Best of the best 2015

RVCC President Michael McDonough's Pop Culture 2015 Year-In-Review

(Editor's note: All Items were picked by RVCC President McDonough.  The descriptions and reviews are also written by President. McDonough.  All else was added and edited by Ben Auletta)

The following is RVCC President Michael McDonough favorites of books, movies, music and Netflix in 2015.  He also shares his opinion on the following: Best News Clip, Birthday Celebration, Goodbye, Moment in Sports, Ad and Supreme Court Decision.

My highly idiosyncratic 2015 year-in-review, a shocking glimpse into my own narrow prejudices and stunted imagination. - President Michael McDonough.

Best Fiction Books 2015

Nora Webster: A Novel by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster: A Novel by Colm Toibin  (Scribner (October 7, 2014))

Awards: Amazon Best Book of the Month, October 2014, shortlisted 2015 Irish Book Award: The Eason Novel of the Year, Costa Book Award Nominee for Novel (2014), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2015), Folio Prize Nominee (2015) 

Set in Ireland in the late 1960s, Toibin provides a spare and linear exploration of both the private (the slow restoration of identity) and the public (the “troubles” of the north) in a deliberate and quiet narrative that yields meaning in small parcels.

Curtain Call, Anthony Quinn

Curtain Call, Anthony Quinn (Vintage/Johnathan Cape (2015))

Although a thriller, this novel transcends genre: an insider’s view of West End theatre in the 1930s, the crushing weight of unfulfilled desires, the unstoppable march toward a world war, and the quest for a killer.

A God in Ruins: A Novel, by Kate Atkins

A God in Ruins: A Novel, by Kate Atkins (Little, Brown and Company (2015))

Awards: Amazon Best Book of May 2015, Costa Book Award Nominee for Novel (2015), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2015)

Post WWII Britain unfolds in this panoramic, realist meditation on the past and a present characterized by decay. A big novel.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, by Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, by Lucia Berlin, 1936-2004 (Author), Stephen Emerson (Editor), Lydia Davis (Foreword) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015))

Awards: Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction (Finalist) (2015), New York Times Top Ten Books (2015), 1 week on NPR Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List.

This short story collection offers insights into the considerable skills of this engaging writer. As many reviewers have insisted, the collective weight of these closely observed stories leans toward memoir rather than fiction.

At Hawthorn Time: A Novel, by Melissa Harrison

At Hawthorn Time: A Novel, by Melissa Harrison (Bloomsbury USA (2015))

Awards: Costa Book Award Nominee for Novel (2015), Book of the Year in The Telegraph (2015)

Adding to Thomas Hardy’s portrait of an English countryside in transition.


Best New Movies



Mad Max: Fury Road (2015 Rated: R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images)

Director: George Miller

Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult                          .

Awards: AFI Awards, 2016 Won Movie of the Year; Golden Globes,  2016 Nominated for Best Motion Picture - Drama & Best Director - Motion Picture
George Miller

George Miller’s fourth post-apocalyptic Mad Max film. A mythic narrative, stunning pyrotechnics, and an imagined feminist utopia make this compelling cinema. The fast-moving film features Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, driver of the “War Rig” tanker and matriarch of the five wives. The first Mad Max film was released in 1979 and marked the film debut of a young Australian actor, Mel Gibson, a role for which he was paid $15,000.

It Follows

It Follows (2014 Rated: R for disturbing violent and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language)

Director: David Robert Mitchell

Stars: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi

Awards: Austin Fantastic Fest, 2014 Won Best Film -  David Robert Mitchell (director) & Best Screenplay - David Robert Mitchell (writer); Cannes Film Festival, 2014 Nominated Critics Week Grand Prize

Director David Mitchell’s brooding exploration of sex, the supernatural, and decay in an eerie Detroit. Cerebral and sensual, and just plain creepy.


Amy (2015 Rated: R for language and drug material)

Director: Asif Kapadia

Stars: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Mark Ronson, Tony Bennett, Pete Doherty, Russell Brand, Natalie Cole, Dave Grohl , Jay Z, Alicia Keys,  Beyoncé Knowles, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross 

Awards: Boston Online Film Critics Association, 2015 Won BOFCA Award Best Documentary; Women Film Critics Circle Awards,  2015 Won WFCC Award Best Documentary by or About Women

A documentary that charting the life and death of singer Amy Winehouse. Perhaps the most innovative, genre-bending singer of her generation, Winehouse battled a great many demons in her short life. If you’ve never experienced this incredible singer, start with her 2006 album Back to Black.

