Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2017

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2017

Oscar season has begun, so what better time to look back at last year’s best of the best? Awards season is always busy and fraught with narrative. It can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in the midst of so much noise. I always benefit from months of remove to determine what I actually prefer.

It was a good year for the movies, but a great year for performances. A few notable performances that did not make my list:

  • Margot Robbie or Allison Janney, I, Tonya: I love Janney, but her character is cartoonish in this movie. Robbie is very good, but the movie and its characters didn’t resonate with me at all. I found the screenplay very surface-level and uninteresting, playing at stereotypes rather than nuance.
  • Sam Rockwell or Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri: I liked both of them in this movie, but neither of their characters has that many notes to play in this screenplay. Also, they both pale in comparison to Frances McDormand, at no fault of their own.

Here are the contenders for the best performance of 2017:

Top Ten

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10. Robert Pattinson, Good TimeIf you don’t pay attention to indie cinema, you probably only know Pattinson as the sparkly Edward from the Twilight series, but Pattinson has been quietly building a reputation as a serious actor willing to take risks in collaborations with directors as varied as David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis), David Michôd (The Rover), and James Gray (The Lost City of Z). There are times in the Safdie brothers’ (Heaven Knows WhatGood Time where you could convince yourself that Pattinson’s Connie truly cares about his brother, but by the end of the movie it’s hard to believe he cares about anyone but himself. Pattinson gives us a portrayal of a true con man: he’s conning himself too.

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9. Colin Farrell, The Killing of a Sacred Deer: I could have easily slotted any actor from Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated The Lobster; they’re all that good. But Farrell is the natural choice, since the central conflict- one of his family members, his wife, his daughter, or his son, must die to save the other two- revolves around his decision-making. The impossibility of both the decision and the circumstances surrounding his family are evident in the tension in Farrell’s body and face throughout the entire movie.

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8. Zoe Kazan, The Big SickAs great as The Big Sick is, it would not work without an actress as strong as Kazan. Kumail Nanjiani is hilarious, and this role (as himself, which couldn’t have hurt) is the most natural he’s ever been onscreen, but without Kazan’s mix of confidence and doubt, The Big Sick would just feel like a showcase for Nanjiani as a comedian. With Kazan, the story feels like it’s about real people.

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7. Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out: When I first saw Get Out, I appreciated the movie far more than I appreciated Kaluuya’s performance, thinking of him as a cipher that the brilliant story carried along with it. But rewatching the movie, it becomes clear how much work Kaluuya is doing at every point in the movie, whether it’s to maintain his cool surrounded by weirdness or to hold on to reality before falling into the Sunken Place. Kaluuya is not an emotive actor, but that’s a good thing; his strength in Get Out is how he portrays Chris actively trying to hold up a front while his emotions burst through anyway.

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6. Nicole Kidman, The Beguiled: Nicole Kidman continues to make wonderfully offbeat choices for her career, eschewing mainstream roles (which probably also speaks to the quality of the roles offered to a woman in her 50s) for prime starring roles under talented directors like Yorgos Lanthimos in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Sofia Coppola in The Beguiled. As the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school in Virginia during the Civil War, Kidman struggles to hold the school together after a Union soldier turns up wounded on the school grounds. The sexual tension that plays out after his arrival is delightful, and Kidman’s character is not immune, but it is a joy to watch her choose between her desire and her principles.

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5. Meryl Streep, The Post: Oh, how original, putting a Meryl Streep performance in the Top Ten. Yes, but did you see this Meryl Streep performance? While Tom Hanks chews the scenery as Washington Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (and I mean that as a compliment), Streep’s turn as the newspaper’s owner grounds the movie in real concerns over a woman’s (lack of) power and control in a field dominated by men.

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4. James McAvoy, Split: This role could have been so laughable- a multiple-personality horror-movie villain? Give this role to an actor who’s not ready for it, and it could derail the whole concept. But McAvoy is a revelation, jumping easily between personalities as varied as an uppity British woman named Patricia to a frightened little boy named Hedwig.

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3. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird: Saoirse Ronan is 24 years old and already nominated for three Oscars, so she doesn’t need any praise from me to validate her talents. But I’ll do it anyway: Ronan is the best young actress of her generation. At some point they tried to make her into a young-adult star, but thank God that failed, because watching her thrive equally well as a willful Irish woman in Brooklyn and as a lost Catholic schoolgirl in Lady Bird has made Oscar season fun the last few years.

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2. Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your NameThere’s a lot to process about the quality of Chalamet’s performance in this movie. He certain doesn’t stand alone. He has a great script that provides him ample opportunity to showcase emotions and internal reactions. Chalamet also stars in the best-directed movie of the year, with beautiful shots and locations to frame his character’s coming-of-age story in the most idyllic way possible. And his costars are seasoned performers at the top of their games, so surely their presence elevated his performance.

There may be a mathematical way to separate out all these factors and truly rate a performance for what the actor does on his own, but I don’t know it. I can only report how I respond to a performance, and Chalamet’s performance moved me deeply. I saw so much of myself in his character, Elio, as he stumbled along the path to discovering a little more of who he is.

The clip in the link is a great example of how I felt much of my teenage years: struggling to project confidence while actually being self-conscious about my imperfections and body and sexuality. There is another scene in the movie in which Elio collapses in tears against Oliver (Armie Hammer) out of shame and fear that he will lose him. It’s by God’s grace alone that I don’t perpetually live in that state.

Chalamet also featured in another Best Picture contender from last year, Lady Bird, as an aloof sexual partner for Ronan’s Lady Bird. He actually has one of the best lines in the movie: “You’re gonna have so much unspecial sex in in your life.” Elio could never say that line; he could never be cynical enough, and it’s a sign of Chalamet’s talent that both characters feel real. Chalamet has the potential to be a big star, an Oscar winner (this year, maybe!), and a generation-defining actor. If he does do big things, it will all have started with this simple, sad, soulful performance.

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1. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water: Hawkins has impressed me before, most notably in Happy-Go-Lucky as an always-look-on-the-bright-side schoolteacher. But she reaches another level in The Shape of Water as Elisa, a mute janitor for a government lab. The Shape of Water is a fantasy movie in which Elisa falls in love with a humanoid river creature. I could write so many words about this movie and the deft way it speaks for those who are silenced by society, but I’ll focus on her performance for now.

We never find out why Elisa is mute, only that there are scars on her neck, so the movie implies her mutism is the result of some sort of trauma. Regardless, she has no voice. No voiceless performance should have the range that Hawkins displays here, giving us moments of pure bliss and then moments of desperation, such as in the clip in the above link. The intensity in her expressions and her signs in that scene are palpable, as she pleads for the life of the creature she loves. She struggles against her mutism to be heard by her best friend (Richard Jenkins), striving against hope to get through to him that they must save her love.

Most of you probably know that I’m a speech-language pathologist, and some of you are most likely aware that I have a stutter. I don’t talk or write about it much, mostly because I don’t find it that interesting. It’s been my reality for 29 years, and on top of how mundane it seems to me, it’s a pretty mild stutter. I promise that isn’t false humility or an attempt to deflect; I may be the only person you’ve come across with a speech impediment that lasted into his adult life, but so many people have much more trouble communicating than me.

That being said, because of my fluency difficulties, I have a small taste of what it’s like to have trouble communicating. The one that gets on my nerves the most is that my jokes don’t land- my stutter ruins my comedic timing. That’s small, but making your friends laugh and seamlessly working a joke into a conversation is a gift, and it’s frustrating that sometimes I just make group situations awkward. On top of that, I know what it’s like for people to make judgments of you based on one characteristic: that I’m not smart because I have trouble telling you my name, or that I’m a nervous person because I stutter when I meet you and can’t look you in the eye while it’s happening.

That’s about as hard as it gets for me though. So many of our patients at the J.D. McCarty Center are essentially trapped in their bodies without a voice or even a functional way to communicate. I’ve had students with debilitating stutters, where they can barely get through one word without stuttering. I’ve worked with stroke patients who will never get their original communication skills back, and the best I can do is tell them we’re going to our best to help them. Their stories are hard when you consider their disabilities alone. Their stories get harder when you realize that some of them have no one advocating for them.

