The Top 20 Albums of 2021

We thought we could see it this year. Brightening the edges of our curtains. Warming the pillows of our reading nooks. Landing on our screens to interrupt our binges. We thought it was The Light, and for a few glorious weeks we scrambled out of our tunnels into it, the possibilities blossoming with the spring.

Even me, who thinks the pandemic has been stuffed with silver linings – more time with my wife, working from home, the best excuse ever to avoid meeting new people – was excited at the prospect of going to restaurants again, traveling again, breathing again.

But it was just a temporary break in the clouds. Even so, I’m here to report 20 sightings of a different kind of Light. The kind that humans create when an undefined urge demands they express themselves, be it through an instrument, or their vocal chords, or their pen. These are the albums that reminded me what humanity is capable of in 2021 – if we can create these, surely we can figure out a way to leave this tunnel for good.

20. Georgia Anne Muldrow – Vweto III

The Light from a Crossing Signal Switching from “STOP” to “MOVE”

The third installment in this R&B visionary’s series of instrumental hip hop albums acknowledges that, even when you strip life down to its building blocks, it’s still complicated and intriguing as hell. “Vweto” is a Congolese word for “gravity,” but with every effervescent bass line and echoing drum pattern, Muldrow reassures us that we can still pick up our feet and move. Our tether to this planet might be unbreakable, but damn is it flexible.

19. Unto Others – Strength

The Light of a Bedside Table Lamp, Where a 15-Year Old Is Reading The Catcher in the Rye and Nodding Solemnly

On 2019’s Mana, the band formerly known as Idle Hands served up a bubbling cauldron of Satan worship and goth-pop hooks that spoke to the sullen young dork in all of us. A few years and a name change later, the Portland, OR, quartet returned with Strength – an attempt to be more serious that succeeds in spite of itself. The heart-on-sleeve Depeche Mode flourishes are tempered by chilly Police guitar figures, and the blasphemy is scrubbed away. But Strength sticks with me regardless, because this band remains utterly committed to expressing outsized, borderline-embarrassing emotions with a straight face, while churning out hooks for days.

18. Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life

The Light of a Neon “OPEN” Sign In a 1980 NYC Dive Bar

This Brooklyn post-punk institution begins the second act of its decade-long career on its seventh LP, where it expands its scope to explore danceable, immersive, bass-driven new wave soundscapes without completely abandoning the Stooges and Velvets worship of its early records. On “Marathon of Anger,” a recounting of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in New York City, singer Andrew Savage engages in a mesmerizing call and response with his bandmates, while synths bloop, a simple bass line swings, and guitars deliver chilly funk accents. It’s an evocative RSVP to the similarly serpentine invitation David Byrne sent out over 40 years ago – to join him in embracing the passage of time, watching the water flow as the days go by.

17. iLoveMakonnen – My Parade

The Light of the Embers in a Fireplace That’s Been Burning All Night Long

The world has never seemed to quite be ready for iLoveMakonnen – a calm, level-headed rapper with off-the-charts emotional intelligence and a knack for party anthems. Back in 2014, Makonnen had a certified hit with “Tuesday,” complete with a Drake remix and a contract with his OVO imprint. But it wasn’t until 2021 that we got the artist’s first true LP, My Parade – a stripped down, casually catchy, profoundly introspective achievement. By splicing the bass drops and chittering hi hats of Atlanta trap with the patient fireside tempos of quiet storm R&B, Makonnen has made something perfectly of-the-moment – a pandemic classic full of vulnerability, paranoia, joy and intimacy. Who said parades had to be loud?

16. Helado Negro – Far In

The Light of a Sunrise on the First Morning of a Tropical Vacation

Just because Roberto Carlos Lange sings in a whisper doesn’t mean he can’t command your attention. On his seventh LP as Helado Negro, his deceptively quiet instrument is as agile as ever, shifting between finger-picked calypso ballads and sweaty disco hooks with the ease of a green thumb strolling between his veggie garden and beds of perennials. As a result, Far In won’t necessarily grab you by the ears at first. It further cements Lange’s status as one of our consummate “growers,” its melodic and textual depth revealing itself more with every listen, until before you know it, you’re surrounded by blossoms.

15. John Carroll Kirby – Cryptozoo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The Light of a Pair of Red Eyes in the Forest

For his contributions to Solange’s A Seat at the Table and The Avalanches’ We Will Always Love You alone, pianist/producer/composer John Carroll Kirby deserves the benefit of the doubt. So while you might not think you’re in the mood to hear a new age/yacht rock score to a psychedelic animated movie about a zoo full of magical creatures, I’d recommend pressing play anyway. Far from a “weird for weird’s sake” exercise, Cryptozoo is a restorative balm of laid-back experimentation, where beds of synths and acoustic guitars reverberate reassuringly, leaving us more open to the wonders of a breathy pan flute solo that we ever could have imagined.

14. Mustafa – When Smoke Rises

The Light of a Candle on a Coffee Shop Table, Blurred By Tears

While Toronto natives Drake and The Weeknd chose superstardom over self-reflection years ago, the template they laid for woozy, deep dives into an artist’s damaged psyche is still in the water up there. On his debut LP, singer/songwriter Mustafa infuses the long blue winters of his hometown into a heart-wrenchingly gorgeous folk eulogy for fallen friends and eroded innocences. “I didn’t want to risk it all / Oh I know what’s at stake / But you made yourself special / I wanna throw myself away for you,” he sings over plaintive Leonard Cohen finger picking – grief and rage and love freezing together as grey clouds cover the stars.

13. Lil Nas X – Montero

The Light from a Single Sparkler Setting Off the Entire Pack

“Funny how you said it was the end / Then I went and did it again,” boasts Lil Nas X on his debut LP. The guy has a right to feel chuffed. After all the reactionary panic over his 2019 country-rap phenomenon “Old Town Road” – including Billboard pulling it off the country charts – the man born Montero Lamar Hill hasn’t just proven he’s more than a one-hit wonder. He’s made an entire album of potential chart-toppers, while staying true to himself and his eclectic muse. Montero has gleefully egotistical rap bangers, heartsick rainy-day ballads, “Hey Ya”-indebted acoustic thumps, and frank explorations of what it’s like to be a cultural icon on this beautiful, burning planet.

12. Maxo Kream – Weight of the World

The Light That Flared in Atlas’s Eyes As He Held Up the Heavens

Maxo Kream doesn’t need choruses, or hypnotically soulful beats, or guest stars with sparkling personalities. To be clear, the Houston rapper is gifted with all of those things on his third studio album. But his stories are so vivid, introspective, and casually devastating that it’s tough to focus on anything else. Weight of the World finds Maxo wrestling with all kinds of heaviness – survivor’s guilt for old friends still striving; raw grief from the March 2020 shooting death of his younger brother; the extra responsibility he feels toward his niece in the aftermath. It’s not only remarkable that the 31-year-old is willing to tackle such harrowing subjects, but he does it without surrendering to the darkness, spiking transparency with cleverness to create an effect that feels a lot like hope.

11. Shannon Lay Geist

The Light We Keep On at Night Because It Helps Us Sleep

“You’re on your own / But not alone.” When California singer/songwriter Shannon Lay serenades us with this couplet at the end of a song called “A Thread to Find,” the effect is a form of sonic therapy. Because not only does this proclamation of support help soothe our pandemic-warped nervous systems, but it also serves as a handy descriptor of what we’re hearing. For all of its reverberating lushness, Geist is a traditional folk album, with carefully plucked acoustic guitars and Lay’s lullaby tenor going largely unaccompanied. There are no drums at all here, which means every beautiful, searching note can initially feel like it’s rising into the ether on its own. But we’re there hearing it, so it’s not alone.

