The Best of 2019

The last year of this decade was an easy one for me musically.  There were two albums that mattered, both by women, one seventeen, one twice that age.  To choose between the two as best album of the year has proven impossible, as least to me.  Just when I think one has won me over, the other starts haunting me with never-ending ear-worms.  Both were brilliant in completely different way, and no one else even came close.

So, the two best albums of 2019 are:

When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? By Billie Eilish

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and

Norman Fucking Rockwell by Lana Del Rey

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First the Eilish.  This is the best punk album of the past 5 years.  And if you don’t think of it as punk, you ain’t listening.  It breaks so many rules, its as if Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, who recorded this in her bedroom, don’t even know any rules exist.  The bass comes across like a weapon of mass destruction.  The songs themselves are deconstructed, perhaps frightened to pieces by the bass, or simply by the darkness of Eilish’s lyrics. She sings not just about what every teen fears, but about what we all fear, what we all feel.  She is the voice of every generation. And if you had played this for me a year ago I would have figured it to sell a couple thousand copies as they traveled the country in a small van playing shows to crowds of 50 to 100 strong. It feels too smart, too fucking brilliant.  It’s not McDonalds, as most mainstream music is.  It’s a meal at Vedge in Philadelphia, with a scoop of Jeni’s Ice Cream at the end.  And yet somehow it caught on.  One of those rare instances when the general public got it right.    

As for the Lana Del Rey: you’ve got 14 tracks that begin with the line “Godamn, man child. You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you'” and end with a song entitled “Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have (But I Have It),” and cover every emotion in between.  The dark corners of lust and longing, of losing, of just not giving a fuck, or perhaps being destroyed by caring just a little too much.  Stories worthy of Raymond Carver, she has written a masterpiece for the ages.  Nothing punk here, this is a classic record which sounds as if it were produced by John Lennon in 1975. Lana’s vocals have never sounded better, bordering on jazz stylist with hints of  Peggy Lee.  The production, by Jack Antonoff, who should limit his duties to behind the boards and skip trying to front bands, is what Lana has been looking for since the “Video Games” single eight years ago.  The build in “California” alone should have most of you awash in goosebumps.  Lush, but never over-done, the album lures you into her clutches, her heartbreak, her joy, and it’s not that it doesn’t let you go.  It’s your choice.  And you choose to stay.  

As for the best of the rest.  Some really great albums that in any other year might have topped this chart.  In order, they are:

Midnight by Stef Chura – this is probably the record people would have expected to top my list.  Pop noise at it’s finest.  Angst, feedback, anger, repeat.  And did I mention those guitars?  Can someone say Archers of Loaf?  And it ends with the best Billy Idol cover I’ve ever hear. 

Ode to Joy by Wilco – A slow burn of a record from admittedly one of my favorite bands.  And while I’ve only loved one album (“The Whole Love”) since Jay Bennett was removed from the lineup, this is the other album that come closest to capturing the noisy, experimental, darkness of the three ground-breaking records to which Bennett contributed.

Inner Monologue, Pt 1 – Julia Michaels – Ok it’s an EP.  But if most albums had songwriting this powerful, music would not be in such a sad shape.  Michaels is best known for the songs she writes for others (including “Sorry,” which was original recorded by Justin Beiber, but turned into something amazing by Lydia Loveless).  Here she let’s us into what feels like a drunken therapy session. Playful but fucked up as hell.  

Better Oblivion Community Center by  Better Oblivion Community Center, aka Connor Oberst & Phoebe Bridgers – I’m not sure there’s anything that Bridgers can do wrong at this point, and in this case she made Oberst relevant again, or at least enjoyable.  This is a great classic pop record, all melodies and hooks, sung by two voices that work despite the fact that they shouldn’t in your head.  A stunning surprise.

No Saint by  Lauren Jenkins – This is the sort of record I so wish Taylor Swift would go back to making.  Simple production, focus on brilliant songwriting, and a voice that’s just vulnerable enough to break your heart.

White Noise/White Lines – Kelsey Waldon – perhaps because she so reminded me of Lydia Loveless crossed with Dolly Parton.  And that’s pretty damn high praise.  Gutsy, dark, and listen to those guitars.

AF by Superchuck – while not a new album, it was a beautiful reimagining of one of the great records of all time, “Foolish.”  Stream it, or better yet, find the vinyl and just listen from start to finish.  Bravo Mac, Laura, and company.  Bravo.

