Yes, you read that correctly. That’s not a typo, and we haven’t lost our minds (yet). We thought that while you were being pummeled with endless “Best of 2014” critics picks and lists it was our job to remind you of what you may have missed from the last last year.
That’s because we’re not going to let our high-velocity culture—in which things are consumed and then tossed away to make room for “the next thing”—keep us from listening to, watching, and championing what we loved from 2013—or any year, for that matter. We want a world in which we don’t need to ask this question: “If Gregory Porter comes out with one of the year’s best records and no one talks about it a year later, did it really happen?” (Yes, it did, and we’re still screaming about it.)
So here it is, in no particular order—our best of what we hope you didn’t miss in 2013 . . .
Gregory Porter: Liquid Spirit
By definition, Gregory Porter is a jazz singer and songwriter. But, for those given to pigeon-holing, prepare to let that pigeon loose. “I’m a jazz singer informed by soul and gospel and blues,” offered Porter in a documentary that accompanied his Grammy-winning 2013 album Liquid Spirit. “I’m singing about things that I know about. Pain, the love of my mother [she was a minister], the scar that comes from injustice and racism. Deep love that comes from every corner.”
Liquid Spirit is not an album to shelve alongside chardonnay-and-moonbeams jazz. Porter’s third release dishes up lyrics that can be angry, weaving stories of history, civil rights, and politics. It’s no accident that Porter lent his talents to last year’s Gil Scott-Heron tribute album, Evolutionary Minded.
But fear not the shadow of the raised fist. Porter sings many of his tales with that mellifluous, Bill Withers-esque voice of his, caressing the say-it-ain’t-so love ballads “Hey Laura,” and “Brown Grass.” The flow of “Water Under Bridges” has an almost Sondheim feel to it, a hint at Porter’s Broadway roots in the 1999, Tony-nominated It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues.
Despite his Grammy, Porter is still largely relegated to the jazz ghetto. The man is a musician of the first order and an affirmed critic’s darling, but whether he’ll follow Norah Jones into the mainstream remains to be seen.
Jason Isbell: Southeastern
Not for nothing did Bruce Springsteen sing Jason Isbell’s own “Traveling Alone” to him when they met backstage at Jazz Fest. The bleak poetry of a lonely trucker’s tale is pure Boss, as good as anything on Nebraska.
Which proves that we have at least one thing in common with Bruce: an ear-throbbing, lyric-memorizing passion for this singer-songwriter who could well be—as was once Springsteen—the future of something. Whether it’s Americana, alt-country, roots or just great fucking songwriting is up to you, but be aware of Jason Isbell and his 2013 release, Southeastern.
Isbell is an artist who has battled his share of high-proof demons, but the Alabama artist put the cork in the bottle for his fourth solo outing, and it shows. Isbell’s path from boozehound to sobriety has afforded him a first-hand vantage point on how dark it all can get. That’s evident throughout Southeastern, which carries an even more personal, insightful lyrical heft than his previous work.
The man is as good a storyteller as any songwriter today, with a voice capable of raising roofs and jerking tears. In “Elephant,” Isbell sings of trying to ignore the thing in the room, in this case a barroom and the thing is cancer. He pulls it off with the simple Harry Crews-level depth found in the best Southern literature. But he’s far from a grim study. Simply put, he can write, which, if there’s a God in alt/whatever-heaven, should boost Isbell out of the one-trick roots trap.
Laura Mvula: Sing to the Moon
You’d be hard pressed to find a stronger debut last year than Laura Mvula’s Sing to the Moon, an album from an artist who is the next link in the chain that includes Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, and Sade. Mvula commands the proud, back-off authority of Simone, the slyness of Vaughn, and the elegance of Sade, but she’s no mere gifted mimic. Mvula is very much her own singer with a voice of sunrise purity and divined restraint that seems refreshingly old school.
