Monday, 27 February 2017

Oscars 2017

Best Animated Film Kubo and the Two Strings
Zootopia, easily the bookies favourite, has every right to win, but there's something about Kubo which sets it apart from the pack. The stop motion aspect is interesting, of course, but it also tackles storylines that Disney seem to have distanced themselves from. The death of a young boy's father may reek of The Lion King, but that's almost 25 years old. Combined with more mythical storytelling and I truly believe Kubo to be deserving of the Oscar.

Best Adapted Screenplay Moonlight
Much like Best Animated Film there are so many deserving winners here. Fences, which you can tell came from the stage given the way it's been adapted, and Lion which is heart-wrenching and europhic simultaneously - all of the clichés. However it's Moonlight that surely has to win, set in three parts it follows the development of a young gay, black man and the challenges he has to overcome and the way that his sexuality in particular informs those choices.

Best Original Screenplay Manchester By The Sea
While La La Land is expected to win awards all over the shop I'd be surprised to see it pick up this particular category. I expect it to go to Manchester By The Sea, which is gloriously written. It somehow manages to be about the absolute worst things one could imagine in life, and still manages to be funny. Initially I found it a little confusing the way it cuts between time periods without notice but as the film develops that's part of its allure - the way the characters slowly unfold before you.

Best Director Damien Chazelle
In my mind Damien Chazelle has to take home the award, La La Land perfectly sums up his vision to an absolute tee. It's clearly a labour of love, and while you can pick holes in a number of areas the artistic vision is one you'd be hard pressed to find fault in. This combined with cinematography are the two that I would expect LLL to pick up easily.

Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali
In many ways the following doesn't make sense - I think the nominations tilts this in favour of Mahershala. I do not know how the voting system works - whether they cast ballots openly across all films, or if the nominations are first released (or a combination of the two - however I think Aaron Taylor-Johnson is probably who I would have chosen. Failing that I really don't see much competition for Ali; yes Dev Patel won at the BAFTAs but I'm not sure how much the British bias came into that. The only real advantage Patel has is he's the star of his film, but it honestly shouldn't be much of a competition.

Best Supporting Actress Viola Davis
It's not even close, Viola Davis absolutely nails her role in Fences. There's literally nothing else to say.

Best Actor Denzel Washington
If this were to be given for pure acting and irrelevant of how good a person I find particular actors it would probably be edging toward Casey Affleck rather than Denzel - who criminally wasn't even up for the award at the BAFTAs - but that's not the way these things work with me so I'm going with Denzel. Fences relies on its acting; everything about it is very much taken directly from the theatrical production. The entire movie is set in one scene, and that means that Washington and Davis are relied on, and they deliver.

Best Actress Natalie Portman
Slight caveat here that I've actually only seen two of the nominations - Jackie and La La Land. Portman completed embodies Jacqueline Kennedy, the film is quite literally all about her. I wasn't that taken with the film itself but at times I forgot who I was watching. It's a wonderfully immersive performance.

Best Picture Manchester By The Sea
It's actually fairly difficult to call Best Picture as there're a few different ways it could go. The most likely, and most unsatisfactory, is that La La Land scoops. But for me there are two films that deserve it more than Chazelle's entry - Manchester By The Sea and Moonlight. Ignoring the hate for LLL, Manchester By The Sea is a better overall picture. It's funny, emotive, beautifully shot. Moonlight is groundbreaking in many ways. You don't see many films with people of colour playing complex leads, let alone factoring in the sexuality aspect. MBTS edges it for me; I can't name a film that manages to stretch so far while seeming so genuine. The only downside is it stars Affleck.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Albums 2016

My favourite 34 (I miscounted when writing and it's too late to think of a 35th) albums of the year. I know I missed a lot. Please don't judge me too harshly.

34. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis This Unruly Mess I've Made (Metacritic: 59%)
33. Pretend Happy Tired Eyes (-) 
32. Travis Everything at Once (60%) 
31. Moose Blood Blush (-) 
30. Aesop Rock The Impossible Kid (85%) 

29. Like Pacific Distant Like You Asked (-) 
28. Childish Gambino Awaken, My Love (77%) 
27. The Weeknd Starboy (67%) 
26. Raleigh Ritchie You're a Man Now, Boy (-) 
25. The 1975 I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it (75%) 

24. Keaton Henson Kindly Now (69%) 
Where up 'til now Henson's solo albums have been almost entirely himself and his guitar there are hints here of his other projects sneaking in. Right from the off you can hear the influence from Behaving in 'March' where he uses samples from the rest of the album to create an opener, and 'NW Overture' wouldn't have been out of place on 'Romantic Works'. Combined with his usual lyrical talent – my personal favourites being found on 'Comfortable Love', "Don't be sad, love. I'm amazed that you ever loved me.", and virtually the entirety of 'The Pugilist'. – you have yet another beautiful heartbreaker.

23. Taking Back Sunday Tidal Wave (73%) 
'Tidal Wave' starts with a bang. 'Death Wolf' is the kind of track that the new-era Taking Back Sunday do so well, it's not subtle, the lyrics aren't going to change your life, but the vocal lines may. It basically screams 'live show' at the top of its voice. The rest of the album is slightly more reserved, maybe overly so. 'You Can't Look Back', 'All Excess', and 'Call Come Running' all occupy the same space. They would have been quite at home on 'Happiness Is...', but leave you craving something slightly quicker which never materialises. 'I'll Find A Way to Make It What You Want' is a noble attempt to recreate 'Nothing at All' but doesn't quite hit the same heights. 

22. Apologies, I Have None Pharmacie (-) 
I think you can infer the contents of 'Pharmacie' from the track listing – 'Love & Medication', 'Goodbye, Peace of Mind', and, mostly tellingly, 'Everybody Wants To Talk About Mental Health'. It's a deeply personal LP, touching on everything from the aforementioned mental health to toxic masculinity. That said in many ways it feels like 45 minutes of self-flagellation, the theme of not being good enough runs throughout. There's very little light here, on the album closer Josh McKenzie concedes, "This confession has meant nothing... Nothing is redeemed. I've gained no deeper knowledge of myself". Music is meant to be sad, right?

21. Måns Zelmerlöw Chameleon (-) 
Eurovision champion continues success, or at least should do if he can crack the UK market but at the moment it's criminally still confined to his native Sweden. These, however, are pop anthems at their very best. 'Fire in the Rain', premiered during his champions reprise in Stockholm, is not so different from the Scandinavian folk-pop that's propelled many to superstardom levels recently, while 'Happyland' ebbs and flows, and allows Zelmerlow to show off his obvious vocal talents. It's ironic that it may be the focus on those vocals that stop this from going international – in a world where the Top 40 is predominantly dance tracks with big name producers and club anthems maybe it's not the right time for 'Chameleon', which always has that Eurovision feel in the back of its mind.

20. Joyce Manor Cody (79%) 
'Cody' is Joyce Manor's longest record yet and it still manages to fit ten songs in 24 minutes 32 seconds. It is actually hugely noticeable that songs are allowed an extra thirty seconds here, an extra minute there. 'Eighteen' - which I'm convinced would have been 1:15 had it been on 'Of All Things...' - gets a little outro, "Everybody gets a little lonely sometimes.", which feels like it sums up Joyce Manor. 'Fake I.D.' is one that will show up in emo clubnights for years to come, with just the right amount of smugness about Kanye West, and 'Reversing Machine', probably closest to fitting in on 'Of All Things...', is the track you look for your friends to sing with at shows.

