When I rolled with the punches I got knocked on the ground: Best of 1975

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An unfuckwithable top ten. Neil Young never threw together a trebly-er and dumber and smarter collection of guitar pop; Roxy Music pared down its filigrees to a weird hybrid of country and disco that was good enough for their only top forty hit in America; Funkadelic gave the impression that its most streamlined album was live; Dylan was ten times more affectionate hating his ex-wife than loving her; Bowie and the Isleys muddling and muddying politics and sex and rhythm guitars; and above it all Brian Eno, envisaging a terrarium where we hide from conflicts under silt. A quiet storm indeed.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Zuma
Roxy Music – Siren
Funkadelic – Let’s Take It to the Stage
Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks
Miles Davis – Agharta
The Isley Brothers – The Heat Is On
Joni Mitchell – The Hissing of Summer Lawns
David Bowie – Young Americans
Brian Eno – Another Green World
Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti
Fleetwood Mac – Fleetwood Mac
Allen Toussaint – Southern Nights
Smokey Robinson – A Quiet Storm
Gary Stewart – Out Of Hand
Steely Dan- Katy Lied
John Cale – Slow Dazzle
Bob Dylan and the Band – The Basement Tapes
Wings – Venus and Mars
Elton John – Rock of the Westies
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
Al Green – Al Green Is Love
Patti Smith – Horses
Merle Haggard – Keep Movin’ On
Bee Gees – Main Course

The Williard Hotel standard of journalism

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While he waited for his generals in chief to get off their blue asses and chase the Confederate armies, Abraham Lincoln had his own battles. Too much of his time as presidency was taken by federal office seekers. For hours they’d hang out in the White House corridors, reminding him that a cousin Harold had contributed to Lincoln’s minority 1860 victory. Secretary of State William Seward handled them too — indeed, every Cabinet officer did.

Fifteen years later, when presidents could still take an evening stroll with a cigar down Pennsylvania Avenue, Ulysses Grant would hang out in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. Although “lobbyist” had been in use since the 1830s — I’ve seen it in Trollope novels written decades later — Grant popularized its use in America. During the Gilded Era, senators like Roscoe Conkling insisted on controlling patronage for their states. It took popular revulsion at the murder of James Garfield to spook Congress into passing (and former on-the-take expert Chester Arthur to sign) the Pendleton Act, which took steps towards creating a non-partisan civil service class immune from political pressure. One way of getting around it for years was appointing a campaign manager to postmaster general, in charge of federal patronage. Think of Jim Farley, the FDR apparatchik whom the president conned into thinking he was going to endorse him for president in 1940.

So about the Clinton Foundation and those meetings. I assume meetings and exchanges of favors, explicit and implicit, happen. If this is corruption, it’s of the venal kind. I’m not fond of Matthew Yglesias, but his essay casts a cold eye on what the AP’s purportedly meticulous reporting, reliant on passive voice constructions and assumptions presented as facts. Here is his bit on Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel laureate named in the story:

I have no particular knowledge of Yunus, Grameen Bank, or the general prospects of microcredit as a philanthropic venture. I can tell you, however, that Yunus not only won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize but has also been honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal. In 2008 he was No. 2 on Foreign Policy’s list of the “top 100 global thinkers,” and Ted Turner put him on the board of the UN Foundation. He’s received the World Food Prize, the International Simon Bolivar Prize, and the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord.

In other words, he’s a renowned and beloved figure throughout the West, not some moneybags getting help from the State Department in exchange for cash. On the level of pure politics, of course, this is exactly the problem with the Clinton Foundation. Its existence turns the banal into a potential conflict of interest, and shutting it down is the right call. But the fact remains that this is a fantastically banal anecdote.

I suspect “Clinton Foundation” will join “Benghazi,” “Vince Foster,” and “Whitewater” as a bat signal to conservatives who nod their heads knowingly and Ny-Quil for the rest of us.

I’m a fool when love’s at stake: Best of 1976

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Garrulous, as intimate as a letter written on hotel stationary, Hejira is inexhaustible, often my favorite Joni Mitchell album. Garrulous, as intimate as a room full of revelers blowing smoke in your face, Songs in the Key of Life is my least favorite major phase Stevie Wonder. I skip around a lot. But facts are facts: it has a lot of songs, several of which would be anyone else’s diamonds and a couple of which are on the extra 45 RPM EP mixed as a 33 1/3 called A Something’s Extra (if you dislike “All Day Sucker” there’s the door). When I found my parents’ copy in 1996, the EP was pristine. It hadn’t been played once.

