TRAKIN CARE OF BUSINESS: A YEAR-END OF MAMMOTH PROPORTIONS
It was the kind of year dominated by dominatrixes, bookended by bold moves from Beyonce and Taylor Swift and booted in the rear by the spectacle of Kim Kardashian’s ample, oiled derriere, which even managed to swallow up the career of its current caretaker, The Artist Formerly Known as Kanye West. Yeah, 2014 was when I lost not one, but two jobs, including one I’d held for nearly a quarter century, but what, me worry? For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to commute to an office, and I kinda liked the idea of trundling in my bathrobe to the typewriter about 30 feet away. Once you’re behind that computer, you could be anywhere. Loyalty may mean nothing in a bottom-line world, apparently, but I prefer my art/entertainment/ cultural intake to at least ennoble some of my own better feelings about myself – if not point out our common shortcomings — which is why the current coarsening of the public discourse, now taking place in a Town Square that stretches to every terminal in every corner of the globe, profoundly depresses me. Why can’t we all get along? Or at least stop jumping down one another’s throats with knee-jerk keyboard-trigger-hair reactions?
And way too many people died, close personal friends like my late, great mentor Marty Thau and the brilliant East L.A. artist Richard Duardo to people who felt like part of the family like Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Casey Kasem, Harold Ramis, Pete Seeger, Jack Bruce, Bobby Womack, Ian McLagan, Bobby Keys, Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Sid Caesar, Bob Casale, David Brenner, Eric the Actor…
The stuff that stood out in 2015 came from those artists taking the best of the past and dragging it kicking and screaming into the future, refusing to get out of our faces. That post-modern pastiche includes everything from Alejandro Inarritu’s magic realism jazz-beat Birdman, Damien Chazelle’s percussive Full Metal Jacket symphony of blood, sweat and tears Whiplash and Ariel Pink’s kaleidoscopic thrift-store garage-pop pom pom to the sparkling neo-psychedelics of War on Drugs, Real Estate, Alt-J and Ty Segall, the Velvets-like sturm und drone of Courtney Barnett, the slacker charm of Broad City, the groundbreaking gender-bending of Transparent, the forensic goth horrors of The Knick and the journalistic voyeurism of Richard Linklater’s fictional Boyhood as well as affecting documentaries with subjects ranging from Roger Ebert (Life Itself) and Clark Terry (Keep On Keepin’ On) to a Vermeer replicator. So there was more than enough good stuff to gorge on over the past 12 months, but it becomes increasingly more difficult to concentrate on one thing when the next is ready to roll. Now’s the chance to try to make sense of what we just saw, and try to find a common thread.
ALBUMS: 21-GUN SALUTE
- The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian): Dreamy acid-soaked garage-punk with dashes of The Velvets, Television and The Strokes, featuring a new guitar hero in Adam Granduciel, who evokes everyone from Mark Knopfler and John Cipollina to Tom Verlaine and Wes Montgomery. Ironically, given their name, the band’s music simply makes you feel good, like a potent hit off a vape.
- Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rupture?/Mom & Pop): The beauty of a band like these Brooklyn-by-way-of Texas transplants is how they improve upon the old self-destructive mojo of groups like the Replacements and the Dolls by using their native smarts to have their cake and eat it, too, which means they may be able to avoid burnout.
- Alt-J, This Is All Yours (Canvasback/Atlantic): This band’s remarkable rise over less than two years to headline indoor arenas like Madison Square Garden (!!) is nothing less than remarkable. Having made this eagerly awaited follow-up their way, with front man Joe Newman following in the footsteps of Marcus Mumford by increasingly providing the focal point, Alt-J maintain what makes them unique without regard to commercial contingencies. In this charged, competitive, radio-driven atmosphere, that’s enough to earn our respect, and apparently the audience’s devotion, too.
- Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (Polydor/Interscope): The reigning mistress of melancholy simply sucks you in and leaves you asking for more, while she’s off to the next sadomasochistic, doomed romance, but at least she’s in charge of her own destiny. A harbinger of a post-feminist universe where girls are once more free to cry if they want to because it’s their party, Del Rey is a siren sweetly singing, luring us into the rocks of her benign indifference. Baby, it hurts so good.
- U2, Songs of Innocence (Interscope/iTunes): People shouldn’t try to look a gift horse in the mouth, or in this case, an unasked-for download in your iPhone. Hopefully, this earnest, but well-meaning latter-period masterpiece won’t get deleted on account of the millennial prejudice against push marketing. This is Bono’s most affecting set of material in years, and if the method of delivery prevented you from getting into it, shame on you. It does the impossible in capturing the spirit of punk that originally inspired them to make music, their own version of Boyhood.
