Lyzette’s 50 Favorite Albums of 2017

As with my Worst Hit Singles of 2017 and Top Films of 2017 lists, the fates have decided that I should write some words on what I have decided to be among the most noteworthy music albums of the past year. Which is convenient, given that 2017 was the first year that I really played very close attention to each new release, as they came out. For the most part, I was able to keep up with basically everything I wanted to listen to, despite the fact that I fell behind at times here and there and, regrettably, still haven’t quite listened to everything that interested me at least a little bit. But how could I – even without taking into account all of the writing, reading, and movie-watching I accomplished this past year, there are simply too many releases in the world to ever be hopeful in catching up. As for the majority of my most desired stuff, though, I pretty much covered all my bases, which is certainly more impressive than I have accomplished in past years!

So anyway, here we are – my top 50 releases of the year. Which, yes, is really what this list will be about. I know that the title of this post specifically mentions albums, but I will also open it up to EPs and mixtapes I’ve checked out in the course of the year. Because this is my house and I play by my own rules. Additionally, due to the pure density of this list, I have limited each review to only a couple sentences per release (except for ones that I think deserve more, for whatever reason). This way, I get to promote a wide breadth of music across numerous styles, genres, and artists, while also taking a load off my own back – since I still have a couple more lists to complete after this one!

I mostly hope that this list will give readers a better idea of the kind of music to which I like to jam along (or listen morosely) when I’m not giving my spins to a copious amount of pop music, new and old. And since I’m always up for recommendations, I would love to hear in the comments if there is anything I might be missing! (No, I did not like the Father John Misty album… and I’ve yet to listen to the Mountain Goats album… and both 4:44 and DAMN. were underwhelming…)

So, let’s get on with it now! Here are my FAVORITE MUSIC RELEASES OF 2017

Antisocialites by Alvvays

Soooo dreamy. Molly Rankin’s delicate vocals and Alec O’Hanley’s guitar work are what make this one. Some tracks are hazy and float-along, while others move along in a bit more uptempo fashion. Nonetheless, it always surprises me how quickly this album passes by; every track is special in its own way and the listening experience as a whole is always pleasant. It’s like being draped in a cozy dream pop/power pop blanket for an afternoon.

Best tracks: “Dreams Tonite”, “Plimsoll Punks”, “Already Gone”

Arca by Arca

I have never been aware of Arca (the stage name of Alejandro Ghersi) before listening to this album, but now I never want to go back. Essentially, his self-titled album is little more than a series of experimental ambient tracks, prominently featuring his voice among sparse instrumentals. The product as a whole is as beautiful as it is unsettling, seasoned with moments that are almost jaw-dropping in their inexplicable turns. It’s one of the most perfect nighttime albums of the year, as well as one of the queerest.

Best tracks: “Piel”, “Saunter”, “Desafio”

Future Politics by Austra

The synthpop group take on a decidedly more mature trajectory with their latest album, and do so with much success. The synth grooves here are totally tight and awesome, and their spacier stuff gives off great vibes as well. It’s terrifically produced, even if the lyrics aren’t the sharpest, and it takes some pretty bold risks in the meantime. Definitely one of the more underrated albums of the year.

Best tracks: “Future Politics”, “Angel in Your Eyes’

Pas pire pop [I Love You So Much] by Avec le soleil sortant de sa bouche

I have no idea how this band ended up on my radar last year, but I’m so glad they did. Judging from this album alone, they seem to be the kind of band that defies any sense of organized categorization. It’s essentially a series of bold instrumentals that seem almost formless in sound and function – as if the band members just threw a bunch of sounds against a wall and parsed out whatever stuck. It’s an excellent slice of prog-rock and shouldn’t be skipped by lovers of the genre.

Best tracks: “Trans-pop express I & II”… but ideally, it should be taken in all at once.

All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ by Joey Bada$$

Politically conscious hip-hop is pretty big right now, and the latest release from New York rapper Joey Bada$$ is one of the strongest to come from this past year. The jazzy production is sleek and wonderful, and while the record as a whole is chill in mood, it never loses focus of Joey’s condemnation upon America’s corruption and systematic racism. One of the most important albums to come from this year.

Best tracks: “For My People”, “Land of the Free”, “Amerikkkan Idol”

Turn Out the Lights by Julien Baker

Julien Baker is a delicate, talented performer; each and every track on Turn Out the Lights demonstrate just what I love so much about this record. While the atmosphere of her minimal, slow instrumentals is pleasing to the ear, her lyrics are often and so accurately aching with a tremendous pain and loneliness, the kinds that often defy description. And above all else, it’s just all so, so pretty.

Best tracks: “Turn Out the Lights”, “Appointments”, “Shadowboxing”

Capacity by Big Thief

I guess many of my praises for Turn Out the Lights could also apply here, even though this is less depressing and more calming, plainly speaking. Adrianne Lenker’s voice is one of my most satisfying finds of 2017. It’s all just good, warm, folky fun. I’ve seen this record often compared to Lorde’s Melodrama, but it’s more like if Fiona Apple collaborated with The Breeders or Belly – basically all the cool parts of mid-90s indie rock recollected to today.

Best tracks: “Mary”, “Shark Smile”, “Mythological Beauty”

Utopia by Björk

Björk seems to have the utter inability to be anything but totally awesome, and her new album further exemplifies this. Her typical loose experimentation is meshed with co-producer Arca’s signature ambience, resulting in her earthiest album to date. Each listen immediately prompts me to lean back, eyes closed, and fully immerse myself in this atmosphere of birds and other nature sounds that has been so brilliantly painted out. It doesn’t offer many surprises as far as the Björk sound is concerned – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Best tracks: “Blissing Me”, “The Gate”, “Body Memory”, “Features Creatures”

World Eater by Blanck Mass

If you’re looking for something on the harsher, more industrial side of things, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better album from this year than World Eater. Each track is so eerie and mechanical, successfully working at portraying both anger and calm throughout the course of the album. The textures to this one are great and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for some interesting electronic sounds.

Best tracks: “Silent Treatment”, “Please”, “Rhesus Negative”

SATURATION II by Brockhampton

Much has been made of Brockhampton this past year. Honestly, I’ve yet to get around to the second and third volume of their SATURATION series, but SATURATION II is one of the most prestigious rap albums of the year for me. Its energy is wild and enthusiastic, the hooks are instantly catchy, and the production is fresh as hell throughout – not too much more I could ask for with this one.

Best tracks: “Junky”, “Queer”, “Sweet”, “Swamp”, “Summer”

I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone by Chastity Belt

Sometimes I don’t need a lot of depth or variety in my jangle pop – I just need some shimmery guitars and smooth grooves. Thankfully, this album has got that in spades. I can’t see this album making many others’ lists (mainly because of how easy it is to forget about it), but I enjoyed the hell out of this. It’s not as explicitly sad as something like Turn Out the Lights, but there are tinges here and there; it totally works in the band’s favor.

Best tracks: “Different Now”, “Something Else”, “5am”

Apocalipstick by Cherry Glazerr

Now this is fun as hell! Mildly psychedelic and spunky in all the best ways, Cherry Glazerr is one of those bands I’m gonna have to keep on my radar. Like many of the artists on this list, they keep up a great 90s alt-rock vibe so, so well. It balances indie pop with edgier, more harder rock so effortlessly and the whole album is a blast from start to finish. It’s definitely one of those records that make me want to witness it played live immediately.

Best tracks: “Told You I’d Be with the Guys”, “Moon Dust”, “Humble Pro”

Thot Breaker by Chief Keef

And now here comes one of my most unexpected faves. I just love how goddamn quirky this one is. The cluttered production is surely not for everyone, but I personally find it quite charming, especially on the record’s strongest tracks. In a music landscape saturated with hard rappers, it’s always nice to see those that aren’t afraid to express a significantly more sensitive side. Cheif Keef does exactly this throughout the course of the album. While it does err on the cheesy and goofy side at points, it somehow never gets bad!

