Twenty Twenty Twenty

My twenty favorite albums of Twenty Twenty. Some old favorites and some new discoveries. This is the year my kids got Spotify accounts and officially diverged from my lifelong methods of musical consumption. They listen to playlists. I’m still committed to the album, that forced collective unit of songs that represents a temporal moment in an artist’s life. An album-worth of music is even more important to me this year: an anchor to hold onto while quarantine rips up the social landscape around us. The best of these are like comrades now, advancing in just a few short months from novelties to fast friends (I think it’s trauma bonding). There’s a shared feeling of almost studied irrelevance to so many of my favorites this year—musicians comfortable doing exactly what they do best, just delivering the goods, not trying to break the mold but settled in for the long haul.

Most of these are linked to Bandcamp, and I strongly endorse their artist-first model of digital music delivery, especially as against the extractive and commercially exploitative rent-seeking giants killing the industry out here (coughSpotifycough). It costs you nothing to click through and listen at Bandcamp, and if you toss a few bucks to these excellent artists in the process, all the better.

Numbers 1 through 5 are pretty solidly ranked. 6 through 10 are probably more like a voting block, and 11 – 20 could move up and down the chart depending on the day. With no further ado.

20. Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers: Get In Union

This, shortly after seeing Julie Dash’s Daughters Of The Dust for the first time. To hear these voices, in recital of songs that feel more like liturgies, songs you understand must have been sung and sung and sung again, is like being a guest in someone’s family room, no one explaining any traditions to you but there’s no rancor either. It’s the privilege of witness. [ALAN LOMAX ARCHIVE, June 5 2020]

19. Daniel Avery & Alessandro Cortini: Illusion Of Time

The title track, four minutes of gently decaying synths, is my platonic ideal for ambient electronic wallpaper music. But Cortini’s work w/ Nine Inch Nails puts the music in tension w/ industrial noise. Brian Eno and Tim Hecker’s lovechild. [MUTE, March 27 2020]

18. Khruangbin: Mordechai

Per the NYTimes profile for this album, the drummer and guitarist played in the gospel band at Beyoncé’s church in Houston. Dub, funk, art and groove in a fug of smoke. Helps me imagine myself as someone infinitely cooler than I am. [DEAD OCEANS, June 26 2020]

17. Plants & Animals: The Jungle

Warren Spicer’s plaintive vocals always sound just unhinged enough to push these songs past jammy and into sublime. You can imagine the shindig where this band is playing, and exactly where each song will slip into structured chaos in their live renditions. We need a vaccine so bad, if only so I can see Plants & Animals make the above dream a reality in a dirty club. [SECRET CITY, October 23 2020]

16. Nils Frahm: Empty

Masterclass in ironic album titling. Picture the SRO hall where these compositions are played, hundreds of people holding their collective breath lest they break the spell. [ERASED TAPES, March 28 2020]

15. Adrianne Lenker: Songs/Instrumentals

Big Thief released two masterpieces in 2019 and Lenker still wasn’t emptied out. I’m partial to artists w/ alter egos that work in a different dynamic, and songs/instrumentals fits that like a glove. Lenker’s voice is integral to what makes these songs work, one of the more distinctive gifts of the new millennium. [4AD, October 23 2020]

14. Art Feynman: Half Price At 3:30

Speaking of artists w/ alter egos, Luke Temple‘s Art Feynman sits snugly in between his songwriterly work under his own name and his improvisational full band material with Here We Go Magic, splitting the difference with similarly exquisite results. I’m Gonna Miss Your World has a good chance at taking the Earworm Of 2020 title. [WESTERN VINYL, June 26 2020]

13. Waxahatchee: Saint Cloud

The point at which I went from Waxahatchee appreciator to Waxahatchee fan. Saint Cloud is a huge step forward: accessible, exciting and mature. And the cover art is worth a thousand words about what it sounds like. [MERGE, March 27 2020]

