2015 was a year where the media was…nice enough. There was some excellent television (Master of None was astonishingly incredible), some great music (EL VY’s debut, Destroyer's Poison Season, Blood Orange's "Sandra's Smile" and everything Steve Cuff wrote about last week), and Mad Max was terrific, but I didn't spend all of 2015 staying up-to-date. Nope, in fact, it was just like any other year for me. It was another year that involved a relatively deep dive into the recesses of pop culture’s infinitely cavernous treasure chest. For 2015, I emerged from said chest with five old pieces of shit that are totally worth revisiting, or, for checking out for the very first time. They’re still great in 2015 and, I swear, they’ll become part of your permanent pop culture consumption. At the very least, this list will have you listening to Scritti Politti's Cupid & Psyche 85 more often than Adele's 25 by the end of 2016...
TELEVISION: World Wrestling Federation’s Tuesday Night Titans (1984-86)
The “golden age” of professional wrestling was certainly the mid- to late-1980s. The “Rock N’ Wrestling Connection” celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015 and nostalgia for preposterous merchandise like The Wrestling Album has been well-explored throughout the past 12 months. But perhaps one of the more forgotten elements of Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire was this extremely eccentric weekly television series. Tuesday Night Titans, aka TNT, is a fever-dream of a TV show that should be recognized as one of the most unique entertainment vehicles in the medium's history. Rather than totally function as an actual wrestling program, the way Raw and Smackdown currently do, it was a stage for the wrestlers to develop their characters. On the surface, TNT was a late night talk show that just happened to occasionally break from its studio portion to feature short wrestling matches. Hosted by Vince McMahon (with Lord Alfred Hayes doing his best Ed McMahon to Vince's Johnny Carson), it was a glorious trainwreck full of bizarre moments that are simply inexplicable. It’s identity is totally schizophrenic, as the chat show volleys between wrestlers having "serious" discussions about their various beefs with other wrestlers, to McMahon and Hayes' awkward banter, to out-of-the-studio segments with wrestlers at home to xenophobic representations of all non-Western culture. That, and, it's never clear if there's an actual studio audience or a studio band. How this was one of the top rated shows on cable TV, even in the medium's infancy, is beyond comprehensible. This needs to be experienced. Even if you're not a wrestling fan, it's seriously worth it just to subscribe to the WWE Network for their free 1-month trial. Check out "Mad Dog" Vachon's wedding, or just watch the previous episode where McMahon and Hayes go shopping for fucking wedding invitations!
ALBUM: Scritti Politti's Cupid & Psyche ‘85 (1985)
I re-discovered this album after hearing Scott Auckerman talk about his devotion to Scritti Politti in an episode of U Talkin’ U2 to Me. That tidbit aside, it’s fair to assume that most people looking for intellectual, sophisticated and danceable 80’s synth-pop worship at the altar of New Order and Depeche Mode. Fine. It’s also fair to assume that a large percentage of Americans remember Scritti Politti as nothing more than English new wave also-rans; one-hit-wonders (“Perfect Way” was a surprise Billboard hit in 1985) unworthy of being taken seriously. Not fine. Beginning their career in the late 1970's as Marxist punk rockers, Scritti Politti (led by almost solely by Green Gartside) ditched their DIY-aesthetic and Rough Trade record contract in the early 80’s to focus on sophisticated and infectious pop. It’s easy to scoff at that concept, but Gartside transformed Scritti Politti into the slickest and most soulful Northern Soul-inspired act of the era without compromising his artistic integrity. By 1985, Scritti Politti was stylistically and academically way of ahead of their contemporaries, and Cupid & Psyche 85 stands as one of the finest statements of the decade that not enough people are listening to 30 years later. “Perfect Way” (an underrated hit 80’s single in its own right), “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin),” “Small Talk,” “The Word Girl,” “Absolute,” and “Hypnotize” are chockfull of clever wordplay and rhetoric that questions patriarchal hegemony. Furthermore, they also feature the danceable hooks this side of Pet Shop Boys, Fairlight samples that were advanced even for 1985, and an authentic soulfulness that many of Scritti Politti’s contemporaries fell way, way short of (and still do). It's a record ahead of its time and it’s too important and too good to have been largely dismissed for the past 30 years. Even if you’re not into Gartside’s thought-provoking and hyper-romantic lyrics, the hooks in all of the album’s songs are far superior to whatever contemporary pop album deemed is worthy of Pitchfork’s Top 100 in 2015. Put this record on at a party and your guests are guaranteed to leave with sore feet…and full hearts.
