Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2015

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2015

Michael B. Jordan, Creed

Movie star acting is harder than it looks. Charming the audience isn’t always a natural act, and it can take more preparation than acting out an emotional scene. Director Ryan Coogler found himself a man who can do both in Michael B. Jordan. Adonis is a hard role to get right; Creed, in general, should not have worked. Coogler and Jordan found the right note between deference to the underdog story of the original movie and the swagger that Adonis has as a black man who had to prove himself time and time again. This new modern Rocky is an entirely different animal than the Italian Stallion. But the attraction to Jordan’s performance isn’t its modernity. No, this is a classic performance, through and through, and it will be remembered as such.

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

This one the Oscars got right. Well, kind of. They actually gave one to her for The Danish Girl. But history will remember her for her role as Ex Machina‘s android, Ava. There was not a more nuanced piece of acting this year, and few others in any other year. It’s hard to make robots interesting, and harder to pull off a robot who wants to be human. The last shot of Ex Machina, Vikander’s crowning achievement, contains volumes.

Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation

Another performance passed over by the Academy. Elba, who radiates charm in most of his roles, takes on a con man’s sleaziness here. He’s convincing both as the strutting commandant and then as a passed-over, drunken mess. It’s a role that could have been one-dimensional, nothing more than an accent. In Elba’s hands, it’s the pillar that holds up the movie.

Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria

Binoche has her Oscar, so she’s received her due as an artist, but how the awards groups turned a blind eye to this poignant part is beyond me. This part was tailor-made for other actors to give it attention- she plays an older (a relative term- Binoche is only 52) actress hired to act again in the play that began her career, but this time in the older role. Binoche grows increasingly desperate throughout the movie, finding the prospect of her career drawing to a close disheartening. The movie itself is rather dissatisfying, but the exactitude with which Binoche approaches her part stays with you.

Tom Hardy, The Revenant

For all the attention The Revenant was given for Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance (and make no mistake, it was a good performance), I would have preferred more of it be sent Tom Hardy’s way. He was nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar, but he should have won. More than one person has described Hardy’s character, Fitzgerald, as animalistic, but that’s because they mistakenly perceive his deep need to survive as inhuman. The key to Hardy’s performance is that he understands the most basic of humanity’s traits and makes it palpable: selfish greed.

Fifteen More

Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
Brie Larson, Room
Maika Monroe, It Follows
Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq
Géza Röhrig, Son of Saul
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria
Mya Taylor, Tangerine
Tessa Thompson, Creed
Jacob Tremblay, Room
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Past Top Fives

2014

Michael Keaton, Birdman
Edward Norton, Birdman
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida

2013

Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby

2012

Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

2011

Viola Davis, The Help
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Tom Hardy, Warrior
Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life

2010

Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Lesley Manville, Another Year
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Christian Bale, The Fighter

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2015

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2015

Top Twenty-Five: 25-11

songs0125. Ben Rector, “Paris”: I vividly remember falling in love with my wife in Norman, Oklahoma, but when I listen to this song, I momentarily believe every second of it happened in France.

 

songs0224. Nao, “Apple Cherry”: I don’t have Apple Music, so I haven’t heard Blonde yet, but it’s hard to fathom anything on it being smoother or sexier than this.

 

songs0323. Kendrick Lamar, “King Kunta”: Kendrick doesn’t do diss tracks, he does atomic bombs.

 

1545closed_GLUE22. John Moreland, “Cleveland County Blues”: There’s a lot of great folk music being made right now, but this is an Oklahoma-centric anthem that expresses what heartbreak is like out here in flyover country.

 

songs0521. Alabama Shakes, “Don’t Wanna Fight”: The Shakes took a leap in their newest album, and the psych-blues on this single are the perfect example of their newfound looseness.

 

songs0620. Sara Groves, “I Feel the Love Between Us”: Groves is an all-timer at this point, and this love song to marriage fits into her canon easily.

 

songs0719. Drake, “Hotline Bling”: If earworms are an art form, then “Hotline Bling” is its Campbell’s Soup Can: distilled down to its purest form, and walking the fine line between brilliant and stupid.

 

songs0818. Jason Isbell, “If It Takes a Lifetime”: Sobriety sounds downright impossible on the highlight from Isbell’s Something More Than Free, but he also makes it sound like the only option.

 

songs0117. Ben Rector, “Fear”: It still feels new to hear Ben Rector’s single “Brand New” on the radio, but I feel like I’ve had “Fear” with me my whole life.

 

songs0916. Shura, “2Shy”: A lot of pop songs take a direct approach to love and sex, but “2Shy” is the rare song that gets the subtle what-ifs exactly right.

 

songs1015. Tame Impala, “‘Cause I’m a Man”: Residing somewhere between AM and FM radio, “‘Cause I’m a Man” has nothing to say about sexiness or coolness, and everything to say about stumbling through life like a drunk.

