Various Artists, “Trainspotting”


(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #55 – released July 9, 1996)

Track listing: Lust For Life (Iggy Pop) / Deep Blue Day (Brian Eno) / Trainspotting (Primal Scream) / Atomic (Sleeper) / Temptation (New Order) / Nightclubbing (Iggy Pop) / Sing (Blur) / Perfect Day (Lou Reed) / Mile End (Pulp) / For What You Dream of (full on Renaissance Mix) (Bedrock featuring KYO) / 2:1 (Elastica) / A Final Hit (Leftfield) / Born Slippy (NUXX) (Underworld) / Closet Romantic (Damon Albarn)

Trainspotting might be the only soundtrack I made a trip to the record store to buy the day after first seeing the film. Twenty years on, director Danny Boyle’s and writer John Hodge’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel about Scottish drug addicts remains one of my favorite movies of that decade (maybe my absolute favorite). It had a now-unrecognizable, emaciated Ewan McGregor in a star-making lead role and also introduced Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller and (in her first film) Kelly Macdonald to the rest of the world. It deployed a barrage of stylistic flourishes that drew heavily from French New Wave cinema yet felt thrillingly up-to-the-minute, arguably capturing its cultural moment more vividly than any other film of the era; it also depicted addiction frankly and honestly, acknowledging its on-and-off cycles and how rehab and redemption can contain fluid definitions.

Most of all, it innovatively utilized pop music to push its narrative forward in often fresh, genuinely exciting ways. Trainspotting was far from the first flick to feel like a music video in parts, but it is perhaps one of the most superb examples of scoring a film in such a way. So many “Original Motion Picture Soundtracks” from the ‘90s on felt like mere receptacles for record label showcases, made up of songs seemingly randomly thrown together, often having little to do with the film itself (Batman Forever (1995) is a key example—it resembles a far-better-than average mixtape, but a majority of its (best) songs are either barely audible in the film or not included at all). In contrast, you heard every one of the Trainspotting soundtrack’s fourteen songs onscreen and likely remembered the images accompanying each one as well. (Although the soundtrack stands on its own, it’s a significantly more rewarding, resonant listen if you’ve seen the film first).

Both film and soundtrack (which mirror each other chronologically) kick off with Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life”, certainly Trainspotting’s signature song and sequence: a furiously-edited, literally hit-the-ground running montage of Renton (McGregor) and his mates hightailing it on foot through the grubby streets of Edinburgh, introducing us to each one (plus his two drug-free friends, who comment on their actions like a mini Greek chorus) by means of rapid freeze-frame cuts. Although Pop recorded the song almost twenty years prior, it fits in perfectly—its irresistible “dun-dun-dun, dun-dun, da-dun-dun” rhythm exudes urgency and momentum, while the lyrics (“Well I am just a modern guy / you know I’ve had it in the ear before”) could be anecdotes about the young men we see onscreen, on the run from something unseen but likely not good. Presumably, Boyle and Hodge were drawn towards Pop for his own reputation as a notorious former drug addict, but the song (and the film) neatly have it both ways—reveling in the junkie grotesque while grasping an euphoric high with the equally heartfelt/ironic chorus of “I’ve got a lust for life! Lust for life!” (also mirroring Renton’s opening soliloquy of vowing to “Choose Life”.)

Only a few cuts here were recorded specifically for the film, and most of them are instrumentals (Primal Scream’s title track, a ten-minute plus excursion into dub; Leftfield’s far briefer, progressive house piece “A Final Hit”) or near instrumentals (delightful closing credits nonsense from Blur vocalist Damon Albarn). Sleeper’s cover of “Atomic” is so close to Blondie’s original, you have to wonder whether it was recorded only because the filmmakers couldn’t get the rights to the latter. The rest is mostly previously released songs and plays like a rich, evocative blend of Britpop’s glorious present, proto-highlights from its past two decades and a brief inkling of where it might be heading.

Trainspotting came out right when Britpop was at its peak, and it duly serves as a primer for it. All of the genre’s big names are here except for Oasis, whom I can only imagine did not want to contribute because of the presence of archrivals Blur (whose then five-year-old, impressionistic, dirgelike single, “Sing” sounds like nothing on Parklife or The Great Escape). In addition to aforementioned tracks from Primal Scream and Sleeper, there’s also female-fronted, post-punk revivalists-ten-years-before-it-was-cool Elastica (“2:1”) and a new song from Pulp, whose career and genre-defining “Common People” had come out the year before. “Mile End” may be the most British song on a compilation teeming with British artists, full of references to such London locales as Burditt Road and the Isle of Dogs (not to mention noting how “the lift is always full of piss.”) Still, it’s clever accompaniment for a montage where Renton, having moved to London, is forced to take in a familiar old mate in his shabby flat. Pulp leader Jarvis Cocker’s splendidly suited for such material, laying out a shrewdly observed character sketch over a delightfully jaunty, slightly skeezy trot.

Rather than limit itself to the sounds of 1996, Trainspotting complements them with choice cuts from the previous two-and-a-half decades; given how much Britpop drew from music of that period and the decade before, the time traveling doesn’t at all jar. Considering his influence on the characters and their adoration of him, it’s no surprise a second Iggy Pop song shows up: “Nightclubbing”, from the same year as “Lust For Life”, arguably more appropriately conjures up the junkie’s milieu, trudging along like a walking hangover. Although Pop is the compilation’s most notable non-Brit, David Bowie did produce both songs, as well as Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”, perhaps the only track here whose usage is a bit on-the-nose (scoring Renton’s literal sunken overdose). Brian Eno’s ambient “Deep Blue Day” serenely (and somewhat ironically) accompanies the film’s infamous “Worst Toilet in Scotland” underwater scene; New Order’s 1987 version of “Temptation” may be the only barely heard soundtrack cut on the film, coming out of someone’s radio (and briefly referenced scenes later in a more sinister hue), but given that it’s the Best Single of the 1980s, it’s welcome between “Atomic” and “Nightclubbing” here.

When the film moves from Edinburgh to London, the soundtrack partially shifts from guitar-based rock and roll to what was then being called Electronica—the future of music, as far as Americans were concerned, although it had already made a considerable impact on the European charts. Renton’s first nightclubbing excursion in his newly adopted city is set to “For What You Dream Of”, an epic techno-dance track from production duo Bedrock, itself buoyed by KYO’s mighty diva house vocals. It’s noticeably different from everything preceding it on the soundtrack, a relentlessly pulsating strobe light and tab of ecstasy in the face of Britpop’s pint of lager. Two tracks later, Leftfield’s relatively chill “A Final Hit” appears but registers as a mere appetizer to the main course, Underworld’s “Born Slippy (NUXX)”. Scored to the film’s final sequence (at least as iconic as its opening), it is the future. An epic, unusual mélange of techno, drum-and-bass, house and other dance subgenres, it may open with those recognizable, echoing synths, but when its breakneck paced, run-on sentence vocals come in (“Drive boy dog boy dirty numb angel boy”), often as indecipherable as some of the characters’ brogues, all bets are off. However, in terms of pure feeling and kinetic motion, its placement in Trainspotting is nothing short of brilliant, as crucial as what occurs onscreen in driving the film to a twisty, exhilarating close.

