Through a Glass Darkly: 2015 – Year in Review

What is it about turbulent times…?

From earthquakes in Asia to epidemics in South America, from increasing economic inequality to encroaching environmental catastrophe, from Charlie Hebdo to Boko Haram, it’s been hard, over the last year, not to feel a sense of instability about our planet, uncertainty about our future. And while there’s nothing daring or visionary in suggesting that volatile circumstances often inspire some of the greatest art, it’s also been difficult not to feel a bit frivolous compiling a list of 2015’s best pop culture offerings…

And yet…

While writing the retrospective below, patterns began to emerge: Stories of people trapped in chaos and conflict, trying to find their way. Oppressive atmospheres, thick with dread. Binary oppositions dissolving into disorder around lone figures desperately seeking to blaze a path between. Artistic and scholarly attempts to find new perspectives on a world that, for all our intellectual progress, so often seems incomprehensible. And an almost desperate creativity as new modes of expression are sought to articulate our dismay, our determination, and our defiance. In various ways, every work below is a reflection of – and a response to – the moment in history in which we find ourselves.

And isn’t that what art is for…?

Maybe it’s not a “Best of…” As I always say, I’m just one guy. There’s a lot of great work from the past year that I haven’t seen. A lot that I’ll probably never see. Nor is everything on the list below flawless. Perfection, after all, is rarely inspiring. But each, in its way, offers a striking, inventive, resonant vision of life in these distinctly, if not uniquely, troubled times…

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MOVIES

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THE ASSASSIN

From stunning star, Shu Qi, to the staggering cinematography by Lee Ping Bin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is almost intolerably beautiful to look at. But its breathtaking beauty is more than just skin deep. As engaging – and elusive – as it is entrancing, The Assassin borrows its often deliberately obscure narrative from “Nie Yinniang,” a 9th Century chuanqi by Pei Xing about a young girl who is taken from her home at ten years old, only to return five years later as a trained killer. The similarity pretty much ends there, but attempting to sum up the film’s enigmatic events would be futile. Plot is not the point. A diaphanous portrait of a girl trying to reconcile who she once was with who she has become – caught, like her uneasily insurrectionist home province, between fealty and freedom – The Assassin is a work of ethereal poetry. A meditation on the burdens of flight. If that sounds incomprehensibly abstract, it’s only fitting for a film this rich and this delicate. It’s the kind of cinema that demands the repeated viewings you’ll be more than happy to give it.

CHI-RAQ

Inventive, explosive, hilarious, heartrending, vulgar, visionary, incisive, and outrageous, Chi-Raq is Spike Lee’s most inspired and arresting film since… Well, at least, since The 25th Hour, but possibly ever… A fiery socio-political protest in madcap satirical drag, Chi-Raq transplants Lysistrata to the streets of Chicago’s South Side, using Aristophanes’ anti-war text to take on America’s epidemic of urban gun violence. If extreme situations call for extreme measures, Lee is more than up to the task, and his film pulls out all the stops: as in Aristophanes, the characters speak entirely in verse (a strategy that’s right at home in the world of rap battles and the Dozens), conversations spontaneously evolve into choreographed dance numbers, and the performances (led by an appealingly sensitive and sensual Teyonah Parris) are often hilariously over-the-top. There’s even a Chorus-cum-Rudy Ray Moore analog named Dolomites, played with note-perfect panache by Samuel L. Jackson. But what’s truly extraordinary is not that Lee can so confidently combat lunacy with lunacy, but that he succeeds in deftly balancing the outlandishly comedic with the affectingly dramatic, the drunkenly profane with the soberly sacred, never losing sight of the searing grief and anger that drive the film. He pulls no punches in his depictions of a mother’s loss or a minister’s outrage. For all that his characters can come off like cartoons, they bleed real blood and cry all-too-recognizable tears. An insane response to an insane world, Chi-Raq is a hysterical cry for help.

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE

A literal bird’s eye view of humanity, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence contemplates the absurdities of human frailty and fragility from a puzzled, yet pacific remove. Noncommittally following two traveling salesman through a series of bleakly comic vignettes, from the mundane to the momentous, from the mournful to the quietly beautiful, Andersson’s use of static wide shots, minimal cuts, and dramatic performances reminiscent of zombie mental patients allows us to view the action (and inertia) as an alien species might. Laughter and tears, love and carnage are all observed with the same bemused detachment. Wringing horror from hilarity, significance from simplicity, and in both cases, vice-versa, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a funhouse mirror held up to human nature: a desolate and deadpan, strikingly minimalist and strangely moving vision of our species, our civilization, ourselves.

EX MACHINA

Alex Garland’s quiet and contained story of a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) hired to perform the Turing test on an artificial intelligence (a mesmerizing Alicia Vikander) is less a cautionary sci-fi fable about the project’s inherent dangers than an intense psychological drama about the ways in which people attempt to manipulate and control each other. We have invented the enemy and she is us. Full review here.

INSIDE OUT

“Children’s psychological comedy” is not an especially competitive genre. But Inside Out, Pixar’s tale of the inner workings of a young girl’s brain as she confronts the challenges of adapting to life in a new city, is not only inspired and inventive, it is also every bit as magical, and as moving, as any of the studio’s best offerings. Following the personifications of Joy (an aggressively chipper Amy Poehler) and Sadness (a delightfully dismal Phyllis Smith) on an odyssey through 11-year-old Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) turbulent psychological landscape, Inside Out paints an imaginative, insightful portrait of the human mind and its workings, while – somewhat daringly, in our inane, negativity-shaming, feel good culture – satirizing our obsessive desperation to stay positive all the time, and acknowledging the value of negative responses to trauma. Featuring faultless vocal performances by Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black as Fear, Disgust, and Anger, respectively, and an especially notable turn by Pixar regular Richard Kind as Riley’s former imaginary friend Bing-Bong, the film is, simultaneously, so instantly appealing and so plainly purposeful, it would feel manipulative if it weren’t also so deeply sincere. By turns, hilarious and heartbreaking, Inside Out is one of the more poignant, powerful, and perceptive “Children’s” movies you’re likely to find.

