I haven’t written one of these in a while, but now that summer has nearly wrapped up, it felt like as good a time as any to cover the music, TV, movies, games and books that have captured my attention when I’m not fully immersed in TikTok or my job search.
We Want Everything, by Nanni Balestrini — The easiest way to market a book to me is to have even the most tenuous connection to Rachel Kushner. She mentioned this book in her essay collection The Hard Crowd and I’m not surprised that I found it an engrossing account of how industrialization affected Italy in the ’60s. As we as a society come to grips with the impact AI may have on our lives and our livelihoods, this was a bracing read about workers trying to maintain some control over how they work and how that translates to their ability to live.
Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs, by Greil Marcus — Sometimes I really miss the late glory days of music criticism as seen in alt weeklies. That kind of writing seems even more gnomic now than it did then. The references are often even more obscure now, but in the hands of a master of the form, all the more wonderful. I don’t know if I’ve really gotten to know Dylan better as I work through this book, but the kaleidoscopic portrayal matches the several Dylans he’s been throughout his long career. Didn’t hurt that Rachel Kushner had a blurb on the inner jacket.
Boardwalk of Dreams, by Bryant Simon — This is so good I wrote the author an email. I’ve longed for a great piece of urban political economy about the arc of Atlantic City, and this is it. Better still, Simon does a fantastic job of outlining how the dynamics that shaped Atlantic City are pertinent for any city that’s been transformed from an industrial center into a tourist playground. The common thread of how public spaces are created and for whom illustrates not only how the Boardwalk scenes can be connected to the casinos, but by the transitive property, how vibrant downtowns connect to suburban malls. If you’ve spent any meaningful amount of time in Atlantic City as my family has visiting friends on the sound end of town, this will help you understand what really happened there and why. He also just shared a Jason Isbell interview conducted by Capital Moves author Jefferson Cowie and I’m just smitten.
Reddit. I’m the last person on Earth to get lost here. I finally figured out how to make it work for me now that I’m not spending time refreshing Twitter. I get far more enjoyment out of it than I ever did most social media. What if forums were the answer the entire time?
Barbie — Felt like we had to see it in the theater. Helen wore a pink dress and I wore the “sunny side up” Pavement t‑shirt. I loved so much about it, but felt like for all the talk about dismantling the patriarchy, we spent a disproportionate amount of time rehabilitating the men. It was a fun movie, but I think I wanted more Ghost World than it could offer.
The Bear — Is this the only prestige TV I like? Maybe! “Fishes” and “Forks” were standout episodes, but the whole show evolved this season into something more than another frenetic, troubling restaurant dramedy. Also, Oliver Platt rules.
What We Do in the Shadows — I didn’t love S4, with baby Colin Robinson dancing around, but the show seriously bounced back in S5 and completely pulled me back in just when I thought I might let go. “The Campaign” is to Colin Robinson what “Forks” was for Richie.
Cutter’s Way – 20 years ago I was a video store clerk responsible for maintaining the American actors portion of the store. I can’t tell you how the VHS box for Cutter’s Way taunted me all these years, alongside Hackman’s Night Moves and Keach’s Fat City. I dusted all of them, but never watched them. Now all three are streaming on Criterion Channel together and after watching Cutter’s Way, it’s time I address this oversight. If I learned anything from my time behind the counter at TLA Video, it was that some movies are, well, just a vibe, and this is no exception. The disillusionment, much like in We Want Everything, just resonates so powerfully in the central conflict and the characters are well-developed.
Yo La Tengo — This Stupid World. There’s literally nothing to say about this band that hasn’t already been said. They’re one of a handful of bands that consistently produces music that I know I’ll enjoy before I’ve listened and they’ve been doing it for decades. This album is no exception, but you already knew that.
Mixcloud. It’s the best music discovery app for me, hands down.
Indiecast. This is the closest I get to music criticism drama nearly 13 years since last writing about music for money. It’s as close as I want to get, I think. Steve and Ian are the Siskel and Ebert of 40-something critics and at a time when so much music criticism has really focused on fan service, they offer up indifference as a refreshing counterpoint to all that.
Jokermen & Never Ending Stories. More Hyden! I’ve loved Jokermen, but NES may be my new favorite. The interplay between the guys is just fantastic and heightens my appreciation for Bob and all the silly things he’s done throughout the years.
