The Critic: S&N’s 2019 Oscar Picks


By Spencer Davis. At this year’s Oscars, it seems like the focus will be less on the awards and more on the half-assed, throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-hope-something-sticks approach that the Academy and ABC have taken to stave off their ever-spiraling decline in viewers. Now I’ve already spent plenty of word count suggesting one novel approach the Oscars might take—nominating movies that people have actually fucking seen—and apparently the Academy listened, nominating blockbusters like A Star Is Born, Black Panther, and Bohemian Rhapsody for the top prize (along with more accessible fare like BlacKkKlansman, Green Book, and Vice, which—while not box office hits in dollar terms—are at least the kind of movies you can enjoy even if you lack a film history degree from USC or a subscription to Cahiers du Cinema).

Unable to just leave a good thing the fuck alone, though, the Academy has also clumsily ushered in a slew of changes to the telecast in an effort to woo back disinterested viewers with a leaner, three hour show. They’ve axed the host (in part because they couldn’t find anyone who wanted the job). They flirted with having only two of the Best Original Song nominees perform (before Lady Gaga threatened to walk, forcing them to recant or lose their biggest star). And perhaps worst of all, they tried to relegate “less important” categories like Cinematography, Editing, Makeup & Hairstyling, and Live Action Short to the commercial breaks, only to backtrack on that too when the all-too-predictable backlash ensured.

All this in a quixotic effort to attract people who have never liked watching the Oscars, at the expense of those of us who actually do. If that sounds a little bit like one of those formulaic 90s rom-coms where the girl spends the entire movie desperately chasing after some self-absorbed douchebag who treats her like shit, while all the time overlooking the faithful best friend who loves her just the way she is … then congratulations, you’re smarter than anyone who runs the Academy these days. With that said, if the Oscars are really so insistent upon “fixing” things, here’s a few more sensible ideas from someone who’s watched every Oscars ceremony since 1980. Continue reading

The Year In Movies 2018: Spencer’s Picks

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

The Year In Music 2018: Biff’s Picks

By Biff Hust. “If I woke up tomorrow morning with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am right now.” This is what I kept thinking over and over in November 2016. Now I just repeat the title of my favorite album thirty years ago over and over on a loop: “Nothing’s Shocking.” So it’s no surprise to me that my favorite album of the year consists of loops and samples and repeated mantras all done in an abstract, beautifully disjointed and raw style. Earl Sweatshirt’s opus Some Rap Songs is a combination of the brevity, simplicity, and focus of punk rock and the other worldly, spontaneity and mystical qualities of good jazz. Since this album came out it has been on a loop when I’m in the car by myself; I also put Jeff Tweedy on every now and then to come out of the cold, introspective world Earl creates only to enter a warmer yet just as introspective one Tweedy creates. Both of these albums capture my mood and the palpable yet jaded angst I sense in our society today. These albums are one and two for me this year. Earl gets the slight nod just because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard yet so compelling to listen to. I’ve been singing Jeff Tweedy’s praises for years now and finally feel vindicated that people love his “first” official solo album. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2018: Antony’s Picks

By Antony Lyon. Last year, my music listening habits surprised me; now I suspect they heralded the new normal. I make a lot of playlists – thirteen this year by my count. I enjoy the deliberate process of making a soundtrack for the moment, and I spent a lot of my listening time putting them together. My two most-spun albums this year were not from 2018. One was U2’s Songs Of Experience, which is a late 2017 album. Predictably, I listened to it a lot. As with any old friend, I (almost) forgive its flaws and only hear its virtues. As I said last year, it’s not an album that will convert late-period-U2 skeptics, but for the believers among us, it deepens a great band’s legacy. By a mile, my most-spun album is Teenage Fanclub’s Songs From Northern Britain. This 1998 album, a pastoral folk-rock exploration emerging from the Scottish Highlands, received a lovely polishing with a new remaster this year. This remastered edition coincided with a moment in my life, and now the album occupies one of those mystical spaces for me. I’m destined to listen to it on a walk in the Highlands and to weep like a child. I can’t wait. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2018: Spencer’s Picks

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

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 Critic: S&N’s 2017 Oscar Picks