THE TRIBE

A bleak and brutal film set within the squalid corridors of a boarding school for the deaf, Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s debut feature has received a great deal of acclaim for its effective cinematic rendering of a world without dialogue (the film is purposefully presented without any subtitles, so unless you’re fluent in Ukrainian sign language…), but has left a few critics and moviegoers pondering what, exactly, Slaboshpytskyi was trying to say. Viscerally and formally arresting – both riveting and, at times, difficult to watch – The Tribe’s descent into teenage cruelty and criminality is a study of contained and systematized savagery: a microcosmic allegory exposing the violence inherent in any form of tribalism. The interactions and interrelationships between the students are clear enough, even if the specifics sometimes get a bit muddled, but more importantly, the lack of dialogue deprives them of the ability to rationalize or justify their actions (to us, anyway). We are silent observers, any sympathy or identification offered only fleetingly, if at all. Composed almost entirely of subtly, but impressively choreographed long takes, often featuring deliberately repeated compositions, the film literally traps us within its characters’ grim and grimy routines. When our unapproachable – and not especially likeable – protagonist disrupts the natural order, the escalating conflicts he sets in motion provide a desolate and disturbing commentary on escaping such oppressive systems. A comment that, perhaps, some critics and moviegoers have no desire to hear.

WILD TALES

An altogether different – and more easily enjoyable – take on human savagery can be found in Damian Szifron’s blackly comic anthology, Wild Tales. Over the course of six riotously funny vignettes, Szifron plunges with maniacal glee into the repressed animal passions that explode from within when people are pushed to their limits. Vengeance, guilt, greed, frustration, and jealousy are vividly caricatured in stories of road rage, marriage, and the particular rage evoked when navigating bureaucracy. But unlike Slaboshpytski, Szifron makes his characters both cartoonishly outrageous and uncomfortably sympathetic, over the top yet firmly rooted in our feral instincts, and at various times, we find ourselves almost cheering for them to indulge the worser beasts of their natures. Unbridled and unforgiving, but also cathartic and vital, Wild Tales reminds us that, while such base behavior might be distressingly common, it is common to us all, and suggests that there is something liberating, even empowering, about facing the beasts within and laughing.

’71

Such is the powerful authenticity of Yann Demange’s intense action-drama, ’71, you could almost believe it was actually shot in the decade in which it takes place. Driven by a genuine street-level urgency and arresting visual immediacy, the film energetically evokes some of that bygone era’s best cinematic offerings without ever falling prey to nostalgia, caricature, or mimicry. Dropping us in the rough and ravaged streets of 1970’s Belfast, the film follows Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), an unassuming British soldier abandoned by his company in the aftermath of a riot, whose run for his life brings him face to face with the realization that his country’s war on IRA terror may be more complex than it appears. A captivating cat-and-mouse chase film, adept and assured enough to dwell in its more meditative moments, ’71’s grey and gritty historical odyssey also resonates as an understated and artful allegory reflecting our own present-day attempts to navigate the moral complexities of our war-torn world.

WTF…?

Not necessarily disappointments, but some surprisingly poor offerings that have received inexplicable praise…

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

A prolonged demolition derby roaring its way through an apocalyptic (and aesthetic) wasteland, George Miller’s final (we hope) installment in the bafflingly overrated Mad Max franchise has been met with such widespread superlative acclaim, I’ve been forced to question, not only the judgment, but the sanity of many critics I respect and rely on. Utterly devoid of competent storytelling, compelling characters, or any kind of content at all, the film is so unceasingly kinetic and cacophonous it actually becomes monotonous. Yes, the effects are (for the most part) practical, and the choreography often impressive, but in service of what? Despite what any critic may claim regarding Fury Road’s deeper meanings or cultural significance, any anorexic attempts at feminist commentary or genre reinvention are brutally pulverized by the film’s barreling bombast, thudding script, bloodless characters, and wooden performances. At a time when so many critics claim to be weary of empty, overblown spectacle, the praise lavished on Miller and Mad Max seems almost hilariously ironic. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes; it’s that the clothes have no emperor.

SPOTLIGHT

Earnest, sincere, likable, and, unfortunately, not very good, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight wants very badly to be All the President’s Men, but possesses none of that film’s immersive intrigue, precision craftsmanship, or wit. Focusing on the Boston journalists who exposed the child abuse cover-up in the Catholic church, Spotlight neither invests in their drive, their personal relationship to the story, or the larger significance of the story, itself, amounting to little more than a dull and superficial recounting of factual events. Minus a bizarrely mannered Mark Ruffalo, most of the cast gives committed, sincere performances, but they can’t save the film from its flat screenplay or shoddy technique (politely excused as “restrained” by those critics swayed by the film’s good intentions). It’s not offensively bad. It’s just offensively bland.

CLOUDS OF SILS-MARIA

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils-Maria is exactly the type of brittle and pretentious exercise that gives arthouse films a bad name. A drama about an aging actress (Juliet Binoche) and her young assistant (Kristen Stewart), the film doesn’t explore their relationship so much as absently bat it around like bored cat with a dying mouse, punctuating their labored interactions with pedantic babble about art, truth, maturity, etc. (“It’s theatre. It’s an interpretation of life. It can be truer than life itself.”) Stewart is as excellent and understated as the bewildering praise heaped on the film suggests, but Binoche is shockingly poor, as forced and awkward as the dialogue she’s made to recite. An empty and self-important film about empty and self-important people that veers perilously close to self-parody.

