Revisited

Best of 2018

Albums

This is, I think, the second year since 1998 that I haven’t had a ballot to fill out in the Village Voice’s once-annual Pazz and Jop national critics poll. The other year I missed was due to a work email change. That might have been a problem this year too, except that the Voice, and its venerable poll, went kaput around the same time I was changing venues.

This further diminishes whatever meager professional connection I still have to music criticism. I still voted in the Nashville Scene’s annual country music critics’ poll, but most of my writing is now on other subjects and my favorite piece of music writing I did in 2018 was the one non-listy thing I wrote on this site, strictly out of personal compulsion. It’s also the reason I’m not doing a singles list this year. 

I’m still adding the Pazz and Jop scoring (100 points for 10 albums, max of 30, minimum of 5) to the Top 10 of my Top 20 albums below, because it better conveys what was, for me, a year of five tightly bunched favorites followed by lots of other records I liked, but a little less.

And those five favorite albums happen to include a couple of twinned pairings.

Parquet Courts (New Yorkers with Texas roots) and No Age (a SoCal duo) each have catalogues now half-a-dozen albums deep without a single misstep, something I’m not sure any other ongoing indie bands can say, though No Age have stretched theirs over a little more than a decade while Parquet Courts’ headlong rush didn’t start until 2013. Both bands established new career peaks this year, I believe, on albums that come from the same corner of the culture but engage the broader world differently.

For Parquet Courts, that means aggressively, passionately. For No Age, that means hardly at all.

The former’s Wide Awaaaaake! is a kind of embattled post-punk manifesto, drawing from arty forbears such as Gang of Four and the Minutemen, but deeply in its own political moment.  Sample lyric: “Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive/Those who find discomfort in your goals of liberation will be issued no apology/And fuck Tom Brady.” Also: “Get love where you find it/It’s the only fist we have to fight with.”

No Age’s Snares Like a Haircut, named for an instrumental track that delivers exactly what the title says, is a more insular, more formal album. Drummer-singer Dean Spunt bashes out tunes with his hands, vocal chords, and heart, and guitarist Randy Randall turns them all into a kind of one-man guitar-skronk symphony. Of every album listed below, it’s the one I’d be most reluctant to recommend to others. And yet it’s the 2018 album that was my most constant companion. My favorite driving album. My favorite writing album.

I don’t know if any 2018 albums expressed individual personalities as fully as Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy and Noname’s Room 25, two hip-hop thesis statements from two black women who see the world differently but with an equal fierceness and their own individual brands of smarts and good humor. One’s a pop blockbuster, the other a cult item. Cardi B is the more familiar figure, if still fresh, her striving taking a combative form. “Pussy’s so good I say my own name during sex,” she boasts. Quick-thinking, light-on-her-lips, but musically understated, Noname answers from the other end of hip-hop’s cultural spectrum : “My pussy teachin’ ninth-grade English/My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.”

In hip-hop now, as in most of the rest of things, women are where it’s at. That’s one story of music in 2018. I’d add hip-hop-adjacent Janelle Monae, rounding out my Top 10 with what I think is her best album, the one where front-to-back musicality finally catches up her long-fetching concept. And while I admire 2018 newcomers Tierra Whack and Cupcakke, they’re topped by a couple of 2017’s I was late getting around to: Princess Nokia and Rapsody. (Years are, per usual, arbitrary cultural distinctions.) Pusha T, as always, raps his ass off, and the shortened form of Daytona only heightens the impact. Kendrick Lamar presided over a soundtrack that might have been even richer than its blockbuster host. But when it came to hip-hop in 2018, I mostly wanted to hear women. (Drake? As always, no thanks.)

In this regard, hip-hop caught up with country, which has been dominated by women for years now, at least artistically, if not on the charts or on the radio, and as much as I like Kacey Musgraves’ pop breakthrough (which is indeed her mostly fully realized album), that means my personal chart-topper-by-a-nose, the third and best album by three (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley) of the half-a-dozen-or-so most important women in country. If Musgraves’s roots-pop-disco Golden Hour was a great country album for people who don’t much like country music, Pistol AnniesInterstate Gospel is a great country album for people who do. The Annies work their titular concept with a few high-concept songs that are high-end country craft, but this is an album about collective songwriting and collective singing that goes deeper than before, especially on Song of the Year candidates “The Best Years of My Life” and “Milkman.”

My real Song of the Year, though, might have come from another of those half-dozen-or-so country women, Lori McKenna’s “People Get Old,” even if the fine album it’s from, The Tree, couldn’t quite make the Top 20 cut. Ones who did: Roots-rockin’ Becky Warren, folkie Mary Gauthier, wild woman Linda Gail Lewis partnering with Robbie Fulks, and Bettye Lavette rewiring Bob Dylan, joined by a couple of national monuments (Willie Nelson, John Prine) whose easeful, good-humored takes on age and mortality in 2018 should be an example for all lucky enough to last so long. People get old, right. But some age like wine somehow.

With the 75-percent dude Superchunk cracking the Top 10, my indie-rock faves were pretty white guy this year, but they were followed by Courtney Barnett, a great artist who made a good album, and a coterie in the form of Lucy Dacus solo and with pals as Boygenius. (I’m assuming a double-review of Pistol Annies and Boygenius has been done.)

Incidentally, my other favorite song of 2018 from an album non-finisher: Wussy’s “Aliens in Our Midst,” a righteous cover of a regional punk obscurity unknown to me. The album list:

 

  1. Interstate Gospel — Pistol Annies (15)
  2. Snares Like a Haircut — No Age (13)
  3. Room 25 — Noname (13)
  4. Invasion of Privacy — Cardi B (13)
  5. Wide Awaaaaake! — Parquet Courts (13)
  6. Daytona — Pusha T (7)
  7. Golden Hour — Kacey Musgraves (7)
  8. What a Time to Be Alive – Superchunk (7)
  9. Rifles and Rosary Beads — Mary Gauthier (7)
  10. Dirty Computer — Janelle Monae (5)
  11. 1992 Deluxe — Princess Nokia (2017)
  12. Historian — Lucy Dacus/Boygenius EP — Boygenius
  13. Last Man Alive — Willie Nelson
  14. Things Have Changed — Bettye Lavette
  15. Black Panther — Kendrick Lamar/Various Artists
  16. The Tree of Forgiveness — John Prine
  17. Undesirable — Becky Warren
  18. Tell Me How You Really Feel — Courtney Barnett
  19. Wild! Wild! Wild! — Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis
  20. Laila’s Wisdom — Rapsody (2017)

Movies

It was a decent year for the union of art and commerce as blockbusters Black Panther, Mission Impossible: Fallout, A Star is Born, and blockbuster-to-be Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse were also really good movies. I enjoyed and admired all four.

Roma was the most impressive 2018 movie I saw, and for a second time on the big screen over the holidays (thanks Twin Cities). It’s far from a bloodless technical feat, but it didn’t quite grip my heart as much as the other four movies it joins in my Top 5. Roma seemed like one of those big international cinema masterpieces of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, like some midpoint between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Fellini’s Amarcord. Not every “masterpiece” is a masterpiece, but I’d say Roma is closer than most. I still think Y Tu Mama, Tambien and Children of Men are Cuaron’s best films. 

Roma didn’t slay me like Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s portrait of a makeshift family — a bunch of small fish swimming together —  on Tokyo’s economic margins. I also saw it for a second time on the big screen thanks to a Minneapolis trip and its tumbling third-act revelations, close-up testimonials, and final triptych of small moments accrued power on repeat viewing. Its visual artistry is far more subtle than Roma, but that too became more apparent on repeat viewing, especially its birdseye view of its six subjects gazing up at the sound of fireworks.