 
By Spencer Davis. In a lot of ways, this year’s Oscars figure to tease out the divide in taste that I examined in my Best of 2016 list: between movies that focus on grand visual spectacle and ones that prefer a more intimate, character-based approach. The battle between La La Land and Moonlight is one that is largely subjective, asking you to choose between films that are so different in their end goals that meaningful comparison is impossible. Which one you choose says more about the person you are than it does about the respective merits of the two films. And whichever film ends up taking home the Oscar won’t truly have claim to being the “best picture” in the long run; it will just be the one that struck the right nerve at this particular moment in time. Continue reading

The Year In Movies 2016: Spencer’s Picks

lalalandBy Spencer. While there’s been an unsurprising amount of consensus about 2016’s best music, this year’s slate of movies asks you to make some hard and very personal decisions about what exactly takes a film to the point of greatness. Do you care about first and foremost about the story? The acting? The direction? Is it bold innovation or flawless execution that moves you? Does it have to make a statement, or can it simply revel in quiet humanity? While smaller, more intimate films like Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, and Toni Erdmann have their fierce advocates among the critics, there’s another kind of picture that achieves greatness by going for broke on the magic of cinema itself—a place where impossible fantasies can be given sight and where we can delight in the color and framing of an exquisite series of images that transcend the mundane details of what we call ordinary life. This year, it was a film of this type, a film where dreams constantly intruded upon the real world, that ultimately captured both my heart and my mind—and that film was La La Land. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2016: Antony’s Picks

hamilton-leithauser-rostam-album-artBy Antony. My “Year In Music” doesn’t say anything about what was important in 2016. If it did, then Beyoncé would be #1, followed closely by several other powerful hip-hop records: A Tribe Called Quest, Chance the Rapper, Common, Solange, and Blood Orange. But this list isn’t about important things; it’s a record of what I was listening to in 2016. This year, I didn’t seek importance from music; I sought solace. I understand why people turn to music when the world is in upheaval, when they sense a darkness descending upon us. In fact, I’m often one of those people, but for some reason, this year, I didn’t. Perhaps it was because of my necessary turn toward the domestic with the birth of my first child. Whatever the reasons, I only emotionally connected with music that would return me to myself and settle my spirit even if only for a moment. So here’s my list of the albums that made my year in music: Continue reading

The Year In Music 2016: Spencer’s Picks

radiohead--a-moon-shaped-poolBy Spencer. I’m going to make a bold statement: 2016 was the best year for music in S&N’s three-year history. And I mean that from top to bottom. The top five in my year-end list is a murderer’s row of absolutely ingenious albums—each of them practically perfect from the first track to the last and displaying both infectious listenability and grand artistic ambition.  But whereas in past years we saw a quick decline between the top five and everything else, 2016 presented so many good options that it was damn near impossible for me to even compile this list. Since science has yet to find a way to cram more than 20 albums into a top-20 list, though, I was forced to leave many worthy contenders out. Continue reading

The Critic: Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool

radiohead--a-moon-shaped-poolBy Spencer. After a flurry of a week that started with mysterious leaflets mailed to fans with the message, “we know where you live,” followed a few days later by not one but two surprise music videos, we suddenly have a brand new Radiohead album. Its title, revealed only a few minutes before Sunday’s digital release through the band’s website, is A Moon Shaped Pool. And in the best surprise of this week-long rollout, it turns out that this is easily the best work of art Radiohead have achieved since Kid A. But in a twist no one could have predicted, the most groundbreaking thing about the album is how listenable it is. For a band whose style has so often flirted with the eccentric, whose entire identity is defined by their two decades as the standard-bearers for experimental music, A Moon Shaped Pool is a left turn of another kind: it’s just a collection of gorgeous sounds. Continue reading

The Critic: S&N’s 2016 Oscar Picks

 
By Spencer. This year’s Oscars will barely be about the movies themselves. It’s pretty clear by now that the controversy over the lack of racial diversity among the nominees is going to be the storyline that hovers over this year’s entire ceremony. That, combined with the lack of a picture that feels like a truly historic achievement, leaves these Oscars feeling more than a little flat. That’s a shame because we’re seeing one of the most competitive years in recent memory, with several races looking like potential photo finishes. Here’s a look at how I’d vote—and, setting aside my own subjective favorites, who I think the Academy will ultimately reward. Continue reading

