Catching Up with King: ‘Salem’s Lot

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 made a crucifix out of some popsicle sticks, turned on all the lights, and dug up my copy of ‘Salem’s Lot.

During my day job as a copywriter for an outdoor retailer, I’ve learned a lot about the scientific effects of going outside – even a 10-minute walk has been proven to make humans happier, because deep in our lizard brains live the instincts of our ancient ancestors, who spent the majority of their lives out in the elements.

For his masterful second novel, Stephen King teaches a similar lesson about the long memory of human DNA – when we were out there hunting and foraging and trying our best not to die, we developed all kinds of involuntary fear responses. Those goosebumps that run up your arm when you walk into a dark basement? That’s not you being a scaredy cat – it’s a very real echo from the dark corners of human history.

On its surface, ‘Salem’s Lot should be something we can easily put out of our minds once we put it back on the shelf. It’s a vampire novel that doesn’t try at all to update the lore we’ve been exposed to a million times over. The bloodsucking creatures in the fictional bad-luck town of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine, could’ve come right from Bram Stoker – they sleep in coffins, can seduce you with their voices, and can be harmed by daylight, crucifixes, and that good old fashioned wooden stake through the heart. It should be easy for us to think “cool story bro, but vampires aren’t real,” and sleep like the dead.

Yet this is one of the straight-up scariest things I’ve ever read, from Stephen King or any author. And I think it’s because King refuses to keep these cobwebbed, plasma-stained goings on at an arm’s length. He wants us, his Constant Readers, to identify with the rag-tag group of townies who slowly realize what’s going on in their sleepy burg, and then have to figure out how to fight it. He lays clear how their feelings are not foreign from ours. And in so doing asks an absolutely terrifying question – if our bodies are afraid of very real dangers from the past, what do we risk by ignoring them?

As two central characters – the optimistic college grad Susan Norton and nerdy tween Mark Petrie – plan to break in to the epicenter of the vampire infestation, the long-abandoned Marsten House mansion, King describes Norton’s involuntary reactions in a way that would sound familiar to anyone who has gotten lost in an unfamiliar place; or woke up to find their feet uncovered and promptly put them back under the sheets; or heard a bump in the attic and decided to wait until morning to investigate:

All the thought processes, the act of conversation itself, were overshadowed by a more fundamental voice that was screaming danger! danger! in words that were not words at all. Her heartbeat and respiration were up, yet her skin was cold with the capillary-dilating effect of adrenaline, which keeps the blood hiding deep in the body’s wells during moments of stress. Her kidneys were tight and heavy. Her eyes seemed preternaturally sharp, taking in every splinter and paint flake on the side of the house. And all of this had been triggered by no external stimuli at all: no men with guns, no large and snarling dogs, no smell of fire. A deeper watchman than her five senses had been wakened after a long season of sleep. And there was no ignoring it.

As if these shared biological insights weren’t enough to get us freaking out about vampires right alongside Susan Norton, King makes extra sure we’re primed for it. The Marsten House break-in doesn’t happen until over 400 pages have flown by. King takes his time setting the stage, letting the dread slowly creep into every nook and cranny of his imaginary town, giving us only brief glimpses of the monsters responsible for it all.

Our story begins with the arrival of Ben Mears, a novelist who returns to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot with a vague plan to write about the Marsten House, where he had a terrifying experience as a child. As Ben gets his bearings, befriending Susan as well as a lovingly rendered atheistic English teacher named Matt Burke, someone else arrives in town. And he moves into the house of Ben’s nightmares.

Richard Straker is obviously not a Mainer returning to the nest. Notably tall, bald as an egg, driving an ancient Packard, and speaking in an antiquated way (“Attend over at this meat case, please”), he seemingly pops up out of nowhere to open an antique shop called Barlow & Straker, despite there being zero tourist trade in this town of 1,319 “where little of any note ever took place.” His partner Barlow had not arrived yet. And those who would eventually meet him would be, shall we say, forever changed.

As the body count rises, King makes the point, over and over again, that we ignore our gut feelings at our own peril. The way he describes Mark Petrie’s father Henry – an insurance administrator with CPA dreams – it’s obvious he’s not gonna last long:

He was a straight arrow, confident in himself and in the natural laws of physics, mathematics, economics, and (to a slightly lesser degree) sociology. […] His calmness increased, it seemed, in direct ratio to the story’s grotesqueries and to his wife June’s growing agitation. When they had finished it was almost five minutes of seven. Henry Petrie spoke his verdict in four calm, considered syllables. “Impossible.”

By our standards of human behavior, Henry Petrie did everything right in the face of a stressful situation. He kept calm. He thought logically. He used everything he had learned about what was real and what was fantastical to influence his decisions. And every second of responsible deducing brought him that much closer to a brutal end. This is why ‘Salem’s Lot is one of the scariest books of all time. We can pretend we know how everything works and that we’re too mature to be afraid of that dark, dusty basement. Maybe that’s true.

Maybe.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. Night Shift

5. ‘Salem’s Lot

6. The Shining

7. Duma Key

8. Doctor Sleep

9. The Talisman

10. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

11. 11/22/63

12. On Writing

13. The Stand

14. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

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

16. Bag of Bones

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (45-41)

In this latest installment of my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s, we look back at a Chicago rapper not named Kanye who seemed destined to take over the world, a resurrected British death metal band defibrillating our hearts, a singer/songwriter who taught us just how beautiful sadness could be, and more!

