With our evanescent, Snapchat-fueled popular culture, it is a little like that old adage about a Chinese meal – an hour later, after the MSG wears off, you’re hungry again, and that’s as good a metaphor as ever for our attention deficit-plagued, finger-on-the-trigger mentality.
Albums, movies, TV shows, books, live concerts – they come and go so quickly, it’s hard to hold on to them, especially in an age where physical product is increasingly being reduced to a series of digits, here today, gone tomorrow, stored in cyberspace and available, but forgotten for the next thrill.
That said, the first half of 2015 has been filled with bold artistic statements, from D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop deconstructions to Pixar’s emotion-tugging Inside Out and the chilly sci-fi of Alex Garland’s remarkable directorial debut Ex Machina; from the sometimes head-scratching reinventions of Panda Bear, Alabama Shakes, Mumford & Sons, The Decemberists and My Morning Jacket to the decades-sprawling memoirs of unlikely duo Robert Christgau and Bill Kreutzmann; from mercurial newcomers like neo-punk Courtney Barnett and neo-folkie Father John Misty to zeitgeist-invoking satirists like Mike Judge (Silicon Valley), Amy Schumer, Noah Baumbach (While We’re Young) and Abby Jacobson/ Ilana Glazer (Broad City).
Even if our once monoculture has splintered into seemingly a beeeellion different subsets, there’s something for everyone, and you don’t even have to look that hard. Now, whether it will last more than a nanosecond is up to history to decide, as the past and present hurtle into an uncertain future.
ALBUMS OF THE HALF-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.”
- 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.
- 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,” singsMarcus 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.
- 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 of There’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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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 symphonicBuffalo Springfield opening mutating into Memphis soul of “Thin Line” and the furious Black 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.
RUNNERS-UP: The New Basement Tapes, Lost on the River (Harvest), Dawes, All Your Favorite Bands (HUB Records), Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard,Django and Jimmie (Sony Legacy), Emile Haynie, We Fall (Interscope)
FURTHER STUDY: ASAP Rocky, At. Long. Last. ASAP (ASAP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA); Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
- 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.
- 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?
- 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 and Jimmy 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”).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 BellRayswailing “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: 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Yusuf/Cat Stevens at the Nokia Live: Proof that songs make the man rather than vice versa.
RUNNERS-UP: Smashing Pumpkins at the Fonda Theater; Ian Hunter & the Rant Band/Steve Wynn at the Roxy; 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; Stephin Merritt at Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery; the bird and the bee at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery; Todd Rundgren at the Roxy; Palma Violets at the Teragram Ballroom
- ILoveMakonnen f/Drake “Tuesday”: Mesmerizing, druggy hip-hop at its trippiest that takes you into its world and makes you feel right at home… in outer space. And the social media-spawned viral back story is almost too good to believe.
- 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 psychedelicized trance. By the end, Parker begins chanting in a Kraftwerk-like robotic voice, dragging classic rock into the present/future.
- George Ezra, “Budapest”: This year’s version of “Take Me To Church,” evocative, dreamy, hooks you and won’t let go.
- Run the Jewels, “Lie, Cheat, Steal”: Music still has the power to fuel an uprising, as this taut, in-your-face number from the Abbott & Costello of hip-hop lays out the current anger in the simplest, starkest of terms.
- Sun Kil Moon, “Ben’s My Friend”: Got to love a song whose hook suns, “sports bar shit” with a sax solo right out of “Walk on the Wild Side.”
- Courtney Barnett, “Depreston”: Tongue-in-cheek blast at urban redevelopment that perfectly captures the voyeurism of looking for a new place to live.
- 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.
- Lil Dicky, “Jewish Flow”: The video is a must-seel, in which 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?” That’s how we won the war.
- Spoon, “TV Set”: A loving punkabilly tribute to the late and lamented Cramps, which had me wondering, “Whatever happened to Poison Ivy?”
RUNNERS-UP: Mumford & Sons, “Believe,” Alabama Shakes, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” Ariel McCleary, “She’s About to Cross My Mind,” FFS, “Piss Off,”Kali Uchis, “Rush”
- 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.
- Ex Machina (A24/Universal Pictures): Alex Garland’s audacious sci-fi film offers a Kubrick-ian, god’s-euye 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-mousemenage-a-tois chess match involving Oscar 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.
- Love and Mercy (Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate)/Jimi: All Is By My Side (XLRator Media): This pair of idiosyncratic biopics – helmed by first-time director Bill Pohlad and Academy Award winning screenwriter John Ridley (who worked together, coincidentally enough, on 12 Years a Slave) – took definite aesthetic choices in choosing to concentrate on their characters at very specific times in their lives. In the end, it didn’t matter because of masterful performances by Paul Dano and John Cusack as Brian Wilson and Andre Benjamin as Hendrix. What both manage to expertly do is weave their characters’ lives around the music; even though Ridley had to do without Hendrix’s original compositions, he still manages to capture the essence through his cover songs. You can tell both are fans, though not afraid to explore the dark side of their subjects.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 guitarist Tommy 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, and Jerry 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.
- 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.
- Girls (HBO)/Broad City (Comedy Central)/Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)/Veep (HBO): Jerry Lewis might 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 onVeep.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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 andPeter Gould for creating a veritable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back story for their epic tale of corruption and redemption underneath the turquoise skies of Albuquerque.
- Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special (NBC): An epic, nearly four-hour tribute to a classic comedy show that managed to touch all the bases – and resurrect all the catch phrases and most of the memorable characters – spotlighting the legacy of Lorne Michaels’ remarkably resilient, groundbreaking achievement.
- 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.
- Togetherness (HBO)/Happyish (Showtime): On the surface, these two shows feature whiney white people who suffer all sorts of first-world problems, but theDuplass 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.
- Blackish (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 meetsDallas, a marvelously campy hip-hop soap opera with a scene-stealing turn by Taraji P. Henson and an underrated spotlight on gays in rap.