Call it a year without an angle, and blame Aaron Sorkin’s use of “cold open” in one of the last episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip that anyone watched for a reminder that it’s better to open any kind of show with a statement that articulates a clear point of view and sets the tone for what’s to follow. But what “tone” did the music of 2006 set? The commercialization of independent music such that “indie” joined the laundry list of niche genres to enjoy fleeting popularity (ska, swing, Latin, bluegrass, nü-metal, and emo have all come and gone), the number of both indie and mainstream artists who tackled forms of country music to prove their authenticity, the shocking sudden dearth of commercial hip-hop and R&B worth a damn, the growth industries that both MySpace and YouTube represent as marketing tools, the Internet’s ongoing impact on the way people listen to and buy music making it a stronger year for singles than for albums; these were all important stories in 2006, but no one story dominated the year or fully accounts for the utter lack of critical consensus. Not that consensus represents some sort of ideal, but it’s worth mentioning that, for a year that many would label underwhelming, there’s an impressive volume of music being championed. Consider the lack of overlap below, or just the first batch of Top 10 lists posted at Metacritic, which cite 65 different albums. So no two people could agree on the relative merits of Joanna Newsom’s Ys or what was the best single from Nelly Furtado’s Loose…at least everyone can agree that Britney Spears’s rediscovery of underwear is an encouraging trend that will, we hope, continue into 2007. Jonathan Keefe
1. Ane Brun, A Temporary Dive
I receive hundreds upon hundreds of CDs a year, but only once or twice does something reach out and grab me by the neck, effectively securing a spot on my year-end list months before I’m even aware of it. Such was the case with Scandinavian singer-songwriter Ane Brun’s sophomore disc A Temporary Dive. From the very first note out of Brun’s mouth—no, even before that, from the very first strum of her acoustic guitar on the opening song—I knew I was listening to something special. Brun doesn’t break down any barriers or forge any ground uncharted by the late-’60s British folk artists whose footprints she so delicately presses her presumably petite feet into, but her songs are refreshing and pure, a throwback to traditional folk while at the same keeping one foot firmly planted in the no-longer-neo neo-folk movement.
2. Jóhann Jóhannsson, IBM 1403 – A User’s Manual
In the grand scheme of the universe, and even on the lifeline of music composing history, 1964 isn’t that long ago. In terms of computer technology, though, it’s virtually the beginning of time. And so, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s IBM 1403 – A User’s Manual—in which the Icelandic composer combines vintage musical fragments that were culled from one of the first digital data processing systems by his father in 1971, along with other, new Eno-esque electronic sounds and a 60-piece orchestra—gives you the sense of hearing something truly ancient being married to something very modern and present, and, then, something very futuristic. Some theorists claim humans can simulate anything with a computer, even a soul, and with IBM 1403, Jóhannsson comes chillingly close.
3. Regina Spektor, Begin to Hope
Not to discount the theatrical—dare I say artful—value of fashion shows, but as a music critic, it can be embarrassing when producers of such exhibitions have their ears closer to the ground than you. Regina Spektor is one of many artists I’ve been introduced to via trips to Fashion Week over the years; her brand of dramatic, string-laden baroque-pop (though she’s no relation to Phil Spector) is the perfect soundtrack for over-the-top couture. Spektor’s arrangements on Begin to Hope are inspired and ambitious and her melodies are classic yet startling original. There’s a fearless, uninhibited confidence to Spektor’s voice, not to mention a delightful whimsy to her music, that sets her apart from similar artists like Fiona Apple.
4. Final Fantasy, He Poos Clouds
The best album I heard this year was Canadian singer-composer Owen Pallett a.k.a. Final Fantasy’s Has a Good Home. Unfortunately, it was released in 2005, so his Dungeon & Dragons-themed follow-up, He Poos Clouds, will have to suffice. Ranging from lush and intricate chamber-pop to more pizzicato, Phillip Glass-style arrangements, the album succeeds on multiple levels, not least of which is musically. Harpsichord is a beast Tori Amos already attempted to tackle in the pop realm, but Pallett doesn’t approach the instrument as something to be tamed or assimilated but something that belongs in its own world and time. Pallett’s voice is recorded and mixed like a wind instrument, always tucked away quietly in the background but often to the detriment of the thickly narrative, D&D reference-filled tales he tries to tell. I spoke with Pallett earlier this year and he brushed off my insinuation that the album is less accessible than his debut. Either way, it’s earned a spot on my list—albeit a few rungs down from where his debut would have placed.
5. Emily Haines, Knives Don’t Have Your Back
I’ve always thought “Figure 8” from Schoolhouse Rock was one of the saddest, most depressing songs ever written, and it would fit perfectly alongside the melancholic music on Emily Haines’s Knives Don’t Have Your Back, a collection of quiet, introspective piano ballads that are every bit as beautiful as the album’s packaging. Haines’s is a distinctly feminine—though not necessarily feminist—point of view, and she delivers bons mots like “Bros before hos is a rule/Read the guidelines” and “Don’t elaborate like that/You’ll frighten off the frat boys” throughout “The Maid Needs a Maid,” a double entendre-filled tune about desperate housewives, and “Mostly Waving,” respectively. There’s an inward, domestic tone to Knives—a record that could provide all-too-fitting accompaniment to a reading of The Bell Jar.
6. We Are Scientists, With Love and Squalor
Don’t tell We Are Scientists that they’re fashionably late to the neo-post-punk dance revival. Judging by songs like “This Scene Is Dead,” in which “singing guitarist” Keith Murray implores, “I’m not going home until I’m done,” they already know. And we all know the drill: stuttering, propulsive beats; clipped guitar licks; cheeky, upper-crust accent; hooky lyrics about alcohol, sex, dancing, and sex-dancing. The band has been around since the Strokes started—err, revived—it all, but they didn’t score a major record deal until now, and like pretty much every indie-rock hipster in Williamsburg, they’re generally just waiting for something to happen while lamenting the things that did. None of this matters, of course, when Murray exudes eons more genuine emo on With Love and Squalor than Brandon Flowers.
7. Adem, Love and Other Planets
Love and Other Planets is a thing of beauty, a woozy concept album that begins with an imagined wake-up plea from extraterrestrials. It’s not a completely novel idea for a song, but it’s the way in which Adem takes those lessons learned and seamlessly connects them like the stars in a constellation (and the dots drawn on his arm by a lover in the song “Spirals”) throughout the 45 minutes that follow. There’s a palpable sadness, a sense of longing, even in Adem’s joy, which is perhaps what draws us into his drifting, celestial soundscapes (and toward love) in the first place.
8. Beyoncé, B’Day
Deserting Destiny’s Child was an inevitable move for Beyoncé, but her reason is fuzzy at best: going solo seemed to suggest an opportunity to explore new styles and delve deeper into more personal subject matter, but the aggressiveness of the largely uptempo B’Day is more reminiscent of her former group. In many ways, DC’s last studio record, Destiny Fulfilled, played more like a solo album—it was a textured, ballad-heavy collection of songs that veered away from the trademark garishness of the group’s sexual-materialism masquerading as female self-empowerment. Here, though, the bombast is present and accounted for. There’s something obscenely gluttonous and perversely over-the-top about the way Beyoncé bats out one club banger after another, her voice pushing the limits of the board levels on almost every track. Whereas Beyoncé’s debut was accomplished in its diversity, B’Day sounds like the album “Crazy In Love” initially forecasted.
9. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds
Judging by the skinny pants and grotesque expression he sports on his new album’s cover, it seemed like Justin Timberlake was prepared to get ugly for his art. And by ugly I mean in the same way his face contorted like someone with a neurological disorder while hitting the falsetto notes during his performance of “Señorita” on SNL a few years back. If I superficially enjoyed Timberlake’s music in the past, I found genuine respect for him as an artist after seeing that performance. It was in stark contrast to the pop-star posturing of his solo live debut on the VMAs a year earlier. Timbaland was moving in a similar direction, so it seemed like an inevitable progression for the two to produce something even warmer and more organic for FutureSex/LoveSounds. Instead, the pair has hit back with the complete opposite: songs that are cool, futuristic, and often synthetically brittle. But it makes sense: Now that Timberlake actually is a bona fide star, the music has to be slick and spit-polished enough to gleam from a thousand light years away.