AreWeThere

45. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There (2014)

Some voices were meant to convey ache. Like Roy Orbison. Or Hank Williams. Or Sharon Van Etten. The Brooklyn transplant warranted comparisons to such hallowed figures on her fourth album, a hypnotic collection of songs about need, and all the stupid and callous ways that others fail at fulfilling it. “I need you to be afraid of nothing,” she sings on the record’s first song, her voice leaping into a yodel on that second word like an eagle peeking above the cloud line. On a record with a three-word title that contains multitudes (Do we exist? Have we reached those goals that we set? Is this the end?, etc.) the production is appropriately reserved-yet-bottomless, a mix of chiming Americana and muffled electronics that sounds like Raising Sand getting lost on a foggy night. It’s the perfect milieu for Van Etten to sing like she’s holding nothing back. Like Roy, she can sing with the kind of quaver that reveals whatever beauty there is to see in the rawest grief. It’s a voice that can bemoan “your love is killing me,” and at the same time be absolute proof that life is good.

Chance The Rapper

44. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap (2013)

Smoking cigarettes doesn’t quite have the cultural cache that it used to – these days, kids need an especially potent sense of mischief, rebellion and self-loathing to get hooked. It’s this precise emotional cocktail that fueled Chance The Rapper on Acid Rap, where he gives the performance that first launched him to stardom – and one he’s yet to match. Chance already had a fully formed persona here, a laughing-and-pointing playground pest whose vulnerability is clearly visible between all the “nyeah nyeah, nyeah-nyeah-nyeahs.” He littered his verses with a mischievous, nasal quack, which logic dictates should be annoying, but ends up being essential to the experience. “Cigarettes, oh cigarettes/My mama think I stink/I got burn holes in my hoodies/All my homies think it’s dank,” Chance sings over the trembling church organ of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” making fun of himself while making us root for him at the same time. I’m still addicted, and not just because it makes me look cool.

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43. Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile (2019)

Anger is a valid and necessary response to the times we live in. But there’s also something to be said for quiet optimism. On his sixth album as Helado Negro, singer/songwriter Roberto Carlos Lange delivered soothing balms of hope, in the form of whispered, bilingual electro-folk ballads. When struggling to find a healthy perspective, Lange’s reassuring truths are good medicine. “We’ll take our turn / We’ll take our time / Knowing that we’ll be here long after you,” he softly croons to our 45th president on “Pais Nublado,” embodying the polar opposite of his spittle-flecked neuroses, buoyed by washes of electronics and leisurely acoustic strumming. The achingly beautiful, steel drum-infused “Imagining What To Do” also preaches patience: “We wait softly / Looking for the sun to come back tomorrow.” Before we can fight for what we believe in, we need the peace of mind to believe it’s possible.

Carcass

42. Carcass – Surgical Steel (2013)

I suspect my relationship with death is like most Americans – it gives me a hazy, queasy feeling that I quickly distract myself from with the bounty of cheap food and endless entertainment at my disposal. So when an existential coward like me puts on a record like Surgical Steel, I feel a crazed, drooling kind of glee – here’s a group of middle-aged British guys who channel their death obsession into 52 minutes of relentless, chest cavity-collapsing thrash. This was Carcass’ first record since breaking up in 1996, and it was (ironically) a stunning rebirth, with Jeff Walker’s mostly unintelligible, coked-up-harpy vocals doing god knows what kind of damage to his throat over Dan Wilding’s firebomb drumming, as the guitars deliver just enough catchy Iron Maiden interplay to make beautiful sense of the chaos. And when you listen closely enough to make out a line or two, chances are it’s worth the effort (e.g. “A working class hero is something to bleed.”). Metal has always been a refuge for the insecure, but discovering a Carcass with this much life in it made me especially grateful for every drop of blood I’ve got.

Push The Sky Away

41. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away (2013)

If anybody was worried that original guitarist Mick Harvey’s 2009 exit from the Bad Seeds would finally blunt the superhuman momentum of Nick Cave’s most longstanding incarnation, the opening track on their first album without him – “We Know Who U R” – made it quite clear that all was well. Or should I say mesmerizingly unwell: “The tree don’t care what the little bird sings,” Cave croons over stark, echoing synths, launching into a gothic environmentalist lament that ends with a literal scorched earth. Push the Sky Away is full of songs like this – ominous pre-dawn ballads that are no less frightening for their prettiness. It’s as if the group decided to let their old mate’s absence be an instrument of its own. Gone were Harvey’s catchy riffs and split-lip punk ragers, replaced by open spaces for minor synth chords to gently reverberate. Far from a sign of a band in decline, its 15th album marked a new beginning; the Bad Seeds have been exploring the dark corners of our consciousness in starker, more vulnerable ways ever since.

What I Learned From “Elvis”

I couldn’t fully appreciate Elvis Presley’s music until I got a little older and developed the ability to compartmentalize two things: 1. Elvis was a generational talent with one of the silkiest voices in pop history, and 2. Elvis got famous by appropriating sounds from Black gospel and blues artists. So, when settling in to watch Baz Luhrmann’s much-hyped Elvis biopic, I was hoping for a fresh, nuanced perspective on this controversial, still-captivating icon. Here’s what I learned instead:

1. Colonel Tom Parker was Rumpelstiltskin

Ever fallen under the comforting spell of a great Tom Hanks performance, where his natural charisma, disarming humor and palpable vulnerability make you feel like you’re getting to know a real person? This is not one of those performances. For reasons I can’t fathom, Hanks portrays Elvis’s manager Col. Tom Parker with the mustache-twirling hamminess of a straight-to-video Disney villain, always lurking in the shadows and tittering demonically, gazing at Elvis (who he calls “my wiggling boy”) like Rumpelstiltskin stalking a first-born child. Even less defensible is the totally invented accent Hanks deploys, a cryptkeeper-meets-Goldmember cackle that gets really old, really fast.