WRTI. What a gem this radio station is. It was there the entire time. I should’ve been listening since before I got to college, but glad I started now.
WFMU. I’ve long aspired to support the station and I’m glad I finally did. Jesse Jarnow’s The Frow Show was a gateway to so much great music and the broader network does not disappoint in that regard either.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. I think I’ve spent the last two years playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. It’s equal parts embarrassing and enthralling. I have literally no friends playing this game, but I fell in love with all the Viking backstory thanks to living in Scandinavia 30 years ago. The story was really satisfying, so much so that I actually completed the game and can’t stop wandering around the countryside. I can’t wait for Mirage to hit.
Starfield. I haven’t started playing yet, but I’m hoping this game cures me of my Assassin’s Creed Valhalla habit!
I can’t remember if I’ve ever been able to listen to as much of Jon Solomon’s 25-hour #WPRBXmas as I did this year. It was fantastic as usual and produced some great quotes from my sister-in-law.
It’s December 30th, I’ve submitted my formal fake P&J ballot and I’m listening to the new Emma Swift album and having regrets. A music critic’s work is never done!
It’s been a hard year but I was personally soothed by all the great music that came out this year. For the first time in my experience as a music enthusiast, I had a list of 100+ albums that I enjoyed so much I might have included them in a top ten. I had top tens of scuzzy rock, jam, folk, country, jazz, ambient/new age and more. I have a defensible top five albums by guys named Jeff! As much as we suffered in quarantine, through a difficult move to a familiar place that isn’t yet home again, music was a balm.
My favorites this year fall comfortably into what you might call “head music.” I found myself returning time and again to psych, ambient and jazz versus trying to focus on lyrics and hooks. That said, my album of the year was Destroyer’s “Have We Met.” It fit the year too perfectly and coincidentally was the last show I saw this year and my last in Detroit. It was perfect and bittersweet. Eleanor Friedberger opened. I probably saw her play Detroit in the last 6 years more than any other artist. I get emotional thinking about it.
Even in 2020’s darkest moments, there was always a record to listen to. These were my favorites, in alphabetical order:
Arbor Labor Union — New Petal Instants
Arbouretum — Let It All In
Autechre — SIGN
Barry Walker Jr. — Shoulda Zenith
Beauty Pill — Please Advise
Ben Seretan — Youth Pastoral
Bill Fay — Countless Branches
Bill Nace — Both
Blitzen Trapper — Holy Smokes Future Jokes
Bob Dylan — Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bonny Light Horseman — s/t
Brigid Dawson and the Mothers Network — Ballet of Apes
Bruce Hornsby — Non-Secure Connection
Bruce Springsteen — Letter to You
Buck Curran — No Love Is Sorrow
Bully — SUGAREGG
Carl Stone — Stolen Car
Charlie Kaplan — Sunday
Chris Forsyth with Garcia Peoples — Peoples Motel Band (Live)
Chromatics — Faded Now
Chronophage — Th’pig’kiss’d Album
Circles Around the Sun — s/t
Constant Smiles — Control
Container — Scramblers
Country Westerns — s/t
David Grubbs & Taku Unami — Comet Meta
David Nance — Staunch Honey
The Dead C — Unknowns
Death Valley Girls — Under the Spell of Joy
Deep Sea Diver — Impossible Weight
Deep Space Duo — Spacetones
Deerhoof — Future Teenage Cave Artists
Destroyer — Have We Met
Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger — Force Majeure
Dogwood Tales — Closest Thing to Heaven
The Dream Syndicate — The Universe Inside
Eartheater — Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin
Eli Winter — Unbecoming
Elkhorn — The Storm Sessions
Emma Swift — Blonde on the Tracks
Ezra Feinberg — Recumbent Speech
FACS — Void Moments
Fire-Toolz — Rainbow Bridge
Flat Worms — Antarctica
Fuzz — III
Garcia Peoples — Nightcap at Wits’ End
Greg Dulli — Random Desire
Guardian Singles — s/t
Guided By Voices — Mirrored Aztec/Surrender Your Poppy Field/Styles We Paid For
Gunn-Truscinski Duo — Soundkeeper
Gwenifer Raymond — Strange Lights over Garth Mountain
Hailu Mergia — Yene Mircha
HAIM — Women in Music Pt III
Heather Trost — Petrichor
Heathered Pearls — Cast
Household Gods — Palace Intrigue
The Howling Hex — Knuckleball Express
Imaginary Softwoods — Annual Flowers in Color
Irreversible Entanglements — Who Sent You?