 

TELEVISION

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RIVER

By now, the trope of the gifted – and cursed – eccentric detective has become as worn and weary as River’s title character. But with her six part BBC series, writer Abi Morgan (Shame, The Hour) successfully breathes new life into the tired premise by giving investigative focus to the miseries that drive her protagonist, rather than the mystery that drives the show’s plot. As psychologically troubled Detective Inspector John River, Stellan Skarsgard delivers a stellar performance, equal parts weathered and vulnerable, compassionate and removed. Probing his peculiar and problematic relationships to his co-workers and his cases, River offers an unsettlingly unromanticized depiction of loneliness and loss, exposing the contradictions and hypocrisies lurking beneath our culture’s fascination with mavericks and outsiders. Dark, desolate, and supersaturated with a haunting melancholy, River is uncommonly powerful and affecting television.

THE AFFAIR

After spending the initial installments of its second season finding its feet, The Affair made a sudden standing long jump into a series of wrenching, challenging, and uncomfortable episodes that live up to – and even surpass – the artfully agonizing promise of its prior season. Expanding its he-said/she-said narrative structure to include the perspectives of Maura Tierney’s Helen Solloway and Joshua Jackson’s Cole Lockhart, The Affair continues its unflinching plunge into the muddy waters of its characters emotional lives, reaching darker depths than ever, as it tallies the costs of their failed relationships and individual desires. As Noah Solloway, Dominic West continues to peel back the layers of his charmingly roguish screen persona, fearlessly exposing the festering self-doubt and self-loathing underneath, while Ruth Wilson’s Alison Bailey remains intriguingly inscrutable, all at once, ice cold and disarmingly delicate. But it’s Tierney who really emerges as the season’s star player, executing a magnificently controlled breakdown, as Helen struggles – and fails – to pull herself together in the aftermath of her broken marriage and find a way move forward. Best of all, in a truly masterful stroke, the season finale successfully folded The Affair’s strained murder mystery scaffolding into its character-driven narrative with a jarring reveal that neither compromised the show’s realism nor simplified its emotional conflicts.

DAREDEVIL

Aside from being just tremendously entertaining, Netflix’s Daredevil performs a marvelous balancing act. It’s not just the series’ artful blend of gritty urban drama and comic book fantasy, or its thematic exploration of the space between heroism and villainy. On every level, one finds a study in sharp contrasts that are allowed to bleed into one another until it becomes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Even its dramatic tone expertly synthesizes the appealingly old-fashioned with the strikingly fresh. The central duality, of course, is the conflict between lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and entrepreneur/criminal kingpin Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio). Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the comic book knows which one is the good guy and which is the bad, but over the course of its thirteen episodes, Daredevil blurs the distinctions between them, offering a surprisingly rich portrayal of two troubled men, both raised on violence, each trying to save their city in the only way they know how. And it’s that investment in character that gives the series its grace. Unlike a lot of other comic adaptations, Daredevil’s choreographed martial arts melees and quick-witted rhythmic banter are consistently supported by the recognizable reality in which it remains anchored, and the identifiable humanity that runs through its veins.

DOCTOR WHO

One of its finest, to date, Doctor Who’s ninth season offers an intense and intensive investigation into its title character’s complex and combative relationship with death. Comprised primarily of two-parters – a structure that not only reflects the thematic death/life dualism, but also riffs on the season’s driving narrative mystery of the “hybrid” – each story examines the complicated comingling of mortality and morality, from The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar (the series’ first truly worthy sequel to 1975’s superlative Genesis of the Daleks), which begins with a variation on the old ethical question of killing a baby Hitler, to The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion (a fierce political allegory that would make Malcolm Hulke proud), which critiques the notion of revolution and righteous slaughter, to Heaven Sent/Hell Bent (a haunting and heartrending finale), which considers the Doctor’s extraordinary determination – and extraordinary recklessness – when it comes to saving lives. The Doctor/Clara relationship (which has become one of the most engaging in the series’ history) provides the season’s beating heart, their dynamic anchoring – and reflecting – the show’s binary explorations. Now fully comfortable and confident in the title role, Peter Capaldi pushes at the boundaries of his Doctor’s charismatic cantankerousness, adding layers of humor and compassion, as well as shades of Doctors past. And Jenna Coleman continues to dig deeper into Clara, maintaining her captivating confidence and charm, even as she continues to evolve, making the most of her memorable last bow as the new series’ longest serving companion.

ASH VS. EVIL DEAD

After 2013’s unexceptional Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell produced Evil Dead remake, those with a longstanding love for Raimi’s classic slapstick-horror trilogy could be forgiven for approaching this series with some trepidation. News of Campbell’s return as the hapless Ash was met with giddy anticipation, but the question lingered: After 30 years, could they recapture the black comic magic of the originals? And, considering how different the three films are from each other, which particular magic would that be? Ash vs. Evil Dead turns out to be the best case scenario in that it synthesizes elements of all three while creating a magic all its own. After an uncertain pilot, the show quickly finds itself, as an aging Ash, saddled with two young misfits, sets out on a road trip determined to close the book on the evil he let loose once and for all. That, from episode to episode, the acting, writing, and directing can be a little uneven is ultimately insignificant. With the perfect synergy of the franchise’s distinctive over-the-top B-movie self-awareness and Campbell’s perfectly overcooked lead performance – to say nothing of the fathoms of near ludicrous gore – the magic is invincible. But what makes it a more than worthy successor is that, in the midst of its outrageously bloody cartoonishness, it delivers moments that are both genuinely creepy and – especially in its later episodes – genuinely affecting, infusing the gruesome theatrics with the kind of surprising and unsettling impact the Evil Dead series hasn’t possessed since its superlative second installment. And if watching Dana DeLorenzo repeatedly run a zombie’s face through a meat slicer while Death’s “Freakin’ Out” plays on the soundtrack isn’t TV bliss, I don’t know what is…

