Year in Review: The Songs To Survive 2022 mixtape

Are we here again, at the end of another year? I’m not quite sure how this happened. The number “2023” sounds, to me, like some far futuristic utopia or dystopia, rather than the time I’m actually living in. I think I really stopped counting around 2012, anyway.

As I’ve previous said in these last two chaos-filled years, music helps keep me same. Whether it’s 6k walks around the neighbourhood or while I’m beavering away making journalism, there’s often a song nearby.

I have to say, 2022 has been, well, pretty shit in a lot of ways, on a personal level. Too much bad news in my life and the world seems to be getting stupider every day. It’s hard, sometimes, not to become the bitter sort of person you swore you wouldn’t become in your 20s. 

So, music. And new music! I’m trying a little harder, like my mate Bob, not to become one of those old guys who always complains that music was better in the 1990s or whenever. I actively sought out some of the young folk making music this year, as well as my favourite old folks still making music, rather than just listening to the same Ramones and Prince albums over and over.

The Songs That Helped Me Survive 2022 Playlist is almost entirely music that came out this year (there’s a couple of perennial songs I listened to a lot that are a bit older). I listened to groovy young (or younger) folks like Wet Leg (who made the most joyously fun album of the year) and Orville Peck and Tove Lo, to awesome kiwi musicians like Marlon Williams and Troy Kingi and Aldous Harding, to old faves like Freedy Johnston and Midnight Oil and Don McGlashan who put out great new stuff this year. 

And here’s my playlist. So here’s two hours of eclectic alt-rock, jazz, kiwi pop, afro-noise, songwriting genius, angry rants and wistful laments! Once upon a time it might’ve been a mixtape I mailed a dear friend or two from across the country or across the world. These days, it’s a collection of bits and bytes and well, anyone can listen. That’s music for you. It’s what keeps us going, when the going gets tough. Listen up, I made you a mixtape:

More music: Songs To Survive 2020 Playlist

Songs To Survive 2021 Playlist

It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there: My top 10 albums of 1997

A few years back I looked at my top 25 albums of 1994, 25 years later. Now, as if by infernal design, the clock has rolled forward a few more years, and somehow it’s 25 years since 1997, another great year for music in the eyes of the young Nik.

Through the increasingly blurry eyes of middle age, I think of 1997 now as the end of my youth – I finally moved on from my old college town in Mississippi after working at the local paper for a few years after graduation, packing up my battered ’89 Toyota and driving back across America to my native California. It was a leap in the dark, the kind most of us can only make when we’re too young to know how hard it can be to change everything about your life overnight. By the end of 1997 I was in a completely different place than where I started. 

Here are my 10 favourite albums that guided and haunted me as the soundtrack to a year of chaotic upheaval. I still love them all today.  (*I know, I know, it’s a very white, male alternative list of musicians, but in all honesty, that’s what I was listening to in 1997 in a world that was a lot less diverse and inclusive than it is now. Things have definitely changed for the better in that regard in 25 years.)

In alphabetical order by artist:

Ben Folds Five, Whatever And Ever Amen – Like a geekier Elton John and Bernie Taupin at their peak, Ben Folds combines hummable melody with little character-filled vignettes in song. Bouncy and sad all at the same time, Whatever And Ever is his best album, which manages to combine silly pop romps like “Ballad of Who Could Care Less” and “Song For The Dumped” with brittle ballads about abortion (“Brick”) and breakups (“Selfless, Cold and Composed”).

Blue Mountain, Homegrown – Old friends of mine from Mississippi who’ve done a gorgeous job of mining alt-country over the years, this is absolutely one of their best albums and a slice of genuine heartland Americana that holds up well. Twangy anthems and lovesick laments with just a hint of punk-rock rebellion and a reminder of how great the alt-country scene and fellow travellers like Uncle Tupelo and The Old 97’s were at their peak. 

David Bowie, Earthling – I guess few Bowie fans would put this in their top 10 of his remarkable career, but I absolutely love this drift into jungle and techno sounds that is menacing, fierce and dangerous, released the year Bowie turned 50, and it feels like a rage, rage against the dying of the light. A lot of artists embarrass themselves by jumping on trendy new music but for Bowie, it just felt like more of the curious magpie eye that drove his entire career. A raucous rave of an album. 

Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind – It feels like the words of a thousand-year-old man on a mountaintop, but if I want to feel old now, I’ll realise that Bob Dylan was only five or six years older than I am today when he recorded this gorgeous, drifting reverie of an album. It was the beginning of a critical comeback that’s never really dimmed for the great bard of modern song. “Not Dark Yet” is a song I listen to more and more as the days drift by faster and faster. 

Everclear, So Much For The AfterglowI’ve written about this album itself pretty recently. Suffice to say it’s one of the last great slabs of the grunge ethos to me, loud and angry and more than a little bit scared.

Green Day, nimrod. – I’d only call myself a medium fan of this band, but for some reason, this album really got to me, combining their punk-pop brattiness with an ecclectic energy and plenty of goofy wit. I remember hearing the uncharacteristically mellow ballad “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” played at a high school graduation ceremony I covered for a small-town newspaper that year, and somehow, that felt like the perfect song for the moment. 

Guided By Voices, Mag Earwhig! – This all-time power pop bashes marks the end of an absolutely stellar run by the Dayton, Ohio band who, led by genius Robert Pollard, have been bashing out prolific tunes for decades now. Almost every GBV album has great songs on it, but Mag Earwhig! is one of the last where every single song feels like an earworm #1 single from an alternate universe. 

Freedy Johnston, Never Home – Another gent I wrote about recently, his hugely underrated fourth album is full of his trademark story-telling lyrics, an angsty edge and songs that keep unfolding themselves the more you listen to him. 

Pavement, Brighten The Corners – Hold a gun to my head, but this just inches ahead of Earthling and OK Computer as my favourite album of 1997. Pavement at their surreal, whimsically witty peak, but filtered through a haze of melancholy that makes this album feel like their most sincere slice of gently askew rock. It’s an album that mourns a vibe, a time and place, without ever being quite sure why it’s sad that it’s ending. As my world changed so much in 1997, Malkmus’ songs like “Shady Lane” and “Starlings of the Slipstream” seemed to sum up something I was feeling, even if nobody was really sure what it was. It was the 1990s, mate.

Radiohead, OK Computer – It would be heresy to leave this off any list of great alt-rock of 1997 (even if it’s slightly pipped for me by Kid A as Radiohead’s best album). Thom Yorke’s yearning moan, the rock riffs that float between anthemic and drifting, the vaguely elusive lyrics… at the time, OK Computer’s dire visions of a lonely world fraught with conflict and isolating technologies seemed like a dark warning. Now, it just seems like what much of the world became. 

Bubbling under the top 10: Björk, Homogenic; Cornershop, When I was Born For The 7th Time; Michael Penn, Resigned; The Old ’97s, Too Far To Care; Prodigy, The Fat of the Land; The Simpsons, Songs In The Key of Springfield; Depeche Mode, Ultra; Whiskeytown, Strangers’ Almanac; Elliot Smith, Either/Or; Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out.

My friend Freedy Johnston and me

OK, we’re not actually friends. I’ve never met the man. Never even seen him play. But in the way you sometimes bond with a singer/songwriter, it feels like I’ve been friends with Freedy Johnston, a tremendously underrated musician who’s helped provide the soundtrack to my life for nearly 30 years now. 

Johnston’s latest album, Back On The Road To You, just came out, and it’s already added several distinctive earworms to my brain. Freedy’s songs are like that to me – they sneak into your bloodstream, with a poignant chord or a cutting lyric that you find you can’t stop listening to. 

Born in Kansas, he’s hardly a household name, and had his biggest brush with mainstream fame with his 1994 album This Perfect World, which is where I first discovered him, too. I was working at Billboard magazine as an intern for the summer, and his disc was one of a pile of albums the editors were passing along once they were reviewed. (It seems weird to think, now, but piles of free CDs were like liquid gold then, and I ended up having boxes of them to ship back after my Billboard stint.) Freedy stood out from the Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish soundalikes. Always, he’s seemed slightly a man apart from his time. 

The single “Bad Reputation” was a brief gorgeous outlier in the summer of peak grunge in ’94, and This Perfect World is a melancholy gem of heartbreak and insight, like most of Freedy’s work. He’s not a flashy guy, more in the mold of singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell, John Prine or Ray Davies – observational. He’s got a sweet voice with a slightly rough edge, always tinged with just a bit of yearning. 

