I’ve been running around in circles, pretending to be myself why would somebody do this on purpose, when they could do something else? drowning out the morning birds, with the same three songs over and over I wish I wrote it, but I didn’t, so I learn the words, hum along ‘til the feeling’s gone forever took a tour to see the stars, but they weren’t out tonight, so I wished hard on a Chinese satellite I want to believe, instead I look at the sky and I feel nothing you know I hate to be alone, I want to be wrong
Phoebe Bridgers – “Chinese Satellite”
I’m pretty sure everyone is already in love with Phoebe Bridgers, right? So there’s no reason for me to wax on about how brilliant she is? And I’d be preaching to the choir if I raved about her sophomore album, Punisher, going on and on about how perfect it is in every aspect and facet, right? Right?!
But Punisher also means something specific and personal for me right now, playing no small part in my attempts to take care of myself in the midst of a particularly rough stretch of depression.
I know unguarded conversations with friends are vital right now; but I’m crushed by a two headed monster, birthed from the unholy union of my preexisting reluctance to weigh other people down, with the fact that I’m limited to video calls as my only means of conversation – the artificiality and distance of which make it impossible for me to feel genuinely connected with those on the other end.
But art is conversation, too. When I listen to an artist as she reveals the sore and broken and anxious places in her heart, it sneaks a little light into the darker corners of mine, and some fresh air into the spaces that feel suffocating.
It certainly doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t magically make depression go away. But it helps me feel a little less alone, and adds color to what is otherwise a palette of grays.
Even under the “best” circumstances, it’s not uncommon that an album helps me survive moments like this. This time around, it’s Punisher.
In that vein, I’ve been doing a bit of a Phoebe Bridgers YouTube deep dive, so I figured I’d share some wealth from my journey down the rabbit hole with you. Here are three short, very recent videos you should absolutely watch!
First, her installment of the New York Times series, Diary of a Song, for ‘Kyoto.’
Then, two songs from the new 50 on 50 series, in which she performs for an audience of 50 people at the LA Coliseum. They were recorded back in March before we’d realized the world was ending.
Believe the hype, everybody. Baby Driver and The Big Sick really are as good as everyone has been saying — more on The Big Sick another time, but for now, Baby Driver!
I’m about to write a ton about Edgar Wright, so let me first mention that I loved everything in this movie. The cast is so great. Ansel Elgort is getting lots of attention, but lets not forget that Lily James as Debora is impossible not to fall in love with, Jamie Foxx is at his considerable best as an unhinged sociopath, Jon Hamm and Eiza González are a charismatic match made in hell, Kevin Spacey does Kevin Spacey things. It was great.
And of course, I have to join the chorus of fans singing the soundtrack’s praise as well. It’s heartbeat that makes the film go, and I can assure you I’ll continue to listen to it on Spotify regularly for the foreseeable future.
Now, with that important stuff mentioned, on to my boy Edgar.
There’s a good 20 minutes at the start of Baby Driver where I literally couldn’t sit still. As in, I genuinely couldn’t keep myself from fidgeting and squirming in my seat from sheer joy. That first car chase, combined with the loooooong tracking shot, was everything I wanted this movie to be. It was all the technical brilliance and ebullient film geekery I crave from Wright.
This is peak Edgar Wright. While a definite shift in tone and location for the director, like all of his films it is an invitation into a world shaped by his deep love of cinema — this time, set to music!
He’s a meticulous and methodical director. Everything in an Edgar Wright film is carefully planned and storyboarded. He has a vision in his head, he carefully plans how to collaborate toward its execution, and then he makes it happen — all the while utilizing his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema.
That’s not the only way to make a great movie. Some directors make amazing art by throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks, or by shooting massive amounts of footage and then doing much of the work in the editing room.
But Wright is the opposite of that. It’s all meticulously storyboarded before shooting begins, shot for shot, every frame, angle, and beat. Without that sort of precision, a film like Baby Driver never would have been possible.
It’s not just the massively complicated car and foot chase scenes, everything in this film required Wright’s uncommon level of attention and preparation. Everything had to work together, on rhythm, perfectly choreographed. For example, the actors had earwigs in so they could hear the music, to be certain that each footstep and gunshot was in time to the music, as it was choreographed.
To have one scene where the action plays out in time with the music is fun — like the Queen scene in Shaun of the Dead — but to have the majority of a film work that way is INSANE.
People too often underrate Wright’s technical skill. They’ll mention the Cornetto Trilogy being funny, clever homages to genres that tell meaningful stories about continuing to grow up as an adult, but even that praise too often leaves out how fucking brilliant the actual filmmaking is. Maybe the irony and humility of the films makes it harder for people to take it seriously, but they are missing out. Fortunately, Tony Zhou gets it.