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Promising programs that failed to deliver…

TRUE DETECTIVE

There’s no arguing that the second season of HBO’s True Detective was a profound disappointment. There is some argument to be had about the cause. Though many, for various (sometimes not especially objectively critical) reasons, were eager to take down Nic Pizzalotto, blaming the new season’s failures on his deliberately stylized writing is as wrongheaded as the directing and casting choices that actually sank the show. (A quick glance at David Milch’s Deadwood reveals how artful and effective such ornate and dramatically stylized approaches can be when handled properly.) The poetic discourses on fate, characters named Anitgone, etc. make it abundantly clear that Pizzolatto was looking to inject a classically tragic sensibility into the show. A risky strategy, considering contemporary audiences, but one that, even if it had alienated the average viewer, could have been successfully realized on an aesthetic level in the right hands. The problem is that tragedy – classical tragedy – demands an austere, unsentimental realization (something with which most modern actors and directors are unfamiliar, to say nothing of uncomfortable). When executed with the typical Hollywood focus on emotional approachability, dramatic emphasis, and audience appeal, the whole thing collapses in a heap of overcooked melodrama. Which is exactly what happened. Thus, a potentially unique and poetic drama about the destructive power of buried secrets was reduced to a pompous and overwrought policier.

JESSICA JONES

Despite a promising premise and a commendable attempt at allegory, Marvel’s Jessica Jones simply doesn’t hold together. With its tale of a failed superhero-turned-private detective haunted by a dark past, and its novel use of the hero-villain dynamic as an metaphor for abusive relationships, it could have been something really remarkable. The problem is that while showrunner Melissa Rosenberg clearly knows what story she wants to tell, she doesn’t seem to know how to tell it. Awkward and unfocused, the show hits its stride for an episode or two, only to lose it again, making its best moments some of its most frustrating, as well. Compounding the problem is the bratty lead performance by Krysten Ritter, who, despite delivering effective turns in Veronica Mars and Breaking Bad, simply lacks the gravitas to fully convey the weight of her character’s damaged soul. David Tennant is solid, but underused, as the sad and sociopathic Kilgrave. And Mike Colter’s layered and laid-back performance as Luke Cage inspires some optimism for his forthcoming Netflix series. Beyond that, Jessica Jones – in its first season, at least – never lives up to its potential.

MUSIC

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ALGIERS

Music for the end times. And maybe that’s why this punk/industrial/gospel trio’s searing debut has not been showered with the acclaim it rightfully deserves. Soulful wails build and break atop haunting and volatile sonic tides, lyrically demolishing our contemporary comforts and complacencies. It’s an intense, often challenging listen, both musically and intellectually. It’s also the most commanding, vital, and passionate album of the year. A revelation. Full review here.

SLEATER-KINNEY, “No Cities to Love”

Sleater-Kinney came roaring back from an eight year hiatus with an album that might be their very best yet, proving that they’re still one of the most accomplished, exciting, and important bands around. Full review here.

BEAUTY PILL, “Describes Things as They Are”

One of the most unique bands to emerge from Washington D.C.’s post-punk environs, Chad Clark’s Beauty Pill also came back from a long hiatus in 2015 with a compelling, affecting album unlike anything you’ve ever heard. All at once, dense and delicate, appealing and esoteric, lush and angular, “Describes Things as They Are” carries you away on its flowing soundscapes of guitars, drums, electronica, and reflective vocals, while quietly revealing its complex layers with every repeated listen. Clark possesses a lyrical gift for expanding the personal and idiosyncratic into the realm of cultural relevance and powerful catharsis. “Afrikaner Barista,” a sweet and funny song about a crushing on a coffee server, also examines the complications and frustrations of navigating identity politics. “Steven and Tiwonge” presents a moving vignette of star-crossed love that masks a subtle, but fiery, protest of institutionalized homophobia. And on “Dog With Rabbit in Mouth, Unharmed,” an ode to a departed pet evolves into a meditation on mortality and loss. Ultimately, though, no description of this album can do it justice. Like the best musical offerings, it just needs to be experienced.

TROYKA, “Ornithophobia”

I’ve never been a fan of demanding – or even suggesting – the retirement of specific words or phrases from the critical lexicon, but I might make an exception with the phrase “not for everyone.” Obviously, Troyka’s eccentric, knotty, unrepentantly unpredictable musical synthesis is not everyone’s taste, but you know what? Neither is Taylor fucking Swift. It’s a phrase that only further cements the erroneous notion that popular appeal somehow suggests artistic accomplishment. The fact is, whether or not it’s your thing, “Ornithophobia” is a dynamic, inventive, funny, disquieting, and dizzyingly sophisticated album offering a one-of-a-kind musical experience that needs to be heard to be believed. Deftly blending fusion jazz with math rock – at times, evoking nothing so much as Faraquet covering Bitches Brew – “Ornithophobia” can swing with an easy cool one moment, snap into strutting funk the next, erupt into a dissonant frenzy, and then downshift into haunting harmonies. Strange, surprising, and surprisingly beautiful, it will never be Top 40. But that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

BINKER AND MOSES, “Dem Ones”

While the rest of the jazz world had orgasmic fits over Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic” – a masterpiece, admittedly, but an overproduced, bloated, and self-indulgent one, to these ears – I found myself much more enthralled by this short, spare sax-and-drums offering from longtime bandmates Moses Boyd and Binker Golding. Comparisons to “Interstellar Space” are inevitable, and Boyd and Golding wisely lean into the punch, paying tribute to Coltrane’s free-jazz classic in various ways. But “Dem Ones,” while certainly adventurous, is more unapologetically groovy than any of Coltrane’s searching latter day peregrinations, anchoring the better part of its six tracks in swaggering rhythms and soulful runs, even as they stretch into the atonal and avant-garde. A dazzling display of musical synergy from two players whose proven partnership has provided them with the confidence to cut loose and see where their particular chemistry takes them.