12. Remi Wolf: I’m Allergic To Dogs!

Technically an EP, but there’s so much kitchen dance party stuffed in there, I’m rounding up. Instant mood changer. [ISLAND, June 24 2020]

11. The Beths: Jump Rope Gazers

That cover art notwithstanding, no one power-pops harder, better, or with more innocent abandon than The Beths right now. [CARPARK, July 10 2020]

10. Real Estate: The Main Thing

They’re not doing anything new, or even anything remarkable. It’s just that what they’re doing is so refined and consistently pleasant. This became one of my go-to comfort blankets when COVID19 threatened to overwhelm my equilibrium. [DOMINO RECORDING CO., February 28 2020]

09. The Microphones: Microphones In 2020

Phil writes a synechdoche for his entire artistic career. When he sings about hearing Stereolab and running to the studio I think my heart stopped for a minute. A masterpiece. [P.W. ELVERUM & SUN, August 7 2020]

08. Blake Mills: Mutable Set

I heard Vanishing Twin and immediately sought out this unknown album of hushed, intelligent virtuosity. The intersection of <thoughtful + accessible + patient> meets so many of my needs and pushes so many of my buttons. There’s always room on my turntable for a new auteur (or not so new, in this case—Mills is an industry vet, having worked with a murderer’s row of luminaries and having recorded and released multiple albums before this). Worth all the time you can give it. [NEW DEAL/VERVE, May 8 2020]

07. Taylor Swift: Folklore

As long as Taylor’s trying on hats, I want to make a public bid for more of this Aaron Dessner phase. Indie Swift, complete with obligatory Bon Iver guest appearance, is as commercially strategic as ever: I submit that her audience may have shifted from the teens of her teens to their now-middle-aged indie dads with their respectable jobs and market influence. She obviously knows everything. Plus the storytelling is some of the best in the business. [REPUBLIC, July 24 2020]

06. Caribou: Suddenly

Pandemic cancelled my first Caribou show. Fuck. At least I have Suddenly. [MERGE, February 28 2020]
All five artists represented in the final spots were new to me this year. Normally I’ll have an old favorite with new material that creeps up here, but 2020 has been an exceptional year in a lot of ways. I commend these artists’ back catalogs to you if, like me, you hadn’t explored their music before now. In all cases, their superlative work this year is just the tip of the iceberg (barring of course my number one, which arrived sui generis, leaving us looking forward with hope for the future).

05. Ben Lukas Boysen: Mirage

Boysen’s eliptical compositions feel all-consuming, warm and strong and taking up space in ways that most of my favorite electronic music does. Jon Hopkins and Floating Points have filled this spot for me in years past, but Boysen is a welcome addition to that exclusive club. [ERASED TAPES, May 1 2020]

04. Lianne La Havas: Lianne La Havas

Take this perfect single, add a genrebending cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes and, yeah, pretty much can’t fight. Seldom does pop music cohere (for me) across an entire album of material quite as effortlessly as Lianne La Havas. [NONESUCH, July 17 2020]

03. Andy Shauf: The Neon Skyline

Shauf’s self-loathing protagonists, drinking and striking out with a specific cast of friends and lovers (Charlie, Judy, Claire) in a specific place (the titular bar, which we get to know within the first two minutes), are detailed in perhaps my favorite distinctive new voice, made unforgettable by his unique diction and high, wistful tone. Playing every instrument including a surprisingly essential clarinet, singing in harmony with himself, Shauf punches way above his weight on these charming-then-unsettling tiny, perfect pop confections. Few more just-plain listenable albums this year, to my ears, then The Neon Skyline. [ANTI-, January 24 2020]

02. SAULT: Untitled (Black Is) / Untitled (Rise)

I exclaimed out loud in delight multiple times during my first hearing earlier this year of SAULT’s 2019 album, 5, and immediately listened to all four of their releases. R&B, soul, rock, chanting, percussion, indigenous sound, spoken word—the elements are familiar but the assembled outcome is some of the best outsider art I’ve ever heard. Conscious, unforgettable music, grounded in past traditions but unarguably rooted in the moment. There’s no choosing between these two roughly thematic albums, both released in 2020, both fully realised and absolutely stellar. Really, they’re that remarkable, a new new thing. [FOREVER LIVING ORIGINALS, June 19 / September 18 2020]

