A Selective Table of Contents

November 17, 2013

 

RELIGION/PHILOSOPHY/ETC.

*Scripture in Common Usage
Prologue – Scripture, Science, and Weather

I. Scripture in Common Usage I: Oversight I- Scripture Divorced From History

II. Scripture in Common Usage II: Oversight II- Reading Scripture Flatly

III. Scripture in Common Usage III: Oversight III – Scripture in Opposition to Science

IV. Scripture in Common Usage IV: Positive Application I- Scripture as Peacemaker

V. Scripture in Common Usage V: Positive Application II- Scripture as Communal Conversation

VI. Scripture in Common Usage VI: Positive Application III- Scripture as Personal Meditative Redeemer

Scripture in Common Usage- Conclusion: I. Is Scripture a “Good” or a “Bad”? II. What will be Scripture in the future? What role will it play? III. What is scripture?

The God-shaped Hole

I. The God-shaped Hole I: Diagnosis

II. The God-shaped Hole II: Symptoms-a)Politics without Principle

III. The God-shaped Hole II: Symptoms -b) The Divided Church

III. The God-shaped Hole – The myth of Redemptive Violence

Other Highlighted “Religion” pieces

I. The Sacredness of Secular Humanism

II. The Power of Story, The Truth of “Myth”

III. In Bombs We Trust

IV. Is Religious Literacy a Thing of the Past?

V. What is Morality?

VI. The Purpose and Function of Religion

VII. Does Religiosity Affect Morality?

VIII. Morality “in the absence of God”

IX. What is a “good” person?

MUSIC/FILM/COMICS/ART/ETC.

2015

Best of 2015 (Music, Movies, Comics)

2014

The Best (Music, Movies, etc.) of 2014

2013

The 10 Best Albums of 2013

The 25 Best Songs of 2013

The 10 Best Hip Hop Albums of 2013

The 10 Best Films of 2013

2012

The 10 Best Albums of 2012

Top 25 Songs of 2012

The 10 Best Metal Albums of 2012

The 10 Best Hip Hop and R&B Albums of 2012

The 10 Best Films of 2012

2011

The 10 Best Albums of 2011

The 25 Best Songs of 2011

The 10 Best Metal Albums of 2011

The 10 Best Hip Hop and R&B Albums of 2011

This is the second of these installments. If you’d like to read my rankings of the Friday the 13th franchise click here and if for some reason you want to read my long-winded prologue as to why/when I started doing these feel free to click here.

I googled “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to check the date on the remake and saw a slew of “Nightmares ranked” posts from Buzzfeed to Nerdist and everything in between. I didn’t read any of them and as far as I know I’ve never read one before but I’ll check some of them out after I post this to see how my picks compare with others. As with Friday, if you disagree with my order that’s cool. I’ll be doing these lists with other horror franchises over the next few months as well as horror directors and certain adaptations, notes, etc.

Re-watching the Elm Street franchise after the Friday films revealed a few things. Though I loved Freddy as a kid/teen (“Freddy’s Dead” was one of the first R-rated horror films I ever saw and I loved it) the series has aged a bit worse than Friday particularly with the effects but also in some of the installments with the villain. Wes Craven came up with one of the most terrifying villain concepts ever—a child-killer with home-made knife gloves who worked as a school janitor that was burnt alive by the town parents only to come back as a dream demon who can kill you in your sleep—good lord, that is the stuff of nightmares)—but the character got more accessible and caricaturist with every installment. That said, there are still some good films in the batch and horror fans who came of age in the 1980s and ’90s will always be Krueger fans (or “ [his] children now”).

ElmRemake

9) A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

I would say it was pointless but I do in fact see the point of trying to update and remake Elm Street for a new generation with modern effects and solid acting. The Friday remake was actually pretty good (in my opinion). However, this one was terrible. It’s possibly the worst horror remake of the last 20 years. What a wasted opportunity.

Elm6

8) Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (part 6)

So this introduced me to Freddy and in some ways horror films…but my recent revisit of the film revealed that this did not age particularly wel at all. I find it especially funny that it was set in the future but everything in that future was concretely rooted in early 1990s technology and culture…for example the power-glove super Freddy? You do get some early Goo Goo Dolls on the soundtrack to remind you they were a hard rock act once. The timeless past of the dream demons prior to Freddy are played with a bit but the effects don’t do the concept justice. There are some solid scenes and it’s not a complete waste of a watch as I’ll likely give it additional views in the future, it’s just not the best of the series and Freddy is at his most ridiculous here (“wicked witch of the west”ing it?).

Elm2

7) A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
This one is hilarious and unique. You have an over the top male as the final girl and a metric ton of gay-subtext which the writer and director admitted as intentional later. You have some truly weird dream sequences. You have a lot of odd character choices and horrible (yet funny) dialogue. Then there’s the idea of Freddy needing to possess the protagonist and use him to come back, an idea not quite revisited later. You have an ending that just ends without being resolved in the follow-up. But you also have some dark, scary Freddy appearances—scarier than he would be in any of the follow ups other than “New Nightmare”. It is actually a solid movie and I can see how this one has garnered a cult following.

elm5

6) A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child

Alice is perhaps a better protagonist than Nancy and here she makes her second appearance—and she’s tough. She fights back and fights hard. There are some of the best dream sequence effects of the series in this one and it may be the most under-rated film of the series.
Elm4

5) A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

Alice makes her first appearance and the story propels nicely forward from the extremely successful (and fan favorite) “Dream Warriors” predecessor. Dream Master and Dream Child fill in some Krueger history and chronology, feature a great protagonist and decent supporting cast and work very well as a double-bill. Solid 1980s horror installments done right.

Elm8

4) Freddy vs. Jason

Fans waited so long for this movie. For the most part it always seemed like a pipe dream that wouldn’t ever really come to fruition until it actually did. So after that infamous Freddy glove made its appearance in “Jason Goes to Hell” speculation about what the movie might entail went on for years—as such, nothing would live up to that anticipation. What did come out though was thoroughly entertaining. I didn’t include Freddy vs. Jason in my Friday list because as I said there, it seems much more like a Nightmare movie featuring Jason which it does. This movie basically picks up where “Freddy’s Dead” left off and now that Freddy is “dead” he’s looking to make his entry back into the world via Jason—using Jason to kill and raise the body count and fear on Elm Street so that kids think Freddy is back enough that he can actually come back. The more modern special effects and make-up did wonders for the ultimate battle between these two horror icons and the movie had its share of thrills, laughs, and fun. I still like the idea that at one point they planned two endings to air in different theaters each with a different victor.

 

Elm7

3) Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare”

Craven played around with meta-narratives quite a bit, most strongly here and later in Scream. New Nightmare is a blast—audiences get to see most of their favorites from the first film back playing themselves (including/introducing director Craven). Let’s face it, Heather Lagenkamp wasn’t the world’s strongest actress back in the day or later in this one playing herself but it’s still nice to see her back. The visuals were the best they had yet been when this one showed Freddy and he was certainly more frightening than he’d been in almost a decade. Good story through and through.

 

elm3

2) A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Probably the best cast (Laurence Fishburne), best lines (“Welcome to prime time…”), and some of the best visuals (Freddy the puppeteer) the series had. The soundtrack was solid as well, so there’s little wonder why this is many fans favorite of them all. Freddy also made a definite move to wiseass mischief maker who dished out comic relief and one-liners though which set the tone for every appearance he made afterwards (until New Nightmare). But this one works by pretty much every count: bringing back Nancy for a bit, expanding on the mythology, and squaring Freddy off against a group of quality adversaries.

Elm1

1) A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

In this instance (contrary to Friday) the original is by far the best of the batch. Wes Craven came up with a truly terrifying concept that was original and provided a twist on the slasher genre much different than what anyone else was doing. He assembled a mostly top-notch cast, shot it with the best effects he could muster (and there are really only 1-2 instances where said effects are overly dated), and gave horror fans a creative, unique, and original experience. The bath tub scene, the ceiling drag, the blurring of waking and dreaming life, this one is a true horror classic was truly unmatched by every successive film regardless of how fun those sequels were.