Support the Girls, Andrew Bujalski’s day-in-the-life workplace comedy set at and around a suburban Houston Hooters knockoff, works as well at any size, but requires an attentive eye and especially ear. Modest on the surface, its every visual and aural cranny is packed with sharp but good-humored social observation. No 2018 film that I saw has as much to say about American life circa right now. Maybe Minding the Gap, a years-spanning documentary about three Rockford, Illinois skater buddies navigating adulthood, comes close. These two small films both debuted in Memphis at the Indie Memphis Film Festival and are further united by defiant, righteous endings.

My biggest filmgoing regret of 2018 was not seeing Leave No Trace, director Debra Granik’s follow-up to Winter’s Bone, about an Iraq War vet and his 13-year-old daughter as they try to live undetected in the Oregon woods, on the big screen when I had the chance. The movies list:

  1. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
  2. Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski)
  3. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
  4. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
  5. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)
  6. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
  7. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
  8. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
  9. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)
  10. Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
  11. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
  12. Paddington 2 (Paul King)
  13. BlacKKKlansman (Spike Lee)
  14. Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)
  15. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rotham)
  16. Wildlife (Paul Dano)
  17. Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
  18. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper)
  19. Mission Impossible: Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
  20. Game Night (John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein)

TELEVISION

Per usual, this isn’t a list of favorites but a list of everything from 2018 I ended up watching in full. Only the first two are things I would tout without reservation. (I liked season one of Atlanta a little more, but the show remains wondrous.) I have no idea why I actually watched all of Westworld. I won’t make that mistake again.

  1. Atlanta
  2. The Americans
  3. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
  4. Better Call Saul
  5. The Deuce
  6. Ugly Delicious
  7. Sharp Objects
  8. Westworld
Revisited

1977 Revisited

The Ramones’ debut album and the Sex Pistols’ debut single both poked through in 1976, but 1977 is the real year when punk broke, with the Clash and Sex Pistols in the Top 5 of both my albums and singles lists, the Ramones doubling up in both Top 10s, Poly Styrene making sure “lit’ul gurls” are heard, and Television, Talking Heads, and Richard Hell arting up the New York scene.

Oddly, the top two 1977 singles for me were both first recorded in 1972, but became singles in 1977. There are (at least) three versions of “Roadrunner” and I love them all, but “Twice,” the B side of the 1977 single, is the best, I think. It’s the 1972 Modern Lovers version, the one that leads off their eponymous album. (“Once” is a 1975 version re-recorded by Jonathan Richman with a different backing band. “Thrice” is a live version.)

“Love and Happiness” was on Al Green’s 1972 album I’m Still in Love With You but not released as a single at the time. It appeared in 1977 because Green’s then-contemporary music was (deemed) less commercial.

They are both Statement of Principles records. If we ever decided to come up with a new national anthem, I would make a case for either of them.

I didn’t do a movies list for 1977. My viewing is too spotty or too distant to feel like it was worth it.

1977 grid 2

ALBUMS

  1. The Clash – The Clash: The 1979 American version, which switches out a few lesser cuts for a few mammoth singles, is better song for song but packs less gestalt, is less of a fierce moment in time. This version is as urgent and of the moment an album as there is, and hasn’t lost any of its power.  Best 1977 lyric of 2018: “And if I close my eyes/They will not go away/You have to deal with it/It is the currency.”
  2. Marquee Moon – Television: Dual guitar jams as pure poetry.  
  3. Rumours – Fleetwood Mac: Commercial juggernaut remains knotty pop masterpiece.
  4. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – Sex Pistols: It feels weird to even place this on a list — one spot lower than Rumours! — since it feels apart from the rest even as it was the record that defined the year. It doesn’t cohere front-to-back the way The Clash, its obvious companion piece, does, but I find that it retains its disquieting power. It was a different time, a different place, but its sense of utter revulsion feels pretty right now.  
  5. Rocket to Russia – The Ramones: All of the first four albums in three years are of a piece, but this third one pokes its head up a little higher. Opens on an impossible double high with “Cretin Hop” and “Rockaway Beach” and then settles in without settling down. Still to come: Their best single (“Sheena is a Punk Rocker”) and best cover (“Surfin’ Bird”). New York circa ’77 bona fides: Both self-penned singles mention disco.
  6. The Belle Album – Al Green: His self-produced first album without Willie Mitchell is an anomaly in Green’s catalog, with his own acoustic guitar prominent in the mix, lending it a pastoral feel unique in his work. On the blessed, brilliantly layered title track he personifies the secular muse as he pushes her away.
  7. Two Sevens Clash – Culture: Apocalyptic Rastafarian gospel. The best non-Marley/non-Toots studio reggae album? Just the best studio reggae album?
  8. My Aim is True – Elvis Costello: His debut was his best batch of songs, to be followed right after by his best record.
  9. Dancer with Bruised Knees – Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Not folk … parlor music, and sometimes too close to musical theater for me, even if it’s the kind of impromptu thing you’d (ok, not me) work up after Thanksgiving dinner with and for the family. And then sometimes it strikes as just deeply charming. Always charming: “Walking Song.” Always inspirational, from “Hommage A Grungie”: “I want to get a little drunk/Fatten up my head/Find a good book/And take that book to bed.”
  10. Leave Home — The Ramones: Second verse, (mostly) same as the first.
  11. Hard Again – Muddy Waters: Not quite the last great blues album, but maybe both the first and last great studio blues album by a pre-rock blues great.
  12. Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome – Parliament
  13. Street Survivors – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  14. Dancing in Your Head – Ornette Coleman
  15. Rough Mix – Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane
  16. Talking Heads 77 – Talking Heads
  17. Wanna Meet the Scruffs? – The Scruffs
  18. Joe Ely – Joe Ely
  19. Exodus – Bob Marley & the Wailers
  20. To Lefty from Willie – Willie Nelson
  21. The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl — The Beatles
  22. Blank Generation – Richard Hell & the Voidoids
  23. Sweet Forgiveness – Bonnie Raitt
  24. American Stars n Bars – Neil Young
  25. Lust for Life – Iggy Pop

Singles

  1. “Roadrunner (Twice)” – The Modern Lovers
  2. “Love and Happiness” – Al Green
  3. “Complete Control” – The Clash
  4. “God Save the Queen’ – The Sex Pistols
  5. “Belle” — Al Green
  6. “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” – The Ramones
  7. “Rockaway Beach” – The Ramones
  8. “Go Your Own Way” — Fleetwood Mac
  9. “Oh Bondage Up Yours/I Am a Cliche” – X-Ray Spex
  10. “Heroes” – David Bowie
  11. “Alison” — Elvis Costello
  12. “Holidays in the Sun” — The Sex Pistols
  13. “Police and Thieves” – Junior Murvin
  14. “Best of My Love” – The Emotions
  15. “White Riot” – The Clash
  16. “Love → Building on Fire” — Talking Heads
  17. “Sir Duke” – Stevie Wonder
  18. “Marquee Moon” – Television
  19. “If You’re Not Back in Love By Monday” — Millie Jackson
  20. “Uptown Top Ranking” – Althea and Donna
  21. “Stayin’ Alive” — The Bee Gees
  22. “You Make Loving Fun” — Fleetwood Mac
  23. “Psycho Killer” – Talking Heads
  24. “Disco Inferno” — The Trammps
  25. “Lust for Life” – Iggy Pop
  26. “Waiting in Vain” — Bob Marley & the Wailers
  27. “Blank Generation” – Richard Hell & the Voidoids
  28. “Don’t Stop” — Fleetwood Mac
  29. “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes” – Elvis Costello
  30. “Whispering/Cherchez La Femme” – Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band
  31. “What’s Your Name” – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  32. “Less Than Zero” — Elvis Costello
  33. “Way Down” — Elvis Presley
  34. “Got to Give It Up” — Marvin Gaye
  35. “Rip Her to Shreds” — Blondie
  36. “I Feel Love” – Donna Summer
  37. “Peg” — Steely Dan
  38. “Margaritaville” — Jimmy Buffett
  39. “Take This Job and Shove It” – Johnny Paycheck
  40. “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll” – Ian Dury & the Blockheads
Revisited