01. Bonny Light Horseman: Bonny Light Horseman

In a better world, Anaïs Mitchell (Hadestown), Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats), and instrumentalist and habitual Hiss Golden Messenger guitarist Josh Kaufman’s Bonny Light Horseman would be everywhere, as ubiquitous to 2020 as WAP. The source material is centuries old, but the execution is urgent and immediate. It’s especially resonant in a year when the upending of everything familiar has all of us looking back to reevaluate a collective culture so routine, so unremarkable as to have become invisible. By bringing these folk songs up from the deep and recasting them in a contemporary mold, Bonny Light Horseman connect the present moment to the past in a way that feels essential in this unmoored crisis of a year. Mitchell and Johnson’s voices sound natural together, their harmonies pouring over the listener like water. By the time Justin Vernon interjects his guest baritone late in the tracklist, Mitchell and Johnson have already established your new normal, and you’re grateful when they return to the foreground in the closing song, 10,000 Miles. These are artists in collaboration at the peak of their powers, and I’ve played and loved no album more consistently this year. There’s no way to tell, but Bonny Light Horseman has all the signs of being a lifelong friend. It’s an album to return to, again and again, when you just need to be… re-grounded. [37d03d, January 24 2020]

Ten More Mentions, Just Off-List:

Blu & Exile: Miles [DIRTY SCIENCE, July 17 2020]
Jay Electronica: A Written Testimony [ROC NATION, March 13 2020]
Fleet Foxes: Shore [ANTI-, September 22 2020]
I Break Horses: Warnings [BELLA UNION, May 8 2020]
The Innocence Mission: See You Tomorrow [THERESE, January 17 2020]
Loma: Don’t Shy Away [SUB POP, October 23 2020]
Luluc: Dreamboat [SUN CHASER, October 23 2020]
Oneohtrix Point Never: Magic Oneohtrix Point Never [WARP, October 30 2020]
Tenci: My Heart Is An Open Field [KEELED SCALES, June 5 2020]
Trace Mountains: Lost In The Country [LAME-O, April 10 2020]

Ten Plus Two, Two Thousand Nineteen

December has come at last, careening toward the end of the year. I’m sitting right on top of middle age, and my tastes have both hardened and softened. The music that moves me is pretty squarely in a set of musical borders, but my engagement with artists wandered all over this year: lots of new stuff in my top ten. I’m throwing in two from 2018 that I didn’t really consider at the time, but which floored me when I finally listened this year, to make an even dozen; and some honorable mentions for the long tail. Here they are: jnon’s favorite albums of 2019.

12. Nils Frahm: All Melody (2018)

Nils Frahm: All Melody cover image

Gorrrrrrrgeous. I’ve wasted a year, not considering this album. That’s a year of listening I can never get back.

11. The Beths: Future Me Hates Me (2018)

The Beths: Future Me Hates Me

If I’d known that an album rocked this hard or tasted this sweet last year (the “whoo-hoos,” the complementary lyrics sung one on top of the other, the power chords), my top three would’ve looked 33% different. This is the kind of record you don’t take off the player for months: pick up the needle, go back to the beginning, drop it again.

10. Telekinesis: Effluxion

Telekinesis: Effluxion

Michael Benjamin Lerner stops trying so hard and delivers 10 sunny, shuffling pop confections in his earnest and endearing tenor. Surprised to find myself liking a Telekinesis album again, and quite this much.

09. Aldous Harding: Designer

Aldous Harding: Designer

That’s it, that’s the review.

