When I learned that Whitney Balliett, jazz critic of The New Yorker, had died at age 80, the first person I thought to call was my dad, Dave Zoller, a Dallas-based jazz pianist and composer who introduced me to Balliett’s writing when I was in college. At the time, I complained to my dad that although I’d found plenty of film, book and TV critics worth reading (even emulating), I found most music criticism awful. Much of it fell under one of two headings: Mad Lib adjective-noun combos (“straight ahead jams,” “fat basslines,” “mournful piano”) or descriptions so bloodlessly technical that any reader who wasn’t a trained musician would be bored blind. There had to be a middleground, I told my dad—a way of writing vividly and informatively about an art that lacked convenient anchoring elements (plot, characterization, visual composition and the like). Balliett, who I first read in my dad’s back issues of The New Yorker, wasn’t the only answer to that conundrum—but he was a great place to start.
Less a straight-ahead critic than a combination analyst, social historian, feature reporter and sketch artist, Balliett, who died in New York City Feb. 1 of liver cancer, described himself as an “impressionist” who, according to Adam Bernstein’s excellent Washington Post obituary,”…wrote about musicians because music is fleeting, so ’transparent and bodiless.’” This was a neat trick, because in describing the personalities, body language, performance tics and chosen environment of musicians, Balliett quite naturally found ways to describe their music.
“Whitney Lyon Balliett, the son of a businessman, was born April 17, 1926, in Manhattan. While attending the private Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he began what he called his “erratic noncareer as a drummer” after hearing a jam session on a Sunday afternoon at Jimmy Ryan’s club on New York’s West Side. After graduating from Cornell University in 1951, he wrote about jazz for The Saturday Review while working as a proofreader for The New Yorker, whose editor, William Shawn, gave the young writer a jazz column in 1957. The same year, he and jazz critic Nat Hentoff helped create the CBS-TV program The Sound of Jazz, an offshoot of the series The Seven Lively Arts.
The jazz show, hosted by New York Herald Tribune columnist John Crosby, brought to millions of homes such eclectic performers as Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk. Eric Larrabee wrote in Harper’s magazine that The Sound of Jazz was the “best thing that ever happened to television.” Columbia Records produced an album of the show’s performers, and a video of the program was released in the mid-1980s. Jazz critic John S. Wilson, writing in The New York Times in 1985, said that ’putting Monk on national television at a time when, to the extent the general public knew of him at all, he was apt to be considered weird and possibly menacing, was a courageous and positive act.’
Balliett contributed short articles for The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section as well as book, film and theater reviews. He also wrote poetry. He left the magazine staff in 1998. Collections of his New Yorker writings were published frequently over the years. His books included American Singers and American Musicians. One massive volume, subtitled A Journal of Jazz, came out in 2000.
Reviewers noted that Balliett’s taste was more traditional than avant-garde, and he tended to overlook more contemporary players, but he liked to approach all music with a degree of curiosity. He also had a reputation for writing sympathetically about his subjects, often letting them speak for paragraphs at a time to convey their rhythm and personality.”
And here’s my dad, doing just that.
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MZS: Do you remember the first time you discovered Whitney Balliett’s jazz writing?
DPZ: It may have been when I was in high school. My dad, your grandfather, always subscribed to The New Yorker. I was into New Yorker cartoons in grade school. Once in awhile there would be a piece by Whitney Balliett. I started getting into jazz when I was about 14 or 15, and I would watch for him. Whitney Balliett had, I think, one of the most distinctive styles of any of the jazz writers.
MZS: What was distinctive about him?
DPZ: It’s actually easier to read short portions of what he wrote to give you an idea of his style. To me he was almost like a critic that’s a closet novelist. He had this way of describing things. Let me read you what he said about Max Gordon, the guy who founded The Village Vanguard.
“He is short and bent and gnomish. His hands and feet are childlike, and he is dominated by a large head which in turn is dominated by a broad brow and heavy white receding hair. His eyes are sad and prunelike wrinkles course down his face. When the comedian Joe Frisco visited Jordan’s first club, the Village Fair Coffeehouse, in the early ’30s, he pointed to Gordon and asked a friend, ’Who’s that miserable guy by the door? He looks like the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem.’