Both film and soundtrack proved so popular that a second volume of the latter came out the next year*, compiling other songs heard in the film (such as Heaven 17’s glorious, 1983 synth-soul hit “Temptation”) and additional tunes providing inspiration to Boyle and Hodge during its creation. By then, of course, Britpop’s moment had all but passed. Oasis had self-imploded with the overwrought Be Here Now, Blur had moved on to aping American indie rockers Pavement for their self-titled album, and the biggest band in the country was now the Spice Girls (whom really wouldn’t fit in well with the likes of Pulp and Iggy Pop). Even that year’s film A Life Less Ordinary, which reunited Boyle, Hodge and McGregor was a big flop. Trainspotting had the foresight, or perhaps just the luck to arrive at Britpop’s apex and the rare opportunity to compile its soundtrack by deferring to the head and the heart, rather than the wallet. Other, isolated attempts to replicate its stature would follow (most notably Velvet Goldmine two years later), but we won’t be encountering another film soundtrack in this project.

Next: Bedsitter Images.

*As I write, we’re months away from an actual film sequel to Trainspotting, which I’m more than a little weary of (despite it procuring Boyle, McGregor and the rest of the original cast.)

“Lust For Life” (Iggy Pop):

“Born Slippy (NUXX)” (Underworld):

Ani DiFranco, “Dilate”


(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #54 – released May 21, 1996)

Track listing: Untouchable Face / Outta Me, Onto You / Superhero / Dilate / Amazing Grace / Napoleon / Shameless / Done Wrong / Going Down / Adam and Eve / Joyful Girl

When I was 22, I moved nearly halfway across the country. Getting accepted into a Master’s program was a good excuse to relocate from my hometown of Milwaukee, although it had been a long time coming. Four years earlier, I wasn’t ready to leave, opting to attend college locally. I regretted this decision days before my first year at Marquette University even began, but I stuck it out. Resisting the growing urge to transfer to a school in another city, I eventually moved on campus and in four years, in those oft-quoted words of the Indigo Girls, “I got my paper and I was free.”

Not ready to actually do something with my degree, I applied to graduate programs and got into Boston University. I had never visited Boston; nor did I know any of its residents. A good friend from high school had raved about visiting family there, so I decided to take a chance and go live somewhere new for a while. I’m generally not much of a risk taker; nearly two decades on, I marvel at the nonchalance with which I made this decision. I certainly didn’t ponder the ramifications of picking up and putting down roots in a faraway place by myself—all I cared about was living someplace new, something different from the only place I knew.

I arrived in Boston on an oppressively hot end-of-August Saturday afternoon with all I could take with me by plane: a suitcase, duffel bag, garment bag and backpack—certainly no room for my 500+ CD collection or anything to play them on (all that would arrive via movers three weeks later). For now, I had my Sony Walkman and a shopping bag full of thirty or so cassettes, a majority of them dubbed off my own CDs or borrowed from the library or friends. I’ve previously written about how much I listened to my tape of Joni Mitchell’s Blue throughout those first few weeks in my new city; the other cassette I played the hell out during this time was Dilate, Ani DiFranco’s seventh album and the first one I ever heard.

Released the previous year, Dilate was also the first time I’d heard of DiFranco herself, taking notice when it cracked the top half of the Billboard 200 album chart upon release (then a far less common occurrence for a heretofore obscure female singer/songwriter, kids). I must’ve borrowed it from the library some time later, hastily copying it onto a used cassette (god knows what I taped over), not even writing down the track listing, though at the very least I put a sticker on it listing the artist and title (in this limited-access-to-the-internet era, months would pass before I looked up the actual titles of these songs—for a long time identifying “Superhero” as “Used to Be” or “Shameless” as “Skeleton”). I doubt I even listened to it once in the months leading up to my move; I was acquiring so much music then that I couldn’t possibly keep up with it all, let alone absorb most of it.

Still, of the hundreds (yes, I know) of cassettes I could pick from to take with me on the plane, Dilate somehow made the cut. Perhaps I had read an article about DiFranco, or scanned the title while sifting through my tapes and thought, “Hmm, I should really listen to this.” Whatever the reason for bringing it along, within days of settling into my Allston apartment, I popped it into my Walkman as I set out on foot to explore my unfamiliar surroundings (I would devote an excessive amount of my free time to doing this, primarily to escape said shitty apartment.)

As I ambled towards Packard’s Corner and pressed play, “Untouchable Face” began Dilate tentatively, with DiFranco’s reverbed guitar relaying the song’s simple, almost wistful six-note, two-chord riff. Her vocal was just as elementary—plainspoken, relatable, conversational. Coincidentally, the first lyric was “Think I’m going for a walk outside now,” but that’s not what I noticed. As percussion and soft keyboard shading completed the arrangement, it became clear she was addressing the song to an ex-lover who was now with another woman. Then came the monumentally blunt chorus: “So, fuck you / and your untouchable face / fuck you / for existing in the first place.” She neither screamed, shouted nor even blared out those words, retaining the verses’ measured tone, but adding a slightly gruff edge to the f-bombs, as if she spat them out while above all maintaining her composure. As with the opening line of Aimee Mann’s I’m With Stupid, its shock value called out for attention, but even then, I sensed DiFranco’s aim was less to be bold than to just let out and try making sense of some strong, pent-up emotions.

“Untouchable Face”, in fact, was something of a departure for DiFranco. Not that she hadn’t written failed relationship songs before—great ones, actually, such as “You Had Time” from Out of Range (1994) or “Sorry I Am” from Not a Pretty Girl (1995)—but “Untouchable Face” was, in comparison, uncommonly laser-focused and raw, with little ambiguity as to her hurt, anger, contempt, jealousy, etc. Instead of cloaking such emotions in a loud, rage-fueled rant, she used a genuinely catchy melody that probably would’ve gotten her on the radio if not for those multiple but absolutely necessary f-bombs. You’re almost tempted to surmise she’s killing her ex with kindness, until that first “fuck you” arrives, sparingly but strategically deployed, making that much more of an impact.

As it proceeds, Dilate reveals itself predominantly as a song cycle about a love affair’s brutal aftermath. It has less of the explicitly political subject matter that at times dominated her previous work, which likely threw longtime fans for a loop—much of DiFranco’s appeal initially stemmed from whom she ideologically was: a feminist, bisexual, guitar-strumming folksinger recording independently on her own label. While her back catalog (six albums recorded in as many years!) shows her more often than not fusing the personal with the political, Dilate markedly shifts her lyrical focus—it is her most vulnerable, confessional and emotionally naked record to date. Not that she’s become apolitical—witness “Napoleon”, a sharp dressing-down of an unnamed colleague tainted by selling his/her soul for fame. Still, for the first time, DiFranco seems less able to entirely shrug off her wounds; on Dilate, she bleeds profusely and achieves a catharsis that’s rare in pop music.