1986 Revisited

1986 was a year when most of the best alt/indie bands of the era were before (Sonic Youth), after (Husker Du) or in-between (R.E.M) career peaks, or just taking the year off (Replacements, Talking Heads). Springsteen and Prince were coming down from commercial blockbusters and gearing up for less-heralded artistic triumphs just around the corner, and both were so massive they found their way high onto this list anyway. Hip-hop was just emerging as an album form, with a couple of seminal LPs but not much else. This opens the door for some sui generis contenders, including the greatest single-record, multi-artist compilation in the history of recorded sound and the Last Great Blues Album.

The singles list here is probably one of the weirder ones I’ll have on any of these lists, and I love it. Prince and Cameo’s all-time R&B jams are as indestructible as the album chart-topper. But Junkyard Band? Ciccone Youth? Alex Chilton ranting about his sex life? Gwen Guthrie sort of doing the same? A Brit folkie evoking Holland-Dozier-Holland hits? 1986 more than carries its weight in the effort to keep the Eighties weird. The lists … 

1986 grid

ALBUMS

  1. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto – Various Artists: The album that opened the floodgates for South African pop in the U.S. and quite possibly the finest one-disc music-scene overview ever compiled. A snapshot of mbaqanga from 1981 to 1984, the record is heavy on the sources of the “indestructible beat” –Mahlathini, the Mahotella Queens, and the Makgona Tsohle Band. On the opening track, Udokotela Shange Namajaha’s “Awungilobolele,” a clashing string intro materializes into a circular trance, greeted by groaning male lead vocals, then female backup (moaning “OHH! OHH!” repeatedly). As the groove winds tighter and tighter, the sounds of roosters and chickens issue a wake-up call. From that point on, the avalanche of nimble, pastoral guitar figures, sixth-sense call-and-response vocals, soaring, obsessive fiddles, (seemingly) spontaneous vocal interjections, and body-rattling rhythms coheres into a sound joyous and intense.
  2. Licensed to Ill – Beastie Boys: The rap-rock production still sounds as novel and fun as it did on first contact, despite giving rise to some truly dire inheritors. The line-trading vocal interplay that was already verging on old-school now sounds like an art lost with them. They are very smart about how very dumb they are. Village Voice headline from the time: “Three Jerks Make a Masterpiece.” Rick Rubin made four, but otherwise … yep.
  3. Graceland – Paul Simon: Graceland’s cross-cultural strategy was controversial then and I imagine would be no less so in these woke-r times, but one of the reasons it’s one of the prettiest records of any era is that it doesn’t just draw from South African pop; it essentially is South African pop, Ray Phiri’s guitar, Baghiti Kumalo’s bass, and Isaac Mtshali’s drums driving rhythm tracks recorded before Simon appended lyrics. Graceland‘s global — deceptively, almost uncomfortably “universal” — sweep is part musical, the union of American and African opening up at the end to include simpatico accordion-driven sounds both zydeco (“That Was Your Mother”) and Latin (the Los Lobos-driven “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints”), but it’s also conceptual, which is why this particular music-first-template so enlivens maybe the sharpest group of lyrics in a mostly words-first career. The opening “The Boy in the Bubble” is a bundle of globe-trotting, visionary imagery that hasn’t aged much in the three-decades-plus since its initial release: terrorist attacks, turnaround jump shots, medical advances, “staccato signals of constant information/a loose affiliation of millionaires/and billionaires.” Also, right, the title track is one of the loveliest of Memphis songs.
  4. Strong Persuader – Robert Cray: The last commercially and critically triumphant true blues album doesn’t sound much like what most people think of when they think about blues, lacking Chicago bar-band stomp or hill-country drone or any kind of particular rural and/or Southern feel. Instead, it’s rooted in a distinctly middle-class sophistication. The superb songwriting is marked by authorial distance, untrustworthy narrators, and unintentional revelation. Cray’s nimble guitar work is locked into the songcraft rather than leaping out from it. B.B. King and Randy Newman had a baby and they named it Strong Persuader. Every time I pull it out — more than a decade ago for this appreciation or on a road trip this summer — I’m struck by how distinctly and warmly I remember every song and by how fresh it still sounds.
  5. Candy Apple Grey – Husker Du: With the following finale, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, sounding comparatively dutiful, I consider this to be the band’s spiritual farewell, and a fitting one: A depressive opus that becomes an up through sheer commitment and care.
  6. Parade – Prince: Despite the Beatles influence and soundtrack trappings, his most musically mature album to date. A partial artistic breakthrough that proved a warm-up for the fully realized masterpiece that would come next.
  7. The Queen is Dead – The Smiths: Kitsch classic.
  8. Raising Hell – Run-DMC: A good record of great importance, but a little more singles-and-filler than I’d remembered. Still think their debut was their best.
  9. London 0, Hull 4 — Housemartins: The peppiest imaginable soundtrack to Marxist revolution.
  10. Edge of the World – Mekons
  11. Live/1975-1985 — Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
  12. Blood and Chocolate – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
  13. Camper Van Beethoven – Camper Van Beethoven
  14. The 12” Collection — The Gap Band
  15. Dirty Work – The Rolling Stones
  16. Life’s Rich Pageant – R.E.M.
  17. Guitar Town – Steve Earle
  18. Storms of Life – Randy Travis
  19. The Good Earth – The Feelies
  20. Brotherhood – New Order
  21. Greatest Hits — Z.Z. Hill
  22. King of America – The Costello Show
  23. Control – Janet Jackson
  24. Psychocandy — The Jesus and Mary Chain
  25. Compilation – The Clean

SINGLES

  1. “Kiss” – Prince
  2. “Word Up” – Cameo
  3. “Hold it Now, Hit It” — Beastie Boys
  4. “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin On But the Rent” – Gwen Guthrie
  5. “Walk This Way” – Run-DMC
  6. “No Sex” – Alex Chilton
  7. “Eric B is President/My Melody” – Eric B & Rakim
  8. “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” – Billy Bragg
  9. “Into the Groovey” – Ciccone Youth
  10. “The Word” – Junkyard Band
  11. “Girls & Boys” – Prince
  12. “Nasty” – Janet Jackson
  13. “6 in the Mornin’” – Ice T
  14. “Fall on Me” — R.E.M.
  15. “Fight for Your Right (To Party)” – Beastie Boys
  16. “The Bridge” – MC Shan
  17. “Wild Wild Life”- Talking Heads
  18. “West End Girls” — Pet Shop Boys
  19. “Shake You Down” – Gregory Abbott
  20. “Bizarre Love Triangle” – New Order
  21. “Guitar Town” — Steve Earle
  22. “Open Your Heart” — Madonna
  23. “The Boy in the Bubble” — Paul Simon
  24. “Ask” — The Smiths
  25. “Diggin’ Up Bones” — Randy Travis
  26. “The New Style” – Beastie Boys
  27. “Go Stetsa 1” — Stetsasonic
  28. “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” — John Mellencamp
  29. “War” — Bruce Springsteen
  30. “The Manipulator” – Mixmaster Gee and the Turntable Orchestra
  31. “Walk Like an Egyptian” – The Bangles
  32. “When I Think of You” – Janet Jackson
  33. “Rise” – Public Image Ltd.
  34. “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” – Timbuk 3
  35. “Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel
  36. “Rumors” – Timex Social Club
  37. “Opportunities” – Pet Shop Boys
  38. “My Adidas” — Run-D.M.C.
  39. “Ego Trippin’” — Ultramagnetic MCs
  40. “South Bronx” – Boogie Down Productions