- St. Vincent, St. Vincent (Loma Vista/Republic): Annie Clark proved she’s learned her lessons well for projecting a persona by sharing a stage with the master of the craft, David Byrne, with a set of music that crossed the line between art and commerce.
- Ariel Pink, pom pom (4AD): The Artist Formerly Known as Ariel Marcus Rosenberg is nothing if not resourceful, and he’s not going to waste his moment in the media spotlight, emerging with a stuffed, 17-song, hour-plus Magical Mystery Tour around the rock and roll block, past to present. This is his White Album, Freak Out and A Wizard, A True Star rolled into one, an acid-tinged, genre-tripping e-ticket ride that proves he’s the Walrus.
- Beck, Morning Phase (Capitol): This Grammy Best Album nominee is the purported sequel to 2002’s Sea Change, and while it resembles that record in its lush folk dreamscapes and gauzy psychedelic undertow, is as different thematically from that album as, well, day is from night. In place of a wounded psyche, our soul searcher is suffering from a painful back, even though it doesn’t prevent him from getting out of bed in the morning.
- Coldplay, Ghost Stories (Parlophone/Atlantic): It’s hard to separate these lovelorn plaints from the real-life parting that inspired them, but Chris Martin’s sheer humility and grace manage to turn the maudlin into moving, lamentations into life-affirmation. This is the band in minor key, and isn’t that where they shine the brightest—at their bleakest? With all due respect to their crowd-pleasing, sing-along anthems, Coldplay has always been more interesting in the shadows of the moon than the glare of the white-hot sun.
- The Black Keys, Turn Blue (Nonesuch): While Chris Martin mourns the end of his marriage, Dan Auerbach cackles his way through his divorce, striking a cheeky, vengeful note in several of the songs. Primitive, but extremely effective, this was one of my most-played discs of the year, heightened by the ballsy move of opening with the almost seven-minute “Weight of Love,” which lives up to both its title and length.
- Jack White, Lazaretto (Third Man/Columbia): Our garage-rock heir may well be the last one upholding the beauty of simple, vinyl-delivered R&R, but Mr. White is no mere retro-rocker. His second solo album proved even better than his debut, from the raucous Zeppelin-style instrumental “High Ball Stepper” to the soulful country plaint of “Temporary Ground,” the Little Richard gospel shouts of “Three Women” and the Jimmy Page licks of the title track. Touching on themes of willful isolation and solitude set against the wild abandon of a preening rock star let loose to explore every crevice of American roots music.
- Real Estate, Atlas (Domino Records): These New Jersey-to-Brooklyn jangle rockers offer a lush sound that veers between ’70s power pop acolytes the dBs and the Feelies on one hand, and the Grateful Dead‘s jam band ethos on the other, with a little bit of Beach Boys surf music by way of Beach House, Best Coast and Broken Bells along the way. “I’m just trying to make some sense of this before I lose another year,” admits gloriously geeky lead singer Martin Courtney in “The Bend,” but it sure looks like it won’t be long until they start winning.
- Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems (Columbia): Not since Johnny Cash’s late-period Rick Rubin albums has an aging artist so confirmed his voice, and enlarged his creative footprint, in old age. Now 80, the raspy-voiced troubadour caps one of the most remarkable artistic, not to mention financial, comebacks in history with his 13th studio album, which remains true to what got him here in the first place – a literary sensibility, an ability to tell stories, with self-effacing irony, embracing both the spiritual and the sensual, the sacred and profane, sometimes in the very same line.
- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye (Reprise): Tom Petty still won’t back down, but he’s facing a ravaged post-rock landscape where his place isn’t necessarily guaranteed. “I got a dream, I’m gonna fight ‘til I get it,” he insists, this time setting his sights at a more general malaise than the mere end of free-form FM radio. Petty’s mad as hell, and he’s not gonna take it, and who woulda figured the adolescent rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll would eventually turn into the equivalent of the old man shooing kids off his front lawn? No, it’s not easy being a rock ‘n’ roll band in the second decade of the 21st century, but there are certain consolations. This time, it’s not necessarily sex nor drugs, though the former comes out in the erotic religious imagery of “Red River,” but the latter has now been replaced by true love, which is the ultimate high of all.
- Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes (Columbia): The Boss’ 18th studio album might seem like a collection of odds and ends, but it manages to cohere quite nicely, living up to its title in a remarkably consistent effort, given the overarching addition of Tom Morello to the mix. The Afro-gospel tribal beat of “Heaven’s Wall,” the feel-good vibe of “Frankie Fell in Love” and the martial Irish waltz “This Is Your Sword” fit neatly with the sweeping orchestral strains of the Dylanesque “Hunter of Invisible Game,” the elegiac “The Wall” and the final cover of Alan Vega and Martin Rev‘s “Dream Baby Dream,” his nod to Suicide (the duo, that is) and an ode to a fan base which relies on him to keep their own alive.
