Looking Back at 2015 in Music

  • Favorite 2015 albums (in no order):

    • Ryan Adams – 1989. I’m not a Taylor Swift fan, at all, but this alternative country cover album of her entire 1989 smash hit record is a double-edged triumph: (1) showcasing the strength and versatility of Miss Swift’s songwriting, and (2) the musical finesse of Ryan Adams for adapting electronic pop music into thoughtful, heartfelt alternative rock. Highlights: “Welcome to New York,” “Style,” “Out of the Woods,” “All You Had to Do was Stay,” & “This Love.”
    • Miley Cyrus – Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Genuinely artistic experimental psychedelic album by pop’s most button & boundary-pushing young startlet. It also features some of her best and most mature music. Highlights: “The Floyd Song (Sunrise),” “Space Boots,” “BB Talk,” “I Get So Scared,” “Lighter,” & “The Twinkle Song.”
    • Delta Rae – After It All. This genre-bending swirl of country, Americana, and stadium anthems by a North Carolina sextet is an exhilarating work rich with complex instrumentation and soul-piercing melodies. Highlights: “Anthem,” “Outlaws,” “You’re the One For Me,” & “After It All.”
    • Michael Giacchino – Inside Out (Original Soundtrack). It’s almost laughable to think how this score took a couple listens to grow on me. This sweeping, ethereal soundtrack is what gives this tremendous movie its soul. Certainly one of the best wholly instrumental musical scores in recent years (and endlessly listenable), the highlight tracks “Bundle of Joy,” “Nomanisone Island / National Movers,” & “Tears of Joy” will reignite all the feels you probably had watching the film.
    • Madonna – Rebel Heart. The Queen of Pop’s longest album to date, and her most personal work in years. Highlights: “Unapologetic Bitch,” “Joan of Arc,” “Wash All Over Me,” “Rebel Heart,” & “Graffiti Heart.”
    • The Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home. Very fortunate to have stumbled upon this one. Early this year, I was way into iTunes’s featured free songs, and one week “Timothy” from this album was featured. I had never heard of the artist The Tallest Man on Earth, but the song struck a cord and I couldn’t stop listening. Once Apple Music became a Thing, I started exploring more into the albums featuring individual songs I loved, and was stoked to find an entire album of rich, folky goodness. Highlights: “Darkness of the Dream,” “Sagres,” “Timothy,” & “Dark Bird is Home.”
  • Noteworthy albums new to me in 2015 (but not from this year – in no order):

    • Erasure – The Innocents  (1988). Erasure wasn’t even on my radar pre-Looking (which featured the excellent “A Little Respect” in an early episode), and thanks to Apple Music I finally dove deeper into this album to find a treasure trove of 80s pop glory. Pulsating keyboards and stellar, emotional chord progressions make this the kind of record you’ll revisit again… and again… and again. Highlights: “A Little Respect,” “Phantom Bride,” “Yahoo!,” “Imagination,” “Weight of the World,” & “When I Needed You Most (Melancholic Mix).”
    • Girls – Album (2009).  Another Looking influence (remember the Girls songs in Season 2?), Girls’s Album is the ultimate California indie rock piece – muffled production, catchy tunes, and unique instrumentation all contribute to a consistently entertaining, San Francisco surf-ready musical experience. Highlights: “Lust for Life,” “Hellhole Ratrace,” “Summertime,” & “Curls.”
    • Amy Grant – Heart in Motion (1991). This is the stuff that synthpop dreams are made of. Solid songwriting and terrific production leave little question why this Christian/pop crossover exploded onto the scene back in 1991.  Highlights: “Baby Baby,” “Every Heartbeat,” “Ask Me,” “Galileo,” & “I Will Remember You.”

Greek Pete (2009)

Greek Pete is the bizarre, semi-documentary, arguably-pornographic, story of a young British man who aspires to be the best male escort he can be.