10. Brockhampton – Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine

The Light of Multiple Laser Beams Combining Into One Indestructible Megalaser

If Roadrunner is indeed the beginning of the end for the Houston emo-rap collective Brockhampton, as bandleader Kevin Abstract claims, then they’re going out with a clear understanding of what they’re good at. After taking an unprecedented two-year break between releases, the nine-member group (four rappers, three vocalists, two producers) reached a new level of clarity on its sixth LP, leaving its kitchen-sink mixtape approach behind in favor of a focused 12-track statement that somehow leaves no stone unturned. Everything that makes Brockhampton great is here – lovesick pop-rap, yell-along hip hop, heartfelt alt-rock hooks, fearlessly confessional lyricism – and it all flows in a way that feels preordained.

9. Danny L Harle – Harlecore

The Light of Neurons Firing In an Android’s Positronic Brain

As one of the more accessible members of the UK experimental electronic collective PC Music, Danny L Harle has a knack of pairing thumping molly-trip beats with clear-eyed declarations of feeling. On his long-awaited debut Harlecore, the artist puts this ability to the test over 13 tracks, “collaborating” with various versions of himself (referred to as DJ Danny, MC Boing, DJ Mayhem and DJ Ocean in the credits). The result is a perfectly sequenced journey through the mind of an electronic music visionary, touching on tender pop balladry, pitch-bended weirdo R&B, instrumental electronica, and relentlessly grinding industrial. All without losing sight of the humanity behind the machines: “I can see your heart’s been broken too / So just lay here, on a mountain, me and you.”

8. Doja Cat – Planet Her

The Light of a Newly Discovered Planet That Looks Like A Glowstick Necklace in the Sky

When Q-Tip rapped “Rap is not pop / If you call it that, then stop” over 30 years ago, he clearly wasn’t able to conceive of a record like Planet Her ever existing. And I don’t blame him. Because Doja Cat has accomplished something many brilliant emcees have never been able to pull off – a seamless fusion of bars-heavy hip hop, tender-hearted R&B, and chart-baiting pop hooks that doesn’t feel like a misguided record label ultimatum. This charismatic L.A. artist can rap and sing with equal flair, with lyrics that can be gut-bustingly hilarious, effervescently lovestruck, and convincingly heartbroken. Planet Her combines these versatile vocal performances with island-inflected club grooves, delivering every clever turn of phrase on the back of a warm, welcoming breeze.

7. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time

The Light From Your Best Friend’s Cigarette That They Forget to Smoke Because They’re Listening To You So Intently

On her steamroller of a debut (my #1 album of 2015), Courtney Barnett was a master at finding poignancy in mundane activities, like riding an elevator or going house hunting. Six years later, with mundanity at a premium, the Aussie slacker-rock visionary has shifted focus to the thing we often don’t admit to needing in our troubled, disconnected world – real companionship. “Sit beside me / Watch the world burn,” she proposes as her band rides a swirling roots-rock groove, finding the silver lining in the apocalypse like it’s a silver dollar on the street. Barnett hasn’t lost that trademark so-over-it sarcasm in her voice, but she’s deploying it in a gentler way, underlining the irony in how we focus on personal needs when humanity’s existence is at stake, while also admitting that she’s doing it too. All while writing riffs that feel like they’ve been keeping us company all our lives.

6. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

The Light Of a July 4 Fireworks Display That Makes You Smile Even Though You’re Depressed About the State of the Country

“After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow-up to be about joy,” said Michelle Zauner in the press materials for the third Japanese Breakfast LP. Jubilee meets this expectation and then some, with every track attempting to reach the masses with an irresistibly positive pop touch – like the weightless mariachi horns on “Paprika”; the soothing, Peter Gabriel-worshipping electronics of “Posing in Bondage”; the instant-classic disco bass line on “Be Sweet.” But this is also not quite a party album, as Zauner sings from the perspectives of a craven billionaire, a grieving relative, and a lonely heart in Indiana. So while it’s tempting to label this as an “indie rock legend gone pop,” the record’s true narrative isn’t so tidy. Because Jubilee‘s joy didn’t emerge from a vacuum. It came in the wake of pain, and is felt all the more intensely as a result.

5. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

The Light In an Electron Microscope that Lets Us See the Building Blocks of Life

On her fourth album, Little Simz is clearly in autobiographical mode. Not only is its title – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – a clear statement about the artist’s personality, but it’s also an acronym of her birthname (“Simbi,” short for “Simbiatu”). Perhaps the British-Nigerian rapper felt the need to drop these hints, because the 19 tracks on Introvert don’t sound like stark, intimate confessionals. Simz partnered with producer Inflo to weave tapestries of lush, cinematic soul, greeting the ears with the reassuring tenderness of a Curtis Mayfield ballad. And the rapper proves to be just as bombastic as all the spy-flick horns and swelling strings, sharing her hopes, fears, traumas and inspirations like a timpanist establishing the low end so the symphony can soar. “Lived being angry my whole life / Like it’s part of my DNA,” she shares, grounding us distinctly in her reality. A few seconds later, a children’s chorus swoops in, and up we go.

4. Lucy Dacus – Home Video

The Light of a Slide Projector Warming Up in the Living Room

On her third album, this Virginia singer/songwriter doesn’t just tell stories. She writes letters – an offer to murder a partner’s dickhead father; an ode to a metalhead who wrote crappy poetry at Jesus Camp; an admission to a friend that she finds her boyfriend unworthy. Home Video deserves its title thanks to the specificity of these memories and the swells of emotion they can inspire in people who weren’t there. When Dacus gets less specific, it’s no less powerful – like the bridge on the gut-wrenching break-up ballad “Please Stay,” where the songwriter lists all the things her partner can do instead of leaving. “Quit your job / Cut your hair / Get a dog / Change your name,” it begins. It’s a stunning, honest admission of need, and a letter of encouragement to all who wonder if we’d be better off keeping our pesky feelings to ourselves.

3. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage

The Light That Guides Ships To Shore On Dark and Stormy Nights

Nick Cave’s singing voice is a marvel. After four decades of screaming, grunting and wailing as the frontman of The Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, the 64-year-old Aussie legend is not only showing zero signs of strain, he’s exploring the upper register of his instrument, with riveting results. On Carnage, Cave teams up with trusted partner Warren Ellis to surround his voice with soft, rippling synthesizers, as he sings about deep rivers, lavender fields and kingdoms in the sky – the grief from his son’s passing in 2015 audible in every lyric about god and the afterlife. Yet despite the state of the world and his own personal burdens, Cave ends Carnage with a shaft of light through the clouds, a line repeated over and over again, with the kind of fervency that could convert a nonbeliever: “This morning is amazing / And so are you.”

2. Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood

The Light Next To Thomas Edison’s Work Bench

When getting good at Guitar Hero 2 wasn’t enough for a young Yasmin Williams, she picked up an acoustic guitar and started experimenting with it. She laid it face up on her lap, tuned the strings in a harmonic structure that sounded right to her, and started playing it like a keyboard. On her second album of instrumental folk, this distinctive approach is apparent in the way her fingers glide across the frets, the resulting notes flowing and clustering together like streams feeding the ocean. As she translates this tablature of the mind to us on tape, we’re presented with utterly unique compositions full of fascinating harmonic shapes, punctuated by percussive slaps of wood and the refreshing spray of a squeaking string. If they ever come out with Guitar Hero Unplugged, any of these songs would make it incredibly hard to beat.

1. Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready

The Light from an MRI of Eve’s Brain At the Moment She Saw the Tree of Knowledge

Sinner Get Ready, the fourth album from the brimstone-spewing one-woman powerhouse Lingua Ignota, is categorized in iTunes as “Rock.” That’s not accurate, but I get it. What the hell else would you call an album that trembles with the conviction of gospel, soothes with the rustic sounds of Appalachian folk, and terrifies with sudden blasts of noise-metal? What singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and performance artist Kristen Hayter has done here is some kind of righteous, cathartic miracle – long, patient songs of eerie majesty with lyrics that see the world through the eyes of fanatical Catholics, who plead to their Old Testament God to strike down the evildoers in their midst. And we’re not talking about people who skip church on Sunday – the “sinners” referenced in this album title are domestic abusers. A survivor herself, Hayter has described her creations as her way of getting “revenge” at her abusers – refusing to stay calm, while simultaneously turning pain into beauty. She cries out for divine murder on “I Who Bend the Tall Grasses,” screaming about golden scythes like a delirious preacher as a church organ hums in the shadows. And Hayter’s quieter moments are no less intense. “Fear is nothing when the path is righteous,” she softly intones over the skeletal piano notes of “The Perpetual Flame of Centralia,” baptizing us in the fires of determination, and outrage, and god-given creative genius.

Honorable Mentions: Aesop Rock & Blockhead – Garbology; Amyl & The Sniffers – Comfort To Me; Froglord – The Mystic Toad; Gatecreeper – An Unexpected Reality; Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon; Jonny Greenwood – The Power of the Dog; Iron Maiden – Senjutsu; Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning; Ka – A Martyr’s Reward; Aimee Mann – Queens of the Summer Hotel; Megan Thee Stallion – Something for Thee Hotties; The Mountain Goats – Dark In Here; Native Soul – Teenage Dreams; Queen Key – Your Highness 3; Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita; Tune-Yards – Sketchy; Tyler the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost

New Songs to Re-Batten Down the Hatches To, September 2021

I’m one of those walking clichés who “loves fall the most, actually.” But in the age of the delta variant, it’s pretty hard to be basic. While I’m relishing the tell-tale elements of autumn – cool breezes at night, curated horror movie collections on all the streaming services, the way-too-busy ice cream store at the end of my street finally shutting down for the season – it also means we’re headed back indoors, aka COVID’s home turf.

But let’s not dwell on that. Instead, let me remind you that fall is the time to close your windows – which means you can crank this playlist as loud as you want. Everything might feel more complicated these days, but that volume knob still works just the same.

1. Payday (feat. Danny Brown) – “Vampire”

Massive drums, weird operatic vocal loops, and chest-beating vampiric rap verses = an instant Halloween classic.

2. Courtney Barnett – “Write A List of Things To Look Forward To”

I don’t know too many artists who could earnestly sing, “Sit beside me / Watch the world burn,” without sucking every positive vibe out of the room. But cool matter-of-factness is Courtney Barnett’s stock in trade. So she extends that invitation over sweetly jangling guitar chords, and makes our shared human destiny feel full of reasons to smile, ever-so slyly.

3. Lil Nas X – “That’s What I Want”

As an acoustic guitar strums with an irresistible “Hey Ya” pulse, 2021’s savviest, most fully realized pop star lays his vulnerabilities out there in a way that brings all of us into the fold: “I want someone to love me / I need someone to need me.”

4. Unto Others – “Instinct”

On its second album, these goth-metal masters scrap the satanic rituals and throw a 47-minute sullen-teen tantrum – which would be somewhat silly if it weren’t so damn catchy.

5. Little Simz – “Little Q, Pt. 2”

“Real criminals live in the suit!” raps this London MC over a honey-glazed old-Kanye gospel arrangement, shining light into painful corners of her past, encouraging those who’ve caused her harm to step back and focus on the real enemy.

6. Aimee Mann – “Burn It Out”

Over a gorgeous folk waltz arrangement that she should be able to trademark by now, Aimee Mann sets her empathetic sights on a person who just set themselves on fire: “All of the shame that was yours to bear / Will it ignite like a signal flare? / Can you just burn it out?”

7. Bartees Strange – “Weights”

An indie rock song so gleefully and relentlessly buzzy, your hair just might stand up on end.

8. Native Soul – “The Beginning”

This hypnotic, mid-tempo dance groove was my first exposure to amapiano, a type of meditative South African house music that builds but never quite peaks. Its disinterest in grabbing our attention has the opposite effect; I could burrow deep into Native Soul’s world of unshifting shakers and synthesizers and feel eerily fulfilled.

9. Latto – “Big Energy”

Tom Tom Club begat Mariah. Mariah begat Latto. Amen.

10. Parquet Courts – “Black Widow Spider”

A loose, short, weird single about trying to outrun pain and inevitably getting squashed.

11. Open Mike Eagle (feat. Armand Hammer) – “Burner Account”

“Making sure the bass slap, Ndegeocello!”

12. Iron Maiden – “Hell On Earth”

Iron Maiden released its 17th studio album in September, and it smartly focuses on what the band does best these days – long, slowly unfurling epics that wrestle with big questions, and only provide answers in the form of exquisite guitar playing. “Hell On Earth” is the best, and most resolutely hopeless, of the lot. “Lost in anger! / Life in danger!” bemoans Bruce Dickinson in the song’s eighth minute, the musicians behind him affirming his righteous outrage by playing slowly and determinedly. Iron Maiden is no longer urging anyone to run for the hills. Because there’s no escape from what humanity has wrought. If this ends up being their final song laid to tape, I can’t think of a more honest – and thoroughly metal – farewell.

New Songs to Pull Me Back from the Brink of Total Cynicism, August 2021

I’m currently reading book two of The Stormlight Archive, an exhilarating door-stopper fantasy series where ancient knights can breathe light that heals their wounds. (What, you thought I was, like, cool or something?) As hospitals fill right back up with anti-vaxxers who trust Facebook more than science books, these 10 songs have been my form of magical oxygen. Some are dance-floor-ready bangers; others are spacey instrumentals; all are imbued with the kind of positive vibes that make me feel like I can do impossible things. So go ahead. Breathe.

1. Queen Key – “What I Do”

After giving birth to triplets at the beginning of the pandemic, this Chicago rapper cannot be bothered to sound stressed, casually sharing her plans for world domination over sunny piano notes: “I want them to think that I’m slow / Think I’m a ho / So I can take their souls and put em in my fro.”

2. Sturgill Simpson – “Shamrock”

This usually idiosyncratic country star has given us three old-school bluegrass LPs in the last year, all of them barnburners. On “Shamrock,” he lets his band absolutely pop off, while managing to not drown out the mouth harp. The world needs more mouth harp!

3. Becky Hill (feat. Topic) – “My Heart Goes (La Di Da)”

A dance-pop anthem with a sound so convincingly ’90s, I coulda sworn CeCe Peniston had became a cardiologist.

4. Abstract Mindstate – “A Wise Tale”

Turns out there was a reason to celebrate Kanye West’s return this August – as the producer on this low-key comeback LP from a forgotten Windy City rap duo. This rich, playful, soul-sample-flipping beat might be old hat for Ye, but it’s perfect for slightly wistful late-summer barbecues, and better than anything on Donda.

5. Marisa Anderson & William Tyler – “News About Heaven”

From the first cascading guitar notes of this serene instrumental, you know this song title is perfect.

6. Caribou – “You Can Do It”

I hope Dan Snaith’s don’t-overthink-it lounge-house groove rips this phrase out of Rob Schneider’s big dumb mouth, once and for all.

7. Denzel Curry – “The Game”

This Florida rapper is capable of such exceptional acrobatics, his straightforward, martial approach on “The Game” hits even harder. Here’s to him and Kendrick coming to our rescue at the end of this fairly boring year in rap.

8. John Carroll Kirby – “Mystic Brine”

The soundtrack to the new psychedelic animated oddity Cryptozoo is an appropriately otherworldly stoner daydream – but it’s also undeniably real, man.

9. Tierra Whack – “Walk the Beat”

The first full embrace of club music from this Philadelphia rapper/singer/visionary is refreshingly blasé about haute couture: “Fashion shows, fancy clothes / That’s just the way it goes.”

