TRAKIN CARE OF BUSINESS YEAR-END 2015: TRANS THE NIGHT AWAY
In a world where even populist water-cooler icons like Star Wars and Adele merely play to expectations, it’s left to sexual politics to explore society’s outer edges – from Jill Soloway’s remarkable Transparent for the bourgeoisie and Sean Baker’s iPhone 5s-shot Tangerine documenting the lower depths, gender identity sat alongside racial tension as the year’s biggest moral issues – while politicians seemingly straight out of an SNL sketch tried to make sense of it all.
From Kendrick Lamar’s autobiographical hip-hop, Courtney Barnett’s androgynous slacker stream-of-consciousness and The Weeknd’s salacious, neurotic-tinged sexual come-ons to Pixar’s emotional deconstruction in Inside Out, our popular culture tried to take the temperature of a national mood that was increasingly schizophrenic, torn between the scary triumph of technology over humanity in Alex Garland’s impressive Ex Machina to the what-if scenarios of Frank Spotnitz’s chilling steampunk adaption of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.
Past tropes continued to get recycled, successfully in Noah Hawley’s meta-textual meditation on the Coen brothers’ Fargo, Tame Impala and Panda Bear’s EDM/rock hybrids, Alabama Shakes’ psychedelic soul, the neo-R&B refresher courses offered up by Leon Bridges and Nathaniel Rateliff, and the Americana melting pots of Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson; or, not so effectively by fanboy J.J. Abrams’ greatest-hits re-contextualization of George Lucas’ universe, no thanks to the unfortunate choice of Lena Dunham’s on-screen boyfriend as Darth Vader redux.
With brave female comics like Amy Schumer, Tig Notaro and Broad City’s Abby Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, the lines of gender conflict have been drawn in the sand, with post-macho types like Father John Misty and Kurt Vile demonstrating men are permitted to show their sensitive sides, too. Given that our cultural badges are now hidden away in our smartphones, that wider-than-ever, boundary-busting socialization gene becomes more important than ever in maintaining some form of civility.
Top 25 Albums Of The Year
- Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop): The best art – as does religion and, yes, rock ‘n’ roll – takes the mundane and profane and turns it into the sacred and the holy through the sanctification of ritual. Like Patti Smith fronting the Velvet Underground, this 27-year-old Aussie singer/songwriter/guitarist transforms everyday life into the miraculous, whether it’s playing hooky from work on a rooftop (“Elevator Operator”), staring at the cracks in the wall (“An Illustration of Loneliness [Sleepless in New York]”), inspecting a house for lease (“Depreston”), the merits of organic vegetables (“Dead Fox”), contemplating a night out (“Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party”), simply watching the grass grow (“Small Poppies”) or seeing Jesus in the water marks on your ceiling (“Kim’s Caravan”).
- Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope): Make no mistake, this is a sprawling hip-hopera, a trip inside the circles of Dante (or better yet Tupac’s) Inferno, battling with a demon on one shoulder and an angel on the other, juxtaposing Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream with Malcolm X’s darker vision and weighing the benefits and consequences of each along the way. Lamar fully embraces the contradictions at the heart of his experience, recognizing he is one in a long line of liberating prophets, wondering aloud between accommodation and revolution, taking an old Tupac Shakur interview and repurposing it to present the two sides in conversation, finally coming to the conclusion, “Although a butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.” Lamar may float like a butterfly, but like another famous rapper, he stings like a bee. “When the shit hit the fan, we’re still a fan.”
- Tame Impala, Currents (Modular/Interscope): Whether you consider these artful Aussie acid-popsters a group, or merely a vessel for mastermind Kevin Parker, the young auteur is the missing link between classic rock’s preening bombast, prog’s psychedelic head trip and EDM’s beat-oriented body grip. The next great arena band.
- Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear (SubPop): The former Fleet Foxes drummer Joshua Tillman was brought up in an evangelistic Christian household wanting to be a preacher, and he infuses his own music with that hell, fire and brimstone morality, where it’s often hard to tell whether he’s being sarcastic or sincere on his sophomore album. Poised between commitment (he’s married) and a refusal to be boxed in, Tillman’s latest ranges from the operatic,Orbison-esque croon and Flamenco horns of “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)” – about a sexual encounter and the electro-folk of “True Affection” (the frustrations of courting on social media) to the cheeky, third-person “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” an encounter with an overbearing, annoying chick whose malaprops “make me wanna fuckin scream… I wonder if she even knows what that word means.”
- Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper (Domino): Now living the expatriate’s life in Lisbon, Portugal, Animal Collective member Noah Lennox’s latest was recorded at home and mixed by frequent collaborator Sonic Boom on the Balearic island of Minorca off the coast of Spain, but it could well have emerged from 1967 San Francisco. It’s a post-EDM psychedelic trip that deals with both personal reinvention (moving from the U.S.) and the title hereafter, opening with the dreamy, underwater sound of “Sequential Circuits” before segueing into “Mr Noah,” a barking ode to a dog that got bit on his leg and “don’t want to get out of bed,” with an eerie, echoed vocal that is the aural equivalent of getting humped by that very same hound. The closing “Acid Wash” is like a liturgy, a benediction for the living that urges us to defy the inevitable as long as possible: “Laugh, the chasm…With a yell/as you’ve won against/the dark.” With the heft of a Greek myth, Panda Bear leads us from pitch-black to light, staring down his own demise with a hymn to filling the void with our own work, which is, in the end, the only thing that lasts, even if only for a short while.
- Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color (ATO): If you were wondering what it was like to go from being a humble postal worker delivering the mail in rural Alabama to fronting a critically acclaimed, world-class rock band in less than six years, take a listen to force of nature Brittany Howard on the opening title track to their chart-topping second album, co-produced with Blake Mills, purring: “A new world hangs/Outside the window/beautiful and strange/It must be I’ve fallen awake. She needn’t bother pinching herself, either, because things are only going to get better after a follow-up to their multi-Grammy nominated debut that takes their elemental roots sound into strange new territory.
- Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty): This meditation on the thin line between life and death is the Michigan singer/songwriter’s seventh album, and marks a return to his wistful gossamer folk roots – part Simon & Garfunkel at their most wistful, Neil Young at his most plaintive — the title a nod to his mother, who died in 2012, and stepfather.
- The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness (XO/Republic): The Artist Formerly Known as Abel Tesfaye is the aural sex equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey, so it’s no coincidence he contributed to the soundtrack’s biggest hit, “Earned It,” a trembling, falsetto come-on that hints at the pain beneath the pleasure. In a Spotify world of a la carte tracks, he’s created a unified statement of intent, a yearning, salacious tease that takes Max Martin’s “Off the Wall” disco beat to locate the sweet-and-sour pulse of the pop zeitgeist.
- Adele, 25 (XL Recordings/Columbia): It’s not just the voice, stupid, but it sure starts there. Adele’s clear-eyed, impassioned ability to cut through every conceivable barrier – age, race, country, economic – is what’s turned her into pop music’s equivalent of Barry Bonds, without steroids, and given her new svelte figure, her beloved junk food, either. The Cockney girl-next-door’s Jim Nabors-esque ability to be both Eliza Doolittle and Julie Andrews doesn’t hurt her ability to make you believe she’s singing directly to every one of us.
