Original Cast Recording, “Hedwig and The Angry Inch”

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(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #61 – released February 9, 1999)

Track listing: Tear Me Down / The Origin of Love / Random Number Generation / Sugar Daddy / Angry Inch / Wig In a Box / Wicked Little Town / The Long Grift / Hedwig’s Lament / Exquisite Corpse / Wicked Little Town (Reprise) / Midnight Radio

Rock and Roll and Musical Theater: two genres that have always co-existed somewhat uneasily. Even the most successful “rock” musicals from Hair to Rent (with some assorted Andrew Lloyd Webber works in between) rarely, well, rock. Part of the problem is that musicals require a suspension of disbelief—you just have to accept that the characters would suddenly break into song. Rock, on the other hand, strives for authenticity, even at its most fantastic or grandiose. Mashing the two approaches together becomes like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Keeping in mind my admittedly limited knowledge of musical theater, I can name two shows that successfully rock: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Hedwig and The Angry Inch. In my college years, I was obsessed with the soundtrack for the former (more so than going to midnight screenings of it), which worked by threading that fine line between parody and tribute of classic rock and roll with utmost precision. Although nearly a quarter century separates it, Hedwig is in many ways its next-generation successor, although it’s less a satire on retro rock tropes (exchanging Rocky Horror’s ’50s pastiches for ’70s glam and punk) and more its own thing. Both musicals subvert genres and gender, but only Hedwig delves into the psychology of identity politics while conflating them with sociopolitical events.

Hedwig’s story centers on its titular character, a German born as Hansel on the day the Berlin Wall was erected who grows up with a passion for rock music. As a young man, he falls in love with Luther, an American soldier whom moves him to Junction City, Kansas and convinces him to get a sex change operation and become Hedwig. The operation “got botched”, leaving him with neither male nor female genitalia but an “angry inch” of flesh. Luther then leaves Hedwig for another man while Hedwig begins to write songs and soon mentors and falls for young Tommy, whom becomes her protégée. However, Tommy leaves Hedwig, runs off with the songs they co-wrote together and becomes a huge star. Hedwig and the Angry Inch documents, cabaret style, her life story as she and her band follow Tommy on tour, usually performing in smaller venues next to the larger ones he’s playing.

Much of the show’s triumph is due to the talent and vision of creator John Cameron Mitchell, who stars as Hansel/Hedwig/Tommy. He constructs a persona that borrows as heavily from classic film actresses and androgynous 1970s male rock stars as it does from drag queens from Divine to RuPaul, but it subsists somewhere in between all those cultural signifiers. He’s equally likable and bitchy, both the consummate diva and comedian, but what really puts him and the show over is his prowess as a singer/performer and the songs, all of them written and composed by Stephen Trask (who performs onstage with his/Hedwig’s band). While it’s tricky to eke every nuance of the narrative from them alone (seeing the 2001 film adaptation cleared a few things up), the show’s original Off-Broadway cast recording is well-crafted and compelling enough to stand on its own.

After a spoken introduction from manager Yitzhak (in keeping with the show’s gender-bending, a male character usually played by a woman, in this case Miriam Shor), Hedwig opens with “Tear Me Down”, a piano-pounding rocker with plenty of “whoooo’s!” that’s two-parts “The Bitch is Back”-era Elton John to one-part Meatloaf (who covered the song a few years later). It exuberantly sets up the narrative’s Berlin Wall metaphor without too much strain. The first of multiple likeminded rockers on Hedwig’s first half, it’s followed by the Shor-sung “Random Number Generation” (a Liz Phair-esque rave-up not actually in the show but recorded just for this album) and the raucous “Angry Inch”, where, in a purposely flattened, bratty sneer, Hedwig tells of her fateful operation. The indelible, punky chorus shouts, “Six inches forward and five inches back / I’ve got an angry inch!” while Mitchell goes all out, recounting this ordeal in shock-rock cadences and muttering such spoken asides as, “My first day as a woman, and already it’s that time of the month!”*

A whole LP of this stuff would probably work fine in a Ramones-y sort of way, but Hedwig proves far more dynamic than that. Those three aforementioned rockers alternate with songs that smoothly delve into other tempos, moods and genres. “The Origin of Love”, likely the closest thing to a standard here, immediately follows “Tear Me Down” with gentle acoustic guitars and understated vocals. It slowly builds in volume and power (the percussion plays a huge part in this) as Mitchell delivers an epic, myth-establishing song whose talky lyrics (he seems to be relaying as much backstory as he can in just over five minutes) get over on the lasting strength of the melody.

The album swerves again, two tracks later, with “Sugar Daddy”, a rockabilly-inflected, country and western-flavored, mostly acoustic stomp that concisely recounts Hedwig and Luther’s entire relationship (a spoken interlude in the middle sows the seeds for the former’s operation). It fits into Hedwig’s framework because it’s both catchy (the chorus could sell breakfast cereal) and irrepressibly sly—Ms. Hedwig wants her lover to lavish her with such ultra-specific luxuries as “Whiskey and French cigarettes / a motorbike with high-speed jets / a Waterpik, a Cuisinart and a hypo-allergenic dog.”

Immediately following “Angry Inch”, “Wig in a Box” nicely slots into its position as the first act showstopper. A thrilling ode to redemption via reinvention, it kicks off as a voice-and-piano, Freddie Mercury-style sketch, depicting Hedwig as a bored, suburban, jilted housewife who finds temporary escape by putting on a wig and transforming herself into “Miss Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen” or “Miss Beehive 1963”—that is, “Until I wake up, and turn back into myself.” The song slowly builds with each verse, becoming an agreeably fey, jaunty sing-along rocker complete with a sped-up, key-changing middle-eight that looks ahead to the empowered Hedwig of “Tear Me Down” and also provides this song’s triumphant outro where she concludes, “I’m never turning back!”

In relating the arc of Hedwig and Tommy’s relationship, much of the album’s second half plays out like a song suite, beginning and ending with alternate versions of its best composition. “Wicked Little Town” is nominally a piano ballad sung by Hedwig about Tommy’s life as a two-bit hustler and, in its first version, one of the show’s quieter, gentler tracks. Everything about it feels remarkably intimate, from the hand percussion and Mitchell’s Marc Bolan-esque croon to the backing female vocals at the bridge and how all drops out right after them except for that gorgeous piano melody that serves as the song’s poignant foundation.

