The Quarterly Report - Songs
I liked a lot of songs in these past three months. And though I don’t usually do this, I have to say sorry to a few great songs here. So apologies to “Brill Bruisers,” “The Blanguage,” “Yasss Bish!!!,” “Stay With Me,” “Treasure,” “Two Weeks,” “The Museum Of Broken Relationships,” “Statue,” and probably a couple of others. Also, I don’t know what to say about liking so many indie rock songs lately. It’s sort of embarrassing.
1. Ariana Grande: “Problem [ft. Iggy Azalea]”. This probably has more to do with teenage prejudices than anything else, but I never liked a Mariah song this much. What a giddy blast of explosive joy, a bubbly and overwhelming evocation of how much fun it can be to dive headlong into a bad-idea romance. That big, dumb sax loop is the music of my dreams. And I think I’m approaching some kind of Stockholm Syndrome acceptance of that Iggy verse, and of Iggy in general. A subtle “go! go! go!” chant goes a long way toward destroying my defenses.
2. Twin Shadow: “To the Top”. When did this guy turn into George Michael? Twin Shadow’s made a lot of good music over the last few years, but nothing on this level. Here he’s smashing through my ribcage with a sledgehammer made out of sentiment, and I can’t even really tell what the song is about, but I am fully and absolutely on board anyway. That chorus is vast and unstoppable, and this song would probably be at #1 if not for that one awful moment toward the end where it falls off-beat for a couple of measures.
3. Spoon: “Rent I Pay”. I’ve really been enjoying the new Spoon song. That’s my Song of the Summer. Or close to it, anyway. White dudes with guitars and this sort of swagger-level are an endangered species. The whole band is the rhythm section here, Britt Daniel included, and that slashing guitar is like a profoundly minimal take on rockabilly, something the old postpunk types would’ve killed to come up with. Sexiest song Wire never wrote.
4. Jeremih: “Don’t Tell Em [ft. YG]”. This might be the best DJ Mustard beat of the year, those snaps and handclaps and keyboard bloops and “hey! hey!”s all so perfectly placed, prim and propulsive. But then maybe I only think that because of the way Jeremih hovers and slides all over this thing. More mustard tracks could use a singer this breezy and effortless. And YG showing up at the end to grunt nastiness makes for a strong exclamation point. An absolutely effortless song. I’d have a ton of affection for this one even if it didn’t have that Snap! interpolation, but that sure doesn’t hurt.
5. Drake: “0 to 100 / The Catch Up”. The second half, with the James Blake outro and the release-date calendar laid out like it’s an emotional release, is a lot of fun. But the “0 to 100” part is obviously the great bit, an effortless and perfectly modulated banger that’s more fun to rap along with while driving than any other song released this year. The phone-pictures anecdote! The way he says “every night, late night”! The little growl before the “run, Forrest” bit! The tossed-off dad-related heartbreak! Drake is making all this look too easy right now.
6-10. Nicki Minaj: “Chi-Raq [ft. Lil Herb]”; Christopher Owens: “Stephen”; Grimes: “Go [ft. Blood Diamonds]”; Lana Del Rey: “West Coast”; Nicki Minaj: “Pills N Potions”.
3lc3lc3lc said: tom! what did you make of Neon Icon?
Liked a couple songs, got bored halfway through, never recovered. I know you and Brandon love it but it just didn’t land for me.
The Quarterly Report - Albums
Have I ever made one of these lists with no rap in the top five? I don’t think I ever have. It’s weird! Either all this time working at indie rock websites has brainwashed me or this has just been a pretty boring time for rap full-lengths and a good one for darkly proggy kinda-rock stuff. Apologies to Parquet Courts, G-Side, Coldplay, Trash Talk, clipping., Wovenhand, Hercules & Love Affair, Cakes da Killa, Sylvan Esso, Cloud Nothings, and the Horrors.