- The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (Capitol): The Portland indie mainstays, who sound more like medieval troubadours than alternative icons, have returned after a four-year absence, fully aware of shifting times and the need to evolve, as singer/ songwriter Colin Meloy makes clear in the typically tongue-in-cheek opener, “The Singer Addresses His Audience”: “We know we belong to ya/We know you built your lives around us/And would we change?/We had to change some.” Actually the things that make the band so appealing are still here, the seemingly ancient plaints, the delightfully arcane language, the fears of mortality underneath the flippant wordplay, expressed best in the ironically named closer, “A Beginning Song,” which ends with a flash of “bright light… all around me.”
- D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah (RCA): Although this surprise release came out just after I compiled my 2014 year-end list, the mysterious soul man delivered his first album since 2000’s Voodoo, a stoner headphones classic that refracts traditional R&B in a funhouse mirror like Picasso’s cubism, a post-hip-hop blend of the erotic politics ofThere’s a Riot Going On and What’s Going On, the format minimalist audacity of Kid A and 808s & Heartbreak, the druggy, soulful ecstasy and agony of A Wizard, A True Star and Suicide. Listen long enough while reading along with the buried, socio-sexual lyrics and you’re sucked into a vortex of an idiosyncratic history/reworking of the blues, from Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk to Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince and Kanye.
- Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There (Matador): Musical alchemists Ira Kaplan, wife Georgia Hubley and James McNew (with the help of returning guitarist Dave Schramm) take the primary influences from a lifetime of listening and absorbing, then turn them into their own “Met”-amorphosis. Like Ira’s beloved baseball team of the same name – whose bilingual infield gaffe gave the group its name — the results are amazin’ indeed.
- Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night (Columbia): The grizzled voice of a generation’s stunning MusiCares speech laid the groundwork for this idiosyncratic release of songs covered by Frank Sinatra, in which he consciously reverts back to the much more ingratiating croon of his John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and, yes, Self Portrait days. Dylan turns “That Lucky Old Sun,” a chain-gang song about the pains of labor and the indifference of nature, recorded by everyone from Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to the most recent version by Brian Wilson, into a “Forever Young” paean to a lifetime well-spend whose theme harks back directly to “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” though this time with the melancholic benefit of hindsight.
- Wilco, Star Wars (dBpm Records): A disciplined, but still loose-limbed collection that ranges from the Abbey Roadmajesty of “More…,” the T. Rex/Bowie stomp of “Random Name Generator,” the country flair of “The Joke Explained,” the loping pedal steel plaint of “Taste the Ceiling” and the somber, deliberate funereal organ of “Magnetize” to the raucous rockabilly and Nels Cline shredding of “Pickled Ginger,” the Stonesy country-blues and chicken-scratching guitars of “I Recognize You,” and the moody Velvets atmospherics and full-on abstractions of “You Satellite.” Like U2, they gave this album away for free on their website, and no one seemed to complain too much.
- My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall (ATO/Capitol): Like the title of their seventh album, the songs here start high in the snowy mountains (the surging “Believe [Nobody Knows]” with its chanted chorus) and proceeds to take us on a journey that includes tribal drums, funk bass and a hellacious Jim James guitar solo (“Compound Fracture”), his falsetto plaint and the harmonies of “Like a River,” the dark piano chords, joined pop voices and splashing beats of “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall),” the pounding jack-hammer rush, groove metal and discordant cracklings of the set piece “Spring (Among the Living),” the symphonic Buffalo Springfield opening mutating into Memphis soul of “Thin Line” and the furiousBlack Sabbath rumblings-meets-jazz improv of “Tropics (Erase Traces),” before the stream gently trickles to a shimmering close over James’ sweet R&B crooning in “Only Memories Remain,” which buzzes the ears like only the most immersive rock ‘n’ roll can.
- Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free (Thirty Tigers): Isbell pays tribute to the 9-to-5 ethic in no uncertain terms in the title track (“I thank God for the work”), while in “24 Frames,” he ponders fate as if it were an action movie. Elsewhere, he muses about being taken home through those “Alabama Pines,” complains that he’s tired of “Traveling Alone,” details the pains of growing up (“If It Takes a Lifetime”), considers teenage parents too young to know “the meaning of the difference between sacred and profane” (“Children of Children”) and tells the story of a friend dying of cancer with the metaphor of the “Elephant” in the room.
- Kurt Vile and the Violators, b’lieve I’m goin down… (Matador Records): From the garage to the front porch is not a long distance when it comes to this one-time guitar prodigy who proves just as adept on banjo strumming “I’m An Outlaw,” his melding of country and city, Neil Young and Lou Reed.
- Leon Bridges, Coming Home (Columbia): This Fort Worth, TX-based singer/songwriter has arrived the new-fashioned way that is really old-school, with word-of-mouth, fueled by influential blogs and tastemakers. Sporting guitar in hand and a throwback retro-soulful R&B croon that places him somewhere on the spectrum between, say, Gary Clark Jr.and Raphael Saadiq, Bridges’ songs come off like instant classics — even though they’re all self-penned.
- Mumford & Sons, Wilder Mind (Gentlemen of the Road/Glassnote Records): “I don’t even know if I believe/everything you’re trying to say to me,” sings Marcus Mumford in the first single from the band’s third album. I kind of feel the same way after listening all the way through, wondering if something’s up in the fairytale marriage of the band’s lead singer/ songwriter with Carey Mulligan or it could just be a metaphor for the eternal relationship dilemma – the impossibility of knowing exactly what’s going through your opposite number’s head. The band has famously ditched the banjos and stand-up bass this time around for a more amplified sound, but the raw emotion and heart-on-the-sleeve plaints remain the selling points. With a stylistic departure that only adds to the band’s strengths, Mumford * Sons prove there is indeed life after not only heartbreak, but acoustic instruments.
- Lana Del Rey, Honeymoon (Interscope): That poor little rich girl is back, with that all-knowing glint in her otherwise blank eyes. “We both know that it’s not fashionable to love me,” she states after the wide-screen, orchestral flourish on the title track of her third major label effort, in which her narcoleptic approach continues to lure listeners like sirens to the jagged rocks of their own misplaced desire even if it’s lost a little of its stunning originality.
- Compton: A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre (Aftermath/Interscope): Not the long-awaited Detox nor a sequel to the originalStraight Outta Compton, this dense, 16-track album that confirms the producer’s strengths as outlined in the movie, more comfortable in the background as a director and talent-spotter, just as he was from the beginning, grooming the likes of Ice Cube and Eazy-E to deliver over his meticulously chosen tracks from the crate. This time pushing newcomers like Kentucky-born. Raleigh, NC-born King Mez (Morris W. Ricks II), Dallas MC Justus (Justin Mohrie) and, especially, Oxnard, CA musician Anderson .Paak.
- Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats (Stax/Concord Music Group): More rough and ready – closer to vintage rough-hewn E-Street Band or even Van Morrison, say, than the retro approach of St. Paul and the Broken Bones or the raw histrionics of Alabama Shakes — Rateliff and company roar through these 11 songs like there’s a cab waiting outside with the meter running.
- Los Lobos, Gates of Gold (429 Records): Their first studio album release in five years offers a definitive glimpse into what makes that little band from East L.A. a national treasure, a powerful argument that any idea of a Trump-like wall sealing us off from their Mexican homeland should be demolished once and for all.
- The New Basement Tapes, Lost on the River (Harvest): T Bone Burnett put a variety of moonlighting musicians –Elvis Costello, the Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, Rhiannon Giddens, Marcus Mumford and Jim James, gave them a treasure trove of Bob Dylan lyrics and tried to emulate the loose-limbed creativity of the original. He didn’t get that – how could he? – but he did get the commitment of talented artists who found their individual paths into the music, and brought those insights into their day jobs.
- Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Django and Jimmie (Sony Legacy): A couple of wily vets let their hair down with this follow-up to the classic duet, “Poncho and Lefty,” creating an homage to two of their seminal influences along with a pot anthem for the ages.
RUNNERS-UP: Dawes, All Your Favorite Bands (HUB Records), Emile Haynie, We Fall (Interscope), Neil Young + the Promise of the Real, The Monsanto Years (Reprise); Keith Richards, Crosseyed Heart (Republic); The Internet,Ego Death (Odd Future/Columbia); Silversun Pickups, Better Nature (New Machine Recordings);
Top Live Shows Of The Year
- U2 at the Forum: State of the art production values and a seamless blend of old and new, innocence and experience as the last of the rock bands take their fans on an emotional journey.
- Tame Impala at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery: I’ve seen the future and rock ‘n’ roll is definitely a part of it, if not necessarily in album sales, certainly as a wide-screen, multi-sensory spectacle, and young Aussie phenom Kevin Parker, the one-man auteur of this live group, is just the man to take it there.
- Courtney Barnett at the Roxy/Grammy Museum: The young Aussie singer-songwriter proves a live dynamo with her power trio, a blend of Hendrix psychedelic guitars and deadpan observations, then rolls out of bed the next afternoon (in the same T-shirt) for a completely charming, self-effacing chat with Robert Santelli.
- Panda Bear and Ducktails at the Roxy: A tribute to what a pair of one-man bands with an array of loops and beats is capable of, as these two DJ/performers take rock into the EDM age.
- The Replacements at the Hollywood Palladium: Sure, nostalgia is the last thing Paul Westerberg wanted to evoke (or sell, as the case may be), but thankfully, the band was fully in the present. Of course, what would the ‘Mats be if it didn’t all go up in smoke in the end?
- Television at the Teragram Ballroom: Tom Verlaine and company didn’t so much evoke reveries of the past, but point the way to one possible future, much as they’ve done from the very beginning.
- Wilco at the Greek Theatre: If there’s a better American rock songwriter around than Jeff Tweedy right now, I haven’t heard ‘em (though Jason Isbell comes close), and what other band could get away with playing their entire new album for the first part of the concert before segueing into their greatest shoulda-been hits?
- The War on Drugs at the Greek Theatre: In less than two years TWOD has gone from headlining the Troubadour to nearly filling the iconic, 6,000-seat venue with guitar hero Adam Granduciel’s mellifluous, glistening leads fueling a vision of Platonic perfection, chiming like peals of some celestial church bell, awakening to a higher power.
- My Morning Jacket at Mack Sennett Studios, L.A.: An intimate, in your face rundown of the new album plus an encore of extras, as MMJ proves they may be simultaneously the most muscular –and thoughtful — rock band in the land.
- Patti Smith Group at the Roxy Theatre: Stay at it long enough and the cognoscenti will find their way back to you, as this celeb-packed show proved, with the likes of Johnny Depp, Morrissey, Pharrell Williams, Tim Robbins andJimmy Iovine cheering on the punk poetess, who proved up to the occasion with songs dedicated to Amy Winehouse,Bill Murray, William Burroughs and new grandson Frederick (a cover of Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”).
- Jason Isbell at the Wiltern Theatre: This easy-to-embrace singer-songwriter easily straddles rock’s roots in country, folk, blues, R&B and even gospel, deconstructing the genre and putting it all back together. If anyone can save Nashville from the lowest common denominator of bro country, Isbell might well be the one, with a fierce intelligence and melodic chops to spare.
- Mumford and Sons at the Roxy: Sure we had to leave our cell phones at the door, but it didn’t matter, unless you didn’t believe your eyes that these arena-rockers were performing their stylistic 180-degree turn just for us.
- Brian Wilson at the Vibrato Grill Jazz, L.A.: A veritable friends and family affair, the once and future Beach Boydidn’t have to travel far from his favorite Beverly Glen deli nor his home off Mulholland for this special intimate performance at the Herb Alpert-owned boite, promoting the DVD/Blu-Ray release of his Love and Mercy biopic. Highlight was when the film’s star Paul Dano joined him on-stage for some neat falsetto accompaniment to Pet Sounds’ moving “You Still Believe in Me.”
- Real Estate at the Twilight Concert Series at the Santa Monica Pier: There’s probably no better band to convey that magical combination of ocean breezes and surf gently rolling in than these New Jersey indie rockers, with their patented shifting sense of place and atmosphere, their wonderment wafting across the audience like the night chill, settling over us with both anxiety and calm, a welcome antidote – and addendum – to real life. If there were three words to describe it… location, location, location.
- How to Be a Rock Critic: Based on the Writing of Lester Bangs (Center Theatre Group) Upstairs at Kirk Douglas Theater, Culver City: Erik Jensen’s one-man tribute to the late, great rock critic is a labor of love with partner/director/co-writer Jessica Blank, as he welcomes us into his lair. The ingenious stage set in the tiny 60-seat theater houses a full recreation of Lester’s vinyl-strewn apartment, complete with manual typewriter, tattered copies of Rolling Stone and Creem strewn across the floor, and a well-worn Physician’s Desk Reference on his cluttered desk alongside a turntable, on which he’d demonstrate some of the music he rants about. All that’s missing are the plastic bags of garbage piled high to the ceiling, leaving only enough room to form a path.
- Kurt Vile and the Violators at the Fonda Theatre, L.A.: Live, the songs are more Crazy Horse than After the Gold Rush, as the long-haired troubadour takes the stage to the kind of ovation that suggests he could be following his ex-mates in The War on Drugs to larger venues in the very near future
- Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band at the Forum, L.A.: The original blue collar Motor City rocker might not have his fastball anymore, but he proved a wily veteran, leading his crack band through all his hits, making up in savvy – and, most importantly, heart — what he lacked in pure firepower.
- Ariel Pink at the Twilight Concert Series at the Santa Monica Pier: This nice Jewish boy from Beverly Hills can be a handful, his own restless musical eclecticism undercutting his pop ambitions in ways that are both thought-provoking and enervating. For a guy capable of writing indelible pop melodies, Ariel Pink is sure one contrary fellow, but that’s what makes his rock ‘n’ roll such a hall of mirrors, a conundrum that hides its tragedy behind a comic mask. One thing you gotta say… he’s never boring.
- Darlene Love at the Whisky-A-Go-Go: It’s somehow totally appropriate that, while her mentor rots away in a prison cell, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame vocalist is free at last, liberated and ready to make good on a promise long ago, joining new patron Little Steven Van Zandt for a joyous celebration of her new solo album, the tongue-in-cheek titledIntroducing Darlene Love.
- tUnE-yArDs at the Twilight Concert Series at the Santa Monica Pier: The name of Merrill Garbus’ tribe may be a pain in the ass to type, but it does have a certain look to it that emulates the group’s homemade, simple, binary, beat-and-space percussive approach, sort of the Stomp of indie rock. Surrounded by a snare, a tom-tom and what appears a synthesizer/ sampler, a pair of drum sticks in hand, Garbus commands the stage from the center like some musical Lena Dunham, decidedly unfashionable in her striped dress and bare feet, leaving the fashion to a pair of comely background singers and her indomitable bassist.