 

songs1114. Chance the Rapper, “Somewhere in Paradise (feat. Jeremih)”: The first real hint of the gospel heights he would reach on Coloring Book, “Somewhere” is Chance’s freedom song, so it’s ours too.

 

songs1213. Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”: TPAB is Kendrick grappling with what it means to be black in America in 2015, and “Blacker” is its thesis.

 

songs1312. The Tallest Man on Earth, “Sagres”: I love Kristian Matsson’s music for its simplicity, but “Sagres”, a lament for the emptiness that follows a broken relationship, benefits from the space that his expanded production creates.

 

songs1411. Kacey Musgraves, “Biscuits”: Country music thrives on wordplay, and with couplets like “Mind your own biscuits / And life will be gravy”, Musgraves is clearly the queen of the genre.

 

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10. Miguel, “Coffee (F***ing) (feat. Wale)”: I think it’s important to keep the mystery and spontaneity alive in relationships. But “Coffee” makes the passionate case that sex should be as regular as your morning coffee. Feel free to argue with him, but he seems pretty insistent here.

 

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9. Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now (with Justin Bieber)”: Two years ago I would have told you I hated EDM. I would have told you it was cold and emotionless, that it lent itself to drug use, and I would have saved special derision for Skrillex. And now his song with Diplo and Justin Bieber is one of my favorite songs, so you might as well not listen to anything I’m saying now because it’ll soon be obsolete.

 

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8. Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”: This was such a left turn from everyone involved that people didn’t seem to know what to do with it. The proper response was total and complete submission to its effortless soul. Paul McCartney’s written countless hits, and Rihanna and Kanye have done big things in 2016, and yet this is the song from all of them that I keep going back to the most.

 

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7. Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”: This is a mean-spirited song disguised as a ballad which is a sort of cruel deception, but I don’t care. It’s essentially a diss track, a kiss-off with a perfectly nonchalant delivery and some truly unforgettable lines. We know Ed Sheeran wrote it but if Biebs didn’t contribute the line about his mom not liking Selena (and she likes everyone), I’ll be crushed.

 

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6. Alessia Cara, “Here”: Nothing was more satisfying than seeing this song, which is about a loner hating a party, turn into a party song. It’s like comic book movies becoming mainstream, or Kawhi Leonard outplaying LeBron in the 2014 Finals. Sometimes the popular kids lose, and the outcasts get a chance to shine.

 

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5. Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”: If this was a list of the most important songs of the year, “Alright” would be at the top. Shoot, it may be the most important song of the century, let alone 2015. But this is my list of my favorite songs, so it’ll have to settle for a lowly #5. That being said, no song on this list gets me as pumped up, especially in the face of all that’s happening in the world. I know it’s not a song that was written for me or people like me, but I feel such compassion for the black community that I can’t help but sing along.

 

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4. Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”: Dev Hynes’s Freetown Sound from earlier this year is the closest thing we’ve had in the 21st century to What’s Going On. I was disappointed to find that he hadn’t included last year’s “Sandra’s Smile”, an elegy in honor of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman found hanged in a Waller County, TX, jail cell. But upon reflection, “Sandra’s Smile” belongs on its own. It’s a beautiful song and would fit right in with the tone of Freetown. But as a statement it stands alone, and should, so that history remembers Sandra Bland, and the thirst for justice her death aroused.

 

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3. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”: Another, less Chance-centric example of his contagious joy in song form. Off of Surf, the debut album of Chance’s musical collective in Chicago, “Sunday Candy” is an explosion of pleasure. It starts with the playful opening piano and Chance’s soft rapping. Then it balloons into a gospel choir and a full-blown jazz orchestra. We know from Coloring Book that Chance and Donnie Trumpet know how to pack their songs with joy, but nothing they’ve made does this as effortlessly as “Sunday Candy”.

 

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2. Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”: This song may be the polar opposite of “Sunday Candy”. Where “Sunday” is overflowing with joy, “No Shade” is soaked in suffering. Written after Stevens’s struggle to cope with the death of his mother, the song expresses his inability to find comfort anywhere. As someone who has professed to be Christian and whom many assume is Christian, Stevens showed all his cards with this song. If Christ is supposed to give me peace or freedom or joy, why don’t I feel those things?

 

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1. Leon Bridges, “River”: I tend to be skeptical of comparisons to all-time legends like Sam Cooke, but Leon Bridges earns them. There was a soulfulness in Cooke’s music that no one since him has matched. I’m not prepared to anoint Bridges as his reincarnation just yet. But I’m willing to listen to arguments in favor. The first time I heard “River”, I knew I was hearing something deeper than just a nice-sounding soul song. It starts with the timbre of Bridges’s voice, which reaches an unimpeachable level of purity. It continues with the perfect sparseness of the production: just an acoustic guitar and a tambourine, and backing vocals from a choir. The purity of Bridges’s voice and the production are a reflection of the purity of the song’s spirit. Bridges, on this song, is a deer, panting for water, knowing that there is only one river that will satisfy his thirst. Only the most profound of hymns can articulate that need for Jesus with sufficient artistry; add “River” to their ranks.