10. Goldfrapp, Supernature
The dearth of electronic music on U.S. airwaves didn’t stop Goldfrapp from getting their music to the American masses. Following in the dance steps of artists like Moby, Allison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory’s tunes have been licensed to Diet Coke, Verizon, and Target, and were featured in TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and The Sopranos. A decadent romp into galloping nü-disco (you know, the kind with mirrorball-covered horses), Supernature didn’t pack quite as glitter-powdery a hit as 2003’s Black Cherry, but the duo added more overt shadings of glam-rock and new wave to their repertoire, not to mention a few more sparkling gems to their lapels.
1. Rihanna, “SOS”
The year’s best redo came in the form of Rihanna’s “SOS.” Deftly using Soft Cell’s 1982 hit “Tainted Love”—itself a revision of Diana Ross and the Supremes’s “Where Did Our Love Go”—as a bleepy backdrop and adding a full-bodied bottom to the original tinny mod-rock track, producer J.R. Rotem helped Rihanna resurrect dance music on U.S. radio, at least temporarily. The single leaves little time to breathe, as does its hyper-colored and sensory-overloaded music video, but it was, perhaps, too aggressive to get play at your local supermarket and stopped short of being ubiquitous—despite reaching #1.
2. Justin Timberlake, “My Love”
“My Love” features all of the elements we’ve come to expect from a collaboration by the two Tims: Timbaland’s signature thump, Justin Timberlake’s proud falsetto, dual beatboxing, operatic background vocals, and a guest spot from the rapper du jour. But not every dish can be as savory as “Cry Me a River.” Luckily, “My Love” has got a few secret ingredients that set it apart from the divisive “SexyBack.” Despite its colossal, futuristic synth swirls and a cartoonish, maniacal giggle that’s looped ad infinitum a la the crying baby from Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?,” “My Love” proves that scorn doesn’t have the monopoly on dark, haunting, and sexy. Thank you, Cameron Diaz.
3. Madonna, “Sorry”
More ABBA-esque than the ABBA-sampling “Hung Up,” the unapologetically Euro second single from last year’s Confessions on a Dance Floor should have scored Madonna another Top 10 hit, but U.S. radio stations apparently got confused when they realized Timbaland wasn’t involved. Madge is notorious for not being the apologetic type, so, if nothing else, “Sorry” gave Camille Paglia a chance to hear her say it in 10 different languages.
4. Nelly Furtado, “Promiscuous”
It’s easy to forget your first impression of a song, particularly when that song becomes a monster hit like “Promiscuous.” What’s most impressive about Nelly Furtado’s big comeback at this vital, year-end critics-list juncture in its lifespan is that I don’t find it completely hateable.
5. Nick Lachey, “What’s Left of Me”
It’s as equally guilty-pleasurable to emerge yourself in Nick Lachey’s “What’s Left of Me,” which the Passengerz elevated from AC schlock to Euro-dance schlock, as it once was to watch him roll his eyes on Newlyweds. Who would have thought that the seemingly has-been ex-husband of MTV’s golden girl would be the one to come out on top in 2006?
6. Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy”
Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” follows the retro-meets-modern template of “Hey Ya!” to a T. But unlike OutKast’s ubiquitous smash, I haven’t yet grown nauseated by the mere thought of “Crazy.” After all, who could ever get sick of those silky cinematic strings, that hypnotic bassline bounce, or Cee-Lo’s soothing-as-warm-milk delivery?
7. The Killers, “When You Were Young”
Amid the mountain of musical and lyrical clichés that makes up the Killers’s flawed but compulsively listenable Sam’s Town came the best pop song lyric of the year, from “When You Were Young”: “He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus but he talks like a gentleman, like you imagined when you were young.”
8. Pink, “Stupid Girls”
Pink is always one raspy cliché away from completely dumbing her message away, but there’s enough bite in her growl to make her a more-than-worthy role model for young girls who, instead, try to emulate the porno-paparazzi girls she lambastes on “Stupid Girls,” the lead single from her underappreciated fourth disc I’m Not Dead. Leaving a K-Fed- (and panty-) free Britney to self-destruct all on her own, Pink took aim at the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Jessica Simpson on this catchy, if somewhat novelty-esque, hit.
9. Arctic Monkeys, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
Arctic Monkeys’s “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” is the crossover dance-punk tune that never was (it stalled out in the modern rock Top 10 and never cracked the pop chart), exploding out of the gate with a flurry of pounding garage drums and gritty electric guitar feedback and then settling into the first verse like it’s the early ’80s: “Stop making the eyes at me/I’ll stop making the eyes at you.” Despite being a very “current” ode to “dirty dance floors and dreams of naughtiness,” lead monkey Alex Turner manages to squeeze in references to things that came before him: that centuries-old tale of star-crossed lovers…and doing the robot like it’s 1984.
10. Cassie, “Me & U”
While Janet Jackson failed to find her footing on the rocky (or, rather, hip-hoppy) surface of 2006, newcomer Cassie climbed straight past her with “Me & U,” a slinky, vintage-sounding track with a hypnotic, snake-charming whistle that garnered an endorsement from Janet herself. The simple video (no, not this one) even evokes the impromptu solo dance rehearsal from “The Pleasure Principle.” Of course, it’s starting to look like Cassie doesn’t possess Janet’s career savvy or longevity, but it was fun for three-and-a-quarter minutes, right?
1. (tie) Hank Williams III, Straight to Hell, and Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac
“Family” is tricky proposition for most everyone, but for the children of pop-culture icons, it’s a challenge that often plays out in the public sphere and is subjected to the kind of scrutiny and criticism that few would voluntarily endure. Who wants a legacy that’s been branded as “diminished returns” on anything or anyone? Unfortunately, most albums by second-generation artists looking to define their own legacies make for exercises in navel-gazing or hagiography, rather than legitimately good songs. So it’s all the more noteworthy, then, that 2006 offered two albums on which the progeny of certified legends renegotiate the terms of their relationships with their families. For Hank Williams III, that’s an act of rage against the way that the “family tradition” of his father—and especially his grandfather—have been bastardized by Nashville, and Straight to Hell stakes his first real claim as a serious, vital country artist who has a greater right to a little axe-grinding than anyone else on Music Row. For Rosanne Cash, that’s an act that spans the full emotional range of grief for the losses of her mother, step-mother, and father, and Black Cadillac reestablishes her status as one of the absolute finest singer-songwriters of any genre of popular music in the last quarter century. Hank III writes and performs songs that his grandfather would’ve written had he lived to hear the Sex Pistols, and, in doing so, firmly rebuts his father’s admonition that country music “doesn’t use the ’F’ word.” Cash invokes the symbols of the religion that was so important to her father, all the while regretting that she can’t turn to that religion herself for comfort at his death. Both albums honor their storied heritage, but they also reject specific elements of that heritage. In doing so, both Hank and Rosanne forge artistic identities that build upon their families’ legendary works rather than simply relying on them. Both remind why the label of “artist” is one that’s better when it’s earned, and Straight to Hell and Black Cadillac certainly stand as some of the year’s most compelling art.
3. The Knife, Silent Hout
What Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Andersson understand better than any goth-metal band is that the most effective “horror” occurs when elements that are recognizable as fundamentally human are distorted to such grotesque, unpredictable extremes that the result is both disturbing and perversely funny (see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Suspiria). The songs on Silent Shout are rife with menacing, violent imagery, but they’re also set to kitschy retro synth-pop, performed at a planetarium-style laser-light show by two reclusive siblings wearing crow masks, who only occasionally peek out from behind a scrim just long enough to dispel any rumors that they’re actually holographs. Taken separately, both the tone of sustained dread and the chilly theatricality might run the risk of veering into camp, but the Knife’s Silent Shout works precisely because those two pieces are inseparable. It’s like the set list for a Grand Guignol-themed party: you’ll go and dance, but make sure you know exactly where all of the exits are.
4. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
The calculus for TV on the Radio’s output thus far is troubling, charting an inverse relationship between the quality of the global political climate and the quality of the band’s music. Listening to Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes back in the halcyon days of 2003, it wasn’t hard to imagine TV on the Radio as the next Next Big Thing in rock, but who could’ve predicted the specific type of political clusterfuck that was 2006? Plenty of artists tackled big issues this year, many of them (the Thermals, Neil Young) doing so to great effect, but few were consistently as complex or as soulful as TV on the Radio, whose sound and message both find hope within frustration and direction within chaos on Return to Cookie Mountain.
