The 2010s were an odd decade for music videos. The medium seems to have both a record audience and a diminishing importance. Music videos at the beginning of the decade measured the celebrity of an artist. The best were (for some reason) often considered those with the most cameos of other celebrities.
Now, viewership is overwhelming, there’s more access to music videos than ever before, and that interest is much more fragmented. Websites dedicated to covering music videos have gone under. A star can no longer maintain their celebrity solely on opulently produced music videos.
Are these good things or bad? It’s genuinely hard to say. It’s an evolution. I certainly don’t mind that stars themselves have become less central to music videos. When they do feature, it’s less about anchoring the video to a musical performance and more about how the star features, highlights, or contrasts to a story taking place. It leaves more room for narrative, setting, a director’s touch, dance, choreography, performance.
These are the 10 music videos of the last decade that stick with me the most:
10. “Land of the Free” – The Killers
directed by Spike Lee
Hope can’t function without the work to realize it. Change doesn’t happen unless people enact it. Spike Lee’s video for The Killers’ “Land of the Free” speaks to the sad, backwards phase the United States has found itself embracing. We’re running concentration camps for Latinx immigrants, tearing children from their parents and keeping them locked away for no reason. Incarceration has been transformed into a modern version of slave labor for the prison industry. Children are shot in our schools with no real effort made to decrease the risk they face.
“Land of the Free” is a Rorschach test for how you’re feeling that day: hopeful, angry, motivated, hopeless, desperate. All of those feelings are part of a whole. All of them are legitimate and natural. Just keep taking the next step to changing something. Keep taking the next step of the work that feeds that hope and one day realizes it.
Many of Mitski’s videos center on the dissonance of being biracial. Director Maegan Houang’s “Happy” might investigate this best in terms of the white beauty standards held against women of color. What the video reveals is how racism is used to undermine feminism that isn’t intersectional. While it supposedly prizes white women over women of color, it’s ultimately used to suppress both. White patriarchy doesn’t enable or reward women held as successful in it, it just points them at another marginalized community while both are victimized.
8. “Genghis Khan” – Miike Snow
directed by Ninian Dorff produced Sarah Boardman, Rik Green choreography by Supple Nam
And now for something happy. A surprise hit that came out of nowhere, “Genghis Khan” is a terrific love story that exemplifies the strengths of music videos as a medium. It communicates its ideas quickly and upends your expectations through song, dance, and just a few cutaway shots.
We’re familiar enough with the tropes it plays with that it doesn’t need any more than this. It’s successful because it can tell a story in under four minutes with very broad strokes and a bare handful of specifics that establish and then invert cliches we love. It’s expertly directed because it knows where to pull back and trust the audience.
7. “Elastic Heart” – Sia
directed by Sia, Daniel Askill choreographed by Ryan Heffington
Dance can communicate a great deal, including the inability to escape certain struggles and bring the people we love with us. Sia has discussed the video in terms of being two sides of her personality, and it also works as demonstration of family members struggling and fighting – sometimes with each other. A daughter learns to cope with mental illness and trauma and a father can’t escape its impact – whether because it’s too late or too progressed, he simply didn’t have the tools and help in time.
The responses to this video were understandable. Many worried about connotations of pedophilia at the idea of Shia LaBeouf dancing opposite Maddie Ziegler in a cage. Impact outweighs intent, so it’s appropriate that Sia herself quickly clarified the aim of the video and didn’t seek to blame or attack those who were concerned about it.
As a metaphor for mental illness and trauma recovery, it can be powerful. The video itself is the sum of a number of smart decisions. Ryan Heffington’s choreography is off-kilter and imbalanced, playing with the power dynamic and difference in size between his two dancers. The camera remains still at various points only to explode into motion. The editing is energetic and chooses its patient moments. There’s sometimes a slight fish-eye effect used in shots taken from inside the cage that creates a slightly distorted perspective. And of course, the two dancers are phenomenal, both in their choreography and in their performances as actors.
6. “What Kind of Man” – Florence + The Machine
directed by Vincent Haycock produced by Jackie Bisbee, Mary Ann Marino, Alex Fisch choreographed by Ryan Heffington
Florence Welch has a catalog of fearless performances in music videos. Perhaps none of them match “What Kind of Man” for their range and the flexibility of their interpretation. Welch and Director Vincent Haycock put together a 48-minute film called The Odyssey, composed of nine original Florence + The Machine music videos. “What Kind of Man” serves as the opener to it.
I’d describe it as a burgeoning storm of a music video if it wasn’t expressly making that comparison within the video itself. The range of scenes swings wildly across intimate experiences, framing an entire rocky history of trust, anger, desire, shame. We come away with the shape of what someone’s love life has felt like – whether across multiple romances or just one is hard to say. We understand the gender inequality that played into it, the feelings of disaster and healing that accompanied it.
If we were asked to build a chronology of events out of the video, we couldn’t possibly. Yet if we were asked to describe the feelings surrounding those events, we could describe what the video shows us for far longer than it runs. “What Kind of Man” is like an impressionist painting – we may not be able to identify individual objects in it, but we can describe exactly what it feels like.
(I had this list sorted out before I looked at the production and choreography credits. Lo and behold, choreographer Ryan Heffington again. I supposed I should be looking for more of his work.)
5. “The Body Electric” – Hurray for the Riff Raff
directed by Joshua Shoemaker produced by Dan and Cathleen Murphy
Hurray for the Riff Raff’s protest anthem “Pa’lante” could just as easily have made the list, but “The Body Electric” is the music video I go to when I feel most helpless in changing things. It’s not because the video makes me feel hopeful. It’s because it makes me see how much more hopelessness out there is felt by others, how many marginalized communities are struggling and seeking for their voice to be legitimized, to be seen as human. The sheer volume of that struggle isn’t reassuring, but I know we’re none of us alone in that struggle. The hopelessness I’m feeling isn’t unique, or unprecedented, or insurmountable. It’s a desired effect of the racism I fear and fight against, of the misogyny and transphobia addressed in the video.
“The Body Electric” reminds me I’m not alone. There are more of us who want to change things than those who want them to remain this way. That pain is heard. It’s felt. It has platforms. People are fighting every day. I don’t fail if I’ve fought until exhaustion. We all have at some point. I fail if I don’t recognize that in others, if I don’t see the communities who are all in this. Art like this can be poignant in driving a point home, and it can also serve as a bridge to the lonely and exhausted that reminds them it’s OK, that exhaustion is shared, just as overcoming it is shared.
4. “Quarrel” – Moses Sumney
directed by Allie Avital, Moses Sumney produced by Meghan Doherty
Moses Sumney’s song speaks of the power imbalance in a relationship between people of different privileges. The music video deals with the desire to transform into something he cannot, the fairy tale that people of color can be seen as the same when the difference that’s applied to them is itself illusory. We turn the hate of that inward in an impossible effort to become the things that hate us.
Or, the music video deals with the desire to oppress and cause violence to those we care about who don’t have the same privileges, and it’s not until Sumney puts himself into the shoes of those he oppresses that he can understand how his actions cause harm.
“Quarrel” is difficult to parse. Like many great fairy tales, it can say multiple things depending on your point of view.
3. “This is America” – Childish Gambino
directed by Hiro Murai produced by Danielle Hinde, Jason Cole, Fam Rothstein, Ibra Ake choreographed by Sherrie Silver
Obviously, “This is America” belongs high on any list like this one. Why does it work so well for so many people? It speaks to a country (and cultural movement across many countries) that increasingly uses fear to dominate and radicalize its people against each other. It builds layers of violent imagery immediately ignored with smiles and dancing. The smiles and dancing immediately enable the next eruption of violence.
Nothing is healed in that cycle. All of us quietly fear it while simultaneously feeding it, participating in it, enabling it. It fuses together the acts of violence and illusions that erase them to evoke a lurking fear that we use those illusions to suppress and deny.
2. “RAPIN*” – Jenny Wilson
Content Warning: sexual assault
animated & directed by Gustaf Holtenas
Jenny Wilson’s 2018 album EXORCISM is an unraveling of after-effects from a sexual assault. The entire album serves as a maelstrom, an extensive fallout of damages and dealing with them. Its uncomfortable discussion of recovery as a process that often repeats the trauma is stark and realistic. There’s no before-and-after picture to it.
