Top 25 Albums of 2017

Boy oh boy, what a year it’s been. 2017 has basically been the dour, elongated sigh after the shock of 2016. That sour demeanor has been felt in the music industry as well, as many of the most popular and acclaimed albums have been made by heartbroken singers, angry rappers and anxious youths trying to take action. Despite the low-key attitude of the last 365 days, there are always some outstanding pieces of music to dive into. Since I ashamedly missed out on doing a list last year, I decided to bump up my list and highlight 25 albums that stood out and helped make 2017….tolerable.

 

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25. Washed Out – Mister Mellow

There’s always been the sense that Ernest Weatherly Greene Jr., better known as Washed Out, was building towards something. Potential was there right from the start of his breakthrough single “Feel It All Around,” with its luscious synthesizers and hazy vocal melodies. Since then, he’s kept building on that potential and expanding his chillwave sound. With Mister Mellow, he finally gets his chance to organize and craft all the colorful sounds in his head on wax. He may start off overwhelmed and frantic on “Burn Out Blues” before finding his warm and soaring groove on “Hard To Say Goodbye” and even partying with his demons on the manic “Instant Calm” and the two-step of “Get Lost.” No matter how many synths and drum beats hit on the dance floor, Washed Out always finds the melody in the madness.

 

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24. JMSN – Whatever Makes U Happy

Simplicity is underrated in today’s music industry, and no genre uses simplicity better than neo soul. Case in point: the fifth studio album of one Christian Berishaj, better known as JMSN. The Michigan singer/multi-instrumentalist is a man who understands that songs of love, lust and the vices we abuse to feel something similar to the former two (see “Drinkin’”) are best presented with minimal excess and a spotlight on the voice telling the story. Backed by pitch-perfect snare drum kicks, acoustic guitar and choir-like background harmonies, JMSN makes sure that his bluesy, achy vocals don’t sound the tiniest bit fake on the heartbreaker “Love Ain’t Enough” to the spooky cowboy jam “Slide.” The album cover, with JMSN posing legs crossed and face stern, speaks for itself: He’ll do whatever you ask of him, so what do you want besides what’s real?

 

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23. Rex Orange County – Apricot Princess

One of the many surprises on Tyler, the Creator’s new album Flower Boy was the adolescent droll of Rex Orange County, a 19-year-old South London resident that best showcases young love and awkwardness probably because he still can’t legally drink in the U.S. That doesn’t stop him from sounding love drunk on his debut LP, which sounds like if Beck ever made an album of midnight lounge music after getting his first kiss. The title track effortless fades from string-backed piano ballad to a swinging conga groove about a boy who wants nothing more than to hold his dream girl’s hand. At the end of the 40 minutes of lo-fi piano pop, Rex throws his heart on the table and promises his girl that throughout all of his self-loathing, he just wants to know that she’ll be there. It’s his sincerity in the vocal delivery that sells him as a legitimate hopeless teenage romantic.

 

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22. Liam Gallagher – As You Were

Hey look, it’s the best Oasis album in over 20 years! Haha, I’m totally the first person to make that joke! But seriously, the younger (and more irritable) brother Gallagher finally drops the overblown stadium rock of Beady Eye and gives the world what he was born to make: an attitude-laced British rock record. The bluesy swagger of “Wall Of Glass” is so great and Liam so effortlessly struts his nasty vocals it’s amazing he didn’t lead with his right after brother Noel went AWOL. Liam may be a bit older now and his singing is certainly an acquired taste, it’s hard not to hear the passion and effort he puts into pulling off heartfelt ballads like “For What it’s Worth.” Liam finally gets his own solo spotlight, all he had to do was take it for himself.

 

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21. White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band 

Imagine if The New Pornographers decided that they wanted to sound like KISS in their glorious, 1970s heyday. Sound weird but kinda awesome, right? You’re in luck, because Louisville’s own White Reaper are here to make rock great again. The quartet’s second album is 32 minutes of unabashed pop rock that everyone from Jack Black to Richard Linklater wishes they could jam out to. The guitars riffs are razor sharp while the background synthesizers glisten, and the vocals from frontman Tony Esposito are so grimy and growling that even Iggy Pop would offer him a cough drop. “Judy French” is the best Cheap Trick song in 30 years with its chugging riffs and scorching guitar solo, while “Crystal Pistol” is so party-ready that Motley Crue are probably pissed they didn’t write it first. Every single track here belongs in a treasured teen comedy in any decade, inspiring youthful spirit to run free. The kicker? None of it sounds dated, with production that’s crisp but not overblown. White Reaper sound awesome on a record, but the energy and sonics on this probably sound way better in a bar three beers in with fists pumping in the air.

 

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20. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Who Built the Moon?

Sorry Liam, age before beauty. The eldest brother Gallagher and his collection of psychedelic, scissor-using musicians have seemingly made good on their promise of mixing soaring stadium ballads with epic rock anthems. Credit goes to producer David Holmes, who gives Noel and the Birds a huge sonic tapestry to paint their heartfelt anthems. “Keep On Reaching” sounds like an energetic gospel anthem with its background choir and heavy organ, while “She Taught Me How To Fly” sounds like peak New Order with its driving bass line and electronic flourishes. Whereas brother Liam seems firmly trapped in the era of his heroes that never made it past 1969, Noel has seemingly taken all of the lovable things about rock’s classic era and updated its sound where it can exist in 2017 without seeming dated.

 

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19. Beck – Colors

Beck may be in his late-40s, but that doesn’t mean he still can’t cut loose. On album 13, generation x’s favorite “Loser” plays the brightest and most energetic songs of his entire career. A tight 11 tracks without a single lull, Beck indulges in hand-claps, synthesizers, vocoders and a boosted production. Even with his past awkwardness with pop music, “I’m So Free,” “Up All Night” and “Dreams” embrace sunny guitar rock and dance pop into a unique blend of radio-ready alt rock. And for those pining for classic Beck, “Wow” is the man in freaky funk-rap form over a warped beat. While most of his contemporaries have either burned out or faded away, Beck keeps finding new ways to reinvent and reinvigorate himself for the music landscape he finds himself in.

 

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18. Miguel – War & Leisure

Miguel could’ve sat back in 2017 knowing “Quick to dead the bull like a matador” was the coolest line in any song this year. But he decided to complement “Sky Walker” with another stellar slice of thumping R&B. Miguel takes elements from his last studio album, the rock-tinged Wildheart, and mixes it with electronic funk and soul. The guitar is actually the most prominent instrument heard in the background of War & Leisure, played with reggae scratches on “Banana Clip,” plucked on the Latin-infused slow jam “Wolf,” or strummed like disco king Niles Rodgers on “Caramelo Duro.” Also like his previous hallmark album Kaleidoscope Dream, warped electronic effects fuel each song with a drug-filled haze. But of course the star is Miguel himself, managing to be both a classic R&B vocalist with range and someone who can easily insert himself into the modern urban music landscape of trap-R&B (“Sky Walker”). He uses his vocals to build the sexual tension in “Harem” to its climax (probably a literal climax in his case) and can actually sing rap bars on par with J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar on “Come Through and Chill.” Prince may be gone, but his aura is being honored with pride by Miguel.

