I still can’t get over the shit show that was the final segment of the 2022 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I’m kind of on the same page as Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, who said in 2018 that the Hall was “an utter and complete load of bollocks … run by a bunch of sanctimonious bloody Americans who wouldn’t know rock ‘n’ roll if it hit them in the face.”
It’s nice that the trustees have recognized the early criticism that the Hall was biased against female acts — this year they inducted six women, but female artists still represent less than 10 percent of members. But more than that, the Hall can’t seem to settle on the definition of rock and roll which has led it to some odd decisions, the most ridiculous of which was this year’s induction of Dolly Parton.
There is no doubt that artists like Pat Benetar and Annie Lennox, both of whom were inducted this year, belong in the Hall. And I fully agree with adding rhythm and blues artists who paved the way for rock, like Robert Johnson and Ma Rainey, and even folk rock artists like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. But at some point, you have to decide if you’re the “rock and roll” Hall of Fame, or the “music” Hall of Fame. If you’re truly the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame then you cannot induct Janet Jackson, NWA, Miles Davis, and Dolly Parton.
Rock and Roll exists on a spectrum, which is why Carly Simon and Judas Priest can be inducted on the same night and I have no complaints. Rock is The Who and The Smiths. The Stones and Cat Stevens. Led Zeppelin and ABBA. But rock is not hip hop, bluegrass, jazz, or country. The Hall needs to define what qualifies and stick with it or change the name to the Music Hall of Fame.
This has been an issue for years, but the Dolly Parton situation has turned the Hall into a mockery. Don’t get me wrong, Dolly Parton is a musical legend and genius who deserves all the accolades possible. But it was clear from her speech at the Hall that she doesn’t think she belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and frankly she proved it with her awful attempt at writing and performing a song she called rock and roll at the ceremony.
A month after being nominated for Rock Hall consideration for the first time in February, Parton declined the nomination.
Parton finally relented and accepted the nomination and induction, but even she knew it was a mistake. To her credit, she attempted to write a song to perform for the night to show she could rock if she wanted to, but all that song did was prove beyond a shadow of a doubt she didn’t belong. It was awful, and the Hall should have declined to let her play it after hearing it. See for yourself:
I’ll be rockin ’til the cows come home? Did she really sing that? Oh for fuck’s sake. It’s a mockery I tell you.
I’m not disparaging her as a singer. She’s great. I like Jolene. I enjoy 9 to 5. I think she’s a great person and a humanitarian. But she has no business being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Frankly, neither does 2022 inductee Eminem. Or 2022 inductee Lionel Richie. Nothing against them either — they’re just simply not rock and roll.
I think music industry executives are so afraid of being accidentally racist that they’ve erred so far on the side of wokeness that they’ve forgotten about common sense. The Rock Hall is guilty of being so inclusive they’ve muddied the waters on the very thing they set out to celebrate — rock and roll.
Look, the fix here is simple. Change the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Music Hall of Fame and get on with it. You get no qualms from me inducting Dolly Parton and Lionel Richie into the Music Hall of Fame…hell they are both first ballot inductees in my mind.
But stop insulting our intelligence by trying to fit square pegs in round holes in the name of inclusivity. It cheapens the whole institution.
2022 has been a banner year for music I think in part because so many artists took time during the lockdown to record new music. It felt like the albums just kept dropping all year long and have just now started to slow down. As of this writing, I am not anticipating any more key albums this year, but early 2023 looks like it will be promising with new records scheduled for artists I like including Peter Gabriel, Everything But The Girl, Boy & Bear, The Arcs, Phoebe Bridgers, Zero 7, and Depeche Mode to name a few. But I have gotten ahead of myself. This year was so prolific I couldn’t narrow down my favorites to just 10, so instead I’m going to share my favorite 20 records from 2022. Here goes:
20. SIDES by Alice Merton. This German-born, London-based artist burst onto the scene in 2019 with her hit song No Roots off the album Mint which earned a spot in my favorites that year. SIDES is more of the same, which is to say really great alternative/pop tunes with a bit of a rough edge given her raspy bluesy voice.
19. Expert in a Dying Field by The Beths. This indie quartet from New Zealand released its third album in 2022 and it’s the second to make my year-end countdown. The Beths are a straightforward indie pop band that for me is reminiscent of bands like the Go-Go’s, the Bangles, and the Cranberries. Lead singer Liz Stokes writes most of the songs, sings and plays guitar, and has just enough punk ethos to put the power in power pop. The title track from the new album is a bit on the softer side, but it’s probably my favorite track from the album.
18. Nut by KT Tunstall. If you only know KT Tunstall from her huge early 2000s hit Black Horse and the Cherry Tree you have barely scratched the surface of one of the coolest pop artists around. Kate Victoria Tunstall is surely the only Scottish-Chinese artist you’ve ever heard, and she also happens to be a gifted singer-songwriter who has continually churned out great record after great record for going on 20 years. Nut is her best effort in years and for me, it’s got 10 strong songs. If you like Nut, do yourself a favor and go back and listen to her full discography — you won’t be disappointed. Oh, and she’s a super funny person and a great follow on social media.
17. Resist by Midnight Oil. Yes, Midnight Oil. I’m always skeptical when a band tries to make a comeback after 40 years, or won’t allow itself to die gracefully when time has passed them by. So yeah, I was not expecting much when I clicked play the first time on Resist. The truth is I was a huge fan of The Oils back in the day as far back as 1982 when I heard Power and the Passion the first time. I still think Blue Sky Mining is among the best albums of the generation. Resist is damn good though. It’s Peter Garrett preaching about climate change and rising oceans and everything else he’s passionate about and literally tried to fix as a member of the Australian House of Representatives and Minister for the Environment, Heritage, and the Arts. Resist is likely the swan song for The Oils, and for that I’m both appreciative and a little sad if I’m being honest. 40 years or so is a hell of a run and Resist is how you go out big.
16. The Car by Arctic Monkeys. I’ve been a fan of Arctic Monkeys for about a decade now, and what I can say is the band has really evolved from 2013’s AM (which included great upbeat songs including Do I Wanna Know? and I Want It All). But then in 2018 they released Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino which really defied categorization. It was almost as if lead singer Alex Turner was trying to be some 1940s crooner, but for some reason, for me at least, it worked. Critics loved it. It got Grammy and Mercury Award nominations. It was one of the fastest-selling albums in U.K. history. It was so different than AM, but so interesting in its own right. It was not for everyone, but with The Car it’s clear Alex and the gang don’t give a shit what you think. The Car is pretty much Tranquility Base redux. If you liked the thematic crooning and orchestration of Tranquility Base you’ll like The Car. And I sure do.
15. There is So Much Here by Glen Phillips. When Toad the Wet Sprocket released Starting Now last year, an album that came in at #6 on my year-end list, the last thing I expected was a solo Glen Phillips album less than a year later, especially not such an upbeat “Toad-like” record. Glen’s previous solo work has been good, if not a tad more acoustic and folky than Toad records. Color me happily surprised by There is So Much Here. There are some artists that have a voice you can’t get enough of and that’s how I feel about Glen Phillips. The 51-year-old Santa Barbara native is simply special. He could sing Happy Birthday and I’d buy it.
14. Home, Before and After by Regina Spektor. The first time I remember hearing Russian-born Regina Spektor was on her duet with Ben Folds on the song You Don’t Know Me which is a really great song. It’s surprising how many artists I “discover” through appearances on other artist’s songs, but sometimes a backing vocal or pure duet hits home. I “discovered” Tracey Thorn on an early Style Council track. Noah Cyrus first hit my senses on her duet with Jake Bugg. Vanessa Carlton on Counting Crows’ Big Yellow Taxi. Regina Spektor shows up in the craziest places, like on the theme songs from Orange is the New Black and Weeds. It seems to me she has a lot of fans among her musical brethren. I’m a sucker for a female piano-based singer-songwriter. Tori Amos. Vanessa Carlton. Fiona Apple. Spektor is kind of the musical version of the manic pixie dreamgirl for me. Home, Before and After is her best album in years. Plus, bonus points, she is a recurring contributor to my Jews of Rock playlist on Spotify.
13. Hold on Baby by King Princess. After the release of this, her second full-length album, 23-year-old Mikaela Mullaney Straus, AKA King Princess, is poised to be a breakout star. She’s performed on Saturday Night Live. Is making the talk show rounds. And she’s becoming a regular on the gossip pages as much for her lifestyle than for her music — what does America make of a non-binary, gay, great-great-grandchild of the Macy’s Department Store founder who most recently dated pansexual Hollywood It GirlAmandla Stenberg. King Princess is on fire and she’s taking advantage of all that fame offers. I don’t really care about all that though. I just love her music and her style. Dang, Generation Z sure is unique and interesting.
