The Magnetic Fields, “69 Love Songs”

69

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #62 – released September 7, 1999)

Track listing: Absolutely Cuckoo / I Don’t Believe In The Sun / All My Little Words / A Chicken With its Head Cut Off / Reno Dakota / I Don’t Want to Get Over You / Come Back From San Francisco / The Luckiest Guy on The Lower East Side / Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits / The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be / I Think I Need A New Heart / The Book of Love / Fido, Your Leash is Too Long / How Fucking Romantic / The One You Really Love / Punk Love / Parades Go By / Boa Constrictor / A Pretty Girl is Like… / My Sentimental Melody / Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing / Sweet-Lovin’ Man / The Things We Did and Didn’t Do / Roses / Love is Like Jazz / When My Boy Walks Down the Street / Time Enough For Rocking When We’re Old / Very Funny / Grand Canyon / No One Will Ever Love You / If You Don’t Cry / You’re My Only Home / (Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy / My Only Friend / Promises of Eternity / World Love / Washington, D.C. / Long-Forgotten Fairytale / Kiss Me Like You Mean It / Papa Was a Rodeo / Epitaph For My Heart / Asleep and Dreaming / The Sun Goes Down and The World Goes Dancing / The Way You Say Good-Night / Abigail, Belle of Kilronan / I Shatter / Underwear / It’s a Crime / Busby Berkeley Dreams / I’m Sorry I Love You / Acoustic Guitar / The Death of Ferdinand De Saussure / Love In the Shadows / Bitter Tears / Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget / Yeah! Oh, Yeah! / Experiment Music Love / Meaningless / Love is Like a Bottle of Gin / Queen of the Savages / Blue You / I Can’t Touch You Anymore / Two Kinds of People / How To Say Goodbye / The Night You Can’t Remember / For We Are the King of The Boudoir / Strange Eyes / Xylophone / Zebra

69 Love Songs is exactly what its title promises—an honest-to-god triple album, with said number of tracks spread evenly across three CDs, clocking in at just under three hours. And yes, all of them feature lyrics related periodically to the literal and/or figurative meanings of the word “love”. Such a concept all but dares you to love or loathe it, depending on whether you see it as an encyclopedic stab at creating a personal song canon or just an astonishing, annoying act of chutzpah. Its mere breadth requires far more time and dedication than your average LP; its do-it-yourself aesthetic and occasional outsider art vibe will test many listeners’ patience.

For me, 69LS has special significance as the first album that I pretty much discovered through the internet, about 18 months after its release. I had read a few think-pieces that circulated when it placed high on many year-end critic’s lists in late ‘99, but as a cash-deprived recent college graduate, I was hesitant to blind-purchase what was essentially a box set. You didn’t hear these songs on the radio (maybe on a college station if you were really lucky) and, as for trying to hear them online, neither YouTube nor iTunes yet existed. Still, I was increasingly curious about it. After finally locating a few thirty-second samples (probably on Amazon with now-prehistoric-seeming sound quality), I took the plunge and acquired it. Over the next month or two, it rarely left my three-disc tabletop stereo system.

Wildly ambitious, stubbornly insular and frequently breathtaking, there’s really nothing else like 69LS. That includes the five previous full-length LPs released by The Magnetic Fields between 1991 and 1995. Essentially the ongoing project of singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt, it started out as an ultra-low budget, American indie version of The Eurythmics, with vocalist Susan Anway trilling over Merritt’s cheapo, cereal-box synthesizers. On album number three, Anway left and Merritt fully assumed vocal duties, his morose baritone falling somewhere between a more disaffected Morrissey and Jonathan Richman on ‘ludes. With The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994) and Get Lost (1995), Merritt attempted concept albums centering on, respectively, country music/road songs and travel/escape while slowly beginning to beef up his sound with a core group of musicians, including Sam Davol (cello, flute), John Woo (guitar, banjo) and Claudia Gonson (drums, backing vocals).

