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…

* * * * *

MOVIES

__________

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

________________

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

_________

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

_________

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.

spooky action

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.

between

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.

numbers

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.

41orC4b88kL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

Le Butcherettes – A Raw Youth

by Matt J. Popham

Purged of the demons she so fiercely exorcised on 2014’s savage and sensational Cry is for the Flies, Le Butcherettes’ founder and frontwoman Teri Gender Bender (nee Suarez) is back with A Raw Youth, a stunning follow-up album that is every bit its predecessor’s equal in power and intensity, yet its complete antithesis in topic and tone. Energetic, invigorating, and accessible where Cry is for the Flies was dark, despairing, and dissonant (even the album’s more tuneful tracks sounded dangerously deranged), A Raw Youth positively blazes with passion and vitality, fearlessly flaunting a host of irresistible rock ‘n’ roll riffs, catchy pop hooks, and singalong melodies. Not that anyone should interpret that as, in any way, signaling a sell-out. There’s still plenty of challenging material here, both in style and substance, and Suarez is as fiery, as uncompromising, and as idiosyncratic as ever. What’s remarkable is how seamlessly – and how satisfyingly – she is able to incorporate these elements into Le Butcherettes’ signature garage punk sound.

The album kicks down the door with “Shave the Pride,” a rousing, literally in-your-face, rocker, in which a boyfriend’s untamed beard evolves into a metaphor for dominance assertion, then spreads out, somewhat surprisingly, into two unabashedly 80’s-inspired pop-rock numbers: the heartfelt and full-throated ode to self-reliance,“My Mallely,” and the bitterly anthemic “Reason to Die Young.” But while the latter song might sound right at home on a Pat Benatar album, its outward aural appeal is belied by its lyrics, which lament a generation driven by a hopeless future to seek meaning in martyrdom. In the same way, the upbeat percussion and bouncy synth-horns of “Sold Less Than Gold” provide a disturbing counterpoint to Suarez’s first-person narrative of teenage sex slavery. The use of mainstream melodies on these tracks is not merely ironic, however. Nor it is it simply a candy shell to make the medicine go down. In each case, it also serves as a disconcerting illustration of the resiliency and adaptability of youth, even in the midst of abject miseries – a reminder as troubling as it is reassuring. Of course, there’s also plenty of youthful piss and vinegar to be found: the aforementioned album opener, the decidedly punky “Oil the Shoe if the Critter Knew Any Better” (yes, that is the title), or the snarling “They Fuck You Over,” which sounds almost like a leftover from the early Kiss or Kill EP. But the album’s most intriguing tracks – and the ones that tip it from “exceptionally good” to “great” – are those in which Suarez indulges her flair for the unusual, as in the haunting, howling invocations of “Witchless C Spot,” the quiet, shifting melancholy of “Lonely and Drunk,” or the jaw-dropping “La Uva,” whose psychedelic lurching sounds like a cross between “Tomorrow Never Knows” and an ancient pagan chant, made all the more ominous by guest-vocalist Iggy Pop’s guttural growls.

Featuring a brand-new, but thoroughly tour-tested back-up band, A Raw Youth also finds Le Butcherettes at its tightest, tensest, and most textured, and the band’s audible chemistry no doubt played a role in facilitating the album’s sonic explorations and experimentations. Chris Common proves a versatile percussionist, equally effective laying back or pounding forward, on or off-beat. And the rolling thunder of Jamie Aaron Aux’s bass provides a pervasive motor and muscle, occasionally even taking the lead and allowing Suarez’s guitars and keyboards to ornament, augment, and accentuate with greater expressive freedom. It may be the best Le Butcherettes ensemble yet. As always, though, it is Suarez’s voice that takes center stage. One of rock’s finest vocalists, as well as one of its most dynamic performers, she can soar above the songs with a commanding resonance reminiscent of Grace Slick, chirp in a fragile falsetto, or hiss as threateningly as Clint Eastwood. After channeling Robert Plant on the blues-y “Stab My Back,” she belts out a Riot Grrl scream on “They Fuck You Over” that Kathleen Hannah would envy. But what really sets Suarez apart is her ability to imbue any song with its own distinct and compelling dramatic character. Her striking vocal theatrics have been evident and abundant in all her musical efforts, but they’re always at their most pronounced on her Le Butcherettes albums, and they’ve never been better than on the last two LP’s. The petulant, coquettish lilt she brings to “Sold Less Than Gold” only makes the song that much more affecting and unsettling. On the phenomenal “The Hitch Hiker,” in which a dialogue between a female hitcher and a predatory driver becomes an allegory for patriarchy and resistance, Suarez plays both parts, alternating frantic desperation with seething menace. And “Lonely and Drunk” allows her to run the gamut from airy self-pity, to deep sorrow, to rage and recrimination. It is her intense vocal commitment to each and every song that brings A Raw Youth so powerfully and vividly to life.