My attachment to Freedy is personal, because so many of his songs felt like they were tailored for my life at the time – or maybe that’s just the universal seeping through his work. In the late 1990s, when I was doing lots of the moving around and unsettled romantic chaos that comes with your late 20s, his albums Can You Fly, Never Home and Perfect World were in constant rotation. 

Each song meant something to me.  I moved back to California, and listened again and again to the ringing chords of “California Thing” hoping for an optimistic fate – “High off the roof we rise / Flying to a hand up in the sky.”  “The Mortician’s Daughter” was about every girl I stuffed up a relationship with and the stolen moments you never forgot – “I used to love the mortician’s daughter / We rolled in the warm grass by the bone yard fence.” 

At times, Freedy’s work has gotten a little too dour and melancholy, but for the most part he’s had a remarkably consistent sound over the years. I tend to like the slightly rockier numbers the most, where at times he sounds like he’s about to erupt. 

He paints a picture with spare words – “I just told her that’s she’s my number one / And she went ‘maybe’” tells you everything to know about the relationship in “There Goes A Brooklyn Girl.” 

At his best, in a song like “He Wasn’t Murdered,” a few short sentences tell a short story – “It was a roadside stop with a broken name / And he sat there all alone / In the used-up mirror he saw his ghost come slowly walking over.”

Freedy Johnston is still plugging away in the trenches of the music business and I’m happy to be a fan. His latest album shows he’s still got it, and it’s got a gentler, optimistic edge that we kind of all need right now – I’m particularly fond of the killer harmonies of “That’s Life,” “The Power Of Love” and “Tryin’ To Move On,” which suits this uncertain time we’re all somehow, getting through. 

Anyway, listening to him all of these years, it’s felt like a secret friendship of sorts, which is perhaps the highest goal any creator can have – that their work was meant for your ears alone. His songs have kept me company through the good and the bad.

Like all of us, Freedy’s getting older, and the world is getting weirder, but there’s a comfort to know he’s around, singing songs for his friends. Cheers, mate. 

Please enjoy a playlist of bespoke Freedy Johnston tunes curated by yours truly:

Review: Midnight Oil, Auckland, September 3

Midnight Oil, Auckland, September 3. Photo: Me

There’s a great book about ground-breaking ’80s punk bands called Our Band Could Be Your Life. For me, Midnight Oil is one of those bands.

As the Aussie enviro-rockers shook up a nearly full Spark Arena last night on the Auckland stop of their farewell tour, I thought a lot about how the band has been part of the soundtrack of my life for more than 30 years, and helped shape how I think about the world.

I wrote a review and appreciation of one of my favourite bands as they zipped through town – go read the full piece right now over at Radio New Zealand!

Farewell tours: The show must go on – until it doesn’t

When your musical tastes lean toward the retro, as mine tend to, you find yourself attending a lot of farewell tours. You don’t always know it will be the last/only time to see a band. But as someone who loves an awful lot of bands that were at their peak in the ‘70s or ‘80s, you never know what fate and time will bring. 

Performers in their 70s or even older aren’t always at their best, but sometimes they’re amazing. You sometimes find well-honed machines who may not be quite as fast on their guitar solos as they once were, but who make up for that with the breezy skill that only comes from playing the same song thousands of times over. 

The announcement that 75-year-old Elton John is coming back to New Zealand for his long, long Covid-postponed farewell tour in early 2023 and that Billy Joel, 73, is coming here for the first time in decades reminded me that many of my favourite older acts who make it all the way down to Aotearoa probably aren’t going to be coming back again. I’m undecided on seeing Elton just yet, but I’m already down for Midnight Oil’s farewell tour in September, pandemic willing. 

I managed to see Brian Wilson deliver a surprisingly affecting tribute to the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds a few years back. He was seated for most of the show and did sometimes seem a bit off in the clouds, but still delivered some of those dazzling harmonies on “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” beautifully. Younger band members handled the high notes, and yeah, it was an audience of gray hairs, but as reunions go, it was more sweet than bittersweet. I’m glad I went. 

The Monkees, 2016

And then there was getting to see The Monkees twice before the deaths of Peter Tork in 2019 and Michael Nesmith last year. Head cheerleader Mickey Dolenz led the charge at both shows, making up for some of the slack energy of the clearly fading Tork or Nesmith, and while it was most definitely a valedictory lap, there was a charge of energy at hearing the old frothy pop songs by the original band one last time. Because now, all but one of those Monkees are gone.