08. Hiss Golden Messenger: Terms Of Surrender

Hiss Golden Messenger: Terms Of Surrender

Almost embarrassingly prolific these past few years, MC Taylor is making a densely packed assault on a particularly southern mystical tradition, where musicians come together to perform an alchemy that transcends rock and roll, or makes rock and roll transcendent. Hiss ties a string to these experiments to make sure he can find his way back out again, or to keep a tenuous hold on the whole thing as it beats its black wings and tries to take off and float away. Directing these songs to his children, his ego, his heart, also helps ground them, resulting in another pristine document of a songwriter balancing on the razor edge between losing himself and finding nirvana.

07. Brittany Howard: Jaime

Brittany Howard: Jaime

Howard bulls her way through dirty rock, soul and torch music, but as an auteur and not the frontwoman to a band. Turns out it makes all the difference, as these songs feel alive in ways Alabama Shakes never did, to me. I was hooked, from the first mantra-like chorus of History Repeats to the last wet drum hit of the laconic Run To Me. A superlative record in every way.

06. Liz Lawrence: Pity Party

Liz Lawrence: Pity Party

A late year accidental find, Liz makes a particularly British pop-punk that makes me think of a complicated cross between last years’ gem, Caroline Rose’s Loner, and Feist’s song-deconstructing Pleasure. Like those albums, these songs are relationally directed at a specific hearer, making Pity Party feel intimate. A loner pleasure, which is how I listened to this album the last couple months: it feels like a personal find, that old feeling of finding a new artist who’s all yours. At least until she hits the big time.

05. Hand Habits: placeholder

Hand Habits: placeholder

“What’s the use if you’re not trying to forgive,” sings Meg Duffy in an anthem for the back half of a life. Upper-case feeling with all lower-case titles. These sonically gentle but lyrically piercing songs got way under my skin early this year and made themselves right at home.

04. Floating Points: Crush

Floating Points: Crush

Sam Shepherd pushes his electronic/freeJazz methodology in two directions: closer to the dance floor and the concert hall in equal measure. The stuttering strings of opener Falaise are a useful touchpoint, an almost classical swell of violins dissected by programmatic beat-like silences into a hybrid, echoed in the frenetic clicks under album closer Apoptose, Pts. 1 & 2. These experiments feel as vital to now as Elaenia felt to 2015.

03. Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe

Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe

Yanya’s sparse new wave, tied together by a series of dystopian pharmacotheraphy skits, felt like it skittered over the anxious heart of 2019. This voice, supremely confident even as the lyrics upset and unsettle; this music, approaching the sublime even as the guitar careens toward dissolution. Firmly tied to the pop tradition; one of my most-listened-to albums this year.

02. The Building: PETRA

The Building: PETRA

I don’t know anything about Anthony LaMarca except a) he’s got some Catholic in his background and b) he has/had cancer. Well, and that he has the temperament to think deeply about what life requires in the face of those facts, and write songs about it, and sing them somewhere in the patri-lineal lineage of Neil Young. Cancer and Catholicism both require a reckoning with loss. This album is a gift about coming to terms with loss, going through and not even coming out the other side, but imagining what coming out the other side will mean for the other half of a life lived well. Really, this album was a revelation, one of my favorite new finds of the year.

01. Beyoncé: HOMECOMING: THE LIVE ALBUM / The Lion King: The Gift

Beyonce: Homecoming: The Live Album

HOMECOMING is an unqualified triumph, as a synthesis/metamorphosis of an incredibly accomplished career, as a Black Fuck You Slash What’s Up to a white industry, as, just even, a document of a live performance. Beyoncé is at the absolute height of her powers here, and the effect is to completely obliterate the listener: I’m fully absorbed into Beyoncé’s world, on Beyoncé’s terms, and somehow both lose my self completely and come out the other side more fully myself. It’s the only album this year that consistently makes me cry.

