Top 10 lists are an exercise in futility, scenester-ism and dick-measuring. But we do them anyway, because they give us (or me and millions of other stunted “adults”) a necessary framework for thinking about the year that passed. A disclaimer just in case: this is a subjective list. It’s my past year, and I’m sorry I didn’t ever get around to hearing the highly-acclaimed LCD Soundsystem record. It’s always something.
1. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky: This summer, I moved into the first adult apartment of my life, which was a major shock: I learned how to clean dishes before the landlord went nuts over filth, how to live with other people without wanting to kill them, and how to clean my room without going crazy. Through it all, I kept listening to Wilco obsessively, which both surprised me and made me feel guilty: how could a band standing for something I find, in principal, supremely irritating (humorless ‘70s rock) be so satisfying for the third time in a row? Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made sense as the perfect compromise point between Jeff Tweedy’s pop sweet spot and Jim O’Rourke’s noise-in-every-spare-corner production techniques; Summerteeth is a sugar overdose with suicidal lyrics. I love both dearly, but surely Wilco was just a band that got lucky an unusual number of times; Sky Blue Sky is nothing if not the trad-rock album they were always gesturing to. And yet: the more people kept pointing out that the album was uncomplainingly domestic—that Tweedy sounded more resigned to suburban marriage than ever (“Hate It Here” is a song made for minivan dads who find themselves doing the laundry as penance), or that this would play fine next to the Eagles—the more I liked it. Not as a reaction, but simply because I couldn’t see how those were real complaints. I’ve never listened to the Eagles, aside from 14 million involuntary listens to “Hotel California”; are they really this subtle about their instrumentation and unpredictable about their chord changes? How many music obsessives (and critics) are really living wild, Iggy Pop (or even cough syrup-addled Lester Bangs) lifestyles, and how many of them are closer to the resignation of this album than they’d like to admit?
Sky Blue Sky finds Tweedy, as always, in a state of Pynchon-esque lyrical paranoia: on Yankee, the big concern was “speakers speaking in code,” and here inanimate objects have gone one step further in their conspiracy: “The doorframe screams ’I hate you,’” Tweedy claims on “You Are My Face.” As morbid as ever, he tackles death head-on in closer “On And On And On” with less metaphorical/poetic distance than he’s ever (ab)used: “Please don’t cry/We’re designed to die.” That’s the bracingly unsentimental yet all-encompassing heart of this album: accepting without embracing the inevitable compromises of time. Maybe it’s a bad thing that I associate this album with doing dishes, but oh well.
One more thought, hastily acquired at the last minute: listen to how flat Tweedy’s vocals are on Summerteeth, and how open they are here to vocal trembling and imperfection. Being open to naturalness certainly isn’t an asset in and of itself, but to claim that this record is somehow hermetically sealed to frames of reference outside of ‘70s rock is nuts. Such naked singing would have been unthinkable.
2. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga: I’m from Austin, so Spoon’s indie rock—perfectly calibrated for damn well near a decade now—is pretty much one of the sounds I could listen to being ripped off all day without it ever getting old; hometown pride forever. But it would’ve been one thing for me to have unreservedly loved this album (like I have everything Britt Daniel & Co. have done virtually since inception besides Gimme Fiction) and still felt like I was overrating it; it was another thing to watch it become the consensus album of the year. Consensus albums are, generally, dull things, immaculate songcraft everyone respects but no one feels wild about. So it was especially weird to look at Pitchfork and see some of the people who voted for it who really should’nt’ve: Andy Battaglia, who specializes in electronica, had it at #17; Tom Breihan, resident hip-hop advocate, had it at #21. Spoon was the indie-rock album for people who don’t like indie rock; proof that it wasn’t just my imagination that they’ve taken spare instrumentation, pared-down hooks, and oblique lyrical sentiments as far as anyone could. They really are the best people doing this prototypical thing with intelligence and something like innovation. Closer “Black Like Me” sums up every sincere, nostalgic, tentative sentiment Daniel’s let slip out the last few years: “I’ve been needing someone to take care of me tonight,” he announces unambiguously. It’s the perfect finale for a band that’s always been less austere than haters would claim.