5. Drive-By Truckers, A Blessing and a Curse
The subject of the year’s most baffling line of criticism, A Blessing and a Curse was often labeled a step backward for America’s best rock n’ roll band because, unlike 2001’s Southern Rock Opera or 2004’s The Dirty South, it supposedly lacks a unifying concept to give its songs thematic heft—as though the title weren’t a dead giveaway. It may not be an explicitly stated homage to Lynyrd Skynyrd or a collection of Southern gothic archetypes in 4:4 time, but it’s an album of subtly observed songs that explore, in the finest of details and with the keenest self-awareness, how and why it’s both a blessing and a curse to live in the modern-day South and, moreover, simply to live at all. And, while the album trades that duality, it’s exclusively a blessing to hear a band as powerful as Drive-By Truckers at their latest peak.
6. Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
So there’s “Crazy,” and then there’s the rest of Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere. And with “Crazy,” it’s a rare case of a song that’s an instant modern standard, already covered seemingly hundreds of times (even, according to rumor, by Paris Hilton), sure to be butchered beyond recognition in the audition rounds of the next season of American Idol, and just as sure to be crooned by jazz singers a generation from now. But it’s with the rest of St. Elsewhere that Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse make good on the lingering “probably” of the song’s refrain, delving into a lunatic fantasyscape of hip-hop, gospel, power-pop, and vintage soul sounds that catalog just about the whole of junk culture and wrapping their more nefarious themes (suicide, paranoia, necrophilia, monsters under the bed) in what seems, on the surface, to be the glossiest of escapist packages. It’s heady and adventurous as an album, but it’s just as great an achievement as pure spectacle.
7. Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
The idea of an album from the likes of Belle & Sebastian leaving enough of an impression to last 11 whole months to land on a Top 10 list would’ve seemed an absurd proposition any time between, oh, 1998 and this past January. But that’s the thing about The Life Pursuit: even the smaller details of the album—that slide guitar on “Another Sunny Day,” that trumpet solo on “Dress Up In You”—somehow feel outsized, and the result is some of the year’s most spirited, memorable pop. And, suddenly, Thanksgiving has come and gone, and “The Blues Are Still Blue” is still even more buoyant and is still getting more iPod plays than most of the summer’s Top 40 hits, and there’s a fleeting moment of fear of having forgotten something obvious (Camera Obscura? Faded quickly. The Boy Least Likely To? Even more twee than this. The Long Blondes? A great single and a whole lot of blog hype.), but the stack of CDs still waiting to be shelved says otherwise, and here we are, surprised but nonetheless feeling pretty good about it.
8. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Following a few years in which one too many Ryan Adams soundalikes made alt-country passé, 2006 was the year that the indie kids “discovered” country music, thanks to well-reviewed, high-profile albums like Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins’s Rabbit Fur Coat, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s The Letting Go, Lambchop’s Damaged, and Cat Power’s The Greatest, all of which cribbed from the genre either in form or content. But the fourth studio album from Neko Case trumped them all, displaying a deep understanding of even the most unpleasant recesses of the country genre, even as she traveled farther away from its basic conventions than on her previous albums. The voice, as always, drew the lion’s share of the accolades, but what’s ultimately most striking about Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is Case’s ongoing evolution into a first-rate songwriter, equally capable of a direct gut-punch or a dense nonlinear narrative. Nashville, of course, wouldn’t know where to begin with this, but listening to Fox Confessor, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Patsy, Loretta, and Emmylou.
9. Aceyalone, Magnificent City
Overshadowed in the early months of 2006 by Ghostface Killah’s also very-good Fishscale, then one-upped in the Underground Hip-Hop Artist Plus Trendy Producer department by St. Elsewhere, and finally bumped from much of the year-end listology hand-wringing in favor of late-year (again, also very-good) albums by Clipse and Lupe Fiasco, Magnificent City stands as perhaps the most unjustly overlooked album of a remarkable year for hip-hop. Which is regrettable but not hard to understand: Magnificent City is the smoothest, most subtle album of the lot. Its ambitious use of recurring tropes to explore various forms of modern isolation only appear when taking Magnificent City as a whole, which is, in turn, given further depth when considering that it’s the work of two men (Aceyalone with RJD2), each pushing the other to the top of his game.
10. CSS, Cansei de Ser Sexy
To translate for those who didn’t get on board with CSS’s pastiche of MySpace-style real-time pop culture: In Portuguese, it means, “Bring your ass on the floor and move it real fast. I wanna see your kitty and a little bit of titty. Wanna know where I go when I’m in your city? Girl, don’t you worry about all the dough, because a cat is coming straight out of the ’no, ready to rock those shows all the way to Rio. Bring that Brazil booty on the floor. Up, down, all around, work that shit to the funky sound. Going to see where I’m going, oh?” Lost in translation, alas, is that Cansei De Ser Sexy is funny on purpose and is actually something that right-minded people might want to listen to.
1. The Pipettes, “Pull Shapes”
What makes a great single, distilled down to one line: “I just wanna move, I don’t care what the song’s about.” And it’s a good thing, too, since the Pipettes’s gimmick—a post-post-feminist reclaiming of classic girl group pop, in matching polka-dot dresses—collapses on itself if you so much as look at it sideways. But those three part harmonies? That final 12 seconds of orchestral flourish? “Pull Shapes” is just glorious stuff, and by far the year’s purest, most exciting pop.
2. Nelly Furtado, “Maneater”
Two theories to explain the failure of “Maneater” at radio: (1) With those eerie zombie drones backing Nelly Furtado’s nasal delivery in the verses and those voodoo ritual drums in the chorus, radio programmers took the song as a literal celebration of cannibalism; (2) Fergie’s lifting of the “love you long time” line for the execrable “London Bridge” robbed the single of its would-be money shot. I vote for the latter theory, if only because I’m willing to blame Fergie-ferg for just about anything.
3. Franz Ferdinand, “The Fallen”
…On which the swagger, which has always been the source of their charm, morphs into a vague threat, which the archdukes promptly follow-up by fainting at the sight of blood and falling to the floor. Which isn’t such a surprise, since getting into a for-reals fight might wrinkle their neatly ironed shirts. It’s the taunting wa-hoo!s that sell Franz Ferdinand’s “The Fallen,” but it’s the bit about robbing supermarkets that should give Alex Kapranos’s editors at The Guardian pause if they’re serious about releasing that cookbook of his.
4. The Boy Least Likely To, “Faith”
The Boy Least Likely To’s “Faith” is all banjos and handclaps, and just when you think it wouldn’t make a suitable soundtrack for drunken underwear-dancing on a hotel bed, The Boys break out the güiro and slide-whistle, and, really, it’s just not such a hard sell from there.
5. Kelis, “Blindfold Me”
Blindfolds are the gateway drug into edgier forms of sensory deprivation kink, so I guess this means we should expect Kelis’s next album to have singles on which she and Nas explore the sub/dom dynamics of mummification and breath control play. So long as the beats are as good as they are on “Blindfold Me,” only a real prude could complain.
6. Beyoncé, “Ring the Alarm”
She’s just too suburban and just far too kept to sell this kind of guttural, Betty Davis anti-love shit entirely, but Beyoncé deserves plenty of credit for trying to sell it at all. That said, if “Ring the Alarm” really was inspired by a certain Bring It On: All or Nothing performer, Beyoncé only sounds a fraction as furious as she rightfully should.
7. Wolfmother, “Woman”
The slightly less misogynistic version of “Crazy Bitch” you can admit to liking without sacrificing your street cred, Wolfmother’s “Woman” scores bonus points for the Avalanches’s remix with the trippy Cousin Itt vocal loops.
8. Bob Dylan, “Someday Baby”
This, Brandon Flowers, is how a man grows a proper sleazestache. More so than the predictably glowing critics’ reviews, Bob Dylan owes credit for his first #1 album in 30 years to iTunes putting “Someday Baby,” which loses none of its punch well after the four-minute mark or several hundred repeated listens, in a commercial.