The slightly languorous power-pop of “The Long Grift” follows, layering Hedwig’s glam touchstones with Beatles-esque “oh’s” and “do-do-do’s”. As sung by Hedwig to (or about) Tommy, it’s as much a delicate love song as it is a withering kiss-off. Next comes the brief “Hedwig’s Lament”, a minor key, piano-and-voice torch song that is the first (and only) track here entirely removed rock and roll; however, it’s brief, more of a link than anything else, leading right into the album’s loudest, angriest number, “Exquisite Corpse”. A shepherd’s pie of a song, it shifts from punk/thrash at full throttle to the brief, softer respite of Shor’s vocal to a “Be My Baby”-like backbeat and back to a noise-skronk explosion. What better way to detail Hedwig’s life and identity (both the wig and makeup literally come off in this scene) coming apart at the seams?

As “Exquisite Corpse” concludes in a scrawl of feedback, a familiar piano riff returns, announcing “Wicked Little Town (Reprise)”. It brings things full circle but this is less a simple return and more an answer song from Tommy. “Oh, lady luck has led you here”, sung by Hedwig in the first version turns into “You think that luck has left you there,” sung by Tommy here. It retains the same tempo but sounds far less delicate, more suited to the stadium stage than the singer/songwriter open mic. This reprise mirrors the original almost perfectly, but its slight modulations in tone and melody effectively bring forth closure and resolve to this part of the narrative, and are all the more affecting for that.

The original stage show concluded with Hedwig performing Patti Smith’s cover of “You Light Up My Life”; not able to continue shelling out the rights to cover it, Mitchell and Trask wrote a new song to replace it. Today, Hedwig seems unimaginable without “Midnight Radio”: it not only serves as a stirring, emotional conclusion to the tale, but also lets the show’s central thesis—the idea that we are whole, that whatever it is we’re looking for is ultimately within ourselves—blast off into the stratosphere. A power ballad in every sense of the term, like so many of Hedwig’s songs, it gradually builds from a slow, quiet intro to a majestic, shimmering, loud wall of sound. Midway through, Mitchell and Trask list a parade of female rock icons by their first names (Patti, Yoko, Tina, Aretha, etc.) before concluding, “And me,” and by then, they’ve fully earned the right to say it. “Midnight Radio” is a tribute to discovering the creative spark both within and around us; the goodwill it exudes lingers long after its two-minute, “Hey Jude” like coda repeating the phrase, “Lift up your hands” fades away.

Since its premiere almost two decades ago, Hedwig has unexpectedly sustained a spot in the pop culture firmament, thanks to that pretty great film adaptation (Mitchell’s directorial debut, establishing a career beyond his most famous creation that has included three more features to date), a 2014 Broadway revival starring Neil Patrick Harris (who won a Tony award for the role) and countless other productions around the globe. While the film soundtrack is pretty faithful (if a tad glossier), this original cast recording is still the one to hear, for it pulls off that rare trick of sounding as much of a credible cast album as it does a convincing rock album.

Next: 50+ Ways to Leave Your Lover (or Not.)

*This is even funnier when spoken by the inimitable Fred Schneider of The B-52’s covering the song (with Sleater-Kinney) on the 2003 Hedwig tribute album Wig in a Box.

“Wicked Little Town”

“Midnight Radio”:

1998: I Am Not Jesus, Though I Have the Same Initials

Pulp’s This is Hardcore was a hangover of a follow-up to their celebrated LP Different Class from two years before, and it’s emblematic of the time it came out in. Although never a single, “Dishes” instantly made an impression, and not just for its indelible opening lyric quoted above (only Jarvis Cocker would dare to make such a comparison). Later, he sings, “A man once told me, beware of 33 / He said, “It was a not an easy time for me.” I was 23 in 1998, but I could still relate—it was my first full year in Boston and I spent all of it in the graduate student interzone, where my life almost entirely focused towards academia. Apart from my classes, I was alone most of the time.

As a film studies student, movies admittedly supplanted music as an art form to obsess over, although the latter barely diminished as a presence in my life. Not having cable and deliberately avoiding the top 40, I relied on Boston’s WFNX (by far the more diverse of the city’s two alt-rock stations) to discover some new music—I first heard “History Repeating” and “Lights are Changing” there. Otherwise, I was off on my own, feverishly awaiting new recordings from artists I already adored (Pulp, PJ Harvey, Morcheeba, Tori Amos) and looking beyond commercial radio for new-to-me sounds from the past in the guise of college radio stations like WERS (an entirely different animal from what it is today) and WMBR.

Looking over this list now, I can’t find any rhyme or reason to it. I’ve gone on about alt-rock entering a rapid decline in the late ’90s, but this might be the last great year for top 40 pop as well: REM, Seal and Sheryl Crow won’t make any more appearances on these yearly lists (possibly Madonna as well). The fact that only one 1998 album shows up in this project (not on Spotify, so nothing from it on this playlist) also suggests anomaly; at one time or another, I could’ve made a case for Whitechocolatespaceegg, From the Choirgirl Hotel, The Globe Sessions or Mermaid Avenue, but none of them made the cut on this go-around (although Mezzanine came pretty close).

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1998 on Spotify:

  1. Propellerheads feat. Miss Shirley Bassey, “History Repeating”
  2. Emm Gryner, “Summerlong”
  3. Rufus Wainwright, “April Fools”
  4. Pernice Brothers, “Clear Spot”
  5. Mary Lou Lord, “Lights are Changing”
  6. Pulp, “Dishes”
  7. Calexico, “Stray”
  8. Lucinda Williams, “Right in Time”
  9. PJ Harvey, “A Perfect Day Elise”
  10. Depeche Mode, “Only When I Lose Myself”
  11. Grant Lee Buffalo, “The Whole Shebang”
  12. Billy Bragg and Wilco, “California Stars”
  13. Air, “You Make It Easy”
  14. Morcheeba, “Part of the Process”
  15. Komeda, “It’s Alright, Baby”
  16. Black Box Recorder, “Child Psychology”
  17. Tori Amos, “Black-Dove (January)”
  18. Massive Attack, “Man Next Door”
  19. Madonna, “Ray of Light”
  20. Liz Phair, “Polyester Bride”
  21. Belle & Sebastian, “Slow Graffiti”
  22. Seal, “Lost My Faith”
  23. New Radicals, “Gotta Stay High”
  24. R.E.M., “At My Most Beautiful”
  25. Sheryl Crow, “My Favorite Mistake”

The Best Films of 2016

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1. CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR
I’ve loved all of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films since Tropical Malady from over a decade ago, but none have stayed with me like this one has since first seeing it last spring. Set in a military hospital in the director’s rural hometown, which he positions as a sort of purgatorial waystation for sleep-prone soldiers, it’s another magical realist mood piece. This time, he draws connections between psychic mediums, ghosts, mythic sites and dreams, feeling both familiar and otherworldly. The film practically glides from scene to scene, concerned with such ephemera as the light in the sky or the unusual therapy provided by symmetrical rows of glowing neon tubes at the foot of the soldier’s beds. Seductive and inscrutable in equal measure, it’s like nothing else I saw this year.