Another Twenty-Five

Adele, “Hello”
Andrew Peterson, “The Sower’s Song”
ANOHNI, “4 Degrees”
Carly Rae Jepsen, “All That”
Caroline Spence, “Trains Cry”
Chromatics, “Just Like You”
Courtney Barnett, “Depreston”
Courtney Barnett, “Pedestrian at Best”
David Ramirez, “Hold On”
Gungor, “Us for Them”
Jamie xx, “Loud Places (feat. Romy)”
Janelle Monáe, “Hell You Talmbout (feat. Wondaland Records)”
Janet Jackson, “No Sleeep”
Jimmy Needham, “Vice & Virtue”
Justin Bieber, “What Do You Mean?”
KB, “Ima Just Do It (feat. Bubba Watson)”
Nadia Reid, “Call the Day’s”
Nao, “Inhale Exhale”
Rihanna, “Bitch Better Have My Money”
Sam Outlaw, “Country Love Song”
Samantha Crain, “Elk City”
The Weather Station, “Way It Is, Way It Could Be”
The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face”
The Weeknd, “The Hills”
The White Buffalo, “Where Is Your Savior”

Past Top Tens

2014

FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”
Strand of Oaks, “Goshen ’97”
The War on Drugs, “Red Eyes”
John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”
First Aid Kit, “Waitress Song”
Sia, “Chandelier”
Jackie Hill Perry, “I Just Wanna Get There”
Taylor Swift, “Out of the Woods”
Parquet Courts, “Instant Disassembly”
Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love Is Killing Me”

2013

Patty Griffin, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”
Disclosure, “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Jason Isbell, “Elephant”
Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”
Drake, “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)”
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Beyoncé, “Rocket”
Amy Speace, “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)”

2012

Jimmy Needham, “Clear the Stage”
Trip Lee, “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”
David Ramirez, “Fire of Time”
Lecrae, “Church Clothes”
Usher, “Climax”
Andrew Peterson, “Day by Day”
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, “When We Were Young”
Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion”
Christopher Paul Stelling, “Mourning Train to Memphis”
Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”

2011

Adele, “Someone Like You”
Cut Copy, “Need You Now”
Gungor, “You Are the Beauty”
Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”
Miranda Lambert, “Oklahoma Sky”
Jay-Z & Kanye West, “Otis”
Matt Papa, “This Changes Everything”
Over the Rhine, “Days Like This”
Gary Clark Jr., “Bright Lights”
Bon Iver, “Beth/Rest”

2010

Andrew Peterson, “Dancing in the Minefields”
Hot Chip, “Take It In”
Ben Rector, “Dance with Me Baby”
Kanye West, “Runaway (feat. Pusha T)”
Broken Social Scene, “World Sick”
Arcade Fire, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
Gungor, “The Earth Is Yours”
Kanye West, “Power”
The National, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Surfer Blood, “Swim”

My Old Job, My New Job, and In Between

Sometimes you just need a break.

This was how I felt in May, after the school year ended. Three years into my job as a speech-language pathologist for Oklahoma City Public Schools, I hadn’t even really thought about looking for another job. It’s hard to find a job with a schedule as enticing as a school job, and I liked working with the students. But in late May I saw a post on Facebook advertising a job at the J.D. McCarty Center here in Norman. I decided to apply.

As I went through the application and interview process, I began to realize something: the workplace where I had spent the last three years of my life was actively making me miserable. For three years, I convinced myself I was not miserable, but a new opportunity forced me to be honest with myself, and with those around me. I hated my job, and I couldn’t stand the thought of going back.

It wasn’t the students, whom I miss and worry about. It wasn’t my supervisors, who did everything they could to help out the many speech-language pathologists working for them. And it certainly wasn’t the schools themselves or my coworkers at those schools, all of whom were just struggling in a flawed system to do the best by their students.

The point of this post isn’t to point fingers or to even to delve into the many reasons why I didn’t enjoy my work. I guess I could blame any number of people if I wanted to. But I could just as easily blame myself. Work wasn’t ever meant to satisfy us; it was always meant to glorify God. Too often, I resented my job because it didn’t meet my expectations for what a job should be. But I know if I had leaned into Christ more, then He would have given me more than enough joy to help me through each day. And I didn’t.

But the past is past. I decided to leave, and J.D. McCarty was gracious enough to give me this new job. I’ve been there for a month, and while I still feel like a new employee, I’m in awe that it’s possible to look forward to going to work. I’d say it feels like home, except my home feels like home, and my work still feels like work. But I think it’s as close as work comes to feeling like home, and I never expected to feel that way about a job.