2. Elvis Presley was Forrest Gump

Perhaps in part because he spends so much time showing Tom Parker peeking out from underneath the bleachers like a Southern-fried Pennywise, Baz Luhrmann tells Elvis’s story like a kid bullshitting a book report, cramming in only the most famous events of his life even though this movie runs well over two hours. So instead of seeing Elvis as an autonomous human being, we watch him get blown around the decades like a Gump-ian feather (do we need to see him reacting to every famous 1960s assassination?). As a result, the person who shaped 20th century culture as much as anyone ends up blurring into the background.

3. I killed Elvis

“I’ll tell you what killed him,” Col. Tom hisses at the camera toward the end of the film. “It was love. Love for all of you.” My reward for sitting through this coke-addled insult of a jukebox musical? Being accused of murder.

4. Nothing

It’s unfair to expect a biopic to be both educational and entertaining. But Elvis is so disinterested in its subject that it doesn’t even bother to have a point of view about him. Luhrmann bends over backwards to avoid tackling Elvis’s complicated relationships with race, drugs, food, and his mother – not to mention his courting of a 14-year-old Priscilla when he was 24 – always whipping ahead to the next montage before we can start to ask questions. For this director’s purposes, Elvis Presley is a good-looking excuse for brighter lights, quicker cuts, and rhinestonier rhinestones. If anything, I left the theater feeling like I knew less.

5. Colonel Tom Parker was also the Leprechaun

Just try and tell them apart!

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (50-46)

WHOOOOOAAAA we’re halfway there! WHOOOOOAAAAA it’s entries 50-46 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s!

Muchacho

50. Phosphorescent – Muchacho (2013)

Matthew Houck’s albums have always been delicate affairs, perfect for the emotional rollercoaster one goes through while nursing a hangover – confusion, regret, inexplicable elation, then regret again. So it’s quite fitting that his sixth album as Phosphorescent was inspired by a lonely, heartsick period in Mexico, where an exhausted Houck mourned the loss of his NYC studio (which had to be moved thanks to re-zoning) and the demise of a relationship. But this time around, the singer/songwriter was just as interested in the party that happens before the pity-party, resulting in the most robust production of his career – in between the fragile, spiritual beauty of the record’s sunrise/sunset bookends, Muchacho contains pedal-steel swathed country strolls, a ragged, swirling Neil Young-ish opus, and 1980s adult contemporary synths. Like all Phosphorescent records, it’s threaded together by the distinctly earnest, about-to-crack nature of Houck’s voice, which can make a line like “I’ll fix myself up, to come and be with you” sound like a solemn promise.

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49. Bjork – Vulnicura (2015)

When Bjork released Vespertine in 2001, it was the most direct statement of her career. Starry-eyed, triumphant, vulnerable and otherworldly, it remains a breathtakingly accurate depiction of an all-consuming love. Fourteen years later came the denouement. Vulnicura details the demise of Bjork’s marriage in the same stark, unflinching way that Vespertine celebrated its beginning. It’s a devastating work. The artist and co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak paint pictures of dissolution with little more than a string section and a spare drum machine. The story arc begins with our narrator seeing the cracks in the foundation, surprised at how little she cares. “Maybe he will come out of this / Maybe he won’t / Somehow I’m not too bothered / Either way,” Bjork sings in ghostly three-part harmony, extracting as much wonder from winter as she once did from spring.

48. Behemoth – The Satanist (2014)

It makes sense for a person to find religion after a near-death experience. This was true for Adam Darski (aka Nergal), the screamer/songwriter of Polish extreme metal band Behemoth, who fought a harrowing battle with leukemia in 2010-11. It’s just that after coming out the other side and cracking open his Bible, he proceeded to tear it to shreds. On The Satanist, his band’s 10th LP, Nergal wrings an absurd amount of drama out of songs that lay bare the hypocrisy of the goings-on in Eden, Gethsamene, and Mount Sinai, using mournfully plucked acoustic guitars, blaring horn sections, spoken word breakdowns, and ominous choruses as dynamic counterpoints to Behemoth’s trademark onslaught. “Art must destroy,” Nergal muses in the liner notes. “True Artists need a personal abyss to peer into and to let it stare back into them.” When I hear the latest crime against humanity shrouded in the piety of Christ, The Satanist is that abyss for me.

47. Screaming Females – Ugly (2012)

Back in 2012, nostalgia for the 1990s was starting to become a real pitch point for pop culture makers, with Lisa Frank, Men In Black, Boy Meets World, Soundgarden, and Total Recall all returning in some form. And while the New Brunswick, NJ, rock trio Screaming Females had been making eardrums rattle since 2005, the timing of its fifth album felt of a piece with a year where Old Navy put the cast of 90210 in an ad. Ugly is a molten-hot shitkicker of a record that hearkened back to Gen X touchstones like Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, with walls of guitars thicker than a bank safe and vocals that tremble and snarl. (The fact that Marissa Paternoster is solely responsible for said vocals and guitars is a testament to her genius.) But Ugly was more than a time capsule; after delivering one indelible riff after another, and treating us to late-record masterpieces like the epochal “Doom 84,” Screaming Females distinguished itself as one of the gutsiest bands of the 2010s.

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46. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2 (2014)

The chemistry between indie-rap legends Killer Mike and El-P was apparent on their 2011 debut, which didn’t try to be much more than a document of talented wise-asses having fun. This second effort, however, was the first time Run the Jewels felt like something more than a side project. The beats were richer and rangier. The subject matter was more serious. And that top-shelf shit-talk came from pride and momentum as much as the need to blow off steam. Ironically, these aging legends who had never sniffed the mainstream had found each other at just the right time, stumbling across an unimpeachable formula for rap bangers that brought political outrage to your gym playlist without ever feeling inauthentic. Run The Jewels 2 remains a great listen because of the artistry on display, but it’s that release of pent-up frustration that still makes me want to thank god for each breath while setting fire to the neighborhood.