 

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17. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

Look, the only person who wanted and needed another LCD Soundsystem record is James Murphy. He jumped the gun at his band’s peak and, in a petty form of panic, decided to call it quits. It was brief, but beautiful to have LCD Soundsystem around. Six years later, they’re back and things are not so beautiful in the world anymore. Don’t worry though, Murphy is not ignorant about the world around him. Everything about American Dream is meant to be dark, haunting, borderline depressing with low-droning synthesizers, scratching guitars, and Murphy’s vocals that range from awkward squeaks to ghoulish low notes. Murphy doesn’t trust the “other voices” in his head and surrounding him, he knows he’s too old and too frazzled to “change yr mind” and can’t stop asking his former business partner “how do you sleep?” And through all this sadness and misery, there’s still plenty to dance to. “tonite” is arguably the more robotic sequel to “Losing My Edge” with its European discotheque dance beat, while “call the police” is that rare indie rock stadium anthem that Murphy always pulls out of his ass every now and then. We didn’t need LCD Soundsystem back, but that doesn’t mean we don’t mind checking up on them every once in awhile.

 

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16. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music

Every single rapper’s mantra may be “money cash hoes” and it might get boring to hear on all their songs after a while. But nobody in the rap game makes flexing sound so fun and wear it so good like the artist formerly known as Tity Boi. After dropping SIX mixtapes in the four years since his last studio album, 2 Chainz returns as a champion of the underground who still rolls like a king. It doesn’t matter what beat he’s given, from the guitar-backed slow burn of “Saturday Night” and “It’s a Vibe” to Codeine-laced southern trap of “Blue Cheese,” “4 AM” and “Good Drank.” Chainz steps up and drops bars like a wizard of words that’s part goofy, part brilliant (“You know what they say/Me and my safe, got a friendship,” “My side chick got pregnant by her main dude and I’m offended/I called, she ain’t pick up, I text her back, b***h you stingy”). It’s a miracle that a blockbuster album 16 tracks long this stacked with rap elites (Drake, Nicki Minaj, Migos, Travis Scott, Gucci Mane) is so thoroughly entertaining. And it’s all because of the effortless vibe 2 Chainz brings on bar none his finest album to date.

 

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15. Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold

The second he stepped onstage with Foo Fighters at Wembley Stadium nearly 10 years ago, Dave Grohl ran all the way to the center of the 115 yard grounds just to get the entire crowd hyped for rock and roll. What made anyone think he and his band of bearded badasses could sit still for five minutes, let alone a “hiatus?” On album no. 9, the Foos sound more rejuvenated and loose than ever before. Under the loud and crisp production of Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Adele, Sia), the Foos get to make music for intergalactic death races (“La Dee Da”) and jump from a harmonious country ballad to fist-pumping prog rock on the same damn song (“Dirty Water”). Unlike 2014’s Sonic Highways, where the band tried shoving different genres into their unique unity, you can hear each member entwined with each other on Concrete and Gold. Pat Smear’s guitar sneaks up on “Arrows” to a quiet roar, while Taylor Hawkins gets to collapse the mountains with his drums on “The Sky is a Neighborhood” and Nate Mendel’s fuzzed-out bass leads the charge on “La Dee Da.” Concrete and Gold is being able to see the engine roar in an awesome muscle car: when you see the parts work together, it makes you admire the machine all the more.

 

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14. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom

2017 has been a great year for female rappers, arguably the best year they’ve ever had. Cardi B became one of the biggest stars in music out of nowhere, Nicki Minaj reinstated her clout without dropping an album, and underground artists like cupcaKKe started getting buzz. But the one who made an impact on 2017 with a compelling, cohesive work was 34-year-old Rapsody. The North Carolina wordsmith dropped her second studio album without any use of social media savviness or sex appeal. She needs neither, as her delivery and flow is as cocky and nasty as the typical gangster rapper. On “Power,” featuring a solid guest verse from Kendrick Lamar, Rapsody rides 9th Wonder’s heavy beat to drop bars about the things that make others powerful and how they can be easily exploited (“I know my blackness powerful and they don’t like that/I know some n***as sold theirs, sit back and watch ’em tap dance”). Even with her tough attitude and clear desire to step up to the big names of rap, she’d rather have respect and connection with her peers on “Nobody” (“It’s all Hip Hop, you can’t divide what ain’t different/Don’t like all underground music, I don’t hate all music that isn’t/I was just making it clap to Wacka Flacka last Christmas, Clap!/Clap for a n***a wit her rappin’ a**”). If there was ever someone to further legitimize the rise of the female rapper, Rapsody could definitely be the one to break down the door.

 

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13. Queens of the Stone Age – Villains

What a weird year it’s been when Josh Homme makes a better dance-rock record than the co-founder of DFA Records. Though Mr. Homme and his scuzz rock scalliwags might’ve cheated a bit by having super producer Mark Ronson (Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars) turn the knobs on Queens of the Stone Age’s seventh album. It’s odd to say that a Queens of the Stone Age album “swings,” but Villains has a greater focus on groovy guitar licks and funky bass lines instead of pummeling riffs and constant propulsion. Even when they put the pedal-to-the-metal on “Head Like a Haunted House,” there’s still a swinging dance groove built into the punky headbanging brought by the speeding riffs and the rolling drums. No matter how druggy and pummeling QOTSA have sounded in the past, Homme has always had a sneering sexual swagger in his vocal delivery, like the worst possible sleazebag your daughter could bring home from the bar. Villains finally gives him the music best suited for his singing, from the mutated reggae of “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” as Homme keeps searching for self-destruction (“I chase the gates and drift ad nauseam/Driven by feelings I cannot hide”). And then there’s “The Way You Used To Do,” which manages to have the same groove as Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual” and yet sound like the sexiest thing QOTSA has ever done because of the guitar-bass interplay and Homme’s moaning vocals (“When I first met her she was seventeen/Seventeen/Jump like an arsonist to a perfect match/Burned alive”). In the words of the late great Bon Scott, lock up your daughter and lock up your wife: Queens of the Stone Age are horny again.

 

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12. Hey Violet – From the Outside

Are there any more great pop bands in music? I mean bands that explicitly write and perform catchy pop songs as a band with real instruments and actual personality, not whatever Maroon 5 have been cruising on for the last five years. Maybe because pop has been so lifeless and droll in recent years that it needs a little youthful spunk to make it fun again. Enter Hey Violet, a collection of Hot Topic models that can actually write songs and play instruments pretty well. Their debut album is chock full of sugary-sweet pop-rock that mix pop-punk energy with funk, electronic, alternative, and youthful exuberance. Sometimes all of that in one song, like the bouncy ex-girlfriend anthem “Hoodie” or the ballsy kiss-off “Fuqboi.” Hey Violet seems well-versed in the flavors of music taste, jumping from stadium anthem “Break My Heart” to the sinful funk of “Brand New Moves” then even to the spooky romance of “Like Lovers Do.” From the Outside replaces a flowing atmosphere with outstanding personality from each member in each song. Casey Moreta’s guitar and Nia Lovelis’s guitar and drum attack power through “This Is Me Breaking Up With You” and “Unholy,” while Miranda Miller cooks up some great electronics on “Where Have You Been (All My Night)” and “My Consequence.” But the cherry on  top is frontwoman Rena Lovelis, who pulls off the attitude of brat, seductress, introvert and intellectual compared to others her age. While “Guys My Age” might seem like dubstep dribble, but Rena’s confident vocal performance creates an aura of its own. These are the future leaders of our pop music, party on.