MOVIES

The movies caveat for every year of this project: I’ve re-listened to every song and every album on these lists. The movie lists are from memory and contain elements of personal guesswork as a result. Do She’s Gotta Have It and Down By Law hold up enough for these placements? Should they be higher? As an ahead-of-the-curve Woody Allen hater, am I right that Hannah and Her Sisters was his last major film before his work began to curdle in accordance with his grotesque private life (with the following Husbands & Wives working because that curdling was its very subject), or would I downgrade it on reappraisal? The top four are the top four because I’m pretty certain they hold up.

  1. Something Wild (Jonathan Demme)
  2. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
  3. Manhunter (Michael Mann)
  4. Aliens (James Cameron)
  5. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)
  6. She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee)
  7. Ruthless People (Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker)
  8. Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch)
  9. Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox)
  10. The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese)
Revisited

2008 Revisited

There’s a lot of writing on this post not because I got inspired but because I wrote about so many of these albums and films in real time, so most of what you see hear is cut-and-paste from of-the-moment coverage or (more likely) published year-end-lists, with some minor alterations.

This is the most recent year I’ve tackled so far on a project originally intended to cover 1965-2014 (I’ll still do those but may dip back further at some point) and it’s no accident that it’s also probably the most esoteric set of lists so far, at least on the music side.

By 2008, whatever used to be a center had pretty much dissolved and it was a time of no big things. The top two albums from 2008’s Pazz n Jop national critics poll (TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend) both made my Top 5 a decade later (neither that high at the time), two of the other PnJ Top 5s (Portishead, Fleet Foxes) I found/find barely listenable.

The idiosyncrasy of the film list is less trend than one-off. At the time I proclaimed 2008 the Worst Year Ever for movies, and while there’s plenty of good stuff, there aren’t many candidates for the cultural time capsule: WALL-E, I guess, but I found its second half too conventional, and The Dark Knight, still the best of the era’s dominant commercial genre.

ICYMI, all of the previous years so far:

Anyway, the lists ….  

2008 albums

ALBUMS

  1. Hold On Now, Youngster …  — Los Campesinos!: On this full-length debut as apotheosis, co-leaders Gareth and Aleksandra trade off verses like conjoined twins completing each other’s thoughts while their bandmates bop around behind them in a tumult of handclaps and vocal interjections, dancing to the breakbeats of broken hearts. This young band obsesses over their messy lives (favorite title: “My Year in Lists”) and is always ready with a sardonic rejoinder (“I cherish with fondness the day before I met you”). But they’re the kind of sarcastic, introspective wallflowers delighted to discover themselves actually having fun (“You! Me! Dancing!”). The music is springy, chaotic, breathless: It has to be to keep up with their overactive minds and racing hearts. It sounds like a dorm-lounge lark. It’s beautiful.
  2. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark — The Drive-By Truckers: Though Brighter Than Creation’s Dark peaks at the very beginning with the saddest, loveliest song Patterson Hood will ever write, it holds its shape for an epic 19 songs and 75 minutes. Hood takes the toll of the Iraq war from two vantage points, ruminates on road life, and spits in the wind of recession. Musical life-partner Mike Cooley spins one wonderful, low-rent character sketch after another, several of them probably autobiographical, led by a definitive metal-to-grunge saga he’s old enough to have lived and a shaggy confession that outs country storyteller Tom T. Hall as this great band’s biggest influence.
  3. Dear Science — TV on the Radio: “Williamsburg Radiohead” transforms and transcends with album of defiant dance-rock, full of rhythm and joy but with tinges of darkness and noise adding gravity.
  4. Vampire Weekend — Vampire Weekend: From the write-what-you-know department: detailed, insightful, witty, and not at all uncritical evocations of collegiate lust over perhaps the decade’s most sprightly guitar music.
  5. Made in Dakar — Orchestra Baobab: The follow-up to this vintage Senegalese band’s unlikely 2002 comeback triumph Specialist in All Styles, Made in Dakar combines fresh versions of unknown-in-these-parts West African standards with new songs. As always, guitarist Barthélemy Attisso spins indelible melodies and launches entrancing grooves with his vibrant but deliberate style, while sax man Issa Cissokho offers droll, elegant counterpoint.
  6. Rising Down — The Roots: First half of a two-album peak that resulted from pairing down the band’s drums-first funk and appointing lead voice Black Thought first chair in an orchestra of voices that comprise one notion of a community.
  7. The Way I See It — Raphael Saadiq: There were plenty of artists tapping into ’60s and ’70s soul sounds, but former Tony Toni Tone singer Raphael Saadiq had been working in the vein for 20 years.  He wasn’t a tribute artist; he was (is) a practitioner. And the nonstop groove, compositional detail, and sometimes surprising songwriting (“Keep Marchin'” the campaign theme Curtis Mayfield wasn’t around to write; “Sometimes” a family meditation of Smokey Robinson-level grace) here is still the closest he — or anyone else — has been to the muse since his old band’s 1996 swan song, House of Music.
  8. Fearless — Taylor Swift: Half high-generic (ok, very high) rootsy teen-pop and half classic album unlike any other classic album, a not-entirely-a-self-portrait of a gifted, generous, empathetic — aka totally normal — teen girl. It’s telling that the lesser half is heavy on Music Row collaboration and the better half is driven by solo writing credits. Those solo credits include the album’s biggest hit, about daydreaming through Honors English, and it’s two great songs. One is about freshman year. The other is about how much she loves her mom.
  9. Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails — The Baseball Project: Alt-rock journeymen Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) — neither of whom meant much to me in their previous pop lives — spin a baker’s dozen of terrific songs about America’s onetime pastime. With jangly bar rock as apt a song-for-song’s-sake vehicle as solo-acoustic, and with the likes of Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and forgotten hurler Harvey Haddix as worthy of the troubadour treatment as Pretty Boy Floyd and John Henry, you might call this the best non-Dylan folk record of the decade.
  10. Feed the Animals — Girl Talk: By and large, this masterful mash-up mix layers rap vocals over pop hits from the ’60s to the present. Though I do wish his taste in hip-hop samples more often reached beyond the declamatory and carnal, he mines his juxtapositions for plentiful comedy. I couldn’t tell you how this works in the club, but as a pop-addict album listener I know it never lets up, its tricks never stop working.
  11. Alphabutt — Kimya Dawson & Friends: Juno soundtrack star follows up her rather unlikely rise to fame with this silly, scatological concept album about kids and parents. With “friends” of all ages joining in to give the record a rambunctious, campfire spirit, Dawson lets songs about hungry tigers, splashing bears, and potty-training triumphs commingle with songs about pregnancy anxiety, schoolyard lessons on egalitarianism, and the ethics of food availability. This collection of deceptively simple acoustic ditties alternately for, to, and about Dawson’s own kid — and maybe yours too — is her most engaging album, though perhaps too sweet, too homely, and too messy for a lot of listeners. A family touchstone in my house.
  12. Stay Positive — The Hold Steady: The fourth and last essential album from America’s most literate bar band opens with something of a master statement: “Constructive Summer,” which spins some Springsteenian imagery off a title almost surely inspired by Hüsker Dü’s “Celebrated Summer” before splitting the difference with a song-ending dedication to the Clash’s Joe Strummer. This fits an album where songwriter supreme Craig Finn literalizes more than ever his band’s mission to unite classic-rock grandeur with the regular-guy modesty and small-scale ethical sense of the hardcore and punk scenes that weaned him.
  13. The Dusty Foot Philosopher — K’Naan: A folkish warm-up that introduces a pop one-of-a-kind, a kind of good-hearted Eminem from Mogadishu.
  14. Tha Carter III — Lil Wayne: At his very best, and this is it, Lil Wayne was something akin to rap’s Al Green — an idiosyncratic vocal genius who combines cutesy with carnal while deploying a wide range of verbal registers and tics. This commercial tour de force is his finest album because it’s the first and maybe last time he’s reined in his logorrhea and put it at the service of so many conceptually focused songs. And yet this 16-song, nearly 80-minute opus drags a little down the stretch — and would have been better as a tidy, 10-song banger climaxing with the Kanye West-produced “Let the Beat Build.”
  15. Lay It Down — Al Green: On the third and final of the secular “comeback” albums Green cut during this period, the 62-year-old icon finds, in the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, both a drummer and producer capable of pushing him. Thompson stated flat-out that he wanted to make the best Green album since the last acknowledged classic, The Belle Album. And though this peaks early with the opening title track repetition and the grateful “Just For Me,” he probably succeeded.
  16. Primary Colors — Eddy Current Suppression Ring
  17. Nouns — No Age
  18. Wamato — Les Amazones de Guinee
  19. Singles 06/07 and Matador Singles 08 – Jay Reatard
  20. Harps and Angels — Randy Newman
  21. Conor Oberst — Conor Oberst
  22. Untitled — Nas
  23. Distortion — Magnetic Fields
  24. That Lonely Song – Jamey Johnson
  25. Just Us Kids — James McMurtry