The Gen X Rock Doctor Is In!

A lot of things have to go right to become a rock star. Some mixture of timing and talent and luck that’s about as likely as this post getting a million views. But to become a rock star with longevity? To stay socially relevant and creatively inspired and physically capable of touring well into middle age? That’s just a magic trick.

As I slide into my mid-40s like an obese cat dragging itself across the linoleum, I find myself interested in how my fellow Gen Xers are holding up. Several have released albums this year, which I’ve listened to with the ear of a doctor, searching for any slowed reflexes, emerging arrhythmias, or unhealthy anxieties about getting older.

The doctor is in!

Patient #1: Eddie Vedder


Of the ’90s rock poster boys, Eddie Vedder always seemed like the one who was built for the long haul. It’s easy to read too much into Pearl Jam’s decision to stop making videos and battle Ticketmaster at the height of its fame, but in retrospect, they were the actions of young men looking at the big picture. Earthling keeps that narrative intact, with the 57-year-old leapfrogging between sounds with more energy than you might expect, and a healthy amount of humility. The jangly “Long Way” is a self-aware Tom Petty rip-off, with actual Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on keys. The ballad “Mrs. Mills” is a self-aware Paul McCartney ripoff that pays homage to the British music hall pianist who hit it big in the early ’60s alongside her label-mates The Beatles. And “Try” gives Pearl Jam’s garage-punk roots a poppier, grown-up makeover, its lyrics about pure, earnest effort sexier than any pick-up line could ever be.

Diagnosis: Some slight wear and tear in your vocal cords and lyric sheets – but it really works for you Eddie. Your passion has always been evident, but in the old days it could cross over into non-sensical mutter-growling. I like this older, calmer you. By being open about your influences and not trend-chasing, you’ve ironically made the freshest-sounding Pearl Jam-related project in over a decade!

Treatment: Keep being true to yourself, and you will keep doing right by your music.

Patient #2: Red Hot Chili Peppers

“My life is a rope swing, always headin’ back to where I came,” sings Anthony Kiedis on his band’s first album in six years. It’s an apt metaphor, because with Unlimited Love, Red Hot Chili Peppers are trying to pull the same trick they did with 1999’s Californication – welcome guitarist/vocalist/aesthetic compass John Frusciante back in the fold to help draw out the beauty in their sound. And while this record lacks the sweeping hooks and fragile gravitas of its older cousin, it’s a worthy addition to their catalog. Frusciante, Flea and Chad Smith still vibe beautifully together, turning spacious ballads like “Let ‘Em Cry” into melodic showcases and putting just enough polish on their trademark funk vamps so they feel older and wiser. The X factor, as usual, is the 59-year-old Kiedis, who continues to think lines just need to rhyme and the words themselves are merely incidental: “The seventies were such a win / Singing the Led Zeppelin / Lizzy lookin’ mighty thin / The Thompsons had another twin,” he raps in the abysmal “Poster Child.” But just as you’re ready to write him off, he’ll throw himself into a line like “It’s been a long time since I made a new friend,” and you’ll be reminded about how, despite all the blood and sex, this band has never skimped on the sugar and magic.

Diagnosis: Your age is showing, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Your reflexes are duller, and your energy flags a bit over 17 tracks. But you seem happy, and in a comfortable groove, letting the spark of old chemistry propel you forward. As long as you don’t expect to top the charts or attract a bunch of new fans, you’ve got a fulfilling third act of your career ahead of you.

Treatment: Icy Hot to soothe those forced rhyme schemes. Stay out of the sun, or else you might write songs with “California” in the title again. And keep spending time together!

Patient #3: The Smile

It wasn’t always clear how Radiohead would handle aging. It’s healthy to have a sense of one’s own mortality, but these guys have always been obsessed with the pointlessness of it all. “Cracked eggs / Dead birds / Scream as they fight for life,” sang a 26-year-old Thom Yorke on the final track of the disillusioned masterpiece The Bends. 27 years later, this side project from Yorke, guitarist Jonny Greenwood and drummer Tom Skinner has an outlook that’s just as bleak, but it’s informed by something different. A Light for Attracting Attention delivers what we’d hope from a late Radiohead record – Yorke’s voice beckoning like an alien siren, post-punk grooves elevated by odd time signatures, waves of melody soothing us out of nowhere like a radio broadcast from a happier time. But there are some elements that are purely The Smile, too – most prominently Skinner’s drum solo that kicks off “The Opposite,” which sounds like the beginning of a sweaty funk workout from The Meters and absolutely made me check to see if Apple Music was on shuffle. For an album that’s not interested in being catchy, this rhythmic pulse from a live drummer is critical, a still-beating umbilical cord that helps us understand there can be comfort in nihilism. “When we realize we are broke and nothing mends / We can drop under the surface,” the 53-year-old Yorke observes on the closing “Skrting On the Surface.” It’s not an argument for suicide, but acceptance. The older we get, the thinner the ice. What’s wrong with picking out our wetsuit?

Diagnosis: Thom. Jonny. You’re in exceptional shape for your age. You made a whole album about the dehumanizing impact of technology, but you’re making me wonder if you were the robots all along. How else can you explain the fact that you’re still able to make music that goes to such beautiful, lonely places, while somehow making us feel less alone?

Treatment: If you truly are carbon-based, just stick to your current diet and exercise plan, which I assume is tea, plant-based energy bars and staring out rain-spattered windows.