3. Emma Pollock, Watch the Fireworks: If I had any balls, this would be my #1 for the year—I would’ve listened to it on infinite loop. But there are plenty of new favorites to meet, so Emma’s despairing, lovely album—the resurrection of The Delgados, for all practical purposes, and hence of one of my all-time favorite bands—will be trotted out sporadically and repeatedly for the next few years whenever I’m too lazy to listen to something new. She’s the new Elliott Smith or something.
4. The National, Boxer: Unexpected late-breaking triumph for The National, who crawled under my skin, to my great annoyance, with Alligator. At the time, I was convinced that they were too adolescently melodramatic and self-serious by half: “I feel just like Tennessee Williams” was a line that made me burst out laughing. It still does, but I’ve finally understood that their malaise may be kind of whiny and stupid, but it’s not adolescent—it’s mid-career/life despair, wondering why these people are your friends and you’re drinking so much all of a sudden. Which makes it a great quarter-life crisis too (mumblecore post-grad music drama?), in addition to them just being a rocking band, one of the tightest units out there so far.
5. Fountains of Wayne, Traffic and Weather: Whenever I mention my abiding love of Fountains of Wayne, my more tasteful friends immediately assume I’m being ironic or sarcastic—this despite near-universal acclaim for their last album, the constant enthusiastic support of Robert Christgau, etc. What’s it take, huh? I’ll keep repeating this argument over and over until people finally stop obsessing bitterly over the admittedly annoying market saturation status “Stacy’s Mom” had 4 FREAKIN’ YEARS AGO: catchy melodies, ripping off the Cars as necessary, and acute lyrics about suburban divorce pain (key line: “Ever since your dad walked out your mom could use a guy like me”) does not make a “novelty song.” Traffic And Weather finds the band at their most predictable, which is to say they’ve honed their sugary hooks and short-story-esque lyrics about disheartened corporate drones, stupid but endearing teenagers, and life in the strip-mall suburbs to a science. Lumping them in with the rest of the top 40 is just stupid.
6. Menomena, Friend and Foe: I didn’t hear Menomena’s first album when it came out, because their band name was cutesy and their album title was worse (I Am The Fun Blame Monster). Then I bought tickets for this summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival, started listening to bands just to figure out who to see live while waiting for Clipse, and discovered that these guys are really good. The Flaming Lips might’ve sounded like this if they’d never gotten a budget: epic drums shooting for uplift, oblique lyrics about wanting to be a robot, melodies that make all the recording instrumentation supremely accessible. Some people, however, seem to believe that Menomena are just another indie band (they’re not: they’re some of the most sophisticated musicians I’ve seen live in quite a while), and by some people I mean Torquil Campbell of Stars, who wins the prize for single most obnoxious statement made in an interview. “I really do think that people should probably lose their virginity before they start writing reviews for Pitchfork,” he announced to the Onion A.V. Club. “Because then you’d actually know something about life, as opposed to just being afraid of it and, you know, thinking Menomena are important.” Once more, people: the concept of Social Prominence does not automatically equal Importance. This album is here mostly because I really like it, but partly as a fuck-you to the thinking that really liking something which is semi-obscure is somehow willfully being obtuse and self-consciously “difficult.” I’m being sincere.
7. Rufus Wainwright, Release the Stars: Everyone missed the fucking boat on this album, and it annoys me. The general complaint seems to be that there’s so much orchestration that it’s hard to tell if they’re show tunes or pop songs. I don’t remember this accusation being thrown at the similarly top-heavy Mercury Rev or Flaming Lips, but whatever. This is the best album he’s done since Poses, and that’s saying a lot: the over-elaborate arrangement wankery of Want One is gone entirely. These songs are pared-down and definitely pop: if you can’t see that for the arrangements (which work in concert with the hooks, not against them), you’re totally missing the point. Look, you can even work out to it! “Do I Disappoint You?” Never, Rufus. Never. Yours, your only straight male fan.