9. Futureheads, “Skip to the End”
Making better use of negative space than any of the year’s other rock singles—and, arguably, a good percentage of the hip-hop singles—“Skip to the End” is three minutes of nervous energy, thanks to its barrage of unpredictable a capella runs, drumstick solos, four-part doo-wop harmonies, and jangly powerchords. Structurally, then, it’s a perfect fit for a song about the unpredictability of relationships. The unhappy ending for this one, of course, is that he Futureheads finished 2006 without a record deal.
10. Keane, “Is It Any Wonder?”
That its squelchy fake guitars are all in-the-red treble is ultimately of less consequence than is its insistence through tireless repetition that said squelchy fake guitars are playing one hell of a melodic hook. If not more U2 than U2—they’d need an actual rhythm section for that, assuming they’re trying to rip off any U2 worth ripping off—Keane’s “Is It Any Wonder?” is still more U2 than Coldplay and meatier than anything else Adult Top 40 went near in 2006.
The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018
The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use, the power we wield, and the places we carve out for ourselves.
The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use (“Vince Staples’s “Fun!”), the power we wield (the Carters’ “Apeshit”), and the places we carve out for ourselves (“Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over”). They also acknowledge the state of the world, from systemic racism (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”) to institutional corruption (Jack White’s “Corporation”). Notably, a clear majority of the videos on our list were created by or for artists of color, whose stories serve as an act of resistance against a racist regime. The year in music video wasn’t all gloom and doom, though, as both identity and resistance manifested in profoundly joyous ways in Chaka Khan’s “Like Sugar” and Kali Uchis’s “After the Storm.” And Bruno Mars and Migos embraced playful, nostalgic visions of the past—though it’s hard not to question whether even those ostensibly frivolous throwbacks are rooted in self-care and a need to romanticize a seemingly simpler time. Sal Cinquemani
20. Prince, “Mary Don’t You Weep”
There are no guns or mass shootings in the clip for Prince’s posthumously released “Mary Don’t You Weep,” but their absence isn’t conspicuous. Gun violence is, more than anything else, about the aftermath—the loss, the grief, the haunted lives left in the wake of a fleeting shot. Amid politicians’ perpetual handwringing over when the “right” time is to talk about solutions to this epidemic, Salomon Ligthelm’s exquisitely lensed video testifies to the notion that, at least for tens of thousands of Americans this year, it’s already too late. Cinquemani
19. Rosalía, “Malamente”
Barcelona-based collective Canada marries the traditional with the modern—as in an eye-popping freeze-frame of a bullfighter facing off with a motorcycle—in this spirited music video for Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía’s flamenco-inspired hit “Malamente.” Alexa Camp
18. Ariana Grande, “God Is a Woman”
The music video for Ariana Grande’s sultry, subtly reggae-infused slow jam “God Is a Woman” finds the pop princess bathing in a milky swirl of vaginal water colors, fingering the eye of a hurricane, and deflecting misogynist epithets, a visual embodiment of her declaration that “I can be all the things you told me not to be/When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing/And he sees the universe when I’m in company/It’s all in me.” Directed by Dave Meyers, the video mixes animation, digital eye candy, and references to classical artwork, as well as a few WTF moments, like a set piece in which a group of moles emerge from their holes and scream bloody murder. Pointed metaphors abound, from scenes of Grande walking a tightrope to literally breaking a glass ceiling. At one point, pop’s original feminist queen, Madonna, makes a cameo reciting the Old Testament by way of Pulp Fiction—with her own characteristic twist, of course, swapping “brothers” for “sisters.” Cinquemani
17. Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B, “Finesse (Remix)”
Bruno Mars directed the video for “Finesse” himself, and its note-perfect homage to the opening sequence of In Living Color shows him to be as adept a visual pastiche artist as he is a musical one. As with the song, however, it’s guest Cardi B who steals the show, dominating every second she’s on camera as the flyest of Fly Girls in tube socks, cutoffs, and larger-than-life hoop earrings. Zachary Hoskins
16. LCD Soundsystem, “Oh Baby”
Featuring masterful performances by Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn, LCD Soundsystem’s “Oh Baby” is a stirring saga of lovers venturing into the unknown. Directed by Rian Johnson, the video follows an aging couple who build a set of strange, inter-dimensional doorways. Enter one, and you can exit out of the other, but it’s never clear what reality exists between them. Simple, cinematic, and heart-wrenching, the clip is the perfect accompaniment for James Murphy’s ponderous, uplifting electro-pop. Paired together, Spacek and Strathairn convey love’s capacity to obliterate all barriers: loneliness, old age, even death. Pryor Stroud
15. Migos featuring Drake, “Walk It Talk It”
Migos’s “Walk It Talk It” takes place on a fictional television program called Culture Ride—a clear homage to the iconic show Soul Train. This isn’t the first music video to conceptually riff on the vintage variety show format; both OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and the Strokes’s “Last Nite” are set in Ed Sullivan Show-style sound stages. But the video is still a triumph of flashy, vintage style. Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff surround themselves with dancing spectators and major stars, notably Jamie Foxx and Drake, all of whom are transfixed by the music they’re hearing. And just as they are today, Migos is the center of attention. Stroud
14. Azealia Banks, “Anna Wintour”
Yes, those really are Azealia Banks’s nipples. At least according to the New York singer-rapper-lightning-rod’s perennially deleted Twitter account. But the music video for Banks’s single “Anna Wintour” is striking not just because of the artist’s ample bosom. Directed by Matt Sukkar, the clip was filmed in an empty warehouse using understated faux-natural lighting, an apt visual milieu for Banks’s declaration of independence: “As the valley fills with darkness, shadows chase and run around…I’ll be better off alone, I’ll walk at my own pace.” Shots of a scantily clad Banks strutting on a metal catwalk, posing in a full-length mirror, and striking a pose in front of a backlit gate pay homage to Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle,” an iconic video by another female artist who was once determined to assert control. Camp
13. Flasher, “Material”
The internet has rendered media consumption so isolating that it takes a work of profound ingenuity to remind us that art is inherently a shared experience—even if that experience is one of infuriating data buffering, inescapable clickbait, and micro-targeted advertising. Directed by Nick Roney, Flasher’s meta visual for “Material” proves that YouTube has become so engrained in the fabric of modern life that the simple action of clicking out of a pop-up advertisement is now part of our brains’ cache of muscle memory. Though the video isn’t actually interactive, you just might find yourself unconsciously reaching to take control of what’s happening on your screen. Cinquemani
12. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”
The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Camp
11. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”
One of the most ambitious music video projects of the year, “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Hoskins
10. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”
Every segment of the “emotion picture” released by Janelle Monáe to accompany her third album Dirty Computer is visually striking and thematically rich in its own way. But it’s the segment for lead single “Make Me Feel” that arguably stands best on its own. Directed by Monáe’s longtime collaborator Alan Ferguson, the video features the singer and 2018 It-girl Tessa Thompson at what may be the year’s coolest party captured on screen. Widely viewed as a coming-out moment for Monáe—her pansexuality is dramatized in her interactions with both Thompson and co-star Jayson Aaron—the clip is rife with references to two recently canonized icons of sexual fluidity, Prince and David Bowie. Monáe’s choreography with Thompson and Aaron echoes Prince’s with dancer Monique Mannen in the video for “Kiss,” while the dynamic of a bold, flamboyant alter ego performing for the singer’s more reserved self is borrowed from Bowie’s “Blue Jean.” As with her music, however, Monáe is capable of wearing these influences on her sleeve (and her silver bikini top) while still making them wholly her own. Hoskins
9. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”
The music video for R&B legend Chaka Khan’s first single in five years giddily foregrounds a multiplicity of black bodies via vibrant, kinetic montage. The joyous clip represents a celebration of identity and persistence in the face of adversity, a thread that shoots through many of the year’s best videos. Camp
8. Anderson .Paak, “Til It’s Over”
The music video has always sat at an awkward intersection of art and commerce, having originated as short film clips serving quite literally as “promos” for new singles. It’s thus only a little strange that Spike Jonze’s video for Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over” isn’t a conventional one at all, but rather an extended commercial for Apple’s HomePod smart device. In the short vignette, FKA Twigs comes home from a long work day and asks Siri to play something she’d like. After a few seconds of .Paak’s voice coming out of her HomePod speakers, she discovers that her dancing can make the physical properties of her apartment stretch and shift. Both the simple, human joy of Twigs’s movements and the technical wizardry of the expanding room are so arresting that you’ll almost forget you’re being sold something. Hoskins
7. Travis Scott featuring Drake, “Sicko Mode”
The album cover for Travis Scott’s Astroworld painted a vivid picture of the eponymous theme park as a psychedelic, vaguely sinister landscape, dominated by a giant inflatable model of Scott’s head and decidedly not to be confused with the real-life (and long-defunct) Six Flags AstroWorld. But it’s the video for single “Sicko Mode,” directed by Dave Meyers, that really brings the place to life, turning the bleak landscape of Houston’s inner city into a post-apocalyptic playground of talking train graffiti and video vixens on bicycles while Scott rides past a prowling police cruiser on horseback. Much like the multi-part song, the clip isn’t cohesive, as the scenes during Drake’s guest verse almost seem to be cut in from an entirely different video. But the abundance of bizarre imagery, both menacing and absurd, ensures that it’s never boring. Hoskins
6. A$AP Rocky featuring Moby, “A$AP Forever”
The camera is the star of Dexter Navy’s video for “A$AP Forever”: whirling in dizzy circles above A$AP Rocky’s head and pulling in and out of a seemingly endless series of television monitors, street signs, smartphone screens, and other images within images. In the final sequence, the camera moves one last time into Rocky’s eyeball, revealing a reflected image of the rapper rotating in an anti-gravity chamber. Also, Moby is there. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but the trippy effect is a perfect complement to the strain of 21st-century psychedelia in Rocky’s music. Hoskins
