Where to even begin with Silence.
Martin Scorsese is my favorite filmmaker. The Departed is a masterwork that served as mine and countless other’s introduction into the world of cinema. To survey the diverse array of films Scorsese has made is to attend film school: to learn how to read a visual story, to realize that every frame has meaning and is communicating something and that, when done expertly, the experience of a film can be profound. It’s to learn the ID of Scorsese: the themes he’s preoccupied with, the ideals he’s interested in exploring. Faith is one of those ideas. The Last Temptation of Christ is likely his masterpiece, a film about Jesus Christ, a legend treated as more than man, and it tests his faith and what his martyrdom means on a human level. Silence is about an ordinary human, not the son of God, facing a similar test of faith. When Scorsese tells this story about a real man in the real world, the grim realities of slavish devotion to faith and dogmatic thinking are exposed for the true devastation they wreak. Faith and morality are not so easily reconciled together.
I’m sure there’s a joke to be made about Dryjacket’s debut album being titled For Posterity, given their throwback sound, but I’m neither clever nor unoriginal enough to make it. There would be truth to it though — from the pun song titles (“Spelling Era,” “Abe LinkedIn”), to the horns, to the dual vocals — everything about For Posterity feels familiar.
You can pull out hints of The Promise Ring and Piebald at every corner of the band’s pop-sensible emo, and the trumpet calls to mind American Football, of course. The band even pays tribute to their more eclectic, more technical forefathers on “Epi Pen Pals” and “Milo with an ‘H.’” This is all to say that, much like my sort of attempted joke, For Posterity isn’t all that original. It plays, generally, like a recap of the genre for anyone who might’ve missed it the first time around.
In the summer of 2015, when I put Chris Stapleton on the last-ever incarnation of AbsolutePunk.net’s Absolute 100—a feature dedicated to celebrating up-and-coming, under the radar artists—I asked a pair of questions that have since proved to be prophetic. The first was “If given the opportunity, how many of country music’s gun-for-hire songwriters could make better records than any of the artists they write for?” The second was “How many of them could make masterpieces?” More than I thought, apparently.
Since Stapleton’s breakout success, the songwriters seem to be taking back Nashville. 2016 brought major critical and/or commercial successes for Maren Morris (who had previously written for Kelly Clarkson and the TV show Nashville), Brandy Clark (who had previously written for Sheryl Crow, Miranda Lambert, and Toby Keith, not to mention a slew of co-writes with Kacey Musgraves), and Lori McKenna (who penned two of the biggest hits in modern country with Tim McGraw’s “Humble & Kind” and Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”). Hopefully, these big successes will push Nashville labels to take chances on more of their top songsmiths. Who knows how many stars are waiting to be born in the liner notes of your favorite country records.
“Technology is something that I really appreciate, but being someone who comes from hardcore, metal and punk, you’re fighting it at the same time,” says Code Orange’s Jami Morgan about his band’s unforgiving new record, Forever. “It’s almost like the bridge between those two ideas.” That portion from a late 2016 Rolling Stone interview comes to mind every time I listen to Forever (Code Orange’s third full length and major label debut for Roadrunner Records) – a record that embraces technology as much as it wants to destroy it, resulting in a near perfect modern hardcore classic.
It’s been one month since Donald Glover (as Childish Gambino) released his third studio LP, ”Awaken, My Love!”, and surely, that’s enough time to have analyzed it. But this is a tough one. My initial reaction was negative. ”Awaken, My Love!” felt forced, a career’s worth of artistic evolution crammed into one record obsessed with showcasing the new Donald Glover. No longer is he the nerdy optimist with a case of “nice guy syndrome,” his raps filled with more punchlines than his stand-up sets. If 2013’s Because the Internet marked the beginning of a transitional phase for the artist, Glover’s new era of success is defined by even more self-seriousness found in everything from his interviews and his music to his first television show on FX. It’s a self-seriousness that very well may have landed him the role as Lando Calrissian in an upcoming Star Wars film.
