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.
I’m currently reading book two ofThe 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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
In April, my home state will be opening up vaccinations to all adults. This is a fact that has not completely registered in my mind – even after I get my shots I’m guessing I’ll be flinching at shadows in crowded places for a long time. But I do find myself being more easily comforted by the thrumming noise of woodpeckers searching for sustenance outside my home office window. And the songs that really spoke to me in March include the work of two octogenarians, deriving joy from doing what they love, as well as a reverential cover of Dolly Parton’s most hopeful song. Things are changing out there, even more than a typical spring.
1. Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”
And here it is, the first serious contender for 2021’s Song of the Summer (for me at least) – an airy synth pop gem about the need to believe in someone that feels like it’s existed ever since Cyndi Lauper first promised “If you fall, I will catch you.”
2. Zara Larsson – “FFF”
I could spend this whole space talking about the grammatically heinous and somehow perfect line, “Is this a story arc? / Cause if it are, it’d be iconic.” But then I’d be ignoring that insanely catchy beat, which sounds like the Vengaboys trying to impress Kylie Minogue in 1998.
3. Tune-Yards – “Nowhere, Man”
This duo loves establishing a monster drum and bass grove, and then doing everything they can to get in its way. On “Nowhere, Man” they try telephone vocal effects, a shouty chorus and a bridge that throws the kitchen sink into the mix. None of it kept me from dancing.
4. Aesop Rock – “Long Legged Larry”
Did you know that March 20 was World Frog Day? Aesop Rock did, inventing an amphibious character called Long Legged Larry who rescues cats from trees and poodles from high-wire act disasters, rapping about him in a sing-song storytelling style that will have listeners of all ages jumping for joy.
5. Loretta Lynn – “I Saw the Light”
New music from a profoundly influential, 88-year-old country legend, singing Hank Williams’s timeless ode to spiritual epiphanies with palpable delight in her voice? Maybe there is a god.
6. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Mufaro’s Garden”
Evocative, jazz-inflected instrumental hip-hop that doesn’t need a rapper to resonate – it’s already rhyming with our souls.
7. Genghis Tron – “Pyrocene”
This synthesizer-fueled prog-metal group has reunited after over a decade apart, seemingly on a shared mission to uncover a new form of interstellar sonic beauty.
8. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – “Movement 4”
The 80-year-old saxophone legend Pharoah Sanders has teamed up with a British producer and world-famous orchestra on a gorgeously interconnected suite called Promises. This is my favorite bit, because it begins with Sanders vocalizing into the mic over a soft bed of mallet instruments. He doesn’t form one word, aware that his improvised gibberish has a soothing quality, like the sound of bubbles racing to the surface of a pond.
9. Lil Nas X – “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
By titling his new single with his real-life first name and tossing in an homage to one of the first gay films he ever watched, Lil Nas X is not bowing to the pressure he must be facing to give the world another “Old Town Road.” He’s taking us along on his personal journey instead, rapping over a flamenco-flecked beat about a real-life COVID crush and confessing “I wanna sell what your buyin’ / I wanna feel on your ass in Hawaii.”
10. Waxahatchee – “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”
As the vaccination numbers continue to rise, and more and more people step out into the world with something resembling relief, the timing was right for Katie Crutchfield to release her cover of “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” hewing closely to the golden-sunrise country-pop arrangement of Dolly Parton’s cynicism-destroying original. It’s the sound of hope, pure and true.
Feeling nostalgic for the 2010s yet? They weren’t great, but at least they’re not the 2020s amirite? And while we’re on the subject of things that aren’t fun, what about Mondays? Cold weather? That time the hometown sports team got robbed? Unpopular bloggers who drive stupid gags into the ground?