19. David Bowie Blackstar (87%) 
Bowie's last album is always going to be tied to his death, that was part of the point, and that makes it almost impossible to uncouple from the feelings of last January. That said, trying to detach the songs from the emotion, it's a terrific final effort. Only seven tracks but clocking in at over forty minutes, he is the antithesis of Joyce Manor. My favourite being the indecipherable 'Girl Loves Me'. Being written half in Nadsat and half Polari it's deliberately dense, as Bowie constantly questions "Where the fuck did Monday go?".

18. Luca Brasi If This Is All We're Going To Be (-) 
My favourite new find of the year are Australia's punk-rock Luca Brasi, who came onto my radar after their split with London's Apologies, I Have None. Combined with a support slot with everybody's favourite emo band, Moose Blood, they've had a pretty solid start to trying to break the UK. In an interview with Rolling Stone the band said - "The idea going into this record was to try and nail down the guitar side of the band, which is super important to us, and the melody aspect"; It's a pretty apt description of what they've managed to accomplish.

17. Every Time I Die Low Teens 
Shouty bands have somewhat made way for pop musicians in my music taste recently but 'Low Teens' is too good to ignore. That and it features Actual God Brendon Urie. ETID, famed for their live show, are one of the bands I see mentioned all the time but had never checked out before now – and what a terrible decision. 'Low Teens' was written in the face of lead vocalist Keith Buckley dealing with his wife and child's medical issues and nowhere is that clearer than on 'C++'; "I gotta plead with your machines. I'm at the feet of your machines; show me anything at all".

16. Craig David Following My Intuition (-) 
I don't think I ever truly enjoyed Garage so Craig David's decision to bring his own twist to the UK Dance – or whatever you actually call it – Scene being such a success was a little bit of a surprise. It probably shouldn't be, teaming up with producers like Sigala and Kaytranada, plus rapping over the top of JacÜ's Bieber track, it's a pretty solid base to work from. In '16' David shows off his legitimately angelic voice and rapping ability – I'm not sure if there's anybody right now that can match his diversity. The only downside is that 14 tracks are too many, especially when the 'hits' are front-loaded. Maybe that's the beauty of not being tied to formats, but 10 would be more than enough.

15. Kevin Devine Instigator (-) 
There are few people out there with voices fit for purpose than Kevin Devine, and on 'Instigator' it's his greatest weapon. The album leans more toward 'Bubblegum' out of his 2013 dual release, in terms of style at least, but while politics may not be the sole focus of the album there's still a good smattering of political critiques. Freddie Gray Blues, No History, No Why all try to tackle the current climate – something which Devine has always been adept at doing. However there's a clear level of introspection as well. Acoustic closer 'I Was Alive Back Then' features stories of his brother, wife, and finally about his becoming a father. 

14. Matmos Ultimate Care II (76%) 
Sometimes people do things that I just can't believe – I still don't understand half of the things (magician) Dynamo has done; my mother is convinced that he can actually see the future. Making an entire album with no sounds other than those made by an Ultimate Care II washing machine falls under that category. Consisting of one, long 38 minute track – unless you're listening on Spotify where they've helpfully been split into nine excerpts – there is an immersive quality as the water swirls round you. In many ways it's impossible to fully explain, but I've found it's very good music to work to. I implore you to give it a go.

13. Thrice To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere (78%) 
Finally back with another effort after coming off hiatus in 2015, 'To Be Everywhere' is in many ways just a vehicle for Dustin Kensrue's exasperation at politics and the wider world. Thankfully the quartet haven't lost what made them darlings of the rock scene. 'Whistleblower' is perhaps a little on the nose, and there have been times where I have genuinely thought I was listening to Bon Iver during 'Salt and Shadow' – not to say they don't do it well, but that's easily offset. 'Blood on the Sand', about how fear corrupts decision making, and 'Black Honey', an attack on American foreign policy and how that relates to oil, are probably the stand outs.