 

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11. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights 

On the cover of Julien Baker’s second studio album is an explosion, or better yet a release of dark colors spewing out of something small. It’s pretty easy to assume that said release is coming from the pint-sized Memphis native’s heart and soul through all 42 minutes of this quiet slice of heartbreak. Even though Baker is the star of this album, both her aching vocals and her echoing guitar, she’d rather not have you see her fragile and alone. She doesn’t know the depths of her own loneliness (“I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone/Is it real or a dream, which is worse?”), the difficulties others have with a private fight (“I know that you don’t understand/’Cause you don’t believe what you don’t see/When you watch me throwing punches at the devil/It just looks like I’m fighting with me”) and how the only one she has to conquer is herself (“Am I a masochist/Screaming televangelist/Clutching my crucifix/Of white noise and static”). Baker thrives on the combination of her music grim yet glistening atmosphere, her believable vocal performance that puts other whispering indie rock singers to shame, and just the blunt honesty of her lyrics. Turn Out the Lights is more of a concise diary entry than an album with Baker trying to mend all of her wounds in one sitting and feeling the weight of it all. But that doesn’t mean she still won’t try (“And damn it, we are gonna figure something out/If it takes me all night to make it hurt less”).

 

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10. Remo Drive – Greatest Hits

Emo rock gets a bad rap that feels (mostly) unfair. The idea of a bunch of kids from a small town swinging their guitars around while screaming into their microphones about the joys of middle America lost on them seems totally justified. Perhaps its only when these bands become more successful and start believing their hype is when it gets to the ridiculous levels of say, personalized eyeliner, that emo music loses its value or believability. So you’d better get to know Remo Drive fast before someone offers them a deal to soundtrack the next movie adaptation of a John Green book. The Minnesota trio’s debut album excels in a combination of melody and blunt force trauma that would earn salutes from Nirvana and The Promise Ring alike. It’s impressive to hear the strong wall of sound from the simplicities of a low-tuned bass and fuzzed-out guitars, not to mention Erik Paulson’s aching growl on vocals. Greatest Hits is an excellent snapshot of the working-class guitar band stuck in the midst of cynicism, rebellion, arrogance and self-loathing. The danceable drum beat and propulsive guitars of “Eat S**t” are a joy to behold even when the band talks about the struggles of friends growing up while Paulson is “stuck in the habits I formed when I was fifteen.” Even when Remo Drive try to be snarky to upper class girlfriends on “Art School,” their humor comes at their own expense (“Art school/Colored hair/Too cool/For me but that’s fair”). But Remo Drive are about feeling, like the true sentiment of “Yer Killin’ Me” (“You make me want to start rolling/Fat a** blunts ’til I start choking/Anything that’s bad for me”). Even with hands in their pockets and their heads staring at the floor, who said emo couldn’t be fun?

 

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9. Rina Sawayama – RINA

If you’re like me, you enjoy listening to turn of the century bubblegum pop with its automated acoustic guitar, skittering blips of electronics and start-stop vocal delivery. You also know that you’re ashamed to be listening to nearly 20-year-old albums by *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears unironically while clamoring to have the sound be old enough to be retro and cool again. If this applies to you, say hello to Rina Sawayama and her debut EP. The 27-year-old Japanese born, London raised singer is a connoisseur of both Total Request Live-era pop and modern-day indie dance music. Like a well-aged wine, RINA is awash with the tastes of olden days: “Ordinary Superstar” is a classic slice of 80s pop rock with its chugging guitar riff and bright synthesizers, “Take Me As I Am” is a perfect splice of Britney’s “Overprotected” and her curly-haired ex’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and “Tunnel Vision” is a lovely duet with Shamir that harkens back to peak-Toni Braxton. As a singer, Sawayama follows the teen-pop singing style of moderately-high pitched aching and inflecting syllables in the hopes to have a more memorable chorus. But while the Jive Records family sang about boys and girls and trouble with said boys and girls, Sawayama instead sings about the trials and tribulations of single life in the social media age. “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” is where the EP closes and is also its highlight, a bittersweet dance jam about making friends through the screens of her laptop and phone (“I am connected/I am the girl you want to watch…Came here on my own/Party on my phone/Came here on my own/But I start to feel alone”). What with TRL back on the air and Britney and Backstreet officially deemed legacy acts, why can’t Rina lead the charge for the 90s nostalgia?

 

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8. Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog 

It’s almost fitting that 27-year-old Mac DeMarco has an appearance that makes him look like someone’s dad who’s about to paint a neighbor’s house, since he has more maturity and heart than his cigarettes and duck-bill hats would suggest. His third album, This Old Dog, is his softest and most tender album to date, about a man with his hands in his pockets trying to have a hand in a world he doesn’t recognize. While known as a guitar virtuoso, DeMarco’s kooky slide guitar is replaced with soft pluckings of an acoustic guitar while quiet organs and low drums fill the background. While it still has hints of the stoner vibe heard in his previous album, This Old Dog sounds more restrained and focused on getting DeMarco’s experience across to the listener. The star of This Old Dog is not DeMarco the musician, but DeMarco the man contemplating what the years have done to him (“For he can’t be me/Look how old and cold and tired/And lonely he’s become”). Regardless of the loneliness, age, and time that has passed DeMarco, he remains a chain-smoking soft-spoken optimist (“Don’t feel like all the time you put in went to waste/The way your heart was beating all those days/And suddenly it beats another pace”). This Old Dog confirms that DeMarco has more to him than goofball charm: he’s a legitimate songwriter and storyteller, especially when he gets personal. While the next step will be seeing if he can break out of his own musical bubble, at least he still knows how to be a human being.

 

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7. Jay-Z – 4:44

Humility is not a word commonly associated with one Sean Carter. Even when he tries to rap about his first-world problems, it’s hard to sympathize with him when he’s rapping on a golden throne. But after being emasculated by his own wife for cheating on her on one of the most critically acclaimed albums of last year, Jay-Z decided it was time to really look at himself in the mirror and address his faults. The result is the most minimal album of Hov’s entire career: 10 songs at 37 minutes long with one producer (No I.D.) and plenty of room for Jay to question his worth and the world around him. Right from the get go, it’s obvious that Jay is not in the best mental state (“Kill Jay Z, they’ll never love you/You’ll never be enough, let’s just keep it real, Jay Z”). He’s thinking about how the suit-wearing industry buffs he signs deals with are no different from the conniving murderous drug dealers he once knew on the streets (“Caught Their Eyes”), and how “The Story of O.J.” taught him that being truly successful as a black American is success you can pass down to generations instead of blowing it all on finer things (or a court case). But Jay is also looking inward to his own personal faults, like his inability to admit his mistakes for the sake of family (“You egged Solange on/Knowin’ all along, all you had to say you was wrong”) or how his youthful pride hurt someone who truly loved him (“Said, ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine’/That was my proposal for us to go steady/That was your 21st birthday/You mature faster than me, I wasn’t ready”). It’s on 4:44 that Jay-Z is heard not only using his poise as the most famous rapper on the planet for use outside of hubris for once, but as a rapper willing to admit how human he is. And in a way, that’s actually the boldest move any rapper can make. No matter how many bars Migos or Lil Uzi Vert dropped about their stacks or cars or women they sleep with, none of them can compete with the ballsy move of rapping about how he cried over sleeping with another woman.

