The Quarterly Report - Albums

This year’s SXSW was such a dispiriting clusterfuck, such a death-haunted mess of branding and gladhanding and inebriation, that I left that motherfucker feeling worse than I ever have about the culture surrounding music. But when I’m back at home in my office listening to shit, which feels more and more like my natural element, I’m just bowled over by how much goddam good music there is out there right now. So here’s this list. Apologies to 100s, Lil Herb, Vince Staples, Beck, Big Ups, Mark McGuire, Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Schoolboy Q, Zuse, Lakutis, Mogwai, Neneh Cherry, Dum Dum Girls, the Men, Isaiah Rashad, Eagulls, Perlas Negras, Fabo, Casino, You Blew It!, and probably some other people I’m forgetting.

1. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues. When Laura Jane Grace came out as being transgender, I fretted publicly, like an asshole, whether her voice would change. This was, in retrospect, a ferociously stupid way to approach a person who I already admired and who was brave enough to let the world in on the seismic changes she was going through. And it also turned out to be just the opposite. Somehow, by addressing those changes and by taking on the challenge of turning gender identity into anthem-fodder, Against Me! have managed to sound even more like themselves. Every song on Transgender Dysphoria Blues is some kind of triumphant, life-affirming album (even “Two Coffins,” which is an acoustic lament about realizing your kids will die one day). These are glittering and miraculous punk rock bangers, songs for driving fast and screaming lyrics out the window, songs that fill up your soul until joy and rage kind of blur into each other and become the same thing. I came dangerously close to howling “Black Me Out” through the phone at a health insurance company rep a couple of months ago. It would’ve accomplished nothing, but it would’ve made me feel good. (Wrote about the album here.)

2. YG: My Krazy Life. DJ Mustard reminds me of prime Mannie Fresh: All those sounds are so clean and precise, but they move. And even if you can trace that sound and figure out where i intersects with other stuff that’s happening right now, nobody quite sounds like him; nobody’s got that panache. And here, he gives us something like a masterpiece, exploring every crevice and eddy of his sound, pushing it in different directions in tiny ways without losing that central pulse. As a rapper, YG comes off workmanlike at first, but then you realize that you’ve got individual lines bouncing around in your head for days at a time. He’s that type: Muscular but unshowy, with individual lines that eventually start to sound like hooks unto themselves. The whole day-in-the-life structure is a bit gimmicky and forced, but it also lends a framework to everything we’re hearing, and a sense of purpose. And within the flow of the album, the hits sound even more like hits — which is something, because they already sounded like hits. YG and Mustard didn’t need to put all that work into album-construction, and nine out of ten rappers in his position wouldn’t bother. But here they’ve made something that encapsulates a single sound and then reaches out and does other stuff, too, which is so rare and so important. (Wrote about it here.)

3. Young Thug & Bloody Jay: Black Portland. I love the stage of a rising, game-changing rapper’s story where he lives at this weird locus of chaos and energy of ideas, challenging people’s ideas of what rap should do and starting fights just by existing. That’s Thug now. He’s a wild card, a destabilizing element, and even though he’s a direct stylistic descendent of Future and Gucci and Mixtape Wayne, he still seems like an absolute goddam alien, a warrior from the future here to make sure we don’t make terrible mistakes. And even if he never makes good on all that potential and stays stuck in momentum-deadening label limbo for his entire career, Thug still gave us this dizzy, flying-in-every-direction tape, him and Bloody Jay (whose parts I like better with every listen) flinging their voices off these taut, springy synth beats in all sorts of oblique, unexpected ways. Thug’s always been a weirdo, and I’ve mostly found him a frustrating weirdo since he came on the scene, but here he’s channeled all those tics into breakneck song craft, finding the beat’s pocket and then just exploding out of it whenever he has to. Also, best scream-out-the-sunroof rap moment in a minute comes 29 seconds into track 4: “I DON’T GIVE NOOOOO FUCKS.” (Wrote about it here.)

4. Sun Kil Moon: Benji. I wish I could write like this guy. This album is so full of darkness and regret, weird squalid and obviously true stories about random deaths and sad fates and friends left behind, all delivered with almost Cormac McCarthy levels of deadpan emptiness. But it’s also a deeply empathetic piece of work, full of love and warmth for just about everyone he talks about. And even when Mark Kozelek is singing about the Newtown massacre, his reaction is overwhelming sadness, not anger or frustration or oh-great-another-one-of-these. On his album Among the Leaves, Kozelek mostly sang about messy entanglements and wasn’t afraid to depict himself as an asshole, which I liked, but he was sometimes so much of an asshole that I just wasn’t on board anymore. Here, though, he’s dealing with the best parts of himself, or when he is flawed (admitting to professional jealousy on “Ben’s My Friend,” being romantically callous on “Dogs”), he does it with this sort of Bill Murray wizened shrug, and it just makes me like him more. And there are no big emotional notes on the album; all the important moments just sneak up and wallop you. The words are the point here, not the music, and I was a bit bored when I saw him play these songs live last month. But even the music is pretty, and it’s probably the main reason I haven’t gotten sick of hearing this album yet, like it was a spoken-word thing or something. (Wrote about it here.)