Patient #4: Jack White

When you get famous for leading a band that checks many of the traditionally “cool” boxes of electric guitar-based music – loud, unpolished, defiant but also romantic, branded with signature colors – it can be tough to begin the next phase of your career. Especially if you’re as much of a tech nerd as Jack White, who is now as much of an advocate for vinyl pressing plants as he is a rock star. His fourth solo LP, Fear of the Dawn, has the same upsides and weaknesses of previous efforts – richer-sounding White Stripes-ish riffs coupled with interesting production wrinkles that all sound good, but feel a bit aimless without the steady, intangible pulse of Meg White’s drums. My favorite parts are the most experimental, like “Hi-De-Ho,” a melodramatic blues-rap freakout that pairs White’s simple riff with verses from Q-Tip and a prominent Cab Calloway sample. I also love the concept – an image-obsessed 45-year-old rocker petrified of the sunrise, another day further away from his glory days. “Eosophobia” uses the scientific term for this fear over delightfully syncopated drum-and-guitar interplay that reinvents the White Stripes formula into something weirdly wonderful. Maybe this is the transition record that White needed to make before he could finally throw open the curtains and move on.

Diagnosis: Jack, I’m proud of the self-awareness you’re showing here, translating your fear of aging into art. But you need to trust those instincts even more. You are showing signs of early-stage carpal tunnel, retreading those familiar punk-blues riffs over and over. Embrace your mid-life shift into an obscure LP/vintage instrument-hoarding weirdo and see what happens! Excited for your next check-up.

Treatment: Rest those old guitar-shredding muscles – they’re tired!

How Dare They

Even though we knew this was coming, what the Supreme Court did today has knocked the air out of my lungs. No words are harsh enough to condemn this act of hatred toward women. So I made this playlist, which I hope helps you process your rage just a little, before we begin the hard work of stripping these hysterical, pencil-dicked hypocrites of every last vestige of power.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (55-51)

Here are entries 55-51 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s! Read on for a look back at a singer/songwriter rejecting the “dad rock” label; a middle-aged rapper turning his high school years into high drama, and so much more!

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55. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo (2018)

I’m not nearly cultured enough to properly convey what this Houston trio’s second album sounds like. It bears more passport stamps than any record on this list, incorporating Thai, Spanish and Middle Eastern influences into the kind of grooves that will turn any walk into a strut. Mark Speer’s acrobatic guitar playing is center stage, slithering its way through “Maria También” with venomous grace. But that song would be mere noodling without Laura Lee’s searching bass and DJ Johnson’s breezy drums. It sounds like Ennio Morricone recording for Stax. This cosmic chemistry is all over Con Todo El Mundo, which showcases the most beautiful thing a band can be – an interconnected support system of otherwise-impossible sounds. When they dip their toes into jazz balladry on “Hymn,” Johnson’s congas and sleigh bells are the perfect top notes to the reverb-drenched guitar and beseeching bass. And when they do decide to add vocals to a track, it’s profoundly minimal. After the sand-dune-smooth riff that opens “Evan Finds the Third Room,” Lee voices what we’re all thinking: “Yes!”

54. Feist – Metals (2011)

In October 2011, Nitsuh Abebe wrote an iconic piece for New York magazine called “Indie Grown-Ups,” which posited that artists like Wilco and Feist were our generation’s Sting – a once-unique voice that softened to the point where his music can be piped in at your dentist’s office. But while Feist does have some of the trappings of middle-of-the-road adult contemporary, her third LP – released the same year as Abebe’s article – proved she’s more dangerous than you’d think. Metals features a color palette of dark and darker greys, which amass into looming storms that crack the heavens in our headphones. It was a far cry from the iPod commercial-ready twee-folk the Nova Scotia singer/songwriter had been known for up to that point. “How Come You Never Go There” swings with a dark, sinister rhythm. “Comfort Me” stomps and swoons. And “A Commotion” features a percussive blast that makes good on its title. This is what remains so compelling about Metals – there are soft rock hooks-a-plenty here, but they’re weighted down so elegantly, you just might find yourself at the bottom of a lake, feeling strangely at home.

53. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (2010)

When Damon Albarn’s band of animated hipsters released its self-titled debut in 2001, it felt like a lark, a fun side project that let the artist scratch his hip hop itch. But listening to the wildly eclectic sounds, indelible melodies and post-apocalyptic concepts of Plastic Beach, it’s clear that by 2010, Albarn had realized that his “other” band was the one he was meant to lead. On paper, the formula was pretty much the same as the first two Gorillaz discs – get a crackerjack group of guest artists and let them run wild over chilled-out electronic grooves. But for the first time, the songs were as adventurous as the guests, full of moody Britpop atmospheres, burbling funk jams, aching bursts of R&B and full-on orchestral bombast. “White Flag” acts as a microcosm of it all, combining the hypnotic Eastern melodies of The Lebanese National Orchestra with bursts of playful electro-rap. And when Albarn followed it up with the post-punk ballad “Rhinestone Eyes,” singing about how his love’s peepers glitter “like factories far away,” it became clear that these Gorillaz weren’t quite so cartoonish after all.

DirtyComputer

52. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer (2018)

Janelle Monáe’s talent has always been enough. Her ear for indelible hooks, adventurous arrangements and effective collaborators has made her records feel like signposts for the future of R&B – despite the fact that all of them were weighed down by confusing dystopian sci-fi premises. Until Dirty Computer, that is. Monáe’s third LP is technically a concept album, but for the first time in her discography, it didn’t matter. The songwriting reckoned with real life. In this world. “I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American dream,” Monáe declares over the confident synths of “Crazy, Classic, Life.” This is the album in microcosm – a stark acknowledgement of the challenges facing the black and LGBTQ+ communities in Donald Trump’s America, and a simultaneous declaration of exuberant badassery. It was the most politically present, and openly romantic, Monáe had ever been – and the melodies bubbled up and embraced us like always. “Pynk” turned an Aerosmith sample into a test tube of life-sustaining sunshine. “Screwed” boasted one of the snappiest guitar riffs of 2018. And “Make Me Feel” did justice to Prince’s memory by fusing funk and pop and lust and love into an interplanetary cocktail of truth.

