22 February 2015

Everything Is Awesome

One year ago the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did itself proud with the selection of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as Best Picture, arguably its best choice of the 21st century. Your blogger did himself a bit less proud, scoring a not unimpressive 19/23 on my Oscar predictions, prior to blowing Best Picture by refusing to go along with the Picture/Director split between 12 Years and Gravity’s Alfonso Cuarón, widely predicted by the pundits. Like I said, never predict a split. We’ll get back to that later.

For most of the awards season, it looked like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a coming-of-age story shot over the course of 12 years with the same cast, would become the second uncommonly good Best Picture winner in as many years. Yes, dear reader, it was just a few weeks ago that Oscar bloggers and commenters were loudly holding forth about how boring the Best Picture race was, how it was the worst year ever, and really above all, just how incredibly bored they were with the Oscars, movies, and (presumably) life. Never mind that many of these same people claimed to actually like Boyhood. It was the frontrunner and must be taken down.

They got their wish. And it now appears that Birdman, a cynical showbusiness comedy about a veteran actor (Michael Keaton) who’s left superhero movies behind to direct and star in an independent theater, will take the big prize tonight, having won awards from the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, and Screen Actors Guild. The only time this combination failed to produce a Best Picture winner was 1995, when Apollo 13 fell to Braveheart, after director Ron Howard had been unexpectedly left out of the Best Director field. There are no such worries for Birdman or its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Birdman would hardly be the worst Best Picture in the history of the Oscars. Given the existence of The Artist, it wouldn’t even be the worst this decade. It has its share of amusing moments, mostly involving Edward Norton as a prima donna actor called in at the last minute to save Keaton’s production. But it’s the frontrunner mainly because it speaks to the current angst among Hollywood professionals that the industry has become too reliant on comic book movies and other branded material at the expense of, you know, art. It reassures Academy members that, deep down, they’re better than that. And the copious references to Twitter in the movie tell them they’re still hip, even if not still young. As for what kind of “real art” they might be making in the absence of the industry’s franchise addiction—I mean, can we talk about the fact that Birdman’s idea of art in 2014 is a play based on Raymond Carver stories? Good grief. And the one-shot gimmick has been done better elsewhere.

Still, the underlying complaint about the disappearance of serious, middle-budget movies based on original characters and stories is not without merit. And yet, lo and behold, we have just such a film in this year’s Oscar race: a serious drama about an important contemporary subject that’s not a remake or sequel. Based on a memoir by Chris Kyle and directed by Clint Eastwood, who’s still got his fastball at age 84, American Sniper follows Kyle from his rural Texas childhood to the war in Iraq, where he became the most lethal sniper in American military history. Appealing to a rural audience that rarely sees people like themselves onscreen, the movie has exploded at the box office and attracted a lot of flak from critics and pundits, mostly for being insufficiently didactic about the relationship between 9/11 and the war in Iraq and for not portraying the Iraqi characters more sympathetically. The film’s commitment to Kyle’s point of view makes both complaints tantamount to saying Eastwood should have made a different movie entirely. Sniper does pull a few punches, no doubt with an eye on the box office, delivering a smoothed-over version of its protagonist. I also wish Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), had been given something to do during the middle stretches that didn't involve complaining about something. Still, buoyed by a career-best performance from Cooper, American Sniper is one of the more interesting war movies in recent memory, effectively visualizing Kyle’s PTSD-induced isolation from both his fellow soldiers and his family back home. Setting aside the politics of the war, the film nevertheless digs deep into the roots of American militarism and its consequences for the men who uphold its values. Chris Kyle may be a war hero, but he’s hardly a role model.

As for the other nominees, The Grand Budapest Hotel finds Wes Anderson doing his thing. I’m not a hardcore Anderson cultist and this wasn’t my favorite of his movies, but he’s a true original worthy of respect for carving out a nice career in an inhospitable industry. The nine nominations for Grand Budapest indicate that many Academy members feel the same, and I think there’s a good chance he receives what would amount to a mid-career lifetime achievement award tonight in the Original Screenplay category. Setting aside Whiplash, which remains unseen by me, we’re left with three middlebrow dramas of vastly different quality. Selma isn’t quite worth all the hand-wringing about its exclusion from the major Oscar categories aside from Best Picture, but it’s a solidly crafted docudrama about a critical episode in recent American history—just the type of mainstream drama that has often competed for this award. I was less enthusiastic about The Imitation Game, a mostly acceptable British prestige picture about Alan Turing and his ultimately successful effort to crack the Enigma code during World War II that devolves into unbearable and all because he was gay sanctimony in the last half-hour. I mean, it’s not like there’s anything from our era for future generations to tsk-tsk about. Last and certainly least, we have the Steven Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, a thoroughly uninteresting movie about a very interesting man.

