Josh’s Top 50 Albums of 2019

The blog may have been lacking in activity over the past year, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been keeping up with the year’s best records. I don’t have much to say about the year’s musical zeitgeist or trends, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Common themes in music this year of hope and survival in a time of crisis seem to have carried over from the previous couple of years. I wonder if that has to do with the endless parade of awful news we’ve been bombarded with since 2016.
  • Some of the best releases were the most experimental. This was the year the rap-country crossover “Old Town Road” reigned supreme, but genre mashing felt like more of a norm than an outlier.
  • Women continued putting out most of the most interesting and diverse projects.
  • Someone keep Kanye away from Tony Robbins, please.
  • Weezer in 2019: two albums, twice the trash.

Before I count down the full-length studio albums I fell hardest for, I’d like to throw some recognition to a few other categories:

Best Live Album:
Image result for homecoming beyonce album
Homecoming by Beyoncé

Best soundtrack/compilation album:

Image result for coltrane 58
Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings by John Coltrane

Honourable Mentions:
Revenge of the Dreamers III by Various Artists (Dreamville Records & J. Cole)
The Lion King: The Gift by Beyoncé & Various Artists

Best EP:
Image result for toothsayer ep
Toothsayer by Tanya Tagaq

Honourable Mentions:
Afterlife by The Comet Is Coming
7 by Lil Nas X
Lately by Celeste


Out of a total of 274 eligible albums, here are my favourites. It was a good year.


My Top 50 Albums of 2019

50 – 41

50-4645-41
50. Tegan and Sara – Hey, I’m Just Like You
49. Refused – War Music
48. John Coltrane – Blue World
47. Jade Bird – Jade Bird
46. ScHoolboy Q – CrasH Talk
45. Lissie – When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective
44. Jidenna – 85 to Africa
43. Tinashe – Songs for You
42. Blood Orange – Angel’s Pulse
41. Burna Boy – African Giant

40 – 39

40-3635-3140. Boogie – Everything’s for Sale
39. Glen Hansard – This Wild Willing
38. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever
37. Daniel Caesar – Case Study 01
36. Maxo Kream – Brandon Banks
35. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
34. Black Midi – Schlagenheim
33. Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline
32. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
31. Tool – Fear Inoculum

30 – 29

 

26-3025-21
30. Flying Lotus – Flamagra
29. TOBi – Still
28. Raphael Siddiq – Jimmy Lee 
27. Miranda Lambert – Wildcard
26. City and Colour – A Pill for Loneliness
25. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
24. Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats – Anger Management
23. Marvin Gaye – You’re the Man
22. Brutus – Nest
21. Ari Lennox – Shea Butter Baby

20 – 11

20-1615-11
20. The National – I Am Easy to Find 
19. James Blake – Assume Form
18. Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka
17. Mannequin Pussy – Patience
16. Black Mountain – Destroyer
15. YBN Cordae – The Lost Boy
14. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
13. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall
12. Jamila Woods – LEGACY!LEGACY!
11. Tyler the Creator – Igor


The Top Ten

10. Bon Iver – i,i 

BonIver_ii

I know it’s lonely in the dark / And this year’s a visitor / And we have to know that faith declines / I’m not all out of mine

Sonic experimentation overshadowed humanity on Bon Iver’s last record, 22, A Million, but i,i finds Justin Vernon and Co. striking a balance between them. Singles like “Hey, Ma” build from cold and sparse to an increasingly ambitious and glorious wave of emotional melodies that hit like the band’s best tracks before segueing into the simple piano pop of the Bruce Hornsby-featuring “U (Man Like),” where Vernon tackles American political patriarchy in an earnest plea for men and those with power to improve. Bon Iver has always straddled the line between majesty and intimacy; i,i is a perfect example of the ways Vernon builds towering tracks off a frame of vulnerable simplicity.


9. Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold

sleaterkinney_thecenter

I need you more than I ever have / Because the future’s here, and we can’t go back

The ninth album from Sleater-Kinney boasts the best of the band’s trademark furious, crunchy guitar rock , combined with the polished production of St. Vincent’s Annie Clarke. It’s a record cemented in gritty urgency but dressed in radio-friendly pop rock. Singer Carrie Brownstein’s melodic yet antagonistic vocals anchor an album full of catchy synth and guitar riffs as she paints a dark and compelling portrait of destruction, femininity, sex, companionship, and rage that feels like the perfect soundtrack to the MeToo era.


8. Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance

LeonardCohen2019_TFTD_5x5_hi-res

I was handy with a rifle / My father’s .303 / I fought for something final / Not the right to disagree

I called Cohen’s last album, You Want it Darker,—released weeks before his death—a “stellar album to cap off an unassailable legacy” when I named it the 8th best album of 2016. Even in death, though, Cohen wasn’t done. Thanks for the Dance feels surprisingly cohesive for a posthumous record. No doubt its clarity and similarity in sound and tone to Darker owes to the fact that it was recorded during the same period, when Cohen’s son Adam was producing and shepherding his father’s legacy in Leonard’s last months. The record is as brooding, funny, sexual, sly, and engrossing as any of Cohen’s best work, and fans couldn’t ask for a better epilogue.


7. The Cinematic Orchestra – To Believe

cinematicorchestra

Why would you hide from yourself? / Belief is here to find you

The first record in over a decade from The Cinematic Orchestra is transcendent orchestral electropop, meticulously crafted and arranged to form a lush, mostly down-tempo soundscape that could ostensibly be background music, but it proves far too captivating for that. Every track—all exceeding 5 minutes but only one topping 10—has room to breathe and move and features its own little sonic narrative and emotional crescendo. An utterly satisfying triumph.


6. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!

LDRNFR

They mistook my kindness for weakness / I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus / Can’t a girl just do the best she can? 

I’ve grown to appreciate Lana Del Rey more upon each successive release following her frustrating debut, Born to Die. Now, having fully shed the more performative aspects of her musical and lyrical persona and vocal style, the great American songstress within is more evident than ever. Del Rey muses about contemporary America with wit and self-awareness over the record’s 14 tracks that feel hopeful and abrasive at the same time. From the album’s opening strains and the lyric, “Goddamn man-child / You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you,’” on the title track to the later admission that “Fuck it, I love you,” LDR is eminently aware with the sorry state of her country and society who excel at self-destruction, but are still willing to look for love in an increasingly hostile environment (literally).

Where are America’s patron saints when “Kanye West is blonde and gone” and “L.A. is in flames”? They’re not Norman Rockwell, as the tongue-in-cheek album title ostensibly affirms, but perhaps those willing to see through the toxic nostalgia of Americana and believe in its potential it at the same time. The succinct title of the album’s closer says it all: “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it.”


5. Little Simz – GREY Area

 

LittleSimz_GREYArea

Rejected the dotted line but not the pen / Invested in myself, that was money well spent

The best rap album of the year comes from 25-year-old UK artist Little Simz, who has spent most of the past decade grinding out a prolific string of independent releases and quietly establishing a reputation to match her work ethic, yet somehow evading a mainstream breakthrough. I came to be introduced to her from her 2017 guest spot on the Gorillaz’ Humanz album and tour. On her third studio album, Grey Area, Little Simz sounds finely-honed and confident, showcasing technical prowess and clever wordplay alongside eclectic production from Inflo (who previously worked on Michael Kiwanuka’s stellar Love + Hate). But what makes Little Simz so fascinating is the contradictions in tone and subject matter as her unapologetic passion and confidence are matched by introspection and vulnerability.


4. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors

angelolsen_allmirrors

Don’t take it for granted / Love when you have it / You might be looking over / a lonelier shoulder / Remember when we said / we’d never have children / Now I’m holdin’ your baby / now that we’re older

Angel Olsen’s fourth album, All Mirrors, is her fourth great album in a row, but it also might be her finest. Equal parts angry and uncertain, inwardly tender and outwardly incisive, its fluidity in tone and sound makes All Mirrors a frequent surprise without feeling like a radical departure from Olsen’s prior releases. Olsen’s already dynamic and purposeful songs are paired with orchestral arrangements by Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff  that, while they never overpower her voice, do sometimes become the unexpected narrative and emotional focal point. It’s a sound that lends the tracks an elegant art pop grandeur and an element of tension that Olsen is more than capable of building and releasing at will, to great effect that feels alternately intimate and epic, a melancholic drizzle and an apocalyptic torrent. And, as its title might suggest, All Mirrors is a blazingly self-aware record that brings to the fore the agony and the ecstasy of realizing the self as one’s own most constant companion and fiercest critic, and the resolve to roll with both the light and the shadow.   


3. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

 

weyesblood

Give me something I can see / Something bigger and louder than the voices in me / Something to believe

It’s hard to know what to call the sound of Natalie Mering’s Weyes Blood on Titanic Rising: it’s baroque pop as much as it’s sleepy, folksy Americana. You alternately hear the influences of The Beatles, Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, Aimee Mann, Fleetwood Mac, Enya, just to name a few. It blends electronic and orchestral elements into a deceptively pleasant and whole aesthetic that, if listened to inattentively, floats by in what feels like an instant. It’s only when you give Titanic Rising an engaged listen that Mering’s marriage of lilting vocal prowess and evocative lyricism, initially masked by how effortlessly and without show Mering delivers them, become clear. The album uses the language of cinema, apocalypse, and broken relationships to explore emotional manipulation and the ways reality often fails to meet expectation. Through it all, Titanic Rising remains a hopeful record, one that ultimately turns the crushing discovery of one’s own insignificance into the freedom to forge a destiny of one’s own design. This is a titanic—heh—achievement in songwriting and production and a gorgeous album.


2. Brittany Howard – Jaime

brittanyhoward_jaime

See, tomatoes are green / and cotton is white / My heroes are black / So why God got blue eyes?

The debut record from Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard is titled Jaime in memoriam to the singer’s late sister, an obvious tell as to the album’s personal nature—Howard’s lyrics explore personal, spiritual, sexual, relational, family, and racial identities. It’s perhaps that intimacy that spurred Howard to break from her band and release the album under her own name. It’s not an overwhelming record; at 35 minutes and with lyrics that are as revelatory as they are straightforward, it’s comfortable even as Howard tackles sensitive topics. But it is a record that blossoms anew in its depth with each listen, as Howard’s powerhouse croon weaves through varied genre influences to create a testament to radical self-acceptance.


1. Solange – When I Get Home

When-I-Get-Home-1551384117-640x640 (1)

Brown liquor, brown liquor / Brown skin, brown face / Brown leather, brown sugar / Brown leaves, brown keys / Brown creepers, brown face / Black skin, black braids / Black waves, black days / Black baes, black things / These are black-owned things / Black faith still can’t be washed away / Not even in that Florida water 

A soulful, dreamlike, and just plain weird album, the follow up to Solange’s acclaimed A Seat at the Table tops it in my estimation. Drowsy and intimate, but lush, hopeful, and authentic in its production and subject matter, When I Get Home is the younger Knowles sister further stepping out from Beyoncé’s shadow and staking a claim for her own equal importance in the landscape.

This album, with a brief 39-minute runtime yet 19 tracks to get through, feels constantly shifting in style, sound, and collaborators in a way perfectly suited to the digital shuffle-focused era, but never feels lacking in focus or intention. As she speaks on the interlude “Can I Hold the Mic,” “I can’t be a singular expression of myself; there’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations.” That complexity is what makes Solange and this album so rewarding over multiple listens.


 

Josh’s Top 50 Albums of 2018

2018 is a year that felt endless. Remember Yanny and Laurel? The “In My Feelings” Challenge?  Those feel like ages ago and they weren’t even early in the year. Remember Justin Timberlake’s abysmal Man of the Woods? I wish I didn’t!

So when it came to compiling the list of my favourite records from the year, it was actually a pleasant surprise to unearth some winter and spring gems that had sort of gathered dust over the past several months (like the wonderful Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson collaboration, Landfall), in addition to more recent records that have been in constant rotation (like the triumphant return of Robyn).

Then of course there are those that dropped earlier in the year that have never stopped playing. It took The Armed four months after the release of their barn-burner of a record, Only Love, to play Toronto. But I think Mark and I were both still high on that album by that point.

But from Mitski to Monáe and Cardi B to Courtney B, make no mistake, 2018 was a year that belonged to women. If there was any kind of unifying theme to a year that was otherwise only characterized by the world burning down, that was it.

The year had the same number of weeks as every other year, but I nonetheless found myself listening to more music than ever. I ended up picking my top 50 from a whopping 320+ eligible* albums to which I listened this year.

*full length, new or unreleased recordings, no live records, compilations or soundtracks


Before we get to the top 50, I’d like to get back to something I didn’t get around to last year year—offering up some love to those types of records I don’t consider for the main list.