First off—Friday the 13th isn’t high-brow art just in case you’ve never seen it and were wondering. Let’s go ahead and acknowledge that this franchise isn’t about creativity or originality so much either while we’re at it. Watch any of the panel discussions and behind-the-scenes pieces on the first film and you’ll hear that producer Sean Cunningham simply saw that Halloween was doing big things at the box office and he wanted to rip it off and rush a film to theaters to strike while the iron was hot. Like Halloween (and all other 1980s slasher films) Friday the 13th stylistically and thematically owes a great deal to “higher” art of previous Italian horror and giallo pictures. But Friday was huge—it printed money and brought in crowds in droves for what was a modestly produced work yielding tons of cash. So then you had a string of sequels, some of which (to outsiders) seem to just rehash previous entries and others which do truly bizarre things (Jason in space, Jason in Manhattan). Despite it all, if you were young in the 1980s or ‘90s chances are you saw a Jason film or two fairly early in your horror exploration. If you’re a horror fan, even one with a preference for more “serious” horror films, chances are you have a soft spot for this franchise. It’s fun, it’s over the top, and it still has what it takes to surprise you with a scare. I recently watched the whole franchise from front to back over the span of a month or two. Some I’d seen before, some not for years, some never at all. Kicking off my series of horror film lists and articles I begin here by ranking the Friday films in order of my least favorite to my most favorite. Some observations I made while watching these about horror in general and cultural changes over decades made evident by genre films will be revisited in later articles.

Note—not listed in this ranking is “Freddy vs. Jason” as I view it more as an Elm Street movie featuring Jason than I do a true Friday film. I have included the 2009 remake, however.  Lots of folks have ranked these films prior to me and there are often serious horror-nerd arguments over differences of opinion on order. This is just my personal opinion and taste. If your opinion is different, that’s cool.

 

JManh

11) Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

This is the worst entry in the franchise, period. There are a few entertaining moments, a couple of okay characters, and a few laughs but it’s the most boring of the batch and the problem contrary to what you might think if you haven’t seen it is not that they pull Jason out of his natural environment and throw him in one of the busiest sections of city in the world—it’s that in contrast to the title itself he’s not really in Manhattan! Well, at least not for long. The first 3/ 4 of the movie takes place on a cruise ship between Crystal Lake and Manhattan. Even after the ship docks in NY it takes even more time to actually make it to Manhattan so in total Jason spends about 10 minutes in Manhattan. There could actually be some good (if silly) story there but it was an opportunity wasted. Don’t even get me started on the “Jason reverts to childhood” effect. But—the heads-off KO was pretty cool.

JX

10) Jason X

This is the Jason in space movie and you know what? There are some fun things going on in this one. Uber-Jason, the flash-freeze kill scene, and the guest spot by David Cronenberg in particular. The plot is ridiculous and over the top but so what, it (mostly) works. There are some slow segments, several weak characters, and a complete disconnect with every other Friday movie to its fault though.

F3.jpg

9) Friday the 13th Part III

Some hold the first 4 films as the cream of the crop, even as horror classics. They are the “human” era Jason movies and all of the major ingredients are in place by III: stalking killer Jason, Camp Crystal Lake, counsellors, mayhem. This is also the one where Jason grabs his famous hockey mask and adorns it for the first time. All that said, this one had some of the weakest characters, silliest gags, and slowest parts. It was also “3D” in the old-school sense. It doesn’t work quite as well as the films surrounding it.

JNew

8) Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning

Spoiler alert—the one without Jason. Who knows if this was to signal an entirely new direction or not but after the fact Jason was back in the follow-up. Despite no “real” Jason, this movie has its fair share of shocks, scares, and other such ‘80s slasher fare. Commentary from the director suggests the sexuality was much more troubling to the MPAA censors than the violence and as such it’s probably the goriest of the Friday movies until the censors stopped caring in “Jason Goes to Hell”.

JHell

7) Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (pt. IX)

So a lot of people hate this one as it does mess with the mythology of Jason in ways never hinted at (or revisited) elsewhere. Some like it only for the exploding Jason at the beginning or the Freddy glove reveal at the end. The entire thing is entertaining though if you just roll with it and it has some of the best effects of the entire franchise. Jason possessing others as a force of evil is entertaining.

 

J7 

6) Friday the 13th VII: The New Blood

This one is the “Jason versus the teen psychic who can raise her surprisingly un-rotted long dead father” one. There are funny moments in this one, a solid cast, and a surprisingly tense showdown with a final girl that fights back. Not to mention a rotten mask-less Jason in full-on battle mode.

JRemake

5) Friday the 13th (2009)

Largely hated by the hardcore fans of the original franchise, I say the 2009 remake worked surprisingly well, better by far than most of the ‘00s remakes (Nightmare, Last House, etc.). This one is basically a cliffs note version of the first 3 films updated for a new generation. Sure most of the characters are annoying though I think the final girl and the older brother looking for his lost sister both work just fine.

J6

4) Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives

 Jason lives–that he does I guess. This one is a fan favorite for good reasons. Jason brought back to life by lightning—bigger, rotting, tougher, cooler looking than ever—facing off with the only major adversary he ever had (Tommy Jarvis). Great shots, music, and solid acting with cool effects make this one of the best Friday movies in the canon. 

 

J4

3) Friday the 13th IV: The Final Chapter

They really meant to kill Jason in this one (maybe). This is with Corey Feldman as a (surprisingly un-annoying) child adversary fighting off (and ultimately “killing”) Jason.

What Friday fan can forget the gruesome eye socket slide of Jason to his “death” or Tommy’s psycho gaze in the hospital?

f1

2) Friday the 13th (1980)

So the original is not listed as my favorite. This is very rare for any series as you quite often get diminishing returns with each successive film in any series no matter how entertaining but for Friday I actually prefer the first sequel to the original (more on that below). The first one though—this is a genuinely entertaining slasher that was also a mystery of sorts in its time as the killer reveal wasn’t made until the end. There’s some acting chops on full display with Mrs. Vorhees in particular as she seeks her psychotic revenge. Not the best slasher of all time but one well worth watching a few times. The atmosphere of the entire series is at its best in the original and the final 10-12 minutes are among the most entertaining in slasher horror history.

 

J2

1) Friday the 13th Part Two

 What else can I say? Potato-sack masked Jason is the scariest of the bunch for me. This movie has everything an ‘80s slasher film needs. Jason is legitimately scary in this movie making his first adult (or arguably “real”) appearance. He’s a bit crafty, plotting, agile, and human. What’s not to love? There’s the revenge on the first movie’s final girl in the opening sequence. There’s Jason lying in wait and creepily rising off the bed to stalk his unsuspecting victim. Creepiest of all, there’s Jason with his macabre alter to his late mother. This is the best film of the franchise and the most traditionally “horror” of the batch. Jason would never be as scary as he was in this one and the story would never get better no matter how much more complex the successive scripts strove to be.

The future is over-rated.

Though I could make a “things I hate about social media”  list (posting and commenting on stories without reading them, constant outrage at what celebrity Z said about Y, knowing what a kid in 3rd grade I never saw again thinks about the Democratic party) this isn’t that article. Like I wrote last time, I like some outlets more than I used to and enjoy them (Goodreads, Yelp) and others less than ever (Facebook) but I appreciate keeping up with friends—I can think of several friendships that if it’d been down to the pen and postal service or the long-distance phone call we’d long ago fell out of touch. Likewise, though I recoiled (a bit) at the new CNN ad for “the Nineties” in which it begins with a CD inserted into a top-shelf stereo component—I couldn’t help but think (crappy song choice aside) mock it all you want, that sound quality is miles ahead of what most people are blaring from their smartphones or Bluetooth speakers today (as they obsessively skip from song to song). I love my CD set up, prefer a full album played on CD in my car on the way to work in the morning, and love my LP set up even more…but, I do love the heck out of Spotify, personalized mixes, and the money saved by exploring artists without purchasing an album first. No, this article is about how the future is overrated in another way. Sure it’s over-rated in that: (a) I still don’t have a jet pack; (b) Trump is president; and (c) and we still can’t cure the deadliest diseases. But a more simplistic way it’s over-rated is with movies. Not that they suck, there are good ones every year. But watching Andy Cohen’s “Then and Now” the other night the panel mentioned how huge Blockbuster used to be and then it imploded (though they neglected to mention the curious growth of Family Video around the south and Midwest in recent years). Now you can access any movie from home without leaving the couch” they said.

Hmmm…..

I am fortunate I know in that with a living wage and a spouse who earns likewise I can afford to pay for not only cable but streaming services. I spent my college years and twenties cutting those expenses and for the most part didn’t miss them too much at the time. Busy, other options, etc. But to have them is nice especially in the modern era with DVR and on-demand. I know when I’m working out on the exercise bike I can flip on my recordings and catch up on my choice of news, binge-worthy episodic TV, or special interest programming. Not only that, I can pull up Amazon, HBO or Netflix and choose from thousands of options. Seriously thousands, you can get lost for an hour in any one of those portals just trying to determine what you want to watch.