Those missing DiFranco’s angrier side on “Untouchable Face” should be vindicated by “Outta Me, Onto You”. Musically, it’s more in line with her signature, amped-up, hard-to-classify guitar style, blending flamenco, jazz, funk and jam-band strumming and picking. The primary hook is her shouting, “NO, NO, NO, NO!” over and over again until it becomes as essential a component of the song as the guitars and drums. This rage resurfaces throughout Dilate: it’s apparent in the mighty, resounding thum-thum propelling the epic title track and also in the would-be-exaggerated-if-she-wasn’t-so-convincing contempt with which she spits out the words, “But, don’t be so offended / you know, you should be flattered.” You also hear it in the rudimental, plucked, ugly-sounding electric guitar on “Napoleon”, particularly when paired with lyrics like “yeah I wonder / when you’re a big star / will you miss the earth?” (Not to mention the song’s chorus, which is simply, “Everyone is a fucking Napoleon.”)

However, during that first autumn in Boston, what struck me more than DiFranco’s anger on Dilate was her candor—in particular, how it informed her sense of loss and despair. I was a few years away from ever going through the sort of immense, all-consuming heartbreak this album details so vividly, so I couldn’t fully understand it, but was nonetheless deeply affected by it. I related to that compatible feeling of being alone, completely on my own for the first time, and took comfort in album’s more intense, purgative moments.

Appearing about two-thirds of the way through Dilate, “Done Wrong” is where the cracks in DiFranco’s vengeful façade start showing. With a steady, almost lithe beat, two chords and a wiry slide guitar that doesn’t overpower the arrangement but adds drama when needed, it’s a minor key lament that somehow never turns into a dirge. Its repetitious melody grabs your attention and DiFranco’s salient lyrical imagery sustains it. In describing her wrecked emotional state, she sings “I’ve been like one of those zombies / in Vegas / pouring quarters into a slot,” before turning more direct: “And now I’m tired / and I’m broke / and I feel stupid and I feel used.” The song begins and ends on the same stanza concluding with the lines, “I guess that makes me the jerk with the heartache / here to sing you about how I’ve been done wrong.” She’s knows how inherently ridiculous her plea, her flailing about is from the outset, only to return to it, unchanged, eloquently making known every inch of her hurt, grief and utter despair.

Two tracks later, “Adam and Eve” arrives, even further stripped down to just guitar and percussion. DiFranco’s first few records used this arrangement, often nixing the drums entirely as it was a true DIY production. After gradually adding on more instruments to her songs (pianos, fiddles, an occasional woodwind), she radically dialed it all back for Dilate’s immediate predecessor, Not a Pretty Girl, recording much of the album with just percussionist Andy Stochansky. A remarkably intuitive drummer, Stochansky is masterful at lending subtle depth to DiFranco’s idiosyncratic vocal melodies and guitar strumming; “Adam and Eve” shows what kindred spirits they are together. After an extended intro of reverbed guitar noodling, as if DiFranco is trying to find the right chords, the melody proper kicks in as she and Stochansky lock into a slow, deliberate groove, his drums filling the spaces in between and lending dimension to her guitar. At the 2:30 mark, they erupt into the closest thing the track has to a chorus, with DiFranco powerfully wailing, “I am, I am, I am truly sorry about all this,” magisterially stretching out the “I am’s” over a few bars. It’s just two people playing here, but it carries an orchestra’s gravitas.

Stochanksy’s also effective when simply providing a steady foundation, as he does with the basic, four-on-the-floor beat of “Shameless”. He allows DiFranco’s irresistibly circular guitar riff (rather resembling something off a Dave Matthews Band song!) to take the lead, then complements the chord-changing bridge by playing softer, nimbler, but still in step with DiFranco as she takes the song to a sweeter, jazzier place. Still, he’s on just seven of the album’s eleven songs. After stripping down to basics, DiFranco was again looking to expand her sound, this time dabbling in some electronica. “Going Down” could almost be her take on trip-hop (like a juiced-up Morcheeba), opening with a prominent, shuffling drum loop, then layering in bits and pieces of sampled vocals both sung and spoken. It’s an outlier, but serves as a moody, hypnotic tonic when placed between “Done Wrong” and “Adam and Eve”.

There’s also a seven-minute version of “Amazing Grace” placed near the album’s middle, similarly constructed out of drum loops, sampled guitars, church bells and an elderly woman reciting the famous hymn’s more obscure verses a beat or two behind DiFranco singing them. Rather than stop Dilate dead in its tracks, it adds texture and distinction—another way she stood out from your average folksinger. She’d expand that template even further on subsequent albums, often to positive means (even if increasingly in need of an editor), but never with such potency; her only other record that, in my mind, matches its achievement is the following year’s Living in Clip, a double live album I nearly wrote about for this project. Culled from the tour promoting Dilate, it makes a solid case for her talent with mostly only the support of Stochansky and ex-Gang of Four/B-52’s bassist Sara Lee.

Still, looking back on that time, of discovering DiFranco and Dilate and getting to know my new home, I strongly recall those long walks accompanied by that endless, hypnotic version of “Amazing Grace”. I remember making my way home at night from a bar or a movie through the neighboring suburb of Brookline’s leafy streets lined with elaborate, ornamental century-old homes. Dilate’s beautifully slow finale, “Joyful Girl” would come on my headphones. I could hear and practically feel every plucked note, letting the song’s resolute sorrow and sense of being at peace with the world wash over me, especially during DiFranco’s uncommonly lush, multi-tracked sighs near the end. It had a centering effect in a most disorienting time, one equally frightening and exhilarating, filled with both unprecedented uncertainty and wonder. It made for an ideal, modern day counterpart to that other record I listened to on repeat, Joni Mitchell’s Blue—even though the two sounded practically nothing like each other, they embodied similar states of mind and got to me when I was undoubtedly at my most susceptible.

Next: A Britpop (and British-beloved pop) primer.

“Untouchable Face”:

“Adam and Eve”:

Best Films Since 2000

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Y Tu Mama Tambien

The BBC recently published this poll in which 177 critics submitted their ten favorite films since 2000.  Here’s my own list:

  1. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
  2. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
  3. In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
  4. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
  5. Yi Yi: A One and A Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
  6. Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
  7. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
  8. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
  9. Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke, 2004)
  10. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)

If I had been able to submit this ballot, it would not have changed the poll’s results much – its top three titles are on my ballot (including the same number one – yes, Lynch’s Los Angeles dreamscape has finally taken over Wes Anderson’s New York family saga for me) and four of my other selections made the poll’s top 100. I chose Before Sunset over Boyhood because I prefer the former’s deliberately limited scale and tightness, although we’ll see if that holds once I get around to watching the latter again.

As for my three outliers, I’m not surprised at Maddin’s singular “docu-fantasia” or Eimbcke’s ultra-charming micro-indie not making the list, but I am shocked at the decreasing visibility of Cuaron’s breakthrough film. Granted, I haven’t seen it in about a decade now, but at the time, it had a considerable impact on nothing less than how I watch movies. Perhaps, it’s simply been supplanted by Children of Men as the Cuaron film to watch (which I loved, but need to see again).