Or take an 80-year-old Mavis Staples, who was fierce, fiery and loud in a delightful show a couple years back that showed one of the great gospel singers could still bring the house down. Or Nick Lowe, who might’ve been white-haired and hardly the young power pop star of the 1970s, but who put on a great show. 

On the other hand, I’m glad I decided not to fork out for one of the octogenarian B.B. King’s final shows here in Auckland back in 2011, which sounded like it was a pretty grim affair with the 85-year-old King basically propped up on stage far beyond the point where he could really live up to his legend. A show where the artist is barely able to perform is kind of grotesque. 

Sometimes you don’t know how lucky you are. Seeing a dazzling Prince a mere two months before he died will always be one of my live music highlights, and The Rolling Stones were everything they could have been in a packed stadium in 2014 before Charlie Watts passed away. I’ve crammed in three Bob Dylan shows in the 15+ years I’ve been in New Zealand and am grateful for every note I got to hear.

Bob Dylan takes a bow, 2018

Because sometimes, you miss out. I’ve still got enormous regrets over missing the late Leonard Cohen on what turned out to be his final show anywhere in the world in Auckland in 2013, and having a trip overseas conflict with what probably is Sir Paul McCartney’s final trip down under back in 2017 still stings. 

I do still listen to some music by people under 40, don’t get me wrong. But when it comes to a chance to see a legend, I’ll probably take a punt on seeing them while I can. Every tour has an ending date, and you never quite know when the final curtain call might come, do you? 

Baz Luhrmann’s frantic Elvis shows why the King got his crown

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is a delirious, caffeinated roller-coaster of a music biopic, taking the essence of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and shaking it up like a jug of Mountain Dew. It isn’t entirely true, nor does it try to be, but for much of its epic 159-minute running time, it’s vastly entertaining. 

Like the director’s Moulin Rouge and Great Gatsby, Elvis is all about style and razzle-dazzle. It’s bold, loud and occasionally bad but it captures the kinetic shock of Elvis’ impact on pop culture better than any other biopic of the man has done. It’s about Elvis as legend, really, a fable imagining the life of the boy from Tupelo. 

Luhrmann does cast an eye over the scope of Elvis’ brief 42 years on Earth, but in a fragmented, kaleidoscopic fashion. Like his Gatsby, Baz mixes in modern hip-hop and rock sounds to attempt to show a through-line from Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” to Doja Cat and Diplo. We flash back to Elvis’ impoverished boyhood, his love for Black music and his devil’s bargain with Colonel Tom Parker, the man who would guide – and some say crush the creativity out of – his career. We’ve seen Elvis slowly get reclaimed from the land of fat jokes the past decade or two, and Baz takes him seriously.

Elvis, a god-fearing mama’s boy, was also a precursor of punk rock – shaking up the system and terrifying the powers that be with his hip-shaking, lip-curling presence. Austin Butler at first seems a bit too pretty and polished to be Elvis, but he really grows on you, especially when he hits the stage for some utterly dynamic numbers. From his first appearances on the Louisiana Hayride to his comeback special to his final sad, dazed shows in Vegas, Luhrmann delivers astonishingly visceral recreations. There are moments when Butler’s on stage miming the King that I honestly couldn’t tell him and Presley apart. 

Tom Hanks’s scenery-chewing Colonel is a love-it or hate-it creation, speaking in a strange whispery, sing-songy carny barker’s tone and draped in a distracting fat suit. And yet, I liked Hanks, because he understands that to play this character you’ve got to go campy and broad, to embrace the Mephistophelean hold that Parker had on Elvis. Whispering promises and lies like an Iago to Elvis’ Othello, in real life Parker was actually a Dutch native who fled to America under a cloud of scandal and reinvented himself as a huckster. (The excellent biography The Colonel by Alanna Nash goes far more into depth about who Parker really was, which the movie only really alludes to.) 

If Elvis peaks during the astounding recreations of his musical numbers, it falters a bit during sappy family drama, and despite its length it tends to zip through the life story, dispatching his time in the Army and movie career in about five minutes. Nobody other than Elvis and the Colonel is given much depth in the movie (Priscilla Presley suffers particularly) and for all the gloss the rise-and-fall-and-rise drama of Elvis apes a million other cinematic biographies. 