Best soundtrack/score album:
Image result for first man score
First Man (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) composed by Justin Hurwitz

Honourable Mentions:
Phantom Thread Composed by Jonny Greenwood
Black Panther Composed by Ludwig Goransson

Best soundtrack/compilation album:
The cover image features a neck-ornament upon complete black background. It is made of animal incisors used as beads and worn by T'Challa.
Black Panther: The Album Curated by Kendrick Lamar

Best EP:
Image result for stone woman ep
Stone Woman by Charlotte Day Wilson

Honourable Mentions:
boygenius by Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers & Lucy Dacus
Legends of the Summer by Meek Mill
Hooligans by Vic Mensa



My Top 50 Albums of 2018

50 – 41

50-46
45-41

50. Coheed and Cambria – Vaxis – Act 1: The Unheavenly Creatures
49. Lil Peep – Come over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2
48. Brockhampton – Iridescence
47. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
46. Omar Sosa & Yilian Canizares – Aguas
45. Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains
44. Allie X – Super Sunset
43. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
42. Troye Sivan – Bloom
41. Denzel Curry – TA13OO

40 – 39

40-36
35-31

40. Mac Miller – Swimming
39. 21 Savage – I Am > I Was
38. Cécile McLorin Salvant – The Window
37. 6lack – East Atlanta Love Letter
36. John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness
35. John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album
34. The Carters – Everything Is Love
33. Lindi Ortega – Liberty
32. The Paper Kites – On the Corner Where You Live
31. Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD

30 – 29

30-2625-21

30. Tash Sultana – Flow State
29. The Internet – Hive Mind
28. Moaning – Moaning 
27. Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet – Landfall
26. Jean-Michel Blais – Dans ma main
25. Pusha T – Daytona
24. Sean Leon – The Death Of
23. tUnE-yArDs – I can feel you creep into my private life
22. Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
21. St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Young Sick Camellia

20 – 11

20-16 15-11

20. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy 
19. Leon Bridges – Good Thing
18. Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance
17. Florence + The Machine – High as Hope
16. Sophie – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides
15. Robyn – Honey
14. Mitski – Be the Cowboy
13. Lucy Dacus – Historian
12. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
11. Jeremy Dutcher – Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa



The Top Ten

10. Anderson .Paak – Oxnard 

anderson paak

Back on my bullshit / I got some money to blow, I’m lookin’ good, bitch / Even as the king, I stay hood rich

Less focused but more ambitious (and more interesting) than Malibu, Anderson .Paak’s Oxnard finds the California singer slash everything assembling an array of guest stars for a funk and surf-soul extravaganza that bops with sun-drenched west coast flair. Sonically-diverse and era-spanning in its guest list, Oxnard sometimes threatens to lose its host and a unified aesthetic within its kitchen sink recording, but one thing it never becomes is dull.


9. The Armed – Only Love

the armed

We’ll find a place / take arms / It’ll all blow over

No album from 2018 exhibits a more balls-to-the-wall gonzo energy than this cacophonous sophomore album from Detroit hardcore band The Armed. Clocking in just shy of 40 minutes, its 11 tracks are deceptively controlled for something that sounds so frequently unhinged. Just when you think it’s about to fall apart, Only Love careens into a big pop hook or triumphant bridge. It’s experimental, playful, and best of all never predictable.

Read the Fraudsters’ full review of Only Love from May.


8. LUMP (Laura Marling & Mike Lindsay) – LUMP

lump

We salute the sun because / When the day is done / We can’t believe what we’ve become / Something else to prey upon / And evidently / It’s just another vanity / Another something to believe / The curse of the contemporary

LUMP, the sparse and wispy collaboration between singer Laura Marling and producer/instrumentalist Mike Lindsay, seems to reinforce their individual strengths by simply combining them, though their individual work might never have made them seem an obvious match. Their album of the same name is a drifting, near ambient sonic palette that, appropriate to their assertion that LUMP is an entity to which the pair gave birth, seems to exist as its own thing that passed through them. A mere six songs and a closing credits track, LUMP is a surreal, stream-of-consciousness dream that stretches Marling’s vocal and lyrical aesthetic beyond her solo work to create something akin the lush and weird worlds of Kate Bush and Björk.


7. mewithoutYou – [Untitled]

mewithoutyou

But I left what was left of my self-respect / like a Swiss Army knife on the ground / And a pocket of coins at the IDF checkpoint / by what some call ‘the Temple Mount.’

Perhaps no band has better inherited the mantle of post-rock, post-hardcore chaos of bands like Fugazi and Sunny Day Real Estate than mewithoutYou. Never shy of pulling off diverse genre bait & switches, the Philadelphia band shifts effortlessly between chaos and calm, or as frontman Aaron Weiss, ever the poet, puts it on the album opener 9:27a.m., 7/29, is a “jackal in the sheep flock.” For a band that frequently surprises, [Untitled] may be their hardest to peg record yet. In an era where it genuinely feels like anything could happen, [Untitled] is appropriately uncertain.


6. Noname – Room 25

noname

I know everyone goes some day / I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made from clay / But if I have to go, I pray my soul is still eternal / And my momma don’t forget about me

As fellow Chicagoans go, rapper Noname takes her cue more from Chance the Rapper than from Yeezy, opting for soul searching and self-reflection over braggadocio. Her lo-fi, orchestral-tinged beats make for easy listening but her agile, tongue-in-cheek wordplay and dizzying array of subject matter—everything from police brutality to cancer—make Room 25 impossible to use as background music. It’s an engrossing and honest look at the ambivalent feelings that come with the experience of sudden fame.


5. Thrice – Palms

thrice

Somewhere down the way, there’s a hidden place that anyone / That all of us could find / But all our maps have failed, so venture through the veil and realize / That these roads are intertwined

If To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere, the 2016 post-hiatus return of Orange County rockers Thrice, was full of apocalyptic dread, then Palms is characterized by post-apocalyptic optimism and the search for solace and unity. There has always been an antiestablishment undercurrent to Thrice’s lyrics, but Palms finds them looking to rally an army of outcasts ready to punch up. This is clearest on the anthemic track “The Dark,” which includes a chorus of fan vocals submitted online and mixed into the record. It’s a nice touch, only one of many in a record that finds a band pushing their boundaries further than ever. It’s the album furthest away from their early material, and one that will likely alienate some fans, but it’s one that finds the calm within the storm.

Read the Fraudsters’ full review of Palms from September.


4. Blood Orange – Negro Swan

blood orange

Sixteen-year-old boy / Confused and knowing that he’s different he wants to give in / After school, sucker punched down / Down and out / First kiss was the floor / Thinking it won’t make a difference if you don’t get up / Timing is all

An immersive sonic experience where jazz marries trip hop and r&b opens a polyamorous relationship with gospel and new jack swing, Negro Swan puts to music the fluidity of (black) queer identity. A rejection of the binaries of pain and joy, Negro Swan finds Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) embracing the realities of a complex state of being: when the world marginalizes and rejects you, it is all the more important to force yourself into it. This may be the year’s most transcendent record, and one of the most rewarding.


3. Shad – A Short Story about a War

shad

Damn it feels good to be back / Damn it feels good to be black / They keep on killing us / We just keep killing it

Shad’s first concept album does more in 39 minutes than most of this year’s big rap releases could do in their bloated, stream-gaming hour+ runtimes. With earnest, exploratory lyrics, transgenre influences, and a host of guest stars from Kaytranada to Yukon Blonde and Lido Pimienta, Shad delivers his most accomplished, hopeful, and focused record to date, proving yet again why he’s Canada’s most valuable player.


2. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

DirtyComputer

Let’s get screwed / I don’t care / You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down / We’ll put water in your guns / We’ll do it all for fun 

Five years removed from her last LP, Dirty Computer finds Janelle Monáe reinventing herself after forays into Oscar-winning film acting. It’s a record that feels current, with overt references to Trump; but despite that specificity, it is less concerned with making a political statement than staking claim to the value of ‘Black excellence.’ Of course, the personal is political and Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be a controversial statement but it is. To Monáe, though, all of that is secondary than the assertion that Black art matters, and, specifically, Black women’s art. From “Pynk” to “Django Jane,” Dirty Computer is an ebullient, defiant celebration of intersectional feminism and the different stories art coming from it can tell. Janelle doesn’t need to inherit the “next Prince” mantle because she’s already well on her way to creating her own.


1. Neko Case – Hell-On

neko

God is not a contract or a guy / God is an unspecified tide / You cannot time its tables / It sets no glass or gables / God is a lusty tire fire

Nothing quite so poison as a promise

And me, I am not a mess / I am a wilderness, yes / The undiscovered continent for you to undress / But you’ll not be my master / You’re barely my guest / You don’t have permission to take any pictures / Be careful of the natural world

I don’t know if there is a better combo punch vocalist, songwriter, and lyricist working today than Neko Case. Hell-On, her sixth solo album, is a dense and nuanced foray into contradictions: she’s defiant and vulnerable, pained yet humorous, moody yet pop. Hell-On is the kind of record that continues to reward you on multiple listens with its lush intimacy. It’s one that burns down the institutions that lay claim to women’s stories without allowing those women to control the telling. And boy does Hell-On do the telling.


Album Review: Thrice – Palms

As I may or may not have ever mentioned before on this blog, Thrice is and has been my all-time favourite band for years. I first discovered the Orange County four-piece in 2002 when I was in my last year of high school, around the release of their second record The Illusion of Safety. At the time, I was taken not just by the band’s energetic buzz-saw riffs and the way they married punk and metal, but by the emotional and thematic depth of Dustin Kensrue’s lyrics, full of evocative imagery and metaphors, a treasure trove of allusions to literature, philosophy, and politics.

It wasn’t until their breakout 2005 record, VHEISSU, that they really began to grow in their sound, abandoning much of the metal influences for more measured, mature song structures and diverse, experimental influences from shoegaze and grunge to arena and blues rock, but that nevertheless retained all the qualities that I had loved from the start.

Thrice took a hiatus in 2012, after the release of their eighth album, Major/Minor, and a double live album, Anthology, which chronicled their farewell tour. I didn’t know at that point whether I would ever get new music from them, but they reformed a few years later and put out what would end up being my number seven record of 2016To Be Everywhere Is to be Nowhere. Now, they’re back with a new record, and since I’m pretty much genetically predisposed to give it a perfect score, I thought in the interest of fairness to the reader, it would be a good idea to enlist the help of my illustrious colleague to render a more even-handed verdict.

Image result for thrice palms

Palms is the tenth full-length studio album from American rock band Thrice. It was released on September 14th, 2018, and is their first album to be released via Epitaph Records. Palms was produced by the band with Eric Palmquist, who previously produced their 2016 album, To Be Everywhere Is to be Nowhere. It was promoted in advance of its release with two singles: The Grey, on July 10th, and Only Us, on August 14th, as well as a sneak preview of the song The Dark, two days before the album’s release.

Mark, let’s break this down track by track.

1. “Only Us”

Josh: This synth stuff isn’t entirely new for Thrice, if you’ve listened to the Water EP and songs like “Digital Sea,” but it is a bit of a departure for them to rely on it so heavily outside of a concept record like that. This has a cool, 80s vibe I dig, but it breaks down into a more traditional post-hardcore bridge that chugs along with a nice energy. Big vocal hooks here right out of the gate, and I dig the humanist lyrical themes of the song (“Finally when will it be enough / to find there’s no them / There is only us”) in lines like “the system that terrifies you should terrify me.”

Mark: I actually love the backing track to this song. It sounds like the opening of a John Carpenter movie. I’m a little less sold on the way that the vocal approach weaves into it, as it is very “rock dude” in its vibe and delivery. Strongly melodic, though, and it builds to a pretty satisfying anthemic back half. This is such a strange combination of being totally up my alley and something that I think is a little cringe-worthy. I have no idea where to fall on this!

2. “The Grey”

Josh: This is the album’s first single. Back to the guitars here, with some of those classic Thrice licks. This is just an all-around great song of the kind you expect from this band. It’s got a tight rhythm section with an emphasis on big sound and interplay between all the band members. Everything is coordinated really well in that there is a lot going on but the instrumental parts all make space for each other. There are some nice bluesy undertones and a proper build up to that huge chorus. Really dig the subtle background vocals that come in during the later iteration of the chorus.

This is also a good time to point out what feels like an emerging lyrical theme on this album. With the opener’s emphasis on coming together, and lyrics here like “find another way to fight,” it feels like Dustin is recalibrating his perspective on the world and looking for common ground. But that will come up more later.

Mark: Really fun riffin’ and rhythm opening up this track. By the time we reach the chorus, things start to feel a little rote to me. The bridge bring back some interest for me, involving a few twists and turns that I was missing from the more calculated-feeling four chord chorus. It’s big, there’s no doubt about it… but it feels very familiar in a way that this track’s better moments manage to avoid. This song is okay. It sounds like the closing credits song from a modern action adventure film.

3. “The Dark”

Josh: This one’s moody. I like the rather spare way it opens with just the drums and guitar and then gives way to a big anthemic chorus. Months ago when they were planning this song, Thrice put out a call for fan submissions to be part of a choir that they would mix together for this song. I sent one in, and while you can’t make out individual voices, I have no reason to believe I’m not one of them that appears at the end of the song. It’s a really cool touch because the decision to include hundreds of fan voices on the record adds to the inclusive feel of the record generally, but especially this song, which focuses on standing up and refusing to be ignored. That’s a sentiment that a lot of people can relate to for a lot of reasons, and it’s also something that feels easier to do with people in your corner.

Mark: I love the guitar work that opens this track. It’s also nicely arranged, the bass hits coming in with a dramatic flourish accompanied by a great-sounding organ. The inclusion of a big fat sawtooth bass synth during the chorus doesn’t hurt at all either. I like this song okay! Great work on the chorus, Josh! I think I can hear you the most!

4. “Just Breathe”

Josh: Damn if this isn’t one of the band’s best songs ever. It has a lot of that punk energy from their older stuff, with a big emphasis on bass—Eddie Breckenridge gets a lot of room to shine all throughout this album. But hooboy that pre-chorus/chorus comes out of left field, and it rules. Set aside for a second the absolute uplifting spirit of this song, which asks you to “stay deep in the moment … just breathe” and instead notice it as an example of how good a vocalist Dustin Kensrue has become. Light years from the kind of whiney screaming he did on the first couple Thrice records, his vocals here are so controlled and beautiful. The addition of guest vocalist Emma Ruth Rundle was a great touch, as the pair mesh so well together. The closing section of the song in which the instruments mostly drop out to make room for just their voices is *chef’s kiss emoji.*

Mark: Yeah, this one is pretty good. The bass guitar sounds particularly terrific and the songwriting in general is busy in a way that feels lively but never obnoxious. The vocal work in the chorus also has a little bit less of the “rocker dude” vibe that I’m not huge into. Probably the best song on the album thus far.

