Eyes blurred and head foggy, this year went by in a flurry. There was just so much to take in…everywhere…everyday, scores of great albums, great movies, great TV shows, great books, great comics, great beer, and more, more, more! So this year, rather than do a run through of my favorite records, songs, etc., I picked ten different things from pop culture that made my 2015 awesome. Though, if you are interested, you can and should check out my year-end album list, song list, and movie list. There’s some good stuff in there, I swear.
So, with no further ado, here’s my Top Ten of 2015 (in absolutely no order whatsoever):
1. All of the offshoot projects from the former members of Women
Women was an all-too-short lived four-piece rock band from Calgary who disbanded in 2010 after releasing just two excellent albums. Following former guitarist Christopher Reimer’s death, the remaining former members have continued to chug on making music under different monikers…and they’ve all been outstanding. 2015 saw the release of two of those projects, and they have yet to leave my earspace.
In January, Women’s former rhythm section of Matt Flegel and Mike Wallace released their first, self-titled LP with their new band Viet Cong. To be both on point and hyperbolic, it rocked my socks off. Noisy, precise post-punk, the jams coming from Viet Cong often feel like they were recorded in a tunnel, the sounds swirling around your head, bouncing off walls, and shaking your bones, but with the steadiest of thuds and pops to keep that head bobbing throughout the caterwaul. Drawing from acts like Television, Wire, The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys, and Neu!, Viet Cong become the poster children for taking a hundred different influences and churning them into something both new and wonderful…as well as creating my favorite record of the year.
If I started the year with one Flegel brother, I ended it with the other. Patrick Flegel now records under the name Cindy Lee and released two truly amazing and heartbreaking albums to close out 2015. Both Act of Tenderness and Malenkost feel like fragile, vulnerable, and personal opuses, heart wrenching and haunting little lo-fi melodies for the bedroom pop set. The albums waver between scratchy noise and soft balladry, and a chill hangs over everything. They’re beautiful.
If you were a fan of Women, all of these albums are definitely worth checking out and loving.
2. The excellent television coming out of Netflix
For a medium that hasn’t really been my thing for a number of years, I certainly seem to be watching a lot of television these days…but not television television. I’m talking about Netflix television. In some ways it’s like they’re catering just to me: Marvel super heroes, the return of Wet Hot American Summer, Aziz Ansari, and a whole bunch of other stuff I don’t even know about yet. Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as Wilson Fisk on Daredevil is award worthy. Jessica Jones is amazing and sets a high water mark for all comic book based TV to follow. And David Wain’s return to Camp Firewood has no business being as perfect as it is. To top things off, the other streaming services are beginning to offer up top notch original programming as well, like The Man in The High Castle on Amazon and the upcoming 11/22/63 on Hulu. I keep hearing that TV is the new place for groundbreaking visual and narrative art…maybe that’s right.
3. Texas vs. OU
I live in Texas. I went to school at Texas. We eat, breathe, and sleep football around here, so yeah, I’m a fan. But ever since losing the National Championship game to Alabama six years ago (a game I was in attendance for), Texas football has been stuck in a persistent cycle of loss and rebuilding, a cycle from which there seemingly is no escape. With our new coach, Charlie Strong, now in his second year, there were some high hopes around these parts, as there are every year, which quickly collapsed as we lost some Saturday heartbreakers and got our butts kicked too. But oh, that OU game. That Red River Shootout. To see my team of misfits and young players dominate our rival, especially one that may be playing for a championship in a couple of weeks, was enough to put a smile on my mug and keep it there for the duration of the season. Now, let’s build on that. Go Stronghorns! Hook ‘em!
4. Image Comics
I have read, collected, and enjoyed comic books off and on for a long time, the last 15 years seeing a surge in the books I check out on a weekly basis. But, the last couple of years have seen my weekly perusals take a dip due to finances (hooray having kids!), time (hooray having kids again!), and just an overall interest in other things. I also bailed from the “Big 2,” what with all the retconning going on and old arcs I had been reading finishing things up or just burning out. In fact, if it weren’t for Image Comics, I’d probably be out of the comic book game altogether. But the publisher just keeps bringing me back in for more. Every single year, they knock it out of the park with the string of stellar and extraordinary books they release.
2015 saw the continuation of can’t-miss series like Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ sci-fi epic Saga, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s long-running zombie book The Walking Dead, and Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s apocalyptic East of West, as well as a whole slew of new books to enjoy. It seems like every week I’m checking out a new series. And so far, they’re all original and killer. Some new favorites include Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s Paper Girls, a kind of Spielberg-ish alien invasion (?) tale involving teenagers in a small town in the 80’s, Scott Snyder and Jock’s creepy horror creation Wytches, and Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s robot epic Descender. And I’m not even scratching the surface of what Image has put out this year. If every publisher could maintain this kind of recent track record, I’d be broke.
Make mine Image!
5. South Park, Season 19
When a program has been airing for as many years as South Park has, one can assume, and rightfully so, that the glory days are long, long since over. The closest one really has for comparison’s sake would be the other long running adult cartoon, The Simpsons, and its steady 15-year decline into mediocrity. South Park’s last couple of seasons certainly seemed to suggest that that might be the case, with each new year bringing in more “just okay” episodes than great ones. And then there was season 19. For the first time, Parker and Stone created a season-long story arc instead of a string of unrelated episodes. And they nailed it. They touched on PC and outrage culture, gun control, gentrification, safe spaces, Syrian refugees, and so much more, all with that classic South Park caring and gentleness, like Caitlyn Jenner running down people in her car. This season introduced PC Principal, the new principal at the elementary school and my new favorite character on the show. Mr. Garrison also fucked a Canadian version of Donald Trump to death, so I guess there’s your shining moment of 2015. I hope that season 20 only ups the ante next year.