Best tracks: “Whoa”, “My Baby”, “You & Me”, “You My Number One”

A Thousand Skies by Clap! Clap!

Just a whole bunch of tracks that mesh tropical rhythms with electronic and R&B production in cool, creative ways. That pretty much just sums this up – whether or not that previous sentence seems attractive basically determines one’s overall opinion on this album. I for one find it pretty damn cool; even though some tracks are definitely weaker than others (namely in the second half), it’s consistency overall is admirable.

Best tracks: “Ode to the Pleiades”, “Hope”, “Nguwe”

13 by Denzel Curry

Denzel Curry was one of my favorite discoveries from 2016, and I’m so glad to see that his incomparable rhythm has not let up yet. While I anxiously await his next full-length album, his mixtape 13 is jam-packed with just under fifteen minutes of rambunctious energy and stellar rhymes. Worth listening to over and over again.

Best tracks: “Equalizer”, “Zeltron 6 Billion”

This Old Dog by Mac DeMarco

Mac DeMarco has been one of my blind spots for a little while – somehow I just assumed I would not like him! Obviously, I stand corrected. This is just a nice, mellow album, with some quietly introspective lyrics smoothed onto a gentle acoustic (and sometimes electronic) backing. It’s just dreamy as hell, and also somehow nostalgic in a weird, inexplicable way.

Best tracks: “My Old Man”, “Still Beating”, “For the First Time”

Stellular by Rose Elinor Dougall

Dougall breaks away from The Pipettes to create something more layered and mature, and succeeds marvelously. A little bit of power pop here, some new wave there, and some shoegaze/dream pop vibes to keep things interesting. It’s just a pleasant little record, the likes of which are tough to come across this day and age.

Best tracks: “Colour of Water”, “Stellular”, “Closer”

Pleasure by Feist

I almost didn’t listen to this album, since Feist is soooo ten years ago. Nonetheless, I’m so glad I did, because it brings some more interesting textures and soft sounds that I wouldn’t normally associate with the singer-songwriter. The production on each track is interesting in its own special ways and Leslie Feist herself sounds as beautiful and earthy as ever. Try not to pass this one up, please.

Best tracks: “Pleasure”, “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You”, “Baby Be Simple”

Plunge by Fever Ray

Oh god, I love this one so much. The sound design throughout this record is spiky and rough, and in all the best ways. Karin is so dreamily aggressive… and sometimes just plain dreamy. More than anything, though, I love how unapologetically queer and political this album is, while also being some of the most fun I’ve had in 45-minute increments all year long.

Best tracks: “To the Moon and Back”, “IDK About You”, “Mustn’t Hurry”

Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes is a band that always brings me back to my early college days when I first started getting into them – a simpler time. Crack-Up continues their penchant for luxurious harmonies and earthy folk tones in a collection of tracks that progressively ebb and swell with overwhelming emotion. This album seems to only get better with each listen and is in fierce competition with their self-titled as my favorite release from the group.

Best tracks: “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”, “Fool’s Errand”, “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me”

HNDRXX by Future

True, FUTURE has “Mask Off”, but I think HNDRXX is the better 2017 Future album overall. As the trap rapper’s attempt at a more explicitly pop record, it passes with flying colors and is one of the year’s most under-appreciated releases. The production on these tracks are fire and Future himself has never sounded better.

Best tracks: “Coming Out Strong”, “Selfish”, “Incredible”

Alice Glass by Alice Glass

Context is key with this record. Upon this EP’s release, it was highly dismissed as being derivative and boring. It instantly becomes chilling and even heartbreaking with the knowledge that each and every track comes from a place of pain over the abuse and trauma experienced by Glass from a very young age. She lays her soul bare over the course of this record and the result is a messy, beautiful, real work of jagged art.

Best tracks: “Without Love”, “Forgiveness”, “Natural Selection”, “Blood Oath”

Something to Tell You by Haim

It’s awfully tempting to compare Haim to golden-era Fleetwood Mac, and while it’s true that they have a real penchant for carrying a strong retro groove through their strongest songs, they’ve also got a unique talent in their own right. The sleek arrangements and effortless navigation from hook to hook with each track helps to make a totally delightful sophomore effort. The ladies themselves sound awesome as well!

Best tracks: “Want You Back”, “Little of Your Love”, “Nothing’s Wrong”

The Navigator by Hurray for the Riff Raff

I have never heard the name Alynda Lee Segarra before 2017, but after this album I want to devour everything with which she executes her craft. The polished Americana production of this record is tinged with Latin American rhythms and sounds that make this one stand above the rest. Yet I think it’s Segarra’s presence itself that makes this record shine, with frequent callbacks to her Puerto Rican upbringing and the people that occupied it. It’s a beautiful, layered album that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Best tracks: “Hungry Ghost”, “Living in the City”, “The Navigator”, “Pa’lante”

Soft Sounds From Another Planet by Japanese Breakfast

2016’s Psychopomp may have turned me onto Japanese Breakfast (the solo project of Michelle Zauner), but it was her sophomore album that really made me a fan. It’s a nice little album that demonstrates, in equal measure, shoegaze chill, spacey synths, booming percussion, and Zauner’s understated performance. It’s a great album to get lost in, and would have definitely fit in with the shoegaze boom of the 90s.

Best tracks: “Road Head”, “Diving Woman”, “Boyish”, “Machinist”

Rainbow by Kesha

This is a miracle of an album. After loosening herself from the oppressive chains of her past, Kesha released Rainbow which feels as liberating of an album as ever. Despite the melancholy that hangs over some tracks, others reassure listeners that the performer is fully psyched for having a good time. This is a terrific pop album – dare I say, one of the best of its kind to come in several years. I wish all the love, light, and healing for Kesha Sebert.

Best tracks: “Praying”, “Woman”, “Hymn”, “Learn to Let Go”

Murder of the Universe by King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

I never got fully on board with the King Gizzard love (I’ve only listened to three of the five albums from last year… I mean, geez) but Murder of the Universe is the one that has gotten me the closest. Even though it was released in June, the dark, apocalyptic feel of this album just feels like autumn, and I can definitely see myself revisiting this one every Halloweentime. I’m not the biggest fan of concept albums, but the guitars and spoken word are just so cool here, so I’ll gladly give an exception to this one.

Best tracks: This isn’t a track-by-track kind of album and should be listened to in completion… although “Lord of Lightning” rules.

La trenza by Mon Laferte

I’m so happy I discovered Mon Laferte this year and, concurrently, became more connected with my Latinx roots and culture. This just sounds like the kind of album that my grandma would enjoy, which only makes me love it all the more. It’s little more than a Latin pop album filled with Spanish-language love songs, but they all grab the ear so well, so there’s no reason for me to complain at all. Laferte also has quite a remarkable voice – that alone makes this more than worthwhile.

Best tracks: “Mi Buen Amor”, “Amárrame”, “Pa’ Dónde Se Fue”

Life Will See You Now by Jens Lekman

For a while into the year, this was my favorite album – until I caught up with a bunch of other stuff and releases later in the year pushed this one away. Still, I want to emphasize that this is a really good record! Lekman has quite the knack for combining eccentric arrangements with truly unique lyricism that express cynical existentialism and delicate sentimentality in equal measure. It’s a truly colorful record and quite possibly Lekman’s masterpiece.