Perhaps part of it is that he makes it look too easy. Wright and his team excel at taking filmmaking with a really high degree of difficulty and doing it so well that it blends in with the larger fabric of the film. Making a fully analog action jukebox musical full of non-CGI car chases is as high as a degree of difficulty is going to get, but this film fits together seamlessly. It’s so visceral and thrilling that it’s easy to miss how impressive the filmmaking is.
Chances are, after the critical and commercial success of Baby Driver, we will get to see what it looks like when this sort of thing is done poorly. We are going to get a bunch of copycat projects in about 18 months, that’s how the business works.
The good news is, we’re also going to get some great films eventually, as some gifted directors will make art that riffs on what Wright does in Baby Driver; much the same way that Edgar Wright takes all of his passions and interests and creates something exciting and new each time out.
It’s always bittersweet — but mostly sweet, because good for them — to see a personally beloved artist graduate from really popular ‘underground’ figure into full-fledged celebrity. His work has been known for a while, with critical raves and a medium sized but massively passionate fanbase. Now he has arrived in earnest as a blockbuster director. We felt like he was ours, but now he belongs to everyone. Yeah, that sounds really creepy, but it’s still true.
We first thought this moment was coming in 2010, after the excited buzz Scott Pilgrim vs. the World got at early screenings, but then that film didn’t perform as well as many predicted at the box office. Then we thought it would happen with Marvel’s Ant-Man, but that ended poorly when Wright left the project soon before filming began over “creative differences,” — something I don’t believe would have happened if production had been set to begin just a year later, and Marvel could have seen how well Guardians of the Galaxy over performed and perhaps allowed more wiggle room for Wright’s vision.
Alas, at long last, the well-deserved time has finally come. Edgar Wright will no longer be an underrated genius, just a genius.
These days, there’s just too much media to consume.
Combine the accumulation of all the great things created in human history, and you already have too much to get to in one lifetime. Add to that the fact that amazing stuff is currently being made at a pace that is impossible to keep up with, and you have a recipe for despair.
The last thing you need is some asshole giving you a list of more things you should check out.
In that spirit, here is a list of five things you should check out.
None of these things are obscure, but all of them seem underappreciated based on my limited line of sight.
1. Power Man and Iron Fist by David F. Walker
I haven’t watched it yet, but by most accounts, Netflix’s Iron Fist was underwhelming at best. Many people responded more favorably to Luke Cage, but while I enjoyed the character on Jessica Jones, the standalone show fell really flat for me.
Fortunately, I don’t need Netflix if I want a great ongoing Power Man and Iron Fist story, because David F. Walker has been absolutely killing it since relaunching the title for Marvel early last year.
Power Man and Iron Fist is witty, playful, socially aware, smart, and above all, really fun.
Walker is able to embrace and transcend the blaxploitation roots of the title in ways that work on every level.
Also, did I mention it’s really fun? The style? The art? The characterization? Fun, fun, and fun.
Power Man and Iron Fist does just about everything the Luke Cage series tried — and in my opinion failed — to do as far as social commentary goes, but without ever taking itself very seriously.
I want David F. Walker to write all of the things.
Will the Heroes for Hire ride again? Can Danny and Luke get their old mojo back in order to stop an entertaining rogue’s gallery from tearing Harlem apart? Will someone be able to use the Supersoul Stone, and artifacts like it, to become the darkly powerful Grandmaster of Street Magic? You’ll have to read and find out.
2. A Band Called Death
I finally got around to watching this movie. You should finally get around to watching it, too.
I expected it to be entertaining, appealing to my music and record loving heart. And it was. I had a great time watching the story of Death and the strange series of events that led to the band being discovered 34 years after recording their only album.
What I didn’t expect was the emotional power of the film’s third act as it touches on the beauty of family and the bittersweet nature of hope.
Shut up, I’m not crying. You’re crying.
3. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Obviously, the film isn’t underappreciated. The beauty of Hayao Miyazaki‘s modern classic — one among many — is well-known.
But the book by Diana Wynne Jones? Now, that’s a different story. Literally, actually. It’s a very different story than the one Miyazaki told — his changes were reportedly made, at least in part, to create a film in response to the American war in Iraq.
Obviously I won’t go into detail about specific differences, because that would ruin all the fun for any of you who decide to read it. What I will say is that both stories are great, so it isn’t hard to love each of them.