It’s worth noting that, “The Raw Youth” was the original English title given to Dostoevsky’s often overlooked penultimate novel, The Adolescent. Ever fond of the sly literary reference, on A Raw Youth, Suarez seems, not only to be paying homage to Dostoevsky’s portrait of generational conflict, but also throwing down the gauntlet before him. While Dostoevsky consistently condemned the young of his generation as foolishly ambitious, prone to rebellious – and, ultimately, violent and nihilistic – convictions, Suarez has delivered an irresistible collection of engaging and exhilarating songs that, for all their tales of martyrdom, sex slavery, and betrayal, seem to unapologetically celebrate the power of youth – in all its vulnerability, defiance, romanticism, rebellion, and naïveté. And why not…? At only 26, with three superlative albums already under her belt, she is, herself, a prime example of what youthful conviction and energy can accomplish. Having lost not an ounce of her trademark ferocity, on A Raw Youth, Suarez has instead expanded its palette, revealing that what burns at its heart is not nihilism, but a genuine, however incendiary, lust for life. As the man himself said, “Youth is pure, if only because it is youth.” For Suarez, it’s that and much, much more…

2014: Year in Review

by Matt J. Popham

Best-Of-the-Year lists have sort of become compulsory in the internet age, but I’ll be honest:

I hate them.

They are always limited and, often, largely arbitrary. No critic in the world – no matter how much time they have or how well-paid they are – can possibly have seen EVERY worthy film, heard EVERY worthy album, etc. And I have significantly less time and less of a salary than most. So, not only can I not even begin to claim that I have seen, heard, read, or even encountered EVERY artistic offering worthy of consideration, the truth is I have barely seen/heard/read ANY of them…

Which means this is not – and should, in no way, be confused with – a “Best-Of-the-Year List.” I can’t even begin to pretend that I’ve absorbed enough of last year’s offerings to be any kind of authority on the subject. No, think of the below as something like an aesthetic travelogue: As I zigged and zagged my way through 2014, these were the releases and publications that made an impression…

I. SPEECHLESS CINEMA

UNDER THE SKIN – Jonathan Glazer’s icy, alien meditation on identity and sensuality features a masterfully layered performance from Scarlett Johansson as an extra-terrestrial predator who becomes lost in her own borrowed skin. A corporeal cousin of Kubrick’s 2001, Under the Skin lingers over the surfaces of its story and central character, exploring the possibilities of both the human and the cinematic form. Full review here.

MR. TURNER – Less a biopic than an impressionistic character study of one of my all-time favorite artists, Mike Leigh’s magnificent Mr. Turner capably steers clear of the clichés that afflict so many films about painters, effectively becoming a dazzling, touching, and unique piece of visual art in its own right. Beautifully portrayed by Timothy Spall, Turner lurches brutishly through the film, grunting and growling inarticulately, and yet, in every scene, is revealed to be a man of tremendous perception, sensitivity, and feeling. The opposite of the stereotypical tortured artist, Leigh’s Turner is a man in love with the light, devotedly translating it into powerful realizations of his inner life. His vivid, passionate paintings are his only true mode of expression, but rather than fetishizing his work, Leigh keeps his focus studiously on the man, brilliantly illustrating the line between deceptive appearances and visions of truth.

LOCKE – An intense, confined portrait of a man in existential free-fall, showcasing the sublime talents of Tom Hardy, Locke was short-sightedly dismissed by a number of critics as a “gimmick” film, due to the fact the action takes place entirely within a moving car. But doing so overlooks both the thematic necessity of the location and the remarkable visual inventiveness of director Stephen Knight, who allows his protagonist to believe he’s in the driver’s seat, while highlighting the illusory nature of so many of his ideas about himself and his choices. Full review here.