Best tracks: “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?”, “To Know Your Mission”, “How Can I Tell Him”

Melodrama by Lorde

The day I discovered Melodrama was during a particularly uncertain time in my personal life, and I listened to it twice in a row while walking from one side of my city to the other, alone and aimless. Honestly, I can’t imagine a better situation in which to discover it. Lorde’s lyricism has matured significantly and so many of her lines hit so incredibly close to home for me. It’s the most cathartic record of the year for me, and I can’t wait for every subsequent listen to fill my heart and belly with fire once again.

Best tracks: “Sober”, “Liability”, “Green Light”, “Perfect Places”, “The Louvre”

Culture by Migos

Migos has pretty much taken over the pop landscape at this point, but I cannot undervalue how much joy this album gave me the first time I gave it a play. It’s hedonistic, yes, and each song checks all the boxes that we could expect from Migos at this point. But the first half especially brings me back to a time when this sound was so new and fresh to me. It’s also a great party album, which is sufficient enough to love it, for me at least.

Best tracks: “Bad and Boujee”, “T-Shirt”, “Kelly Price”

A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie

The beginning lines of this album declare that death is “not for singing about; not for making art”… and that just about sums this up. Equipped with little more than a lone guitar, Phil Elverum mourns the death of his wife Geneviève Castrée in the only way possible. With every track, it feels like he is on the brink of falling apart completely and the album does not shy away from the truest concrete nature of his experiences. Nothing is romanticized. This honestly feels more of a healing mechanism for Elverum than it does an actual album, so it’s hard to recommend. With that said, it’s affected me on a deeper level than any piece of music in recent history. So take with that what you will.

Best tracks: Another album that must be taken in all at once, but I sometimes revisit “Real Death” when I want to appreciate the album but simply don’t have the emotional energy necessary to do so.

Sleep Well Beast by The National

Sleep Well Beast is The National doing what The National does best: tight melodies, darkened atmosphere, and polished guitars. The fact that this is one of the lesser albums from their catalog to which I’ve listened really demonstrates how consistent of a band they are. Anyway, this is just a really solid rock album, from a year where solid rock albums seem few and far between.

Best tracks: “Day I Die”, “Guilty Party”, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”

After Laughter by Paramore

This album finds Fuse-era pop-punk darlings Paramore taking a detour into straight pop. And while so many others of their time have done similarly to disastrous results (looking at you, Fall Out Boy!), they seem to have struck gold with this one. Hayley Williams especially sounds totally in her element, emitting lyrics of anxiety and frustration that clash brilliantly with the bright, sunny production. This album kicks!

Best tracks: “Hard Times”, “Rose-Colored Boy”, “Told You So”

No Shape by Perfume Genius

A bunch of my favorite albums from this past year tend to lean pretty explicitly on the queer side of things, but No Shape might just be the queerest. The chamber pop of this album is absolutely beautiful, meshing so wonderfully with Mike Hadreas’s distinct, tender vocals. It’s overflowing with so much Sade-esque melodrama, it feels like its bursting at the seams, yet never falls over itself. A lovely piece of work.

Best tracks: “Die 4 You”, “Slip Away”, “Otherside”

Dedicated to Bobby Jameson by Ariel Pink

Ariel Pink’s brand of sonic weirdness isn’t always my favorite, but I can’t deny how much I enjoyed his latest release. It sounds like he just captured a bunch of elements of 80s new wave pastiche and stuck them in a blender until they were only mildly recognizable. Despite this sense of experimentation, though, the album remains thoroughly listenable and strangely nostalgic. It’s like another planet’s interpretation of the Psychedelic Furs.

Best tracks: “Time to Live”, “Another Weekend”, “Feels Like Heaven”

Now That the Light is Fading by Maggie Rogers

A short lil’ EP from an artist about whom I’ve heard nothing before 2017. After listening to this one a few times, though, I guarantee she’ll stay on my radar. She somehow manages to craft some earthy, introspective tunes while also keeping it fun, light, and lovely. Absolutely infectious.

Best tracks: “On + Off”, “Alaska”

Process by Sampha

This might be the first 2017 release I listened to that really blew me away and gave me high hopes for the remainder of the year. The electro-soul production is tight and dreamy throughout, and Sampha himself has a voice that’s bound to impress. It’s quiet enough to be pleasant background music, yet passionate enough to make for satisfying close listens as well. Looking forward to whatever else Sampha has up his sleeve!

Best tracks: “Blood on Me”, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”

Slowdive by Slowdive

Slowdive’s Souvlaki is one of my favorite albums ever and might be the one to really get me to love the shoegaze genre as a whole. I was excited to finally listen to their first album in almost twenty years, and while it’s definitely top-heavy, each track contains some interesting textures and sounds, immediately throwing me back to the days when I first fell in love with Slowdive. It may not be a mandatory listen, but it’s still real damn good.

Best tracks: “Slomo”, “Star Roving”, “Sugar For the Pill”

Hippopotamus by Sparks

At some point in making this list, I had to decide whether I would cut this album or Randy Newman’s Dark Matter from the final fifty. I stuck with leaving this one on, and I think it’s the correct choice. Through a series of interesting stylistic choices in sound and lyrics, Sparks craft what is probably the most idiosyncratic pop album of the year. I still think about how much this album took me by surprise all the time. Seriously, this one is fun.

Best tracks: “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)”, “Giddy Giddy”, “I Wish You Were Fun”

Masseduction by St. Vincent

I must confess: I never really jumped onto the St. Vincent train, for some reason. But I could kick myself, after giving this album a listen. There is so much excellent electronic production and intriguing social commentary stuffed in this one, and Annie Clark herself is an excellent performer. The colorful energy in this one is infectious as hell – especially the sexy stuff.

Best tracks: “Los Ageless”, “Pills”, “New York”, “Happy Birthday, Johnny”

CTRL by SZA

Another album that thrives on the sexy stuff – but in a different way. This whole album is just so, so smooth, and a big part of this smoothness is from SZA herself. Her vibe throughout is just so relaxing, definitely helped by the teasingly intimate production work which consistently pushes against the presumed boundaries of R&B. This is a real treat for the ears, and I hope SZA becomes huge in the future.

Best tracks: “The Weekend”, “Love Galore”, “Drew Barrymore”

Crawl Space by Tei Shi

Smooth, synthy R&B seemed to be totally my thing in 2017, and this debut album was one of the most slept-on records of its type. Valerie Teicher (a.k.a. Tei Shi) skillfully balances the worlds of pop and R&B with equal vigor on both measures. Moreover, the electronic elements bring in some great, often really pretty atmosphere into the mix. I’m so glad I didn’t miss out on this one.

Best tracks: “Keep Running”, “Baby”, “How Far”

Yours Conditionally by Tennis

I’ve never thought all too highly of Tennis in the past – I never disliked them, but their brand of twee indie pop never left much of an impression on me. This changed with Yours Conditionally, containing some of their most mature and polished work I’ve yet to hear from them. Sure, it’s still rather inoffensive and mainly aims to please, but it’s still a cute, satisfying listen nonetheless.

Best tracks: “In the Morning I’ll Be Better”, “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar”

Drunk by Thundercat

The album title is totally fitting. This is a great party album, but not necessarily an album you play when the party has peaked; rather, it’s when the party has passed its peak and is regressing into a gradual comedown that you should give this album a spin. The production is sleek, chill, and incredibly polished, and the guests appearances are great as well as Thundercat himself. It’s both retro and timely in all the best ways.

Best tracks: “Show You the Way”, “Them Changes”, “Walk on By”

Flower Boy by Tyler, the Creator

I never thought I would rank a Tyler, the Creator album among my favorites of the year, but here we are. There is an impressive amount of artistic growth on display here, especially with the absolutely beautiful, jazz-laden production and Tyler’s personal, introspective lyricism. The featured guest spots throughout are also some of the best of the entire year. Every listen I give this album fills me with so much overpowering emotion that just lingers long after the last track has finished. I’ve always been hesitant on Tyler as a whole, but I’m willing to push that aside for a mere hour if it gets us another Flower Boy.

