This year was a trash fire of epic proportions. If I have to spell it out for you, let me just say it starts with T and ends with Rump. However, despite all of the horrors we witnessed, all was not lost on the pop culture front. I’m sure I’m not the only one to find solace in art this year.
In terms of television, how more appropriate could The Handmaid’s Tale be in this year of misogynist mania? Or for that matter, Twin Peaks and Stranger Things 2, which both dealt with the dangers of covering up abuse? In a year when liberals and leftists were encouraged to “reach across the aisle,” one of the best depictions of how to come to terms with those family members who have provided love but also inspired loathing, was found in Netflix’s Western series Godless, which shows that this is certainly not the first time people have been faced with such quandaries… and it won’t be the last.
Then there are the movies. Get Out is by far the best example of politics blending perfectly with pop culture, but Star Wars: The Last Jedi should not be forgotten, nor should Wonder Woman, both of which showed how defeating real-life fascists is one of the most important things we can do.
Musically speaking, there was much to cherish. Lana Del Rey’s acknowledgment of America’s complexities and contradictions on her new album Lust For Life ranged from subtle to sardonic, often within the same song. INVSN’s The Beautiful Stories is an entire album of protest music, and there was more than one occasion that I wept when listening to it, realizing that I was not alone in my grief, righteous fury, or determination to do my part to make things better somehow.
FAVE ALBUMS OF 2017:
1.Ty Segall, Sentimental Goblin EP/Fried Shallots EP/Ty Segall (Drag City)
How lucky we are to live in a time when Ty Segall releases new music every few months. He didn’t just put out a fantastic full-length album this year (read my full review), he also released an eclectic EP that bridges the sonic gap between it and 2016’s Emotional Mugger. And if that wasn’t enough, he gifted us with a 7-inch featuring one of the best songs he’s written to date: the bewitching, addictive “Black Magick.” While Segall may have taken many cues from his forebears throughout his career, at this point it’s impossible to deny what a relentlessly inventive musical heavyweight he has become.
2. INVSN, The Beautiful Stories (Dine Alone Records)
While many of us struggle to find solace in the currently dire political climate, INVSN provides hope through its exuberant and often righteously angry synthesis of art and politics. “The Constant War” takes this struggle from the political to the personal and back again with lines like “But for every failure there’s always another try” and a repeated, fervent refrain of “I’m alive, on fire another day.” In a world filled with cynicism and darkness, the song is not only life-affirming but also necessary. INVSN may not make the music that flawed people deserve, but it’s definitely the music that we all need right now. (Read my full review.)
3. Xordox, Neospection (Editions Mego)
There have been many J.G. Thirlwell personae over the years, roughly divided between those with vocals (Foetus, Clint Ruin) and those without (pretty much everything else). Still, nothing could have prepared this listener for Thirlwell’s latest release under a brand-new moniker: Xordox. Neospection proves that even though decades have passed since Thirlwell’s first release in 1982, he still has many new and remarkable delights to offer us. (Read my full review.)
4. Blood and Glass, Punk Shadows (Simone Records)
While Punk Shadows may not evoke the well-worn clichés of mohawks and safety pins, it does offer listeners a bracing dose of originality in the form of nine wildly eclectic tunes. This is only Blood and Glass’s second album, but it affirms the self-assured presence of a band that is bursting with clever ideas and talent, not to mention songs that are undeniably addictive. If punk, as singer Lisa Moore suggests, is the expression of “inner freedom,” then Blood and Glass is definitely punk. (Read my full review.)
5. Odonis Odonis, No Pop (Telephone Explosion/Felte Records)
No Pop is the sound of a band who has definitively and defiantly established their own aesthetic. Each song is exquisitely crafted and perfectly sequenced, which makes the fact that the album was recorded in three days something of a shock. The cover art depicts a piece of wreckage floating in the ocean, a reflection of the band’s attitude towards the album: “it is the soundtrack of a sinking ship, and we’re all happily aboard to go down with it.” Yet the band’s logo, one large circle enveloping a smaller one, belies a sense of constant motion, and implies that Odonis Odonis might be nihilists, but they’re not ready to stop moving forward just yet. (Read my full review.)
6. Zola Jesus, Okovi (Sacred Bones)
After the almost mainstream appeal of Taiga, Okovi feels like a step in yet a different direction for Zola Jesus. Okovi is the Russian word for “shackles,” but this feels like an ironic title. Nika Roza Danilova sounds freer than ever, more comfortable with not only the parameters of her voice, but the personal quality of her lyrics. It’s brave to put an instrumental at the end of the album, but “Half Life” is a stunning track. It provokes questions about a life well-lived or not at all. How long it takes our creations to disappear from memory will never be known, but thanks to Okovi, I predict Zola Jesus’ talent will be remembered for a long time to come. (Read my full review.)