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2. AQUARIUS
Retired music critic Clara (Sonia Braga) has lived in the two-story Recife, Brazil apartment building that gives this film its title for most of her life after inheriting it from her aunt; currently its sole tenant, she’s pressured by developers trying to force her out so they can replace it with a commercial high rise structure. While Aquarius is yet another story of one person determinedly holding on to a way of life in the face of change and gentrification, it’s more elegiac than nostalgic and driven by mystique instead of melodrama. It’s no overstatement to say Braga delivers a monumental, career-best performance, but the rest of the film is very much up to her level, from its diverse, playful soundtrack to how masterfully it builds up to its shocking, gloriously cathartic finale.

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3. OUR LITTLE SISTER
The latest from longtime favorite director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, Nobody Knows) is a Japanese manga adaptation about three grown sisters who take in their teenage half-sister after meeting her at their shared father’s funeral. One of the most admirable things about the film is how naturally compassionate the women are towards their newly discovered sibling, not seeing her as a rival or an unwanted surprise, but simply as family. Like all of Kore-eda’s best work, it focuses on our capacity to be humane, on how well we treat each other. The charming, unfussy narrative that unfolds rises to the same level as Yasujiro Ozu’s great mid-century domestic dramas; it’s all enough to make one wish a major American filmmaker could achieve something both so simple and profound (leading us to…)

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4. MOONLIGHT
Barry Jenkins’ (Medicine for Melancholy) almost wholly unexpected second feature has garnered the acclaim and the audience you wish most films of its ilk could achieve. In following three life stages (child, teen and adult) of a black man from a rough Miami neighborhood, Moonlight could have easily succumbed to its potentially gimmicky structure or turned out an Issue Picture about how an outsider never truly escapes his confining environment. Instead, the end result is uncommonly lyrical in its fluid pace (and camera movement), often gorgeous imagery and narrative/structural leaps. However, what’s most admirable is the rare intimacy it achieves—particularly in those wonderfully observed and executed scenes at the neighborhood park, the beach at night, and the diner.

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5. THE LOBSTER
When news surfaced of the premise of Yorgos Lanthimos’ (Dogtooth) first English language film, I thought it sounded nothing less absolutely crazy and thank god, he didn’t disappoint. In fact, as English language debuts go, nothing about The Lobster feels compromised or diluted. A pitch-dark satire about the necessity to find one’s “soulmate” (or be turned into the animal of your choosing), it features an unrecognizable Colin Farrell (playing a schlub so convincingly that it’s revelatory) and a typically terrific Rachel Weisz, plus an inspired cast of weirdoes populating a narrative that sharply critiques two worlds that would seem to be wildly at odds but actually end up mirroring each other in their enforcement of conformity. And that ending is more brilliant (if not more grotesque) than anything Kubrick could’ve come up with.

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6. FREE IN DEED
Abe, a minister at a storefront Pentecostal church in Memphis attempts to help out recent convert and single mother Melva, whose mentally ill young child Benny is subject to terrifying fits of rage. It doesn’t go all that well as his attempts to spiritually heal the child test not only the mother’s faith but also his own. Exploring the controversial subject of faith healing without judgement, Jake Mahaffay’s film enables the worshippers’ actions and their consequences to speak for themselves. Featuring a trio of excellent performances (David Harewood, Edwina Findley and RaJay Chandler (a real find as Benny), Free In Deed is intense and unforgettable—it shook me to the core. Here’s hoping that it finds distribution beyond the festival circuit.

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7. MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART
Unless I missed something by not seeing A Touch of Sin, this feels like a considerable leap forward for Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. Set over three time periods (the third one is too good to give away), it follows Shen Tao (his longtime muse Zhao Tao in perhaps her best role to date), a woman coming of age at the end of the 20th century whose choices create consequences both good and bad for those closest to her. A character-driven epic that’s more confident and efficient than Zhangke’s earlier work, it recalls the Zhang Yimou of To Live, while also coming off as more subtle and poignant; it also makes inspired use of a certain Pet Shop Boys song, of all things.

8. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan is one of the more honest filmmakers working today, both in the natural dialogue he writes and in his tendency not to sugarcoat absolutely anything. I’ve been telling people that this coastal Massachusetts-set drama is a tough watch, because it doesn’t shy away from the horrible thing that forever alters his protagonist’s (a never-better Casey Affleck) life, and even worse, reveals what happened when you least expect it. But I’m just as comfortable relaying how funny parts of this film are. Mournful, sweet, a little acerbic and moving without being outwardly manipulative, Manchester By The Sea both soothes and stings because it is so close to life as we recognize it. All I could ask for from this near-perfect picture is a less bombastic musical score.

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9. AMERICAN HONEY
A two-and-a-half-hour-plus road movie about teenagers selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door (in 2016?), with a first-time actress (Sasha Lane, another real find) expected to carry almost every scene and a rat-tailed Shia LaBeouf (of all people) credibly playing the romantic lead? Only Andrea Arnold, the great British director behind Red Road and Fish Tank could have pulled this off. That she did gives American Honey some novelty, but its continuous momentum lends it its spirit and spark. You watch this film just waiting for it to take a wrong turn and go off the rails, but it doesn’t and you’re left with a rare, illuminating view about what a huge mid-section of this country really looks and feels like at the present moment.

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10. DEMON
It seems the simplest way to describe this film is “unclassifiable”, but let me try a little harder. Demon is about a wedding between a Polish woman and an Israeli man in the former’s home village; it is also about ghosts and an exorcism, with ties to Catholicism, World War II and the Jewish dybbuk legend. The tone wavers between kitchen sink realism, slapstick-like hilarity and all-out horror. It’s close to the best-looking film I’ve seen this year, but it’s not like anything else I’ve ever seen, or possibly ever will see again—its director, 32-year-old Marcin Wrona committed suicide days after the film’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere.

11. WEINER
Immensely entertained by this, Schadenfreude!: The Motion Picture when I saw it last summer; would probably have a more complicated, possibly chilling response revisiting it post-election. Either way, fascinating for its very New York political point-of-view and unfiltered access, even in the social media age.

12. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
Whit Stillman was made to adapt Jane Austen. Sticking to one her less overly familiar works was a smart choice, as was realizing Tom Bennett’s comic potential by casting him as Sir James Martin (Kate, Chloe, Stephen, etc. are also very welcome); it’s all much to do about nothing, of course, but splendidly executed.