Well then. That was a weird year.
In many ways, 2016 was a whirlwind—a confusing and frustrating year that will probably always be defined by its political tension and long list of celebrity deaths. For our staff and community, 2016 was also marked by the end of AbsolutePunk.net and the birth of Chorus.fm, a major transition that brought some serious nostalgia about the place where many of us grew up online.
No matter where you were or what you were going through in 2016, though, you probably at least had a great soundtrack to keep you company. By almost every metric, 2016 was a remarkable year for albums. If you are a fan of pop music and superstar acts, there was certainly no shortage of marquee releases for you to sink your teeth into. Even beyond the blockbuster surprises and capital-I “Important” albums, though, the year was a goldmine. Rock music was vibrant, highlighting both new bands and longtime veterans. Country music continued a resurgence that even self-described country haters could get behind. Hell, even the movie musical came back in a big way.
In virtually every genre or category, 2016 provided a wealth of new musical treasures. It’s no wonder that our contributors placed votes for 267 different albums while compiling this list. Ultimately, though, it was the 30 records listed below that rose to the top.
I don’t write a lot of film reviews, partially because I write for a music website and partially because I’m not usually on top of new releases enough to prepare anything that is particularly timely or relevant. But I just had to sit down and write something about La La Land, simply because I can’t remember the last time I loved a move so wholeheartedly.
No film in 2016 is more gorgeous to watch than The Love Witch, shot in 35mm and stylized so precisely in every aspect. From the stunning costumes to the popping colors of the cinematography, the carefully constructed sets and the way light shines so perfectly on every object the characters interact with, the film is a visual masterwork. Director Anna Biller, who also wrote the script, edited the film, decorated the sets, and made the costumes, has brought to life an aesthetic vision unlike anything else made this year. Every frame is glorious, the cinematography so absurdly beautiful, an audience is hypnotized. Transfixed by such a magnificent visual work, we’re taken along for a ride for a film about a witch who endlessly seduces men and then, when each one inevitably disappoints her, kills them.
The first time I heard 22, A Million, the long-awaited third album from Bon Iver, I hated it. To my ears, it sounded like a formless mess, devoid of any clear highlights (at least on the level of the best songs from Justin Vernon’s previous albums) and frequently undone by head-scratching production choices. Granted, I was listening to a shitty rip of a shitty stream that had leaked to the internet months in advance. I’d also had my expectations sent through the roof by live recordings of the band’s full playthrough of the record at this year’s Eaux Claires music festival. Even an amateur audience recording of the performance captured the magic of the new songs and made it sound like 22, A Million—despite arriving on five years’ worth of built up anticipation—was going to live up to my every expectation. Hearing the same songs in studio form didn’t hit me the same way, and I spent months considering 22, A Million my biggest disappointment of the year as a result. Even after the album officially released in September and I finally got to hear a full-quality version, I heard it as a distinct step down from its two predecessors.
I’ve been listening to Jimmy Eat World for over half my lifetime. Crazy enough, the last (and only) time I attended a Jimmy Eat World show was in 2005 when they were opening for Green Day on the American Idiot tour. That’s pretty sad! Fortunately, I made some sort of amends this past Thursday when the Arizona quartet made their way through Indianapolis. Headlining one of those radio station holiday shows, the band played a 20+ song set that included a well balanced mixture of hits, deep cuts, fan favorites, and new songs.
Nothing good comes out in December, right? That’s more or less what most of the major music publications would have you believe, as End-of-the-Year lists start hitting the web in earnest earlier and earlier each year. This year, the start date was around Thanksgiving week. Maybe by 2026, we can make it all the way to Halloween! Personally, I’ll never finalize an AOTY list until mid-to-late December, and albums like Hailey, It Happens are Exhibit A for why that is. Not only was this record—the fourth official release and second full-length from Boston-based electropop duo Hailey, It Happens—a December 2nd release, but it’s also the kind of album that wouldn’t have sounded quite right until this particular time of year. On Hailey, It Happens, the band’s sound is driven by icy synths, yearning vocals, and wistful hooks built to come alive on the coldest nights of the year.
