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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.
And NHdocs, the documentary film fest I run with Charlie Musser, grew from three days to eleven. (Just wait until this year!)
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.
Unlike previous years where there have been standout albums that ran away with my head, my heart, my soul (SOMEWHERE ELSE from Lydia Loveless or FORTRESS ROUND YOUR HEART by Ida Maria for instance), this years top three records could have all easily taken the top spot. Ask me on any given day and I’ll pick one over the other. They were all stellar for their own particular reasons, but I put them in this order for only one.
Rock and roll is supposed to be risky. And to me my top choice is a record in which the musician put it all on the line. Had he failed, his fans would have started to doubt his choices, wondering a massive the “fuck the fuck,” and those who weren’t fans would never again give him a chance because he would have become a musical clown. This album divided many fans, enraging some. I know people whose musical taste I trust who were clearly pained to even give it a shot. I was one of those people at first. But upon hearing the record, I became a believer.
So, my list of the best of everything for 2014 begins with my top ten albums in order:
1989 – Ryan Adams – I’ll admit right off the bat that I like the early Taylor Swift records, but I felt this newest effort was over-produced to the point of being unlistenable. I just couldn’t make it through the walls of processed instruments to get to the songs. But Ryan Adams could. He heard something in those tunes, and for whatever reason decided to deconstruct them, turn them inside out, on their ear, and makes them his own. The resulting album is stark and heartbreaking, his best and most consistent record since COLD ROSES a decade ago. How he manages to turn a song like SHAKE IT UP into something that would have fit perfectly on Springsteen’s NEBRASKA is nothing short of genius. When he sings “I’m just gonna shake” over and over again, the image is not of a model-esque blonde dancing awkwardly, but instead of a middle-aged man afraid to move on with his life. And the rest of the tracks just fall into place. Had there been no writing credits, and no fame for Taylor’s record, had people thought he penned these songs the acclaim would have been unanimous. I truly believe that because ultimately it’s a beautiful, brilliant record. And certainly the gutsiest move by any rock star this year.
PAINTED SHUT – Hop Along – So I’m seeing this band live for the first time. Frances Quinlan and company take the stage and start up. But the moment she opens her mouth to sing we are suddenly transported into a horror film and she is the spawn of Satan. Or at least that’s how she sounds, though she certainly doesn’t look the part. And the music isn’t death metal but instead these well-crafted pop rock songs that just stick with you. Despite loving the record, seeing her sing live is an altogether different experience, and it takes me a couple of songs to get used to what I’m hearing versus what I’m seeing. And I mean this all as the highest of compliments. I fucking love Quinlan’s voice, and what she does with it. It’s unlike no other in rock. It’s as if every note she sang tore off a part of her vocal chords and she drowned her pain in cheap whiskey and cigarettes. She sings in sweeps and rages, melodies laced with enough dirty guitar and punk energy to keep you coming back for more. And there was no song THIS YEAR grabbed me by the throat like HAPPY TO SEE ME. The refrain of “We all will remember things the same” on endless repeat will either infuriate you, or thrill you as it did me. As the entire record did.
KICKING EVERY DAY – All Dogs – Just as in Minneapolis in the 80s, and Chapel Hill in the 90s, there’s something bubbling in the water right now in Columbus, Ohio. All Dogs is the third Columbus band I’ve fallen head-over-heels for in the past two years. Maryn Jones and company play grungy/jangly pop rock,
SPRAINED ANKLE – Julien Baker – This is the heartbreaker of the year. “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death,” she sings in the title track, and that might be one of the lighter moments. A haunting small voice singing of rage and fear in a whisper with fingerpicked guitar out of the early Crooked Fingers songbook. A small masterpiece that will leave you teary-eyed, wanting to give Julien a hug.
ALL YOURS – Widowspeak – Another haunting voice, more slightly off-kilter guitars, sounding like that indie band from the late 80s who never made it big, but only you knew about, and still to this day you put on their self-released cassette.
HIGH – Royal Headache – This is the album that SO many other bands tried to make this year, but fell short.