13. MISS SHARON JONES!
As essential as director Barbara Kopple’s Dixie Chicks doc from a decade ago. With a personality as massive as her talent, charismatic soul singer Jones and her struggle with pancreatic cancer was genuinely inspirational when this premiered at TIFF over a year ago. Now, following her death last November, it’s also a joyous tribute to an exceptional life.

14. BEING 17
Just when you thought the gay coming-of-age genre was dead, Andre Techine, whom arguably perfected it two decades ago with Wild Reeds, breathes new life into it by relegating it to the film’s subtext for its first half, all the while establishing a lived-in environment full of equally compelling stories to tell.

15. KRISHA
It goes somewhat bonkers at the end, but Trey Edward Shults’ film is still one of the year’s best and most original debuts—especially in its claustrophobic sound and production design, but also for the great lead performance from his own aunt, Krisha Fairchild, who has the unhinged yet oddly relatable intensity of a boomer Gena Rowlands.

16. THE SAVER
Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s Montreal microindie is nearly the gem her earlier picture, Marion Bridge was, with good work from Imajyn Cardinal as its teen protagonist, an indigent orphan forced to crafty measures in order to care for herself. While it scrapes away at the miserablism of a Dardennes Brothers picture, it ultimately comes off as more hopeful than that.

17. CAMERAPERSON
Kirsten Johnson has worked as a cinematographer on documentaries for 25 years; in this experimental essay piece, she assembles footage she’s shot for these works along with that of her family and friends. More stream of consciousness than linear, it nonetheless sings due to her eye as a photographer and, almost more importantly, as an editor.

18. CERTAIN WOMEN
Not all parts of Kelly Reichardt’s Montana triptych work as beautifully as say, Meek’s Cutoff does as a whole (I thought the midsection with Michele Williams was a little slight). But the first third with Laura Dern and Jared Harris scans like a nifty true crime short story, and the last part soars thanks to Lily Gladstone’s unadorned and eventually heartbreaking sincerity.

19. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
If anything, Mike Mills honors his mother more fruitfully here than Beginners did his dad. Anchored by another expansive Annette Bening performance, this is an affable character study set in 1979 whose structure and purpose resembles an indie film from 1999 but feels thrillingly relevant. I haven’t liked Greta Gerwig so much since Frances Ha, or Billy Crudup since… 1999?

20. LOVING
Jeff Nichols’ film proves too subtle for awards-bait as it focuses on the character’s ordinariness just as much as the social issues. However, there’s often beauty in subtlety and Joel Edgerton’s underrated work here clinches it—as do the conclusions one comes to draw between interracial marriage in the ‘60s and same-sex marriage in the past decade.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Chevalier, Chicken People, City of Gold, The Club, The Dying of the Light, The Handmaiden, Hell or High Water, Hunt For the Wilderpeople, The Innocents, Life Animated, Little Men, Morris From America, Neon Bull, Nuts!, Rams, Sing Street, Tickled

Saint Etienne, “Good Humor / Fairfax High”

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(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #60 – released September 8, 1998)

Track listing: Woodcabin / Sylvie / Split Screen / Mr. Donut / Goodnight Jack / Lose That Girl / The Bad Photographer / Been So Long / Postman / Erica America / Dutch TV / Hill Street Connection / Hit the Brakes / Madeleine / Swim Swam Swim / 4:35 In The Morning / Clark County Record Fair / Zipcode / My Name Is Vlaovic / Afraid to Go Home / La La La / Cat Nap

After putting out three studio albums in as many years, another four would pass before Saint Etienne finally released their next one. That’s not to say they were entirely inactive during this sabbatical; they did release numerous compilations including a greatest hits album (which featured “He’s On The Phone”, their recent one-off, highest-charting UK single), a Japanese-only odds-and-sods collection and a pretty great solo effort from vocalist Sarah Cracknell (even more tracks from this period eventually surfaced on various fan club-only releases.)

One doesn’t necessarily have to hear the bulk of this output in order to understand how the band redefined its sound between Tiger Bay and Good Humor (for the most part, it’s not readily available to download or stream, particularly in the US), although for fans, it fills in the gaps between the former’s cinematic, genre-bending soundscapes and the latter’s more refined approach. Better to view the relatively stripped-down Good Humor as a back-to-basics record, a homage to the late ’60s/early ’70s AM radio pop group members Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Cracknell cut their teeth on. With producer Tore Johansson, best known for his work for Swedish lounge-poppers The Cardigans, Saint Etienne made an album not too far away from the likes of “Lovefool”, that other group’s big hit from the previous year.

Good Humor generally opts for a live band sound, which stands in direct contrast to their past studio-centric output. Opener “Woodcabin” eases into this style with an isolated, mechanical-like rhythm that may or may not be a drum machine. Then, a funk bassline kicks in, followed by jazzy Fender Rhodes electric piano, acoustic guitar and muted trumpet filigrees. However, it no longer resembles a Cardigans song once Cracknell’s inimitable vocals appear. She elongates syllables to their breaking points on the verses (rendering “A beauty queen from Idaho,” as “a beauuu-tee queeeen (pause) from Iiii-da-hoe”) before arriving at the chilled-out chorus: “Never write a ballad / got to get a grip now / cause nothing ever matters / if you hide away from it all.” That last phrase, along with the overall laid-back vibe, places them in a far cozier setting than ever before.

The album’s lead single “Sylvie” promptly returns them to the dancefloor. An ABBA-worthy Eurodisco anthem, it falls comfortably in line with such past uptempo hits as “Join Our Club” and “Pale Movie” and yet, it’s different. None of those past hits, for instance, had a minute-plus long instrumental intro, with nearly thirty seconds of solo piano previewing the song’s entire melody before being replaced by frenetic congas. The piano then shifts to an enticing samba-like rhythm, and the drum machines and synths soon kick in. When Cracknell’s vocals finally appear, you’re immersed in such a peculiar way that you feel you know the song, but that there’s also more yet to be revealed.

Cracknell sings to the titular woman who has just stolen her man, “Sylvie, girl, I’m a very patient person / but I’ll have to shut you down / if you don’t give up your flirting.” She follows this with one of the song’s many hooks, the taunting but knowing “You know he’s mine, you know he’s mine.” It’s not until the final verse that she reveals Sylvie is no mere schoolyard rival, but rather poignantly her own little sister. “Give it all up ’cause I know you’ve been trying / over and over and over and over again,” she sings, blissfully repeating those last words unto infinity as the song swells and sighs. I remember either Stanley or Wiggs once called “Sylvie” a ’90s update of Yvonne Elliman’s Saturday Night Fever chestnut “If I Can’t Have You”; I can’t think of a more apt comparison.