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51. Masta Ace – The Falling Season (2016)

A great storyteller finds humanity in the mundane. Like a math class, or a bus ride, or a conversation with your mother about what high school you should go to. These are moments that Masta Ace wrote about on The Falling Season, an utterly absorbing, 23-track hip-hopera about the rapper’s years at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. The 48-year-old MC was on top of his game throughout, his couplets shading in characters and pushing the plot forward with ease. The skits were skillfully written and performed, especially a monologue by self-described “Italian tough guy” Fats that gets interrupted in a sweetly humorous way. Ace had been polishing his skills as an underground rap raconteur since 1990, and you hear all of those years on this record, his words infused with hard-won wisdom, his flow steady and reassuring. It wasn’t the first rap album to romanticize an artist’s past, but it might still be the only successful one from a rapper who had reached middle-age. Which makes The Falling Season an especially rich self-portrait, full of conflicting feelings informed by decades of nostalgia and regret.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (60-56)

Here are entries 60-56 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s! Read on for my musings on a band that dropped five albums in one year, a famous rapper who didn’t release a solo album until he was 36, and an even more famous rapper who charmed us with the lie that he started from the bottom, which is ironic because he’s been lost up his own bottom ever since.

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60. Tribulation – The Children of the Night (2015)

If you ever hear somebody bemoaning the lack of good guitar-based music these days (like, if you’re Dave Grohl’s fishing buddy), hand them a copy of this, the third LP from Swedish gothic metal band Tribulation. The Children of the Night is stuffed with the kind of layered, anthemic, utterly beautiful guitar interplay that will have you considering airbrushing a Gandalf/Balrog fight on the hood of your Honda Civic. When paired with a penchant for theatrical organ playing and singer Johannes Andersson’s gravesoil-spewing croak, Tribulation creates a completely immersive experience, where you can hear about the existence of gateways to netherworlds populated by dreaming corpses and be like, “of course.”

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59. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (2015)

I Love You, Honeybear is like a vintage Elton John performance in more ways than one – it features rich, sad vocals buoyed by strings, and it’s marked by a penchant for costumes. Recording for the second time under the guise of his sarcastic crooner-douche character Father John Misty, singer/songwriter Joshua Tillman fell into an ironically confessional groove. Behind the armor of a beard and fitted suit, Tillman can tell us that he’s in love, that it makes him brash and boastful, that it also terrifies him. On the closing “I Went to the Store One Day,” the band takes five, and Tillman finds complete freedom in his disguise. Over his own gentle acoustic strum, he sings about heading out on a routine errand, and learning that fate can feel tangible: “For love to find us of all people / I never thought it’d be so simple.”

Pusha T

58. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name (2013)

After the demise of Clipse in 2010, anticipation was high for the first official solo record from that duo’s more dynamic half – Pusha-T. But by 2013, the Virginia rapper still hadn’t proven he could carry a record. While hip hop is friendlier to its elder statesmen than it used to be, a bust from Push here would’ve been a killer. Not that he sounds concerned at all on My Name Is My Name. Over the raw industrial clatter of “Numbers On the Boards,” he lays claim to “36 years of doin’ dirt like it’s Earth Day,” his gruff, laconic flow selling the hardest beat of the year, illustrating the grime and glory of selling drugs in a way that still feels weathered from experience. Even with the murderer’s row of talent producing him (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, etc.) and a top-form guest spot from Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T dominates with a steady hand, like the lone survivor in a deal gone wrong.

57. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Polygondwanaland (2017)

In November 2016, the genre-hopping Australian rockers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard announced they would be dropping five full-length albums of new music the following year. And not only did the ambitious sextet make good on this promise, but they did it without lowering their standards. These records actually picked up steam as the year progressed, with the fourth one, Polygondwanaland, reaching a dizzying pinnacle of exquisitely arranged psychedelic rock. From the epic 10-minute opener “Crumbling Castles” to the stoner metal freakout that caps off “The Fourth Color,” this LP sounds like anything but a rush job. In fact, these addictively energetic tracks segue into one another so effortlessly, it feels like we’re being shot into the sky on a ship piloted by careful, experienced adventurers.

Nothing Was The Same

56. Drake – Nothing Was the Same (2013)

The most compelling thing about Drake in the 2010s (other than it being a time before we knew what a fricking creep he is) was the way he had his cake and ate it too – crafting verses drenched in both bravado and insecurity; making references to his days as a child star while also saying he started from the bottom; making music that’s muted and moody, yet somehow perfectly calibrated for the pop charts. These dichotomies could be infuriating in lesser hands, but on Nothing Was the Same, Drake’s collective strengths, weaknesses, priorities and fears coalesced into a story as seamless as its exquisitely sequenced tracks. It helps that he’s looking wistfully to the past instead of droning on about the present, creating a two-song sequence inspired by Wu-Tang Clan’s magnanimous 1997 single “It’s Yourz” that marks the last time this problematic megastar sounded believably lovestruck.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (65-61)

Here are entries 65-61 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the 2010s! This time around we have a pair of singular singer-songwriters, a famous indie-pop band swinging for the arena fences, a dance music legend, and one hell of a film composer.

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65. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp (2015)

Ivy Tripp is one of those raw-nerve breakup albums that finds clarity in despair. Katie Crutchfield’s songs are all about sifting through wreckage, directing blame, taking brief escapes through nostalgia. Yet there’s real comfort in them, the reserved, homespun production a testament to the healing powers of a focused mind. No matter how many sad-sack, Reznor-ian sentiments Crutchfield throws at her work – e.g. “You’re less than me / I am nothing” – it never comes close to toppling. Whether it’s through a lone organ run, a gentle rockabilly groove, or an extra-slow, hunched-shoulder riff, every one of these tracks is built to be a grower.