5. “Everything Belongs”

Josh: I’m fairly sure Mark will hate this one, as it’s this album’s version of “Stay with Me” from TBEITBN, a much poppier sound than much of the band’s work. “Everything Belongs” is an arena ballad that relies heavily on piano and sounds as close to Coldplay as any Thrice song you’ll hear, which means your mileage may vary. I think, though, if you removed the vocals completely, this would sound closer to Explosions in the Sky. It’s a song about learning to see how we’re all connected, and that’s earnest in the way It’s a Wonderful Life is. I can see how that won’t be everyone’s jam, but it works for me as an album track consistent with a theme. The line about how “the spaces make the songs” is very apt for this album, which is full of knowing restraint. But, yeah…this song is the clearest giveaway that Dustin spent time during the hiatus playing in a megachurch.

Mark: Hahaha. You’re right. This sucks.

6. “My Soul”

Josh: Really nice guitar tones here, and more of those really clean, controlled melodies from Dustin. I think guitarist Teppei Teranishi might be playing a wurlitzer at points on this one.  This is one of those Thrice songs like “Words in the Water” that you can only describe as beautiful. It’s soulful and melodic, with incredible production and vibes of Sade and Chris Cornell. It’s a love song that balances the desire to be loved with anxieties of being unlovable. There hasn’t been a lyric this year more relatable to me than “What if I’m broken from the start / and what if I never heal?” But like everything on this album, it’s deeply-infused with hope, as demonstrated on the frequent refrain “What if I open up my heart / and somehow we stumble into something real?”

Mark: This one is nice. Good production, nice use of keys, a pretty swell moody-sounding guitar. It totally does sound like Chris Cornell covering Sade or something, actually. I wonder how they’ll pull off these album tracks live. This album is produced-as-hell so far. I think this one includes a stand-up bass. Somehow I doubt they’ll cart one of those out when they play a show.

…don’t mind me, I’m just typing my thoughts.

7. “A Branch in the River”

Josh: Another song that feels more like traditional Thrice, with a chunky bassline and Dustin’s more wailing vocal style. It reminds me of “Backdraft” from the Fire EP, but with very similar imagery to “Words in the Water.” This is a band used to playing mid-sized clubs, but so far every song on Palms sounds like it would be suitable for an arena. The breakdown at 3:19 is a lot of fun, but really brothers Eddie and Riley Breckenridge—on bass and drums, respectively—bring the house down on this entire song.

Mark: I really like the bass tone that they’re using on this record, and the guy’s work is typically pretty good. I think that the chorus to this song is very fun! A good rock tune overall and it does indeed have a breakdown that will totally make your day. This is good stuff.

8. “Hold Up a Light”

Josh: This is a pretty straightforward rock song, but one that I imagine will be an absolute barn-burner live. It’s another one where Dustin lets loose and his voice feels less controlled, more gravelly. Dustin’s fascination with the elements has gone way back, most notably on the series of element-themed EPs, The Alchemy Index, and he’s going back to that well for the lyrics of “Hold Up a Light.” I’ve often thought of putting together playlists from across the band’s catalogue based on times they cover similar thematic territory. Here, fire represents hope and the will to live and to keep fighting. The line “cities are claimed by the smallest spark” feels like it’s straight out of The Last Jedi, which naturally means a lot of douchebags hate this song.

Mark: I can sing “About A Girl” to this, kind of, so for that reason I like it. Beyond that, this song seems like a good song to point to if you’re ever trying to explain to someone what an “album track” is. Unless I’m wrong and they make this one a single, but surely they wouldn’t. Would they?

“Hold Up A Light” sounds kind of tossed-off, but also includes probably the heaviest metal-inspired flourishes on the record so far. That makes it perfect for getting licensed by some pro wrestler somewhere!

9. “Blood on Blood”

Josh: There’s been a heavy Radiohead influence on Thrice since at least Beggars. That comes through most clearly on this album in “Blood on Blood.” This one would have felt very on brand for the band’s last album, as it’s the song here with the most overt political references, here to foreign policy, refugees, and war. The line, “Don’t have to look in the devil’s eyes or see his infant son / Just like a bolt from the bluest skies, but it’s still blood on blood” makes it feel like a sequel to “Death from Above,” an evocative song about drone bombing. “Blood on Blood” more generally questions the various ways we justify violence, and wonders if peace is possible. Important questions for our time. This song is all-around tight, and the whole band is on point. My only gripe with the album in general comes in this song, and it’s in how the weird little harp breakdown part-way through feels like it’s gearing up for a much heavier section like you get in “For Miles” (from VHEISSU) but instead goes back to more of the same. You do get a really nice vocal bridge towards the end here, where Dustin goes full crooning wail. It’s great.

Mark: When the band kicks in proper on this song, it reminds me a lot of Minus The Bear. Which isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. Just a thing.

Something about this song has me thinking again about the way that this guy’s vocals sometimes clash with the way that I think that the song ought to sound. I’m not necessarily saying that this would work better with a Thom Yorke croak on top of it, but there’s something incongruous about the sound of this song for me.

The harp section is ridiculous.

10. “Beyond the Pines”

Josh: Thrice has always been solid with choosing album closers, and this is no exception. This is a fucking gorgeous composition, musically and lyrically. This makes a great companion to “Just Breathe,” as it imagines a place to feel at peace, but also in the company of others. Minor spoilers for the second season of Westworld, but the imagery in this song really evokes the scenes of ‘digital heaven’ that were featured in the finale. There’s so much joy in the image—taken from Rumi—of a place “beyond the pines … a field where we can walk / leaving all our names behind.” The phrasing of the lyrics throughout this song is really great, and I love the way it holds back in the first verse and chorus before the second guitar comes in with that airy, emotional sound Teppei is so good at. The whole song feels vulnerable, down to the near-whispered bridge section. This is one of those songs you can put on headphones and lie on the floor and just get lost in.

Mark: One thing about this band that I’ve appreciated since their mid-2000s records is their very good use of baritone guitars. The solitary baritone guitar work that opens up this song sounds just terrific and makes me want to buy a baritone guitar.

As Josh mentioned, this song is an appropriately grand closer. The vocals line up a little better for me here than on some of the other tracks. As a point of personal preference, I feel as though this track kind of peters out in a way that underwhelms me, but its a minor quibble. If they had returned for another huge chorus, I’m sure that I would have found a way to complain about that too.

THE VERDICT

Josh: I said that To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere was the perfect album to capture the tumult of the Trump campaign, a record that fixated on the apocalyptic and the violence of the state, but sought comfort in those we love even as we feared losing them. Palms, written deep into the presidency and a seemingly endless parade of hatred and division, is absent any of its predecessor’s cynicism, leaning instead into the optimism of an idea of utopia, even if that’s in the Undiscovered Country, or the place “beyond the pines.” There was that one great vocal melody on TBEITBN‘s “The Long Defeat,” but Palms is absolutely chock full of moments like that. It’s a record that feels like a balm to a wounded heart, a record brimming with hope that I know I’ll put on regularly when I’m feeling down. It’s a radical departure from their heavier sound, a direction they’ve gone increasingly over the years. But the songwriting continues to be inspired and take chances, even as it feels more focused. I think this is Thrice’s best record since 2009’s Beggars, and I can’t envision a scenario where it’s not in my top ten for the year. Five predictable stars.

Mark: I’m not sure that Thrice will ever be one of my favourite bands. Their early work was a pretty competent take on music that sounds absolutely laughable to modern ears, and what has followed always involves elements that I can really dig into and appreciate, but contains some element that turns me off enough that I keep them at arm’s length. This album is no exception. The tracks that I enjoy the most are, I think, much better than all of their last album, which I did not enjoy very much. There are songs on Palms that might be up there with my favourites from the group, which means that they might wind up living in my Apple Music shuffle list for awhile.

For all of my misgivings, though, I do think that this is a very good Thrice record. The production is largely terrific and there are some tremendous performances. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already heard it. If you’re just a fan of modern rock, Palms is worth your time for at least one spin. Three predictable Markstars.

Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Directed by: Peyton Reed
Written by: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari
Produced by: Kevin Feige & Stephen Broussard
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne & Michael Douglas

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Your enjoyment of Ant-Man and the Wasp will probably mirror how you felt about the first Ant-Man, because this sequel is more of the same. It’s breezy and a lot of fun, and much lighter than some of Marvel’s more recent output. Far away from the cosmic apocalyptics of Avengers: Infinity War, it’s a film of low stakes and lower ambition.

It’s not without issues, and those are primarily at the script level. For one, Ant-Man and the Wasp is frequently bogged down by nonsensical sci-fi jargon that even actors like Michael Douglas and Laurence Fishburne can’t make sound natural. But the plot revolves almost entirely on three parties competing for a MacGuffin in the form of Hank Pym’s (Douglas) shrunken laboratory, which houses technology capable of accessing the quantum realm. It’s not big on ideas, so, as a sci-fi film it has little to offer. But as an action-adventure film it excels.

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At times, Ant-Man and the Wasp plays like an 80s action flick, other times like a buddy movie, and frequently like a classic screwball comedy. It’s plot is light-footed and inconsequential, but the film is high on personality. Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly are effortless in their charm. Abby Ryder Fortson is also a lot of fun as Lang’s daughter Cassie, and theirs is one of a few different parent-child relationships that anchor the film with a human story. Most of the cast of the first film is back, including Scott Lang’s former criminal accomplices (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian & T.I.), now attempting to go straight with their own security business. Peña’s character Luis retains all the qualities that made Peña the MVP of the first Ant-Man, but he gets a run for his money from Randall Park, who steals the show as Woo, an FBI agent tasked with monitoring Lang’s house arrest. I hope they bring Agent Woo back in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a recurring side character like Phil Coulson or Jasper Sitwell.

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There’s no true villain here—Walton Goggins’ black market businessman Sonny Burch comes closest—, but Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost offers an interesting alternative antagonist of the kind Marvel has been getting better at lately. Her subplot is a bit clunky and could have been developed better, but her presence is a boon to the film, as are the ‘ghosting’ effects when she phases through people and objects. Visually, there’s a lot to love here, not just in terms of gags, but with the ghosting and size-shifting abilities cleverly employed in service of some really fun action sequences. When characters do travel to the quantum realm, it offers the most surreal visual landscapes since Doctor Strange.

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Does it feel slight? Sure, but in a landscape of superhero movies that so frequently threaten the extinction of the world, sometimes a movie that prioritizes having fun and telling a small story about parental love is a breath of fresh air.

Track-by-Track Review: Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods

Josh: In another version of reality that diverged from ours in February 2004, Janet Jackson tore the crotch off of Justin Timberlake’s pants during the Super Bowl halftime show, exposing his dingus to the world and fundamentally derailing his career. This is a world in which the confident and very good album FutureSex/LoveSounds and the ambitious and mostly good album The 20/20 Experience might not have happened. That’s a shame. But it’s also a world in which Janet might have released something approximating those albums instead, and it’s also a world in which Justin never would have had the inflated self-perception to release this year’s half-baked rebranding effort, Man of the Woods.

This is a record so hilariously misguided I had to enlist Mark’s help to break it down. Here we go track-by-track.

1. Filthy

Josh: I feel like this song is going for sexy, but between the faux-funk squelching digital bass farts, the animal noises, and Timberlake’s invitation/threat that he’s going to “leave the cage open,” “Filthy” comes off about as sexy as that photoshoot scene in Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me where Mike Meyers wants Rebecca Romijn and Kristen Johnson to act like a tiger. Is this the disembodied voice of Jessica Biel at the end of the song? What is going on?!

Mark: The biggest shame about this turd pile is that there’s actually a really nice funky bassline played on a real bass guitar buried underneath all of the panting and idiot robot animal noises. It’s like somebody with talent was hiding in a broom closet at the studio practicing something unrelated and they just happened to pick it up on mic and leave it in. “Filthy” isn’t so far from the recent “kitchen sink” production of recent Taylor Swift material, where they throw in a bunch of clashing elements in an effort to be forward-thinking, but wind up shitting out something tuneless and confusing instead. This is mostly very bad!

2. Midnight Summer Jam

Josh: This one actually has a fun beat and a great Raphael Saadiq bass line, and feels kind of like classic Timberlake, but it’s also emblematic of how haphazardly pasted together this record is. The intro & interludes feel pasted in from a completely different song, the violin doesn’t belong, and it features an absurd harmonica solo. You know when a song ends, and then it decides to start again and keep going for another full, extraneous minute? Yeah, this is one of those songs.

Mark: I’ll concede that the central jam in “Midnight Summer Jam” is pretty fun. The intro and interludes, as Josh mentioned, sound completely removed from the rest of the track and make for a very disjointed listen. I’m also just realizing that JT’s phrasing and delivery reminds me a lot of Weezer’s recent stabs at “pop music”. Ridiculous. The production is bizarre and off-putting! If this is the sound of future pop, I’m going to have to work harder at listening to deafening punk music before I have to hear more of it.

And yeah, what the hell with this song dying and then coming back from the grave to haunt me for another minute? Was not even a single person in the studio willing to tell this guy “no”?

3. Sauce

Josh: If “Filthy” was unsexy, “Sauce” is full on cringe-pornography. I genuinely threw up in my mouth a little when Timberlake says “I love your pink, you love my purple.” Stop making us think about your dick, dude. And maybe don’t use the phrase “loose screws” in a sex song about your wife who had your kid. Timberlake has been criticised for the way he cribs black music in the past, but it has never before felt like he’s doing it as poorly as he is with the tepid sub-Robin Thicke funk aesthetic he keeps employing on this album.