Although Good Humor is unfathomable without “Sylvie”, it’s an outlier here; “Split Screen” is more what the album’s about. Coming off like an upbeat, ultra-groovy ’70s sitcom theme, complete with horns and shimmering vibes, the song sounds tailor-made for swanky cocktail parties and suburban backyard picnics, but it’s no background music—not with Cracknell breaking free from a staid relationship, singing with glee on the breathtaking, key-changing bridge, “Now I really don’t care / ’cause I’m dying to get the sun in my hair.”

While on their earlier records the contrast between her vocals and the mashed-up soundscapes enveloping them was a key part of the band’s appeal, Good Humor’s more organic arrangements fit Cracknell like a hand-knit glove. On “Lose That Girl” (musically a very close cousin to Rumors-era Christine McVie), she’s delectably catty, picking apart a friend’s recent ex-lover with savage but fair precision (“She thought she’d look good in purple jeans from Santa Fe”, she observes), making perhaps the most damning accusation one could in the world of Saint Etienne: “On her radio, she turned the disco down.” (!) Conversely, she’s just as convincingly wistful on “Been So Long” and melancholy on the gorgeously downbeat “Postman”, where her “ba, ba, ba’s” speak as much about her emotional well-being as lyrics such as, “I was only lonely / only thinking of you.”

Much of Good Humor plays like an extended K-Tel compilation of some of the band’s greatest and not necessarily hippest influences. With its luxuriant Barry White wah-wah guitar hook and hypnotic hi-hats, “Erica America” would fit right at home on a Soul Train couples dance segment. “Been So Long” is as well-constructed as Radio City-era Big Star and as winsome as The Carpenters (although a tad less syrupy) to almost resemble contemporaries Belle and Sebastian. “Dutch TV” lovingly emulates Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown music (although no Peanuts special would ever include the lyric, “Turn the TV down, kick the TV in.”) In addition to being a perfect snapshot of an indie British band on tour in the USA, “Mr. Donut” is a blatant late-Beatles pastiche, all “Strawberry Fields Forever”-esque Mellotron and “Your Mother Should Know”-like fat fingers piano. Still, not even McCartney could come up with lyrics as endearingly daft as the song’s opening lines: “Checked into the airport half an hour late / Jackie caused a scene when we reached the gate / Sorry, Mr. Pilot, but you’ll have to wait / cause Paul’s still in the duty-free.”

Although the band’s most approachable record to date, it’s also occasionally as adventurous as their past efforts. It’s not hard to see why “The Bad Photographer” was picked as the album’s second single—from how it opens with an instrumental version of its bridge to the indelible “All for you” vocal hook in the chorus, it’s instantly hummable. The lyrics, on the other hand, are Saint Etienne at their most fascinatingly inscrutable, detailing a photo shoot and its aftermath, but observing it both in the first-person and at a distance. “Some secret / must keep it /hey, I wouldn’t know who to tell,” goes one verse; later, Cracknell sings, “Days later / saw the paper / how did I fall for you?” Some vital information is left out between that gap (perhaps the secret?) and half the fun is trying to figure it out (while the other half is finding yourself singing along with her every word.)

“Goodnight Jack” could almost have fit in on Tiger Bay with its striking intro of cascading lone guitar notes eventually subsumed by an almost symphonic backing slowly building in volume. Although the lyrics are somewhat more lucid than those on “The Bad Photographer” (“Can I take this once again / You know I’d like to be a friend,”), the structure is anything but. After a few verses, the song shifts into an extended coda spiced with flutes and faux-harpsichord and Cracknell singing “She’s got to run / run away from home,” over and over again. For all of Good Humor’s tendency towards three-minute potential radio hits, it doesn’t completely obscure the leftfield experiments and studio-as-playground logic of their back catalog.

Regardless, Good Humor was enough of a departure that a chunk of the band’s UK fanbase was left cold by what was a warmer and, to many ears, more American-sounding album. Accordingly, it managed the none-too-grave task of reestablishing Saint Etienne in the US, where it likely remains their best-selling release. While their first three albums came out here on Capitol (who botched Tiger Bay’s release with an alternate tracklisting and poor promotion), this one was released by Sub Pop, the famous indie label home at one time to Nirvana, Sonic Youth and The Shins. The mere idea of this very British pop trio being signed to a label heavily associated with grunge and alt-rock is a bit droll, but Sub Pop’s boutique size and independent ethos was far closer in spirit to their likeminded British label, Creation.

Still, Good Humor’s eleven songs only tell part of the album’s story in the US. Having arrived a few months after the UK release, the first 10,000 copies on Sub Pop came with a bonus disc, Fairfax High, which collected eleven more tracks, mostly B-sides from the “Sylvie” and “The Bad Photographer” UK singles. While very few would argue they comprise as sturdy a selection as what’s on the main album, it’s strong enough to suggest that, perhaps, given a little more fine-tuning, Good Humor could have very well ended up a decent double album.

While nothing on Fairfax High comes close to the effervescent rush of “Sylvie”, that’s okay. Apart from isolated uptempo numbers like “Zipcode” and “Hit the Brakes”, this is more music to put on after coming home from the party. Two of the best songs are acoustic ballads one could reasonably describe as twee: “Madeleine” has one of the prettiest melodies of any Saint Etienne song, with Cracknell backed by little more than acoustic piano and guitar, while the disarming “Clark County Record Fair” is the sort of love song only two record-collecting nerds like Stanley and Wiggs would ever write. Surely good enough to have fit on Good Humor, the gentle trip-hop of “4:35 In The Morning” was probably relegated here due to its evocative title; “La La La” doesn’t reach quite such heights (as one can surmise by its title) although it’s not much lesser than Ivy’s comparable “Ba Ba Ba”.

If anything, Fairfax High was instrumental in encouraging me to appreciate, well, instrumentals, of which it has four. Opener “Hill Street Connection” (named for its brief interpolation of Mike Post’s Hill Street Blues theme) mists over you like a lush, refreshing summer rain; closer “Cat Nap”, heavily reminiscent of the ‘60s instrumental piano hit “Last Date” has the opposite effect, gently, agreeably lulling one to sleep. “Swim Swam Swim” floats on by with irresistible ease on a raft of piano chords, flutes, “ba, ba, ba’s” and a simple shuffling rhythm; “My Name is Vlaovic” similarly lopes along a repeated, circular melody, only with an air of intrigue straight out of a ‘60s spy film. They all work as background music (or even Muzak, if you prefer) and yet the craft and attention to detail in each one enables the listener to curiously remain absorbed—a trick the band might have learned from Brian Eno.