Sorry for that detour into non-awesomeness. Really, those last two films aside, it’s not such a bad Best Picture field. Perhaps I’m mellowing as I move into middle age, but I just can’t muster the outrage required to get upset about the nominations anymore. Replacing the two rote British dramas with, say, Selma and Gone Girl would have made the Best Picture slate better and more diverse, but it wasn’t that many years ago when three or four of the then-five Best Picture slots were routinely filled by stodgy prestige dramas, with nary a nonwhite or female filmmaker in sight. Institutions change slowly, but they do change, and I expect the Oscars will continue to evolve in the coming years.

What’s indisputably getting better is the distribution of films online. Thanks to Netflix, Amazon, and other VOD services, I was able to catch up with most of the interesting 2014 releases I had missed, including many that never opened theatrically in my town. It’s taken a couple years longer than I would have thought, but film distributors are finally making the technology work for them and for us. As a result I’m quite pleased with my own Top 10 list (at the bottom of this post, below the picks), with fewer “I still haven’t seen this” caveats than in recent years.

Last year I griped about Ellen DeGeneres hosting the Oscars again, but she ended up being really good. I have high hopes for NPH this year. As for the predictions below, I’m going against the consensus on Best Actor and Best Song, with “Eveything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie upsetting Selma’s “Glory” in the latter category. Other close races include Editing, a three-way contest between Boyhood, Sniper, and Whiplash, and Sound Mixing, where either Whiplash or Sniper could win. And while three of the acting races have been locked since October, there should be plenty of suspense regarding Best Actor, Best Director, and maybe even Best Picture. Again, stay tuned for my Top 10 list at the bottom of the post.

Best Picture

Richard Linklater has been one of the most reliable American filmmakers of the past 25 years. I don’t think Boyhood is one of his very best movies—I’d recommend Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, or even the underrated Bernie—but it is a fine film and an altogether unique project, never to be repeated. This should be close and Boyhood may yet triumph, but I think the self-involved flattery of Birdman will be too much for the Academy, making it the third showbusiness movie to take the big prize in the past four years.

Will win: Birdman
Should win: Boyhood

Best Director

Never predict a split. I lectured extensively on this subject last year. So this one should go to Iñárritu. Of course I turned out to be wrong last year. And come to think of it, Picture and Director have split the past two years in a row. And actually the Directors Guild Award has been a more reliable predictor of Best Picture than Best Director over the years. And even if you didn’t love Boyhood, there’s something impressive about keeping a project like this going for 12 years…

W: Richard Linklater, Boyhood
S: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Actor

This category isn’t as strong as everyone seems to think it is. Cooper and Keaton are both fine, but the Academy screwed up by failing to nominate either Ralph Fiennes as the debonair hero of The Grand Budapest Hotel or Jake Gyllenhaal as the sleazy news videographer at the center of Nightcrawler. Redmayne seems to be the consensus choice here, with Keaton close behind him, but it's Cooper who best fits the profile of the established, mid-career star who tends to win this prize, and I can think of about 300 million other reasons why he might be the one walking to the podium tonight.

W: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
S: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Best Actress

The most pleasant surprise of the nominations was the appearance of Marion Cotillard in this category for her bravura performance in the terrific Belgian film Two Days, One Night as Sandra, a factory worker battling depression. Sandra spends a weekend visiting various coworkers to try and convince them to forego a 1000-euro bonus in exchange for keeping her job. It’s a tricky role. The movie wants you to be rooting for Sandra, even as her fragile mental state makes life difficult for those around her. Cotillard walks the tightrope perfectly. Directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have been cranking out aesthetically rigorous, politically astute, and spiritually challenging dramas, including a few masterpieces, for nearly two decades now. It’s nice to see one of their films recognized by the Academy. Anyway, Julianne Moore is going to win for that Alzheimer’s thing.