On cursory glance you’d think Cohen and company were right—everything is at your fingertips. As a continual Netflix subscriber I once jettisoned a few boxes of my DVD collection. Many of those were all I had to choose from in the days of no cable and Ramen. Why keep them all? There’s always something on Netflix. But a curious thing happened: TV got good. What used to be a “slumming it” domain for writers, directors and actors became cutting-edge. There have always been some “good shows” and there have always been plenty of crap that condescends to the lowest common denominator. But suddenly, following the lead of shows that began to hint at efforts of scope, intricacy, grandiosity and TV artists taking their craft seriously (BTVS, West Wing, The Wire, Sopranos) there was a steady stream of quality, acclaimed and ultimately addictive TV. First on the premium channels but then on many of the networks and basic cable channels, then on the streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu).

What happened next was that companies like Netflix—who were supposed to be our go-to video store—began to cut their budget for films to free up money for more shows and most expensively, making their own shows. Suddenly there were fewer and fewer movies in the stream. By this point Blockbuster was out of business, Redbox sprang up to at least give you a way to rent the new-to-disc releases, and you’d long since cancelled your disc subscription to afford all the damn streaming services.

Which brings me to my whole point and the focus of my next several posts: shows are great and all. I mean, I loved the Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. I enjoy (current) Better Call Saul, Einstein, American Gods. I rarely get the urge to straight up “binge” a show anymore though I like a good, solid show that has 3-5 seasons of quality and wraps up in a satisfactory manner. I like watching them in weekly chunks as they happen or if they’re finished an episode here and there. But I was missing movies again. We go to see the major films we want to see in theaters but certainly not everything that comes out. Netflix (or Amazon, HBO) get a set of new choices each month (and drop a few with each addition) but we’ve spent many a night scanning through and though ultimately finding something it was usually not what we set out looking to watch.

Then I got the urge to revisit some old horror movies—to watch the entire franchise of several series’ (Friday the 13, Halloween) and the filmography of several directors (John Carpenter, David Cronenberg) to see how the ones I knew held up and how the ones I’d never seen were. I’ve always been a horror fan and had a (modest) collection of them on Blu-Ray or DVD but I suddenly had a long list of things I wanted to see….and only about 5% of them were available on any of the cable or streaming options I have. There’s actually a horror-specific streaming service (Shudder) and most of them weren’t even on that (though I was loathe to pay for another service anyway). This “everything is available from your couch” was proving to be laughable. Of course, throw on iTunes or Amazon and you can rent or buy digital copies of most films…$4-7 to rent, $8-30 to “own”. So there’s that. If I’m going to pay $4 to have digital access to a film for 24 hours or so fine but if it’s an old favorite and I can physically own it to watch when I want, as many times as I want, in better picture quality (if blu), and with commentary and bonus documentaries for a few dollars more I’m going to opt for that. But back in the day I could rent any older movie for $1-2 from the local video store.

So over the past 6 months or so I’ve picked up random horror films on blu and DVD, some from thrift shops here and there for 2 bucks, some from ebay when the price is right. I’ve enjoyed watching them and have ranked them for my own fun. Which is the best in a given series? How do competing series stack up against each other? My upcoming posts will showcase ranked horror franchises, observations I’ve made from watching how horror changed from the ‘50s-today, etc. I hope to do the same for other genres in future years—crime/noir, sci-fi/fantasy, action, comedy. So if that’ s your sort of thing, stay tuned.

Last week one of those viral Facebook status games went around. You know the ones—“I’ve been to X states how many have you?” with shaded areas or a Q&A of which sibling or spouse in your family is considered the more Y than the others, etc. This one going around was “I’ve been to 9 of the following 10 concerts—which is fake?” I’m usually not one for these games or copy-paste status shares but this caught my eye because I love music and frequent concerts. I love ranking, debating, and sharing music information as well. It was fun to learn what friends had seen what shows—that a Jehovah’s Witness mother of two friend of mine I’d never heard so much as cuss had seen Master P as a teen or that I had friends who’d caught both Kurt Cobain and Eliot Smith live before their suicides was interesting to me.

I realized when receiving notifications of comments on either mine or a friend’s status that I’d guessed at that for the first time in months (or longer) I actually enjoyed something on Facebook. I’ve been as guilty as others in the news-shares that only preach to the choir or piss off the other side but never change minds and rarely inspire actual action and I do like that news stories I trust and find worth my time populate in my feed on the regular but since the build up to the 2016 election and the fallout afterward I’ve felt little joy in reading or interacting with anything on Facebook. This was different and small as it was I enjoyed it.

Then almost instantly I began seeing backlash and realized just like I’ve always suspected, there can be no joy on most of the internet least of all Facebook. “Ugh I hate concerts who cares?” status updates or “thanks for reminding me I’ve never seen anything” or ultimately worst of all, comments that “these updates just showcase how privileged some people are that they can waste their time and money on such trivialities”—I’m paraphrasing and combining several comments and conversations into one with that but it’s a pretty apt summary of what I saw in one corner of the newsfeed. That’s just indicative of the need to –ism and box every activity and action, to privilege check all that shouldn’t be privilege checked and ultimately to force us all to realize: there.can.be.no.joy.

I love live music. I love music in general and love albums but I especially love the live concert experience. It’s all encompassing and it purges my mind of the clouds and cobwebs and self-doubt and cynicism. I went to a couple of shows a year from my late teens through my early twenties then a buddy and I spent two years of college hitting the road every time anywhere in a 6 hour radius a band either of us loved was playing. After graduation I caught shows sporadically but three years ago my wife and I moved to the Nashville area. While I’m no real (mainstream) country music fan, I quickly realized Nashville was beginning to draw more and more diverse acts. As someone who loves metal as well I was pleasantly surprised to see death, black, doom, trad and other metal acts from acclaimed upstart acts to historical legacy acts coming to the area. Though I’m approaching my mid-thirties at this point since I came to my full love of extreme metal rather later in life I took advantage of a somewhat flexible work schedule to hit as many of these shows, most of which could be enjoyed for less than $30, as possible—well, at least one a month.

I have no children. My wife and I trust each other to do things without the other when we want. We’ve slowly dug our way of debt (still a way to go) but the last 3 years are the first time in our lives one or both of us hasn’t been in some sort of school or degree program and it’s the first time we’ve both had something at least approximating a real career. So if I want to spend $30 or less on a show—then throw $50 if I feel like it on drinks and merch to support the hard-touring acts—on a Tuesday night in a warehouse or damp basement show or heck $75 occasionally for a legacy act in an arena then I don’t know whose business it is but my own. As for privilege? I have waited in so many lines for concerts and I see hard-working 20-50 year old folks, some obviously there straight from work with a schedule on deck for the next AM waiting in line to hear a song they love by a band they admire. I see folks who maybe want to have a drink and wait for the lights to go down and the spectacle to begin. To forget whoever is in office and whatever is owed, whatever has not worked out for them and just breathe for a few hours.

I remember those maps of “I’ve been to X states” and remember feeling bummed that I’d been nowhere outside of the southern geographic radius of states right into my 30s. I am only now at a point at which I can afford to really travel at least once a year. Sporting events? Outside of an occasional minor league baseball game I have no interest in spending my money and time at one. So do what you like in life when you have the opportunity because experiences are almost always worth it. I have fond memories of every show I’ve been to and they always yield stories to tell to like-minded fans. This year two of my best memories so far are a 4-act metal tour where I bounced around (often flying through the air) in a sweaty mosh pit for 5 hours and a small dark club where a gothic folk singer sang the words of songs I’d played on repeat for months to chilling effect. I’m not really a religious person (though I once was) but the right live show functions in the way the best religious service can—it builds an instant community, involves the whole body, and overwhelms all of the senses. It clears the mind.

So yeah, if you like live music just make the effort. There’s probably a city or town within an hour of you that will have at least 1 good show a month—catch one some time and if you like it, let the band know by buying a shirt or two. If you don’t like live music? Find something else to do with your time but don’t be annoying.

Lastly, I was thinking about how at least Yelp and Goodreads, as far as social media goes, function optimally by keeping the focus on the subject(s) at hand. Then I received a random message on Yelp yesterday from a stranger calling me names because I mentioned in a review I preferred omelets to scrambled eggs: No.Joy.

 

 

My Top Movies of 2016

December 30, 2016

As I mentioned in my “Top TV” post, this was the first year I had far more worthy TV picks to pore through than movies. I may have went to the movies just a tad less than usual this year but if so, not by much and with Netflix, Redbox, HBO, Amazon, etc. there’s no shortage of movies out there to see. Of course, studios often hold their best work back until the end of the year to stay fresh in voters minds come Oscar season and some of those (mentioned at #10 below) I’ve yet to have a chance to see. Conversely, there were a lot of great little popcorn films (Deadpool, Civil War, Jungle Book, etc.) that were fun to watch but lacked the depth of a truly great film IMO. Regardless, here’s what I liked the best and the top 3 or 4 were in particular great and timeless works while the others also had plenty to offer.