- Spoon, They Want My Soul (Loma Vista/Concord): The veteran group has been around long enough now to feel confident in their own quirkiness and it shows on this return to semi-major label status. Britt Daniel and cohorts aren’t afraid to let their freak flag fly, so to speak, while still offering tuneful appeal on songs like “The Rent I Pay” and the faux R&B of “Inside Out,” with its Lennon-esque rant on love, gravity and religion, “I ain’t got time for holy rollers/Though they may wash my feet/And I won’t be their soldier.”
- Ray LaMontague, Supernova (RCA): This grizzled singer-songwriter emerges from a self-imposed isolation with his most accessible set yet, his very Springsteen-ish ode to lost adolescence, “Drive-In Movies,” leading the way. “I wanna be Brando in ‘the Wild One/I wanna be somethin’ to someone,” he pleads. “I spent all my childhood years wishin’ that I looked like a movie star.” Sometimes dreams do come true.
- Broken Bells, After the Disco (Columbia): A concept album about an ordinary earthbound “Fool” who falls helplessly in love with an extraterrestrial “Angel,” Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and James Mercer create a miniature, near-future universe under Studio 54’s pale, silvery coke-spoon moon not far from what Spike Jonze does in Her, equal parts longing, melancholy and telepathy. The metaphor extends to the remaining vestiges of pop-rock, rearranged into a shimmering landscape, whether channeling the blue-eyed soul of Hall & Oates on the horn-punctuated “Control,” the icy Bowiesque art-funk of “No Matter What You’re Told” (with more than a nod to Rockwell’s paranoid ’80s MTV hit “Somebody’s Watching Me”), the loping Beatlesque croon of “Lazy Wonderland” (further proof of the Fab Four’s abiding influence) or even the dreamy acoustic “Stairway to Heaven” interlude in “The Angel and the Fool.”
- Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread (Blue Note): As I predicted last September, this one was a no-brainer for its multiple Grammy nominations in Americana and American Roots. Johnny Cash’s daughter continues to mine the fertile delta of blues, country, gospel and R&B that formed many of the same roots as her daddy’s music. With the help of husband, producer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist John Leventhal, the A&R direction of label head David Was and a small chamber ensemble, Cash signals her intention right away with the swampy, CCR sound of the twice-nominated “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” where she follows the river from Florence, Alabama, to Memphis to Arkansas. “I’m gonna let the magic wall put the voices in my head,” she sings, and there are plenty more of those to go around on this evocative, touching disc.
- Ariana Grande, My Everything (Republic): Gotta hand it to Grande and her collaborators… this is a state-of-the-art pop album put together with craft and talent. The rap interludes may be predictable, but they set off the operatic vocals and give the whole project a street edge, just as guy pal Big Sean does on the sultry “Best Mistake” and, of course, Iggy Azalea, on the megahit, “Problem,” while Zedd offers dance-floor cred on the current single, “Break Free.” All in all, a meticulously programmed package that is a textbook example of how to mature a child star without getting, well, too sleazy. It helps that Grande seems to be in control of her career, but this album represents the perfect storm of today’s Top 40 radio sound.
- Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble): The music of the Artist Formerly Known as Tom Gabel — now known as Laura Jane Grace — may not have changed, but the intensity has certainly been upped a notch by the narrative. Every good crusading punk group needs a rallying cry and now Against Me! have one, Grace creating a full-throttle, intensely personal album that channels all the swirling emotions and defiance that comes with the territory, a move, in the sometimes homophobic world of indie punk, akin to rapper Frank Ocean coming out or Michael Sam declaring he’s gay before the NFL draft. Along with Orange Is The New Black, Transparent, did more to change attitudes towards gender-crossing than any cultural artifact since tennis player Renee Richards.
SONGS: SWEET 16
- Pharrell Williams, “Happy”: At this rate, Marvin Gaye is raking in more bucks while dead than he did alive, though this little ditty captured the fleeting moment and stretched it out more effectively than any other song this year.
- Courtney Barnett, “Avant Gardener”/Megan Trainor, “All About That Bass”: Forget about those awesome hooks; two songs, one a mainstream hit, the other an underground one, that did their share in changing our perceptions of female beauty.
- DJ Snake w/Lil Jon: “Turn Down For What”: Hands-down the wackiest, strangest song/video of the year. Note to Taylor Swift: These are sick beats.