SOMETIMES I SIT AND THINK, AND SOMETIMES I JUST SIT – Courtney Barnett – Not as great as her last, but damn those lyrics and crunchy guitars. Rock star I’d most want to get drunk with (this year).
FEELS LIKE – Bully – I kept fight this album because it’s on a major label, but it finally won, and beat me down, and stuck in my head. If you were disappointed with other riot girl sounding records this year, check out Bully.
NEW YORK AFTER THE WAR – Jesse Malin – One of those straight-ahead rock and roll records that just kept sounding better with every listen. Just raw enough for the punks, just bluesy enough for the old-timers. Malin’s best record since THE HEAT. It fucking rocks!
10 – SUPERSONIC HOME – Adventures – More blessed noisy power-punk. How can you not fall in love with these songs?
And a special #11: MILEY CYRUS & HER DEAD PETZ
The other big career risk, Miley recording a 90-minute album with the Flaming Lips on her own dime, and giving it away for free. Has it been 45 minutes it would have tied with my top three. Some truly brilliant moments. Push aside your prejudices, and just fucking listen. It’s free!
Also worth a listen:
DRY FOOD – Palehound
COCKSURE – Laura Stevenson
DANGER IN THE CLUB – Palma Violets
IVY TRIPP – Waxahatchee
PREDATORY HEADLIGHTS – Tenement
and of course
STAR WARS – Wilco
MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF THE YEAR: (tie)
TOO – Fidlar – as many bands have proven, songs about drinking and fucking too much can work beautifully ON YOUR FIRST RECORD. Then it gets old, quickly. More of the same old shit. Loved it the first time around. The second time around it was just that: shit.
NO CITIES TO LOVE – Sleater-Kinney – I freakin’ LOVED this band in their hey day, but the new collection left me flat and only wanting to put on DIG ME OUT. Not one song connected, and I tried with multiple listens. I really wanted to love this record. I didn’t even like it.
BEST SONG OF THE YEAR:
HAPPY TO SEE ME – Hop Along – No other song resonated with me more. The acoustic song on one of the year’s best rock albums. A song that despite being stark reminds me of Hüsker Dü’s NEW DAY RISING in its closing moments. The same line over and over again, yet different every time, making you gasp each time at the brutal sarcasm behind the words: “we all will remember things the same.”
Other Great Songs:
THE GARDEN – All Dogs
SPRAINED ANKLE – Julien Baker
EX’S AND OH’S – Elle King
BEST COVER SONG (not counting everything on Ryan Adams’ 1989):
SHAKE IT OFF – The Screaming Females – yes, Taylor was the songwriter to cover this year, and here the Screaming Females not only give us a twist on the somewhat annoying hit song, they wring it out like a towel soaked in cheap beer and snap it back at your face. Almost everyone I’ve played this for has asked me to take it off, which means they must be doing something right. I love every irritating second!
BEST BOX SET/REISSUE/RECORD THAT DOESN’T FALL INTO ONE OF THE CATEGORIES ABOVE:
TRACE – Son Volt – A gorgeous reissue of a brilliant record. One that only sounds better over time. The included demos are eye opening, and the 1996 show from the Bottom Line in New York is awe-inspiring.
CURSE OF THE LOAF – Archers of Loaf – OK, I’m biased, but this two LP live show from 2011 captures the band at their best. Sound is amazing, as is the song selection. THIS is rock and roll!
BEST LIVE SHOW:
Any Lydia Loveless show. Look at it this way, if you love balls-to-the-wall rock and roll, if you love songwriting that rips your heart and mind in half then mends them back together with a surgical stapler, if you love a vocalist who can hold that one perfect note bringing a tear to your eye one moment then blow your ear drums out the next, if you love a band that every night plays as if they’re on the Titanic, it’s going down, and we’re all going to fucking die anyway, there’s Lydia Loveless, and no one else. The greatest bands I’ve ever seen live: Rod Stewart & the Faces in 1973, the Clash in 1978, the Mats 1985, Nirvana in 1993, Archers of Loaf in 1994, Wilco in 1996, to that group belongs Loveless and company. They aren’t just good. They’re life changing. (And yes, I’ll be completely biased and say the best of their shows this year was at Skully’s in Columbus and captured by my eight Who Is Lydia Loveless? cameras. They played every song desperate and beautiful, walking that rocky edge, until the end when they dove head first over the cliff and delivered ten minutes of the most chaotic rock and roll ever created on this sad planet. I love this band. I love this band. I fucking love this band. They own a piece of my heart.)