The problem with any top ten list, of course, is that it’s way too short and constricting. Other movies I considered (in addition to Boyhood): C.R.A.Z.Y., Far From Heaven, Frances Ha, Gosford Park, Holy Motors, Spirited Away, Stories We Tell, Synecdoche, New York.

Morcheeba, “Who Can You Trust?”


(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #53 – released April 8, 1996)

Track listing: Moog Island / Trigger Hippie / Post Houmous / Tape Loop / Never An Easy Way / Howling / Small Town / Enjoy The Wait / Col / Who Can You Trust? / Almost Done / End Theme

The silly band name (“cheeba” is slang for marijuana) and fuzzed-out pot plant album cover both insinuate that this British trio’s debut LP could just as easily be called Music for Stoners; as one of the most languorous, chilled-out trip-hop records of its era, that’s not inaccurate. However, as someone who rarely smokes (and has never listened to this record while baked), I can confirm that the drug references are really irrelevant to any aural contact high the music provides. Who Can You Trust? endures two decades on because it immediately forges a palpable, captivating, focused mood (with a groove to match) and fully sustains it over an entire album four minutes shy of an hour long.

“Moog Island” slowly fades in on a hazy surge of soupy electronic effluvia, much like “Summer Cauldron” on XTC’s Skylarking did ten years earlier. Courtesy of Morcheeba’s DJ, Paul Godfrey, he then lays on a gentle, bossa nova drum machine track over which you hear synths and some guitar from his multi-instrumentalist brother, Ross. Still, it’s all just build-up for the band’s not-so-secret weapon, black female vocalist Skye Edwards. Her serene tone suggests a slinkier, silkier Sade, while the bell-like clarity she lends to the song’s amiable melody could be Ella Fitzgerald on ‘ludes. Her singular presence stands in direct contrast to fellow British trip-hoppers Portishead, whom are defined by singer Beth Gibbons’ decidedly chillier, more insular persona.

Fading out as gradually as it did in, “Moog Island” firmly (it its own woozy way) sets the scene, establishing Morcheeba’s overall sound, spirit and vibe. Still, if you’re not already listening to it on headphones, you’ll want to don a pair for “Trigger Hippie”, which opens with a loud sitar sample, hypnotically undulating like a foghorn. The groove’s slightly more juiced up here, but only slightly. Ross’ slide guitar is as essential an element as Paul’s turntable scratching, but it’s Edwards who really sells the song: the lyrics are dippy enough for Oasis (“Tune in, drop out and love”) until they’re not, when she slyly sings, “Pull the trigger, I’m a hippie.” On one hand, it’s a dumb, catchy tune right down to the telegraphic beeping chorus hook, but it duly stimulates as all its musical layers provide additional hooks-for-thought; also, the idea of being a “Trigger Hippie” is as evocatively mysterious and seductive as the strange pull of Edwards’ voice.

From there, Who Can You Trust? seemingly, effortlessly maintains its groove, even as it sidesteps Edwards for the instrumental “Post Houmous” (resembling incidental film music with slightly too much personality to remain incidental for long) or sharpens it into funk/rock on “Tape Loop” (which ends on an extended wah-wah guitar solo/record-scratching vamp) or decreases the tempo just a tad for “Never An Easy Way” (whose final thirty seconds are a beat-less psychedelic freak-out—perhaps “wooze-out” is more apt). “Howling”, however, takes everything to the next level. It retains the hip-hop groove, but adds in more guitar and an underlying cello. The melody, each line of it consisting of four simple notes is enhanced with majestic chord changes. After the second chorus, strings materialize, dramatically opening up the song like they did in Portishead’s “Roads”. Although no one would ever mistake Edwards for Aretha Franklin, she sounds more impassioned, urgent, even. Never a single, “Howling” is a lost trip-hop classic, as representative of what beauty this much-maligned genre could achieve as Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy”.

Although the album’s second half is superficially (and at least, tonally) more of the same, it occasionally tinkers with the first half’s formula. Initially, “Small Town” feels indistinguishable from a track like “Never An Easy Way” until you notice the pointed, almost angry (well, as angry as Morcheeba gets) lyrics: “The High Street’s sleeping / as Friday’s creeping / the shops are open / but their minds are closed.” The steady reggae beat and growling chorus sax also both give the song a bit of a prickly edge mostly absent from what came before.

The beat drops out altogether for the next two songs. “Enjoy the Wait”, a minute-long instrumental, sums up the Godfrey brothers’ individual interests: Ross’ bluesy guitar (complete with turntable fuzz to resemble a Robert Johnson recording) sits on the left channel, while Paul’s oscillating electronic noise whirrs on the right. Neither one appears on the following “Col”, a stark, strings-and-voice number occasionally punctuated by a French horn and a muted trumpet. It’s a completely unexpected arrangement for Morcheeba, but it proves a perfect combination, melodically similar to what surrounds it but powerful for the ambition it relays. It makes you wonder whether they could pull off a whole album of such exquisite stuff, or at least one spectacular James Bond theme.

After “Col” ends on a lone trumpet, the title track begins. Built upon a four-note Fender Rhodes riff, it’s a vamp that extends for nearly nine minutes, awash in dub reggae, guitar noodling, and a cavernous, plodding beat (that halfway through speeds up for a minute, but remains muffled in the mix, as if covered in fog). Edwards doesn’t make her entrance until the midpoint, and even then she mostly emits wordless sighs except for a brief interval after the seven-minute mark where she chants the song title a few times. The track is probably what most people would expect trip-hop to sound like without ever having heard it; more song-minded listeners drawn in by the clearly defined hooks of “Trigger Hippie” and “Howling” will likely feel unmoved by it. But it successfully, persistently pushes forward, achieving Zen-like bliss instead of aimlessly drifting off into the ether.

The next song, “Almost Done” feels like a continuation of the title track, but adds actual lyrics and has a three-note riff. Some may find it a gimlet-eyed, patience-testing narcotic, but if you give yourself over to it, you’ll pinpoint deep emotion within. Deceptively gently, Edwards sings, “Swallow all my pride / choke on all your lies,” and it almost makes up for the now-dated, spoken male voice sample (“That is something”) that the Godfreys get way too much mileage out of. After a record-scratching flurry confirms “Almost Done” is done, the album concludes on an “End Theme”, a cheeky instrumental reprise of “Moog Island” that could be played over hypothetical closing credits. It lightens the mood considerably, upping the original’s kitsch factor with an echoing beeping noise straight out of The Jetsons, a lead guitar that could’ve come from an Urge Overkill album, and a flute supplanting the vocal melody (while Edwards “doo-doo-doo’s” in unison with it).