- Kendrick Lamar, “i”: Searing, powerful and achingly vulnerable, Rap’s Next Big Thing bares his soul with stunning alacrity, taking another trip back to the old ‘hood to measure how far he’s come.
- Taylor Swift, “Shake It Off”: Almost as insidious as “Turn Down,” these beats are sick purely because its creator is off in Sweden like the Wizard of Oz, working behind the curtain to create a thousand Dorothy-like divas who click their heels and are no longer in Kansas, or Nashville, or Anywhere, U.S.A.
- Coldplay, “A Sky Full of Stars”: The perfect dash of Avicii-spun EDM takes a tuneful track and points it to the Milky Way.
- Hozier, “Take Me to the Church”: A rousing, gospel-tinged tale of moral uncertainty, this potent tale of guilt and sex has strains of both Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison, but the accompanying video, with its depiction of two men kissing, leaves little to the imagination. The Irish singer-songwriter sounds a little like Elton John, and comes on like a man seriously questioning his faith while railing at hypocrisy. It makes for a potent combination – call it this year’s “Royals” – with the kind of moral fervor reminiscent of fellow Irishman writer/director John Michael McDonough’s superb black comic Calvary, its sense of betrayal only magnified by a desire to believe.
- Sam Smith, “Stay with Me”: Coming out after this tear-jerker was surely redundant, but why hasn’t anyone mentioned how much it sounds like Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”?
- Ariana Grande, “Problem”/Iggy Azalea, “Fancy”: What, you mean they’re not the same song?
- Glen Campbell, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”: Impossibly poignant and utterly dignified, like Johnny Cash’s last albums with Rick Rubin, leaving us with a tear in our eye and a lump in our throats.
- Lana Del Rey, “West Coast”: This self-declared “Brooklyn Baby” is the perfect L.A. creation — now you feel her, now you don’t, her “Cruel World” as seductive as Eve’s apple, and just as forbidden.
- Aloe Blacc, “The Man”: A twist on Elton John‘s “Your Song” proved a potent sync hook for Beats.
- The Fleshtones, “Remember the Ramones”: A nod to their punk past, with a lyrical tribute to sipping Mai Thais with the late Marty Thau, who died shortly after this song came out.
- Tweedy, “Low Key”: The infectious song offers a breezy, tuneful counterpoint to the slapstick proceedings of the video, as Jeff and his 18-year-old son Spencer “get happy” by learning to move their bodies to the music, which helps them sell their album door to door.
- Foo Fighters, “Something from Nothing”: The perfect description of the motivation behind Sonic Highways, the band’s never-less-than-interesting HBO promo for their album of the same name, even though Dave Grohl tirelessly points out the deep geographical history of every one of the disc’s eight songs.
- Beyonce f/Jay-Z, “Drunk in Love”: Either they’re the savviest media manipulators on the planet or they really are the perfect couple. This song is good enough to make you believe both may well be true.
LIVE: TOP 25
- Arcade Fire at The Forum, L.A.: Forming an impromptu secular rock ‘n’ roll church that offers a suburban white crowd’s chance for their own form of transcendence, Arcade Fire may be too little, too late for rock to hold on to its cultural stronghold on popular music, but it certainly proves there’s still strength in numbers, even if it is just preaching to the converted.
- Swans at the Roxy, L.A.: Transcending an ordinary rock concert and turning into a buzz-inducing state of time-tripping stasis, 60-year-old heavy metal guitar god Michael Gira levitated the club crowd into something resembling teeth-shattering bliss, the sound washing over us in waves like an industrial disco, part Suicide, part Transformers, all grinding gears, a post-industrial wasteland that offers nothing less than the ghost in the machine, pure noise for art’s sake.
- Courtney Barnett, San Fermin and PHOX at the El Rey: Red Bull’s amazing #30DaysinLA promotion gets off to a spectacular set with this power-packed triple bill, topped by the headliner, who gives one of those rare “I’ve seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll” moments.
- Paul McCartney at Dodger Stadium: Still the greatest show on earth, prompting reveries about what it would’ve been like if it were John who survived instead of Macca.
- Kraftwerk at Walt Disney Concert Hall: Eye-popping 3-D and mathematical precision prove machines are ready to take over and that these veteran button-pushers are far from “Showroom Dummies.”
- The War on Drugs at the Troubadour: Guitar pyrotechnics done up close and personal right before our eyes and ears in an intimate setting not destined to last too much longer.
- Alt-J and The Acid at the Greek Theater: In less than two years, these quintessential art-rockers took over the mantle from Radiohead by going from the tiny Bootleg Theater to this 6,000-seater without seemingly missing a beat.