Here is Lydia with bandmate Todd May performing one of Todd’s songs:
BEST HOLLYWOOD NARRATIVE FILM:
THE BIG SHORT – directed by Adam McKay – I would rank this film as the best Hollywood film of the decade. A work of genius, with a truly amazing cast, brilliant directing, punk rock editing, and a script that made me jealous. The constant breaking of the 4th wall was the best I’ve seen since ANNIE HALL. They had me with Margot Robbie in the bubble bath explaining things to us. This movie just worked on every level. It’s so smart, with such an indie feel, that I truly can’t believe Hollywood had anything to do with it. See it and let your jaw drop.
BEST INDEPENDENT NARRATIVE FILM:
THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL – directed by Marielle Heller – Hardly a perfect film, its certainly flawed, but the performance by Bel Powley in the lead role is as good as any acting we’ve seen in this or any other year. It might be so good it blinds you to anything else that’s great in the film. It’s a career-making performance, bold, quirky, funny, sexy. Watch the film because it’s a very good film, walk away feeling as if you’ve witnessed a star being born.
My other favorite films of the 2015 were horror films. But three bloody visions stood out to me: the 80s horror comedy THE FINAL GIRLS from director Todd Strauss-Schulson, the creepy sexual thriller IT FOLLOWS from director David Robert Mitchell, and the absolutely hysterical and completely fucked up slasher comedy THE EDITOR from director Adam Brooks. All are more than worthy of your time.
Also STRAIGHT OUT OF COMPTON gets a serious honorable mention.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FILM:
I honestly can’t say any one documentary stood out above all the rest for me this year like FINDING VIVIEN MAIER did in 2014, but there were many very good films worth watching: THE AGE OF LOVE, a completely charming look at elderly speed dating from director Steven Loring; SIBLINGS ARE FOREVER, a stunning chronicle of the lives of elderly brother and sister farmers in Norway from Frode Fimland; BEST OF ENEMIES, an invigorating look at back to 1968 and ten debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley from directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon; and THE HUNTING GROUND, a devastating look at the overwhelming amount of rape on college campuses around American and how little is being done about it from director Kirby Dick.
As for best rock doc, while there were many I felt that were vastly overrated (the snooze-inducing COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK leads that list.) there was only one that blew me away, Scott Crawford’s mile-a-minute look at DC punk, SALAD DAYS.
HOMELAND – Claire Danes and company somehow managed to almost equal their brilliant fourth season with episodes that left me needing a stiff drink. This is the best writing on television. And it’s timelier than the evening news. And I don’t know about you but waiting nine months to find out what Carrie does to Quinn is excruciating.
SURVIVOR – SECOND CHANCE – This show is my guilty pleasure. If you told me I could only watch one show on TV, I wouldn’t even hesitate to name SURVIVOR. Even came close to getting on back when the seasons were still in single digits with my brilliant audition tape titled: “I survived make a movie with Billy Zane, I can survive anything.” But all that aside, this season where they brought back the losers was nothing short of captivating right up until the final episode, when it honestly all sort of fell apart, and one of the characters worth rooting turned in a bully at the snap of a finger. But before that it was TV at its twisty, backstabbing, funny, moving best. (And Wentworth should have won. Just saying.)
JESSICA JONES – I’m so not into the super hero/super powers thing, but this show was so much more than that. Dark, so gritty most episodes left you needing a shower, and a killer performance from Krysten Ritter as the hard drinking, hard fucking, cynical, obscene, and wonderfully damaged title character. (Can we say, “New TV crush.”) The Netflix series was more noir than anything episodic we’ve seen in a long while. And I love film noir.