- B52s and Psychedelic Furs at the Hollywood Bowl: It’s hard not to enjoy an evening of music, and this ‘80s new wave-inflected double bill was given extra heft with the backing of Thomas Wilkins and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. For one night, the huge amphitheater under a glittery Hollywood sky felt a little bit like a crowded biker bar on the Lower East Side some 40 years ago.
- James Williamson, Cheetah Chrome and the Richmond Sluts at the Bootleg HIFI: OG punk the old-fashioned way, with plenty of snarls and feedback, featuring an all-star cast backing the Raw Power Stooge: Jello Biafra, Alison Mosshart, Jesse Malin and a show-stopping Lisa Kekaula of The BellRays wailing “Gimme Shelter” style on “I Got a Right.”
- Syd Straw at McCabe’s Guitar Shop: Less a concert than the best stand-up music performance this side of Take No Prisoners, the always-entertaining singer-songwriter spent equal amounts of time talking to her dog as playing, but it made for one of the half-year’s most entertaining evenings.
- Yo La Tengo and Amber Tamblyn at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery/at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel: The world’s most amiable avant-gardists accompany an angst-ridden one-time starlet turned spoken word priestess, as daddy Russ took it all in from the audience. Just a few months later, Ira, Georgia and James returned as a four-piece with old/new guitarist Dave Schramm in tow for a somber, post-Paris terrorist attacks show that played off their Stuff Like That There album that found the sweet spot between the Velvets and the Dead in the healing power of music.
- Guster at the Wiltern: Sunny, power pop from these alt-rock veterans who seemed delighted that anyone still cared, then proceeded to wear their own hearts on their sleeves with a winsome, but never cloying, set to a rapturous crowd of Gen X’ers.
- Sturgill Simpson at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel: If country is the new rock, then Americana may well be the new country. And if it is, this 30-something former railroad worker may well be its chief benefactor, entertaining his largely male, completely inebriated following with a robust set in the tradition of outlaw icons like Merle, Johnny and Waylon, as well as Van Morrison and Otis Redding.
- Beach House at the Fonda Theatre, Hollywood: Lissome Victoria Legrand and cohort Alex Scally create a Spectorian wall of vibrating, shimmering melodies that buzz the senses.
- A Celebration of the 60th Anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” at The Theater at Ace Hotel, L.A.: You got to hand it to Hal Willner, who produced a show that combined the talents of Nick Cave, Beth Orton, Lucinda Williams,Devendra Banhart, Macy Grey, Van Dyke Parks, Peaches, Will Forte, Amy Poehler, Chris Parnell and Fred Armisen, only to have Courtney Love lead everyone in a final, kumbaya moment with a sing-along of “Only Love Will Break Your Heart.”
- The Wild Honey Orchestra Performs The Beatles White Album at the Alex Theater, Glendale: Once again, musical director Rob Laufer and his eclectic band of collaborators –ranging from Paul Revere and the Raiders’ Keith Allison and Fairport Convention founder Iain Matthews to new wavers Mitch Easter, Redd Kross and The Muffs — explore the Fab Four catalog and bring out things you never heard before, all for Paul Rock’s Autism Think Tank.
- Nicki Minaj at the Teragram Ballroom: The surprise guest culminating the Red Bull-curated 30 Days in L.A.brought down the house with her flow and va-va-voom cartoon body, with a victory lap that brought out all her sass and salacious sex appeal.
- The Internet at the El Rey Theatre: Androgynous Odd Future alum Syd tha Kyd (Sydney Bennett), like Kiersey Clemons’ Diggy in Dope, is a gender-bending, stereotype-busting hip-hop groundbreaker that busts her origin group’s misogyny with a crowd-pleasing album release party for Ego Death, her third collab with keyboardist/producer Matt Martians, offering an amalgam of post-hip-hop prog R&B that owes a debt to Prince, the Mothers, George Clinton andOingo Boingo, crossing racial, gender, class and generational boundaries to create a new locus of understanding, one nation under the funk.
- Yusuf/Cat Stevens at the Nokia Live: Proof that songs make the man rather than vice versa.
- Daryl Hall & John Oates and Mayer Hawthorne at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Irvine, CA: Hard to believe less than five years ago, H&O were little more than ‘80s retreads, forever trapped in Daryl’s blow-dried hair andJohn’s porn-stache buttressed by an admittedly indelible string of hit singles fueled by MTV videos. Now full-fledged members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the duo packed this venerable 13,000-plus open-air venue with not just Hall’s always-loyal legion of MILFs, but an across-the-spectrum age group that abandoned any sense of irony or camp at the front gate.
- Van Halen at the Hollywood Bowl: “Eddie gets you into the tent and I sell you the bibles,” cackled David Lee Roth, and that he did, highlighting a throwback performance that combined his own glorious stage shtick with his partner’s guitar histrionics not far from their Pasadena roots.
- Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats at the El Rey Theatre: Not just another bunch of white boys playing soul music, but a blend of Springsteen, Morrison and Redding that turns the fist-pumping, hand-clapping, testifying audience into a rousing gospel choir.
- Lil Dicky at the Fonda: Hip-hop as performance art in which our hero toasts like George Jessel on a Viagra, gin and juice cocktail.
- Wynonna and the Big Noise at the Hotel Café: Turning to rock and blues, the one-time country diva is now the Big Mama, with a style that shows she’s been doing this long before Adele.
- Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead at AMC Universal CityWalk 19: Now that they’ve rediscovered their mojo – and John Mayer – this fare-thee-well has lost a little of its luster, but that can’t take away from an emotional retrospective performance that had to bring a smile to Captain Trips’ face, wherever he is.
- Blonde on Blonde on Blonde: Jill Sobule with Tammy Faye Starlite as Marianne Faithfull at McCabe’s Guitar Shop: A pair of talented songbirds turn this already intimate venue into their own living room with a joyful turn that leaves everyone grinning ear-to-ear.
- Culture Club at the Greek Theatre: Boy George’s triumphant return cemented his rep as a warm-hearted, all-inclusive showman who also happened to be a brave trailblazer for these gender-bending times.
RUNNERS-UP: Melissa Etheridge & Blondie at the Greek Theatre; DIIV, No Joy and Sunflower Beam at the Roxy; Smashing Pumpkins at the Fonda Theater; Ian Hunter & the Rant Band/Steve Wynn at the Roxy; FFS at the Wiltern Theatre, L.A.; Dave Davies at the Roxy, L.A.; Swamp Dogg/Bobby Patterson at the Echo; Robert Downey Sr. Tribute, Putney Swope, with Louis C.K. at the Theater at the Ace Hotel; An Evening of Nostalgia with Annie Lennox; Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life: An All-Star Grammy Tribute at the Nokia; Steve Earle at the Grammy Museum; Billy Joe Shaver at the Troubadour; Railroad Earth at the El Rey Theatre; Motown: The Musical at the Hollywood Pantages Theater; Laura Marling at the Palace Theatre; Stephin Merritt at Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery; Silversun Pickups, KCRW Apogee Session, Santa Monica; Hot Chip and !!! at the Greek Theatre; the bird and the bee at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery; Todd Rundgren at the Roxy; Sheryl Crow at the Acme Seed & Feed, Nashville; Dwight Yoakam and X at the Annenberg Space for Photography; Palma Violets at the Teragram Ballroom; The Damned and C.J. Ramone at the Fonda Theatre, Brandon Flowers at the Wiltern Theatre; Celebrating Gregg Allman at the Skirball Cultural Center
Top 15 Songs Of The Year
- The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face”: The megahit tribute to cocaine-induced numbness turns its creator into a ball of fire in which auteur Max Martin takes Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” and comes up with an irresistible smash.