1. How to Dress Well: "What Is This Heart?" Before I say anything, can I just say how much I hate those quotation marks in the title? I hate them. Anyway. Tom Krell once made important contributions to the R&B-for-indie-dorks conversation, but he’s so far beyond that now. He is, in fact, making songs that marry emo-philosophical how-do-people-even-relate-to-each-other lyrical content to fluid Bon Iver falsetto white-boy-soul vocal styles and getting the guy who produces the xx’s records to reduce what might’ve been grand and lush musical beds to minimal heartbeats and sighs and synth-glints. And holy fuck, it’s so beautiful. It’s luxurious staring-into-space-and-letting-thoughts-float music when I want it to be (which, I’ll be honest, is most of the time), and it’s weight-of-the-universe kick-me-in-the-soul stuff when I need it to be. I feel like I’m only beginning to understand all the things that it does, and yet its surface beauty is still the most powerful thing about it. (Wrote about this one here.
2. Swans: To Be Kind. We knew Swans were capable of grand-scale misanthropy; it’s sort of what they do. But here, they’ve made a massive wide-screen album dedicated to making your skin crawl, and that’s not something I really expected from them. Listening to To Be Kind is something like watching the movie Bug while slightly drunk at 3 a.m., seeing it through to the end even though you’re not really sure you like the movie and part of you really just wants to pass out. It’s watching Ashley Judd staring up at her hotel-room ceiling and howling, “I am the super mother bug!” and going, “Gyaaaah, what the fuck,” and laughing but also feeling deeply unsettled. I keep listening to this album while the rest of my family is asleep and I’m up late and writing, and I don’t know why. I don’t exactly like listening to it alone in dark rooms, but there’s something deep and life-affirming about the experience. It’s putting yourself through something and feeling like a stronger, fiercer force when it’s done. (Wrote about it here.)
3. EMA: The Future’s Void. This one didn’t tear my soul apart quite like Past Life Martyred Saints did a couple of years ago, but it at least rips some little pieces off the margins of my soul and than absentmindedly chews on them during class. Erika Anderson has one of those voices that just reduces me to nothingness, a scraped-raw howl that somehow radiates both strength and need at the same damn time. And so much of this album is about a phenomenon that dominates lives and hasn’t really been captured in a lot of good art: The feeling of fleeting validation online, the idea that you’re exposing sensitive pieces of yourself to strangers and then waiting for approval. (Like I’m doing now! Hi! Hit the like button!) The dynamics here, the primitive synth churns that explode into these beautiful overwhelming choruses, are things continue to sound just enormous. (Wrote about it here.)
4. Nux Vomica: Nux Vomica. I didn’t realize this until I read the press release, but I grew up with these guys. Frontman Just Dave, if he’s the guy I think he is, used to sing in this crust band called Objection to Oppression that would play in the middle of these seven-band bills in church basements or VFW Halls in Baltimore County. He was at every show, and he was an intimidating figure just because he looked so much more convincingly punk than the rest of us. When I came back to Baltimore after college, he was the singer for Wake Up on Fire, this amazing crust-metal band with two drummers and a cellist, and they just about ripped my face off at the Blood Shed, this great short-lived local DIY place where I think they also lived, at least before it got raided by the cops. (I may have written about the raid for the City Paper? I don’t even remember.) I was just idly wondering what happened to Wake Up on Fire, and it turns out that they moved to Portland and more or less became this band. And they’re still making amazing epic crust, except now they’re combining it with black metal majesty and postpunk churn and giant screaming hooks, and they’re fine just giving us three ten-to-twenty-minute songs and calling it an album. I can’t quite explain how gratifying it is to see these guys, guys I admired but didn’t really know, suddenly leaping out of my past and making this amazing aggressive music, music that sounds like the natural progression of what they were doing 10 years ago. But this album would be kicking my ass even if I didn’t have that backstory with it because it’s all my favorite kinds of heavy music at once, expertly executed and combined in interesting ways. (Didn’t write about this one because I fucked up and wrote about Cloud Nothings instead that week.)
5. Fucked Up: Glass Boys. Another situation where I have absolutely no distance or perspective and I’m rooting for these motherfuckers until the end. Fucked Up and Damian Abraham in particular are, as people who read my shit are probably sick of me pointing out, are friends of mine, and that’s always going to color the way I hear their music. But Glass Boys is an overwhelming piece of work anyway, a surging blast of coiled anxiety and grandly messy melody. Glass Boys is in some ways the band’s least ambitious album; there’s no unifying narrative thrust, and it no longer feels transgressive for these guys to be making six-minute punk songs. But it’s also, in a lot of ways, their realest record, their record that most plainly addresses the contradictions and worries of being a grown-up who’s still trying to stay true to his or her younger self. More than ever, the triple-guitar attack works as a big disorienting smear, but it’s still full of riffs, and they never lose sight of the songs in all the sprawl. And Damian has found ways to turn that roar, which should be limiting, into a deeply expressive instrument. I listen to these guys, and I feel more alive. (Didn’t write about this one because see above, and also I wrote their label bio for this one.)