Although some selections on the years-in-the-making 69LS could have comfortably fit on those earlier recordings, it altogether feels more expansive. Much of it features people playing “real” instruments such as those listed above (and also ukulele, accordion, autoharp, piano, violin, etc.) Such an array of sounds naturally keeps such a long album from seeming monochromatic; it also successfully reframes Merritt as something other than a one-trick-pony, while retaining a fully discernible, singular sensibility throughout.

Such cohesiveness is all the more impressive when you consider that Merritt employs four other lead vocalists throughout 69LS. Naturally, he does so schematically: two men (LD Beghtol, Dudley Klute) and two women (Gonson, Shirley Simms), all of them assigned two lead vocals a piece on each of the album’s three discs. The multiple singers add variety and texture and of course prevent listeners from having to endure Merritt’s voice for up to three hours straight; that none of them are exactly “traditional”-sounding vocalists also expands the central idea behind The Magnetic Fields’ aesthetic—these are people making music with Merritt in his one-bedroom New York apartment, as opposed to a slickly professional, in-the-studio supersession. One of the album’s most endearing qualities is in how undeniably handmade it comes across.

Of the four vocalists, Beghtol arguably has the most striking presence. Lyrically and melodically, “All My Little Words” is one of 69LS’ most immediate tracks (it’s very nearly Simon and Garfunkel!), but Beghtol’s tender, almost androgynous croon obviously takes it to a level Merritt could never reach himself. Gonson’s simple backing harmonies on the chorus add even more to the song’s plainspoken grandeur—the sort of little subtle touch heard throughout the album, continually revealing new dimensions in its overall deliberate, stripped-down approach.

Having contributed extensively to past releases from the band, Gonson, with her untrained, unflashy voice comes off as Merritt’s female equivalent while also serving as both his confidant and foil—the latter particularly shines through in their duet “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” (which Merritt describes in the liner notes as “a lethal version of ‘I’ve Got You Babe’”.) One could almost go as far to say that, along with Merritt, she’s the glue binding 69LS together: her steady presence is a constant, whether she’s deadpanning her way through Merritt’s more acidic (“If You Don’t Cry”) or sillier (“Reno Dakota”) lyrics or dutifully bringing to life one of the album’s most stirring melodies (the epic-at-nearly-five-minutes “Sweet Lovin’ Man”.)

As with Beghtol, the other two guest vocalists are ringers brought in to accomplish things Merritt vocally cannot. Klute initially sounds like a raspier, slightly more fey, higher octave version of Merritt, but proves capable of such unexpected moments as his charismatic phrasing throughout the New Order-esque “Long Forgotten Fairytale” or that spectacular high note he holds for fifteen-plus seconds at the end of “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”. Simms, on the other hand, is by far the most expressive and versatile of the five vocalists, equally adept at small-scale folk balladry (“Come Back from San Francisco”), Carter Family-friendly gospel (“Kiss Me Like You Mean It”) and percussion-driven protest-pop (lending an irresistible energy to “I’m Sorry I Love You”.)

Together, this project’s immense scope, along with the wealth of voices beyond Merritt’s gives him seemingly limitless opportunity to experiment with genre. 69LS perpetually, stylistically swerves, from pastiches of Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac (“No One Will Ever Love You”) and Graceland-era Paul Simon (“World Love”) to emulating The Jesus and Mary Chain (“When My Boy Walks Down the Street”), OMD (“Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”) and even Gilbert and Sullivan (“For We Are the King of the Boudoir”). He takes on recognizable genres by directly referencing them in the song titles while keeping in line with the album’s overarching theme (“Love Is Like Jazz”, “Experimental Music Love”, “Punk Love”); he also makes ample room for such frightfully specific subgenres as country punk lament (the delectably droll “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off”), sleazy smut-rock (“Underwear”), self-described “Swedish reggae” (“It’s a Crime”), lachrymose piano balladry (“Very Funny”) and even a peppy cheerleader chant (“Washington, DC”).