12. Ariana Grande Dangerous Woman (76%) 
Queen of My Heart hones her craft on this Grammy Nominated – although to be fair what isn't? – pop fiesta. The features which held back predecessor 'My Everything' have mostly disappeared – no more Gambino rapping about school lunches – and while there are still nods to her previous overly-cute style in 'Moonlight' and 'Be Alright', these are thankfully limited. Gone completely is the innocence, that really started eroding with partnering up with The Weeknd, and in comes flagrant sexuality. 'Side to Side' was a Worldwide hit, going Platinum in seven countries, and its not even the best song on the album. Transformation from Nickelodeon star to Pop Goddess most definitely complete.

11. Muncie Girls From Caplan to Belsize (98%) 
Muncie Girls are the new face of punk and the best band in the country. Straight from the off lead singer Lande Hekt muses, "The systems we rely on aren't for you, they're for the lucky fucking few." A woman championing feminism in the music scene shouldn't feel refreshing in the current year, but it still does in an arena still dominated by men. And the whole album feels like it could have been recorded live, there's not a whole lot of divergence from simply piano/bass/drums, but it adds to that punk-ethos feel. Truly one of the most important bands about right now due to both their political stances, and songwriting ability.

10. Daughter Not to Disappear (74%) 
I hadn't really ever heard of Daughter before they popped up to headline a sold out Cambridge Corn Exchange on the day of 'Not to Disappear's release – and incidentally singer/guitarist Elena Tonra's birthday. Each piece feels like soundscape. I saw someone talk about the tracks in terms of Massive Attack, and it's a great comparison. It may not be exact, but I hear the opening to 'Teardrop' all over the place. The instrumentation is sparse, and expertly layered; It feels like a perfectly constructed jigsaw.

09. Pinegrove Cardinal (84%) 
Pinegrove blew up this year, thanks in part to honing their sound and upping the production for their sophomore album. Shown perfectly on a couple that have been reworked from previous efforts, 'New Friends' and 'Size of the Moon'. In many ways they don't fit in the genre that they seem to be occupying, while they seem to appeal to those that enjoy the likes of Modern Baseball, The Hotelier, and Foxing, they seem to fit more naturally into the sphere of Americana. There's banjo, there's what I can only describe as country-vocals, and it's all absolutely glorious.

08. Weezer The White Album (71%) 
While Weezer have had 'hits' that would sustain any festival crowd they've never really been able to master the longer format, and since the turn of the 10s they've been on a particularly barren run. So it's with an elated heart that I'm able to proclaim that Weezer are back with their strongest LP in near two-decades. 'Everything Will Be Alright In The End' sounded like a deliberate attempt to recreate their 90s success, but this sounds like a transformation. Where those guitars had been overbearing River Cuomo's vocal lines are now allowed to take centre stage; piano has a much bigger part, allowing for legitimate contrast when those guitars do finally hit home; and there are builds, so many builds. Nothing sums up the transition as well as stand-out 'Thank God for Girls' – celibacy was a long time ago.

07. Jimmy Eat World Integrity Blues (76%) 
Much like Weezer the last few Jimmy Eat World albums haven't resonated with me in the same way as their early work – apart from the magnum opus that is 'I Will Steal You Back'. Thankfully that's been rectified with 'Integrity Blues'. There seems to be a trend from all my emo-faves to talk about legitimate grown up things, or at least use them as themes, now they're all actual adults and I'm glad that 'Pass the Baby' has benefitted from that. In many ways a more aggressive, cut-down 'Goodbye Sky Harbor', at least in part. The longing from early albums – particularly Futures – has been replaced with feeling good about where they are. It's optimistic, happy, and that is thankfully matched by the quality.

06. Tiny Moving Parts Celebrate (-) 
'Celebrate' manages to combine beautiful, technical, math-rock guitars with huge emo vocal hooks – literally starting off the album with the somewhat angsty "Nothing's ever good enough". Arguably at its best when combining with Foxing's Conor Murphy on 'Common Cold', Murphy's softer vocals help give a moment to breathe around Dylan Mattheisen's more frantic approach. Part of the appeal is that nobody else is really doing a similar thing, at least not as successfully. It's incredible that they can reproduce the tracks live with just the trio – the emo/math-rock Biffy Clyro.