5. Future Islands: Singles. As a Baltimore person, I’ve been rooting for these guys for years even though I don’t know them and they only moved to town after I left. But even if I didn’t feel that weird vicarious thrill of seeing them turn into A Thing, I have to imagine that they would still feel like a great, important, heartwarming story: Warehouse art-weirdos harnessing their gifts and just fucking going for it (even if they’ve already been going for it, in one way or another, for four straight albums now). Here, they’ve made a big-tent, festival-ready indie-pop album, and album that can and should soundtrack car commercials and show up in those Urban Outfitters vinyl racks, and they’ve done it without sacrificing any of their scratchy idiosyncrasy or their deep sincerity. These are synthpop songs about front porches and swamp air and missing your grandmother and getting frustrated about a relationship that’s going nowhere, and they’re arranged in these blurry, goopy ways that should keep anyone from stamping “New Order” all over everything, even if the basslines have that Peter Hook echo working for them. And they’ve been smart enough to arrange everything around Sam Herring’s voice, which really is a natural marvel. That part on “Fall From Grace” where he dips into death-metal growl for a quick second caused straight-up endorphin-rush pound-the-steering-wheel joy the first time I heard it. (Wrote about it here.)

6-10. Eric Church: The Outsiders; Pharrell: G I R L; the Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams; Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness; the War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream.

Quarterly Report housecleaning

I’m going to start posting my Quarterly Report for the first three months of 2014 soon, but before I do that, I never got around to posting the stuff I picked for the last three months of 2014. So here, without writeups, are the lists I made for books and wrestling matches.

BOOKS

1. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

2. Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen

3. The Squared Circle by David Shoemaker

4. The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell

5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

WRESTLING MATCHES

1. Cody Rhodes & Goldust vs. Seth Rollins & Roman Reigns (WWE Tag Team Championship, WWE Raw, 10/14/13)

2. Cody Rhodes & Goldust vs. Seth Rollins & Roman Reigns (WWE Battleground, 10/6/13)

3. Young Bucks vs. Taka Michinoku & Taichi (IWGP Junior Tag Team Championship, NJPW Power Struggle, 11/9/13)

4. The Shield & the Real Americans vs. Rey Mysterio, Cody Rhodes, Goldust & the Usos (WWE Survivor Series, 11/24/13)

5. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tomohiro Ishii (NJPW Power Struggle, 11/9/13)

6. Antonio Cesaro vs. William Regal (NXT, 12/25/13)

7. CM Punk & Daniel Bryan vs. Luke Harper & Erik Rowan (WWE Survivor Series, 11/24/13)

8. Katsuyori Shibata vs. Tomoaki Honma (NJPW Power Struggle, 11/9/13)

9. Adrian Neville vs. Sami Zayn (NXT, 11/28/13)

10. Drew Gulak vs. Chris Hero (CZW World Championship, CZW Cage of Death, 12/14/13)

The Quarterly Report - Movies

After a deeply uninspiring slate of summer movies (one that, at least judging by Super Bowl ads, looks to get even worse this year), I have enjoyed the living hell out of this awards season, which means I am a deeply middlebrow type of motherfucker and I am OK with that. And thanks to screeners reliably leaking out online, I’ve been able to see just about all of these movies without actually leaving my house, which, as someone with small kids, is a thing I appreciate. For the first time since I started writing these about movies, I saw more than 10 actual good movies during the last three months of 2013, and this is where I’ll shout out Captain Philips and Blue Is the Warmest Color and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Conjuring and The Wolverine, all of which I liked a lot but none of which made it onto the list. Also, I disqualified Inside Llewyn Davis and Her because neither one opened in Charlottesville during 2013 and because, as a person who doesn’t live in New York or L.A., I really hate the whole staggered-release-schedule thing. And there’s plenty of stuff I haven’t seen yet; I am vaguely disgusted with myself for missing my chance to see Homefront in the theater.

1. Gravity (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron). This movie was drugs to me. This movie did things to me that I wish every movie did to me. I probably held  my breath for the first half-hour straight, even if that’s not remotely physically possible. The inanimate space-garbage in this movie was the best villain I’ve seen in forever, and everytime it reappeared, my entire nervous system tensed up. I love that Cuaron managed to translate his endless-tracking-shot style into CGI animated space-moves and still made it look impressive, and the simple, direct smallness of the story made the vast scope of the visuals more impressive, not less. For weeks, I’d’ get angrily protective every time I read any piece of criticism about the movies. It’s true that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were being straight-up movie stars the whole time, and that Clooney was even being a bit glib, but they are great movie stars, and Clooney’s charm worked with his character and with the story. And if you were bothered — like for-real bothered — by Bullock’s whole dead-daughter storyline, I honesty believe that you do not know how to watch movies. Parenthood has made me especially susceptible to this sort of thing, of course, but I was straight-up bawling during that one scene. Movie of the year in a motherfucking walk; nothing came close.