10. Wanda Jackson (feat. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts) – “That’s What Love Is”

This is the last song on this 83-year-old country legend’s final album? Holy shit:

It isn’t just the way we felt that first day
It’s an ongoing thing, I fought more along the way
It’s knowing you’ll be there when I call your name
That’s what love is

New Songs to Sigh Through My New Mask To, July 2021

Sorry I’m a few weeks late with this one! I’ve been traveling a bit for work, which put my listening habits on hold and also reminded me that this pandemic is very much still a thing – I needed my mask for more than just the plane. Boy was I dumb to title my last playlist “New Songs to Gingerly Re-Enter Society To”!

1. Prince – “Same Page, Different Book”

It’s common for famous musicians to return to the sounds of their formative influences as they age, but rarely does it sound as cool as Prince’s late-stage embrace of Sly Stone funk-vamp mimicry. This track from newly unearthed 2010 sessions has some bass lines that will slingshot your soul to a distant galaxy.

2. Amyl & The Sniffers – “Security”

“I’m not looking for trouble / I’m looking for love!” pleads lead singer Amy Taylor to a skeptical bouncer, over seething riffage and pummeling drums that threaten to clear the way.

3. Silk Sonic – “Skate”

Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars deliver a Motown-indebted charisma bomb that makes every half-assed compliment (“In a room full of dimes / You would be a hundred dollars”) feel like a glittery proposal.

4. Maxo Kream – “Local Joker”

Maxo Kream is so good at telling stories, he doesn’t need a production full of big dramatic shifts. On “Local Joker,” the Houston rapper illustrates the difference between his previous life of crime and his current celebrity, filling our ears with nostalgia, sadness and relief. A low-lit soul loop quietly unfurls beneath him, and it’s absolutely enough.

5. Courtney Barnett – “Rae Street”

“Time is money / And money is no man’s friend,” goes the chorus to Courtney Barnett’s first single since 2018. Thankfully, she doesn’t apply this adage to this track’s production, letting her guitar chords ring out over a patient, sauntering arrangement. It all feels like a Sunday stroll with a sarcastic philosopher, with no particular place to go and plenty of time to get there.

6. Sleigh Bells – “Locust Laced”

The amp-stacking cheerleader-chant energy of this Brooklyn duo tends to toe the line between grating and exhilarating. “Locust Laced” is very much the latter – the kind of confrontational noise pop we need to short out the chaotic news ticker in our minds: “I feel like dynamite / I feel like dying tonight!”

7. Lingua Ignota – “Perpetual Flame of Centralia”

Anyone fascinated and/or repulsed by the effects of organized religion on the human psyche needs to light some candles, gird their loins, and play Kristin Hayter’s terrifying new LP, Sinner Get Ready. “I am covered with the blood of Jesus / Fear is nothing when the path is righteous,” the noise-metal experimentalist croons over ominous piano chords, making us feel just how scary it can be when a dangerous person feels sanctified.

8. Shannon Lay – “Geist”

When Shannon Lay shifts from simple plucking to a finger-picking cascade, it’s like a seance meant to summon the spirit of Nick Drake.

9. Coldplay – “Coloratura”

The more complicated and uncertain our future becomes, the more I’m drawn to simple expressions of hope. And that has been Coldplay’s stock in trade for decades, reassuring us that everything’s not lost, that we can go back to the start, that we should be patient and not worry. “Coloratura” is a classic Coldplay hope-bomb genetically modified for the times – a 10-minute epic about the existence of some form of heaven. “We’re a slow burning tune / But we’ll get there,” Chris Martin sings, invoking the names of scientific visionaries as proof of humanity’s potential. As the arrangement swells to a “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”-esque panorama, I feel my cynicism erode, the simple chord progression aligning with that stubborn, tiny part of me that still believes.

New Songs to Gingerly Re-enter Society To, June 2021

With America opening back up at a dizzying pace, my emotions are all over the place. I hear a song about two zodiac signs that almost perfectly aligns with my wife and I’s astrological dynamic, and I feel like dancing with her until my ankles hurt. But then I hear another song about the facades we have to wear in social situations, and I want to hide under the covers. So with this list, I want to honor this rollercoaster of joy and anxiety that we’re all on in some way, shape or form. Get ready to party, then fall out, and then party some more!

1. Helado Negro – “Gemini and Leo”

Two years after sweeping us up in the whisper-delicate dream world of his last album, This Is How You Smile, Helado Negro feels like dancing. And by turning to the zodiac over this airy disco groove, the singer/songwriter elevates a simple story of two people vibing on the dance floor into a connection that must be written in the stars.

2. Jessie Ware – “Hot N Heavy”

Speaking of irresistible disco grooves about falling in love on the dance floor…

3. Tyler the Creator (feat. Lil Wayne) – “Hot Wind Blows”

Tyler the Creator isn’t just a sonic visionary who has left his gimmicky shock-rap roots in the dust – he’s an artist with the kind of big-tent vision that inspires old-timers to bring their A game. Over a flute-speckled Henry Mancini sample, Tyler sets the table for Lil Wayne, who lays into the cut with effortless, syllable-spraying glee.

4. Unto Others – “When Will Gods Work Be Done”

This Portland goth-metal hook factory, formerly called Idle Hands, had to change its name last year due to copyright issues. If you thought it might’ve disrupted their mojo, worry not. Their first track as Unto Others is a prime example of their Depeche Maiden formula, pairing a theatrically bleak worldview with punishingly catchy dual-guitar leads.

5. The Mountain Goats – “Lizard Suit”

Not super psyched for social situations to be making a comeback? This jazz-folk alienation anthem is for you: “Let my phobias control my habits / Let my habits form the shapes of days.”

6. Japanese Breakfast – “Jubilee”

When the horns come in on this chorus, it’s like the clouds parting in a way the weatherman could never predict.

7. Sault – “London Gangs”

Sault, the still-faceless UK rhythm & blues collective, dropped its fourth album of visionary jams in June. Including this one, where they make a bass line sound like a pot of water on a rolling boil, ready to receive any ingredient and make it sing.

8. Spellling – “Turning Wheel”

A sweeping, let’s-hold-hands-and-sway, Beatlesque ballad about how staying up on the hill doesn’t necessarily make you a fool.

9. Pa Salieu (feat. slowthai) – “Glidin'”

I love it when a rapper just tells me how a beat makes them feel.

10. Lucy Dacus – “Please Stay”

Break-up songs can be tough listens. But please-don’t-break-up-with-me songs? Those are the ones that break me.

So Bitter and So Sweet: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Turns 50

When I was 15, a kind, patient older cousin of mine was killed in a freak accident. A few days after getting that news, I was in the middle of a driving class when my instructor asked me if anything was wrong. I was stumped at first. Nothing seemed off to me; I didn’t think my driving or behavior was erratic. But both were. It took me a while to realize that I had internalized my grief so much that I was tricking myself into believing everything was okay. Instead of crying about it, or talking about it, or confronting it in any way.

And because I was a boy, and the other men in my life were just like me in the feelings department, I accepted this lack of emotional intelligence as just part of who I was. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that the dam started to break. Because that was the year I met my wife, who is teaching me what it means to be self-aware to this day. It was also the year I bought Joni Mitchell’s Blue on CD. We would fall asleep to it in the middle of the day, comforted by how the intensity of its emotions resonated with ours.

Up until Blue was released 50 years ago today, the definition of a singer/songwriter was problematically narrow – essentially it described a man who did it all, except for telling us how he really felt. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were the recognized masters of this form, posing stoically on their album covers to make it clear they were brooding troubadours who answered to no one. And while they would pull the veil back occasionally, these were artists who wrote songs like English professors – shrouding any vulnerability in layers of metaphor and literary references. Given how good their music sounded, it was easy to associate their lyrical complexity with artistic worth. To believe that honesty is somehow simpler or easier.