64. Daniel Knox – Evryman for Himself (2011)

When a singer/songwriter gets sarcasm right, the clouds part for me. So when I saw Daniel Knox perform live, as the opening act for a Rasputina show I was covering for my local paper, my jaw may have literally dropped. This disheveled Zach Galifianakis lookalike was putting his own spin on the Randy Newman formula – friendly piano shuffles that attempt to distract us from Eeyore-on-a-bad-day lyrics, inspiring big, ironic belly laughs in the process. Knox was touring behind his second album, Evryman for Himself, and it remains his best. “Billboards tell me where to go / Billboards to my favorite show / Syphilis and cancer!” he croons in his playful baritone on the closing “Armageddonsong,” projecting hopelessness and joy at the same time. If humans are capable of this level of nuance, maybe we’re not completely doomed.

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63. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (2015)

Going by the title of this London ensemble’s third LP, one might expect a collection of songs that look outward, searching for profundity in the expanses above us. Instead, we get the opposite. These tracks are so focused on the internal workings of their creator that they make a delayed phone conversation feel like a burgeoning electrical storm, giving love the power to hurl us into canyons – breaking bones, but not our devotion. Florence Welch isn’t merely exploring her emotions here. She’s calling them to the mat, with a voice that could bend street signs. Factor in sweeping arrangements that rise like tempers, and we have a record that transforms the daily commute into a grand, cathartic singalong. Because while the universe is vast and intimidating, it’s got nothing against the fear that goes hand in hand with falling for someone. 

62. Kylie Minogue – Aphrodite (2010)

I like to pretend I don’t care what anybody thinks about me – take one look at my car and you’ll almost be convinced. But ask me to dance, and the facade evaporates. I’ll respond by a) totally freezing up, and then b) doing “The Twist” ironically to cover up my crippling fear. This is my best way of explaining why Kylie Minogue’s music means so much to me. “Dance / It’s all I wanna do / So won’t you dance?” the Aussie legend asks – with zero judgment in her voice – at the beginning of her sublime 11th album, as burbling synthesizers build up to the first of many triumphant disco-pop choruses to come. Aphrodite explores various nuances of interpersonal dance floor dynamics, but mostly it’s about those moments where music hits us like Cupid’s arrow, blissfully transporting us to a place where our anxieties can’t reach us. So I can remain a wallflower, and still understand.

61. Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2018)

When asked to score this stunningly specific period romance from director Paul Thomas Anderson, composer Jonny Greenwood opted against the style he had so memorably established on previous Anderson films. Gone was the stark horror of There Will Be Blood and the sad, shattered symphonies of The Master. Instead, Greenwood wrote orchestral suites as elegant and traditional as the gowns designed by Phantom Thread’s fastidious main character, Reynolds Woodcock. As the troubled minor-key strings of “Phantom Thread” give way to the enveloping warmth of “Sandalwood,” this score plays a critical role in establishing how Alma Elson is the nurturing, unflappable yin to Reynolds’s sensitive, self-protective yang. This is the sound of soul mates harmonizing.

My Best Pictures

Well well well, here we are again loyal readers (aka my wife – hi honey!). This Sunday is the 94th annual Academy Awards, where producers have decided to pre-tape the awards for Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound, Makeup and Hairstyling, Documentary Short, Live Action Short, and Animated Short. So it’s gonna be a tight 20 minutes – one monologue joke, Best Picture and the montage of everyone who croaked last year.

Seriously though, did the producers think the only thing keeping Gen Z from watching their 94-year-old program is their hatred of Documentary Shorts? This is the kind of thinking that results in Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble rapping about cereal. It’s a fragmented world, people. Stop trying to appeal to everyone and pay attention to weirdos like me, who enjoy the initial high of Best Supporting Actress being followed by an hour of speeches from people we’ve never heard of.

Oh who am I kidding? I’ll always watch this trainwreck. If only to use it as an excuse to share “My Best Pictures” with you all, every single year. (Thanks again for reading, angel.)

Bad Trip

In the not-so-grand tradition of prank comedy, from Candid Camera to Punk’d to Nathan for You, the joke has typically been 100% on the victim – our prankster and their audience get to feel superior as some unwitting dope steps right into their trap. Bad Trip, the prank show/road movie experiment starring the gleefully chaotic comedian Eric André, successfully subverts this tradition. Given the thinnest of plotlines to get us from set piece to set piece, director Kitao Sakurai leans on the goofball charisma of his actors, making us feel invested in the preposterous misadventures of Chris (André), his best friend Bud (Lil Rel Howery) and Bud’s teardrop-tattooed jailbird sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish), even when they’re projectile vomiting or sticking their hands in blenders or ripping doors off police cars. Your mileage on gross-out humor may vary – one scene in a zoo crossed the line for me. But the beauty of Bad Trip is that even when these pranksters go too far, it’s with the goal of making themselves look stupid, and revealing the sweetness, bravery and charm of everyday people in the process.

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions

As a fan of puzzles, locked-room murder mysteries, and movies that utterly commit to a ridiculous premise, the second installment in the Escape Room franchise was readymade to be my favorite action movie of 2021. Returning director Adam Robitel builds on the lore he established in the first film, where we learned that a shadowy cabal was constructing elaborate escape room challenges with the intent of murdering each player. Not wasting too much time on exposition, Tournament of Champions immediately throws our hero Zoey (Taylor Russell, whose palpable expressions of fear make it harder for us to laugh at the premise) into another over-the-top obstacle course of death. The frying-pan-into-the-fire nature of the gimmick works even better this time, because the rooms are more imaginative – the bank lobby and seaside cabana sticking out most vividly in my mind. And the inevitable twist is both surprising and smart, tying the first two films together while fleshing out the universe in the process. Put this on in a locked room and I’ll be just fine.

