Outlanders, Young Fathers, & None Masters: Best Albums and TV Shows of 2015

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We live in an era when the music industry is long since “dead” (slain by Napster, and its remains desecrated by YouTube and Spotify), while TV is in crisis too: the broadcast networks have shed viewers for years, and now even the big cable companies realize they’re in deep trouble, attacked on all sides by Hulu and Google Fiber.

Yet for fans of music and TV, times have almost never been better — at least in the sense of having a super-abundance of (often very good) options.

Yes, for every Mad Men or Broad City there are ten Real Housewives of Plano, Texas and competitive nose-hair shows. (Though Schnozz Master was actually pretty good this year.) And your cousin has a web series that’s just not very good.  So to help our friends and neighbors navigate this vast Turkey Day feast of pop culture, we’ve thrown out a few of our favorites from the year in sight and sound.  Some of them are actually good!

Best TV Series

Larry Grubbs: Everyone knows LG is obsessed with Mad Men. The best series in television history concluded this spring with Don Draper’s Coca-Cola epiphany. Netflix abhors a vacuum. I enjoyed Season Three of House of Cards and of Orange Is the New Black, but both were uneven. By contrast, the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant novels was flawless. Airing on PBS this spring, Peter Kosminsky’s miniseries miraculously fuses the first two volumes (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) of Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the enigmatic advisor to King Henry VIII (yes, that King Henry).

Divided into six episodes, Mark Rylance’s Cromwell mesmerizes. No, he doesn’t tell us, “I am the one who knocks,” nor does he turn to the camera and declare, “There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.” Rylance doesn’t have to. His Cromwell (fastidiously adapted from Mantel) kills softly. Silent, his eyes, countenance, and comportment hint at the war within. As interlocutor, with cool self-possession and masterful understatement, he can swiftly set a fog, or lift it. “A strong man,” Cromwell drily notes, “acts within that which constrains him.” Unlike Walter White or Frank Underwood, Cromwell’s destiny leads not to the pinnacle of power, but to a chilly embrace with his master, the King. If this weren’t enough, Kosminsky’s filming at several historic manors and shooting by candlelight has wrought Tudor tableaux that beg for the big screen.

Charles Lee: ghosting.tv

Lauren MacIvor Thompson: Outlander. Men in kilts and the women who lurrrrve them. While time-traveling.

Robert Baker: The only TV show I saw in 2015 was True Detective—both seasons. I liked the first one better than the second one, even though Matthew McConaughey was a little up his own ass at times. The inventive storytelling had both depth and energy, and the sense of place was heavy and intense. The second season had too many characters and it was pretty hard to get past the fact that Rachel McAdams was the lead mean girl in Mean Girls, but the series did capture the dystopic caverns and gullies of greater Los Angeles.

Cherie Braden: Master of None. It’s hit or miss at times, but the great episodes make it totally worth watching.

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Alex Cummings: Orphan Black – haters gonna hate, but the bravura performance(s) of Tatiana Maslany and the show’s ever-expanding conspiracy were catnip for recovering LOST fans like myself.

Adam Gallagher: I loved Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, which sort of felt like a version of Louie for millennials. I also really enjoyed the second season of Leftovers on HBO, which had a nice turnaround following a bleak and depressing first season.

Ryan Reft: It’s cold and Ronald Reagan is campaigning for President. Jesse from Breaking Bad, as local Laverne, Minnesota butcher Ed Blumquist, has put on about thirty pounds and Kirsten Dunst’s Peggy Blumquist might be “touched” (as they used to say) but one would hardly call her helpless as the two navigate a dark set of circumstances set upon them. There’s also a simmering gang war between the Kansas City connection and North Dakota’s greatest crime family the Gerhardts which explodes into the kind of violence the Coens have perfected. Plus, you know, UFOs. Season two draws upon the whole Coen repertoire dropping in aspects of Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, No Country for Old Men, and other classics into the mix. Reagan serves as disturbing motif throughout. In short, there’s a sickness in the land and it’s been set upon us. No one’s got answers, but we’ve all got to muddle through. I have no idea if anyone is even watching, but I can hope.

Best Album

Romeo: Alabama Shakes’, Sound and Color

Lauren: Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. On repeat on my iTunes. And probably Ryan Reft’s?

Rob: Calexico, Edge of the Sun (Anti-). For three decades, Calexico has been getting it done. They made their bones on the West Coast circuit in the 90s and have proved one of the most enduring and hard working bands of the new millennium. Their music is eclectic and complex. They are just as prone to draw upon the sounds of the barrio as to invoke mariachi traditions in songs that can invoke the harsh serenity of the high desert or the glitz of the southwestern urban metropolis. Edge of the Sun still shows off the creative edge of young Calexico, but with a maturity that reflects in tighter songwriting and subtle execution.

Cherie: Esmé Patterson’s Woman to Woman. This is a magnificent concept album that takes characters from songs that marginalize women and brings those characters to the center of new songs. Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean rightfully asks, “What do you call a woman when she’s lying in your bed? If you make love, ain’t she your lover? Ain’t I? Ain’t I your lover?” Eleanor Rigby isn’t the pathetic spinster the Beatles make her out to be, and Jolene, the “other woman” in Dolly Parton’s song, sees that the cheating guy is the real problem in the situation. What I really love about this album is that it’s a perfect union of concept and art — Patterson’s songwriting, her voice, and the execution are fuck-yeah, if I can use that as an adjective. This album isn’t a gimmick. It’s great, revolutionary, and empowering music.

Alex: British quasi hip-hop group Young Fathers went pop with their tuneful and sardonic album White Men Are Black Men Too, with possibly the most unwittingly timely album title of the year.

Adam: Jamie xx’s In Colour and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. One question on Kendrick…is it just me, or does the album get a little tiring after a while? I loved the album when it first came out, but am struggling to listen to it now months later.

[Editor’s note: AG only likes music that gets exactly 9.3 points on Pitchfork.]

Ryan: Detroit’s Protomartyr continued its hot streak with its third straight transcendent album since 2013: The Agent Intellect.   Lyrically Joe Casey has only gotten better and drummer Alex Leonard has become a percussionist of legendary proportions. The band finds ways to channel the troubles of their home city while still letting everyone know they and Detroit are alive and kicking: “The proof we are here/Is the dust that they’re breathing.”

But let’s not be rockist, D.C. native/L.A. resident Kelela released her Hallucinogen EP this year. A seductive mix of R and B and electronica, Kelela’s sound inspires a gorgeous sort of despair especially when she closes out Hallucinogen with lines like “”All I know is all I’ve got/ Is it hard to face all we lost?” Vince Staples dropped a solid set of tunes with Summertime ‘O6, but his hatred of Chris Paul takes away from his artistic accomplishments.

Finally, I totally dug Ryan Adams’s interpretation of Taylor Swift’s 1989, but since he releases like 15 albums a year and it’s basically a cover album, as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. (That said, doesn’t this prove, whatever you think of Swift, she’s one of the premier pop songwriters of her era?)

 

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