W: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
S: Marion Cotillard; Two Days, One Night

Best Supporting Actress

Boyhood was as much about Patricia Arquette’s Mom character as about her son. She gave the performance of a lifetime, allowing herself to age naturally for 12 years onscreen. This will be a landslide.

W: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
S: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Supporting Actor

Like the last two categories, the winner here is a foregone conclusion. I enjoyed both Ethan Hawke’s turn as the dad who grows up along with his son in Boyhood and Norton in Birdman, but I strongly suspect that J.K. Simmons’s universally acclaimed performance as a music teacher in Whiplash blows them both out of the water. So I'll withhold judgment.

W: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Screenplay, Original
W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Screenplay, Adapted
W: The Imitation Game
S: Inherent Vice

Animated Feature
W: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Documentary Feature
W: CitizenFour

Foreign Language Film
W: Ida

W: Birdman
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Production Design
W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

W: Boyhood
S: Boyhood

Visual Effects
W: Interstellar
S: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Costume Design
W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: Inherent Vice

W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Sound Mixing
W: Whiplash

Sound Editing
W: American Sniper
S: Interstellar

Original Score
W: The Theory of Everything
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Original Song
W: “Everything Is Awesome,” The Lego Movie

Animated Short
W: The Dam Keeper

Live Action Short
W: The Phone Call

Documentary Short
W: Joanna

And finally, my own Top 10 films of 2014. I hope to have a separate post about No. 1 sometime later this year, so I won’t say anything about it now.

1. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.)

2. Goodbye to Language 3D (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland-France)
See “First Impressions of Earth,” posted November 14

3. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)

4. The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann, France)
This 220-minute documentary can be thought of as an appendix to Lanzmann’s monumental 566-minute Shoah (1985), one of the essential works about the Holocaust in any medium. But The Last of the Unjust is a major work in its own right. The film is built around a week of interviews Lanzmann conducted in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last elder of the Jewish Council at the so-called “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt. Theresienstadt was maintained by the Nazis for public relations purposes (one of the film’s most remarkable sequences quotes at length from a Nazi propaganda film of the era), and Murmelstein, the only Jewish elder from any of the ghettos to escape the war alive, has remained a controversial figure among survivors. The interview segments are intercut with footage of Lanzmann, now in his late eighties, visiting sites discussed in the film. The loquacious Murmelstein dominates the film, as Lanzmann recasts the questions about moral responsibility that dogged Shoah onto one man, to compelling effect.

5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, U.S.)

6. The Immigrant (James Gray, U.S.)
This slow-building period piece represents a departure for Gray, possibly the best American director who remains virtually unknown to the general public. The terrific cast includes Marion Cotillard as the titular immigrant, along with Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner as a pair of cousins, who, each in his own way, help shape the course of her life in the new world.

7. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, U.S.)
I didn’t catch up with Interstellar until Christmas night, and my expectations were not high. The movie runs off the rails a bit in its final third, but for most of its first two hours this is sci-fi of the highest order, using its space travel plot to dig into some heavy material about parents and children, the nature of human community, and what we do or do not owe to one another. Critics who say its reach exceeded its grasp are not wrong. But no film reached farther last year. It’s Nolan’s best movie by a mile.

8. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, U.S.)

9. Gone Girl (David Fincher, U.S.)
This pitch-black satire of American marriage, directed by David Fincher from a screenplay by Gillian Flynn, who adapted her own novel, was hardly the most pleasant viewing experience of the year, but Best Actress nominee Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck both resist the urge to overplay their parts, and Fincher never lets the proceedings get too heavy.

10. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
The formalist critics liked this one, and for good reason. The story is structured like a videogame, each train car another world to be cleared.