In a genre more fondly remembered for its singles and one-offs, Who Can You Trust? deserves a mention in the same breath as Dummy and Blue Lines in the (admittedly tiny) canon of great trip-hop albums. Since its release, Morcheeba has recorded seven more—some of them not strictly trip-hop (the pop-leaning Fragments of Freedom), others without Edwards, who temporarily left the band in the mid-00s (The Antidote and Dive Deep—both featuring replacement vocalists, if you can believe it!) before returning for 2010’s solid Blood Like Lemonade. My favorite follow-up remains the second LP, 1998’s Big Calm, which rings true to its predecessor’s vibe but successfully expands it to include such stuff as the homey, fiddle-laced “Part of the Process” and “The Music That We Hear”, which transmogrifies “Moog Island” and “End Theme” into the pop gem it was always meant to be. For a purely consistent listen, though, Who Can You Trust? remains aces.

Next: Learning to live on your own.

“Trigger Hippie”:


Aimee Mann, “I’m With Stupid”


(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #52 – released January 30, 1996)

Track listing: Long Shot / Choice In The Matter / Sugarcoated / You Could Make a Killing / Superball / Amateur / All Over Now / Par For The Course / You’re With Stupid Now / That’s Just What You Are / Frankenstein / Ray / It’s Not Safe

The first lyrics on Aimee Mann’s second album are “You fucked it up”; given the fate of her critically acclaimed but sales-deprived solo debut Whatever, you can understand why she’s a little pissed off. From its title on down, I’m With Stupid oozes venom at both ex-lovers and ex-record labels but it’s deliciously knowing and cathartic rather than steeped in bitterness. It also finds the ex-‘Til Tuesday vocalist refining her sound a bit, retaining her Beatles-esque melodicism while stripping away some of the Whatever’s considerable gloss. As with Boys for Pele, in early ’96 it was a highly anticipated album for me (especially as its US release came six months after the rest of the world’s); however, unlike the challenging, oft-obtuse Pele, it hit directly upon contact.

And yet, I’m With Stupid is not exactly Whatever II—this is immediately apparent when you compare their openers. Whereas the previous album’s “I Should’ve Known” gradually winds up to life via mechanical sounds leading into loud guitars and a big beat, Stupid’s “Long Shot” follows a simple count-off with a basic, distorted riff, soon joined by bass and shuffling percussion and finally, Mann’s exquisitely bemused vocal (and that kicker of an opening line). As catchy as “I Should’ve Known” but far more contained, the song’s cool detachment notably serves as a counterpoint to Mann’s kiss-off lyrics—that is, until they unexpectedly take a vulnerable turn near the end when she sings, “And all that stuff / I knew before / just turned into / ‘Please love me more.’”

Although she doesn’t utter another “fuck” until the final track, the songs following “Long Shot” are just as acerbic, possibly even more. “Choice In The Matter” shrewdly whittles away its antagonist to nearly nothing while briefly throwing in a chorus of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (gleefully adding, “hope you drown and never come back”) for good measure. Titles like “You Could Make A Killing” and “That’s Just What You Are” project like-minded sentiments at the outset. “You’re With Stupid Now” belittles its subject for aligning him/herself with a clueless, unnamed other (and also for not knowing “how to manufacture… the crazy will of a Margaret Thatcher.”) Mann’s ever-rising vitriol nearly peaks on “Sugarcoated” (co-written with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, who also plays on and contributes a sinewy solo to it) with this delectable dressing-down in the bridge: “And out of your mouth / comes a string of clichés / now I have given you so much rope / you should have been swinging for days / but you keep spinning it out.” Producer Jon Brion’s echoing backing vocal that follows conveys just the right amount of sarcasm.

Brion, who also produced Whatever, again lends his ultra-distinctive touch to Stupid, particularly in the odd, raindrop-like piano (or is that guitar?) sparkling all over the first few seconds of “You Could Make A Killing”, the old-timey tack piano in “Ray” and the fluttering, Mellotron-like keyboards throughout “Frankenstein” and “Amateur”. However, he’s generally more restrained this time. Stupid mostly adheres to guitar-bass-drums-voice arrangements whose relative simplicity help accentuate the other flavors occasionally popping up in the mix: fellow former Bostonian Juliana Hatfield’s simpatico backing vocals on “You Could Make A Killing” and “Amateur”; even more complimentary harmonies from Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford on three other tracks; Brion’s bass harmonica, further sweetening the irresistible bubblegum of “Superball”; the very of-its-time but crisply effective drum loop powering “That’s Just What You Are” which first appeared, improbably enough, on the Melrose Place soundtrack the year before and remains Mann’s only solo Billboard Hot 100 entry (straight in at #93!) to date.

Stupid’s first seven tracks arguably comprise the most solid run of tunes on any of Mann’s albums, culminating in “All Over Now”, a cunning, cutting, mid-tempo acoustic/electric rocker as frank and liberating as anything off of Alanis Morrissette’s then-contemporary/ubiquitous Jagged Little Pill (it has aged far better as well). With Big Star harmonies over late-Beatles guitars, she sings “And I’m free-eeee” in the chorus following the song’s title, and later, repeats the line, “It’s got nothing to do with me,” the final lyric of “Superball” two tracks before. In a slight, Abbey Road-like touch, “All Over Now” itself ends on a lyric from “Superball” (“And I warned you now / the velocity I’m gathering.”) It’s the sort of touch a casual listener may not even pick up on, craftily thrown in there for cleverness’ sake.

Still, Mann doesn’t rest on being clever. Smart lyrics, striking production and strong melodies can all add up to a good album (sometimes a great one); what pushes Mann and Stupid ahead of the pack is the wry, weary, complicated persona she began developing on Whatever that fully comes into its own here. She’s often dismissed as an “ice queen” for her cool, analytical put-downs; admittedly, a mass-market audience will likely never relate to a barbed sentiment such as, “When you’re building your own creation / nothing’s better than real / than a real imitation,” (from “Frankenstein”). At this point in her career, she’s not playing down to her intended listener, which is refreshing but also tricky—how does one achieve that perfect balance of being relatable and also distinct?

For this singer/songwriter, a sense of humor is key. After all, making “You fucked it up” as your first words on an album is more an act of playfulness than one drawn out of spite or malice, although such feelings are present (if masked) behind the way those words are presented. “That’s Just What You Are” similarly sounds like the giddiest kiss-off ever, thanks to its peppy, upbeat verve and the sprightly, staccato delivery of such lyrics as, “It’s not like you would lose some critical piece / if somehow you moved point A to point B.” “Superball”, which I once described as what Josie and The Pussycats would’ve sounded like if they really rocked (this was years before the 2001 movie adaptation with its off-the-charts irony), seems custom-made to make all who hear it commence automatically bouncing around like a carefree, grinning idiot.

Of course, too much “fun” can lead to unrelenting archness. Mann rectifies this by occasionally dropping the mask and embracing those often submerged but always present raw emotions. They first surface on “Amateur” and its gentle, disenchanted chorus of, “I was hoping that you’d know better than that / I was hoping, but you’re an amateur.” She then partially turns the blame on herself, singing, “But I’ve been wrong before.” “Par for the Course” shows even more vulnerability: over six minutes and a slow, four-chord progression, she sings ostensibly to an ex-lover who comes crawling back to her after another failed relationship. A series of short, pointed phrases (one whole verse: “Think how / it could have been / well you should / have said it all then”) obliterates any hope of her taking him back, but the somber guitar, bass, drums and keyboard arrangement (all of it performed by Mann) is played straight, and effectively so, gaining all the more power for not sounding like anything else on the album. It doesn’t so much build as simply resound, with Mann singing, “I don’t even know you anymore” again and again, not with disdain or pity but something approaching actual grief.

