TRAKIN CARE OF BUSINESS 2016 REVIEW: SOMETIMES YOU JUST MIGHT GET WHAT YOU NEED
In a year pockmarked by loss and political upheaval, my own tragedies – the end of my 35-year marriage and the passing of my kid sister – didn’t seem to amount to the proverbial hill of beans, but still pop culture offered its own brand of solace. Death seemed to be the main topic of conversation, whether it was the posthumous epitaphs offered by David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Phife Dawg or the existential meditations of mortality in movies like Manchester by the Sea or Sausage Party, and TV such as Atlanta, Westworld and The Good Place. I know I’ve been missing in action for most of this year – and Top 10 lists seem particularly trivial in light of our current dystopic future – but here’s what I’ve been up to over the past 12 months.
Top 20 Albums
1. David Bowie, Blackstar (ISO/Columbia): Elegantly and aggressively orchestrating his exit as he once did his entrance, Bowie’s farewell stood out in a year marked by death and dystopia. And hand it to this genre-hopping auteur to prove just as revolutionary in sound going as coming. This one emerged in January and hung over the rest of the year like the dying icon’ reborn as Lazarus. Remarkable.
2.Parquet Courts, Human Performance (Rough Trade): From ashes to “dust is everywhere,” these Texas-by-way-of-Brooklyn guitar slingers prove there’s still mileage in the Velvets/ Television loaisaida cocktail, a life-affirming gesture in a year dominated by the grim reaper.
3. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Columbia): Another elder statesman who touched on the zeitgeist while he lay dying, his son taking down his last thoughts/breaths in between hits of medicinal marijuana. The dapper Jew-dist with the omnipresent suit and tie earned his way into the top slot on my songwriting pantheon, above even Dylan, with this poignant, self-mocking eulogy to his self.
4. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (self-released): As befits its revolutionary mode of distribution (no record label, streaming-only), this emerging Chicago superstar is nipping at Yeezus’ heels with his hybrid version of gospel hip-hop, providing a much-needed spirituality to a year of heathen pursuits and dead rock stars. Just keep him away from the Kardashians
5. Wilco, Schmilco (Dbpm Records): Emboldened by his band’s freedom to do what they please, Jeff Tweedy continues to earn his bones as our finest songwriter in the folk-rock tradition, effortlessly plumbing his innocence in songs with indelible melodies like the winsome/lose some reverie/regret of “the Beatlesque/Neil Young-isms in “If I Ever Was a Child.”
6. Radiohead, A Moon-Shaped Pool (XL): Thom Yorke lays out the pain of a break-up and Jonny Greenwood and company provide the swirling, immersive backdrop as the personal turns political in the frighteningly prescient opener “Burn the Witch,” in which the demons unleashed by populism-run-amok burn democracy at the stake.
7. Bon Iver, 22, a Million (Jagjaguwar): The artist still known as Justin Vernon makes his Radiohead/Kanye move into obscurantism, but his insularity has the opposite effect, opening up a brand, new world of shock and awe in a post-folk, post-hip-hop, post-electronica maelstrom.
8. Ty Segall, Emotional Mugger (Drag City): A present-day apotheosis of garage-rock, a throbbing, fuzz-busting throwback to Ziggy Stardust on acid-drenched, feedback-blessed ditties like “California Hills,” the solipsistic T. Rex-meets-Beefheart funk-rocker “Mandy Cream” and the falsetto-specked, insinuating set-piece, “The Magazine.”
9. Wussy, Forever Sounds (Shake It Records): More proof, if any was needed, of the lasting influence of bands like the Velvets, Television and Richard Hell (check “Hello, I’m a Ghost” for proof), former Ass Pony Chuck Cleaver’s odd on-and-off romance with Lisa Walker continues as the call-and-response almost gets drowned in the feedback. With Christgau turning to politics, the band lost its most fervent spokesman… maybe that explains their absence from end-of-year lists.
10. Anohni, Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian): Despite the title, the one-time Antony Hegarty made the year’s most overtly revolutionary record, while his personal transition took a back seat to his human outrage. A distinct voice in the wilderness, Anohni tackles global warming, animal rights, drone bombing, state executions, surveillance and domestic abuse, but without pointing a finger, except at himself. Powerfully bleak, it ends up boosting the spirits, rather than wallowing in despair.
11. Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger (Concord): Another late-period revival album that also has one eye on the sky above, the other on the mess below.
12. Green Day, Revolution Radio (Reprise): Must be true, that as the spectrum moves right, the protest music gets better. Who would’ve expected these guys to continue being our leading agit-rockers?
13. Kanye West, The Life Of Pablo (Def Jam): Did you ever consider… maybe he really is the genius he says he is? Right, and Kim is his Yoko.
14. Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope): Even the man’s leftovers are compelling.
15. Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Getaway (Warner Bros.): It took Danger Mouse to get them in touch with their inner hooks without abandoning their patented funk. There’s no shame in repeating yourself if you continue to refine the results, as they’ve done so artfully here.
16. Frank Ocean, Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry): Provides a voice in hip-hop we haven’t heard before.
17. Modern Baseball, Holy Ghost (Run for Cover): Punk-rock as mental therapy post-emo style.
18. Beyonce, Lemonade (Parkwood/Columbia ): Can I suck her balls, too? Admire her gonads… and the way she wields a baseball bat.
19. The Pretenders, Alone (BMG): Here’s another woman with ovaries, who follows up her confessional memoir Reckless, with an equally revealing dose of Dan Auerbach-helmed rock and roll that spans the ages from ‘50s rockabilly and ‘60s British Invasion to modern-day EDM, complete with a Duane Eddy cameo.
10. Iggy Pop, Post Pop Depression (Loma Vista): Credit both label chief Tom Whalley and especially, producer/guitarist Josh Homme for bringing the Ig back to his Berlin-with-Bowie glory days of The Idiot and Lust for Life, which, combined with The Stooges documentary and a Grammy nomination, brought Jimmy O some well-deserved late-career accolades.
Reissue of the Year: ORK Records: New York, New York box set (Numero Uno)
Top 12 Singles
1. Chainsmokers w/Halsey, “Closer” (Disruptor/Columbia): Not just for the beat, but the story it lays out.
2. David Bowie, “Lazarus” (ISO/Columbia): Like a voice from the other side.
3. Drake f/Wizkid, Kyla, “One Dance” (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic): The sound of 2016 every bit as much as “Hotline Bling” was for 2015.
4. Rae Sremmurd f/Gucci Mane, “Black Beatles” (Interscope): Strike a pose and hold it. Even Macca approves.
5. A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People” (Epic): Sometimes as much as things change, they remain the same, as ATCQ return with a message as potent as ever.
6. D.R.A.M. (featuring Lil’ Yachty, “Broccoli” (Atlantic): Eating vegetables has never been so much fun.
7. Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam” (Def Jam): The gospel according to Pablo.
8. Frank Ocean, “Ivy” (Boys Don’t Cry): Clings to your innards like its namesake.
9. Mike Posner, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” (See B remix) (Island): Every word he sings rings true.
10. Lukas Graham, “7 Years” (Warner Bros.): Friends and family discount.
11. Beyonce, “Formation” (Parkwood/Columbia): Modern-day protest music.
12. LANY, “Where the Hell Are My Friends” (Polydor Records): Millennial synth-pop with requisite anomie that the little girls understand and then some.
Top 20 Movies
1. Moonlight (A24): Boyhood meets #BlackLivesMatter, a triptych of a life in which hope triumphs over despair, offering a glimpse of a world most of us have never been privy to. Will it top the feel-good La La Land at the Oscars? That’s the big question.
2. La La Land (Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate): Harvard wunderkind Damien Chazelle follows up the claustrophobic Whiplash with this sunny valentine to Hollywood musicals by way of Jacque Demy in a bittersweet examination of the frustration of being a creative type in a world of bean counters. No, you don’t walk out humming the songs, but you do leave with a skip in your step and a full heart.
3. Manchester by the Sea (Roadside Attractions/Amazon): Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan returns to the unspoken tragedies of You Can Count on Me and Margaret with this New England-set story of a man carrying around the burden of guilt and loss who is awakened to the possibilities of life when he is given guardianship over a nephew after the death of his brother. The movie fills in the narrative pieces like a novelistic jigsaw puzzle, leaving devastation and sorrow in its wake. Casey Affleck is a slam-dunk to bring home an Oscar.
4. Hell or High Water (CBS Films/Lionsgate): Scottish film director David MacKenzie, with an airtight script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) deliver a neo-wester Trump-era fable in which the good and bad guys are simply doing their jobs in a film that would fit in seamlessly with the ‘70s Hollywood mavericks like Bob Rafelson, Robert Altman or Hal Ashby, featuring a career-spanning performance by Jeff Bridges.
5. Anomalisa (Paramount Pictures): Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s downbeat, but never depressing, stop-action puppet feature was relased on December 30th last year, so it missed many best-of lists, but it is still one of the most affecting films of the past 12 months. Like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – which he wrote – and Synechdoche, New York, his only previous experience at directing, the film plays (as does Westworld) with the notion of personal identity, free will, alienation, memories and the existential angst of romance, while hinting at how we might all be robots underneath, programmed by an unseen force that controls us, yes, like puppets on a string.
6. Everybody Wants Some!! (Paramount Pictures): Richard Linklater’s ode to college life in the ‘80s could well be considered the sequel to either Boyhood or Dazed and Confused, but is entirely enjoyable in its own right, with the year’s best soundtrack and a winning cast of soon-to-be stars, not unlike the 1993 film which introduced Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Renee Zellweger, Milla Jovovich and Joey Lauren Adams to moviegoers.