“RAPIN*” is the first song on the album, a fever dream that serves as a terrifying monument in life that can never be erased. Gustaf Holtenas’s animated music video reflects that terror in a way that’s both surreal and sickeningly physical.
It’s not a representation that can be easily digested. It’s confrontational, visceral, revolting, haunting. It conveys how trauma changes the way someone sees the world from that point forward, how the event itself replays in their mind. It’s a direct and painful music video that places the viewer into the shoes of the victim, if only to describe in some slight way something that can’t be described.
1. “Afterlife” – Arcade Fire
directed by Emily Kai Bock produced by Anne Johnson
The best we can do for the people we’ve lost is remember them. Sometimes we can only do so in impressions. Perhaps its a TV show you grew up watching with them. Perhaps its a place where you danced. Perhaps its a shoulder you rested upon. We don’t always have access to these things anymore. We reach out to them in our imaginations, in our dreams, we try to resurrect them in the art we create.
We try to touch them just one more time, to evoke something lost – their image, their voice, their presence. Sometimes a death can feel like nothing will ever be the same. Sometimes it can feel like they just stepped out for a minute, and they’ll be right back.
“Afterlife” deals in the impressions we might remember in our dreams, the memories of work and leisure a father might have, a teenager’s memory that’s precise but lacks context, the brief feeling of reassurance after a child’s nightmare.
“Afterlife” is sad and longing, but it’s also immensely reassuring. It shares one glimpse of something we all feel in our lives, at a way our hearts all break and mend until we can test their breaking once again because we so dearly want to remember those we’ve lost.
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The best films of the decade will be wildly different for everyone. Naming them is a way of highlighting what you value and anchor to. It might call attention to a movie someone else hasn’t seen, or that they don’t see the same way as you. The films on lists like these show us something about ourselves.
Sometimes the films named anticipate a movement that follows, or interpret one already happening. Other films are simply unique, and unlike anything else. Is the perfect war film superior to a challenging and flawed film that’s utterly unique and does what no other film you’ve ever seen before has? The answer to that is going to vary by critic, by viewer. The reasons for that answer are more important than the answer itself.
These are the films that stay with me, that I think about on random days because they’re close to me. There are elements in some of them I haven’t fully figured out. The viewing experience may have been going on for years because I still haven’t stepped out of that beautiful moment after the credits are over and I consider the way each sits like a presence beside me.
written by Paul Webb directed by Ava DuVernay
“Selma” isn’t a biographical or historical film. It’s a war film. It communicates the process and procedure of meaningful protest. It follows the strategies the groups involved created and reacted to. It engages the architecture of successful protest and the work that goes into it at the ground level. It’s not a film about individual icons, though it features them. It’s a film about real, flawed people who fostered and empowered community to make change.
“Selma” measures its sacrifices as both countless and deeply personal. Each is unknowable as even more mount, and each is world shattering for the people left in its wake. It’s an exercise in perfect direction and tight character acting. It doesn’t stylize its era and it spends time with smaller roles to show you the impacts and emotion of that moment in time.
written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz
The third film chronicling a troubled and unsatisfactory marriage, “Gett” is a movie that erodes you just as it does its main character. Struggling against her country’s religious laws, Viviane Amsalem (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) spends years in court trying to obtain a divorce from her husband.
He refuses to grant her one, and even when he does the conditions are his alone and subject to change. The film is simply presented, relying on its very real performances. Among many other things, “Gett” is an incredible examination of communicating desperation through restrained and even dulled emotions. It’s a film that, inside one courtroom, portrays a consistent resistance to the normalization of being treated as sub-human and without rights.
8. “The Secret of Kells”
written by Tomm Moore & Fabrice Ziolkowski directed by Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey
(released in 2009, U.S. in 2010)
“The Secret of Kells” designed its animation to look like the illuminated manuscripts that monks would spend years designing. The story it told concerned some of those monks attempting to finish the Book of Kells and then save the manuscript before invading vikings pillage their abbey. It doesn’t help that a god of death is lurking in the woods, but a helpful faerie does her best to help.
It all sounds a bit ridiculous, but it works as a beautiful fable and the Celtic-styled animation is often overwhelming, stunning, and evocative. The film achieves an experience of calm and wholeness that matches the best of Hayao Miyazaki.
written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan directed by Christopher Nolan
This is one of the two big event films on the list, and I genuinely think it deserves to be here. As a high-concept science-fiction film, it sits comfortably alongside predecessors like “2001”. What’s unique about writer-director Christopher Nolan is that in his best moments, he melds high-concept to event filmmaking. That “Interstellar” also succeeds as an adventure film is incredible.
It’s also a movie that finds hope buried under layers of hopelessness. It presents a world that’s given up, that lies to itself to maintain the illusion that it’s not clearly dying – a world that becomes more and more familiar with each passing day – and it shows us an optimistic story of finding a way through. That way through is demanding, it takes generations, and it asks for work and sacrifice.
written by Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer directed by Jonathan Glazer
“Under the Skin” is an art film that nearly all my friends hate. I love it. It’s a chaotic and lurking work that follows an alien (Scarlett Johansson) as she picks up lonely men and consumes them. You try to understand her and her burgeoning interest in becoming human – or at least experiencing human things.
The specifics of the Michel Faber novel on which it’s based are thrown to the side in favor of a multitude of potential readings. In fact, director Jonathan Glazer allowed his crew to design and score the film according to their own individual interpretations. A movie can so easily go careening off into disaster with that approach – and some would say this one did.
For me, however, it’s a disturbing work of inverting horror. It asks you to identify with a predator, making it inaccessible as it should be but coaxing you into the work of attempting to do it anyway. Then it confronts you with the idea that this is the work you’ve been doing. That might seem like a betrayal or trick on the movie’s part, but so much of our society has been built on normalizing and shielding predators that we’ve now elected one. Maybe we could have used a few more movies like this one.
Few films try to tackle the meaning of faith. Far fewer actually engage it without focusing on proselytizing or idolatry. “Life of Pi” tells the story of a young survivor stuck on a life raft with a tiger. The second of the two event films on this list, it’s patient, heartbreaking, and utterly human.
I hate frame stories – they’re a terribly used concept across movies. Yet the idea of a journalist going to interview the survivor as an adult allows Irrfan Khan to recall his story in ways that build both emotional and logical anchors (Khan has a solid and overlooked argument for greatest actor of his generation). Doing so creates a remarkable moment of self-questioning in the audience that makes the frame story a valuable way of describing and explaining hope and faith.
written by Taylor Sheridan directed by Denis Villeneuve
“Sicario” is a stalking thing. It’s a movie that’s a nightmare, a film about FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). She’s tasked to an ill-defined covert operations team in order to legitimize its actions across the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s all standard spy fare so far, right? The film itself begins like a mystery and descends into a murk of threat and erasure.
It’s controversial in some circles of critics of color because of the way it poses Mexico as a war zone for the drug trade. The presentation in the film is definitely somewhat overblown. I find value in how the film illustrates the way the United States feeds the drug trade and installs leaders who are no less violent – but whose violence simply aligns with and feeds the financing of our own.
The villain in the film isn’t ultimately Mexico in any way. The villain is U.S. imperialism. What’s powerful in the film to me is one woman simply trying to do her job, and how the overwhelming nature of that imperialism increasingly dissolves the values that she imagines she’s risking her life to uphold. As I put it in my review, “It’s not the threat to Kate’s life that is most compelling. It’s the threat to the idea that Kate’s life matters”. For my money, it’s Blunt’s best performance.
I once called “Sicario” the best film of 2015. I don’t know that I was wrong – it’s very close by in this list. The movie that’s stuck with me ever so slightly more, however, is my runner up that year – Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood”. I’ve found that many “bests” in years past have shifted slightly – this list itself might look entirely different in a decade’s time.
“Girlhood” itself is a coming-of-age movie that doesn’t deal in the usual trials and tribulations of maturing. It follows a group of high-school girls in France. Most of them are Black or of Middle Eastern descent. The film deals with trans identity. It covers the silence of women before groups of men. It shows the path of maturing in a far different light than in the safe, stereotypical, low-risk, middle class ways that most coming-of-age tales cover.