5. Vince Staples, “Fun!”
Directed by Calmatic, the video for Vince Staples’s “Fun!” is both an astute condemnation of racial tourism and a (perhaps unintentional) auto-critique of hip-hop’s exportation of the black experience to middle America. Like Flasher’s “Material,” it’s also a bleak commentary on the ways technology—in this case, satellite mapping—has simultaneously united and divided the human race. Cinquemani
4. Jack White, “Corporation”
Jack White’s “Corporation” is just as oblique, ambitious, and political as the artist himself. Over the course of seven minutes, a series of surreal, seemingly disjointed events occur: a cowboy puts on lipstick, a rave starts in a diner, a little boy steals a car. By the end, you learn that all of the characters are simply different manifestations of White himself, revealing the alt-blues pioneer as someone we already knew him to be: a complex, multifaceted artist whose neuroses are intimately tied to his genius. Stroud
3. Kali Uchis featuring Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins, “After the Storm”
Like the contemporary surrealist photos of its director, Nadia Lee Cohen, the video for “After the Storm” pairs a rich Technicolor palette with a playfully elastic approach to everyday banality: bringing P-Funk icon Bootsy Collins to (animated) life as a cereal box mascot and making rapper Tyler, the Creator grow from a garden like a literal “Flower Boy.” That these whimsical images appear alongside shots of singer Kali Uchis, dolled up in mid-century attire and staring blankly into the distance, suggest that they’re meant to dramatize the daydreams of a bored 1950s suburbanite. This makes the video’s final image, of Uchis and a fully sprouted Tyler acting out an idyllic nuclear family scene while their own disembodied Chia-pet heads look on from the window, as vaguely disquieting as it is humorous. Hoskins
2. The Carters, “Apeshit”
The Carters’s Everything Is Love may not have achieved the same cultural ubiquity as Beyoncé‘s Lemonade, or Jay-Z’s 4:44, but it spawned one of the year’s most poignant videos. In “Apeshit,” the power couple performs in a vacant Louvre, commandeering the world’s most famous museum without breaking a sweat. It’s a radical testament to their influence as artists, business people, and political players, as well as a bold statement about the overlooked primacy of blackness in the Western canon. Stroud
1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
Surprise-released to coincide with Donald Glover’s double duty as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live in May, the provocative video for “This Is America” was already inspiring breathless think pieces by the following morning. Directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s principal collaborator on FX’s Atlanta, “This Is America” shares with many of that show’s best episodes a knack for getting under viewers’ skins, presenting highly charged images with just enough ambiguity to encourage social media reactions of the “WTF did I just watch” variety. But if the last seven months of critical dissection and memetic recycling have inevitably dulled some of its shock value—and, by extension, its power as a political statement—the video remains an astounding artistic achievement. In a series of long shots cleverly disguised as one uninterrupted take, Glover pulls dances and faces from the intertwined traditions of pop culture and minstrelsy, seamlessly juxtaposed with eruptions of sudden, graphic gun violence. In both extremes, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him—which is, of course, the point. Like the never-ending train wreck that is American history itself, “This is America” offers entertainment and grotesquerie in equal measure. Hoskins
The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018
These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary.
This year offered a feast of cinematic acting that pivoted on surprise, in terms of unconventional casting that allowed performers to add new shades to their established personas, as well as in blistering work by newcomers. These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary, shattering the banality of expectation to elaborate on universal feelings that are too easily submerged by us on our day-to-day toils. Which is to say that the finest film acting of 2018 was less indebted to the representational “realism” that often wins awards than to fashioning a bold kind of behavioral expressionism. Like many of their filmmaker collaborators, these actors are master stylists. Chuck Bowen
Sakura Ando, Shoplifters
As Nobuyo, the default “mother” of an informal family of hustlers on the margins of present-day Tokyo, Sakura Ando enriches Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle social drama with her bracing articulation of her character’s self-discovery. Nobuya’s melodramatic arc—a woman with dark secrets whose hard-won redemption is inevitably undone by higher forces—culminates in an agonizing one-shot unraveling, but what makes her fate so devastating is the sense of surprise and liberation that Ando brings to Nobuya’s acceptance of new responsibilities, passions, and her own self-worth. Christopher Gray
Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In
For all of her versatility, Juliette Binoche has never particularly been noted for her comic skills, but she displays a subtle wit as the middle-aged and single Isabelle in Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In, often dismissing petulant, needy men with scarcely more than a mocking glance or a passive-aggressive comment. Binoche truly shines, though, in scenes that play up Isabelle’s feelings of panic and loneliness over having to date again, such as when Isabelle reminisces about her ex-husband and, in the process, a whole panoply of emotions, including resentment and wistfulness, flit anxiously across the actress’s face. Most moving of all is the outright panic that Isabelle betrays when a wonderful date urges her to take things slowly, triggering an existential attack over her perceived lack of time to find another partner so late in life. Jake Cole
Emily Browning, Golden Exits
Golden Exits sustains a lingering aura of futility that’s counterweighted by the film’s beauty and by the exhilaration of seeing Alex Ross Perry realize his vast ambitions, as he’s made a modern film about relationships and social constrictions that clears the bar set by the work of John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. Perry also ultimately empathizes with Naomi, who’s paradoxically diminished by her status as the narrative’s center of attention. Regarded by her American acquaintances as a barometer of their own personal failures, Naomi is never truly noticed. She’s the gorgeous woman as specter, played by Emily Browning with an ambiguity that carries a heartbreaking suggestion: that Naomi’s unknowable because no one wishes to know her. Bowen
Nicolas Cage, Mandy
Mandy‘s smorgasbord of indulgences is held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Bowen
Toni Collette, Hereditary
Flashes of insanity and malaise factor into Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary, yet Annie cannot be defined by such traits often linked to the trope of a hysterical woman. Instead, Collette’s glares of frustration suggest a world of complicated emotions that extend well beyond pain. Terror and intense focus become indecipherable in Collette’s eyes as Annie, a diorama artist, is torn from her profession by conspiring forces, making the film’s outcome feel even more like a cross between a cruel joke and a rebuke of society’s stacking the deck through maternal guilt and shame against Annie’s aspiring career. Clayton Dillard
Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
As Queen Anne and her rival sycophants, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, respectively, establish a delicious series of manipulative, barbarous, and poignant emotional cross-currents throughout The Favourite. Stone and Weisz verbally parry and thrust at lightning speed, one-upping one another in an escalating series of duels that inspire the actresses to give among the finest performances of their careers, while Colman expertly operates at a slower, daringly draggy and exposed speed, painting a portrait of a woman imprisoned by entitlement. Collectively, this superb acting also achieves the near miraculous feat of rendering a Yorgos Lanthimos film authentically human. Bowen
Matt Dillon, The House That Jack Built
It’s no secret that Jack (Matt Dillon), the viciously misogynistic serial killer at the heart of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, is at least partially a stand-in for the director himself, and the genius of Dillon’s interpretation of the character is that he never seems to be sucking up to the man who created it. He plays Jack as ruthless, self-pitying, and disturbingly empty—Hannibal Lecter without the wit or charm. No mere pawn of the Danish provocateur’s autocritical schema, Dillon both deepens and challenges von Trier’s intended self-portraiture with the uncanny blankness of his performance, creating in the process an absolutely chilling embodiment of evil. Keith Watson
Adam Driver, BlackKklansman
Though BlackKklansman was marketed as the story of an African-American police officer impersonating a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, it also concerns a Jewish cop’s efforts to do the same by offering a white face to accompany a vocal charade. As said cop, Flip Zimmerman, Adam Driver deliriously plumbs head-first into a disturbing irony, acknowledging the catharses that can be had by indulging in disgusting epithets secretly at one’s own expense. Or, simply: Flip insults himself, and those close to him, and Driver elucidates the character’s disgust as well as the weird spiritual purging that can occur by indulging one’s basest instincts. One of America’s best and most sensitive actors offers perhaps his finest portrait yet of a soul twisted in contradictory knots. Bowen