But I must also add, if like me you’d never read Raymond Carver, please do yourself a favor and pick up the collections WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE and WILL YOU PLEASE BE QUIET, PLEASE? These contain some of the finest writing I’ve ever read, anywhere. If nothing else please read the story titled FAT in the latter. Masterful. If Carver were a punk band, he’d be The Replacements.
As for the rest of my 2015: I worked a lot. Traveled more than at any time in my life. Shot two features, and parts of two more. Found a couple of great new crew people. (Welcome aboard Colleen and Cassia.) Went on one of the most amazing drives of my life on Route 90 between Mobile and New Orleans. I discovered peach melba (thank you Dee and William). Lydia Loveless introduced me to the best pizza I’ve ever had outside of New Haven’s holy trinity at Harvest Bar & Kitchen in Columbus. NHdocs, the documentary film fest I run with Charlie Musser, tripled in size. And Kris realized I wasn’t crazy when I told her she would fall in love with Missoula, Montana.
And next year holds a lot of promise. My 4th rock doc, WHO IS LYDIA LOVELESS, will premiere early in the year.
A DOG NAMED GUCCI will be released on all platforms (including a loaded DVD) in April. (As will a very special song recorded for the closing credits.)
My pizza doc, PIZZA, A LOVE STORY, will premiere in June.
We’ll be announcing our next animal rights film sooner than later. I’m working on my first new book in a long while and a short story of mine will appear in a collection that should have Mats fans grinning ear-to-ear. Our dog Springsteen will no longer be an “only dog” early in the year as we add another furry member to our family. Kris and I will get at least some quality traveling in. And I’m pretty sure in terms of music something very REAL is going to top next year’s list.
It was a very good year. A great year even. Hell, The Replacements played their first shows in 22 years. And from a rock & roll point of view, that should make it the best year in, well, 22 years. That they took to the stage with the energy of an atomic bomb on pharmaceutical speed playing so many songs from that brilliant first album is perhaps just a bonus, though I prefer to think of it as fate. That the rock gods were looking down and thought we needed a reminder of the chaos, the sputtering genius, the sheer power that rock could provide. And they all looked at one another, and shrugged, the answer obvious, time for the Mats to play a few shows.
It was a year in which their first album, SORRY MA, FORGOT TO TAKE OUT THE TRASH, suddenly became this old fan’s favorite Replacements record. Can’t explain it really. Perhaps the seeds were planted when I started work on COLOR ME OBSESSED, A FILM ABOUT THE REPLACEMENTS, but those seeds sprouted and bloomed this year. I love that record. Played it more than any other this year. Realized there wasn’t a bad track on it. That is contained some of the most brilliant licks, sarcastic jabs, and all-out fuck-you rock & roll EVER recorded. And ok, it’s 32 years after the fact, but better late than never.
But it was also a year in which other old punks blinded us with their brilliance. Superchunk and Grant Hart put out two wildly different records in I HATE MUSIC and THE ARGUMENT, but both were vast in scope and timelessness, as if both artists had been holding back for all these years, and for some reason felt it were time to unleash the monsters they had munching on their souls. These are the sort of albums that make you cry the first time you hear them. They did me. They are faith renewing. Faith in the power of music to make your mind dance.
The young woman behind my favorite album from 2012 (and it still remains at the top of that list), Katie Crutchfield, returned with a very strong follow up in CERULEAN SALT. And though it seemed to widen her fan base, it didn’t resonate with me the way AMERICAN WEEKEND did last year. But to compare it to that masterpiece is selling the album short. It’s a great record. (NOTE: if any of you were turned off by the worst video of the year in COAST TO COAST, proof that still photographers rarely can make the jump to shooting images that move, Ms. Crutchfield more than made up for it in the video for MISERY OVER DISPUTE.)
David Bowie returned with a record that in parts took me back to being a 13-year-old and hearing ZIGGY STARDUST for the first time. Was it a perfect record, no. But a number of its songs were perfect, noisy in the way that only Tony Visconti could create in 1972. And coming from Bowie with Visconti behind the boards, that’s enough.