The Quarterly Report - Wrestling Matches
Before the second quarter ends, I figured I better hurry up and finish rounding up the best stuff that happened in the first quarter. My wrestling fandom these past six months hasn’t been as voracious as it once was. I feel behind on American indie stuff, watched barely any TNA at all, only caught WWE stuff and the big New Japan shows. And if you’ll recall, those pre-Wrestlemania months were fucking dismal in a lot of ways. (Wrestlemania was a couple of days into the second quarter, so it’s ineligible here.) CM Punk disappeared, Daniel Bryan looked like “fucked over” was his final destiny, and the crowd basically wholesale rejected Batista’s entire existence. But these were fascinating times, the crowd in open revolt of what the WWE wanted, and there was good stuff going on. Here’s what I got.
1. The Wyatt Family vs. the Shield (WWE Elimination Chamber, 2/23/14). Goddam, remember how awesome this was? Two dominant badass bad-guy factions, their collision masterfully teased for months, finally smashing headlong into each other, just absolutely going top-speed for half an hour and beating the shit out of each other. This was in Minneapolis, not the heaviest wrestling-nerd city, but the crowd still knew they were seeing something incredible before the match even started. Seth Rollins went crazy with the high-flying, Luke Harper and Dean Ambrose got to throw bombs at each other like they were still in CZW, and the moment near the end, where Roman Reigns muscled his way out of Bray Wyatt’s Sister Abigail but finally succumbed, was just magical goosebump shit. I am going to miss the Shield so much.
2. Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn (NXT Arrival, 2/27/13). Another instant classic. These two had plenty of history, both on the indies and on NXT, and they used all of that in putting this thing together, calling back to past matches and taking their time building to a ridiculously satisfying conclusion. The fact that they almost fucked up the ending, that Cesaro saved it through sheer ridiculous arm strength and balance, just makes the whole thing that much more rewarding. And the post-match moments, where Cesaro finally shows Zayn the respect he’s earned, are about as genuine and emotional as pro wrestling gets. NXT has started having these big not-quite-PPV shows, and they’re magical, almost always more fun than the actual big WWE shows. I was only able to find a clip of this, but if you’re reading this, you should have the WWE Network anyway; go watch that shit.
3. Daniel Bryan vs. Randy Orton (WWE Raw, 2/3/14). These two had some great, great matches over the months where they were maddeningly thrown against each other again and again, and this was probably my favorite of them. It did that dumb trick where the champion loses a non-title match to the non-champion, and that’s a dumb storytelling trick that the WWE uses again and again, but this time it felt like this euphoric rush because people just wanted Bryan to win whenever possible. And the RKO reversal into the running knee was just a beautiful thing.
4. John Cena vs. Cesaro (WWE Raw, 2/17/14). The match that made Cesaro, at least as a potential WWE main-event type, and the match that reminded me that Cena could be a badass professional wrestler when he wants to be. Cesaro spent 20 minutes hanging with Cena, threw everything at him, and honestly looked like he could win the thing. Cena pulled out a bunch of rare moves, countered a giant swing into a huge DDT, and generally came off like more of a boss because he looked threatened, not less.
5. Bray Wyatt vs. Daniel Bryan (WWE Royal Rumble, 1/26/14). About a thousand times more fun and interesting than John Cena treating Wyatt like a goofy villain-of-the-week for the past few months. Wyatt looked like an absolute monster here, throwing Bryan all over the place, and Bryan looked like a man in danger, fighting for his life. And holy fucking fuck, that Sister Abigail into the barricade.
6-10. Hirooki Goto vs. Katsuyori Shibata (NJPW Wrestle Kingdom, 1/4/14); Hirooki Goto & Katsuyori Shibata vs. Yoshi-Hashi & Kazuchika Okada (NJPW New Beginning, 2/9/14); Big E vs. Jack Swagger (WWE Intercontinental Championship, WWE Elimination Chamber, 2/23/14); the Wyatt Family vs. the Shield (WWE Raw, 3/3/13).