There’s no shortage of disdain and pity in Stupid’s cautionary closer, “It’s Not Safe”. Saving her most brutal critique for last, it would sound like already-charted territory if not for the sharpness she exhibits: “But you’re the idiot who keeps believing in luck / and you just can’t get it through your head that no one else gives a fuck,” that f-bomb rendered rather beautifully over four notes. As with the rest of Stupid’s barbed-wire kisses, half the fun is trying to figure out whether it’s directed to a former romantic or professional partner. Michael Penn, who plays this song’s guitar solo, married Mann the following year and they’ve been together ever since, so at least she made out well in the first category. As for the second, well, let’s just say she won’t easily run out of material, as we shall see.

Next: Prolonging the buzz.

“Long Shot”:

“All Over Now”:

Tori Amos, “Boys For Pele”

Boys For Pele

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #51 – released January 23, 1996)

Track listing: Beauty Queen / Horses / Blood Roses / Father Lucifer / Professional Widow / Mr. Zebra / Marianne / Caught a Lite Sneeze / Muhammad My Friend / Hey Jupiter / Way Down / Little Amsterdam / Talula / Not The Red Baron / Agent Orange / Doughnut Song / In The Springtime of His Voodoo / Putting The Damage On / Twinkle

When approaching new work by artists we love, we inevitably weigh it against expectations put in place by what came before. These comparisons allow for first impressions that can span a wide spectrum, from immense pleasure to utter disgust and every gradation in between. Over the years, brand new albums from my favorite musicians have alternately left me pleased, soothed, vindicated, disillusioned, delightfully surprised and downright baffled.

Boys for Pele mostly fell into that last category on my first listen days after its release. While not altogether foreign from Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, Tori Amos’ third album was certainly different; I referred to it as “Tori Goes Off The Deep End” in my journal at the time. Consider the facts: eighteen tracks long instead of the usual twelve… fewer orchestral arrangements and more newfangled sounds like harpsichord, brass band, programmed drums and a gospel choir… knotty, oblique lyrics (“Tuna, rubber, a little blubber in my igloo”) that made Amos’ previously most obscure references, such as those on the Alice Walker-inspired “Cornflake Girl” seem positively lucid. And of course, the cover: instead of crouching in a box with a toy piano or demurely standing still, draped in white, she’s sprawled across a rocking chair on a porch in some rural backwater, legs strewn with dirt, a shotgun on her lap and a dead rooster hanging upside down next to her. This double album-length collection was clearly making some kind a statement, possibly Amos telling her fans (and all curious onlookers), “It’s time for me to take a bold leap forward, whether you’re ready to join me or not.”

The crucial thing to know about this record is that it’s the first one Amos produced herself. Much of her prior work was helmed by Eric Rosse, with whom she was romantically involved. They split up during the making of Under the Pink, so Pele is not only Amos taking control of the way her music sounds (she would self-produce all of her subsequent recordings), it’s also nominally a breakup album, occasionally seething with rage and a swagger that at times exceeds even the most incendiary passages of Little Earthquakes. I’m tempted to call it a textbook Difficult Third Album—less accessible and considerably denser than its predecessors for sure—but it’s so much more than that. Although parts of Pele still flummox me now, through time and many listens, it has become my most favorite Amos album after Little Earthquakes.

For such a call-to-attention, Pele opens rather quietly and tentatively with “Beauty Queen”, all lingering piano notes and minimalist, haiku-like lyrics. It’s a prelude, appearing in the track listing but actually sharing the first CD track with “Horses”, whose more concrete melody materializes about two minutes in. It’s still all just piano and voice, but noticeably fuller and hookier, gaining momentum through multiple, layered arpeggios. Partially amplified through a Leslie cabinet, Amos’ signature Bösendorfer piano carries a slightly otherworldly tint, but otherwise the song could’ve easily fit on her previous albums.

Not so for “Blood Roses”, Amos’ first-ever song to utilize a harpsichord (also amplified) in place of piano. Its lower, baroque tone is a new texture in the Tori-verse—an earthier energy that also comes through in her vocal as she works the pedals of this archaic instrument. She’s ever in tune and in control, but also freer, as if dangling on a precipice when she abruptly shifts to a higher register on the “You think I’m a queer / I think you’re a queer” part, nearly out of breath on each “queer”. She later breaks into a mighty wail on the “God knows I’ve thrown away those graces” bridge, and rattles off a series of seemingly improvised “C’mon’s” as if she were a possessed jazz singer. Sparingly employed church bells and a low organ hum complete the unorthodox arrangement.

She’s back to the Bösendorfer on “Father Lucifer”, where guitar and bass make their first appearances on Pele. Far less intimidating than “Blood Roses”, it has one of the album’s catchiest melodies (and hooks—the clipped “ha” preceding each verse), but that’s not to downplay its complexity, especially at the bridge, which expands on a bed of countermelodies and overlapping vocals, dotted by startling but graceful trumpet flourishes. Much of the album was recorded in a church in rural Ireland, and you can hear the uncommon effect this has all over Pele. In place of a traditional studio’s unavoidable sterility, the recordings feel more intimate and alive. It’s as if Amos has set out to recapture the precarious, uncomfortable vibe of her earlier a Capella track “Me and a Gun”, only with instruments.

Still, nothing you’ve heard so far anticipates what comes next. “Professional Widow” is where Amos really does go off the deep end and it’s an astonishing plunge. The harpsichord returns with a vengeance, this time buttressed by an onslaught of programmed beats rolling along with her enraged, profane vocal (opening line is “Slag pit / stag shit / honey, bring it close to my lips, yes,” soon followed by “Starfucker / just like my daddy”).  It’s a raucous, alarming, sometimes hilarious song (“gonna strike a deal / make him feel like a congressman”); it’s also exceedingly weird, particularly when everything drops out at 1:30 for a piano-and-voice interlude with a completely different melody and unnervingly light tone. “We’ve got every rerun / of Muhammad Ali,” Amos sweetly, nonsensically trills before the song swerves back to the beginning, angrier than ever, eventually reaching another tempo changing, sinus clearing coda. I know I dismissed Kate Bush comparisons in my essay on Little Earthquakes, but Amos placing “Professional Widow” on her third album is as if Bush had gone straight from her relatively accessible second album Lionheart to her “I’ve gone mad” fourth album The Dreaming, passing over the transitional Never For Ever.

