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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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My Top Comics of 2016

December 29, 2016

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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?

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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:

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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.