By Spencer Davis. While I introduced my 2018 Year In Music picks by contemplating why today’s songwriters have mostly failed to tap into the political pulse of this extraordinary moment in history in which we live, I can’t at all say the same thing about the world of film. From the racial divisions tearing apart our elections and our borders to the tectonic shifts still shaking our long-stagnant perceptions of the treatment of women, this year’s best movies seemed utterly oxygenated by the hashtag social movements that have dominated our discourse—and they burned all the more brightly for it. Of course, hovering over all of this has been the constant specter of the Trump Administration, and it should be no surprise that liberal Hollywood chose to challenge this presidency—and everything it means for the life of our democracy—head-on. No film better captured the complete insanity of living in the shadow of rising authoritarianism than The Death Of Stalin. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Typically, great art is borne of terrible times. So in these days when hate is rising everywhere, days when some are questioning the decline of democracy itself, you’d expect that “serious” music—particularly music with a strongly political bent—would be experiencing a renaissance. Yet it’s confounding that two years into this critical juncture in history, we’re seeing so little music that speaks to the moment, that provides a vital commentary on the state of our union comparable to the creative explosion of the 1960s or the literary revolution of the interwar period. Music is still searching for a way to do something new, and the best answer anyone’s come up with so far is to cross-pollinate genres or historical influences in a way that aspires to accomplish a seamless new blend—hopefully obscuring the fact that there’s nothing truly new or original about it.
But while my 2017 list bemoaned a particularly weak crop, I’m happy to say that in 2018, the road is curving back in the right direction. And there are even signs that maybe, just maybe, this historical moment of ours could be on the cusp of sparking the next great creative explosion. My hope begins with this year’s brilliant new evolutionary leap from Leon Bridges. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Every year, I give you a new batch of overlooked Halloween movies to get you through the night—or if I’ve done my job properly, keep you awake through it—and this year, we go in some new directions. Some might say the world we live in right now is scary enough! And yet it’s perhaps no coincidence that the past two years have brought horror into a new era of acclaim, with hits like Get Out and A Quiet Place being named as serious awards contenders. Even the remake business is being taken a lot more seriously, with bold new visions of Halloween and Suspiria taking over the theaters and proving themselves to be more than cheap cash grabs. But if, like me, you think the best place to seek out your scares is in the darkness of your own living room, then enjoy these under-the-radar film frights. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Time for another vinyl time capsule in our continuing series, The Vintage Collector. I’m making my picks for the essential classic albums you need in your vinyl collection. This time, we’re doing barroom piano ballads, proto-hair metal, sultry lounge standards, soul/blues fusion, and a lost album from a titan of jazz. Continue reading
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
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
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