Good Humor is one of those records that registered with me instantly (that I had just discovered the band the previous year and anticipated it madly certainly helped), but it didn’t take long for me to love Fairfax High as well. For a time, this combo was my favorite Saint Etienne album. It remains in my top five of their voluminous catalog and is a solid entry point for newcomers to the band; if it lacks the ambition and forever-pushing-forward momentum of the band’s greatest works (So Tough, Tiger Bay, and one other album to come in this project), it’s no less delightful a listen. Make yourself a cup of ginger tea, curl up on a comfortable seat, and enjoy.

Next: Lift up your hands.

“Sylvie”:

“Madeleine”:

1997: Boy, You Can’t Play Me That Way

In Summer ‘97, I heard a lot of Top 40 radio while working a retail job (actually, it was an “Adult Top 40” station, which translated as Mostly White Without Rocking too Hard). I must have listened to Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch”, OMC’s “How Bizarre” and The Wallflowers “One Headlight” (among many others) at least one hundred times each over a three-month period. I’d like to say it soured me off mainstream radio for good, but even without such overexposure, I’m positive those songs still would not have aged well enough to make my playlist below.

It was around this time I almost entirely stopped putting stock into commercial radio (even mainstream modern rock channels!). Of these 25 songs, the only ones I ever heard on the radio that year were White Town’s brilliant, genderfucked novelty hit and maybe the Cornershop song (the latter probably only on Boston’s then-great indie-rock station WFNX). A few, like “Da Funk”, “Try”, “Stereo” and “She Cries Your Name”, probably came from 120 Minutes. “Smoke” was an exceptional album track from an LP I bought the first week of release, as was Blur’s great “Beetlebum” (number one in the UK but overshadowed in the US by their own surprise novelty hit).

Regardless, I didn’t hear at least one-third of these until post-’97. I’ve already gone on about discovering Ivy four years later; Super Furry Animals, Sleater-Kinney and Teenage Fanclub would also become known to me in that rough period. “Lazy Line Painter Jane” had the most seismic impact in the summer of 2000, when it finally became commercially available in the US, eighteen months after I fell for If You’re Feeling Sinister (the time to discuss it in detail comes later in this project). Remember, ’97 was still mostly pre-internet when it came to hearing new music. I can only imagine how different this list might now be if I had YouTube or Spotify at my disposal back then.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1997 on Spotify:

  1. Belle and Sebastian, “Lazy Line Painter Jane”
  2. Cornershop, “Brimful of Asha”
  3. Teenage Fanclub, “Ain’t That Enough”
  4. Jen Trynin, “Getaway (February)”
  5. Blur, “Beetlebum”
  6. Daft Punk, “Da Funk”
  7. Bjork, “Joga”
  8. Ivy, “The Best Thing”
  9. White Town, “Your Woman”
  10. Mansun, “Wide Open Space”
  11. Pavement, “Stereo”
  12. Jill Sobule, “Happy Town”
  13. Sleater-Kinney, “Turn It On”
  14. Super Furry Animals, “Hermann Loves Pauline”
  15. Ben Folds Five, “Smoke”
  16. Steve Wynn, “How’s My Little Girl”
  17. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Into My Arms”
  18. Depeche Mode, “Home”
  19. Eric Matthews, “No Gnashing Teeth”
  20. Beth Orton, “She Cries Your Name”
  21. Stereolab, “Miss Modular”
  22. Supergrass, “Late in the Day”
  23. Matthew Sweet, “Behind the Smile”
  24. Ween, “Ocean Man”
  25. Michael Penn, “Try”

2016 Booklist

My ten favorite books that I read this year, in chronological order of finishing them:

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Matthew Zoller Seitz, Mad Men Carousel

One of the most meticulously crafted and complex TV series of all time warrants a similarly comprehensive episode guide; Seitz, who recapped the series for Vulture.com in its later seasons, provides exactly that. As befitting the show itself, it nearly reads like the proverbial Great American Novel. I am so looking forward to re-watching the show while concurrently reading this again (perhaps in 2018? 2019?).

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Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

The problem with 500+ page novels is that almost always, they would greatly benefit from not exceeding that page count (see Hallberg’s City On Fire, which might’ve made my top ten had it been 300 pages shorter). At just over 800 pages, Yanagihara’s widely acclaimed second novel is the rare long book I could read forever; it’s also one of the more brutal narratives I’ve ever read, with a protagonist whom repeatedly suffers abuse from others and, most disconcertingly, at his own hand. But Yanagihara’s prose is so assured in its openness, honesty and lyricism that this is easily my favorite book of the year.

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Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others

While not as sharp as her great last book Stone Arabia, Spiotta’s fourth novel wraps an ambitious, ingenuous, multi-decade spanning narrative in an almost impossibly succinct frame. It will appeal to art-film aesthetes (particularly Orson Welles buffs) as much as those fascinated by voyeurism, or the idea of trying on a false identity and seeing how far one can keep it up.

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Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography

I’ve been waiting two years for this biography to come out in paperback so I could easily carry it with me on my commute everyday and lose myself in Henson’s extraordinary story. No one else apart from Charles Schulz was so influential in shaping my early childhood, particularly in the way pop culture informs how a child learns and comes to see the world. That Jones never obscures Henson’s all-too-human qualities provides essential depth to the book’s celebration of all his accomplishments.

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Dave Holmes, Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs

Of the memoirs read this year, I’m not surprised that this one ended up one of my favorites. Former MTV-VJ Holmes has carved out a neat second act as an essayist/columnist in the past few years; in this book, his affable voice immediately draws you into his world, and you relate, even if you’re not a male, gay Gen-X-er who grew up closeted in the Midwest.

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John Cleese, So, Anyway…

The other great memoir I read in 2016. Monty Python stalwart Cleese, as hilarious and self-deprecating as one would expect, tells his life story up until that troupe formed and changed television sketch comedy forever; fortunately, he has enough anecdotes and insights to sustain this sizable tome (hope he tackles the Python years in a sequel).

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Jessi Klein, You’ll Grow Out of It

I suppose I’ll eventually read Amy Schumer’s essay collection, but I’m betting it won’t be as good as this one from the head writer on her Comedy Central show. Klein, like David Sedaris, is unflashy and fairly deadpan in her wit. Her conversational essays just seem to naturally unfold and are often riotously funny without straining for easy laffs, whether she’s describing something so lofty as attending the Academy Awards or commonplace as epidurals or internet porn.

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Simon Reynolds, Shock and Awe

Years in the making, Reynolds’ epic study of 1970s glam rock could not have come out in a more timely manner, eight months after David Bowie’s death. However, for someone who has written great books about rave culture and post-punk/new wave, this could be his magnum opus, exploring every facet of this very particular music subgenre and somehow making it all sound equally interesting.