They say everything happens for a reason, which is fine, except I don’t think that’s very comforting when you don’t know the reason. Thankfully, I have a God who loves me and works everything for my good, even things that suck. I know that there is far worse suffering in the world, but dreading going to work in the morning is definitely a thing that sucks. And I’m fairly confident that all things that suck are designed to draw you closer to God, because they remind you that only God can satisfy you and only He is good.

So I needed a break in May. Not just from work, but also from writing. Honestly, writing started to feel like work, which is silly, since it’s just a hobby. So I took a break from writing, and it gave me perspective on why I write. It’s easy to get caught up in getting clicks and wanting to stay relevant, and I hope that after my hiatus I care less about that and that I just write for the sake of writing.

I only recently started to miss writing, so I think that’s a sign I should write again. I don’t know if this blog will look like it did before or look completely different. All I know is that I’m going to write what I want to write. The alternative is exhausting and work, and it’ll just make me need another break.

Finding Christ’s Joy in a Secular Rap Record

Finding Christ’s Joy in a Secular Rap Record

Some of my favorite music over the last ten years or so has been Christian rap. A lot of the artists that fall under that umbrella might quibble with that term, but it’s the most recognizable way to term artists as diverse as Lecrae, Andy Mineo, Shai Linne, and Customary- to name a few. It’s been nice to see the Christian music scene embrace a genre that was generally rejected by the dominant Christian culture (which, as far as the Christian media would have had you believe, was super-duper-white) for the majority of its existence.

Clean lyrics and a wholesome message are nice, but Christian rap has blossomed into much more than an acceptable alternative to secular rap. Artists are tackling all sorts of subjects, from the expected (racial reconciliation, sexual sin) to the unexpected but necessary (abortion, public education’s woes). They continue to approach their songs with Jesus as their king, and yet they haven’t confined their subject matter or lyrics to simply quoting Bible verses or to preaching at their audiences.

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Don’t get me wrong; there’s a place for that in Christian music- I point you to Shai Linne’s wonderful Lyrical Doxology series, which conveys catechistic theories without sacrificing the appeal of a good beat. But the gospel of salvation through Christ alone speaks to everything under the sun. It takes songs from a wide variety of perspectives, and about a wide variety of topics, to effectively communicate the vast expanse of the gospel’s power. Over the last decade, Christian rap has become the premier place in Christian culture for this kind of gospel extrapolation. And after Lecrae’s last album, Anomaly, debuted at No. 1 on the rap charts, its clear the Christian culture isn’t the only one paying attention.

Chance the Rapper is a, well, a rapper. He’s from Chicago, and he’s risen to prominence over the last few years with a well-loved solo mixtape, Acid Rap, and a well-loved album from his musical collective The Social Experiment, Surf, headlined by his good friend Donnie Trumpet. He became the first artist without a label to perform on Saturday Night Live last December, which speaks both to his meteoric rise and to the general direction of music (see: album sales, labels going under, rich people in charge losing their shit).

Coloring Book is Chance’s new album, released exclusively through Apple Music. This may be recency bias, but it’s mind-blowing how easily this album has dominated the conversation around music. The only record to inspire the same kind of rapturous think-pieces this year has been Lemonade, and that’s in a year that has seen releases from Kendrick, Kanye, Drake, Radiohead (!), Rihanna, country music savior Sturgill Simpson, and the blogosphere’s own James Blake. At this point, Chance is a phenomenon, and that might be an understatement.

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Not only is Coloring Book one of the biggest releases of the year, it’s also one of the most joy-filled albums of the year. And by joy I don’t mean happiness, though it is a very happy record in a lot of spots. I’m referring to the kind of joy from Philippians 3:1, where Paul tells the church in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord”; from Isaiah 58:14, where God tells his people that resting in Him on the Sabbath results in “delight”; from John 10:10, where Jesus tells the crowd that the life he gives is meant to be lived “abundantly”. And it’s not just the music that’s joy-filling- it’s a conscience, lyrical effort on Chance’s part to communicate that God is about joy.

There’s a moment on Coloring Book, following several songs where Chance not only refers to ignoring the devil and listening to sermons but devotes an entire song to how his devotion to God goes beyond the things of this world, when a gospel choir singing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” kicks in. I thought the song would transition to Chance’s rapping after the chorus, but the song goes on for two whole minutes. And then there’s a short excerpt from a sermon, saying “God is better than the world’s best thing.” And then Chance raps, expounding on the idea of freedom, and correlating his freedom from a label to his freedom in God. It’s a breathtaking example of the marriage of Chance’s lyrical virtuosity and his exuberance about Jesus.