10) I’m going to cop out with this one but as I’ve yet to see so many great contenders this year I am certain that once I do one of the following will likely place somewhere on this list, likely shifting the back (5-9) portion of this list:  Everybody Wants Some, La La Land, Nocturnal Animals, Moonlight, Jackie, and Manchester by the Sea.

green-room

9) Green Room

It was such a shame to lose such a young talent as Anton Yelchin this year. While best known for his work in the new Abrams Star Trek franchise, he delivers a more forceful and personal performance in Green Room. Veteran of an older Trek series, Patrick Stewart, delivers a menacing performance. Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat is also great here. This is a great little punk rock high-energy old-school grindhouse thriller.

robbins

8) Tony Robbins: I’m Not Your Guru

I’m not a Robbins disciple and while I can see why many critics think this documentary failed to go deep enough in dissecting Tony and his own possible motives and motivations I found this a thoroughly entertaining documentary and portrait of a person, his audience and his work. I may not have gotten as full a picture of the person as I did with the subject of the equally entertaining Anthony Weiner documentary this year, this one just entertained me a bit more and made me think throughout.

doctor-strange-city-bending-179855-jpeg

7) Dr. Strange

After a couple of decades or longer of consuming superhero stories in one format or other I more and more prefer in comics or films those that use the trappings of the icons and genre to tell bigger (or in some cases, smaller and more nuanced) stories. Marvel is in danger of over-saturating the market and now with C and D level characters (sorry Strange, you’re not known to the larger market in the way Spiderman is) moving into the starring role of their own films that risk looms even larger. Yet perhaps because of their relative obscurity to the mainstream it’s with these characters Marvel (in film and via Netflix originals) is telling its best cinematic tales (Guardians of the Galaxy, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage). It doesn’t hurt that Cumberbatch is a great actor. Nor does it hurt that this may be one of the only films in history to actually warrant a viewing with 3-D glasses as the mystical scenes are a roller-coaster via that method. Dr. Strange was the best superhero film of the year by remembering the value of the character, the motivation, the context and the uniqueness therein. While Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman bloated themselves to boring, Strange went small by focusing on character and then large with cosmic, intricate visuals and action.

rogue one.jpg

6) Star Wars: Rogue One

I’m torn a bit with the sheer omnipresence of Star Wars (like superheroes). I can’t help but think market fatigue and backlash is coming–can we really sustain a big-budget blockbuster Star Wars movie (and 10 superhero ones) every single year forward? The original trilogy was fantastic and nostalgia for those films went mainstream as fans grabbed the helm (Abrams). Regardless, Rogue One may only tell the tale of protagonists we know are doomed from the start and fill in a gap that wasn’t glaring (everything we need to know Princess Leia summed up in a throwaway line in the OT) but cash grab or not Rogue One may technically be the best overall SW film in terms of acting, production and overall delivery (though the magic of the OT isn’t quite matched). The new characters, short-lived they may be, are great and the final 10 minutes with Darth Vader are alone worth the price of admission.

badsanta2

5) Bad Santa 2

So I realize this was generally panned even by critics who begrudgingly praised the first one. I also realize it’s a stream of nihilistic profanity from first shot to last which doesn’t scream “happy holidays” to most viewers. Yet I found it laugh out loud funny throughout and I’m always a fan of Billy Bob Thornton. Kathy Bates was also a welcome addition as was Christina Hendricks. It’s not high art but it gets the job done and it’s far preferable to most cheesy holiday dreck.

 

witch.jpg

4) The Witch

The Witch is an arty Gothic historical piece that was also the best horror film of the year.  I know some excluded it from 2016 consideration since it is technically a 2015 film but as it never hit a US theater, streaming site or DVD release before 2016 that hardly seems fair. There’s no gore to be found and most of the dialogue is pulled (and rearranged) directly from 17th century diary entries. It tells the tale of a Puritan family estranged from their community in 1630s New England and the religious paranoia, social isolation and supernatural (?) factors that slowly tear them apart. Black Phillip is a truly scary nemesis.

eyesky

3) Eye in the Sky

Another film excluded from many lists because apparently it is also a 2015 film–this one didn’t hit US theaters until April 2016 so I’m safely counting it as one of my favorite 2016 movies. This was a great movie. First of all there’s the cast–the always excellent Helen Mirren is phenomenal, the sadly departed Alan Rickman delivers a great performance as one of his last and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul showcases a softer side than Jesse Pinkman. Then there’s the story itself–Hibbert’s script and Hood’s direction produces edge of your seat suspense in a nontraditional (for movies, especially “war” movies) way as computer screens, phone calls and second guessing stretches out a drone mission in real time. Moral complexity and a realer look at modern war than most cinema goers get in any format these days.

the-arrival

2) The Arrival

The Arrival is not your typical sci-fi film and certainly not your typical “alien invasion” flick. It’s a smart, intricate rumination on language, culture, change, time, choices, peacemaking and relationships. It’s probably the best “contact” film of all time too. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are great and hey–Forest Whitaker gets two great sci-fi roles in 2016!

horhw.jpg

1)  Hell or High Water

There wasn’t anything else close to being my top movie this year. Hell or High Water was by far the best movie I saw all year. Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine square off in an an epic noir standoff with the broken down landscape of America in the background. Some critics have claimed this as a modern western and that seems plausible though crime noir seems more applicable to me. Great bit parts people the landscape, great shots throughout, great dialogue, excellent score, everything works perfectly.

My Top Comics of 2016

December 29, 2016

 

saga_vol5-1

10) Saga

Okay so one one hand I’ve been tempted to call Saga the most over-rated comic in conversation today but..here I am placing it on my list of best 2016 comics. There were a lot of other worthy titles shipping monthly this year that could have slotted here but ultimately Saga takes the spot because of that wide reach and enthusiastic embrace. It’s comics little ambassador, a book to prove to someone on the fence that comics are a viable and exciting medium today (though be careful because some of those gross out closeups are adults only). Brian K. Vaughn’s best work IMO remains Y the Last Man but Saga may become a close second depending on how it all wraps up.

wonwom

9) Wonder Woman

Will DC finally make a good movie post-Nolan? Maybe. Maybe. The previews for Wonder Woman look terrific and after losing her job as a global ambassador IRL (don’t get me started), we at least need a good WW comic. Azarello’s run a couple years ago started great and really played up the mythology but then seemed to derail. No one in recent years has really gotten Princess Diana so DC just went back to one of the last scribes to do so and now we have new Greg Rucka Wonder Woman issues, alternating the latest version of her origin story with a new tale month to month. Of the “trinity” this title is by far the best DC is currently doing though King’s take on Batman is not bad.

straybullets-21_cvr

8) Stray Bullets

Stray Bullets was one of indie comics most frustrating (and unintentional) cliffhangers in history. 40 issues or so of masterful storytelling and art self-produced by David Lapham and then…who’s in the trunk? Radio silence for a decade or more. Lapham did a few other things (including the also excellent Young Liars for Vertigo which faced the axe too soon and had a rushed ending) and then finally…Stray Bullets came back! He not only wrapped up that original arc and then released the whole series in a giant omnibus but he launched a series of continued stories featuring our favorite doomed miscreants. Each issue stands on it’s own, hits like a fist to the gut, but also ties together for the overall story.

nailbiter_19-1

7) Nailbiter

Joshua Williamson continued his horror-fan homage with 11 or so more issues of Nailbiter this year. We’re still not sure what all lurks in and behind the town where so many serial killers are born but we may be getting closer. Along with a dozen or more siblings Nailbiter cemented Image Comics as the torchbearers of classic Vertigo storytelling.

archiefcbd2016-web

6) Archie

Though I read my fair share of Archie digests as a kid, I would never have thought in a million years past the age of 10 that Archie would be a worthy consideration in any “best of” list. Yet somehow the entire Archie line has managed to not only survive the digital age but thrive and evolve without losing the essence of why they worked in the first place. We got not only the almost adults-only zombie action of Afterlife With Archie and the Lovecraftian horror of Sabrina we also got the primary all-ages in-universe Archie line updated for a new generation in a non-pandering way. Mark Waid knows what makes these simple stories work and every issue this year was a blast to read.

papergirls_vol01-1

5) Paper Girls

If you watched Stranger Things and enjoyed it you should really check out Paper Girls as it touches the same spots in the nostalgic brain in different ways. Sci-fi, kids on bikes, a big mystery–what’s not to love? Oh and yeah, this is another BKV title and one that, at least this year, I liked better than Saga.