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Emma Cline, The Girls

On the surface, this debut novel would seem to have a gimmick—it follows a 14-year-old girl who in 1969 joins a Charles Manson-like cult—but for all the obvious parallels it draws to real-life events, it feels like a compelling, original work. Cline focuses less on the lewd, sensational aspects lurking around the edges of this tale and more on her protagonist’s mindset with perceptiveness most impressive for a first novel. After finishing it, my first thought was that I would read anything this author will write.

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Carolyn Parkhurst, Harmony

I’ve loved Parkhurst’s writing since The Dogs of Babel; after the slightly disappointing The Nobodies Album, she’s back in fine form on her fourth novel. From multiple points of view and shifts back and forth in time, she constructs an intriguing narrative about family, cult of personality, autism and what it means to really change a life—and what you both give up and gain in the process.

My complete 2016 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

  1. Ben Watt, Patient
  2. Laline Paull, The Bees
  3. Matthew Zoller Seitz, Mad Men Carousel
  4. Jonathan Ames, I Pass Like Night
  5. Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling
  6. Michaelangelo Matos, The Underground is Massive
  7. Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
  8. Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
  9. Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others
  10. Andy Partridge, Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC
  11. Owen Gleiberman, Movie Freak
  12. Kathryn Reed Altman and Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, Altman
  13. Daniel Clowes, Patience
  14. Karl Ove Knausgard, My Struggle, Book Three: Boyhood
  15. Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl
  16. Augusten Burroughs, Lust and Wonder
  17. Robert K. Elder (ed.), The Best Film You’ve Never Seen
  18. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead*
  19. Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography
  20. Daniel Clowes, Wilson
  21. Alan Sepinwall, The Revolution Was Televised
  22. Jonathan Ames, Wake Up, Sir!
  23. David Rakoff, The Uncollected David Rakoff
  24. Steven Hyden, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me
  25. Dave Holmes, Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs
  26. Rachel Kushner, The Flame Throwers
  27. Robert Forster, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll
  28. Chuck Klosterman, What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About The Future As If It Were The Past
  29. Courtney J. Sullivan, Commencement
  30. David Mitchell, Slade House
  31. Caitlin Moran, Moranthology
  32. John Cleese, So, Anyway…
  33. Jessi Klein, You’ll Grow Out of It
  34. Frank Conniff, Twenty Five MST3K Films That Changed My Life In No Way Whatsoever
  35. Joel Kriofske, And Good Night To All The Beautiful Young Women
  36. Alan Sepinwall and Matthew Zoller Seitz, TV: The Book
  37. Patti Smith, M Train
  38. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Seinfeldia
  39. Garth Risk Hallberg, City On Fire
  40. Jennifer Saunders: Bonkers: My Life in Laughs
  41. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five*
  42. Richard Brautigan, Revenge of the Lawn
  43. Simon Reynolds, Shock and Awe
  44. Jen Trynin, Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be*
  45. Emma Cline, The Girls
  46. Jonathan Lethem, A Gambler’s Anatomy
  47. Maria Semple, Today Will Be Different
  48. Lisa Hanawalt, Hot Dog Taste Test
  49. Carolyn Parkhurst, Harmony
  50. Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader
  51. David Sedaris, Holidays On Ice*
  52. John Gregory Dunne, The Studio

I also really enjoyed the compilation of Partridge interviews, Clowes’ latest graphic novel (nearly as good as Ghost World), Burroughs’ new memoir (easily his best since Dry), various-but-still-vital essays from the late, great Rakoff, Kushner’s enigmatic story about artists in 1970s New York, Smith’s peripatetic essays, Semple’s nearly-as-terrific follow-up to Where’d You Go, Bernadette? and finally, a memoir written by my cousin Joel about my great uncle Joe, a former FBI agent stricken with Alzheimer’s in his old age. I’m proud to see a Kriofske has published a book, for it gives me a little more hope that I can do the same one day.

2016: We Kill The Flame

Compared to last year, 2016 was not a great year for albums (or a great year, period). Still! I quickly threw together a playlist of thirty favorite songs and I could easily add on another ten or twenty. While long-awaited records like Tegan and Sara’s Love You to Death or Junior Boys’ Big Black Coat felt a little underwhelming in lieu of what came before from each duo, I played the heck out of both “U-Turn” and “Baby Give Up On It”. The Bastille single ended up as much of an earworm as “Pompeii” was a few years before. The Florence + The Machine song, a soundtrack cut, certainly didn’t feel like filler or a leftover from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. “Radio” stoked some anticipation for a second album from Sylvan Esso in 2017.

I’ve also included tracks from a few discs that very nearly made my top ten (KT Tunstall (her best since her debut), Parquet Courts, true supergroup case (Neko) / lang (KD) / veirs (Laura)) and better-than-average album cuts from the likes of Wilco, Santigold, Eleanor Friedberger and Corinne Bailey Rae, among others. If this year had a theme song, it’s undeniably the title track from what turned out to be Leonard Cohen’s final album (a good one, but not as interesting as Popular Problems). Nearly up there with “Everybody Knows” and “The Future”, it’s as much in tune with the times as my #1 album of this year.

Click here to listen to my Spotify playlist of thirty great songs from 2016:

  1. Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”
  2. Santigold, “Rendezvous Girl”
  3. Sylvan Esso, “Radio”
  4. The Radio Dept., “Committed to the Cause”
  5. The Avalanches, “If I Were a Folkstar”
  6. Martha Wainwright, “Traveller”
  7. Michael Kiwanuka, “Cold Little Heart”
  8. Ben Watt, “Between Two Fires”
  9. Whitney, “No Matter Where We Go”
  10. Parquet Courts, “Berlin Got Blurry”
  11. Bastille, “Good Grief”
  12. KT Tunstall, “Turned a Light On”
  13. Corinne Bailey Rae, “Stop Where You Are”
  14. Pet Shop Boys, “Burn”
  15. The Divine Comedy, “A Desperate Man”
  16. John K. Samson, “Prayer For Ruby Elm”
  17. Florence + The Machine, “Wish That You Were Here”
  18. The 1975, “Somebody Else”
  19. Wilco, “Someone to Lose”
  20. Andrew Bird, “Truth Lies Low”
  21. Roisin Murphy, “Ten Miles High”
  22. Junior Boys, “Baby Give Up On It”
  23. Eleanor Friedberger, “Because I Asked You”
  24. Paul Simon, “Cool Papa Bell”
  25. case/lang/veirs, “Best Kept Secret”
  26. David Bowie, “Lazarus”
  27. Tegan and Sara, “U-Turn”
  28. PJ Harvey, “The Wheel”
  29. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, “Midnight Rider”
  30. Field Music, “Stay Awake”

Best Albums of 2016: # 1

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1. The Radio Dept., “Running Out of Love”

This Swedish duo’s first full-length studio release since 2010 was already this year’s most relevant album before the November elections; the morning after, as many of us recoiled in horror at the results, they posted a link to the track “This Thing Was Bound to Happen” on their Facebook page and, in retrospect, of course it was. The warnings we chose to ignore were loud and clear all along. On “Occupied”, the preceding track here but also a standalone single released back in Summer 2015, they sang, “It’s a shame / how people claim / to be one thing or another / When it fact it’s nothing but an act.”