Mark: I love a distorted bass guitar, and this song has that. So points for that. Points deducted for the song itself which is gross and dorky at the same time. You can sing “Mmm Bop” to it while simultaneously singing “Blurred Lines” to it. What an embarrassing thing this is.

4. Man of the Woods

Josh: I get the impression Justin only recently realised his name has the words “timber” and “lake” in them, and decided to make a nature-themed album even though it definitely feels like he’s never stepped foot into nature before. And that’s saying something, coming from me. This song is fucking weird, but it does continue the album’s trend of uncomfortable descriptions of sex: “hands talking, fingers walking, down your legs / Hey, there’s the faucet.” He doesn’t go quite as far as working a ukulele into this stupid song—surprisingly, given how much he seems to throw everything at the wall on the previous tracks—, but this is still Justin doing his version of Jack Johnson.

Mark: This sounds like a parody of a mid-70s novelty song, covered by LFO.

5. Higher Higher

Josh: This is the most straightforward track so far, nicely guitar-driven and without the doohickey nonsense he’s been otherwise leaning on so hard. It’s also the most forgettable track so far in its blandness, so there’s that.

Mark: I think that this sounds the most like my personal understanding of what a JT song is, which is neither a compliment or an insult. The hooks are weak and I can’t imagine that I’ll remember it, but it’s a comprehensible album track. Every one of these songs feels about an hour long! This is a great album for people who are hoping to live forever by putting themselves through a series of unbearable experiences.

6. Wave

Josh: The opening riff of “Wave” flirts with country, but ends up in the pop-soul vein of a shittier Pharrell Williams. It’s a dull track that shows off Timberlake’s lazy lyricism when he sports a vaguely AAAAAA rhyme scheme on the refrain. This is a song about spending a night on a secluded island with the one you love, but so devoid of genuine romanticism that it almost makes me feel bad for Jessica Biel. There’s no evocation of the romantic beauty of nature like you get on something like Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” or even The Get Up Kids’ “Campfire Kansas.” At three minutes we get a whistling solo. There’s nothing better than a good whistling solo, but it needs to be a good whistling solo or you just sound like a dick. And as much as Justin probably wishes it, he’s no Bobby McFerrin.

Oh god, there are ten more songs on this trainwreck.

Mark: This is Justin Timberlake’s “Island In The Sun”. Every song on this album sounds like a sped-up cassette tape of a very bad late-70s R&B album.

7. Supplies

Josh: You know, if you changed all the lyrics and replaced Justin’s vocals with someone else’s—like, someone who wouldn’t name drop The Walking Dead—this could actually be a good song. Sure, the chorus doesn’t fit the verse at all, but the underlying beat is solid. On the other hand, Justin doing an approximation of Migos while bragging about being a “generous lover” and giving his wife multiple orgasms is probably the most embarrassing thing to happen so far on this album. This is a song about the apocalypse as romantic foray—something Thrice already did much better on their song “Stay with Me”—, and it kind of makes me wish Justin had locked himself in a bunker and not recorded this album. The most fun you’ll have with “Supplies” is repurposing the pre-chorus lyrics to the tune of Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”:

‘Cause I’ll be the light when you can’t see
I’ll be the wood when you need heat
I’ll be the generator, turn me
on when you need electricity
Some shit’s ’bout to go down,
I’ll be the one with the level head
[I’m everything I am, because I’m woodsy]
Mark: Hahahaha. I’m not going to write anything more entertaining than what Josh just wrote.

8. Morning Light (Feat. Alicia Keys)

Josh: This one is fine. I’ll credit Alicia Keys for that.

Mark: This is the most listenable track so far. Some nice guitar work on display and a reasonable series of hooks lifted from vintage soul music. Alicia Keys sounds great.

9. Say Something (Feat. Chris Stapleton)

Josh: Timberlake described the album before its release as “modern Americana with 808s.” This song is perhaps the best example of why those two things don’t work together, because you can’t make a sandwich out of peanut butter and olives—or you can try, but don’t try to tell me it’s not terrible. What is this song even about? “Sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all,” Timberlake and Stapleton sing on the song’s outro: it’s a kernel of nonsense, but advice I wish they’d taken.

Mark: Dude, you can sing Everlast to this one. And then you can sing Imagine Dragons to it. You know your album is in trouble when the most fun people can have with it is singing other songs that they hate while listening to it.

10. Hers (Interlude)

Josh: Oh, Jessica is back, talking about Justin’s shirts and how they make her “feel sexy, like a woman.” Alright, then.

Mark: This sounds like a commercial for some medication where they don’t even tell you what the medication is meant to treat in the commercial, but you just know that it’s something very embarrassing, and then at the end a voice says “Timbertrex may not be for everyone. Ask your doctor about Timbertrex.”

11. Flannel

Josh: And here we go, the song so hilariously named it launched a thousand parody track listings. Dumb name aside, “Flannel,” with its traditional sound, most closely captures the aesthetic I think Timberlake is going for with Man of the Woods. But its cheesy glee club breakdown and out-of-place drum & bass machine make it feel artificial as hell, like a $700 flannel shirt sold with a ‘worn in’ look. This is one that could actually benefit from a violin. It’s also another one that goes on a minute and a half too long, as it includes another Jessica interlude that couldn’t clash sonically more with the song it’s attached to if it tried.

Mark: “Flannel” sounds like the a college student using a spiritual folk standard to teach himself how to do multi-track recording for the first time. The layers of vocal overdubs absolutely smother any sincerity that could have existed in the track, and give an incredibly synthetic & packaged feel to what seems to have been a stab at rootsy authenticity. Boo!

12. Montana

Josh: “Montana” is by far the best track on the album so far, mostly because it’s only trying to be one thing: a straight disco track. Here all of the heavily-synthesized elements and Giorgio Moroder influence actually fit, and Timberlake’s vocal melodies are nicely embedded in them. This is good.

Mark: I agree with Josh. This is classic Justin Timberlake by way of the Drive soundtrack. He still sounds like he’s singing in a shower stall the whole time, though.

13. Breeze off the Pond

Josh: It took 45 minutes for the album to hit its stride, but it appears to have done so. “Breeze off the Pond” is a good song with a dumb title, with shades of “Montana”—a song which dovetails nicely into this one—and the harmonies of classic Timberlake & The Neptunes tracks like “Señiorita.” Maybe this is a bad album that could have been a good EP?

Mark: This is one of the better songs on this album, but the better songs on this album mostly sound like crappy Pharrell. More like breeze from my butt! HAHAHAHA!

14. Livin’ off the Land

Josh: This is the first track where the seemingly-incongruous musical elements actually feel assembled with any purpose. The spare guitar, strings, and jazz bass blend nicely with the fuzzy percussion and possibly synthetic pan flutes. On the other hand, this is also Justin Timberlake, one of the richest men in music, playing out his Ron Swanson fantasies and singing about having to spread out his bills on credit cars, which…fuck you dude for trying to tap into rural America in such a disingenuous way. He literally says “I’ll be a mountain man ’til the day I die.” I am 100% sure if he tried Justin would be savaged by a cougar. And what the fuck is he doing in this song yip yipping in the background like the martians from Sesame Street?

Mark: A cougar wouldn’t be needed to take Timberlake down in the mountains. He’d just croak from exposure within 30 hours. It sounds like this album was written after Justin and Jessica spent a really nice weekend glamping and felt a great sense of self-actualization as a result. I’m stunned by how much of this sounds like the worst Weezer songs from the last decade. I’m tempted to call this album “Rivers Cuomo goes Camping” from now on. I actually think that this song might sound alright if they stripped away about 19 vocal tracks, and all of the instrumentation except the strings and guitar.

15. The Hard Stuff

Josh: When Justin dropped the initial trailer for Man of the Woods, along with its track listing, there was much chatter from fans expecting that it would be a country album. It wasn’t, but this song gives you an impression of what it would have sounded like if it had been. And it is very bad. It kind of worked for John Mayer. It does not work for Justin Timberlake.

Mark: Holy fuck, this album is long. And bad. This is bad. It’s like taking the most tired songwriting tropes and running them through the most obnoxious modern pop production techniques. Who produced this?!

16. Young Man

Josh: We made it to the end, Mark. “Young Man” isn’t particularly a good song, but it’s a song written from a father to a son, and that’s kind of special. I won’t talk shit about it, although the sound clips of Justin and Jessica and their baby are really indulgent.

Mark: I hate you for asking me to do this.

The Verdict:

Josh: I counted two out of sixteen songs I actually liked, and they both sounded like old Justin Timberlake. Avoid this designer flannel, because it’s not substantial enough to keep you warm. And will someone for god’s sake rein this man in.

Mark: The year is young, but I sincerely hope that I can call this the worst album that I hear this year. This is embarrassing from front to back. Good lord.

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Grading the Oscar Nominations

The Oscars are notably some bullshit, but they happen to be some bullshit I just can’t quit. Mired in problematic snubs and an outdated attraction to specific genres and themes, the Academy hasn’t always rewarded films based on meritocracy alone. Yeah, art is subjective and it’s all a matter of opinion anyway. But are we really going to pretend Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was legitimately one of the best films of 2011? If you think that, you’re probably one of the Academy’s overwhelmingly old and male members who are being slowly weeded out to make the organisation more diverse and inclusive in reflecting America today.

The nominees for the 90th Academy Awards were announced (very) early this morning in a ceremony that continues to be awkwardly-designed and poorly executed. Between the oddly elaborate interstitial videos and Tiffany Haddish mispronouncing almost everyone’s name, they would have done better just to announce the nominees via the Oscars website. But the Academy isn’t one to pass up an excuse for unneeded pomp.

I’ve gone through all of the categories this year to grade each group of nominees on how well the Academy did in avoiding snubs, making surprising choices, and/or just not making nonsense nominations that heap praise on mediocre movies.

The 90th Oscar Nominees

The period setting of the cinema, the laboratory, and Sally Hawkins’ apartment went a long way into creating a believable fairy tale world in The Shape of Water, but let’s be real: Blade Runner 2049 looks unlike any film that has been made before or will ever be made again. It could carry this category if it was the only thing nominated.

Grade: A+

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Like King Solomon I want to crack the statue in half and give it to both Hoyte van Hoytema and Roger Deakins, who created two of the most immersive cinema experiences I’ve had in years. Deakins is the one to beat here, as he has scored his whopping 14th nomination in this category and never won. Rachel Morrison’s nomination is welcome and well-deserved, not only because she is the first woman to be nominated in the category (wtf, Academy?) but because her work is a key part of what made Mudbound feel so sweeping and intimate at the same time.

Grade: A+

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There has always been an issue in this category of favouring the look of lavish period pieces over other types of costuming. Where is Thor: Ragnarok, with its space gladiator outfits and Hela’s slinky green bodysuit? Where is Star Wars: The Last Jedi, with its regal dresses, leather resistance jackets, and bold red guard armour? None of that really matters because despite Jacqueline Durran’s dual nomination for Beauty and the Beast and Darkest Hour, there is no clearer winner here than Phantom Thread, a movie about a dressmaker that luxuriates in the craft of making dresses. It would have been nice to at least give a nod to some different styles of costuming, though.

Grade: B+

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These two categories unsurprisingly overlap a lot—in this case, 100%. And the choices are predictable but also deserving? Baby Driver‘s use of music and The Last Jedi‘s careful use of silence in a key scene were some of the most memorable sound in the movies of 2017, and it’s nice to see them both recognised. Blade Runner and Dunkirk‘s use of sound was the loudest, but not in a bad way. There’s a lot of good options here.

Grade: A-

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Look. These are the little guys, so let’s not shit on them. Congratulations to all of the shorts nominees. It’s a pass/fail class, and you all passed.

Grade: N/A

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This is a mostly-predictable slate of nominees, with songs like Remember Me and This Is Me representing the emotional centres of their respective films. Pasek and Paul are looking to repeat their win for last year’s La La Land song, “City of Stars.” Diane Warren is a mainstay in this category, though she has never won, and Anderson-Lopez and Lopez wrote the Oscar-winning smash hit “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen. Who might win is anyone’s guess, but of all the eligible pop/rock stars who could have scored a nomination this year from Taylor Swift, Nick Jonas, Elvis Costello, and Mariah Carey to the late Chris Cornell, seeing first-timers Mary J. Blige (an obvious choice) and Sufjan Stevens (a less obvious choice) nominated is exciting to see.

Grade: B

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While there aren’t any nominees here I’d call undeserving per se, the lack of a nomination for Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch for Blade Runner 2049 is a notable snub. The atmospheric, submersive score, which managed to both channel and expand on Vangelis’ score for the original Blade Runner, was crucial in creating the mood of that film. Zimmer’s work on Dunkirk continued to define the experience of a Christopher Nolan film, as John Williams’ nominated score did the same for Star Wars. It isn’t a surprise that Williams was nominated; he is the all-time leader in this category. But it is a bit of a surprise that he was nominated for The Last Jedi rather than The Post. Jonny Greenwood’s nominated score for Phantom Thread makes up for his notable snub/disqualification for 2007’s score for There Will Be Blood. I’m not surprised to see Desplat’s score for The Shape of Water here. It’s very good, and very safe.

Grade: B

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There was a lot of visual effects work this year that went beyond just CGI monsters and superheroes: Blade Runner 2049‘s stunning use of miniatures to create a post-apocalyptic shell of a world, Downsizing‘s clever blend of large and small humans, and The Shape of Water‘s stunning views of an apartment as an aquarium. So it’s surprising to see only one of those three nominated. Not to take anything away from the effects in Guardians, Star Wars, or either of those ape films, but it’s always good to see the Academy recognize different kind of effects.