Just as often, 69LS also liberally experiments with gender. It’s tempting and not inaccurate to call The Magnetic Fields a queer band—after all, Merritt publishes his songs under the imprint “Gay and Loud Music” and a majority of the album’s vocalists identify as gay or at least gay-leaning. It’s clearly an inextricable component of his aesthetic, but Merritt’s too clever to leave it at that. The most explicit “gay” lyric on 69LS is when he sings, “And he’s going to be my wife,” on “When My Boy Walks Down the Street”, which itself presents a more complex blurring of genders than one would expect. Often, Merritt will have a woman sing lyrics apparently written for a man (and vice-versa), such as the hook, “Bring me back my girl” in the Gonson-sung “Acoustic Guitar”, yet the fun comes in questioning whether or not he actually meant it to be a lesbian love song in the first place.

Still, just as sexual fluidity in Merritt’s lyrics is worth pondering over at length, so is the album’s variability in relation to song structure. 69LS might have worked just as well if it contained 69 three-minute pop tunes, but such a vast canvas practically cries out for the cornucopia of forms Merritt dabbles in here. Opener “Absolutely Cuckoo” is the first of many tracks (“World Love”, “Punk Love”, “I Shatter”) that are actually built on a loop, with the melody, lyrics and rhythm deliberately repeating themselves until Merritt decides to bring them to a full stop. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Love is Like Jazz” is totally free-form (almost painfully so), while “Epitaph for My Heart” unsympathetically smashes two noticeably separate short songs together. “Roses” is simply Beghtol a Capella for less than thirty seconds (whereas “How Fucking Romantic” is entirely Klute + finger snaps for twice that amount of time); eight other tracks all clock in at less than 90 seconds (the longest, by the way, is a still relatively short 5:02.)

Perhaps what’s most unique and enduring about 69LS is its unusual malleability. When I first heard it back in 2001, this didn’t factor in as much. Without an MP3 player or even a home computer at my disposal, I always listened to the album on CD players in chronological order, usually one disc at a time (and occasionally all three together when I had hours to kill). To its credit, it all plays wonderfully in sequence—“Absolutely Cuckoo” is an ideal opener/intro, the dinky little synths at the opening of “Parades Go By” are a perfectly funny palette cleanser after the all-out sonic assault of “Punk Love” and the oompah-pah “Zebra” succinctly, unpretentiously brings it all to a close (while also literally taking us from A to Z, song title-wise.)

Thus, it may surprise you to hear Merritt’s claim that at least the first disc was sequenced randomly (in the liner notes, he’s coy about any additional information regarding how he determined the running order). And the thing is, if you listen to  69LS entirely on shuffle, it works nearly as well as a complete, listenable, whole-seeming album. In preparation for this piece, I did just that, randomly beginning with “Xylophone” and concluding, about three hours later, with “The Night You Can’t Remember”. Yes, there was the occasional odd, whiplash-inducing transition (the delicate “My Sentimental Melody” into the in-your-face “Washington, DC”), but then, is that so much rougher than parts of the actual sequence, such as placing the classical-sounding showtune “For We Are the King of the Boudoir” right next to the spazzy synth-pop of “Strange Eyes”?

More so than all the gender-bending and genre-bending and playing with song forms, the idea of 69LS as both structured and yet potentially fluid within that structure renders it the most postmodern album I’ll probably be writing about in this project. If the running order is as fungible as Merritt claims, then one can presumably construct their own favorite version of 69LS without losing much in the process. Given the rise of the iPod in the years immediately following the album’s release, it’s as if Merritt anticipated these new approaches of listening to music on shuffle or creating your own curated, able-to-reorder-at-will playlist of favorite tracks (and you can even conveniently weed out any that you don’t personally care for!)