Coloring Book is a record by Chance the Rapper, by the way. Did I already tell you that? Well, Coloring Book is a record by “Chance the m——–king rapper”, which is how he introduces himself on “Mixtape”, a song that features noted rapper-nihilist, Young Thug. This is the Chance the Rapper who openly admits to doing acid during the making of his last mixtape, which, if nothing else, was appropriate, since it was called Acid Rap. This is also the Chance the Rapper who on other points on Coloring Book raps about how he and his girl don’t have time to enjoy smoking weed anymore, about how he and a girl have grown apart because they do different drugs now, and about how he got his girlfriend pregnant.

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If you’re having trouble reconciling the Chance the Rapper who got his girlfriend pregnant with the Chance who wants everyone who listens to Coloring Book to know how great God is, that’s understandable. On one hand we have secular rap, which is unabashed about the realities its purveyors came up in: drugs, sex, greed. On the other hand, we have Christian rap, which, for a time, was almost comically scrubbed clean of profanity or references to struggling with the realities of sin.

Christian rap has allowed its subject matter to more helpfully reflect the world we live in without sacrificing the value of good theology. And secular rap has always been influenced by the African-American church culture. But I’m hard-pressed to remember when we’ve seen the two side-by-side like this in such a bold fashion. This isn’t simply references to Jesus and vague assertions of a hard lifestyle. Chance is taking the openness that has become the trademark of our best rappers (Kendrick, Kanye, Drake- even the aforementioned Young Thug) and applying it twofold to his love for both heavenly and wordly things.

But if we’re expecting authenticity from our artists, we have to accept this- even embrace it. While salvation is a fixed event, the following process of sanctification is far more fluid. Listening to Coloring Book, I feel like I’m hearing a man discovering how much better the pleasures of God are than the pleasures of the world and working out how to cope with that. I appreciate the way that Christian rap has thus far been able to provide an example of what joy in Christ looks like. But I also have a new kind of appreciation for what Chance the Rapper is doing: providing an example of what it looks like to discover that joy.

Batman v Superman v Captain America v Iron Man v Me

Batman v Superman v Captain America v Iron Man v Me

Superhero vs. superhero is the oldest trick in the comic book. One superpowered being pitted against another because of a difference in their deeply rooted principles, wreaking havoc  in the wake of their battle, with ramifications that echo throughout the comic-book universe, usually ending with tragic consequences, leading to regret and remorse and a new reason to fight another day. It breaks up the monotony of hero vs. villain, allows for the heroes’ character development to take interesting turns, and it’s super-easy to market. Just look at the ready-made taglines: Unstoppable force meets immovable object. A clash of titans. Two enter the ring, only one leaves. There will be blood. This time…it’s personal. Whose side are you on? Who will win?

I dare you to tell me which ones are the real taglines for these movies. If you guessed the two questions, congratulations! You don’t win anything, but you do get to be right. “Whose side are you on?” was Civil War’s and “Who will win?” was Batman v Superman’s. Those taglines are, uh…uninspired, to say the least. Granted, it’s not like Disney or Warner Brothers needed a tagline to sell tickets to these movies, but they could’ve at least acted like they were trying. At least “This time it’s personal” is corny. The only adjective the real taglines make you think of is “boring”. Or, I suppose, “uninspired”.

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Of course, “boring” is also an appropriate descriptor for at least one of these movies, and it certainly applies to the thought process behind the bare-bones structure of both of them. Another way of saying “superhero vs. superhero is the oldest trick in the comic book” is to say “oh shit, we don’t have anymore ideas.” After the tepid response to Man of Steel  by both critics and audiences, and while Marvel continued to have cinematic success after cinematic success, Warner Brothers and DC needed their next movie to make a statement, both for their bottom line and in order to set up their own movie universe. So they chose to pit their two greatest heroes (read: commodities) against each other. And Marvel and Disney, who have received most of their criticism for the handling of their largely mediocre villains (Loki notwithstanding), decided to make a movie that essentially eschews the villains altogether.

It’s all more complicated than “oh shit, we don’t have anymore ideas”- there are too many steps in the moviemaking process for it not to be. But that doesn’t mean the general sentiment isn’t true. Batman v Superman, which is a mostly well-cast, glossy blockbuster, also happens to be a boring slog with a bad screenplay. Jesse Eisenberg is a disaster as Lex Luthor. Someone really should have told him he wasn’t playing the Joker. But everyone else is likeable and does well with what they’re given, specifically Ben Affleck, who brings a fiery stoicism to a one-note character, and Gal Gadot, who gives the movie its only signs of life in her brief but fun appearance.

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While WB got most of the cast right, they got almost everything else wrong. There are no memorable action sequences; even the big, titular clash is uninspiring. The other superpowered characters who will appear alongside the Big Three in the upcoming Justice League movie (the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman) are introduced in little segments that are shoehorned into the larger plot. And while director Zach Snyder deserves credit for his often ambitious imagery and themes, good intentions do not a good movie make.