- Tame Impala, “Let It Happen”: The song mutates like an apparition over the course of its 7:49, opening with an insistent keyboard riff that begins repeating like a skipped record before going off, first into an orchestral interlude, then an extended psychedelic trance. By the end, Parker begins chanting in a Kraftwerk-like robotic voice, dragging classic rock into the present/future.
- Courtney Barnett, “Depreston”: Tongue-in-cheek blast at urban redevelopment that perfectly captures the voyeurism of looking for a new place to live.
- Adele, “Hello”: Yep, she had us at… well, you know the rest.
- Kurt Vile and the Violators, “Pretty Pimpin’: Laconic, but tuneful, this garage-band lo-fi rocker has found his innerNeil Young.
- Kenrick Lamar, “Alright”: An eerie, “conflicted” trip through the old ‘hood where hip-hop’s current king insists, “We gonna be alright,” while levitating off the ground, ducking police bullets and avoiding Lucy (as in Lucifer).
- Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, “S.O.B.”: A summertime anthem that turns audiences into a fist-waving, foot-stomping, sing-a-along chanting Baptist choir.
- Alabama Shakes, “Don’t Wanna Fight”: Brittany Howard lays it down in no uncertain terms.
- Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk”: Ubiquitous, unavoidable, an instant classic that even on first listen, sounds like you’ve heard it before.
- David Bowie, “Blackstar”: The first single from his upcoming album returns the Thin White Duke to the surrealism of his “Ashes to Ashes” period with a harrowing, creepy 10-minute music video that juxtaposes faith, superstition and idolatry in disturbing fashion.
- Lana Del Rey, “High by the Beach”: This dreamy, languid stoner of a track finds our poor little rich girl wandering around one of those abandoned ocean-front condos along Pacific Coast Highway that threaten to tumble into the drink in a diaphanous nightgown as a helicopter hovers outside the window. The former Lizzy Grant continues to drift through the world of contemporary music, a laconic siren not-so sweetly luring us to our own demise on the shores of pop culture.
- Big Sean, “Blessings” f/Drake and Kanye West: Guess one of them isn’t his relationship with Ariana Grande anymore, but this slice of humility is welcome in the too-often braggadocio world of hip-shop.
- Madonna, “Living for Love”: If she’s only just let the music speak for her, all would be forgiven, but she just can’t stop pushing buttons.
- A$AP Rocky, “Everyday” with Rod Stewart, Miguel and Mark Ronson: With a sample of Stewart’s “In a Broken Dream,” a song he recorded with Aussie group Python Lee Jackson and first released in 1970, then re-released two years later, the video’s a hallucinatory, drug-fueled dream, complete with intimations of sexual perversity, plastic surgery,Elvis/Howard Hughes-style isolation and ultimate self-immolation, as the charismatic Rocky proves his range, both as performer and actor.
- Lil Dicky, “Jewish Flow”/”Professional Rapper”: These two videos are both must-see viral sensations. In the former, Philly Main Liner David Burd goes into a rap battle with none other than Adolf Hitler himself, uttering the immortal dis, “Look above his lip, y’all/If he ain’t no pussy/What’s he got that landing strip for?” The latter is an animated clip in which he goes for a job interview with Snoop Dogg, rapping his resume bona fides in an incredible flow at once earnest, self-deprecating and over-the-top, a hip-opera vignette told entire in rhymes and beats, as Dicky raps out his tale of dropping out of a promising advertising career to become a rapper, using his bar mitzvah money to bankroll it.
RUNNERS-UP: Kendrick Lamar, “King Kunta,” Rihanna, Kanye West, Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds,” Elle King, “Ex’s & Oh’s,” “Mumford & Sons, “Believe,” Ariel McCleary, “She’s About to Cross My Mind,” FFS, “Piss Off,” Kali Uchis, “Rush,” James Supercave, “The Right Thing”
Top 30 Movies
- Tangerine (Magnolia Pictures): Sean Baker’s indie feature, shot with an iPhone 5s on Hollywood’s mean streets with an eerie orange glow takes us to a world far from the privileged one depicted in Transparent, as transgender stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor portray a couple of working women during a 24-hour period on Christmas Eve, as the former gets out of jail to track down her philandering boyfriend. There wasn’t a more affecting moment in film than the two comforting one another in a coin laundromat over a wig.
- Steve Jobs (Universal Pictures): Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s three-act meditation is another classic biopic (think Citizen Kane) with a post-modern slant, and if you’re a fan of the latter’s tongue-tripping diatribes in tracking shot motion – The Newsroom meets Social Network – this is the film for you. It’s all about one-upmanship, the bloodless brand of capitalist/ consumerist struggle played out in breathless fashion before our eyes. Michael Fassbender inhabits the role with the kind of intensity that sucks all the air out of a room, but crackles with energy on-screen.
- Inside Out (Pixar/Disney): Hard to deny this most philosophical/metaphysical of animated features, an Aristotelian nod to Pixar’s continued obsession with the mind/body split, the bittersweet transition from adolescence into adulthood, and, finally, a heroine who isn’t a princess, but literally the girl next store.
- Spotlight (Open Road Films): Thomas McCarthy’s Oscar front-runner about the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative report on sexual abuse within the Catholic release isn’t about priestly pedophilia as much as it is the ensemble teamwork that used to be the domain of print newspapers, couching the tireless work against the specter of the encroaching Internet.
- Ex Machina (A24/Universal Pictures): Alex Garland’s audacious sci-fi film offers a Kubrick-ian, god’s-eye perspective, yet another genre film with more on its mind than mere thrills. In fact, it’s a cerebral meditation on the age-old conundrum, can a machine actually feel emotions, with a delicious cat-and-mouse menage-a-tois chess match involvingOscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleason and the icy, alluring Alicia Vikander.
- Eden (Broad Green Pictures): This is not the EDM version of Saturday Night Fever we’ve been waiting for, but rather French director Mia Hansen-Love’s autobiographical glimpse at how youthful idealism curdles into not-so-youthful desperation within any cultural movement. Set in the ‘90s French techno scene that produced Daft Punk, it tells the story of her real-life brother, a contemporary DJ (the excellent Felix de Givry) – like Salieri to their Mozart — who rides the wave until it washes out.
- While We’re Young (A24)/
- DOPE (Open Road Films/Sony Pictures): Two worlds that couldn’t be further apart – aging Gen X yuppies in New York City and upwardly mobile black nerds in Inglewood – but respective auteurs Noah Baumbach and Rick Famuyiwa know their respective turfs well enough to be ruthless in their satirical sociology, exposing their characters’ flaws at the same time as they humanize them.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.): When you’re looking at reinvention, 70-year-old writer/director George Miller must go to the head of the class for this brilliant reboot of the series after a three-decade absence, and making it just as weird and groundbreaking now as it was then. Perhaps the ultimate comic book as cartoon movie, with nods to graphic novels as well as Chuck Jones’ Roadrunner oeuvre.
- Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures): Fellow South Central L.A. native F. Gary Gray’s fine music biopic of the groundbreaking gangsta rap group is an origin story that confirms the idea history is literally told by the survivors – both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were very much hands-on with the production. That intimate involvement is both the movie’s strength and weakness – it gets all the details right on the one hand, but also glosses over some of the ugliness on the other. Almost three decades later, the story has been turned into a compelling film of ghetto-to-Hollywood, I-told-you-so redemption that, by all rights, should be at the top of critic’s lists when it comes to award season. If not, fuck the Oscars…
- Love and Mercy (Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate): This idiosyncratic biopic – helmed by first-time director Bill Pohlad – features a masterful performance by Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson. And while John Cusack isn’t nearly as convincing as the elder version, the movie expertly weaves his life around the music, while unafraid to explore the dark side of its subject.
- Brooklyn (Fox Searchlight): Veteran Irish director John Crowley’s sweet-natured, but never sentimental, period piece is anchored by an award-worthy performance by Saoirse Ronan and a savvy adapted screenplay (from the Colm Toibin novel) by Nick Hornby, a ‘50s immigration saga that is the perfect antidote to Trump-style bloviating as a young innocent settles in the New World, then returns briefly to her homeland, forced to choose between a pair of suitors on either side of the ocean that represent her past and future.
- The End of the Tour (24/Anonymous Content): A meditation on the art and craft of writing and the perils of fame, which could well be subtitled My Fast Food Diner with David Foster Wallace, James Ponsoldt’s film about several days in the life of Jesse Eisenberg’s Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and Jason Segel’s best-selling author – at the height of his fame after the recent publication of his 1,000-page opus Infinite Jest — is a cat-and-mouse-game unspooling on a ubiquitous Sony cassette, a Vladimir and Estragon glimpse into the shifting sands of journalistic hunter and prey.
- Results (Magnolia Pictures): Indie auteur Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Computer Chess) takes the rom-com into unexpected directions with this conflation of today’s physical fitness craze with the vagaries of relationships. Guy Pearceis the earnest owner of an Austin gym whose employees include How I Met Your Mother star Cobie Smulders’ frustrated trainer Kat, whose lives are both changed when veteran character actor Kevin Corrigan – newly rich from an unexpected inheritance – walks in and asks to learn how to take a punch.
- Grandma (Sony Pictures Classics): Paul Weitz’s low-key film is a one-woman tour de force for star Lily Tomlin, who manages not to go gently, striking a blow for a boomer generation scratching and clawing to stay relevant. She never bows to sentimentality, embraces her crotchety nature to the fullest, while still opening up her ample heart, showing the three generations represented here still have something to offer each other.
- Amy (A24/Universal)/
- Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (HBO Documentary Films/ Universal): These two documentaries – both funded, in part, by Universal, in an attempt to somehow monetize their late superstars’ recorded catalog – offer immersive, subjective glimpses into their main subjects’ creative impulses, exposing the talent which somehow got lost in the midst of their real-life tragedies. Give credit to directors Brett Morgan (The Kid Stays in the Picture) and Asif Kapadia (Senna) for steering away their innovative docs from the exploitation and nearer the loss of real genius at a too-young age. Both films inadvertently offer a very similar cautionary tale for the passing of these two 27-year-olds who had so much to give, but not the confidence, inner resources nor help from those closest to them to keep going.
- Danny Says (Submarine Entertainment): Brendan Toller’s homage/documentary about Danny Fields – the man who helped sign the MC5 and Stooges to Elektra, then went on to manage the Ramones – is a warm-hearted labor of love that would make the perfect double-bill with George Hickenlooper’s similar valentine to L.A. DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, The Mayor of Sunset Strip. Both are rock ‘n’ roll Zeligs, cultural midwives who never stuck around long enough to get rich off their discoveries.
- Hateful Eight (The Weinstein Company): Even half-baked Tarantino is more watchable than most filmmakers, though this overblown, hellzapoppin’ riffing recalls Reservoir Dogs in its claustrophobic setting and bloody denouement. Think of it as a genre parody, a Mad magazine things we’d like to see, a Three Stooges with actual gore and blood and the Ultra Panavision 70 wide screen goes down much easier. At three hours-plus, it’s never boring.
- The Martian (20th Century Fox): Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi epic is a lot less dystopian than previous works likeAlien, Blade Runner or Prometheus. In effect, it’s an outer space western which takes place against the John Ford-like Monument Valley landscape of the red planet, with Matt Damon as Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a botanist who turns his being abandoned on the planet into a lesson in ingenious survival techniques. I wasn’t as enthusiastic as its boosters – I actually preferred the vertigo-inducing The Walk – but it has its old-style Hollywood charms.
- The Walk (TriStar/Sony Pictures): Criminally neglected, Robert Zemeckis’ 3D tribute to Phillippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk – which doubles as an homage to the now-vanished World Trade Center — has some of the most magnificent visual images ever committed to film. Sure, the opening bits in France are hokey, but once the caper gets underway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s impish, fast-talking dreamer lives up to the build, with a climactic walk over New York that literally takes your breath away. Too bad most viewers will never see it on the big screen, where it belonged.
- People Places Things (The Film Arcade): Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement plays a graphic novelist and School of Visual Arts professor who discovers his wife (Stephanie Allynme) cheating on him with an actor (Orange is the New Black’s Michael Chernus) while their adorable twin daughters (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) celebrate their fifth birthday downstairs. Writer/director James C. Strouse, a veteran indie filmmaker (Grace is Gone, The Winning Season, knows the worlds of academia and the arts as a teacher himself, so his urban fairy tale has the ring of truth.
- The Wrecking Crew (Magnolia Pictures)/
- Born in Chicago (Out the Box Records): A pair of documentaries that are truly labors of love, the former the longstanding project of Denny Tedesco, son of the famed L.A. session guitaristTommy Tedesco, the latter by director John Anderson a tribute to those young musicians – guys like Barry Goldberg,Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop — who helped transform the blues into rock ‘n’ roll in ‘60s Chicago. Ironically, both have sought crowd-sourced funding to help pay for the rights to the music so their films could be distributed, as both offer important history lessons in rock’s roots as well as spotlighting those who contributed to it, and may soon be forgotten.
- A Poem Is a Naked Person (Janus Films): Les Blank’s movie is more than just a Leon Russell documentary, it’s a glimpse into a long-gone time and place, where hippies and gap-toothed hillbillies mingled easily among a backdrop of rock’s very roots in blues, country, R&B, soul and gospel, a melting pot that fit the documentary filmmaker’s “Always For Pleasure” aesthetic to a T.
- Mistress America (Fox Searchlight): Noah Baumbach has had quite a year, with his New York millennial trilogy ofFrances Ha, While We’re Young and his latest, at once a throwback to the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges andFrank Capra as well as the mid-‘70s Big Apple romantic fables of Woody Allen, this time around with more than a little of Whit Stillman’s Upper East Side preppie-dom thrown in for good measure. If Diane Keaton was the Woodman’s muse back then, Greta Gerwig has certainly taken that role with Baumbach, to the point where she gets co-screenwriting credit on both Frances Ha and his latest.
- Finding Vivian Maier (IFC Films/Showtime): This documentary, co-directed by collector Charlie Siskel and John Maloof, offers a true art whodunit about a woman who obsessively took photographs over the course of her life, but kept them all hidden away, only to be rediscovered after her death. A nanny by occupation, but a voyeur at heart, Vivian Maier’s strange life is pieced together like a puzzle, using her found snapshots as the pieces that tell the story.