Aubery Debauchery also returned after too many years with a mature (in the best sense of that word) collection of songs that seemed almost harshly reflective on her past. She bared her soul and in turn broke my heart. I love this woman’s voice.
With all the great alt-country female artists making waves this year, none shined brighter than Amanda Shires. Her album was not a collection of a few “hits” and a lot of filler, but instead well-thought out record with one song being stronger than the next. And the same can be said of Lorde. Unlike the other pop queens, her album shined from the first note to the last. ROYALS is not even the best track.
It was one of those years. Great ALBUMS. Not just random collections of songs. Listen to ONCE I WAS AN EAGLE from Laura Marling or the rapturous return to form from Throwing Muses in PURGATORY / PARADISE (it was certainly a Milton inspired year) to the dangerous sexual anarchy of Sky Ferreira. (And ok, while Miley Cyrus’ latest certainly doesn’t fall into the best album category, WRECKING BALL was the single that stuck in my head more than any other, and never once did I mind. It’s a brilliant ballad. Beautifully performed, and nicely under-produced for a “hit.”)
New rock was also alive in Potty Mouth and Speedy Ortiz. Electric folk was injected with new life in Jake Bugg. And some of the greatest musicians of recent memory came together to help a fallen guitar legend in SONG FOR SLIM.
And, oh yeah, The Replacements put out a 5-song EP for that same reason. And they covered EVERYTHING’S COMING UP ROSES from the old musical GYPSY. And really now, does it get any better than that?
My Best Albums of 2013 (in alphabetical order):
THE ARGUMENT – Grant Hart
CERULEAN SALT – Waxahatchee
DEATH OF A DREAM – Aubery Debauchery & The Broken Bones
DOWN FELL THE DOVES – Amanda Shires
HELL BENT – Potty Mouth
I HATE MUSIC – Superchunk
JAKE BUGG – Jake Bugg
LIVE AT THE CELLAR DOOR – Neil Young
MAJOR ARCANA – Speedy Ortiz
THE NEXT DAY – David Bowie
NIGHT TIME, MY TIME – Sky Ferreira
ONCE I WAS AN EAGLE – Laura Marling
PURE HEROINE – Lorde
PURGATORY / PARADISE – Throwing Muses
SONGS FOR SLIM – Various Artists
SONGS FOR SLIM – The Replacements
SINGLE OF THE YEAR:
WRECKING BALL – Miley Cyrus
MUSIC VIDEOS OF THE YEAR:
69 – Ida Maria
MASTER HUNTER – Laura Marling
BIGGEST JOKE OF THE YEAR
Critics who kiss Kanye West’s ass (learn there is a difference between a brilliant artist who takes chances, and a self-indulgent egomaniac who thinks he can fart into a can and it will sell a million copies because it carries his name).
NEBRASKA – a simple story with breathtaking performances told in resplendent black and white. A masterpiece.
FRANCES HA – a heart-breaking portrait of Greta Gerwig as a confused young woman. A beautiful, subtle performance. (And though it’s also in black and white, after watching the embarrassingly pretentious DVD extra about the film’s look, I might suggest that Sam Levy and company watch NEBRASKA so they can learn what black and white should really look like.)
BLACKFISH – a must-watch film about a different sort of animal abuse. And it’s having an impact. Kudos to every musician who’s cancelled shows at Sea World.
DVD OF THE YEAR:
STARLET – the poster child for what a great indie film should be. Drew Hemingway is a revelation. And the many extras are all worth watching.
Unfortunately it was the year of shark jumping. Lots and lot of shark jumping.
BOOK OF THE YEAR:
HYPERBOLE AND A HALF – Allie Brosh – if Kurt Vonnegut was a 20-something woman living in Bend, Oregon today this would have been his first book. And I can’t give it higher praise than that.