But Gordon, like many hesistant, inward-gazing people, glows. His Solomon-like visage is constantly ruffled by smiles and laughter, and if he gets excited, his voice, which creaks when he breaks into one of his long occasional silences, booms. He is a funny, dreaming man who shrugs off victory and laughs at defeat, and who invariably treats the weaknesses in others with respect. One of his many admirers has said of him, ’If I had to spend the rest of my days on a desert island, and I could take just five people, Max would top the list.’”
He describes people almost like a novelist would, don’t you think?
DPZ: Here’s what he said about Jim Hall.
“He is slim and of medium height, and most of his hair is gone. The features of his long, pale face are chastely proportioned and are accented by a recently cultivated RAF mustache. He wears old-style gold rimmed spectacles, and he has three principal expressions: a wide smile, a child’s frown, and a calm, pleased playing mask. Eyes closed, chin slightly lifted and mouth ajar, he could easily be the affable son of the stony-faced farmer in ’American Gothic.’”
One thing I think that is distinctive about Whitney is that almost all of his writing was for The New Yorker, and most of the books of his work that are out are compilations of pieces that originally appeared in The New Yorker. And of course, we’re talking about a backlog of pieces that goes back to the mid-’50s. I think the last time I saw a piece of his might have been two or three years ago. He wrote for The New Yorker off and on literally for 50 years.
MZS: What set him apart, not as a reporter or a historian, but as a critic of music?
DPZ: Well, he would take that same kind of narrative style to describe the music he had heard. He was also one of the few writers about jazz that I ever read that didn’t seem to have an agenda.
A lot of writers were trying to advance whatever happened to be their favorite kind of music. For instance, Stanley Dance wrote effusively about Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Louis Armstrong and people of that era, the Swing Era on up, and he didn’t take that kindly to bebop, though there were some modern things that he could like. He’s gone, by the way—we lost him some years ago. Dance had an underlying agenda, which was promoting the hardcore mainstream jazz that he loved—New Orleans Dixieland, swing, that sort of thing, and more conservative modern stuff. And there were always little gibes about how corrupt the industry was, and all that kind of shit, which of course still goes on. Nat Hentoff was a quintessential liberal, and a lot of that would go into his writing about jazz. When he wrote about anybody at length, particularly when he was writing about a black player, he always got into how the industry mistreated black players and how society mistreated black people in general. That didn’t dominate his writing, but it popped up enough that you knew that you knew it was an issue for him.
Leonard Feather, of course, was an actual, stone musician. In fact, he and his wife wrote one of B.B. King’s hits.
MZS: Really, which one?
DPZ: “How Blue Can You Get.” That’s the one where he’s got the stop time chorus that goes, “I gave you seven children, and now you wanna give ’em back.” Leonard and his wife Jane wrote that. Feather was one of the few music writers that actually knew music. He played competent piano and he could read a score. That was unusual. Most of the jazz writers were not musicians, with the exception of guys like Martin Williams, who was a musicologist, and took a music historian’s tack toward everybody he wrote about.
All of them did interviews. But Whitney and Gene Lees, I think, were the most successful interviewers. One of the differences between the two of them was, Whitney would just let his subjects talk and talk and talk and talk, whereas Lees would interject his own comments, and they would end up in print.
MZS: When you talk about the idea of Balliett not necessarily trying to advance a particular agenda—if he wasn’t a writer who had particular hobby horses that he felt obligated to saddle up every time he was in print—what would you say were his areas of interest? What floated his boat? What artists or movements was he particularly into, or was he excited by everything?
DPZ: He seemed to be excited by everything. I saw him write great pieces on Duke Ellington, and he wrote one of the best pieces on Joe Lovano that I ever read—it appeared in The New Yorker in, I think, 1996, when Joe was finally starting to hit, and had a couple of albums out on Blue Note and was getting booked regularly at the Village Vanguard. Whitney wrote him up and did it good. He also wrote a very good piece for The New Yorker on the pianist Bill Charlap, who’s one of my favorites. That guy is an oustanding player by any yardstick. Whitney was a versatile writer. He could take a reporter’s approach to a story, he did interviews beautifully, and he did commentaries on music beautifully. He would describe what he heard in terms that average people could relate to, but at the same time it was accurate—it described the music he was listening to very well.