Jones immediately shot up my list of authors whose work I want to devour entirely, in much the same way that a fire demon eats bacon. Neil Gaiman’s love for Jones already had her on my list of authors to check out, but Howl’s Moving Castle plants her firmly in the ‘Give Me More’ category. Her writing is funny, wise, and layered. Her narrative voice is bright and playful, and the way she limits the reader’s field of vision based on Sophie’s perspective — even though she isn’t the narrator — is done with heaping portions of humor and insight.
This is a quick read, and well worth your time. Just try not to drag the movie into it. Let each stand in conversation with the other, not opposition.
4. Mo’ Meta Blues by ?uestlove
Seeing The Roots live is one of the greatest music experiences currently available in this world. The two Roots shows we’ve seen were infectiously joyful, wildly fun three-hour-long homages to music and life, with Questlove as the mad genius ringleader [[I read they’ve since tragically retired the three-hour-long so-called ‘Springsteen shows.’]] This book felt a lot like the text manifestation of those shows. I loved it.
One of my favorite things is passionate, knowledgable people talking about the things they love most. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more passionate or knowledgable about a given topic than Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson is about music.
I loved learning the story of Questlove, beginning with his parents’ record collection. I loved learning the story of The Roots, beginning with Black Thought’s rivalry with Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men — they all went to the same arts high school in Philly. But most of all, I loved the deep, overflowing love Questo has for music and seeing how that passion has shaped his entire life, and American music along with it.
I tell ya, I thank the gods of television that Noah Hawley is making shows.
David Haller thinks he’s crazy, but it turns out he’s actually just a wildly powerful mutant. Then again, maybe he’s crazy.
You may think a television show adapted from the pages of an X-Men comic won’t be to your liking, but if let that keep you from watching Legion you’ll really be missing out.
This show isn’t what people might expect in their knee-jerk assumptions about a show based on a comic. It’s super trippy and lots of fun… I know, I’ve said almost everything in this post so far is fun, it’s just that these things arefun.
Legion is like if Pushing Daisies and Fargo — the show, obviously, because Noah Hawley — had a baby, and then that baby grew up and had a baby with Charles Xavier.
The show is smart and quirky, with unexpected delight and/or creepiness waiting around every corner.
The cast is especially great, with the performances by Aubrey Plaza, Dan Stevens and Jemaine Clement deserving gold stars in my book.
Seriously, don’t let the comic origins put you off if you don’t like comics. You can hate super hero films and still love this show. The show is designed so someone who has never even heard of comic books can jump right in and enjoy it. I know that might be hard to believe coming from a guy who started this installment of five things with a comic book, but it’s true. I promise!
I discovered Twin Shadow right before leaving Seattle, and by the time we headed south to Portland for the beginning of a meandering road trip east, “Five Seconds” had become the official song of the journey.
12 days, 13 states, a co-pilot trade at around the halfway point, and through it all at least one thing remained constant: this song started each major leg of the journey. It made the weight I carried during a really difficult time just a bit lighter.
Granted, we didn’t ever get to join a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang, but the song still helped.
As a bonus, this KEXP in-studio from two years ago has a great acoustic version of the song.
Chance the Rapper — aka Lil Chano from 79th, aka Chancellor Johnathan Bennett — may just be the epitome of the ‘month of happy’ converted into human form.
I mean, has anyone seen any definitive scientific proof that Chance the Rapper isn’t happiness personified?
The guy is fucking delightful.
A self-proclaimed man-child, he is infectiously joyful. I have to assume he’s that guy at the party who gets everyone dancing and smiling, but without being annoying about it.
Seriously, what’s not to love. He gives away all of his music, donated $1 million to Chicago Public Schools because politicians were being dicks about it, regularly talks adoringly in interviews about his dad and his daughter, and loves Kanye while also revealing that the stuff ‘Ye says in private is even crazier than what he says in public, which is hilarious.
I love Chance the Rapper. Everyone should. I genuinely think he may become president someday.
Exhibit A, just watch one of his adorable Kit Kat commericals.
Exhibit B, his awesome single-take music video for Sunday Candy, a song about his grandma.
Of all the things and people I plan to include this month, none are more appropriate for International Women’s Day than Mitski.
Simply put, she is amazing.
I listened to her quite a lot last year, and my love only continues to grow.
As I previously wrote about Puberty 2: “Her album about struggling to find identity and happiness in the midst of profound anxiety, angst and depression obviously means very different things for her than it does for me, and yet she created this perfect sonic expression of that struggle that feels true to me.”
She’s my favorite songwriter right now. Her lyrics are strong and vulnerable, full of all the paradoxical juxtapositions that roil inside our hearts. Her songs are confident and fearful, hard and soft, tough and anxious. The work is rich with emotional depth, the kind that is so particular to her that it somehow impossibly feels particular to me, too.