What other performer could seat herself so securely at the center of Black Life, with such assurance, even arrogance, and garner no pushback? What other Black document could white America consume but not co-opt, attend but not assimilate; what other Black document enforces meeting it on its own terms? What other catalog of songs enjoys the popular recognition and cultural significance of Beyoncé’s, such that its interpretation by marching band might enhance and not destroy it? HOMECOMING easily belongs in the list of the best live albums of all time, the best Best Of albums of all time. The interpretations and interpolations of some of these songs supersede the original recordings (I could happily never hear Deja Vu again without that horn chart). Beyoncé and her comrades on HOMECOMING accomplish a feat no one saw coming: they transmute gold into… another kind of gold, a stunning transformation that I’ll need years to come to terms with. Fortunately, that’s a power worth spending years considering.

Beyonce: The Lion King: The Gift

HOMECOMING also represents Beyoncé’s complete ownership of the industry’s capitalization of Beyoncé. I’ve already written about the ways that Beyoncé used Coachella such that Beyoncé now owns Coachella, and with an eye on sustaining her future (HOMECOMING, as a documentary and an album, ensure that Beyoncé will profit from Coachella long after Coachella will profit from Beyoncé). That this is only her first magic trick of this kind this year is just more proof that there is no one playing on Beyoncé’s level. The Lion King: The Gift is Beyoncé’s response to the critics who look sideways at her participation in Disney’s “live-action” The Lion King remake. A paycheck? Maybe. But even as Disney tries to commodify Beyoncé, Beyoncé uses Disney mercilessly, to platform Black artists, to extend her own brand as a fulcrum for Black music, and most importantly to re-interpret The Lion King as a love letter / legacy letter to her own children (note that the King doesn’t survive the film: it’s the Queen who presides over the Prince’s ascension). The collection is shot through with Beyoncé’s concern for her children’s regal inheritance: that they know they are loved and worth love, that they are fully realized people in a racist world, that they already have the Keys to the Kingdom. Even as HOMECOMING puts a bow on Beyoncé’s career to date, The Lion King: The Gift looks forward to a time when Beyoncé wills the whole thing to her future Queens and Kings. That she crafts both statements in a single year? Bow down, bitches.

Some Honorable Mentions

Benny Sings: City Pop
Bedouine: Bird Songs Of A Killjoy
Big Thief: Two Hands
Andre Bratten: Pax Americana
Bon Iver: i,i
Chance The Rapper: The Big Day
Clark: Kiri Variations
Sam Cohen: The Future’s Still Ringing In My Ears
Nils Frahm: All Encores
Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated
Cate Le Bon: Reward
Lisel: Angels On The Slope
M83: DSVII
Metronomy: Metronomy Forever
Over The Rhine: Love & Revelation
Jessica Pratt: Quiet Signs
Prince: Originals
Ride: This Is Not A Safe Place
Taylor Swift: Lover
Jamila Woods: LEGACY! LEGACY!
Thom Yorke: Anima

Ten Top

I’ve heard some whining about the year in music, not-so-great, and I say pshaw. 2018 was lovely; there was so much good music that my top ten albums of the year didn’t even make it onto the high-profile end-of-year lists I’ve been reading. There’s enough hi-test material in 2018 to populate a thousand lists! I’ve given you a run-down of the run-up to this post (on Twitter), and I’ll probably recap those in a follow-on post. But here, at the end of all things 2018, is my Top Ten.

10. The Essex Green: Hardly Electronic

The Essex Green: Hardly Electronic
Surprise! It’s been over a decade since we saw anything from these gentle New York pop craftspersons, and I can’t imagine a better reunion opener than Sloane Ranger, with its golden Farfisa tones and classic harmonies. The band fairly skips through a masterclass multi-genre workout before waltzing back out of our lives again. Don’t wait another decade, please.

09. Natalie Prass: The Future And The Past

Natalie Prass: The Future and The Past
Prass’s pop-soul leanings get a shot in the arm on this follow-up to her self-titled debut. I can almost see her in the studio, dropping right into the pocket with her crack session musicians. Abe and I were a little obsessed with this album this summer: he learned Never Too Late on the piano, and I played Sisters probably one time too often. Prass’s delightful inversion of the Carpenter’s Close To You is as witty as a pop song gets. I can see this playing at parties for years to come.