The Shape of Water is a movie, not real life. But I believe stories have power, if not to change the world or change lives outright, then at least to provide the initial push toward that change. Sally Hawkins’s performance as Elisa is speaking for all those people who cannot speak for themselves. The Shape of Water extends this outside of those who truly cannot speak to those who are too marginalized within society to be heard, whether because of their sexuality or their race or their gender.

The movie is great, but it hinges on Hawkins’s ability to communicate that desperation to be heard. I cry thinking about that above clip, because she’s so successful. My hope is that people who have been hardened to the needs of others are softened by her portrayal of the voiceless. I have been.

Another Fifteen Contenders (alphabetically)

2018performancebummys11Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, BPM (Beats Per Minute): Watching a character suffer through AIDS is always tough, but before Biscayart begins his descent, he gives us a man so vibrant and passionate that it makes watching him fade all the more difficult.

 

2018performancebummys12Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project: As the beleaguered manager of a motel near Disney World, Dafoe has never been warmer or more lovable.

 

2018performancebummys13Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread: Day-Lewis needs no more accolades, but it must be said that this may be his most delightful performance.

 

2018performancebummys14Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant: I’ve loved the past two Alien movies, even if they didn’t quite reach the heights of the original, but I have to admit that Fassbender is the main reason for any non-fan to watch either Prometheus or, especially, Covenant.

 

2018performancebummys15Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread: As delightful as Day-Lewis is, he is nearly outdone by Krieps, in her acting debut, as an ingenue who proves to be every bit Day-Lewis’s designer’s match.

 

2018performancebummys16Jennifer Lawrence, mother!: mother! is better experienced than described, but Lawrence deserves more attention than she received for carrying such an ambitious movie.

 

2018performancebummys17Sophia Lillis, It: Lillis’s Beverly could have easily been the Losers Club’s manic pixie dream girl, but she breathes more life into the movie than the rest of a very good cast of kids.

 

2018performancebummys18Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Frances McDormand is a national treasure, and she deserved this Oscar, for all the curse words, yeah, but also for the rare moments in Three Billboards when she lets her guard down.

 

2018performancebummys19Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird: Portraying motherhood in cinema can be a thankless task, even when the role is as well-written as Metcalf’s is here, but her warmth would have lifted any role.

 

2018performancebummys20Carey Mulligan, MudboundMary J. Blige got the Oscar nomination, and she is good in Mudbound, but I came out of Mudbound most impressed with Mulligan’s mix of resilience and desperation.

 

2018performancebummys21Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour: This is the kind of performance that the Academy drools over, but Oldman, for all his scenery chewing, gets at the quiet moments in Churchill’s everyday life as well.

 

2018performancebummys22Brooklynn Prince, The Florida ProjectIt’s difficult to judge child actors, because they’re often doing something very different from adult actors, but it’s impossible not to recognize how brilliant Prince is in The Florida Project, because most child actors have a hard time balancing petulance with legitimate feelings, and she seems to have no trouble at all.

 

2018performancebummys23Patrick Stewart, Logan: Stewart must have had so much fun making Logan, more than the other X-Men movies, and not just because he got to curse, but because he got to do more than be concerned about the fate of his students or play at the stern father.

 

2018performancebummys24Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name: The performance on the whole is too slight to be in my Top Ten, but his end-of-the-movie monologue alone deserved an Oscar.

 

2018performancebummys25Izabela Vidovic, Wonder: Wonder is obviously Augie’s story, but my heart went out to Via as his caring sister, who understands why she doesn’t get as much attention as Augie, but still longs to be noticed.

 

Past Top Tens

2016

Natalie Portman, Jackie
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Amy Adams, Arrival
Colin Farrell, The Lobster
Sasha Lane, American Honey
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Emma Stone, La La Land
Andrew Garfield, Silence
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

2015

Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq
Brie Larson, Room
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Maika Monroe, It Follows

2014

Michael Keaton, Birdman
Edward Norton, Birdman
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Emma Stone, Birdman
David Oyelowo, Selma
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beyond the Lights

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
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners

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
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Dane DeHaan, Chronicle
Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises

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Retro Bummys: Best Movies of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Movies of 2008

Ten years ago, our cinematic conversations didn’t revolve around Marvel and Netflix. Now those two monoliths dominate the narrative, and blockbusters dominate the year, instead of just the summer. The movie landscape looks different, and you can trace it back to this year.

Obviously Iron Man was released, so the Marvel Cinematic Universe began its industry takeover. But 2008 was when Netflix solidified its commitment to streaming, changing the industry in so many ways. You can blame the expansion of the summer blockbuster season to the whole year on Netflix for forcing the studios’ hands. In order to compete with streaming, studios can only afford to invest their money in movies with the potential for big returns. They can no longer subsist on the mid-budget movies that used to fill the colder months.

It’s only fitting then that two of 2008’s three best movies were blockbusters: The Dark Knight and WALL-E. They’re exemplars for how to use broad cinematic language to tell universal truths. But then the rest of my top movies is filled out with indies. The second best movie of the year may be the least expensive on the list. Greatness comes in many forms.

Top Ten

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10. The Class: I haven’t seen anything else that French director Laurent Cantet has made, but if his other movies are anything like The Class, I need to remedy that immediately. This movie follows a white English teacher (François Bégaudeau, who wrote the memoir the movie was based on) teaching in a racially-mixed, interurban school. This isn’t Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers; François’s goal isn’t inspiration but engagement. The movie shows him walking the line between discipline and mutual respect. Having worked on his side of the racial divide in a school, I can tell you that the conflicts that arise are just as frustrating as real life.

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9. Anvil: The Story of AnvilThe title to this movie could not be more appropriate; this movie is indeed about the story of Anvil. So many critics called this a real-life This Is Spinal Tap when it was released. While it’s hard to argue with that epithet, it’s still not really enough of a descriptor. Anvil was the most heart-breaking movie of 2008, and not because the band never really achieved fame or success. No, it’s heart-breaking because this band still wants fame and success after all their failure.

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8. In BrugesNot enough movies are able to hold both comedy and tragedy equal within their run-times. We either get lower stakes because the movie really just wants your laughs, or the jokes are just window dressing to lighten up the mood every once in a while. In Bruges somehow commits fully to both, eliciting uproarious laughter one second and tears the next, over and over again. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are superb as bumbling hitmen with feelings, and Ralph Fiennes is a sinister yet empathetic mob boss. The real star is the Belgian town it all takes place in (pronounced “broozh”), with its fog and its canals, though the town isn’t as funny as the people.

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7. Let the Right One In: There are some movies that go places you never would have dreamed of. Let the Right One In is such a movie. On the one hand, it’s a vampire movie, filled with similar tropes to what you expect. On the other, it’s a movie about children and trauma, viewed through a supernatural lens. It’s horrifically disturbing at points, but never anything less than true.

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6. Slumdog MillionaireThe Best Picture winner at the 2009’s Oscars was my favorite movie of 2008 (until I saw the top movie on this list). I understood that the story was contrived, but the fairy-tale nature of it hooked me and reeled me in. Looking back, it’s easy to see how the movie and the circumstances surrounding its making, including the well-being of the child actors pulled from the slums, are troubling. But director Danny Boyle gives the voices of the story to the Indian actors, telling the story through their eyes rather than a white man’s or woman’s. It’s fantastical, but never nonsensical, and it still works on me, even though I’m ten years more jaded than I was when I first saw it.

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5. Tell No OneGreat mystery movies are few and far between, because it is too easy to see plot points coming, or the plot is too convoluted or contrived to continue caring. Tell No One is a perfect puzzle of a mystery movie, and it comes out of France from director Guillaume Canet, who has directed nothing else of note. That may be appropriate, because it’s hard to imagine that all the ideas packed into Tell No One left anything in Canet’s brain. The plot of the movie plays like a film noir, but one set in a lush, colorful dream world. You may see the ending coming, but I did not, and the story was rich enough that it did not matter either way.

