re treated to a full-on sonic assault of guitars, bass and drum. This is her rock album. A wall of pop melodies coated in noise syrup brilliant from start to finish. Love this record.

After the Party – The Menzingers – The closest we’re going to come to The Clash thirty-five years after they split up. I would call this my feel-good record of the year. From the opening guitars of Tellin’ Lies the album made me feel young again, and never let up.   And maybe this is new for old dudes. I don’t give a fuck. I’m an old dude. And this one rocked.

Turn Out the Lights – Julien Baker – She sings one note and my heart is broken. A whole album, and I’m reduced to tears. She is the heir apparent to Nick Drake or Elliott Smith, someone to take us into the dark spaces, and hold our hands with the confidence in her voice. Everything will be okay with Julien leading the way.

Gilded – Jade Jackson – While we all wait for new records from Loveless and Shook, dig into Jade Jackson spectacular debut. It’s a collection of heartbreak and longing with guitars a little too crunchy for country-western. The raspy catch in her voice will grab you from the first note and not let go.

Notes of Blue – Son Volt – The best alt-country record of the year. And in a year in which guitars seemed to blessedly rule again, this is a freaking guitar masterpiece.

Losing – Bully – Old school riot grrl done right: fuzz, melody, fuzz, drums, fuzz and Alicia Bognanno has a voice made for the genre. Just one of those records you put on endless repeat on a drive from Minneapolis to Fargo.

Spades and Roses – Caroline Spence – Best straight out country record of the year. Spence is an amazing songwriter, but it’s her delivery that just breaks your heart. With production just sparse enough, and yet more killer guitar riffs, she takes us through a collection of songs that sound like great southern literature. Short stories turned to song.

BEST SONG OF THE YEAR: Lydia Loveless take this for both sides of a single: Desire/Sorry. The A-side, a gut-wrenching tale of an affair with a married man gone bad, was truly my favorite track from her last LP Real, but it ended up on the recording studio floor, so to speak, though it was a centerpiece of my film Who is Lydia Loveless? The B-side is a cover of the Justin Beiber song which was easily my most played tune of the year. Lydia makes the song her own, as if every word meant something special to her and the person and/or persons she singing it to. Gave me goosebumps more times than I care to admit. I’ve said it before that she has the greatest voice on the planet. And I’ll say it again. She fucking kills me every time.

Listen to Sorry on bandcamp here.

OTHER GREAT SONGS:

Sixteen from Diet Cig – the opening verse is all you need to know: “When I was sixteen/I dated a boy/With my own name/It was weird/In the back of his truck/Moaning my name/While trying to fuck.”

(I Just Died) Like an Aviator – Matthew Ryan – the greatest song in the world can become downright annoying when you direct and edit a music video for it. There’s only so much you can hear one song. Right? Well, wrong, in this case. Despite hundreds and hundreds of listens over a two week period, the first track from Ryan’s stellar Hustle up Starlings lp stands the test of time as one of the best rock tracks of the year. (Even if I no longer picture the words coming out of Ryan’s mouth.)

BEST LIVE SHOW: Lydia Loveless, Todd May, and Casey Magic at the backroom at Cat’s Cradle on December 15th and 16th. She was on fire these two nights, playing solo and with Todd, rearranging, ranting, reinventing European, breaking our fucking hearts every time she opened her mouth. Goddammit, Lydia!

BEST HOLLYWOOD NARRATIVE FILM: I, Tonya – a mocumentary, that was funny at times, heartbreaking the rest. A brilliant cast, superb script, and a sharpness of vision we rarely see with any sort of budget.

BEST INDEPENDENT NARRATIVE FILM: Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig might be the Lydia Loveless of independent film: funny, awkward, damaged, opinionated, and always completely charming. And that showed through in every frame of this magnificent directing debut.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FILM: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography – Errol Morris’s short, subtle masterpiece. A film that leaves you wanting more, which is rare indeed today. His portrait of a quirky photographer who was one of five people on the planet who owned a 20×24 Polaroid camera. Love, love, love!

BEST TV: TV is the new indie film. And it just keeps getting better and better. Thus just a list of a few of this year’s standouts: Stranger Things II, The Five, Master of None, Ray Donovan, The Keepers, Big Little Lies, The Deuce, and GLOW. (And I’m not even mentioning my guilty pleasure love for reality TV like Big Brother, Survivor, and Top Chef.)

BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Mary Miller’s brilliant Always Happy Hour: Stories and Jeff Goodell’s terrifying The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. The former is a collection of writing to rival the dark despair of Carver, the latter a look at how the coastlines of the world will not be recognizable in a few decades. Both so worth reading, perhaps for the same reason.

As for the rest of my 2017:

Four releases this fall, of which I am quite proud: Who is Lydia Loveless? on DVD with a shitload of great extras, the Record Store Day vinyl-only release of 6 tunes from the film, Live from the Documentary Who is Lydia Loveless?, my first film Disconnected on bluray (with extras that include my long-lost first documentary Twenty Questions), and Psychos In Love on bluray. (The last two both brought to you from the amazingly twisted folks at Vinegar Syndrome.

As for what’s next: five documentaries in various stages of production:

What it Takes: film en douze tableaux – a quirky portrait of Sarah Shook and the Disarmers as they record their new album Years for Bloodshot Record. You can expect to see this at film festivals in late Spring.

Seniors – A documentary that celebrates the brains, energy & sass of some of the coolest senior dogs on this planet and the people who love them. It’s mostly filmed. Editing now.

Pizza, A Love Story – in the works for ten years and being edited now, we hope to finally have our epic love poem to the Holy Trinity of pizza (Sally’s, Pepe’s, and Modern) completed by mid-year.

Normal Valid Lives – our look at a horrible case of bullying in a school district north of Minneapolis. We still have a little filming to do, and hope to have this completed for film festivals in early 2019.

Where are you, Jay Bennett? – A feature-length documentary on Jay Bennett, a legendary musician, who as a member of Wilco, was a large part of the genius behind three seminal albums, who went on to a critically acclaimed solo career, before dying tragically at the age of 45. Filming and editing now.

And of course, NHdocs 2018 is coming your way on May 31st for 11 days of great films. (might have a surprise or two from me in there!)

That’s it.  Another year in the books. Be well, hug your dog, eat good pizza, drink hot coffee, and be kind to everyone you meet.

 

 

The Best of a VERY Fucked-Up Year (aka The Best of 2016)

What a fucked-up year.

No, really. I’ve lived 57 of them, and this one takes the cake. And I’m not even talking politics, which was the shit show of all shit shows with the shit winning, I’m talking David Bowie and Prince dying. And I’m not sure if their deaths had anything to do with it, but the music that was released in 2016 was for the most part crap. I can think of very few albums that deserve a place on any top ten list. I can think of a handful of runner-ups. And I can remember a whole boatload of shit. Especially from people I respect.  (PW, are you kidding me?)  Apropos for this shit show year.

Of course what makes it even more fucked-up is that the best record of 2016 is really the record I listened to most in 2015. The record I loved most in 2015. But I couldn’t share it with any one. I was so careful with it that I would not leave a copy in my Jeep overnight for fear that someone would break in, steal the cd, and pirate it on the internet.

And taking that one step further, the album I played most in 2016, really came out in 2015. So I can’t legitimately even name it the best record of this year.

Like I said, fucked up.

But so am I, and I don’t really care.

The two records of which I speak are REAL from Lydia Loveless, which came out this year, but devastated me last. And SIDELONG from Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, which was released by Sarah on her own label in October 2015, but didn’t fall into my hands until March 19th of this year.

I’ll start with REAL. Anyone who’s read these pages, or spent 30 seconds talking music with me over the past couple of years, knows how I feel about Lydia Loveless and her band. They are the greatest rock and roll band on the planet at this point in time. I believe in them more strongly that the Pope believes in God. (No joke, I’ve talked it out with Benny.) Hell, you know I only make films about things I’m passionate about.

Camera in hand, I got to document a lot of the REAL recording sessions. I got to hear first vocal takes on what would become songs that ripped me apart from inside out. Where the fuck does her voice come from? Lydia can hit a note and make me cry.  A lot of the album did, or at least reduce me to goosebumps and shivers. The title was perfect because it gave you fair warning as to what to expect. Everything here real, the emotions, the playing, the voice. And much like the musicial chameleons who passed this year, Lydia was not afraid to change. I find it amusing that the album has ended up on so many best country album lists. Not sure that there’s one song here I’d even remotely consider country. And perhaps that’s another aspect of her brilliance, you can’t categorize her. Lydia has a song for every occasion, from funeral to wedding, from heartbreak to joy. And REAL runs that gamut.