Marvel’s decision to utilize the Civil War storyline for its next Captain America movie stank of hubris with a faint whiff of desperation. Making plans for your movies years in advance can be practical, but it also assumes the audience’s appetite will look the same as it does right now. Marvel was fresh off the success of Phase 1 and in the middle of a well-received Phase 2, so they planned a release date for a story that in the comics was too bulky for its own good. The Civil War storyline in the comics was at its best at the micro-level, considering the effects of the superhero schism on its characters’ relationships, and not at the macro-level, forcing ramifications on every corner of the company’s fictional universe.

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Thankfully, what could have been a disastrous failure has turned into a resounding success. Captain America: Civil War, while teeming with nearly every hero in Marvel’s movie quiver and adding a couple more (the wonderful Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and the promising Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther), manages to be a relatively small-scale story. There’s no threat to the world, no unstoppable alien force to shoot out of the sky, no artificial-intelligence entity to unplug. This is ultimately a human-level story that cares just as much about the tensions between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers as it does about the action between Iron Man and Captain America.

And what awesome action! Unlike Zack Snyder, the Russo brothers seem to understand that movie fights can have intense stakes while also being fun. Civil War’s marketing sure didn’t make it seem like it would be as fun as it ended up being. The trailers for Civil War made it seem like it would be just as dour and lifeless as Batman v Superman. In fact, Civil War is far more nuanced than its “This time…it’s personal” marketing implied. And, for what it’s worth, “This time…it’s personal” would have been way too nuanced a tagline for Batman v Superman.

Civil War, though its marketing was markedly similar to BvS‘s, has grossed more worldwide in 2 weeks than BvS did in its entire run. There are other factors, to be sure, but it’s also sure that audiences responded better to Civil War living up to its hype than to BvS being nothing but hype. Both DC and Marvel went to an old trick to breathe some life into their franchises, but only one of them realized tricks only work if there’s a payoff.

Does Country Music Need Sturgill Simpson to Save It?

Does Country Music Need Sturgill Simpson to Save It?

Five years ago, if anyone were to ask me what kind of music I liked, I would have said, “Everything except country.” And a lot of my friends would have said the same thing. To be honest, I don’t remember my exact feelings on country music. I can’t say now whether I thought country music was too pop or if I thought it was too inauthentic or if I simply didn’t enjoy it. But I do know that there was a stigma against country music as it was five years ago among my friends who liked music.

Fast forward to 2015, and I love country music. Now, I’m not a Luke Bryan fan or a Keith Urban fan- when I say “country music”, I’m including everyone from Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe to Drive-By Truckers and Pistol Annies. You could call it “alt-country”, but I’m more inclined to call the genre establishment “country pop” and give my preferred artists the “country” label. But those are just labels, convenient signifiers for description. It’s all country music.

Sturgill Simpson is country music, and he’s my kind of country music. His last album, 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, got Simpson a lot of attention for its references to LSD and other psychotropic drugs, though he really only went psychedelic on one song, “Turtles All the Way Down”. The rest of the songs had references to Simpson hearing voices and smoking weed, but by and large he covers a lot of standard country topics: God, love, sin. It was a great record, but not as trippy or weird as people seemed to think.

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A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is another story entirely. The album essentially functions as a love letter to the singer-songwriter’s son, but that description alone hardly gives you an idea of what to expect. Opener “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” could be the opening number of a Broadway musical, with its theatrical arrangement and soaring verses. But halfway through the song, the Dap-Kings (old-school soul pros) kick it into high gear and give us a taste of the R&B sound that will pepper the entire album, from the rollicking “Keep It Between the Lines” to lead single “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”.

The titles of those two songs give you a hint of the lyrical content on A Sailor’s Guide. Simpson spends a lot of the record spinning poetic advice for his son, advising him at one point to “just stay in school / stay off the drugs” and then at another to “make sure you live a little / before you go to the great unknown in the sky.” But A Sailor’s Guide is more than a list of tips. Closer “Call to Arms” rails against the hypocrisy of the government and the media’s smokescreen coverage, and on “All Around You” Simpson delves into the mystic bonds that he believes tie us together. There’s even a cover of Nirvana: “In Bloom”, which takes on a whole new meaning as a country song. This album is country music, but it’s not just country music. It makes you wish more country artists had bigger aspirations.

Since the release of A Sailor’s Guide, there have been several pieces wondering if Simpson is country music’s savior. This thought assumes, of course, that country music needs saving, as if country music is any different than any other genre; all genres have their establishments, and their independent artists always struggle to break through. Just like pop or rap or even jazz, the popular stuff is often less adventurous and authentic. But there’s still good popular country (Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley), and, every so often, independent artists get their time in the limelight.