08. Jon Hopkins: Singularity

Jon Hopkins: Singularity
When they talk about electronic/dance music being warm, or humanistic, or textured, or coaxing organic forms out of electrical impulses, I usually wonder what they mean. But in the future when I can’t put it into words, I’m going to point to this album. Emotionally affecting programmatic music; revelatory, even.

07. Amen Dunes: Freedom

Amen Dunes: Freedom
Damon McMahon’s mumbling, shambling, warbling, consonant-clipping and vowel-altering delivery gave me a thrilling emotional recall of the feelings I had listening to those early R.E.M. albums for the first time. And those R.E.M. albums were fundamental to my developing aesthetic for pop music. Combine that with McMahon’s expressed desire to write songs in the mode of Jackson’s Thriller and this album was probably always a surgical strike on my playlist this year. Hard to understand, impossible to ignore.

06. Dick Stusso: In Heaven

Dick Stusso: In Heaven
The flat drums, tamborine, and buzzing bass of Modern Music, under Stusso’s weary baritone and accented by bolts of electric guitar with the reverb on. When he sings “I’m just looking for a good time and a little cash,” well, that’s all I’m looking for too. And then he pushes the track into a weird effects-laden bridge, and drop-cuts the ending, and oh man, just take my money.

05. Emma Louise: Lilac Everything

Emma Louise: Lilac Everything
How do you set yourself apart from the myriad balladeers practicing mid-tempo lovesongs? Pitch-shift your voice down into androgynous territory, make yourself sound like a sensitive man, and then sing about sensitive men without changing your pronouns, so we’re forced to engage with the questions of love and desire from multiple angles at the same time. Brilliant.

04. S. Carey: Hundred Acres

S. Carey: Hundred Acres
This is the kind of delicate pastoral beauty I can lose myself in over and over forever. I don’t even care what it’s about, just keep singing and playing like this and I’m done for.

03. Rae Morris: Someone Out There

Rae Morris: Someone Out There
I’m not a radio pop person, but a few years of Taylor Swift/Lorde/Rihanna fandom from certain pre-teens in my household has fixed a crack in my hip-dad facade. I brought Morris’s album home and decided to like it unapologetically. And then I really did like it unapologetically, and it’s had wicked staying power over the year. Do It might be my platonic ideal of a perfect pop single. And the pre-teens liked it, too.

02. Caroline Rose: LONER

Caroline Rose: LONER
I had this locked down in February.

01. Wye Oak: The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs

Wye Oak: The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs
I didn’t get Jenn Wasner before, but I’m 100% on board now. Call it clarity, transparency– whatever she was trying to communicate, it finally clicked in her songwriting here. Plaintive, inventive, trancendental, rhythmic. Burns down the whole barn at times. I listen to this album and I just don’t want it to end: this kind of wall-to-wall energetic, creative rock experience is the gold standard.

My movie year

Each year, film critic David Ehrlich edits a film to present his choices for the top 25 movies of the year in the language of, well, film. It’s always kinetic, exciting: quick cuts from the films in question, linked thematically or visually, soundtracked with music written for or featured in films from the year in review. Ehrlich’s yearly films begin invariably with a prologue from the range of the year’s films, not all of which will appear in the subsequent list. These video lists always make their featured movies look spectacular, enticing. I watch his reviews at the end of the year and think to myself, “I want to see all of these movies.”

So this year, I’m working on seeing all of these movies.

Parenthood curtailed my movie-watching activity: I’ve had neither the stomach, the occasion, (the money,) or the stamina to watch most of the films I might have seen in my less responsible days. Lots of animation, not much else. I’ve pushed against that this year, using Erlich’s 25 Best of 2017 as my checklist. I’d already seen three of his 25 films: Get Out (#16), Okja (#12), and Dunkirk (#2), so I figured I had purchase on my chosen course and perhaps I could run this race and finish. I’m entering the final lap (The Beguiled, #15; Foxtrot, #19; A Fantastic Woman, #20) and thought I’d write a bit about what I’ve discovered along the way.

