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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

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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.

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The Best of 2013

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

BEST EP:

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).

BEST MOVIE:

NEBRASKA – a simple story with breathtaking performances told in resplendent black and white.  A masterpiece.

RUNNER UP:

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.)

BEST DOCUMENTARY:

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.

BEST TV:

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.”

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David Bowie’s “The Next Day”

OK…so I wake up this morning and wondered if I were dreaming. Would I need to chew my own arm off and escape silently because of a horrible mistake I had made in a rush of teenaged lust?  It was too goo to be real.  I was a teenager again.  Six feet tall, 120 pounds, with hair half-way down my back.  I could drink and fuck all night.

I was afraid to be awake.

So, I get in the car, half-asleep, hair in Albert Einstein mode, and head into town for my morning cup of Willoughbys. I bypass the news, and turn it on.  I turn it up.  And I get goose bumps.  I actually get turned on. It wasn’t a dream. David Bowie HAD released a brilliant new album, and it sounded even better today.

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The opening and title track “The Next Day” made me want to cry, I don’t think the stereo in my wife’s GTI could go any louder.  The dirty horns on made me feel as if I were in the front row of Radio City Music Hall once again and Bowie was about to launch into “Young Americans” or “Fame.”  “Valentine’s Day” sounds like the great missing track from the Ziggy Stardust sessions, the reel of 2-inch tape stolen from the vault and never reported missing. “Dancing Out In Space” must have been recorded in 1969, right? What the fuck?

Thank you, Mr. Bowie, for making me feel young again.  And for showing the hipsters and would-be rockers of the day what it means to rock and roll.  What it means to write a song.  What it means to be a God.

I just need to keep repeating it wasn’t a dream.

I just need to keep it repeating.

 

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