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Last August, Jason Isbell’s new album Something More Than Free reached No. 1 on the country charts, and Todd Snider declared “the war is over”. He meant that an artist who didn’t use the established system, who didn’t have a single pushed onto the radio disc jockeys, who went around the Music Row machine- an artist proved to the establishment that independent artists can reach the people too. Since then, Chris Stapleton, a long-time Nashville songwriter who finally got a major-label deal for the much-loved Traveller, has spent 20 weeks (20 weeks!) at No. 1 on the charts. In fact, only two other artists in 2016 have unseated Chris Stapleton at the top of the charts: Christian bluegrass group Joey + Rory and- you guessed it- Sturgill Simpson.

So is Sturgill Simpson country music’s savior? Well, if you think saving country music means country becoming more creative and free to try new things (so if you think country should be more like alt-country) then it seems as if Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton already saved country. Country music’s establishment has gone all of 2016 without a No. 1 album. Surely that means something!

Or maybe you’re a cynic and you think Stapleton, Isbell, and Simpson are blips in country music’s long track record of doing the same thing over and over again, and they’ll just keep trending towards pop country and ignoring the lessons of alt-country’s recent popularity. I’m a cynic, so that’s what I think is going to happen. But I also think country music never needed saving. No, country music was always just fine. Just because you had to look on its fringes, that didn’t mean it needed saving. If country music tries to do things resembling the creative freedom of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, then great. If country music decides to keep being mostly dull, then that makes the weirdness, the originality, the scope of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth that much more precious.

Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Songs

Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Songs

We’ve covered Dylan’s Top 12 Albums, so let’s move on to Dylan’s songs. I have to be honest though- the record companies have done a good job of fully cataloging Dylan’s career by releasing countless live albums and collections of all the different versions of even the deep cuts on his albums. So I’m sure there’s plenty I haven’t listened to, and even if I have listened to something, I may not have been able to give it a fair shake. So basically, if I leave something off, it’s not my fault, it’s Dylan’s for creating too much music.

The Top 25 Bob Dylan Songs

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25. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): Dylan was already known for his protest songs, but “It’s Alright, Ma”, recorded in one take, was different, replacing his previous tempered optimism with utter disillusionment.

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24. “Just Like a Woman” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): I’ve often struggled with the apparent misogyny of the lyrics (though whether or not Dylan was using sexist overtones to strike back at sexism itself is an arguable explanation), but the creativity of the lyrics and Dylan’s obvious fascination with this one woman pull me in regardless.

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23. “Not Dark Yet” (1997, Time out of Mind): On Dylan’s big ‘90s comeback album, “Not Dark Yet” stood out both for its ambient beauty and for its unrelenting optimism.

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22. “Maggie’s Farm” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): There seems to be confusion about whether the uproar over Dylan’s performance of “Maggie’s Farm” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was about opposition to his new musical direction toward electric guitars or about poor sound mixing, but the song remains a powerful statement of independence no matter what.

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21. “With God on Our Side” (1964, The Times They Are A-Changin’): It starts in a way that may convince you Dylan is showing a patriotic side, but as the lyrics progress this highlight from Dylan’s third album becomes a clear diatribe against the kind of political religiosity that still plays a role in America’s governmental goings-on.

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20. “Visions of Johanna” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): This is sort of the go-to song to demonstrate how inscrutable Dylan’s lyrics can be sometimes, and yet as you parse through the bars, “Visions” reveals itself as a lovely meditation on the space between desire and resentment.

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19. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan): Running 7 minutes long, “Hard Rain” is Dylan’s first protest epic, a desperate screed that eschews any sort of call to action for a simple prophecy of impending doom.

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18. “Tears of Rage” (1975, The Basement Tapes): “Tears” originally appeared on The Band’s debut album in 1968, but it didn’t come into its own until this original, collaborative recording was released 7 years later with a more collective anguish.

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17. “Simple Twist of Fate” (1975, Blood on the Tracks): On Dylan’s most heartbreaking album, this might be his most heartbreaking song.

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16. “Someday Baby” (2008, Tell Tale Signs): “Someday Baby” was a great single on 2006’s Modern Times, but this version on 2008’s Bootleg Series volume is lighter, more hopeful.

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15. “Hurricane” (1976, Desire): While lyrically it’s a simple exposé of America’s broken, racist justice system, “Hurricane” is one of Dylan’s most ambitious musical arrangements, using the fiddle to great effect, building on its themes from verse to verse, and ultimately contributing to a swell of support for boxer Ruben Carter’s eventual release from prison.

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14. “Girl from the North Country (feat. Johnny Cash)” (1969, Nashville Skyline): Nashville Skyline Dylan is the Dylan with the most interesting vocal performances, and none were better than this plaintive duet with the Man in Black himself.

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13. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (1973, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid): With a 2:29 run-time, “Knockin’” feels like one of Dylan’s more minor songs, and yet the simple melody of the chorus has had a major impact, and the song has gone on to become one of his most covered.