Only nine in all you might note.  I tried.  I feel as if I listened to hundreds of records.  But when you push those aside and keep going back to two in particular, well, that pretty much tells you what you need to know.

Best Song/Best Music Video of 2019:

“Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish – This could not have been easier.  Her “duh” definied 2019, as did the crunch, the humor, the power, and that fucking bass.  If ever there was a song that got stuck in my head, and I wanted it to stay…as for the music video, it’s serendipitously chaotic and funny as all hell.  One of the few music videos in recent years I can watch more than a few times and still be entertained. 

Runners Up for Best Song of 2019:

“Fuck It I Love You” from Lana Del Rey

“Lullaby” by Kalie Schor

“Anxiety” from Julia Michaels

“Dylan Thomas” from Better Oblivion Community Center

“Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You” by Julia Jacklin

MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF 2019:

Western Stars by Bruce Springsteen – Never have I used the words boring and overproduced to describe a Springsteen record (Hell, I have a dog name Springsteen, I love his music), but this is a cluster fuck of mediocrity.  It’s as if he set out to make a bad James Taylor record…and succeeded. 

BEST NARRATIVE FEATURE:

Her Smell from director Alex Ross Perry – it’s taken 42 years, but this might finally be the perfect punk rock movie.  And Elizabeth Moss turns in the bravest performance I’ve seen since the combined cast of “Dogtooth.”  It plays like an like a two-hour existential guitar riff from the fingers of the Sex Pistol’s Steve Jones.  Watch, don’t turn away, and you will see what indie film is supposed to be. 

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice from directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman – a nearly pitch perfect rock doc that portrays the importance of Ronstadt in the history of rock and roll without ever side-stepping her humanity, her drive, her independence, and her voice.  

BEST TV: 

Fleabag – This is Seinfeld or I Love Lucy quality TV with no censorship.  As good as any season of any show in the history of the medium.  Brash, funny, and yet the genius that is Phoebe Waller-Bridge will still get you to cry,  And she got to fuck a hot priest.  What more can you ask for in television?  Nothing!

BOOK OF THE YEAR:

My favorite book that I read this year is a paperback release of a book from last year…but still I can’t stop thinking about Sigrid Nunez’s stunning The Friend.  If you happen to love dogs AND great literature, then this is probably your dream read. 

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And for those of you who love smart mysteries, or thrillers if you will, please check out the vast collection from author James Sallis.  I read Sarah Jane this year, and though it is his 18th novel, it was my first exposure to Sallis. These are slender volumes filled with damaged people who are doing their best to get through one shit-storm day after another.  I look forward to reading them all.

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As for the rest of my 2019:

The highlights of 2019 were honestly my two vacations with my wife Kris.  With the exception of missing our dogs, the aforementioned Springsteen and his kid sister Dylan, our week at the Wilco-currated Solid Sound festival at MassMOCA, and again seeing Wilco twice in one day (first at Grimy’s New & Pre-Loved Music, then at the Grand Ole Opry) in Nashville as an anniversary vacation in October were blessed breaths of relaxation, amazing music, and great food with the person I most love on this planet. 

Also doing the first reading of my original story “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” at the opening of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library, and having the story then published in the So It Goes literary journal, was an honor.  I have long credited Vonnegut with lighting the creative spark in me.  And rereading “Cat’s Cradle” this year I understand why.  It’s like putting on “London Calling” or “Exile on Main Street,” it never gets old.

I was also very proud of what we were able to accomplish with NHdocs: the New Haven Documentary Film Festival.  In it’s sixth year we screened over 110 films, and had Michael Moore as our special guest.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  But then again, stay tuned for NHdocs2020.

As for my feature films…

Pizza, A Love Story – finally complete after 11 years.  Playing film festivals (who would have thought a film about New Haven apizza would pack houses in Alabama, Arkansaw, Washington!!!), and currently working on distribution.  Everyone will be able to hold a DVD in their hand by summer.  Updates/screenings here.

Seniors, a Dogumentary – Our happy animal rights documentary opens on March 5th in Nashville and will also be on DVD later in the year. Updates/screenings here.

Where are you, Jay Bennett? – my 6th rock doc will also be complete this year.  Finishing it up now, and just beginning the film festival submission process.