Grade: B-

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Dunkirk, I, Tonya, and Baby Driver are master classes in editing. The fact that Baby Driver was recognized as such is pretty wonderful. The rest of this category is just happy to be invited.

Grade: B+

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I’m not sure if it’s logistical rules or just an unimaginative voting block that limits this category only to three nominees. Where is Thor: Ragnarok, or It, or Guardians of the Galaxy? Makeup and hairstyling are essential to creating a world in film, yet the Academy only saw fit to recognize worlds that look like our own. To be fair, making Gary Oldman look like Winston Churchill, or Jacob Tremblay look like a child with Treacher Collins Syndrome is an accomplishment worth recognizing. But why not both?

Grade: D

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It’s hard to call 2017 a really good year for women in film, given the public revelations of Hollywood (and the world) as a toxic environment. But at the same time it was a year in which interesting and rich roles for women onscreen were plentiful and complex. That this category is as stacked as it is with deserving nominees and still feels like people (like Holly Hunter, Tiffany Haddish, and Dafne Keen) were excluded suggests that supporting roles for women were among the best they’ve been. Laurie Metcalf and Allison Janney are probably the ones to beat here, but Leslie Manville’s squeaking in under the wire without the benefits of a prior nomination from the Golden Globes, SAG, or Critics’ Choice Awards firmly positions her as a formidable dark horse. The nominations of two black women in Mary J. Blige and Octavia Spencer gives hope that maybe the Oscars are heading away from the so white complaints that have been so fairly leveled against them in recent years. Then again … Asians are still more or less invisible among these nominees, despite Hong Chau being the best thing about Downsizing.

Grade: A-

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Christopher Plummer got this nomination for a role he shot in ten days as a hasty replacement for a disgraced Kevin Spacey. Boy, Spacey must be red right now. Haha, fuck that guy!

I have no problem with Three Billboards being recognized for its performances, including the two here, as they were by far the strongest aspect of that movie. I don’t have a problem with Willem Dafoe getting a well-deserved nomination for The Florida Project, even if that movie should have gotten more than just one nom. I do have a problem with snubbing Ray Romano for his stellar work in The Big Sick. I have an even bigger problem with snubbing Michael Stuhlbarg for delivering the single best scene of the year in Call Me by Your Name. This is an actor who appeared in not one, but three of the year’s Best Picture nominees. With any luck, the boys from Ebbing, Missouri will split the vote and end up handing the trophy to Dafoe.

Grade: C+

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It will be an upset if Palm d’Or winner The Square doesn’t walk away with this one, so the rest of the nominees are essentially also rans. It’s a surprise to see that Golden Globe winner In the Fade (from Germany) wasn’t nominated here, but less of a surprise to see that Berlin Golden Bear winner On Body and Soul and Cannes Jury Prize winner Loveless were.

The Oscars have a history of awkwardly trying to recognize stories about transgender characters while never actually honouring any real transgender people. Chilean actress Daniela Vega was a hopeful to be the first trans woman nominated for Best Actress. It didn’t happen, but it’s nice to see A Fantastic Woman score a nomination here, as it will help drive interest in that film.

Grade: B+

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In this crop of highly-regarded docs led by presumed front-runner Faces Places, there is no one film that stands out as not belonging. There is, however, one noticeable snub, the PGA Award-winning Jane. What is it with the Academy and apes? They snubbed Project Nim in this category in 2012 too.

Grade: B-

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I like seeing The Breadwinner and Loving Vincent here, as it’s always good to see the Academy looking outside the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks machine to recognize lesser-known animated films. That’s not to say those films don’t belong: Coco is Pixar’s best film in years. But their continued overlooking of critically-praised Lego movies—marked here by the absence of The Lego Batman Movie—smacks of some kind of weird elitism.

Grade: C-

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James Ivory and Aaron Sorkin are no surprise to see here. It’s also not surprising to see recognition for the way Virgil Williams and Dee Rees adapted a sprawling novel of two families into a 2-hour movie in Mudbound. It’s even unsurprising to see The Disaster Artist nominated—it’s a movie about making movies and this is the one nomination they could give to that film that maintains the furthest distance from James Franco. What is very surprising, and very exciting, is to see a nomination for Logan, as the Oscars rarely pay much attention to superhero movies outside of the technical categories. I’m hesitant to call this a sea change in welcoming well-made superhero flicks—after all, Wonder Woman was completely shut out—rather than them seeing Logan as an outlier and more of a western than an X-Men sequel. But it’s very nice to see nonetheless.

Grade: B+

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I don’t want to make it out to seem like I hated Three Billboards, but if there is any category where it doesn’t deserve a nomination, screenplay is that category. Its clunky handling of race and overwritten and confused messaging make its writing Three Billboards‘ weakest link. To see it nominated over movies like The Florida Project and especially the exquisitely unique and twisted love story Phantom Thread is exactly the thing the Oscars so often get piled on for: heaping praise on heavy-handed or simplistic movies that ultimately say less than they want to be. Buuut Get Out and Lady Bird were also nominated, giving Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig the trifecta of big nominations: screenplay, director, and best picture. And I couldn’t be more happy to see the surprise nomination for wife/husband duo Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani for writing The Big Sick.

Grade: B+

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James Franco’s expected nomination for playing Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist sends a message that the Academy would like to avoid awarding those dogged by sexual harassment allegations, preventing a repeat of last year’s ceremony where Casey Affleck was awarded. It’s hard to imagine Affleck winning post #MeToo, and I’ll even be surprised if they let him hand out the Best Actress award given the current climate. Then again, if we rewind up to the Best Animated Short category you’ll notice former NBA champion and alleged rapist Kobe Bryant is also nominated for an Oscar, so…

Denzel Washington feels like he was nominated in Franco’s place for what is, by all accounts, a critical and commercial misfire. Would it have been exciting to see someone like Hugh Jackman nominated for Logan? Absolutely. Is it surprising that Denzel would fill that last spot instead, even for a middling movie? Not at all, and that’s one of the problems with the Oscars.

Grade: B

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That the Supporting Actress category is 40% women of colour to this category’s 0% probably speaks more to issues endemic to the industry itself—where women of colour are rarely given the opportunity to headline a movie—rather than the Academy specifically, but this is bound to be a bit of a chicken/egg scenario. I can’t fault any of the wonderful actresses nominated here who all gave stellar performances. However, given these issues it does feel kind of gross to laud Frances McDormand for her performance in a movie that so clumsily handles racism in rural America while sidelining its own black characters. I’d like to see any of the other actresses win, but more than that I would have liked to see a nomination for Vicky Krieps, whose performance had every bit as much to do with the success of Phantom Thread as anything else, but has somehow failed to get the Academy’s attention like other aspects of the movie did. And where is seven-year-old Brooklynn Prince, whose performance in The Florida Project felt so naturalistic it felt like that movie was a documentary at times?

Meryl Streep is the greatest actress of her generation, maybe the greatest actress of all time, but she has won this award twice and been nominated sixteen times before. At some point can we just start calling this the Meryl Streep award and make her ineligible?

Grade: B

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After both being snubbed at the Golden Globes in the Best Director category, Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele scored well-deserved nominations for two films that were both critical and commercial hits, making them the fifth female and fifth Black director nominated for this award. That they made it into this tight category of five—to Best Picture’s possible ten—a welcome sign of a possible sea change that doesn’t favour stalwarts like Spielberg just for releasing another movie. Lady Bird and Get Out were both phenomenally well-crafted, confident first features, and it’s great to see that achievement recognized. Surprisingly—in a good way—, best picture frontrunner Three Billboards (and its director Martin McDonagh) is notably absent from this category, perhaps signalling it might be losing favour with voters. Christopher Nolan also picked up his first nomination for Dunkirk, which, on the surface, feels like his safest picture but is actually a much more technically- and thematically-unique kind of war film than one might expect. I could stand to have seen Patty Jenkins or Denis Villeneuve nominated in place of Guillermo del Toro, whose The Shape of Water scored the most nominations despite not wowing me as much as I had hoped. But it’s hard to feel strongly about that when this category had so many other welcome recognitions. On the other hand, no one worked better with actors this year than The Florida Project‘s Sean Baker, and his omission feels criminal enough to knock the grade down a peg.

Grade: A-

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The Shape of Water leads all the nominations with thirteen, so of course one of those is for Best Picture. And while I don’t genuinely think it’s one of the year’s best films, it is a very good one, a very likable one, and one that loudly condemns our current era’s dearth of empathy.

I’m thrilled to see some of my favourite movies of the year here, including Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, and Dunkirk. But I’m also feeling the absence of Coco and Blade Runner 2049, the latter especially after how gung ho the Academy went for Villeneuve’s last film, Arrival.

Darkest Hour has picked up steam and scored several nominations, but like Three Billboards, Call Me by Your Name, and The Post, it is limited in this category by its failure to score a nomination for Best Director. Recent years have seen the Oscars more frequently award the Best Picture and Best Director statues to different films. However, in Oscar history, only four times has a film been awarded Best Picture without also having its director nominated: Wings (which won ‘Outstanding Picture’ in 1929), Grand Hotel (in 1932), Driving Miss Daisy (in 1990), and Argo (in 2013). Stranger things have happened, but I hope Three Billboards doesn’t become the next Argo. It is both the most predictable Oscar choice and the least deserving film in this category.

Grade: B+

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Final Tally: B-

The nominations are surprisingly solid this year, while still containing few surprises and some notable snubs. There are encouraging trends that signal that the Oscars are starting to recognize films they might have previously overlooked. These changes still feel like they’re coming slowly, but they’re coming.

The Oscars will be handed out on March 4th.

The Fraudsters Pick the Best Films of 2017

Josh: In our desire to close the book a bad year, it’s important to look back on those things about 2017 that we actually enjoyed. Mark got married, I went to some fun concerts, and we both stamped our passports with exciting global forays. For my money, there were also a fair number of excellent films released last year.

In 2017, movies like Star Wars: The Last JediDunkirk, and The Disaster Artist reminded us of the value of failure. Movies like Phantom Thread and mother! took a look at the relationships between art and what inspires it. Movies like Long Time Running and Logan allowed us a chance to say goodbye to beloved heroes. Films like Call Me by Your Name, Coco, and Lady Bird reminded us what it felt like to grow up and learn to appreciate our families. And movies like The Florida ProjectI, Tonya, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri forced us to consider people on the margins of society, who might not otherwise be deemed deserving of our time.

How about you, Mark—did you have general thoughts about the movies as a whole this past year? Were there any trends you noticed?

MarkI’ll certainly chime in that my sense of general malaise regarding big-ticket superhero/action films has only intensified. Out of the handful of blockbuster films that I managed to see, only one of them really felt like it had heart. It was (another) great year for horror films, with Get Out and It achieving both critical and box office success that isn’t often seen in the genre. It was a bad year for comedy, as I’m struggling to think of more than a handful of comedies that were released this year that don’t instantly land on the trash pile.

Overall, I saw a good number of movies this year, although not as many as I would have liked. Perhaps some of 2017s films will wind up on my list next year.

The Movies of 2017

Movies We Missed

Did we see everything that came out in 2017? No, we’re busy men with busy lives.

Some films Josh missed were: OkjaDetroitGirls TripAll the Money in the WorldColumbusMolly’s GameYour NameLoving VincentFaces PlacesDawson City: Frozen TimeHappy EndProfessor Marston & The Wonder Women, The Lego Batman Movie, and A Ghost Story.

Some films Mark missed were: LoganThe Florida ProjectLady Bird, and Dunkirk.

Some films we both missed out on were: War for the Planet of the Apes and Raw. 

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Movies We Mentioned

Ten films isn’t enough to do justice to everything we liked. There were some films we were pretty big fans of, but couldn’t find room in the top ten for.

 Josh’s honourable mentions include: Silence (Martin Scorsese), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson), Long Time Running (Jennifer Baichwal & Nicholas de Pencier), Logan (James Mangold), I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie), and Mudbound (Dee Rees).
Mark’s honourable mentions include: Okja (Bong Joon-ho), and The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro).
Some mutual honourable mentions that just missed both our lists were: mother! (Darren Aronofsky), Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas) ,and John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski)
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Movies That Made The Cut

Read on to find out which special films we couldn’t stop thinking about this year. Here are Mark and Josh’s respective Top Ten lists.


10.

Josh: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Luca Guadagnino’s summer of love film is rich with sensory satisfaction and discomfort, the agony and ecstasy of first love and lust. There is a tension is infused throughout every moment of Call Me by Your Name, one that damns its central couple with the dilemma of the pain of acting or not. Here in the liminal space between exploration and exploitation—there is a 7 year age gap between the two—desire is that most pure and cruel of impulses. If unfulfilled, it festers in the heart as an opportunity lost. If fulfilled, it becomes a surge of wonder and joy so great that it forever changes you, even as it tears you apart. Michael Stuhlbarg’s monologue near the end of the film is one of the best scenes of the year, an arresting and palpable affirmation of the way love is pure, loss is pain, and growing up is a mix of both.
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Mark: WONDER WOMAN (see comments below)

9.