LE BUTCHERETTES, “A Raw Youth”

On her follow-up to 2014’s raging, ravaging “Cry is for the Flies,” Teri Gender Bender (nee Suarez) offers a bracing, ravishing flirtation with pop melodies, crafting a textured ode to youthful resistance and resilience in all its forms. “A Raw Youth” tears ravenously into 60’s rock ‘n’ roll, 70’s punk, 80’s synth-pop, and 90’s electronica, while sacrificing none of Le Butcherettes’ trademark passion or power, confidently synthesizing its diverse influences into a tenacious, undeniable, irresistible whole. Full review here.

SIGH, “Graveward”

If Emperor spent their legendary career elevating Black Metal to the majestically operatic, Japan’s Sigh have, on their latest album, decked its halls with all the flash, splash and dash of a Broadway spectacular. And, believe it or not, that’s praise. Flamboyantly, defiantly – almost recklessly – experimental, ever since their landmark 1997 album, “Hail, Horror, Hail” (which came with a warning label cautioning the listener that, “If you find that some parts of the album are strange, it isn’t because the music in itself strange, but because your conscious self is ill-equipped to comprehend the sounds produced…”), the band has relentlessly pushed into increasingly eccentric territory, developing a sound that can only be described as an unholy hybrid of Black Sabbath and Frank Zappa. “Graveward” features plenty of driving, pitch-black metal aggression and impressive riffage, but – as always – careening over dense layers of synths, organs, strings, horns, chants, and chimes, breaking into magnificent choral refrains, and veering unpredictably into strange interludes incorporating everything from acoustic strums, to jazz piano, to hip-hop beats, to theremin solos. While all of that may be business as usual for Sigh, “Graveward” also boasts a grandiose cast-of-thousands theatricality that lends it the air of a Tony Award winning production. Though perhaps not as insanely inventive as 2001’s “Imaginary Sonicscape,” or as focused and furious as 2007’s “Hangman’s Hymn,” it’s nonetheless one of the most wildly entertaining and evocative albums of the year.

CZARFACE, “Every Hero Needs a Villain”

While I’m not, for a moment, going to pretend that Czarface’s “Every Hero Needs a Villain” is the best rap album of the year (that honor, almost certainly, goes to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which, try as I might, I just can’t get into), it’s easily the most fun. Turning the tables on the hip-hop superhero concept they laid down on their self-titled debut, “Every Hero Needs a Villain” finds Inspectah Deck and Esoteric wickedly playing up the dark side of their collaboration’s comic book sensibilities. Backed by 7L’s rock beats and guitar flourishes, the result is even cooler, catchier, and more charismatic than its predecessor. Who can resist Deck referencing every geek-centered enterprise from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Doctor Who? Or such lyrics as, “You lack vision, like the first Avengers?” Sure, it may not be as ambitious or innovative as Lamar’s magnum opus, but “Every Hero Needs a Villain” is pure energy and enjoyment from start to finish. And I don’t care what anyone says: “Lumberjack Match” is the best hip-hop song of 2015.

SURVIVAL GUIDE, “Way to Go”

An uneasy dream of an album, Survival Guide’s debut finds former Tsunami Bomb vocalist Emily Whitehurst paying homage to all her 80’s synth-pop influences, while still wearing her punk heart on her sleeve. Deceptively dulcet, Whitehurst and guitarist Jaycen McKissick freight “Way to Go’s” swirling melodies with an undercurrent of dark, buzzing menace, and a quick glance at the lyrics reveals a series of gloomy musings and weary self-reckonings. The result is something haunting and beautiful and, for all its seeming familiarity, quite unique. Full review here.

SCARFACE, “Deeply Rooted”

Hip-hop’s elder statesman of the Dirty South, Brad Jordan aka Scarface, emerged from retirement (yet again) in 2015 with this grim, gritty, and intensely soulful album that only further cements his place as one of the genre’s most unflinching and affecting tragic philosophers. Having begun his career with the almost cartoonishly violent Geto Boys, Scarface’s solo albums, though often no less brutal, increasingly evinced the sort of weathered wisdom that can only be obtained through years of wrestling with darkness. On “Deeply Rooted” he strikes a perfect balance, exhaustively investigating the two deeply rooted ideologies – religion and gangsterism – that have both propped-up and let down his culture and community. Clear-eyed and courageous, he pulls no punches in condemning the failings of spirituality or acknowledging the empowering allure of criminality, but it is his personal portraiture and intimate experiences with both that give his anecdotes and analyses their cathartic force. For a gangsta rap album, it is almost entirely free of any posturing or platitudes, seeking instead to get to the more troubling truths that lurk beneath them.