2. Frances Ha (Dir. Noah Baumbach). Essentially the same movie as Gravity, except with Adulthood playing the role of Space. And Expensively Ill-Advised Flight to Paris filling in for Desperate Voyage to Russian Space Station. (And Bills instead of Space Garbage? I am pushing this analogy too far.) I’ve seen and hated so many movies about dipshits who make terrible decisions, but here’s one about someone making terrible dipshitty decisions but never losing audience sympathy (or my sympathy, anyway) along the way. Part of that is the terrible unrelenting realness of the actual situations that Frances faces in this movie, the death of childhood dreams and the slow erosion of friendship and the grown-up bullshit that piles up before you’re ready to deal with it. But a huge part of it is also Greta Gerwig radiating charm in every direction. That final bit of eye-contact in the final scene was the most perfect ending I’ve seen in a long time.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street (Dir. Martin Scorsese). If you want to look at this as just an epic stoner movie for cokeheads, which the people who worry about it seem to be doing, then cool, I’m still fucking with it. But the real fascinating thing about this, to me, is that Scorsese has figured out a way to make a movie about his single worst-ever protagonist, a figure somehow way more repellant than the actual murderers he’s built movies around before. The guy is still compelling, since Scorsese can’t not make his heroes into compelling and charismatic figures unless he’s making movies about actual historically significant figures (The Aviator, guh). But the way it works is to turn this guy’s self-image into the phantasmagorical wealth-accumulation dream-logic thing. The scene where Jordan Belfort refuses to step down and the whole office freaks out and starts singing was just so horrifying and absurd and alive; it knocked me out. Also, you could put the super-Quaaludes scene into an American Pie sequel or something and it would still be amazing.

4. American Hustle (Dir. David O. Russell). It’s fake Scorsese and the 70s signifiers are sometimes obvious and the plot doesn’t really hold together and the whole thing comes off like a light and inessential lark. Doesn’t matter. I loved it. American Hustle is just a fun movie, like Oceans 11 with nuclear-level acting or Out of Sight with more wigs. A lot of critics seem to be getting annoyed at this one because it’s movie stars playing dress-up, but why shouldn’t movie stars play dress-up? That’s one of the things that movies are! And if you’re going to spend a whole movie playing dress-up, “70s con-man-movie dress-up” is a good kind of dress-up to play. And if the whole movie is just a contest to see who can eat the most scenery, then that’s good too. (Jennifer Lawrence wins, I think, but really everyone wins.) David O. Russell might be the one steadily-working director who seems incapable of making a bad movie, and the little moments here, like the shimmy Amy Adams does upon entering a fancy office, are the sorts of things that replay in your brain when you close your eyes.

5. Drug War (Dir. Johnnie To). This one starts out as a fascinating crime movie: The Wire in the People’s Republic of China, the idea of drug-mule roundups going down in a Communist country, all this stuff that would be totally fascinating if given a straight-up treatment. But it slowly cranks up until it’s just a batshit Hong Kong shootout-fest, the sort of movie that To does better than anyone else right now. To also has a whole lot of fun with the whole reluctant-hero archetype, the criminal pressed into changing his ways, the dance of whether or not you can trust someone. And there are some amazingly tense undercover-cop negotiation scenes in there, some great character-actor faces, and some shootouts where you honestly have no idea how many major characters are going to make it through. This belongs in the pantheon of movies where every single character is a terrifying badass, and I love movies like that.

6-10. You’re Next (Dir. Adam Wingard); Enough Said (Dir. Nicole Holofcenter); Man of Tai Chi (Dir. Keanu Reeves); 12 Years a Slave (Dir. Steve McQueen); Frozen (Dir. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee).

The Quarterly Report - Singles

I got started on this thing a month ago, then accidentally deleted it. I want to hurry up and get it up before I fuck up again and lose everything, so forgive me if I don’t write a novel about all these songs. But they are all really good songs.

1. Beyoncé: “Partition”. “Drunk in Love” has emerged as the kinda-sort first focal point, the immediate hit from an album that, by its nature, didn’t need an immediate hit. But one of the beautiful things about Beyoncé’s new album, about the way she released it, is that every track is a single, and I can pick any of them for this thing. (I made this the only one because otherwise this list would’ve had like six songs from the same album.) I like “Partition” the best because it’s the one that induced immediate chair-dancing the first time I heard it and because it’s the song, on an album full of fun sex songs, that makes sex sound like the most fun. Also the drum programming here fills my soul with wonder and the digital bassline is like a choir of heavenly angels to me. And I like imagining Bey only taking 45 minutes to get ready and then wearing a gown to a club. She’s weirder than we realized!


2. Pusha T: “Nosetalgia [ft. Kendrick Lamar]”. That beat is pure uncanny-valley shit, those lonely psych-rock guitar-screams and spacey woodblock thunks and ghostly KRS-One samples. Kendrick’s verse is my favorite Kendrick verse of 2013, going in hard on the human cost of drugs without ever getting preachy with it and working in some dazzling linguistic tangents, like that riff on the number nine, all building to a tough-as-fuck finale. But a few months later, the thing I love best about this is Pusha’s verse, maybe my single favorite rap-hands verse of 2013. Yah!

3. James Blake: “Life Round Here Remix [ft. Chance the Rapper]”. James Blake was one of the most annoying things that happened during my tenure at Pitchfork; I was supposed to believe this wan cerebro-fuck was down with R&B because he chopped Aaliyah’s voice up into unrecognizable shards in his bloodless glitch. So I’m still dealing with the idea that I’ve come to really like his music. This track was, and is, the tipping point, an alchemical leaned-out smear of falsetto sighs and floating blips and Chance getting so yippy and excited that he can’t help just jumping all over it. Blake and Chance’s recent development into real-life Troy and Abed is one of my favorite things that’s happened in music lately.