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4. Milk: Director Gus Van Sant (Good Will HuntingDrugstore Cowboys) has directed 17 movies to date, but it seems that he reserves one movie per decade to be the movie that he pours his heart into. The ’80s had My Own Private Idaho with River Phoenix, the ’90s had Good Will Hunting, and the ’00s got Milk. Much of Milk, which is a biopic about Harvey Milk’s political rise and assassination, stays true to the biopic formula. But there are several scenes in which Van Sant’s own staging and cinematic eye elevate what could have been just a hagiography into art, including a campaign party montage that gets sexual and the assassination scene itself. Sean Penn’s performance as the first openly gay man in public office in America grounds the movie in its themes: freedom needs to be fought for, and the fight isn’t over.

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3. The Dark Knight: The best superhero movie of all time is still The Dark Knight and, up until this year, it wasn’t close. The Nolan Batman movies all did something a little bit more with the concept of the superhero than any other attempt has. All three movies, but especially The Dark Knight, subsist on more than just plot and action: they feast on the very idea of heroism itself. It would be easy to dismiss The Dark Knight as only a showcase for Heath Ledger’s brilliance. But the movie itself is meticulously constructed to turn heroism and our expectations of our heroes upside-down.

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2. Chop Shop: With the advent of unlimited special effects possibilities and the potential for sequels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that big-budget movies should be bastions for imagination and creativity. You can truly tell any story when money is no object, you might say. But history has taught us that the more dollars involved, the more reasons to say no. For this reason, even with all its budgetary limitations, independent film is the unlimited industry. When making money isn’t the goal, people’s stories get told that you would have never looked twice at before.

Chop Shop, by Iranian-American indie auteur Ramin Bahrani, is what happens when you believe any story is possible. Two Latino children, Ale and Isamar (played by Alejandro Polanco and a luminous Isamar Gonzales), struggling to survive on the streets of New York, would never be the stars of a studio tentpole. Their story of the American dream, saving up to buy a taco truck, would never be the plot of a blockbuster. The imagery Bahrani’s cinematography uses, especially in the last shot of pigeons soaring into the sky from the ground, could never be matched by the highest-tech computer effects. Chop Shop isn’t just indie cinema at its best; it’s cinema at its best.

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1. WALL-E: Once in 2011 when I told a friend that Rango was my favorite movie of the year, he gave me an incredulous look and said, “An animated movie?” I’m not sure if the stigma is that animated movies are for kids or just that they don’t tell the same kinds of stories as live-action movies, but I’m here to tell you that animated movies are often far more imaginative. There’s a sense with animation that anything is possible, and there are no limits.

This has never been truer than with WALL-E. It’s not hyperbole to say that WALL-E changed the industry and expanded the boundaries for the kinds of stories animation could tell. There is a rich history in 2-D animation of using the full expanse of the wide-screen, but CGI had barely scratched the surface up to this point. Attempts with the form were clunky (Treasure Planet) or under-realized (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within). I guess when this is the perception of CGI movies going for something big, then I should expect surprise when I rate them highly.

Usually you either have to skimp on the visuals or sacrifice the story, but WALL-E is beautiful in its story and its images. Normally, a movie that deals with robot loneliness in its first act and environmentalism in its second would not be appealing, but director Andrew Stanton (Finding NemoFinding Dory) and his Pixar animators find the pathos in the titular character’s cogs and gears, and we feel both his loneliness at the beginning and his hope when he meets the newer robot, EVE. A marriage of classic cinematic influences with a forward-looking story helps elevate the second act into more than just a screed against toxic wastefulness. It’s a vision for a way forward; you almost forget it comes from a computer.

 Another Fifteen (alphabetical)

2008movies11Ballast: A beautiful indie about the violence of poverty and broken homes.

 

2008movies12Bolt: I was skeptical of this non-Pixar Disney offering, but it’s surprisingly strong.

 

2008movies13Cloverfield: Somehow this turned into a franchise, when it feels more like a great, stand-alone one-off.

 

2008movies14The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Overwrought and overlong, yes, but that’s kind of the point?

 

2008movies15The Edge of Heaven: Turkish-German director Fatih Akin returned to acclaim last year with the Golden Globe-winning In the Fade, so it’s worth going back to watch this little gem, about how happenstance becomes significant in one’s life story.

 

Film Title: Forgetting Sarah MarshallForgetting Sarah Marshall: It will forever be known as the movie in which Jason Segel goes full-frontal for laughs in the opening scene, but this is a smart, soulful comedy that deserves more attention.

 

2008movies17Gomorrah: It’s been adapted into a relatively acclaimed TV show on SundanceTV, but the movie is an evocative exploration of the Italian mafia’s impact on ordinary people in Naples.

 

2008movies18Happy-Go-Lucky: A wonderful showcase for one of The Shape of Water‘s Oscar nominees, Sally Hawkins, as a grade-school teacher who is…well, you know.

 

2008movies19Iron Man: Where the franchise began, and where the franchise was less focused on being a franchise and more focused on telling a contained story well.

 

2008movies20Revolutionary Road: If you don’t like being emotionally drained, steer clear of this drama, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as a self-destructive 1950s married couple.

 

2008movies21Shotgun Stories: Director Jeff Nichols’s debut, and as insightful a look at life in rural Arkansas as the Jennifer Lawrence-starring Winter’s Bone two years later.

 

2008movies22Tropic Thunder: Ben Stiller has been able to do pretty much anything he wants to do in his career up to this point, so I’m glad he decided to make a war-movie parody that actually works.

 

2008movies23Trouble the WaterNew Orleans native Kimberly Rivers Roberts filmed Katrina from within the Ninth Ward, and it became this extraordinary document of how the devastation was set up to happen before the storm ever arrived.

 

2008movies24The Visitor: A little white-saviory, but star Richard Jenkins is too empathetic an audience proxy to dismiss the movie outright.

 

2008movies25The Wrestler: Director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swanmother!) is usually more adventurous than this simple story of a pro-wrestler (Mickey Rourke) down on his luck, but it’s very effective thanks to its great cast, which also includes Evan Rachel Wood as his daughter and Marisa Tomei as a stripper that loves him and all his scars.

Future Top Tens

2010

The Social Network
Toy Story 3
Inception
127 Hours
Tangled
Winter’s Bone
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Secret in Their Eyes
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech

2011

Rango
Take Shelter
Kinyarwanda
The Tree of Life
The Artist
A Separation
Warrior
Battle Royale
Drive
Super 8

2012

Zero Dark Thirty
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Dark Knight Rises
Silver Linings Playbook
Amour
Chronicle
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Holy Motors
Life of Pi

2013

12 Years a Slave
Before Midnight
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Gravity
Captain Phillips
The World’s End
Short Term 12
American Hustle
The Past

2014

Selma
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Whiplash
Inherent Vice
Two Days, One Night
Boyhood
Guardians of the Galaxy
Ida
Snowpiercer
Blue Ruin

Retro Bummys: Best Albums of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Albums of 2008

Looking back over my picks for the best albums of 2008, I’m struck by the lack of wild-card picks. If you look back over my top tens after 2008, there’s usually one or two albums from artists that most people aren’t paying attention to (i.e. The Olive Tree in 2012 or Liz Vice in 2014). But in 2008, these albums line up pretty well with either the best-selling albums or the most critically acclaimed. I’m not sure what the root of that is- whether it’s because those albums are usually the ones that grow in stature over the years or if it’s just a coincidence or if I was brainwashed as a 19-year-old to like what everyone else liked. Who knows?

There are several high-profile albums that I didn’t make the list though. I’ve never enjoyed I Am…Sasha Fierce that much. There are a bunch of great singles on that album that don’t coalesce into much when collected together, a problem that Beyoncé has not had since. 808s & Heartbreak is a sleeper favorite for Kanye fans, but it’s always left me cold, save a few songs. And I’ve never really understood trip-hop, so Portishead’s Third has never made much of an impression on me.

Anyway, here are my contenders:

Top Ten

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10. Coldplay, Viva la Vida: In 2008, I was becoming acutely aware of the areas in which my taste was lacking, due to not paying attention to music for almost all of my childhood. Coldplay was one of the first bands that I liked when I first downloaded Limewire and was pure of heart. Then I started to read more about music and saw that Coldplay was respected by critics, but only to a certain extent. So I was skeptical that year of Viva la Vida‘s quality, especially the lyrics, though I really enjoyed the album. I don’t care so much now; this album remains one of my favorite listens, respectability be damned.