SINGLES

  1. “Paper Planes” — M.I.A.
  2. “Lights Out’ — Santigold
  3. “Sequestered in Memphis” – The Hold Steady
  4. “Time to Pretend” — MGMT
  5. “Geraldine” — Glasvegas
  6. “Black President” — Nas
  7. “In Color” — Jamey Johnson
  8. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” — Beyonce
  9. “More Like Her” — Miranda Lambert
  10. “I’m Not Gonna to Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You” — Black Kids
  11. “Lay it Down” — Al Green
  12. “Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came From an Angel)” — Ponytail
  13. “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It” — Ice Cube
  14. “A-Punk” — Vampire Weekend
  15. “Golden Age” — TV on the Radio
  16. “A Milli” – Lil Wayne
  17. “L.E.S. Artistes” — Santigold
  18. “Rockin’ That Thang” — The-Dream
  19. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” — Vampire Weekend
  20. “Kids” — MGMT
  21. “Love Lockdown” — Kanye West
  22. “Disturbia” — Rihanna
  23. “White Horse” — Taylor Swift
  24. “High Cost of Living” – Jamey Johnson
  25. “My Year in Lists” — Los Campesinos
  26. “Swagga Like Us” — T.I. featuring Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne
  27. “Oxford Comma” — Vampire Weekend
  28. “I Feel It All” — Feist
  29. “Daddy’s Gone” — Glasvegas
  30. “Love Story” — Taylor Swift
  31. “Gunpowder & Lead” — Miranda Lambert
  32. “Hot n Cold” — Katy Perry
  33. “Heartless” — Kanye West
  34. “I Like It, I Love It” — Lyrics Born
  35. “Furr” — Blitzen Trapper
  36. “Last Call” — Lee Ann Womack
  37. “Takin’ Off This Pain” — Ashton Shepherd
  38. “Electric Feel” — MGMT
  39. “American Boy” — Estelle featuring Kanye West
  40. “Little Bit” — Lykke Li

MOVIES

  1. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh): From the dreamy, on-the-move triptych opening credits to a serene closing seemingly indebted to ’70s art-house classic Celine & Julie Go Boating, British master Mike Leigh (see also: Topsy-Turvy, Naked, Vera Drake) has never exhibited as light a touch or been as inspiringly humanistic as with this portrait of a London schoolteacher (Sally Hawkins) whose sunny demeanor is challenged by others’ ways of seeing — and being in — the world.
  2. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani): This “New South” indie rewrite of the Cannes-winning Iranian film Taste of Cherry pairs a charismatic Senegalese immigrant (Souléymane Sy Savané) with an aging white Southerner (Memphian Red West in a career performance) for a rich, moving on-screen partnership. With his film’s feel for urban isolation and cultural assimilation, Bahrani evokes a more sincere, less mannered Jim Jarmusch.
  3. Cadillac Records (Darnell Martin): Better than Ray. Even better than Walk the Line.
  4. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme): Demme directs this blend of intense family melodrama and Robert Altman-style party sequences with the same intimacy and purpose he put into such masterful concert docs as Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold. The tumultuous homecoming of Anne Hathaway’s doe-eyed narcotics addict is shown as an oscillating series of white-knuckle interactions and quiet retreats, a handheld camera capturing furtive reaction shots. As the gonzo wedding celebration fights against the family tension, Demme turns indulgence into strength, and the viewer is sucked into the middle of a kind of audacious home movie.
  5. Man on Wire (James Marsh): This documentary about the day in 1974 that French tightrope walker Philippe Petit spent 40 amazing minutes on a strand of wire between the World Trade Center towers was a more-exciting-than fiction caper flick. And it’s all the more effective because its wonder at dual human achievements (Petit’s walk and the buildings’ construction) and its melancholy that Petit outlasted the towers are both allowed to emerge without direct commentary.
  6. Milk (Gus Van Sant): Gus Van Sant’s fiercely patriotic biopic of martyred gay politician Harvey Milk (perhaps Sean Penn’s best lead performance) is novel for celebrating Milk as simultaneously a principled leader and a hard-nosed, pragmatic politician.
  7. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson): A vampire procedural suffused with adolescent melancholy.
  8. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan): As an almost sympathetic critique of post-9/11 government overreach, The Dark Knight achieved resonance without straining for topicality. The late Heath Ledger’s agitated, sarcastic performance as the Joker managed the impossible task of exceeding pre-release hype, but credit director Christopher Nolan with making a movie that wasn’t overshadowed by it. There’s a procedural tension and insistent, palpable anxiety to The Dark Knight more common to great crime films (from Fritz Lang to Michael Mann) than comic-hero adaptations.
  9. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
  10. The Class (Laurent Cantet): A doc-like feature about a French middle-school class, embedding its camera within the volatile action.
  11. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman): An animated, nonfiction fever dream built on first-person stories from Israeli soldiers who fought in the 1982 Lebanon war.
  12. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)
  13. Hunger (Steve McQueen)
  14. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller)
  15. Red Cliff (John Woo)
Revisited

1997 Revisited

There are lots of terrific records here, led by one of my all-time favorites on the album list and some witty/funny hip-hop/R&B on the singles list. But scanning contenders on the singles list reminded me of how deeply lousy the late-1990s were for rock-oriented pop music, with the mid-1990s commercial co-option of indie/alt devolving into scrunge, nu-metal, fratty rap-rock, bad ska, lounge-pop, weird third-hand big band nostalgia, ersatz Lilith Fair exploitations, and so many empty-headed “alt” bands that would have been more bearable as the more proudly empty-headed hair-metal bands they would have been a decade before. The idea of the Foo Fighters (a fun, catchy, B+-level hard rock outfit) as an Important Rock Band starts here, I guess.