SONGHOY BLUES, “Music in Exile”

When northern Mali fell to Ansar Dire in 2012, many of the Songhoy found themselves exiled from their homes and fleeing south. Among them, four young musicians who met in Bamako and formed Songhoy Blues. Offering an irresistible mix of early American rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and traditional Songhoy melodies, “Music in Exile” exemplifies the best aspects of all those traditions: music as an expression of cultural identity, resilience, and protest. That you won’t understand the lyrics (unless you speak the language) is unimportant. The music, in its sincerity and simplicity, is so catchy and compelling, it’s almost enough to restore your faith in humanity.

In a year full of so much exceptional music, why waste time on disappointments, missed opportunities, or misplaced praise, when I can, instead, mention a few…

RUNNERS-UP

For all its bloat and bombast, KAMASI WASHINGTON’S “The Epic” is still a pretty magnificent achievement. UnWED, a new post-hardcore/rock outfit featuring former members of Hot Water Music and Small Brown Bike, released their very solid debut, “Raise the Kids.” MARRIAGES’ first full-length, “Salome” is a dark, haunting post-rock nightmare that really gets under your skin. And PARTIKEL’S “String Theory,” though it really should be more exciting and surprising than it is, still makes for a very interesting, if dispiritingly easy, listen.

Finally, in terms of more short-form offerings, Devin Ocampo’s new band, EFFECTS, released a series of cassette singles (available through their bandcamp site) that will have fans of Faraquet and Medications salivating for more. And Oakland’s SUPER UNISON released a grippingly frenetic debut EP that picks up where latter-day Black Flag left off…

BOOKS

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forms

FORMS by Caroline Levine

Leave it to a critic to name a book of critical theory one of the best of the year, but Forms is a truly visionary work. Re-inventing (and resuscitating) formalism for a post-historicist, post-post-modernist, post-post-structuralist age, Caroline Levine surveys the strengths and failings of previous literary and political theories, while mapping a fresh, holistic approach to both aesthetic and political landscapes, and illustrating the ways in which they often shape each other. Using historical and literary examples, Levine examines the affordances of four formal arrangements – whole, rhythm, hierarchy, and network – revealing the complex ways in which seemingly unified structures, events, and texts actually contain competing, conflicting, overlapping, and potentially subversive elements. It’s a much needed approach that acknowledges the intellectual value of considering spatial, temporal, and textual definition, while pushing beyond those illusory borders to gain a more comprehensive understanding. Refreshingly brief and direct for a work of political/aesthetic theory, Forms is, nonetheless, thorough, penetrating, and exhaustive, offering something every critic – ideally, every reader – finds exciting and empowering: a new way of seeing.

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SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE by George Musser

Taking its title from Einstein’s troubled musing on the nature of quantum entanglement, George Musser’s Spooky Action at a Distance provides a thorough, and thoroughly enjoyable, explication of the concept of nonlocality. Guiding us through the concept’s long and troublesome history – which, in a sense, is the history of science, itself – Musser not only introduces and illuminates the various complex theories, hypotheses, and (sometimes contentious) debates in which nonlocality has played a role, but also the various complex personalities who devised, tested, and argued them, expertly balancing detailed scientific information with vivid characterizations and entertaining anecdotes. But nothing surpasses the mind-blowing implications of the concept itself, and what it reveals about our limited – and possibly illusory – understanding of the universe.

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A passionate, pleading, fierce, and fatalistic boots-on-the-ground memoir of growing up black in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me consciously borrows its structure from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, taking the form of a letter written by the author to his teenage son. Deftly balancing piercing analysis with searing emotion, Coates takes him – and by extension, us – on a lightning tour of his childhood, adolescence, college, and early adult years, while forcing us to confront and consider the harsh and unjust realities of life on the flipside of the American Dream. Keeping his reminiscences grounded, anchored – often palpably – in the physical, Coates’ eschews the spirituality, the progressive optimism, the political oratory, and the moral sermonizing that have become all too commonplace in contemporary discussions of race, allowing his personal vision of America’s entrenched and intractable racial divide to emerge more organically. He offers no solutions and, perhaps most strikingly, even goes so far as to suggest that none may realistically exist. Unlike so many other meditations on race and racism, Between the World and Me is not a prescription, but an honest reflection – an uncompromising and enlightening one from which everyone in America might have something to learn.

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BOOK OF NUMBERS by Joshua Cohen

It’s been interesting to watch the arc of the acclaim that followed the publication of Joshua Cohen’s dense, dizzying, and dazzling Book of Numbers last June. Initially hailed as superlatively brilliant, it began to disappear from various “Best Of…” lists after a barrage of condemnations from hypersensitive cultural watchdogs whose obsession with parity blinded them to parody, as they attacked everything from the book’s “unrelatable” depictions of privilege to the casual sexism and prejudice occasionally evinced by its protagonist. To say such criticisms missed the point of the book would be an understatement. They also misrepresent it. A masterfully complex investigation into issues of identity and isolation in the internet age, The Book of Numbers follows a satirically distorted author surrogate named Joshua Cohen who is hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of an iconic Silicon Valley innovator, also named Joshua Cohen. The binary, like everything else in this richly and carefully detailed novel, is pointed and deliberate, as the book divides itself between Cohen the writer’s first-person narration of the events, and the incomplete drafts, fragments, transcripts, and emails relating to the memoir he attempts to write. Along the way, we travel from New York to Dubai to Europe, tour some of the wealthiest and most impoverished environments on the planet, and learn the history and evolution of the internet (at least, as experienced by Cohen the computer genius). What emerges is a fractal set of closed systems competing within vast networks, struggles between the private and the public, and contrasting accounts of the impact and importance of new technologies in our lives. Engrossing, entertaining, and enlightening, dismiss the denunciations. Book of Numbers deserves to be counted among the best of the year.