- Spy (20th Century Fox): This makes Paul Feig three-for-three, after turning the road movie (Bridesmaids), the odd couple “buddy” cop film (The Heat) and now the international James Bond thriller into feminist romps for not only emerging box office star Melissa McCarthy, but a talented cast of almost Sturges-like characters, each of them funny in their own way. The most laughs at a movie so far this year.
- We Are Your Friends (Working Title/Warner Bros.): The film flamed out at the box office – with much of the blame being how its marketing seemed to studiously ignore the very EDM outlets the movie is about. Not as good as the French-made Eden, but it raises many of the same issues about leaving behind adolescent fantasies and entering the real world – one in which your choices are down to repossessing houses or being a superstar DJ. Zac Efron continues his string of impressive performances in the lead, downplaying his looks in favor of a self-conscious ambivalence and self-effacing charm that not accidentally recalls the John Travolta of Saturday Night Fever.
- All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records (Company Name): Colin Hanks’ bittersweet tribute to the failed record chain that collapsed under the weight of disruptive technology and its own overleveraged expansion offers a loving glimpse at the history of the music business from the ‘60s boom to its early 21st century crash-landing.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Lucasfilm/Walt Disney): Fanboy J.J. Abrams has rebooted the fabled series with the true sequel his mentor George Lucas was never able to in his “prequels,” creating a movie even newbies can appreciate, a veritable Fab Faux cover of the saga’s greatest hits, but not even he can overcome having Lena Dunham’s boyfriend Adam Driver wheeze his way through as a Darth Vader wannabe.
Trainwreck (Universal Pictures): Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer’s much-ballyhooed collaboration on her autobiographical screenplay turned out to be huge disappointment for this unabashed fan of her TV show, stand-up and, especially, her appearances on Howard Stern. There’s no shame in getting updated by LeBron James, but Amy suffers from the prototypical Apatow cop-out, in which the untamed adolescent id is finally forced to confront — and acknowledge — the adult superego.
NOT SEEN: The Revenant, The Big Short, Carol, Joy, Bridge of Spies, Son of Saul, Trumbo
Top 10 Books
- Jonathan Franzen – Purity (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): Part of a trilogy of modern manners which includes The Corrections and Freedom, this Jonathan (with all due respect to Lethem and Safran Foer) may well be our best pure novelist, crafting a zeitgeist view of civilization and its discontents, an old-fashioned novel in new media res, which can be summed up in a phrase – a search by the title character for her father and her mother’s secret identity.
- Garth Risk Hallberg – City on Fire (Knopf): Never mind the reported $2 million advance, nor the 900-page-plus length, the comparisons to Bonfire of the Vanities, nor even the various inserts in the form of typewritten articles, handwritten confessionals or punk fanzines. This novel about ‘70s New York has a Dickensian scope that encompasses all strata of society into a six-degree-of-separation tale with a mysterious Central Park attack at the heart and an ending that takes place during the great Blackout of July, 1977. Give it some time, and the gears of its era-spanning narrative will begin to click into place.
- Robert Christgau – Going Into the City (Dey Street/HarperCollins): The self-declared Dean of American Rock Critics goes to the head of the class as a memoirist, who recalls growing up poor and bohemian, earning an Ivy League education, then getting thrust into the world of ’60 alternative politics and culture, with his prickly nature and intellectual one-ups-manship intact..
- Michelangelo Matos – The Underground Is Awesome: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (Dey Street/HarperCollins): Veteran music journo offers a lively look back on the roots of EDM in Chicago house, Detroit techno and New York garage, with a nod towards the Eurobeat of the Continent, delving into the pioneering DJs and producers who forged not just a sound, but a culture.
- Fred Goodman – Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock ‘n’ Roll (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Another misunderstood, behind-the-scenes mover and shaker, accountant-turned-manager Allen Klein — gets the revisionist treatment in the third of the noted author’s trilogy exploring the evolution of rock into a multi-national business – following Mansion on the Hill and Fortune’s Fool. Don’t know if Goodman managed to redeem Klein’s reputation, but he has managed to make human someone who was too often portrayed as a cartoonish gargoyle. And you can’t ask more from a biographer than that.
- Howard Paar – Once Upon a Time in L.A. (Over the Edge Books): The longtime Brit expatriate-turned L.A. music supervisor’s first-person homage to the noir novels of Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard (who actually appears as a character in the book) comes with its own curated soundtrack, accompanying a rousing tale of music industry corruption and avarice at the turn of the century just before its epic fail, complete with a greedy, drug-fueled Sydney Greenstreet-ish record company president, his pair of Mafioso indie promotion thugs and, naturally, a mysterious femme fatale.
- Bill Kreutzmann – Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with Benjy Eisen (St. Martin’s Press): Like a catcher in baseball, the drummer in a rock ‘n’ roll band takes it all in from his perch in back of the band, a fly on the wall for the Dead’s remarkable history, the last of the true hippie believers, who looks back on a life that placed him right in the middle of the Merry Pranksters’ Ken Kesey, Neal Casaday and Owsley Stanley on the one hand, andJerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh on the other. With all the drugs he took, it’s remarkable he remembered this much.
- Fred Schruers – Billy Joel (Crown Archetype): The longtime celebrity journalist does an efficient, workmanlike job on a very workmanlike rock icon, making careful to connect the dots between his life and music. While there are no revelations here, the bio ends up earning begrudging respect for subject and author alike, proving hard work and preparation still pay off, in scholarship as well as music.
- Don Silver – Clive: Working for the Man in the Age of Vinyl (Holloway Press): I learned more about Clive Davis from this slim 100-page memoir than I did in the 500-some-odd pages of the record man’s own bloated hagiographies. Silver is a baby boomer brought up on rock and roll and getting stoned who inadvertently stumbles into what he thought was his dream job – an A&R post at Arista Records from 1979-’81 – only to find, as many before him, that working with the great man is learning to live, thanklessly, in the shadows.
- Bill Brown – Words and Guitar: A History of Lou Reed’s Music (Colossal Books): This book is way too academic by half, but what I like about it is how, despite the author being a Reed scholar and sometime enthusiast, he’s not afraid to call “bullshit” on Lou when he stumbles artistically. So many of Lou’s followers simply parrot the party line; give Brown credit, he’s not afraid to see his idol’s feet turned to clay.FOR 2016: Harvey Kubernik, Neil Young: Heart of Gold (Backbeat Books)
Top 20 TV Shows
- Fargo (FX): The second season of Noah Hawley’s rethinking of the Coen brothers original tops even his excellent debut, a searing analysis of good vs. evil in the tristate area that features Ronald Reagan, UFOs, a Samuel Jackson-style hitman and a deadly family feud that leaves a string of corpses, and some bread crumbs to the first season, which takes place some 26 years in the future. It’s a model of taking an original and not just paying homage, but creating something, dare I say, even better.
- Transparent (Amazon): The second season of Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking series raised its own sexual issues with a flashback to the pre-war Weimar Republic in Germany, as the fallout from Jeffrey Tambor’s late-life transformation continues to trickle down to the rest of his dysfunctional family in heartbreaking vignettes that belie these “First World” issues as universal.
- Silicon Valley (HBO): Mike Judge’s satirical look at the high-tech set is the Revenge of Freaks and Geeks for our times, a simply hilarious examination of the boom-or-bust industry filled with the kind of observational character humor that gave Office Space its cult status.