BITCH PLANET LOGO 1

4) Bitch Planet

In addition to being a great sci-fi story, an excellent commentary on society. a wholly new way of introducing gender studies and feminism, Bitch Planet is also a masterclass in the monthly comic. With the back-matter pieces, the letter column, and the overall presentation of each issue, Bitch Planet is a cover-to-cover joy every time an issue ships. Much like Orange is the New Black these are characters that once never got a fully-developed narrative arc and eye. Yet, in my opinion, Bitch Planet far out-ranks that Netflix original.

mbird

3) Mockingbird

For a newcomer to the medium, writer Chelsea Cain seems to have an uncanny touch for maximizing the art of panel storytelling. Her bread and butter are thriller novels and Mockingbird, her modern take on Bobbi Morse (much more than Hawkeye’s girlfriend) was her first comics project. And it was awesome. Sadly, gamergate style knuckledraggers harassed the hell out of her on Twitter for things like the above cover and ultimately this project either didn’t sell or whatever because a year in and we’re done folks. But both arcs, especially the first, were awesome (5 issues that can be reread in any order to reveal new layers to a comic caper complete with multiple sight gags and Easter eggs!) Light-hearted and fun yet puzzle-box intricate Mockingbird was what comics are all about.

vision

2) The Vision

Part American Beauty part Watchmen, this doomed crime and family take on suburbia featuring the Avengers’ Vision and his self-fashioned synthetic family was the most outside of the box take on an established superhero of 2016. Tom King is a writer who comes to the field after leaving a career with the CIA (!) and the medium is lucky to have him. The Vision is his strongest work yet.

southern-baz

1)  Southern Bastards

Jason Aaron gives us a gritty warts and all Gothic take on life in the south, specifically Alabama. His Alabama may be over the top but as a native who spent his formative years there he gets the uniqueness and love-hate ratio right for a gripping take on homecoming. Southern Bastards is never really the story you think it is and I’m not sure where things will end up though I doubt they end up happy this being a true and through noir and all. Latour’s pencils are original and provide a great aesthetic for this story.

 

My Top TV of 2016

December 11, 2016

It didn’t occur to me until compiling this list that for the first time ever I had more viable choices to winnow through picking the best TV of the year than I did movies of the year…I actually had trouble coming up with 10 solid films for that list (more on that in that entry) which hasn’t been the case ever. But TV…between premium cable options, Amazon Prime, and Netflix in addition to network TV struggling to stay competitive in that arena there were lots of choices for quality, exceptional television this year.

black-ish-season-1-abc-artwork-1200x1200-780x780   goldbergs

10) Blackish/The Goldbergs (tie)

I’m calling spot 10 a tie for the (IMO) two best traditional network sitcoms running. Blackish takes the traditional family sitcom and injects each episode with a level of seriousness and topical awareness that hearkens back to All in the Family but from a wholly African American perspective. The Goldbergs takes the family sitcom and douses it in heavy (but non-cloying) nostalgia by setting the action in the 1980s and focusing each episode tangentially around a key pop-culture or historical aspect of that decade. Both shows succeed based on stellar performances and authentic heart.

frequency.png

9) Frequency

There were oddly a handful of shows this year that remade old movies in serial yet updated form (Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, etc.). One that worked for me was Frequency which is an update of a 2000 movie about a son who talks to his dead father via ham radio and the “butterfly effects” that flow there out of. The CW update revamps the story a bit, stretching it out and lathering it in two era settings and substituting a female detective daughter (played by Peyton List) for Jim Caviezel’s original role. I’m just a sucker for time-travel tales that deal with the consequences of action so that’s likely what sold me on this show but I enjoyed every episode thoroughly.

better-things

8) Better Things

While I certainly missed having a new season of Louie this year, Better Things was the next best thing. Louie C.K. is on board as a co-writer and co-creator in this, Pamela Adlon’s  (who played Louie’s romantic foil on a few seasons of that show) version of that show’s concept of an honest, artsy, uncomfortable single parent show this time from a a mother’s perspective. Adlon plays Sam Fox, mother of three daughters and working actress in L.A. Better Things shares the wit and unconventional nature of Louie while also being totally its own unique self.

mv5bmtcymzc1mji5mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmze4ody2ote-_v1_uy268_cr30182268_al_

7) Luke Cage

While we approach superhero critical mass at the cinema, on network TV and now on Netflix as well, Luke Cage emerges in much the same way as last year’s Jessica Jones did–by using the trappings of “superhero” to tackle something much bigger. That’s what the best modern superhero comics do and that’s what Netflix has found a way to do that big budget pictures do not. Luke Cage is a fully realized world complete with great textures, environment and sound (that soundtrack tho!).

better-call-saul-saul-goodman-esq-800x600

6) Better Call Saul

A spin-off like this shouldn’t work but it does. Breaking Bad was one of the best shows in history and rather than repeat the formula here, this show takes its own direction. Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as the crooked lawyer Jimmy McGill (Saul) but we see his origin  and that of other Breaking characters unfold naturally and somehow surprisingly. A great comedy noir and character piece that would have been unheard of ten years ago.

atlanta

5) Atlanta

Man, this was Donald Glover’s year. What with the surprise release of a Childish Gambino album at the end of the year that was straight on ’70s soul funk perfection to cap off a year when his baby project Atlanta launched to critical and commercial success, he should be celebrating. Atlanta was a blast in so many ways and it’s unapologetic both in its authenticity and its unapologetic refusal to moralize or simplify. Great cast, great soundtrack, totally timely.

bosch

4) Bosch

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite crime writers working today. His Lincoln Lawyer and Harry Bosch series’ have both been reliable reads every year for the past couple of decades. Mainstream accessible pop-crime fiction that doesn’t insult your intelligence in the way say James Patterson does. Anyway, here we have his titular creation Harry Bosch brought to the screen–and it works completely thanks to Titus Welliver. Two seasons in we see a cop show that deals with the real issues facing such an institution today being addressed while also handling character development and big-budget action all the while.

stranger-things

3) Stranger Things

The 1980s are the go-to focus for nostalgia seekers today–the best episode of Black Mirror (see below), the focus of one of the best comics today (Paper Girls), the setting for one of our best current sitcoms (see above), the source for synth and beat and sample inspiration (see a lot of current popular music). To that note, Netflix’s Stranger Things banks on the celluloid memory and loves of a couple generations by nodding to E.T., Indiana Jones, The Lost Boys, Monster Squad, Firestarter and a ton of others in this year’s smash Stranger Things. It would be pandering to fanboy and fangirl biases if it weren’t so damn entertaining and well executed. Such a good cast, such a good original soundtrack (not even considering songs, I’m talking the score by Survive who made two great soundtracks and an original album this year all worth your time) such an exciting story. Worthy of a binge and a re-binge.

large_3nyt5nidxxmngfklxq2xmb9hcun

2) OJ Simpson: Made in America

Some folks threw this in their best movie list as it is a documentary, but as it was serialized across 5 installments on ESPN I’m counting it as TV. The 30 for 30 series is dependably solid even for those of us who aren’t sports junkies (Believeland this year was also superb) but with Made in America ESPN upped their game to the next level. It was the year of revisiting 90s news but particularly OJ Simpson’s story. I didn’t catch the biopic recreation but I did tune in for all 10 hours of this documentary and found it superb from first shot till last. Not only do we get the full scope and history of OJ’s tragic personal story arc, we get the entire historical and sociopolitical implications of his story from race relations in the 1970s through the police state of Compton in the 1980s on through Rodney King and the impact of the verdict itself. This is a nuanced, full on examination of everything OJ from his humble beginning through his historic trial and beyond and the issues raised are worth our reexamination today more than ever.

6jw6vl_d

1) Black Mirror

Netflix picked up the British sci-fi cult favorite that depicts dystopian near-future scenarios and though they only released six episodes this season those six episodes were the best of the show thus far. Each episode was perfect in pretty much every aspect and each was all too plausible in its scenario from the extreme impact of social media in the near future (“Nosedive”) to 3D violence in video games (“Playtest”) and the desensitization of soldiers (“Men Against Fire”)…heck even the disappearance of the bees tied in with the inhumane behavior of folks on the comment sections (“Hated in the Nation”). It wasn’t all grim of course. The best episode of the batch was pretty happy (“San Junipero”) as it layed out our love of nostalgia (particularly for the US 1980s) for all to see in its natural conclusion.

Honorable Mentions: Though I’m not all the way through it yet Netflix’s The Crown is truly amazing, after a crappy week of depression for everyone who loves rationality SNL gifted us the comfort and encouragement of their best episode in years  with Dave Chapelle and A Tribe Called Quest as guests, and BBC’s superb crime drama Undercover is recommended to all; while not as strong as last season Showtime’s The Affair remains compelling.