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OUTLINE by Rachel Cusk

These days, I find myself getting pretty exasperated with books about writers. In the last few decades, the dictum, “write what you know,” has been epidemically interpreted among novelists as “write only about yourself.” Ironic, then, that both fiction books on my list this year feature not only writers, but author surrogates, as their main characters. But what’s interesting about Rachel Cusk’s deceptively quiet and compact novel is that it’s really not about her at all. Or, rather, it is. Just not in any conventional way. Outline follows an English author on her journey to Athens to teach a writing workshop, but its first person narrative is not so much about her, as the people she encounters. Cusk describes them in vivid detail, allowing them to come to life on the page, as they discuss their lives, their histories, their perspectives. As the title suggests, despite her marginal – almost documentary – presence, our main character is developed and defined through her perceptions and her portraiture of others. It’s a technique that is simultaneously innovative and classical, in that, without directly addressing any of these issues, Cusk questions not only the nature of authorial presence in fiction, but the nature of authorship – and even identity – as a whole.

DISAPPOINTMENT

I was really looking forward to getting my hands on this one, and I stuck it out all the way through…

GUTSHOT by Amelia Gray

The dark and disturbing stories collected in Amelia Gray’s Gutshot are inventive, intriguing, unnerving, and often funny. Unfortunately, what they aren’t is focused, polished, or terribly expressive. Gray clearly has talent and a twisted imagination, and her stories are economical and entertaining. But, too often, they come off less like the output of a driven and inspired author than a series of assignments completed by a wickedly eccentric creative writing student. And the lack of a compelling vision too often translates to a not terribly compelling read.

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Sleater Kinney – “No Cities to Love”

by Matt J. Popham

Is it too early to announce the Best Album of 2015…?

“No Cities to Love,” Sleater-Kinney’s dramatic, commanding return, picks up exactly where they left off almost 10 years ago, and confidently strides forward without missing a beat. Before the dissonant, groove-and-grind opener, “Price Tag,” has even finished, it’s clear what a hole their hiatus left in the sonic landscape. An exceptional, essential band at the time of their departure, the album proves they have remained peerless even in absentia, as each and every successive track shows them to be as vital, as inventive, and as passionate as ever.

Fortifying the musical ground gained on the echoing expanses of 2005’s “The Woods,” “No Cities to Love” is, all at once, focused and diverse, familiar and dynamic. Bristling with restless energy, each song feels alive and organic, almost mercurial, as the interplay of instruments and voices is continuously redefined and reformulated, but without ever losing a decisive sense of purpose and structure. Carrie Brownstein’s and Corin Tucker’s sinuous guitars intertwine as expertly as ever, but it’s breathtaking how quickly they can now erupt into jarring dissonance, only to retreat, collide, and gracefully coalesce into beautiful harmonies, each evolution mirrored and countered by their distinctive, alternating vocals, and propelled by Janet Weiss’ powerful cannon-fire percussion. Perfectly reflecting the band’s progressive sociopolitical stance, this is music that demands attention, refusing to sit still or behave.

But what’s most surprising about “No Cities to Love” isn’t just how skillfully it keeps you on your toes, but how frequently it gets you on your feet. Though there’s no shortage of challenging, angular attacks and discordant, punk distortion, it’s an unrepentantly groovy album, fearlessly embracing catchy melodies and hip-shaking rhythms. “Fangless” rocks an 80’s pop vibe, while the title track offers an irresistibly singable chorus, and an affecting interlude during which Brownstein delivers her most soulful and melodious vocal performance since Wild Flag’s “Black Tiles.” The typically take-no-prisoners Weiss plays with tight and textured restraint on the simultaneously self-deprecating and celebratory “A New Wave” (possibly the album’s most charmingly approachable track). And despite the dark, astringent snarl of “No Anthems,” “Surface Envy” is defiantly, rousingly anthemic and, given the lyrics, might even be read as the album’s mission statement. Of course, it all sounds unmistakably, undeniably like Sleater-Kinney. How could it not? After two decades and eight albums, the band has become so assured in their singular chemistry and unique aesthetic that, like latter-day Beatles or Fugazi, they can seamlessly adapt any sonic inspiration to suit their particular style and sound.

Whether or not they continue to record regularly, sporadically, or not at all, Sleater-Kinney’s status as one of the best and most important bands of this century (or the last) is long secured and “No Cities to Love” will only further cement their musical legacy. Charged with a push-pull intensity, as pleasing and playful as it is spirited and uncompromising, it’s an exhilarating display of the band’s prodigious abilities and fierce commitment – to music, to each other, to their shared past and future – that refuses to be contained or pinned-down. Securely rooted in their remarkable accomplishments, while continuing to push restlessly, relentlessly forward, “No Cities to Love” is a capital achievement.

Wild Flag – Self Titled

by Matt J. Popham

“Hey, hey! Can you feel it?” Carrie Brownstein asks in the opening line of “Romance,” a paean to the power of music that kicks off Wild Flag’s self-titled debut album. One of the album’s strongest tracks, as its thumping, guitar-and-keyboard riff gives way to the infectious, sing-a-long chant of the chorus, you may just find yourself saying, “Damn right, I can!” But when the band declares, in three-part harmony, “We love the sound! The sound is what found us,” it’s hard not to find yourself wondering just whose sound they’re referring to…

In September of last year, Brownstein (33.3% of the tragically defunct Sleater-Kinney) announced on her NPR blog that, after a five year hiatus from music, she and some friends were putting a band together. That prospect alone might have been enough to start music fans salivating, but when the news broke that these friends included Brownstein’s former S-K bandmate, Janet Weiss, Rebecca Cole of The Minders, and indie guitar goddess Mary Timony, excitement levels went through the roof, making this newly formed, all-girl, alt-rock powerhouse the most talked about supergroup of the alternative scene. Before a single note was recorded, Wild Flag’s built-in following had declared their upcoming record a surefire masterpiece and a candidate for Album of the Year.

