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The Best of 2015

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:

BEST ALBUMS:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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,

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. HIGH – Royal Headache – This is the album that SO many other bands tried to make this year, but fell short.

  1. 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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

BEST TV:

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.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR:

This was very much a year of short stories for me. The three best new collections I read were: the massive COMPLETE STORIES by Clarice Lispector, A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN by Lucia Berlin and BARBARA THE SLUT AND OTHER PEOPLE by Lauren Holmes.

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.

Stay tuned; follow along on twitter and facebook.

Stay safe, healthy, sane, and happy. (Do yoga.)

 

 

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The Best of 2014

Just as I will always remember that day in 1977 when I walked past Free Being Records on 2nd Avenue and saw that first Elvis Costello single hanging in the store’s window. Or in 1983, the Professor at Phoenix Records handing me the “I Will Dare” 12 inch and saying “I think you might like these guys.” Or being at a CMJ show at Tramps in 1993 when a band with the worst name in the world took the stage and became the band that saved my life. I will always remember the May 7th thread on my Facebook page where I was complaining about how another new music Tuesday came and went without anything worth listening to, and my friend Aggie Donkar wrote: “My favorite under the radar 2014 record is the new Lydia Loveless.”

I trusted Aggie’s taste, and bought the digital version of SOMEWHERE ELSE on Amazon. The opening track, REALLY WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN, started up with guitars that sounded like they belonged on PLEASE TO MEET ME, and then I heard her voice. And once again, just like that, just like in those examples stated above, my life was forever changed.

To say that Lydia Loveless took over my musical life in 2014 is a ridiculous understatement. Ask anyone who’s spent ten minutes with me. I even had friends who suggested an LL drinking game, doing a shot every time I mentioned her name or one of her songs, but then they realized they’d be drunk by 11 AM. Even when albums from old time favorites were released, I’d listen once, maybe twice, and turn right back to Lydia. And by mid-summer I was seriously thinking that this year’s top 10 album list would have spots two through ten left blank.

I eventually came to my senses. Sort of. Because there were other very good albums released this year. Some great albums. Those records are listed below.

But it was also the year of massive disappointment. Some of my favorite musicians of all time put out albums that I truly disliked (talking about you Lucinda, Ryan, Taylor, Ty, Lykke, Bob, EMA, Bruce). And bands that I had the highest hopes for released redundant piles of crap as their second album.

Of course did any of that matter when I got to see The Replacements live three times, including the home-coming show at Midway, which on a scale of one to ten, well, to paraphrase the brilliant Nigel Tufnel, “went to 11.”

So, without further blabbering, my list of the best of everything for 2014…

BEST ALBUMS:

Somewhere Else

1. SOMEWHERE ELSE – Lydia Loveless – I can think of few albums that are as perfectly in touch with everything I look for in music: great songwriting, ferocious guitar licks, a sense of humor, a sense of rock history, that record-it-live feeling, and a voice. Goddamn does she have a voice. Whether she’s belting out “Well there were times when I was not there for you at all” in the opening track, and you know she’s not being hard enough on herself, or evoking tears with those subtle hints of a vibrato in EVERYTHING’S GONE, a song about saving her family’s farm, Loveless’ voice is at the forefront here. I’ve described her to friends as the daughter Paul Westerberg and Lucinda Williams never knew they had, and even then I think I’m selling her short. This is a perfect record from the most important new artist of the last decade.

2. BURN YOUR FIRE FOR NO WITNESS – Angel Olsen – Noise and heartbreak collide in a collection of songs so stark you’ll feel uncomfortable, as if you’re peeking through someone’s bedroom window, and they know you’re there, but they keep on doing whatever it is despite you, or perhaps to spite you.

3. BOXERS – Matthew Ryan – It’s been a while since Matt Ryan has rocked. And this record comes across as if the pent up energy finally exploded and he couldn’t hold it back any longer. This is buckets of Springsteen, The Replacements, and The Clash flung against the wall, their colors streaming together to create something fresh and new and vibrant. This is the record so many other rockers tried to make this year, failing miserably.

4. HERE AND NOWHERE ELSE – Cloud Nothings – For the longest time I was not going to put this record on this list because of how much I detested their live performance. But then I realized that wasn’t fair to the record, which was a damn great indie rock record with shades of Archers and the Mats running throughout. Buy the album, skip the show (unless you’re into a bunch of kids standing around looking at themselves as if they’re in their garage practicing).

5. BENJAMIN BOOKER – Benjamin Booker – This is such a nasty rock and roll record you’ll need a shower afterwards. Dirty is the word that comes to mind when I think of both his exquisite guitar playing and vocal delivery. Just so fucking good.

6. LET’S NOT BE FRIENDS – The Girls! – Everything about this record makes me smile. This is pure punk pop bliss. Great songs, great riffs, and a sexy sense of humor. And “Sophomore” is one of the best odes to sexual frustration I’ve heard in a long while.

7. METAMODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY MUSIC – Sturgill Simpson – This is Hank Williams country. This is Johnny Cash. Basically, there’s dark, and then there’s Simpson. “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego.” Fuck, man! Not always easy to listen to, but a great record.

8. SUKIERAE – Tweedy – This record feels like a long walk through your childhood neighborhood with an old friend. You talk, you laugh, you cry a little, all the while polishing off that sixer of Bud, ‘cause it’s the only thing your granddad had in the fridge.