45 Years

45 Years (2015 Rated: R for language and brief sexuality)

Director: Andrew Haigh

Stars: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Martin Atkinson

Awards: BAFTA Awards,  2016 Nominated Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film; Indiewire Critics' Poll, 2015 Won ICP Award Best Lead Actress Charlotte Rampling; Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, 2015 Won LAFCA Award Best Actress Charlotte Rampling

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling triumph in this Pinter-esque autopsy of marriage and unrealized desires.

Disney/Pixar's Inside Out

Disney/Pixar's Inside Out (2015 Rated: PG for mild thematic elements and some action)

Directors: Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen

Writers: Pete Docter (original story & screenplay by), Ronnie Del Carmen (original story by),  Meg LeFauve  screenplay by) & Josh Cooley (screenplay by)

Stars(voices):  Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black,  Richard Kind, Mindy Kaling, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Frank Oz, Flea, John Ratzenberger                       

Awards: Golden Globes, 2016 Won Best Motion Picture - Animated; AFI Awards, 2016 Won Movie of the Year

Casting Lewis Black as the voice of Anger says it all. Another Pixar gem.


Best New Music

Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free

Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free (Southeastern Records (2015))

Awards: Named #1 of’s “Best Country Albums of 2015.” Rolling Stone named Something More Than Free #7 on their 50 Best Albums of 2015.  Read the excerpt and the full list here. Named #3 in American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums of 2015.  Check out the review and the other albums listed here. Rated 5 stars and featured in The Telegraph’s Best Country Albums of 2015. 2016 Grammy nominations:  Best American Roots Song "24 Frames", Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical, Best Americana Album

Long-time guitarist with the alt country band Drive-By Truckers, Isbell released his first solo album in 2007. On Something More Than Free, his fifth solo recording, Isbell manages to incorporate a number of his musical influences: 60s soul, 70s country music, Neil Young anthems, and alt country.

Boz Scaggs, A Fool To Care

Boz Scaggs, A Fool To Care (429 Records (2015))

Awards: Billboard charts 2015 - The Billboard 200 (52), Top Blues Albums (1), Top Rock Albums (11)

I first heard Boz Scaggs in 1976, immediately liking the eclectic “Lido Shuffle” and “Lowdown,” two singles taken from the excellent Silk Degrees. Now in his seventies, his gnarled and whiskey-soaked vocals offer poignant testimony to the power of Fats Domino’s “A Fool To Care” and Huey “Piano” Smith’s “High Blood Pressure.” He closes this atmospheric and nostalgic album with a haunting duet with Lucinda Williams.

Mark Knopfler, Tracker

Mark Knopfler, Tracker (British Grove Records/Virgin/Verve (2015))

Awards: Billboard,  2015  The Billboard 200 (14), Top Canadian Albums (4), Top Digital Albums (19), Top Rock Albums (2)

One of the greatest blues rock guitarists on the last fifty years, Knopfler, along with his brother David, founded Dire Straits in 1977, achieving almost instant international acclaim for their effortless blues rock. Since 1995, Knopfler has pursued a solo career, exploring American roots music with The Notting Hillbillies and collaborating with an impressive range of other artists (Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan). Tracker is quiet, reflective, and melodic. It features stripped down roots music, at times reminiscent of JJ Cale and a mature Bob Dylan, and the now iconic finger-picking blues signature of Knopfler’s Fender Stratocaster. Listen to “Beryl” and you’re transported to the basement of The Hope and Anchor in Islington, London, one-time mecca of all mid 70s British bands.

Ashley Monroe, The Blade

Ashley Monroe, The Blade (Warner Music Nashville (2015))

Awards: Billboard,  2015  The Billboard 200 (30), Country Albums (2), 2016 Grammy nominations:  Best Country Duo/Group Performance (Lonely Tonight - lake Shelton Featuring Ashley Monroe), Best Country Album

Born in Tennessee, Monroe released her first record in 2006. The Blade, her third album, is produced by Vince Gill and showcases her distinctive, silky country-tinged voice and songs that capture the bittersweet experiences of a tired life. Contemporary country at its best.