 

My Top Albums of 2016

December 10, 2016

 

 

 

 

634934910) Jayhawks: Paging Mr. Proust

The Jayhawks have long since moved on from the bulk of the original twang present in their alt-country beginnings to a more 1970s radio aesthetic which really kind of suits them even better. Rainy Day Music was one of the downright prettiest albums of the ’00s and Paging Mr. Proust almost matched that this year. Mark Olsen’s vocals are just so gorgeous and the soft (but not weak) rock that supports those vocals is full of melody and melancholy. Put on “Isabel’s Daughter” or “Pretty Roses in Your Hair” and you’ll think you’re living in an alternate ideal version of 40 years ago.

cobalt

9) Cobalt: Slow Forever

I know the fans loved Gin and with the loss of the two-piece’s original singer most probably didn’t hold much hope for a follow-up album. Yet as raw and talented a vocalist as Wunder was, Cobalt is really drummer Phil McSorley’s band and project. This may be one of the only bands this side of jazz this truly drumcentric. The drums create the thunder and rhythm that propels this warbeast forward, intense and at times overwhelming. However, new vocalist Charlie Fell of Lord Mantis fame perfectly fits right in with an intensity fans of his previous work knew he could match. They work together excellently here (and live). Slow Forever adds swaths of blues, bayou, goth and folk to the black metal stew and in that finds a hauntingly unique sound. The ghost of Ernest Hemingway is present once more as he’s the spiritual father of Cobalt in the “Iconoclast” intro to the title track near the end of the record. Cobalt toured with excellent German upstart two-piece Mantar (whose Ode to the Flame this year was also fantastic) showcasing the power of the drum.

drk800

8) Leonard Cohen: You Wanted Darker

Did we Leonard? Did we want darker? If so you certainly delivered. The opening title track might contain Cohen’s darkest imagery to date and that’s quite a feat for a cynic (or an optimist masked as a cynic) like Mr. Cohen. “Treaty” follows up without dialing it back. While listening to this record when it first came out I (like most others) had no idea we would soon lose Cohen. This album seems to be his making peace with death but as always he finds beauty in the darkness and hope in the hopelessness. Recorded minimally in his own home as he was dying he nevertheless sounds strong and timeless. The only other album to come close to this in stark desperation is Nick Cave‘s Skeleton Tree which somehow managed to find great music in the artist’s struggle to deal with the death of his teen son.

005532764_500

7) Lydia Loveless: Real

They may market her as “Americana” which really nowadays just means “country that doesn’t suck” as mainstream Nashville continues to disintegrate culturally and musically (a long slow death that bro-country just put the cherry on) but Lydia Loveless is really just great damn country music, to me so good that she reminds you the genre is worthy of attention. Real is a perfect title for this album because that’s what she gives you-realness. Real stories, real emotions, real hope, real desperation, real feelings produced by honest lyrics, honest vocals and warm welcoming music.”Out on Love” was easily one of my most played songs this year.

 

subrosa-for-this-we-fought-the-battle-of-ages

6) Subrosa: For This We Fought the Battle of Ages

Subrosa have been making captivating and unique music for years now and their latest record is their most creative yet. Musically they continue to mix doom metal, classic rock, classical, chamber, and indie to create complex, layered long-form songs (or movements). Lyrically this time around they use a (to most American readers) rather obscure Russian dystopian sci-fi novel from the 1920s as a jumping off point for songs of a near and all to close future of state suppression and loss of identity. Rebecca Vernon’s vocals sound stronger and more emotional than ever and violinists Sarah Pendelton and Kim Pack give listeners chills. Some of the best lyrics committed to music of any genre this year were on this record, phrases and codas that simply demand to be heard and felt.

anthraxforallkings

5) Anthrax: For All Kings

2016 was a year in which veterans of Thrash Metal decided to do their best work since their prime. Megadeth has been notoriously incapable of making a great record in a long time yet in February they released, to the surprise of everyone, their strongest work in more than two decades with Dystopia. Though it doesn’t reach the peaks of their classic 80s work (Rust in Peace) it was arguably as fun as their last great record (Countdown to Extinction).  Then near the end of the year, Metallica went and released their strongest record in more than 20 years as well with Hard Wired to Self-Destruct. Testament, though never considered in the “big 4” has actually been more consistent than any of them and kept their train rolling with Brotherhood of the Snake. Yet none of the above matched up to Anthrax’s For All Kings. which may very well be their best record EVER not just since their prime. The songs, riffs, vocals, drums, production and everything here is better consistently than anything they’ve ever committed to record. Anthrax has always been better live than on record (and if you got to see them on tour for this record you saw they haven’t lost it) but this time they matched the quality of those live performances on record. Anthrax in many ways are unique among their thrash peers and descendants in that (with vocalist Joey Belladonna) their vocals are closer to older pure “heavy metal” with soaring highs and melodic lows (no growls, barks or grunts to be found) and their lyrics are generally upbeat, positive and fun…heck even that “pentagram” on the cover and their merch is actually and “A” for “Anthrax” logo. Though a tad on the long side this record is a blast front to back with a fun joyful energy that is welcome even to the dourest of metalheads particularly in the pit. Who else can make calling out religious extremism and terrorism sound fun?

 

 

a-tribe-called-quest-we-got-it-from-here-thank-you-4-your-service-cover-art

4) A Tribe Called Quest: We Got it from Here Thank You 4 Your Service:

Wow we had De La Soul return this year AND a final album from Tribe? Other than those two it was a rather sparse year for hip hop (IMO) other than a few solid entries from DJ Khaled, Common and maybe Drake (though a last minute drop from J.Cole I’ve yet to digest is likely worth some time too).  Anyway, Tribe was far in the lead of the pack for Hip Hop and “We Got It From Here” works as a tribute to their fallen Phife Dog and a state of the nation address. Even with the politics and the weight of their fallen member there is an unmitigated joy to be found on here reminding us how much fun hip hop can be. The production on these tracks showcases the best use of samples, original beats and instrumentation combinations to be found in classic or modern rap music.

 

khemmis

3) Khemmis: Hunted

Doom Metal is often inaccessible to casual listeners–what with the extra long songs, repetitive riffs and often harsh vocals most of the modern classics of the subgenre are loved only by diehards. Pallbearer broke that mold a little bit over the past few years by finding a way to inject heavy doses of melody and outright beauty into the formula without sacrificing the heavy and Khemmis traverses that same path. Khemmis’ debut album Antediluvian just dropped last year and it was more than solid–yet here they are to immediately follow it up with an even stronger work. Hunted has fewer but longer songs than its predecessor and even more melody (clean vocals make up 85% or so of the singing) but the riffs are heavier, more intricate and catchier than ever. The lyrics are great too, and even the longest of songs here never meanders or even feels its length, nary a wasted or superfluous note to be found and that’s saying something for work this weighty. If you like what you hear on Spotify or whatnot, head over to 20BuckSpin and order this one on vinyl or CD as the packaging and booklet, artwork, etc. seems to add another level.

d2cd23

2) Drive By Truckers: American Band

If not for Beyonce this would have been my pick of the year. I mean, DBT have long been my favorite modern band and this is the best album they’ve made in a decade. This is their most timely, topical, and mature work yet and each song catalogues the state of the world today in assured but often subtle and complex ways. Not to mention that it rocks, the band sounds tighter and more focused than ever. DBT mixes the classic sounds of Exile era Stones, original (and hippy) line-up Skynard, bar band era Springsteen and witty, turn of phrase lyrics that evoke classic Dylan and nineties college rock. “Ramon Casiano” is an excellent opener and one of Cooley’s best ever, Hood’s “What It Means” eulogy for Trevon Martin and other black victims of gun violence, the sly repudiation of those who defend the confederate flag “Surrender Under Protest” and the immigrant history of “Ever South” stretch the focus of DBT’s keen eye for detail to the entire nation. A truly great and new statement across the board from one of America’s finest touring and recording bands working right now.

 

beyonce_-_lemonade_official_album_cover1) Beyonce: Lemonade

I know I sound like a copycat to say it but Lemonade was my favorite record of 2016 by far. So many others are saying the same thing so one would be forgiven for thinking it’s some sort of critical contagion, an opinion spreading that takes over or whatever. All I know is that I’ve been a Beyonce fan her entire career and while she’s had many great songs she’s never had a great full album…until now. I knew from the first time I heard these tracks last summer this would be my pick of the year barring an unforeseen upset and here we are at the end of the year and only one other album has even come close (see above). I’ll also disclose this–I haven’t seen the videos. I know this is a video album and I’m sure that adds an entire other level to the experience but I simply haven’t yet. I’ll likely purchase a 2 disc copy at some point to get those but just judging the songs as they are I’m confident in declaring this my winner. Each song works on its own and as part of a stellar overall whole. The crossover layers of genre, nods to outside art, the detailed inner journey of the artist–the production, the guest spots, the lyrics, everything works completely. There’s not a wasted or skippable moment to be found and declaring THE best moment is even difficult as I found “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, “Daddy Lessons” and “Freedom” to each be equally fantastic…but then again everything surrounding those few highlights is top-notch as well. Who’d have thought it? A true album-lovers album delivered in 2016 by a world-famous popstar released initially through a niche streaming service and accompanied by HBO videos.