SIDELONG on the other hand is old-time country by way of BEGGARS BANQUET or LET IT BLEED. I’ve played this album to the point where my friends and my wife will no longer allow me to play it in their presence. Not joking. It’s caused screaming fights. This year, week after week new records would be released. I’d play them once (a hand full perhaps made it to a half-dozen plays), and immediately return to SIDELONG. Still today, nine months after I first heard it, I have it on endless replay in my Jeep. Hell, I had the opening line to her song DWIGHT YOAKAM tattooed on my arm. I am obsessed with this fucking record. It is crack-cocaine to me. It is perfection from start to finish. It is my new ICKY METTLE. (Though that still is my desert island album.) What the fuck is in the water in that Chapel Hill area?

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Why does SIDELONG work so well? Why does it hold me in its clutches. Because every word, every note, every warble in Shook’s voice, rings true.   “I’m drinking water tonight ’cause I drank all the whiskey this morning/Drank the whiskey this morning ’cause my baby, she ain’t coming home.” Seriously fuck. Just stop writing songs now. It’s done. It’s over. Sarah Shook won.

So all of that said, I’m just going to break some rules here and name REAL and SIDELONG as the two best records of this fucked-up year. Buy them (if you download them illegally you’re a scum-sucking piece of shit who deserves to have your legs crushed in a car accident…and oh, I am so fucking serious when I say that I hope I’m driving the other car), savor them, realize that rock and roll ain’t as dead as it otherwise seems.

There were a handful of other albums that I listened to more than once in 2016. (No really, more than once was a lot when SIDELONG was waiting, whispering into my ear, calling out my name.)  These got played.  These are respected.

Here they are in no specific order. These are all beautiful records, and in any other year they might have ended near or at the top of this list. Instead of explaining why I liked them (let’s face it, we have all talked way too much this year – perhaps we can all just shut the fuck up in 2017), just listen to the attached song. You’ll either get it, or not. And if you do, buy the album. You won’t be sorry.

David Bowie – BLACKSTAR

Big Thief – MASTERPIECE

Mitski – PUBERTY 2

Car Seat Headrest – TEENS OF DENIAL

Wilco – SCHMILCO

Adia Victoria – BEYOND THE BLOODHOUNDS

Drive-By Truckers – AMERICAN BAND

A Giant Dog – PILE

Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome

Eric Bachmann – (SELF TITLED)

Eric Bachmann & Jon Rauhouse – (SELF TITLED)

MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Pretty much anything and everything else. I had no patience for the regurgitated same-old/same-old. I had no patience for anything commercial. Perhaps I just had no patience. Bowie and Prince fucking died.

BEST SONG OF THE YEAR: It’s a tie between Shook’s DWIGHT YOAKAM and OUT ON LOVE from Loveless. You already know what I think of the former, and with the latter Loveless and company traveled an aural landscape they had yet to visit. Moody, heartbreaking, depressing and utterly fucked up. Perhaps a good theme song for 2016.

OTHER GREAT SONGS: see the samples I posted from the runner-up albums of the year. These are among my favorite songs of the year.

BEST LIVE SHOW: Eric Bachmann’s living room show in New Haven. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Eric play since falling in love with Archers of Loaf in 1993. Forty, fifty, maybe more. But on this one night, he seemed to channel all that was great, and there’s a lot that’s great about this most under-appreciated songwriter. One song from each of the fifteen records he’d sung on. Played on guitar or banjo, with two for good measure on the upright piano sitting against one wall in the living room. CHUMMING THE OCEANS being one of those. I make no bones about it that my favorite song of all time is WEB IN FRONT, it was beautiful and perfect on acoustic guitar. THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME on freakin’ banjo. NOSTALGIA also on acoustic guitar. It was one of those magic nights that I will remember forever. It was perfect from beginning to end, and I walked away thinking yeah, I could die happily tonight.

BEST HOLLYWOOD NARRATIVE FILM: I’m temped to say no such thing any more, but I did dig THE GIRL ON A TRAIN. Not much else, but then I tend to stay away from anything with special effect, which severely limits the Hollywood films I can see.

BEST INDEPENDENT NARRATIVE FILM: SING STREET. John Carney, the director of the breathtaking ONCE, returns to indie roots with a tale of a bullied teen who starts a band in 80s Dublin to impress a girl. Everything about this film will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear. It’s a perfect film. Not one that will change your world, just one that will make it a little brighter.