If you didn’t already feel grateful for Wilson Phillips in the 2010s – was there better advice during the Trump administration than “hold on for one more day”? – hopefully the rise of Haim corrected that problem. On its second album, this trio of California sisters continued to revel in 1980s supermarket pop aesthetics, harmonizing about big-time emotions over even bigger drum machines and effervescently processed guitars. The best songs remain the singles, which pair absolutely massive choruses with quirky production wrinkles that make repeat listens even more rewarding – on “Want You Back,” it’s a horse’s whinny; on “Little of Your Love,” it’s someone falling asleep at the pitch bender; on “Nothing’s Wrong,” it’s a series of oddly interrupted gasps. For all its obvious influences – Haim have definitely paid close attention to Stevie Nicks’s recipes – Something to Tell You is not some generic, store brand approach to pop hooks. This band figured out how to bottle their unadulterated joy. And so far, it seems like there’s no expiration date.
74. Thundercat – Drunk(2017)
Through his session playing alone, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner made an indelible mark on 2010s hip hop and R&B – Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah series and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are just a few of the modern classics that entrusted their low ends to him. But as the cover to his third solo album depicted, the potential of this artist as a vibrant new songwriting voice was only just beginning to emerge. Drunk is the work of an artist with a kaleidoscopically imaginative vision all his own. The music was rooted in his fluid, beautiful bass lines, which was important because it’s one hell of a gumbo: fiery jazz, chittering electronica and straight-faced yacht rock. In a voice that shifts into falsetto with ease, the artist sang about mundane late night rituals and fun Japanese vacations with awestruck, childlike energy. By building these bridges between poetry and poptimism, Thundercat was able to pull off a love-against-all-odds ballad featuring Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, and then shift to a regret-laden Kendrick Lamar rap showcase on the very next track. It remains one hell of a balancing act, which leaves us feeling the opposite of wasted.
73. Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do (2010)
To give a song the best chance at catching on, it’s best to stay vague. Listeners love to interpret lyrics in ways that fit their own situations, which is why The Police’s serial stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take” is still a hit at weddings. But the Athens, Georgia, alt-country institution Drive-By Truckers hasn’t had much time for that advice since its inception in the late ’90s. On its eighth LP, the band rang in the 2010s with an album full of exhilarating specificity – detailed story songs with colorful characters, performed with the kind of chiming roots rock efficiency that made Tom Petty famous. “Drag the Lake Charlie” documents a small town’s reaction to a cheating man gone missing, and the looming danger of his trigger-happy partner. “The Wig He Made Her Wear” recounts the murder trial of a woman claiming self-defense, and the unusual exhibits that inspired the jury to reduce the charge. “The Flying Wallendas” tells the true story of a legendary family of tightrope walkers, many of whom fell to their deaths doing what they loved. When Hood encounters a surviving Wallenda in Florida, the awe flows from his pen: “I was stunned and astounded that the old lady who was out / Pruning her orange trees / Had flown to the heavens and back.”
72. Laura Marling – Semper Femina(2017)
Happily ever after is great and all. But if we felt nothing but fairytale bliss, we wouldn’t get to appreciate art that traffics in shades of grey. Like Laura Marling’s stunning sixth album, for example. Each of the nine tracks on Semper Femina takes its own distinct sonic path as it searches for meaning in an unfulfilling relationship. “Soothing” rides a mournfully funky bass line. “The Valley” basks in pastoral acoustics. “Nothing Not Nearly” brings in stabs of fuzzbox guitar. And it’s all tied together by Marling’s empathetic pen. As she deals with love, and loss, and love that doesn’t go away even though it’s lost, she maintains a passion for the whole flawed phenomenon of human coupling that’s as impressive as the impeccably produced surroundings. On the final chorus, Marling makes her mission statement clear, just in case we weren’t paying attention: “Nothing matters more than love.”
