The Best of 2018

Okay, this was a weird year for me.

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

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

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

Best Song of 2018

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

Runners Up for Best Song of 2018

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

BEST TV of 2018

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

 

BOOK OF THE YEAR:

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

As for the rest of my 2018:

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

 

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

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

 

As for my feature films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Unadorned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His appreciation was appreciated.

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

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

And here it is:  American Songwriter Magazine

Sometimes things just come together perfectly.

The Best of 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.

“Boxers” by Matthew Ryan

I’ve known Matthew Ryan for about a decade now. I was introduced to him via my wife, who knew I was looking for music for my film YOU ARE ALONE. She discovered him when watching TV one night, ONE TREE HILL to be specific, and a Ryan song came on. She knew me well enough to know how I’d react to that sandpaper and honey voice.

I bought every record, and yes, eventually used Matt’s songs in not only YOU ARE ALONE, but also in FRIENDS (WITH BENEFITS) and in my latest film BROKEN SIDE OF TIME (for which he wrote the theme song). But my discovery of his music came mid-career. The infectious rockers of earlier albums like MAYDAY had been replaced with haunting introspection. The songs were depressed and lonely, perfect for the films I was making. And albums like FROM A LATE NIGHT HIGH RISE felt like a glass of good Scotch going down. His music was a drinking buddy. It was a Matt Ryan song Sinatra was really talking about when he sang “It’s a quarter to three…”

MR Boxers cover FINAL copy

Then earlier this year Matt sent me an early mix of his new album BOXERS. The songs were like nothing I had heard from him before. Anthems, rollicking and rambunctious. Songs that would not leave your head for days. It was as if an invisible beast had sudden been awoken. And the man who could so easily break your heart with one piercing line, could now rock your very soul.

But I didn’t want to talk about the album then. Why, if no one could buy it. So I kept it on the back burner for many months. Hell, I even directed a music video for the title track.

And then I received the final mastered version of the album a few weeks back, and the record that had secretly been on my list of the best albums of 2014 was even better. The tracks has been re-sequenced, and somehow that made them all the more powerful. Like chapters in a book, telling a tale of greater scope and vision.

And what exactly is that story? It’s Matt Ryan saying “I’m still here. And I’m not giving up.” The title track “Boxers” makes that abundantly clear. A soaring rocker about having your back against ropes. “How do you say goodbye/To a dream that just won’t die,” he sings, adding later, “All our heroes had no choice/Some busted chords and a broken voice.” And those heroes make their presence felt in every corner of the album’s eleven track boxing ring. Matt’s well documented love of The Replacements and The Clash especially can be heard in songs like “Suffer No More,” which would have been one of the best songs on “All Shook Down” had Westerberg in fact penned it, or the brilliant “An Anthem for the Broken” which had to be written with the ghost of Joe Strummer watching over Matt’s shoulders. These are the sort of songs that a lesser musician would build an album around. But the problem here, if you can call it that, it that there’s too much greatest to go around.

“Then She Threw Me Like a Hand Grenade” with its chorus of “You might feel lonely but you’re not alone” is presented twice on the record. And though it harkens back to the Matt Ryan songs I first fell in love with, there’s hope in this world view. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Until you arrive at the demo version of the song which is included as one of two bonus tracks. There, Matt’s voice, bruised and vulnerable, drives us to despair. I actually don’t know which version of the song I like best. They are different animals. One runs free through open fields no longer being preyed upon. The other hides in darkness waiting to fight back. Both are beautiful.

But the masterpiece on “Boxers” is “God’s Not Here Tonight.” This to me is the song Matt Ryan was born to write. It’s the anthem for life in American in 2014, a commentary on those in power, those who feed us the news. On one hand its title is the headline the New York Times secretly screams every day, and on the other its refrain of “I don’t care what you wanted/I don’t care if you’re scared” is the mantra of seemingly every elected official. It’s a song that hooks itself into your psyche, his “Bastards of Young.” It’s a song that ranks as one of the best recorded by anyone this year.

With guitars blaring, this record sounds alive, as if Matt Ryan himself is the boxer up against the ropes. He’s not ready to give up on that dream. In fact he just landed an upper cut to the jaw to pretty much every other rock band around. “Boxers” is that sort of a knockout.

The Best Music of 2012

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.  Youre no different from a thug on the street who steals an old ladys pocketbook.  Except that you probably dont need to feed your starving kids.  And you probably think its okay, that youre not hurting anyone.  Well, youre wrong.   Youre deluding yourself into thinking youre 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.)

Time for “A Dog Named Gucci”…

See you in January.