Honorable Mentions:

616892399643

AMSG-Hostis Universi Generis/Gevurah-Hallelujah/Myrkur-Masoleum/Inquisition-Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith

Black Metal has always been the most controversial, least accessible and most aggressive subgenre of them all and while it moves into its third decade or so of existence many may argue (as they did with punk) it is no longer “really” black metal if it’s being made today particularly in North America. Whatever. It is true that it has moved away from it’s original birthplace and pretensions in many ways. The last few years have found black metal to be experimental, complex and diverse in a multitude of ways from the identities of its performers to their philosophical leanings and instruments. This year Chilean to US transplants Inquisition made their best record yet; female multi-instrumentalist Myrkur stripped songs from last year’s great M. album and added a few covers–recording them live in a mausoleum backed by a girl’s choir. Her hauntingly beautiful vocals sing the songs in her native Danish language and showcase black metal as high art. Two of the year’s best BM records came from Canada–Gevurah‘s esoteric and challenging Hallelujah and best of all AMSG’s disturbing, terrifying and captivating Hostis Universi Generis.

Other Notable Mentions: Experimental post-metal artists Neurosis made their most accessible yet uncompromising work yet with  Fire Within Fires, Veteran sludge metal band showcase riffs galore with Crowbar: The Serpent Only Lies, Meshuggah perfected their formula decades in with The Violent Sleep of Reason, Neko Case and pals Laura Veir and K.D. Lang showed everyone how to actually do a “supergroup” with Case/Lang/Veir, American R&B proved more exciting than hip hop for the year with, in addition to Beyonce, great new albums from Maxwell, Alicia Keys, and Frank Ocean and speaking of hip hop–I almost forgot Common’s Black America Again. I’m leaving a lot out as it was one of metal’s strongest underground years ever and there was even great new jazz to be found.

 

For many liberals, this has been the year of wrestling with the white working-class middle-aged man. From “Hillbilly Elegy” to “Strangers in Their Own Land” and a mounting Everest of think-pieces from the New York Times, Mother Jones, The Atlantic (and on and on) following the surprise election of Donnie Drumpf, suddenly educated upper middle class whites are wondering what they’ve misread in a huge swath of the country. Further complicating the waters are the 53% of white women who also helped usher Donnie into the White House. Certainly the rust belt and coal country are desperate, scared, angry and feeling marginalized. That’s been building for years–seeking to understand why and what can actually be done to better things there (and not just false promises like those they gambled on in this election) is long overdue (more on that later).

It’s been barely a week since the election and most of the things I’ve heard since–after initial shock, sadness and anger from one side (still lingering) and joyful celebration from the other (already waning to some degree) have been urges from most to “come together” “show empathy” and “be one country”: that is, from most white folks who are not from at-risk or marginalized communities. For every “get over it” or “look forward” I hear from white folks I hear “How can we?” from black, Muslim, LGBT, and Latino voices. People are rightfully scared and the recent elevation of Steve Bannon, alt-right mouthpiece and agitator, has done nothing to give them reason to not be afraid.

#ThisIsNotNormal: As John Oliver stressed on his last show of the year, this is not normal and we should not acclimate to it so if you have to , put a post-it up on your bathroom mirror so you don’t blank out and accept Trump’s America if you’re of a privileged class that can. We have just elevated the least-experienced and most ill-suited candidate in modern American history to the office of President. A man who has failed at everything he has ever done (marriage, business, humanity) and who has callously stoked hate against every non-white community in the country on the campaign trail and who is filling his cabinet with dreadful people. A reality TV personality who bragged of sexual assault and smiled as his daughter was called a “piece of ass” by Howard Stern. This is not normal.

While those who voted for Drumpf and many who didn’t but who want to let bygones by bygones urge us to let it go as just a “political” difference there are many who simply can’t yet–at least not until they find out what Drumpf really has planned for stop and frisk and an increasingly militarized police force, what he has planned for the wall and deportation, his proposed database of Muslims, if he will really repeal environmental protection laws, if he will seek to use the Supreme Court to repeal Roe v. Wade and eliminate health care access for millions of poor women and children, if Mike Pence will have any way of legitimizing “gay conversion” therapy, if Drumpf will be able to quell the violence and bullying done in his name, if he can call out the KKK and neo-nazi groups celebrating in his name…

See, when Bush (W.) won his second race I was an under-grad college student and I got pretty bummed. But I didn’t feel the pain in my bones and the shock to my system that made me seriously question the future of our country that I have now and I can only imagine what some other people are feeling. No, I was bummed but able to chat politely with Republican friends and teachers and talk about how we felt, the issues themselves, the perceived direction of our country. What some on the right are failing to acknowledge at the local level is just how different things are this time around. Things that are about to happen may seriously (and negatively) impact the very existence and livelihood of this country and the world as a whole. Maybe I’m naive– I’m sure my more liberal friends would say so in this regard–but I actually like Hillary Clinton as a person. I think she is a good person and would have made a good President. I may not have agreed with her on everything and I would have had serious concerns on some of her foreign policy positions in particular but my hope was that with a Democratic House and Senate, particularly with folks like Sanders and Warren taking on greater leadership roles we would have been able to hold her to issues and advance on Obama’s progress, curbing some of the negative possibilities. I think we could have certainly made great strides on climate change, secured social policy issues for a generation (and thus indefinitely) and so much more. Some of my most politically liberal friends think this laughable as they promote #DemExit and the like now, partly welcoming a Trump presidency if only because it will shock us all awake. But the cost I fear may be far too large.

I believe in the bedrocks of democracy–of liberalism–of progressivism. I believe in empathy checked by responsibility and strength, what George Lakoff describes as the nexus of liberal thought (in “The Political Mind”): empathy to feel the pain and share the concerns of others, responsibility to feel the need to act to address those concerns and the strength to do so. And I most certainly do not think it would be fair to accuse me of “living in a bubble” as seems to be the heart of most “empathy to the working class” pieces I read lately (you can take a pretty spot on quiz to see if you live in a left/urban/secular bubble here)–no, I’ve lived more than 75% of my life in working class (usually rural) areas, I’ve worked many service sector and labor intensive jobs in my life, my Facebook feed is regularly filled with arguments from both sides and much more. I know there are a lot of reasons below the surface affecting how we behave and act politically (I highly recommend “Our Political Nature”) from birth order to parenting style to early childhood experiences and education but I also know we have the choice to learn, to grow and to celebrate truth. I was punched in the face more than once from 12-16 years of age as I ran my mouth at bullies slurring the n word and guffawing, at racism every time I encountered it as it always made me angry to the bone. I know it when I see it “cleaned up” in Drumpf and I won’t be silent now either. You are free to have your opinion and I may even like many people who are guilty of unconscious and casual racism even though I disagree with them. But your desperation does not excuse you allowing these forces into legitimate power, blessing those opinions by elevating them far beyond workplace or popular culture. Data shows quite a few wealthy and upper middle-class voters embraced Trumpism. Though desperate rust belt and coal belt men and the women who wanted them to excel again may have tipped one of the scales that ushered Donnie in, they were not the only bloc. But empathize with them I can to that extent that I agree poverty sucks, back-breaking labor sucks and feeling like the world is leaving you behind can indeed suck. It shouldn’t make you cling to empty promises when the evidence to the contrary is clear and easily accessible though. The fact is liberal policies can and have been able to address those very real needs but too often the white working class in forgotten industries actively work against themselves. When you’re told climate change and advancing technology will end your field for 40 years and you actively avoid it instead of helping to be at the forefront of what comes next, when you fight against stimulus packages that can elevate your community, when you decry unions for “right to work” policies instead, when you oppose a raise in the minimum wage and universal health care access to all, when you keep voting in tea-party representatives who could care less about you instead of those who can work to get progressive policies through then you are digging your own hole.