FACTORY – we’re about halfway through film interviews for our look at the crazy life behind the New Haven Clock Company building.

Normal Valid Lives – this film is finally coming together with its new editor.  We’re looking for grants, and figuring out what the next interviews will be.

And we’re about to announce our next documentary subject soon.  Keep watching the social media pages…but here is a little hint:

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Thank you to all of the people who collaborate with me on my films, NHdocs, and other projects: Dean, Chloe, Katherine, Brianna, Haley, Colin, Mira, Sam, Max, Tony, Cassandra, Ed, Lindsay, Jay, Fred, Scott, Diane, and another Scott, and others I’m sure I haven’t named.  I could not do this without you.  Let me repeat that louder: I COULD NOT DO THIS WITHOUT YOU!

As for writing, my long-in-the-works literary deconstruction of The Replacements Let It Be album, from which the above-mentioned short story derives, will be published.  It’s a different sort of novel, a collection of short stories, all connected with the same lead character at different stages of her life, and yet like an album, you can read them in any order, on shuffle-play if you will.  Stay tuned…

As for music in 2020 we can expect new records from Archers of Loaf and Lydia Loveless, so I’d say next year’s list writes itself!

In the meantime, 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). 

 

 

Lily Allen’s cover of STRAIGHT TO HELL by the Clash – a review

OK…first off, the 5 stars are for Lily Allen’s cover of STRAIGHT TO HELL.  And so you know where I am coming from.  I am not a huge fan of Ms. Allen.  Don’t really know her music.  Not my cup of tea.  I am however a huge Clash fan.  Saw them live 15 times from their first US gig to their last tour.  I’d rank them as one of the two greatest bands of all time.  (The other is the Replacements.)  Their music to me is sacred.  It should be respected, never covered.  And STRAIGHT TO HELL is one of my three favorite Clash songs.  Having said all that…

 

Ms. Allen cover of STRAIGHT TO HELL on the WAR CHILD PRESENTS HEROES compilation cd is the best song we will hear this year.  She and Mick Jones have taken his and Strummer’s brilliant melody, riff and lyric and somehow (I don’t know how) taken it to a level where few musicians ever get to even see, let alone attain.

 

From the opening da-da-da-da’s which sound so much like Strummer (I wish I knew for certain if they were, or if it was Jones), through to Ms. Allen’s phrasing, which is Billie Holiday-perfect, as are the production and the instrumentation, the song had been reinvented, re-envisioned.

 

And when Ms. Allen hits the bridge and sings “so mamma-san says” and the da-da-da-da’s start up again, I find the goosebumps coming and the tears welling. 

 

This really is the song she was born to sing.  It will make everything else that follows this year seem unimportant and unoriginal. 

 

As for the rest, well honestly I’d give the cd 2 stars out of 5 at best.  What we have are really bad covers of great songs (The Hold Steady, whom I like, doing injustice to ATLANTIC CITY), just misses (The TV On The Radio cover of HEROES is close, as is Beck doing Dylan), a number of what-were-these-people-thinking (really, you never cover the Ramones or Blondie, not because they’re the greatest songs ever written, but because you sound stupid even trying), a few that make you want to hear the originals and how they’re really done (The Kinks and the Costello songs) and the rest is just who-cares?

 

But all that said, listen to the Lilly Allen/Mick Jones track.  And genuflect in the presence of genius.

Book outweighs Blog, Blog fills up Paper, Paper covers Rock…

Sorry…been working on the new novel, so blogging takes a back seat.

However, there is a half hour interview with me which you can watch by clicking HERE.

And you can pre-order your jam-packed-with-extras version of the PSYCHOS IN LOVE dvd by clicking HERE.  The trailer for PSYCHOS is on the film’s FACEBOOK FAN PAGE.

More soon…

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More top ten…and Springsteen (not the rock star)…

First off, after two weeks I can say that Springsteen is doing quite well adjusting to his new home. Likewise Phoebe has become a great big sister to the pup. I’ll post more pix soon. We’re also closing up all the work on the Connecticut State Film Commission Tax Credit we’re receiving for FRIENDS (WITH BENEFITS) and I will be posting a long blog explaining how everything went down, a good how-to for other indie filmmakers in the state.

