The National’s I Am Easy To Find | still from video
The Key’s Year-End Mania: Sean Fennell’s top albums that are actually short films
Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2019 incredible. In this edition, Key writer Sean Fennell explores the overlap between film and music that exploded in 2019.
The album is not what it used to be. Whether it’s dying for good is an argument I will leave for another day, but the album is evolving, that much you can’t deny. Blame attention spans, blame algorithmic playlists, blame tiktok, blame whatever you like, but things change. Even the biggest artists, the ones looking down at the highest stratosphere of pop culture – your Beyonces per say – have shifted focus. An album can still be an album, but it can’t just be an album. Just like the stories here at The Key and other publications, an album must be part of a package, a 360 degree experience.
So what shape has this taken in 2019? In many cases, artists have looked backward for inspiration. Gone are the days of MTV as a stalwart taste-maker, no longer are music videos at the center of culture. But what if you take it up a notch? Not just music videos but music movies, not five minutes of literal interpretation but full-length sprawling, genre-defying visual stimulus full of collaboration and artistry. It was a trend I recognized early on, and while not new, it certainly continued to flourish well into 2019. It got me thinking, not only about the best collaborations, packages and eventized releases, but what could have been.
Sound & Fury is an excellent record, one which sees Sturgill Simpson, once heralded as the next big country star, thrash around wildly with little regard for style. It is a ROCK record, loud and proud, a guitar hero showcase with no prisoners taken. So, obviously, the companion piece is a varied, disjointed anime featuring some of the most skilled artists in the genre. It shouldn’t work, yet it’s perfect. Songs like “Sing Along”and “Best Clockmaker On Mars” meld perfectly with the apocalyptic hellscapes, battle scenes and dance sequences that make Sound & Fury one of the wildest trips of the year.
I’ve already discussed what I love about 2019’s I Am Easy To Find by The National in this year’s top album round-up, but the film of the same name is something all its own. This was, more than any other film on this list, a true collaboration. Director Mike Mills (The Beginnings, 20th Century Women) was brought in very early on, receiving what he calls “sketches” of seven of the albums songs, which he then took and molded as he saw fit in order to score his film. That film, a silent depiction of a woman (Alicia Vikander) aging from birth to death, blends Mills’ sensibilities with those of The National’s, making for a study in quiet contemplation that accompanies the album incredibly.
Solange sees your collaboration and scofs. Who needs collaboration when you can do it all? When I Get Home was one of the years best albums by one of music’s most talented artists, an artist who, apparently, can do it all. Not only does Solange star in the film, flaunting her dancing expertise with ease, but directs as well, giving us a truly unique scrapbook of her hometown of Houston, female black excellence, and cowboy culture. If the back half of the decade told us anything, it’s that Solange is just as much a power to be reckoned with as her more famous sister.
I might not have seen a Thom Yorke / Paul Thomas Anderson collaboration working this well, but when you can get two masters of their craft together, you just let them cook. Highlighted by the long sought-after single “Dawn Chorus,” Anima is an interpretive dance through Yorke’s subconscious. PTA, along with help from Suspiria choreographer Damien Jalet, brings to life the choppy, electronic hum of Yorke’s third proper solo record with his typical virtuosity. I have only listened to Anima through once, but I’ve watched the movie five times, which should tell you all you need to know.
Sharon Van Etten’s Remind Me Tomorrow is a brilliant record, a moody, revelatory jump for the singer-songwriter. Heavy on synths and droning vocals, the emotional toll this record takes led me to one of our most affecting filmmakers; Barry Jenkins. If you’ve seen either Moonlight or If Beale Street Could Talk you know exactly the emotional gut-punch Jenkins can bring with a well-time close-up or swirling visual and it’s the kind of palette that would go great with Van Etten’s poignant songwriting.
There was a moment during last month’s (Sandy) Alex G. show at Union Transfer where I was genuinely a little frightened. One minute he’s standing with his acoustic guitar and the next he’s throwing himself around stage, jamming to “Brick”, a hardcore wall of sound assault on the senses. It’s just this kind of jump from quiet to loud, traditional to bizarre, that has me wishing for a collaboration with Ari Aster, Hollywood’s most sick and twisted director. Just like (Sandy) Alex G., Aster has burst onto the scene, his first two features, Hereditary and Midsommar, unsettling audiences far and wide. His aren’t just horror movies, they are mind-melters, with truly warped views of everyday life fraying at the edges. This is just what I hear when I listen to (Sandy) Alex G.’s House Of Sugar, an artist comfortable with the uncomfortable and never satisfied to stay in one place for long.