An iconoclast from day one, Joni Mitchell wasn’t about to pay attention to what a singer/songwriter was supposed to be. The Alberta native didn’t even tune her guitar in the standard way, perpetually twisting the pegs in search of brand new clusters of notes, frustrating generations of campfire strummers in search of an easy cover. In the years leading up to Blue, she used these invented chord structures to give her first three albums an ethereal quality that folk fans hadn’t quite experienced before. Yet her lyrics, while reflective of her talent, needed some time to catch up. These early songs were written in the ’60s Greenwich Village mold, anthems anchored by metaphors intended to be applicable to all – life is like a merry-go-round; growing up is like seeing the clouds from above for the first time. One of her biggest hits was about Woodstock, and she wasn’t even there.

These songs I’m referencing remain rightfully iconic, and they resulted in Mitchell becoming very famous very quickly. And like a lot of artists who are both egomaniacally driven and emotionally sensitive, she ended the ’60s feeling overwhelmed, disillusioned with fame, and seriously considering retirement. In Malka Marom’s fascinating interview collection Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, the artist describes this time in her life:

I hadn’t cried for years, but at that time I cried all the time. They walked on the moon, I cried. Everything made me cry. […] Another day, I came upon a boat being pulled by a car crossing under the telephone lines as they went across the road. The name of the boat was The Wife’s Mink Coat. And I burst into tears. It had two motors and I just saw all the disruption those egg beaters were making in the water, and I felt sorry for the fish. I had to pull over to the side of the road. I was weeping about that.”

Mitchell wrote and recorded Blue in this state of mind, and made no attempt to hide it, describing the nuances of her emotions with an honesty and specificity that would forever expand the boundaries of what a singer/songwriter could do. Gone were any attempts to tap into the zeitgeist. Blue is about what one person was going through, period.

Over sparse folk arrangements that feature only a handful of players other than her, Mitchell sings about her needs, regrets, and traumas, embracing how uncomfortably they could live alongside one another. The love songs are mournful. The travel songs are homesick. The sad songs shiver in the shadows of potential happiness. To someone like me, who struggled to understand the fact that human beings contain multitudes, this doubled as a psychology lesson.

On the opening “All I Want,” Mitchell sums up the mercurial push and pull of a passionate relationship in a few pronoun-laden lines, as her dulcimer and James Taylor’s guitar lay down the path ahead:

I hate you some, I love you some
Oh I love you when I forget about me

Most relationship eulogizers would be satisfied with this passive, poetic sadness, like Dylan telling his ex not to think twice and just move on. But Joni Mitchell wasn’t kidding when she titled this song. She wants us to know all of the good things she wants for this person as well. Even though it’s contradictory, and an admission of vulnerability:

I want to be the one that you want to see
I want to knit you a sweater
Want to write you a love letter
I want to make you feel better
I want to make you feel free

On the devastating ballad “Little Green,” when singing to the child she gave up for adoption while mired in poverty –a personal trauma that was a closely kept secret until the 1990s – Mitchell keeps stubbornly looking for pinpricks of hope:

So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed
Little green have a happy ending

On the record’s more upbeat numbers, the reverse is true. “California” uses sprightly acoustic strumming to underline Mitchell’s largely rose-colored memories of adventures abroad. But in the last chorus, she asks her adoptive home state if she’s worthy: “Will you take me as I am?” “Carey” fleshes out another lively acoustic groove about international travel with conga hits and layered vocal harmonies. But her “fingernails are filthy,” and she has “beach tar on her feet.” And the red-haired Cretian man who inspired the title? He’s “a mean old daddy.”

“My insights became keener,” Mitchell tells Marom about her frame of mind while recording Blue. “I’d just look at a person and I’d know too much about them that I didn’t want to know. And because everything was becoming transparent, I felt I must be transparent, and I cried.”

As arguably the first “transparent” work from a singer/songwriter, Blue has inspired countless purveyors of confessional art over the last half-century. But I’ve yet to hear one that resonates as powerfully. Perhaps because this was a radical form of unguardedness, an artist knowingly twisting the pegs of misogynistic limitations by the mere act of being honest on tape. Or maybe Joni Mitchell just happened to be in an elevated state of self-awareness that aligned with her talents reaching their peak. Regardless, the alchemy of these sounds and words is timeless.

To this day, when I’m having trouble tracing the origins of my emotions, I’ll turn to this album. Because in life, when you try to ignore your feelings and make literary references instead, that just makes you an asshole. Thanks to my wife, and this album, I feel comfortable saying that I miss my cousin. That I will never forget the time he sat and played a board game with me on a family visit, even though he was older and cooler and absolutely had better things to do. That I wish he was still alive.

And wouldn’t you know it? I’m crying.

New Songs to Quarantine To, May 2021

Even though this was the month I became fully vaccinated and walked into the supermarket without a mask, I still don’t feel comfortable changing the title of this column. My psyche is still quarantining, and would rather listen to these cathartic, confident, grief-stricken songs than engage in a face-to-face conversation with someone I just met. Also, what would the new name be? “New Songs for a Strange Transitional Period Where Our Bodies are Protected but our Minds Need a Minute to Catch Up”? If you have a better idea, leave it in the comments. Even better, just press play.

1. The Linda Lindas – “Racist, Sexist Boy (Live at LA Public Library)”

So much more than a piece of content “we all need right now,” this breakout live performance from a quartet of Asian and Latinx teens and tweens boasts the kind of cathartic, no-bullshit punk songcraft that is made to last – especially in a country that is still pretending it isn’t racist.

2. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Old Jack Swing”

This hip-hop instrumentalist has said that her new album is meant “to be played when you birth yourself back outside after a long introspective period.” And this offering of funky, distorted bass and rumbling low-end piano should make every vaccinated person want to take off their masks and strut.

3. Audrey Nuna (feat. Saba) – “Top Again”

This New Jersey pop/R&B/rap triple-threat fuses ’90s angst with ’20s swagger, using “Kurt Cobain” as a verb and boasting about how her “Gabbana pants sag in the mosh pit.”

4. Sarah Barrios – “IH8EVERY1”

As I begin to spend time with people other than my wife again, this nihilistically romantic pop-punk earworm is gonna get a lot of spins.

5. Mustafa – “The Hearse”

On this grief-stricken, revenge-fueled dubstep/folk triumph, Mustafa’s voice trembles like a deck of cards: “I wanna throw my life away for you.”

6. Holly Humberstone – “The Walls Are Way Too Thin”

Claustrophobia is going to be a songwriting theme for awhile I imagine, and this UK singer/songwriter has used it as fuel for a heartbroken synth-pop gem.

7. Japanese Breakfast – “Savage Good Boy”

Michelle Zauner has already given us Sweensryche’s Song of the Summer, but she’s just getting started. The deceptively sprightly “Savage Good Boy” finds her inhabiting a truly evil character – a billionaire with a bunker, attempting to lure a woman down there as the seas inexorably rise.

8. Mach-Hommy – “Kriminel”

The mysterious, multilingual, always-masked-even-before-COVID emcee Mach-Hommy just released Pray for Haiti, a stunning achievement of hazy, soothing, organically intoxicating hip hop. “Kriminel” exemplifies this artist’s preternatural sense of calm, reminiscing about lost loved ones and childhood struggles over a quavering vocal sample, and patiently explaining why: “Fuck all that industry / Cause killers keep calm / She wrong / Cause n****s’ feelings need songs.”

9. Lucy Dacus – “VBS”

Lucy Dacus is one hell of a storyteller, and here’s one for all the lapsed Christians looking to feel seen. The singer/songwriter mines her memories of summers at “Vacation Bible School,” as a once-earnest believer who meets a Slayer-cranking naysayer who tries to poke holes in her logic, however awkwardly (“Your poetry was so bad / It took a lot not to laugh”). By the end, nobody has been saved.