The Year In Movies 2015: Spencer’s Picks

exmachinaBy Spencer. Complaints that the number of quality roles for actresses in Hollywood pales in comparison with the material written for men have been as old as Hollywood itself—and rightfully so. But if there was a trend among the slate of great films that 2015 had to offer, it was that, for the first year in movie history, women were actually rewarded with richer, meatier roles than their male counterparts. Charlize Theron managed to steal a Mad Max movie from Mad Max. Amy Schumer (Trainwreck) and Alison Brie (Sleeping With Other People) helped reinvent the romantic comedy. Jennifer Jason Leigh of all people was the most memorable part of a Quentin Tarantino movie (The Hateful Eight). Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche shattered the Bechdel Test with two layered, complicated female characters in Clouds Of Sils Maria. And thanks to Daisy Ridley, a whole generation of young girls now dreams of becoming Jedi! Women, not men, are now doing the most exciting work in film, as you’ll see in my list of the movies that made 2015 worth watching. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2015: Jason’s Picks

popsBy Jason. While there was so much good music to choose from in 2015, three albums came out of nowhere to dominate my listening for the year. I enjoyed the hell out of this year’s releases from some familiar artists, like Josh Ritter’s Sermon On The Rocks, Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free, The Dead Weather’s Dodge And Burn, and Noah Gundersen’s Carry The Ghost. But I expected to. The three albums that really got to me, however, were from artists with which I had no prior connection. Continue reading

The Critic: Coldplay’s A Head Full Of Dreams

Coldplay1

By Antony. The world only stops for Adele. When most artists release an album, it disperses across various media outlets, climbs the iTunes download chart, and then, more than likely, disappears into the informational oblivion of the internet. Even a band as big as Coldplay is at risk of this happening to them.

Even as we continue turning art into information-packets, I knew the release of Coldplay’s A Head Full Of Dreams would be for me a small community event. The very same internet that destroys history also enables one to keep in touch with friends near and far. As I put on the new Coldplay on Friday, December 4th, I imagined three of my friends doing the same wherever they are.  Continue reading

The Year In Music 2015: Antony’s Picks

hansardBy Antony. This year I didn’t fall in love with many albums, but when I did, that album dominated my listening for weeks upon weeks and colored the life I was living. Glen Hansard’s Didn’t He Ramble is set to become the auditory anchor to late 2015. My wife and I went to see him perform at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in early November. It was truly a religious experience for me. Hansard and his band spent half the show unplugged from the amps because the venue’s acoustics were so good—like a campfire with several thousand people. The fiddle player’s solo at the end of “McCormick’s Wall” was absolutely arresting. The show didn’t change me; it confirmed everything I’ve come to know and believe. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2015: Spencer’s Picks

barnettBy Spencer. It’s my favorite time of year again—time for each of S&N’s contributors to weigh in on their favorite music and movies of 2015. If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you know we rarely agree on much. But this year, I suspect we’re going to see a lot of the same suspects popping up—at least in the area of music, where a few artists managed to establish themselves to near-universal acclaim. One of those artists is Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett, who earned some moderate buzz in 2014 with her impressive live show and her offbeat release, The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, and has now followed it up in 2015 with a full album of irreverent worldplay and post-grunge riffage that, in my opinion and no doubt many others, is the album of the year. Continue reading

The Critic: Josh Ritter’s Sermon On The Rocks

JRSermonBy Spencer. Americana should be a thing of the past by now. I mean, it obviously is a thing of the past, literally speaking. But the fad that kicked into overdrive six years ago with Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers should have burned itself out by now. (Hell, if you listen to Mumford’s latest album, 2015’s lackluster Wilder Mind, it’s pretty clear even they have moved on—even if that was a mistake). The shame of it is, there are those who never were part of the fad, who were doing this kind of music simply because they loved it, because it spoke to them and spoke through them. They were there long before the hipsters took hold of it and made it part of a broader aesthetic movement of ironic handlebar mustaches, mason jar cocktails, and reclaimed hardwood decor. Josh Ritter should by all rights be the face of Americana—he’s been doing it since his 1999 debut, and for a three-album stretch that included 2006’s The Animal Years, 2007’s The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter, and 2010’s So Runs The World Away, he did it better than just about anyone. Back this week with Sermon On The Rocks, Ritter is lyrically laying claim to that mantle once again, even as his sound takes a few bold steps beyond all that. Continue reading