Best tracks: “See You Again”, “911 / Mr. Lonely”, “Who Dat Boy”, “Garden Shed”

A Deeper Understanding by The War on Drugs

If I was able to drive (epilepsy ruins everything), this would be my perfect driving album. With the very first listen I gave “Thinking of a Place”, I was immediately convinced that this would be the record of the year for me. Realistically, it’s not as life-changing as I was expecting, but it’s still a really great Heartland-style guitar-driven album, and sometimes that’s all you really need.

Best tracks: “Thinking of a Place”, “Strangest Thing”, “Holding On”, “Pain”

Hiss Spun by Chelsea Wolfe

This shit is so heavy. I’ve been familiar with Chelsea Wolfe in passing, but never actually checked out her full-length works. Clearly, I’ve been missing out. The depth of sound on this album is absolutely incredible, especially when listened to with a good pair of headphones. Wolfe plays the part of a demon witch from hell so very convincingly (it’s a compliment!). It’s albums like this that make me seriously wonder why I don’t listen to more doom metal.

Best tracks: “Spun”, “16 Psyche”, “The Culling”

Beautiful Thugger Girls by Young Thug

Young Thug is simply too silly to be taken very seriously. The tracks on this album are a tad more refined than other songs I’ve heard of his, but it still contains his signature sing-rap style. And let it be known that his singing is god-awful. Still, I think that’s all part of the charm here – the production is decidedly a blending of country-rock and trap, which sounds atrocious on paper, yet somehow works here. I’ve still yet to be totally enamored by the artist, but this ain’t a bad start.

Best tracks: “Relationship”, “Family Don’t Matter”, “You Said”

Okovi by Zola Jesus

Fittingly, Zola Jesus’s latest album was one of the last from the year I listened to before starting this list. It’s hard to really sell darkwave to a general audience, but I think she at least makes some solid attempt here and these attempts result in some pretty compelling tracks. It’s all so moody and even apocalyptic at points; while the songs do tend to blend into one another after a while, there’s no denying that the end result is something truly unique and, sadly, fitting for the social atmosphere of the time.

Best tracks: “Exhumed”, “Remains”, “Half Life”

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Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (1962) – Ray Charles

Now here’s one that I can actually enjoy writing about!! Don’t get me wrong, as much as I get a sick thrill out of writing about songs that I consider to be awful or in bad taste (such as, most recently, “Go Away Little Girl”), I will always love writing about songs I love even more so. Some of my most passionate song reviews have been for “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Take My Breath Away”, both of which I consider to be absolute, bonafide pop classics of the 80s. For this one, though, I’ll take it back a little further, into the 60s.

Although many people today would connect “I Can’t Stop Loving You” with Ray Charles’s bluesy vocals accompanied by lush strings and a backing choir, relatively fewer are aware that his recording is actually a cover. Indeed, the song was actually first recorded back in 1957 by Don Gibson, who also composed the tune. His version was released as a single and became a top ten hit on the country charts (although it barely made a blip on the pop charts). Concurrently, singer Kitty Wells recorded the first cover of this song, which also became a country hit at the same time as Gibson’s version, a phenomenon that was actually a pretty common occurrence in the Billboard charts.

Now, flash forward to 1962. Ray Charles was already a pretty big deal in both the R&B circuit and the pop charts. Previously, he had scored two pretty big number-one hits: “Georgia on My Mind” in 1960 and “Hit the Road Jack” in 1961. Shortly thereafter, Charles decided to embark on a huge risk by recording jazzy covers of popular country tunes and compiling them for the album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The risk here was with the barrier-crossing required to accomplish this feat – namely, a Black singer of blues and R&B turning to country music for inspiration, a genre that has generally been overwhelmingly occupied by white musicians.

But if there was any vocalist equipped to take on this task, Ray Charles would be it – even if his earlier songs don’t exactly demonstrate this. Indeed, hit singles from the first pages of Charles’s catalog, including “Mess Around”, “I’ve Got a Woman”, and his first crossover hit “What’d I Say”, demonstrate a performer more adept for R&B, boogie woogie, and even gospel music. The sultry grit in Charles’s voice during the more intense, loud parts of these songs (and others) encourage a certain vibe, one rooted specifically in the blues. It took a record deal with ABC and a more downtempo rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael jazz composition “Georgia on My Mind” to really bring out the silky smooth angle of Charles’s voice, shedding light on the now obvious potential of his ability to be a true crooner.

Like “Georgia on My Mind”, one of the most notable elements of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is the prominent usage of the backing choir to highlight Charles’s performance. Although, while the backup singers in “Georgia” were more of a jazzy gospel ensemble, the voices in the background here are very blatantly homages to the choir often used in traditional country ballads, also accompanied by a weeping string arrangement. But the subversion of racial barriers truly become clear when noting exactly how Charles using the backing choir in this recording – namely, with the call-and-response technique synonymous with traditional Black gospel music. Throughout the entire song, he never actually utters the song’s title, allowing the background singers to take charge with “I can’t stop loving/wanting you”.

The composition of this song is rather simple: chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus, with the same singular verse repeating itself before the final chorus. Yet it’s during the repetition of this verse where this song truly enters into some blissful territory. The call-and-response method is utilized wonderfully, with the choir singing each line first and Charles echoing back shortly thereafter. The way these two elements are mixed places them both at the front of the track, giving the impression that both Charles and his backup singers are on equal footing, which works very much in the song’s favor. And really, this only further emphasizes the core theme of this song: denial. Even though the speaker of this song is well aware that the good times of this relationship are long gone (“They say that time heals a broken heart / But time has stood still since we’ve been apart”), the chorus insists that he’d much rather live in blissful nostalgia of the past rather than face the cold reality of heartache. That alone is heartbreaking.

If we want to stretch the subversion of identities point even further, it might be useful to note the very first time I listened to this song – that being from its usage in the emotional climax of the 2001 anime film Metropolis. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who was taken aback by this particular implication, but it won me over immediately and still remains one of my favorite songs of the 60s. The voice of Ray Charles, the choir’s vocalization, the fluttering piano, those heavenly strings… all these elements combine perfectly to create a truly divine piece of music. While it truly baffles my mind how some of these songs that have reached number-one managed to strike gold, it couldn’t be more clear that this song is one that truly deserves the honor with every fiber of its being.

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Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “Go Away Little Girl” (1963) by Steve Lawrence

Now here’s one song about which I’m not exactly thrilled to write about. I figured I’d come across one of these hit songs eventually – the types of traditional pop long songs that were the absolute rage among young listeners, but now come off as an embarrassingly dated relic of the pre-Beatles era. And yes, it’s true that pop songs of the 50s and early 60s aren’t the only ones that are vulnerable to this aging process. Just take a listen to “Babe” or even “A Whole New World”, both slow, romantic ballads with elements of its sound that so blatantly mark it as part of its era. I would argue, though, that “Go Away Little Girl” is something a bit more… revolting.

I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself though. Let’s offer a tiny bit of background. “Go away Little Girl” comes from the songwriting duo of Goffin & King – that is, Gerry Goffin and Carole King. If you aren’t familiar with the relevancy of those names, you should be: they are the partnership who brought us many legendary hits of this period, including The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby”, Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion”, Skeeter Davis’s “I Can’t Stay Mad At You”, and The Chiffons’ “One Fine Day”. Together, they had a real knack for crafting some of the most quintessentially teenager-like songs of their time, both in sound and in lyrics. In my opinion, they are especially great at crafting a sense of naive innocence that often accompanies teens and young adults entering in a whirlwind relationship, this especially notable in the fatalistic lyrics of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and the tragic irony of “Take Good Care of My Baby”.