We follow Pete around for the course of a year, from intimate interviews to him meeting with his clients to celebrating the holidays with his “family” of other male escorts. Compared to Pete, they seem like a truly sorry lot – casually discussing prostituting themselves out as young teenagers, facing physical abuse – while Pete went into the business, on his own accord, for the money and to be the best at something. (When speaking to a client about his aspiration to be the best male escort, he even measures himself up in relative terms – “do you think you’re the best accountant?”)

The unfamiliar, often uncomfortable, discourse in which this film operates makes Greek Pete all the more fascinating. The star, Peter Pittaros, is a “real” escort and everything about the film seems wholly convincing (at least to an outsider), making it unclear where the documentary ends and the fantasy begins.

Is it when he’s laughing about past clients with some models, before they engage in a threesome as a fat cameraman videotapes from inches away? Or when his de facto boyfriend Cai (also a call boy) watches bitterly as he serves a client?

The sad emptiness of this world hits hardest at the end. Pete’s dream has come true, having earned the award of Male Escort of the Year in Los Angeles. He returns to London, to Cai sleeping in bed, oblivious to Pete’s return. Pete scrolls through his phone and updates them on his new recognition, encouraging his friends to look it up online, says goodbye, then repeats.

It almost doesn’t matter whether the world Andrew Haigh creates (or merely visits) is real or not – the bizarre universe of these young men is nonetheless powerful for its graphic, yet refreshingly unapologetic, portrayal of the lonely life of an escort.

Youth in Revolt (2009)

There aren’t very many adaptations of ambitious, lengthy books into film that manage to not to trip on their own feet. I am very happy to say Youth in Revolt does not mishandle the book, but in fact adds a layer of realism and earnest emotion that the book (deliberately) strays away from.

Youth in Revolt is a teenage fantasy coming-of-age story set in central and northern California, about one young man’s quest for love. Beyond this basic setting, we have no other cues to tell us when the action is happening; the protagonist Nick uses a computer that looks like it’s from 1992, the teenage characters all speak with Shakespearean wit, and everyone seems to regularly write letters and keep journals. (Like I said, it’s a fantasy.)

This otherworldly element was fortunately imported in from the original book. Another spectacular motif that was thankfully maintained is showing the extreme lengths teenage guys will go for love; some of the more twisted elements of the novel (like Nick drugging his girlfriend so she is expelled from school and forced to go back to her hometown, also where he forced his father to move) ring true to the source material. Which I think is really commendable and brave on the filmmakers’ part; not many studios would make a movie where the character we are supposed to sympathize with pulls that kind of stunt, even in the name of love.

What the film does even better is bringing this often-fantastical story back down to earth. Eventually Nick’s crimes (yes, they are crimes) do catch up with him and he is forced to reconcile with his past, while in the book he is able to skirt it yet again. In literature though, disbelief is much more easily suspended than in film, so it is refreshing to see this problem actually brought to light for a medium in which that plot development is simply implausible.

The film also humanizes the actions taken by the characters. Both the young lovers, Nick and Sheeni, pull some pretty bad shit throughout the course of the story. Exhausted with the situation, Sheeni eventually tells Nick that she can’t put up with Nick’s shenanigans any longer. “I’m tired of being alone.” He thoughtfully replies, “I’ve been alone all my life. That’s why I’m doing this.” A real motive is fueling their love, not just the boredom of disaffected youth (which appears to be the case in the novel).

One minor (unrealistic) critique I have of the film is how comparatively minor in scope the movie is when looking at the novel. The original is an epic 500-page trilogy of books (bound together in one volume) and deservedly so; Nick goes through a lot to finally win over Sheeni. I had been expecting similar treatment for the film (clocking in at at least 2 1/2 hours?) but alas, my contemporary American epic can apparently be told in 90 minutes. Still, I’m amazed they pulled off the stellar project they did.

This movie seems perfect for our contemporary era of culture and sophistication re-entering the base requirements for courtship. The characters (convincingly) discuss arthouse film and dress fashionably (but affordably). Despite its more fantastical elements, this film still seems incredibly weighted and a more realistic depiction of teenage life (well, mine anyways!) than the typical teen sex comedy fare you get in the multiplexes. By far the best high school film in recent memory, and one of the best movies of 2009.