Joni Mitchell – Hejira
Aerosmith – Rocks
David Bowie – Station to Station
Boz Scaggs – Silk Degrees
Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life
The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers
Rolling Stones – Black and Blue
ABBA – Arrival
Miles Davis – Pangaea
Bryan Ferry – Let’s Stick Together
Led Zeppelin – Presence
Richard & Linda Thompson – Pour Down Like Silver
George Jones – Alone Again
Lou Reed – Coney Island Baby
Joan Armatrading – Joan Armatrading
Marvin Gaye – I Want You
Steely Dan – The Royal Scam
Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band – Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band
Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak
The Ramones – The Ramones
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Donna Summer – A Love Trilogy

It’s him that I need: Best of 1977

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The best Isley Brothers album, the last good Dolly album for more than a decade, two of my favorite Bowie albums, two of my favorite Bowie-produced albums, punk spiraling and scratching in all directions.

David Bowie – Low
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Wire – Pink Flag
The Clash – The Clash
Iggy Pop – The Idiot
Linda Ronstadt – Simple Dreams
Earth, Wind & Fire – All ‘n All
Miles Davis – Dark Magus
David Bowie – “Heroes”
Al Green – The Belle Album
The Isley Brothers – Go For Your Guns
Television – Marquee Moon
Donna Summer – I Remember Yesterday
Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel
Rufus – Ask Rufus
Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bullocks
Steely Dan – Aja
Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express
Ultravox – Ultravox!
Talking Heads – Talking Heads: ’77
Parliament – Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome
Ramones – Rocket to Russia
Bob Marley – Exodus
Ornette Coleman – Dancing in Your Head
Iggy Pop – Lust For Life
Dolly Parton – New Harvest – First Gathering

The pain in the ass of being pure at heart: Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean – Blonde

He’s one of the good guys. Since 2012 he’s been trying to write music commensurate with the urgency and force of his Notepad confession, only to discover that being semi famous means the audience views the art through the lens of the biography as if Frank Ocean were patron Sean Carter. This phenomenon can have an anesthetizing effect: songs with undeveloped melodies get a pass, mediocre singing confused with honesty. On his second official release in two days, Frank Ocean shows little interest in connecting. Because days are weeks in the internet hypercycle, listeners should have had a chance by now to form an opinion: Facebook needs you, folks.

“Less morose, more present,” he sings, intentions muddled, on one of Blonde‘s least memorable tracks – supplication or erroneous statement of fact? At its best Blonde exploits our unease if not boredom. Over swelling backing vocals and the tinkle of a piano, Ocean commemorates a love so devastating that it hollowed out life: “It’s all downhill from here.” Planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do is Blonde‘s unspoken message. Not so far from the decades of fiction and Hollywood film in which homosexual love ended badly. The first two thirds of opener “Nike” shows an Ocean electronically distorted to sound like an ages-dead blues crooner summoned with a ouija board to testify about the wages of greed. From Robert Johnson to PJ Harvey those who summon the blues regard the form as prayer while still reveling in the sin — or at least the memory of sin. Ocean’s one of the few practitioners who eschews pleasure; it’s possible that’s why he leaves me unmoved (2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra had a song called “There Will Be Tears”).

With cases like Blonde I’ve found “Hamlet and Its Critics” a lodestar. Obsolete for decades and quietly renounced by the author himself (in 2016 we would call it expert trolling), T.S. Eliot’s essay lambasts Shakespeare’s most famous play for never finding the object that corresponds to the emotion expressed in the text. “We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him,” Eliot wrote. “Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know.” To expose his material to sunshine he employs the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Andre 3000, but, in a stroke of singer-songwriter control, subsumes them. The result is a midtempo crawl beholden to a private argot of heartbreak. “Maybe I’m a fool.” “Two kids in a swimmin’ pool.” “I don’t relate to my peers.” These phrases and clauses come from “Siegfried.” By themselves they have an Imagistic resonance; stuck in a sequence of unforgiving woe, the track dissolves.