The Quarterly Report - Books
Oh hey, never got around to doing one of these. Shout out to Jefferson-Madison Regional Library for stocking that new shit so reliably.
1. The Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash. A deeply absorbing, perfectly paced little Southern crime novel about a no-account dirtbag who grabs his two daughters out of foster care, taking them on the run after he ends up with a big bag full of money that belongs to dangerous people. The older daughter, who narrates most of the best parts, is one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve run across recently, a tough and resourceful girl who fiercely looks after her little sister and who is forced to navigate so much bullshit because of the idiot adults around her. And Cash has fun with the 1998 setting; the father is a former minor-league ballplayer who played with Sammy Sosa and everyone is watching the Sosa/McGwire home-run race without any idea that they’re watching the steroid era at its peak. It’s been a long time since I inhaled a novel this quickly, and if Hollywood still made mid-budget crime movies with any consistency, this could be the basis of a great one.
2. On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee. A fascinating, beautifully realized dystopian adventure story about a United States where rich people run everything, confine themselves to walled cities, and letting the rest of the country descend into Hobbesian chaos. but the book doesn’t slap you over the head with its topicality, and it has fun imagining all the ways this future society would work, and the way people would act at all these different levels of societal access. The heroine comes from Baltimore, which has been emptied out and refashioned into a gleamingly clean city of Chinese immigrants, all of whom work constantly to send food to the richer districts, none of whom ever leave the city’s limits until this one girl does. And it’s just a sheer goofy pleasure to read about my hometown like that. But the whole odyssey into the unknown is full of great moments, and Chang-Rae is such a great writer that they all sing. This would probably be #1 if I liked the ending better.
3. Saga, Vol. 3 by Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples. Saga has emerged to replace Invincible as the one comic I immediately read as soon as the next trade paperback comes out. (No shots to Invincible; I’m just not caught up right now.) In terms of tone and pacing and sometimes even art, it’s basically Y: The Last Man as an intergalactic romantic epic, which is obviously cool with me because that book was great. (Vaughn wrote Y: The Last Man. Staples didn’t draw it, but her art has a sort of empathetic clean-line grace to it, not too far removed from that book’s Pia Guerra.) The dialogue can get to Whendon-esque jokey sometimes, and it takes itself a bit seriously sometimes, but I really like the way Vaughn comes up with all these vivid, surreal characters and then just bounces them off each other in unpredictable ways. Monthly comics are such a fucking investment that I’ve mostly stopped reading them entirely, but this is one of those rare ones that’s dependably worth $15 every six months.
4. Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn. Kirn wrote Thumbsucker and Up in the Air, the novels and the movies, and those are both pretty bad movies! (I haven’t read the novels. Or the screenplays.) But this isn’t a novel; it’s about Kirn’s interactions with a fascinating character. It starts when he decides to drive cross-country to deliver a dog to a person he’s never met, a guy who’s apparently some lost Rockefeller heir. But it eventually emerges that this guy is (1) not a Rockefeller and (2) a murderer, one who was possibly planning to murder Kirn. This story is just nuts! Kirn tries, again and again, to figure out this mysterious con-man, and he always fails, because some people just make no sense. And the deep-dive into what-the-fuckville makes for a pretty absorbing read. There’s all this random wait-what? stuff in there, too; Kirn, for instance, used to be married to Margot Kidder’s teenage daughter, and Kidder’s famous public breakdown is an actual minor plot point. The namedroppy James Ellroy cameos are fun, too.
5. The Kept by James Scott. This one starts out looking like it’s going to be a gothic 18th-century revenge story, starting out with an absolutely horrific scene of a woman returning to a frozen cabin after months away and finding almost her entire family murdered. But Scott’s not that interested in the mystery or grand-revenge aspects of his story; he’s more into delving into the social undercurrents of lawless upstate New York towns in the Deadwood era. (Actually, now that I think about it, I’d like this book better if it was a Deadwood narrative arc.) The book can get a bit too serious about its goals, and I had to force myself to keep reading at points, but the moments of violence have a real visceral, vivid force.