- Lana Del Rey at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery: Playing in front of dead people suits her, as does the vast distance from the audience, which she tries to bridge by deigning to walk among the crowd – accessible, but distant, a true metaphor for her blank allure.
- Jack White at the Mayan Theater: He’s the last of the rock stars, and me and you, as Elliot Murphy once put it.
- Tame Impala at the Shrine Auditorium, L.A.: Should be playing arenas within the next 18 months, though they need to come up with a game-changing third album first.
- Coldplay at Royce Hall, UCLA/Sony Sound Stage: Understated and intimate, Chris Martin aims to please, and invariably does.
- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers/Stevie Winwood at the Forum, L.A.: A homecoming for the L.A. guys and a rare appearance by the Traffic front man, the classic rock show of the year.
- The Black Keys and Jake Bugg at The Forum: Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney hold down the fort for the most unlikely arena-rock duo in the world, but they crank like a well-oiled Chevy off the assembly line, while young Bugg shows he’s paying his dues as he tries to keep pace with his superstar hype.
- Jeff Tweedy at the Largo, L.A.: Who knew the talented singer/songwriter in a rare solo appearance, was a frustrated stand-up comic?
- Paul Simon and Sting “On Stage Together” at the Forum, L.A.: Two legends, no waiting, proving the whole more than even the sum of its parts when they join together.
- The Weeknd and ScHoolboy Q at the Hollywood Bowl: Don’t laugh when I tell you within five years, The Weeknd will be headling the Super Bowl halftime show.
- Trunkworthy and Wild Honey Present Big Star’s Third and #1 Record at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, L.A.: This lovingly assembled homage gave proof to Alex Chilton’s enduring legacy more eloquently than anything else.18. David Byrne, et al., “Atomic Bomb: Who Is William Onyeabor?” at the Greek Theater, L.A.: A tribal celebration breaks out as Talking Heads meet Fela in this unexpected cross-cultural hybrid.
- The New Basement Tapes at the Montalban Theater, L.A.: A veritable all-star team tackles some unearthed Dylan lyrics by offering a little of their own souls in the process in a magical, one-of-a-kind evening with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Giddons letting it all hang out under the watchful eye of a benign, if a little punch-drunk T Bone Burnett.
- Ty Segall at the Echo, L.A.: The enfant terrible of grunge guitar proves his superb Manipulator abilities by throwing his own coming-out party, plowing through a Black Sabbath cover to celebrate.
- Bettye LaVette at the Viper Room/Jonathan Richman at the Bootleg Theater, L.A.: Two veritable forces of nature completely take over intimate venues by pure dint of their personalities, as different as night and day, but just as stubborn.
- Morrisey at the L.A. Sports Arena: His Latin following turned out in droves, and the stage-crashers were kept to a minimum, but Mozz remains master of his domain.
- Beats Music Launch at the Belasco Theater, L.A. Old school celebration of new school technology, with Eminem, Diddy, Mase, Geto Boys, Busta Rhymes, Nas, Ice Cube, Bone Thugz N’ Harmony and Dr. Dre himself rocking the house and bringing back the OG era during Grammy weekend.
- Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On with John Legend and Sharon Jones at the Hollywood Bowl: What started as a celebration of the classic album turned into an edgy political agitprop thanks to some angry between-song poetry as news from Ferguson filtered in during the show.
- Robert Downey Sr. and Louis C.K., Putney Swope, at the Ace Hotel: An appreciative crowd hears two masters kibbitz after a showing of the 1969 film which is still as politically astute as it is incorrect all these years later. “How many syllables Mario?” and “The Borman Six girl’s got to have soul” remain etched in some of our vocabularies.
RUNNERS-UP: Real Estate at the Fonda Theater, George Fest: A Night To Celebrate the Music of George Harrison at the Fonda Theater, Ray LaMontagne at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church, The Empty Hearts at the Viper Room, Phish at the Forum, Marshall Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets at the Bootleg Theater, Conor Oberst at KCRW’s Apogee Sessions at Apogee Studios, Peter Himmelman at the Mint, Interpol at Mack Sennett Studios, Daryl Hall and John Oates at the Greek Theater, Dave and Phil Alvin at the Troubadour, Shovels & Rope and Willie Watson at the El Rey, Jamestown Revival and Nikki Lane at the Troubadour
MOVIES: BAKER’S DOZEN PLUS ONE
- Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Fox Searchlight): Alejandro Inirritu’s brilliant sleight of hand leads us through the warrens of a Broadway theater in the ultimate backstage story, a cross between All That Jazz, 8 ½ and Harvey, a meta-movie seemingly shot in a single cut (it’s not) with a drum soundtrack that serves as a metronome for the meticulously choreographed roundelays.