And this is a fable, make no mistake – Elvis painted as a victim and the less savoury parts of his character brushed aside. The movie leans into his appreciation and inspirations from Black music (which he did have, although the movie exaggerates that a little too much) and ignores questioning the questions that raises about authenticity. It acts as if he wasn’t also a huge fan of white country and gospel artists. I don’t think Elvis was a fierce racist as some do, but he was also very much a product of his time, dirt-poor Mississippi. 

There’s a lot of fun-house distortion of history here, but I don’t think this film is trying to ape, say, the thoroughness of the definitive Elvis biography by Peter Guralnick. It’s all about the spectacle in the end, and that’s where Elvis truly delivers. I wouldn’t point this movie at anyone who wants a high-fidelity biography of the man, but if you want to imagine the impact he had, the seismic force of those wiggles and moans on stage almost 70 years ago now and why it still matters today, it’s not a bad place to start. 

The sweet, sentimental sounds of Orthodontist Office Music

I spent an awful lot of my early teenage years stuck in a chair, staring at the ceiling, while an orthodontist laboured mightily to straighten out my cursed teeth.

Soft rock music piped through on the office stereo as my bicuspids were shifted and molars manipulated at great cost to my parents, and the greatest inoffensive hits of the early 1980s drifted through my brain. 

Some of it was blandly saccharine – Christopher Cross, Air Supply, Toto – some of it was grand pop – Hall and Oates, Sade, Phil Collins. I was just a wee young lad who listened obsessively to FM102 in the glory days of Prince, Madonna and Jacko, who was only beginning to figure out his own musical tastes. So as anodyne as Orthodontist Music was, it still left an impression in my sponge-like ears. 

I never particularly cared for Cross’ so-soft-rock-it’s-liquid hit “Sailing,” but it’s permanently tattooed on my brain because of Orthodontist Music. A comics nerd even then, I got a nerdy kick out of whenever Joey Scarbury’s inspirational “Believe It Or Not” theme song to The Greatest American Hero came on in rotation. I heard it all, again and again, from Spandau Ballet’s “True” to Starship’s “Sara.” 

Nothing too manic or antic on this forgotten radio station, lest the dentists’ tools slip. Even the soaring drum kicks of Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” were a bit too fist-pumping.

I wore braces or headgear or some awful contraption for a good 5-6 years of the early 1980s, and even as my tastes matured into slightly edgier Depeche Mode and Peter Gabriel, every time I went back to the orthodontist I got a good dose of the soft, sweet stuff.  

I pat myself on the back for my omnivorous musical taste now, but I’ll admit years of Orthodontist Music at such an impressionable age left its mark. The quavering tones of Peter Cetera evoke the ‘80s gloss of pre-teen first love, I’ve got a soft spot for a little bit of Journey’s power balladry, and look – I bow in my unironic love for ‘80s Phil Collins to nobody, no matter how much time I might listen to Can and Captain Beefheart and The Fall now. 

Decades later, my teeth are more or less straight, but every time I hear one of these damned songs, I’m right back there in the chair. It’s not the worst place to be – rarely painful, the endless orthodontist visits were just boring and tedious, and I sort of entered a zen state of calm staring at the same ceiling over and over. Even now, I close my eyes, and far in the distance I hear Christopher Cross, on a ship somewhere, crooning… “Saaaaaaaaailing / Takes me aaaaaaway to where I’ve always heard it could be / Just a dream and the wind to carry me / And soon I will be free.”

And I know, I will never be free of Orthodontist Music. 

The sounds of Aotearoa – a New Zealand Music Month playlist

Aldous Harding, Neil Finn, Reb Fountain

It’s the final few days of New Zealand Music Month, an annual celebration of all that makes Aotearoa music great. 

I’ve lived here more than 15 years now, and I’m still amazed by the depth of NZ music, from the melancholy beauty of Crowded House to the hugely influential post-punk sound of Flying Nun’s The Chills and The Clean to the rousing waiata of Māori anthems to the Kiwi-fried country of artists like Tami Neilson and Delaney Davidson. There’s the inescapable strength of amazing New Zealand women like Aldous Harding, Reb Fountain and Lorde or the madcap adventurousness of folks like Troy Kingi and SJD. 

Troy Kingi.