12. Surrender by Maggie Rogers. 28-year-old Maggie Rogers has had a meteoric rise to stardom in just three years and Surrender, her second album, is proof her debut album was no fluke. Her first album made my favorites list in 2019 and I was excited about her sophomore effort and it does not disappoint. Did I mention she has a master’s in divinity from Harvard? It feels like we’re in a great time for female singer-songwriters, but maybe it’s just something I gravitate toward. That’s Where I Am is such a great song…one of my favorites of the year by any artist.
11. (self-titled) by Marcus Mumford. I wasn’t sure what to expect with the first solo album from Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford. I’ve been a huge fan of the Mumfords, but I was worried Marcus would use his solo work to explore some weird subgenre of bluegrass or Civil War-era hymns. Over the summer I saw Brandi Carlile in LA and she brought Marcus out to play the song they collaborated on. It was a dark, emotional song about his experience of being sexually abused as a child. So yeah, I expected his solo album would be slow and painful. But I was wrong. Yes, there are emotional tunes like Cannibal about his childhood, but the bulk of the album sounds like Mumford & Sons — which is fantastic. The more I listened the more I enjoyed, and the more I felt like this was really the fifth Mumford & Sons record. So if like me you like the Mumfords don’t hesitate to give (self-titled) a listen. The truth is the guy is really talented.
10. The Hardest Part by Noah Cyrus. Can a 22-year-old singer-songwriter write songs that resonate with a 56-year-old man? Hell, sometimes it’s better not to overthink things and just enjoy the music. Yeah, I think Miley’s little sister has a world-class voice and a sound that is all her own. She’s a little country, but with so much soul. On her second album, Noah works with some familiar artists (like her dad Billy Ray) and some surprising ones (like Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard). The result is a really listenable album that I find myself going back to time and time again. Noah could have taken the easy way into show business by modeling her sound after her big sister and riding Miley’s coattails. Instead, she worked hard to develop her own sound and went off to make her own way. When it’s all said and done, I wouldn’t be surprised if we remember Miley for her antics and Noah for her musical artistry.
#9 Alpha Zulu by Phoenix. Thomas Mars and his pals have been putting out quality indie records for 20 years already, though I didn’t jump on the bandwagon until 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (the 2010 Grammy Award winner for Best Alternative Music Album) which was one of my favorite albums of the aughts. I’ve really liked every album since, including Alpha Zulu which just came out a few weeks ago but is getting plenty of repeat plays on my Spotify account. I love the band’s 1980s sensibility and they really seem to be enjoying themselves in their music. Thomas is kind of a doofus, but he’s the doofus that gets the amazing girl at the end of the film (in his case, Sofia Coppola who is beautiful and talented). I always root for the underdog, be it Ducky, or Watts, or Farmer Ted, which maybe says a lot about what I think of myself more than anything. As for Phoenix, they’re not an underdog anymore…just one of the most popular pop bands on the planet. Oh, and this video is crazy creative.
#8. Into the Blue — Broken Bells. Side projects can be hit or miss, especially when the band member(s) aim for a very different sound. But the side project that joined Shins frontman James Mercer and producer Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse) has been a huge success in large part because the combination of Mercer’s voice and Burton’s production is pure genius. It’s also surprising to see a side project stick around for so long — Into the Blue is the third album by Broken Bells over the past dozen years. Both of the duo’s previous efforts have made my year-end list and Into the Blue makes it three for three. Broken Bells has stuck to the recipe over the years, with Into the Blue delivering more dance-infused alternative tracks brought home by Mercer’s unique and beautiful voice. I was fortunate to see them perform live a few years ago and I hope they tour again. By the way, if you ever feel like being impressed take a look at all the amazing artists Danger Mouse has worked with over the years.
#7. Things are Great — Band of Horses. It has been 12 years since Band of Horses released the spectacular Infinite Arms album that made me a fan, and since then I’ve enjoyed everything they’ve put out. Things Are Great is sort of a return to their earlier sound and it’s beautifully done. Band of Horses is part of a new wave of what for better or worse has been called a resurgence of southern rock, though I think that’s a misnomer. I think we need a new genre to define Band of Horses, and similar artists I love like Lord Huron, Iron & Wine, My Morning Jacket, and others. Maybe we call it southern-infused indie? Who cares really. It’s just great music.
#6. Chariot of the Gods— Hoodoo Gurus. Every once in a while something surprises me, and this year the biggest surprise came from Australia. I had long ago put Hoodoo Gurus into my oldies but goodies pile, listening to Stoneage Romeos or Mars Needs Guitars and enjoying the down-under punk sound I loved. I never expected the band to make another record in 2022, let alone one that sounds as if it belongs right in between those two alt rock classics of the early 80s. Chariot of the Gods simply kicks ass. This year a few bands from the old days made new records — Simple Minds and Crowded House to name two — but those records sucked because the bands forgot what made them great in the first place and tried to make something fresh. If I want fresh I’ll listen to King Princess. Thank you Hoodoo Gurus for sticking with what you know and producing a damn fine 80s alt rock record in 2022.
#5. The Tipping Point – Tears For Fears. I have loved Tears for Fears since 1981 and still believe The Hurting is one of the best modern rock albums of all time. I’ve seen the band live four times and will always count them among my all-time favorites. Roland and Curt can still make magic together, although the albums come with more time between them these days. Everybody Loves a Happy Ending came out in 2004, so it has been eight years of waiting for The Tipping Point. After they released the first cut late last year though I knew the album was going to be classic TFF no matter when it hit store shelves. That finally happened in February and it was indeed worth the wait. It’s brilliant from start to finish, filled with lovely alternative pop songs and that great Roland/Curt harmonizing. Here’s a taste in case you haven’t been paying attention to the band’s last few records.
#4. Dropout Boogie — Black Keys. There’s a reason why every Black Keys album since 2010’s Brothers has made my year-end list and some have sat at the top of the list. Dan and Patrick make great rock and roll records with an R&B/Blues slant and put on as good a live show as you’ll ever see. Dropout Boogie is no exception. It rocks from the first moment and doesn’t let up for 33 minutes and 55 seconds. There are no duds here…only amazing tunes meant to be played loudly. After last year’s blues covers record Delta Kream I wasn’t sure where the guys would go next but it didn’t take long for them to get back to basics and deliver another gem. If you don’t like the Black Keys I’m not sure you like rock and roll.
#3. WE — Arcade Fire. Well, here goes. The question of our times seems to be can you enjoy the art if the artist is a bad person? Louis C.K.? Canceled. Kevin Spacey? Canceled. Kevin Hart? Canceled. And rightfully so on all three of the aforementioned. But what are you to do when one of your favorite artists turns out to be a pig? 2022 was the year the chickens came home to roost for Arcade Fire lead singer Win Butler as he was accused by multiple women of sexually assaulting them — coming to public light after opening act Leslie Feist left the recent Arcade Fire tour because she could no longer perform with a man she believed to be a sexual predator.
This is not the first time I’ve struggled with the question of what to do in these situations and it will not be the last. A few years ago I stopped listening to Ryan Adams because he was a serial abuser. But I don’t like Ryan Adams as much as I like Arcade Fire, so this one is harder. I’ve asked a few friends what they do in this kind of situation, but nobody really seemed to care that much. I care a lot. There’s no fucking way I’m going to ever listen to Michael Jackson again, or pay to see Louis CK in concert.
Of course, not all situations are the same. Or as serious. Or as clear. Over the years I think a few celebrities have been accused without much proof. And while I know the right thing to do is to start by believing, again, it’s not always so cut and dry. Woody Allen is a good example. Is he guilty of sexual misconduct because he married his girlfriend’s adopted daughter? Not in my mind. Nor is there any proof that he molested anyone. Is there room to think Woody is disgusting for marrying Soon-Yi but still not someone who deserves to be canceled? In my mind, the answer is yes. But your mind might lead you on a different path. But I digress.
What have I decided to do about Arcade Fire? I’ve decided to continue to listen to one of my favorite bands, but not to buy albums or merchandise, or concert tickets. That’s what I’ve decided to do. Does that make sense? Who knows. But I do know WE is a fabulous album.
