School was a cliquish sort of place, and I was always many shades of uncool. I was so uncool that in seventh grade, for my own sense of self-esteem and safety (I got pushed around a lot), my parents enrolled me in a private Catholic prep school. I was still uncool, but at least I would have the chance to not impress an entirely new set of people, and feel really bad about it.
One of the first people I met at the new school was Bruce Lerch. He was one of the cool kids – everyone liked him – and I imagined he’d want nothing to do with me. But Bruce wasn’t like that. He was the first popular kid pretty much ever to actually like me – to listen to me, to hang out with me, to talk music with me, etc. And he was always full of encouragement. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t like myself, but never lost patience.
After high school, Bruce and I ended up going to the same college, where we drifted apart. It’s been 20 years since I’ve seen or spoken to him. Earlier this week, I read the news that Bruce had died after a short fight with cancer. He had spent the last decade-plus working for the Boston Herald, covering high school sports, and I’ve been reading the tributes those kids and coaches have been writing about him. Their experience of him mirrors mine – he was always, unfailingly encouraging, and he just liked people, whoever they were.
Bruce was only 42. I wish I’d known him better, and I hope he rests in peace.
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Can we talk for a second about how fantastic Doctor Who was this year?
This was the second season for Peter Capaldi, who is not only settling in but has well and truly made the part his own. It’s the fifth season for showrunner Steven Moffat, who is hitting a phenomenal stride, and has done more over the past three years to unite the old and new eras into a single glorious whole than anyone else. And it was the last for Jenna Coleman, who played Clara Oswald for two and a half seasons, touching all eras of the Doctor’s life while creating riveting chemistry with Capaldi. This dream team turned in one of the very best run of episodes this show has ever seen, and given we just finished season 35, that’s impressive.
What worked this year, besides damn near everything? A return to the two-part-story structure of prior years offered room to delve deep, and the writers took advantage. Moffat’s opening epic gave us more in 90 minutes about the Doctor’s relationship with Davros, creator of the Daleks, and Missy, his oldest Time Lord frenemy, than ever. Peter Harness’ Zygon story was able to create a striking, disturbing parallel with ISIS and the ongoing refugee crisis. And over four episodes, Moffat shepherded Maisie Williams’ guest character, Ashildr-who-calls-herself-Me, into one of the most interesting aspects of the season.
Nearly everyone stepped up their game this year. Moffat called in new writers, including Sarah Dollard (whose “Face the Raven” was a Harry Potter-ish highlight) and Catherine Tregenna (author of several swell Torchwood episodes whose “The Woman Who Lived” gave us piercing insight into immortality), and brought back last season’s wunderkinds, Harness and Jamie Matheson. The weakest story of the bunch came from longtime scribe Mark Gatiss, but even “Sleep No More” had several interesting ideas, and it’s miles above the dreck we used to get under Moffat’s predecessor.
And speaking of Moffat, he saved his finest work for his endgame. “Heaven Sent” was one of the most jaw-dropping episodes in the show’s 52-year run, a solo spotlight for Capaldi that found him turning in a performance you couldn’t take your eyes off of. Finale “Hell Bent” bid farewell to Clara Oswald in the best possible way – by essentially turning her into a Doctor, and giving her adventures of her own, an incredibly empowering message for young kids watching the show. Both of these episodes were an extraordinary dance between Moffat, Capaldi, Coleman and director Rachel Talalay, who turned in some of the most visually and emotionally impressive work the show has ever seen.
I’m totally gushing, but good lord, we’re in a golden age. The show remains a globally popular phenomenon while producing drama that can stand proudly next to any other you could name. We’re 52 years in, and we have an extraordinary writer guiding the adventures of possibly the most accomplished actor to ever play the Doctor. It doesn’t get better. But then, I said that last year too, and it totally got better.
And we get another at Christmas, which promises to be a romp. I’m not sure there’s ever been a better time to be a fan. I worry that next year could be Moffat’s last, but I’m going to enjoy what we get while we get it. Thanks to everyone involved for another superb season of a show I’ve loved since I was six.