A man lives alone in the woods with his cat, attempting to use alchemy to summon the devil and create riches for himself. Plotwise, that’s about all there is to Joel Potrykus’ The Alchemist Cookbook, a film that I find hard to organize thoughts on. Much of what I like about it lies just beyond the grasp of my ability to verbalize, possibly because what I enjoyed so much in the film doesn’t quite feel concrete, and might more come from the feeling the film captures. This is a film with an aura, and for a film that deals so much with the implied, or presences more felt than seen, the balance is an accomplishment for Potrykus.
With goodbye comes reflection. This reflection is often bittersweet as it drifts between that which has filled us with joy and that which has caused us pain. There’s a cauterization of once open wounds that necessitates a search for meaning in the steps that led us here. And it’s within this reflection that we try and attach understanding to our history. Why does saying goodbye make us feel this way? What is it about this specific action that leads to an emotional cluster-fuck? A perceptible and undeniable bond between love and sadness? I keep asking myself these questions as I prepare to say goodbye to one of the best bands that ever came from our music scene. A band that has soundtracked my highs, soundtracked my lows, and has been a constant musical mirror to the love, and sadness, that life has brought. As I walk into this realization, I can’t help but reflect on just how many of my goodbyes have been punctuated by a Yellowcard song. Goodbye to friends, goodbye to family, goodbye to relationships, goodbye to states, goodbye to innocence, goodbye to youth. And with that I realize that I don’t want to become numb to goodbyes. I want them to sting. I want them to hurt. I want the goodbye to be a remembrance of everything that led to that moment. Yellowcard’s final self-titled album is that pinprick. It’s that puncture against the consciousness that reminds me why I listen to music, it’s the melodic pull that has dominated my life for all these years. It’s between this intense feeling of familiar and new that I find the closing Yellowcard album lays itself to rest.
I don’t review anywhere near a high percentage of the albums that land in my inbox. Largely, this fact is due to sheer, raw statistics. I get dozens of promos a day, most of them from artists I’ve never heard of. I don’t even have time to listen to the majority of them, let alone put pen to paper and give each album a fair, in-depth write-up. Believe me when I say that I wish I did have that kind of time.
With all that said, though, even I couldn’t resist giving Los Angeles rock band Countless Thousands a review, and their music was only one of several reasons. Between one of those eye-catching band names that pulls you in right away, a funny, tongue-in-cheek album title (You’re Goddamn Right), and an intriguing RIYL that included names like Against Me!, The Clash, and Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, these guys won my attention in a way that few unknown bands ever do with a promo email. Add a serious master class in bio writing, which casts the four band members as a “show choir reject,” an “East Coast jazz legend,” a “cosplay nerd,” and a “Civil War reenacting drum geek,” and I was ready to write half the review before I even pressed play.
No one is any one thing. Our identities have history, they are shaped by what is always inside us and how we react to external influences, two storms constantly colliding in our hearts and minds as we find and mold ourselves throughout our lives. In Moonlight we take that journey with Chiron, and it is a dynamic, beautiful, frustrating, achingly bittersweet arc. It is a black film that celebrates blackness by being thoroughly and dynamically black. It is a film about a man’s coming to terms with his sexuality and how it informs his masculinity in nuanced, layered ways. It is a human film, filled with complicated joy, paralyzing pain, and all the in-between. It is a remarkable coming of age film that evokes the classic imagery and sound of foreign arthouse works, but contextualizes those familiar notes in American blackness. The film brings to life a black experience that is allowed to be nuanced, human, and tenderly sexual. Barry Jenkins lifts each character up in empathy and actualization; even when it utilizes familiar archetypes they are contextualized in the entirety of Chiron’s experience magnificently. Moonlight is a stunning work.