He did have one minor agenda: any time he did any pieces on drummers—it didn’t make any difference what era they were—he always managed to work in some kind of comparison to the late Sidney Catlett. Sidney Catlett was one of the great drummers of the swing era, a great, big black guy. Whitney Balliett did one of the best descriptions of Catlett—dig this:
“Sidney Catlett was nobly constructed. He was six feet three or four inches tall and everything was in proportion: the massive shoulders, the long arms, the giant tapering fingers, the cannonball fists, the barn door chest and the tiny waist and columar neck. Big men are often more graceful than small men, and Catlett was no exception. He could swim, play football and basketball, and dance beautifully, but he never learned how to drive a car.”
Big Sid, as he was called, was one of the most admired and respected drummers of the ’40s. He was like Buddy Rich and Jo Jones. He was a role model—he was that good. He was so good that other drummers invariably ended up getting compared to him. Martin Williams, a very talented writer, once did a very funny piece where he tried to write in the style of other jazz critics, and when he got to Whitney Balliett’s style, he was talking about the Beatles, and he had Whitney figuring out a way to make a comparison between Sid Catlett and Ringo Starr. “When his high-hat goes, ’Shhhh…’ it faintly echoes Sidney Catlett.”
MZS: Were there any albums, movements or artists about which you feel Balliett wrote the definitive piece, or pieces?
DPZ: He did one of the two best pieces I’ve read on Joe Lovano. The other one—and I shouldn’t leave this writer out because he’s very, very good—was by [Village Voice writer] Gary Giddins. But that’s a difficult question. With Whitney, it’s hard to narrow it down. I’ve read him almost since he started at The New Yorker. I don’t know what else to say about the guy except that he was one of the major writers about American music and musicians in the last century. There were people who did quite well by classical music, though I haven’t read that many of them. But if you were to ask people who are knowledgeable about jazz to name the five best writers on jazz, I bet you Whitney would make everybody’s list.
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I’ll close with a couple of excerpts from Balliett the critic. First up: the opener of his 1970 profile of singer and pianist Bobby Short, included in New York Voices: Fourteen Portraits by Whitney Balliett:
“It is quite possible that when the century is over, live entertainment—real people singing, acting, dancing, playing, reciting, and clowning in front of real people—will have disappeared in this country or become an anachronism. (The very existence of the phrase “live entertainment” is ominous; the term would have struck the Victorians as a puzzling redundancy.) Concert halls and opera houses are no longer full. The theatre appears static beside the fluid drive of film. (At that, even movie houses, which have always seemed like arenas of live entertainment, are rarely sold out.) The circus and rodeo are obsolescent, night clubs are dwindling, and such diversions as band concerts and the straw-hat circuit are almost at an end. When this decline is complete, something essential will have gone out of human experience. In-the-flesh entertainment at its best is one of the most complex, delightful, and inventive forms of communication. It is a mutually beneficial intercourse between the performer, who plays a god, and the audience, which allows this pretension, knowing delightedly all the while that the performer, beneath the skin of his skills, is human, too. Simply by doing what he is doing where he is doing it, the performer demonstrates great courage, and the audience experiences this courage vicariously. The performer is flattered by the attention of the audience, and the audience congratulates itself for having the intelligence and sensitivity to admire the performer. But electronics is closing off this invaluable two-way street. The performer can no longer play his changes on an audience, gauging his abilities in the mirror of its faces, and the audience can no longer manipulate the performer with cheers and tears. Yet decline and flowering often occur simultaneously; the form dies and its final moments are phoenix-brilliant. I have in mind the brave excellence of Bobby Short, the forty-six-year-old singer and pianist, who, one of the last examples (and indubitably the best) of the café singer or the supper-club singer or “troubadour,” as the late Vernon Duke called him, practices what is probably the most intimate and delicate form of live entertainment extant. It is the art of singing (and often accompanying oneself on the piano) witty or ironic or sad but never sentimental songs in a small room to a small group of people, and in such a way that the performer and his audience, generally only a few feet away, become almost one. (Mabel Mercer, the great doyenne of the form, often sits at her listeners’ table and sings to them, and she remembers long ago carrying this attention to its ultimate in the noisy Parisian boîte by singing into her customers ears through a small megaphone.) Every member of the audience comes to believe that a song is being sung to him, and the performer, who can look directly into his listeners’ eyes, feels that he is singing only to the listener he happens to look at. The songs are as important as their delivery. They are, as often as not, out-of-the-way tunes by the likes of Cy Coleman or Ivor Novello or Noël Coward or Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart. They may have a small but steady currency, they may have long since been forgotten, they may never have been known at all because of having been dropped from a movie or Broadway show before it opened, or they may have been written only for the performer who is singing them. They must be sung immaculately, in an offhand, transparent way, so that the singer, his diction clean glass, lights up his materials with meanings their composers may never have thought of. Café singing, or at any rate Bobby Short’s way of singing, is unencumbered by the theatrics of opera or rock, by the quaintness of folk singing, by the confinements of jazz singing, and by the mealiness of old-style pop singing. It is singing stripped to its essentials—words lifted and carried by the curves of melody.”