- Whiplash (Sony Pictures Classic): Performing as not just a metaphor, but actually going to battle, this is the Full Metal Jacket of jazz drumming movies, as first-time writer/director Damien Chazelle puts his own musical background to good use, but it’s J.K. Simmons’ tyrannical, vein-popping Fletcher who provides the film’s relentless pulse.
- Gone Girl (20th Century Fox): David Fincher and screenwriter/author Gillian Flynn dig even deeper into the book’s contradictions, exp;promg the roots of what makes a relationship work, or unravel, in this searing blast at bourgeois foibles and modern-day trivialities like the tabloid-ization of media and the tyranny of class differences.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight Pictures): Wes Anderson’s grandiloquent tale of manners is a nod to the end of western civilization as World War II approaches, featuring a grand buffet of characters and typical whimsy.
- Force Majeure (Magnolia Pictures): Another subtle, but potent poke at upper-middle-class niceties, as a marriage unravels in the wake of a husband’s cowardice, sending the nuclear family spinning off its axis. Swedish writer/director Ruben Ostlund is a former maker of ski documentaries who combines gorgeous footage with the scalpel of a surgeon, dissecting relationships like Ingmar Bergman cutting through the slopes.
- Foxcatcher (Sony Pictures Classics): Bennett Miller’s dark-laced poison pen valentine to what it means to be a man and a patriot is a corrosive examination of wealth, privilege and the American Dream in stark relief, with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo sizing one another up like wrestlers in a fight that’s fixed from the very start to end in a fatal mishap.
- Nightcrawler (Open Road Films): As a dark-hued examination of how far people will go to make a living, writer/director Dan Gilroy’s Scorsesean tweak of the violence on the local news offers an award-worthy Jake Gyllenhaal performance – part Travis Bickle, part Rubert Pupkin — at its core, and a pitch-black Marxist satire on the desperation of late-period capitalism that’ll make your skin, well, crawl.
- Boyhood (IFC Films): Richard Linklater’s magnum opus, 12 years in the making, works like real life in making the growing-up process seem to go by in a series of snapshots, and rather than focus on life-altering events, the writer/direct4or concentrates on the little hurts, snubs and occasional joys that mark the process. It offers a glimpse into the resiliency of children, how they mature often in spite of the traumas the adult world puts them through, even as most of the grown-ups here get kind of short shrift, Ethan Hawke’s deceptively maturing and loving dad the exception.
- Frank (Magnolia Pictures): This quirky Irish comedy, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, about an eccentric indie band fronted by a lead singer/guru who walks around in a big head (hiding a deceptively provocative performance by Oscar-nominated heartthrob Michael Fassbender), is a genial fable about the respective fine lines between art and nonsense, genius and lunacy, success and failure, popularity and ignominy, selling out and staying true to your muse, which this sleeper certainly does.
- The Theory of Everything (Focus Features): Who would have thought a film about a genius crippled by ALS and the girl who worships him would turn out to be such an enduring romance that even had me choking up? Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are slam-dunks for Oscar nominations as the black hole-crossed lovers who explore space and time within their own beings and in the universe, in that order.
- Only Lovers Left Alive (Sony Pictures Classics): Jim Jarmusch’s wry take on a vampire story is typically idiosyncratic with the undead as drug-addled aesthetes who travel from a recession-torn Detroit to Morocco in search of their “blood.” It’s all deadpan fun, until teeth are bared and necks are bitten.
- Keep On Keepin’ On (Radius/The Weinstein Company)/Life Itself (Magnolia Pictures): The two best documentaries of the year concentrate on a pair of committed artists facing death square in the face, as the late film critic Roger Ebert and the still-alive sax trumpet player Clark Terry look after their legacy and try to pass on their knowledge after they pass to those left behind.
- Obvious Child (A24)/The Babadook (IFC Films): Writer/directors Gillian Robespierre and Aussie Jennifer Kent take on the romantic comedy and haunted house/horror genres, respectively, with suitably distaff-oriented approaches, delving into all manners of female fears, sexual and otherwise. Former SNL performer Jenny Slate’s performance in the former as a would-be comic who gets our her neuroses on-stage, only to see them backfire in real life is a starmaker, while Essie Davis as the panicked mother of a “difficult” seven-year-old who sees monsters (a remarkable performance by a disturbingly wide-eyed Noah Wiseman) brings true terror to this eerie combination of The Shining, The Omen and The Exorcist as seen through the surreal lens of Le Chien Andalou.