An avatar who’s helped thousands of young men accept the questioning of their sexuality, Ocean is still testing the volatility of his own aesthetic mixture. An affinity for the genteel yawp of Bon Iver and the skeletal confessions of Waxahatchee doesn’t make him college rock, though; Ann Powers and Jason King have posited Meshell Ndegeocello as a influence, and I hear it. Without knowing a scrap about his life, I’d say on the evidence that Ocean hasn’t yet made the inevitable transition from the heartache of unrequited same sex love to checking out guys’ asses and abs. Based on the evidence of the music, pleasure itself arouses his suspicions; it could be that suspicion is an arousal. He knows the dark without knowing the possibilities of what you can do in the dark. To be one acquainted with the night, he should reckon with the light. When I hear the lines “showed me love/glory from above,” I assume they’re not about his beloved peeing on him – I want that kind of carnality. Maybe collaborators and samples stimulate his most inspired work. Until the next visual album, however, Blonde too often reminds me of what Eliot called Hamlet‘s biggest flaw: “We should have to understand things which [he] did not understand himself.”

Watching the world spin round: Best of 1978

I regard my sixth, seventh, and eighth albums as an ambient trilogy, ideal for barbeques and dates. Alas, Here, My Dear has had a sinister influence on R&B singer-songwriters beguiled by the squelchy grooves that won’t oblige listeners by producing hooks. Sheer vocal charisma carries the album at least a quarter of the time, and if it’s an album I’m glad to see welcomed into the canon it’s still an album I want admired. The rest follow descending order of preference. I’ve loved Blondie’s blockbuster since buying a cheap tape copy in the mid ’90s, where it and Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium Vol. 1 became my go-to albums when I forgot to pack new shit. And if my readers still haven’t heard Bryan Ferry and Waddy Wachtel in Montreux battling over whether coke widens emotional distances or coaxes out heretofore unknown depths, well, here’s your chance to hear the studio rock Station to Station.

Blondie – Parallel Lines
Funkadelic – One Nation Under a Groove
Talking Heads – More Songs About Buildings and Food
The Rolling Stones – Some Girls
X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents
Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear
Willie Nelson – Stardust
Brian Eno – Before and After Science
Bryan Ferry – The Bride Stripped Bare
The Isley Brothers – Showdown
Van Halen – Van Halen
ABBA – The Album
Elvis Costello and the Attractions – This Year’s Model
The Jacksons – Destiny
Big Star – Third/Sister Lovers
Wire – Chairs Missing
The Cars – The Cars
Norma Jean – Norma Jean
Van Morrison – Wavelength
Warren Zevon – Excitable Boy
Chaka Khan – Chaka
The Clash – Give’Em Enough Rope
Devo – Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!
Maze – Golden Time of Day
Neil Young – Comes a Time
Television – Adventure
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)
Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

‘Lesser evilism, that is to say, is a structural problem not an individual one’

“In 2012 I voted for Obama, not because he had changed and was more open to left agendas than he had been four years earlier,” Adolph Reed writes in a piece called “Vote for the Lying Neoliberal Warmonger: It’s Important.” “If anything, he was worse. What had changed was the character of the Republican opposition, which had become more dangerous, more aggressive and more powerful, in part because the Obama administration had done little to mobilize against them. I voted for Obama, that is, as I’ve voted for most candidates, as a lesser evil.” I declined to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 but voted for him in 2012. Unlike Reed, I considered a guarantee of insurance and the encouragement and protection of LGBT rights enough to compensate for Libya and grand bargains. I realize colleagues on the left think the two pluses aren’t enough and aren’t much pluses. Reed:

To the extent that for some people Bernie v. Hillary became a Manichaean morality play, it simply repeated the wrongheaded good guys/bad guys understanding of politics that has underlain feckless left electoralism for more than a generation. And this points up an important limitation of the critique of lesser evilism. There is a significant difference between, on the one hand, making pragmatic choices in given instances among a range of more or less undesirable options that are available and, on the other, defining, as a matter of course, what we want only in terms of what we think can get. The former is what we have to do in life generally, across the board, as an artifact of living in a society in which we as individuals cannot define the matrix of options solely to suit our preferences or desires. The latter bespeaks a defeatist orientation, a politics with no rudder and one that flies in the face of what it should mean to be a left. Lesser evilism, that is to say, is a structural problem not an individual one. It is a pathology of opinion-shaping institutions—unions and others—that refrain from attempting to intervene in shaping the matrix of options and the terms of political debate. Only if one accepts, as many Greens do, a civics-text version of democracy in which it is the actions of free-agent citizens that determine the political agenda is it possible to assume that individual electoral statements can have any impact on the drift of lesser evil politics

If never having been a lobbyist or approved a drone rocket strike are qualifications, then Jill Stein has them. In safely blue districts, she will be the sincere choice of my readers. I was once like this. Events changed me.