#2. Lucifer on the Sofa–Spoon. Austin-based Spoon is a band that sort of crept up on me. I remember liking The Underdog way back in 2007, but it wasn’t until 10 years later with the release of Hot Thoughts that I really jumped on the Spoon bandwagon. Hot Thoughts was a great record that made my year-end list in 2017, but even I couldn’t have predicted how much I’d come to like them when Lucifer on the Sofa was released this year. I can say that no album got more play time for me in 2022 than Lucifer on the Sofa. From the first song to the last I love it. Honestly, the first time I heard The Hardest Cut I was hooked. Spoon delivers straight-forward alt rock and for my money, they seem to keep getting better with each record.
#1. Asphalt Meadows – Death Cab for Cutie. Speaking of bands that keep getting better, Death Cab For Cutie tops my list this year with their late 2022 release Asphalt Meadows. I am a longtime fan and consider DCFC as one of my favorite bands, so this album topping the list should come as no surprise to anyone. Asphalt Meadows is their best album in years, but truthfully I love all their albums going back to the late 1990s. This record, the band’s 10th, is chock full of upbeat indie pop that the band recorded during Covid. In fact, the first time I heard some of these songs was on lead singer Ben Gibbard’s Facebook live streams during the lockdown. He played keyboards and guitar and took requests for several weeks during the pandemic and it was the first thing that made me feel normal during Covid. I think Ben Gibbard is the best singer-songwriter in the alt rock world and I always find myself going back to Death Cab time and time again. What other band delivers a shoutout to 80s Brit Pop legends Prefab Sprout in one of their songs? Here to Forever is classic DCFC.
In every movie I watch from the ’50s There’s only one thought that swirls Around my head now And that’s that everyone there on the screen Yeah, everyone there on the screen Well, they’re all dead now They’re all dead now
I have a love-hate relationship with social media. You too? As a public relations professional in the early 2000s I was an early adopter of platforms like Twitter, Linkedin, and Facebook. It seemed so innocuous at first…just another way to reach audiences. But then it became a reflection of who we are as a people, and that is not a pretty sight.
Yesterday Elon Musk took over Twitter and plenty of people are saying the end is nigh. Maybe it is, but the thought of DJT back on Twitter is enough to make anyone delete the app. But truthfully, I’ve been making an about-face on social media for a few years now and this Musk situation has caused me to really think about how I’ve been using the platforms, and how I’m going to change how I use the platforms.
I’m not going to delete Twitter…yet. It has been less of a shitshow since DJT was booted, but it’s still a shitshow whether he returns or not. A few years ago I scrubbed the hell out of who I follow on Twitter thinking I could avoid the crap and just see what I want — but that was wishful thinking. Twitter has a feature called “mute” which is supposed to remove all appearances of things you ask it to — and I asked it to mute the word “Trump” but it doesn’t really mute retweets and connections that mention him, or replies. Twitter doesn’t work like that, although maybe Musk will fix it. Yeah, right. These days I only follow sports reporters and athletes, musicians and authors I like, and my friends and associates. But the shit still runs downhill. Plus, lately, like 50 percent of my DMs on Twitter are from middle-aged moms wanting to know if their tits look good enough to suck. I know they are bots, but the more I delete and block the more I get. The thing is, I use Twitter for work as a way to share the great work we’re doing so I can’t really delete it. And I still love heading to Twitter for breaking sports headlines. Recently I had a fun exchange with a best-selling author I like — where else can you have a conversation with someone like that? There is still some good in this Twitterverse.
I was a super early adopter on Linkedin. I immediately saw the value from a networking perspective and dove in head first. I’m sure I’ve been on Linkedin for 20 years or more and over that time I have used it to make amazing business connections, get jobs, learn from my peers, and much more. Linkedin has always been focused on business and for a long time it was a safe haven from the typical social media garbage. But not anymore. Nowadays I can’t go a day without seeing a post on Linkedin about someone’s kid dying, or a post about praising Jesus for something or another. Or some political message either made subtly or frankly. Is there no place sacred?
And let’s not get started on Facebook. A few years ago I pared down my friends to a still robust 526. That includes family (both near and far), high school and college friends, and actual friends whom I have relationships with outside of social media. But I suspect I still have connections on Facebook that I couldn’t pick out of a lineup or would walk right past on the street because I really don’t know them, do I? Why do I still get friend requests on Facebook from people I don’t know or with whom I have a passing relationship? I don’t want to see pictures of your vacation and I know you don’t want to see mine. Do people not know Facebook etiquette still even after all these years? I don’t want MORE Facebook friends — if anything I want fewer.
Speaking of Facebook, if you’ve been friends with me on Facebook for a while you probably think I post a bunch of political or anti-religion stuff. Guess what? I don’t. I did, but haven’t for many years minus the odd post I thought was innocuous but somehow turned into a political discussion in the comments which I eventually probably deleted. I don’t post about politics or religion on Facebook anymore. But some of you do. Still? It’s a damn echo chamber. Why would you think your rant about Kari Lake is going to convince anyone to vote one way or another for Arizona Governor. Stop already. If you need an outlet for your political whining start a damn blog and I’ll subscribe if I want to hear your thoughts on school board candidates. I unjoined a lot of groups over the years because the posts and comments were getting shittier and shittier. Including groups I founded. I left. I don’t miss them. Today any Facebook groups I’m still a part of are for my own private enjoyment. Sports. Music. Movies.
What, if anything, is there to do about this conundrum? The younger generation would say dump them all, but they’re not leaving social media they are still doing Tik Tok or Instagram or Snap Chat. Hypocrites. I need to stay on the platforms for work, so deleting them all is not realistic. Plus I like seeing what my real friends are up to. A while back I decided to only look at Facebook on Sundays. I did good for a while, but it’s built to keep you engaged and I have lost the willpower to stay off the platform. Maybe I should cut myself some slack, and realize I just fell off the wagon and should just go back to a Sunday-only policy.
And yeah, I know the irony that I’m writing a blog post about social media and it will be read by most readers from a post on Twitter or Facebook. But isn’t social media more like a utility these days? Like the phone. You can’t really leave the platforms unless you are really checked out of mainstream society. Hmm. Do you think Leslie would be open to us moving to a cave in the Australian outback?
This year my musical tastes took me to a wide range of places, from soul to Americana to pop to blues and everything in between. It was also a year in which some old favorites returned, some with albums that really landed and a few that, for me, disappointed. I’m not sure what one can expect when an artist returns after a lengthy hiatus — do I want more of what made me appreciate them in the first place or something different? I suppose I can only take them as they come.
I had high hopes for new music from Aimee Mann, Tori Amos, and Crowded House, but ultimately these left me feeling empty and longing for their old stuff. On the other hand, new records from The Wallflowers, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and The Connells brought back 80s and 90s sounds that still worked for me.
Before I get to my 10 favorites, here are a few honorable mentions: I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs; Steadman’s Wake by The Connells; Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice; and Life by Misadventure by Rag’n’Bone Man. The latter delivered one of my favorite singles of the year, the beautiful soulful duet from Rag’n’Bone Man and P!nk entitled Anywhere From Here.
Now on to my 10 favorites:
Long Lost by Lord Huron. This indie folk band from Michigan has become regulars on my year-end list since their debut in 2012 and has never disappointed. Long Lost is hard to define, just as the band is hard to categorize. To me, the band feels part country, part folk, a little rockabilly, with a touch of the old west. The title track is a great example of their unique throwback sound.
Exit Wounds by The Wallflowers. Maybe you forgot about The Wallflowers or you relegated them to the one-hit-wonder pile whenever you heard One Headlight on the radio. I mean, Bringing Down the Horse was released in 1997. I sorta forgot about them too. But a few years ago lead singer Jakob Dylan reemerged as the narrator/tour guide of a wonderful documentary film about the Laurel Canyon sound called Echo in the Canyon and I marveled at how much history Dylan knew and loved how he brought together modern artists like Beck, Cat Power and Fiona Apple to cover classics from The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, and others. I was reminded how good Dylan is and was excited to learn he was bringing The Wallflowers back together to release this new record. And it’s really solid.
The Future by Nathaniel Rateliff& the Night Sweats. Nathaniel Rateliff is another artist that defies category, typically filed under soul or blues. I’m really into neo-soul, blues rock, blue-eyed soul, or whatever you call artists that sound like they grew up on Al Green, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin. There has been a tremendous resurgence in this genre of late and I don’t care if the artist is white or black if they sound like Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. I loved their debut album in 2015 and the new album is super.
Obviously by Lake Street Dive. I’ve been a fan of these guys for a few years now mostly because they have a great pop/jazz sound and frankly I think Aussie-born lead singer Rachael Price is adorable. The band came together in the early 2000s at the New England Conservatory of Music, were named after a dive bar in Minneapolis, but is now based in Brooklyn. No question Hypotheticals is one of my favorite songs of the year and the whole album simply makes me happy. LSD is getting more notice thanks in large part to the Colbert Bump.