- The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.): The best product-placement animated feature of all time, with a screenplay that works for kids and adults of all ages. Remarkably, by the same two very talented auteurs — Chris Miller and Phil Lord — who brought you 21 and 22 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
RUNNERS-UP: The Immigrant (The Weinstein Company), The One I Love (Radius/TWC), Get On Up (Universal Pictures), Edge of Tomorrow (Warner Bros.)
NOT YET SEEN: Selma, Inherent Vice, The Imitation Game, Into the Woods, Big Eyes, Unbroken, American Sniper, Interstellar, Top Five, The Interview. Mr. Turner, A Most Violent Year
NEW TV SHOWS: CRAZY EIGHT
- The Knick (Cinemax): Steven Soderbergh turn-of-the-century medical thriller brought a goth twist to the traditional hospital show, with Clive Owens’ performance as a drug-addicted, but groundbreaking surgeon leading the way.
- Transparent (Amazon Prime): Jill Soloway studies the social mores of an upper-middle-class Jewish family in L.A. whose liberalism is put to the test when the paterfamilias decides to switch sexes, putting the microscope on this increasingly rare species like Margaret Mead in Borneo. The show is filled with performances that ring true but it is Jeffrey “Hey Now” Tambor who stands out, seguing from the duplicitous Arrested Development patriarch George Bluth Sr. to an aging, divorced college professor who discovers his inner transgender woman in an astonishing game-changing turn as Maude ne Murray Pfefferman, whose three children (and ex-wife) are all over the emotionally needy map.
- True Detective (HBO): Another murder mystery wrapped in a riddle, covered in an enigma, and fueled by two award-worthy performances by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, who more than prove they’re not the same person. Literate and eerie, with a beautiful look that magnificently captures its Delta roots, writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga mirrored its two leads’ chemistry by forming a potent partnership all their own.
- Silicon Valley (HBO): Mike Judge’s pointed look at the technology culture takes Office Space into the digital age, with memorable characters and savage, Swiftian barbs that spare no one. Judge once worked in the sector as an engineer, so he’s familiar with the territory. T.J. Miller’s incubating Erich Bachmann is a creation of comic genius, with Freaks and Geeks alum Martin Starr’s geeky Gilfoyle a close second.
- The Affair (Showtime): A romantic drama with a murder mystery at its core, this Israeli import has proven a soap opera with some real bite, combining such hot-topic issues as class differences and family dysfunction into a potent, brooding noir where no one emerges unscathed.
- Broad City (Comedy Central): Yes, these girls make those other Girls look like stuck-up yuppie snobs, as Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer play two really broke gals scuffling in low-level jobs in New York City, just trying to get high and pay the rent.
- Olive Kitteridge (HBO): This two-part, eight-hour adaptation of the best-seller by Elizabeth Strout dares to dhow an aging, rather sour-puss woman who brooks no nonsense from anyone, not even long-suffering husband (Six Feet Under’s Richard Jenkins) with executive producer Frances McDormand playing the title role as tight-lipped as she can be. It’s a tale of quiet desperation and heart-wrenching moments that mirrors its breathtaking view of the craggy Maine coast, at once inspiring, but just as forbidding.
- Gracepoint (Fox): A network version of the kind of missing kid mystery in a small town, like The Killing, Top of the Lake and True Detective, this American version of the British BBC series Broadchurch has an eerie feel all its own, somewhat reminiscent of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, set in a picturesque, ocean-side town somewhere between San Francisco and the Oregon border. The saving grace are the nicely nuanced, slightly off-kilter performances by the likes of savvy veterans like Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, Dr. Who’s David Tennant, Jacki Weaver, Nick Nolte, Michael Pena and Kevin Rankin, who make everybody appear at least slightly guilty.
BOOKS: SIX PLUS FOUR
- Holly George-Warren, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton (Viking): The best part of George-Warren’s loving, yet clear-eyed, biography is the way it sends you back to the music, and somehow draws the unbroken line that connects the gruff old-before-his-time soul singer of “The Letter” to the winsome British Invasion crooner of Big Star to the wildly eclectic journey through a variety of genres that followed. The real Chilton remains stubbornly out of reach, but the man’s work survives to be heard, and that may well be more important.
- Joel Selvin, Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues (Counterpoint): The longtime San Francisco Chronicle pop music critic tackles the story of song-plugger-turned-producer/songwriter Berns, whose short, meteoric life coincided with the explosion of New York Brill Building pop and R&B, carrying over the Atlantic to the U.K., where his “Twist and Shout” was memorably covered by the Beatles. Selvin expertly and exhaustively manages to chart his crucial role in the development of soul into rock ‘n’ roll with a rush that befits the explosive, though truncated career of its often- overlooked subject.