Carly Rae Jepson, E*MO*TION

Carly Rae Jepson, E*MO*TION (Interscope/Musicstore (2015))

Awards:  Billboard,  2015  “I Really Like You,” a Billboard Top 40 hit,  The Billboard 200 (16), Top Canadian Albums (8), Top Digital Albums (11),

Pop music without peer or guilt. Immaculate production values, exemplary session musicians, bubblegum lyrics, and irresistible hooks. An exquisite synthetic blend of Motown vocals, tom-tom drumming, 80s power pop, and Spice Girls power. The album’s first single, “I Really Like You,” features a video with Tom Hanks and fellow Canadian Justin Bieber. Trust me – indulge.

Jazmine Sullivan, Reality Show

Jazmine Sullivan, Reality Show (RCA (2015))

Awards: 2016 Grammy nominations:  Best Traditional R&B Performance "Let It Burn", Best R&B Song "Let It Burn", Best R&B Album;  Billboard,  2015  R&B Albums (2), The Billboard 200 (12), Top Digital Albums (3)

Philadelphia R&B/Hip-Hop artist. After a four-year absence, Reality Show marks Sullivan’s triumphant return to recording and performing. At times raspy and raw, at other times silky and nuanced, Sullivan’s voice dominates this album. Mature, thoughtful, and often searing R&B.

Kurt Vile, b'lieve i'm goin down...

Kurt Vile, b'lieve i'm goin down... (Matador Records (2015))

Awards: Billboard,  2015   The Billboard 200 (40), Top Independent Albums (6), Top Modern Rock/Alternative Albums (8), Top Rock Albums (10), 2016 Top Independent Albums (6) 

Inviting indie rock. For an introduction to Vile’s musicianship and song writing abilities, try “Pretty Pimpin,” the album’s opening track: sly slacker rock lyrics, soothing fingerpicked guitar riffs, vintage rockabilly drumming, and a hypnotic, contemplative chorus. Makes you want to see Reality Bites just one more time.

Leon Bridges, Coming Home

Leon Bridges, Coming Home (Columbia Records (2015))

Awards: 2016 Grammy nominations: Best R&B Album; Billboard,  2016 R&B Albums (1), The Billboard 200 (6), 2015 R&B Albums, The Billboard 200 (6), Top Canadian Albums (5), Top Digital Albums (4)

Debut album from this young Texas born gospel and soul singer. Evocative retro-soul (think Otis Redding and Sam Cooke) and gospel blues (think Reverend Gary Davis and “Blind” Willie Johnson).

Songhoy Blues, Music in Exile

Songhoy Blues, Music in Exile (Atlantic/Transgressive Records (2015))

Awards: 2015- nominated for the Q Award in the category Best New Artist.

Songhoy Blues are from Timbuktu, Mali and their music is helping to define an emerging genre that has been labeled “desert blues.” They blend classic 60s blues rock, hip-hop, and West African dance music. Vibrant, engaging, and optimistic they remind me of The Black Crowes, especially on their debut album. Album produced by Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Marc-Antoine Moreau (Amadou & Mariam, K'naan).

Tobias Jesso Jr., Goon

Tobias Jesso Jr., Goon (True Panther Sounds (2015))

Awards: Billboard,  2015   The Billboard 200 (96), Top Independent Albums (7), Top Modern Rock/Alternative Albums (7), Top Rock Albums (13),

First album that finds Jesso Jr. channeling Randy Newman and Elton John.

Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (Island Records/Republic (2015))

Awards: 2016 Grammy nominations: Best Pop Duo/ Group Performance - Ship to Wreck, Best Pop Vocal Album -How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Best Rock Performance - What Kind of Man, Best Rock Song - What Kind of Man, Best Recording Package - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful; Billboard,  2016  Top Modern Rock/Alternative Albums (1), Top Rock Albums (1), 2015 Billboard Canadian Albums (1), The Billboard 200 (1), Top Canadian Albums (1), Top Digital Albums (1), Top Modern Rock/Alternative Albums (1), Top Rock Albums (1)

London-based indie rock built around Florence Welch’s powerful, operatic vocals.