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
It’s a testament to the authenticity of Elsie Fisher’s performance in Eighth Grade that you’d never have guessed she’d been in front of a camera before, much less that she’s been acting consistently for years. As Kayla, the awkward, unpopular tween protagonist of Bo Burnham’s film, Fisher infuses every stammered “umm” and stumbling “like” with a palpable sense of self-loathing and social anxiety. For anyone who ever felt like Kayla in middle school, Fisher’s painfully real performance is liable to induce PTSD. Watson
Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace
Finally shedding his tick-laden parlor games, Ben Foster comes to life as an actor, connecting with Will and giving him a fearful thickness of being that’s only occasionally leavened by Tom, whom Thomasin McKenzie invests with the trembling, negotiating intelligence of an unformed prodigy. Will and Tom and Foster and McKenzie’s energies are beautifully in and out of sync, simultaneously. Foster confidently cedes the film to McKenzie, which parallels Will’s gradual relinquishing of authority to Tom. Both characters know that it’s unfair to expect Tom to inherit Will’s alienation, as she has the right to give this potentially doomed society a chance, to fight for it as well as herself. In Leave No Trace‘s heartbreaking climax, a relationship dies so that an individual, and maybe even a society, may be reborn. Bowen
Hugh Grant, Paddington 2
Hugh Grant may well be more cartoonish than the animated bear protagonist of Paddington 2. As the film’s villain, a has-been thespian with the world’s most convoluted scheme to finance a one-man show, Grant can scarcely utter a syllable without throwing his head back and exclaiming it to the rafters, and the actor’s body language—a series of shocked gasps, wild-eyed stares, and manic grins—is similarly absurd. As Phoenix dons a series of ever-more elaborate disguises throughout the film, Grant’s acting somehow gets even broader, resulting in a work of giddy panto and one of the finest comic performances in recent memory. Cole
Regina Hall, Support the Girls
It’s not often that we see decency and level-headedness radiated on screen as convincingly as it is by Regina Hall in Support the Girls, much less a film centered around such a performance. As Lisa, a put-upon restaurant manager enduring a particularly hectic day on the job, Hall suppresses the comic histrionics that she’s become known for in mainstream comedy movies in order to inhabit the delicate naturalism that writer-director Andrew Bujalski consistently cultivates in his casts. Slipping into this mode with grace, the actress conveys the sheer exhaustion and frustration of nine-to-five existence with just the subtlest of disruptions to an exterior of buttoned-up professionalism. Carson Lund
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
As the great blackness of night swoops in, we reach for assurances of “the everlasting arms,” as sung about in First Reformed‘s concluding hymnal. Ethan Hawke’s staggering performance is one of Ecclesiastian sympathy, with watchful longing and hungry silences in between reminders of Toller’s own impotence to change the world. The man’s face suggests a tragic predicament that the only ark to save us from an impending flood is in our illusions. Niles Schwartz
Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Nearly every actor in the Coen brothers’ newest anti-western is remarkable, but Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck are particularly heartbreaking, partly because the audience has been so expertly rendered vulnerable to the vignette in which they appear. By the time that we get to “The Gal Who Got Rattled” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we’ve seen so much brutality and cynicism that we’re hardened for more of the same only to encounter tenderness. As potential lovers who never get to be, Kazan and Heck dramatize the unmooring vulnerability of feeling attraction just when you suspect that you’ve aged out of it, informing the Coens’ florid, beautiful dialogue with trembling pathos. Bowen
Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk
For this critic, the lovers at the center of Barry Jenkins’s newest parable of racism are too gorgeous, primped, fawning, symbolic, metaphorical, and seemingly straight out of a coffee-table book. As a man recently out of prison after serving a stretch he didn’t deserve, Brian Tyree Henry does for If Beale Street Could Talk what he did for Widows and continues to do for Atlanta: informing potentially self-conscious conceits with a jolting burst of common-sense machismo. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s most haunting scene is a monologue that’s hypnotically uttered by Tyree, allowing this film, for a few minutes, to actually capture the brutal poetry of the James Baldwin novel that inspired it. Bowen
Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline
The center of a film about commitment and disassociation, Helena Howard’s Madeline evidently relishes the opportunity to change identities in the blink of an eye. Director Josephine Decker contrasts the aspiring actress’s easy mastery of improv exercises with Madeline’s harried life outside of rehearsal, where she’s regularly manipulated by her mother and an overeager director as she struggles to control her mental illness. Decker’s film is willfully alienating in its commitment to Madeline’s tortured interiority, but Howard steers it with an undeniable power and confidence, making Madeline’s rootless chaos feel entirely legible. Gray
Bhreagh MacNeil, Werewolf
Werewolf belongs to the extraordinary Bhreagh MacNeil. The film derives quite a bit of its power from allowing Vanessa to unceremoniously wrest the spotlight away from Blaise (Andrew Gillis), a lost and bitter man whose quest for recovery is probably hopeless. MacNeil doesn’t project Vanessa’s determination in a manner that’s familiar to rehabilitation fables, but rather physically embodies it, and McKenzie doesn’t mar her with any screenwriterly speeches. We see Vanessa’s strength in the steel of her eyes, in her willingness to ask family for help, and in her ability to get a thankless job at an old-fashioned burger and soft-serve ice cream joint, in which she grinds imitation Oreo cookies into pieces with a machine that resembles a sausage grinder. The fierceness with which Vanessa grinds these cookies—or attempts to master an ice cream machine that resembles a liquid methadone dispenser—is haunting. Bowen
Rachel McAdams, Disobedience
Esti (Rachel McAdams), at first glance, is another type: an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), you understood the gesture as compensatory, to convey that I’m just not that into her anymore. But then McAdams caps the moment by quickly playing with Nivola’s beard, and the actress subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit (Rachel Weisz). Only theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when, during a tryst in a hotel room, Ronit casually sends a stream of her spit into Esti’s mouth. This moment feels organically, almost miraculously stumbled upon—arrived at by two great actors wanting to convey the singular nature of their characters’ communion. Ed Gonzalez
Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The pairing of Melissa McCarthy, a Hollywood A-lister, with Richard E. Grant, a sublime arthouse presence, is one of the most invigorating surprises of this year’s cinema. McCarthy avoids the pitfall of comic actors appearing in unusually dramatic material. Rather than restricting her emotional catalogue to a few grim gestures of purposefulness, McCarthy expands her repertoire, elaborating on the sadness that’s inherent in even her blockbuster roles—a sadness that also fuels her comic virtuosity. And Grant is complicit with McCarthy’s tonal dexterity in every way. Together they offer an irresistible portrait of a bittersweet paradox of companionable alienation. Bowen
Ben Mendelsohn, The Land of Steady Habits
The Land of Steady Habits benefits enormously from the casting of Ben Mendelsohn as an unexceptionally tormented upper-middle-class guy. Here, the actor submerges the aggression that’s often closer to the surface of his sleazy villain roles, giving Anders a mysterious internal tension that’s compelling and often funny. When writer-director Nicole Holofcener follows Anders around as he drifts in and out of the lives of Helene (Edie Falco) and his grown son, Preston (Thomas Mann), and their various friends, the film has a free-associational piquancy. Bowen
Jason Mitchell, Tyrel
Sebastián Silva tasks Jason Mitchell with carrying the weight of Tyrel on the actor’s face; he’s asked to project toughness in reaction shots to aggressions both micro and macro from Tyler’s white bros, then later vulnerability as he steals away for moments of quietude to escape the ambiguous pain of social discomfort. While the scenario and performance is comparable to that of Daniel Kaluuya’s in Get Out, Mitchell’s Tyler isn’t given a catharsis of violent retribution. Mitchell’s expressions and gestures convey the betrayal of a daily life that never lets Tyler feel at ease, let alone at home. Dillard
Michelle Pfeiffer, Where Is Kyra?