We’ll end this obituary with an obituary—the one Balliett wrote for Thelonious Monk in 1990, collected in the Balliett anthology, Goodbyes and Other Messages: A Journal of Jazz 1981 – 1990:
“The pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, who died last week, at the age of sixty-four, was an utterly original man who liked to pretend he was an eccentric. Indeed, he used eccentricity as a shield to fend off a world that he frequently found alien, and even hostile. A tall, dark, bearish, inward-shining man, he wore odd hats and dark glasses with bamboo frames when he played. His body moved continuously. At the keyboard, he swayed back and forth and from side to side, his feet flapping like flounders on the floor. While his sidemen soloed, he stood by the piano and danced, turning in slow, genial circles, his elbows out like wings, his knees slightly bent, his fingers snapping on the after-beat. His motions celebrated what he and his musicians played: Watch, these are the shapes of my music. His compositions and his playing were of a piece. His improvisations were molten Monk compositions, and his compositions were frozen Monk improvisations. His medium- and up-tempo tunes are stop-and-go rhythmic structures. Their melodic lines, which often hinge on flatted notes, tend to be spare and direct, but they are written with strangely placed rests and unexpected accents. They move irregularly through sudden intervals and ritards and broken rhythms. His balladlike tunes are altogether different. They are art songs, which move slowly and three-dimensionally. They are carved sound. (Monk’s song titles—“Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Epistrophy,” “Ruby, My Dear,” “Well You Needn’t,” “Rhythm-a-ning,” “Hackensack”—are as striking as the songs themselves. But none beat his extraordinary name, Thelonious Sphere Monk, which surpasses such euphonies as Stringfellow Barr and Twyla Tharp.) His improvisations were attempts to disguise his love of melody. He clothed whatever he played with spindly runs, flatted notes, flatted chords, repeated single notes, yawning silences, and zigzag rhythms. Sometimes he pounded the keyboard with his right elbow. His style protected him not only from his love of melody but from his love of the older pianists he grew out of—Duke Ellington and the stride pianists. All peered out from inside his solos, but he let them escape only as parody.
Monk hid behind his music so well that we know little of him. He was brought from North Carolina when he was little, but eventually settled in the West Sixties, and he lived there until his building was torn down. He married the Nellie of his song title, and he had two children, one of whom became a drummer. he began appearing in New York night clubs around 1940, but he achieved little recognition until the late fifties. (He was often lumped with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, however, he did not have much in common with them outside of certain harmonic inventions.) Part of the reason for Monk’s slow blooming was his iconoclastic music, and part was the fact that he was unable to perform in New York night clubs from 1951 to 1957—the time when Charles Mingus and the Modern Jazz Quartet and Gerry Mulligan were becoming famous. (The police had lifted his cabaret card, because he had been found sitting in a car in which narcotics were concealed.) But when he returned to the scene, he suddenly seemed to be everywhere—on record after exceptional record, at concerts and festivals, at the old Five Spot and the Vanguard and the Jazz Gallery. He filled us with his noble, funny, generous music.”
Matt Zoller Seitz is editor-in-chief and publisher of The House Next Door, a contributor to the The New York Times film section, and a former columnist for New York Press and The Star-Ledger. To read Balliett’s Bobby Short profile in full, click here. For his “Talk of the Town” piece on Sonny Rollins, click here.
Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch
There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.
“But beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.” This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. There’s no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.
The first section is called “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”
Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.
There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”
The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.
The second section of The Patch is called “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.
There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”
And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.
In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.
This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”
John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018
Our most-read articles of 2018 comprise pretty much everything we do best.