Not really related: I re-listened to OK Computer again for this and it’s every bit as soggy and ponderous as I remembered. One of the most overrated albums ever made.

Anyway, the lists …

1997 Albums (2)

ALBUMS

  1. Dig Me Out – Sleater-Kinney: “The Drama You’ve Been Craving.” “Turn It On.” “Words + Guitar.” “Dance Song ’97.” “Bring your heart to us and we’ll get it purified.” “It’s not want you want/It’s everything.” This album makes big promises and overdelivers. Their previous, 1996’s Call the Doctor, was suffused with a sense of becoming. This is a different brand of thrilling: With Janet Weiss grabbing the sticks for the first time, it’s about pure motorvating mastery, making room along the way for one of the most fraught end-of-a-relationship songs (“One More Hour”). If we’re being honest, it flags just slightly on three of the last four songs (rallying on “Dance Song ’97”). If we’re being honest, you were exhausted by then too.
  2. The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute – Various Artists: Unless I’ve missed something, the apotheosis of a middling genre (the tribute record) but also maybe the secret beginning of “Americana” (as opposed the previously preferred “alt country”), predating both Mermaid Avenue and O Brother, Where Art Thou? as roots rescue missions. It has a lower profile than either, but tops the latter and goes toe-to-toe with the former. Listening is believing. Favorites: Bob Dylan, Iris Dement, Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Steve Earle …. really, everyone but Bono.
  3. Supa Dupa Fly – Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: Mary J. Blige forged “hip-hop soul” a few years before, but here’s the real synthesis. Inspirational plain talk: “It’s the things that you do that make me not love you.”
  4. I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One — Yo La Tengo: A guided tour de force of their buzzy, sleepily romantic little corner of the (indie rock) world. Nerd-lust apex: “We could slip away/Would that be better?/Me with nothing to say/And you in your autumn sweater.”
  5. … Play 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron — The Oblivians: Not just the great Memphis trash-rock band, but the great American trash-rock band. Did they catch religion off of that added organ or call in the organ after catching religion? Either way, the hottest Memphis rock-and-roll since the Sun Sessions.
  6. When I Was Born for the 7th Time — Cornershop: A new(ish) sound that portended big things that never really came. It’s still pretty sweet on its own terms.
  7. Brighten the Corners — Pavement: Their prettiest album, if occasionally too precious.
  8. The Carnival — Wyclef Jean: Without the need to share time and blend his personality with his Fugee comrades, Jean drifts hard toward corn, as his subsequent career attests. But here he’s still jet-propelled by the energy of his band triumph The Score and his first foray into solo diasporan hip-hop sounds, much like the Cornershop record, like a future we never quite got.
  9. Life After Death – Notorious B.I.G.: The double album (no, worse: double CD) sprawl lacks the focus of Ready to Die, of course. But despite the tragic unintended resonance of the title, it’s so much more than its conceptual trappings. Rather it’s a tribute to craft. “Somebody’s Gotta Die” is one of the finest short stories from one of pop music’s sharpest writers and still best for its rhyme-for-rhyme’s-sake (“Lear jets and coupes/The way Salt ‘shoops’/How to sell records like Snoop … oops”).  His off-hand humor bursts out everywhere. There are too many guests, but here the intent seems less padding than generosity, and the presence of so many mere mortals underscores his own enormous talent. RIP.
  10. Introducing … Ruben Gonzalez – Ruben Gonzalez: The best album to come out of the Buena Vista Social Club Cuban jazz (here piano) boomlet
  11. El Corazon – Steve Earle: I’ve got a soft spot for I Feel Alright, but this is probably his best.
  12. Time Out of Mind – Bob Dylan: Prematurely feted as a new Dylan masterpiece, something that would actually come four years later with “Love + Theft”. But Dylan’s most overrated album is still damn good, though I do think producer Daniel Lanois’ atmospheric murk impinges too much on Dylan’s natural wit and musicality. More a great Bob Dylan album for U2 fans than a great Bob Dylan album for Bob Dylan fans.
  13. Retreat From the Sun – That Dog: A lost gem of 1990s indie/alt, here the “chamber rock” of their debut has (almost) fully transitioned into hooky, scruffy guitar pop, with heart, brains, and more than a dollop of deadpan mischief.
  14. Too Far to Care – Old 97’s: I’m less enthralled by this breakthrough than most other Old 97’s’ fans I know. It has a few of their very best songs as written, but they hadn’t quite hit their musical stride yet, at least in studio. Here, they’re still trying to be an “alt-country” band, and the results are a little pokey at times. But there are hints of the rootsy, poppy rock-and-roll band about to emerge.
  15. Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton – Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton
  16. Springtime – Freakwater
  17. Perfect From Now On – Built to Spill
  18. Baduizm — Erykah Badu
  19. Dig Your Own Hole – Chemical Brothers
  20. Township Jazz ‘N’ Jive – Various Artists: Subtitled “18 South African Urban Swing Classics from the Jivin’ ’50s,” this buoyant comp does for the urbane small-band marabi (think jump blues and Dixieland and swing) and pennywhistle jive of the ’50s what Indestructible Beat of Soweto does for the more rockin’ mbaqanga that followed, giving a joyous portrait of a scene: an elegant fusion of indigenous rhythms and melodies with the influences of American artists such as Count Basie and the Mills Brothers.
  21. Fish Ain’t Bitin’ – Corey Harris
  22. The Velvet Rope – Janet Jackson
  23. Latyrx – Lateef & Lyrics Born
  24. Lee Ann Womack – Lee Ann Womack
  25. The Lonesome Crowded West – Modest Mouse

Singles

  1. “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” – Missy Elliott
  2. “MyBabyDaddy” – B.Rock & the Biz
  3. “Tyrone’ – Erykah Badu
  4. “Autumn Sweater” – Yo La Tengo
  5. “Brimful of Asha” – Cornershop
  6. “MMMBop” – Hanson
  7. “I’ll Be Missing You” – Puff Daddy & the Family
  8. “Got Til It’s Gone” – Janet Jackson
  9. “The Ice of Boston” – The Dismemberment Plan
  10. “Sock It 2 Me” – Missy Elliott
  11. “Hypnotize” – Notorious B.I.G.
  12. “Ship to Shore” – Dub Narcotic Sound System featuring Lois
  13. “Thinking of You’ – Tony Toni Tone
  14. “Feel So Good” – Mase
  15. “Block Rockin’ Beats” – The Chemical Brothers
  16. “Everlong” – Foo Fighters
  17. “On and On” – Erykah Badu
  18. “Mo Money, Mo Problems” – Notorious B.I.G.
  19. “Gone Til November” – Wyclef Jean
  20. “Never Say Never” – That Dog
  21. “Da Dip” – Freak Nasty
  22. “Song 2” – Blur
  23. “Tubthumping” – Chumbawamba
  24. “Makes Me Wanna Die” – Tricky
  25. “Criminal” – Fiona Apple
  26. “Face Down” – Prince
  27. “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” – Patty Loveless
  28. “Lovefool” — The Cardigans
  29. “Michael Jackson” – Fatboy Slim
  30. “Ladies Night” – Lil Kim
  31. “Torn” – Natalie Imbruglia
  32. “Other Side of the Game” – Erykah Badu
  33. “I Know” – Kim Richey
  34. “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” – Busta Rhymes
  35. “Up Jumps Da Boogie” – Timbaland and Magoo
  36. “Hey Hey, You Say” – Papas Fritas
  37. “It’s All About the Benjamins” – Puff Daddy featuring Notorious B.I.G., the Lox and Lil Kim
  38. “Monkey Wrench” – Foo Fighters
  39. “Blue Flowers” – Dr. Octagon
  40. “Fly” — Sugar Ray

Movies

The usual caveats apply. I’ve re-visited every album and song listed in this post but don’t have time to revisit the films. So this list is based on my reaction to the films when I saw them filtered through my sensibility today; essentially how I suspect I would rank them if I did rewatch them all.