The Best Music of 2011

This was a horrible year in music. As in 1992 and 1993 when every other band sounded exactly like Nirvana, this year brought upon us bands who felt that Vampire Weekend sound was the zenith for which to strive. And no band did VW better than Foster The People. I say it here, now, with utmost conviction, their SNL performance this fall was the most embarrassing musical event of the year. They make VW look like, well, almost a rock band by comparison. So freakin’ lame.

And of course they weren’t the only ones. Lame is the new creed for rock bands. Wimpy is the new balls.

But instead of focusing on the pathetic, let’s look at the few great albums released this year:

The best record of 2011, hands down, nothing came close, was “Past Lives, Martyred Saints” by EMA. It was raw, damaged, out of tune. The songs could rock you one minute, then haunt you for the rest of your life the next. Layers of vocals, upon almost Archers Of Loaf-like guitars. Lyrically you were left to wonder how she made it through recording the album alive. And if when she sings “I wished that every time you touched me left a mark” doesn’t send shivers down your spine, then check the old pulse. This album certainly left a mark on me. (In this iTunes generation, I’m going to list the one song for each record. This is where you should start. A song that will tell you all you need to know. With EMA, start with “Marked.”)

Speaking of Archers. The masterful reissue of their brilliant debut “Icky Mettle” was another highlight (and I know it doesn’t count as a new album, but I don’t care). Quite simply, it’s the best album of the 90s (with “Versus the Greatest of All Time,” the best rock EP of all time on the second disc). And “Web In Front” is probably the greatest song ever written. Yes, I love this band. And yes, if you don’t know them, you’re life is empty and meaningless. (There isn’t a bad track, and “Web” is too obvious, so start with “Bacteria,” which is so mind-numbingly brilliant, it might make your head explode, especially if you like shit like Foster the People.)

You’ve got to love the original Web video:

Then came Wilco’s “The Whole Love.” Their best since “Yankee,” an amazing collection of songs from one of the best songwriters of our time. Some of it was sprawling, much of it was poppy and beautiful, and then there was the fuzz bass, and that noise guitar at the end of “Art of Almost”— I get chills thinking about it! A great record! (Speaking of sprawling, start with “One Sunday Morning.”)

Crooked Fingers’ “Breaks In The Armor” was Eric Bachmann’s best songwriting since this band’s eponymously titled debut. He sounds energized, his word-play as sharp as ever, and the album’s sparse production makes every note ring true. (Pop on “Bad Blood,” and let it sink its teeth into you.)

The “Kitchen Tapes” version of Lucinda William’s “Blessed.” It sounds as if she’s singing for you…privately…in your freakin’ kitchen. The over-production of the actual album is gone, and we’re left with that voice and some off-kilter guitar playing. But really, Lucinda Williams singing to you in your kitchen!!! What the fuck more do you need? (Start with “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin’.” – it will break your heart.)

Sleeper Agent’s “Celabrasion” was my guilty pleasure for 2011. Sort of Blondie meets T- Rex, but then there ain’t nothing wrong with that. It’s about as poppy as I get. A lot of fun! (Start with “Get Burned.”)

Deer Tick’s “Divine Providence” is a great record in which they channel the spirit of The Replacements, right down to Bob Stinson’s “wrong note at the right time” way of soloing. It’s the perfect album for long drives on a summer night. Probably their best. And it makes me can’t wait for what’s coming next. (Start with “Funny Word.”)

Another great rock record from another great under-appreciated rock band is “Unpersons” from Vancouver’s The Pack A.D. Even if you’re sick of Black Keys/White Stripes schtick, give these gals a shot. To me they play with a genuine love for what they’re doing. No pretense. No ego. They’re having fun. (Start with “Haunt You.”)

Wild Flag’s eponymously titled debut like-wise rocked. And I truly loved about half of it. Probably would have made one of the best EPs we’ve heard in years. (Start with “Romance.”)

Ryan Adam’s “Ashes and Fire” – I’ll admit it took me a while to get into this album, it took me seeing him live at a church in Eugene, Oregon. But then the songs came alive. And it became the CD I’d play in my hotel room when I was along, on the road. It made me think of home. It made me miss my wife and dogs. It just worked…beautifully. (Start with “Dirty Rain.”)

Matthew Ryan’s “I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall” is another beautiful collection of song writing. Ryan’s voice always kills me. And it was nice to hear him end the album with one of his most rocking tracks in years. (Start with “Summer in the South.”)

And lastly Dark Mean’s eponymously titled album. Really dig this guy’s voice, and the banjo! Another fun record that just keeps growing on you with every spin. The hints of Ryan Bingham popping through in the sound don’t hurt. (Start with “Happy Banjo.”)

That’s it. Hopefully there’s something new here you can enjoy. And likewise, hopefully I’ll never have to fucking hear “Pumped Up Kicks” again for as long as I live.

I leave you with this gift from Mr. Bachmann…