Michelle Pfeiffer’s ferociously vulnerable and intelligent performance elucidates the pain, resentment, and fear that springs from escalating disappointment. Pfeiffer informs Kyra with a fragile mixture of empathy and rage, which is particularly on display when Kyra cares for her mother, Ruth, who’s played by Suzanne Shepard with a wily and commanding dignity. Kyra is understood by Pfeiffer to be taking qualified pleasure in her own effacement, as it implies an escape from a world that has rejected her. Early in the film, we see Kyra preparing a bath for Ruth, and a mirror fashions a prism in which mother and daughter are cordoned off from one another yet simultaneously visible, evoking the punishing intimacy, and the comfort, of caring for a dependent. Bowen
Meinhard Neumann, Western
Casting is everything, the saying goes, but that’s especially true when filmmakers elect to use nonprofessionals, in which case ineffable factors such as “presence” and “authenticity” become paramount. Meinhard Neumann, the grizzled, mustachioed brooder at the center of Western who director Valeska Grisebach came across on a whim at a horse market, has these qualities in spades, in addition to a seemingly preternatural capacity for playing to Grisebach’s roving handheld camera and finding his light. His taciturn, repressed Meinhard doesn’t have a wide expressive range, but when the character does undergo a few emotional breakthroughs in the latter half of the film, Neumann seems to be genuinely accessing reserves of pain and regret deep within himself. Lund
Jesse Plemons, Game Night
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein assembled one of the strongest comedic ensembles in recent memory for Game Night, but a single performer still managed to steal the show: Jesse Plemons as the weirdo Gary, a sad-sack cop with a broken heart whose self-pitying glumness could ruin anyone’s vibe. Pitched perfectly at the intersection of creepiness and pathos, Plemons earns big laughs without really seeming to try. The hilarity arises instead from his expertly discomfiting embodiment of one of those off-putting personality types we’ve all unfortunately encountered: the guy you feel bad for but desperately want to get away from as fast as humanly possible. Watson
Steven Yeun, Burning
Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is driven by a central mystery of purpose. To what genre does this film belong? Is it a horror film, a romantic triangle, a class critique, or a beguiling fusion of all of the above? Much of this mystery is embodied by Steven Yeun’s performance as a rich smoothie who’s far more appealing than the floundering hero, which strikes up a crisis in the audience’s empathy that resonates with our romantic preferences in real life. Turns out there’s a reason that confident people get all the lovers, because they are, well, confident. Yet Yeun laces his sexiness with the subtlest tint of passive aggression, so subtle that one wonders if it’s even there, investing Burning with a fleeting malignancy that’s worthy of Claude Chabrol. Bowen
The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018
Music, dance, action, rage, touch, rhyme, and blunt-force trauma—these are the moments that give films, and life, their staying power.
Watching a great scene for the first time is like confronting the reality of one’s mortality. As the scene unfolds, it can feel exhilarating in the moment, though it can only be fully understood in hindsight. Think of our selections of the best scenes of 2018, then, as flashes of memory connected to a larger whole. It’s not that the whole dies without the memories, but that the whole might, upon reflection, be primarily composed of such recollected flashes. Music, dance, action, rage, touch, rhyme, and blunt-force trauma—these are the moments that give films, and life, their staying power. Clayton Dillard
Amazing Grace, Reverend Cleveland Weeps
There are a number of points throughout Sydney Pollack’s Amazing Grace where Aretha Franklin’s voice hits such astounding heights that members of Los Angeles’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church congregation and choir can’t help but rise to their feet and shout “Amen” or dance like no one is watching them. But no single moment is more profoundly moving than when Reverend James Cleveland, the concert’s musical director and Aretha’s childhood friend, walks away from his piano, sits down on a pew, and quietly weeps into his handkerchief. In this moment, the church transforms into a sanctuary to revel in the power of Aretha’s singular, iconic voice. Derek Smith
Annihilation, Suicide Is Painless
The characters who enter the alien-terraforming Shimmer in Alex Garland’s Annihilation are all people who’ve lost the will to live, yet their survival instincts compel them to self-defense against the horrors thrown at them by the film’s creepy elements. The Shimmer responds in kind, folding the terrors of characters about to meet their deaths into the flora and fauna that form out of corpses and sport gnarled looks of frozen anguish. After watching a colleague “live on” in the mutant screams of the bear that killed her, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson)—tacitly suffering from depression and knowing the odds of her survival—decides to leave a calmer imprint of herself on this alien region. Her blissful walk into oblivion is the film’s sole moment of quietude, and perhaps the most gorgeous display of justifiable suicide ever depicted on film. Jake Cole
BlacKkKlansman, “Too Late to Turn Back Now”
After watching Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) speak about his vision for an equal society where African-Americans are accepted for who they are, undercover cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his impromptu date, activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), visit a nearby club. What follows is Spike Lee at his most observational and celebratory: an extended sequence of black Americans joyously dancing and singing along to the song “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” free of the prejudice they encounter in their daily lives. Echoing the kind of liberated society Ture outlined in his speech, the utopic vision of this scene becomes reason enough for Ture and his followers to want to fight the power. Wes Greene
Bodied, Behn Grymm vs. Adam
After months of training, Adam (Calum Worthy) finally faces off against his friend and mentor, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), in a rap battle that quickly turns from two buddies trading barbs to something far more insidious and calamitous. For the African-American Grymm, rapping is a means to end, a way to put food on the table for his wife and daughter. But for Adam, a white boy and intellectual born with a silver spoon in mouth, there’s no greater purpose to spitting fire, only the unfettered joys of unabated verbal destruction. In his stomach-churning assault of Grymm, Adam sheds all semblance of kinship and morality, all but shattering a friendship simply in pursuit of a big win and pushing the phrase “don’t hate the player, hate the game” far past its breaking point. Smith
Burning, Jazz Dance at Sunset
Stoned, topless, and standing beneath the South Korean flag as it flaps in the wind, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo) begins to emulate the Kenyan “great hunger” dance she described earlier in the film. Set to Miles Davis’s “Générique,” the sequence occurs only halfway into Burning, but it feels climactic in its power, especially for Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who seems finally entranced with Haemi to the point of no return. The scene’s thematic complexity underlies the immediacy of Lee Chang-dong’s use of a long take to capture the dance, making the film’s larger mysteries, and Jong-su’s subsequent paranoia, all the more chilling. Dillard
First Man, Agena Spin
Damien Chazelle’s claustrophobic direction of spaceflight in First Man brutally undercuts idealized images of the Space Race with the abject terror of hurtling through the void in a rattling tin can launched into the skies using calculations performed on computers with less processing power than an Atari 2600. The film’s tensest scene is a depiction of the failed Gemini 8 mission, in which a routine spaceflight goes catastrophically wrong and sends the spacecraft into an unstoppable barrel roll. As Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) attempts to both stabilize the craft and get it back on its correct flightpath, we see him not only contending with high G-forces and dizzying spins, but also performing trigonometric calculations in long hand on graph paper. With the film’s camera firmly entrenched inside the capsule, Chazelle mines Armstrong’s claustrophobia—and rouses our—through the flashes of shaking plates of sheet metal and elaborate operating switchboards. The material reality of early space missions comes into sharp focus, clarifying the deadening trauma that weighs on Armstrong throughout the entirety of First Man. Cole
First Reformed, Magical Mystery Tour