FILM-RELATED BOOK OF THE YEAR:
TELL ME SOMETHING: ADVICE FROM DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS – a collection of short clippets of advise from the world’s greatest documentarians. Think of it as Chicken Soup for the Filmmaker’s Soul. But work reading by any and every artist, if only for Errol Morris’ wise words of wisdom: “When you go to people for advice, expect the worst.”
As much as I would love to be able to give you my list of the ten best films from 2012, I can’t. Time did not allow me to see everything. And to be honest, I so now detest the act of going to see a movie at a cinema (unless it’s during a film festival, or at a true art house, neither of which exist in any way, shape, or form in New Haven, CT) that I won’t get to most of the best from 2012 until their dvds are released. (I did just watch an academy screener of ZERO DARK THIRTY. I thought it was very, very good. But would it make my top ten? Most likely not.)
So instead of a list, I thought I would make a pitch for one movie I’m pretty sure most people have never heard of. Sort of my Waxahatchee for the film world. And though there were a number of great documentaries released in 2012 (THE INVISIBLE WAR is mind-numbingly brilliant), the one film that brought me most joy was a 76 minute comedy from Norway: TURN ME ON, DAMMIT! from director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen.
TMOD is a coming of age story, but one like we’ve never seen before. It’s from a realistic female perspective. The film stars first-time actress Helene Bergsholm as fifteen-year-old Alma. She’s going through a phase we’ve seen a thousand teenaged boys suffer in film: she thinks about sex. All the time. She’s as horny as any male counterpoint we’ve ever seen. She fantasizes. She’s a regular caller on a sex hotline. And she’s even ready to act on her school crush. But when they sneak away together at a party, it turns out that he’s more interested in poking the side of her leg with his penis. And when she tells her friends about this strange occurrence, no one believes her. And thus she becomes known seemingly everywhere in her small town as “Dick Alma.”
Nothing I write here can prepare you for the charm of the performances, the innocent yet mischievous realism of the characters – all of the characters, the laugh-out-loud funny moments, or even the completely feel-good ending that will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear.
TMOD is full of beautifully awkward moments, sometimes crude, often times charming, that are probably more real than any parent would like to admit. Every scene, every line of dialog rings true, from Alma’s friendships with other girls in her class, to her usually disproving mother, to the claustrophobic small town feel, to the boy who likes her but can’t bring himself to admit it.
Director Jacobsen comes from the world of documentaries, and this is her first narrative feature. But her command of the genre (funny is hard) and her casting of Bergsholm are brilliant. Someone has already said this is the coming of age story Hollywood would never make, and that’s too bad. But for anyone who understands that girls can be just as horny as boys, give this remarkable film a chance. You’ll find the phrase “Dick Alma” forever a part of your film-loving lexicon.
I write this as I pack for Cleveland where my film “Color Me Obsessed, a film about The Replacements” is screening at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Which is all completely surreal. The band will never be inducted. None of the bands I truly love will ever be. Certainly none of the bands listed below. But my film about one of them is playing. And that all sort of makes sense for 2012.
This year started off for me as one of the worst years in music. As bad a year as I could remember. It seemed every piece I would read about a new band would contain a word I hate more than many women hate the word “panty.” That would be “synth.” Just typing the word I feel the bile rising in the back of my throat. So before I even get to my list, I wanted to offer some sound advice to any band who uses synthesizers. This will truly help your sound. I promise. Take your synthesizer outside. Lay it on the ground directly behind the rear driver’s side tire of your van/car. (Not passenger side, it must be the driver’s side.) Get behind the wheel, start it up, put the car into reverse, then give it just enough gas so that you travel backward approximately two feet. Pop the transmission back into forward. More gas. Again, two feet of driving should do it. Then repeat those actions a few times. Then hop out of your vehicle, pick up what’s left of your synthesizer, and toss it into the nearest garbage can. And just like that, you’ve grown a pair of balls. You’re that much closer to being a rock band.