10. Little Simz (feat. Cleo Sol) – “Woman”

“Innovating just like Donna Summer in the ’80s.”

11. Shungudzo – “I’m Not A Mother, But I Have Children”

Over a gravity-free expanse of gently plucked guitars and faraway synth murmurs, this Zimbabwean-American singer (and 2011 Real World cast member) sings about our shared responsibilities for this planet with desperately poetic turns of phrase: “Isn’t the point to try? / Even though some things will not be alright / Before we die.”

12. Helloween – “Fear of the Fallen”

Like plenty of legacy metal acts, Helloween has churned through multiple lead singers over its 37 years of existence. But on this new track, the German power metal institution has done something original – invite all three singers back to wail lines like “Listen to your HEART!” with flame-throwing, doubt-destroying energy.

13. Shannon Lay – “Rare to Wake”

“Without change, something sleeps inside us,” observes this California singer/songwriter, as she makes her acoustic guitar strings dance like Nick Drake vacationing in Laurel Canyon, leaving us fully and completely awakened.

New Songs to Quarantine To, April 2021

As I write this, on the eve of my second vaccination shot, I’m thinking about the moments during quarantine that I want to hang onto. And they all have something to do with gratitude. While I’m excited by the prospect of being able to breathe openly in a room without tempting fate, I never want to lose the feeling of being safe with the person I love, in the house we made a home, amazed at the life we built together.

I think that’s why I was drawn to songs about intimacy, trust and hope this past month. No matter how much the world opens up, it’s what we carry inside of us that makes us free.

1. Kero Kero Bonito – “21/04/20”

This tired-but-hopeful sunshine pop song describes captures our current moment so accurately, you almost expect it to glitch like a Zoom call: “Hey, so, how are you doing? / I’m okay, you know, the usual kinda weird.”

2. Brockhampton – “Count On Me”

If this irrepressible Texas rap collective isn’t lying when they say this new release will be one of their last, at least they’re going out on top. “Count On Me” is a goosebump-raising good-vibes earworm about commitment and trust, perfect for anyone who wants to make a proclamation of love in the midst of a summer BBQ.

3. Spellling – “Little Deer”

We are all Bambi in the 2020s, trying to maintain friendships in a world full of forest fires and emboldened men with guns. And this Oakland R&B crooner has created an ideal soundtrack for us, pairing naturalistic poetry about the circle of life with the rich orchestral arrangement it deserves.

4. Jeff Rosenstock – “SKrAm!”

Jeff Rosenstock’s anthemic punk LP No Dream was a catchy, sweaty highlight of 2020. But Ska Dream – his new, track-for-track ska cover version – might be even better.

5. ILOVEMAKONNEN – “What You Tryna Do”

The self-love expressed in Makonnen Kamali Sheran’s stage name has always been more of a shelter than a boast, protecting his emotionally intelligent rap and R&B songs from the homophobic slings and arrows of the Atlanta trap scene. On this new acoustic ballad, he’s as close-miked, open-hearted, and consent-conscious as ever: “Is it okay if I have one little kiss?”

6. Vision Video – “Inked in Red”

In the same month that a U.S. president finally announced the end of the war in Afghanistan, we get a pitch-perfect retro-goth single from a band whose lead singer, Dusty Gannon, is a veteran of that war. When he sings “History has drawn these lines across my face,” it’s a long way from cosplay.

7. Polo G – “Rapstar”

A rap beat based on a ukulele riff sounds insufferably twee on paper. Polo G turns it into something enchanting.

8. Little Simz – “Introvert”

Over an epic trombones-and-choirs beat, this UK rapper confronts government corruption, systemic racism and her own personal anxieties with sensitivity and clarity, reminding us that art can at least feel like the light at the end of the tunnel.

9. Tierra Whack – “Link”

I was ready to roll my eyes at this partnership between Tierra Whack and Lego, but sometimes even product placement can move us. “You should come and build with me / We could link up,” the Philly artist sings over the kind of Rugrats-soundtrack music-box groove she’s been favoring these days. It might be a glorified ad, but after a year of humanity struggling to maintain connections, it absolutely works.

10. Lucy Dacus – “Hot & Heavy”

For anyone who’s not 100% thrilled about heading back to your hometown post-COVID, here’s a devastating anti-nostalgia rock anthem that turns Springsteen’s “Glory Days” on its head: “Being back here makes me hot in the face / Hot blood pulsing in my veins / Heavy memories weighing on my brain.”

My Best Pictures

Like most people, I tried more new things in 2020 than I would’ve in a normal year. I didn’t learn to make sourdough or play a new instrument or anything constructive like that, but my wife and I did successfully create a valid alternative to the movie theater-going experience – an absolute must for people with Cinemagic loyalty cards faded from constant swiping. We invested in a projector and a great big screen, and screened our favorites in the backyard all summer long.

Looking back on the year in movies, I’m struck by the achievements of new directors, who ignored their expected career narrative and made fully realized cinematic statements right out the gate. When the 93rd Academy Awards kicks off on Sunday, it will be celebrating several instances of people trying something new – almost half of the Best Picture nominees came from first-time filmmakers.

My list of 2020’s Best Pictures has an even higher batting average – seven of the 10 movies below are debut features. Perhaps this is just a coincidence. But then again, as the world shifts into formations we would’ve found unthinkable two years ago, maybe there’s some science behind it. As humanity wrestles with grave new threats, we need new voices to give us hope for a future that, for all its challenges, won’t be lacking in stories that inspire us.

Here are my 10 favorite movies from the year we all tried something new.

Amulet

First-time director Romola Garai helms this patiently gruesome horror-morality tale, where a troubled former soldier named Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) almost dies in a fire, only to be rescued by a kindly nun (Imelda Staunton, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye) who offers him an opportunity to get back on his feet – he can move into a place rent-free, as long as he helps a woman named Magda (Carla Juri) keep house while she cares for her sickly mother. Of course, this opportunity is too good to be true, but not in the way you might expect. Garai takes her time jumping between ominous flashbacks of Tomaz’s military past and prolonged shots of the stained, moldy structure he now calls home, begging the viewer to wonder what must be lingering in his memory and crawling behind those walls. All of this pent-up anxiety explodes in a scene that had me raising my hands to protect my face, my lizard brain temporarily forgetting that I was safe at home. This would be a feat on its own. But Garai has more monsters to unveil. And not all of them look scary at first.

Bacurau

This anti-colonialist gonzo Western pits the mysteriously disenfranchised residents of the titular Brazilian village – its water supply has been cut off, and it’s vanishing from GPS maps – against an enemy who would seem cartoonishly barbaric, if it wasn’t for all the clear parallels to white nationalists and the politicians who enable them. Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles do an exquisite job of setting the stage, patiently introducing us to the colorful characters of Bacurau, who convene at the funeral of a town matriarch. While there is clearly something off about village life, we do get a look at what it might be like if allowed to proceed organically, its night air alive with music after another productive, sunny day. Once Udo Keir appears on screen, sporting that casually sadistic look he’s perfected over the decades, the body count rises and the action crescendoes to one final, immensely satisfying showdown. For fans of spaghetti Westerns, John Carpenter synth sounds, antiracist movements, and that battered old concept of justice.