7. Sausage Party (Columbia Pictures): Who would ever have thought Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s one-note joke about supermarket foods run amok would turn into a metaphysical comedy of existential angst and the most philosophical flick of the year? Hot dog!
8. The Wailing (20th Century Fox Korea): South Korean writer/director Na Hong-jin turns up the screws in this hybrid horror movie about a laconic policeman trying to discover the source of a mysterious sickness that infects his small village in the picturesque mountains of his native land. There are demons, shamans, exorcisms and evil, all set against a lush backdrop, as if nature was teasing us with its mysteries.
9. Hail, Caesar! (Universal Pictures): Even minor Coen brothers movies offer a cornucopia of delights, especially this satire of ‘50s Hollywood that has its own musical set pieces, even if it was overshadowed by La La Land. Sharp performances by Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill and, especially, Alden Ehrenreich, as a clueless singing cowboy, add to the fizzy frivolity.
10. The Witch (A24): Writer/director Robert Eggers’ meticulously researched period piece that evokes the Salem Witch Trials features a star-making performance by Anya Taylor-Joy in the year’s best horror-art movie about the fear of female sexuality.
Second 11: Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates, Sing Street, Other People, Café Society, Green Room, Doctor Strange, Oasis Supersonic, Don’t Think Twice, Love & Friendship, Allied, Florence Foster Jenkins
Overrated: Arrival, Sully, Nocturnal Animals
Unseen: Loving, Jackie, Silence, Hidden Figures, Fences, Elle, Toni Erdmann, Lion, Captain Fantastic, Paterson, 20th Century Women
Top 10 Television
1. O.J.: Made in America (ESPN)/The People v. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story (FX): Two brilliant, sprawling epic takes on the Crime of the Century, the former a documentary detailing the roots and subsequent influences on L.A. cultural history, sports, racial politicals and police relations, the latter a microscopic, fictionalized analysis of the principal players which revealed complex layers, the two together representing the finest achievements of the year in TV.
2. Atlanta/Better Things (FX): A pair of idiosyncratic series, auteurs Donald Glover and Pamela Adlon – so memorable in Californication — allowed us an insider’s glimpse into two disparate, but uniquely linked experiences (and not just by the channel they were on). One, a topsy-turvy look at the surprisingly insular world of southern hip-hop, the other an examination of a single mother with three very different children trying to raise them while employed as an actress in L.A.
3. Westworld (HBO)/Preacher (AMC): A pair of thought-provoking sci-fi meditations on technology, religion, leisure time pursuits and what exactly constitutes humanity and free will, these ambitious series pondered the mysteries of life and death with eye-popping graphic novel-derived visuals and thoughtful performances by the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton in the former, and Dominic Cooper, Joe Gilgun, Ruth Negga and Lucy Griffiths in the latter.
4. Better Call Saul (AMC): If anything, the second season topped the first, as the dueling moral sibling rivalry between Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean set the stage for a final confrontation. That the show almost made us forget it was a spinoff of Breaking Bad, one of the greatest series of all time, is testament enough of its quality.
5. The Night Of (HBO): Richard Price and Steven Zaillian’s gripping mystery is a searing tale that involves racial prejudice, prison politics, a lingering case of eczema and an orphaned cat as a young Pakistani student (Rogue One’s suddenly ubiquitous Riz Ahmed) is accused of murder after a one-night stand, with a sleazy but whip-smart attorney played by John Turturro coming to his aid.
6. Stranger Things (Netflix): The previously unheralded Duffer brothers create the ultimate ‘80s homage to all things Steven Spielberg and Stephen King with a spooky, death-obsessed narrative that introduces one new star (Millie Bobby Brown) and revives the career of an older one (Winona Ryder) in the bingeworthiest series of the year.
7. Veep (HBO)/Silicon Valley (HBO): Two classic screwball comedies set in very specific milieus continue to shine a light on the internecine worlds of Capitol Hill and Silicon Valley in scenarios that are equally absurd and totally believable, which is precisely the point… as the one-liners keep coming fast and furious.
8. This Is Us (NBC)/The Good Place (NBC): The two best network series newcomers, one a tear-inducing family saga that shifts back and forth in time to maximum effect, the other set in heaven with unexpected, highbrow comic jibes about Plato and Socrates.
9. Girls (HBO)/Insecure (HBO)/Broad City (Comedy Central): Ahhhh, the problems of millennials, by turns outrageous and poignant, but with indelible characterizations and all the moral conflicts living in a modern, technology-obsessed society can en-gender.