On that note, if 69LS has its share of songs that, in isolation, range from forgettable to subpar to unlistenable, then why deem it worthy of Favorite Album status? Well, for starters, consider that most great albums are on average 10-12 tracks long, and that 69LS has at least up to twice as many truly great songs scattered throughout it. Although I could write a 10,000+ word behemoth of a piece detailing every last track, for brevity’s (and my sanity’s) sake, here’s a dozen or so favorite moments:

  • The droll asides (“Woah, nelly!”, “It ain’t pretty”) woven into “A Chicken With His Head Cut Off”.
  • Gonson’s final high note (“It makes me drink MOOORE!”) on “Reno Dakota”.
  • The fairly ridiculous “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” ending with the impossibly poignant and sad final line “…until we pass away.”
  • The innate stillness and sense of purpose Merritt gives “The Book of Love” (probably the closest to a standard here, given Peter Gabriel’s cover).
  • Merritt’s deliberately hoary delivery on “A Pretty Girl is Like…”.
  • I pretended you were Jesus, you were just dying to save me; I stood beneath your window with my ukulele,” from “(Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy”.
  • How “Papa Was a Rodeo” opens with the lyric, “I like your twisted point of view, Mike,” and masterfully extends a metaphor until it achieves the gravitas of a classic poem.
  • The awesome combination of Beghtol’s higher-pitched than usual tone and Davol’s staccato cello on “The Way You Say Good-Night”.
  • “Busby Berkeley Dreams” evoking watching one of Berkeley’s famed opulent musical numbers but in slow-motion with the sound off.
  • “Acoustic Guitar” not only namedropping Charo and GWAR but also Steve Earle.
  • The unsentimental coziness of “Love is Like a Bottle of Gin”.
  • The groaning puns repeatedly preventing “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long” from lapsing into obscenities.
  • The crystalline hooks and handclaps of “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure”, where Merritt gets away with rhyming “composure”, “closure” and “Dozier” (as in Motown tunesmiths Holland-Dozier-Holland).

I could go on and name dozens more, but they wouldn’t add much to my argument for 69LS’ greatness. You can catalog a complete, itemized list of all the album’s triumphs (and clunkers), but in the end, the proverbial whole matters so much more than the sum of its parts. Look, Merritt set out to write and record 69 love songs, and he did exactly that. Not every one of them is of the same sterling quality as “All My Little Words”, but I’d argue that none at all sound tossed off—you can detect on even the basest level the craft that went into making each one. And while it would be a stretch to say all of his lyrics are sincere (as Robert Christgau wrote in his review about Merritt, “If he’d lived all 69 songs himself, he’d be dead already”), you never doubt the sincerity he put into recording all these songs. Over time, 69LS feels like less than just a supersized album and more an expansive, comprehensive compendium of a singer/songwriter’s sensibility at one moment in time, captured for posterity.

Post 69LS, Merritt has kept The Magnetic Fields an ongoing concern, releasing multiple single-length albums driven by overarching concepts ranging from feedback noise (Distortion) and acoustic psych-folk (Realism) to songs beginning with the letter I (i). Additionally, there’s a slew of equally concept-driven side projects such as the self-described The Gothic Archies and The 6ths, where Merritt invites everyone from Sarah Cracknell to Odetta to act as guest vocalists. Perhaps none of these are in quite the same league as 69LS, but it’s hard not to remain intrigued as to what Merritt will try next.* His catalog could very well end up the Great (if Obscure and Secret) American Songbook of its era, with 69LS as its centerpiece.

Next: “’Cause I know I’m a mess he don’t wanna clean up.”

*As I write this, he’s days away from releasing 50 Song Memoir, a five-disc, supposedly autobiographical Magnetic Fields album containing one song for each of Merritt’s first fifty years on Earth.

“All My Little Words”:

“Papa Was a Rodeo”:

“The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure”:

Original Cast Recording, “Hedwig and The Angry Inch”

hedwig

(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

cemetery_28-feature-1600x900-c-default

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.

aquarius

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.

little_sister_01

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…)

moonlight

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.

lobster2

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.

freeindeed_still06

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.

mountains-may-depart-review-20160325

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.

americanhoney-jpg-crop-cq5dam_web_1280_1280_jpeg

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.

demon3

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”

good-humor

(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:

mad-men-carousel

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?).

a-little-life

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.

innocents-and-others

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.

jimhenson-biographycover

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.

party-of-one

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.

john-cleese

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).

jessie_klein_grow_out_of_it

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.

shock-and-awe

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.

emma-cline

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.

harmony

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.