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9. The Gaslight Anthem, The ’59 Sound: If ever there were a band engineered to fit my tastes exactly, The Gaslight Anthem is it. They play nostalgia and that Springsteen shout-singing to a perfect pitch, with a little punk-rock flavor thrown in. Over the years, they’ve leaned more heavily on pop hooks and a studio-produced sound. But on this breakthrough album, they still sound like the Platonic ideal of a bar band struggling to make it. And while I’m glad they’re successful now and have made a ton of money, I’ll always go back to the simplicity of “Great Expectations,” or the older-than-their-years yearning of “The Backseat.”

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8. Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight: It’s impossible to know what Frightened Rabbit’s legacy would be if front man Scott Hutchison hadn’t committed suicide this May. It’s barely important, of course, but this band meant a great deal to me in 2008. Back then, I was struggling with self-image a great deal, and the mangled vision of self on The Midnight Organ Fight was comforting. A line like “And vital parts fall from his system / And dissolve in the Scottish rain / But vitally, he doesn’t miss them / He’s too fucked up to care” told me it wasn’t just me that wasn’t okay. The legacy of an album could never match up to the value of a man’s life, but this album matters to me.

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7. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III: I remember being repulsed by this album in 2008, and lines like “I’m a venereal disease like a menstrual bleed” or the ever-present misogyny confirm my 19-year-old instincts. But in the decade since, my threshold for repulsion has raised considerably. Whether that’s for good or ill (not sick), you’re free to judge, though I think it’s allowed me to recognize artistry even when my values aren’t in line with the content of the art. Regardless, this album is one sick piece of shit, with little care for anything but our basest desires- but it’s the most well-sculpted piece of shit of the last decade. Nothing has challenged my capacity to handle the ratio of artistry to baseness like Tha Carter III, but it’s on this list, so it clearly passed the test.

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6. Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark: I had already listened to much of DBT’s catalog by the time they released this magnum opus, and I was fully in love with them. Jason Isbell had already been kicked out of the band, and Shonna Tucker had yet to leave. The band would go on to miss Isbell’s songwriting, but Brighter didn’t show any signs of their songwriting declining just yet. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley contributed some of their best work, and Tucker made her first songwriting contributions to any of the band’s albums, and the three of them, with visiting keyboardist Spooner Oldham, crafted their most stripped-down album to date. There’s a purity in the backwoods country on Brighter that DBT has yet to match, but at least we got 19 songs and 75 minutes of it.

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5. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago: I’ve already extolled the virtues of “Skinny Love” on this blog, so I’ll try to rehash what I wrote about that song. Nothing else on For Emma really compares to the searing power of “Skinny Love,” but as a debut album, it’s incredible how fully formed Bon Iver’s sound was from the start. Justin Vernon’s recording story is almost more legendary than the album at this point. His band had just broken up, so he retreated to a cabin, and For Emma was the album that resulted. Of course, the next record sounded very little like this one, a habit that Vernon has continued indulging with each album since, but we’ll always have this perfect slice of melancholy.

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4. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend2008 was a simpler time, and look no further than Vampire Weekend for your proof. If their debut had been released in 2018, cries of cultural appropriation and colonialism would have been far louder, and they may have drowned out the beautiful simplicity of this record. Please don’t hear me dismissing those cries as illegitimate- they are not, and Vampire Weekend should be held accountable for their often cavalier approach to naming and sharing their influences. But while their messaging has often been poor, their borrowing from Congolese soukous resulted in music both elegant and joyous. They leaned less on Afro-pop on their last two albums, but their celebration of the style on their debut remains one of the best preservations of its delights to make it big in America.

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3. TV on the Radio, Dear Science: Now here is a band with a white producer (Dave Sitek) that used Afrobeat stylings to great effect without controversy, perhaps because a white-dominated music media didn’t know what to do with African-American front men named Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. The members of TV on the Radio are still mysteries, having eschewed the spotlight for artistic independence, even as their star has faded since 2008. But few stars were brighter that year; Dear Science had TV on the Radio’s best hooks and most accessible themes, confronting hope and the possibilities of freedom head-on in less of a minor-key fashion than their previous albums. To date, it is their most critically acclaimed album, and at the time was their highest-charting album by far. This was TV on the Radio’s peak, and since they were the most forward-looking band of the 2000s, maybe it was our peak as well.

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2. Taylor Swift, FearlessThere was a stretch of time in which I couldn’t listen to anything from this album. I associated it with a girlfriend, and when we broke up in 2010, it hurt too much to hear these songs. I remember getting depressed while friends were listening to it in a park in Italy while we were studying abroad for a few weeks that summer- I mean, you really shouldn’t get depressed in a park in Italy. (I understand this is pretty pathetic, but it’s also true, and I’m into sharing true things.) I tried listening to Speak Now and Red when they came out and just couldn’t do it. That break-up soured me on Taylor Swift for a long time, well after I had moved on and met my future wife.

I listen to songs from this album all the time now. I have a patient at my job who lights up when I pull up the “You Belong with Me” or “Fifteen” videos on an iPad, so I’m listening to pre-1989 T-Swift quite a bit. It’s impossible for me to see this patient smile or to think of how much these songs affected me eight years ago without deep appreciation and respect for Swift’s ability to evoke those feelings. This is why I can’t fully buy into any backlash against her: she articulates something so true about youthful dreams and desires and pain. I can understand other people being turned off by who she has become and the career she has made for herself, but I can’t shake how Fearless made me feel.

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1. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes: When I first heard Fleet Foxes ten years ago, I was home for the summer following my first year at college. That’s obviously a formative time of any person’s life, so it’s only natural that the music I liked felt important to who I was becoming. But hearing Fleet Foxes’ debut album was a unique experience for me, like hearing a sound I had always wanted to hear without knowing what it was before. This has happened to me two other times: once, in high school, when I heard the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” for the first time, and most recently a few years ago when I heard Leon Bridges’s “Lisa Sawyer.”

The folk pop explosion that came after has reduced what Fleet Foxes was doing in 2008 to nothing more than part of a trend, even though none of the Americana or indie folk acts of the time sounded anything like them. Fleet Foxes used the tools of Americana, but not the twang, which is just a reminder that the idea of what defines “Americana” is tenuous. And indie folk bands that followed Fleet Foxes (or their contemporaries, like Band of Horses) lacked their earnest commitment to abstraction. A Fleet Foxes song doesn’t fit into a genre, nor does it make more logical sense the longer you listen to it, but it sure sticks with you.

So much of this album is tied up in my experience of 2008, which was a year in which I fell in love with a girl and found my footing at my university, but was also a year in which I felt like I was going to fall apart at any second. I hesitate to say that I was suffering from depression or anxiety, because I want to take those struggles seriously, but what do you call it when you’re constantly feeling like shit about yourself without reason?

Whatever was wrong with me, Fleet Foxes was both a comfort and a hope. Songs like “Oliver James” and “Blue Ridge Mountains” comforted me with familial love, and songs like “White Winter Hymnal” and “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” gave me hope in their darkness. The darkness was hopeful for me, because, in a twisted way, I was beginning to understand that darkness was okay. Fleet Foxes was an affirmation of my need for it to be okay that I wasn’t okay. It was among the first in a large collection of art that has helped me process this world, and it may have been the most crucial.

Another Fifteen (alphabetically)

2008albums11Ben Rector, Songs That Duke Wrote: Rector seems like he’s getting big, so I can truly say I loved him with this album before he was popular.

 

2008albums12Blitzen Trapper, Furr: Blitzen Trapper were an enigma to me in 2008, mixing genres from track to track on a captivating album.

 

2008albums13Downhere, Ending Is Beginning: This Canadian four-piece took the best elements from CCM (Christian contemporary music, for the majority that didn’t grow up on the genre) to tackle the tension between doubt and conviction on album after album, and Ending Is Beginning may be their best.