Starting Now by Toad the Wet Sprocket. This was the best surprise for me this year. I had low expectations for a new Toad album, but Glen Phillips could sing the alphabet song and I’d be all in so I gave it a listen and it transported me back to the early 90s in a good way. The band’s last good album, Coil, came out in 1997, and while Glen made some very solid solo records since that time I missed the Toad of the 90s. Starting Now is vintage and unlike some other older bands I found I wanted more and this album hits the mark. If like me you love Pale, Fear, Dulcinea, and Coil you’ll enjoy Starting Now.
Delta Kream by Black Keys. Every Black Keys record since Brothers has made my top 10 list over the years so it should come as no surprise Delta Kream lands on this list at no. 5. What is surprising though is that this record is unapologetically pure delta blues and not a rock record. In fact, it recently earned a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues album, and rightfully so. Recorded over a couple of days in Nashville, Pat and Dan brought in some powerhouse blues musicians like guitarist Kenny Brown, bassist Eric Deaton, and organist Ray Jacildo and covered some special songs that Dan and Pat say they grew up on. It’s 54 minutes of down-home Mississippi blues and it shreds.
Saturday Night, Sunday Morning by Jake Bugg. Twenty-seven-year-old Brit Jake Bugg released his first record as a teenager, but he has matured into a great rock and roll singer-songwriter. I first got hooked when I saw him open for the Black Keys, and at that time he was heavy into blues-oriented rock just like the Keys. Then in 2017, he released Hearts That Strain which sounded more like a Cat Stevens record, and his follow-up this year follows in that mold…weaving in some blues, rock, and even a little electronic. It’s beautiful and he has earned his place among my favorite artists.
When You See Yourself by Kings of Leon. 2021 was a rough year for the Followill clan as shortly after they released their new record and headed out on the road they lost their mother to cancer. The band canceled their remaining U.S. tour dates for the year but are expected to head back out on the road in 2022. When You See Yourself is a great KoL record and if you’re a fan of the band you’ll undoubtedly love it as I do. The Bandit is one of my favorite songs of the year.
Private Space by Durand Jones & The Indications. My love affair with neo-soul bands continued this year and no soul record got more airtime on my Spotify account than this one. These guys formed in Bloomington, Indiana and have been together for almost 10 years but for my money this album should put them into the upper echelons of the modern soul revival. Durand’s vocals are reminiscent of the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye and that’s saying something. This record is smooth and soulful and a joy to listen to. If this song doesn’t make you want to dance I can’t help you.
In These Silent Days by Brandi Carlile. One thing is clear — Brandi Carlile’s time has come. On the heels of her 2017 Grammy-winning album By the Way, I Forgive You she toured for a while, made Barack Obama’s popular year-end playlist, formed supergroup The Highwomen with Amanda Shires and Maren Morris, covered a pair of Soundgarden songs to critical acclaim, and then finally went back into the studio to release a new album that even before this week’s five Grammy nominations I knew was going to redefine her once again. By the Way, I Forgive You gave her wins in three categories — Americana, American Roots, and the all-genre song of the year category. This year the Grammy goofballs put her in pop, but to her credit, she doesn’t give a shit. She just makes her music and lets the cards fall where they may, but she did tweet: “Americana/American Roots music is more than a genre to me…it represents my community, my family, my friends, and my beautiful island of misfits.”
In These Silent Days may not win any Grammy’s (which would be criminal), but it’s the best album of the year by far and also my favorite album of the year. If you’re already a fan I’m sure you’ll agree. But if you’re not, do yourself a favor and find an hour to be by yourself and give this record a listen from start to finish. It’s flat-out gorgeous and Brandi is truly a genre-busting megastar. When she hits the crescendo on Right on Time I get chills. And because this album is so great I’ve included a bonus song!
This week Jason Isbell released a charity album of cover songs of Georgia artists and it’s fabulous. Among the great tracks is a cover of Kid Fears by Indigo Girls with Brandi Carlile and Julien Baker performing the Amy and Emily parts and Jason lending a hand with the Michael Stipe bits. Kid Fears is one of my favorite Indigo Girls tracks and Isbell and friends do a great job with it.
I know some people don’t care for covers, but I love it when an artist I like covers another artist I like. I think it’s sort of a tribute to the original song, and it’s awesome to know a newer artist appreciates the same older songs that you do. For me the key is not worrying about whether the cover is true to the original version but rather enjoying the new take even if it jumps genres. In fact, I kind of like it better when the track jumps genres. A great example of this is Dwight Yoakam’s cover of Train in Vain by The Clash. He countryfies it, but it works as a country song because the lyrics resonate in the country world.
A few years back Rolling Stone magazine readers ranked their favorite cover songs of all time with Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower topping the list. Jimi’s version, for me anyway, is better than the original. I think that’s rare, and as I said I’m not looking for better but rather different. I like U2’s version better than Dylan’s as well, but I think Dylan is a far better songwriter than he is a performer.
Sometimes a band or artist can have a huge hit with a cover. Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah sold 1.2M copies and nearly topped the charts while Cohen’s original didn’t chart at all when it first came out. Buckley’s cover makes most “best covers” lists but for my money k.d. lang’s version sung at the 1988 Calgary Olympics is even better. The Fugees took Killing Me Softly With His Song to number one in 1996 while Roberta Flack’s original version peaked at number six. Heck, Alien Ant Farm took Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal to number three while MJ’s version only reached number eight.
Once in a while a hit song comes along that listeners don’t even know were covers. UB40’s Red Red Wine is one example — it was actually written by and performed first by Neil Diamond. Bow Wow Wow is most famously known for their hit I Want Candy but it was written and performed in 1965 by The Strangeloves. Tainted Love by Soft Cell was 20 years old when they recorded it and had a hit. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun was a mega hit for Cyndi Lauper but it was released earlier by its writer Robert Hazard (yep, the same guy who had a new wave hit with Escalator of Life).
I like covers so much I have a growing playlist of them on Spotify and whenever I hear a new one I like the playlist grows. It’s currently at 179 songs and counting! To make my list, I either have to like the song itself, the cover band, the original artist, or all of the above.
Some highlights for me include The Beautiful South covering the Pebbles hit Girlfriend (because why wouldn’t a British alternative band cover a 1987 R&B hit by an American New Jack Swing artist. The Beautiful South is one of my favorite bands and they love a good unexpected cover. They’ve also covered diverse hits by Blue Oyster Cult, the Bee Gees, the Smiths and Ramones to name a few.
Another favorite if mine is Tori Amos covering Smells Like Teen Spirit, which she does in her own raspy sexy way.
California-born Gary Jules is mostly known for his cover of the Tears For Fears song Mad World, which the band liked so much they covered his toned down version at a live show I attended. How’s that for a tribute?
All this is to say a good cover song can be a hit on its own, or be a nice diversion from an artist’s typical work, or can just be a ton of fun. What are some of your favorite covers? Let me know and I may add them to my Playlist.
There are a lot of things wrong with America, but none perhaps as concerning of our growing inability to get shit done. Wasn’t it always an American hallmark that we kicked ass and took names? As the saying goes, we put a man on the moon, but…
I don’t think it’s a political issue, although the Trump administration has fucked up more than its share of basic government function over the past four years. No, this inability to do things started long before we elected that orange moron. Maybe it started after the attacks of 911. Instead of hunting down the perpetrators, we bungled our way into a quagmire in two countries that didn’t attack us on Sept. 11, 2001 and made things worse for millions of people living in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our response to Hurricane Katrina was pathetic and immoral. Our trains don’t run on time and crash all the time. Our cities are crumbling and we can’t even ensure our citizens get clean water to drink. Our forests are burning down and taking whole towns with them. Our healthcare system is a clusterfuck of bureaucracy, escalating costs, and coverage gaps. We can’t even do something as basic as hold an election without major issues. Seriously, I could go on all day but I might have to shoot myself afterward it’s so depressing. America feels like a banana republic not the greatest country on the planet. There’s plenty of blame to go around, on every side of the political spectrum, but also on all of us for allowing this to happen under our watch. It’s our country, therefore it’s our fault that things are so bad. I know, it’s not all bad — we still make a damn good hamburger.
