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

The Projects: Even More Horror Flicks That Don’t Suck

By Spencer Davis. This is always one of my favorite columns to write every year, because October horror movies are like the gateway to fall for me. It starts getting dark a little earlier each night, and with Halloween around the corner, there’s no more perfect way to enjoy that darkness than with a good scare. And sure, in a year where horror movies like Get Out and It are dominating the box office—and even earning Oscar buzz—there’s no shortage of great options out there. But once you’re done with all of the more obvious choices, take a dive into the deep cuts with these underrated and sometimes forgotten screen terrors. Continue reading

The Podcast: Movies That Matter Discusses Dunkirk

By Nicole Funari & Spencer Davis. In the latest edition of the Movies That Matter podcast, we discuss the critically-acclaimed World War II film, Dunkirk, from director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar). It’s a decidedly unconventional summer blockbuster; though the subject matter and the production values put it squarely into Oscar bait territory, it plays like an action movie or even a disaster flick. Nolan’s pedigree as the thinking person’s crowdpleaser of choice make him the perfect filmmaker to tackle this topic, and he once again plays his usual tricks with time, utilizing a complex intersection of three different timelines to reframe the narrative on the key theme of cooperation in a time of crisis. The result is perhaps the first truly modern war picture—a complete stylistic break with the past. And the movie raises fascinating questions about how our history is written, how we talk about the virtues of military service and heroism, and the basic value of human lives during times that sacrifice them so cheaply. You can download the podcast here or via iTunes.

The Projects: Foreign Films That Don’t Suck, Vol. 2


By Spencer Davis. One of the appeals of exploring foreign cinema is seeing how filmmakers from other countries are free to entertain story ideas that would never get the green light in Hollywood. It’s not necessarily that foreign directors are given more leeway to take risks; it’s that a plot device that seems absurd to us may, in the eyes of another culture, make total sense. With that in mind, let’s look at five more pictures from around the globe that redefine the boundaries of what movies can do. Continue reading

The Theorist: Pearl Jam & The Pursuit Of The Good Life

By Spencer Davis. For a kid whose love of rock music was originally sparked by the early 90s grunge movement, seeing Pearl Jam’s recent induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame was an odd sort of milestone in my own musical journey. Standing there together on stage, trying to find words to capture what the moment meant to their music and to their own personal lives, you could almost see Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Matt Cameron—along with original drummer Dave Krusen!—mentally struggling to grasp the enormity of the past 25 years. There was a childlike shock at being there, as if their adult selves were momentarily jettisoned and replaced with six naive, energetic, swaggering kids from 1991. And from that perspective, the whole thing was no doubt impossible to compute.

But watching on the television, knowing as we do know that, as this was filmed, the world was just weeks away from losing yet another legendary Seattle frontman in Chris Cornell, the induction of Pearl Jam took on a wholly different kind of historical relevance. With so many of their grunge-era contemporaries—Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots—lost or fundamentally altered by premature death, and so many others rendered defunct by eternal squabbling, lineup changes, or on-again, off-again breakups, Pearl Jam is now the last band standing. And there’s a monumental lesson in that about the nature of fame, creativity, and indeed life—either as musicians or just as people. Continue reading

The Mixologist: Remain/Rewind

By Spencer Davis. Been taking a bit of a break lately, but don’t worry—S&N isn’t going anywhere! And what better way to come back after a recharge than with a brand new S&N mix? Well, I say “brand new,” but as you’ll see with this batch of tunes, newness can be relative. Because while these songs all come from 2017 releases, you’ll notice an obvious theme: they make what’s new sound old again. Tapping into a vibe that’s distinctly 80s, these artists skirt that creative line between looking back and moving forward. And they prove it’s not so much a line as a spectrum. Continue reading