Unfortunately, the tunnel vision so connected to the coming-of-age experience isn’t always so cute as these examples. “I Can’t Stay Mad At You” (which went to #7 in the US) details a relationship that seems one-sided at best, abusive at worst – yet the speaker insists that her love for her troublesome mate will prevail and make everything better. It’s true that every relationship has its ups and downs, and it’s natural that music and other media to depict countless variations of life. Nonetheless, it’s doubtful that many of the young listeners who entertain themselves with songs with this message (and believe me, Davis’s song does not exist in a vacuum at all) are thinking very critically about how this could be a reflection of some very real ideas and opinions about how these things should be done.

In particular, many of these songs about young romance tend to deprive girls and women in the narrative of any true autonomy – which is where “Go Away Little Girl” comes into play. The story is a simple one: the speaker in the song is insisting that a young woman leave him alone, because he “belongs to somebody else and must be true”. Amidst a lone marching piano and a few whistles here and there, singer Steve Lawrence implies that if he were to be unfaithful to his partner, it would be entirely her fault. There doesn’t even seem to be any indication that the other woman is even flirting with him – not that there would be much to tease out of the single verse and insistent repetition of the song’s title. There are just a few mentions of how “her lips are sweet” and “it’s hurting me more each minute that you delay”.

I hate this song partially for the utter lack of responsibility that the speaker seems to have in this situation – as if it’s her fault that she is “hard to resist” and it’s on her to ensure that he doesn’t “beg her to say”. Additionally, I also hate it because of its utterly patronizing tone, especially with the consistent referrals to her as “little girl”. Many have commonly misinterpreted this as a love song toward an actual minor, but I really don’t think it’s that egregious. “Little girl” is a term of endearment more commonly used by men of this era, in an attempt to woo (adult) women while still maintaining a sense of superiority in the partnership. Maybe this would have been adorable back in early 1963 (when it went to #1 for two weeks), but its dated nature comes off really, really awkward now.

But even if all of these troublesome qualities weren’t all that bad, there’s no denying that Lawrence himself isn’t very enthusiastic of a performer. The tone of his voice is awfully flat, even on the higher notes, and the clockwork-like tempo and rhythm doesn’t help things. It’s a real bore of a song when you don’t listen to the lyrics, and awfully loathsome when you do. Nonetheless, the song did somehow manage to make it to the top spot for a second time in the following decade, this time performed by Donny Osmond. So writing about that one should be a real blast, yes…

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Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “Take My Breath Away” (1986) – Berlin

Ah… I love covering the classics in this series. The song I will be covering today is one of the definitive love songs of the 80s – and, depending on who you ask, perhaps of all time. It won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song – and deservedly so, in my opinion. It’s a lovely piece of sonic art, and definitely one of the best things to come out of the godforsaken decade that was the 1980s.

Okay, I’m probably hyping this one up a bit too much… but there is a whole lot to love here! But let’s state the obvious connotation right now: yes, it was arranged especially for the soundtrack to the film Top Gun, the second from the film after Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” (which only reached #2). Despite the shrouds of airplay it’s received through the years, there are still many who directly connect this song with the silhouetted love scene it narrates, which remains one of the film’s many iconic moments. What few probably know, though, is that while this song was never intentionally written for the film, after producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson listened to a demo, they decided to add the song to the film (as well as the scene in its entirety, which was never in the original script) in order to create a heightened sense of intimacy between Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise. While Top Gun is quite a mixed bag as a whole, it very well could have been a whole different type of movie without this soft ballad to tone things down.

A good fraction of this praise would probably be more astutely aimed toward the main man behind the scenes – that being Italian producer Giorgio Moroder, who wrote and produced “Take My Breath Away” (as well as “Danger Zone”!). Before this, though, he had made a name for himself as a producer of a string of hits for Donna Summer during the disco era and, later, for scoring and producing original songs for movies. Some prominent examples of the latter include David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” (for Cat People), Phil Oakey’s “Together in Electric Dreams” (for Electric Dreams), and Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling” (for Flashdance) – the last of these winning Moroder his first Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Original Song. Needless to say, this guy is a bit of a legend.

But while the sonic elements of “Take My Breath Away” are not unlike the qualities that we’ve come to recognize as the Moroder sound (heavy synth chords, reverberating drums, lyrics about subjective, internal urges), what becomes more impressive is what he can bring out of a band like Berlin. And to understand what I mean by that, one can simply take a listen to some of Berlin’s earlier charting singles – namely “The Metro”, “Sex (I’m A…)”, and “Masquerade” from their 1982 album Pleasure Victim . These three singles are definitely playing off the uptempo rhythms and tinny-sounding synths that made up the many of the New Wave/hi-NRG crossover hits that were becoming pretty popular in this time. Even looking at it further than face value, though, these are pure synthpop trash, none more evident with this than the US Dance hit “Sex (I’m A…)”, which features lead vocalist Terri Nunn performing sexual moans over a pulsing rhythm that mirrors Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”… which, yes, was produced by Giorgio Moroder.

A major change can be heard in a single from a couple years later, “No More Words”, which comes from their follow-up album Love Life. Both lyrically and instrumentally, there is a noticed sense of maturity – “trashy” is far from the first word that comes to mind with Nunn’s soaring vocals accompanied by layered keyboard and guitar riffs. Which brings us to the song in question today: “Take My Breath Away”, Berlin’s most developed song to date. The central element with this track is that lovely five-note riff that introduces the song, repeats itself every four bars in the verses, and soon announces itself as the central melody in that lovely chorus. The timbre of this keyboard sound is as rich and deep as the riff in the aforementioned “I Feel Love” (definitely my favorite sound of the disco era), but slowed down more than a couple degrees to lovely, atmospheric results. And the layered sound returns here, with the song further elevated by the heartbeat-like drum patterns, soft and subtle guitars, and, of course, Nunn’s impassioned vocal delivery. The point of this tangent is just to emphasize how amazing it was that Moroder was able to craft such a brilliant, lovely wall of sound out of a band that had rarely proved themselves as at all exceptional prior.

Calling this a perfect soft ballad would probably be giving this song more credit than it probably deserves – but I still haven’t gotten sick of it yet. Sure, the lyrics are filled to the brim with a slew of Moroderisms that make little sense at the forefront (“Watching every moment in this foolish lover’s game / On this endless ocean, finally lovers know no shame”). Yet at the same time, once that chorus comes in – really just a dreamy repetition of the title with some backup synths – it all seems to work out. “Take my breath away” is vague enough to be an indicator for pretty much any wild gesture in the throws of romance, and it certainly feels universal enough to be an effective communicator of the deepest, most inexplicable emotions that come with the situation. My favorite part of the song is definitely the bridge after the second chorus (“Through the hourglass I saw you; in time you slipped away”), which is probably the definitive signpost for when the song truly gets bombastic and melodramatic. From that point onward, the feeling of listening to this track is akin to floating on a light, fluffy cloud to the heavens.

Besides all the instrumentation and production work from the hard-working hands of Moroder, Nunn’s delivery here is probably what impresses me most of all. Her performances on all those fun, upbeat dance songs were, admittedly, not the best, but only because the material never challenged her to depict anything beyond what the middling synthpop called for. Here, though, she is asked to portray a multi-facted range of emotion (including an upward key change in the final verse!) and she does so magnificently. I love how she hits all of her notes with gusto, yet also manages to avoid oversinging – especially crucial in the outro, where she cleverly switches to a soft falsetto as a comedown to the overwhelming emotion of everything else that came before.