05. Modern Baseball Holy Ghost (81%) 
Split 50/50 between songs written by Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens, 'Holy Ghost' is in some ways two separate pieces of work; It's a testament to how in-sync the band are that it flows half as well as it does. The opening half, written by Ewald, is generally a tad more poppy, and contains what many consider to be the stand out in 'Wedding Singer'. There's also 'Everyday' which sounds not dissimilar to Best Song Ever Written, 'The Thrash Particle' from 'The Perfect Cast EP'. 'Coding These to Lukens' sees the only song where the two share vocals, a handing over of the torch. Lukens' half deals mostly with his much-publicised mental health issues. 'Apple Cider I Don't Mind' and 'What If' from the backend represent my personal favourites from the album. Modern Baseball seem to be hitting all the right notes at all the right times, musically they're excelling. They just played a huge show at The Forum where all the toilets had notices telling people gender diversity was welcome. A great band, and great people to boot. 

04. PUP The Dream is Over (82%) 
I wonder what the feeling in the room was when 'If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will' was pitched to the rest of the band. I'm incredibly glad it was, though. 'The Dream Is Over' is a total whirlwind, kind of like how Not Moby from HIMYM has an all-high party mix. In many aspects it's just a refined continuation from their self-titled. I actually find it quite hard to pin point why it's quite so far up this list, but trust me it absolutely deserves to be. It's chaotic, but if there is an overarching theme it's that of relationships. With his bandmates, with his pet chameleon, and with old flames. It's success is probably that it's just so damn relatable.

03. Panic! at the Disco Death of a Bachelor (69%) 
I was actually incredibly late to the P! party, not really getting into them until a couple of years back but thankfully I didn't miss the best part. Death of a Bachelor is Panic's first since Brendon Urie became the only member, and I think you can tell. While there's been a definite transition toward more mainstream pop in their sound over the years I think this is the first that's gone all out with it. It's an insane half hour of huge hooks, massive production, and, of course, falsetto. It is the only album, up to this point, that has made me want to go to LA and party until I can't stand up. That said passing out in drain pipes still feels a little much.

02. The Hotelier Goodness (85%) 
'Home, Like Noplace Is There' is a modern masterpiece, so it was unlikely that The Hotelier were going to be able to match that again, but the amazing thing is that they've come so close. 'Goodness' is not as instantaneous to make an impact; it takes time to get into. To understand the nuances, and the storyline that runs throughout. If the poems and birdsong throughout function to break up the album, then it's the second 'act' that I've truly fallen in love with. 'Two Deliverances' is dripping with emotion, "If I choose this too does it count as my move? I can't drop my history just to become new." howls singer Christian Holden. Whereas 'Opening Mail For My Grandmother' is the other, quieter end of the spectrum. Exploring the idea of getting older and, inevitably, passing via an anecdote of opening mail for his grandmother. 'Goodness' feels more like a piece of art than an album, I can listen to it over and over and come away with new things every time. 

01. Bon Iver 22, A Million (Metacritic: 88%) 
In many ways 22, A Million feels like the counter balance to Death of a Bachelor. It's heart breaking. Gone, almost entirely, are the acoustic guitars – continuing the evolution towards synth which started before the band's hiatus. Not only synths but vocal effects abound, the album virtually begins with Justin Vernon's voice being manipulated. Littered throughout are samples from other artists, made his own. Mahlia Jackson to Paolo Nutini have been co-opted to suit Vernon's need. It feels like an album that's exploring Vernon's depression, his views toward religion, and religion in regards to his depression. There are references to God, to prayer, to the devil. It's the album that consistently evokes the most emotion. AOTY.