10. Stephen Colbert’s Live Election Night Democracy’s Series Finale: Who’s Going to Clean Up This Shit? (Showtime): What started out as a giddy celebration slowly evolved into a funereal wake in real time in one of the most remarkable live spectacles ever witnessed as a Trump upset suddenly dawned on a group of stunned liberal merrymakers.
Sweet 16: Baskets (FX), Transparent (Amazon), Orange Is the New Black (Netflix), Catastrophe (Amazon), Love (Netflix), Divorce (HBO), One Mississippi (Amazon), Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon), The Get Down (Netflix), The Crown (Netflix), Younger (TV Land), Shameless (Showtime), Masters of Sex (Showtime), Man Seeking Woman (FXX), The Eric Andre Show (Adult Swim), The Affair (Showtime)
Underrated: Vinyl (HBO) Disappointing: Roadies (Showtime)
Top 5 Books
1. Garth Risk Hallberg, City On Fire (Alfred A. Knopf): This sprawling, 900-page Dickensian/Proustian novel takes place in New York City in the midst of its mid-‘70s Gerald Ford “Drop Dead” decline, its Lower East Side slums giving way to a punk-rock revolution, culminating in the blackout of July 13, 1977, when it appeared all hell had broken loose. Starting with a quote from Television, the winding narrative concerns a young Long Island suburbanite who is shot on New Year’s Eve 1976 in Central Park, a punk fanzine editor (whose issue is recreated as one of several interludes in the book along with a handwritten mea culpa letter from a father to a son and a coffee-stained manuscript of a magazine article about an Italian family in the fireworks business seemingly based on the Gruccis). Like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Hallberg – a first-time novelist who received a $2 million advance – intricately weaves together the various social strata in the city at the time, from rapacious bankers looking to take advantage of entire blocks in the Bronx burning to the ground, to a punk-rock anarchist bent on apocalyptic destruction. It’s all here, from ticking time bombs to a detailed description of heroin’s ravages, via an African-American kid from the rural South bent on writing the Great American Novel to his lover, the scion of one of New York’s wealthiest families who drummed for an iconic punk band only to follow his destiny as a painter and then world-famous photographer. It’s both a snapshot of the times and a page-turning narrative in its own right, an epic tale of a father-son reunion set against the backdrop of a city poised between a cultural revolution and the looming specter of 9/11.
2. Bob Mehr, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (Da Capo): Tirelessly researched and redacted, Mehr’s story of the beloved, but ill-fated ‘Mats is not just a cautionary tale, but one of the very best rock band bios ever, tracing the group’s roots from dysfunctional families to dysfunctional career, burning out rather than fading away. Already, the tales of debauchery seem from another era of record business lassitude, but Mehr is unflinching in showing both the good, the bad and the ugly. Even if you’d never heard of the band, the tale is a compelling overview of rock’s tragic allure, and the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot false bravado of a band that balanced on the tightwire of stardom and tragic failure like no other.
3. Jesse Jarnow, Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America (Da Capo Press): Jarnow, whose previous book centered on Yo La Tengo and the rise of indie-rock, here takes us back to the beatnik Acid Test roots of the Dead, examining their inner and outer circle, and how they fueled the hip acid economy, paving the way for such cultural phenomenon as ‘70s New York graffiti artists, ‘90s EDM rave culture, Burning Man and even the rise of the Internet. Taking as a starting off point the mythical Humbead’s Revised Map of the World, which traces the centers of psychedelia much like the xenophobic New Yorker cartoon which showed a Manhattanite view geography that goes straight from the Hudson River to the Pacific Ocean, Heads offers a shifting cast of characters related to the Dead. That includes monk-like archivists (Tapers), religious zealots who twirl to the music (Spinners), theorists and hippie entrepreneurs, who turn the parking lot at Dead shows into their own bazaar, dubbed Shakedown Street.
4. Michael Goldberg, The Flowers Lied (Neumu Press): The second of his autobiographical Freak Scene Dream trilogy follows its protagonist Michael Stein into a Berkeley-like northern California university, where he continues an obsession with his beloved rock & roll, literature and getting laid, though this time, his disillusionment grows as the peace-and-love ‘60s give way to the me-decade of the ‘70s, ending with a glimpse of hope in the New York Dolls, which is, ironically, where HBO’s much-criticized Vinyl begins. Look for the final installment, The Moon & the Stars, next year.
5. Barney Hoskyns, Small Town Talk (Da Capo Press): A breezy, gossipy read that takes you inside Woodstock, N.Y., during its glory days, when mega-manager Albert Grossman held court, while Bob Dylan and the soon-to-be-named The Band holed up inside Big Pink for the fabled Basement Tapes. The always-erudite rock critic vet Hoskyns effortlessly connects the dots in the notorious town’s history, as longtime residents deal with the influx of hipsterdom both before and after the festival that borrowed its name from the burg, but actually took place 55 miles away.