More than anything else, though, “Take My Breath Away” is historically relevant for merging two dominant, yet separate kinds of the most popular music on the charts in 1986: ballads and synthpop. R&B and pop ballads were pretty big throughout the 80s, but the medium seemed to especially find its peak in 1986. Moreover, while synthpop and New Wave were more of an early 80s trend, the masses tended to prefer the more uptempo dance tracks (echoes of the dead disco era, it seems), eventually outspreading into a variety of subgenres like hi-NRG and freestyle. With this song, the best of both worlds were combined: the lovers of love songs were fulfilled, as were the listeners looking for sumptuous, synthetic sounds only fulfilled by electronic keyboards. Although this song only made the top spot for a week, the legacy it left in its wake is unmistakable. If nothing else, it’s romantic as hell, which I think is all anyone could truly ask for in a great pop ballad.

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Lyzette’s Top Films of 2017

After publishing my list on the Worst Hit Singles of 2017, I set up a poll on Twitter to decide which 2017-themed list I should work on next. While I didn’t get too many votes, nearly half of the votes I did get suggested that I should talk about my favorite films of the year. It makes sense, since my social media persona and this website itself did start off as being mainly film-oriented. From about 2010-2015, I watched hundreds and hundreds of films per year, eager to discover stuff from as many different filmmakers, genres, countries, and eras as possible. Some things have changed since then, mainly that I’ve now got a full-time job and my interests currently lie more in music than movies, hence the total shift in direction this site has gotten. I want to be clear, though: I love movies. There are few things in the world I love more than movies. And even when life pulls me away from the silver screen for a little while – as it has been doing as of late – the desire to watch as many films as possible has never left, and the rush I get from sitting in a movie theater or starting up my own flick at home is as exhilarating as when I fell in love with the medium all those years ago.

So, here we are now. Listing off some of my favorite releases from the past year. I’ve got to be honest, though: compared to some years in the recent past, I haven’t watched nearly as much as I would have liked to. In some ways, this is for the better, as it means I am able to prioritize the stuff I really want to watch, as well as emphasize releases by women and filmmakers of color. In other words, expect some more offbeat stuff to appear here, the kind of stuff that probably won’t be found in other “best films of 2017” lists out there. Even though I used to make these lists as a countdown from 25 to 1, this time it will just be an unranked collection of the films that I consider some of the strongest and most memorable of the year. The reasons for this are two-fold: 1) there are several strong contenders for this list that I still haven’t watched yet and would like to potentially add here when I get to them; and 2) I always find that, after looking back on these ranked lists after some time has passed, I tend to regret some of the choices I made in placing certain films above or below others. 2017 was weird for a number of reasons, so I’d like to alleviate some of the pressure in ranking these films, if only for my own sake.

So here we go: my UNRANKED TOP FILMS OF 2017

I’ll start this one off with a pretty obvious pick. Get Out, is one of the sharpest, funniest, realest depictions of what it means to be a person of color in America. After first watching the trailer in late 2016, it quickly became my most anticipated film of 2017. Even though it’s been almost a whole year since I watched the film (I’m so overdue for a rewatch!), there are so many moments from this that seem to be absolutely seared into my brain. Though Jordan Peele primarily has a background in comedy and there are quite a few effectively comedic moments in Get Out, at its core it is a horror film and certainly one of the scariest I have come across in recent years. The many different angles of white America’s relationship with its Black citizens (from appropriation, to aggression, to incarceration) is all presented here in clear, unflinching detail. Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, and Betty Gabriel all give exceptional performances, helping to make this a film of genuine substance and relevancy, instead of the jump-scare laden mess that too many horror films of the day tend to be. It’s an instant classic for sure, and the kind of film that will only become all the more important with the passing of time.

 

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Logan Lucky; for the most part, Soderbergh tends to be very hit-or-miss for me. Nonetheless, I am falling more and more in love with Channing Tatum with each passing day, and it didn’t hurt that Riley Keough is in this one as well! Turns out, though, that this is actually a pretty sharp, funny, overall well-executed heist film and I wasn’t bored for a single second. Even though the film primarily features culture that could only really be attributed to the white American South – NASCAR, primarily – it does a brilliant job at lampooning this very same culture while it weaves in and out the action of the story. It also doesn’t hurt that there’s a really sweet family-centric story at its core, which always pulls me in. To top it all off, it’s got perhaps my favorite usage of John Denver’s music in 2017 movies (yes, there were multiple). I’m still relatively lukewarm on Soderbergh, but this is one that I would gladly revisit with time.

In 2017, I made another attempt at the 52 Films By Women challenge I initially completed in 2016 – only this time, my goal was for 100 films by women. In the end, I didn’t succeed with 100, but the 73 I did watch did bring about some pretty interesting gems, both from last year and in others. One of the first I watched in theaters was Kedi, a documentary from Ceyda Torun which examined the life and culture of the cats that freely prowl around the streets of Istanbul. The most amazing aspect of this film is the way it is shot. The scenes that aren’t talking head-style interviews of citizens’ relationships with these cats are filled with shots of recording the felines at eye-level, sometimes on the streets, sometimes on rooftops, and in a bunch of other places. The amount of patience, skill, and dedication it must have taken to pull off a feat is incomprehensible to me, but the filmmakers do so magnificently. We learn about the lives of these creatures, and by the end it’s almost like we’ve befriended the lot of them. It’s such a graceful and loving little film, and I’ve discovered recently that just looking at cats in all their fluffy glory is so soothing to me. I would imagine that its comforting qualities would be true even if it was on mute – it’s that good!

I was totally surprised with how much I actually enjoyed Band Aid, Zoe Lister-Jones’s debut. It’s really nothing more than a silly little comedy about a quarreling couple who decide to form a band with original songs as a form of catharsis. None of the jokes really work, the songs are relatively forgettable, and… yeah, there’s way too much Fred Armisen in here for my liking. But still, I placed it on this list! I just think that there should always be at least a little bit of wiggle room for films that require the least amount of thinking, the kind of film that one could put on to watch in their pajamas and just feel warm, cozy, and comfy while doing so. Arguably, there are other films later in this list that could more better fit this definition – but fuck it, this was cute! Also, this movie was shot with an all-female crew, a fact that was used for probably little more than mere publicity cred, but is still very important.

Okay, so Atomic Blonde may not have been among the absolute greatest of the year. Still, it hits a lot of buttons for me, as far as things I love seeing in stylish action movies. Timely historical metaphors? Check. Kickass ladies with guns? Check. Awesome lighting? Check. Even more awesome usage of contemporary pop music? Double check! Sure the direction could be better and the plot holes are gaping – but Charlize Theron is so beautiful and remarkable in this one, I almost don’t even care. Super kudos to the 9-minute single-take staircase action sequence and the apartment fight scene set to the tune of George Michael’s “Father Figure”.

This movie killed me the first time I watched it. In particular, the extended scene of Rooney Mara sitting on the floor eating a pie resonated jarringly – because that’s exactly how I eat when I’m overcome with depression (when I do eat). Simply put, A Ghost Story is a film about the crippling, sudden loss of a loved one – the nameless shock when hit with the fact that they are “gone”, the ramifications at what this may mean, and (most painfully) the process of letting go and moving on. Sure, it’s so very languid and slow-paced, with moments that don’t seem to fit in quite so well with much of its major themes and messages. For these reasons, I still need to ponder this one a bit – I definitely need a second viewing, that’s for sure. At its greatest moments, though, it really touches upon some of my most concrete feelings of depression and loneliness in ways that few films from 2017 really have. And yes, I am sidestepping the elephant in the room (or shall I say, the sheet-ghost in the room) for reasons that I hope are pretty clear. I really can’t help but be so moved by this dreary little film.