4. Drake: “We Made It Freestyle [ft. Soulja Boy]”. Drake is paying more attention to Soulja Boy mixtapes than I am, which means I am not doing my job especially well. And if the drunk staggering horns here are the sort of things you hear on Soulja Boy tapes, I’m failing myself, too. This is just a spectacularly dumb song, a catchphrase-heavy SNL skit rendered as a rap song about fucking all the time, and the bit about the text messages made me giggle with actual glee the first time I heard it. Also, if Kenny Powers samples replace Will Ferrell samples on anthemic rap songs, I am absolutely OK with that. And it’s probably worth nothing that Drake’s collabs lately have been with people like Migos and YG and Soulja, not with rising Tumblr-rap stars. I think this is a good thing, just like I think this song is better than anything on Nothing Was The Same

5. Jeezy: “Benihana [ft. Rocko & 2 Chainz]”. The latest in a long and noble line of catchy-as-all-fuck Atlanta rap songs that made absolutely no cultural ripple even though I thought they’d be huge. The D. Rich beat absolutely moves, Jeezy has fun, Rocko threatens to develop an actual personality, and 2 Chainz yells “Fire! Fire! Fire!” before ordering a seafood combination. Note: I’ve never actually been to a Benihana. Doesn’t matter. Still feel like I get the basic idea.

6-10. EMA: “Satellites”; Katy Perry: “Dark Horse [ft. Juicy J]”; Fredo Santana: “Jealous [ft. Kendrick Lamar]”; Mogwai: “The Lord Is Out of Control”; Against Me!: “Black Me Out”.

Every time she does something new, my daughter likes to invent a whole new persona, a fully realized character, to go along with it. We got her a scooter for her fourth birthday, a mostly-plastic thing with this intuitive steering mechanism where you lean in the direction you want to turn, and she’s been using it a lot since we moved into our new house a few months ago. When she’s on that thing, she’s no longer Clara Breihan; she’s Florida Sinny Milan, scooter-racing champion, who now teaches a scootering class.

Florida Sinny Milan. How great is that name? That’s an Elmore Leonard name. I have no idea how she came up with it. But you should see her go, man. She pushes off, follows through, leaves the kicking-off foot in the air, stares up at the sky with half closed eyes, and just yells. “Florida Sinny Milaaaaaan!

The Quarterly Report - Albums

Hey, it’s a whole new year! You’re ready for some more album blurbs, right? I mean, it’s probably been like 10 days since you’ve seen any album blurbs arranged into list form. I’m sure you’re feeling the withdrawal. I’m here to help. Apologies to Lil Durk, Wooden Shjips, Roc Marciano, Arcade Fire, Ryan Hemsworth, M.I.A., Burial, Lil Bibby, Swearin’, King Louie, Cass McCombs, Shearwater, and the Dismemberment Plan.

1. Beyoncé: Beyoncé. When pop spectacle actually comes off and does what it came to do, it leaves me in a state of drooling slackjawed appreciation, wandering around for days with my whole brain in a fog like “damn, I can’t believe they did it.” Spoiler alert for the movies list: Gravity did that for me. And so did Beyoncé. When the album made its sudden staggering entrance, I’d just gotten done with Anita Elberse’s Blockbusters, which is basically a book-length version of a shitty bar conversation where someone keeps poking you and snorting at your ideals and haughtily informing you that you’re being a naive dickwad when you say you wish summer blockbusters could get back to actually telling stories instead of playing out like their own extended trailers. (Confession: I’m that guy sometimes; catch me militantly defending “Wrecking Ball” at your local institution of higher learning.) That was a discouraging read, but it was fascinating to read it during a moment when Elberse’s music test case, Lady Gaga, was in the process of bricking hard and spectacularly. Because it doesn’t have to be that way — endless cross-promotion, singles chosen by committee, every artistic move howling in your face that it’s an artistic move. Pop music can work like pop music and still do great, new, fascinating things, and pop stars can work like pop stars without being baby-businessman lameasses. Here we have a monster blockbuster pop album that works on its own terms, that moves its ideas in a million different musical directions, maintains an actual human viewpoint, announces itself with a brashness and confidence that nobody had to manufacture, that doesn’t involve a rollout where CGI hamsters dance to the lead single. This thing pulls from bleeding-edge dance music, cleaning up those ideas and prettifying them and turning them into pop without being all confrontational and Yeezus about it (which is also great). It comes from a million collaborators, but those collaborators feel like they were chosen organically, not done to chase some imagined zeitgeist. Its big statements are messy and contradictory, like the Adichie sample in “***Flawless,” not hamfisted after-school special things. But the big down-the-middle MOR moments, like “Pretty Hurts” and “XO,” are just as huge and dumb and juicy as songs like those need to be. The Beyoncé we hear here still all has her greatest strengths intact; the rhythmic intelligence in her delivery on “Partition” is the same thing that made “Bills Bills Bills” work the way it did. But it’s also a direct and emotional gutpunch sometimes, as on those last two songs, which absolutely feast on my sentimental-dad soul. I’m just so happy this whole thing exists. So happy. (Wrote about it here.)