Adele, 25

Adele, 25 (XL Columbia (2015))

Awards: Billboard,  2016   The Billboard 200 (1),  Billboard Canadian Albums (1), Top Digital Albums (1), Hello - Dance Club Songs (1), 2015  Billboard Canadian Albums (1), The Billboard 200 (1), Top Digital Albums (1)

The voice, look, and wit of the new British invasion.


Best Reissue

Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti

Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti (Swan Song/Atlantic (2015))

Awards: Billboard,  2015   The Billboard 200 (1), Top Digital Albums (20), Top Pop Catalog (1)

1975 double album that includes guitar-driven rock classics like “Houses of the Holy,” long-time concert staple and funk-infused anthem “Trampled Under Foot,” and the historic “Kashmir.” Is it really forty years ago?


Best Original Netflix Series


Bloodline (2015–present Rated: TV-MA the program is suitable for mature audiences only.)

Directors: Ed Bianchi, Johan Renck,  Daniel Attias, Adam Bernstein, Simon Cellan Jones, Jean de Segonzac, Tate Donovan, Carl Franklin, Alex Graves, Todd A. Kessler & Michael Morris

Stars:  Kyle Chandler, Ben Mendelsohn, Linda Cardellini, Norbert Leo Butz, Sissy Spacek, Chloë Sevigny, John Leguizamo, Sam Shepard                          

Awards: Golden Globes, 2016 Nominated Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Ben Mendelsohn; Primetime Emmy Awards,  2015 Nominated Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series -  Kyle Chandler For playing "John Rayburn" & Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Ben Mendelsohn For playing "Danny Rayburn".

Great ensemble cast, Florida Keys setting, and twisted, crime-soaked family drama.

Grace and Frankie

Grace and Frankie (2015–present)

Directors: 2015 episodes: Dean Parisot, Tim Kirkby , Rebecca Asher , Miguel Arteta, Bryan Gordon, Dennie Gordon,  Andrew McCarthy, Julie Anne Robinson, Matt Shakman, Tristram Shapeero, Tate Taylor,  Betty Thomas, Scott Winan

Stars: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston, Craig T. Nelson, Sam Elliott, Ernie Hudson, Michael Gross                                            

Awards: Golden Globes, 2016 Nominated Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Comedy or Musical Lily Tomlin; Primetime Emmy Awards, 2015 Nominated Outsanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series Lily Tomlin For playing "Frankie"; Online Film & Television Association, 2015 Won OFTA Television Award Best Actress in a Comedy Series Jane Fonda

Four simple reasons to watch this witty and acerbic view of aging and the shifting cultural quirks of the new century: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston.


Sense8 (2015–present)

Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, James McTeigue, Tom Tykwer, Dan Glas

Stars: Aml Ameen, Doona Bae, Jamie Clayton, Daryl Hannah                         

Created by the Wachowski’s (The Matrix), this science fiction series attempts to wed multiple global narratives to religious, political, and supernatural concerns. Style may triumph over substance here, but always worth a look.

Marvel’s Jessica Jones

Marvel’s Jessica Jones (2015–present Rated: TV-MA the program is suitable for mature audiences only.)

Directors: Simon Cellan Jones, S.J. Clarkson, David Petrarca, Stephen Surjik,  Uta Briesewitz, John Dahl,  Bill Gierhart,  Rosemary Rodriguez,  Michael Rymer

Stars:  Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rebecca De Mornay, David Tennant

Awards: Critics Choice Television Awards,   2016 Nominated Best Actress in a Drama Series - Krysten Ritter

While I’m waiting for the inevitable backlash against Marvel’s domination of things, this series promises much. First, it offers a more adult, complex exploration of the relationship between a comic book hero and villain. Second, it features the always excellent (and former Doctor Who) David Tennant. And, third, I loved Krysten Ritter in Breaking Bad.


