The Contrarian: An Ingenious Solution To The Oscars’ Popular Film Problem


By Spencer Davis. I can trace the exact moment I fell in love with the Fast & Furious franchise to a particular scene in Fast Five. A friend of mine, already indoctrinated in the idiotic joys of the series, suggested we catch the midnight showing on opening night. It was an idea just stupid enough to be brilliant! About half an hour in, there’s a chase scene that culminates in Paul Walker and Vin Diesel going over the edge of a cliff in a Corvette convertible, climbing onto the trunk of the car in midair … and with perfect timing, leaping safely into a river just before impact. As this all unfolded in glorious slow-motion, someone in the audience shouted, “Academy Award!!!!” and the entire theater erupted in laughter. I was sold for life.

If you heard yesterday’s announcement that the Oscars will be unveiling a new category, Best Popular Film, then you probably know why I bring this up. Everyone knows the impetus for this is the telecast’s spiraling ratings, and the best and the brightest minds at the Academy have apparently decided that the way to pull viewers back in is with a shorter, 3-hour show and a new category dedicated to the shitty blockbusters that make all the money.

I have a modest counter-proposal: NOMINATE BETTER FUCKING MOVIES. Continue reading

The Year In Movies 2017: Spencer’s Picks

By Spencer Davis. In the four years since Shadows & Noise launched, my year-end film picks have been all over the map: a heartfelt coming-of-age drama, a sci-fi think piece, a classic Hollywood musical. That kind of schizophrenia isn’t just a function of diverse tastes; it’s a sign of the scattershot directions in which film has been evolving in the past half-decade. With streaming supplanting the theater as our preferred way of watching, with Netflix and Amazon now acting as movie studios in their own right, and with the quality line between television and movies so blurred now that we might as well just call it all “film,” we’re at an inflection point in the history of the moving picture. Indeed, in 2017, we’re finally seeing film critics include shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Twin Peaks: The Return, and even Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War on their year-end movie lists. But while I could easily list the likes of Legion or Mr. Robot here—shows that are every bit as cinematic and structurally innovative as anything on the big screen—I’m still limiting my picks to movies for just one reason: the difficulty of making meaningful comparisons between a finite film and a television show that is still an ongoing work in progress. It wouldn’t seem fair to list a show here that might, before it’s all over, take a major nose dive. But make no mistake, film and TV now bear equal claim to the mantle of creative greatness. So without losing sight of that, here are the twelve movies that defined my 2017. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2017: Antony’s Picks

By Antony Lyon. This year, in a break with tradition, I’ve left my list unnumbered and included a few releases that violate the “new in 2017” selection principle. So you’ll find both a remastered anniversary deluxe edition and a 2016 album that I didn’t discover until this August on the list. This year I’ve chosen in the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

I listened to a lot of albums once, and I listened to a lot several times. I played some more often than others, but I rarely became obsessed with one. I spent a lot of time making playlists by collecting discovered single songs, rather than committing to whole albums. As a result, I don’t know how to rank these albums in a way that isn’t simply arbitrary. But to give it some sense of order, I’ve organized my reflections in genre clusters.

I don’t really have the wherewithal to bend my listening habits into a broader cultural critique, but I suspect it’s waiting there for someone more ambitious than I. This list is not hashtagged clickbait—“The Music List We Need Right Now!” It’s simply a list of what moved me and kept me moving this year. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2017: Spencer’s Picks

By Spencer Davis. Last month, I wrote a piece for this website explaining why I fear we’ve reached the end of music. Those ideas have been floating around in my head all year, and there’s a reason for that: I’ve been largely uninspired by the music that was released in 2017. After years writing about the best in indie rock, Americana, electronic, and hip-hop, I feel like every one of these genres has quietly reached a plateau—a Mobius strip of innovation in the guise of imitation, where nothing sounds new and any creativity by the artist is taking place mostly at the margins. We’ve reached points before in our musical history where a particular genre lost its ability to leave an impact. Think back to 1998 and how listless rock music had become after a decade of mopey grunge excess. The same phenomenon happened with the waning days of hair metal in 1990, or with pop music around that same time period, or with jazz in the late 50s. In each of these cases, the exhaustion of one art form made room for the birth of another, and rock-and-roll or hip-hop or grunge or indie rose to meet the challenge.

This time, though, feels different. Precisely because all of our musical forms have reached the exhaustion point simultaneously. Hip-hop has become stale, relying on minimalist beats and safe, Auto-Tuned choruses to speak to an ever-narrowing audience in clubs and on top 40 radio. Americana, once a refreshing throwback to the past, now feels increasingly forced and cliched after a wave of hipster Lumineer imitators beat the horse to death. After a decade of laughable Nashville radio filler, country momentarily offered a breath of something new by looking to the past and imitating the sounds of vintage 70s and 80s outlaw country—but the problem with looking backwards is that it gives you nowhere else to go. Electronic and EDM, while conceptually seeming like the obvious place to go if you’re looking for the music of the future, instead seem content with confining themselves to a niche of the market, endlessly looping the same sounds and textures and beats with diminishing returns. And rock music? It barely exists anymore, with most indie bands relegating the guitar to an afterthought and established rock stars like U2 doing everything they can to shoehorn elements of other genres into their music in a last desperate bid for continued relevance.

If this is a harsh way to start off a list of the year’s best music, I apologize only up to a point. The albums I’ve listed here are certainly good, listenable music—but are any of them truly great? Will we listen to any of them five years from now, or even one year from now? Looking back to my 2016 list, I can’t help but feel that the very best albums of 2017 wouldn’t have cracked the top 15 of that list. And sure, maybe that’s just a sign of a down year; after all, if we’re only a year removed from such superior work, then we may only be a year away from a renaissance. If so, I think it will require something more than repackaging the sounds of the past; it will require new voices, new ideas, and maybe some new names.

So if inclusion on this year’s list now reads like a backhanded compliment of sorts, then so be it. The true greats, including possibly even some of the artists I’ve listed here, will be more then capable of rising to the challenge—or else they’re not true greats. Continue reading

The Theorist: The End Of Music

By Spencer Davis. In the closing days of the Cold War, political theorist Francis Fukuyama argued that humanity had reached “the end of history”—not literally, of course, but as a shorthand to explain his notion that, after centuries of evolution, our systems of government had reached their final and logical endpoint in the global triumph of liberal democracy. No other system of government could ever better meet mankind’s inherent social and psychological needs, he maintained, and so we were now at the end of the road. Of course there would always be work to be done in terms of maintaining good governance, passing laws to address new problems, and so on—but the changes would be small rather than big. There would be no more seismic reinventions of government in our future, no viable contender to replace democracy wholesale (as communism and fascism had once tried to promise). History, understood as the story of man’s political progress, had already written its final chapter.

Setting aside the question of how rosy that projection now looks in the age of Trump, you might ask what the hell any of this has to do with this website? Well, I’d like to posit a theory of my own: that in the last decade, we have quietly reached the end of music. Continue reading