The Father

In 50+ years of acting on screen, Anthony Hopkins has tackled his share of psychologically complicated roles, including a charming psychopath, an emotionally stunted butler, and a corrupt U.S. president. But none of these performances delved into the inner workings of the human mind as effectively as his work in The Father. The 83-year-old pours his entire self into the role of a proud, frustrated man who shares his name, depicting his struggle with dementia with fearless vulnerability. And he’s paired with a director who is equally bold. Florian Zeller adapts his stage play to the screen with great respect for the afflicted, so much so that the narrative isn’t built from the outside looking in. We see the world through Anthony’s eyes, and are as confused as he is when the story stops traveling down a linear path. Editor Yorgos Lamprinos builds sequences like unsolvable puzzle boxes, looping back to revisit scenes from different perspectives, utterly disorienting us. In the midst of it all, Zeller is able to convey the toll it takes on Anthony’s daughter and caretaker Anne, simply by casting Olivia Colman, who doesn’t need any dialogue to show us that she is on the brink of clinical exhaustion. Where typical Oscar-bait would be content with documenting all of this misery with a sense of remove, The Father asks for empathy. As we walk in the shoes of a former engineer who obsesses over watches as he loses track of time, a sad story evolves into a heartbreaking achievement of shared humanity.

First Cow

I recently saw my first John Wayne movie, the gorgeously shot 1948 cattle-drive drama Red River. While it had some important things to say about masculine friendships, they were more of the “I’m not gonna say I love you even on my death bed” variety. Which left me wishing I was watching First Cow instead. Kelly Reichardt’s gold rush period piece charts the friendship of two characters who would have been Red River extras at best – Cookie, a soft-spoken Oregonian chef who gets bullied by fur trappers, and King-Lu, a quick-witted Chinese immigrant on the run after allegedly killing a Russian man. When Cookie stumbles across a naked and starving Lu in the woods, he clothes, feeds and hides him. It’s the opening salvo in a sweet, realistic depiction of male friendship, played with tenderness and verve by John Magaro and Orion Lee. The pair go into business together, selling Cookie’s mouthwatering “oily cakes” in town with promising results. Thing is, those cakes require milk, and the only source is a cow that was imported by the town’s richest man (Toby Jones, believably weird flexing). The scenes where Cookie milks the cow in the dead of night, whispering his gratitude to the animal as Lu sits up in a tree looking out for them both, are stunning tableaus of love and support.

The Forty-Year-Old Version

Radha Blank’s debut film is such a profound, hilarious achievement, it might make you wonder how on earth she hadn’t gotten the green light to make one before now. For the answer, all you have to do is watch. The writer, director and star plays a lightly fictionalized version of herself in The Forty-Year-Old Version, a slumping NYC playwright who pays her bills by teaching theatre to disinterested teens. She never stopped writing plays, but they’ve all been rejected by Broadway producers who are more interested in Harriet Tubman musicals and an “all-male Steel Magnolias.” Blank deftly pairs this push-pull between art and commerce with the warring priorities in her character’s psyche as she approaches middle age. She avoids calls from her brother so she doesn’t have to come to terms with their mother’s death. She fights with her manager/best friend, who is asking her to compromise. And she invents a new persona, the rapper RahdaMUS Prime, who finds a producer on Instagram and spends hours in his booth, spitting unfiltered rhymes about her reality. Shot in glorious black and white and edited in the rhythms of real life, The Forty-Year-Old Version is an engrossing character study, a biting satire of cultural appropriators, and an open-hearted ode to struggling artists everywhere.

Judas and the Black Messiah

In 2007, a movie called The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford received a pair of Oscar nominations, thanks to its luminous cinematography and understated performances. But in reality, Jesse James was the coward – a violent white supremacist who kept fighting for the Confederacy long after its defeat. In 2020, we got another period piece about betrayal, with a title that pits its two leads against one another. Except this time around, the historical figures are Black, and it’s the bravery that the history books have omitted. Judas and the Black Messiah depicts the rise of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party in the late 1960s. Daniel Kaluuya plays the 21-year-old Hampton with the intensity of a comet, streaking down the streets of Chicago to summon people to his cause, aware he will be extinguished and all the more committed because of it. His Judas is FBI informant William O’Neal, who is bullied into divulging more than his conscience can handle. He’s played by Lakeith Stanfield, who makes us feel ulcers of guilt with his facial expressions alone. Director Shaka King and editor Kristan Sprague set a tone that is the anti-Jesse James, stuffing scenes with rapidly delivered soliloquies and infectious, kinetic motion. Making us believe that when an idea catches fire, no number of men with guns can truly kill it.

Promising Young Woman

Imagine a story where a male character gets his girlfriend drunk, brags “I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to,” and then hands her unconscious body over to his buddy with these skin-crawling instructions: “Have fun.” Sounds like a Law & Order: SVU villain who will surely get his comeuppance, right? Nope. This is a scene from Sixteen Candles, the 1984 John Hughes teen comedy that an entire generation saw as an ideal representation of romantic love. It is scenes like this that inspired the British actor Emerald Fennell to start writing what would become her directorial debut. Promising Young Woman wrests narrative control from men like Hughes, investigating the cascading traumas rapists inflict on their victims and the people who love them. Her hero is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a woman seeking revenge for the rape and eventual death of her best friend Nina, feigning drunkenness in clubs as a way to shock and shame the men who inevitably try to take advantage of her – a steely-eyed nocturnal crusader doing more to protect women than Batman ever has. And the rapists aren’t the only villains to be exposed. Several characters, including so-called love interest Ryan (Bo Burnham), speak of Nina’s assault like it was an unpreventable, unprosecutable act of God, when her rapist is a guy named Al who is still out there, guiltlessly living his life. Both a deft genre experiment that absolutely skewers romantic comedy tropes and an unblinkingly brutal condemnation of rape culture, Promising Young Woman cuts any apologist off at the knees before they even have a chance to mewl, “not all men.”

Saint Maud

To be raised Catholic is to learn to be suspicious of your own body. Lust and gluttony are deadly sins, and to atone for them you must pray to the mutilated man hanging on your wall. While Saint Maud isn’t the first film to explore the unhealthy nature of this divine celebration of violence – the prayer closet in Carrie featured a statue of a wild-eyed St. Sebastian, arrows sprouting out of him like eyes from rotten potatoes – it’s the first I’ve seen that never enters the supernatural realm, positioning the church’s demented morals as the worst kind of poison for its delusional, mentally ill protagonist. Maud is a mild-mannered-at-first hospice nurse sent to care for a once-famous dancer dying of cancer. Played by Morfydd Clark with the nervous energy of a wallflower about to step on the dance floor, Maud is clearly unstable from the start. Yet unlike Carrie White, Maud isn’t bullied or shamed. Her patient takes pity on her, indulging her flights of spiritual fancy. An old nursing colleague appears and offers kindness, even though she’s aware of some awful, shadowy thing from Maud’s past. Director Rose Glass depicts Maud’s mental breakdown with methodical inevitability, filling the screen with stunning, apocalyptic visuals that act as portals into her madness. She’s who Carrie would have been, if she believed every lie her mother told her.

Vampires vs. the Bronx

As a fantasy novel dork, I’m a sucker for stories that pit groups of kids against seemingly unstoppable forces of evil – because their ability to wholeheartedly believe in myths and legends ends up being the key to their triumph. And while Vampires vs. the Bronx is rooted in this tradition (Attack the Block, Stranger Things and The Monster Squad are clear forebears), director/writer Oz Rodriguez adds a layer of social commentary that gives these horror-comedy tropes a new lease on life. This is the story of Miguel Martinez (Jaden Michael), a boy whose passion for preserving his Bronx neighborhood has earned him the nickname “The Mayor.” As the shadowy Murnau Properties starts buying up buildings and turning them into hipster magnets, the stage is set for the showdown promised in the title. While the gentrification allegory isn’t subtle, Rodriguez’s experience as a director for Saturday Night Live gives the film a brisk, banter-heavy energy that makes sure we’re never being talked down to. He fills his streets with wise-cracking characters sitting on stoops and streaming live updates on their phones, successfully portraying the Bronx as a vibrant, diverse community being drained of its lifeblood by the pale, privileged classes. Kids have battled vampires on screen before, but the stakes have never been this real.