 

2008albums14Erykah Badu, New Amerykah, Pt. 1 (4th World War): I listened to this in 2008 and didn’t enjoy it much, but with new ears, it sounds like the present and the future meeting, and I’m about it now.

 

2008albums15Girl Talk, Feed the Animals: Absolutely ridiculous mash-up album, and I love every second of it.

 

2008albums16The Hold Steady, Stay Positive: Less epic than 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, but it has plenty of hooks and riffs to please your inner hoodrat.

 

2008albums17Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song: Before Chris Stapleton, there was Jamey Johnson, except without the CMAs or Justin Timberlake and with a knack for story songs, especially on That Lonesome Song, which sounds more and more timeless as time goes on.

 

2008albums18Jimmy Needham, Not Without Love: Needham was still finding his voice at this point, and he leaned more into extra production on this album than on his 2006 debut, Speak, but the level of the songwriting from front to back is still astounding.

 

2008albums19John Mellencamp, Life Death Love and Freedom: The “Jack and Diane” guy still sounds good after all these years, mastering the truth-telling of folk music the same way he mastered hooks in his ’80s heyday.

 

2008albums20Jon Foreman, Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer: Fronting Switchfoot for a decade could make one cynical, but this collection of EPs reveals a man who knows what’s important in life and only needs spare production to tell us about it.

 

2008albums21Josh Garrels, Jacaranda: Not sure what I was expecting when I went back to listen to Jacaranda, having only listened to everything since his 2011 breakout, Love & War & the Sea In Between, but I definitely wasn’t expecting a sound so fully formed and confident, or an album even more beautiful than his breakout.

 

2008albums22M83, Saturdays = YouthThis is what I wish every My Bloody Valentine album sounded like, with a firm grasp on hooks without sacrificing any of the dream-pop atmosphere.

 

2008albums23MGMT, Oracular Spectacular: Technically, this album came out in 2007, but its singles give it its entire weight, and those didn’t explode till 2008, so I’m putting it here, sue me.

 

2008albums24The Michael Gungor Band, Ancient Skies: Before Gungor was Gungor, they relied more heavily on worship songs, but they’re some of the best-written worship songs you’ll hear.

 

2008albums25Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It: Famous for being the lead singer in Tony! Toni! Toné! and for being a prolific R&B producer (D’Angelo, TLC, Mary J. Blige), The Way I See It was the album where he made us sit up and pay attention to his skill as a solo act.

Future Top Tens

2010

Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The Black Keys, Brothers
Andrew Peterson, Counting Stars
Gungor, Beautiful Things
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
The National, High Violet
The Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt

2011

Gungor, Ghosts upon the Earth
Adele, 21
Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Drake, Take Care
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
Beyoncé, 4
Matt Papa, This Changes Everything

2012

Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy
Lecrae, Gravity
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Japandroids, Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city

2013

Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Beyoncé, Beyoncé
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Patty Griffin, American Kid
Sandra McCracken, Desire Like Dynamite
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience
Beautiful Eulogy, Instruments of Mercy
Kanye West, Yeezus
KaiL Baxley, Heatstroke / The Wind and the War

2014

John Mark McMillan, Borderland
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Strand of Oaks, HEAL
Taylor Swift, 1989
Liz Vice, There’s a Light
Jackie Hill Perry, The Art of Joy
First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Propaganda, Crimson Cord

Retro Bummys: Best Songs of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Songs of 2008

2008 was a strange year for music in retrospect. There was no defining aesthetic, no consensus style represented in a majority of what was popular. We were introduced to Adele, Vampire Weekend, and Bon Iver, but their albums and songs look very different in hindsight. Coldplay and Beyoncé were artists at the height of their popularity to that point, but they were also artists in transition.

Strangely, the only artists who were known quantities that year were Taylor Swift and Lil Wayne. Both put out effortlessly great albums and dominated radioplay with their singles. Both stood atop and apart from their genres, powerful in their popular appeal but imprecise avatars of rap and country. No one else was doing what they were at the time, and no one else has really been able to replicate either one- including themselves.

I loved most of these songs in 2008, so many of them left an impression that lasted. The two songs at the top stand out to me, so I wrote more about them. All of these songs are beloved, but those two were formative.

Top Twenty

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20. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida”: For a band that fancied themselves U2 disciples, they rarely achieved the right amount of bombast or scope to properly sound like them. “Viva la Vida” feels like the ideal achievement of this goal, probably because it’s the only Coldplay song that truly rocks.

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19. The Veronicas, “Untouched”: There are about twenty hooks in “Untouched,” and all of them are pop gold. But the first one is the best: a synthesized string riff that casts a spell.

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18. Estelle, “American Boy (feat. Kanye West)”: The world was nearing Peak Kanye in 2008, and he’s charming as hell here. But Estelle outshines him with her easy delivery and casual empowerment.

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17. My Morning Jacket, “I’m Amazed”: I’ve still never listened to a My Morning Jacket album all the way through. Instead, I play this song over and over again and pretend it’s what all the songs sound like, because that seems ideal.

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16. Fleet Foxes, “White Winter Hymnal”: There’s no telling what meaning this song is supposed to convey, with its surreal images of heads falling in the snow and strawberry-red blood. But sometimes the lyrics aren’t the ultimate message of a song, but, along with the pastoral instrumentation, they act as a vessel to carry you to the message, which in this case is…well, there’s no telling.

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15. Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”: I do “give a f*ck about an Oxford comma,” so this is a conflicted choice for me. But as the New York-based indie rockers confront academic pretentiousness without mercy, I bop my head right along with them, as if punctuation were meaningless.

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14. Frightened Rabbit, “The Modern Leper”: In 2008, I found “The Modern Leper” the perfect anthem for my late-teen angst, even if most my angst was self-made. Ten years later, I don’t relate to it quite as much, but it’s still a lyrical masterpiece that captures self-consciousness.

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13. Adele, “Chasing Pavements”: 19 was Adele not fully formed, and producers Jim Abbiss and Eg White filled out the space around Adele’s voice with the tinniest instrumentation. But “Chasing Pavements” is the exception, a mature showcase for the best of what Adele’s voice has to offer.

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12. Fleet Foxes, “Mykonos”: Their self-titled debut is a classic, but the best song they released in 2008 is off of the Sun Giant EP. Where the group would come to be known for near-perfect harmonies and a placid playing style (that they’ve subverted in recent years), “Mykonos” features uneven harmonies that somehow hold more of an allure than the perfect ones, and the hooks lean into danger more than on Fleet Foxes, foreshadowing their new jam band tendencies.

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11. Taylor Swift, “Love Story”: This is still country Taylor Swift, but she’s leaning more into her pop-rock influences. “Love Story” is emo with a happy ending, and, as always, Swift is fully in control, showing you the archetypes that are important to her while engrossing you in the details.

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10. Lil Wayne, “A Milli”: I couldn’t dig this when it came out. I was too hung up on Weezy’s vulgarity, unable to separate my self-righteousness from my discernment. In the decade since, this is the one song from Tha Carter III that seeped into my consciousness, and it became my gateway into Lil Wayne appreciation. The song’s not even about anything. But I guess a song doesn’t need to be about anything when a Phife Dawg sample is the very rhythm of the beat, or when Wayne is featuring his most savage wordplay of his career.

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9. Jimmy Needham, “Hurricane”: There were more influential artists within the Christian music industry at the time, and more innovative. But Needham is a special artist, and “Hurricane” provides a great example of why. At other points on Not Without Love and during his career, Needham has leaned into a funk sound. Not so on “Hurricane,” which fits comfortably into both the worship genre, which forms the bulk of the industry, and the singer-songwriter genre, which forms its grassroots foundation. “Hurricane” is straightforward, unambiguous, but rich with purpose. Needham is special, because, like on “Hurricane,” his lyrics find the right images to cut straight to the heart of what we need from God’s grace.

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8. Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me”: If it looks like pop, smells like pop, and feels like pop, then it must not be country anymore. There are still banjos and electric guitars modulated to sound like steel guitars, but if you’re looking for the precursor to the T-Swift we know today, this is it. On “You Belong with Me,” Swift straddles the line between country and pop like no one since Shania Twain. The video is famous for a lot of reasons, of course, not the least of which is that it’s the inspiration for “Imma let you finish,” but the song actually works better without the video. The visual sets the song firmly in high school, while the song itself features Swift sounding more empowered than ever.