- The Knick (Cinemax): Creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler are sticklers for historical accuracy in the first new twist on the hospital genre in years, with an early 20 th century look at early medical practices, with Clive Owen’s chief surgeon Dr. John Thackery, a drug-addicted, mercurial thinker who climaxes this second season by operating on himself.Andre Holland’s Dr. Algernon Edwards is the put-upon African-American trying to fit in, while Michael Angarno’s Dr. Bernie Chickering Jr. plays Owen’s prodigy, Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson the fetching, manipulative nurse Lucy andJeremy Bobb is the corrupt, conniving hospital manager Herman Barrow in a deep, compelling cast of characters.
- Girls (HBO)/Broad City (Comedy Central)/Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)/Veep (HBO): Jerry Lewismight be the only one around who still thinks women can’t be funny, because these four shows not only disproved that theory, they exhibited a humor with political, sexual and cultural heft at the same time. If the Broad City gals and Amy Schumer made Lena Dunham seem almost demure by comparison, the Brooklyn bard continued to prove capable of making her narratives hinge on recognizably human emotions, even as the behavior veers off into the tribal. Amy Schumer is simply the most original and promising comic – male or female – to come along in some time, while Julia Louise-Dreyfus had her best year yet battling to retain her accidental presidency on Veep.
- Mad Men (AMC): Matt Weiner’s epic look at the ‘60s went out with a whimper, rather than a bang, but the heft of its decade-long glimpse at an America changing in subtle – and not-so-subtle – ways maintained its deliberate, deadpan pace right up until the end, with Jon Hamm’s Don Draper chanting Zen and coming up with the idea for one of the most iconic Coke commercials of all time. As endings go, it was somewhere between The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, but at least it offered some kind of closure. Now, for a spinoff series that follows John Slattery’s character?
- Master of None (Netflix): Call Aziz Ansari’s charming millennial romantic comedy Love in the Age of Texting, with those bubbles on your iPhone taking the place of missives delivered by go-betweens in Cyrano de Bergerac times, perfectly illustraing the conundrum of too many choices in the big city, as if Woody Allen were reincarnated as a second-generation Indian immigrant.
- The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime): Frank Spotnitz’s adaptation of the “unfilmable” Philip K. Dickspeculative fiction about what would have happened if the Nazis and Japanese won World War II creates its own universe circa the early ‘60s, and a compelling drama at its heart as the Resistance battles the fascist overlords with purloined footage that depicts an alternative, parallel history.
- House of Cards (Netflix): Kevin Spacey and especially, Robin Wright, were fabulous as the malevolent First Couple, but season three was all about Michael Kelly’s ticking time bomb and discredited aide Doug Stamper, who limped through the year. a menacing presence on the mend, as we wondered what he’d do next in a performance that should nab him an Emmy nom.
- Ray Donovan (Showtime): Liev Schreiber received a well-deserved Emmy nomination as this wild and wooly, black-pitched noir succeeded with a third season that included Deadwood’s malignant Ian McShane as an entitled millionaire and Katie Holmes his duplicitous, braces-clad daughter in a timely plot that involved bringing an NFL team in Los Angeles. As always, Jon Voight’s mercurial Mickey virtually steals the show as the clan’s ne’er-do-well dad who can’t seem to avoid trouble.
- Better Call Saul (AMC): Breaking Bad was a tough act to follow, but Bob Odenkirk, Michael McKean and, especially, Jonathan Banks’ sad-eyed Mike Ehrmantraut did their best to resurrect that mood of imminent disaster with a whole other, more lighthearted, approach. Kudos to creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould for creating a veritable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back story for their epic tale of corruption and redemption underneath the turquoise skies of Albuquerque.
- Masters of Sex (Showtime): Michelle Ashford’s dramedy about the entwined lives of sex researchers Masters & Johnson – with the steamy paring of Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan leading the way – proved unflinchingly honest, and corrosive, about the vagaries of the birds and the bees, as the ‘60s paved the way for what we mistakenly thought would be sexual freedom.
- The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (HBO): Andrew Jarecki’s six-part documentary played like a murder mystery, spilling over into real life at the end, as the enigmatic heir to a New York real estate fortune literally gets hoisted on his own petard while caught chatting to himself off-camera about his guilt.
- Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon Prime): Gael Garcia Bernal is an eccentric Euro composer brought in to try to revive the New York Symphony, taking the baton from former enfant terrible Malcolm McDowell in Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, Alex Timbers and Paul Weitz’s series based on Blair Tindell’s 2006 memoir, Sex, Drugs and Classical Music. The result is sort of Whiplash meets Girls, showing the financial and competitive pressures of young people who pursue a career in classical music in the 21st century. Lola Kirke, sister of Girls’ Jemima, is the aspiring oboe player who longs to play in the orchestra, but gets a job as Bernal’s much-beleaguered assistant instead.
- Show Me a Hero (HBO): As a journalist and creator of both The Wire and Treme, David Simon is interested in the mechanism of how local government works amid the divisions of class and race as it effects the urban sprawl of cities like Baltimore, post-Katrina New Orleans and now, a housing kerfuffle in Yonkers circa 1987-‘94. This six-part miniseries, based on the 1999 book by former N.Y. Times reporter Lisa Belkin, documents the conflict when the suburban New York city of 200,000 is ordered by the federal government to provide 200 units of subsidized low-income housing, placingOscar Isaac’s tragically idealistic 28-year-old Mayor Nick Wasickso smack in the middle of the roiling debate, torn between his own ambitions and doing the right thing.
- The Affair (Showtime): This female soap opera by way of Rashomon, with multiple points of view, offered an intriguing second season that explored the disastrous effects of adultery, with compelling performances by Dominic West,Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson in a constantly shifting menage a quatre that was both irresistible and forbidden, like all doomed affairs.
- Mr. Robot (USA Networks): Sam Esmail’s eerie sci-fi series is a cyber-story that combines elements of The Matrixand Hackers with up-to-the-moment computer technology. The Pacific/24/Night at the Museum’s Rami Malek is the series’ breakout star, absolutely riveting as the disaffected computer programmer caught up in what appears a major conspiracy to bring down an up-to-no-good company (helpfully dubbed Evil) spearheaded by a rogue group of anarchist hackers whose leader, Christian Slater. goes by the titular name.
- Togetherness (HBO)/Happyish (Showtime): On the surface, these two shows feature whiney white people who suffer all sorts of first-world problems, but the Duplass brothers and Shalom Auslander sharpen the satirical knives to get underneath the skin of their privileged characters to discover the real malaise underneath. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have such talented angry, white people as Mark Duplass, Steve Zissis, Amanda Peet and Melanie Lynskey in the former, and Steve Coogan, Kathryn Hahn and Bradley Whitford in the latter.
- Black-ish (ABC)/Empire (Fox): Two fine examples of aspirational African-American TV series in the post-Cosby era makes you wonder why there aren’t more like them. The former is a sitcom with smarts about the joys and pitfalls of assimilation and upper-middle-class dreams, while the latter is King Lear meets Dallas, a marvelously campy hip-hop soap opera with a scene-stealing turn by Taraji P. Henson and an underrated spotlight on gays in rap.
- One Mississippi (Amazon Prime): Tig Notaro’s semi-autobiographical trip to her southern delta home to bury her mother – while suffering from the effects of chemotherapy and a double-mastectomy herself – doesn’t seem the best idea for a “comedy” series, but it suits the low-key comic to a T, with a style that borrows from its executive producer Louis C.K. It is one of the pilots up for a full series commitment currently streaming on Jeff Bezos’ site.