In an act of compassion, and passion, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller indulges Amanda Seyfried’s pregnant widow in a meditative ritual she had regularly performed with her now-deceased husband. After she lays on top of Toller, synchronizing her breathing with his, the two begin to levitate and hover over gorgeous images of outer space, snowy mountains, and lush green forests. But this extraordinary and uncanny transcendence is fleeting, as the sublime imagery abruptly gives way to visions of real-world problems, such as mass deforestation and pollution, pulling Toller violently out of this reprieve from his obsession with the world’s misery. What place do love and faith have in a world that’s crumbling around us? Smith
The Green Fog, Chuck Norris As Meme
About midway through The Green Fog, just as one is beginning to acclimate to its conceptual high-wire act—a reconstitution of Vertigo by way of clips from wide-ranging movies and TV shows set in San Francisco—directors Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson decide to entertain a ludicrous high-concept-within-a-high-concept: an entire lengthy sequence composed only of reaction shots of Chuck Norris. Staring, staring, and staring some more in a ridiculous sustained imitation of Scottie Ferguson’s paranoid daze, Norris’s blank mug becomes the best underappreciated meme of the year. Carson Lund
Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Epic Jump Shot Drill
RaMell Ross’s evocative hymn to Hale County, Alabama and the indomitable spirit of its residents dedicates a portion of its attention to Daniel, a small-time college hoops player with big aspirations, but the actual sport of basketball only surfaces in fits and starts, interwoven as it is with the larger mosaic of Daniel’s life. The fragments that do emerge, however, show a sprightly athlete in firm command of his game, nowhere more evident than when he drains 10 of 11 long-range jumpers from around the arc in one breathless take, muttering affirmatively after each swish. Ross’s camera bobs along behind him, emphasizing the sheer force and persistence of Daniel’s motion over the shots themselves, in effect translating the feat into something more divine than worldly. Lund
Happy as Lazzaro, The Music’s Followed Us
A band of former sharecroppers relocated to an anonymous metropolis are lulled into a church by the sound of an organ and are promptly shooed out. This everyday affront is avenged by the lightest and most surreal of miracles as the music travels into the city, seemingly rebirthed from the sound of a passing train. Its ineffable quality leads the previously guileless Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) to an olive tree planted in artificial grass and a catharsis that’s at once unclassifiable and long overdue. Christopher Gray
Hereditary, Heads Will Roll
For its first hour, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is something akin to a relentless panic attack, rife with displays mental illness, disturbing familial follies, cryptic portents of doom that would curl Poe’s toes. The highlight of the film is a scene that’s tremendous for its artistic dexterity and shock value. In the throes of an allergic reaction, the young and socially awkward Charlie (Milly Shapiro) writhes in the back seat of the family car, her throat tightening while her brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), wildly drives them down a forlorn stretch of deserted asphalt. The brilliance of the scene isn’t just the visceral depiction of an unfathomable violent incident, but the patience with which Aster dwells on the consequence: The camera remains on Peter’s face, bathed in the red glow of the car’s tail lights, as he sits static, stoic, his eyes glazed over, while his sister’s body is slumped over behind him. After several agonizingly long, laconic moments, he starts the car, drives home, and goes to bed. Greg Cwik
If Beale Street Could Talk, Daniel’s Monologue
If Beale Street Could Talk is at its most potent in the scenes where human frailty and the specter of injustice come more elliptically to the surface, as in a long dialogue scene between Fonny (Stephan James) and Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), an old school chum. At first it’s all soothingly friendly chitchat between the two men. Then things slip into dolefully dark territory as Daniel recalls his time in prison: “The white man’s got to be the devil. He sure ain’t a man. Some of the things I saw, baby, I’ll be dreaming about until the day I die.” What hits hardest about Daniel’s recollections is his overall sense of exhaustion. If constant subjugation doesn’t kill you, it’s suggested, then your soul is forever crippled, which is in many ways a worse fate. How can anyone walk through life with their spirit so completely paralyzed? Keith Uhlich
Let the Sunshine In, “At Last”
Etta James’s “At Last” is like “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or “Over the Rainbow”—a piece of music so deeply imbedded in popular culture that its use risks parody. Leave it, then, to Claire Denis, a modern master of needle drops, to find just the right implementation. In Let the Sunshine In, the song becomes an exemplification of the romantic nirvana pined after by middle-aged Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a feeling crystallized in a sensuous slow dance with a bar patron that finds Denis’s camera pirouetting sinuously with her lead character. After a series of botched relationships, Isabelle’s ecstasy is cathartic and moving in the moment but ultimately illusory and hollow, a spell cast through the concise power of Denis’s montage and broken just as quickly by a hard, sobering cut back to reality. Lund
Mandy, Bathroom Meltdown
Mandy is a smorgasbord of indulgences held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Chuck Bowen
A Star Is Born, “Shallow”
“Shallow” makes less sense as a song than Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) performs as a celebrity, but it’s perfectly structured for Ally’s (Lady Gaga) birth as an idol. Cooper makes goosebumpy magic of Ally and Jackson mooning in the backdrop of one another’s closeups, and their performance features two of the great half-seconds in the year’s cinema: first Ally covering her face in a rush of fear, embarrassment, and exhilaration, then catching up to the song’s chorus a half-beat late with unstoppable force. Gray
The Strangers: Prey at Night, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
The ne plus ultra of The Strangers: Prey at Night‘s irony-tinged mayhem is a lengthy set piece at a secluded mobile home park’s pool. It’s there that Luke (Lewis Pullman) brutally dispatches Dollface (Emma Bellomy), then tussles with the Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei), all set rather perversely to the camp-operatic mood swings of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The song almost subliminally primes the characters to perform a dance of death, a point that the camera devilishly underscores by jumping in and out of the water alongside Luke and the Man in the Mask, in the process muffling the sound of Bonnie Tyler’s protestations. Ed Gonzalez
Suspiria, Break Dance
As Susie (Dakota Johnson) dances, Olga (Elena Fokina) breaks—literally. The gist of the scene is that simple, yet Luca Guadagnino and editor Walter Fasano create an unforgiving series of images that approximates what it feels like for Olga to have her body being taken away from her. First Olga’s arms, then her torso and legs, and finally her face. By the end of Susie’s ascension within the dance company via her dexterous moves, Olga is but a urine-stained pretzel, helplessly writhing on the floor. All About Eve, eat your heart out. Dillard
Widows, A Drive Through Town
The numerous long takes sprinkled throughout Steve McQueen’s oeuvre tend to exude a shallow, posturing quality. This shot from the filmmaker’s Widows, however, is rich in meaning. With the film’s camera mounted to the hood of a car, Colin Farrell’s Chicago councilman candidate is seen leaving an event in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood and riding to his posh townhouse on the other side of town. In one long take, McQueen cannily and succinctly catches glimpses of how the neighborhood has succumbed to the forces of gentrification. Greene
Wild Boys, Island Arrival
Upon landing on a mysterious island with their magisterial captor, the five wild boys of Bertrand Mandico’s film wander through the tropical jungle and discover a landscape rife with bizarre sexual pleasures. As the boys traverse through groping grass, quench their thirst with the juices of ejaculating trees, and satiate their hunger with hairy, testicular-shaped fruits, it’s as if the island is responding to their surging desires. Such an uninhibited and unhinged celebration of pure, impulsive sexuality, in a film driven by silent-film aesthetics no less, is capable of making even Guy Maddin blush. Smith
Zama, The Ambush
Lucrecia Martel’s cinema dwells in languor and repressed energy, a wavelength for which she’s invented her own filmmaking grammar. In Zama, a tale of simmering tensions in Paraguay during Spanish colonial rule, that grammar gets audaciously applied to action scenes that briefly and violently materialize the friction felt between Spanish forces and oppressed natives elsewhere in the narrative. The first of these eruptions, a shockingly rapid and coordinated ambush in a boggy marshland at high noon, offers a stunning case study of Martel’s distinctive style in the context of frenetic action: The camera remains stagnant and the sound design sparse, but everything’s unnervingly sped-up and fragmentary, a technique that approximates the phenomenological jolt of danger. Lund