- Paul Trynka, Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones (Penguin/Viking): The British Mojo, International Musician and Guitar Magazine editor’s sympathetic treatment of the fallen Stone takes on the status of fatalistic rock mythology/ Trynka turns Jones’ ultimate defeat — as much a product of his own self-doubt as it was a hectoring, vindictive establishment and his own band (whom he’d never publically malign, but considered family) – into a tragedy of Greek proportions. He makes a good case that Brian was the individual most responsible for ushering in the “60s – not just musically, but in attitude and fashion — only to see his persona co-opted by the very people who were supposed to be his friends.
- Michael Goldberg, True Love Scars (Neumu Press): Just call it a portrait of the young rock critic as a freakster bro, coming of age in the glorious peace-and-love innocence of the ‘60s dream, only to crash precipitously, post-Altamont into the drug-ridden paranoia of a ‘70s nightmare, characterized by the doom and gloom of the Stones’ sinister “Sister Morphine” and the apocalyptic caw-caw-caw of a pair of ubiquitous crows. The one-time Rolling Stone journalist turned-Internet pioneer with his groundbreaking mid-‘90s Addicted to Noise site has always been on the cutting edge and here he perfectly captures a horny, but romantic, teenager growing up in Marin County back in what he calls the Days of the Crazy-Wild, where getting your parents to let you grow out your hair was proof alone of your manhood. If you lived through those momentous times, or even if you didn’t, Goldberg conveys that rush of ideas, music and literature that made it such a heady era, while still ruefully acknowledge its fleeting, self-destructive aftermath in what amounts to his version of fellow one-time Stone scribe Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
- Gareth Murphy, Cowboys and Indians (St. Martin’s Press): This Irish author traces the lineage of the modern recording industry from mid-19th century France and the discovery of sound waves through the invention of the phonograph right up to Apple iTunes’ hijacking of distribution, the consolidation that has resulted in three major music groups left standing and the proliferation of streaming subscription services. His distinctively British point of view might seem a little disconcerting until you realize, citing former Stiff head Dave Robinson’s formula of the modern explosion of popular music being built on “three main waves” – equal parts African blues, traditional Irish folk and English music hall/vaudeville – remains pretty accurate, considering the prominent role of U.K. execs like Lucian Grainge, Rob Stringer, Steve Barnett and David Massey in today’s U.S. biz.
- Gary Lucas, Touched by Grace: My Time with Jeff Buckley (Jawbone Press): The world-class guitarist—best-known for his work with Captain Beefheart and his own wide-ranging solo career—looks back on his involvement with the late Jeff Buckley in a book that outlines the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in the business of music circa 1991, back when times were still relatively prosperous. Lucas also does a great job of delineating the musical and spiritual connection between him and his erstwhile partner, as well as the premonitions of trouble along the way that foreshadowed his eventual demise, drowning in the Mississippi River on a typical lark. If Buckley’s premature passing provides a sobering note, Touched by Grace also serves as the inspirational memoir of a survivor, who continues to thrive as a creative force some 17 years later.
AUTHOR OF THE YEAR
Harvey Kubernik: The indefatigable, prolific author uses his own Los Angeles background to illustrate history, whether it’s the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter scene of the ‘60s and early ‘70s or the ramp-up and aftermath of Monterey Pop. This year, he published four – count ‘em – four separate books, each in its own way marking its writer as a certifiable overlooked treasure. Turn Up the Radio!: Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles (Santa Monica Press), is a lavishly appointed coffee table book filled with artifacts from his own collection that makes a pretty good case that the roots of modern rock and roll culture were planted on the ‘50s Top 40 AM airwaves. It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America and Hollywood (Otherworld Cottage Industries) is peppered with his own reminiscences of being bitten by the Fab Four bug, and the influence of L.A. on the group. Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows (Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard) is another beautifully art-directed tome just in time for the poet maudit’s 80th birthday and new album, an oral history/photo book companion to Sylvie Simmons’ definitive 2012 bio, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. Finally, Harvey and brother Ken provide the text to legendary L.A. photographer Guy Webster’s Big Shots (Insight Editions), providing the local color and context to this spectacular volume of iconic images, including the covers of The Doors’ first album, The Mamas and the Papas’ first two albums, Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, The Rolling Stones’ Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) and Flowers, The Byrds’ Turn, Turn, Turn and The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Nico’s The Marble Index, Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk and Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, not to mention pics of the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Love and Monterey Pop. The Kubernik brothers’ breathless, succinct summaries capture the era’s momentous cultural changes, as well as the historic dynamic reflected in Webster’s portraits.