The Green Knight

I watched The Green Knight in the most unforgiving way – on a red-eye flight with those complimentary headphones that never stay in my ears. I still felt transported. Because director David Lowery’s patient, dream-like adaptation of the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is unlike any quest narrative I’ve ever seen. Sure, you’ve got your dashing heir to the throne (a fantastically expressive Dev Patel), on an epic journey to confront a magical creature. But it’s the creature – a Treebeard-looking, forest-dwelling enigma who calls himself The Green Knight – who represents nobility and honor. Patel’s Gawain, on the other hand, is foolhardy, gullible, and aimless – a man spoiled by privilege, lost in the wilderness yet not intelligent enough to respect it. As a visual spectacle alone, The Green Knight is its own form of poetry. But as an allegory for how so-called heroes can be unchivalrous to our planet, it packs more punch than a 747.

Malignant

Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson dropped Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, we’ve had more than our share of split personality thrillers. At first, Malignant feels like it could be just another decent addition to the genre, a sufficiently creepy story about a woman who keeps having visions of a shadowy killer murdering people from her past. Problem is, they’re not just visions. The more we learn about what’s really happening to Madison (Annabelle Wallis), the more unhinged, hysterical, and visually striking this big-budget B-movie becomes. In his first feature since helming the blockbuster Aquaman, 21st century horror auteur James Wan clearly relished the opportunity to go for broke with Akela Cooper’s script – a critical action sequence in a police station where our villain gets revealed is a skillfully directed, batshit insane moment for the ages. And Wan must have had some fun, because he’s already thinking about a sequel. Really! It’s not all in my head, I swear!

Passing

I’m not qualified to comment on whether or not director Rebecca Hall’s debut accurately portrays the intersectional dynamics of race, gender and sexuality in 1920s Harlem. So I’ll say this: Passing is a movie that lingers in your mind, in the same way it lingers on screen. This quiet, subtle character study depicts the accidental reunion of two Black women who were once childhood friends. Ruth Negga plays Clare, who has been “passing” as a white woman for years, marrying a blond banker (Alexander Skarsgard) who says the N word like it’s an article. Tessa Thompson plays Irene, who has achieved the American dream on the surface but gives pretty big hints that she’s also hiding something. Hall, adapting the 1929 Nella Larson novel, makes the smart decision of just letting these actors shine, utilizing recurring jazz piano licks, pitch-perfect period details (love that collapsible shot glass), and shimmering black and white to make their world feel real. Meanwhile, Negga and Thompson imbue every line with fascinating subtext, saying the things they can never say through glances, hushed compliments, and outstretched hands.

Pig

We think we know how this story is supposed to go. Nicolas Cage plays Robin Feld, a reserved, unkempt man living in the woods of Oregon. Some meth addicts beat Robin up and steal his prized truffle pig, who was his meal ticket and beloved companion. Hurt, angry, and absolutely certain he can rescue his porcine pal, Robin follows the scent to downtown Portland. This is where Pig zigs when it’s supposed to zag. Turns out Robin is not out for bloody revenge a la John Wick. And Cage never hams it up, playing Robin as a haunted, calming presence – even during a bare-knuckle boxing match in an underground tunnel. It’s a tremendous performance, an actor inhabiting a character who knows for a fact that his happiest days are behind him. A moving meditation on grief, sense memory, and the blessing of a fulfilling job, Pig leverages our expectations for revenge fantasies and Cage vehicles against us, slowly revealing Robin’s nature like a surprisingly robust four-course meal.

The Power of the Dog

There’s a moment in Jane Campion’s instant-classic cowboy picture The Power of the Dog that surprises our usually stoic and sarcastic main character Phil Burbank. When he asks Peter, his brother’s stepson, if he sees the same shape in the Montana mountains that Phil always has, Peter responds with the correct answer. Phil, played with sneering superiority by Benedict Cumberbatch, simply can’t believe it: “What the hell? You just saw that now?” Luckily for us, Campion doesn’t treat her audience like Phil treats Peter. She places an inordinate amount of faith in us to understand what we’re seeing, right up to an iconic final sequence that gives us just enough information to weave all the harrowing pieces together. In adapting Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, Campion scraps the internal monologues, challenging us to get to know characters who either don’t speak the truth or barely speak at all. And by contrasting a heartbreakingly romantic straight courtship with Phil’s embittered torch-carrying for the long-dead love of his life – a man called Bronco Henry – she makes all-too-relevant points about the damage we do when we shame human beings simply for who they love.

Summer of Soul

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary Summer of Soul is a long-overdue introduction to a star-studded 1969 music festival (no, not that one). The Harlem Cultural Festival, held in what is now Marcus Garvey Park, had better performances than that future-Republican’s convention over at Yasgur’s farm, and also said more about the state of our country. Yet footage of this “Black Woodstock” sat in a basement for a half-century, a cultural casualty of systemic racism. Questlove does all he can to reverse this wrong, including contextual social commentary with clear analogues to problems we still face. Crowd reactions to the recent moon landing, for example, foresee a wealth gap problem that is still getting worse: “The cash they wasted getting to the moon could have been used to feed the poor Black people in Harlem and all over.” Mostly though, the music is the message – Steve Wonder playing drums like a possessed octopus; Mavis Staples being passed the mic by her hero Mahalia Jackson; Nina Simone debuting “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” singing it like the syllables are loaves and fishes. It’s the epitome of what a concert documentary can do, showing how these incredible performances impacted the lives of the people playing and watching. Now, finally, we can join them.

Honorable Mentions: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It; Cruella; Dune; Julia; King Richard; Lamb; Plan B; The Tragedy of Macbeth