Early last year, I got a promotion in my theater job and transferred to one that is profoundly different, not just in size and in the work environment, but also in the types of films they would play. The most significant difference between the two – which I would soon be pleased to discover – is that this theater plays a lot more films directed by women. In particular, we play a good number of independently-funded documentaries, many of which just happen to be directed by women. Of the many of these I watched this past year, one of my absolute favorite would have to be Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World. I watched it at a pretty crucial time when I was making the transition to researching and writing about popular music, and this is an excellent supplementary source about musicians of a particular demographic that gets largely ignored in any corresponding discourse. It not only covered some pretty outspoken artists of Native descent (such as Buffy Sainte-Marie and members of the band Redbone), but also some other musicians whose names I either didn’t recognize (Mildred Bailey and Randy Castillo, for example) as well as rather famous musicians who, for various reasons, were obliged to keep their identity hidden, like Jimi Hendrix, Taboo of the Black-Eyed Peas, and Link Wray, whose instrumental “Rumble” is the centerpiece of this loving celebration. This film really opened my eyes to the many ways that indigenous artists are often not given the recognition they deserve and leaves it up to viewers to figure out ways they could emphasize the importance and validity of these folks.

And now for yet another painfully obvious pick. So much has already been said about Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut by so many others who are much better writers and speakers then I am, but I’d like to reiterate the much-spoken fact that Lady Bird is fantastic. I was absolutely taken aback with Saoirse Ronan’s performance in her previous major film Brooklyn, and she once again demonstrates her absolutely electrifying presence as the titular teen clumsily inching toward adulthood. I also couldn’t forget to mention Laurie Metcalf’s staggering contributions, providing the second half to the tumultuous mother-daughter relationship to which so many women can relate. What astounded me even more was how much I connected with the lead character despite how little she and I really had on common on the surface. While Lady Bird/Christine is a white, straight-presenting young woman from Northern California who turned eighteen soon after 9/11, I am a queer Latinx femme from Southern California who turned eighteen at the fringe of the Obama era. Yet there were so many moments here that I related to on such a deep level, especially with scenes dedicated to her relationships with others – friends, family, boyfriends. That’s not even touching upon the ramifications of her growing up in a Catholic environment, which notoriously prohibits the freedom of expression of women; these parts, I know all too well. One day, I’ll write more about how much of a spiritual connection I felt for this film. For now, though, I’d be pretty confident in stating this to be my favorite film of the year – at least for now.

The first time I watched Girls Trip was in a theater that was about a quarter-full of mostly Black and Latina women, the former of which is definitely this film’s target audience. This particular viewing is probably one of my favorite theater-going experiences I’ve ever had. All of the absurd, vulgar slapstick humor strewn generously throughout was met with loud, uproarious laughter from the audience. The scenes where the protagonist’s husband asks for forgiveness for his wrongdoings were met with a flurry of vocal reactions from numerous individuals in the theater (“*sigh* Girl, no… don’t you do it…”). I usually dislike talking during films, but for this particular film with this particular audience, it was perfect. Even though I was sitting alone, I soon found myself joining along… which brings us to the theme that runs front and center in this otherwise pretty raunchy comedy: solidarity. Despite all the jokes about dicks and vaginas, at its core it’s a film about Black women and for Black women, and it’s so loving in its call for girl friends to stick together in spite of what might threaten to pull them apart. The second time I watched this was with my partner, and I laughed just as much as I did the first time, giving me hope that this could actually be the one dirty comedy in a million to stand the test of time. All four leading ladies are terrific, but my favorite performance is, of course, Tiffany Haddish. I am so happy that she has lately been getting the recognition she so rightfully deserves; her fiery presence is so sorely needed in trying times as these.

I am such a huge fan of animation, but this past year has been pretty miserable in terms of the output of American animation (with notable exception). It seems that Japanese animation, as always, seems to be the saving grace in that category, even though I’ve admittedly seen very little from 2017 – but I’m catching up! For now, I’ll further emphasize the amazingness of Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name., which finally made its way to a theater in my area early last year. I definitely need to watch it a second time to truly digest what the hell is going on here, but I can honestly say that it was the first film I saw last year that had me fully engrossed throughout every second and left me speechless by the end. The animation is beautiful and the body-swap/time-travel narratives are some of the most unique and original takes on the ideas I’ve seen in sci-fi. Once again, there’s not much else I can say with much confidence at this juncture, but I’d urge any and all fellow animation freaks to check this one out – if you haven’t already, that is.

Emily Dickinson is frankly not among my favorite poets of all time, as she is with so many others, but the mythos surrounding her life (and her death) has always been pretty fascinating to read about – if only to attempt to grasp on how lonely she must have been. Thankfully, A Quiet Passion seems to refuse the temptation to canonize her as some sort of gothic martyr of sadness and instead humanize her is such inexplicably beautiful ways. Like all Terence Davies films, every shot of this is breathtaking, but even more importantly this does not take the typical biopic route that one would expect with being “the Emily Dickinson movie”. Each scene is played out moment by moment, and brilliantly so. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the film is also quite funny, echoing the sly bits of humor that Dickinson herself often incorporated in her own writing from time to time. But in the end, the heart of this movie lies with Cynthia Nixon’s sympathetic portrayal of the troubled poet, in a performance that will gladly put this film in the books as one of the best demonstrations of how pull someone from a mythic perspective and carefully build them up, piece by piece, into a multi-dimensional human being.

The most common complaint I’ve heard about Landline, Gillian Robespierre’s sophomore film, is that it does not quite measure up to the brilliance of her debut Obvious Child. While it’s definitely true that Landline is less subversive and experimental than its predecessor and relies on more formulaic narrative turns, I also think that the push for women directors these days (more than ever before) also, unfortunately, puts a lot more pressure on women to never make a bad or even average film. There’s still so much bias against female filmmakers, who often get so much more flak for not making a critical darling, much of which even ends careers. I for one found very little to dislike about Landline. My crush on Jenny Slate grows all the more stronger here, but also great is Abby Quinn in her debut role as her rebellious teenage sister. The relationship between the two sisters, alongside their own struggles with their parents and Slate’s significant other, creates some of my most favorite dimensional dynamics in film this year. Besides being very funny, though, this film also has a lot of heart and heartbreak. There was a scene somewhere in the final third that hit particularly close to home; although I wish I would have watched this film in theaters, I also had had the privilege of rewinding this same scene four or five times and sobbing throughout. And sure, once again, Obvious Child is obviously the better film of the two, but the strength of Landline as its own standalone film just further convinces me to not totally write off Robespierre just yet.

Okay, so I didn’t quite love Eliza Hittman’s debut feature It Felt Like Love as much as others seemed to… but Beach Rats has now become the film to convince me to keep her on my radar. This is an absolutely staggering portrayal of a young man coming to terms with his queer sexuality amongst a toxic environment of hypermasculinity, further stretching upon It Felt Like Love‘s main theme of the darkness surrounding coming-of-age narratives. Harris Dickinson gives a terrific lead performance, and the photography throughout this one is stunningly gritty, bitter reminders of the prejudice always bubbling below the surface of the protagonist’s everyday interactions. I really don’t want to say too much about this one, as I think that this has to taken in with little to no preconceptions. So yeah… hang tight and watch this one.