8. The Good, The Bad & The Queen, The Good, The Bad & The Queen: Man, the tone of this list is getting kind of bitter and vengeful and score-settling, isn’t it? So let’s take a positive moment to celebrate the return of Damon Albarn to the world of live bands playing live music. I’m of the weird camp which believes that Blur’s last album, Think Tank, was one of the best things they ever did: Albarn is oddly sympatico with Spoon’s Britt Daniel, given his increasing obsession with paring songs to their essential elements. Minimalist but hooky, Albarn proves—in case Gorillaz made you forget—that he’s more than just a brilliant booking manager who brings unlikely people together. Which is to say, he does it again here—who ever thought Fela Kuti’s drummer would play with The Clash’s bassist?—but while harnessing everyone in favor of songs that aren’t catchy until you play them 5 times, and suddenly you can’t get them out of your head. “I don’t use choruses that much anymore,” Albarn said. Could’ve fooled me dude. In a way, this is actually the single most significant Britpop album of the ’00s: unlike the self-proclaimed zeitgeist flashpoints of the Libertines (who almost earned it) or the Arctic Monkeys (who really didn’t), this is an old-school master showing the kids how it’s done. Paul Weller would kill to age this well.
9. Justice, †: Aside from their annoyingly cutesy-illiterate title, Justice don’t make a single misstep on their bid to replace Daft Punk in the dance sweepstakes. Almost as much fun as Discovery and considerably shorter, it’s supremely friendly stuff: the one thing I really don’t understand is why people keep labeling this album as sonically “harsh.” The last time I checked, screeching synths and loud guitars were traits of good fun for rock bands: why can’t mindless dance-mongers do the same? This is downright sugary as far as I’m concerned. Is “D.A.N.C.E.” this year’s “Young Folks”? I hope so.
10. 1990s, Cookies: I just wrote about this in the last column. It’s awesome.
The Year’s Most Underrated Album:
Baby Teeth, The Simp: We have failed as a nation because we did not recognize how awesome this album was. Actually, it wasn’t us, it was Pitchfork. I’ll cut Pitchfork all the slack they need for being the most comprehensive 5-reviews-a-day wide selection of music coverage, but their not reviewing this super-awesome ‘70s pastiche—equal parts ELO strings and guitar solos, Queen multi-tracked vocals, and other things that should be godawful together but aren’t—just makes me cry in my beer.
Albums I Listened To To Hastily Cover My Listmaking Ass And In No Way Claim That These Are Good Judgments, Covered in Snide Blurbs:
Simian Mobile Disco, Attack Decay Sustain Release: These guys are like Fergie fronting Justice. Bleh.
Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter: A more muscular version of M. Ward. Very cool; may creep up into the 10 on further listens.
Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala: I don’t get it. Sub-Magnetic Fields lyrics + tinny samples = a really bad belated introduction for me to Scandinavia’s most important international export or whatever.
Jay-Z, American Gangster: Good but by no means great—long, patchy, and occasionally tedious. However, “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is) really is as good a single as he’s ever done.
Yeasayer, All Hour Cymbals: Sorry, I liked TV On the Radio better the first time round.
Lil’ Wayne, Da Drought 3: This actually should probably be on the Top 10 instead of, say, 1990s. Now that I’ve finally listened to Weezy, I must confess that all the excitable hype was completely correct. To me, he’s the Stephen Malkmus of ’00s hip-hop: I have no idea how he so consistently does so many bizarre things with his voice and general pronounciation. There’s just a monstrous onslaught of stuff to deal with, and it’s going to take me too long.
Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology
These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.
The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.
Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.
Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.
What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.
These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.
Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.
Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.
The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.
The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.
A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.
It turns out that the dead are returning, but not exactly to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing
Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?
Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:
People, actual fucking people, are watching scene after scene like this and are saying “bruuuh! best. movie. of. the. year”?
This is objectively bad. Someone with no idea about editing will notice it. My brain is on fire thinking that this is an OSCAR NOMINATED MOVIE! FUCK! pic.twitter.com/QVDCxe2iaf
— Pramit Chatterjee 🌈 (@pramitheus) January 26, 2019
Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that feels like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)
We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: BlacKkKlansman
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design
Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.
In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”
Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.
Will Win: The Favourite
Could Win: Black Panther
Should Win: The Favourite