CALVARY – All at once, deeply tragic and darkly comic, John Michael McDonagh’s portrait of a lone decent priest struggling to be a good shepherd to his hostile and disillusioned flock in the wake of the Catholic church’s abuse scandal sympathetically questions the value of forgiveness in the modern world. After a former abuse victim threatens to murder him as an act of symbolic vengeance, Brendan Gleeson’s Father James Lavelle visits each and every troubled member of his small-town Sligo congregation, attempting to offer them absolution before he meets his demise. Gleeson imbues Father James with a charismatic balance of warmth and wisdom, but in a way, it is precisely those characteristics that provoke the ire of those around him. It’s not just that they view him as a representative of a corrupt and crumbling institution; they resent being judged by someone whom, despite their cynicism, they cannot help but see as both a moral arbiter and exemplar. McDonagh has a native’s understanding of just how profoundly the abuse scandal shook Ireland’s cultural foundations, and to his credit, Calvary neither defends nor condemns Catholicism. If anything, the film is critical of any and all sweeping, simplistic judgments, championing a more complex, humanist understanding. And as the haunting finale suggests, if forgiveness is to have any worth at all, it has to go both ways.

GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE – Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most fluent and sophisticated cinematic linguists in the world. A filmmaker who has reinvented himself and his art several times over, the density and intricacy of his artistry has only increased over the decades. So when, at the age of 84, he makes his first foray into 3-D and titles it, “Goodbye to Language,” it’s a safe bet it will be puzzling, challenging, provocative, and significant. Abstract and experimental – even by Godard’s standards – Goodbye to Language tangles narrative film with essay, erratically cross-cutting and interweaving scenes of a couple at the decaying end of an adulterous affair, a wandering canine (played by Godard’s own dog, Roxy), contemporary life in the age of the smartphone, various scenic exteriors, and fragments of newsreels and classic films. There is an assortment of literary quotations, presented dramatically and in voice over, and even an enigmatic hint of unexplained political intrigue. If it all sounds like cinematic cryptography, well… It’s Godard, so… Yes, it is. But that’s part of the point. His trademark captions and title cards functioning as something of a cipher, what emerges seems to be a series of juxtapositions and paradoxes dissecting the breakdown of communication on both an intimate and a global scale. There is a recurring motif of contrasted extremes – Nature vs. Metaphor, Reality vs. Language, Infinity vs. Zero, Nudity vs. Attire, Sex vs. Death – which are then exposed as false dichotomies (it’s worth remembering – though never specifically mentioned – that in France, sex is often colloquially referred to as “le petit mort”). The film warns us that language can shape reality to its own ends, but then reminds us that the reverse is also true, ultimately suggesting that our greatest misunderstanding may be the way in which we define language in the first place. Summarizing Godard, especially in an encapsulated review, can never be anything other than hopelessly reductive, but if there’s a message to be distilled, I think it’s something like this: Those who do not understand the nature of language, or the language of nature (if, in fact, they are even distinct entities), are condemned to be enslaved by both.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

GONE GIRL – David Fincher’s GONE GIRL is a dull, dour, sluggish adaptation of a sharp, fast, and funny book. It’s not just that the characters, who should be grinning, self-satisfied narcissists, come off like they just swallowed handfuls of barbiturates, or that Flynn’s screenplay of her book feels rushed rather than distilled. It’s that Fincher has taken a book ABOUT emptiness and made it into an EMPTY movie. A glossy, blank bit of celluloid as hollow as the houses and humans that haunt Flynn’s novel. There’s nothing more disheartening than watching one of your favorite directors phone it in…

II. FEARLESS TELEVISION

TRUE DETECTIVE – Those who eagerly tuned-in to Nic Pizzolatto’s dark, spiraling noir series, obsessively following its trail of obscure, occult literary breadcrumbs, and expecting a mind-blowing payoff to the show’s murder mystery weren’t just missing the point. They missed the show. A riveting portrait of two men fighting monsters, internally and externally, and staring into abysses, within and without, True Detective never presented itself as a typical Whodunit or even a typical police procedural. And that was its strength. Boasting career-zenith performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, for all its familiar genre trappings, True Detective’s true narrative focus was the relationship between its dueling protagonists. Its true reveal was the smallness – and the importance – of their victory. And its true investigations were not forensic or judicial, but philosophical, existential, and deeply human.