Honorable mentions (alphabetical): Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, U.S.); Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund, Sweden); The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, U.S.); Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, U.S.); Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)

05 February 2015

Best Music of 2014

So this is embarrassingly late, even by my degraded standards of punctuality. Sorry about that. Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to get this post written is that, for the first time since 2009, I had trouble filling out my Top 10 albums list. I wouldn’t say it was a bad year for music. Regardless of one’s opinion about the state of contemporary music, we are most certainly living through a golden age of recorded-music distribution. With so much new music at our fingertips, it’s hard to conceive of an entire year being truly bad. But 2014 did feel a bit below average to me, at least in the rock, hip-hop, and electronica worlds that make up most of the new music I listen to regularly. And there were long stretches where I wasn’t listening to much new music at all, instead delving deeper into the catalogues of greats like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Lucinda Williams, and of course Neil Young. I even made a serious attempt to listen to Led Zeppelin.

Long story short, the list kind of drops off a cliff after No. 4, or maybe No. 5. I doubt anything below that would’ve made last year’s Top 10, and probably not next year’s either. That’s not to say there weren’t many enjoyable records released in 2014, just that the pool at the top was a bit shallower than usual. But the first four albums on the list below are genuinely terrific, and the others are all at least pretty good.

Also, this list is boring, which is another reason I’ve been putting it off. A whopping six of my Top 10 albums also finished among the 10 best in the recent Pazz & Jop poll. I’ve spent the 2010s oscillating between consensus-type lists in the even-numbered years and more leftfield choices in the odds, and form held this year. The only consensus favorite missing from my list is the inexplicably overpraised Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs. I’ll have an opinion on that one whenever the first song finally ends, which should be sometime in mid-June.

1. Run the Jewels—Run the Jewels 2
Killer Mike and El-P consciously invoked the spirit of hip-hop’s golden age with last year’s Run the Jewels mixtape, a triumph of streetwise bravado and taut, no-nonsense beats. But old school hip-hop wasn’t just boasting and battle raps. It was political too, as much by its very existence as the lyrical content of greats like Public Enemy. And so what could have been a mere victory lap became a major statement.

Unlike its predecessor, Run the Jewels 2 is a full-fledged studio album, and it sounds like it. El-P’s bring-the-noise production snaps with a crispness presumably impossible to get on the budget-constrained mixtape. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also sounds more forceful and confident as a rapper. Highlight “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” hums like a swarm of locusts, with El calling out the crimes of the rich and powerful in one breath and boasting of his sexual prowess in the next, to say nothing of advising his detractors to “go run naked backward through a field of dicks.”

But it’s still Mike’s show. From the already classic intro to the closing sendoff of “Angel Duster,” the Best Rapper Alive unleashes verse after verse of hard-hitting street politics. Complementing the tough-guy raps of “Blockbuster Night Part 1” and “Jeopardy” is the first verse of “Crown,” in which Mike struggles to forgive himself for the damage he caused during his days of drug dealing. Generally suspicious of organized religion, he’s dumbstruck by a former addict who’s found Christ and releases him from the pain he caused her. Mike’s full vocal range is on display in the second verse of “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” a riff on class, power, and privilege ostensibly about former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Mike tears through the verse with impressive technical virtuosity, subtly shifting his tone of voice and changing cadences on a dime.

And of course there’s the first verse of “Early,” a chilling account of a petty arrest that escalates into tragedy. I tried to write a post about RTJ2 back in November after seeing the group (a trio onstage including DJ Trackstar) play live, but my thoughts about the music got too tangled up in my frustrations about the Michael Brown shooting and associated events. I can’t really talk about “Early” now either, except to say that it's the song I will most associate with 2014, maybe not the best song of the year, but the most emblematic. It was only fitting that the Run the Jewels tour wound up in St. Louis the night the inevitable grand jury verdict was announced. And if you haven’t watched this yet, then you should. (“Early” “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”)