Like last year, it wasn’t the most highly praised or viciously excoriated film, album, or TV show that garnered the most attention among Slant readers in 2018. It was a so-called “average” star rating of a video game that led to our most-read—or, rather, looked at—article of the year. More predictably, lists proved to be increasingly popular, particularly among cinephiles. Aside from a few pieces that didn’t make the cut—like our career-spanning interview with Jodie Foster and our five-star review of Synapse Films’s Blu-ray restoration of the original Suspiria—this list comprises pretty much everything we do best. Alexa Camp
10. The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.” Budd Wilkins
9. Album Review: Mariah Carey’s Caution
At a mere 10 tracks, Caution is Mariah’s leanest album in 25 years. With the exception of the formulaic “With You,” which sounds like an outtake from E=MC2, the R&B and adult contemporary-style ballads that launched (and re-launched) her career have been largely replaced here by textured, midtempo grooves. Caution feels like the album Mariah has wanted to make all along: one that throws caution to the wind and sees her embracing her inner weirdo. And, ironically, it took her ending up back at Sony Music to do it. Sal Cinquemani
8. Game Review: Far Cry 5
With this entry, the Far Cry series has suddenly decided to crib story ideas from real American nightmares: the Ammon Bundy standoff, Jonestown, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, the Westboro Baptist Church. It indulges a certain level of ejaculatory N.R.A. fantasy about a day when the Second Amendment saves the world, when all those guns hoarded by frightened men, all those survivalist bunkers, all that cynical preparation for the collapse of society proves useful. A regular supply item in this game is called a Prepper Pack. Major secrets are hidden in bunkers filled with canned food and ammo. These little hat tips toward the gun-toting survivalist sect might’ve been worthy of an eye roll had the game come out, say, prior to 2016. But at this particular moment in American life, those tips of the hat feel downright sinister. Justin Clark
7. All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked
It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
6. Film Review: Aquaman
The best point of comparison for Aquaman is Black Panther, another superhero movie about a king of a forgotten realm reclaiming his throne. But whereas Ryan Coogler’s surprisingly affecting superhero film restored weight to both the choreography and the drama of the genre, Aquaman remains adrift, so much fantasy flotsam and jetsam floating before our eyes. Pat Brown
5. The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time
When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife
4. Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, err, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. Keith Uhlich
3. TV Review: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
If Jack Ryan never gets around to offering its audience a definition of a swift transaction, that’s because all that matters to the series is that it’s a tool used by bad guys, whom only Jack Ryan can stop. Despite paying cursory service to humanizing its principal characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a battle between broad notions of good and evil. It thrives on the tension of Jack’s chess match with bin Suleiman, reducing an entire nation’s efforts to combat terror to a personal beef between two archetypes. Michael Haigis
2. Every Pixar Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
If The Incredibles was essentially a superhero riff on male mid-life crisis, Incredibles 2 primarily concerns male anxiety about women taking over traditionally masculine roles. Brad Bird’s film also touches heavily on the uncertainty and doubt that many women feel about pursuing their dreams at the expense of spending time with their families. These are weighty topics to pursue in an animated action-comedy, and Bird, with a light tone and deft touch, manages to give them their due. This is a fleeter, funnier film than the original, and the director gets considerable comedic mileage out of Jack-Jack’s wild capriciousness, as evidenced by Incredibles 2‘s single most hilarious sequence, in which the baby uses its multifarious abilities—fire, lasers, multiplying, turning into a gremlin—to battle a feral raccoon just for the hell of it. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Keith Watson
1. Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2
For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable. Scaife
Top 10 Radiohead Music Videos
To celebrate Radiohead’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we take a look back at the group’s best and most innovative music videos.
Twenty-five years ago, the world was introduced to Radiohead by way of their debut single, “Creep.” Thom Yorke and company may have soured to their very first modern rock hit, but as we said in our list of the Best Singles of the 1990s, for which the song ranked at #37, “Creep” is rivaled only by “Every Breath You Take” as the ultimate kind-of-obsessive/kind-of-romantic crush anthem, with guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s perfectly timed blasts of electricity turning it from slightly creepy to threatening. The track peaked on the Billboard pop chart in September of 1993, a full year after its initial release, and Radiohead would go on to become one of the most influential bands in rock history. To celebrate the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we take a look back at their best and most innovative music videos.
Editors’ Note: This article was originally published on July 24, 2013.