THE AFFAIR – The entertainment industry usually takes a simple, reductive stance when it comes to infidelity. And sitting for five minutes in front of Hagai Levy’s and Sarah Treem’s The Affair will leave you with no doubt as to why. A complex and agonizing vivisection of two imploding families, and the infidelity that connects and divides them, The Affair refuses to sit in moral judgment of its characters, unflinchingly poring over the pain, the conflict, the confusion that motivates – and results from – one spouse cheating on another. Dominic West and Ruth Wilson are both astonishing, simultaneously evoking our sympathy and our outrage. And someone please give Maura Tierney her long overdue Emmy already! The season finale did little to nothing to resolve the, at times, awkward murder mystery framing device, but I’m hoping that – as with True Detective – its function is symbolic and narratively inconsequential. The series’ gloves-off confrontation with the complicated truths of ordinary domestic life are so powerfully affecting that veering into noir would be an infidelity in its own right. As it stands, The Affair is something unique and challenging. All at once poetic and raw, it is heartbreaking, hard to watch, and worth every torturous minute.

COSMOS: A SPACE-TIME ODYSSEY – I chuckled every time I heard someone dismiss last year’s sequel to/update of Carl Sagan’s milestone miniseries as “over-produced.” Visually resplendent, strikingly detailed, and stunningly beautiful, Cosmos’ effects-heavy aesthetic captured the breathtaking, awe-inspiring, infinite complexity and elegance of the universe better than any onscreen rendering since 2001: A Space Odyssey (the show’s updated subtitle even offers a knowing, confident nod to Kubrick’s masterpiece). You might as well call the universe, itself, over-produced. I was less good-humored about the controversies surrounding the program’s alleged anti-religious agenda. On the one hand, it’s nothing short of appalling that anyone, in this day and age, lives in such willful, fearful ignorance that they could feel so threatened by a simple science program. On the other hand, they’re right to be afraid. Because, for all the even-handed denials on the part of Cosmos’ creators, there IS a not-so-subtle agenda evident in the show’s narrative framework: Each episode pointedly chronicles the struggles of science and scientists against the forces of fear, ignorance, and repression. Those forces aren’t always religious, but they often are. Other times, they are political. Sometimes both or neither. But they exist in every age, up to and including our own. And Cosmos, by design, fearlessly takes them on, making it more than just a dazzling, inspiring, and informative look at the universe (which would have been enough), but also an ideological call-to-arms, championing such virtues as curiosity, exploration, and discovery. Which really shouldn’t be such a controversial stance to take…

LAST WEEK TONIGHT – I have not kept up with Last Week Tonight as avidly as I would like. But I saw enough of it last year to know that the bar for political commentary/satirical news shows has been raised, and raised incredibly high. Former Daily Show correspondent (and once-upon-a-time expected heir apparent to Jon Stewart) John Oliver hasn’t revolutionized the format so much as the tone. Taking full advantage of the freedom offered by HBO, Oliver unforgivingly skewers media, government, and even his audience, mocking the inconsistencies, hypocrisies, deceits, and, above all, the passivity and intellectual laziness exhibited by anyone claiming to take an interest in the world or its welfare, with his singularly British mix of bite, absurdity, and charm. Oliver doesn’t just want us laughing, he wants us angry – at ourselves, above all – about the state of things, and gleefully provokes us into participating in his inspired, activist jape. I don’t know that satire can save the world, but once a week – for half an hour, at least – I believe it’s possible.

GAME OF THRONES (Season 4) – Game of Thrones is so consistent in quality and cohesive in its storytelling, it’s difficult to praise one season over another, especially for those of us who haven’t read the books. That said, while most will probably have the shock and awe of Season 3’s “Red Wedding” forever seared into their consciousness, I found Season 4 to be far more wrenching, affecting, and memorable. No matter how many corruptions, cruelties, inequities, and injustices we witness, the series’ somehow never loses its ability to shock and upset us with reminders that Westeros is just as cruel, corrupt, and unjust as the world we live in. And episode 8, “The Mountain and the Viper,” might be the best and most disturbing episode of the series so far, with its stark (haha) rendering of the vagaries of human brutality, and its “pride-goeth-before the fall” reminder of just how easy it is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory…