And speaking of castrated bands, we’ve got another clear and easy winner for this year’s coveted “Vampire Weekend Lame Ass Award.” Just as eunuchs Foster The People ran away with the award last year, this year Fun(period) has no equal in the category. How lame and wimpy are they? Let me put it this way, the guys in Maroon 5 are “Damaged”-era Black Flag compared to these guys. (Think about it for a moment.) So congrats to the guys in Fun(period)! Wear the honor well. (For your reading pleasure, my Vampire Weekend film idea.)
Back to real music. I started off the year editing my Archers of Loaf concert documentary “What Did You Expect?” I went from there to preparing for our upcoming Grant Hart doc, “Every Everything.” So I was mostly listening to the Archers, Husker Du, and solo Grant. The guitar geek in me was in freakin’ heaven. It was all a loud and glorious noise. Music that grabbed you by the throat, and slammed you up against the wall. It was rough sex rock ‘n’ roll that would have the author of “The Shades of Grey” novels hiding in the closet. You listen to these bands and you’re beaten down with power, with a growl of almost biblical proportions. But one with melody, with hooks, with singers who were baring their souls.
There were a couple of new glimpses of brilliance, but they were singular and far between. But then on September 2nd, I open up the Sunday New York Times, as I have every Sunday since I was twelve years old. Went right to Section 2, “Arts & Leisure” – sometimes I never even bother with the rest – and I flipped through it, looking over the articles on film before hitting page 17. A large above-the-fold photo of two cute slightly-tattooed, somewhat-punky girls. An article by Jon Caramanica called “Twin Rock Dreams Prevail.” He wrote about twin sisters Allison and Katie Crutchfield, and how after two bands together – The Ackleys and P.S. Eliot – they were splitting up into new bands, with Katie forming Waxahatchee and Allison forming Swearin’.
I was looking for a sample of their music before I even finished reading the article. I found Waxahatchee first. And as I wondered how the word was pronounced, the video for “Grass Stain” came on, and suddenly my musical world didn’t seem nearly as empty. I bought that album first, then Swearin’ eponymously-titled debut, then the Ackley’s album, then both from P.S. Eliot, then the Ackley’s EP, then a sister side project called “Bad Banana,” then the P.S. Eliot demos, a couple of other Waxahatchee tracks, and then finally another Katie side-project Great Thunder. It was like finding a treasure chest of gold in your deceased relative’s house. It was a gift from the music God (perhaps she really liked “Color Me Obsessed”). One hundred thirteen songs in all.
Why had I never heard of these bands? How had the Ackleys and P.S. Eliot passed me by? There were no real answers. As Grant Hart would say, “shit happens.” And it didn’t matter ultimately. What mattered was they were in my collective conscious now and probably forever.
Personally I would advise you to buy every one of those songs for your collection. Most of the production sounds like what you’ve heard on The Replacements “Let It Be,” a little ragged with heavy emphasis on the guitar. Most of the songs are pure power punk noise pop. Sample P.S. Eliot’s “Untitled” or the Ackley’s “7 Days.” And Katie’s voice truly kills me. It breaks, it feels real, she can belt, and she can whisper. She’s telling you the story of her life, with just the right amount of attitude. She’s a fucking rock star.
And yes, aside from Waxahatchee and Swear’, we’re talking about seven years worth of songs here. But to me, that’s irrelevant, 2012 will always be the year of the Crutchfields.
(RANT TIME: I said BUY! Pay for them, dammit. I fucking hate people who steal music and films. You are literally stealing from people who give you joy. You’re no different from a thug on the street who steals an old lady’s pocketbook. Except that you probably don’t need to feed your starving kids. And you probably think it’s okay, that you’re not hurting anyone. Well, you’re wrong. You’re deluding yourself into thinking you’re actually a good person. You are NOT.)