In this pandemic world, borders have been pretty well closed to international music, so the few concerts I have seen lately have been homegrown – a wonderful Crowded House show between Covid surges, Reb Fountain and Marlon Williams tearing up the stage, a celebration of Flying Nun Records’ 40th anniversary. 

Every country has its own sounds, and there’s something wonderful about becoming an immigrant to another land and learning about its own unique sounds. New Zealand is a melting pot of Māoritanga, British influences, Pacific emotions, the echo of the vast seas and the echoes of a few dozen other cultures who’ve also ended up calling these lands home. 

The first New Zealand music I ever heard was more than 30 years ago, a fuzzy dubbed cassette of Crowded House’s Temple of Low Men given to me by a long-vanished girlfriend. The music sunk deep into my genes, although I had no idea then I’d ever end up living in the place that band came from. 

I can’t make a definitive list of the “best” New Zealand songs, but these are 30 that make me happy every time I hear them, and represent a pretty broad cross-section of Aotearoa sounds, tilted toward my own listening preferences, of course.

Some are old, some are new, some of them are bloody obvious choices that are embedded deep into the kiwi brain, others are a bit more obscure but just say something essential about this strange little oasis at the bottom of the world where I’ve somehow ended up living a big chunk of my life. Another 30 songs could easily have been added, but let’s save some for another year!

Have a listen to my eccentric playlist Noisyland Music: NZ Music Month 2022, and celebrate the sounds of Kiwiana!

Everclear: So Much For The Afterglow at 25

In the 1990s, in my twenties, I would get a bit obsessive about music. I’d hit on a band I liked from the current scene – Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, Wilco – and I’d listen to their albums over and over, mapping them out to give myself meaning. I’d put their songs on mix tapes, trying hard to create a soundtrack for my imagined life. 

And for a few years between 1996-1999 or so, there were few bands I listened to more obsessively than Everclear, whose great 1997 album So Much For The Afterglow turns 25 this year. I know I shouldn’t obsess too much over the tick-tick-ticking of the clock hands, but the fact it came out a quarter-century ago now kind of melts my delicate mind. 

Sometimes, what music reminds you of feels more important than the music itself. A great album can capture a moment in your life in amber, frozen but alive, so that each chord and chorus can instantly summon up a vanished world. So Much For The Afterglow is one of those albums for me … even if objectively I’ve heard greater albums, better songs, I’ve had few that felt like they meant so much to me in the moment. 

I was 25 the year So Much For The Afterglow came out, torn between staying in my college town and starting all over in another place.

Everclear were a Portland, Oregon band led by Art Alexakis, who turned his troubled broken-home youth and drug addictions into his muse. Their first three albums – World of Noise, 1995’s loud and defiant Sparkle and Fade and its briefly ubiquitous doom anthem “Santa Monica,” and Afterglow – were a kind of trilogy mining Alexakis’ pain into catchy rock songs. They were a very ’90s act, post-peak grunge, but heaps above the standard of bands like Creed or Bush.

There was no shortage of bands, grunge and otherwise, turning personal pathos into pop hits in the 1990s of course, from Nirvana to Alice In Chains to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Yet Alexakis married his demons with rock for raw, confessional tunes that somehow felt honest to me, even if they were views from a world I rarely visited. “Normal Like You,” “I Will You Buy You A New Life” and “Father of Mine” all yearned for a world where he didn’t feel like an outcast, where you could try and find a happy ending.

We imagine connections to albums we love. The heroine of “Amphetamine” shared a name with a woman I was madly obsessed with at the time, while the narrator in “White Men In Black Suits” “moved to San Francisco just to see what I could be,” almost perfectly mirroring my own life changes at the time. (OK, I couldn’t afford San Francisco proper, but I did move back to the sultry Central Valley.)

In Everclear’s best songs, everyone is broken, yet hopeful in a battered way. At my worst moments in the chaotic 1990s, just knowing that someone out there felt the same as me mattered. So I bonded with Everclear, hard. 

Unfortunately, it kind of felt like Alexakis said the most important things he had to say with the first few Everclear albums. All the other original band members left, and by the early 2000s, the songs turned from angsty to preachy and the same themes kept being hit over and over. When a band starts unnecessarily re-recording old songs, you know they’ve hit a bit of a wall.

None of that takes away from how much I love Everclear’s 90s work. 