DOCTOR WHO (Season 8) – And, of course, I have to mention Doctor Who. What began as a shaky, uncertain regeneration – for both the Doctor and the series, itself – eventually solidified into one of Doctor Who’s strongest and most unique to date. I will forever miss Matt Smith (in the same way that I will always miss Tom Baker and Christopher Eccleston), but Peter Capaldi has done a superlative job, creating a Doctor that is uncommon, complicated, and compelling. While most have focused on his rough, gruff, Glasgow exterior, what has struck me most is the uncertain, childlike vulnerability that lurks behind it. He is unsure of himself, in a way that only a newly regenerated Time Lord can be, not only questioning who he is, but what it means, on a larger level, to be the Doctor. And the writing has kept pace with him, each episode offering obstacles and opponents that challenge his – and our – conceptions of how the Doctor should react and respond. But if Capaldi’s Doctor has emerged as the show’s unlikely heart, Jenna Coleman’s Clara has stepped up to the plate as its soul. Finally allowed to be a fully-formed, three dimensional character, Coleman’s Clara matches Capaldi’s Doctor in fire, cleverness, and heroism, often saving him from himself, as he saves the universe from various threats. She has become as much a partner as a companion, and their dysfunctional father-daughter chemistry has the potential to evolve into one of the most interesting and irresistible pairings in the series’ history…

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Season 2) – Season 1 pulled off an amazing feat of subverted expectation by putting us in the shoes of our protagonist – an unlikely, white, middle-class prison inmate – and making us gradually grow to despise her, and love the initially intimidating inmates around her, by the season finale. Season 2 continues the story but, seemingly, without direction or purpose. With no prejudices or preconceptions left to tackle, the series is just spinning its narrative wheels.

III. LOSSLESS MUSIC

LE BUTCHERETTES, “Cry is for the Flies” – Not a surprise to anyone, as I have been overselling this band and this album to anyone who will listen (and many who would probably prefer not to) all year long. Teri Suarez’s uncompromising descent into the maelstrom of guilt, grief, rage, and self-doubt she has carried since the death of her father is not only one of the best albums of the year. It is a relentless, challenging sonic statement heralding her artistic maturation and cementing her status as a musical force to be reckoned with. Forget Best of the Year. It’s one of the Best of the Decade. Full review here.

BENJAMIN BOOKER, “Benjamin Booker” – A 25-year old, Florida-born, New Orleans transplant, Benjamin Booker burst out of the bayou in 2014 to become the most badass bluesman this side of the century. Starting with the stripped-down style and structure of Delta blues, attacking it with a punk ferocity, adding hearty helpings of grunge’s sludge and gravel, and occasionally slowing it down to engage in shoegazing introspection, Booker’s phenomenal rough-and-tumble debut simultaneously evokes Gun Club, the White Stripes, and Junior Kimbrough while also sounding entirely new. “Always Waiting” sounds like juke joint blues jumped up on Dexedrine, while the driving “Have You Seen My Son” slides into a thumping, acid rock jam, and the aching (and fantastically titled) “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” breaks your heart before erupting into a light-speed blues-punk coda. Balancing raspy howls with thick, soulful whispers, his guitar buzzing and crunching as effectively as it wails, it might be hyperbole to say that Booker’s reinventing the blues, but he’s certainly reinvigorating it.

TV ON THE RADIO, “Seeds” – Last year, TV on the Radio bounced back from the death of their bassist, Gerard Smith, with what might be their best album yet. Focused, intense, mournful, and soulful, “Seeds” boasts some of their most tightly structured, purposeful songs, while sacrificing none of their trademark ambience or evocative atmosphere. From the dejected groove of “Happy Idiot” to the heartrending acknowledgements of “Love Stained,” to the expansive, philosophical reassurances of “Ride,” to the weathered attempts at hope in the haunting “Trouble,” every song features a range of beautifully layered sonic stylings drawn from the band’s diverse musical influences, folding them into a poignant, textured chronicle of crisis, coping, and catharsis. Simultaneously a dirge and a new beginning, “Seeds” is a powerful document of a band struggling with their future…

