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Tuesday, June 25th, 2024  

Jun 16, 2024

Music documentaries and series are a sure thing, or so it seems. 2024 has seen quite a few of them hit theatres and even more turn up on streamers. Among these are the high-profile ones such as the newly restored 1970 film, The Beatles: Let it Be and Frank Marshall’s The Beach Boys, not to mention Taylor Swift|The Eras Tour (Taylor’s Version), all on Disney+. Lil Nas X released his interpretation of Madonna’s Truth or Dare with his behind-the-scenes tour film, Long Live Montero (HBO). There is also Eno, the groundbreaking generative documentary feature on Brian Eno. Just as fascinating as the biographical docs are topical ones such as the recently released How Music Got Free (Paramount+).

Coming soon is Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple (HBO), which shines a much deserved spotlight on the multi-hyphenate talent, and I Am: Celine Dion (Prime Movies), which shares the singer’s challenges with Moersch-Woltman Syndrome.

Whether or not you’re into the artists, subjects, or the music, there is a voyeuristic and vicarious thrill in watching musicians, both in their professional setting and personal lives. Music documentary films and series are often worth the time—except when they’re not. Here are seven must-watch music docs and series released in 2024, and three from this year that you can skip.

Jan 29, 2024

Last year was a challenging one for the entertainment industry with the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild strikes. While this double blow—albeit for good causes—had detrimental snowball effects on the industry, there was still a solid grip of high quality material that made it to the not-so-small screen airwaves and streamers. Award-winning series like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Barry took their last bows, and we’re still waiting for a trifecta from Vince Gilligan to round out Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, but there was plenty to keep viewers glued to the tube. From superheroes to science fiction, political intrigue to teenage hijinks and dramatized jury service to historical dramas, we continue to be spoiled for choice. It was a battle for Under the Radar’s top television shows of 2023, but we’ve managed to narrow it down to 40 solid watches.

Dec 23, 2023

Here we go again, racing to December’s finish line, eager to put another chaotic year in the rearview and nervous about what the next 12 months have in store for us. In 2023, the WHO ended its global health emergency status in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. inflation eased, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine continued and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted when Hamas attacked Israel and the latter declared war on Hamas, leading to a truly tragic situation and lots of civilian deaths (with over 20,000 Palestinians killed and over 1,400 Israelis dead). Worldwide, the effects of global warming were more apparent than ever, with record temperatures and rampant forest fires.

Fears over AI, among other issues, meant that dual actor and writer strikes shut down Hollywood for months, while at the same time U.S. autoworkers were also on strike and in Washington, D.C. the House of Representatives was at a virtual standstill when Kevin McCarthy’s short tenure as Speaker of the House came to an end and there was a lengthy and dysfunctional process to name his replacement. Next year we have a crucial U.S. presidential election to stress over, which will likely be a rematch between two candidates who aren’t that popular beyond their base supporters (although, it’s important to remember, that only one of the two candidates incited an insurrection).

In this over-connected century, it seems impossible to escape the ills of the world, but we can always take solace in the arts. For us, that mainly means music (as well as films, TV shows, video games, books, and comic books/graphic novels). Please ignore those who bemoan a lack of exciting new albums in 2023; the naysayers just weren’t listening closely enough.

Each year, Under the Radar seems to be one of the last music publications to post their best albums of the year list. I guess we’re less concerned with being first and more worried about getting it right. That’s not to say that other music sites don’t take care when putting their lists together—perhaps we just obsess too much. And it’s also not as if we’ve left it all to the last minute, we’ve been working on our Top 100 Albums of 2023 list since at least early November.

It starts with me putting together a nominations list of albums I most want our writers to consider (this year it was 138 albums). They have to be new full-length albums first released in 2023 (no reissues, live albums, or best of compilations). Then our writers and editors are free to suggest other albums they feel are worthy of consideration. It all goes into a shared spreadsheet and we all do lots of listening and re-listening and then each writer inputs their ballot of their 50 favorite albums of the year into the spreadsheet, with their favorite album getting 50 points, their second favorite getting 49 points, and so on until their 50th album gets one point. They are able to also vote for up to 15 honorable mentions at one point each. My Co-Publisher/wife Wendy Redfern and I have a few more points to work with, since it’s our magazine after all, so our number one albums get 65 points and so on down from there.

This year 269 different albums were included on the spreadsheet. For an album to have a chance to make the Top 100 it has to be picked by at least three different writers, for there to be a true consensus. Our number one album this year was picked by 17 different writers, including Wendy and myself, and overall 20 contributors took part in this year’s vote. This year we did a separate vote to decide what should be our number one album, choosing between the two that got the most votes. Then, as we do most years, I put together a Top 95, based mainly on the staff vote, but slightly tweaking the order here and there based on our coverage in the past year. Then we did a separate vote to decide which five albums should round out the list, from a selection of 30 albums that almost made the Top 95. Finally we arrived at this Top 100 Albums of 2023 list, with several honorable mentions for good measure. Our writers wrote new blurbs on each of the Top 50 albums.