It’s a film that shows growing up as a constant struggle to find or create safe harbor in a world that doesn’t provide it for everyone. It is inspiring, emotional, evolving, it feels all the more real when very light touches of magical realism are used, and there is a full scope of emotion to it – from the joy of community to the isolation of survival.
written by Sarah Polley & Michael Polley directed by Sarah Polley
“Stories We Tell” is a complex family documentary that covers extensive meta territory. Filmmaker Sarah Polley was curious about stories that she might not be her father’s daughter. She delved into her own family’s history to profile her late mother, interview her mother’s lovers, her own family, and to research who exactly she was, what stories shaped her, and which were truthful.
One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is that Michael Polley – her mother’s husband and the father who raised her, serves as narrator for it. He’s also interviewed, and his calm and acceptance of the entire endeavor is another layer to be…not examined, but simply sat with and understood.
The film reveals piece by piece, but it’s never a mystery so much as it’s a contemplation of lives lived, of what a person understands about someone they love and might also fail to understand about them. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen, and stands out as something truly and quietly unique in all of film.
1. “The Milk of Sorrow”
written and directed by Claudia Llosa
(released in 2009, U.S. in 2010)
“The Milk of Sorrow” is a Peruvian film that traces how trauma shapes future generations. It follows Fausta (Magaly Solier), a young woman whose mother passes away in a remarkable first scene. Fausta’s mother was raped in a civil war, and her stories and experiences of this have shaped Fausta’s view of the world. She passes through it quietly, timidly, shying from a hundred normal things that she reads as potential dangers.
Fausta’s also made shocking decisions for her own health that make no sense, but that are framed by paranoia, superstition, fear, and how trauma has infused itself into folklore. The film is a reserved piece of magical realism that traces in one character how trauma echoes in a society – especially among its indigenous communities.
The cinematography is stark and beautiful one minute, rich and full of motion the next, yet another argument that Natasha Braier is without a doubt the cinematographer most overlooked by the Oscars this last decade. Writer-director Claudia Llosa’s film operates on two levels: a quiet, obvious, and patient one on the surface, and one that exists below that in the muted suppression of panic that deals with anxiety, shame, and betrayal.
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A friend recently asked me if I could only listen to a specific decade’s worth of music for the rest of my life, which 10 years would I choose?
Folks idolize other eras – perhaps it’s the pop of the 60s or the radical shift the 80s represented. Maybe it’s the grunge and alternative movements of the 90s. For me, the answer was simple. I said the last 10 years, and if you ask me next year you can just shift it up a year.
There are a lot of things technology has endangered lately, but art is both stubborn and flexible. It’s easier to make music than it ever has been. More people have access to releasing music, more subjects are acceptable to talk about in music, and we have instantaneous access to a wider variety of artists and cultures than ever before.
2018 was a long, tough year, unbearable for many people in many ways. It demanded a lot, so I tried a few ridiculous things putting this together. Eventually, I decided to share my top 100, but only allow myself a sentence for most. The idea is to give a brief impression of what each album is so that you can find something new that appeals to you.
If you’ve got Spotify, I’ve made a 1,000 song playlist of the best songs of 2018. It contains these and other artists. It allows you to find the artists and albums listed below easily:
These are my top 100 albums of 2018. Prepare to hear me use the word “range” way too often.
100. Extralife – Darlingside Ultra-precious, quiet indie pop that alternates between navel-gazing as an art form and harmonizing about optimism in darkness.
99. Bad Witch – Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor discovers saxophones and tortures them until they give up their secrets, much like David Bowie once did on Outside.
98. Aviary – Julia Holter Experimental orchestro-electro-jazz-pop that sounds like the music they put in sci-fi films to symbolize what people from the future who dress like they’re from the 1930s will listen to.
97. Depth of Field – Sarah Blasko Ridiculously catchy yet intensely moody synth pop that (mostly) dumps the synths for strings.
96. You Never Were Much of a Dancer – Gwenifer Raymond Welsh guitar music in the style of Appalachian folk, aggressively realized in its ambition, speed, and atmosphere.
95. Port Saint Joe – Brothers Osborne The funniest country band out there flexes its muscles across a broad range of country and rock genres.
94. Birthplace – Novo Amor Gentle indie folk that feels like getting tucked in for the night.
93. Oxnard – Anderson .Paak A self-aware rap critique of the dangerous risk Black men are expected to face in today’s America that unfortunately descends into a creepy and misogynist reinforcement of the dangerous role women are expected to fill in today’s America. The lighter sexual fantasies are fine-ish, but it veers too close to hatred later. Half is in the top 50, and half has no place on this list, so consider this an average with an asterisk.
92. Premonitions – Miya Folick
Inventive indie rock that tests a wide range, often echoing Florence + The Machine in versatility, but much more bluntly pop-oriented.
91. Open Here – Field Music Art rock that evokes Talking Heads, playgrounds falling apart, flutes conspiring against you, and lost Beatles songs each in turn.
90. The Midnight Hour – The Midnight Hour
Tight jazz songs soaked in atmosphere with a range of guest performers; just beware an ill-advised CeeLo Green appearance for one song.
89. Mother of My Children – Black Belt Eagle Scout Folk-grunge that builds strength out of vulnerable introspection, contemplating singer Katherine Paul’s indigenous and queer experiences in a world that’s often hostile to both.
88. A Laughing Death in Meatspace – Tropical Fuck Storm Australians get mad about the state of the world and shout about it over powerful, deliberate art-punk, burrowing into hopelessness and frothing anger.
87. All at Once – Screaming Females 2018 was the year for this album, which pretty much gives you exactly what you want out of a punk alternative band named Screaming Females.
86. On Dark Horses – Emma Ruth Rundle Fast-paced slowcore post-punk (yeah, I know) for those who miss early Esben and the Witch or Mazzy Star, even though Mazzy Star came back this year, too.
85. Double Negative – Low Slowcore champions of the world shove what sounds like a brilliant album through a shredder and let you try to reassemble it.
84. Nearer My God – Foxing Emo band gets artsy, borrows pieces of industrial, pop, and folk from various decades, actually succeeds, news at 11.
83. Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett Australian gets mad about the state of the world and tells men off in music that leans into a lo-fi punk aesthetic. It highlights the album’s extremely clever and very legitimate bite (often referred to in Australia as “dolewave” – yes, really).
82. The Horizon Just Laughed – Damien Jurado Indie rock meets lounge music, and I mean that in a good way, like in a really cool lounge that plays indie rock with heart-achingly beautiful lyrics.
81. abysskiss – Adrianne Lenker Soft, floating, often yearning folk delivered in a simple style that alternates between calm groundedness and eerie dissociation.
80. Let Night Come On Bells End the Day – Sarah Davachi
Drone music is composed of tone clusters elongated into slow, hypnotic rhythms, a kind of ambient sound art that evokes prog rock and Gregorian chants all at once – Davachi realizes a clear and surprisingly organic interpretation here.
79. The Other – King Tuff Psychedelic power pop that expertly recalls classic rock in sound, storytelling, and – for better or worse – ego.
78. I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions – Santigold Santigold loosens her laser-precise approach into a more free-flowing album focused on Afro-Caribbean influences.
77. Lush – Snail Mail Patient indie rock storytelling in perfect song structures, though its focus on restraint may make the difference between a good and a great album for some.
76. Recovery Mission – MIDI Myers Disclosure: I’m acquainted with the musician.
A very meticulous consideration of trauma and many of the pitfalls and setbacks that can undermine a process of recovery that never fully ends, housed in an album that at times evokes late 90s Aimee Mann levels of lyrical storytelling.
75. Twerp Verse – Speedy Ortiz The forefront of grunge’s still-thriving evolution starts in the work of Sadie DuPuis and her band.
74. Dans da main – Jean-Michel Blais Beautiful, haunting piano solos accompanied only by spare electronic touches, played by a performer who ditches technical perfection for emotional whirlwinds guarded with a sense of world-weary hesitation.
73. Radyo siwel – Melissa Laveaux Dance, folk, and French pop fused together by Afro-Caribbean rhythms and vocals that often slyly take lead on percussion.