Other great films: LA LA LAND, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

BEST DOCUMENTARY FILM: I hate to say it but I’ve yet to see a number of films with might be in the running like CAMERAPERSON or TOWER. I did truly like WEINER, but I can’t call it the best doc of the year. I’ve found that a number of docs I see are told by people who don’t really know how to tell a story in a solid three-act structure. The story they’re trying to tell might seem fascinating, and a great editor might be able to get their film there, but fo me, so many just do not work. Just because it’s a doc doesn’t mean storytelling should take a back seat.

BEST TV: I think there were three television show that for me fired on all cylinders this year: THE NIGHT OF for drama, SILICON VALLEY for comedy, and LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER for everything else. The first was simply riveting from beginning to end, the next smart and sassy and even heartfelt, and the later was a safety net of sanity in this most fucked up year.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR: This year was mainly about short stories, and my favorite book/collection is actually a few years old. BIG WORLD from Mary Miller is the best short story collection I’ve read this side of Raymond Carver. Yes, that’s ridiculously high praise. Until you start read and wonder if I’m selling her short. Her characters are damaged and all too real, I knew every last one of them. A perfect mirror on relationships in this fucked-up time.

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As for the rest of my 2016: I’m ridiculously proud of my newest feature WHO IS LYDIA LOVELESS? The screening were all a blast, with Lydia always turning in an original acoustic performance, sometimes a surprise, as the Prince cover was in Boston. (What does her voice do to me?  Earlier that day I was just sitting around on my laptop, she was playing my small Martin acoustic.  She went into the Prince tune.  I had to keep my back to her because I was crying through the entire song.  I managed to say, “You have to play that tonight,” when she was done.)

Completed four music videos (one for Shook, three for Loveless), that all had great premieres. There were all a blast to make. (Thank you again to all the great people who helped out on these videos.)

A DOG NAMED GUCCI was beautifully released on DVD.  If you have not seen this film, watch it.  You will to have to turn away.  Instead it will open your eyes and inspire you.

Dean Falcone’s beautiful production of ONE VOICE from Gucci was released on vinyl on Record Store Day.

Had a short story published in the WAITING TO BE FORGOTTEN collection, and even completed my first novel in a decade.  (Stayed tuned for that.)

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Found a number of great new crew people: welcome aboard Isabella (who single-handledly edited the EUROPEAN video), Lindsay, Charlotte, and Hannah.

Enjoyed a lovely vacation with Kristine to our favorite place in the world, Key West. We welcomed a new pup into our lives, the Lab/Rottie mix Dylan, who ended up being a Lab/Beagle mix.

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And NHdocs, the documentary film fest I run with Charlie Musser, grew from three days to eleven. (Just wait until this year!)

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I hope to finish our anti-bullying film NORMAL VALID LIVES in 2017. It feels even more important now.

Plus we’ll be announcing two new projects (we’ve got five in the works, one you really can’t know about yet.). As for the other two: the first is our second animal film, which will be announced early in 2017. The other, my fifth rock doc of course. And if you haven’t figured out the subject after reading this post, go back and read again, read it over and over again. Eventually you’ll figure it out.  Here’s a hint.

So, stay tuned; follow along on twitter and facebook.

Stay safe, healthy, sane, and happy. And a little obsessed.  We need obsession of the good kind right now.  (Drink a lot of water.)

R.I.P. Bowie & Prince

REAL by Lydia Loveless

I’ve been listening to the ten songs on REAL since June of 2015 when I had the amazing opportunity to film Lydia and her band of musical geniuses for my documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless? To say I’ve heard these songs incessantly over the past 14 months, especially during the six month editing process, is an understatement. So, when the film was done, once the accompanying music videos finished, one would expect me to never want to hear this record again. I mean, there are very few albums in existence that could bear that sort of repeated listens. And yet, now that the editing is complete, what album have I been reaching for over and over again? REAL, from Lydia Loveless.

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Few things are timeless, fewer albums certainly. But every once in a while, a collection comes along that touches you in ways you can’t quite comprehend. That brings emotions to the surface that you felt were long ago repressed. That makes you remember love, heartache, lust, longing. What it’s like to cry into your beer for the one who got away. What it’s like to question your own sanity when they’re lying in bed beside you. Mistakes of the heart, we’ve all been there. Those are the songs of REAL.