SONG: “Afterall” by Papas Fritas
Papas Fritas is probably best known for their song “The Way You Walk,” which was featured in a Dentyne Ice ad in the early 2000's. Beyond that, not much is remembered about the late Boston-based band, which is unfortunate, considering that they were a rather splendid and unique presence on the indie scene in the late 90’s and early 00’s. Their sound was somewhat inconsistent, but inconsistent in a way that was often interesting, exciting, and played to their strengths. Case in point, their early-period cut “Afterall.” It sounds like nothing else they ever recorded and it’s a glorious statement. Clearly they’d been listening to their Replacements records, but the song's not wholly derivative of those Minneapolis demigods. Rather, it’s a timeless party-ready anthem loaded with a relentlessly fun and raw energy. It doesn’t sound like much else did in 1995, or in 2015, for that matter. The DIY music video, featuring the trio in their awful strip-mall haircuts and innocent hijinks glory, is alarmingly charming.
FILM: The Lonely Guy (1984)
The discourse on Steve Martin’s post-The Jerk streak of early- to mid-80’s starring vehicles is alarmingly silent. Sure, there probably are some really devoted Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid cultists, but The Lonely Guy has not seen any critical reevaluation in the 31 years since its release. It's a crime that this isn't even in the discussion of the funniest romantic comedies of all time. Although it underperformed at the box office and with critics at the time, this is easily on of the finest statements of Martin's comedic career. Martin is perfect as Larry Hubbard, the titular lonely guy, as is the perennially excellent Charles Grodin, who seriously turned in one of his best performances between his turns in Heartbreak Kid and Midnight Run. It’s silly, and often pretty dark, and it fits in pretty well with the current trend of “sensitive guy in the big city.” And I would have to think the fact that Martin's character's job as a writer for a greeting card company had to have influenced the far more inferior and self-serious (500) Days of Summer. Maybe that's me being cynical, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom was such a sad sack, he would've done well to jump off of a bridge just like all of the other sad, lonely bastards in The Lonely Guy.
CULT FILM: Rubin & Ed (1991)
Cult films cease to lose their “cult” status as soon as they start drawing 1000s of people to midnight screenings. Hell, I’m even worried that Optimism Vaccine’s frequent discussion of Neil Breen’s films will get that lunatic placed onto a pedestal that will render our own office’s fandom irrelevant. Nobody wants to be late to the party and, at least in 2015, there seems to be no party for 1991’s Rubin & Ed. Oh sure, some major film geeks in your Film Studies course might be hip to the Crispin Glover vehicle, but none of them are going to mention the bat-shit-crazy-great performance from Howard Hessman (seriously, one of the best straight man jobs ever seen, regardless of the fact that his “Ed” character is just as much of an imbecile as Glover’s “Rubin”). Beyond the absurd premises of the narrative (scratching the surface, pyramid scheme victim Ed agrees to help potential client Rubin bury his dead cat in the desert), for two-thirds of its running time, Rubin & Ed is a meditative road comedy. At the same time, the film bends time, space and rational logic. In Rubin & Ed’s universe, Gustav Mahler is equally controversial as GG Allin and, by the end of the third act, Ed and Rubin unexpectedly bond over the fact that they are both staunch Republicans. Those minor and absurd plot points aside, the script is nearly too focused for legendary cult B-movie status. But holy shit, this bizarre piece of canned ham deserves a line of 100+ people waiting to get into a midnight screening at a theater that only seats 75. Or, at the very least, the most ardent cinephiles should consider ordering a copy of the DVD directly from the director/writer Trent Harris and screening it for their friends whilst serving them copious amounts of alcohol. 90 minutes later, you’ll either be screaming, “What the fuck was that?!” or looking up YouTube clips of Crispin Glover’s infamous appearance on Late Night with David Letterman (where he may or may not have portrayed the titular Rubin some 3 years before the film) while the phrase, “My cat can eat a whole watermelon!” becomes part of your regular inside-joke banter. Did I forget to mention the film co-stars the late, great Karen Black?