Having established Pele’s adventurous scope in just four tracks, Amos continues pushing forward. The second of four brief interludes (if you count “Beauty Queen”), “Mr. Zebra”, a whimsical, cabaret-like number recorded with the Black Dyke Mills Brass Band, reminds one of Little Earthquakes’ “Leather” a bit; more interestingly, it anticipates something like Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine” by nearly a decade. Piano ballad “Marianne” features Pele’s only string arrangement (performed by The Sinfonia of London). As those strings rapidly cut in and out of the melody, Amos punctuates her vocals along the spaces in between, recalling not so much Kate Bush as prime Joni Mitchell. “Caught a Lite Sneeze” brings back the programmed drums, almost nodding towards trip-hop in how Amos’ piano and voice hypnotically wraps around them. It’s a more approachable breakup lament than “Professional Widow” and clever in how it occasionally imbues the personal with the political (“Make my own Pretty Hate Machine,” she sings in a nod to friend Trent Reznor.) “Muhammad My Friend” reprises Amos’ use of religious imagery (as heard in “Father Lucifer”, “God”, “Crucify”, etc.) but only after a lengthy, gorgeous piano intro that shifts into a different but equally beautiful melody. It’s soon illuminated by a sweet soprano sax and disarmingly absurd lyrics about finding “a place in the Pope’s rubber robe,” and inviting us to “do drop in at the Dew Drop Inn,” negating claims of Amos’ supposed humorlessness.

Though aurally and thematically diverse, you can sense Pele building towards something, and it arrives just before the halfway mark. “Hey Jupiter” is more straightforward than what precedes it, but that does not diminish any of its power. Constructed like a classic, mournful, piano-and-voice ballad (the intro recalling nothing so much as Bette Midler’s “The Rose”), it initially seems to follow the tried and true path of a thousand other ballads. However, there are no added-on strings and the delicate melody develops and strengthens without Amos exactly erupting into full-on, Celine Dion-esque over-emoting. Instead, when the chorus arrives, she simply, wordlessly sings over her piano and electric guitar chords in a clever but completely affecting “Purple Rain” rip. Her subtle use of loud-soft dynamics lends the song its plaintive but awesome magic, along with lyrics that alternate between her usual quirkiness (“Your apocalypse was fab”) and those that hit directly to the gut (“Guess I never thought I could feel / the things I feel.”)

If Pele’s second half lacks the first’s consistency, at least it never runs out of steam. The third interlude, “Way Down” is most notable for the gospel choir (recorded in New Orleans) at its very end, introducing a new kind of warmth to Amos’ oeuvre. It’s an evocative prelude to “Little Amsterdam”, a Flannery O’Connor-esque Southern gothic built on a swampy piano riff and touched with kudzu-like background electronic effects. The loping, undulating, dark groove is another new wrinkle for Amos, as is the jazzy, almost feral cadence she breaks into late in the song. “Talula” retains the past two tracks’ regionalism and is perhaps the only one on Pele to go for a relatively maximalist arrangement—the harpsichord returns along with the full band, plus drum programming and (barely discernible) horns. The song’s giddy brightness earmarked it for a single, and it’s surely the only one to ever feature such lyrics as “I’ve got Big Bird on the fishing line,” and “I’ve got my rape hat on.” Opening with another lengthy piano intro, “Not the Red Baron” is a much-needed palette cleanser, melancholy and march-like, with a few Peanuts references (“Not Charlie’s wonderful dog”) to boot.

Fourth and final interlude “Agent Orange” is even wispier a composition than the preceding three, but the following “Doughnut Song” makes up for it. A deceptively simple track whose title hook has a fortune cookie-like specificity (“You’ll never gain weight from a doughnut hole”), it gains in intensity as its repeated piano hook begins to shimmer and the counterpoint vocals on the second verse add heft. Just as effectively, Amos defuses this intensity near the end as the song circles back to its opening. “In the Springtime of His Voodoo” conjures more Joni Mitchell comparisons, only this time circa her challenging, late ‘70s jazz period. Pounding piano, nonsensical scat singing, sly observations like “Honey, we’re recovering Christians”, repeated requests to “Mr. Sulu” to go “Warp speed”, supposed bagpipes (they’re in the credits)—it’s a lot to unpack (admittedly, I used to often skip over it). And yet, whenever you arrive at that blissful chorus or upon a brief but heavenly key-changing bridge, it’s enough for all but the most aggravated listener to forgive having to sit through Amos’ pretensions and peculiarities to reach it.

Just as Pele is threatening an irreversible slide towards obscurity, the penultimate “Putting the Damage On” surfaces like a beacon through the fog. The brass band returns for an opening fanfare that rapidly builds in volume before going silent and letting just Amos and her piano take the first verse. Like “Hey Jupiter”, it’s another classic-sounding breakup ballad with such clever yet vulnerable lyrics as “Now I’ve got to put on my best impression / of my best Angie Dickinson.” The brass, however, transforms it into something more. When Amos sings, “Take it high, high, high,” and hits that third “high”, the horns rise up to life and would nearly drown her out if they weren’t so in sync with her (and Amos and the band likely recorded their parts separately). Because of their ultra-specific tone, the effect of them coming together with her is mesmerizing rather than chilling. They open up the song in all the right ways, but it’s Amos who provides the lone, effective closing note.  For many, this would be an ideal spot to close the album, but Amos ends Pele the way it began, with only her voice and piano. “Twinkle” just seems to hang there in an abstract space similar to “Beauty Queen”, although there’s a little more resolve, a sense of having lived through something—perhaps wisdom gleaned from experience. “She twinkles / and that means / I sure can,” she sings, but adds that it’s also “so hard”, repeats those last two words, and the album ends.

The demanding Pele had the somewhat ironic fortune to come out right at Amos’ commercial peak, debuting at number two on both the US and UK album charts*; since then, she’s gradually fallen back to cult/legacy artist status, although her albums still regularly make the top ten. On occasion, she even puts out a pretty decent one such as Pele’s follow-up, From the Choirgirl Hotel, or her epic post 9/11 travelogue/concept LP Scarlet’s Walk. Still, nothing else she’s done has had quite the same impact as Pele. It doesn’t offer much conclusiveness or catharsis; its flamboyance courts attention, yet it never showboats nor merely exists for Amos to show the world what she’s capable of. However, it’s more unfiltered than those first two albums and cuts nearer to the bone. It’s the type of record that requires close, headphones listening; you have to take the time to absorb and live with its eccentricities, detours and tonal/structural shifts. It’s Amos working (perhaps for the first time) without a net, fully trusting her instincts and in the process creating something that stands apart from her previous triumphs, but is equally built to last.

Next: Rebuking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.

*Speaking of unlikely chart successes, “Professional Widow” was a number one UK single, albeit in a near-unrecognizable techno version remixed by Armand Van Helden and subtitled “It’s Got to Be Big” (one of the two lyrics it samples from the original recording).

“Hey Jupiter”:

“Professional Widow”:

Halfway Through 2016: Movies

Cemetery of Splendour

Cemetery of Splendour

In direct contrast to a rather wishy-washy list of albums, at mid-year, there’s a clear candidate for my favorite movie of 2016 (so far). Like all other Apichatpong Weerasethakul* films, Cemetery of Splendour is a one-of-a-kind, meditative, polarizing fever dream that flew under the radars of all but the most stalwart art-film geeks (of which I am one). It centers on a military hospital in the director’s rural hometown, which he positions as a sort of purgatorial waystation for sleep-prone soldiers. While a good chunk of it unfolds as dialogue-heavy traditional narrative, more often than not, the film practically glides from scene to scene, making time for lengthy passages full of such ephemera as the shifting 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 a film I can’t wait to watch a second and possibly third (or fourth) time.