It is rich with the promise and peril of being suspended at a point in life where you could be anything, even if you won’t actually end up being most things – when you are Everything Everywhere All At Once, to quote the amazing new movie I saw the other night.

And now it is 25 years later, and perhaps much of the raw edge I felt at 25 upon listening to Everclear has been burnished off by the weight – and sometimes, the cruelties – of time. But I pop on “Santa Monica” or “I Will Buy You A New Life” and for a moment I am there again, jittery with potential and ready for all the world’s bruises and brief joys to knock me around all over again. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #16: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

What is it: Long before she directed Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris was known as a pioneering documentary filmmaker for her chronicling of the gritty reality of LA’s music scenes. Over three films from 1981 to 1998, she covered punk and metal stars and never-weres, fans and bands with an unsparing eye. The first of her movies, 1981’s Decline of Western Civilization, looked at bands like Black Flag, Germs, X, the Circle Jerks and Fear in squalid, sweaty detail, and it’s widely regarded as one of the best music documentaries ever made. 

Why I never saw it: Despite its cult status, Decline and its two sequels were barely released and almost impossible to watch for decades. Long ago, when I worked at video stores and paged through ink-stained fanzines, I’d hear about these movies a lot, but pre-YouTube or eBay, good luck ever actually watching them. Finally, a few years back, the entire series was released on DVD with a bunch of cool bonuses, and I finally sat down recently to watch them. Can punk still shock more than four decades on?

Does it measure up to its rep? Music documentaries are one of my favourite genres, whether they’re behind the scenes concert footage, making-of histories, birth-to-death storytelling or day-in-the-life voyeurism. Decline  is a little bit of all of the above. These aren’t superstars – X and Black Flag are probably the best known of the bands here, and this is a pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag at that. Even by 1979 and 1980, punk was a bit past its first wave, and so you’ve got a variety of fiery young bands trying to figure out who they are – whether it’s the bludgeoning rage of Circle Jerks and Fear, the angst of Germs and Black Flag or the more arty, performative work of almost-forgotten bands like Catholic Discipline, this is a snapshot of a moment in time but an anger that’s still understandable today. We see heaps of roiling, brutal men in mosh pits, slamming against each other in an intimate way that seems even more invasive in a pandemic world. Spheeris has a knack for capturing the propulsive motion of punk, with a visceral touch that makes you feel like you’re back in these crowded, grotty rooms decades ago. We see the bands off stage – Black Flag in an insanely over-graffitied squalid crash pad, The Germs’ doomed, mumbly lead singer Darby Crash cooking eggs and playing with his pet tarantula. (Crash would be dead at 22 of a drug overdose suicide before this movie even came out.) There’s a tinge of hopelessness to Decline, especially when Spheeris talks to the fans like nihilistic skinhead Eugene, but that’s balanced out by some incredibly passionate performances, like young Black Flag singer Ron Reyes screaming out “Depression’s gonna kill me.” It’s strange to think that now, 40+ years on, most of these angry young men and women are either nearly senior citizens – or gone. Unlike slick, polished reality TV versions of life, the squalor and power of Decline never feels fake. 

Worth seeing? Decline of Western Civilization isn’t for those with gentler musical tastes – while some of the bands like X are excellent musicians whose snappy tunes still hold up well today, all of them are loud and confrontational. The Germs are barely holding a tune, with the chaotic power of their only album turned into a muddy, jagged roar. Spheeris closes Decline with a terrifying, mesmerising set by Fear, whose lead singer is shown as a bare-chested, swaggering Johnny Rotten on steroids spitting out homophobic and sexist taunts as the kids in the mosh pit smash into each other. It’s like a vision of Dante’s inferno, and it’s awful, yet at the same time, it’s amazing – the power of punk at its most primal, with a chorus screaming “I don’t care about you / F— you!” Fear’s thundering, cruel set seems to sum up everything that’s come before it. Punk could be awesome and it could be ugly and it could often be both at the same time, and Spheeris’ magnificent documentary captures it in all its complicated sprawl. I’m definitely moving on next to check out 1988’s equally cult but slightly more absurd hair-metal saga Decline of Western Civilization II and the reportedly even darker street kids-focused Part III, but the first Decline movie still packs the punch of a brawl in a mosh pit. It isn’t meant to make you feel good, but like punk itself, it’s meant to make you feel something.