WHITE LUNG, “Deep Fantasy” – Not since Western Addiction has a band so successfully resurrected the blunt-force attack of 1980’s hardcore, channeling it through today’s more melodic punk aesthetic. After two solid, eardrum battering efforts (2010’s “It’s the Evil” and 2012’s “Sorry”), “Deep Fantasy” finds magnetic frontwoman Mish Way and frenetic guitarist Kenneth William striking a sublime balance, trading command of each song, weaving new textures, structures, and counterpoints into their churning, sonic onslaught. William’s nimble, upper-register frenzy slices and dices its way through the Gatling gun assault of Hether Fortune’s and Anne-Marie Vassilou’s rhythm section, while Way’s voice hardly ever breaks, eschewing the raw-throated histrionics of hardcore in favor of a flat, disaffected snarl. Her biting restraint anchors the band’s theatrical chaos, playing as a novel stand of punk defiance in a world gone mad: “You will not make me lose control.”

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS, “Brill Bruisers” – The New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman has described the supergroup’s latest effort as “a celebration album… After periods of difficulty, I am at a place where nothing in my life is dragging me down…” The result is a cascade of glorious, galvanizing music, and the New Pornographers’ most consistent – and consistently enjoyable – album since 2003’s “Electric Version.” Which is not to say the album is uniformly or gratingly cheerful. “Champions of Red Wine” is achingly wistful and melancholic, as is the brief, but affecting, “Another Drug Deal of the Heart.” But if tracks like “Dancehall Domine” and “You Tell Me Where” don’t bring you exultantly to your feet, you might be missing a music appreciation gene or two. Even the frequently meditative Dan Bejar gets into the groove with the eccentrically catchy “War on the East Coast.” In fact, the only truly sad note on “Brill Bruisers” is the fact that it marks the swansong of Pornographers’ percussionist and secret weapon, Kurt Dahle, who announced his departure after the album’s release. Dahle has been the high-energy, propulsive heartbeat of the band since “Mass Romantic,” and it’s hard to imagine their signature sound without him.

STIFF LITTLE FINGERS, “No Going Back” – After seven years of struggle, the departure of longtime bassist Bruce Foxton, and the return of founding bass player Ali McMordie, Belfast’s punk veterans Stiff Little Fingers finally managed to release “No Going Back” last year. Their first album in over a decade, it was well worth the wait: a full-blooded, energetic record, brimming with punk passion, but produced with professional rock ‘n’ roll polish. Often dismissively described as “the Irish Clash,” SLF was always both more musically accomplished and more sincere than their British cousins, and “No Going Back” is a testament to their ability and integrity. Bursting with stylish riffs, singalong choruses, and stinging lyrics straight from Jake Burns’ scrappy social conscience, the album shows off everything that made the band great, without ever becoming mired in the past. The band has grown and evolved musically, but (minus “Throwing It All Away” which is appallingly reminiscent of Starship) sacrificed none of their edge. “Looks to me like nothing’s changed,” Burns sneers on the caustic “Since Yesterday Was Here.” But it’s not entirely true. As their latest effort proves, some things have gotten better…

BUDOS BAND, “Burnt Offering” – Losing not an ounce of the funk/soul strut that has been their claim to fame, “Burnt Offering” finds The Budos Band incorporating the ominous tones of early-70’s Sabbath-esque doom-and-gloom rock into their sound. The blend is so seamless – to say nothing of superlative – it’s kind of a wonder no one attempted such a hybrid before. All at once hip-shaking and earthquaking, “Burnt Offerings” is deep, dark, heavy, and irresistibly infectious. Given the choice, this album would provide the soundtrack to my every move…

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

WU-TANG CLAN, “A Better Tomorrow” – In light of the creative conflicts that surrounded its recording and release, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that “A Better Tomorrow” sounds so muddled and awkward. Despite the RZA’s increasingly lush, layered, and soulful production (we’re two decades and a long way from the sharp, punchy punctuations of “Enter the Wu-Tang”), the Clan never really seems to come together in any unified, cohesive way. Rather than dramatically diverse, the lyrical offerings seem disjointed, and even a bit half-hearted – perhaps the result of some members’ ambivalence towards the project and the artistic differences that have only grown during the Clan’s downtime. There are some great tracks – “Ruckus in B-Minor” and “Ron O’Neal” among them – but, for most of the album, they just can’t seem to get it together. Though it seems unlikely, “A Better Tomorrow” leaves one hoping that there might, in fact, be one. Because it would be a shame if the best hip-hop act of the past twenty years were to simply crumble away…