Josh: THE SALESMAN 

Perhaps no contemporary filmmaker is greater at wringing the agonising tension out of everyday life than Asghar Farhadi. The Salesman retains the marks of moral murkiness that made A Separation so rich to wrestle with. For Farhadi, there’s rich drama in the ordinary, and in the way small choices have far-reaching effects. The Salesman is marvelous in capturing the subtleties of trauma and the ways it affects people’s lives and makes going ‘back to normal’ near impossible. But The Salesman isn’t just about trauma, it’s also about the failure of masculinity in domestic relationships. You get the sense that Farhadi wants you to consider the limits of justice and revenge, and the way men, even good ones with good intentions, so often put their desires above those of women.
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Mark: FREE FIRE
Ben Wheatley has been making me say “Oh shit!” every couple of years for the last decade. Although Free Fire can’t top the brain-searing heights of Kill List, it is Wheatley’s most successful attempt at a full-on fun romp. One would think that an entire feature-length film devoted to a single gunfight would wear out its welcome. The ruthlessly clever plot construction and endless well of charm on display from the cast prevent this from ever being the case. You wind up rooting for and rooting against nearly every character in equal measure, and the only disappointing turn winds up being when you’ve realized that there’s no one left standing and the film is over. An absolute hoot.
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8.

Josh: WONDER WOMAN 
The most competent and exciting blockbuster of the year, Wonder Woman is one of the brightest and most emotionally-satisfying superhero origin stories on film. It is rich with weight and a deeply humanist spirit, because that’s the thing about Wonder Woman: she’s a warrior, but she’s also in pursuit of peace. Empathy is at the core of the character, and writer/director Patty Jenkins gets that in a way Zack Snyder has been unable or unwilling to embrace with his Superman films.The poster for Wonder Woman depicts the hero kneeling with a sword, planting it in the ground as though planting a flag. She might as well be, because this movie stakes out territory as finally giving the character—and female-led blockbusters in general—what she deserves. Doing Justice indeed.

 

Mark: This wasn’t the only superhero flick that I watched this year that was enjoyable on a pure-popcorn level. It was the only superhero flick to leave me feeling noticeably good, in a way that most blockbuster films do not. The film has a joyful, wide-eyed glow that manages to make a two-hour exercise in the most conventional of three-act story beats fly by in a breeze. Controversial to say, as it may be the only good DC Comics film in years, but Wonder Woman is as good as the best that the Marvel movies has to offer… maybe even better.
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Mark: It
With the exception of Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Clown, the 1990s It miniseries was a fairly lame adaptation of one of Stephen King’s better novels. I was extremely skeptical that a modern filmmaker would fare any better, but I was (thankfully) proven to be very wrong. Andy Muschietti’s take on King’s novel hits all of the right beats to deliver one of the best coming-of-age horror films of all time. The Stranger Things comparisons are obvious, but the kids in It are more believable and better-acted than the ST crew. And funnier. As well they should be, given that the dark menace that they face makes Stranger Things’ Demogorgon seem positively toothless. Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise is horrifying, and the visuals on display in the film—although often a little heavy on obvious CGI—are gorgeously scary. It is on track to become the highest-grossing horror film of all time. It deserves it.
Josh: It was my number 17 pick, and I’m happy to see it mentioned here. A really successful movie in every way.
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7.

Josh: THE FLORIDA PROJECT 
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project observes the denizens of a budget motel so quietly and with so much empathy and so little judgment that it would feel like a documentary at times if not for the presence of Willem Dafoe, who blends seamlessly as the motel’s good-hearted manager with the rest of the largely unknown cast. Baker imbues the world of the film with a child’s wonder: cotton candy hues, a sense of adventure, and a wildness that you could almost get lost in were it not for our awareness of the harsh reality to which the children are oblivious. The artistry of The Florida Project is in how it gives space to the stories of people society would rather ignore. That he chose to focus on such a socially-difficult set of characters, makes the film more challenging to reckon with. But it also enriches it by getting at the conflicting truths of a contemporary America that is rotten to its core but still not worthless because of those very real and very human creatures who inhabit it.
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Mark: THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS
As sick as I am of “zombie” media and “outbreak” films, I’m an absolute sucker for the rare moments when a film comes along to shake up the standard tropes of this genre. We had another fairly forward-thinking virus film this year in the shape of It Comes At Night, which I was fond of. For my money, though, the most enjoyable entry into this sub-genre was Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All The Gifts. While not full of 100% new ideas, TGWATG‘s tale of children who exist on some level in-between humans and zombies was fresh enough to land solidly on my list of favourite films of the year. The expected horror action is on display, but so too is a surprising amount of heart. It builds to a conclusion that straddles hope and hopelessness in a way that I haven’t often seen (which, coincidentally, you could also say about The Florida Project —Josh).


6.

PHANTOM THREAD 

Josh: It’s easy to get lost in the beauty of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread: the exquisite costumes, the lush period setting, the towering performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville. It’s so easy that for much of its first hour you become lulled into a false sense of what Anderson is doing. It’s much less a straightforward film about an artist and his muse than one might expect, a film that mingles danger and intoxicating eroticism. It’s a sumptuous film that luxuriates in its own surprises as much as in its lavish closeups of the detail and craft of human creation. It complicates the artist-muse relationship in fascinating ways as a sadomasochistic dance for power that has its own type of twisted artistry.

Mark: Everything Josh said. Also: This movie is really funny. My wife didn’t like it, which is also a reaction that I support and understand. It’s a little much. But I like a little much.
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5.

Josh: LADY BIRD 
In Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s sensitivities to a teenage experience that feels both specific and relatable (at least, to a certain age) are filled with empathy and amusement that comes from looking back on one’s past self, of being both embarrassed of the person you once were and grateful to that person for shaping who you became. Lady Bird’s discontent with her situation screams of naivety, confusion, dumb idealism, and ungratefulness. Gerwig pokes gentle fun at her protagonist, but honours the feelings of teenage agony that feel so real at a time when you think you know everything but you know nothing. She allows her characters to be deeply flawed, but makes none of them easy to hate, as growing up is framed not in grand gestures and epiphanies but in small steps toward understanding, perspective, and reconciliation that are actually big steps.
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Mark: LADY MACBETH
It’s a pretty rare film that puts forth a character who skates the razor-thin line between detestable and sympathetic that Lady MacBeth‘s Katherine does. On one hand, she’s certainly squirming under the thumb of patriarchal oppression, having been sold as chattel into a loveless and sexless marriage. On the other hand, the lengths that she goes to in order to obtain (and maintain) an advantage seem to escalate to such an ungodly degree, it leads the viewer to do some squirming of their own. It is a stark pile of nasty doings that feels impossible to look away from, anchored by Florence Pugh’s powerhouse performance. This is the best film of the year that made me feel terrible.
 


4.

Josh: GET OUT 
That it took 50 years to remake Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a horror film is shocking. Mining the idea of a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s family for horror feels so obvious in hindsight. Get Out is masterfully-paced and wonderfully-confident, taking its time to let tension grow, deflate it, and then open the floodgates. It’s indebted to horror classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead in which social anxieties and mistrust are prominent. Jordan Peele makes evident the insidiousness of benevolent white liberal racism  while speaking pointedly to the heightened awareness with which people of colour necessarily navigate the world. The image of a black man alone and lost in an affluent suburb in the opening scene has enough real-life parallels for us to know what’s coming. Subtle microaggressions and justifications permeate the film almost as a challenge to white viewers, as if to ask, ‘how far do things have to go before you’re willing to accept that something isn’t right?’ In a crop of great horror films in recent years it stands at the top, an important film we’ll be talking about at the intersection of film and politics for a long, long time.

 

Mark: I adored this film and could probably rank it higher on my list, but I will write on it here. The way that Get Out manages to hit the nail on the head thematically, both in completely overt ways and in extremely subtle ways, is astounding. It is one thing to view the film and observe the very obviously racist villains at work, but it is another thing altogether to pick up the film’s gentle prodding for its audience to question where their own behaviours and attitudes may intersect with its more subtle messaging. It is weighty filmmaking, and given the way that it manages to somewhat defy categorization, it marks a completely dazzling debut for Jordan Peele. He’ll have a difficult time topping this, and I look forward to his attempt with great anticipation. I’m placing this text here for ease of reading, but would probably rank this as my favourite film of the year.
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3.

Josh: COCO 
From Up to Finding Nemo and even Toy Story 3, Pixar has never been shy about telling stories about death and loss. But never have they done it in such a way that affirms life as much as they do in Coco. The way it explores and celebrates Mexican Day of the Dead traditions provides a warm and interesting counter-narrative to the perspective of death as a tragedy. This tale of a young boy whose love of music makes him a black sheep in his family is a story of dreams, but also of legacy. Coco has the rich emotional and imaginative depth of a Miyazaki film. Its elegant storytelling involves surprising turns but also subtle clues to its deceptively simple nature. The way music is woven into the film is spectacular, especially the way the song “Remember Me” is repeated, each new performance providing a new emotional context for the song. Coco will bring on tears of joy with its celebratory affirmation of life, family, sacrifice, and love.This is very likely Pixar’s best film since Toy Story 3.
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Mark: COLOSSAL
When some friends of mine told me that one of their favourite films at TIFF 2016 was a romantic comedy starring Anne Hathaway that is also a Kaiju movie that is also a giant allegory for toxic masculinity, I was confused and intrigued. Upon its official release, Colossal did not disappoint. Extremely funny and supremely weird, Colossal will not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re approaching this film expecting a straightforward romantic comedy or a straightforward giant monster movie, you’re going to have a bad time. If you’re like me, you won’t question the film’s logic and you’ll have a very good time. The motivations and actions of certain characters strain credulity as the film nears its conclusion, but in a film containing giant monsters controlled by drunk women, perhaps it is best to just roll with it. Colossal is a hell of a good time!

 

2.

Josh: BLADE RUNNER 2049
Blade Runner 2049 is a hypnotic dream of vast spaces, squelching, oppressive sound design, and a dreary tech-future. It feels like an extension of Ridley Scott’s original film but also one asking wider and more grand questions than its predecessor. If Roy Batty asked “am I human?” then 2049‘s K asks “am I part of humanity?,” a web of interconnected beings in cooperation. Roy Batty’s mournful eulogy for his own inner life is one we all share. It’s not our memories that we pass on, it’s our actions and their effects, which in turn become other people’s memories. Any choice made leaves a mark on the world. What motivates our actions? When any of us does something purely to benefit someone else, do we not gain something from that too? A feeling of intimacy or accomplishment? We are, all of us, longing not just to live, but to be loved—not just to survive but to be remembered, to have purpose. To be real. Blade Runner 2049 is an extraordinary experience.

 

Mark: I’ve gone back and forth on this and have decided to also include Blade Runner 2049 on my list. My reasons for disqualifying it in the first place stemmed entirely from circumstantial conditions. I saw the movie at 9pm. I was suffering from terrible jet lag and was two or three beers deep. I probably would have fallen asleep watching any movie in this state. I was definitely going to fall asleep during a slow-moving three-hour long dreamy sci-fi epic. I can’t hold this against the film! It’s all on me! Blade Runner 2049 is the best movie that I have ever slept through part of. I was fighting so hard to stay awake, because I was so fascinated by everything being presented to me. I’ll put this on my list in order that I’ll be forced to watch it again at some point. This way, when people ask me about my favourite movies of 2017, I’ll actually have something reasonable to tell them after I say Blade Runner 2049. Other than just: “Oh… that movie has a real… dreamlike… quality…”
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1.

Josh: DUNKIRK 
We can look to historians to rebuild the past so that we can understand it, but we must look to artists to rebuild it for us to experience. Christopher Nolan has always been a filmmaker of immense attention to detail. Nolan’s obsession with the building blocks of stories has frequently made for cerebral experiences that place form above function, that are technically brilliant but emotionally impenetrable. But Dunkirk is the movie through which Nolan best balances the meticulous concerns of an auteur with the ecstatic longings of a storyteller. I can’t speak enough to the elegance with which Dunkirk handles a story of such small geographical and personal concern in light of the far-reaching effect of its outcome.
Nolan uses formal elements to enhance the emotional impact of the film, in a way that creeps up on you. He does not give us a central protagonist here, but rather a sea of faces that are often indistinguishable. We follow a small group of characters, but when their faces are obscured during the disorienting climax it is as if to subvert our tendency to look for “our” hero among the dead and dying. We’re reminded of numbers: 400,000 soldiers trapped on this beach. We know none of these soldiers. Yet we know all of these soldiers.
Nolan foregoes narrative conventions in favour of cinematic experience, one that puts the viewer literally in the line of fire, absorbing the fear and desperation onscreen so that you’re able to feel the small moments of accomplishment, sacrifice, and grace that occasionally break the tension I was moved in a way I wasn’t expecting by the way the film questions our notion of what makes a hero. Dunkirk is a film for all time, possibly Nolan’s masterpiece, but it is also a film with concerns that ring especially true in 2017. Its quietly stirring ending would challenge anyone who has just survived the grueling prior 90 minutes to regard simple survival as anything other than an act of heroism in itself.
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Mark: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
Yorgos Lanthimos’ last feature, The Lobster, was certainly one of my favourite films of 2016. It was an unnerving and hilarious piece of work, a worthy English-language successor to his earlier films. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is perhaps even more unnerving, albeit not quite as hilarious. I don’t think that I enjoyed it quite as much as I enjoyed The Lobster, but I would place the two films on equal footing in regard to their willingness to explore themes that most mainstream art would regard as “too uncomfortable”. The central questions that Sacred Deer poses are unpleasant. What is the true weight of justice? How does one make an impossible choice?
The film is delivered in the same nauseating deadpan as Lanthimos’ prior films, and this treatment proves to be as off-putting as ever. That characters maintain an impenetrable veneer of expressionless placidity in the face of their escalating peril only serves to further turn the screw in the film’s cruel game of logic. I did not expressly enjoy all of my time watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but it packed a punch and I won’t soon forget it.
And also, my favourite film of the year was Get Out anyway.