Of course, that’s the inherent problem with “supergroups”: the mere idea of them sends expectations rocketing skyward, only to have them crash-and-burn when confronted with the all-too-frequently disappointing reality. Rock history is littered with a multitude of all-star efforts amounting to little more than underwhelming curiosities at best and abject failures at worst. Most never evolve beyond short-lived side projects, crumbling under the weight of conflicting egos or dissipating from benign neglect. The few true successes tend to be those that transcend the “supergroup” label entirely (does anyone think of Cream or Crosby, Stills & Nash as “supergroups,” anymore…?), by discovering a new sound and establishing a unique musical identity that eclipses their individual members’ former achievements and acclaim.

So, after a year of hype and hyperbole, now that their debut has finally been unfurled, is Wild Flag worth saluting…? The truth: It’s probably too early to say. But, for now, at least, the legacies of Helium and Sleater-Kinney remain unthreatened.

Which is not to say that Wild Flag is a bad album. Far from it. From start to finish, it’s a fascinating, invigorating listen, full of tonal zigzags and energetic flights of fancy. The hip-shaking pop seduction of “Romance” gives way to the eerier, more cryptic “Something Came Over Me,” which, in turn, explodes into the post-punk desperation of “Boom,” only to be followed by the sprawling, hippies-on-Helium psychedelic jam, “Glass Tambourine,” etc. Throughout, one can’t help but get the feeling that Brownstein and Timony split the songwriting chores almost down the middle, as each alternating tune exhibits trademark elements of one or the other’s wildly different signature styles. You could even be forgiven, at times, for thinking you were listening to a shuffle of b-sides from “One Beat” and “No Guitars.” Which are both fantastic records. But that’s the thing…

While the individual songs are good – even great – and fans of Sleater-Kinney, Helium or The Minders will find much here to savor, at the end of Wild Flag’s 10 songs, it’s still unclear what Wild Flag, the band, is going to sound like. Because what the album captures best is not the sound of a new musical force on the scene, but the sound of four top-notch musicians and unique stylists trying to figure out how exactly they fit together. The results can still be intriguing and rewarding, as in songs like “Short Version” or “Future Crime,” where Timony’s guitar is pushed out of its usual medieval-tinged comfort zone into the wilds of rock ‘n’ roll riffage. But there are also a few awkward collisions. While Janet Weiss’ powerful Keith Moon-style pounding provided the perfect muscle for Sleater-Kinney’s sinewy two-guitar interplay, it is, at times, too heavy and too direct for Timony’s more delicate, idiosyncratic compositions and angular strumming, occasionally weighing them down rather than supporting them. The good news is that the fortunes far outnumber the flaws, but even Wild Flag’s highest points have the texture of stylistic aggregate. Rather than a unified band with a unique voice, Wild Flag is still, at this point, a heterogeneous mixture of individual approaches that have yet to coalesce into a sonic whole.

What keeps Wild Flag, the album, from sounding either too schizophrenic or too familiar is the joyful abandon of all four women as they explore, experiment, share and discover. Unlike Timony’s and Brownstein’s previous collaboration, The Spells, which sometimes came off sounding like two talented gals just messing around, the proceedings here are being taken more seriously, but not so serious as to become ponderous or pretentious. The album is held together by a thematic, rather than musical unity, as each member revels in the freedom and the thrill of being a part of something so new and full of possibility. Almost every song, both lyrically and structurally, can be read as a celebration of music as an inspiration, a solace, a way of life. “Come and join our electric band…” Timony entices on the track of the same name. Boundaries are pushed, past successes are relived, and personal histories and influences are audibly shared. “Endless Talk” with its mix of poppy keyboards and bluesy vocals is surprisingly reminiscent of Robbie Krieger’s Doors numbers. “Racehorse” is a galloping jam that sounds like the MC5 fronted by Patti Smith. All in all, it’s a restless, searching record, but also a fun and fearless one.

Certainly, when it comes to our expectations of supergroups, the case could be made that the fault lies not in our rock stars, but in ourselves that we are underwhelmed. Great musicians, after all, come together to jam out of mutual admiration and a sense of fun, not to make history. But it’s hard, when you have this much talent concentrated in one place, not to hope for something mind-blowing, something life changing, something wholly new and different than anything you’ve heard before. It’s even harder when an album this vital and this passionate displays all the promise and potential inherent in an artistic alliance while falling just short of fulfilling it.

“Chemistry cannot be manufactured or forced,” noted Brownstein on her blog, perhaps acknowledging the inevitable pressures that would be faced by Wild Flag’s stellar ensemble, “But after a handful of practice sessions, spread out over a period of months, I think we all realized that we could be greater than the sum of our parts.” After listening to Wild Flag, the album, it’s clear that she’s correct, even if they’re not quite there yet. After all, if Cream had disbanded after their uneven first album, they’d likely be little more than a musical footnote today, and Wild Flag is already a more consistently enjoyable debut than Fresh Cream. On “Black Tiles,” the album’s soulful, melancholic closer – a beautiful, powerful track that could also be the best indicator of what Wild Flag might sound like when they finally gel – Brownstein acknowledges that, “For all we know, we’re just here for the length of the song.” I, for one, hope that the band’s obvious commitment, both to music and to each other, means they’ll be here a good bit longer than that. Because as enjoyable as it is to hear them celebrate who they are and where they’re from, the most exciting thing about Wild Flag will be discovering who they become and where they’re going. In the meantime, with this first step, they’ve planted a flag worth flying.