 

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6. Thundercat – Drunk

Ever get so hammered on beer and good booze that you start thinking about how the little things in your life are actually so much more important? Ever think those conversations are so deep and profound that they could actually be interesting enough for mass consumption? Well you’re too late, because Thundercat beat you to it. The big man with the big bass dropped a 23-track opus about the hazy thoughts in his head all set to exceptionally-crafted lo-fi funk. What makes Drunk stand out as being more than a fun funk novelty is the way Thundercat and co-producers Sounwave and Flying Lotus stick with its spacey and quite-beautiful atmosphere throughout the album. While Thundercat’s bass is the prominent instrument throughout the album (as it should be on the smooth grooves of “Tokyo” and the freestyle freakout of “Uh Uh”), the boom-bap drums of “Jethro” or the futuristic synths of “Jameel’s Space Ride” that help keep the album on such a sonic high. Thundercat also proves himself a damn good lyricist, managing to turn inner wonderings of what life would be like as a cat (“Everything the light touches/It’s where I will roam/My roar would be so powerful/I would scare off everything”) into a heartfelt slow jam. And then there’s “Friend Zone” a hilarious bop about all the things Thundercat would rather do than being shut down by his crush (“Because I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway, hey/I’m all about my Johnny Cage/If you’re not bringing tacos I suggest you start to walk away/B***h don’t kill my vibe”). Outside of his name and choice instrument, Drunk is a wonderful testament to Thundercat’s unique personality.

 

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5. Paramore – After Laughter

Paramore is dead, LONG LIVE PARAMORE! It’s been a little over five years since Franklin, Tennessee’s favorite band were waving the flag of emo rock they used to carry with “Misery Business,” “Crushcrushcrush” and their megahit “Decode.” Not that it’s stopped them from becoming one of America’s biggest rock bands, switching to a more explorative outfit with their 2013 self-titled album that mixed fist-pumping alt-rock (“Fast In My Car,” “Now,” “Anklebiters”) to genuine pop-rock (“Ain’t It Fun,” “Still Into You”). If Paramore was the band throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck, their fifth album is the band’s next phase fully-formed. Again co-produced with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who first worked with the band on Paramore, After Laughter is 12 tracks tight with bright, bouncy, jangly alt-rock with only one track breaking the four-minute mark. Hints of The Strokes, The 1975 and Vampire Weekend are heard throughout the album thanks to the production highlighting the individual instrumentation of the album. Returning drummer Zac Farro brings a heft of energy with his rolling bass drum lines on “Grudges,” “Pool” and “Idle Worship,” while Meldal-Johnson’s electronic flourishes on the keyboards and synthesizers turn “Fake Happy,” “Forgiveness” and “Fake Happy.” The MVP of After Laughter is guitarist/co-producer Taylor York, leaving his own stamp on each song with super-catchy riffs both strummed (“Caught in the Middle,” “Rose-Colored Boy”) and plucked (“Hard Times,” “Told You So”). And despite changing her hair from a fiery orange to an atomic blonde, frontwoman Hayley Williams remains one of rock’s most captivating lyricists and singers. It’s refreshing to hear her flex her vocal range from the quirky yelps on “Hard Times” and “Idle Worship” to the soft harmonies on “Forgiveness.” But Williams is exceptional when the lights go down and gets the spotlight to herself, and the album’s centerpiece is the acoustic ballad “26.” With York’s soft plucking and a lovely string arrangement in the background, Williams coos about depression hanging over her head like a rain cloud and trying her damndest to hold onto hope. Corny? Sure, but Williams and co. sell it with simplicity and the earnestness of the performance. What makes After Laughter all the more revelatory is how involved the band sounds in this process. This isn’t a career move for longevity’s sake, this is a band evolving together into a sharper, spunkier machine. Warped Tour might be gone, but Paramore is forever.

 

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4. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Every now and then, some up-and-coming rapper makes enough of an impression on impact to be referred to as the new “best rapper alive.” Sometimes it lasts, sometimes it doesn’t. Point is, being called the “best rapper alive” is merely a buzzword to put in articles and on t-shirts. Yet ever since his breakthrough in 2012, Kendrick Lamar has made a helluva case to to be called the best rapper alive and have it actually mean something. DAMN. is not only Lamar’s third consecutive release since 2015, but it also serves as a warped and more-aggressive follow-up to his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. Nearly everything about DAMN., from its song titles in all caps to the darker musical production, is meant to highlight a man crashing into modern times confused and confrontational at the same time. A repeated line on DAMN. is “nobody prayin’ for me,” showing Kung Fu Kenny trying to find who in the rap game and the real world he can truly confide in now that’s fully exposed in the mainstream. “FEEL.” is a heightened and more focused slice of Kendrick’s paranoia through a low-fi rap beat and Kendrick growing more bothered by the second (“Feel like my thought of compromise is jaded/Feel like you wanna scrutinize how I made it/Feel like I ain’t feelin’ you all/Feel like removin’ myself, no feelings involved”). As he did on To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick is also bothered by his celebrity and how he should properly use his influence on the frantic “XXX” (“He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?….To the spiritual, my spirit do know better, but I told him/”I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:/If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”). He’s still proud of his street origins and has no problem calling out Fox News for using his people and neighborhood to frame agendas on “DNA,” and has no problem with brag rap on “HUMBLE.” The bottom line of DAMN. is that even at his most focused and most emotionally woke, the best rapper alive is well-aware of the dangers of being called the best rapper alive. He doesn’t want your titles, only your attention.