Join the Fraudsters in 2018, where Josh anticipates and Mark dreads the next crop of Marvel Studios pictures, we assess Ava Duvernay’s take on a mega-size blockbuster, we find out if Alex Garland can follow up Ex Machina with something as weird and interesting, and we determine if Han Solo’s origin story is one worth telling.

Josh’s Top 50 Albums of 2017

What a year.

2017 was a garbage fire in so many ways, so it’s fortunate that musically this past year gave us so many solid opportunities to reduce the world to the space between our headphones. To some artists, the year felt political; their records were infused with righteous anger and renewed determination. Donald Trump’s name must have appeared in more songs this year than ever before—but don’t tell him that. For others, it was a year for cutting loose, for creating music to lose yourself in—sorry, Eminem, but your bland, overcooked Revival didn’t make the cut.

I found myself wishing I could include more titles in the list below. I thought about extending it to a top 100 list, but a guy’s gotta have standards, right? I listened to well over 300 eligible* albums this year. Here were my favourite.

*full length, new or unreleased recordings, no live records, compilations or soundtracks

My Top 50 Albums of 2017

50 – 41

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50. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
49. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers
48. Björk – Utopia
47. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy
46. Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun
45. Majid Jordan – The Space Between
44. Laura Marling – Semper Femina
43. Metz – Strange Peace
42. Jenn Grant – Paradise
41. Gorillaz – Humanz

40 – 31

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40. Spoon – Hot Thoughts
39. Mastodon – Emperor of Sand
38. Dvsn – Morning After
37. Jean-Michel Blais & CFCF – Cascades
36. The Weather Station – The Weather Station
35. Daniel Caesar – Freudian
34. GoldLink – At What Cost
33. Sabrina Claudio – About Time
32. Circa Survive – The Amulet
31. Future Islands – The Far Field

30 – 21

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30. Kacy Hill – Like a Woman
29. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
28. Less Art – Strangled Light
27. Mac Demarco – This Old Dog
26. Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life
25. Foxygen – Hang
24. Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now
23. Tennis – Yours Conditionally
22. Bonobo – Migration
21. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life

20 – 11

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20. Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile to the Surface
19. Lorde – Melodrama
18. Drake – More Life
17. Paramore – After Laughter
16. Tove Lo – BLUE LIPS (Lady Wood Phase 2)
15. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
14. Sampha – Process
13. The Wooden Sky – Swimming in Strange Waters
12. Converge – The Dusk in Us
11. Joey Bada$$ – ALL-AMERIKKAN BADA$$

The Top Ten

10. Feist – Pleasure

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“We know enough to admit / It’s my pleasure / And your pleasure”

Hazy, unadorned guitar marks the opening strains of Feist’s Pleasure, her first record in six years. It’s an astounding work and by far her most challenging, without a “1234” or “Mushaboom” in sight. This is Feist at her most intimate and stripped down, often only her voice backed by a single guitar. The minimalism works well to mirror an album that thematically explores isolation and loneliness. Feist punctuates her arrangements with sudden, often unexpected bursts of distortion, drums, and other musical surprises, not the least of which is the Mastodon sample that closes “A Man Is Not His Song.”

In the wake of 2011’s great Metals, Pleasure marks Feist as consistently and fully being in her element. If it takes another six years between records, we can only hope the next one is this good.

9. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

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“Ain’t no gentrifying us, we finna buy the whole town / Tell the one percent to suck a dick, because we on now”

Heavily relying on elements from Detroit techno and house music, Big Fish Theory layers Staples’ smooth flow over pulsing drum & bass in a way that resembles a less aggro and less effortful version of Kanye’s Yeezus, without sacrificing any of the dark forcefulness. When he suggests listeners should “just drown in the sound” it’s a double-edged sword—music as escapism but never without being a suffocating reminder of uncertain times. Staples captures the fishbowl-like experience of what it’s like to feel trapped on one side by the reality of being Black in America and on the other side by the excesses of hip hop hegemony, unable to grow beyond the limits imposed by this tank but unwilling to stop bringing attention to it.

Big Fish Theory is a deliriously dense record for its tight 36-minute run time, and one of the most exciting rap albums of the year.

8. SZA – Ctrl

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“I could be your supermodel if you believe / If you see it in me / I don’t see myself”

2017’s most confessional album, SZA’s Ctrl is a frank unpacking of the complexities of love and desire in the modern age. As tender as it is fierce, Ctrl pulses with sleepy bass and warms with SZA’s unassumingly powerful voice. The gatekeepers of sexual propriety have traditionally shut out women from telling their stories of desire, power, and insecurity. But SZA joins artists like Tove Lo and Nicki Minaj in driving through the gate while giving no fucks, cornering the territory previously occupied by dudes like The Weeknd and Drake—on “Normal Girl”, which appropriates Drake’s “Controlla,” SZA is both rejecting and envying the cool girl archetype. Throughout, she is freely expressing a full spectrum of complex emotions, including self-doubt and weakness as well as the desire to be in control and the fear of losing it. Musically, it’s a beautiful package, but there’s a lot more here than initially meets the ear.

7. Allan Rayman – Roadhouse 01

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“Say I’m not what you wanted / No, what you wanna do / And I love what we started, oh / What I could put you through”

Here are my thoughts over the 3:52 of Roadhouse 01’s opening track, “Wolf”: (1) The gentle intro sounds a lot like Thrice’s “The Lion and the Wolf;” (2) What an incredible and incredibly distinct voice Allan Rayman has; (3) Oh, this is a nice beat that came out of nowhere; (4) The lyrics are delightfully cryptic (“This is brotherhood, 512 / We all lost a brother, we won’t lose two”); (5) The violin in this bridge section reminds me of the score to The Leftovers; (6) Wow, that was a great song!

And that’s only the album’s first four minutes. It stays bewildering, though. From there it swerves into the sultry pop sheen of “December,” a track that shoots for (and deserves) radio play. Rayman’s aesthetic involves laying something resembling rock and soul vocals over sleepy hip hop beats, creating a wholly unique sound anchored by that singular voice. He drops cryptic references without context, shifts between soothing soul and ominous noise, and croons conflicted about the destructive and alluring nature of love.

It’s Rayman’s voice and songwriting that compel, but it’s what he surrounds them with that really surprise and captivate you. Like the way the sparse “Hollywood/My Way” is suddenly and briefly assaulted by electric guitar, and later breaks down into trap/hip hop. It’s all very cinematic. He blends pop and rock in the tradition of Prince and Michael Jackson, and it’s exciting as hell.

6. Brutus – Burst

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“You do anything but lie / I do anything for you / We could make it if we try / I’ll do anything for you”

Burst is an apt title for the debut album from this Belgian rock band that hits you out the gate with a sound that’s somewhere between punk, metal, and rock and all of the above. The first thing you notice about Brutus’ sound is the way the relentless energy of it feels urgent. It’s not polished, and is all the better for it, like how vocalist/drummer Stefanie Mannaert wails and cracks in reach of notes just out of her grasp, or how the trio’s genre sandbox play finds them making surprising shifts from moment to moment as though they’re still searching for the final version of these songs, and doing it by feeling. It’s as exhilarating as it is confounding, and an absolute must-listen.

5. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

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“And how’s this for irony: / Their idea of being free / is a prison of beliefs / that they never ever have to leave”

You know that old saying, “we laugh to keep from crying?” Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy is that idea writ into a feature-length apocalyptic odyssey. The opening title track is a six-and-a-half minute trip through human history from the absurdity of evolution to the greater absurdity of religion, culminating across a vast sonic spectrum of piano and horns in a plea for community. Even at his most cynical—on the next song he calls us “a race of demented monkeys”—Father John Misty can’t help but begrudgingly bless this mess.

Over thirteen tracks Josh Tillman invites and laments our hastening demise, from self-pacification through entertainment—a theme that works way better here than on Arcade Fire’s “Infinite Content”—to our maddening addiction to the 24-hour news cycle. He’s a hysterical jeremiad for sure, but a self-flagellating one. The choir-backed finale of “The Ballad of a Dying Man” injects a sly grandiosity to a song about self-importance; we are a race of people who cluelessly hold our own opinions as sacred. And Tillman is one of us. Irony is dead, but that won’t stop Tillman from indulging in it, and hating himself for doing so. (“Oh, great, that’s just what they all need / Another white guy in 2017 / Who takes himself so goddamn seriously”)

The way he calls the blue planet a “godless rock that refuses to die” almost sounds impressed, as does the existential realisation in the album’s closing moments that “It’s a miracle to be alive”—that’s as earnest as it gets, but it’s significant in the way it lends Pure Comedy something of a twist ending. We are nothing if not persistent. Shitty, but persistent. And that’s something to admire.

4. Jidenna – The Chief

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“N*ggas fighting over rings / N*ggas wanna be the King, but / Long Live the Chief”

Jidenna burst onto the scene in 2015 with the single “Classic Man,” but his proper full-length debut with this year’s commanding The Chief establishes him as one of rap’s most exciting new voices. The record is an accomplished debut, full and exploratory in its sound and ambition. Like his mentor and label-head Janelle Monae, he isn’t easily pigeonholed.

Jidenna raps about a range of topics such as growing up poor, visiting his ancestral homeland of Nigeria, lineage and legacy, romantic affection, and racial politics—all with swaggering confidence. The infectious sex-positive empowerment anthem “Trampoline” finds him extolling women who “just be knowing what she wanting.” Its sonic spectrum is all over the place, but it feels oddly consistent. Distorted bass and horns are commonplace on the album alongside more experimental forays into Afrobeat (“Bambi”), neo-R&B (“Safari”), dancehall (“Little Bit More”) and the Latin crooning of “Adaora.” The standout track, “White N*ggas” finds Jidenna rapping a racial thought experiment over a simple drum & bass line and a backing vocal section that sounds like My Morning Jacket.

With Jidenna’s undeniable skill and the swooning production, The Chief is easy to get lost in.

3. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

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“Because it’s in your eyes, most of y’all tell lies / Most of y’all don’t fade, most of y’all been advised / Last LP I tried to lift the black artists / But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists”

Kendrick’s follow up to my number one album of 2015, To Pimp a Butterfly, originally sat much lower on this list. DAMN.’s comparative smallness and seemingly smaller ambition wasn’t immediately wowing me like its dense and aggressive masterpiece of a predecessor. But DAMN. was infectious, perhaps the record that got the most replay throughout the year, as it slowly inched its way further towards the top of the list.
DAMN. has an almost schizophrenic aesthetic, dancing between breathless rap flows—try not to be wowed by “DNA.”—and washed-out, bass-infected grooves. The record couldn’t be more different from the jazz/funk-tinged cacophonous epic of To Pimp a Butterfly. These lean 14 tracks represent hip hop at its most pure, and at its best. It’s tight, spare, and crowd-pleasing. That it works so well as a musical palindrome—Kendrick released a “Deluxe Edition” with the track listing reversed—only proves the versatility of these fourteen songs.

2. Buffy Sainte-Marie – Medicine Songs

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“Whether you’re woman or whether you’re man / sometimes you got to take a stand / Just because you think you can / Oh, you got to run, you got to run”

It might seem unfair to put a record that is mostly a compilation of older tracks this high on a best of the year list, but this is more than a simple greatest hits album. Medicine Songs is a collection of new recordings of songs from Buffy Sainte-Marie’s half-century career, updated with new lyrics and energetic, often bombastic new arrangements. Specifically, the folk legend has gathered twenty of her best and most vital pieces of musical activism, songs like “The War Racket,” “Universal Soldier,” and “Starwalker.”
The brilliance of the record isn’t just in the song selection and how relevant these songs feel in 2017, but in the re-recordings themselves, which lend a vital contemporary energy, even joy, to songs intended to sustain and celebrate Indigenous resistance in the 21st century. The songs feel renewed, rebuilt to ring with the tenor of a new generation’s passion. Sainte-Marie shouts out Standing Rock on the opening duet with Tanya Tagaq, and updates the lyrics of “My Country ‘Tis of They People You’re Dying” to reflect the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

In many cases, this kind of revisiting of old songs can feel like a sign of an artist who has run out of ideas. In Buffy Sainte-Marie’s case, it’s not a sign of being stuck, or even of slowing down. Is there any other 76-year-old who sounds this full of life? Medicine Songs is not just welcome, it’s necessary. It’s not just songs of protest, it’s songs to uplift like “Carry It On” and “You Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind).” Because for Indigenous people in opposition to colonialism, continued existence is an act of resistance. After all, what is medicine if not that intended to return us to wholeness?

1. Haim – Something to Tell You

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“And I say goodbye to love again / In loneliness, my only friend / In loneliness, my only fear / The night’s here”

The sophomore record from sister trio Haim seems to have gotten less credit than it deserves this year, scoring a mere 69 critics score on Metacritic and failing to generate the buzz of their debut, Days are Gone. In 2013 it must have been a novelty, these three women so unabashedly taking up the rock/pop mantle of artists like Wilson Phillips and Stevie Nicks. In 2017, perhaps Haim’s follow-up is being dubbed more of the same, a label that fails to account for near-perfect consistency as an act of accomplishment in itself. Maybe Haim’s music sounds familiar because it’s tapping into a kind of pop that’s timeless. The kind that wouldn’t sound out of place among the vulnerable crooning and folksy guitars of the 70s, the swaying synths and bass of the 80s, or the melodic swooning of contemporary R&B acts like The Weeknd.