The pandemic has, unfortunately, highlighted our ineffectiveness. I don’t think it’s fair to compare our response to, say, New Zealand’s. They are a small island with fewer citizens than New York City alone. But the list of countries managing this virus better than us is a little sad. We’re number one in total cases and total deaths. Near the top of the list in deaths per million citizens at 1,201. China is 45th in total deaths despite having four times our population. There are a lot of what the orangutan in chief called shithole countries kicking our ass on this virus. Somalia has had 130 total deaths from coronavirus. Laos — none. Nobody has died from Covid-19 in Laos. All these facts are readily available here: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
But nothing we’ve screwed up over the past few years is as terrifying as how we are rolling out the Covid vaccine. Seriously, we have a solution in our hands and we’re tossing bricks like Shaquille O’Neal at the free-throw line. There’s plenty of blame here for the Trump administration. By delaying vaccine purchases and not developing a national roll out strategy he caused this mess. Punting this roll out to the states to figure out may end up causing tens of thousands if not millions of lives. Still, you’d think state government could figure this out but things are going terribly wrong. Because in America we can’t do basic things anymore.
The obvious question is why? Are we just too big? Are we too divided politically that we can’t agree on something as nonpartisan as a deadly virus? Have we spent years underfunding infrastructure while propping up corporations and billionaires? Are our best and brightest eschewing public office because why would any smart person be foolish enough to put themselves in that no-win cycle of fundraising? Yes. Yes. Yes. All of the above and more.
I’m furious with the vaccine rollout here in Arizona. And not just because I have significant risk factors and haven’t been able to get the vaccine yet. I also have been trying desperately to book vaccine appointments for my parents. Meanwhile, I’m seeing people with far less risk than myself smiling on Facebook as needles are plunged into their arms. It’s not their fault — good for them. The system is ridiculous and ripe for fraud. Here’s a headline I saw today that sums it up — The Wild Ways Young People Justify Jumping Ahead of the Line for the Coronavirus Vaccine. Again, not blaming them for jumping ahead of the line. It should never have been an issue to begin with.
I know things are bad in many states. I just read about a friend in Texas who drove hours to get a vaccine only to be turned away because they ran out. But Arizona’s rollout has been especially bad. When the administration left this task to the states, Arizona could have done the smart thing and brought together state and county health officials, corporations, and medical experts to formulate a logical plan to vaccinate our seven million citizens over the next six months. Instead, our state punted to the counties. And now we’re left with a mishmash of policies and procedures that are unfair, ineffective, and delayed and that will result in lives lost. It’s that serious. Lives will be lost.
In Maricopa County, where I live, in order to get the vaccine you have to register on the Arizona Department of Health Services website to get an appointment for the vaccine. There is only one large-scale vaccine delivery site, at State Farm Stadium, and those appointments are booked through the end of the month and the site is not yet taking February appointments for some unknown reason. The state’s registration site is confusing, leaving many eligibility details to interpretation resulting in people who should not be first in line getting vaccines. Meanwhile, people under age 75 with pre-existing conditions are still waiting for registration slots to open and crossing their fingers that when the slots do open they can get an appointment and that there are vaccines available. I can wait until my turn (I’m 1B but apparently there are two phases of 1B though nobody mentioned this. Or maybe I’m 1C. Not sure, which is the point). Or I can fib and say I am a teacher or a childcare worker and hope nobody asks for proof, something I’m hearing is exactly what is happening at the State Farm Stadium site. If you show up with an appointment you get a vaccine even if you lied on the registration form. And again, I’m not blaming people who have done just that. The guidelines are unclear. If you work for a company that has previously been deemed essential does that mean you are 1B or 1B phase two? Do you work or volunteer with children even though you do not work for a school, and does that make you eligible? It’s unclear so people are checking that box and heading down to the distribution sites and getting vaccinated even without proof of employment. Of course there is fraud in this system — it was designed to enable fraud.
For the record, even if you are in 1B phase one there are no appointments left at State Farm Stadium in January despite it being open 24/7 and February appointments are not yet being accepted. So I can’t get a vaccine in Maricopa County for now.
Which brings me to the rest of the state. Every county has its own plan and its own way of determining what phase it is in. Pima County finally opened their registration site on Thursday, and it immediately crashed. I decided to try to sign up in Pima and when I went through the process the final outcome was a note that said the county was going to evaluate my eligibility and get back to me. Get back to me? When? How?
Meanwhile, I heard from someone on Facebook that Banner Health was taking registrations for appointments at a site in Pima County so I headed to that site and was successful in getting appointments for my parents and myself. Though I’m still not 100 percent sure if I’m truly eligible at this time or if my mother is truly eligible. For her it’s because you have to be 75 in Pima County to get a vaccine, but only until Tuesday at which time they are opening it up to people 65 or older. By the way, Maricopa County has decided not to open up to those 65 and older for now despite guidance from the state saying they didn’t think they had enough vaccines. And they probably don’t. Whose fault is that? I’d say it’s the collective “leadership” of the U.S. — the greatest country on the planet?
So here we are. A year into this pandemic and science has gifted us with a vaccine and we can’t come together and create a smart, logical, and fair process for vaccinating every citizen. It’s just a vaccine dammit — we put a man on the moon!
With so much time on our hands these days because of the pandemic many of us have been catching up on our movie watch lists. In the past few weeks I’ve ripped through quite a few films I’d been sitting on for a while, some of which were great (1917) and some…well, not so much (Mad Max: Fury Road). Sometimes it’s funny what ends up in your watch list and when you finally do get around to them it can be a great surprise. I currently have 137 films in my IMDB watch list, and I never quite know how to choose what to watch when I scroll through it looking for a two-hour escape. I’m never really sure how some of the films ended up in my watch list to begin with! (By the way, I recommend choosing one overarching site to keep your watch list otherwise you’ll end up with films and TV show suggestions all over the place. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Google. If they all synced that’d be one thing, but they don’t.)
This morning I got to thinking about some of the more indie or lesser-known films I’ve loved over the years and decided to share one to represent each of the past five decades. You probably didn’t see these films, but they all rate among my all-time favorites.
1970s. They Might Be Giants. If quirky is your thing I highly recommend this 1971 film from director Anthony Harvey (The Lion in Winter) starring George C. Scott as a mental patient who believes he’s Sherlock Holmes and escapes into the streets of New York looking for clues to find his archrival Moriarty. He enlists the help of his doctor, whose name is, of course, Dr. Watson (played wonderfully by Joanne Woodward). You can’t help but love this odd love story that’s really about taking life by the horns and living fully. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the film did indeed inspire the name of the band They Might Be Giants. This film will inspire you to tilt at windmills. The film is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and others.
1980s. Five Corners. In 1987 John Patrick Shanley won an Oscar for his screenplay for Moonstruck, but in the same year the little-known film Five Corners was released and it is without a doubt one of my favorite films ever. Truthfully, I’m not sure how this film slipped past most viewers because it’s amazing. It was directed by Tony Bill, who is well known for his work in television but not for directing films. Five Corners stars Jodie Foster, Tim Robbins, and in what is certainly a preview of things to come, a remarkable performance by a young John Turturro two years before his breakout role of Pino in Do The right Thing. The story of a few odd and dangerous days in the Bronx neighborhood of Five Corners will never leave you. This film is currently available to watch for free on Amazon Prime for members and for rent on Fandango.
1990s. 29th Street. These days it’s all too common for film stars from other countries to play Americans, but this wasn’t always the case. When I first saw Anthony LaPaglia in 1990s Betsy’s Wedding, I couldn’t have imagined he wasn’t really an Italian American from New York. Then a year later he popped up again in 29th Street, a critical favorite that year that did not do very well at the box office, again playing an Italian New Yorker. The thing is, no matter what you see on your screen, the fact remains that LaPaglia is Australian. I know, how can that be? Based on a true story, 29th Street is the story of Frank Pesce, a man from a tough New York neighborhood who wins the lottery. You’d think this would make his life easier, but alas what kind of story would that be. Danny Aiello and Lainie Kazan also star in this very funny film. It doesn’t appear to be available to stream anywhere right now so add it to your watch list for later.
2000s. State and Main. I know David Mamet is not for everyone, but I love snappy dialogue as much as anyone. Mamet is a genius when it comes to dialogue, right up there with Aaron Sorkin, Tarantino, and the Coen brothers. Mamet has written some gems, including Glengarry Glen Ross, Wag the Dog, and The Untouchables, but State and Main is nonstop beginning to end poetry delivered by a host of the world’s best actors. It’s the story of what happens when a film crew invades a small town because it’s the perfect location for their movie. The town is at first a little star struck, but soon it becomes clear that these Hollywood big shots have no concern for the town and its residents. State and Main stars William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin (he plays a famous actor with a proclivity for very young women, something a local teen restaurant worker played by Julia Stiles soon finds out), Sarah Jessica Parker, Patti LuPone, and a host of character actors you know and love. Do your best to keep up with the frantic dialogue and enjoy this smart and funny film. Currently available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube and others.