72. Orquesta Akokan – Orquesta Akokan Superb, original, big band mambo music performed by an all-star band of Cuban players, with buttery horns, brilliant rises and falls, and soulful singing by Jose Gomez.
71. El Mal Querer – ROSALIA Emotionally compelling flamenco music by way of Spanish pop and R&B, captured in a concept album about a 13th century toxic relationship.
70. Analogue – ODIE
Stripped down rap that essentially presents a character in honest detail and focuses on everyday fears and inspirations.
69. All Melody – Nils Frahm A mix of live instrument work and electronica that sparks an emotion not always focused on in music: curiosity.
68. Chris – Christine and the Queens
Synth-pop that could have come straight out of the 80s, and that delves into questions about gender roles and presentation. There are both English and French versions included, so listen to the one that helps you understand the lyrics first, but the French one feels more seamless.
67. Cloud Corner – Marisa Anderson Thick, weighty guitars that paint sonic landscapes from folk and blues – with no lyrics, just your imagination.
66. For Ever – Jungle British electro-soul driven by layered hooks, funk loops, and joyful singing about disillusion.
65. Safe in the Hands of Love – Yves Tumor Remarkably produced hip-hop built around sound collage and a poignant, unrelenting confrontation of culture-wide racism.
64. Room 25 – Noname Noname’s rap conveys a simultaneously laid back and documentarian presentation of her internal monologue (even when racing along at impressive speed).
63. Dead Magic – Anna von Hausswolff One of the world’s greatest experimental rock artists makes a variety of instruments feel like they’re eyeing you up suspiciously and just waiting till the pipe organ gets there to start something you don’t want to be around for.
62. Beyondless – Iceage Punk from a band that’s flexible enough to stretch into either commanding grunge or rollicking pop hooks depending on what each song needs.
61. Cocoa Sugar – Young Fathers A band that very consciously tries to elude genre might best be described as experimental rap that’s able to veer from Radiohead-like art rock to Massive Attack’s strangest moments of trip-hop.
60. Icon of Ego – Arc Iris
Arc Iris is a little-known art pop group that fuses just about every genre you can think of smoothly into immensely listenable and consistently unpredictable pop songs.
59. Childqueen – Kadhja Bonet Soul music with complex orchestral backing that feels directly lifted from an alternate history where the music is cooler.
58. 7 – Beach House Dream pop that occasionally threatens to become Phantogram but realizes it wants to lurk in the shadows for a while longer, you just keep on what you’re doing.
57. Temet – Imarhan Algerian rock that draws from blues, yet is upbeat and centers its hooks around a distinctive Tuareg vocal style.
56. Love is Dead – CHVRCHES Powerful Scottish synth-pop that’s reminiscent of Paramore and is very easy to re-listen to over and over again.
55. Loma – Loma Dream pop that marries Americana and hauntology elements, with a focus on slow burn song evolution and clearly demarcated layers of sound.
54. Time ‘n’ Place – Kero Kero Bonito As much art installation as album, full of overly comforting pop music undercut at regular intervals by uncomfortable sound collages, as if you woke up in the 90s and a new episode of Friends was suddenly interrupted by static garbles of an unnerving public access program showing photos from your childhood.
53. Bark Your Head Off, Dog – Hop Along Mostly acoustic indie rock that paints short stories and their characters in moments of both struggle and beauty with incredible depth.
52. Yesterday Was Forever – Kate Nash Some will furrow their brows, but if you want airy Britpop fused to punk, grunge, speak-singing, and diary entries that can veer from George Michael 80s pop to Machines of Loving Grace-style industrial at the drop of a hat, all inside an honest connectional about mental health, there is nothing else I know that’s even brave enough to try.
51. The Drought – Puce Mary Cold and unrelenting feedback and noise tracks built into haunting sound environments by a Danish woman who makes Future Sound of London look tame and passe by comparison.
50. Hunter – Anna Calvi
Aggressive art rock where the instruments themselves can’t help being in awe of Calvi’s operatic delivery, where nearly every song sounds like a James Bond theme if Bond were a woman bent on challenging gender concepts and toppling the patriarchy.
49. Bon Voyage – Melody’s Echo Chamber French baroque pop that suddenly breaks out R&B backing, drumline solos, jazz flutes, electric guitars, and noise electronica in ways that all feel like they genuinely build each song into an expansive yet cogent whole.
48. Exit Future Heart – Dustin Wong, Takako Minekawa, Good Willsmith Wong’s surreal habits, Minekawa’s experimental Japanese pop, and Good Willsmith’s pattern-heavy electronica all accentuate each others’ strengths, resulting in a focused experimental electronica album.
47. Wide Awake! – Parquet Courts Extremely political punk with forefronted vocals that extends into pop accessibility with natural ease.
46. The Lookout – Laura Veirs Chamber pop-influenced folk where each sound feels either very close or very distant, creating a space where every note is resonant, occasionally invoking the work of Sufjan Stevens or Listing Ship.
45. Can’t Wake Up – Shakey Graves Alejandro Rose-Garcia makes the shift from folk to alternative so that he can concoct dreamy mixes of detail and abstraction. Sometimes it sounds like antique cartoon music and other times like someone dug up old Portugal. The Man demos.
44. Heaven and Earth – Kamasi Washington Exquisite jazz that’s cinematic in scope, incorporating everything from Ennio Morricone-style, Spaghetti western choirs to Busby Berkeley dance numbers and Santana-like guitars, though it can all feel a bit bloated and lacking enough attention to the listener at points.
43. Future Me Hates Me – The Beths New Zealander gets mad at the state of the world and politely takes it out on herself near to the point of breaking so that she doesn’t bother anyone else, via energetic and deceptively well-studied indie pop.
42. Your Queen is a Reptile – Sons of Kemet Surging, emotional jazz that calls out Britain’s history of colonialism and declares a list of Black women as queen instead, searing in its delivery and constantly advancing in pace.
41. Criminal – The Soft Moon Traditional industrial music on the near-pop side, like the better moments of Gravity Kills or Stabbing Westward, yet that explores territory of an abusive childhood through concepts that come around to self-analysis and self-care – itself an emotional evolution in industrial that’s badly overdue.
40. Sweetener – Ariana Grande
Grande’s extensive control over the various elements of her brand is rare for women in pop, and allows her to take bigger risks and more aggressive evolutions, creating a broader style of pop that can stretch further than an older Millennial pop front that’s quickly stagnating.
39. Music for the Long Emergency – Polica, s t a r g a z e Polica’s indietronica is melded to Berlin-based orchestra s t a r g a z e, resulting in seamless shifts between electropop and orchestral composition in an album of expertly crafted unease.
38. Only Love – The Armed Hardcore that does a superb job of creating breathing space for each melody and theme to surface, allowing you to understand and identify each even as the noise builds into chaos again – like playing different At the Drive-In songs into each ear.
37. Isolation – Kali Uchis Pop built off Latin roots and an incredibly strong foundation in soul music, dreamlike and hopeful while still socially conscious, aware, and communicating a great deal about having multiple cultural identities.
36. High as Hope – Florence + The Machine What might be the worst Florence + The Machine album is still easily in the top 50 of the year and introduces more than a few masterpiece songs, a testament to just how good Florence Welch, Isabella Summers, and their crew are.
35. The Dream My Bones Dream – Eiko Ishibashi An experimental jazz album with elements of Japanese pop, accompanied at times by drone music, haunting choruses, eerie strings, and a range of found noises.
34. This One’s for the Dancer & This One’s for the Dancer’s Bouquet – Moonface The best marimba rock album about the Greek Minotaur forgiving his captors as a metaphor for our daily technological exposure to toxic abuse you’ll find, complete with surprisingly good use of auto-tune, and a natural voice that stakes out David Bowie-esque territory while still feeling very original.
33. Fever – Black Milk Rap with a basis in funk and soul, with enjoyably loose production and relaxed delivery, even when calling out systemic racism and police violence.
32. Cannonball! – Sen Morimoto Experimental rap framed by jazz hooks, with genuinely funny wit, honest internal monologues, and great mood work. It works as both an easy background listen and a rewarding focused listen.
31. At Weddings – Tomberlin Soft indie pop that perches on the balance between acceptance and denial. At Weddings deals with a Tomberlin growing up and rejecting the role her family’s Baptist faith expects her to play as a woman. The songs hover in those moments where you do everything you can just to take another step. “I’m Not Scared” is the best song of the year.