2. Danny Brown: Old. I’m frankly shocked to have this at anything other than #1; it knocked me the fuck out. Brown is such a special rapper, spastic and frantic and funny and raunchy and instinctive, and I had a moment of straight-up euphoria watching him rock a festival in Sweden this past summer, but I still had no idea he had something like this in him. This is two albums, really, helpfully separated by tracklist and song-title, and they’re both dark and emotional as all fuck. The first is a classical up-from-nothing rap record, but more than almost any of those I’ve ever heard, it has a sense of anger to it. Most rappers get straight-fest, or even calm and meditative, when they’re talking about the fucked-up circumstances that created them; Brown is pissed off that he had to go through some shit like that and unable to overcome the terrible things that he saw. He’s also sharp and goofy about it; it’s not all “All That I Got Is You” gut-scrape. But it’s a forceful blast of myth-repudiation and a welcome reminder that things shouldn’t be the way they are. And the second part is a party record, but it’s just as fucked up in its way, just as wracked with painful numbness. If you want to hear it as a fun, loopy get-fucked-up record, and I sometimes do, then it works just fine for that, but it’s also headier and sadder and angrier than that. On both halves, Danny is rapping his ass off, and the tracks wriggle and sputter and squirm in some fascinating ways, like Brown doesn’t give half a fuck if the music clashes with the sentiment, so the Purity Ring song is a goth-club track about Danny’s mom paying the bills by braiding hair for people in the neighborhood. There are smart, counterintuitive choices like that at every turn, and almost all of them work. End result: The Tumblr-rap Aquemini, if that even makes sense. (Wrote about it here.)

3. Sky Ferreira: Night Time, My Time. I am among the proud minority who believe that Celebrity Skin is the best Hole album, that Courtney Love’s whole smoke-racked fuck-the-universe force-of-nature ferocity worked best with wisps of Fleetwood Mac atmosphere blowing all around it, with a crust of bubblegum-sugar covering everything like snow. Night Time, My Time is that impulse pushed further: A gloriously dramatic no-fucks-given tough-chick tantrum that arrives in the form of 12 Kim Wilde bangers. This is fizzy new-wave at its most immediate, which is to say fizzy new wave about feeling fucked-up and forgotten, about the mad quest to feel like a human being after that feeling has been torn from you, about the euphoria-rush that comes with a sense of belonging when you didn’t think that sense of belonging could ever belong to you. When I interviewed Ariel Rechtshaid, he told me that the album’s mix is raspy and sputtery because Ferreira drastically reworked it at the last possible moment and the only way to make it cohesive would be to leave the rough mixes in. But those rough mixes work perfectly with the turbulent emotions at play, and it’s not like a rough mix could ever get in the way of a song as titanic and resonant as “I Blame Myself,” good lord. I’m only realizing it now, but the first three albums on this list are all pop albums with pop songs that work as pop songs, but songs that leave rough edges and confused emotions and bad feelings intact, conveying them as artfully as possible while still making sure to get them the fuck out there. So maybe that’s my favorite genre of music now? Vigorous messy loose-cannon emotionally unstable pop music? I’m good with that. (Wrote about this one here.)

4. Action Bronson & Partly Supplies: Blue Chips 2. He’s barehanded snatch up an octopus; he’s a winner. He’s eating chicken parmesan in the holding cell. Every meal he eats is steak, to make a statement: Patrick Bateman. She said he looks like David Justice when she seen him floating in the Maxima. Get the bedpan; he’s shitting on himself, and you’re the one who gotta clean it. He’s straight from Queens, rocking leathers like he’s Mr. Cheeks. He puts his arm through the Picasso. He’s Blind Fury, hopping out the braille Jeep. He’s at Flushing Meadow Park, drinking Hennessy with mom. He flips out the roof, lands in a split. And for all this guy’s unapologetic theatrical assholism, or maybe because of his unapologetic theatrical assholism, I will never be able to do anything but love this guy, especially when he’s rapping over unmastered Peter Gabriel samples and shit. (Wrote about this one here, and you’ll notice that I’m recycling the trick where I just repeat funny lines because that’s really still the best way to write about Bronson.)

5. Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe. Music urgently fluttery like the butterflies in your stomach when you’re trying to talk to a girl for the first time. Lyrics delivered in such a vulnerable hiccup that you don’t initially notice how acid and spiteful and hopeless they can be. Rare indications that Dave Longstreth can carry a tune if someone serves one up directly to him. Non-rare indications that Despot sounds toughest when he’s rapping over non-tough music, delivering non-tough sentiments. Slap-bass and smooth-jazz saxophone tootles and and watery Rhodes, sounds that I’ve spent much of my life hating, redeemed because the guy from Lightspeed Champion knows how to use them to make blissed-out reveries. An album so elegantly soft-batch that you want to steal its lunch money, but so shatteringly pretty that you decide that no, you’d rather offer to become its playground bodyguard instead. (Wrote about it here.)

6-10. Pusha T: My Name Is My Name; Cut Copy: Free Your Mind; Courtney Barnett: The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas; Da Mafia 6ix: 6ix Commandments; Darkside: Psychic.