6. The current state of craft beer
I really like beer. I’ve been writing about it for a few years and drinking it for way, way longer than that. I make my own sometimes, imbibe as many different kinds as I can, and make it a point to try and hit up a local brewery or taproom in every city I visit. And holy cow, there are so many places to visit, and so many beers to try.
Craft brews have exploded over the last five years with what seems like more and more breweries opening across the country, and more and more folks trying their hand at brewmastery. This year, I got to try a number of awesome beers from all over the place, hit up a couple of brewfests, and just got all around excited about beer in general. Every week brought a new favorite beverage, with Cigar City’s Sugar Plum Winter Ale, Breakside’s Salted Caramel Stout, 21st Amendment’s Hell or High Watermelon Hefeweizen, and St. Arnold’s Divine Reserve #15 Russian Imperial Stout all making a particular impression on me. The more I think about it, I really love beer. More so, I love that I’m not the only one, and that there’s this whole grand subculture to explore and enjoy.
It truly is a great time to be a beer drinker (though we all need to pay attention to what AB InBev is up to, as it could ultimately prove detrimental to the scene at large).
7. Synthesized shenanigans courtesy of Retro Promenade
Being a pretty big proponent of synth-pop these last few years, it was pretty exciting to stumble across music label/art collective Retro Promenade whilst scouring through Bandcamp one day. Early this year, the label released a tribute album to Twin Peaks, called The Next Peak, and featuring synth cover versions of the show’s Angelo Badalamenti composed score. Volumes two and three soon followed, and included remixes, reimaginings, and some moody and inspired pop jams. I was hooked.
Over the remainder of 2015, the label has seen the release of several albums and EPs of original material, as well as some more inspired-by collections that pay tribute/homage to John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Tron, and Miami Vice. And they’re all offered in a pay-what-you-want download model. Score.
While you’re perusing the music, be sure to grab some of the art prints and t-shirts the label has for sale as well. And let’s keep our fingers crossed that 2016 sees a Blade Runner tribute.
8. Re-familiarizing myself with Vic Chesnutt
Years ago, I discovered the wonderful music of Vic Chesnutt on some promo compilation CD that came with a magazine or something. I don’t remember the name of it, or the song that was on the comp, but from then on, I was content to sample and listen to his music in the quieter hours, though I never became a rabid fan. He continued to put out a steady and solid body of work, even appearing on the 2009 Dangermouse/Mark Linkous/David Lynch album Dark Night of The Soul, before ending his own life on Christmas day of that year. I listened to a lot of his stuff then, as one is wont to do when any artist dies, but that eventually faded too. And then 2015 happened.
At the very beginning of the year, I heard for the first time, a cover of “Somewhere” from the West Side Story soundtrack that Chesnutt recorded with his niece, singer-songwriter Liz Durrett. It is staggeringly beautiful. And it’s been on steady repeat for me all year long.
Then, in October, Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses and a sometime collaborator and performer with Chesnutt, wrote a book about her time spent on the road playing with Vic. Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt is an open, honest, and often gut-wrenching memoir of the man. Hersh’s prose is filled to the brim with love, and anger, and loss, and ultimately understanding. And it’s made me actively begin seeking out Chesnutt’s entire discography.
Maybe I should become a rabid fan after all.
9. The continued blossoming of the film score record label
I thought 2014 was a huge year for film scores and the labels that release them. 2015 was even bigger. The older hands like Mondo/Deathwaltz continue to put out outstanding work both musically and visually, but now the upstarts are beginning to catch up, or in the case of Waxwork Records, maybe even surpass. Waxwork had a fantastic lineup of releases this year, from Phase IV to Starry Eyes to C.H.U.D. and more. And next year is looking to be the year they explode. With even more releases and reissues coming out from the likes of One Way Static, Lunaris, Intrada, and so on, it’s been a banner year for film score enthusiasts everywhere. Let’s keep ‘em coming.
10. Inside Out
What would any year be without a favorite film? 2015’s actually kind of surprised me, as I was sure that Mad Max was going to have it pretty locked up. But no. Instead, the latest family friendly animated picture from Disney and Pixar takes my heart like no other film could this year. Inside Out is a film about feelings, or rather it’s a film about all of the different feelings and emotions that coexist inside your head…or soul, and how all of those feelings and emotions make you the person that you are. The film is a cinematic piece of art about everything that it is to be a parent, everything it is to be somebody’s child, everything it is happy or sad or lonely, everything that it is to be human. It’s about growing up and moving forward, about love and empathy, companionship and life, an absolute zeitgeist of and for all humanity.
It’s also a comedy. But it got me as close to tears as any movie I’ve ever watched, and I’m happier for it. When art can make me feel more than just a general appreciation for it, I know I’ve found the gold. Inside Out is gold.
And so ends another year-end list. Let’s keep our eyes, ears, brains, palettes, and hearts open for what the next year has to offer us.
From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas H. Williams spends most of his time with his wife, his two sons, and his increasingly neurotic dog. He listens to a lot of music, drinks a lot of excellent beers, and gets out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit heavenisanincubator.blogspot.com.