2. Aphex Twin—Syro
The first album in 13 years from Richard D. James under his primary Aphex Twin moniker is a triumphant return. Most of the tracks are based on the skittering rhythms of the ’90s drum-and-bass genre that James helped develop, built around melodic ideas that recur without ever quite repeating themselves. Staccato tones mingle with gauzy synthesizer washes, occasional human voices, nimble bass lines, and the (except in the final track) nearly ever-present beats to give each piece a unique texture. It’s intricate music that never sounds fussy, labored over just enough to achieve the illusion of effortlessness. James himself seems nonplussed, telling Pitchfork he didn’t think any of the tracks were particularly innovative and concluding, “It just totally makes me want to not do anything else in that particular style.” (Indeed, the recently released Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2 EP goes off in a completely different direction, with jagged, beat-driven pieces juxtaposed with brief piano interludes.) He’s not wrong that Syro doesn’t break a lot of new ground. Like most of the recent high-profile comeback albums—My Bloody Valentine’s mbv and Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love, as well as another we'll get to shortly—there’s more consolidation than innovation happening here. But James speaks a musical language all his own and accusing him of repeating himself would be petulant and absurd. His confidence and craftsmanship bring an unexpected warmth to a musical genre often described as chilly. Syro is a fun record, the most inviting of James’s career. In its own peculiar way, it’s nothing less than an expression of the pure joy of creating—which is to say, of being alive. (“CIRCLONT6A [syrobonkus mix]” “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]”)

3. FKA twigs—LP1
The year’s best debut album belonged to 26-year-old Tahliah Barnett (aka FKA twigs). Generically, LP1 scans as fractured R&B, with the spare arrangements at times evoking Prince (apparently a fan), but primarily rooted in various experimental British musical subgenres of the past two decades. Tricky’s Maxinquaye looms in the background, as it will, and slower songs like “Hours” and “Numbers” have the intimate feel of the XX. The lyrics mostly deal with love/sex/relationships, but often from oblique perspectives. The extraordinary “Pendulum” eyes a fading relationship, the cryptic lyrics and spacious production ceding the emotional heft of the song to Twigs’s soaring, multi-tracked vocals. Closer “Kicks” is a song about masturbation that’s not calculated to shock or offend, and the lustful “Two Weeks” appears to take place entirely inside the singer’s head. Twigs comes off as confident but vulnerable, inviting but never coy. That the album feels so unified despite the presence of nine producers (including Twigs herself, as well as the ubiquitous Arca) is a testament to the strength of an artistic persona that already appears fully formed. This was some of the most challenging, original music I heard in a year when too many artists played it safe. It actually stretched me a bit. (“Pendulum” “Hours”)

4. D’Angelo & the Vanguard—Black Messiah
You can tell who actually waited until the end of the year to make their best lists by whether Black Messiah showed up. This year’s Pazz & Jop winner, D’Angelo’s first album in 14 years, didn’t drop until December 15, well after the year-end deadlines of most magazines and websites. The comparisons to There’s a Riot Goin’ On don’t quite make sense to me—politics aside, D’Angelo is on a far different spiritual wavelength than Sly Stone was in 1971, and, unlike Sly, he’s basically a classicist—but this is a groove record, with D’Angelo’s vocals often buried in the mix. (A lyric sheet is essential here.) I don’t have much else to say about this one, but its many virtues—elegant compositions, precise arrangements, expert musicianship—are obvious enough. (“The Charade” “Really Love”)

5. Angel Olsen—Burn Your Fire for No Witness
The third album from Chicago singer-songwriter Angel Olsen stitches various threads of folk, rock, and country music into a reasonably coherent neo-Americana thing. Stylistically, the songs range from the fuzzrock of “Forgiven/Forgotten” to the acoustic dirge “White Fire” (think Leonard Cohen by way of Mazzy Star’s “Into Dust”) to the wistful lounge pop of “Iota.” As the title suggests, this music has a quiet strength at its core, a steely resolve possibly born of heartbreak. (“White Fire” “Hi-Five”)

6. Iceage—Plowing Into the Field of Love
After making the best punk rock album in years with last year’s You’re Nothing, the Danish trio takes a left turn into postpunk, lowering the tempo and volume, and echoing a more eclectic set of antecedents, including Nick Cave and the Libertines. Still only 22, singer Elias Bender Ronnenfelt tries on personas like hats throughout the record, from the privileged manchild of “The Lord’s Favorite” to the doomed romantic of “Against the Moon.” (“Stay” “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled”)

7. St. Vincent—St. Vincent
8. Spoon—They Want My Soul
Better than solid but not quite great, the latest from [St. Vincent/Spoon] is a triumph of tastefully arranged sonic clatter that lacks a standout song and doesn’t venture too far outside the comfort zone established by previous work. It’s not [her/their] best album, but nonetheless represents another strong entry from an indie stalwart. [(“Digital Witness” “Prince Johnny”)/ (“Outlier” “Rainy Taxi”)]