“If self-control is what you want, I’ll have to break all of my fingers off,” she sings in MORE THAN EVER, a song which finds a mistress pounding harder on the door. “Well you don’t have to tell me everything I want to hear/It only makes it harder for me everytime my dear/To say bye,” she sings in the stark and heartbreaking CLUMPS. “You take a walk/I’d rather be lonely than ashamed,” from the decidedly dark BILBAO where a chorus of “marry me” turns into “bury me.” Or “I don’t know what the truth is but you give me every reason to fall out of every lasting arms” in OUT ON LOVE, arguable the most breath-taking song on the album. Lyrically, there’s not a better songwriter on the planet today. The emotions aren’t bubblegum nonsense, you can pick the scabs off the still-healing wounds of a heart stabbed too many times.

But what might be most amazing about REAL is the sonic variety given the tracks. Props to producer Joe Viers and the band. There are no two songs that sound alike. This is not your average pop record where you think you keep hearing the same slow and fast songs over and over again. Put HEAVEN side-by-side with BILBAO, or put that side-by-side with SAME TO YOU. You’ll know it’s the same heart stopping voice, but think the songs are from different era, different decades. Most musicians today are afraid to offer variety. But Lydia once again proves she’s afraid of nothing, at least not in the studio. She takes risks, and they all soar.

Lydia Loveless, Todd May, Ben Lamb, Jay Gasper, and George Hondroulis are the rarest of beasts, a rock band true to the core. One without compromise. I love this band. And I love this record.

David Bowie

The word “genius” is grossly overused, especially in the arts world. Many many people are very very good at what they do, but does that make them a genius? No. In music especially, people toss around phrases like genius producer, genius songwriter. It’s mostly bullshit. Have they changed the world? Reinvented the wheel? No. They’re just very good at what they do. And honestly that’s enough.

But today we lost someone who did change the musical world. Who did reinvent the wheel, then reinvent it again, then again, then again, and again. Today we lost David Bowie. And David Bowie was a genius.

I was twelve years old. I didn’t understand the concept of the corner record store yet, but my very cool aunt and uncle would take me to the local Caldor Department Store in Waterbury, Connecticut where they actually had a massive record section. The manager of that department was named Dave. I had heard this song on the radio about an astronaut, Major Tom. Dave knew the song I was talking about. He sold me Hunky Dory. And when I went back in a few weeks later looking for more, he sold me that same artist’s new record, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

I fell in love with David Bowie at that point in my life. I probably didn’t know what most of the songs even meant, but still, they spoke to me on some level. A level that would morph as I grew older. And as a surprise, that very cool aunt and uncle, who were always taking me to concerts, took me to see what would be the final performance of Ziggy Stardust at Carnegie Hall later that year.

I would wait in line overnight in front of the New Haven Coliseum at the age of 14 to get tickets for the Diamond Dogs tour. (Anyone who lived in New Haven in the 70s knows my life was at risk.) I would see him from the front row in Radio City Music Hall on the Young Americans tour. And again in New Haven for the Return of the Thin White Duke. There was no opening band on that tour, but instead he played the Luis Bunel/Salvador Dali film Un Chein Andalou before taking the stage amidst walls of white light. I have never seen anything quite like that film or that tour since.

As a teen I endured countless hours of what we now refer to as bullying from the Lynyrd Skynyrd-loving fucktard jocks in high school because in 1974 I had spikey hair when they had mullets. But I never really gave a fuck. David Bowie was calling. And instead of playing the same song over and over, he always had something new and interesting to say.

My love for Bowie never stopped. I saw every tour. And though there were certainly later day records, post Let’s Dance, that didn’t speak to me on the same level as Ziggy or Aladin Sane or Station to Station or Heroes, I never stopped playing those older records. Because Ziggy Stardust, like any genius work of art means something different to me today, just as it meant something different when I was in my 40s, something different in my 30s, and so on. It changed with me.

And if there were an artist who influenced me more than any others in how I do what I do, that artist was Bowie. Constantly changing. Never repeating. Never allowing himself or his fans to feel comfortable. I’ve often said I don’t ever want to make the same movie twice. That was the Bowie influence. I love reinvention. That was Bowie. I love rock & roll that breaks my heart. Goddamn, that was Bowie.

Of course he made the changes seem easy. (Hell, he had a song about it.) Even up to his final musical breath with his latest record Black Star. So haunting now that he’s passed.

I loved this man. Everything he stood for. He was a God to me. As much a teacher as anyone I’ve ever met personally. I am saddened by the fact that I will never again get to see him perform live. And I am thankful he left us with one final beautiful gift of a record.

I didn’t cry when Elvis died. Nor Lennon, or Cobain. But I cried today. Today a genius died.  Today David Bowie died.