2010s. In a World… Allow me to just for a moment rave about a very underappreciated Hollywood triple threat. I never saw Boston Legal, so I didn’t know Lake Bell before seeing In a World… when it first came out. But this little film made my top 10 of the year in 2013 and my top 10 of the decade. Lake is the writer, director and star of In a World…, a funny little film in which she plays a voice coach who decides to take on Hollywood’s big boys when the industry decides to reintroduce the campy “in a world” film trailer trope and she looks to become the first female voice to utter those dramatic words in a major Hollywood film trailer. You know the trope, right? In a world where apes are in charge and men are kept in zoos… It’s ubiquitous in the film trailer world, made famous by the late voiceover actor Don LaFontaine. Nobody thinks Lake’s character can break through the glass ceiling, including her famous father (played by the always funny Fred Melamed) who is also in line for the part. This film is a Lake Bell tour de force. She is so funny in it, and as director she brought in some incredible talent to play alongside her including Melamed, the underappreciated Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro (who apropos of nothing met her future wife Stephanie Allynne on set), Ken Marino, Eva Longoria, and Rob Corddry. I have written many times about this film and have insisted ever since that Lake Bell is an American treasure. It’s currently available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube and others.
I’m not going to lie, it was hard to pick just one quirky little film from each decade so you can bet that these are among the best in my opinion. And yes, these are opinions. As with most art, one person’s endorsement isn’t necessarily an indication of whether or not you’re going to feel the same way. But if you don’t LOVE these five films there’s something wrong with you. 😉
With all the down time I’ve had as a result of the pandemic, I’ve been trying to catch up on all the films I’ve marked “to-watch” on my various platforms. I don’t know about you, but when I run across a film or television show I want to see I keep track of it so when I’m sitting around trying to figure out what to watch I have a place to start. Honestly, I don’t have a perfect system because in the current climate we’re forced to subscribe to various platforms to enjoy media. Through one means or another I have access to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Google Movies, Disney Plus, HBO Max, YouTube TV, IMDB, and a host of other platforms. There is no great way to keep track of what you want to watch, so as a result I have multiple watch lists. If I had the time and inclination, I could probably cross-reference them all and add them to one single watch list — but who has time for that?
All this is to say I have hundreds of titles available to watch at any given time. Lately though, I’ve been catching up on documentaries. I’ve always considered myself a lifelong learner and often people ask me how I know so much random crap and I usually say I read a ton and I watch educational television and films. Documentary films in particular allow you to do a deep dive on an issue and usually you end up learning something valuable. Yes, some documentaries are more about entertainment and the subject matter can be trivial or frivolous (Tiger King comes to mind), and yes there are far too many true crime documentaries for my taste, although I do watch them sometimes if the subject is of particular interest. I recently watched the Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix because I’ve read a lot about her case and I’m fascinated by the travesty of justice displayed by the Italian court and the focus on a wild but unproven theory about a sexual tryst gone wrong. That poor girl was nearly destroyed simply because she didn’t react “normally” when her roommate was killed.
These are glorious times if you like documentaries given there are so many streaming sites. Right now I have a few dozen docs lined up in my queue from Crip Camp to 13th to I Am Not Your Negro to What Happened, Miss Simone? I hope to catch up on a bunch of them over the next few weeks given I’m off work.
Earlier this week I watched a documentary that had been in my watchlist for a while but I hadn’t gotten around to it. It is called Disclosure and its about depictions of trans people in Hollywood past to present. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I have to say I learned more about trans people in 1 hour 48 minutes than I had in my previous 54 years on the planet. Disclosure is a series of interviews with trans actors and actresses who share their experiences and thoughts on various key trans moments in film over the years. It features a who’s who of trans actors and actresses, including a few I knew something about like Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono and tons I knew very little about. It was so eye opening.
It may be true the world is awakening when it comes to trans people, and while there’s a long way to go I was struck by a few things I learned in the film. I know this makes sense, and of course it’s true, but there have always been trans actors and actresses in film. It’s just that for the majority of the time the average viewer had no idea we were watching a trans performance. It was fascinating to hear from some of these actors and actresses who performed on film for years without anyone knowing their true gender. I couldn’t imagine having to hide such a significant thing about yourself in order to do your job.
The most striking thing I learned in the film was that up until very recently, like the past couple of years, trans people were ridiculed on the screen and we all thought nothing of it. There were a couple of specific (and loosely related examples) highlighted. Most film fans will remember 1992’s The Crying Game, about a man who unknowingly entered into a relationship with a trans woman. While Jaye Davidson was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, (spoiler alert) upon learning he’s been having sexual experiences with a trans woman Stephen Rea’s character reacted by literally throwing up at the thought of it. Imagine how that might have felt if you were a young trans person watching the film at the time? How horrifically irresponsible of the filmmaker. Two years later blockbuster Ace Ventura: Pet Detective spoofed the scene by having multiple characters throw up simply upon seeing a trans person. In fact, a trans person is the villain in the film. This too is a common theme in Hollywood, that of the villainous trans person — from Psycho to Silence of the Lambs.
I never really thought about trans portrayals on film and on TV. Over the past few months I’ve been watching the Showtime series Billions, which stars TVs first significant non-binary character in Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason. They are wonderful in the series, but it took until 2016 for Hollywood to write in a non-binary character with some meat to the part. And as for trans characters, they’ve long been subjected to roles as sex workers, murder victims, or comedic interludes.
Disclosure is ultimately a film about the positive turn underway in Hollywood. Trans actors are being taken seriously, and they are getting roles written as trans to be acted by trans actors and actresses. Orange is the New Black was a breakthrough moment for the trans community with Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset portrayed as much more than a sideline character for comedic relief. In fact, Sophia’s storyline is both heartwarming and tragic and it’s definitely not one dimensional. I have not seen the show Transparent, but I understand that while there has been some negative reaction to CIS actor Jeffrey Tambor playing a trans woman, the show does in fact provide some meaty roles for actual trans actors and actresses including Alexandra Billings who is interviewed in Disclosure. And of course there are the Wachowski sisters, Lilly and Lana, who wrote and directed The Matrix films and who are setting the bar for trans power in film.
The bottom line is I had never thought much about trans portrayal in Hollywood but it makes sense that popular opinion of trans people will be both reflected by and influenced by film and television. It’s important if we are going to continue to advance as an inclusive society that we recognize the past and fight for the future. We all have a role to play, and educating ourselves is a good start. I’d like to think I’m already a good trans ally for the trans people I know — and I know more and more people transitioning all the time — but there’s a difference between surface-level knowing and deeper understanding. There are so many lessons for the CIS community in Disclosure that I recommend it for everyone who wants to be a better ally.
In the past I liked to blog about my favorite films of the year, or my favorite TV shows of the year, but 2020 has been a year like no other and I can’t even remember the last time I was in a movie theater. On the other hand, I have spent an inordinate amount of time watching television — older shows, new shows, documentaries, limited series, and everything in between. And yes, I’ve watched a ton of movies on TV, including some that never got to theaters because of the pandemic. So this year I’ve decided to blog about the top 20 things I watched on TV regardless of whether they are “TV” shows or “movies” since those lines are perhaps forever blurred.
For many of us, 2020 has been the year of the binge. Certain shows captured the attention of the whole nation and entered the pop culture that maybe would have been just a blip on the radar in the past. I’m thinking of Tiger King of course, which for the record I did not watch in its entirety rather I saw bits and pieces as my son and his girlfriend binged it, or The Mandalorian which I also didn’t watch. I think the most asked thing on Facebook this year was people asking friends and family for advice on what to binge.
That said, there was a ton of content to choose from in 2020. I definitely haven’t seen everything I want to yet, so I reserve the right to add to this list, but for now with a couple of week’s to go in the year this is where I am. So here we go:
Borat Subsequent MovieFilm. (Amazon) I make no excuses for this, but I absolutely loved Borat Subsequent MovieFilm. Yes, I loved the original. And yes, I think Sacha Baron Cohen is very funny. Very very funny. And while I didn’t think it was as pee-in-your-pants funny as the original, it still made me laugh.
Unorthodox. (Netflix) I’m a sucker for a good cult story and make no mistake, Hasidism is a cult. The story of Esther Shapiro was engaging, heartbreaking, terrifying, but ultimately redeeming. Inspired by a true story, this miniseries will have you on the edge of your seat. It also featured one of the most remarkable acting performances of the year in Shira Haas’ magnificent portrayal of Esther.