10. “Burn the Witch” (Dir: David Mould). “Stand in the shadows/To the gallows/This is a round-up,” Thom Yorke cautions at the start of “Burn the Witch,” with all the paranoia and politically shaded intrigue we’ve come to expect from the Radiohead frontman. Directed by Chris Hopewell, the music video for the track depicts a government official sent to inspect the strange goings-on in a small village, where he’s burned alive in a giant wooden statue in a scene reminiscent of the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. The clip features stop-motion animation in the style of the 1960s-era U.K. children’s show Trumpton. Sal Cinquemani
9. “Paranoid Android” (Dir: Magnus Carlsson). Radiohead commissioned Swedish animator Magnus Carlsson for this bizarre and somewhat graphic video, which sees the titular protagonist of Carlsson’s series Robin encountering various unsavory or unearthly characters, including a prostitute in a tree, a deranged businessman, and an angel flying a helicopter. Cinquemani
8. “House of Cards” (Dir: James Frost). When the “House of Cards” video came out, it struck me as a tech geek’s gimmick, but in retrospect, its motion-capture technique is used for deeply human ends. First we see two faces in close-up, their physicality rendered as blue-ish data points. Then, indistinct bodies at a party and a whole suburban landscape being wiped away in Etch-A-Sketch fashion. It’s a kind of digitally envisioned nightmare: Every pixel of everything we know, instantly erased. Paul Rice
7. “No Surprises” (Dir: Grant Lee). Lo-fi simplicity tends to work best for Radiohead’s live-action videos. In “No Surprises,” we get to watch Thom Yorke gasp for breath as a water chamber fills and releases around his head. It’s a sly sadomasochistic dream that could be his, or that of plenty of Radiohead haters everywhere. Rice
6. “Daydreaming” (Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson). In this video for 2016’s “Daydreaming,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera follows Thom Yorke through numerous locales, from hotel hallways to laundromats. The images, lucid and confrontational, exude an almost gestural quality as they cut from interior and exterior spaces, with Yorke waltzing in a sleep-like torpor toward a hole—or spacious studio igloo?—somewhere on a snow-capped mountain. The world here appears at once real and imagined, and by the time the fire within the hole lights Yorke’s face and the song grinds to a halt, Anderson dramatically reaffirms most of our beliefs about Radiohead’s music as, above all else, the prettiest soundtrack in the world to one man’s devotion to his own alienation. Ed Gonzalez
5. “Just” (Dir: Jamie Thraves). There’s a Kafkaesque absurdity to the simple concept of “Just” that gets and stays under the skin. A man lies down in the middle of a monochromatic city sidewalk. People trip on him and ask how he is and why he’s there. Finally, he tells the crowd (though we never know, since the subtitles cut out), and they all lie with him, presumably in conjoined doom. Rice
4. “Knives Out” (Dir: Michel Gondry). Thematically evocative of the director’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the elaborate, seemingly single-take “Knives Out” juxtaposes emotional and physical hardship via Michel Gondry’s signature surreal imagery, including singer Thom Yorke’s head replaced by a giant heart in which he stores a Polaroid photograph of his fiancée, whose critical condition he may very well have been responsible for. Cinquemani
3. “Pyramid Song” (Dir: Shynola). Thom Yorke and company have long been champions of animation, and “Pyramid Song” is their best, most heartfelt work in the form. A man—or a thing (the figure could be human or beast)—dives into a lost civilization, wading through bones to a home where he watches TV. CG allows for meticulous detail, but the gorgeous design by artist collective Shynola is purposely murky, full of unknown layers, and like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, released the same year, it suggests a ruined past we can never get back. Rice
2. “Fake Plastic Trees” (Dir: Jake Scott). Jake Scott, noted music video director and son of Sir Ridley, has said that his striking clip for Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” filmed in an aircraft hangar in Van Nuys, California, is an allegory on death and reincarnation. His claim is borne out by images of colorful characters, old and young, strolling the aisles of a neon-lit supermarket, being watched on surveillance cameras, and eventually carted off to a heavenly looking “exit.” Cinquemani
1. “Karma Police” (Dir: Jonathan Glazer). Director Jonathan Glazer claims that this creepy revenge clip, in which a car slowly follows a man running down a desolate road only to have the tables turned thanks to a chance gasoline leak, was inspired by a bad dream. His remarkable use of point of view implicates the spectator in the video’s action, but it’s the spooky way with which he fashions a Möbius strip from karmic irony that makes “Karma Police” Radiohead’s finest contribution to the music-video medium. Cinquemani