The Quarterly Report - Movies
I still haven’t seen The Raid 2. This is a source of unending shame for me. It was in one theater in Charlottesville for all of two weeks, and I got busy with boring functioning adult/father stuff and never made it out to see it. I was painting a wall in my house when I could’ve been watching Iko Uwais end people. Maybe I am not the person you want to listen to about movies. Truth is I barely ever make it out to a theater, and I’m pretty sure I watched every one of these things by streaming it on my computer, whether legally or not. And the list includes a couple of late-2013 Oscar-bait movies that didn’t open in Charlottesville until January, which is fudging things a bit, but they’re movies that I only could have seen in the theater this year. I still only managed to watch 10 new movies over three months, but I thought all of them were, at the very least, pretty watchable.
1. The Protector 2 (Dir. Prachya Pinkaew). This one is getting massive critical disrespect because it’s the first Thai martial arts movie to include dogshit Asylum-level CGI in with all its insane stunts and bonecrunch kicks. But I kind of like the CGI! I mean, I absolutely do not want to see it show up in every Asian action movie. That would be apocalyptic. But as a one-off curio, it only added to the sense of lunacy of a movie that was already plenty crazy. Every scene involving an elephant, whether than elephant is being used as a prop in a fight or not, is pure euphoric insanity. I’ve already written about RZA’s delightfully hammy villainous performance. And the 20-minute motorcycle chase halfway through just keeps going and going, elevating to levels that I could not have imagined. The fighting is great, too. RZA holds his own, JeeJa Yanin from Chocolate gets to do incredible and cartoonish vengeful-schoolgirl things, and I particularly like every fight between Tony Jaa and Marrese Crump, who should be in more of these movies. Great fights and ridiculous scenarios are all I require from movies like this, and this movie had more than enough of both. I’m sure The Raid 2 is better, but this did a real nice job holding me over.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen). I’d ready enough reviews by the time I got around to seeing this thing, and I’d watched the “Please Mr. President” scene on YouTube enough times, but things about this movie still caught me by surprise: What a small and focused and ultimately inconsequential story the whole thing is, what a miserable asshole it has for a protagonist. The whole early-’60s Greenwich Village folk scene is my go-to example for “legendary music scene that I hate,” mostly because of all the stuff in Positively 4th Street about Joan Baez sardonically covering Frankie Lymon when none of her songs have aged remotely as well as any of Frankie Lymon’s songs. (Plenty of great music did come from that scene, of course. Still, though.) And I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Coens hate all the same stuff: The city types trying to pass themselves off as rail-riding hobos, the music-business machinery that still ran it even though it posited itself as a respite from that, the NPRishness that infected it even then. (Those professors would not be letting Llewyn crash on their couch if not for the NPRishness.) And I love all the weird period details, like the still-mystifying-to-me fact that nightclubs used to have tables you could sit at.
3. Veronica Mars (Dir. Rob Thomas). This was pure internetty fan service throughout, and there’s something undeniably cheesed-out about that. The cameos got a bit forced. It looked more like a TV show than a movie. I was fine with all that. Because this motherfucking TV show was great, and I’d forgotten just how much I loved it. Somehow, all these people came back, gave off the impression that they were doing it purely for the love (which I think they actually were), and delivered a standalone storyline worthy of the show that preceded it. Sometimes it’s OK to let things die. But sometimes it’s OK to not let them stay dead, too.
4. The Punk Singer (Dir. Sini Anderson). There’s a thing where documentaries can seem better than they really are because their subjects are awesome or fascinating, and not because of any particularly sophisticated storytelling that the movie has going on. This movie has a bit of that, especially when you already know a lot of the stuff that’s in it, which you do if you’ve paid much attention to punk and indie rock over the last 20 years or so. But there’s an undeniable power to seeing people talk about how much Bikini Kill meant to them, and why Bikini Kill needed to happen in the first place. And all the people in the movie just seem like such good people. The scenes of Kathleen Hanna and the King Ad-Rock at home together, holding hands or rubbing each other’s backs or whatever, like a real healthy in-love couple would do, just killed me. Also, fuck lyme disease. Lyme disease makes for a way better final villain than knucklehead hardcore boys.