IV. BROKEN BOOKS

I’m a hard-sell on contemporary fiction, but thanks to various recommendations, I made quite a few forays into more recent, and even current, literary offerings in the last year. Most notably, I finally got around to reading Zadie Smith, who has ceased to be my favorite author that I’ve never read, and become, instead, one of my favorite authors of all time. But, though I read a lot of her in the last year, she didn’t publish anything, so I’ll have to discuss her brilliance elsewhere… Nonetheless, I did come across a few books from 2014 that really struck me…

girl

A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride – Despite making a number of “Best of the Year” lists, Eimear McBride’s debut novel has developed a reputation as a “difficult” book. And it is. But not because of the alleged “stream of consciousness” style that seems so off-putting to so many readers. What makes McBride’s novel difficult is that it is a harrowing, heartbreaking, 205-page emotional assault. Chronicling the coming of age of a young Irish girl and her relationship to her brain damaged older brother, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing brutally pummels you from page 1 and never lets up, immersing you in its vivid, relentless renderings of trial and trauma, conflict and confusion. Though certainly influenced by Joyce, McBride’s prose is not so much stream of consciousness as the broken, inchoate syntax of a wounded mind struggling to find coherence in a chaotic world, veering between sense and sensuality, comprehension and contempt. Masterfully crafted, her writing flows with a liquid logic, plunging into smeared emotions, erupting sporadically into poetry, and receding into tragic fragments. It’s a book you need to give yourself over to entirely, letting it carry you into its evocative, cathartic depths.

dept-of-speculation

DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jennifer Offill – Far less divisive than McBride’s book, though no less interesting stylistically, is Jennifer Offill’s staccato self-portrait in the throes of domestic crisis, Dept. of Speculation. Much has been made recently of our contemporary culture’s inability to engage in deep, immersive reading, and intentionally or not, Offill has offered an answer. Dept. of Speculation is a novel written in fragments… Or maybe aphorisms… (Status updates…? Tweets…?) It seems almost designed to be digested in bits and bites, over quick cups of coffee, in the all-too-brief moments between the all-consuming obligations of our modern lives. Whether, and in what ways, her approach is inherently a good or bad thing is debatable; the real question is whether it’s effective. And while Offill’s book exhibits so many of the aspects I despise so much in post-modern literature – self-conscious, self-centered, self-satisfied – there’s no denying that it makes for an engaging, curiously affecting read. Somehow, her roughly sketched anecdotes, blunt self-examinations, and prayers to Rilke cohere into a cross-section of an intellect desperately groping to find method and meaning in its suffering.

Me

ME, MYSELF, AND WHY by Jennifer Ouellette – Bringing self-interest down to earth, Jennifer Ouellette’s Me, Myself, and Why circumnavigates the latest advances in the science of identity, examining the ways in which we formulate our ideas of ourselves. From the information coded in our genomes, to the questionable merit of personality metrics, to the virtual selves we create in cyberspace, and even the ways in which hallucinogens affect our perceptions of individuality, Ouellette thoroughly and entertainingly investigates and questions some of our most instinctive notions of who we are and what makes us that way. And if you really want to have your hair blown back, I recommend reading Ouellette’s book back-to-back with Bruce Hood’s 2012 offering, The Self Illusion, which covers some of the same ground, but delves more deeply into the science of its subject, revealing our unified concept of selfhood to be little more than a cognitive construct assembled from discrete internal processes. You’ll never see yourself the same way again.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

ETHICS WITHOUT MORALS by Joel Marcks – It’s not really fair to call Marcks’ book a disappointment. It’s a scholarly, insightful, well-written, expertly argued, and best of all, deeply personal deconstruction of morality that offers a rational and realistic conception of ethics as an alternative. A reformed Kantian who had a philosophical epiphany late in life, Marcks attacks his subject energetically and exhaustively. Even, dare I say, exhaustingly. And that’s the thing… If you’re a disillusioned Kantian – or, really, a disillusioned moralist of any kind – looking for a new ethical framework, I imagine Marcks’ book is pretty revelatory and inspiring. But for those of us with our philosophical roots firmly planted in Nietzsche, existentialism, and naturalism, reading Marcks’ book can be a frustrating, wearying effort. Glad as we may be that he’s come around, we watch him take the long way to get there, building arguments of great length and breadth to arrive at common sense, rational positions where we’ve been impatiently waiting. It’s not that it isn’t a worthwhile book, or that it’s lacking in compelling ideas. It’s just that those ideas aren’t always quite as groundbreaking as he seems to think they are.