Best Old Netflix Addictions


Luther (2010–2015)

Directors: Sam Miller, Brian Kirk, Stefan Schwartz, Farren Blackburn

Stars:   Idris Elba, Warren Brown, Dermot Crowley

Awards: Golden Globes, 2012 Won Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television Idris Elba; BET Awards, 2011 Won Best Actor Idris Elba For Takers

British crime drama showcasing the seemingly unlimited talents of Idris Elba. Set in London, the twenty episodes follow the always obsessive and frequently violent investigations of Detective Chief Inspector John Luther. The evolving relationship between Luther and murderer Alice Morgan is a treat.

Black Mirror

Black Mirror (2011–present)

Directors: Lars Kaalund, Jannik Johansen, Kathrine Windfeld, Mogens Hagedorn

Stars:  Daniel Kaluuya, Toby Kebbell, Rory Kinnear

Awards: Monte-Carlo TV Festival,  2012 Won Golden Nymph Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series Mille Dinesen

British anthology series that explores the ambiguous relationship between technology and human experience. The series is gripping, taut, intellectually taxing, and, at times, shockingly horrific.


Rita (2012–present Rated: TV-MA the program is suitable for mature audiences only.)

Directors: Simon Cellan Jones, S.J. Clarkson, David Petrarca, Stephen Surjik,  Uta Briesewitz, John Dahl,  Bill Gierhart,  Rosemary Rodriguez,  Michael Rymer

Stars:   Mille Dinesen, Lise Baastrup, Nikolaj Groth

Awards: Critics

Danish series about Rita Madsen, an unconventional high school teacher. Mille Dinesen offers a powerful performance as this rebellious, ironic, yet vulnerable heroine. The stories are refreshingly low-key and commonplace.


Best News Clip

The hysterical escapades of two escaped llamas running amok in an Arizona retirement community. They outsmarted the Maricopa County Sheriffs for over an hour before they grew tired of the game and surrendered to some unsuspecting onlookers.

Best Birthday Celebration

Saturday Night Live: 40th Anniversary Special (2015 Rated: TV-14 This program contains some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age The FCC warns that "Parents are cautioned to exercise some care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under the age of 14 watch unattended.)

Director: Don Roy King

Stars: Fred Armisen, Dan Aykroyd, Alec Baldwin  and other SNL stars and guests.                         

Awards: Primetime Emmy Awards,  2015 Won Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special Don Roy King, Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Variety Series or Special, Outstanding Variety Special: Lorne Michaels (executive producer), Ken Aymong (supervising producer), Lindsay Shookus (producer), Erin Doyle (producer), Rhys Thomas (producer), Steve Higgins (produced by), Erik Kenward (produced by)

On October 11, 1975, Chevy Chase said “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” NBC’s 40th anniversary special reminded us of the epic pop cultural legacy of this comedy institution: John Belushi,

Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crustal, Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Kristen Wig, and Mike Myers to name a few.


Best Goodbye

Tie: The Daily Show (1996–2015)  vs Late Show With David Letterman (1993–2015)

Jon Stewart ends sixteen years of political satire and David Letterman exits late night after thirty years.

Best Moment in Sports

In September, Wayne Rooney scores from the penalty spot against Switzerland at Wembley, breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time England scoring record. Rooney’s fiftieth goal came twelve years after he had scored his first against Macedonia.

Best Ad

Jon Stewart’s ironic anti-Arby’s commentary became a signature of The Daily Show. How fitting, then, that Arby’s aired two ads during the final episode, a montage of Stewart’s one-liners to the tune of “Thank you for being a friend.” Brilliant.

And . . . Best Supreme Court Decision

The Court affirms by a 5-to-4 vote that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. As President Obama noted at the time, “Today…we have made our union a little more perfect.”

Michael McDonough on sabemail
Michael McDonough
Raritan Valley Community College welcomed Michael J. McDonough as its eighth president in 2013. Prior to joining RVCC, McDonough served as provost and vice president of academic services at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY (2011-2014); as dean of Liberal Arts at Monroe Community College (2007-2011); and as professor of English at Alfred University in Alfred, NY (1987-2007). He also has taught at Pennsylvania State University and Oklahoma State University.

McDonough received his B.A. in film and drama and a Post Graduate Certification of Education from Reading University in England; an M.A. in English from Oklahoma State University; a Ph.D. in English from Pennsylvania State University; and an I.E.M. from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.