I’m struck by the international art cinema here (Kitano, Kar-Wai, Imamura, Kiarostami), from a time when I wasn’t quite a working film critic. It was a reflection of my intersection of interests and free time to pursue those interests, but I also think it’s a reflection of a better time for theatrical film distribution. “Taste of Cherry” did not get a theatrical screening in Memphis, but I think the others did.

  1. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
  2. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  3. The Apostle (Robert Duvall)
  4. Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano)
  5. The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan)
  6. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)
  7. Kundun (Martin Scorsese)
  8. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
  9. Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai)
  10. Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith)
  11. Career Girls (Mike Leigh)
  12. Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons)
  13. Lost Highway (David Lynch)
  14. The Eel (Shohei Imamura)
  15. My Best Friend’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan)
  16. Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven)
  17. Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage)
  18. The Ice Storm (Ang Lee)
  19. The Rainmaker (Francis Ford Coppola)
  20. Contact (Robert Zemeckis)
Revisited

1978 Revisited

I’ve been sitting on these lists for a while with no time to write anything about them. I’m going to toss out some rambling notes and just post, since all the relistening is now in the past tense. But I’m likely to have a little more hobby writing time on my hands for the next few weeks …  so after a dormant period, I’d expect a few more years to tumble out in short order. As for 1978 …

It’s a bit of an odd year. Classic rock and soul is mostly over. Hip-hop is still on the horizon. The early excitement of punk’s arrival has subsided, but so much of the most interesting stuff is the aftermath of that arrival, the sorting out of the new world being forged.

It’s a year full of good (ok, very good) work from great artists: Rolling Stones, Parliament-Funkadelic, Ramones, New York Doll David Johansen, Neil Young, The Clash, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Prince, Pere Ubu, Television.

All made albums in 1978 good enough to crack this list, or come close. All made better records soon before or soon after.

Exceptions: Elvis Costello and Blondie were career artists that did peak early here, and those are my chart-toppers. This Year’s Model grows less relatable but no less raging as years pass. X-Ray Spex was a shooting star, still thrilling but on revisit best as a singles band despite the eternal album title Germfree Adolescents. Wire was a little of both.

Classic rock, declining (Stones), ascending (Springsteen), or imploding (Big Star) still does pretty good though. Some Girls is a disreputable album (that title track) from a disreputable band, but one musically incapable of making a bad record for most of their recording lives. Whatever else, that’s still Charlie Watts playing drums, Bill Wyman playing bass, Keith Richards scratching out riffs. They play the hell out of this one.

Darkness on the Edge of Town raises the question of what makes a great album. It is the personal Springsteen favorite of many (maybe most) of the biggest Springsteen fans I know. In a peak period that I’d say runs 1974-1987, it is the only Springsteen record that has songs I actively skip over. But what is a lack of perfection in the face of “Badlands” and “Promised Land”? (See here.) There are more flawless records I would leave behind to save Darkness if only so much music could be preserved.

The singles list is more repetitive and probably overlaps more with the album list than in most years. I’m sure this reveals some gaps in my listening and/or perception, but I think a lot of it has to do with the year. Punk was a great singles genre, and disco too. But we’re really waiting for hip-hop and Prince and the pop energy of the 1980s to start shaking things up.

1978 albums

ALBUMS

  1. This Year’s Model — Elvis Costello
  2. Parallel Lines — Blondie
  3. Some Girls — The Rolling Stones
  4. Darkness on the Edge of Town — Bruce Springsteen
  5. Third — Big Star
  6. Motor-Booty Affair — Parliament
  7. Road to Ruin — Ramones
  8. Honky Tonk Masquerade — Joe Ely
  9. Germfree Adolescents — X-Ray Spex
  10. Pink Flag — Wire
  11. Comes a Time — Neil Young
  12. Give Em Enough Rope — The Clash
  13. More Songs About Buildings and Food — The Talking Heads
  14. The Modern Dance — Pere Ubu
  15. One Nation Under a Groove — Funkadelic
  16. David Johansen — David Johansen
  17. Stardust — Willie Nelson
  18. Pure Pop For Now People — Nick Lowe
  19. Body Meta — Ornette Coleman
  20. Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) — Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
  21. Pure Mania — The Vibrators
  22. Before and After Science — Brian Eno
  23. For You — Prince
  24. Generation X — Generation X
  25. Adventure — Television

SINGLES

  1. “Badlands” — Bruce Springsteen
  2. “Ain’t U/Hedi’s Head” – Kleenex
  3. “What Do I Get?” – Buzzcocks
  4. “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” — The Clash
  5. “Radio, Radio” – Elvis Costello
  6. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” — Elvis Costello
  7. “Hanging on the Telephone” – Blondie
  8. “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo/I Am A Poseur” — X-Ray Spex
  9. “Le Freak” – Chic
  10. “Uptown Top Ranking” – Althea & Donna
  11. “One Nation Under a Groove” – Funkadelic
  12. “Another Girl, Another Planet” – The Only Ones
  13. “Take Me To the River” – Talking Heads
  14. “Damaged Goods” – Gang of Four
  15. “I Don’t Mind” — Buzzcocks
  16. “Pump it Up” — Elvis Costello
  17. “Ever Fallen in Love” – Buzzcocks
  18. “Life’s Been Good’ – Joe Walsh
  19. “Miss You” — The Rolling Stones
  20. “Identity/Let’s Submerge” — X-Ray Spex
  21. “Alternative Ulster” – Stiff Little Fingers
  22. “Beast of Burden” — The Rolling Stones
  23. “Flash Light” – Parliament
  24. “Soft and Wet” — Prince
  25. Teenage Kicks” – Undertones
  26. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” – Sylvester
  27. “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” – Elvis Costello
  28. “Shattered” — The Rolling Stones
  29. “Promises” – Buzzocks
  30. “Because the Night” — Patti Smith
  31. “I Want Your Love” — Chic
  32. “September” — Earth, Wind & Fire
  33. “Just What I Needed” — The Cars
  34. “Clash City Rockers” — The Clash
  35. “Listen to Her Heart” — Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
  36. “Everyone’s a Winner” – Hot Chocolate
  37. “Surrender” – Cheap Trick
  38. “Running on Empty’ – Jackson Browne
  39. “Shake Your Groove Thing” — Peaches & Herb
  40. “Love You More” – The Buzzcocks

MOVIES

There’s too much from 1978 I’d either need to rewatch to place (Days of Heaven, American Hot Wax, Fingers, The Deer Hunter) or that I’ve just never gotten around to (Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, Interiors, An Unmarried Woman), so I’ll just offer five faves from the year. The first was mostly unseen until a revival a few years ago (actually, it’s still mostly unseen) and is among my very favorite films. I wrote about it here. “The Last Waltz” is a movie I love almost beyond rationality, though my experience of it has evolved over the years. (Read Levon Helm’s bio, where he and Ronnie Hawkins take the piss out of its mythologizing, and you’ll never see it quite the same way again.)

  1. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
  2. Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris)
  3. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero)
  4. The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese)
  5. Blue Collar (Paul Schrader)
Revisited

Best of 2017

Ending a too-long blog hiatus with my favorite albums, singles, movies, and television of 2017. We’ll continue our trip through the pop music past soon.