And with that I give you my ten (eleven, really) favorite albums of the year, in order of preference:
1. “American Weekend” by Waxahatchee – I almost don’t know where to start on how perfect the eleven tracks on this record are. I guess with the production, which is what will hit you first. A guitar that stings at your senses, noisy, loose, Katie Crutchfield is playing in the corner of kitchen, trying almost not to be noticed as she writes a diary to lovers lost, one that perhaps should never be shared. When you listen to the brilliant “Bathtub” (which should have been the song every teenage girl was playing this past summer) she’s just as much to blame. “And I tell you not to love me/But I still kiss you when I want to,” she half-whispers, half-sings, in a voice lost down an endless hallway. This is as emotionally naked as rock music gets. And it never lets up. Even the songs which appear poppier on the surface are just as self-effacing. It’s an album’s worth of “Unsatisfied” from a female point of view. And that’s about the highest compliment I can pay any record.
2. “Remember When” by The Orwells – Goddamn if “Mallrats (La La La)” isn’t the most snotty fun you can have listening to music this year. A song about just walking around the mall, watching some gal shop for bras. (Or at least I think that’s what it’s about.) The words are almost incomprehensible, but it doesn’t matter. It’s got punk attitude up the freakin’ wazoo, and the catchiest hook of the year. (How did this not outsell “Call Me Maybe”?) The entire album is good dirty fun from a bunch of 17-year-old out of Chicago. I’m really curious to see them live, as I’m hoping they tear apart the stage. (Guys, please do not just stand there and play.) This is a great rock ‘n’ roll record.
3. “Swearin’” by Swearin’ – Allison Crutchfield’s takes her turn in a raging collection of eleven songs that sound like a great lost riot grrrl record, noisy guitars (have I mentioned that I like noisy guitars?), a driving rhythm section, and Allison’s slightly gruff vocals. “Movie Star” is the masterpiece here, where the pop almost threatens to overtake the growl with a bridge that will catch you off guard as the album winds down, as you’ll find yourself floored and wanting more.
4. “The Lumineers” by The Lumineers – Monumental songwriting, that keeps you on your toes. Even I was surprised by this record. Love the sound, the instrumentation, the voices. And other than a couple of duds (“Slow It Down” is a god-awful song), it’s pretty damn spectacular. And really now, “Ho Hey” was one of the only listenable “hits” this year.
5. “Celebration Rock” by Japanandroids – I’m not a fan of most two people bands. Every song by Black Keys sounds like every other song by the Black Keys. Same for the White Stripes. Buy one album you’ve bought them all. The Pack A.D. for me were one band who broke that mold. Japanandroids is another. This is a mostly flawless collection of bluesy anthem rock that’s as compact and personal as it is loud and stadium-ready.
6. “Open Your Heart” by The Men – good, noisy, balls-to-the-wall punk-based rock ‘n’ roll. What the fuck more do you want?
7. “Tramp” by Sharon Van Etten – A beautiful collection of heartbreak from a voice that will steal what’s let of your heart.
8. “Royal Headache” by Royal Headache – see #6
9. “Boys & Girls” by Alabama Shakes – yes, it was over-rated and over-played. But still it had the coolest vibe of the year. And you’ll still be wanting to listen to at least half these songs ten years from now.
10. (tie) “In The Dusk of Everything” Matthew Ryan and “Tomorrowland” by Ryan Bingham – In reviewing the Matt Ryan album I am not taking into account the amazing title track from my forthcoming “Broken Side Of Time” which is a bonus track on the album. Obviously the song kills me, otherwise it wouldn’t be in my film. It’s the rest. Matt alone with his guitar. The production stripped away. What’s left is brilliant songwriting and that voice. That voice unlike any other. A beautiful collection, his best in years. And I include the Ryan Bingham here because in many ways Bingham is the alt-country Matt Ryan. Songs about life and love and despair. And again, another one of those voices. Beautiful.
There you have it. No list of best movies this year. I was working so much, I barely scratched the surface of what was released. But instead you’ve got some music to buy. Start with the first two on the list, they’re a nice contrast to one another, then work your way down. Then dig into that Crutchfield catalog. If you weren’t aware, then I just left a gold nugget in your Xmas stocking.
Happy Holidays! Be healthy, happy and well. And if you don’t already have one or two, adopt a dog from a shelter. It’ll make your life better. It’ll make you a much better person. And you’ll understand what unconditional love is for the first time in your life. (It’s a good thing.)