As for the rest, four are festival titles, at least two of which (Little Men, Morris From America) will hit theaters before summer’s end. The Lobster may be the unlikeliest indieplex hit since Winter’s Bone (which it has already outgrossed at the cinema I work at), while Love and Friendship suggests Whit Stillman was born to adapt Austen.

My favorite 2016 films so far, in alphabetical order:

Being 17
Cemetery of Splendour
The Dying of the Light
Free In Deed
Little Men
The Lobster
Love and Friendship
Morris From America


*I still can’t bring myself to refer to Weerasethakul by his preferred nickname of “Joe”.

Halfway Through 2016: Albums

At this point last year, in compiling my favorite 2015 albums to date, I had heard a few good enough to ostensibly place on a best-of-decade list. Sadly, that’s not the case this year: of the ten titles listed below, I can’t imagine any of them ending up the absolute best one I’ll hear in 2016. Of course, at last year’s midpoint I had heard Froot but did not anticipate what impact it would eventually have, so who knows—the year’s still young.

I will say Andrew Bird’s latest is his most immediate since Armchair Apocrypha, Field Music’s is their best-to-date, Blackstar would have made most critics lists even without Bowie’s death, and I’m shocked at how good The 1975’s second record is, ridiculous Fiona Apple-length title and all. Tegan and Sara and Pet Shop Boys both scrape by on goodwill left over from their previous, superior LPs; hopefully, new works from Roisin Murphy and (gasp) The Avalanches (both out July 8) will at least be up to that level.

My favorite 2016 albums so far, in alphabetical order:

Andrew Bird, Are You Serious
Ben Watt, Fever Dream
Corinne Bailey Rae, The Heart Speaks In Whispers
David Bowie, Blackstar
DIIV, Is The Is Are
Field Music, Commontime
Junior Boys, Big Black Coat
Pet Shop Boys, Super
Tegan and Sara, Love You To Death
The 1975, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it.

1989: We Do The Dive Every Time We Dance

100 Albums is still on hiatus (and probably will be for some time), but to tide you over, I’ve made a 1989 best-of mix to complement the other yearly mixes I’ve posted for 1990-95.

Over a decade ago, I wrote about how the year I turned 14 was a crucial one for me concerning music. This was when I started listening to American Top 40 on a weekly basis and looking for a posted copy of the Billboard Hot 100 whenever I visited Musicland or JR’s at Southridge mall—not coincidentally also where I bought my first post-“Weird Al” Yankovic albums (on cassette, naturally). In 1989, I began thinking of pop music (and all its genre-specific iterations) as a cultural force, something to obsess over and actively engage with rather than relegate to background noise from the radio or MTV.

As with most of these mixes, I heard very few of these songs in 1989 apart from the big fat hits (“Buffalo Stance” never fails to mentally transport me back to that summer) and a few other random titles—I latched on to R.E.M.’s flop follow-up single to “Stand” more than I ever did to “Stand” itself and became obsessed with wacko-Euro novelty “Bring Me Edelweiss” after taping it off the radio (a wise move, since I believe I never heard it on the radio ever again).

Elsewhere, I’ve included obvious choices (“See A Little Light”, “Pictures of You”), a few obscure album tracks (“One Of The Millions”, possibly the best XTC song Colin Moulding ever wrote; the languorous, Sally Timms-fronted “Learning To Live On Your Own”) and a couple of mostly forgotten hits (I’d rather hear “Deadbeat Club” instead of “Love Shack” again, or substitute “Don’t Look Back” for another round of “She Drives Me Crazy”).

I tend to go on about how idyllic and inclusive the ‘90s were for music, but man, did any year in that entire decade contain so eclectic a playlist as this one suggests? Even through my Anglophile-Alternative lens, you’ve got such disparate spirits next to each other as Madonna and the Mekons, or Neneh Cherry and Natalie Merchant. Perhaps I’ll post more ‘80s mixes before eventually getting back to 100 Albums, which will resume with my beloved, life-changing 1996.

Click here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1989 on Spotify:

1. The B-52’s, “Deadbeat Club”
2. Kate Bush, “The Sensual World”
3. Concrete Blonde, “Happy Birthday”
4. The Cure, “Pictures of You”
5. Hunters and Collectors, “When The River Runs Dry”
6. Indigo Girls, “Kid Fears”
7. Chris Isaak, “Blue Spanish Sky”
8. The Blue Nile, “Headlights On the Parade”
9. XTC, “One of the Millions”
10. Kirsty MacColl, “Innocence”
11. The Beautiful South, “You Keep It All In”
12. Madonna, “Like A Prayer”
13. Mekons, “Learning To Live On Your Own”
14. Bob Mould, “See A Little Light”
15. New Order, “Vanishing Point”
16. Bonnie Raitt, “Nick of Time”
17. Fine Young Cannibals, “Don’t Look Back”
18. Elvis Costello, “Veronica”
19. Ramones, “Pet Sematary”
20. Neneh Cherry, “Buffalo Stance”
21. 10,000 Maniacs, “Trouble Me”
22. Edelweiss, “Bring Me Edelweiss”
23. Black Box, “Ride On Time”
24. Erasure, “Blue Savannah”
25. R.E.M., “Pop Song 89”

50 Down, 50 To Go

Almost exactly two years ago, I began 100 Albums simply to give myself both a reason to write and a goal to accomplish. Summing up an album in 1,000 words each week initially seemed doable; however, I soon discovered I could easily write closer to twice that length (sometimes more) about particular records, but needed more time to do so. Two years on, and I’ve reached not my original goal, but rather serendipitously the halfway mark.

I chose to write about my favorite albums chronologically, hoping it would allow me to develop an ongoing narrative about how both music and my personal taste has evolved. While there’s not much linking such disparate records as Future Listening! and It’s Heavy In Here together apart from coming out in the same year, if you go to any random entry (particularly past the first ten), you’ll see plenty of links referring to earlier entries. When I write criticism, I usually fall back on that (admittedly useful) trope of comparing and contrasting. Here, it’s especially useful in tracking how one piece of music informs another; I can only see it continuing throughout the remaining 50 entries.

Speaking of which, I suspect it will take longer than two more years to get through them. For starters, I’m off on a brief hiatus to focus on other endeavors, but in general, I find myself increasingly challenged to make each new entry fresh and not a rehash of ideas already explored. As I look over the list (that I’m continuously revising, by the way), I see great opportunities to expand and deepen this partial narrative, so I’m going to take time to put in the effort and keep the bar for myself set high. 100 Albums will continue, but don’t be surprised if the pace slackens intermittently.

When this project (eventually) returns, it will enter 1996 with one of the great Difficult Third Albums. Until then, click here for a playlist of songs from the last 50 albums (with a few substitutions for those records not on Spotify). Also embedded above: a brief history of how we got from there to here as summed up by XTC’s Andy Partridge.