 

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3. SZA – Ctrl

For the last 20 years, the music industry has been trying to successful and continuously splice R&B and hip-hop. There have been success stories: Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, The Roots, Beyonce, Drake and Frank Ocean. But the problem with this synthesis is that it hasn’t been consistent: D’Angelo took 14 years to make another album, we’re STILL waiting on that next Lauryn Hill album, Drake’s synthesis is mostly hit and miss, and Frank Ocean wants to be as mysterious with his album releases as D’Angelo and Lauryn. Even Rihanna, one of the most successful artists of the new millenium, bounces between pop and rap and R&B like a pinball between the machine’s flappers. The thing that makes a successful R&B/hip-hop combination is consistency, and no one has made a more full-formed idea of how the two genres could live in harmony together than New Jersey’s Solána Rowe. Making her astonishing studio album debut as SZA on CTRL for Top Dawg Entertainment (Kung Fu Kenny has taste, eh?), Ms. Rowe’s intent and personality is one of the most immediately fascinating and likable in a long time. Her singing is a near-flawless combination of rap god bravado and seductive soul as she both begs for true intimacy and brushes off any flakey behavior. She’s so brazen, she even admits to cheating on her boyfriend as a reason for leaving said boyfriend on the FIRST DAMN TRACK. From there, SZA does everything from mock thirsty womanizers (“Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?/Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?”), using Forrest Gump as a metaphor for the value of waiting for sex (“Y’know, Jenny almost gave it all up for him/Never even pushed for the p***y”) to being open about how the wandering eye of men hurts her (“Beep beep, why are you lookin’ around, you lonely?/I feel you comin’ down like honey/Do do you even know I’m alive?”). SZA’s lyrics are merely the perfect icing on the cake, as the base is full of hazy future-soul music mixed with trap drums and low-synthesizers. SZA is game for all of it though as her voice rides effortlessly on any beat placed in front of her. She has the flow of a rapper on par with the albums guest stars (Travis Scott, Kendrick, Isaiah Rashad) and yet the singing performance of someone not overstaying her welcome yet still retains a strong presence. Not only is CTRL the best debut album and best R&B album of the year, it presents the best new personality for the modern music scene to have blossom in it. SZA fits perfectly in 2017, but imagine what she could do in the next five years?

 

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2. The xx – I See You

Picture this: you’re at a house party. It’s crowded, loud and you came by yourself. You rub elbows with everyone there and laugh with friends, but you’re mostly likely going home alone. Then there’s someone across the room standing alone with a red solo cup in hand. You want to talk to her, she might want to talk to you. Neither of you know, but that glance across the room makes you want to do something. And even if there’s loud party music playing for the room, the two of you are probably hearing The xx’s third studio album in your heads. A darker, more gothic experience than the trio’s previous outings, I See You also sounds like The xx’s first complete album. Aside from the two dance tracks “Dangerous” and lead single “On Hold,” which stand perfectly well on their own and in the album, I See You is full of deeply intimate and romantic lovelorn anthems. “Dangerous” sets the tone with its low-thumping, propulsive drum beat, followed by the double-dose of gothic, skeletal romance of “Say Something Loving” and “Lips.” The classic xx sound appears on “A Violent Noise” and “Performance” with the lightly-plucked guitar strings and the delicate voices of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. I See You also showcases new sonic clarity in the production of Jamie xx as he puts Croft and Sim’s vocal performances front and center and lets the music merely act as color for the stories their lyrics say. The xx’s message is that much of love is a “Performance” (“I do it all so/You won’t see me hurting/When my heart it breaks”) and no matter how much it can seem “Dangerous” (“There are voices ringing over/They keep saying, ‘Danger, danger’/I can’t make them take you under”), the little moments of love are worth the major drawbacks. On “Brave For You,” featuring one of Croft’s finest vocal performances, there is a sense of so much struggle and strife in knowing about someone and what their faults could be. But something keeps her going (“There are things I wish I didn’t know/I try my best to let them go”).

 

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1. Lorde – Melodrama

It was near-impossible to count out Lorde. The New Zealand indie-pop singer/songwriter had too much mystique in her presence and yet such boldface honesty about modern culture with her breakout song “Royals” that it was hard to believe she could end up a one hit wonder. What would she do next? How would a teenager hit with such immediate exposure adjust to it all? How would her music evolve? What else does she have to say? We may never know her immediate agenda after “Royals” hit big, because life had different plans to make her truly come out of her shell. After a breakup with her longtime boyfriend, Lorde is isolated in the spotlight with the world waiting for her reaction. The result is both volatile and gorgeous, intimate yet boosted to be heard in stadiums, sad at the start but incredibly satisfying. So it’s Lorde, but fully-formed. It fits that the cover for Melodrama, her long-awaited sophomore album, is a painting of her in her bed possibly longing for the night to end as the album is a very intimate affair. She’s lashing out at her ex seeing other people (“I know about what you did and I wanna scream the truth/She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar”), trying to make new friends with unstable people (“Don’t know you super well/But I think that you might be the same as me”), but is as messy and confused as any 21-year-old. From the massive sound of Melodrama (co-produced by Jack Antonoff), Lorde’s one night at a party looking for some kind of relief from her heartbreak might be the most revelatory night of her life. “Green Light” opens the album with an incredible punch of piano and bass drums, “Homemade Dynamite” is swamped with dropped-down drums and synthesizers, “Supercut” sounds like classic 80s new wave boosted for the EDM scene and “Perfect Places” is the album’s closing rebellious anthem. But like all great performers, it’s when Lorde has a song entirely to herself that she truly brings magic. And the album’s centerpiece and arguably the most captivating moment in pop music this year is “Liability,” a stunning piano ballad where reality comes crashing down on her (“The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy/’Til all of the tricks don’t work anymore/And then they are bored of me”). If that’s what she once was, Lorde is now the pop star of the future: down-to-earth in her experience yet forever hovering above us all in her musical landscape.

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Top Twenty Movies of 2016

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Like most years, the best movies of 2016 were the ones that didn’t have toy deals, product tie-ins, or “Extended Editions.” In fact, I’d go so far to say that 2016 may be one of the worst years for blockbuster studio movies (Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, Ghostbusters, X-Men: Apocalypse, Warcraft) Fortunately, that means the rest of the world of movies was filled with interesting ideas, compelling characters, and unique filmmaking. We went everywhere from ancient Japan to 1970s Los Angeles, followed bankrupt cowboys and the First Lady of the United States, and faced a demonic goat and the equally scary dream of trying to make it as an actress. 2016 may have been a bit of a wash, but that made my top 20 picks all the more precious. In the words of the patron saint Wade W. Wilson, “Let’s count ‘em down.”

20. Moonlight

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Barry Jenkins doesn’t see life as a whole, more as moments that make us who we are. He boils that down with neon-lit artistic beauty in his three-act feature about a young black man living through struggle and a crisis of identity in Miami. Jenkins mixes art house cinematography and atmosphere with acting worthy of prime stage work. Leading that work is a prime cast including Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, and Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes playing the lead in three separate eras. Ambition meets reality and it’s never as it seems.

 

19. Eye in the Sky

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Drone warfare is one of the toughest questions to answer in modern warfare, but who would’ve thought its ethics would make for such great drama? Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine….no, seriously) plays out three scenarios surrounding a drone strike: one in an underground military base where a military officer (the immortal Helen Mirren) wants to drop the bomb, her supervising officer (the late great Alan Rickman) wants to wait to see who else could be in the blast, and the drone pilot (the still great Aaron Paul) doesn’t even want to pull the trigger. It’s a game of chicken with an international incident on the line, but Hood and writer Guy Hibbert let the actors play with the questions brilliantly. War is hell, even if it’s behind a computer screen.