7. Death From Above, Outrage Is Now! (Warner Bros. Records)
Three years after the shockingly good The Physical World, Death From Above was finally able to dump the 1979 and surprise fans yet again with a new and entirely unexpected album. The duo has filtered out some the more prominent pop sounds found on their last release and reintegrated massive chunks of the raw cacophony that first brought them to prominence. Sebastien Grainger continues to prove he’s one of the most underrated modern vocalists in rock music, while Jesse F. Keeler shows he’s still got the guitar chops. Outrage Is Now! boasts earworms galore, more heaviness than your speakers can probably handle, and sharp, relevant lyrics.
8. Lana Del Rey, Lust For Life (Polydor/Interscope)
Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence was the album that I hoped she would make after Born To Die, while Honeymoon felt like a small step sideways. How refreshing, then, that Lust For Life melds together many of the singer/songwriter’s musical personalities so perfectly—narcotic noir torch songs; hip hop interludes; and memorable pop melodies—all gilded with Del Rey’s singular, thrilling voice. Lyrically, Lust For Life contains the multitudes that her fans have always cherished: her songs are sincere and smart; whimsical and wistful; personal and political. Anyone who persists in thinking that Lana Del Rey is just a pretty face is probably beyond help at this point.
9. Cheap Trick, We’re All Allright (Big Machine Records)
Musically, the album is outstanding, veering from heavy to hooky to raunchy to sublime and many points in between. All of the songs are ridiculously catchy; listening to the album over the last few weeks means that I’ve had a lot of time to get used to it, but I didn’t expect to have so many of the melodies stuck in my head for hours on end. Maybe We’re All Allright doesn’t have lyrics as memorable as other Cheap Trick albums, but the music itself is marvelous enough that I can forgive them that misstep. Here’s looking at you, ELO Kiddies. (Read my full review.)
10. TWRP, Ladyworld (self-released)
Joyful yet poignant melodies have always been TWRP’s strong suit, and their new album shows they have no intent of changing course: it’s their most accomplished release to date. Ladyworld opens with a dynamic instrumental whose main melody is repeated at the end with witty lyrics and vocals from Ninja Sex Party’s Danny Sexbang. The non-initiated might assume a band dealing in such body-positive, feminist, and environmentally conscious lyrics would come off as didactic or preachy, but TWRP is always incredibly fun and funny. Certainly the band couldn’t have predicted that 2017 would be the year of the woman when this album was released in January, but it helps Ladyworld resonate even deeper.
Music I Didn’t Get To Hear This Year: Beck, Colors; Blanck Mass, World Eater; Jesca Hoop, Memories Are Now; The Jesus and Mary Chain, Damage and Joy; Sparks, Hippopotamus; Harry Styles, Harry Styles.
FAVE TV SHOWS OF 2017:
1. Twin Peaks: The Return
The box, which was introduced in the first episode of the new season, provides one of the season’s creepiest storylines thus far. As the audience watches the show unfold onscreen, Sam Colby watches the glass box for hours, waiting for something to happen, for something to make some kind of sense. When something does happens, it’s when Sam least expects it and it’s both enigmatic and terrifying. The new episodes of the show may conceal a lot of things but they do reveal one important aspect: after more than 25 years, Twin Peaks is still capable of being enigmatic and terrifying and ultimately, incredibly watchable. (Read more reviews here and here.)
2. Mr. Mercedes
What’s most remarkable about the show is the way it fleshes out the novel’s characters and subplots. Fans of novels adapted to the screen often lament the loss of details, but watching the series before reading the book proves the reverse. The show’s creative team (producer David E. Kelley and writer Jack Bender) has managed to achieve the unthinkable: make the TV version of Mr. Mercedes feel far more real, emotionally engaging, and suspenseful than the source novel. (Read my full review.)
Mindhunter is a show about the somewhat fictionalized origins of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, but it’s so much more than that. While a crime procedural TV show based on the life of the guy who inspired the Jack Crawford character from the Hannibal-verse feels like it would definitely appeal to those who love both crime procedurals and the Hannibal-verse, what is most appealing about Mindhunter is the way it lingers. This show is a special kind of stealthy, introducing characters who are by turns brilliant and mind-bogglingly infuriating. And that’s just the serial killers.
4. Stranger Things 2
So much of Stranger Things, especially the second season, feels like a supernatural metaphor for an all-too-common real-life problem: abuse. It’s not just Will who is suffering from PTSD, it’s everyone. As Jonathan tells Nancy, “there’s a weight I’m carrying around all the time.” This statement could be applied to everyone on the show. All of these characters have suffered abuse and by not being allowed to speak the truth, they continue to suffer. Hiding this truth only makes it worse. It spreads like the rot that has destroyed the pumpkin fields of Hawkins, tainting everything it touches. It’s said that light is the best disinfectant, but it might be a while before that particular kind of light reaches the world of Stranger Things. (Read my full review.)