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7. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”: Speaking of “Imma let you finish…” It’s a damn shame this song will always be associated with Kanye’s pain-in-the-assitude, but it’s found a life of its own regardless. The song reached near ubiquity in the last decade, finding a place at every wedding during the bouquet toss, which doesn’t really do it justice. This should be a song played exclusively on the dance floor, so people can put the iconic video’s moves to good use. We take this song for granted now, but it features some of the weirdest production on any Bey song, and it’s the force of her star power that’s made it into more than just the flavor of that summer.

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6. The Hold Steady, “Constructive Summer”: As the opener to the band’s fourth record, “Constructive Summer” wastes no time before being awesome. With a propulsive guitar riff played opposite a killer piano riff, you know you’re in for a rock song with ambition. Then Craig Finn’s voice kicks in and begins what may be the Hold Steady’s best conceit yet: a song about the ennui of childhood summers that turns the ennui on its head. We were always so excited for summer, and then we barely did anything constructive. The Hold Steady bottle that youthful phenomenon and unleash it in a mad dash that demands to be repeated when it’s finished.

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5. Blitzen Trapper, “Furr”: If this song came out now, it may not resonate with me with quite the same force. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be a great song, or that it’s beholden to the era in which it came out. On the contrary, “Furr” is an impeccable folk ballad, and its lyrics are timeless. No, 2008 was just the perfect time for me to hear this song and allow it to shape my feelings about identity and purpose. Blitzen Trapper have never quite captured the spirit of this hymn since, but it’s not their fault they can’t recreate a perfect song.

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4. TV on the Radio, “Golden Age”: Ah, 2008- it was a time of optimism and hope for progressives. No song better encapsulates the very real expectations for the Obama era, no matter how misplaced hope in any politician is. At the time, I just enjoyed the funky beat and that TV on the Radio had released a song that sounded so…happy! There’s always been a dark undertone even in TV on the Radio’s most major-key songs, but there’s no such double entendre here. This is pure joy, through and through.

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3. MGMT, “Time to Pretend”: Oracular Spectacular was technically released in 2007, but it didn’t explode until the next year, and especially not this song, which was released as a single in 2008. MGMT’s whole aesthetic has grown a little wearisome in the past decade as they’ve struggled with their identity as a band: are they a psych-pop outfit that pumps out hits like “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel? Or are they a less savvy Animal Collective? As an anthem around which you build your brand, “Time to Pretend” is a tough act to follow. But as a manifesto for an entire generation of white hipster privilege? This is the shit.

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2. Drive-By Truckers, “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife”: Back in 2008 I was dating a woman whose family was…less than fond of me. I think that’s the easiest way to explain it. Anyway, her father was a good man, and he had two daughters and a beautiful wife, so I always associated this song with him. The contentment at the core of the song is rooted in the protagonist’s relationship with his family, and my girlfriend’s father always put his family first. That was admirable to me, and I aspired to that someday.

The song holds a different meaning to me now. That man is someone I still aspire to be someday, but I’m married now. We don’t have kids yet, but we talk about what life will look like with them all the time. Also, while I have yet to experience loss directly, people around me are dealing with death more and more often. This song explores what it means to live and what it means to die, and it implies that life and death all come back to the memories you have of the people you love.

I think there’s more to life than that (and more to death, for that matter), but the sentiment isn’t untrue. Every time I hear this song, I’m reminded of my dreams for my life, and that any wanderlust I feel or regrets I have for things I haven’t accomplished, they fade. Death comes for everyone. I’ve loved well, and that’s what I’ll remember when it comes for me.

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1. Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”: I never remember the words to “Skinny Love.” This is ironic, because as Bon Iver’s career has progressed, their lyrics have gotten more and more obtuse. “Skinny Love” arguably has the most direct lyrics of any of his songs, and I still place words in the wrong spot or say “summer love” instead of “I tell my love,” because that’s how I used to mishear it. I’ve heard the song hundreds of times, looked up the words almost as often as I’ve heard it, and still say “kind” when it’s supposed to be “fine.”

Part of that is just on me: I’m not that great with lyrics. But Justin Vernon discovered something early on with Bon Iver that has helped the band’s music to evolve into different forms while still retaining its power. He discovered that he could convey a message of emotion and weight through the timbre of his voice and the production of the song just as effectively as other artists do through words. Few other bands that use words can create worlds in their music with clear rules and values without spelling them out in every bar.

“Skinny Love” uses its lyrics well, and it doesn’t have to. This is Bon Iver’s opening statement, but also their most accessible song. They only got more abstract from here. “Skinny Love” is the song that most draws from traditional folk norms, and it fits into a long tradition of distilling its grief and anger into spare instrumentation. Even if you mess up the words, you’ll still feel the loss.

Another Thirty (alphabetically)

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Adele, “Make You Feel My Love”: Better than the Bob Dylan version!

 

 

2008songs22Al Green, “Lay It Down (feat. Anthony Hamilton)”: The title track and best song from an album of smooth, classic soul.

 

 

2008songs23Andrew Peterson, “Don’t Give Up on Me”: This was very close to making the Top Twenty, because Peterson packs so much meaning into every line.

 

 

2008songs24Beyoncé, “Halo”: A subpar song that the sheer force of Beyoncé’s delivery makes into a banger.

 

 

2008songs25Bob Dylan, “Someday Baby [Alternate Version]”Dylan’s bootleg series has given us a lot of gems, but this may be my favorite.

 

 

2008songs26Coldplay, “Strawberry Swing”: Brian Eno’s best work on Viva la Vida.

 

 

2008songs27Counting Crows, “Le Ballet d’Or”: It doesn’t have a hook to match with their ’90s singles, but it does have a scope and breadth that their hits can’t meet.

 

 

2008songs28Fleet Foxes, “Oliver James”: A beautiful way to close their self-titled debut.

 

 

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The Gaslight Anthem, “The ’59 Sound”: There are a lot of Springsteen knock-offs out there, but one listen to “The ’59 Sound” and its understanding of nostalgia should convince you The Gaslight Anthem are something more.

 

 

2008songs30Girl Talk, “Play Your Part (Pt. 2)”: Girl Talk’s best work, a masterful mix of OutKast and Journey in the end.

 

 

2008songs31Hercules & Love Affair, “Blind”: A great indie dance break.

 

 

2008songs32Jamey Johnson, “In Color”Jamey Johnson knows how to tell a story, and here he tells three great ones in one.

 

 

2008songs33Jars of Clay, “Closer”: The EP version of this song isn’t as majestic as the one they released on The Long Fall Back to Earth the next year, but the chorus is just as full of longing.

 

 

2008songs34Jazmine Sullivan, “Bust Your Windows”: If the world were fair, this song would have made Sullivan a star.

 

 

2008songs35Jimmy Needham, “Unfailing Love (Kelly’s Song)”: I sang this to Vicky at our wedding, so it holds a special place in my heart, but it’s a great singer-songwriter love song regardless.

 

 

2008songs36John Mellencamp, “A Brand New Song”: Some of the best moments on Life Death Love and Freedom are darker and focused on death, but song that’s made the most lasting impression on me is this track, full of hope and light.

 

 

2008songs36John Mellencamp, “If I Die Sudden”: …but the ones focused on death are great too.

 

 

2008songs37Jon Foreman, “Your Love Is Strong”: The best of all the great songs on the Switchfoot front man’s solo collection of season-themed EPs.

 

 

2008songs38Kanye West, “Heartless”: 808s & Heartbreak is my least favorite Kanye album (besides ye, which would force me to crumple up the list and stomp on it if I included it), but the hook on this one is up there with his best.

 

 

2008songs39Kanye West, “Love Lockdown”Ditto for “Love Lockdown,” which, in a catalog full of confessional songs, still manages to be among his most personal.

 

 

2008songs40Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”: A ridiculous song from a band that takes ridiculousness very seriously.

 

 

2008songs41Raphael Saadiq, “Never Give You Up (feat. Stevie Wonder & CJ)”: Surprisingly, even though this song doesn’t use Wonder’s best asset (his angelic voice), the result is still reminiscent of his best soul classics.