Lyrically, Mvula isn’t white washing anything. In “That’s Alright,” she sings, “I will never be what you want and that’s all right/ ’Cause my skin ain’t light/ And my body ain’t tight/ And that’s all right.”
Musically, Sing to the Moon owes as much to brilliant pop/jazz arrangers like Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, and Gil Evans as anyone, and within the numbers “Can’t Live With the World,” “Like the Morning Dew,” and “Is There Anybody Out There?” one finds near-Brian Wilson moments. Unexpected chord changes, contrapuntal vocal echoes, and sweeping dynamic shifts that seem almost Pet Sounds at times.
In the intense “Make Me Lovely,” the string and horn parts provide a backing to Mvula’s authorative, take-no-shit vocal that’s downright cinematic, leading to a warm chorus (“Don’t want to/ Lose my soul”) delivered in a quavering schoolgirl’s voice, almost as if she’s singing to herself. Thank God she isn’t.
With its mixture of floating melodies and weaving electronics, last year’s Muchacho sounds like post-psychedelic, pained-up Johnny Cash.
One-man band Phosphorescent revealed the depth of his outlaw roots with To Willie, the 2009 collection of unexpected Willie Nelson tunes inspired by To Lefty From Willie, the Red Headed Stranger’s own tribute to Lefty Frizzell. And, in keeping with the Nashville tradition of songs borne from life’s wreckage, Muchacho gets its heart from Phosphorescent’s own broken love muscle.
The album was written after a decade of touring, boozing and drugging, culminating with the implosion of his relationship, perhaps the basis for the haunting single “Song for Zula.” “The Quotidian Beasts” maintains the lyrical pain but takes a loping, chaotic musical and production approach. In short, a bunch of studio dudes slinging Burrito Brothers licks this ain’t.
But for sheer, shimmering glory, nothing beats “Muchacho’s Tune,” a waltz-time piece of work that boasts a mariachi horn solo straight out of the dreams of a drunken ghost, if ghosts drank and dreamed of such things.
A Band Called Death
A Band Called Death champions the power of the three things we tend to value over here at Trunkworthy above all others: family, rock ’n’ roll, and record collecting.
And it tells a story that couldn’t possibility be true but most certainly is. Inspired by Alice Cooper, The Who, and a family tragedy that shook them to their core, the three African-American brothers, David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney, form a blistering rock band with an undeniable punk sound and an unfortunate name. How unfortunate? According to the brothers, Clive Davis offered them a $20,000 contract with Columbia Records if they changed it. But David, who conceived the band’s name, logo, and musical vision as an inseparable whole, refused to compromise. It was a move that sabotaged them at the time, but also preserved them in amber to be rediscovered by rock geeks more than a generation later.
The film shows a journey of creation, disappointment, and rebirth (a 26-minute album of their original demos, …For the Whole World to See, came out in 2009, blowing the mind of Jack White, among others). More importantly, it affirms the transcendent power of art, family, and faith. The result is something that feels as essential as it does unbelievable: the greatest ever rock ’n’ roll story you don’t already know.
In a World
Despite what it may feel like when you scan the posters at your local multiplex, reports of the death of the romantic comedy are highly exaggerated. When done right, as it is in Lake Bell’s writing and directorial debut about love within the tiny world of Los Angeles voice-over artists, there are few more satisfying, and genuinely uplifting, forms of pop culture.
The good ones always have a strong voice—Lake’s sensibility is both cutting and empathetic—and a supporting cast as strong as the leads. In A World, which takes its title from the emblematic phrase used by the late king of movie trailer voiceovers, Don LaFontaine—boasts a cast that includes standup comedians Dimitri Martin and Tig Notaro, as well as SNL’s Michaela Watkins, Hot Tub Time Machine’s Rob Corddry, Parks & Rec’s Nick Offerman, and the fantastic Fred Melamed (A Serious Man), whose silky basso profondo will make the hairs on your neck stand on end.