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12. “Shelter from the Storm” (1975, Blood on the Tracks): Dylan is known for his croaky voice, his acerbic wit, and his protest music, but “Shelter” is an example of something he should get more credit for: being able to write a beautiful love song.

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11. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): It might be going too far to claim Dylan was the protogenitor of rap, but “Subterranean” finds Dylan right at his sweet spot for using rhythm and rhyme to get across a certain dissatisfaction.

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10. “Lay Lady Lay” (1969, Nashville Skyline): Dylan gets his closest to a typical vocal delivery on Nashville Skyline, and “Lay Lady Lay” just may be his most beautiful song. I remember hearing it on The Essential Bob Dylan when I was first discovering his music and thinking it was a completely different artist. Every so often, Dylan succumbs to his romantic side, and “Lay Lady Lay” is the purest version of it.

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9. “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): Speaking of romance, here’s an 11-minute song about Dylan’s then-new wife! Remember that thing I said about “Lay Lady Lay” being the purest version of Dylan’s romantic side? Well, “Sad-Eyed Lady”, which closes the brilliant Blonde on Blonde, is Dylan’s romantic side at its most utterly Dylanesque, from its epic run-time to its absurd imagery.

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8. “Mississippi” (2008, Tell Tale Signs): The Bootleg Series collections of the vast troves of Dylan’s unreleased material recorded both live and in-studio, are invaluable and fascinating. But the best is Vol. 8 and its three versions of “Love and Theft”’s “Mississippi”, which is a remarkable song all on its own. But what’s more remarkable is how each version is great in its own way, though I prefer the one that appears first on Tell Tale Signs for the thoughtful way it rolls along to its understated conclusion.

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7. “Desolation Row” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited): In the 2010s we know all about the extended length of Dylan’s songs, but when Highway 61 Revisited was released with an 11-minute folk epic at its end, it was new ground for Dylan. While some of Dylan’s longer songs can become tiresome, “Desolation Row” never gets old, perhaps because it was his first. The surreal world Dylan builds over the song’s run-time is as vivid now as the first time I heard it, like a recurring dream .

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6. “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): I made the decision beforehand that Dylan songs with superior cover versions wouldn’t make it on the list, which is why “All Along the Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix), “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (June Carter and Johnny Cash), and “I Shall Be Released” (The Band) didn’t make the cut. The Byrds recorded a sublime version of “Tambourine”, and I do like it better than Dylan’s, but Dylan’s remains iconic. Where “Desolation Row” would paint a surreal picture of chaos later that year, “Mr. Tambourine Man” painted a surreal picture of peace, and it’s a peace that has never stopped resonating with me.

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5. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan): There aren’t too many surprises from here on out- maybe #1, but the next 4 at least are all-timers, the songs a Dylan layperson could pick out of a lineup. “Don’t Think Twice” was the B-side to Dylan’s breakout single, “Blowin’ in the Wind”. On the A-side, listeners got their first taste of Dylan’s protest chops, and on the flip side was one of Dylan’s most personal songs ever, a quiet dismissal of a lover’s selfishness.

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4. “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan): I think it’s easy now to dismiss “Blowin’ in the Wind”. As Dylan’s breakout single, it’s been around longer than any of his other songs, and he would go on to write far more complex songs and to craft an entire persona beyond the simple protest folk artist he started as. But the separation between the artist Dylan was and the artist he became actually contribute to the purity of “Blowin’” in retrospect, making it not only one of his best songs but a timeless one.

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3. “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited): This was Rolling Stone’s top song of all time, which is a fine choice, even if they were undoubtedly a little biased. The amount of hype “Rolling Stone” has gotten throughout music history should have outstripped its quality by now. But the lead track on Highway 61 Revisited is such an impeccably structured masterpiece with so much vitriol baked into its bars that its quality will always remain undeniable.

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2. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1964, The Times They Are A-Changin’): Like “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Times” has become overshadowed by the vast catalog that followed it. But “Times” is Dylan adopting the stance of a prophet unwelcome in his hometown, and the message he’s proclaiming has the distinction of defining not only its own era but every era since. The times indeed are changing, and we just can’t keep up.

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1. “Tangled Up in Blue” (1975, Blood on the Tracks): The best Dylan song is also the saddest, the loneliest, the realest. The lyrics take some surreal turns, but by and large they concern the end of a relationship. Finding specific meanings in Dylan songs is often a fruitless exercise. He deals more in vignettes and moods than in lessons or themes, and “Tangled Up in Blue” is a myriad of vignettes all in one mood: longing. I first found “Tangled Up in Blue” while I was happy in a relationship, but I didn’t fall in love with it until I experienced some heartbreak. You can appreciate the song while you’re happy, but it won’t be until you’re broken that “Tangled” truly inhabits you.