So, you know how I mentioned when talking about Your Name. that there are notable exceptions to the argument that 2017 animated features were pretty bad? Yep, Coco is the exception. Having been raised in a Mexican-American family, I was honestly pretty wary about how Disney would tackle these many aspects of our culture that they’ve loosely incorporated in their advertising for the film. Thankfully, I was pleased to find that they did them pretty good justice. Besides being probably the most morbid feature in the Pixar canon (the whole film is about death!), there was a plethora of references that called out specifically to Mexican culture, some humorous and others straight-forward. The moment where the grandma takes off her sandal to shoo away some chickens totally spoke to me, as did the side characters explicitly based on Frida Kahlo, Cantinflas, Pedro Infante, and Dolores Del Río, as did all the wonderful history and imagery of Day of the Dead strewn throughout. The cool thing is, though, that these are only the references I recognize – my own grandmother watched this film soon afterwards and loved it, and I’m sure she connected with a bunch of other tidbits that I don’t immediately recognize. The dialogue in this film is peppered with countless colloquialisms distinctly drawn from Mexican-American culture, which further elevates the utmost importance of having brown folks play lead roles in the writing and voice-acting processes. On top of all this, the animation here is just stunning, certainly some of the best I’ve seen from Pixar, a studio already renown for their great-looking films. This is one I’ll be showing my kids, shall I ever have any.

Yeah, it’s true that The Beguiled doesn’t quite hit me as an “instant classic” the way that other films in Sofia Coppola’s catalogue have, such as Lost in Translation or Marie Antoinette. But like her best films, it utilizes the everyday role of girls and young women in such remarkable ways. A ton of praise has been given to Kristen Dunst and Nicole Kidman in their roles, and deservedly so, but I’m especially looking at Elle Fanning and young Oona Laurence for crafting performances for perhaps two of the most interesting characters in the film. Typical of Coppola’s films, the costumes and set designs here are beautiful, fitting the look and feel of the whole picture exceptionally well. I have never seen the 1971 original (and I don’t have much desire to, honestly), but the way that the tension in this film quietly builds and builds to its eventual climax is quite a sight to behold. Once again, I’d hesitate to call this among the filmmaker’s best works, but there’s a whole lot to love here nonetheless.

This is quite possibly the most important film to have come out this year. Sabaah Folayan’s documentary Whose Streets? compiles a large collection of footage taken of the Ferguson riots during the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing by officer Darren Wilson. Although it’s so tempting to take for granted the large amount of raw video readily available all throughout social media, what is truly fascinating about Whose Streets? is the purely objective stance taken by Folayan, who pretty much just lets the camera do all the talking. From the candid footage of the protests and looting done by the angry citizens of Ferguson, to more up-close and personal interviews with a select number of activists involved in these protests, the perspective is taken from both inside and outside the situation, creating a more nuanced and multidimensional picture of the issue of police violence against Black people. Just as importantly, though, the film also examines the staggering amount of racial and class-based bias so easily peddled by mainstream media’s depiction of the events as they unfold. It urges viewers not to take such representations at face value and, instead, opt for a stance that prioritizes justice and humanization above all else. This, I think, is the most vital aspect of this film, and why the long-form documentation of this part of our history so needs to be preserved for the sake of future generations, as well as our current one.

I really dig Sean Baker as a filmmaker. In his past films, with both Starlet and Tangerine, he takes on the role of a sympathetic outsider, placing subjects whose identities and everyday lived experience is so exponentially different from his. The Florida Project is the first film of his that ventures outside of his usual setting of downtown Los Angeles all the way to the other side of the country; having lived my entire life in California and grown up an hour from L.A., this was new territory for myself as well. What we got was a purely episodic documentation of a collection of broken families and even more broken individuals living in a motel during one of Orlando’s hottest summers. Placed aside the very real struggles of the adults barely scraping by are more innocent, naive scenes of their children befriending one another and going on adventures, usually in places they shouldn’t wander in. Every shot in the film is filled with bright, warm colors, preventing the work as a whole from seeming too grim to handle – and in some moments, it’s certainly needed. We played it at my own movie theater for a couple weeks during the end of its run, and I’m not lying when I say that just glancing at those famous final moments in passing got me a little choked up every single time. Much has been said about Willem Dafoe’s performance (and deservedly so), but I think the real shining beacon here is Brooklynn Prince, who feels so much like any little kid I’ve known and loved throughout my life – making the urge to protect and comfort her all the greater.

All too often, queer love stories get some sort of tragic ending – as if our lives weren’t already fill with enough tragedy as it is. God’s Own Country, however, offers the wonderful alternative of an actual, honest-to-god happy ending. And if that is too much of a spoiler… well, apologies. But let it also be known that the entirety of the story leading up to this conclusion is also just as wonderful. This has probably the least amount of extraneous dialogue of any movie I watched this year, yet the relationship on display here is so raw and real. The shots of the Northern English countryside are just so beautiful, offering a terrific complement to the story of growth and self-discovery and the unexpected love story that lies parallel to it all. I’ve heard this film being compared numerous times to Brokeback Mountain, but it feels so much more real and honest than that film ever felt to me (even before I realized I was queer). Every scene is so sumptuous, yet often highly visceral in its presentation of gay love. This film is just so great and everyone should watch it!

This next film left me practically unable to speak for minutes after the credits finished rolling. A couple years ago, I watched and fell in love with Dee Rees’s debut feature Pariah and have since been anxiously awaiting her follow-up. When Mudbound debuted at Sundance last year to high appraisal, I became even more excited to watch it and it became one of my most anticipated for the year. My theater became one of the few in the country to offer a theatrical run for the film, and I’m so glad I caught it on a big screen as opposed to simply watching it on Netflix in the comfort of my home. The photography in this one is so unbelievably gorgeous, replete with sets and costumes that feel so unique to its time and place. Additionally, the impact of the film’s overarching message was so much stronger than I imagine I’d get from sitting at home in a bright room full of distractions. At its core, Mudbound exposes the hypocrisy of our country’s willingness to accept only a certain kind of people as upstanding citizens and strong military veterans – namely, those that are white men. It is a deeply harrowing portrait of America, and probably one of the best we are gonna get as long as long as capitalism and white supremacy remain the law of the land. Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige’s performances are especially exceptional, but the film as a whole is an absolute must-see.

 

Who would have thought that a movie featuring Kristen Stewart trying on a bunch of fancy, fashionable clothes would turn out to be one of the most terrifying films of the year? One thing’s for sure: Personal Shopper pretty much perfected the art of the on-screen text message technique, one that so many movies have tried before yet so many films could do right. One of the most crucial elements incorporated with this technique here is the art of real-time, which flawlessly melds with the polished aesthetics of iPhone technology and creates a tension that is absolutely effective at being oh so unsettling. Stewart’s performance here is great, further proving that she’s on some kind of artistic peak and is only destined for great things in the near future. Honestly, this is the kind of film that should be seen with as little expectations as possible – I swear you won’t regret it!

As of the date that this post was published, I, Tonya is my most latest viewing of 2017 films I need to catch up on – I just watched it earlier this afternoon! First and foremost, Margot Robbie is absolutely amazing in this one, and it has got to be my favorite performance of hers to date. I was too young to remember “the incident” as it occurred in real life, but I had gotten a pretty skewed interpretation of the events via word-of-mouth and television specials I had consumed through the years. Thus, it was remarkably refreshing to see a perspective that was sympathetic to Tonya Harding’s upbringing and the harmful relationships she had accumulated through the years to bring her to this situation that ended up spiraling way beyond her control. I have yet to really examine as to how true-to-life many of these events are, but one thing is certain: she did not deserve to have her lifeblood stripped away from her so bluntly and mercilessly. In a life so defined by a series of losses and abrasions (often at the hands of others), she found her refuge in a sport that needed her energy, despite what everyone else told her. And that triple axel – my god. In all honesty, this film made me really emotional – I’m not sure if it will hold up through the test of time, but for right now, right now is all that matters.

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