2017 best

ALBUMS

This list is ordered, but it was sort of a five-way tie for first. In the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop national critics poll, you get 100 points to distribute among 10 albums, with a maximum of 30 and a minimum of 5. I’ve given 30 points before. My point distribution for this Top 10 was: 15-15-14-13-13-10-5-5-5-5.

Is Lee Ann Womack’s new one modern country or Americana? Lee Ann Womack is a grown-ass woman and is above your petty genre distinctions and squabbles, which are irrelevant. Here she pulls a bunch of Nashville pros off the assembly line and off to her own personal promised land. They respond like it’s 1968 at American Studios and Chips Moman is behind the board. One version of what freedom sounds like.

Out in the Storm is another. Katie Crutchfield says everything she needs to say about a relationship in her rearview mirror in 10 songs and not much more than half an hour. Regardless of genre, pop music’s greatest thrill might be hearing someone say the exact right thing in the exact right way, hearing someone born in the moment. This is another version of what freedom sounds like.

4:44 and DAMN. are both exercises in mastery in the most dominant pop form of most of our lives. Lamar’s brilliance is both thrilling and exhausting. I admire it greatly, but I don’t quite love it like I loved former personal chart-topper good kid, m.A.A.d city. For relistening, I found myself coming back to Jay-Z. It’s an album about his occasionally cringe-worthy “black capitalism” ethos and his marriage and his status as a hip-hop elder and … . Mostly, though, I think it’s about the double pause he deploys before the raised-eyebrow “Ok” on “The Story of OJ.” It’s about casual conversation that comes in couplets. It’s about the easeful musicality that made us care about him in the first place.

For me, the songwriting on The Nashville Sound isn’t as consistently gripping as on Southeastern (Isbell’s Out in the Storm), but it has a more cohesive shape than Something More Than Free, the fine middle volume in what feels like a trilogy-for-now. But this one peaks twice with twin Song of the Year candidates, the trembling “If We Were Vampires” and the defiant “Hope the High Road.”

  1. The Lonesome, the Lonely and the Gone – Lee Ann Womack
  2. Out in the Storm — Waxahatchee
  3. 4:44 — Jay-Z
  4. The Nashville Sound – Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
  5. DAMN. — Kendrick Lamar
  6. All American Made — Margo Price
  7. Talk Tight/The French Press – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
  8. MacGregor Park — Fat Tony
  9. CTRL – SZA
  10. Freedom Highway — Rhiannon Giddens
  11. War and Leisure — Miguel
  12. Run the Jewels 3 – Run the Jewels
  13. American Teen — Khalid
  14. Trophy – Sunny Sweeney
  15. Wrangled – Angaleena Presley
  16. City of No Reply — Amber Coffman
  17. Chuck — Chuck Berry
  18. Dark Matter – Randy Newman
  19. Deep Dream – Daddy Issues
  20. The Order of Time — Valerie June

SINGLES

  1. “Hope the High Road” — Jason Isbell
  2. “Humble” — Kendrick Lamar
  3. “If We Were Vampires” — Jason Isbell
  4. “Sky Walker” — Miguel featuring Travis Scott
  5. “Love Triangle” — RaeLynn
  6. “Young Dumb and Broke” — Khalid
  7. “DNA” — Kendrick Lamar
  8. “Bottle in My Bed” — Sunny Sweeney
  9. “Say My Name” — Tove Styrke
  10. “New Year’s Day” — Taylor Swift
  11. “Hard Times” — Paramore
  12. “Silver” — Waxahatchee
  13. “Story of O.J.” — Jay-Z
  14. “Diane” — Cam
  15. “Bodak Yellow” — Cardi B
  16. “Los Ageless” — St. Vincent
  17. “Drew Barrymore” — SZA
  18. “Round Here Buzz” — Eric Church
  19. “Bad and Boujee” — Migos featuring Lil Uzi Vert
  20. “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” — Ashley McBryde

MOVIES

My own Top 10,  presented in a format borrowed from one of my favorite recurring features, Film Comment’s “Moments in Time,” which sought to capture each of a year’s movies in a single scene, moment, or memory.  Here are my 2017 “moments in time”:

  1. Tom Hardy immolates his fighter plane and walks stoically toward capture. Grace under pressure on the beaches of DUNKIRK.
  2. A police car pulls up, the audience tenses, and everyone knows what will happen. Or do they? A brilliant double-ending for GET OUT.
  3. Saoirse Ronan leans out of an East Coast dorm window, looks up to the skies, and bellows “Bruce!” with a mix of hope and exasperation. LADY BIRD wishes on a Sacramento star.
  4. Director Sean Baker pans across the decaying, candy-colored ice cream huts, souvenir shops, and roadside motels on the outskirts of Orlando’s Magic Kingdom. Surveying alien topography in THE FLORIDA PROJECT.
  5. “You glad to be back in the Delta?,” white former fighter pilot Jamie grimly asks to black former tank sergeant and could-he-be-a-friend? Ronzell along a Mississippi back road. Two war heroes are now MUDBOUND.
  6. Four feet in unison on a hardwood floor, Betty Grable on the box. Richard Jenkins and a radiant Sally Hawkins share a moment of joy in the Fifties fairy tale THE SHAPE OF WATER.
  7. “You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you.” Michael Stuhlbarg puts a compassionate bow on his son’s heady summer in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.
  8. Rooney Mara stops to eat a pie, not a piece of pie, amid the Polaroid-framed poetry of A GHOST STORY.
  9. Skeleton ancestors illuminated in the night, a “city of the dead” so full of life in COCO.
  10. THE POST publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) turns her back to the roomful of men who’ve invaded her home, braces herself, and takes a leap. Then she goes to bed.

Honorable Mentions: The Big Sick, A Quiet Passion, Baby Driver, Wonder-Woman, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Logan, It.  

Decent-tasting popcorn: Thor: RagnarokStar Wars: The Last Jedi, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Lego Batman Movie, Atomic Blonde.

Redeeming qualities: The Beguiled, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Battle of the Sexes, Alien: Covenant.

Duds: mother!, Guardians of the Galaxy II.

Ten I still haven’t seen (but wish I had): Phantom Limb, Faces Places, B.P.M., Girls Trip, Good Time, The Lost City of Z, Personal Shopper, Wonderstruck, Graduation, Jane.

TV

I tend to only have one TV show going at a time, so my television watching is even more haphazard than my listening and movie watching (things which were once far less haphazard). This is everything (new) that I watched in full this year. The ones I most wanted to see that I just haven’t gotten around to yet: Twin Peaks: The Return, The Vietnam War, Insecure.

  1. The Deuce
  2. The Leftovers
  3. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
  4. American Epic (PBS series on early American recorded music)
  5. Mindhunter
  6. Fargo
  7. Better Call Saul
  8. Game of Thrones
  9. Big Little Lies
  10. Glow

New to Me

Maybe I’ll keep better track of the “old” stuff I read, watch, or listen to for the first time in 2018, but I’ll offer one newly experienced gem from each medium for 2017: True Grit by Charles Portis is a slim, quick, deeply pleasurable read with an unforgettable protagonist and a setting in my home state of Arkansas. Not sure what took me so long. … After Jonathan Demme’s death, I finally watched Something Wild, his 1980s screwball comedy of sorts with Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, and Ray Liotta. It lives up to its title as a particularly individual take on a classic genre. … James Blood Ulmer’s 1983 album Odyssey caught me by surprise, adding fiddle to his jazz-blues guitar skronk to elevating effect.