 

18. Don’t Think Twice

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Yeah there are laughs, but a career in comedy can be borderline miserable. Take it from Mike Birbiglia, who starred, wrote, and directed the story of an improv comedy troupe in New York City with their theater on the verge of closing and their future prospects on the verge of evaporating. Rounded out by ace comic talent like Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, and Chris Gethard, Don’t Think Twice finds the meaning of friendship and finding yourself when your dreams don’t exactly work out. Life is improv, just go with the scenes you’re given.

 

17. Sing Street

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Writer/director John Carney goes three-for-three with musical movies after Once and Begin Again with this droll, yet incredibly bright teen comedy about a shy teen (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who forms a synth rock band with his fellow nerdy schoolmates to impress a girl (Lucy Boynton). First off, very relatable (speaking from experience). Second, Carney captures the environment of grey, working-class Dublin in the 1980s along with the beautiful melancholy that the new wave sound of that era inspired amongst his characters. Even the film’s original songs are poppy earworms.

 

16. Zootopia

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Even if Pixar could only gives us a light farce of a sequel this year, Disney’s individual animation department still managed to turn out some quality entertainment while making billions of dollars (as is Disney’s business model). From the team behind the likes of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph comes the story of spunky bunny police officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) taking a bite out of the metropolis of Zootopia. She relies on the wit of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist as sly as a fox (because HE IS A FOX, GET IT? COMEDY!) to solve mysterious disappearances around the city. Zippy, gorgeous, and cute as a button (or a bunny? MORE COMEDY!), Zootopia is one of those great kid’s movies that has enough face value jokes up front for the young ones in the audience and little bits of hidden humor on repeat viewings (beep that Breaking Bad reference in the climax and thank me later). The detail in the animation of the world of Zootopia itself is another crowning achievement for Disney, proving that the right people don’t just have dollar signs on the brain (*cough*).

 

15. 10 Cloverfield Lane

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Oh J.J. Abrams, you sneaky little man. A mere month after he helmed the return of Star Wars, he pulled back Bad Robot Production’s curtain to reveal this spin-off of the 2008 found-footage/sci-fi hit Cloverfield made in secret. The biggest surprise of it all? It totally works! Abrams is only a producer on this project (as he was with the first Cloverfield), but director Dan Trachtenberg is no slouch by creating shivering tension and suspense in the underground bunker where three strangers try to survive throughout an alien invasion (or are they?). It’s a small film with solid twists and characters maneuvering through the mind games played by the sparse space around them, despite a rather weak climax. We also learned to never underestimate a terrifying John Goodman.

 

14. Captain America: Civil War

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Is it flawed? Incredibly. Does it contribute to the sameness of current Marvel movies? Absolutely. Do the stakes matter even in the slightest? Hell no. But Hollywood’s biggest breakup between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) had so much action, humor, character, and heart that it’s still the best superhero movie of the year. Directed with frenetic pacing but thorough focus on character by the Russo brothers (Captain America: The Winter Solider), the governments of the world aren’t so keen on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes anymore and force them to become regulated. It splits The Avengers (sans Thor and Hulk because “reasons”) in half, with Iron Man wanting to rein in the gang but Cap still untrusting of modern politics as he tries to clear the name of ol’ buddy Bucky/The Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan). What makes Civil War so enjoyable, aside  from some of the best action scenes Marvel has put out to date (with one in particular), is the further development of the established people (not the heroes in the suits) we’ve come to know. Even if the reason Cap and Tony fight is motivated by Tony being an irrational moron, the emotion behind the fists they throw is felt through the screen. Also, Black Panther…..ALL of Black Panther.

 

13. Green Room

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Jeremy Saulnier wants to make you uncomfortable. He will pull you to the edge of your seat in fear and anticipation, then pull the trigger and let everything bleed. Tension is Saulnier’s game, and he leveled up this year with Green Room. The set up is tense enough: a punk rock band gets a gig playing at a skinhead club in the woods of Oregon and, after playing a real crowd-pleasing opening number, see a dead body and become trapped in the  club’s green room. To avoid alerting the cops, the club’s owner (Patrick Stewart) orders his staffers to flush out the band, dead or alive. Once the band is trapped, the movie becomes a ticking time bomb as audience waits for the gruesome bursts of violence that propel the movie forward. But Saulnier sets up an unnerving atmosphere and lets that build as much suspense as the fight scenes do. It’s claustrophobic and filled with dread, but impossible to look away from. It’s also led by a solid young cast including Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, and the late great Anton Yelchin.

 

12. 20th Century Women

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It’s an odd thing to wonder about what truly made us who we are when we’re growing up: was it our parents? the times? the culture? Writer/director Mike Mills has already explored the impact his father left on him in 2010’s Beginners. This year he showed the impact his mother had on his life with 20th Century Women, with the ever-wonderful Annette Bening playing mother Mills. Not really of course, more a fictionalized version of his mother and his teenage years in 1979 Santa Barbara. Bening plays a chain-smoking, free spirited mother looking to connect with her teenaged son, enlisting the help of housemates and friends to make an impact on her son. Mills uses his typical flourishes of building character with flashbacks and flashes forward in time. He also writes great characters for actors to work with, with the likes of Bening, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and especially Greta Gerwig.

 

11. A Bigger Splash

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First off, if this still of Ralph Fiennes dancing to “Emotional Rescue” doesn’t immediately sell you on this movie, be ashamed that you’re missing the best dance sequence of the year. However, don’t be fooled by the whimsy of Fiennes’ swaying of the hips: Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) pulls a great bait-and-switch with this erotic love game between a rock superstar (Tilda Swinton), her photographer lover (Matthias Schoenaerts), her former  manager/former lover (Fiennes), and his daughter (Dakota Johnson). On top of some gorgeous cinematography of the Italian islands by Yorick Le Saux, the four leads play off of each other with their raw sexual chemistry. Fiennes unbeatable charisma and Johnson’s steaming sexuality (somehow lost in Fifty Shades of Grey) brings the movie to boiling temperatures of atmosphere. And then there’s Swinton who, even as she’s mute throughout the movie, remains one of the best actors alive.

 

Top Ten, ENGAGE!

10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

From Taika Waititi, the man who made vampires funny again (2014’s What We Do in the Shadows) and will hopefully make Thor compelling again (2017’s Thor: Ragnarok), comes this silly and heartfelt adventure story in the mountains of New Zealand (without a single hobbit to be found). Waititi’s script brings out the best in the veteran Sam Neill as the grouchy father-figure to newcomer Julian Dennison’s plucky kid “gangsta” just looking for a home. The camera work and occasional left-field humor recall Wes Anderson, but Waititi’s own brand of droll comedy, sweeping direction and easily-observable love of filmmaking cement him as a man of his own talent. Don’t you hurt him, Marvel!

 

9. The Edge of Seventeen

It’s seems impossible for Hollywood movies to properly depict today’s American teenagers. Sometimes it can be done well (Moonlight) and other times it can be done disastrously (Yoga Hosers). The one that did it best, however, is Kelly Fremon Craig’s hilarious dark comedy about a suburban high schooler dealing with nearly everything in the world going against her. That may sound like another episode of Degrassi, but Craig’s writing is full of sharp digs that recall peak Woody Allen and a feature actors that don’t oversell their roles or rely on modern references to seem current. On top of that, Craig has a stellar lead in Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld delivering one of the best performances of the year. Her comic timing and dramatic heft she brings is stellar and hopefully reminds Ms. Steinfeld to hold off on pulling a Jennifer Lopez and trading in a promising acting career to be a middling pop star.