Here at Under the Radar we aren’t afraid to include artists we’ve covered for years on our best albums lists, as long as they put out a new album we loved, but we also like to make room for new blood and debut albums. We’ve never hidden that we’re primarily an indie rock magazine and so while some other genres do get a look in, you won’t find too many albums on this list that could be considered mainstream pop, hip-hop, country, metal, etc. But there’s still a whole varied universe of sounds within indie rock. We like our lists to truly represent our editorial coverage from the last year, including artists we’ve interviewed in the last 12 months, albums we’ve favorably reviewed, and artists who made our weekly Songs of the Week lists, all with the benefit of year-end hindsight. Certainly there are albums in the Top 100 that you will have seen on many other best albums of 2023 lists, but we hope there are some surprises too, although if you’ve been paying attention to what we’ve written about in the last year you shouldn’t be too shocked by our choices.

In just a few days, it all begins again, with a new year and a fresh crop of releases to dive into (some of which we’ve already heard). Before the cycle restarts, join us in reflecting on the albums that meant the most to us in 2023. By Mark Redfern

Dec 23, 2023

This is part 2 of Under the Radar‘s Top 100 Albums of 2023 list, featuring #51-100 and various honorable mentions. Check out part 1 featuring #1-50 here.

Dec 23, 2022

Are things back to normal in 2022? They are, aren’t they? Well not quite. In the past year we eased out of the pandemic, but COVID-19 is still around and still deadly to some (just look at what’s happening in China, now that their long national lockdown has lifted). The pandemic door has been left ajar, rather than fully closed. We put the chaos for the Trump administration in the rearview only for us to relive it via the very necessary January 6th Commission and the specter of the former president running again in 2024 (if he’s not barred from doing so or even in jail). And while Biden’s administration has been fairly steady and helped lead the Democrats to an unexpectedly strong showing in the midterm elections, over in the UK chaos has reigned with no less than three different prime ministers in one year (Liz Truss being the shortest serving prime ministers in British history), the death of the Queen, strikes across the country, and a recent poll having a majority of Brits admitting that Brexit was a mistake.

Those of us who grew up during the tale end of the Cold War and the beginning of perestroika have not been totally surprised that Russia has become a major adversary to the West again in the last decade, but it was still shocking when Russian President Vladimir Putin followed through with his threats to invade Ukraine. On top of the terrible toll on the Ukrainian people and its extraordinary President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the war has destabilized financial markets worldwide and helped lead to massive inflation, with all this talk from financial experts of a possible recession next year seemingly willing such a thing into existence.

After the last few years of the pandemic and all the political upheaval worldwide, the massive right and left divisions in this country and in others, it leaves one wondering if the events of every single year felt this monumental to our younger selves and to our ancestors. Certainly there have been other eras of even greater turmoil (World War II, the 1960s), but will things ever feel truly normal again?

Musicians continued to find their footing in 2022, with live shows and festivals pretty much back to normal and free of major COVID restrictions. Still, many musicians were finding it more expensive than ever to tour this year, in large part because of inflation, but also because of the unfair financial cuts some venues were taking of merchandise sales. With it being hard for indie artists to make much money from streaming or record sales in recent years, this year touring also became a less reliable source of income, with bands such as Animal Collective cancelling whole tours because they knew they’d lose money. 2022 also saw a slew of albums written and recorded during the pandemic, with some lyrics betraying their lockdown inspiration. Ben Gibbard, for example, sang about missing strangers on Death Cab For Cutie’s return-to-form, Asphalt Meadows, a lyric likely written at a time when interacting with strangers could prove deadly.

Asphalt Meadows lands at #12 on Under the Radar’s Top 100 Albums of 2022 list. Prior to June 2021, we had never even heard of the band that made it to #1 on our list, so meteoric was their rise. The rest of the list is filled with some familiar faces to be sure, but some other debut albums are peppered throughout our Top 100. To arrive at such a list, 23 of our writers and editors (including myself and my co-publisher/wife Wendy Redfern) submitted ballots of their 45 favorite albums of 2022, listed in order of preference from first to last. They were submitted via a Google Sheets spreadsheet that helped tabulate the eventual list. An album had to be picked by at least three or four writers to make the list (19 of our writers had our #1 album on their list and it was the clear winner of the vote, getting 100 more points than our #2). Then we worked out the Top 94 albums and held a separate vote to determine which albums should round out the bottom six, with our writers deciding between 21 albums that could make the bottom of the list. Some albums that almost made the list include (in no particular order) ones by GIFT, Tomberlin, Crack Cloud, Broken Bells, Skullcrusher, Sam Prekop and John McEntire, Just Mustard, Florence + The Machine, Warpaint, Cheekface, The Weeknd, Maggie Rogers, Craig Finn, The Orielles, and My Idea. Consider those honorable mentions.

As the next year dawns, I’ve already heard some January to March albums that will surely make our Top 100 Albums of 2023 list. It’s already shaping up to be another great year for new music. But it’s been exhausting living through history, so can 2023 please just be a boring year?