Jackie Lynn — Jacqueline
James Elkington — Ever-Roving Eye
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — Reunions
Jeff Parker — Suite for Max Brown
Jeff Rosenstock — NO DREAM
Jeff Swanson — Fathoms
Jeff Tweedy — Love Is The King
Jeffrey Silverstein — You Become the Mountain
Jennifer Castle — Monarch Season
Jeremy Cunningham — The Weather Up There
Jess Williamson — Sorceress
Jessie Ware — What’s Your Pleasure?
Joe Westerlund — Reveries in the Rift
Joe Wong — Nite Creatures
Jordan Reyes — Sand Like Stardust
Josh Johnson — Freedom Exercise
Khruangbin — Mordechai
Kneeling in Piss — Tour De Force
Lambchop — Trip
Laraaji — Moon Piano/Sun Piano
Lewsberg — In This House
Lithics — Tower of Age
Liturgy — Origin of the Alimonies
Loma — Don’t Shy Away
Loose Koozies — Feel a Bit Free
Mapache — From Liberty Street
Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl — Artlessly Falling
Mary Lattimore — Silver Ladders
Masaki Batoh — Smile Jesus Loves You
Melenas — Dias Raros
Mike Polizze — Long Lost Solace Find
Moor Mother — Circuit City
Mosses — T.V. Sun
The Mountain Goats — Songs for Pierre Chuvin
Mute Duo — Lapse in Passage
Muzz — s/t
Mythic Sunship — Changing Shapes
Nap Eyes — Snapshot of a Beginner
Narrow Head — 12th House Rock
Nathan Salsburg — Landwerk
The Necks — Three
Nothing — The Great Dismal
Obnox — Savage Raygun
Oh Sees — Metamorphosed/Panther Rotate/Protean Threat
Oliver Coates — skins n slime
Olivia Awbrey — Dishonorable Harvest
Oneohtrix Point Never — Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
Optic Sink — s/t
Pacific Range — High Upon the Mountain
Pallbearer — Forgotten Days
Phish — Sigma Oasis
Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher
Protomartyr — Ultimate Success Today
Psychic Temple — Houses of the Holy
Quin Kirchner — The Shadows and the Light
Ratboys — Printer’s Devil
Rob Dobson — New Dystopia
Robert Haigh — Black Sarabande
Roger Eno & Brian Eno — Mixing Colours
Ron Miles — Rainbow Sign
Rootless — Docile Cobras
Rose City Band — Summerlong
Sally Anne Morgan — Thread
Sam Gendel — Satin Doll
Sam Prekop — Comma
Shabaka and the Ancestors — We Are Sent Here By History
Silver Scrolls — Music for Walks
Sir Richard Bishop — Oneiric Formulary
Six Organs of Admittance — Companion Rises
Soccer Mommy — color theory
The Soft Pink Truth — Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?
Stephen Malkmus — Traditional Techniques
The Strokes — The New Abnormal
Sun Ra Arkestra — Swirling
Sunwatchers — Oh Yeah?
SUSS — Promise
Tengger — Nomad
Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band — Just Like Moby Dick
A big part of why I tuned out on the New Pornographers was around the time “Challengers” was released. It got a 6.0 from Pitchfork and my memory of that album at the time was just that it lacked the unsustainable punch of their earlier records. Carl talked to Tom Scharpling about this right before he released “Shut Down the Streets” and it was deeply affecting for all the reasons you can imagine.
Carl revived that thread with a series of tweets. and it’s kind of delightful through the wincing.
Flash forward and the band is touring and doing press on their new record, “In the Morse Code of the Brake Lights.” Newman has been curating amazing power pop on Twitter and sharing gems like this cover of a brand new GBV song in case you wondered why we really don’t deserve a band this good.
Spend some time with their new album and their catalog now that it’s getting colder and you’re stuck indoors.
If a new album from Fred Thomas wasn’t enough, the news that Chan Marshall will be releasing her first record in six years made my week. I’m not usually crazy about album trailers but I’ll make an exception for Cat Power. She’s one of those artists I don’t know I need until I hear it. The Greatest still haunts me twelve years later. Now I just need something to distract me from the fact that this won’t be out until October.