The Last Dance. (ESPN) It felt like everyone was watching The Last Dance over the summer. This documentary about the Chicago Bulls was compelling television for basketball fans, sports fans, and frankly fans of drama in general. The footage and the inside stories were remarkable and let’s face it, Michael Jordan is one of the most famous people on the planet and getting a peek into his world was fascinating.
My Octopus Teacher. (Netflix) This is one of those documentaries that you would never watch unless someone told you it was a don’t miss. It’s a don’t miss. It’s about a South African guy who becomes friends with an octopus. Really. I know, but he does.
David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet. (Netflix) This should really be higher on my list. If you’ve ever watched a nature show, you pretty much have David Attenborough to thank for bringing the genre to life. But this is much more than a nature show, it’s a clarion call to humanity to wake up before it’s too late — and it’s just about too late. If life on earth does go the way of the dodo, what’s left of humankind will look back at this particular documentary and mark the beginning of the end. If we listen to him, there is hope for humankind. If we don’t? Well, I think you know the answer to that. Thank you Sir Attenborough for this farewell message. I hope you don’t look down from above 30 years from now and say I Told You So.
Sex Education (Season 2). (Netflix) This show was one of the best surprises of 2019 and Season 2 did not disappoint. This British show is what a teen comedy should be. It’s funny as hell, but it’s also smart and the teens are real. It has a great cast led by Asa Butterfield as the awkward Otis who inadvertently becomes his school’s expert in sex thanks to all the knowledge he soaked up from his mom’s therapy practice. His fellow teens are desperate for his advice and so of course he launches an underground sex therapy practice at school. Ncuti Gatwa excels as Otis’ best friend Eric, a teen coming to terms with his homosexuality in fabulous ways.
The Good Place. (NBC, Hulu). I binged all four seasons of this silly show in 2020 and I really enjoyed it. I have to admit, I’m a Kristen Bell fan and her portrayal of Eleanor Shellstrop from Phoenix, Arizona was hysterical. But what makes this show so good is that the entire ensemble cast is wonderful. If you don’t fall in love with D’Arcy Carden’s encyclopedic “Good Janet” there’s something wrong with you and you should be sent to her void.
Hannah Gadsby: Douglas. (Netflix) In 2018, Aussie comedian Hannah Gadsby broke the internet with her standup special called Nanette. Seriously, people couldn’t decide if it was the best standup special they’d ever seen or it was a Ted Talk in disguise that had no business being called standup. I can tell you what it was for me — the most brave and vulnerable performance by a comedian I’d ever seen and the best 70 minutes you’ll ever spend if you have any humanity. Douglas was her follow up, if there can be a follow up to a revelation, and it was funny and smart and clever and darn good. I doubt very much Gadsby expected that first special to change her life so dramatically, but it did and we’re all better for her being in the spotlight. Nanette will change you. Douglas will make you laugh. Watch them both.
Little Fires Everywhere. (Hulu). I’m always skeptical when a film version is made from a book I love, and while the Hulu miniseries based on Celeste Ng’s wonderful novel is not perfect it’s very well done and worth the watch even you haven’t read the novel. Reese Witherspoon has a keen eye for good material and she is an avid reader so I wasn’t surprised when she grabbed up the rights to Ng’s book and I was thrilled when they cast the exceptional Kerry Washington in the co-lead role. Little Fires Everywhere is timely and important.
High Fidelity. (Hulu). I began this remake as a sort of “hate watch” but it wasn’t long before I forgot my complaints about why they even attempted to remake a perfect movie. It’s really not the same story. I mean, it’s about a love worn record store owner who shares details about past relationships. But Zoe Kravitz brings a whole new flavor to Rob, above and beyond the obvious gender flip. It is nice to see a story about a woman in charge of her relationships and taking ownership for her mistakes. So often films are stuck in the “boy fucks up relationship” mold that it was downright refreshing to watch Kravitz struggle through her issues. I really didn’t want to like this because the film is among my all-time favorites. But I liked it. A lot. And I’m rooting for a second season. Oh, and the fun little irony of Kravitz’ real-life mom Lisa Bonet having a key role in the original was cool.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix). Aaron Sorkin takes on the 1968 Chicago riots and a cast of 60s characters too crazy to be fiction…I was always going to love this film. When I was in college I read Tom Hayden’s autobiography so I knew a lot about the trial, but it was great to see it come to life on the screen. Sorkin did a tremendous job bringing these hippies to life, but the performances truly stole the show. Sacha Baron Cohen was unforgettable as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne played a perfect laced up Hayden, and Frank Langella was a wicked Judge Julius Hoffman. Truthfully, Sacha Baron Cohen can really act.
The King of Staten Island. (Amazon). Judd Apatow has become one of my favorite directors and this semi-autobiographical film about Saturday Night Live regular Pete Davidson was funny, warm, touching, and well done all around. Davidson is one of the few SNL stars with real talent and he puts it all on display here and he may just have a future as a leading man. This film also includes fabulous supporting performances by Bill Burr, Marisa Tomei and especially young Brit Bel Powley as Pete’s girlfriend. It’s classic Apatow, complete with a cameo by his daughter Maude who has really grown up since her under-the-radar turn in This is 40. But this film is all about Davidson, whose real-life story of growing up without his dad who was killed on 911 is heartbreaking. This film is heartbreaking, but ultimately leaves the viewer feeling good about the young protagonist’s future. I suspect we’ll see the same in Pete’s real life…in fact we already are.
What We Do in the Shadows. (FX, Hulu). I haven’t seen the film version of What We Do in the Shadows, so I didn’t have any baggage coming into the television series. Frankly, if the film is half as funny as the TV show I should probably watch it sooner rather than later. I’ll admit, this kind of humor isn’t for everyone. It is very British, or in this case kiwi, since the creators are from New Zealand. Creator Jemaine Clement is a crazy nut with a devastating sense of humor and show runner Taika Waititi (of Jojo Rabbit fame) is a dark comedy genius. This show about modern day vampires living in Staten Island really made me laugh and I can’t wait for season three next year. The whole cast is fabulous, but English actor Matt Berry truly steals every scene. Bat!
Ozark (Season 3). (Netflix) The story of Marty Byrd and his family is what binge watching is all about. Ozark has been one of the top shows now for three seasons and season three did not disappoint. In fact, it may have been the best yet. The storyline with Wendy’s brother was intense, and every minute of screen time for Julia Garner was breathtaking. Dang that woman can act. She’s already won a pair of Emmys and I suspect it won’t be long before she brings home an Oscar. Her Ruth Langmore is one of the most memorable television characters of all time. I know not everyone liked season three, but that final episode? Come on.
Better Things. (FX, Hulu). Don’t you love it when you take a chance on a show and it turns out to be amazing? I binged 43 episodes of this Pamela Adlon-led gem this summer and it was remarkably bold and dangerous and heartwarming and funny all rolled into one mom trying to keep a family of all girls from exploding. I mean, it did sort of explode a few times, but Sam Fox always pulled it together in the end. The actresses who play her daughters are super, especially Hannah Alligood who plays middle daughter Frankie. Seriously, it’s hard to upstage Adlon, but 15-year-old Alligood did it time and time again on this show. I know some won’t watch this show because it was written and produced by Louis C.K., and I get that, but Pamela Adlon is not Louis C.K. nor is she an apologist for her longtime friend and collaborator and in fact she severed ties with him following the scandal. She is an American treasure is what she is. This show was brilliant.
Narcos: Mexico (Season 2). (Netflix). The Narcos franchise has been one of television’s most compelling series over the past few years and whether you watch the original series on the Columbian drug trade or the newer series about the Mexican cartels you’re in for a powerhouse of performances and drama. I think Narcos can easily be placed among the best crime dramas ever and for my money it’s right up there some of my other favorites like The Sopranos and The Wire.
Love on the Spectrum. (Netflix). This limited series from Australia was a delight to watch. The show follows several autistic adults as they attempt to navigate the trials and tribulations of dating, hard enough for people not on the spectrum but even more difficult if you have a disorder like autism. But everyone deserves love. This show is sweet, and pulls at the heartstrings, and makes you giggle. The “stars” of the show are a joy to get to know and you can’t help but root for them to make a love connection. I can’t wait for season two.
The Great.(Hulu). Maybe I’m a sick fucker, but no show made me laugh more in 2020 than this little series about Catherine the Great. Yes, it’s a dark comedy set in 18th century Russia. That in and of itself is strange, but it’s truly laugh out loud funny (if you don’t mind gallows humor). I plowed through both seasons of The Great in a few days and didn’t want it to end. Dakota Fanning is so good, but Nicholas Hoult is tremendous as the sex-crazed, solipsistic, idiot of a king. Hoult is one of those actors who you know you’ve seen before but who you don’t likely know by name. The chap from Wokingham was in Mad Max: Fury Road, About a Boy (he was the boy), X-Men, Deadpool 2, and on and on. He’s fantastic, but never better than in The Great. Huzzah!