Lately, I’ve been thinking, as one does, about the second verse from Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.” That’s the one where Ice takes a quick break from all his wax-a-chump talk to tell a quick story, and the story is this: Ice is driving through Miami, looking at girls. The girls wants to talk to Ice, but he keeps driving, presumably because he’s too cool to talk to these girls, even though they’re on standby waiting just to say hi. There’s a shooting, one completely unrelated to Ice, and so he jumps into his car and tries to escape. There’s bad traffic. Things aren’t looking so good for Ice. And then the police show up and, Ice is happy to report, arrest the shooters and leave Ice alone. You can just imagine the relief flooding through Ice’s body: Oh, thank god, the police are here.

I’m leaving out some crucial details here, like how Ice had a non-Chekhovian gun himself the whole time, but the point stands: This is the only rap song ever about being happy the police (the Florida police, no less) are showing up to save you from the scary criminals. Ice is delivering all these lines like he’s a cool guy and like we should be impressed (and maybe like he’s not entirely clear on what all these words mean), but it’s really the kind of tragic-lameass narrative that Devin the Dude might’ve written a decade or so later. Here’s some real white-privilege shit: White rap’s non-Beasties pop-cultural origin-myth arrival moment is the one where the guy raps about being afraid of criminals and happy to see police. 

And so maybe when we talk about Macklemore, the thing to worry isn’t cultural appropriation, one of the primary driving forces of popular music for more than a half-century (maybe more than a century, if you want to get deep with it). It’s this dude being bad at cultural appropriation, being so oafishly well-intentioned that he could never write something as accidentally revealing as that second “Ice Ice Baby” verse. Also, Ice was at least a handsome man who could dance, rather than a blandly cute fuck who could spin around with a tasseled jacket on. You see the cheekbones on that motherfucker? Like he was carved out of actual ice. Like a race-and-gender negative image of Grace Jones. Maybe Macklemore should get himself a Jenny Jones makeover and then he’d have the confidence to be something other than a platitudinous doof.

Anyway, this doesn’t even get into the central mystery of how Vanilla Ice’s hair was blowing. Even with his ragtop down, there’s no way that man’s hair could blow. He could’ve put the entire top of his head through his own windshield without a single strand moving.

The Quarterly Report - Wrestling Matches

If you like pro wrestling but you only casually follow along, you should be aware of two things. One is that NXT, the WWE developmental system’s TV show, is an absolute must-watch: An hour every week, full of guys who you’ll hopefully see on TV sometime soon, many of them recruited from the indie ranks, putting on a simple and pure and ridiculously fun show in front of a small and appreciative crowd. It’s an ideal midpoint between the grimy hyper-athletic intensity of American indie wrestling and the larger-than-life punching-with-feelings bigtime WWE style, and it’s on Hulu every Thursday. The other is that New Japan Pro Wrestling is the best wrestling company on the planet right now, and you can easily find entire four-hour pay-per-views on YouTube like two days after they happen. This is always a worthwhile use of your time. You get used to not hearing any English, and you get to see Tanahashi and Okada wrestle each other five times a year.

1. Antonio Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn (2 Out of 3 Falls, NXT, 8/22/13). Two guys from the indie circuit, with relatively fresh WWE contracts, get to deliver a complete and emotionally intense story in a way that they rarely got to do on the indies. Cesaro, the former Claudio Castagnoli, is a scowling Eurotrash-brute bad guy with a staggering array of uppercuts and an alliance with the xenophobic Tea Party manager Zeb Colter. Zayn, the former El Generico, is the unmasked upstart who plays the underdog character probably better than any other wrestler on the planet. Their match together is near-perfect: Every move leading to something else, every consequence evolving naturally out of what came before it, every big move (the through-the-ropes diving DDT!) arriving within the flow of the match rather than the match being contorted around to allow for it. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of work and a sign for a bright WWE future if they can stop it with all the bickering-authority-figures storylines for a minute.


2. Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena (WWE Championship, WWE Summerslam, 8/18/13). Bryan’s reign atop WWE turned out to be a short and sad blip rather than an indicator of a massive sea change within the organization, the beginning of an era when the best and most popular wrestlers within the company also might be the ones to drive it forward. His actual combined title reigns amounted to something like 22 hours. His character suffered hard once it became a main focus. But the actual match against Cena that marked Bryan’s bigtime elevation was a truly thrilling thing: Both guys pushing themselves and each other hard, escalating the intensity with perfect assurance, pulling out new moves, telling a story much cleaner than the one the writer’s room tried to tell immediately afterwards. Bryan’s running boot to the head immediately made me think of Shinsuke Nakamura, and I wish more things that happened on WWE TV made me think of that guy.


3. Daniel Bryan vs. Antonio Cesaro (WWE Raw, 7/22/13). And we’ll always have the buildup to Summerslam, that brief glorious sliver of time that the company made Bryan look like an absolute killer. This match came right in the middle of a gauntlet match for Bryan, after he beat Jack Swagger and before he beat Ryback (by DQ, but still), and it was a crazy sprint that lasted 13 minutes, both guys doing huge moves on each other the whole time. Cesaro’s uppercut volley was beautiful, and Bryan’s rollup win was maybe the most dramatic one I can remember seeing. WWE could put a match like this on every show, and sometimes it does, but not often enough.