It opens with “Want You Back,” song that layers interlocking vocal melodies with handclap percussion and bass slaps, a Russian nesting doll of a song so effortless and catchy it takes a while to even notice the slight Lindsey Buckingham-esque guitar riff that seems to wander in from “Never Going Back Again” midway through. It closes with “Night So Long,” a ballad that slows down the bass riff from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” to a funeral dirge, and then lays over it a cavernous, mournful Neko Case-like vocal track. It’s a sad, downtempo track, and a surprising one to end an album with. But the two are great examples of how Haim’s music encompasses the spectrum of relational emotions, musically and lyrically. The trio know when to fill the space to capacity, and when to let it breathe.

It’s the kind of music that, if you let it, can seep into your memories and soundtrack those moments in your life both joyous and painful—and those are the moments Haim seems best at capturing lyrically, relationships in an ambivalent state of collapse. The production by Ariel Rechtshaid feels purposeful yet unobtrusive. Like a conducted orchestra, each piece is perfectly calibrated to produce a glorious, organic whole. It’s not innovative, but it is precise. It’s way too purposeful to be mere pastiche or homage. My colleague said of Haim that “I feel like I’ve known this song my entire life.” I don’t know whether he meant that derisively or in praise, but it does perfectly encapsulate why I love this record. It’s a reminder of why you fall in love with music in the first place, for the way it bursts with emotion, layers of sound that continue to reward you over time.

Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Since the movie has been out for over a week, I’m going to discuss it WITH SPOILERS.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the cinematic equivalent of a warm blanket, an experience of being comforted by the familiar rendered anew. When it came out in 2015, it was exactly the Star Wars movie that I wanted.

But The Last Jedi is the Star Wars movie I needed.

The Force Awakens followed closely in the footsteps of the original Star Wars film. Too closely for some viewers. Rian Johnson’s take on the Star Wars universe feels anything but familiar. Even less than last year’s Rogue One, which felt like a true war film, and one from which many of the Star Wars trademarks, like the numbered title and the opening crawl, were absent. The Last Jedi, while sharing similarities in plot beats with both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, feels more like a remix of either of those films than a remake.

Johnson seeks to subvert expectations at every turn, from injecting a healthy dose of humour to dismantling the head canon of legions of Star Wars fans. The aging Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), implied at the end of The Force Awakens—and by this film’s title, if you’re taken in by expectation—to be the last great hope of the Resistance, is first seen here not reclaiming his lost lightsaber from Rey (Daisy Ridley), but instead tossing it casually off a cliff with utter dismissal. It’s a move that takes both Rey and the audience off guard, and helps set the tone for a different kind of Star Wars experience. Similarly, the film gets that General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), despite his position, is more bark than bite, and undercuts him at every turn.

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If The Force Awakens was rooted in the myths that made us fall in love with Star Wars in the first place, then The Last Jedi wants us to dig down to those roots, to question those myths. We’re told repeatedly by multiple characters throughout the film of the need to “burn it down,” to kill the past. But even within that radical notion, Johnson doesn’t simply throw away what Star Wars is. Rather, he explodes it into something wider and more egalitarian.

One of the great things about the Star Wars prequels—of which I’m mostly a defender—is how they complicated the notion of the Jedi. The Order we heard about in the original trilogy was a heroic band of knights, protecting the galaxy from tyranny and disorder. What we see in the prequels is an Order so hemmed in by exclusivity and custom, that they’ve become blind to the realities of ordinary people. Whatever good intentions the Jedi began with, they became a mere tool of the government so blinded by their own importance that they chose students according to blood quantum and let a centuries-dead evil rise back to power under their watch. The Last Jedi understands this, and it’s the reason Luke Skywalker has turned his back on the Jedi, the Force, and all that it represents.

Luke’s own passionate bloodline is both the product of and the reason for the continued rise of the Dark Side throughout this entire saga, something he’s implicated in. But he’s not entirely right about that either. The greatest failure of the Jedi has been the misunderstanding of what the Balance of the Force means: dark rises, and light to meet it. Or vice versa. Anakin was driven to darkness because of his desire to protect the ones he loved, something that the Jedi forbid. But desire and emotion are fundamental to who we are.

Luke’s journey is in finally coming to learn, and to pass on to Rey, that both light and dark will always be there, will always coexist in battle with one another in everything, and that one will never fully stamp out the other. “The Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi,” he says. But that’s not just Luke talking to Rey, it’s Johnson talking to the audience, asking them to rethink what it means to be a Jedi, a hero, a teacher.

Luke threatens to burn down the sacred tree that houses the Jedi scriptures, but he seems unable to break with the past in so drastic a way. It is Yoda, ever the trickster, who calls down fire from the sky with a cackle to torch the tree in a shocking moment of sacrilege. “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters,” he tells Luke. It’s a beautiful moment, and a brilliant summation of how Star Wars needs to change in order to remain meaningful.

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But even Johnson himself can’t break with the past completely. Luke will be back, he tells Kylo as much during the meeting that claims his life. The Jedi temple is ashes, but the keen eye will spot the sacred texts, seemingly saved by Rey offscreen before she leaves Luke to try to redeem Kylo Ren herself. The Jedi do matter. And that might be the most astute observation about myth in any of the Star Wars films. The Last Jedi closes with a beautiful coda in which the story of Luke’s heroic last stand is being retold throughout the galaxy. A Force-sensitive orphan boy looks wistfully out into space, raising a broom in the fashion of a lightsaber. Through this scene, in conjunction with the non-revelation of Rey’s parentage—”you have no place in this story,” Kylo tells her—the film both affirms the power of myths and legends as necessary for giving us hope, and undercuts the limiting archetypes that have driven the series so far. Instead, The Last Jedi imagines a world beyond a chosen one, a Resistance that needs cooperation more than it needs heroes.

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I haven’t spoken much about the particular structure of the film, and that’s because I appreciate what this film is doing thematically more than I enjoy its construction. As the longest Star Wars film so far, it’s shaggy and its plot mechanics can feel clunky. That’s not to say there aren’t spectacular sequences; there are, and some of them will undoubtedly go down as those we remember most in the Star Wars lore. But its flaws might improve it, given that the entire movie is about failure. We’re given an entire movie of people who don’t trust each other, who make plans that fail, who disobey orders in an attempt to be heroes. That’s frustrating storytelling, because it’s not something we’re used to. But it’s also the lesson everyone in the film needs—”The best teacher, failure is.” It’s also a lesson that comes at terrible cost, as we end the film with the Resistance in tatters.

But it’s radical to present mere survival as a victory in itself. And in 2017 especially, it’s exactly the kind of story we need.

New Music Monday — 6 November, 2017

Happy Fall from the Fraudsters! It’s been a while. Another Monday brings another batch of new releases. Here’s a rundown of some of the hot new drops from the last two weeks. Some of them are hot like fire, and others are hot like fresh dog shit. I’m here to sort the wheat from the chaff like a good harvest metaphor.

The Used – The Canyon
What the fuck is this album cover? That’s a mountain, not a canyon. It appears The Used’s knowledge of canyons is about as deep as their knowledge of good music. This atrocious 79-minute monstrosity is like that friend who keeps pulling the same bad prank and you keep falling for it. I’ve come to understand that Bert McCracken, who sounded appropriately tortured on the band’s 2002 debut in the way that only a rebellious white suburban kid can (which is to say, insufferably unless you’re also a tortured rebellious white suburban kid), is actually just a terrible singer. 15 years later he is 35 years old with nothing to say, despite being consistently propped up with a platform like someone who has never been told no in his life. Making a 17-song record is always a presumptuous gamble. Making one that has not a single interesting or memorable song on it is downright criminal. By the time McCracken starts rapping on “The Quiet War,” I quietly wished for death. Take a shower, you fucking turd.

Yo Gotti – I Still Am
It’s bad when Gotti sings, which he does on the very first track of I Still Am. Fortunately, this Cartesian philosopher fares better elsewhere, as most of the tracks here are marked by great beats and perfect flows. Trap music often suffers from a general sense of being languid; this record, despite being occasionally lyrically dumb, sounds lively. Plus “Rake It Up” has a great guest verse from Nicki Minaj in which she uses the phrase “thick vagina.”

Kelly Clarkson – Meaning of Life
Kelly Clarkson has always kind of justified the existence of American Idol, even if the show never produced anyone half as talented over the next fourteen seasons (Ruben Studdard? More like Ruben’s career sputtered, amirite?). This eight album showcases Clarkson as the vocal powerhouse she is, and the songs are generally pretty good, but mostly Meaning of Life works because Clarkson feels so simultaneously effortless and comfortable. It’s a record that sustains its energy with a calibrated roster of potential hit after potential hit. “Move You” is as good as a power ballad gets. “Meaning of Life” is a kind of glorious soul pop anthem that keeps on upping itself over four minutes with horns and a gospel choir. “Whole Lotta Woman” is a fun as hell feminist country-funk jam with a killer bass/horn section, even though it’s basically just “Lady Marmalade.” And “Cruel” is a down-tempo track with a little doo wop flair. With Beyoncé completely doing her own thing and Ariana still coming into her own, Kelly Clarkson might be the best pure pop diva we have right now.

Majid Jordan – The Space Between
Toronto R&B duo Majid Jordan got their break on Drake’s 2013 hit “Hold on I’m Coming Home,” before they had even released their own record. Now on The Space Between, their second full-length, they bring more of that “Toronto sound” beats-driven R&B that is great for night listening. With this record, they’ve taken that sound and refined it into something of their own. It’s a sound that, apropos of the album’s title, finds a sweet spot between comforting warmth and cold alienation, loneliness and romance, down-tempo groove and up-tempo dance-worthy beats. As The Weeknd becomes more of a pop star—albeit a great one—, it’s nice to see Majid taking up the neo-R&B mantle he’s leaving behind, and doing it so well.

Gord Downie – Introduce Yerself
Even in death, Gord Downie is a trickster, titling his goodbye album with a nod to introductions. Introduce Yerself isn’t quite Bowie’s Blackstar or Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, in that it kind of feels like just a solid Gord Downie record more than a grand meditation on death. I’m quick to rail against long albums for being self-indulgent, but in this case the 23 tracks and 73 minutes feel justified just by the fact that they’re the last output we’ll get from Downie. It’s less cryptic and more direct—and personal—than we’ve been used to seeing him. Downie was a performer who spent his life giving, but Introduce Yerself feels like a way to thank significant people in his life for everything they gave to him. And while not every song here is a classic, some are, and they’re all good. And production by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew rounds out the sound of the songs just the right amount without backgrounding Downie’s vocals. Standout tracks include the piano-driven “Bedtime,” the sparse “Coco Chanel No. 5,” the BSS-inflected “Ricky Please,” and the album’s closer, “The Road,” a dedication to the Indigenous peoples who became so much the focus of Downie’s final months. This record is a quiet treasure.

Weezer – Pacific Daydream
Rivers Cuomo is way too old to be writing these kinds of songs, and it’s frankly embarrassing to watch him continue to try to live in his early 20s when he’s almost 50, like he’s a non-ironic living embodiment of that Steve Buscemi “how do you do, fellow kids?” GIF. Just the other day, he tweeted:
https://twitter.com/RiversCuomo/status/925439181127643137?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Etweet
. . . and I can’t tell if he’s trolling us or if he’s just an asshole. On Pacific Daydream, an album that is clearly summer-themed but inexplicably is being released in October, he rhymes “Beach Boys” with “get moist” and that’s only like the fifth-worst lyric on this record. I actually thought track 4, “Happy Hour” was sweet and groovy in a fun way until he sings “I need happy hour on sad days” as the chorus. No. Like 90% of Weezer’s post-[Green Album] output, this is bad.

Converge – The Dusk in Us
Is a Converge record ever disappointing? This one definitely isn’t. Amid squealing math rock and metal, The Dusk In Us emerges a kinetic and purposeful work. It’s accessible—and fun as hell—but breathless, slowing down only for the 7+ minute title track that feels like a moody blend of near-whispered Deftones vocals and Godspeed-esque post-rock. It’s an ironic request to “rise above the noise” in an album full of it, but just what’s needed 15 minutes in as a breather to set up the record’s last seven bangers.

Grace VanderWaal – Just the Beginning
Grace VanderWall sounds like Sia tried to clone herself, got scared by the result and locked her in a dungeon where she survived on a diet of Jack Johnson records and bad poetry—”you don’t play with fire but you’re already burned.” Anyone playing a ukulele who isn’t Hawaiian is probably an asshole, and these are bad songs. But VanderWaal is also apparently like 13 years old, so I’m not sure what else one should expect. She’s definitely a talented singer, I’m just old enough to be a parent of her target audience so this sounds like dreck to me.

Sam Smith – The Thrill of It All 
There’s a certain degree to which I think Sam Smith is only music for people who hate themselves, because it’s so goddamn sad. Smith leans into heartbreak to the point that it becomes tiring. But then there’s an inherent joyousness in touches like the use of a choir on the album opener “Too Good at Goodbyes” and elsewhere. The opener and closer—the Timbaland-produced “Pray” with its epic gospel fervour—are particularly strong tracks. In between there is a solid slate of songs that occasionally feel like Smith is coasting. The Thrill of It All doesn’t reinvent Smith’s sound over his debut record, but it does feel more polished, with slick production that doesn’t distract from Smith’s powerhouse voice.

Maroon 5 – Red Pill Blues
Assuming Maroon 5 aren’t trying to low-key tell us they’re MRAs, this record is fine, I guess. I enjoyed it while it was playing, and it has some solid guest spots from SZA and A$AP Rocky. I have also completely forgotten about it the moment it ended, which is maybe not a great sign for a pop record. There’s no “Sugar” here. For some weird reason they go full experimental Latin jazz on the album’s 11-minute closing track, “Closure.” I want to say that’s fun, but it’s more likely it’s just ridiculous.

 

 

 

 

 

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