9. HEIGH HO – Blake Mills – Really hard to describe, so let’s say noise alt-country pop. And if that doesn’t make you want to listen I don’t know why you’re reading my list in the first place. Every song is sort of a Pandora’s Box waiting to be opened.

OTHER GREAT ALBUMS:

THE BEST DAY – Thurston Moore

RIPS – Ex Hex

FAMOUS GRAVES – Cheap Girls

ENGLISH OCEANS – Drive-By Truckers

AND THE WAR CAME – Shakey Graves

PAINT ANOTHER LAYER ON MY HEART – Caleb Caudle

WORST ALBUM OF THE YEAR:

DISGRACELAND – The Orwells – After showing such amazing punk/pop/rock potential with their first album, The Orwells returned with an unlistenable collection of songs not even worthy of a B-side. It’s the laziest record of the year. As if they went into the studio with the mindset that David Letterman loves us and we can do no wrong. Well, you did wrong, boys. This record sucks.

BEST SONG OF THE YEAR:

MILE HIGH – Lydia Loveless – I don’t know any other way to say it: THIS IS A PERFECT SONG. It’s full of confusion and longing and wit. It’s feminine/masculine, it’s breathless. And it fucking rocks. It’s on endless repeat.

OTHER GREAT SONGS:

UNFUCKTHEWORLD – Angel Olsen – an ode to when everything perfect breaks. Her whisper gives me chills.

GOD’S NOT HERE TONIGHT – Matthew Ryan – This is the perfect anthem for this broken, fucked-up year. A BASTARDS OF YOUNG minus the hope.

MESMERIZE – The Girls! – Just a freakin’ great song. Nothing more need be said.

IT AIN’T ALL FLOWERS – Sturgill Simpson – You wake up in a strange room next to someone you’ve never seen before, stumble towards the bathroom, catch your reflection is a cracked mirror, what’s all that blood!   You drop to your knees, the room is spinning, and everything would be alright if you could just remember your fucking name. That’s this song.

BEST COVER SONG:

COME PICK ME UP – Superchunk – Mac and company take the classic Ryan Adams heartbreaker and rock it the fuck out. They make it theirs. And that’s saying a lot when the original is one of the great songs of all time.

BEST BOX SET/REISSUE/RECORD THAT DOESN’T FALL INTO ONE OF THE CATEGORIES ABOVE:

ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT: RARE TRACKS 1994-2014 – Wilco – A collection that makes you realize the scope and talent of this band. Beautifully packaged, with 77 tracks of outtakes and demos and live recordings. It’s like the Tweedy album, except this time your friend is telling you all these great secrets which make you grin from ear to ear.

BEST LIVE SHOW:

The Replacements – Midway Stadium , St. Paul, MN – What separated this show from the other 4 Mats concerts I’ve seen since the reunion was the emotion. It was a homecoming of rock and roll soldiers we all thought were long lost as war. They raised their guitars as high as the flag on Iwo Jima and showed us that their songs could never be defeated. And we were all a little teary eyed singing along with Paul to UNSATISFIED.

RUNNER UP:

Lydia Loveless – the Studio at Webster Hall – in any other year this show would have been number one. It was everything you could possibly want from a rock show: noisy one moment, a whisper the next, chaotic, frantic, full of surprises. Do not miss Lydia and company when they play your town in 2015. Because even compared to the reunited Mats, hers is the greatest rock band on the planet right now.

BEST NARRATIVE FILM:

IDA – directed by Paweł Pawlikowski – Quiet, haunting, and chillingly beautiful, this is a masterpiece of the sort Bergman might have made in the late 1950. A story of a young nun about to take her vows only to learn from her one living relative that she is Jewish. You will never forget this film.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FILM:

FINDING VIVIAN MAIER – directed by John Maloof & Charlie Siskel – a thrilling mystery that begins with a box of photo negatives bought at an auction and leads you through a life of a woman who was secretly one of the greatest photographers of our time. To everyone other than herself she was simply a nanny. Completely captivating.

BEST TV:

HOMELAND – Claire Danes and company came back from a horrible third season with a vengeance. This is edge of your seat, scream at the TV, need a stiff drink sort of drama. And while the ending was a slow burn, if was probably necessary after the wringer they put us through.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR:

DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE: THE WILD, OBSESSIVE HUNT FOR THE WORLD’S RAREST 78RPM RECORDS by Amanda Petrusich – More than just about old guys looking for 78s, it’s about obsession, about the history of American music, it’s about what drives us. I wish it were twice as long. Brilliant!

HOPE FOR FILM: FROM THE FRONT LINE OF THE INDEPENDENT CINEMA REVOLUTIONS by Ted Hope – a real-life in-the-trenches look at what it takes to make an independent feature. Trust me when I tell you, Hope knows what he’s talking about. Every filmmaker, every producer should read this book. You’ll learn more here than you will in any film class on the planet.

And that’s it. That’s enough. We’ve got a lot of great stuff coming up this year. A DOG NAMED GUCCI will be premiering shortly. And in January I’ll be announcing rock doc number four. Stay tuned. Come back for more. And please, never tell me to turn it down, ‘cause it ain’t loud enough.

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