5. The Handmaid’s Tale
Complaining that the show is “too violent” or “basic” could be an understandable position for women who consider themselves “woke” and not in need of further understanding, but what of those who don’t have the luxury of being surrounded by progressive parents or friends, or those who do not have access to a liberal college education? This is why we need shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and why we also need genre fiction that isn’t afraid to explore the all too often non-fictional problem of violence against women. Perhaps this TV adaptation isn’t for everyone, but the kind of feminism it elevates sure as hell should be. (Read my full review.)
There are those who think that the Marvel Universe might be better suited to the small screen. After watching Legion, it seems they may have a point. Dan Stevens is tremendous as the twitchy, terrified—and sometimes terrifying—mutant character David Haller, in a series that is as much supernatural comic book adaptation as it is legitimately suspenseful and frequently scary. If DC is looking for ways to make their future endeavors graphic and gritty without being too self-consciously dark, they should look to Legion for ideas.
7. The Punisher
Despite what you may have heard, The Punisher is not violence porn. It addresses a wide array of issues that are relevant to current times. At the top of that list is the concept of faith in institutions, such as the police, government, and military. The overarching significance for the series’ particular questioning of that faith is the importance of the truth. In an era of “fake news” and propaganda, the parallels to real life are obvious. When you have nothing but a war inside of you, where does the killing end? While The Punisher asks this question, it does not definitively answer it, despite the resolution of many of the main storylines of the series. In that way it is, ironically, one of the more satisfying of Netflix’s Marvel shows thus far. (Read my full review.)
8. Mystery Science Theater 3000, Season 11
Even though I only watched half of this new season’s 14 episodes, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has never been traditional episodic TV, so I’m including it on this list. You can watch an episode of the show at any point, in any season, and still enjoy it. The revamped MST3K is a wonder: it’s still clever, still takes place in space, still skewers bad movies, and best of all, is still hilarious. The new cast and crew are perfect for this MST3K for the new millennium, so the news that a 12th season has received the green light from Netflix is the second-best MST3K gift of 2017.
Confession time: Despite being surrounded by friends who are wrestling fans, I was never into wrestling, so I wasn’t sure if I was the target audience for a series about the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Yet GLOW, a Netflix Original Series, isn’t actually a show about wrestling, even though it’s based on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling series from the 1980s. GLOW is a show about flawed, frustrating, yet above all human, characters. Like Wonder Woman, it’s also a show about feminism, and like last year’s Ghostbusters reboot, it shows the power (and the pitfalls) of female friendships. GLOW is hilarious, heartbreaking, and one of the most bingeworthy TV series I’ve seen in a long while.
Although Godless deals with a specific time and place, the story it tells is remarkably timeless: How does one reconcile the conflicting parts of the past and move forward? Godless is an emotionally resonant and stunning saga, especially in an era of postmodern, metacritical pastiche and ironic distance. It’s also one of the biggest television surprises of 2017, and a sets a new, higher bar for Netflix Originals. (Read my full review.)
TV Shows I Didn’t Get to Finish Watching This Year: Dark, The Path Season 2, Peaky Blinders Season 4
TV Shows I Didn’t Get to Watch This Year: American Gods, Manhunt: Unabomber, Master of None Season 2
FAVE MOVIES OF 2017:
1. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)
What makes Get Out different is the way in which writer/director Jordan Peele makes everything seem utterly normal… until it’s not. Indeed, as the film progresses, it becomes the furthest thing from normal that one could imagine. For many, Get Out will be eye-opening. Not only are the horrors of racism laid bare in a way that is shockingly believable, it also reveals how dangerous the myth of the “post-racial society” has become. (Read my full review.)
2. Imperium (dir. Daniel Ragussis)
Daniel Radcliffe continues to establish himself as one of today’s most gifted young actors, portraying an FBI agent who goes deep undercover to expose a potential white supremacist terror plot in the United States. Imperium played festivals and saw limited release in 2016, well before the US presidential election; that’s what makes its depictions of Nazi marches so disturbingly prescient. Yet these obvious displays of hatred are not nearly as frightening as the way the film reveals how subtle and banal such racist rhetoric has become. Imperium may not be a new release (although it is available on Netflix), but its subject matter is more significant now than ever.
3. Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Blade Runner 2049 has done the impossible. It has gone beyond being a mere sequel to a landmark science fiction film that came out 34 years ago; it turned out to be an entirely new work of art. The question of what it means to be human hangs heavy over this film just as it did over its predecessor, but the fact that computerization, robotics, and artificial intelligence are current realities gives it a gravitas that belies its science fiction origins. Despite the polarizing critical and audience reception it has received— considering the tepid response Blade Runner received in 1982, such controversy bodes well—this latest chapter in the Blade Runner saga will no doubt eventually be considered one of the finest films of the decade.
4. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
As its title implies, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is an enigmatic film. This isn’t just a film about transgressive sex, but the ability to traverse boundaries to find love. The insidious legacy of othering, and how it harms people, is another major element in the film, from Elisa and the Amphibian Man to Giles’ homosexuality and Zelda’s African-American heritage. Yet as Giles says of the Amphibian Man, “He’s a wild creature. We can’t ask him to be anything else.” It is precisely the otherness of the characters that makes them important. They are what makes The Shape of Water such a minor miracle of a movie. (Read my full review.)
5. We Go On (dir. Jesse Holland, Andy Mitton)
None of the many effective scares in We Go On would work as well as they do without the audience being fully invested in these characters, their relationships with each other, and the various paths they are taking. It seems that Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton have taken to heart the frequent complaint that horror films lack solid characters and strong narratives, because they have crafted a film that boasts an abundance of both. We Go On is a witty, thought-provoking, and intelligent film, yet one that is also downright creepy as hell. Watch it. (Read my full review.)
6. The Transfiguration (dir. Michael O’Shea)
The tone of The Transfiguration pushes against the boundaries of not only horror films, but also the vampire genre itself. The film’s unexpected but inevitable ending may catch viewers off guard emotionally because they didn’t realize how invested they were in a character who is, for all intents and purposes, a murderer. That is the magic of a movie like The Transfiguration; it is a humanizing portrait of someone who is, if not a monster, definitely monstrous. The distinction between mental illness and monstrousness is a razor’s edge; if you veer too far over one side, you might bleed to death. (Read my full review.)
7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson)
One can hardly imagine a situation in which a film is so reviled by audiences that petitions are created to remove it from existence. Did Taxi Driver, Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, or Children of Men suffer these same slings and arrows of social media outrage? Removing The Last Jedi from the crippling weight of its 40-years-in-the-making franchise would be preferable, but it’s ultimately impossible, considering how much the film seeks to gleefully mock and deconstruct the preciousness of everything that came before. Fandom is nothing if not gleeful mockery and deconstruction, so that means The Last Jedi could be the ultimate fanservice in the Star Wars universe.
8. Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi)
Anyone who’s seen Taika Waititi’s previous films (Eagle Vs. Shark, What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) would know that his quirky yet deeply compassionate sense of humor is the exact thing that a modern-day superhero blockbuster film needs. The Taika Touch turned out to be perfect for the third and highly anticipated Thor movie. Hilarious without being cringeworthy, and dramatic without being corny, Thor: Ragnarok has the most invigorating set pieces in any Marvel film we’ve seen to date. Here’s hoping the success of Thor: Ragnarok leads to even greater opportunities for this immensely talented director.
9. Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins)
It started with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road and continued with the 2016 version of Ghostbusters: that unfamiliar and startling feeling that the point of view of women was finally being explored on screen in movies destined for the multiplex. Wonder Woman is a powerful, moving, awe-inspiring film. While these are words that should always be associated with heroines, when women only comprise 29% of the protagonists we seen on the big screen, it makes it harder for that to become the reality. Wonder Woman is a giant leap for humankind.
10. The Endless (dir. Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson)
The Endless is marked by a mixture of black comedy, creeping dread, and cosmic horror. It also feels appropriate for a movie which, at its core, addresses the banality of a life that’s not fully lived. Like all Moorhead and Benson films, there is a remarkably poignant message wrapped up in these peculiar layers, and it’s one that is stunning in both its simplicity and significance. Although there are many bizarre occurrences or nagging questions that don’t make sense until the movie finishes, the audience never does see the complete picture of the man (or monster) behind the curtain. This ensures that the mysteries of The Endless will continue to bewitch and befuddle, well after the credits have rolled. (Read my full review.)
MORE FAVE MOVIES OF 2017:
1. Alien: Covenant
2. Why Him?
3. The Accountant
4. Train to Busan
5. Spider-Man: Homecoming
6. Guardians of the Galaxy 2
7. Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith
9. Kong: Skull Island
10. Shin Godzilla
Movies I Didn’t Get To See This Year: Atomic Blonde, The Big Sick, The Disaster Artist, Dunkirk, IT, It Comes At Night, John Wick 2, Justice League, Lady Bird, Logan Lucky, Mudbound, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, War For the Planet of the Apes