30. Knowing What You Know Now – Marmozets
Relentless mathcore with an incredible range across rock and punk, powered by Becca MacIntyre’s vocals that metamorphose at will.
29. Honeybloom – Choker Mood-heavy rap that leaps from indie pop to math rock influences and varies quickly from minimalism to ultra-modern production.
28. soil – serpentwithfeet Avant-garde, R&B, and electronica all join together in contribution to an album that feels like a deeply personal and progressive gospel.
27. Broken Politics – Neneh Cherry A profound album that starts with a trip hop foundation and extends into a terrific scope of rap, jazz, pop, and indietronica that all center on, well, our broken politics.
26. How Many Times Have You Driven By – Hana Vu Straight up dream pop built off catchy hooks and production that deliberately layers Hana Vu’s unique voice just a little off-center.
25. Remain in Light – Angelique Kidjo A complete cover album of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, redone with Afropop, Caribbean, jazz, and a variety of other influences.
24. Negro Swan – Blood Orange A superb funk and R&B album with a throughline of hope that addresses the common traumas people of color suffer, and the anxieties that grow because of it.
23. In a Poem Unlimited – U.S. Girls Experimental pop doesn’t quite cover it. Each song sounds like it could have been the standout single for completely different bands, yet a variety of echoed themes and sounds tie it all together in a way that feels incredibly consistent.
22. Follow Them True – Stick in the Wheel A re-imagining of British folk that hauntingly connects modern political and cultural battles to those of other eras.
21. Black Times – Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 Seun carries the tradition of his father (Fela Kuti) in intensely political music geared toward protesting foreign imperialism by highlighting the futures and possibilities it continues to cost Africa.
20. How to Socialise & Make Friends – Camp Cope
Australian gets mad about the state of the world and tears into the old boys’ clubs, toxic masculinity, and gaslighting she and her band’s encountered in lo-fi, somewhat minimalist punk.
19. Old Rockhounds Never Die – Odetta Hartman Bluegrass and rockabilly encounter a woman who slices them open, adds in electronic and experimental elements, and replaces all the broken patriarchal parts piece by piece with feminist concepts while she smiles and nods at them with just enough reassurance. This might be the most excitingly meta album of the year, and as the title song states in an observation/mission statement, “Old Rockhounds never die, they just slowly petrify.”
18. Stranger Fruit – Zeal & Ardor Scandinavian black metal in part grew as a rejection of Christianity, so what would have happened if American slave spirituals had followed a similar path? Black spirituals have a long history of hidden meaning, but Manuel Gagneux imagines a blunter alternate reality as a modern take on resistance, fusing black metal to delta blues in what he calls Satanic spirituals.
17. From When I Wake the Want Is – Kathryn Joseph The bones and sinew of Scottish folk resurrected into a stalking indie horror of loss and survivor’s guilt that rivets you to the spot.
16. I Need to Start a Garden – Haley Heynderickx One of the purest folk singers I’ve heard, with a talent for taking very laid back and detailed songs into crescendos that realize their point with a stunning catharsis.
15. DROGAS WAVE – Lupe Fiasco An expansive hip hop album that takes real tragedies and paints heartbreaking alternate realities, from rebel slaves who live underwater and sink slave ships, to a drowned refugee boy who instead grows up to become an Olympic swimmer, and a little girl who dies in a shooting instead becoming a doctor and saving another little girl from yet one more shooting.
14. I’m All Ears – Let’s Eat Grandma Art pop blended with a punk mentality and very plainly delivered psychology, that finally inhabits life underneath that meta, we-live-in-a-cyberpunk-reality barrier that’s been scratched and cracked over the years by Sneaker Pimps, Porcupine Tree, and 18+.
13. Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae Funk expertly revolutionized through pop, R&B, and electronica elements in an album about empowering women, people of color, and celebrating the array of sexual identities.
12. Primal Heart – Kimbra Pop that calls on a range of other genres to tackle various doubles that we wrestle with: those that result as a defense from abuse, those that copy what we see in media, those we invent to perform a more idealized version of ourselves online, those we attempt to inhabit to make relationships work, the list goes on.
11. Hell On – Neko Case If screwed-over, out-of-work Millennials who had the rug pulled out from under them are this era’s screwed-over, out-of-work manufacturers who had the rug pulled out from under them, then Neko Case is this era’s Bruce Springsteen, on a determinedly feminist album that at times out-Fleetwood Macs Fleetwood Mac, and echoes in the shape of its narratives a similar masterpiece like Tori Amos’ From the Choirgirl Hotel.
10. Pasar de las Luces – Mint Field
Mexican shoegaze that evokes ethereal moods of quiet lulls in cities at night watching bleary-eyed as if taking a shortcut to dreaming without going to sleep, like an aural cradle for the ghost of a moment warmly held.
9. Lavender – Half Waif A tour through missing senses, places, people, and normalcy, in songs that may evoke Bat for Lashes but are more insistent and alarmed about our dreamy dissociation from gently delivered nightmares.
8. KOD – J. Cole Incisive rap with an expectation of the listener, that runs through experiential victimizations and hypocrisies to build connection with our own yearning to make change.
7. Shades – Vera Sola Needle-precise Americana bent on eviscerating the very idea of Americana, centered on haunting emotional scars left from colonialism and misogyny, and hell-bent on reclaiming Americana, country, and folk for the people it’s erased. (Makes a great companion piece to Odetta Hartman’s Old Rockhounds Never Die at #19 above.)
6. LONER – Caroline Rose Piercing wit delivered by a hugely judgmental narrator on an album that re-purposes a rockabilly skeleton into snarky, poignant, catchy songs, which remain unpredictable even after many re-listens.
5. Be the Cowboy – Mitski There is no singer who so deftly and honestly dissects the experience of coming from a mixed identity. Mitski creates musical monuments out of both emotionally living inside a trauma and dispassionately analyzing it in the recovery – examined through indie rock heavily influenced by grunge.
4. Both – Okay Kaya Patient, stripped down, experimental indie pop that deals with the idea of performing a self that’s more polished than what feels natural. Unexpectedly, it thinks often about how these two aspects might begin to agree.
3. Now Only – Mount Eerie The most honest album about coping with the death of a loved one I’ve heard, inhabiting wrecked places and the unhealthy temptation of staying in those places as a way to not give up on the pieces of that loved one you keep alive.
2. Djarimirri – Gurrumul An indigenous Australian album that was the last Gurrumul worked on before his passing, filled with soaring tracks that evoke senses of discovery, warning, yearning, tension, and awe.
1. EXORCISM – Jenny Wilson
There’s no exact way to start talking about Jenny Wilson’s EXORCISM. It’s a painful maelstrom dealing with the after-effects of sexual assault. Please be aware the rest of this entry will talk about that topic before continuing.
The opening song of EXORCISM outlines an act of rape. Everything else unravels from there. This doesn’t make this a go-to album for listening, but it’s absolutely the artistic achievement of the year.
We often seek music for comfort, and EXORCISM has none whatsoever to offer, at least initially. The first half is about suffering and attempting to cope with a rape. The second half deals a variety of aftereffects, even lasting years into the future. One of the first steps taken here is a common one: staying in emotionally abusive relationships as an attempt to make sense of what happened. This is a dangerous draw if you’ve suffered trauma. If it becomes normal for other people to treat you with varying forms of abuse, then you can begin to justify the act of abuse you suffered as normal.
The music itself is interruptive and uncomfortable. It reminds me of The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, but its order doesn’t feel as if it comes from structure the way that does. It feels instead as if it comes from the chaos itself, applied in a panicked kind of way. Many of the songs themselves are relentlessly anxious and alerted.
This feels far from Wilson’s more traditionally orchestrated – if still experimental – work. Yet it feels more grounded, which in itself is tragic. It’s confrontational in its bluntness, and always driving. Yet sometimes it drives forward, and sometimes it drives straight back into you. Recovering from trauma is an act of taking a step forward and sometimes taking a step back. There are whirlpools in the music that drag you in and reflect a sense of uncomfortable inescapability. Sharp synth choruses build over insistent refrains, as if Wilson desperately urging herself to stay in the healthy mindset that leads to recovery.