One, there’s a world of film beyond what’s at the multiplex, and it’s rewarding. Nothing new here, but these film critic best-of lists help curate some of the gems into a manageable roster for me. Many of the critics’ darlings will appear on multiple lists, so expanding my menu to two or three prominent critics didn’t cost me too many more viewings (A. O. Scott had only one or two titles on his Top 10 that didn’t also appear on Ehrlich’s Top 25). And lots of these films are on a streaming service I’m already paying for (of the 25 films on Ehrlich’s 2015 list, 15 are on either Netflix, Prime, Hulu or Kanopy).

Two, I feel I know something of Erlich’s preferences after seeing so many of his favorite films. He likes his cameras to capture dancing, especially dancing to an insistent, overwhelming beat. He likes kinetic action, movement. He likes the body, and he’s particular about LGBT themes. He likes the contemplative gaze. He likes films that go somewhere with obsessive intent. He likes his stakes really high. Some of these are and some aren’t my cup of tea, but it hasn’t decreased the value of the project as a whole for me.

Three, though I may have already planned to see some of the films on my chosen roster (I’m sure I would have eventually seen The Post, #9, and Phantom Thread, #10), I’ve found that submitting myself to someone else’s choices means I’m seeing many, many films I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Some of these I didn’t particularly like (A Quite Passion, #11; Good Time, #14), and some I adore (Mother!, #22, Wonderstruck, #13), and both reactions were a complete surprise because I wouldn’t have considered these films of my own accord.

Finally, I’m zeroing in on a theory about film, which is that the director is always looking to create on film what I’ll call the “one unseen thing.” That is, one shot, one metaphor, one set piece, an image or scene or moment that’s never been seen before by the human eye (at least, not on film). This is the scale and scope of the canvas in Dunkirk; the frenetic apocalypse at the end of Mother!; the flight through the mall in Okja; the scenes of children’s autonomous rule in The Florida Project; the sunken place in Get Out. Look for it and you’ll have the beginnings of a handle on the heart of a film.

Having seen most of Ehrlich’s 2017 list, I’ve started taking a stab at 2016 as well (I’m a little more than halfway through at the moment). I’ve seen incredible films this year, films I’d have never entertained: Aranovsky’s Mother! is my favorite movie of 2017, a conclusion the reviews did not lead me to expect; A Ghost Story, Columbus, Jackie, Moonlight, Toni Erdmann, Hail, Caesar!, and the films of Luca Guadagnino were excellent surprises– I’d never have watched any of them. (I might have eventually watched Hail, Caesar!). But, and I guess this is the point of this post, I’m so glad I did. I like this strategy. I think I’ll keep it.

What a joy it is, to be surprised again by a film!

In praise of Famous Tracheotomies

I’ve spent the past week in frequent tears, emotionally undone for some reason by the opening track from Okkervil River’s In The Rainbow Rain, “Famous Tracheotomies.”

Morgan Enos in Billboard opines that the song is self-explanatory, but I think its genius is a little more subtle than that. On first listen, the synopsis goes: Okkervil songwriter Will Sheff almost died as a baby. He had to have a tracheotomy, and has lived with the scar and the knowledge that he almost didn’t make it, since then. Sheff goes on, in a series of verses, to recount the sad declines of other famous tracheotomy recipients: Gary Coleman, Mary Wells, Dylan Thomas, whose wife got so drunk the night he died that she “had to be restrained.”

At this point, you know the song is going somewhere, but you don’t know where. It seems a little on the nose. Somewhere relatively dark. The last verse starts in the same style: Ray Davies, age 13, in a hospital in London. The pattern repetition has lulled you into complacency— you know the story, here’s another example. The nurses wheel him out onto the balcony to get some air. He looks out over the river, and we roll into the last line.