 

 

2008songs42Rihanna, “Don’t Stop the Music”: Released in 2007 on Good Girl Gone Bad, “Don’t Stop the Music” didn’t shoot up the charts till 2008, which is hard to believe, since it feels like this song could jump start your car.

 

 

2008songs43Robyn, “Cobrastyle”: Robyn has never achieved the crossover success she probably deserves, but this single (along with “With Every Heartbeat”) marked her comeback to the dance charts where she has been a mainstay ever since.

 

 

2008songs44Taylor Swift, “Fifteen”: I get why people don’t like the noise surrounding Taylor Swift, but this song is a perfect example of how well she was able to reach inside teenage minds and place the contents into hit songs.

 

 

2008songs45TV on the Radio, “Red Dress”: Dear Science is TVOTR’s party record, and this is their signature party song, tinged with a little darkness.

 

 

2008songs46Usher, “Love in This Club, Pt. II (feat. Beyoncé)”: The original was great, but Beyoncé’s presence on the sequel lends some gravitas to a wonderfully stupid premise.

 

 

2008songs47The Very Best, “Mfumu”: “Warm Heart of Africa” got all the attention, but I prefer my Very Best at its purest, with Esau Mwamwaya’s Malawian voice soaring above electropop bliss.

 

 

2008songs47The Very Best, “Warm Heart of Africa (feat. Ezra Koenig)”: But Ezra Koenig’s okay too.

 

 

2008songs48The Welcome Wagon, “Jesus”: This pastor-and-wife duo’s entire debut album is great, but who (besides producer Sufjan Stevens) would’ve thought that the best song would be a Velvet Underground cover?

 

Future Top Tens

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”

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”

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”

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)”

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”

Retro Bummys: Best Performances of 2008

Retro Bummys: Best Performances of 2008

It’s not hard to look back ten years and realize the legacy that 2008’s performances left. It begins and ends with Heath Ledger, of course. Beyond him, though, I found myself preferring a lot of supporting performances to lead performances. The supporting roles provided far more opportunities for interesting work, and those performances have resonated more ten years later.

The Oscars and I generally agreed this year. Twelve performances that were nominated and/or won are represented here. However, one performance you will not see is Kate Winslet’s Best Actress-winning role from The Reader. The Oscar love that movie received is a direct result of Harvey Weinstein, and it was the last time he exerted an outsized influence on the Academy’s proceedings.

2008 was the first year of my life that I became serious about watching a lot of the movies released that year, so it was the first year that I could really have an informed opinion about at the time. As a result, a lot of these movies have existed in my mind as long as they’ve existed, and their legacy is a little more ingrained in my head than movies from previous years. Looking back at these movies was like remembering why I fell in love with movies in the first place.

The links are to clips from the performance. There’s probably some profanity in there.

Top Ten

10. Anne HathawayRachel Getting MarriedIt’s a trope in the film industry for a performer we met as a teenager to take on a more adult role so that we will take them more seriously. Hathaway had a supporting role in Brokeback Mountain, but the most serious part she had played as the star was The Devil Wears Prada, which isn’t exactly a “serious adult role.” Rachel Getting Married gave Hathaway this, but it’s not just a play at respectability. This was the first time we saw Hathaway portraying a real human being. I’m glad she won her Oscar for Les Miserables, but this is her best performance yet.

9. Mickey RourkeThe WrestlerPoor Rourke; after years in the woods, he comes out with the best performance of his lifetime only to lose the Oscar to fellow Brat Pack-adjacent ’80s star Sean Penn, whom Rourke apparently hates. Anyway, Rourke’s work in The Wrestler takes place in rarefied air. It’s the kind of performance that only Rourke could give and that he could never give again. It’s a role perfectly suited to him, a weathered, down-on-his-luck outcast who figures out what his purpose is, even if it doesn’t really set him free. Roles like that are once in a lifetime, and he makes it count.

8. Kate WinsletRevolutionary Road: It’s truly a shame that Winslet won her Oscar for The Reader, which is boring and features her fine performance of a boring role. Revolutionary Road is overwrought from the beginning, but it’s one of Winslet’s best performances. Her April is far stronger than DiCaprio’s Frank, but bound to the same societal norms that drive them both insane. As a portrait of a marriage, Revolutionary Road is limited. As a portrait of a woman, Winslet’s performance is everything.

7. Robert Downey Jr.Tropic ThunderThere’s understandably a lot of controversy surrounding this role, given it’s basically blackface. The whole concept of this blackface is that it’s sending up the lengths Hollywood actors go to win awards recognition, but I understand if it smells too much of white privilege for some people. Regardless, Downey Jr. is completely committed to this performance, and he’s wonderful. This was the same year he returned to prominence in Iron Man, which should have been enough. But in Tropic Thunder, he reaches the bombastic heights that only he is charismatic enough for.

6. Michelle WilliamsWendy and Lucy: The Oscars are known for rewarding heartfelt performances more along the lines of Kate Winslet’s in Revolutionary Road, in which the words are doing a lot of the heavy lifting and the actor’s emoting is just this side of necessary. They’re less likely to recognize a performance like Williams’s in Wendy and Lucy in which the emotions involved are less obvious and require a quieter approach. Williams has had her share of Oscar love (four nominations and counting, the most recent for 2016’s Manchester by the Sea), but the Academy completely overlooked this performance. It’s cruelly poetic, really: Wendy exists on the fringe of society, the kind of life it’s only too easy to overlook. If the Academy had looked a little closer, they would have seen a whole movie in Michelle Williams’s eyes alone.

5. Benicio Del ToroChe: Part One and Che: Part Two: Both parts of Che are fascinating movies, if a little too obtuse to be great. Regardless, it’s clear from the beginning that Che Guevara is the part that Del Toro was born to play (it’s either that or The Collector, I’m not sure). Del Toro doesn’t actually look much like Guevara, but he captures his ability to code switch between the elites of the world and the people of Cuba. Playing a chameleon is nearly impossible. Del Toro makes it look revolutionary.

4. Brad PittBurn After ReadingIt was so hard to choose a scene from Pitt’s performance in this movie for the link. There are so many little things he does from start to finish that his character, Chad, as ridiculous as he is, feels nothing like the Brad Pitt we know. I like Serious Brad Pitt just fine, but Serious Brad Pitt is rarely given the screenplay to show off the full range of his nuance. If I was Brad Pitt’s agent, I’d kidnap the Coen brothers and have them write movies just for him. In fact, that sounds like a good premise for a Coen Brothers film- starring Brad Pitt.

3. Viola DavisDoubtHolding your own against Meryl Streep is no small thing. Doing it for eight straight minutes and stealing the scene is another thing altogether. Before this movie, Davis was a supporting character in movies and TV shows. After this movie, even though she’s only onscreen for the one 8-minute scene, Davis became a star, an Emmy-winner, an Oscar-winner, a history-maker. That should tell you all you need to know about how good that scene is, and Davis deserves her place near the top of this list.

2. Sean PennMilkWhen you look at the two Oscars that Penn won in the 2000s, the disparity between the two roles’ dispositions is stark. In Mystic River, Penn is the embodiment of stereotypical hypermasculinity, grieving for his daughter, burning for revenge. In Milk, Penn is a proud queen, a gay man who inspires, a generally jovial gentleman. Anytime I see Penn give an interview, I’m floored that he is the same man whose smile changes hearts in Milk. Harvey Milk’s story resonates because of its specificity to its time and place, and Penn nails the specifics of both.

1. Heath LedgerThe Dark KnightYou can’t separate this performance from Heath Ledger’s death. This isn’t because the performance caused the death, contrary to the rampant, irresponsible speculation that occurred in the media and the business in the months between Ledger’s passing and the movie’s release. By all accounts, Ledger was a joy to be around on the sets of The Dark Knight and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the movie he was making when he died. He reported struggling with anxiety and insomnia, but never cited the Joker’s “darkness” or anything like that as their origin.