 

8. Una

It’s a damn shame that no one else got to see this brilliant and risque adaptation of David Harrower’s acclaimed play Blackbird since no studio has picked it up for distribution yet. On the other hand, it’s not hard to see why studios are hesitant to put press behind a movie about young love with an older man. But Una, the play’s film adaptation with a screenplay by Harrower himself, doesn’t use its taboo subject matter for cheap drama. Instead, its story is on the aftermath as the title character, now a young woman (the excellent Rooney Mara), tracks down her first true love, an older man with a new name and new life (the equally excellent Ben Mendelsohn). From there, the movie plays out as it would onstage, with two actors going toe-to-toe laying out their emotions and seeing who cracks first. On top of that, director Benedict Andrews slowly dishes out the truth about what happened with the look of a gorgeous bad dream before cutting back to the cold harsh reality the two leads share. It shows that just having controversial subject matter for a movie is merely a springboard, but building on it makes it something impossible to look away from.

 

7. Manchester by the Sea

Whenever I tell people that Manchester by the Sea is one of the best movies of the year (because it is), I have to follow it with a warning: “This movie is a bummer.” Mind you, that’s not a detriment to Kenneth Lonergan’s new film about a sullen, closed-off handyman (Casey Affleck) who’s brother (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies, leaving a son (Lucas Hedges) without a father and a brother even more aimless and lost than he once was. It’s hard to explain what exactly makes Lonergan’s film so outstanding because it’s for such simple reasons. The acting is so human and lived-in that the film feels like a well-made documentary. There’s nothing far-fetched or even a hint of forced Hollywood melodrama in the story. It’s not about dramatic expression of hard emotion, but the crippling fear of vulnerability after tragedy. Lonergan lets his cast do the heavy lifting, and most of it lies on Affleck’s very capable shoulders. He’s always been a very quiet actor lost in most movies, but this may be the role that finally fits his type of acting. He’s stellar, perhaps the best performances of his career, along with the likes of Chandler, Hedges, and a brief role by Michelle Williams. It’s not the happiest film of the year, but it feels pretty damn real.

 

6. Jackie

Biopic syndrome is a very real thing in Hollywood. No matter who is profiled, it’s easy to map out the origins, the rise to prominence, the second act fall from grace, and the finale of redemption. No matter how interesting the subject or how good the actor portraying the subject, most biopics are very similar. But there are always exceptions to the rule, like Pablo Larraín’s stirring depiction of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy before, during, and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Thanks to some gorgeous cinematography from Stéphane Fontaine, sweeping shots of JFK’s funeral procession and close ups of Jackie tearfully wiping her husband’s blood off of her face help paint the shimmering dream of her life in the White House and the faded nightmare she experienced as she was forced to leave. The likes of John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup fill out an exceptional supporting cast that make Jackie consistently question the situation surrounding her. But it’s the fearless, fragile, and feisty lead performance by Natalie Portman that’s worth the price of admission. Portman juggles the many sides of Jackie that one wouldn’t expect: the fiercely protective torch-bearer of the Kennedy legacy, the jaded public figure cursing the American public for her JFK’s death, the broken debutante questioning if all the glamorous dresses in her closet was ever worth a damn, and the heartbroken wife who’s lost the love of her life. It’s as multifaceted as a Dungeons and Dragons dice, but Portman pulls it off beautifully. She’s currently on the verge of welcoming her second child, but don’t be surprised if she welcomes another Oscar to her brood as well.

 

5. Kubo and the Two Strings

If you claim to be a big fan of animated movies and have yet to see anything made by Laika Studios, you’re a liar and should be ashamed. The stop-motion animation wizards at Laika have created three films since 2009 (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) and all three have given Disney and Pixar a reason to sweat (well at least their creative team, their financial department are too busy lounging in their chairs made of dollars). Now on film four, Laika have made their most expansive world, exciting action, and heartfelt story to date…and yet The Secret Life of Pets made over $800 million, shameful. Anywho, Kubo and the Two Strings takes audiences to ancient Japan where the title character, a one-eyed young boy with magic paper and a three-stringed guitar, must traverse the lands and find three magical items to fight his grandfather, Raiden the moon god (Ralph Fiennes) and his evil twin daughters (Rooney Mara). Fortunately, Kubo is accompanied by a stern fighting monkey (Charlize Theron) and a giant beetle samurai warrior (Matthew McConaughey). Laika’s excellent handling of stop-motion animation merges extremely well with the Japanese style and art direction of the film’s story. The tiniest details are given proper attention making each set piece almost a living element to the film, breathing and moving with the characters themselves. Mix that with a gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli and some great vocal talent by the A-list cast (especially McConaughey in one of his funniest performances to date) and you’ve got something beyond a kid’s adventure: a sweeping, beautiful journey for the whole family without one obnoxious product tie-in (take that, Sing).

 

4. The Nice Guys

The world has had a lot of disappointments in the action film genre this year. The combined power of Batman and Superman turned out into a dud, X-Men fighting Apocalypse was a snoozefest, the first live action Joker in eight years was straight-up embarrassing, even Jason Bourne gave us all a headache. And yet Shane Black made a brand new movie this year and BARELY ANYONE SAW IT! IT WAS RIGHT THERE YOU GUYS!!!! Mr. Black’s latest film (his first since 2013’s surprisingly good Iron Man 3) takes place in 1977 Los Angeles and follows brutish enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) on his search for a missing girl. He soon joins boozy private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling), and the pair embark on shenanigans riddled with bullets, boobs, and secrecy. Very few in Hollywood today do action movies as good as Shane Black, specifically it’s his understanding of when and how often to do action scenes. Instead of desperate ploys to hold the audience’s attention, Black cruises at his own pace and lets his acute sense of style and atmosphere entertain viewers. He expertly paces out the gunplay and pulpy elements of the movie, with even the most casual dialogue better than any exposition in other movies. Speaking of his characters, Black scored two actors on their absolute A-game: Crowe is the growling straight man with excellent comic timing and the real soul of the film, but Gosling steals the show. The man known for his sullen intensity and the occasional meme, Gosling gives the funniest performance of his career (maybe of the year, as well) as he makes “bumbling” look like the coolest thing to do in a movie. Even when he’s been chasing tail that turns out to be a double-cross, he holds his stupidity by still thinking he has a shot at getting laid. It’s like if Van Wilder was in Lethal Weapon, brilliant!