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Next week’s column is the annual top 10 list, so this week is where I would normally spend hundreds of words listing the honorable mentions. Truth be told, though, there aren’t all that many this year. The highs this year were very, very high, as you’ll see next week, but most of the rest of the music I heard left me somewhat cold and indifferent. That said, there were some records that left a strong impression, and there were a few Number Elevens jockeying for the list. Here’s a quick rundown of the also-rans.
First, a couple special mentions. If not for the fact that it was released a few weeks before the end of last year, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah would absolutely be on this list. It’s a complex yet slinky collection of socially conscious grooves and love stories, all performed organically, and it was well worth the 14-year wait. Similarly, Copeland’s Ixora ended up on a few prior iterations of my top 10 list, despite the fact that the main album came out in 2014. I justified this because Twin, the album’s mirror image, didn’t hit until this year, and the complete experience (the album, its twin, and the two together) really make this what it is. But that ended up not being enough to land it on the list, despite it being one of my favorites.
I also contributed to an album that means a lot to me – Kevin Trudo’s Water Bears Vol. 1 – and even though it’s ineligible for the list, for conflict of interest reasons, I wanted to mention it here. It’s a strong, diverse set of songs by a guy I love very much, and if literate, passionate writing is your thing, you should hear this.
The honorables begin with They Might Be Giants, who had a banner year. They resurrected Dial-a-Song, released their fifth album of children’s music (which I will get to shortly), and gave us their finest record in some time with Glean. Guy Garvey, lead singer of Elbow, also had a good year, issuing his first solo album, Courting the Squall. It’s passionate, lovely stuff. Fellow Brits Everything Everything made a superb herky-jerky third album with Get to Heaven, which very few people over here heard. But you all should.
Steven Wilson, mastermind behind Porcupine Tree, gave us one of his most emotionally affecting concept records with Hand. Cannot. Erase. I continue to be amazed at both the pace and the quality of Wilson’s output. One of my favorite songwriters, Joe Jackson, made a comeback this year with the all-over-the-map Fast Forward, recorded in four cities with four bands. And believe it or not, Celldweller’s End of an Empire stands tall here, a fine example of how to crush musical boundaries in richly detailed and intricate ways. Celldweller is here because I listened to Empire more than anything else this year, and I’m still finding new things to like about it.
Two albums mirrored my own mental health struggles better than anything else I could have hoped for. One of them, Titus Andronicus’ double album The Most Lamentable Tragedy, sounds like manic depression, from the highest heights (“Dimed Out”) to the lowest lows (“No Future Part V”), and it ends with an emotional plea against suicide. It’s quite the roller-coaster listen for me. The other one made it onto the list, so you’ll hear more about that next week.
Finally, here are the Number Elevens, the four albums that nearly made the top 10 list. As always, if you don’t like the ones that actually made the list, feel free to swap them for any one of these. I won’t put up an argument.
Lianne La Havas’ excellent sophomore album, Blood, is a soulful delight, her simple yet splendid songs practically a vehicle for her wonderful voice. On the other end of the musical spectrum, Marah in the Mainsail’s Thaumatrope fulfilled their promise, offering ten songs of dark, high-energy folk that stood above similar efforts by the likes of the Decemberists. Foals came into their own with the awesome What Went Down, my second-favorite full-on rock record of the year. (My first favorite is at number three on the top 10 list.)
And finally, Sara Groves has deeply enriched the end of my year with her wonderful new album Floodplain. She’s up there with some of the best songwriters you could name, and this record sparkles, from the depression metaphor at the heart of the title track to the perfect song of contentment that is “Enough” to the most moving spiritual song of 2015, “My Dream.” Only a couple weaker tracks kept this from being on the list, and I’m still not sure it shouldn’t be there. Which is a very strong recommendation.
That’s it, that’s all, there ain’t no more. Next week, my ten favorite albums of 2015. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.