No, you can’t separate his performance from his death, because we knew he had died when we saw the movie. We haven’t ever seen this movie in a world in which Ledger had not passed. I had forgotten how much mourning his death was a part of the movie’s promotion- not in an icky way, as if his death were a marketing tool, but because, like all deaths, it was an inescapable fact. The cast and filmmakers had to talk about it in interviews, and that’s the light in which we have always seen the movie.

What all the talk about the darkness of the Joker seems to neglect is that Ledger’s performance is so fun. There are so many little things that he does, even beyond the storied lip-licking: the range of his voice from a deep bellow to high-pitched giddiness, little glances mid-sentence that show he’s thinking about other things while reciting his anarchic speeches, the genuine confusion on his face when his social experiment doesn’t go as planned.

There was talk around the movie’s release around the idea that The Dark Knight‘s Joker had to go a complete different direction than Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. But Jack Nicholson’s Joker is just Jack Nicholson being Jack Nicholson. It’s iconic because it fits him so perfectly, like a glove, filled with acid. Ledger becomes an entirely different person. He would be unrecognizable even if he weren’t wearing the makeup. We had never seen Ledger do anything like this before.

I don’t buy the idea that a superhero movie is defined by its villain. We don’t call them supervillain movies, after all. The Dark Knight has plenty of worthy non-Joker aspects: the breathtaking action scenes, the love triangle, some great Gary Oldman work. But truth be told, Ledger elevates this movie past a well-made superhero movie and into greatness. So not all superhero movies are defined by their villains, but this one is.

Another Fifteen (alphabetically)

François Bégaudeau, The Class: The naturalism of the amateur performances from the teenagers in this French Oscar-winner is built on the foundation of Bégadeau’s inner conflict.

 

Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Brad Pitt is the star of this underrated David Fincher Best Picture nominee, but Blanchett’s radiance holds the central romance together.

 

Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Cruz won an Oscar for this performance, which she probably deserved for better movies, but her fiery Cristina throws everyone’s balance off whack.

 

Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married: Playing the straight-laced sister could have been a thankless role, but DeWitt shines with a bride’s love and a hint of darkness.

 

Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road: DiCaprio is always great, but he’s the perfect partner for a spiral into despair with Winslet.

 

Colin Farrell, In Bruges: We didn’t know Farrell could be funny before this offbeat comedy, and he’s never been this funny since.

 

Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges: Ditto for Gleeson, who should always be allowed to be this interesting on screen.

 

 

 

Isamar Gonzales, Chop Shop: There were a lot of great indie performances in 2008, but Gonzales’s is among the best amateur performances I’ve ever seen, and by a child actor no less.

 

Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky: Nine years before The Shape of Water, Hawkins broke out as a shining beacon of grace who is much more than just a cock-eyed optimist.

 

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt: The movie doesn’t work without Hoffman’s tightrope-walk between sinner and saint.

 

 

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor: Like Hawkins, 2008 was Jenkins’s breakout year, garnering him a much-deserved Oscar nomination for this underseen indie gem.

 

Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In: Children’s performances are difficult to judge, but Leandersson finds the right mix of child and monster that makes me wish the Swedish film industry had made better use of her since.

 

Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky: The polar opposite of Hawkins’s character, Marsan is great when his fuse reaches its limit, but even better in the underlying tension before.

 

Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road: Another breakout performance from a Shape of Water cast member, Shannon introduced his one-of-a-kind brilliance to audiences as a troubled man who sees things for what they are.

 

Meryl Streep, Doubt: One of her more severe performances, Streep is a nun who is terribly committed to a justice based on her own intuition rather than any sort of truth.

 

Future Top Fives

2010

Lesley Manville, Another Year
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

2011

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

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

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

2014

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

Top Movies You Won’t Find on 2017’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I highlight 3 movies that didn’t end up on any critic’s top ten list. That’s slightly misleading; I survey this Metacritic collection of lists, and if the movie doesn’t appear on 3 or more lists, it gets considered for this post. If I missed a list, it’s all over, the world, everything. For everyone. I’m sorry.

After the Storm: Hirokazu Kore-eda is a celebrated Japanese director who makes small, quiet movies. Ten years ago, his masterpiece, Still Walking, was released here in the states, and its portrayal of a family still struggling to move on after tragedy got at more truths in single scenes than most movies do in their entire running time. After the Storm does the same, even though its primary focus is not grief or regret but addiction and responsibility.

Alien: Covenant:  I’ll forgive you if you didn’t like Ridley Scott’s first Alien prequel from 2012, Prometheus, because it was purposefully ambivalent about providing answers. Covenant is not, and its themes are more contained within the story portrayed onscreen, rather than flailing about at philosophical questions the story cannot quite support. It also gives us another stellar Michael Fassbender performance and some truly chilling horror sequences that belong among the franchise’s best.

The Salesman: Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi burst onto the international scene with 2011’s A Separation, which went onto win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. That movie provided a window into a family navigating the perilous waters of Iran’s social norms as they underwent a divorce. Farhadi’s subsequent movies (2013’s The Past, 2015’s About Elly) were similarly incisive in their dissection of societal expectations in unusual circumstances, but The Salesman is probably Farhadi’s best since A Separation, taking its situation to its extreme without crossing over into self-parody.

Top Albums You Won’t Find on 2017’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I highlight 5 albums that didn’t end up on any critic’s top ten lists. That’s slightly misleading; I survey this Metacritic collection of lists, and if the album doesn’t appear on 3 or more lists, it gets considered for this post. If it’s a Christian album, I just search the usual way (read: Google) through some of the main Christian music publications. If I missed a list, it’s okay; no one’s life is over.

The Brilliance, All Is Not Lost: There have been several artists in Christian music history that have bucked (or set) the industry’s trends, but there are few today outside of hip-hop. The Brilliance have some of the kitchen-sink creativity that most recently blessed Gungor before that band veered into emergent-church territory. This makes sense, since one of The Brilliance’s primary members is David Gungor, the brother of Gungor’s Michael. But where Michael’s band has taken a decidedly meditative tack, David’s has set his rudder directly toward celebration. Beautifully synthesizing several genres, The Brilliance overcome worship music tropes, celebrating a God for everybody with music for everybody.

Caroline Spence, Spades & Roses: I understand Margo Price receiving all of 2017’s allotted attention for female off-the-beaten-path Nashvillians, because Price is brilliant. But now that 2017 is over, please turn your attention to its forgotten folk artist, Caroline Spence. Her 2015 album Somehow won me over with its plain-spoken heartbreak spiked with hard liquor. Spades & Roses is like Somehow, but with more liquor. This is best exemplified on standout track, “All the Beds I’ve Made,” in which beds and all their accoutrement become a metaphor not for love, but for the hope that this one will make you forget the rest.

David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere: I wrote about this album not 6 weeks ago, and I’m still on a high for the response it got. Ramirez himself retweeted the post and said it was “one of [his] favorite reviews for the new album,” and I could have cried. You write about an album you love and you hope someone reads it. You never expect the artist to read it and, much less, appreciate it. Ultimately, I just want this album to get attention, because it’s a devastatingly good folk album from one of Austin’s best resident musicians.

Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow: You’ll be forgiven if you’re not into Americana and haven’t heard of Hiss Golden Messenger, the Carolina-based outfit from the prolific M.C. Taylor. You’ll also be forgiven if you are into Americana and can’t remember which album of his is which. But holding this against him is like complaining that Cary Grant plays the same character in every movie- he does what he’s good at, and he’s the best at it. Taylor has a tried and true sound, a mélange of soul and backwoods blues befitting his scruffy look and family life. What makes Hallelujah Anyhow special in light of the rest of his discography is an unabashed celebration of life in the face of life’s mundanity.

Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley: Another Americana artist on this list, yes, but Shelley is quite unlike any other Americana artist we are familiar with. That’s partly because she doesn’t even consider herself an Americana musician, but mostly because she’s a singular artist. Her first few albums trafficked in Appalachian folk music, but Joan Shelley is a slight change in direction for the Kentucky artist. Her transfixing voice is still the focal point here, but she’s less reliant on her usual guitarists to give her voice its home. Instead, she travels outside her comfort zone to songs with barely any production at all, and more of a reliance on plinking keys rather than plucking strings, and her music has broadened with her world.