 

3. La La Land

Speaking of brilliant things with Ryan Gosling in them, hurray for movie musicals! And no, writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) is not talking about the modern era of movie musicals like Les Misérables, Chicago, and Sweeney Todd. Instead, Chazelle crafted a love letter to the likes of Singing’ in the Rain, A Star is Born, and other films of the golden age of movie musicals. While it would be easy to just make a highlight reel of classic moments from that era, Chazelle had the good sense to put a story in there and make the brightest film in grim dumpster fire of 2016. La La Land follows two down-on-their-luck dreamers: jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) desperate to open his own hip club, and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) who’s only gotten as close to Hollywood as the coffee shop on a studio lot will let her. The two meet, exchange witty banter, and of course fall in love. They inspire each other to give one last big run at their dreams and face the adversity that follows. Now the pessimistic cynic inside my soul could easily label this as another installment of “White People Problems: Part 75” and scoff at a movie so sweet and sunny that it could give cavities. But it’s impossible not to applaud the care and craftsmanship Chazelle puts into the production. After the small, contained burst of madness that was Whiplash, it’s astonishing to see Chazelle execute such a big production with the same precision as a veteran director (mind you, La La Land is only Chazelle’s third feature film). The sweeping musical numbers (like the Planetarium scene) are shot with such focus and buoyancy that it feels like a group of intelligent robots organized the sequence to perfection, but there’s still a sense of warmth that could only come from a human behind the camera. Justin Hurwitz also returns to provide the film’s score, consisting of a solid combination of quiet jazz numbers shared between the two leads and the big ensemble numbers. But then there’s the heart of the movie, brought by its star-crossed lovers. Gosling is a natural with song and dance numbers while still being a handsome Woody Allen-wannabe obsessed with the passion with jazz. It took the charisma of Gosling to make Sebastian more than just your average jazz hipster. But there is one star of this movie, and she’s Emma Stone. Someone who’s proven that she’s a jack of all trades with drama, comedy, and music, this was the role tailor-made for Stone’s talents and she owns every scene she’s in. Her effortless comedic banter and chemistry with Gosling, her solid singing voice, and the heartbreak in her struggle to make in Hollywood (something she’s certainly no stranger to) is so natural. Stone’s been a major Hollywood star for a while now, but La La Land is surely the one to send her star power into supernova. The same should apply to Chazelle, a true craftsman proving himself to be one of Hollywood’s next great talents.

 

2. Hell or High Water

Throw all the glitz and glamour you want in a movie, but I’m a man of simple tastes. An old-fashioned, stripped-down drama with believable human characters is something that feels rare in movies today and really shouldn’t. Which is why when something like it comes along, seemingly out of nowhere, it’s such a welcome relief and not a stretch to call a new American classic. David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water feels like a long-lost American classic from the late 60s/early 70s, a crime drama mixed with Western elements and character drama worthy of a great stage play. Dirty, sobering, and especially timely, it’s amazing how the movie feels like such a gem in 2016. It’s a story of brothers, by blood and by occupation. The blood brothers are ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) and somber divorcee Toby (Chris Pine), who try to save their family farm in West Texas by robbing banks of their petty cash and speeding off into the dusty sunset. The brothers by occupation are two Texas Rangers, one on the verge of retirement (Jeff Bridges) and the other his longtime partner (Gil Birmingham), who are on the trail of the robbers and hope to get one last big bust before they part ways. Mackenzie manages to make Hell or High Water both very singular and yet something that fits right in with 2016. Even with the escapism of film, Mackenzie puts audiences right back into terrible 2016 Americana with endless dried out farms, broken homes, and jobless cowboys feeling abandoned by the world around them. It’s such a vivid depiction of the desolate range that was once promised to be prosperous. On top of that, Mackenzie also knows how to pace the action between the character development. The robberies are quick bursts of kinetic action, building up to the climax that rivals Michael Mann’s Heat robbery. Adding to that expert direction is an engrossing story and tight dialogue by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), who also crafted the four fantastic lead characters that are also performed by four actors all giving peak performances. Birmingham and Foster are the weaker of the leads, but they still give great performances. Foster provides his typical quiet intensity with a bit more heart to add to the brother aspect, while Birmingham acts as a fitting foil for Bridges character. Speaking of Bridges, this is his finest performance since the last time he did a western (that would be 2010’s True Grit). Bridges has been one of the most heartfelt and human actors of his generation, and Hell or High Water gives him the right character and enough room to let him relax into his character and make him immediately interesting. But then there’s Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine, giving the finest performance of his career. To see him play a character so mature, burnt out, and yet intimidating and compelling is almost shocking to see. Hopefully it opens new doors for the actor once his Star Trek role turns over or before his career goes as south as the original Kirk. I hope that Hell or High Water doesn’t get lost in the sea of other big films to come out, or perhaps it’ll be a hidden treasure future generations will discover in bargain bins. Regardless, seeing the movie will show how undeniably lasting it feels. Something old, something new, and something to be seen again.

 

And now…..

 

1. The Witch

 

Horror movies are a dime a dozen, you get one diamond for every 10 or 20 duds. But what makes movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, The Exorcist, The Shining and others more memorable than the likes of The Conjuring, Ouija, As Above So Below, Paranormal Activity, Unfriended, Hostel and other forgettable marks in the horror genre? In today’s market, especially with the rise of found footage films, horror movies seem to rely on their jump scares, the brief moments of sudden bursts of sound and surprise imagery to count as scares. While it lets audiences jump in their seats to break up monotony, it doesn’t leave a lasting impression after the movie’s over. Horror films are less about quick moments of spooks and more about terrifying imagery that stays on screen, not too long to lose impact but not too short to be missed. Something that stays on just long enough to stick with audience and haunt their nightmares for weeks, months, or a lifetime. Not many films do that anymore, fortunately one did this year, and everyone who ever wants to make a horror movie (or any movie) should’ve taken notes. In his first feature film no less, writer/director Robert Eggers presented The Witch, “A New England Folktale” that acts as both everything a filmmaker needs to make something compelling and one of the best horror films of all time. Eggers’ film takes place in 17th century New England when a Puritan family is exiled from their village and they are forced to live in the outlier woods with nothing but their farming and their faith to hold on to. One day, their infant is taken into the woods by something unseen, unheard, and unthinkable. The family becomes closer in need of salvation, but the darkness keeps creeping in and all of their prayers aren’t helping. Eggers is a master of not only creating atmosphere but building it into a fuller form. It’s emphasized in a visual work throughout the film: at night, the family’s farmhouse is lit by candles that form a type of box around the family. As the film goes on, the box of light gets smaller and smaller, practically crushing the family as the nights go by and the more they lose understanding of the situation. That’s Eggers game, a time bomb whose fuse is getting smaller and smaller with the victims quickly running out of options. He starts with gloom and keeps building to full-on gothic doom, using lighting and sparse sound design (plus the score by Mark Korven) to build a believably hopeless situation. Despite the title, Eggers even plays with the idea of there even being a witch at the start, having the family use their religion as a security blanket and questioning if this is a part of some type of God-driven insanity. In fact, The Witch herself is such a minor part of the film, with the center of it being the true horror of family values and the madness of religion. It’s all played out without shaky cameras, jump scares, cheap special effects, or excessive gore. The imagery is legitimately unsettling and stays on screen just long enough to last and linger in the mind. The icing on the cake is the exceptional performances by Kate Dickie as the unstable mother and Anya Taylor-Joy as the daughter bearing the most of the psychological torture. The Witch stands for everything that is right in moviemaking: patience, craft, and actual innovation in film.