This is ultimately an album about that recovery, but not as an achievement or a goal. Too often, albums and songs like that are a before-and-after picture. That misrepresents the recovery itself as a snapshot, something easy to do. When you’re wading through its difficulty, you can look at those snapshots and wonder why it can take you years to recover when a song can do it in four minutes. EXORCISM is an album about recovery as a difficult, often painful process, full of pitfalls and mistakes. It’s an honest representation of something rarely honestly discussed.
It’s been a strange year for music, with the loss of legends and one essentially recording his own epitaph. Yet it’s also been a year of gifts – of rollicking country and an unexpected comeback from a band many had given up on, of Mayan hip-hop and gothic folk songs. My number one album of the year (so far) is from a woman whose heartbreaking work I feel stands at the juncture of Nirvana and Neutral Milk Hotel.
So let’s dive in:
10. Gag Order – Vainhein
Vainhein (roughly translating to “heinous vanity”) started off in the San Francisco drag scene as a lip-sync performer. In the last five years, he’s moved into producing original music as Vainhein (or Vain Hein). There’s not a lot out there, but you can listen to the debut album Gag Order on the Bandcamp page.
9. Collect – 18+
18+ maintained near-total anonymity for the first three years of the band’s existence. They’re difficult to describe – a band that takes the way love and relationships are portrayed in modern music and throws the formula out. They seduce in a manner that blends carelessness with deep feeling, through music that’s deconstructed to impressionism almost to the point of falling apart before it finds its way back.
8. Pawn Shop – Brothers Osborne
Yes, this is one of the most eclectic lists I’ve ever put together. It’s a testament to just how diverse 2016’s been in music. Brothers Osborne can push out anthemic country songs at the drop of a hat, but the best part of Pawn Shop is how often they drop the love song pretense on which country too often depends. The album is wickedly varied, stopping to comically sing the praises of the pawn shop or break down into a slow one-part bayou, one-part honky-tonk testament to rum. This is the kind of country I almost never go for, but this album’s just too good.
7. Freetown Sound – Blood Orange
Blood Orange has been carrying Prince’s musical torch for a few years now, so in the year when Prince died, it’s reassuring that Dev Hynes’s band continues to explore a similarly easygoing yet soul-baring musicality. Blood Orange has never found the kind of breakout hits that Prince did – they relent when it comes to that extra edge, that musical and social insistence that Prince brought – but that’s not exactly what Blood Orange is. They slant toward chilled out.
6. Strangers – Marissa Nadler
Strangers is a step back for Marissa Nadler, but a step back for the woman is still better than the vast majority of other music that’s out there. Her July was my choice for Album of the Year in 2014. It was so patiently stirring, a masterpiece of lamenting, gothic folk. Her music sounds like a message from another time, like black-and-white footage of old funeral processions. There’s sadness and importance, even celebration, but it all feels so beautifully removed, like watching (as in her 2014 music video “Dead City Emily”) the silhouettes of lovers dance out-of-focus from behind smudged, scratched glass. It’s always someone else’s sadness, someone else’s lament, and there’s a profound sorrow in not being able to share those pains.
Her music often evokes the frustration of empathy, of witnessing pain in another yet falling short of being able to truly understand and experience it, to heal it. It’s a rare evocation in any form of art: to have your empathy evoked and stilled, to witness yet be frozen, to stand on the shoulder of that passing funeral and yet not know it. The tragedy of people passing in and out of our lives is the tragedy of their moments – the experiences that let us step outside ourselves and into the connection of loving others – traveling further and further away. Yet there’s something to that disconnection that only makes us strain all the harder to step outside ourselves again and again. Nadler’s songs and albums and career are almanacs of connections made and treasured and lost, and so her music rests right against the bones like only nostalgia and closure can.
5. Blackstar – David Bowie
I’m weird when it comes to Bowie. My favorite period rests in his late 90s/early 00s experimentation combining industrial and jazz. Not all of it worked – in fact, some of it was downright bad – but it was supremely different to anything I’d heard before. Bowie’s Blackstar will always be remembered most for how it’s written to anticipate and guide Bowie through a death he knew was coming fast.
Blackstar picks up so many musical threads throughout Bowie’s career, so many stylistic endings left unfinished, yet among those endings, he also starts new ones. He seeks to process what’s come before, to conclude much of it, yes – but he doesn’t end there. He also pushes forward into new realms, starts new musical ideas he knows he’ll never finish. This is the way to go, he seems to say in Blackstar, by saying goodbye and wrapping things up not to conclude this life, but so he can say a fresh hello to whatever life is next.
4. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
Finally. Only the second album Radiohead’s released in nine years shows the time that went into it. For many, this is the first time Radiohead’s broken new ground in those nine years – while 2011’s The King of Limbs was good, it didn’t convey Radiohead’s irrepressible ambition. Maybe they fell off, we thought. Then five years passed. Maybe they disappeared. Then their site went offline. Their social media presence was pulled. Maybe that’s it, we thought. Just like that. And then A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, this whole new challenging, chaotic map of dreamlike and nightmarish places to tour.
3. Tributo a Los 20 Nawales – Balam Ajpu
This is a tribute to the 20 spirits that represent each day on the Mayan calendar. Balam Ajpu is a Guatemalan rap group that’s part of a growing movement of Mayan-language hip-hop. The verses on their album alternate between the Mayan dialect Tz’utujil and Spanish. In Guatemala, 60% of the population is Mayan, yet the country is rarely represented this way – both domestically and abroad. Hip-hop has been one way for the Mayan population to coalesce around surviving elements of Mayan culture.
Balam Ajpu combines hip-hop with a stunning number of styles and instruments. Salsa, reggae, and cumbia are all folded into the songs. The array of musical instruments and the talent behind them here is ridiculous. Guitar, cello, pan pipes, a host of drums, xylophone, and sounds from nature all underlie a patient album about spirituality and social change.
2. Not to Disappear – Daughter
Remember a moment when you failed to cope with the damn unfairness of it all. Now trap it in amber. That feeling of crashing against the shore, when you could barely hold your head up because the lump in your throat was so overwhelming. When you were numb and angry and your tears were the best act of vengeance you had against the universe. When your teeth grit and your lips quivered and your breath caught. When you sobbed and the time of day didn’t seem to matter. Daughter makes music of the moments trapped before catharsis. Thank God, because those moments could use some understanding of their own.
1. Puberty 2 – Mitski
She destroyed me in two-and-a-half minutes. Took me apart suddenly weeping. That was on track four, “Fireworks.” Then she did it again two songs later with “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” If it doesn’t share the same sound as Nirvana’s most plaintive moments, it shares the same character.
“I bet on losing dogs
I know they’re losing and I’ll pay for my place
By the ring
Where I’ll be looking in their eyes when they’re down
I’ll be there on their side
I’m losing by their side.”
Sometimes, it can be easy to feel like one of those losing dogs, still running because it’s what we know, because it’s the process – through repetition – for which we begin to believe we’ve been made. It can be the role we’ve been taught to play in relation to those around us, or the role we’ve been taught by a specific person. It can be hard to break out of being a losing dog, and to break out of the habit of betting on them. Is it an act of care to do so? Is it enabling? Can you create of someone else a losing dog?
These aren’t the questions directly posed to us, because Mitski isn’t a philosopher on her tracks. She’s the character, inhabiting every moment, and we witness every mistake, every want and need, every tiny victory and major defeat. Music often tells stories about experiences viewed through lenses, non-specifically emotive enough to be universal. That’s not what Mitski gives us. Her emotions are hers, her stories are deeply personal. It’s in the personal loss, in the impacts of defeat, in the hardening of herself to the world around, that we find connection. Her struggle to remain soft and loving despite it all is our struggle. Songs here aren’t wasted, they aren’t filled out any longer than is needed. This is an album of bare mental, emotional, and sometimes physical survival. It’s heartbreak as a way of practicing for mortality, and the resistance to heartbreak as a way of denying our mortality, the way each wears us down and builds us.