But for now, yet another Top Ten CD list. This time from old friend Rob DeRosa. For the best of CT-based music you can hear Rob’s radio show on Thursdays on WESU FM, which is 88.1FM. It’s called HOMEGROWN. You can also listen to archived shows at: www.myspace.com/thinmanmusiclabel

Here now is his top ten:

The Hold Steady- Stay Positive. How could an ex Springstee fan not like these guys? Way too many words sometimes and chock full arrangements- that’s what drew me to early Bruce and it’s what enthralls me about The Hold Steady. I just hope there is no Nebraska in them to screw it all up.

The Mountain Movers- Why Don’t We open the Chest. This band is a pleasure. While I loved the horns on the first CD, the less is more approach here works even better. If Ric promises to bring extra strings, I’ll hire them for Daffodil Fest so I can hear this stuff live in my own backyard, so to speak.

The Manchurians 5×4, The Minster EP. I know, my label. But if this and my next picks were not worthy, we wouldn’t max out credit putting them out. This one rocks in a different way than the last one- probably due to Dean’s layering of sounds and his co-writing energizing Roger to write more songs than he ever did. Short- liethey like their live sets- but it kicks ass.

Frank Critelli- Watlzing Through Quicksand. Frank’s songs always had room for a full band and this disc shows why. His songs here are expansive and moving- and the tight band behind him propells him to rock star staus instead of simply the best folkie out there.

The Sawtelles- Dime Museum. Previously a either love ’em or leave ’em style- this CD shows incredible growth and cohesion of their rather unothadox style. Shany Lawson produced them the way it should have always been. Peter’s words are intiguing and Julie sings better than ever before.

MGMT- Oracular Spectacular suffice to say that this incredibly popular band was for all intense and purposes, my discovery. Well. not entirely- but the Wesleyan duo got their first off campus gig from me- as well as their first club date at Cafe 9 and their first airplay on my radio show. Then they went on to play every festival in the world this year( Cochella, Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, Leeds, Reading, SXSW, Austin City one, two in australia and a few in Japan.) and get on most big music magazines best of lists. They deserve it. It’s a psychedelic dance fest with pithy, ironic and cheeky lyrics. AND the drummer is nailing Kirstin Dunst. Every young rockers dream story.

The top ten continues…

I turn now to friend Vinnie Penn, who has supplied a top ten cd list all his own.  Hw swears he read neither mine nor Matt Bialer’s before putting together his list.  What’s most surprising his worst cd of the year.  And this is just a theory, and I’m accusing no one of anything, but…perhaps no one actually likes Vampire Weekend except for those who were paid off to like them.  It’s the only explanation that makes sense really.  The old payola machine still turning.  Nothing having changed much since the 1950s.  Like I said, just a theory of mine.  But it sure would explain things…

Anyway, here’s Vinnie’s list, and proof positive that he is a comic after all:

Vinnie Penn’s Top Ten CD’s of 2008: 

Counting Crows—-Sat. Nights/Sun. Mornings: A damn good reason I don’t mind not doing radio on a daily basis every day anymore; why weren’t at least 3 songs from this record in heavy rotation? Lyrically, Duritz is in top form.
 
Gaslight Anthem 59 Sound—Outrageous, how good this is. Plus they open for Jesse Malin. ‘Nuff said.
 
Malin Mercury Retrograde—Nobody out there is doing it better, and nobody can argue.
 
AC/DC Black Ice—-It’s ACDC. There wouldn’t be strippers without them. Be serious. 
 
Shinedown–The Sound of Madness: Proof that there is hope for rock ‘n roll on radio. 
 
Extreme—Saudades de Rock: Proof that there is hope for rock ‘n roll with record labels.
 
The Morning Of: Great piano, great harmonies. Makes me want to walk around NYC. 
 
Hold Steady—Stay Positive: Could’ve had one or two more strong tracks but the ones that are are just window-down anthems. Love this band. 
 
Candlebox—Into the Sun: The last song on the CD alone makes it worth getting. 
 
Rick Springfield—Venus in Overdrive: My boy is still an underrated guitarist, and this record is earning him long overdue critical cred. Laugh all you want. It’s the soap thing. 
 
And what was up with Vampire Weekend? Talk about hype. Further proof that the “machine” can make hits, be it in music, publishing, on-screen, etc.   
   
Visit Vinnie’s website: http://www.vinniepenn.net/
(yeah, I know…a dot-net…explains a lot)