Before I started writing this review, I felt the need to revisit both Say Anything’s album from this past January, I Don’t Think It Is, as well my subsequent review of the album that I wrote for AbsolutePunk.net. This was a surreal experience, partially because of my own disdain for the album but more so because I spoke with Bemis about the aforementioned review. Following its publication, we had a (very pleasant) dialogue about my review, Bemis’s music and art criticism in general, and all things considered, it proved to be a thought-provoking and productive conversation.
What you must understand is just how much Say Anything’s music has meant to me over the past decade. Even now, at a time in my life when I find myself returning to the band’s later output less and less, it’s easy to trace a thick black line from my tastes today to the year I discovered In Defense of the Genre, and subsequently …Is a Real Boy. At the time, my 13-year-old mind had never heard something quite so complex, so unique as Bemis’s knack for musical arrangement and lyrical phrasing. They were my favorite band for years, and the release of I Don’t Think It Is in January, my review and the discussion surrounding it, left me questioning my growing musical tastes, platform, and the very purpose of music reviews in the Age of Streaming.
We’ve been hearing for years that “rock is dead,” but let’s just be honest: 2016 has been a damn fine year for rock music. Between new classics from the likes of Butch Walker and Jimmy Eat World, a Green Day album that was better than I ever expected a Green Day album would be in 2016, a sterling goodbye from Yellowcard, another strong round of emo releases led by The Hotelier, and the most ambitious Dawes album yet, 2016 has been the best year for rock in recent memory.
You can add Max Fite’s Shake It On Down to the list. An up-and-coming outfit from the Los Angeles area, Max Fite strike an effective balance between garage rock, 1990s brit pop, and whiskey-soaked southern rock. Held together by the voice of frontman Max Fitelson—who himself sounds like a mix between Craig Finn (The Hold Steady) and Noel Gallagher (Oasis), the band’s collision of different sounds coheres surprisingly well.
In 2006, Brand New were a band known mostly for their work as one of the Long Island based pop-punk bands that managed to make it to a national stage. They were winding down from the success of their 2003 sophomore record Deja Entendu, an album that saw the band eschew the pop-punk tag in favor of more complex and dynamic songwriting, in addition to exploring more introspective themes than their contemporaries.
The sonic shift experienced between those first two records was nothing, however, when compared to the shift between the second and third. Complications arose in January of 2006 when nine demos leaked. This leak stalled the band’s creative process, further delaying their third LP. Though the band was vocal in their disappointment about these songs making it to the internet, it may have been for the best. And then, on November 21st, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me was unleashed onto the world. I think it’s fair to say that most of the people who have listened to the record have found themselves greatly affected by it. Why is that? I can only really answer by explaining my experience.
Earlier this year, in a 10-year retrospective piece for Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium, I talked at length about the impossibility of double albums. The crux of my argument there was that the double album was something of a cautionary tale. So many artists have tried and failed to make compelling double albums, free of filler and with enough thematic or sonic cohesion to hold together over the course of two discs. Even as a songwriter myself, I can’t fathom wanting to attempt a double album. The idea of writing lots of songs is that you can take the finest ones, the ones that best cohere to your vision, and put them on a record together.
Certain Women. It’s there in the title. This is a film about certain women. Their lives are interconnected in certain ways, large and small, always existing simultaneously. Their stories share some themes, but their stories are different in other ways. This is a slice of life film where the lives we’re witness to are so fully realized that even the mundane, routine, and unspectacular are rich and layered. It is a precisely made film, with art in every frame, presented with masterful control. Kelly Reichardt has crafted something fascinating, something special.
There isn’t much to the plot of the film, which feels weird to say about a story that involves a hostage situation. Yes, a disgruntled man holds captives with a gun, but this is no action movie. Just as tense as the sequence featuring Laura Dern in a bulletproof vest approaching a gunman is a sequence in which a lonely rancher drives four hours to see the woman she has a crush on but barely knows, unannounced. In a similar vein to films such as Margaret and Boyhood, we’re witnessing situations that mean very specific things to certain people, but the world around them continues to move forward, Earth still spinning, lives continuing on. Just three stories, each elevated by the context of their surroundings.