I like the nightlife, baby: Best of 1979

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Scan the top fifteen and you’ll spot a present my paternal aunt and uncle bought me for my fifth birthday. There isn’t a week when “Welcome to Rio” doesn’t shimmy through my imagination — imagine Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band performing for the Muppets, which is not a stretch, I assure you.

Michael Jackson – Off the Wall
Neil Young and Cray Horse – Rust Never Sleeps
Prince – Prince
David Bowie – Lodger
Roxy Music – Manifesto
Merle Haggard – Serving 190 Proof
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk
The Cars – Candy-O
Talking Heads – Fear of Music
Tubeway Army – Replicas
Chic – Risque
The B-52s – The B-52s
Blondie – Eat to the Beat
Mickey Mouse Disco
Donna Summer – Bad Girls
XTC – Drums and Wires
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
Nick Lowe – Labour of Lust
The Police – Reggata de Blanc
Van Morrison – Into the Music
Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces
Sister Sledge – We Are Family
Graham Parker – Squeezing Out Sparks
Iggy Pop – New Values
Linton Kwesi Johnson – Forces of Victory
The Only Ones – Special View
Smokey Robinson – Where’s There’s Smoke…
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes
Pere Ubu – Dub Housing
Led Zeppelin – In Through the Out Door
ABBA – Voulez-Vous
The Roches – The Roches
Wire – 154

Best movies of 2016 — August report

I hadn’t done this yet and August has ten days left. Click on links for full reviews.

No Home Movie, dir. Chantal Akerman

Cemetery of Splendor, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Mountains May Depart dir. Jia Zhangke

Zootopia, dirs. Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Love & Friendship, dir. Whit Stillman

The Measure of a Man, dir. Stéphane Brizé

Neon Bull, dir. Gabriel Mascaro

Son of Saul, dir. László Nemes

Everbody Wants Some!!, dir. Richard Linklater

The King of Havana, didr. Agustí Villaronga

Embrace of the Serpent , dir. Ciro Guerra

Sunset Song, dir. Terence Davies

In ‘Zootopia,’ furries and freaks get a fair shake

Zootopia boasts a milestone: the first openly gay cheetah in cinema history. A minor character, to be sure: although a cop, Clawhauser just answers the phone and squeals when watching video of pop star Gazelle on his smart phone. 

Shakira voices Gazelle, the first of many upsets of expectations in Zootopia, last spring’s megahit that strikes me as the hippest Disney comedy in years. Key to its success is the chemistry between Nick Fox and European rabbit Judy Hopps, a partnership closer to Lily Tomlin and Art Carney in The Late Show or Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run than 48 Hours or even Identity Thief, in which Jason Bateman also contributed a voice, albeit to a part that was supposed to be human.

No human beings disturb Zootopia, an urban metropolis where the hunter and the hunted mingle in harmony, not least when Judy gives them parking tickets. Graduating with top honors from the police academy in fulfillment of a lifelong dream, Judy is stumped when Chief Bog (Idris Elba) assigns her to meter maid duties: bunnies aren’t tough enough or smart enough, a line she’ll hear repeatedly. After almost arresting Nick for trying to hustle her, the two form the usual cinematic Unusual Partnership to find the missing Emmitt Otter in forty-eight hours, the chief’s deadline. This abduction forms part of an elaborate scheme involving the extract from psychotropic plants, capable of returning predators to a savage state.

What distinguishes Zootopia from its predecessors is the thoroughness with which directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, aided by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston’s script, fill the corners. Judy and Nick visit a nudist colony run by a fly-ridden yak. A Vito Corleone double makes an appearance granting favors on his daughter’s wedding. The most sustained laughs, however, occur in a DMV whose employees are sloths (in a terrific sight gag, Nick’s contact there has a mug that says “You Want It WHEN?”). Those are stereotypes, of course. So is casting lemmings as — guess what — bankers, not to mention Tommy Chong as that yak. But Zootopia‘s subtler mission is to accept stereotypes if the creatures get chances to break them. Lapses occur. To stress their shared biographies, Nick shares a story about his cub-era dreams of himself becoming a cop that’s as banal as anything in a soap opera. In a film whose stated purpose reeks of nobility, any show of irreverence is welcome; Zootopia is an Obama-age movie, in which the efficacy of cops, the rights of minorities, and “diversity” as a welcome emollient are emphasized so long as the system remains intact and the rebels are cool about it.