The Vast of Night

If you’re a director angling for a bigger budget these days, a word of advice – don’t let your producer see The Vast of Night. This exquisitely haunting sci-fi period piece features the kind of ambitious single-shot sequences, undulating cinematography and pitch-perfect period detail that can convert a viewer from a skeptic to someone who searches the night skies for odd clusters of light. And first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson made it for just $700,000 (or .00196% of the budget of Avengers: Endgame). The story unfurls across a single evening in 1950s Cayuga, New Mexico. Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz) are friends and fellow audiophiles who we meet killing time at a high school basketball game before their respective shifts start – Fay is a phone operator and Everett is a radio DJ. When Fay hears an odd noise interrupt Everett’s broadcast, and then overtake one of her phone lines, our heroes are in the thick of a mystery as American as Area 51. Patterson and cinematographer M. I. Littin-Menz make the most of their decision to shoot in black and white, thickening the shadows until it feels like anything could creep out of the murk. Yet The Vast of Night is not a horror movie. This is hopeful, character-driven, studio-nerd sci-fi – a loving homage to audio technology. If it can carry our voices through wires, and beautiful music through invisible airwaves, who’s to say what other miracles could be there waiting for us, just a twist of the dial away?

Honorable mentions: The Assistant; Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar; Becoming; Bill & Ted Face the Music; Borat Subsequent Moviefilm; Da 5 Bloods; The Empty Man; Happiest Season; His House; The Invisible Man; Mangrove; Minari; The Nest; Never Rarely Sometimes Always; Nomadland; Run

Catching Up with King, “Night Shift”

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I got blackout curtains so I could sleep during the day and spend the wee hours reading Night Shift.

In 2018, singer/songwriter Lucy Dacus kicked off her second album Historian with “Night Shift,” an epic, 6-minute breakup song. After a sparse opening verse, the arrangement builds slowly and persistently. First the bass joins Dacus’s somber guitar, then the drums, then the atmospherics. It’s not until after 3 minutes have passed that we get to the chorus, which states the artist’s disdain for her subject with devastating clarity: “You’ve got a nine to five / So I’ll take the night shift.” Dacus reprises this moment over and over again during the song’s explosive back half, belting out the notes toward the end, placing it in the pantheon of patiently crescendoing classics like “Hey Jude” or “With or Without You.”

“Night Shift” is a perfectly crafted ballad, but that line is what gives it next-level staying power. Why? Because the graveyard shift is always going to be the least popular slot on the time card. It forces us to live like vampires, working while the moon is out and sleeping while the sun is up, in direct conflict with our biological rhythms as human beings. For someone to choose the night shift on purpose, just to avoid you? You must be a real piece of shit.

In his first collection of short stories, also called Night Shift, Stephen King shares Dacus’s fascination with the circumstances that would drive someone to voluntarily spend all their time in the darkness. He puts readers in the thick of a crew that works nights during an especially humid July, clearing out the basement of a Maine textile mill. Another story is awash in rumors about a man who has covered all the windows in his apartment, subsisting on the cheap beer his son brings him, as well as … other things. And we get two stories set in the fictional Maine village of Jerusalem’s Lot (located in between the real towns of Falmouth and Cumberland), where that vampire metaphor I mentioned earlier takes a turn for the literal.

Night Shift begins with one of those vampire tales, and it’s one for the ages. “Jerusalem’s Lot” is a prequel to King’s 1975 novel ‘Salem’s Lot (now on my short list for what to cover next in this column). Comprised entirely of letters and journal entries, it’s the story of Charles Boone and his loyal servant Calvin, who move into an inherited mansion called Chapelwaite. King hits many classic horror story beats along the way – ominous warnings from local villagers, hidden compartments in moldering bookshelves, noises from behind the walls that couldn’t possibly have been caused by mice – yet his mastery of period language and uncanny ability to build suspense ensures the story’s hold on us. The more Charles and Calvin discover about the history of Chapelwaite’s former residents, the more we feel like we’re right there with them, so invested in the mystery that we can’t turn back. And when their sleuthing leads them to an abandoned village in the woods, putting this book down is indeed not an option:

“The smell of rot and mould was vaporous and nearly overpowering. And beneath it seemed to lie an even deeper smell, a slimy and pestiferous smell, a smell of ages and the decay of ages. Such a stench as might issue from corrupt coffins or violated tombs. I held my handkerchief to my nose and Cal did likewise. We surveyed the place. ‘My god, sir–’ Cal said faintly. ‘It’s never been touched,’ I finished for him.”

As evocative as King’s more traditional horror narratives can be, Night Shift isn’t wholly devoted to investigating old-fashioned bumps in the night. “The Ledge” twists a boilerplate mob boss narrative into a direct appeal to our fear of heights, turning the slightest gust of wind into something viscerally scary. “Children of the Corn” transforms Nebraska’s mind-numbing cornfields into the mind-flaying killing fields of a teenage death cult. “The Lawnmower Man” all takes place under a lazy summer sun, with a Boston Red Sox broadcast murmuring in the background. When a figure summoned from Greek mythology arrives to disrupt our main character’s suburban male ennui, the results are hysterically, unforgettably gruesome. (How the unrelated 1992 cyber-gardener catastrophe of a movie was allowed to use the same title is beyond me.)

And the most remarkable story of all takes place in another seemingly mundane locale – a college campus. “I Know What You Need” is the tale of Elizabeth Rogan, who meets a disheveled boy named Ed while cramming for a sociology final. Well, “meet” isn’t exactly right – even though he’s a complete stranger, Ed interrupts Elizabeth’s studies by asking her out for ice cream, something she actually happened to be craving in that moment. Originally written for the September 1976 issue of Cosmopolitan, “I Know What You Need” is a mesmerizing deconstruction of “nice guy syndrome,” where men feign sensitivity as a facade to trick women into intimate relationships. Throughout the story, Ed is somehow able to anticipate Elizabeth’s every need, from the movies they see to the support she needs after the supposedly accidental death of her boyfriend Tony. It’s all a form of projection, Ed treating Elizabeth the way he feels women should treat him. And as Elizabeth reaches the precipice, convinced she loves Ed in spite of his downright creepy ability to always “know what she needs,” her roommate Alice attempts to break the spell with a stunning sermon about the insidious effects of rape culture:

“Please,” Alice said. “Please, Liz, listen. I don’t know how he can do those things. I doubt even he knows for sure. He might not mean to do you any harm, but he already is. He’s made you love him by knowing every secret thing you want and need, and that’s not love at all. That’s rape.”

While there is a supernatural element running through “I Know What You Need,” that’s not what makes it one of King’s most timeless achievements. With this story, the author takes something we all supposedly want – a super-attentive partner who doesn’t ask us to compromise – and exposes how vulnerable that need makes us. It’s typically seen as a compliment when men call women “goddesses,” as if their feelings are so intrinsically important that they give them the power to mint new deities. King asks us to think about how these men could react if their feelings aren’t validated, and there is where the true horror lies. In Ed’s final scene, he releases all the pent-up misogynistic rage that has actually been fueling his “nice guy” routine. It could’ve been lifted from an incel message board:

“That’s the thanks I get. I gave you everything you ever wanted. Things no other man could have […] It’s never been hard for you. You’re pretty. You never had to find … other ways to get the things you had to have. There was always a Tony to give them to you. All you ever had to do was smile and say please.” His voice rose a note. “I could never get what I wanted that way.”

The story ends with Elizabeth leaving Ed behind, screaming pathetically in a stairwell. You can almost hear her humming, “You’ve got a nine to five / So I’ll take the night shift.”

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. Night Shift

5. The Shining

6. Duma Key

7. Doctor Sleep

8. The Talisman

9. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

10. 11/22/63

11. On Writing

12. The Stand

13. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

14. The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three

15. Bag of Bones