“And as that evening sun did sink / on London and the river and that freaked-out future Kink”

You already knew that. Ray Davies, along with his brother Dave, is the chief songwriter for the most working class of British bands, The Kinks. Famous for songs about everyday men and women, working stiffs, down-on-their-luck folks caught up in the conundrums of their time. You could see Sheff identifying with Davies even, drawing a line between Davies’s art and his own.

“Waterloo lit up for one sick kid”

Sheff’s lulling repetition has blinded you to the other identification he makes with Davies, that of the everyman who comes close to death but pulls through and makes indelible art. With that buried lede, “Waterloo,” the entire song opens up instantaneously. You know what Waterloo signifies. “Waterloo Sunset” has been at times pegged as the greatest British rock song, the quintessential story of blue collar knobs finding beauty amid the drudgery. You instantly hear in your mind “As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise,” and Sheff has already painted the picture of Davies doing exactly that.

“And at 23, he wrote a song about it”

And as you’re hearing Sheff and seeing Davies watching the Waterloo sunset, you hear that last line, and you know that Davies still has his whole career ahead of him, and there’s hope, that the song is about hope. It’s not about dissolution.

It’s about hope.

In the masterstroke, the song then begins to cycle into a wordless repetition of the “Waterloo Sunset” melody, and the chord structure is revealed to have been a companion to Waterloo Sunset all along, and Sheff a direct descendant of a long line of hurting artists trying to find beauty in the everyday. And then, you get to meditate on the song itself, without words – the lyrical melody of the opening verse of “Waterloo Sunset” – and you feel something. Something ineffable and filled with hope.

It’s an old truism – your pain is not the end of your story, it may set the stage for your greatest achievements – but it’s as elegantly painted here as it has ever been, in a subversive and unexpectedly moving way: Waterloo Sunset’s fine.

Empathy prompts

Trump Empathy Prompt (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Trump has been pilloried for apparently needing a crib sheet to remember to empathize with the victims and survivors of the Parkland massacre. I was 100% ready to jump on this bandwagon until I remembered that I have a regular reminder set on my iPhone that says “Zena did amazing work today.” I regularly forget that Zena’s unsung and often invisible labor needs recognition, celebration. I forgot so many times that I hurt her feelings, so I set a reminder. Apparently, I need a crib sheet to remember to empathize with my wife.

Why might an empathy prompt be a good and necessary thing? Maybe you’re psychologically unable to empathize, as with certain diagnosable cognitive conditions, or a placement on the autism spectrum. Maybe you’re the victim of childhood trauma, and you wrestle with blind spots in your adult life as a result. Maybe you’re centered entirely outside another person’s experience, and you need to prime yourself to understand their circumstances from your protected place of privilege or deprivation. In any case, Trump or someone near him took an active step to ensure that he was as prepared as possible to be decent to hurting people. I don’t like him any better than I did yesterday, but I think beating him up over empathy prompts is probably a bad idea. I say, “more lists.”

Jesus directs me to love my enemy. If I need a prompt sometimes just to appropriately love those dearest to me, might I benefit from a reminder to love those I’m less accustomed to considering? What would they most want me to know about their experience? What could I do to help them feel safe? How might I best remember to hear them?

03. Sing, Unburied, Sing (Jesmyn Ward)

Jesmyn Ward: Sing, Unburied, SingI loved Salvage The Bones but I read it during this blog’s long fallow period so how could you know? This covers similar ground but hews closer to Jones’s The Known World in feel, thanks to the explicit inclusion of the dead in the narrative. Ward, like Jones, gives African American dead in America the voice they deserve: some of us should be cutting out our tongues in repentance and recognition. Grounded in the story of an intergenerational multi-racial family of you-swear-they’re-real people, West does alchemy here, turns dirt and blood into pure melody. Her insistence that our sins, our pain, don’t invalidate our love is like a psalm. Keep writing, I’ll keep reading.