All this to say–when you say “we voted different we can still be friends”–sure. Yeah. But that’s a lot easier if we’re both white and middle class. Your choices have an impact. The very minute the results started rolling in Trump supporters flipped the table to assign themselves victim status. They decried being labelled as racist, sexist or xenophobic. They did everything they could to instantly be the “winners” who would have supported the other candidate had things been reversed, they suddenly became the biggest fans ever of the electoral college despite previous opinions, they decried protestors as “sore losers” and they held themselves as martyrs unfairly labelled prejudiced. I mean, didn’t Drumpf win areas in the rust belt Obama also won? Can’t be racism can it (ignoring the fact that maybe many of Obama’s supporters were too disgusted to turn out or that voting one time for one black man like having one black friend doesn’t preclude one from loving and benefiting from institutional racism)? No, not everyone who voted Drumpf was racist–they did make a decision that was racist however, like it or not. The nationalism, racism, Islamophobia, etc. were all part of the Donnie package and white folks decided those -isms weren’t deal breakers. They decided a man who plays on hate and fear deserved a shot at the White House despite having what may be the highest record of lying on the campaign trail ever recorded by fact checkers, despite the warnings from every expert in every field, despite the rift their decision was bound to cause for generations to come. So when you ask me or any other white liberal to get over it maybe we can. We can just ignore the subjects we don’t want to talk about if rational reasoned debate is out of the question (which it clearly is due to the repudiation of the “media” and “fact checking” and “liberal education” by the Drumpf package) but I can’t offer you forgiveness for your decision as I am not one most wronged by your choice. Don’t want to be seen as racist? Then apologize to those who feel like second class citizens due to your choice, who are scared for their future and their children right now. Forgiveness can only be given by one directly wronged. I may “feel” wronged–I feel bad that expertise, education, knowledge and basic liberal principles of democracy are being jettisoned and ridiculed, that debate using legitimate journalism and research as sources will become increasingly difficult and I especially worry that climate change will wreak irreversible damage in my lifetime–but I have not been shouted at to “go back” to any country, I have not been harassed or threatened due to religious belief, sexual orientation or anything of the sort. But there are millions in our country who have, will or fear they may be and it is they who you if you are a Trump voter owe your apology to. Tell them you are not a racist or xenophobe but that you desperately believed Drumpf’s impossible promises so much (or hated Hillary so much) that you overlooked all of the vitriol and cast your vote his way any way.

Seriously–how much leeway do we give each other for bad choices? It’s a free country and I respect your choice to do anything so long as it does not negatively affect me or others. We can agree not to hate each other while still holding each other accountable for bad choices. I am sure many people would consider me a hypocrite or an asshole in many ways. But I knew what was at stake in this election and did what I could to prevent it. We’ll see how history views all of this in time but there are clear parallels in our past that provide a pretty clear indication.

“Ramon Casiano” is the song that opens the Drive By Trucker’s “American Band” album, one of this year’s greatest and most timely albums (second only to Beyonce’s “Lemonade”). In an infinitely catchy and masterfully played southern rock song DBT’s Mike Cooley sings the story of how Harlon Carter shot 15 year-old Ramon Casiano in Laredo Texas in 1931. The full details of who Carter is are not explicitly spelled out as the bulk of the song shifts to a focus on border issues, prejudice and struggle. You know while listening that everything is tied together and given an overarching theme but you’d be well rewarded by digging into the history here as it produces an even deeper level to the song and it sheds light on a few major issues facing us today. It’s a smart song in an album full of them that showcases a critique of people and places from within that is biting and necessary. It also rocks.

So who was Harlon Carter? Carter is a former NRA Executive Vice President and the person responsible for the “Cincinnati Revolution” in 1977 in which new leadership took over the NRA, ousting the old guard to transform the organization from a group that taught youth shooting safety, advocated hunting and sportsmanship, and worked to increased safety and accuracy in sports shooting into one that took a radical hard-line  “individual rights” interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and became a political advocacy group for repealing all existing gun laws and prohibiting any others from passing. Carter and his partners changed the nature of the entire organization, moved it from being a responsible sportsman group to a lobbyist for the gun manufacturing industry. Before Carter was an NRA executive he was a teen himself involved in the malicious shooting of 15 year old Hispanic teen Ramon Casiano:

“After returning home from school that day, Carter was told by his mother that there were three Hispanic youths loitering near their family’s property. Carter left his house, shotgun in tow, to confront the alleged loiterers. After finding Casiano and his two companions, Carter pointed his shotgun at them and ordered them to come with him. Casiano refused and pulled out a knife and asked Carter if he would like to fight. Carter then pointed the shotgun at Casiano’s chest. Casiano pushed the gun aside and asked Carter not to shoot while taking a step back. He was then shot and killed. Carter claimed self-defense, but the presiding judge instructed the jury, “There is no evidence that defendant had any lawful authority to require deceased to go to his house for questioning, and if defendant was trying to make deceased go there for that purpose at the time of the killing, he was acting without authority of law, and the law of self-defense does not apply.”*

*http://nraontherecord.org/harlon-carter/

Carter would end up not serving any time and years later when this story resurfaced tied to his new job he denied and dismissed it.

harloncarter1

Cooley and the trucker’s tie Carter and his perverted NRA to many of the struggles our nation has faced ever since and explain how such figures became “leaders of a certain kind of men who need to feel the world’s against them, like in mind and like in skin.”

We could tie Carter and his bastard version of the NRA to a lot of evil in this world as they bear some responsibility for everything from Columbine to the Pulse Night Club by way of Sandy Hook and so many others too numerous to count. They are responsible because they’ve spread their vitriol and arrogance across the country by shutting down logical debate and warping minds, by refusing to consider any and all regulations labeling all such attempts as nefarious efforts of the Federal Government to control the population–yet all the while shouting that such a thing may be possible and in such yielding greater donations and increasing arms sales for their partners. Carter’s legacy is the laughs that guffaw from Republicans who watched the last presidential debate when Hillary defended her efforts to pass legislation that would curb the number of toddler related shootings (!) in our country each year due to unsecured guns from irresponsible parents.  Carter’s legacy is the stockpile of military grade weapons the Sandy Hook shooter’s mother had amassed out of fear of Obama that was used by her son to murder elementary school children and their teachers. Harlon Carter’s legacy is the sea of bloodshed in poor neighborhoods where shooting deaths rival those in Iraq.

But I don’t just blame Carter and the NRA. I blame those too blinded to recognize the lies they are being sold. Here’s the 2nd Amendment, verbatim:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

As it reads, the 2nd Amendment is tied to “a well regulated militia.” Well regulated clearly leaves room for restrictions and regulations especially as they may relate to public health and safety in a much closer together larger country with advanced technology such as ours today. Furthermore, “militia” refers to citizen-soldiers, persons not in full time service of the army. Such a group today would be our National Guard. So, the 2nd Amendment only grants full access to firearms to a group of citizen soldiers who may need to assemble for security.

Now, I am not an originalist in that I do not read the constitution as a fundamentalist reads a scripture, as unchanging, set in stone and closed for reinterpretation in each era. For me it is the principles behind each amendment as they relate to our core principles as Americans that matters. But the 2nd Amendment clearly lies at odds with a personal rights interpretation for those who do define as originalists– yet originalists themselves sometime now follow Carter’s lead and interpret the 2nd amendment to mean free and unfettered rights of gun ownership to any and all private citizens without any measure of restriction. I am not of the mind that there should be no privately owned guns in our country–just that we can have a rational discussion in light of what has worked in other countries and pass common-sense laws that mitigate the number of guns in the hands of terrorists, criminals and the mentally ill. Also that we can restrict the power and velocity of privately owned guns and reduce the number of guns in circulation that are stolen from honest owners and used for crimes every day.

Ironically, those who have swallowed the extremist interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and kept to it no matter how many dead children arise as a result more often than not identify as “pro life”. In this case we would laugh at the absurdity were it not so sad. Life for this group as it becomes clearer each day we advance into Trump’s America only matters if it is wealthy and white or completely potential–fertilized eggs that may become a cute baby. For the “pro life” all that matters is life in the abstract and the concept of motherhood—something they find unfathomable that someone may not want or be able to possess. But life–toddlers shot down in Newtown, innocent bystanders wiped out in gang shootings, drone-struck life on the borders around the world, life snuffed out as it desperately strives to reach safety by way of refugee, that life most assuredly does not matter.

Blood is on the hands of Carter and those who defend his legacy like today’s disgrace Wayne Lapierre.Blood is also on the hands of those who refuse to have a productive conversation on how we can halt the shed of blood and the loss of safety. And the hypocrisy of those who will shut down such a line of thought while clinging to their own prejudices will be the hypocrisy that eventually ends the modern Christian church in America. If this election has shown us anything it’s that rational, reasoned debate falls on the deaf ears of those who refuse to consider facts and who consider education itself as an ill. Perhaps we need more assholes to willfully stand as thorns in the side of Trump and those who enable him and who refuse to bow down or remain silent about that which destroys us.