Le Butcherettes – Cry is for the Flies

by Matt J. Popham

“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast.”

It’s hard not to be reminded of William Golding’s savage masterpiece while listening to Le Butcherettes’ brilliant and harrowing “Cry is for the Flies.” The fact that Teresa Suarez (aka Teri Gender Bender), Le Butcherettes’ founder and frontwoman, once achieved a certain notoriety by performing on stage with a severed pig’s head only serves to make one wonder if the evocation is deliberate. The band’s 2011 debut, “Sin Sin Sin,” (a winking bilingual double-entendre) was riddled with literary references after all, name-checking such authors as Tolstoy, Rousseau, Fitzgerald, and Salinger. But while “Lord of the Flies” is never explicitly mentioned on “Cry is for the Flies,” and Suarez has since abandoned most of her gruesome stage theatrics, an urgent, primal menace, reminiscent of Golding’s novel, seethes through her latest collection of songs. Even if the association isn’t intentional, it’s apt.

Mercilessly intense, but undeniably compelling, “Cry is for the Flies” strips Le Butcherettes’ already minimalist punk aesthetic to its bare bones. What’s left is raw, hard, and often unsettling. Gone is the cheerfully serrated mischief of “Sin Sin Sin” with its catchy garage rock hooks and sharp, show-offy lyrics. “Cry is for the Flies” is a darker, subtler, less comfortable listen, but also a stronger, more assured, and more impressive one. From the ominous opener, “Moment of Guilt,” a tautly whispered spoken word prologue by Butcherettes admirer Henry Rollins, through to the throbbing, threatening closer, “Blackhead,” each track is an austere expression of barely contained, but masterfully controlled, madness. Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s bass stalks and growls like a wounded animal over Lia Braswell’s eruptive drumming, creating an unrelenting tension, perfectly punctuated by Suarez’s thundering power chords. Even the album’s more upbeat, keyboard-driven tracks, like “Boulder Love Over Layers of Rock,” or the stunning “Poet From Nowhere,” sound dangerously unhinged: the former like a commercial jingle having a psychotic episode, the latter like a carnival ride careening off the rails.

But ultimately, it’s Suarez’s voice that carries the album and gives it its distinctive, disturbing character. Trading the punk rock screams of her past efforts for more tuneful, but no less impassioned, emotional exorcisms, she commands each song with impressive dramatic range and power. Down and dirty one minute, launching into an off-kilter falsetto the next. A defiant and discordant snarl on the assaultive “Burn the Scab.” A haunting howl on “Your Weakness Gives Me Life.” Wearily dragging the deep end of her lower registers on the wrenching “My Child,” before thinning into reedy, brittle grief. Her vocal theatrics, at every turn, are both jarring and powerfully genuine, delivered with almost terrifying commitment. If Suarez is no longer performing in bloodied butcher’s aprons, or dancing with pig’s heads, it’s not because she’s gone soft or toned it down. It’s because she’s successfully absorbed and integrated such provocative artistic strategies into her singing and songwriting, her fierce intellect now equally matched by a near-demonic musical and emotional ferocity.

“I can’t get at you,” Rollins whispers, as the personification of Guilt.

“Why do you think that is?” the track’s protagonist queries.

“Because you’re a monster,” Guilt replies.

“It took you this long,” says our protagonist, “to figure it out?”

Suarez has figured out her inner monster and delivered it into the world with blood, sweat, and screams. A riveting, ravaging work of striking severity, stark simplicity, and searing sincerity, “Cry is for the Flies” should secure Suarez’s place in the rock pantheon alongside the likes of Patti Smith, Kathleen Hannah, and Sleater-Kinney – gifted music icons and feminist flag-bearers whose influence she wears proudly on her blood-spattered sleeve. Like so many great albums, it’s an original, uncompromising, even brutal work. In short, it’s a Beast. Give it a chance and it will get inside you and swallow you whole. It will become inescapable. And you’ll love every thrilling minute.