Running Out of Love is essentially an album-length condemnation of the rise of fascism in Sweden. The opener, “Sloboda Narodu” (Croatian for “Freedom to the people”) is anthem-like and hopeful; the closer, “Teach Me to Forget”, ominously seethes with disappointment and contempt (they follow the title with the lyric, “Because baby you’re so good at it.”). In between, they ridicule the omnipresence of “Swedish Guns”, attempt to rationalize fascist motives (“Committed to the Cause”) and justify their own muted responses (“Can’t Be Guilty”).

Having drawn inspiration from both The Cure and New Order throughout their career, this synth-heavy record tips the scales towards the latter, although it often surprises. Reggae-inflected “Swedish Guns” is the modern equivalent of The Specials’ “Ghost Town”; “We Got Game” recalls early ‘90s house music like Inner City and Technotronic. “Can’t Be Guilty” could be classic ABC (albeit with far more subdued vocals) while “Committed to the Cause” mixes Happy Mondays-indebted dance rock with a just a touch of Toto (!). That last song might be the best thing they’ve ever done, but all of Running Out of Love fully registers both musically and politically. It’s a definitive album of the world we live in now.

Favorite tracks: “Swedish Guns”, “We Got Game”, “Can’t Be Guilty”, “Committed to the Cause”

“Committed to the Cause”:

“We Got Game”:

Best Albums of 2016: # 4, 3, 2

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4. David Bowie, “Blackstar”

Would this have been as beloved if Bowie hadn’t died days after its release? Does it matter? Far more focused, innovative and affecting than The Next Day, it both encapsulates everything we loved about the man, and also blows it all up. The title track mirrors the structure of “Station to Station” without sounding anything like it; “Girl Love Me” shrugs off Major Tom-style mythmaking with a sobering directness; “Lazarus” looks death straight in the eye, shattering any claims of shielding himself from the world with another persona. What a way to go out, to sum up a life like only Bowie could, while still leaving people wanting more: not for naught is the final track called “I Can’t Give Everything Away”.

Favorite tracks: “Blackstar”, “Lazarus”, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”

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3. Field Music, “Commontime”

I had high hopes for this record after its six-minute-plus first single/opener “The Noisy Days Are Over” dropped late last year—it reiterated everything good about this English art-pop combo while also opening up their sound to contain beefy horns and a funk-rock rhythm not far off from vintage Talking Heads (even the now-departed Prince (of all people) linked to it on his Twitter feed). Although it’s the undeniable highlight here, the rest doesn’t disappoint, as they temper their always-appreciated XTC fixation with welcome nods towards Squeeze, Split Enz and Paul McCartney circa “Take it Away”. Equally welcome: the newfound maturity and insight of tracks like “The Morning is Waiting” and poignant closer “Stay Awake”.

Favorite tracks: “The Noisy Days are Over”, “Disappointed”, “Stay Awake”

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2. Michael Kiwanuka, “Love & Hate”

If Kiwanuka’s 2012 debut confirmed a talent for Bill Withers-like folk-soul, his follow-up reveals this Londoner’s ambition and vision. Opening with “Cold Little Heart”, a ten-minute, two-part extravaganza that crosses Pink Floyd with Donny Hathaway, Love & Hate rarely lets up from there. It graciously finds space for jazz-inflected, classy but incensed protest songs (“Black Man in a White World”, “Rule the World”), extended, expansive soundscapes (the title track, “Father’s Child”) and good old, radio-friendly pop (“One More Night”). For once, Danger Mouse’s baroque production compliments rather than overwhelms the artist’s intentions as the swooning strings, Stax-ish horn charts and both acoustic and electric guitars all seem to fit perfectly together with Kiwanuka’s warmhearted croon.

Favorite tracks: “Cold Little Heart”, “One More Night”, “Father’s Child”

Best Albums of 2016: # 7, 6, 5

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7. Pet Shop Boys, “Super”

A solid sequel to the album that brought them back from the dead, Super is business-as-usual Pet Shop Boys: catchy, cheeky and ever-dancefloor ready. If it doesn’t add anything new to their catalog, the best songs show that Tennant and Lowe still know their way around a killer hook (the glorious, relentless chorus of “Burn”) or how to evoke deep feelings for a past era without delving into cheap nostalgia (“The Pop Kids”). And “Happiness”, “Groovy” and “Pazzo!” all provide heady escapism at time when it’s most needed.

Favorite tracks: “The Pop Kids”, “Say It to Me”, “Burn”

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6. John K. Samson, “Winter Wheat”

With The Weakerthans now officially kaput, leader Samson’s second solo album (I somehow missed the first) isn’t radically different from that outfit’s literate, lived-in folk rock—after all, it does feature two of his three former bandmates. It’s a tad gentler and more acoustic than Reconstruction Site, but no less world weary or endearingly scrappy. Imagine if Michael Stipe made a solo album in 1985 or if Billy Bragg was from Winnipeg instead of London. But arguably only Samson could pull off leftfield experiments such as the spoken word “Quiz Night at Looky Lou’s” or a lyric like, “I believe in you and your PowerPoints.”

Favorite tracks: “PostDoc Blues”, “17th Street Treatment Centre”, “Prayer For Ruby Elm”

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5. The Avalanches, “Wildflower”

This was never going to exceed or even equal Since I Left You—it just can’t match that album’s limitless sonic design or its seamlessness, and it also gradually peters out in its final third. However, Wildflower is still far better than a second Avalanches LP has any right or purpose to be, especially in that sublime, vintage-disco-to-psych-pop run from “Subways” to “Zap!”, capped off by the kinda stoopid/near-brilliant Biz Markie/Beatles mash-up “The Noisy Eater”. That five months on, I’m still discovering new things to savor within a majority of these songs is a good sign this LP will endure.

Favorite tracks: “If I Was a Folkstar”, “The Noisy Eater”, “Harmony”