9. Flying Lotus—You’re Dead!
A jazztronica concept album about death seems like a tough sell. A sense of humor helps (note the exclamation point in the title), as does a relatively short running time. Still, I thought to myself, there’s something vaguely unsatisfying about this album that I can’t put my finger on. FlyLo has said he intended You’re Dead! to be listened to in sequence as a single piece, but perhaps the album was somehow less than the sum of its parts. And then came Robert Christgau’s capsule from last week, which I quote in full: “The problem isn’t that it’s less than the sum of its parts—the problem is that there is no sum, only parts.” Yeah, that was it. (“Coronus, The Terminator” “Moment of Hesitation”)

10. Cloud Nothings—Here and Nowhere Else
Singer Dylan Baldi and his band tend to go back to the same bag of tricks over and over (e.g., cranking up the volume halfway through the chorus, seemingly random screaming of lyrics), but with eight songs in just 32 minutes, this throwback to ’90s-style lo-fi hard rock doesn’t stick around long enough to become tiresome. Most of the lyrics deal with the loss of reality, so there’s that too. (“I’m Not Part of Me” “No Thoughts”)

Five runners-up (in alphabetical order)

Drive-by Truckers—English Oceans
The veteran Southern rockers return with their best album since 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. Lead Trucker Patterson Hood is a bit off his game this time around (at least until the majestic closer “Grand Canyon”) but bassist Mike Cooley, whose relative dearth of songwriting production normally relegates him to second-fiddle status, writes and sings half of the album, contributing most of the highlights. (“Made-Up English Oceans” “Shit Shots Count”)

Ex Hex—Rips
With her former Wild Flag bandmates returning to Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony starts something new with this trio, also including bassist Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris. Timony plays it straighter than usual on the guitar, but if you check any expectations at the door, these power pop tunes are plenty enjoyable on their own terms. (“Radio On” “How You Got That Girl”)

Liz Harris has been putting out music under the Grouper name for a solid decade now but had somehow escaped my notice until a few months ago. The songs are slow and quiet, with Harris’s voice and piano accompanied by ambient sounds. The atmosphere is so compelling, that the sudden beep of a microwave (I think) is truly jarring. This is the one I may regret not including in the Top 10, but I need to live with it through a few humid summer nights first. ("Lighthouse" "Call Across Rooms")

Julian Casablancas & The Voidz—Tyranny
People seemed actually upset about the existence of this album, which is reason enough to include it here. Tyranny could admittedly be described as “sprawling,” but I would argue this surprisingly eclectic work of noise-rock skronk is the most interesting Casablancas project since The Strokes’ also widely hated First Impressions of Earth. (“Father Electricity” “Human Sadness”)

White Lung—Deep Fantasy
I almost missed this one, mainly on account of a Pitchfork review that wrongly made it sound like a screeching ideological tract. This Vancouver quartet could be described as post-post-riot grrrl, or post-post-post-riot grrrl, or…something. Wait, one of them’s a guy? Whatever. It’s loud, it’s fast, it’s admirably brief (10 songs in 22 minutes!). It’s good. (“Down It Goes” “Face Down”)

Top 5 Songs Not on Those Albums

1. U2—“California (There Is No End to Love)”
Songs of Innocence will almost surely have a better reputation 10 years from now, once the actual music becomes separated from the album’s ill-conceived release strategy. But all that noise aside, it remains a strange U2 album. The band’s usual producers are unfortunately absent, Bono’s lyrics are unusually autobiographical, and most of the best songs are stacked toward the end. The spotty first half does have one classic U2 song, inspired by the band’s first visit to the West Coast.

2. Sia—“Chandelier”
This one goes some dark places for a pop song.

3. Real Estate—“Navigator”

4. Parquet Courts—“Instant Disassembly”
The centerpiece of Parquet Courts’ slightly disappointing second album channels Blonde on Blonde in a way I hadn’t heard in a while. The closing refrain sure took on a different meaning by the end of the year, though.

5. Cymbals Eat Guitars—“Jackson”