But Zootopia rests on the able shoulders of Judy and Nick, and, given the movie’s revenue, audiences can count on a sequel in the next eighteen months (we’ll need another valentine to differences should Donald Trump win the presidency). Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy generate enough sparks for me to wonder if Howard-Moore didn’t consider a PG version of Zootopia in which animals crossbreed (Nick’s the foxiest vulpes since George Clooney). “Maybe every predator looks aggressive to a rabbit,” the chief scoffs. Maybe so. Every charmer looks sexy to a critic.

First the chill, then the stupor: Best of 2002

From 2002-2004 I didn’t think the Libertines were a punch line. Credit producer Mick Jones or an instinct that told them now or never, for nothing on Up the Bracket suggests they couldn’t keep grinding out songs about their dissipation forever. About their travails as a band is another story. It’s possible the love story between Carl Barat and Pete Doherty happened too soon — imagine “Boys in the Band” and “Can’t Stand Me Now” released in a post-Obergefell environment in which my straight male students admit to double dates with their gay best friends.

The rest is more or less where I left the year when I was as hedonistic as I imagined the Libertines were: Timberlake’s best album despite several putative triumphs; close to Alan Jackson’s best, keyed to a great dad song and the most empathetic 9-11 song ever written, better than Springsteen’s; Wire’s spectacular return; a Breeders album I learned to love after it got stuck in my Explorer’s CD deck; and Luna’s best after Penthouse.

For this arrangement I eschewed alphabetical for descending order.

Kylie Minogue – Fever
The Libertines – Up the Bracket
Justin Timberlake – Justified
Alan Jackson – Drive
Mekons – OOOH!
Luna – Romantica
Toby Keith – Unleashed
Wire – Read & Burn ’01
Sleater-Kinney – One Beat
The Breeders – Title TK
DJ Shadow – The Private Press
Nas – God’s Son
Clinic – Walking With Thee
Clipse – Lord Willin’
The Roots – Phrenology
Youssou N’Dour – Nothing’s in Vain (Coono du réér)
Imperial Teen – On
Aaliyah – I Care For U
The Mountain Goats – Tallahassee
David Bowie – Heathen
Dolly Parton – Halos and Horns
Spoon – Kill the Moonlight

Singles 8/19

Notes:

– My first Vietnamese winner!

– I’m often cool towards leaked tracks or first singles. I may have underrated Sleigh Bells’ “Hyper Dark.”

– What the Chainsmokers said inspired the writing of “Closer”: “I went to school in Syracuse with all these super wealthy girls that I was enamored with at first because it was so foreign to me because of where I was from in my Podunk town in Maine. I was just so unimpressed with them. I got to know them and slept with them and all that stuff, so I wanted to write a really unsexy sex song. Shawn Frank, who’s our extremely talented friend, him and I had this idea for a song. We sat down and kind of made up a story about meeting your ex-girlfriend in a bar and being so drunk with her and talking about the hookup in a very vivid way, like, ‘Holy shit, we’re hooking up and I know everything about you either for better or for worse..’”

Click on links for full reviews.

Soobin Hoàng Sơn – Lalala (7)
iLe – Te Quiero con Bugalú (7)
DJ Khaled ft. Jay-Z & Future – I Got the Keys (7)
Hey Violet – Brand New Moves (6)
Glass Animals – Life Itself (6)
Sigur Rós – Óveður (5)
Sleigh Bells – Hyper Dark (4)
Kaleo – Way Down We Go (4)
Hailee Steinfeld & Grey ft. Zedd – Starving (4)
Cher Lloyd – Activated (2)
DJ Snake ft. Justin Bieber – Let Me Love You (2)
DJ Mustard ft. Nicki Minaj & Jeremih – Don’t Hurt Me (2)
The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey – Closer (1)
Tiësto ft. John Legend – Summer Nights (1)