71. CupcakKe – Ephorize (2018)
When a brilliant, charismatic rapper is just starting to blow up, there are few things more exciting for a listener – being there for that moment, pressing play on the album that could put them on the short list for Best Rapper Alive. For CupcakKe, Ephorize was that moment. The third LP from the Chicago rapper was a significant leap forward from 2017’s excellent Queen Elizabitch – pairing her sharply honed lyricism and whitewater-rapids flow with club-ready production that sends all the positive vibes into the stratosphere. The artist is most famous for explicit, sex-positive bops, and she delivers one of her greatest here with the Statue of Liberty-referencing “Duck Duck Goose.” But Ephorize is equally defined by themes of personal growth and celebratory equity. “Most people already skipped this song cause it ain’t about sex and killin’,” she raps on “Self Interview,” a fearless recitation of her anxieties that ends with a vow to be true to herself. When this inward empathy explodes outward, CupcakKe is in rarefied air. “Boy on boy / girl on girl / Like who the fuck you like / Fuck the world!” she proclaims over the sax-laden dancehall groove of “Crayons.” It’s like we’re riding a rainbow rollercoaster, double guns drawn, the Best Rapper Alive at the controls.
Ever since I started these monthly playlists last January, I have posted them on the last day of the month. But in February 2021, it wasn’t in the cards. Because February 2021 was tough. Grey skies, freezing temps, a deadly virus, a new Tom & Jerry movie – it was all too much. So I hope you can forgive me for posting a bit late. I promise, the songs are worth it.
1. Nervous Dater – “Farm Song”
Rachel Lightner sings about depression so cleverly – “When it gets real bad I call it movie theater mode / Watching myself from the dark of the very last row” – it doesn’t register as sadness. And that twangy power-pop melody doesn’t hurt either.
2. Cardi B – “Up”
Three piano notes – that’s all Cardi B needs to make rap music that sounds like a goddamn event.
3. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – “White Elephant”
Anytime we have a conversation about what’s holding society back from achieving racial harmony, there’s an elephant in the room. And we know what color it is. On Nick Cave’s stunning new album with his long-time Bad Seed and film score partner Warren Ellis, he sings from the perspective of a white supremacist with an itchy trigger finger. “I’ll shoot you just for fun / I’m a statue lying on my side in the sun,” he sneers over menacing synthesizers, trying his hardest to ensure that, like an elephant, we never forget.
4. Noname – “Rainforest”
If any artist could make an ambitious anti-capitalist polemic feel like a slow ride down a gentle stream, it’s Noname. “How you make excuses for billionaires / You broke on the bus” the Chicago rapper posits on the chorus, backed by a low-key Latin groove that even the mind-boggling logic of poverty-stricken Republican voters can’t spoil.
5. Danny L Harle & DJ Danny – “Take My Heart Away”
As the world continues to mourn the tragic death of pop visionary SOPHIE, an artist who twisted club music into shapes that would shock a geometrist, a fellow artist on SOPHIE’s PC Music label carries the torch, drilling a mindlessly catchy dance hook into our brains with the commitment of a modern artist.
6. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – “See Me”
I have no idea what these genre-hopping New Zealand psychedelic rockers do when they’re not in the studio – they’ve dropped nine LPs in our laps since 2017 – but you can’t accuse them of running out of ideas. “See Me” sounds like an out-of-tune xylophone soundtracking a descent into madness, aka February during a pandemic.
7. Victoria Monét – “F.U.C.K.”
My vote for the worst album title of all time probably goes to Van Halen’s 1991 experiment in brain-dead acronyms, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. I have no idea if R&B singer/songwriter Victoria Monét is familiar with this Hagarrible moment in music history, but her riveting new single resuscitates the concept by playing against expectations, demanding something more meaningful than casual sex: “I wanna be a Friend You Can Keep.”
8. Vektor – “Activate”
The sci-fi thrash-metal behemoths in Vektor are back, screaming about “gyroscopic spires” and doing things with guitars and drum kits that definitely seem scientifically impossible.
9. Syd – “Missing Out”
This synth-drenched R&B virtuoso shared her first new solo track in four years – a hushed, moonlit ode to how breaking up can be the best thing for your self esteem. Just in time for Valentine’s Day.
10. Haim (feat. Thundercat) – “3 AM”
What’s a surefire way to make this “you up?” ballad from Haim’s Women In Music Pt. III album even better? Add a guest verse from Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner – one of the most convincing, and non-threatening, sonic pick-up artists in the game.