Just the lyrics would be enough, but then she combines it with this remarkable sound, which is so full of strength and rage and tenderness and desperation.
I think the reason for the living death or sleepwalking I experience much of the time is that I try to uncomplicate myself, try to be only one or two things. I try to be simple and easy. Mitski reminds me to be all of the things. Her music helps me give myself that mental permission to explode in all of the different directions in which my heart pulls me.
Most 2016 music passed me by, which is amazing, because I still listened to so much great music this year. Artists are magic.
Writing music lists the years I get around to it, I realize I have much less in the way of language and bonafides when it comes to music than I do for films and books, but I still shared a thought or two about each album.
You should listen to all of this music. And you should share your favorite 2016 music with me so I can fill in all the gaps in my experience this year.
Here is the music I listened to the most this year, in alphabetical order by artist.
BADBADNOTGOOD – IV
White jazz quartet from Canada who essentially create Hip Hop beats and songs that feel like samples for Hip Hop beats — and not just obvious pop stuff, the first track on IV could be a Shabazz Palaces song. They came onto the scene as a trio doing covers of Hip Hop tracks before moving into original stuff. They’ve worked with some really great emcees and producers, even releasing an entire album with Ghostface Killah this year.
IV is really good. It’s one of my favorite albums this year to play while getting stuff done around the house.
Andrew Bird – Are You Serious?
This album snuck up on me, which is weird with an artist I’ve loved for so long. To be honest, I hadn’t gotten into some of his more recent efforts. Then, I didn’t even realize how much I liked this album for a bit, until I started noticing how regularly I was relistening to it.
I’m not sure why I didn’t catch on right away. In so many ways this is vintage Andrew Bird, it’s sweet, funny, sad, clever, and full of whistling and violin. Not that it’s all blends together, “Capsized” feels like it could be the cover of a Bill Withers song, which I’m totally into.
Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
This album continually surprised me more than anything else I listened to in 2016. There’s a throwback quality to it, but it’s also always looking ahead — and sideways, and inward. It’s moving and interesting and it makes me want to resist all the bullshit we keep getting asked to swallow, both artistically and politically.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
I’m pretty sure this is my favorite album of the year.
I didn’t write these in the alphabetical order I’m organizing them now, so below I wrote about the Frank Ocean record and the creation of a sonic landscape for an album — Bon Iver does that as well as anyone. His albums are sustained moods you get to live in for however long you keep the track list on repeat. His concert at Sasquatch Music Festival years ago, where in addition to playing the new album he also rearranged the music from For Emma, Forever Ago to fit the tone of Bon Iver, Bon Iver was still one of my favorite live performances ever, experiencing old favorites anew with fresh colors and shapes.
Also, you can watch one of his live performances from Brooklyn earlier this year HERE. NPR recorded it and the quality doesn’t disappoint.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Obviously, the loss of a human being is tragic far beyond the creation of any sort of art. Yet, as a people who will never know Bowie the person and will only experience him through the music he made and the characters he created, we feel the blow more powerfully when we lose a public figure who is still creating amazing things to help us understand the world.
At 69, Bowie was at the top of game with this album. We didn’t know it at the time, but this album and his death set the tone for the rest of 2016.
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Who can make a wildly fun drug fueled mixtape called Acid Rap (still one of my favorite albums of the current century) and then follow it up with an earnest gospel album that finds enormous mainstream success? Chano from 79th can. Chance can do anything.
Childish Gambino – Awake, My Love
You can’t be good at everything. There are limits of time and attention when it comes to the media we can master.
Obviously, no one told Donald Glover. If we take the popular metaphor of 2016 as dumpster fire or clusterfuck house fire further, and I was forced to grab an armful of ten or fifteen things to run out with, I’m pretty sure Atlanta and Awake, My Love would make the cut.
Some Prince, some George Clinton, plus the influences of a bunch of deep cuts I’m unaware ignorant of, all on the way to a brilliant neo-soul/funk album.
Mick Jenkins – The Healing Compenent
I really like this album. It’s layered and complex and is doing uniquely interesting things in a genre where you will already find the most interesting and innovative experimentation in modern music.
There were a large number of albums this year by Black arists, including Kiwanuka and the new Tribe album, that lyrically sound like they are responding post-Drumpf election even though they were released earlier. It’s an indictment on surprised white folks like me who weren’t looking closely enough at how bad things were even before Drumpf won the election, creating the context where that was possible.
Also, this collaboration with BADBADNOTGOOD is one of my favorite songs and favorite music videos of the year.
Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate
We got a lot of albums in 2016 that we’re going to need for the next 4+ years. This is one of them. If you’ve never listened to Kiwanuka, you should remedy that as soon as possible. And don’t stop here, Home Again is even better!
“There’s a dark, roiling hue to the pop sensibilities of Holly Låpsley Fletcher that hooked us in when we first heard her debut album Long Way Home. While her vocal & melodic prowess have the right ingredients for the next big pop star, the minimalist electronic underpinnings push her left of center in just the right way, keeping the listener from ever being able to completely pin her down. At 19, Låpsley has produced an album far beyond her years & one we’ll be quick to spin again and again.”
Also, I highly recommend Vinyl Me, Please. If you are going to sign up let me know first because it can get me $10 off my subscription.
Mitski – Puberty 2
With Puberty 2, Mitski made a deeply personal album that resonated with me, even though for most of the year we didn’t share any common demographic info whatsoever (now at least we both live in Brooklyn). Her album about struggling to find identity and happiness in the midst of profound anxiety, angst and depression obviously means very different things for her than it does for me, and yet she created this perfect sonic expression of that struggle that feels true to me.
I knew before 2016 that to create something universal you need to be more particular, but I seemed to experience that reality with more frequency than ever this year.
Frank Ocean – Blonde
The death of the album was much heralded, as a result of mp3’s and whatnot — as always, this was wildly overstated because hyperbole is easier than nuance, and it gets more clicks, too. I’m glad it isn’t actually dead, and that we keep getting albums that aren’t just a series of singles, but that create a sonic landscape to live in for the duration of the playtime. Many of the albums that have done this recently are directly influenced by Kanye and his friends and collaborators, like Bon Iver earlier on this list, and Frank Ocean here.
I’m ok if we have to keep waiting extended periods between Frank Ocean’s albums so long as we are rewarded like we were with this one.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
One week this year, when I was feeling really depressed (the clinical sort not the situational or general mood sort), “Daydreaming” on repeat was genuinely my only solace. I don’t know how it worked, feeling comforted by the melancholy song inspired by Yorke’s breakup from the woman he’d been with for 23 years (the strange vocals played at the end of the song are the words “half my life” played backwards over and over). I just know that, in spite of it being a very specific artifact about someone else’s heartache, it’s one of those songs that feels like it isn’t coming from the headphones, but from a deep place inside myself. Again, in being particular we find broader connections.
Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade
Even more than Tribe’s album, this album captures so much of what made me fall in love with Hip Hop as a kid. The production, the energy, the humor, the wit, the overall feeling — it’s looking backward and forward at once.
Watching the video for “4r Da Squaw” for the first time is the closest I’ve felt to watching the deeper cuts, like the Pharcyde, they’d play on BET when I was a kid. It’s fun and honest, which were qualities in short supply in 2016.
A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
When word came out immediately after Phife’s death that Tribe had a new album on the way, I was worried. It seemed too conveniently timed, and I was concerned we would get a subpar release of unused vocal cuts repackaged into a new album.
Instead, we got the real deal. It’s not Midnight Marauders or The Low End Theory, but it’s still pretty damn good.
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Those of us who love Kanye understand how crazy he is. The line between his performance art and his downright immaturity and mental illness is often blurry, but there are clear examples in both those categories.
What those of us who love him don’t understand is how people can’t hear what we hear musically. If we are going to argue about whether or not you can love the art but hate the artist, we can at least hear you enough to talk about it. But to argue that he isn’t a genius just doesn’t register for us, I have trouble even understanding how to start that conversation.
For me, The Life of Pablo doesn’t reach the sustained brilliance of his last few albums, but I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that the production on Ultralight Beam hasmoved me to tears more than once.
Anyway, here is a video Estelle Caswell put together earlier this year for Vox explaining a bit about the genius of ‘Ye.
Wye Oak – Tween
By all rights, this should be a throwaway album. They won’t even call it a fifth album. It’s songs from the unreleased material that came after Civilian but didn’t make it onto Shriek.* Thus: Tween. Yet, I still liked it enough to listen to it over and over all year long.
Long live Wye Oak!
Also, the honorable mentions that almost made the cut or that I really liked but haven’t listened to enough yet: Kendrick Lamar untitled unmastered, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Skeleton Tree, Leonard Cohen You Want it Darker, James Blake The Colour in Anything, Kishi Bashi Sonderlust, Car Seat Headrest Teens of Denial, Solange A Seat at the Table… if I gave myself more time to work on this list would get longer and some of this would make it the list. Alas, I waited to long to think about lists last year.
*I updated the Wye Oak blurb because originally I had incorrect info about the timeline for the recordings.