The Critic: S&N’s 2015 Oscar Picks

By Spencer. Back in July, I boldly predicted that the Oscar race was already over: Boyhood would be winning the Best Picture trophy, end of story. But the media has a funny way of making a horse race where there is none. And so what started out as an early victory lap for Boyhood—the near unanimous picture of the year among the film critic circles—has now found room for a late charge from Birdman. It’s a fascinating contest, because the two movies are so very different from one another: a subtle, realistic, and heartwarming character piece about the wonders of ordinary life versus a biting, surrealistic, and somewhat disturbing satire about the horrors of celebrity. If you follow the momentum trackers in the entertainment media, Birdman has been steadily gaining on Boyhood in the last few weeks. Will the upset happen? We’ll get to that. First, S&N’s pick for who will win (and who should win) the top Oscar categories on Sunday. Continue reading

The Year In Movies 2014: Spencer’s Picks

boyhoodBy Spencer. Ranking the best movies of the year isn’t nearly as simple a task as writing a year-end list for music. None of us at S&N are professional critics, so we’re limited to the movies we managed to see during the year—and as you might imagine, thanks to the time demands of visiting a theater, we consume a lot fewer movies than albums. There are a whole slew of films I wanted to see this year, but still haven’t had the chance: The Imitation Game, Whiplash, Unbroken, Birdman, Nightcrawler, Mr. Turner. So bear that in mind when reading my picks for the best movies that I personally watched in 2014. Some are art-house obscurities and some are summer blockbusters, but all of them impressed me in their own way. And no movie, of 2014 or probably the last decade, impressed me as much as Boyhood. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2014: Mark’s Picks

sylvan-essoBy Mark. This year’s list took some effort. I ran through top list after top list, but had trouble finding ten records that really stood out. Some early favorites such as Cloud NothingsHere And Nowhere Else faded out of rotation and never came back. Benjamin Booker wowed me for two weeks and then I forgot about him. Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There has some really bright spots, but the album dulls midway through. And as much as it pains me to say it, Ben Howard‘s I Forget Where We Were has the same problem. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2014: Jason’s Picks

claptonBy Jason. When 2014 began, I had no idea who J.J. Cale was. But thanks to Clapton’s tribute album, his work became my favorite of 2014. Despite spending the year listening to a wide range of artists outside my usual listening habits, I kept coming back to this album. Cale’s “Tulsa Sound” is so smooth and effortless. Plus you have Willie Nelson and a more interesting Tom Petty than you get on Hypnotic Eye. After spending almost 20 years listening to more face-melting guitar than any person should, I’ve come to enjoy a well-honed rhythm and the perfectly placed lead. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2014: Biff’s Picks

hissBy Biff. I don’t know if it is being in the last months of my thirties, having a kid in high school, or counting the days until my wife graduates, but I’ve been in and out of a mild depression all year. I’ve had a hard time staying focused on new music this year and in fact only 1 or 2 new albums have really moved me this year. I’ve listened to a lot of older stuff lately: the Dylan and the Band Basement Tapes, Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece, Otis Redding, The Clash, Fugazi a lot of older Wu-Tang and Rancid (which I surprisingly enjoyed a lot of the latter two’s new albums). But the album I’ve been obsessed with this year is the Velvet Underground’s self titled album. That album is amazing and it rides the highs and lows of emotions that I’ve been traveling on these days. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2014: Morgan’s Picks

wishiwashereBy Morgan. This year I felt like a poor music explorer, partially because I poured so much time and energy into job searching and partially because I took time to travel off the grid. So I am honestly more excited to have read Antony and Spencer’s pieces because I have some albums to check out by artists I love yet whose new albums have eluded me. Obviously I need to start paying attention again. But honestly, there are years where I try to be adventurous with my music taste, and this year I suppose I played it safe. My list is comprised of mostly familiar, previously beloved artists, with a few new guys: Hozier and Fink. Continue reading

The Year In Music 2014: Spencer’s Picks

Ledges-CoverLOBy Spencer. As a music blogger, there’s no better time of year than now. Ranking the year’s best releases isn’t just an exercise in appreciating greatness; it’s food for argument. So expect plenty of that as our S&N contributors use the next few weeks to rank their favorite music of 2014. The comments section will no doubt be heated!

If you read my 2013 list over at After The Radio, you know I was less than impressed with last year’s output. My principal complaint? In a year of many good albums, there were no great ones. I’m happy to report that 2014 did not follow that trend. My top five albums this year were each perfect from start to finish.  Continue reading