The Queen’s Gambit. (Netflix). Sometimes there’s a good reason why a show gets so much attention — it is deserved. The Queen’s Gambit is such a wonderful series about a topic you probably care nothing about. But the mini-series is a period piece, and it was beautifully shot, but mostly it’s just a great story about a fascinating young woman. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, an orphan with a mind for chess. What’s great about the show is you don’t have to give two shakes about chess, it’s simply a fabulous story. The fact is, we all love a story about someone considered common who turns out to be extraordinary. It’s part of the American narrative isn’t it? Taylor-Joy is definitely one to watch as she is marvelous as Harmon.
Ramy. (Hulu). This underappreciated gem from Hulu is the perfect show for our times and the single best show I binged in 2020. Ramy stars comedian and actor Ramy Youseff as a first-generation Egyptian American living in New Jersey trying to both fit in with his American friends and neighbors while at the same time trying to figure out his relationship to his religion. And that ain’t easy when you’re Muslim in America these days. Youseff is torn between enjoying the freedoms life in America affords us all while still trying to be a good Muslim. It may be an impossible task, and it sure isn’t easy for Youseff. On the one hand, he’s a young American male who wants to have sex, do drugs, go to parties, and enjoy life. But he’s being called to a more religious life and that appeals to him as well. Truth is, you really can’t do both despite the hypocrisy he sees all around him in his Muslim community. Ramy is such an important show right now. It’s critical for Americans to see Muslim characters that are not always cast terrorists. It really is that simple. People fear what they don’t know. The more you watch Ramy, the more you relate to him, the more we start to get past all the hatred of the other. What is wonderful about Ramy is that he does this through comedy, but at times the drama is hard hitting so when you least expect it you get a sense of just how divided we are as a society. Bravo to Hulu for making this show, and bravo to Youseff for bringing it to us. Ramy is a great television show that everyone in America should watch. You’ll have a good laugh, but you’ll also understand more about our Muslim brothers and sisters. This is television at its most relevant and importance. I don’t know if TV can truly change America, but it sure can’t hurt.
Ramy — “A Black Spot on the Heart” – Episode 103 – So let me get this straight, you don’t do drugs, but you’ll have sex with women you’re not married to? That’s not nuanced, its hypocritical. Ramy (Ramy Youssef), Ahmed (Dave Merheje), and Mo (Mohammed Amer), shown. (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)
Earlier this month I posted the first half of my countdown of my favorite 20 albums of 2020, which you can review here. Interestingly, looking back, 9 out of the 10 were fronted by female voices and the one that was not had no vocals. Hmm. Not sure what that means, if anything.
Nevertheless, to quote the late great Casey Kasem…on with the countdown.
10. On Sunset — Paul Weller. This should come as no surprise to my longtime readers, given I’m a huge Weller fan. Mr. Weller has been prolific of late, with On Sunset being his sixth studio album since 2010. This album is classic bluesy Weller, which is always a good thing. There are some special tracks and some odd, experimental ones too. It’s a solid effort, though it’s not going to rank high in the Weller pantheon. I do think the title track is one of those great Weller tunes so enjoy.
9. The End of Everything — Noah Cyrus. I’m not gonna lie, this one surprises me too. I didn’t even know Miley had a little sister, let alone one with a voice so hauntingly beautiful. The first time I heard her sing it was on a 2017 Jake Bugg track called Waiting. I loved the song and when I looked to see who that female voice belonged to I was truly surprised. Noah is only 20 years old, but her sound is really mature. Billy Ray may have been a hack, but his girls got chops.
8. Women in Music Pt. III — Haim. I didn’t think much of Haim when they first hit the music scene. I may have, just may have, referred to them as Hansen with tits. But once I let my guard down and listened I found a trio that played their own instruments, wrote their own songs, and had something to say. Kind of like Hansen. And while I still didn’t consider myself a fan, from the very first moment I heard I Know Alone off their new album Women in Music Pt. III I was all in. This album has been getting huge critical accolades since before it was released, and the Haim sisters are everywhere. They are smart, wise, and fucking talented. I was wrong. I admit it…I was wrong.
7. Swimmer — Tennis. Not since Captain and Tennille have I enjoyed a husband and wife due as much as I love Tennis. The musical couple of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley met at the University of Colorado in 2008 and have been churning out pop delights ever since. 2016’s Yours, Conditionally made my year-end list that year and Swimmer is more of the beautiful same. I’m really happy Alaina decided not to go to law school and instead chose to chase her musical dreams. The world has enough lawyers!
6. Serpentine Prison — Matt Berninger. There was never any question that the first solo album from The National front man Matt Berninger was going to make my list. What is worth noting though is just how unique and interesting this record is…it’s not just a National album without the rest of the band. It’s a beautiful album full of wonderful heartfelt songs that showcase Matt’s remarkable voice. Yes, if you like The National you’ll probably like this album. I love it. Matt could sing the alphabet and I’d be all in.
5. Gigaton — Pearl Jam. I was a little late to the Pearl Jam bandwagon, but over the years I’ve come to consider Eddie and the boys the class of the rock world and the best thing ever to come out of the 90s grunge scene. Pearl Jam makes rock and roll records. If you like rock, you have no excuse not to like PJ. Gigaton is a perfect rock album, one with a nice mix of ballads and rockers. I hope they never stop making music. I think Dance of the Clairvoyants is one their best songs ever.
4.Alphabetland — X. Has it really been 27 years since the last studio album from X? Shit. It has. I’m getting old, but apparently John, Exene, Billy and D.J. are not. I got to see X perform live late last year at the Chandler Center for the Arts (somehow it seemed like a strange venue for a punk act) and they flat out brought it. Exene can still belt it out. John still shreds. And while Billy Zoom sat on a stool while playing his signature guitar, he sounded superb and not too shabby for a 68-year-old punker. The whole band is pushing 70 but they blew the doors off the venue that night. Honestly, it wasn’t too different than the previous time I’d seen them live in the 80s on the tower lawn at San Jose State. Alphabetland is classic X. Welcome back.
3. Always Tomorrow — Best Coast. Lead singer Bethany Cosentino is everything you want in a rock star. She’s cool, she’s smart, she’s a little edgy, and she brings all her demons to her songwriting. This is the third time Best Coast has made my countdown and while I don’t love this record like I did 2015’s California Nights it’s still awesome enough to nearly top my list. I simply love Bethany’s whole vibe.
2. The New Abnormal — The Strokes. I think of The Strokes as the prototypical 21st century indie band and they have certainly been influential. It has been seven years since their last album, and folks in the industry were starting to wonder if we’d ever get another Strokes album but it finally came in April and it was worth the wait. The New Abnormal is perfect alternative rock and critics seem to agree. I simply love listening to it as every song has something to offer.
Before we get to number one, a quick word about some disappointments in 2020. I was looking forward to a few releases that just didn’t do it for me. The Psychedelic Furs released a new record that was meh. Morrissey delivered a dull record in 2020. I was excited for a new record by The Pretenders, but it didn’t do anything for me nor did the latest from Dawes, Joan Osborne, Tame Impala, Vanessa Carlton, Fleet Foxes, and The Struts. But nothing was more disappointing to me than the long awaited fifth studio album from Fiona Apple, who I absolutely love, and who never disappointed me before. I found Fetch the Bolt Cutters really difficult to listen to and despite getting critical raves I just didn’t like it.
What I did like, was my favorite album of 2020 though!
1. Reunions — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. From the first notes of Reunions I was hooked and no album got more playing time on my Spotify account this year than this gem. Reunions is what rock and roll was meant to be. Critics and music fans around the world agreed, and Reunions topped charts in the U.S. and the U.K. In June in the U.S., Reunions topped the country, folk, and rock charts — at the same time. Is it country? Is it rock? Who cares. It’s amazing songwriting and guitar-playing and it just gets under your skin and stays there. I mean, the first song includes my new favorite artist Michael Kiwanuka. The album features the amazing Muscle Shoals, Alabama based members of the 400 Unit, including Jason’s talented wife Amanda Shires on fiddle. Jason is making music the way it should be made, songs from deep down in his soul, with lyrics that have weight, and with indifference to little notions like genre. It’s just gorgeous, heart-felt, music. Truth is, if you don’t like this album I’m not sure I can be friends with you.