Marissa Nadler (whose Strangers I highlight above) is how I found out about Mitski. Nadler highlighted her favorite Mitski lyrics in article for The Talkhouse. This turned out to be from “Fireworks,” a melancholic take on…what, exactly? One’s own journey toward entropy? The desensitization of loss, both inside and outside oneself? That desensitization itself is a loss one must desensitize to? A lover’s simultaneous capability for support and inadequacy to heal?
“One morning this sadness will fossilize
And I will forget how to cry
I’ll keep going to work and he won’t see a change
Save perhaps a slight gray in my eye.
I will go jogging routinely
Calmly and rhythmically run
And when I find that a knife sticking out of my side
I’ll pull it out without questioning why.
And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.
I will be married to silence
The gentleman won’t say a word
But you know, oh you know in the quiet he holds
Runs a river that’ll never find home.
And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.”
Mitski Miyawaki sings about surviving through entropy, about becoming a bastion and falling apart, about betting on losing dogs, about being one. I once was told that Led Zeppelin didn’t make songs, they made musical monuments. Mitski does, too…but the focus is anxiety, using, being used, giving in, being unapologetic, forgetting how to apologize to yourself, settling on how you should be treated, remembering how to treat yourself. Here are monuments to the cycle of falling apart and constructing oneself never to fall apart again, and falling apart anew, and constructing anew, ad nauseum. It stops at some point, right? The album’s called Puberty 2, and it’s not named that because she recorded a Puberty 1.
“Sicario” is a masterpiece of the inevitable, of the unavoidable, of the moment you know you’re leading to your entire life and dread facing, because you know you’ll be less coming away from it. And yet everyone involved must, because they are who they are.
The architecture of this is brilliant:
The visuals frame the dust hanging in the midday sun, the evening clouds, the ground underneath your feet, all as unfeeling and silent witnesses to what takes place before them. The textures of these interstitial moments are felt and given room to breathe even as the action takes place before them. It makes the story smaller, and in feeling smaller it becomes more personal. This is no epic. This is the ruination of a week in front of our eyes.
Lives are cast asunder. The music sometimes hunts you. You can hear it lurking around the bend. Voices yearn at something beautiful. The strings plunge deeper than you thought they could. The horns fret and cackle amongst themselves. The music is a vulture. The music is the sand, shifting yet immutable. The music is your thirst, some nostalgia for an ideal of a world that requires your willing ignorance to believe in. There’s a string you can cling to, high and disappearing.
We live our lives discovering who we are and why we are that way, of learning ourselves better than we did the day or week or month before. Of putting one foot in front of the other. Our hearts will break and heal, and break and heal, but they are rarely stolen out from our chests in ways that force us to relinquish our Who and our Why. “Sicario” takes that away. “Sicario” plunges a hand into one woman’s chest over the course of a film and takes away who she is, why she is.
“Sicario” is the husking of people, in a broad sense through the political games of the Drug War, and in a specific sense in the decimation of how one woman’s shaped herself over the course of her lifetime.
“Sicario” is conscious of this, and so it gives you breaks to breathe. Yet the horror is in the breathing, in those moments in between. It is a film of anticipations, of hearing the hunt around the bend. You look around and you see the dust in the air, the clouds in the sky, the ground beneath your feet. It makes your story smaller, it makes it more personal. It makes you wish you didn’t have that chance to breathe and recognize these things.
“Sicario” is a vulture. It picks the bones of people clean. It takes the best of us and shows her to be useless in the face of an unfeeling system that has its own agenda. It is a masterpiece of meeting your fate, and having no self left into which you can recede.
“Girlhood” opens with a football game. Despite being a French-language film, it’s American football, not soccer. Both teams are composed entirely of women. It makes no sense within the context of the film’s story. It doesn’t seem that a disadvantaged school in France would feature a women’s football program. What’s really going on?
“Girlhood” doesn’t care about your expectations, that’s what’s going on. The film, about four young women growing up, cares about its characters and it will fiercely defend them. In a movie that feels as remarkably real as this, if a football game suddenly needs to happen, or the lights go out upon a first kiss, it doesn’t matter that it’s not real. It’s real to the characters. What’s remarkable about “Girlhood” is how protective director Celine Sciamma is of their experiences.
Everything in “Girlhood” is real, until a particular feeling requires that it stop being real. What else is more accurate to the world of a child? These moments may only happen a handful of times in “Girlhood,” and they are usually understated, but they are special.
“Girlhood” is a film about safe harbor – the lack of it at home, the ways we learn to stand up for ourselves and others, the moments we step into our lives utterly alone and scared because of it, how we learn to create our own safety amid the worst of life. It presents moments where fantasy doesn’t always take place, but characters somehow always strive for fantastic ideals anyway. Sometimes they do so blindly.
After that football game, we see the group of high school-aged women walk home at night. They split into groups, fewer and fewer as they each get closer to home. Bands of men wait for them, to leer, to harass. At first, the women talk so much you can’t make out a word…but when they near the men, they all fall silent. It seems a simple thing, but Sciamma handles it with a deft hand. It’s the silence and its nature that feel overwhelming. In the face of it, hearing so much you can’t keep track becomes a comfort.
The strength of “Girlhood” is that it’s a coming-of-age film that feels experiential. It puts you in every moment, lets you inhabit it alongside its characters. The moments in between major events mean as much as the moments when something crucial is happening; they reveal how a character understands and fits into her world.
The French title of “Girlhood” is more accurately translated as “band of girls.” It may’ve been translated the way it is to take advantage of the similarity to last year’s critical favorite “Boyhood.”
I had a problem with “Boyhood” that Alessia Palanti stated better than I knew how. She wrote in her review, “After so many years the final result is dotted with formulaic plot points, cliches, a number of feel-good heteronormative Americana stereotypes, and an uninteresting family…I can see why it would capture an audience’s attention, and how its middle class, familiar, life scenarios could forge mutual understanding between film and viewer. But is this what boyhood really is? And if so, should we really be so celebratory?”
The problem with “Boyhood” wasn’t just cultural. It was the nature of it. It was nostalgic, not experiential. It didn’t feel like life as it was lived, but rather life as it was remembered. “Girlhood” feels like life as it’s lived, and it mixes in the greater fears and hopes of everyday living because of it. This is my runner-up for film of the year.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” feels like a captivating play, which is appropriate because it’s about aging actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) taking on an incredibly challenging play. The role that introduced her to the world was the ingenue Sigrid, a young manipulator who sends an older woman reeling toward suicide.
Now, Maria returns to play the older woman, Helena. How does this fit into her life, with her own divorce, and the fresh death of the man who wrote the play and originally cast her? Her closest friend is her young assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). They read the parts, discuss the play, hike the Alps.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” isn’t really a movie about what happens to its characters, it’s a movie about what’s thought by its characters as the world turns around them. It’s a movie about acting, aging, maturity and immaturity, layers of meta-commentary, the generational evolution of taste, the clash of perspectives that creates, the boundaries where socializing and social media meet. It’s a film of interplay between two people who love each other and work together and act together, and increasingly don’t know where those lines begin and end.
There’s a melancholy to the film, yet also a pleasure to its performance. It doesn’t uplift so much as it insists that life is a continued resurgence. It’s a chamber drama, but one of the best in recent years. In my book, Binoche gave the best performance of last year and Stewart wasn’t far behind.
There are some moods in which you don’t want to watch a think-piece, yet “Clouds of Sils Maria” has a natural quality that transcends this. It’s a complex film easily accessed, captivating in the same ways a play can be – it relies on its writing and acting, and doesn’t get in the way of those things. There’s a feeling of being in the theater while watching it, despite its number of locations and outdoor interludes. There’s a feeling that you should applaud in the end and step out into the warm night to compare it to other plays, to meet the actors backstage afterward and hear the particular foibles of the show that night.
In that way, “Clouds of Sils Maria” feels like a very private experience as a film. I wonder if I come back to watch another night, what inflection Binoche might do differently, what timing Stewart might adjust. It wouldn’t surprise me. Some films feel like you can leave their worlds and the characters will still exist without you. “Clouds of Sils Maria” feels like you can leave its world, and the actors will still be running their performances. It doesn’t make the film feel less real, it just makes you aware of all the levels on which it can be real. It’s a rare feeling that makes this a unique and special film.