4. Kazuchika Okada vs. Prince Devitt (IWGP Heavyweight Championship, NJPW Kizuna Road, 7/20/13). Okada is the new anointed one in NJPW, an arrogant rich-kid asshole character whose dramatic Rainmaker gesture, and his fold-you-in-half finishing lariat thing, walk a great line between peacocking and backing it up. NJPW’s pulled off a neat trick with him, turning him into a good guy when he’s facing heels and a heel when he’s facing good guys. Devitt, a sneering Irish high flyer who leads the dastardly all-foreigner Bullet Club faction, is the company’s best heel right now (even if he’s basically playing a stock Guy Ritchie character), and they did such a nice job building him up that I honestly thought he might beat Okada. He came close, and the match itself never really slowed down. Every Okada match ends in a crazy series of finishing-move reversals, but this one was especially crazy. Also worth noting: Devitt has arguably the single coolest entrance in all of pro wrestling. There would be more NJPW on this list if the company didn’t have its huge G1 Climax tournament during the last quarter, which just meant they put out way more wrestling than I could ever get around to watching and I didn’t really know where to start. (Though I should say that the Nakamura/La Sombra match, also from Kizuna Road, was badass.)


5. Brock Lesnar vs. CM Punk (WWE Summerslam, 8/18/13). Lesnar barely ever wrestles these days, so it feel like a big deal whenever he does. And this might be his best match since returning, with Punk having to figure out way to outsmart this huge monster who can easily outpower him but then fucking things up for himself when he went after Lesnar’s manager Paul Heyman. In the end, these two just beat the shit out of each other, which is how every Lesnar match goes, with Lesnar’s weird skin turning totally pink and Punk going absolutely crazy-eyes by the end. The whole Punk/Heyman feud hit its climax here, and it should’ve ended with this, but whatever.

6-10. Randy Orton vs. Goldust (WWE Raw, 9/9/13); Brian Cage vs. Anthony Nese (PWG TEN, 8/9/13); Roman Reigns & Seth Rollins vs. the Usos (WWE Tag Team Championship, WWE Money in the Bank, 7/14/13); Austin Aries vs. Bobby Roode (TNA Destination X, 7/18/2013); Paige vs. Emma (NXT Women’s Championship, NXT, 7/25/13).

The Quarterly Repot - Books

I don’t know if anyone is actually reading these things, and it’s fine if they aren’t, since I started writing them pretty much just to force myself to read some new books and to have some idea with what’s going on in that world. And it’s working! I read five newish books in the last quarter, and I liked all of them, at the very least, pretty well. This is always hard because (1) I’m a dad and I have to do dad stuff and (2) I read the first couple of Game of Thrones books as well. Also, the Lex Luger memoir turned out to be on a Christian press, and those always turn out to be the worst pro-wrestling memoirs. Here’s what I did read.

1. Night Film by Marisha Pessl. This thing got crazy hype, and it deserved a lot of it. The central mystery was fun, the way it wove in magazine articles and texts and emails was smart and organic rather than gimmicky, and I enjoyed mentally casting the movie that you just know they’re going to make out of it. Some of it didn’t work for me, like the ending and the constant dumb decisions that the main character makes. But I love the idea of this cultishly beloved reclusive Argento/Kubrick hybrid, to the point where I wish he actually existed, and parts of this creeped me out for real. In the end, I probably liked Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics better, but this was still a blast of a read.

2. Turn Around Bright Eyes by Rob Sheffield. I know Rob a tiny bit, but I’m not going to cop to some bias there because I admired his writing long before I met him and because I would’ve been amped to read this one whether or not he was a complete stranger. (Also, part of the reason I got into my line of work was so I could get to know writers I admire, so fuck it.) Rob’s first memoir, Love Is a Mixtape, was about suddenly losing his wife to a brain embolism, and it absolutely fucking leveled me. This one is about moving from Charlottesville to New York and falling in love again, and also karaoke. I liked the stuff about his real life more than the stuff about karaoke, since it’s enormously gratifying to see him pulling himself back together and also it’s nice to read about the place where I live and the place where I used to live, to look for unnamed cameos from people I might know. But the karaoke stuff is fun, too, in a way that Rob’s magazine stuff is always fun.

3. I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman is another guy I know a tiny bit, though I’ve been reading him long enough that I can remember getting all irrationally pissy when he gave the first Audioslave album an 8 in Spin. These days, he’s carved out a fascinating space as one of America’s prime purveyors of bar-conversation bullshit, and I once spent an eight-hour flight inhaling his Eating the Dinosaur. This book, his bar-conversation theorizing about the idea of villainy, does not have anything resembling a central thesis, or if it does, I’ve already forgotten it. But if Klosterman is writing in circles, they’re ridiculously entertaining circles, and I just wish I had this one on hand the last time I took an eight-hour flight.

4. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. This is one of these big and sweeping Corrections-type deals, and it follows a group of friends over a few decades, from the moment they first become inextricable friends at an art-kid camp to the moment that one of them dies. I didn’t connect with it all the way, since the characters kept doing shit that drove me nuts, but it’s told with command and grace that I can only envy. And anyway, the driving-me-nuts stuff was sort of the point, since the book has a couple of devastating final conclusions: Maybe you’re just not that talented, and maybe your friends are really pieces of shit.

5. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman. New York literary circles are still a mystery to me, but I spent a few years in New York arts-writing circles, which I can’t imagine are that different, and I never went to a party where motherfuckers were talking about Middlemarch or whatever. Do they do that? Maybe they do. Who knows. I found that aspect of the book to be pretentious as all hell. Still, though, it’s a finely observed relationship comedy about an asshole, and it takes place in that same New York overeducated-young-folk universe as Girls and Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach, which I always enjoy. It’s not an exciting discovery or anything, but it’s a breezy read about people who consider themselves to be too smart for breezy reads.

The Quarterly Report - Movies

Here’s what happens when I take forever to finish writing these Quarterly Reports: Other things come along that render them completely obsolete. Like this movies list: I came up with ten movies I liked, and then Gravity came along in the next quarter and fucked all of them up. For real, Gravity annihilated me, and it’s my favorite movie of the year by such a wide margin that it almost seems dumb to be writing about other stuff. And it also underscored what a shitty and uninspired summer of movies we just had. With the possible exception of the second-quarter movie Fast 6, we didn’t get one classic popcorn movie this summer, and the picks in my top five are, taken as a whole, bourgie as fuck: A foreign movie, three art-house hits, one nerd-bait blockbuster attempt. They’re all good movie, but I’m saying though. Gravity.

1. Shield of Straw (Dir. Takashi Miike). I’d never heard of this one before I saw it on a flight to Sweden, and as far as I know, there are no plans for an American release. But it’s out there, and you can probably find it if you look hard enough. Which you should, because damn. This is Miike on a post-13 Assassins populist hot streak, flipping visual blockbuster to make a queasy moral fable with no good answers. A quick plot synopsis: Police catch a monstrous serial killer, but only after he murders the granddaughter of an aging billionaire. That billionaire puts an absurd price on the killer’s head, so pretty much all of Japan is out to kill the killer. And one honest heartbroken grizzled cop is in charge of the mission to get the killer from one police station to a jail across the country, trying to keep the entire country’s honor intact in the process. People on his team of cops are trying to collect on the bounty, and so is every random person they come across, and meanwhile the serial killer keeps trying to sneak off so he can kill one more person. You have to deal with the idea that the guy maybe deserves to die, that the cop is doing the wrong thing in his upright moral crusade to get him into jail, given all the people’s lives he’s risking in the process. Plotwise, it’s pretty much a remake of the last act of the S.W.A.T. movie, but nasty toxic conundrums keep appearing and people keep dying. A Rotten Tomatoes search, conducted when my plane landed, affirms that a lot of critics didn’t like this, which what the fuck.

2. Before Midnight (Dir. Richard Linklater). This was a tough one for me. Those first two Before movies are a part of my life, and looking back, they had a whole lot to do with the sort of idealized romance I’ve kept in the back of my head. I don’t want to see these two fighting, hating each other, throwing another verbal haymaker every time there’s an ebb in the conversation. It’s like how my daughter doesn’t like any movies that have bad guys in them, even though the bad guys are the engines that drive the plot and you wouldn’t have a movie without them. This stuff was just grisly, hard to watch, and yet so completely true to the characters that it just made it sting all the more. But this is still so beautifully put together, so perfectly acted and directed and photographed, that I couldn’t help but marvel at it. And holy shit did it ever earn that ending. 

3. Drinking Buddies (Dir. Joe Swanberg). This one had its own uncomfortable resonances, but it had a lighter touch, and the personal hells that it shows just aren’t as deep. I feel like I might know these people, but I’m a lot less worried that I might be these people. Still, the whole thing where you’re friends/coworkers with somebody and you sort of want to bone and sort of don’t and know it would ruin your life and care and don’t care: That’s a very real thing, and a thing I haven’t seen in a movie before. Also, every single actor in this is just enormously appealing, even when their characters are being total shitheads. If every mumblecore movie was more like this, maybe people wouldn’t have so much fun shitting on mumblecore.

4. Mud (Dir. Jeff Nichols). Totally convincing dirtbag Southern noir shit, done through kids’ logic that kicks things into emotional overdrive and works as a great device: The characters might not care that much about themselves, but the kids who they meet damn sure do. The Matthew McConaughey rebirth has been great and all, but I might’ve been even more into Reese Witherspoon as a gutbucket Helen of Troy type. Romantic comedy leads: They contain multitudes! And unlike Take Shelter, Nichols’ last movie, this one spent enough time with the payoff it built up that I didn’t have an immediate what-the-fuck reaction when the credits showed up onscreen.

5. Pacific Rim (Dir. Guillermo Del Toro). This was not the monsters-fighting-robots throwdown I was hoping for. Fight scenes too dimly-lit, always at night, underwater sometimes. Not enough big “damn, son” punches. No real difference among the different monsters, not enough difference among the different robots. Idris Elba’s bit St. Crispian’s Day speech is like three sentences. Not enough idea of what a world in permanent monster-siege state would be like. Still, it is a movie about monsters fighting robots, from a guy who knows how monsters-fighting-robots movies should work. That’s good enough for #5.

6-10. The World’s End (Dir. Edgar Wright); Elysium (Dir. Neil Blomkamp); Star Trek Into Darkness (Dir. J.J. Abrams); This Is the End (Dir. Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg); GI Joe: Retaliation (Dir. Jon M. Chu).