But in the end, it’s Bell that’s the stand-out. With her whip-smart one-liners and easy self-deprecation, not only has the longtime actor permanently broken herself out of Hollywood’s girlfriend prison, but she has also shown that she may just be the rom-com chosen one, the one who just may lead the misbegotten genre back to the prominence. Topping that, she’s got a great set of pipes.
Stories We Tell
What is there left to say about Sarah Polley’s powerful, personal, and universal quasi-documentary about the nature of personal and family identity? It’s already sent one of our writers into an existential tailspin that he’s still recovering from. The truth is, there is no end of things worth reveling in in this film, which ostensibly tells the story of the Canadian actress and Oscar-nominated filmmaker’s search for the source of her paternity, but actually a rumination of why we are who we are and choose to love who we love. In many ways, The Stories We Tell embodies the Trunkworthy mission: small in budget and distribution, but oversized in heart, vision, originality, and humor. It will move you in ways that you are unprepared for but will utterly appreciate. (Read Oliver Jones’ full story here.)
A tone poem to the beauty and essentiality of being lost while young, Frances Ha tells the story of a life at drift with such specificity, watching it feels less like seeing a movie than it does catching up with a long-lost friend. Which is fitting, because few films have done a better job of capturing the truth and heartbreak of friendship—real friendship, not whatever passes for it on social media—than Noah Baumbach’s heartfelt collaboration with his star, cowriter, and girlfriend Greta Gerwig.
Gerwig plays the title character, a broke dancer in NYC whose inability to hold on to a job, an apartment, or a boyfriend is really no big deal, but when her connection to her closest friend begins to slip away, her life goes gently off track. Shot in beautiful black and white, the film evokes the Manhattan of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, only in apartments and tax brackets you will recognize and with characters that are not romanticized as much as they are fully realized. While it isn’t exactly a plot driven film, that’s to its advantage; instead, Frances Ha unfurls like a perfect conversation—funny, surprising, and you never really want it to end.
Top of the Lake
Made for Australian TV by writer-director Jane Campion, this seven-episode series is the sort of TV-meets-high-art happening that doesn’t get the mainstream play shows like Game of Thrones commands. But, while Top of the Lake was never spoofed by SNL, it’s far from inaccessible. Part cop-show puzzler, part nether-realm fairy tale, part no-prisoners manifesto for kickass women and the men who love them, Top of the Lake resonates internally, physically, with fear, sex, anger, awe and righteousness, and it will leave its hooks in you for who knows how long after. Maybe always.
The set-up is standard SVU: When pregnant, 12-year-old Tui tries to drown herself in the titular New Zealand body of water, the local police bring investigator Robin (Elizabeth Moss, making her stand as the very best actor of the Mad Men cast) in on the case. Soon, the town’s secrets—embodied by Tui’s nasty dad Matt, his sweet-faced son, a handsome head detective, and a terse oracle named G.J. (Holly Hunter, off the hook)—are bubbling up from the depths, and Top of the Lake is working its way straight into your blood. (See Hazel-Dawn Dumpert’s full story here.)
Being old—like one-foot-in-the-grave old—is lots of things, but ripe for primetime TV it is not. Thankfully, HBO isn’t primetime, and Getting On is about a whole lot more than the complications of old age. And while the first season, which began airing in late 2013, flatlined in the ratings, HBO mercifully decided not to pull the plug and granted us a second season.
Set in the geriatric ward of a Southern California hospital, the show is about the wacky troubled weirdos who work there and the elderly patients they serve. These characters are deeply flawed and entirely cringe-worthy, and you can’t take your eyes off them.
Starring Roseanne’s Laurie Metcalf, Family Guy’s Alex Borstein, and Reno 911’s incomparable Niecey Nash as the rag-tag hospital team, the show trades in the oblique sadness and unique comedy that comes from being surrounded by death. It’s comedy in the face of tragedy, and it’s damn good TV. (Read Laura Hooper Beck’s full story here.)