What is there left to say about “Mad Max: Fury Road?” It’s arguably the greatest action film ever made. It’s thematically thick and boasts a nuanced story that unfolds its characters through action rather than dialogue. It doesn’t treat the viewer as stupid or needing explanation. It simply leaps into its world and expects you to keep up at its breakneck pace.
Because everyone else is going to talk about it in particular ways, and I’ve already discussed its feminism and how it uses choreography to create visual myth, I’m going to do something more esoteric. I’m going to tell you why the film closest to “Mad Max: Fury Road” is one of the last you’d ever compare it to: John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”
They’re both broadly sci-fi, but for all intents and purposes, they belong to completely different genres – “The Thing” is alien body horror. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is post-apocalyptic demolition derby. One takes place almost entirely in one location. The other never stops moving.
I compare the two because of the specificity in each film. Both enjoyed an overly long scripting process. “The Thing” was pushed back considerably. Because of this, director John Carpenter decided to take the time to plot out extra elements in the film. It meant small details that would’ve normally been overlooked instead got their own unspoken story lines. There’s a throwaway argument early in the film about who had keys to emergency blood transfusions. It might’ve served only as an opportunity for characters to turn on each other and cast suspicions. Carpenter noticed layers he could add to this. He added notes for each scene, including moments that hint the keys’ potential paths via subtle details in other scenes. It’s always backgrounded, and it’s unlikely you’ll notice on first viewing, but it gives you the sense there’s more going on in the world than just what’s happening in front of the camera.
For a film where the very question of who’s human and who’s a flesh-ripping alien creates the tension of the story, these extra details – even if we don’t consciously notice or connect them at first – serve to ground us in the film’s reality. There are stories happening that we only see pieces of, suggestions of. These elevate the horror of a film by letting our mind run wild with the possibilities. Instead of a routinely effective story, we’re offered a more complete glimpse into a nuanced horror world. That wouldn’t have been there without the delay that allowed Carpenter to keep on making notes, to add the details that make us feel his world’s rhythms.
George Miller effectively worked on and revamped the story and sequences of “Mad Max: Fury Road” for a decade. The stunts and shots were already mapped out in extreme detail by the time the stunt crew even started working on them. But this is detail and what I’m looking for is nuance. The film is filled with suggestions about when it might take place in the original “Mad Max” trilogy’s timeline. All the details disagree, adding even more fuel to the concept that we’re being told a myth that transcends time rather than a story that fits within it.
Character is realized through action, but the action is so detailed that it feels expressive in the way dance often is. I’ve long said the best fight scene should act like the best dialogue scene. Something should change for everyone within it and we should understand what that is. This is precisely what happens in a movie where action scenes almost never stop. Most action scenes have a few moving parts – that makes them simple and we’re left to rely on emotional investment to suspend our disbelief. “Mad Max: Fury Road” has that emotional investment, but it doesn’t waste it filling in cracks in its artistry. Instead, each sequence is detailed in ways that make us understand how dozens of moving parts interact together. That’s brave, and it’s the kind of madness earned through years of pre-planning.
To get even more tangential, developers have sometimes said that the holy grail of video game development would be a world that takes place at the level of detail our own does: a block of a real city, where real people make unpredictable decisions that are unique to their own complex motivations, and even those motivations evolve. Worlds can be built in grand scopes, but the way they translate to audiences is via details so minor you don’t always register them in a conscious way. This is the true measure of world-building. This is what films like “The Thing” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” do. They marry genres built for grand scale to the finest detail imaginable on a cinematic level. That’s how you transcend genre, by delivering a world so nuanced, it feels like it could live without the artist’s hand.
I was protected in high school from the abuse of hazing because of my sister. Four years ahead of me, she went to the incoming seniors before she graduated. She said if they hazed me, she would be back for them, and they wouldn’t be happy about it. They never touched me.
I tried to extend that shield when I could, and a few times I was able to for certain friends. I discovered earlier this year that one of those friends went on to sexually assault a number of women, using his position as a publicist within the music industry to grope them and attempt to pressure them into having sex.
When I found out, I felt like I had done something wrong by protecting him at 14, that I somehow should have known better. I felt what he did in the future was some failing of mine by taking some momentary part in his life in the past. I described the feeling to one of the closest people in my life like this:
You work to make sure there isn’t a fire at your feet. You stamp out what you can, you keep the people that you can safe in the ways you know how, and you be there for them when you can’t. And you feel like maybe, you’ve made a change, that maybe the small effect you’ve had can make a difference. And then you look up from your patch of ground only to realize the whole city’s burning, and you feel lost and it feels overwhelming. You’ll return to making what change you can, but in that moment, you’re lost. The damage done in the world is irreversible.
“Ex Machina” felt like looking up and seeing the city on fire. It can be a problematic film to champion because of that. In order to make a horror film from the lessons we teach men about possessing women, it demonstrated that possession in no uncertain terms. It does so through creating an A.I. and then asking its protagonist – and its audience – whether she’s human. If she isn’t human, she’s a thing kept, a possession, an object. If she is human, the very act of keeping her entrapped, of possessing her, is an act of assault. “Ex Machina” uses the Turing Test as a code through which we judge our own social assumptions. While the most blatant of its transgressions are suggested rather than shown, the space in which “Ex Machina” suggests them is as claustrophobic as cinema gets.
After its opening weekend, I experienced something that rarely happens. Through the window of discussing the movie, I had dozens of conversations with men about the lessons we’re taught regarding women, the things society ingrains in us to endorse and ignore. These conversations are normally extremely difficult to start with other men. They’re easily dismissed. They don’t happen. When they do, they run the course of shallow agreement, declining the real work of self-analysis.
For a few weeks, “Ex Machina” changed something in the men who had seen it. We talked about these things. We shared stories of what we’d seen, of things that some people had done, of realizations, of opportunities to help that we missed, of friends and loved ones who were forever changed because of acts of male possession. Men need to look up and see the city is burning, and we need to do it together, and we need to believe and support the women who have been shouting “Fire!” all their lives to us.
And for a minute, because of a movie that made a horror out of the gender roles we’re taught when young, I felt as if many men looked up together and saw the fire and talked about it as we rarely do. I only wish that could be the norm. I wish it didn’t take a movie to make that happen. I wish it wasn’t a momentary effect. I wish we didn’t all lower our eyes to our patch of ground again and pretend the city’s not burning down around us.
One of the most important films of the last year is one that most Americans don’t even know exists. Chai Jing’s “Under the Dome” was a call to action for Chinese viewers much the same way “An Inconvenient Truth” was for the American public a decade ago. Hopefully, it will fall on more receptive ears.
What is the film itself? Chai connects the dots between pollution, the Chinese government, and a range of health concerns, addressing a live audience. This is interspersed with some remarkably brave (and often risky) investigative journalism into China’s polluters and corrupt bureaucracy. She exposes a range of government regulations as effectively toothless, and highlights both key departments and individuals who have been left powerless by the government to enforce the law.
Where “An Inconvenient Truth” focused on a holistic scientific view, “Under the Dome” bites into a far more journalistic approach. It’s more boots on the ground than PowerPoint presentation, and it has a more accessible emotional undercurrent because of it. This makes the film more immediate and gives us some of the best journalism of the past year: the film includes at least one midnight trespass into a factory and a sting operation organized with police.
What makes the film work is Chai’s own story – her daughter was born with a tumor and she worries about the health effects of growing up in China. Chai also connects it to her long history as a reporter, seeing landscapes change before her eyes and the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of local industrial economies. Chai creates a story that is about China as a whole and about her own personal concerns as both a reporter and a parent. This makes “Under the Dome” a very human documentary.
Though a great deal of information is conveyed, the film isn’t dry. Chai does a masterful job of telling the story of how corruption is a bureaucratic invention just as much as it is a symptom of greed. It’s not just about fixing something that’s broken; it’s about changing entire ways of life.
Chai released the film at no cost. Within three days of its February 28 release, “Under the Dome” had been viewed 150 million times. Chinese censors took action – on March 2, 2015, Chinese media was instructed to stop reporting on the film. In less than a week, the film was completely removed from Chinese websites, after more than 300 million views.
It’s still freely available in many other countries, including the U.S. You can watch the entire film on YouTube at the top of this article, all at once or in episodic chunks. Either way, I encourage you to do so.