5. Cheap Thrills (Dir. E.L. Katz). What an absorbing, nasty piece of work. This is one of those things where the movie is small enough to work as a stage play (four characters, mostly one location), but it’s structured like a thriller, and it would feel like spoiling to describe anything that happens. But all the characters are so well-drawn, especially David Koechner as a rich party-guy psychopath, and I really liked the sensation of both having no idea where things were going and caring where things were going. Also, best combination of final shot and end-credits music in recent memory.
6-10. Her (Dir. Spike Jonze); Lone Survivor (Dir. Peter Berg); Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear (Dir. Isaac Florentine); 300: Rise of an Empire (Dir. Noam Murro); Milius (Dir. Joey Figueroa & Zak Knutson).
The Quarterly Report - Singles
Now that I live in a city with no rap radio station and no useful pop radio station, and now that I basically never go out, making this list is getting increasingly weird. I have basically no connection to the music that vast numbers of people are listening to, or listening to together. If I went to a club, I’d probably only know like half the songs. The way I experience songs collectively with other people is when we all freak out en masse on Twitter when the songs show up online. (Which is still fun!) I am fully aware that my #1 pick here, and probably just about all my other picks, are just niche-y internet hits with no real-world impact. But I love them. I love them all.
1. Future: “Move That Dope [ft. Pusha T, Pharrell & Casino]”. The early-00s clanking-spaceship angry-Tritons pre-Clones Neptunes era is one of my favorite things ever, and this song preys as shamelessly on my predilections as, like, “Stray Cat Strut” must’ve done for Eddie Cochran fans. But goddam: Those fearsome bleeps, that sense of empty space, those rappers who treat a beat like this like it’s the new toy they’ve been hoping for ever since Christmas decorations started going up in the mall: It’s too much for me. I have no interest in resisting it. Pharrell’s verse alone is all I really want out of life at this moment. As someone who makes his living writing about music on the internet, the moment where I and all my colleagues heard this and simultaneously said, “wait, wuzzuhuh?!?” was my favorite moment in forever. (I am including the version with Casino mostly because I like the way Casino yells his own name.)
2. Childbirth: “I Only Fucked You as a Joke”. The snarlingest, meanest garage rock banger, used to deliver the snarlingest, meanest put-down you can give to someone you fucked. It’s <em>funny</em>, and you still feel it in the pit of your gut, like a perfectly-timed cinematic ball-kick. The fired-up taunting vocal delivery is perfect, and that seat-of-your-pants surf riff forces me to ask why nobody writes seat-of-your-pants surf riffs anymore. In an ideal world, this would be the Broad City theme music. And if it were still possible to write an underground-rock hit, this might be a new generation’s “Detachable Penis.”
3. Young Thug: “Danny Glover”. One of the greatest recurring storylines in all of pop music: Notorious eccentric stumbles his or her way into straight-up pop success when he or she figures out a way to translate all that absurdity into three or four minutes of freaky-appealing pop music. Somehow, Young Thug managed two of those at the exact same time, and I’m giving the nod to “Danny Glover” over “Stoner” mostly because it’s really fun to yell “<em>twoooo</em> midgets.” (And, fine, because I really like Predator 2.)
4. Angel Olsen: “Hi-Five”. Sunny country-fried yawp of longing so simultaneously happy and sad that it makes me want to go on a long road trip to break up with somebody in person. Was crushed when I saw Olsen live and people in the crowd did not actually hi-five during the climactic “hiiii-five! So! Am! I!" bit.
5. YG: “Who Do You Love [ft. Drake]”. Is it possible that every single line on this song is a potential catchphrase? And that the beat kicks like it’s got John Carpenter in the trunk? My favorite Drake-straight-rapping moment in recent memory is the “I’ma crush that ass even if it ain’t too big / And I would pinky-swear but my pinky ring too big” bit. And now I’m tempted to yell “my Bank of America” account got four figures!” at nobody whenever a paycheck comes in. (Picking this one over the “My Nigga” remix because I can sing along with the chorus without doing the uncomfortable-white-guy halting-silence thing.)
6-10. Sam Smith: “Money on My Mind”; Tomas Barfod: “Happy [ft. Eddie Chacon]”; Shlohmo & Jeremih: “No More”; the Pains of Being Pure at Heart: “Simple and Sure”; Christopher Owens: “It Comes Back to You”.
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.)
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.
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
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).