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American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

To celebrate American Life’s release, Slant Magazine has delved into Madonna’s catalog and reevaluated her key releases.

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American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

One of the most original and innovative artists of the modern era, Madonna has sold 150 million albums worldwide, topped the charts across two decades, created an enormously influential body of work in the music video medium (11 of her original clips are included in Slant Magazine’s 100 Greatest Music Videos, more than any other artist) and has stood at the forefront of popular culture for 20 years. This fall, Warner Bros. Records will commemorate the 20th anniversary of Madonna’s debut album with a comprehensive box set. But that’s not before the superstar releases her 10th studio album, American Life, due April 22nd. To celebrate its release, Slant Magazine has delved into Madonna’s catalog and reevaluated her key releases.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Madonna (1983)

Sometime in between disco, punk and new wave, a new genre was born: “dance music.” Heralding the synth-heavy movement was a debut album that sounds just as fresh today as it did two decades ago. Simply titled Madonna, the disc introduced a new pop icon to the world with the soulful “Borderline” and the airy “Holiday.” When Madonna sang “Celebration! Come together in every nation,” global harmony never sounded so simple. The album also spawned Madonna’s first Top 5 hit, “Lucky Star,” which unknowingly prefaced her recent foray into the glittery halls of electronic-pop. “Everybody” is as durable a dance track as it was when it was released as Madonna’s very first single in 1982. Tracks like the edgy, punk-infused “Burning Up” incorporated electric guitars along with the most state-of-the-art synthesizers. And as an added bonus, Madonna even handily rings a cowbell, previewing a seemingly bottomless arsenal of talents that would emerge over the next 20 years.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Like a Virgin (1984)

Like a Virgin, the record that launched Madonna into unearthly super-stardom and went on to sell over 10 million copies domestically, defined a generation with hits like “Material Girl” and the now-classic title track. Though not as innovative as her debut, the album stands as one of the most definitive pop artifacts from the indulgent Reagan Era. The mid-tempo ballad “Shoo-Bee-Doo” and a soulful cover of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” proved Madonna could churn out more than just novelty hits, while the sugary “Angel” and the irresistible “Dress You Up” contributed to the singer’s record-breaking list of consecutive Top 5 hits (16 in all). The retro-infused “Stay” and the percussive “Over and Over” are the album’s hidden gems; a frenetic remix of the latter resurfaced on the 1987 compilation You Can Dance.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

True Blue (1986)

With four extremely varied #1 singles, Madonna’s third album, True Blue, was the supreme archetype for late 80s and early 90s pop music. With songs like “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna made the transition from pop tart to consummate artist, joining the ranks of 80s icons like Michael Jackson and Prince. The songs were undeniably more mature than “Material Girl,” dashing some critics’ assertions that she was just another flash in the pop pan. The striking “Live to Tell” was not only a brave first single, but a statement in and of itself. The ballad rewrote the rules of what a pop song was supposed to sound like and spoke volumes about Madonna’s unwavering drive for fame and mass-acceptance: “If I ran away, I’d never have the strength to go very far.” True Blue includes some of Madonna’s greatest, most influential hits (the robust “Open Your Heart” and the timeless “La Isla Bonita”), but it’s also home to some of her biggest clunkers. Like much of Like a Virgin, the title track is an authentic throw-back to the girl-group-era pop that was an admitted influence on the singer, but the effect seems significantly more contrived on “Jimmy Jimmy” and the obligatory save-the-world anthem “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Time stamped with ‘80s-era keyboard and drum synths, True Blue, though chock-full of hits, is the most dated of Madonna’s albums.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Like a Prayer (1989)

In 1989, Madonna released what has been called her greatest and most personal record to date. Like a Prayer found the pop singer coming-of-age with a collection of pop confections layered with live instrumentation, sophisticated arrangements, deeply felt lyrics, and a stronger, more assured vocal. The album begins with a clamoring guitar riff that erupts and ebbs to the first chords of the title track, a church organ quietly setting the stage for the song’s dramatic crescendo. “Like a Prayer” climbs to heights like no other pop song before it—or after. Like most of the songs on the album, the track’s glossy production gives way to a power beyond studio sonics. Madonna pays homage to the Beatles (on the magical, Sgt. Pepper-esque “Dear Jessie”), Simon & Garfunkel (the haunting “Oh Father”) and Sly and the Family Stone (“Keep It Together,” which evokes “Family Affair” without the use of samples or artless imitation). Another Sly & The Family Stone-inspired tune, “Express Yourself,” turned Madonna’s “Material Girl” image on its head, denouncing material things for a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t. The track is easily the most soulful performance of Madonna’s career. Like a Prayer also found the pop star at her most emotionally bare: the autobiographical “Till Death Do Us Part” addressed Madonna’s tumultuous marriage to Sean Penn, delivering punch (“You’re not in love with someone else/You don’t even love yourself”) after punch (“He starts the fight, she starts the lie/But what is truth when something dies?”); the heart-wrenching piano-ballad “Promise To Try” touched on the death of her mother; and the powerful “Spanish Eyes” bravely (and elegantly) confronted the issue of AIDS. While her vocal isn’t perfect on these songs, her interpretations are flawless because of her brutal honesty. Never before had Madonna been so emotionally candid. By this time, Madonna had become a savvy songwriter, constructing lyrics in layers so that each song could be accessible on multiple levels. In the grand pop scheme, songs like “Cherish,” which invokes the sunshine pop of the ‘60s, and “Love Song,” a daring and unconventional duet with Prince, pale only in comparison to their glorious counterparts, making Like a Prayer one of the quintessential pop albums of all time.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

I’m Breathless (1990)

With I’m Breathless, Madonna went whole-hog, creating a concept album of Big-Band numbers inspired by Breathless Mahoney, her character from the 1990 film Dick Tracy. Three songs were pulled directly from the film, including the torchy “Sooner Or Later,” which won composer Stephen Sondheim an Oscar, and the ironic “More,” which seemed tailor-made for the former Material Girl: “Once you have it all…There’s one thing you miss/And that’s more!” Madonna steps up to bat—Sondheim’s clever wordplay and melodies are often sophisticated by pop music standards—and knocks them right out of the park. From playful and sultry (“He’s a Man”) to kittenish (the Latin-flavored “I’m Going Bananas”), she displays a remarkable vocal range throughout the album. Songs like the cheeky “Hanky Panky” and the ardent “Something to Remember,” a seemingly personal meditation on self-love, touched on themes she would go on to explore more explicitly later in the 90s. Madonna could never be satisfied with just a 40s Big-Band concept album, of course; “Now I’m Following You,” a duet with co-star Warren Beatty, segues into a dance remix that includes a Socrates quote (“An unexamined life is not worth living”) that, in typical Madonna fashion, she twists to fit her own post-modern interpretation. The album’s final track, the hugely influential “Vogue,” at first seems grossly out of place, but with its homage to old Hollywood, the track is ultimately a more than fitting finale to a daring album. Preceding Evita and, hell, even Chicago, I’m Breathless proves that Madonna is a true renaissance woman who has literally done it all.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Erotica (1992)

Self-absorbed, deeply flawed and hugely under-appreciated, Madonna’s Erotica, the album MTV’s Kurt Loder likened to an “iceberg,” is considered by many to be the singer’s rock-bottom. Madonna, under the guise of 1930s actress Dita Parlo, presides over the mess with whip in hand, tongue planted firmly in cheek and a knowing wink in her eye. Erotica’s title track is pure sadomasochism in the form of song (“Only the one that hurts you can make you feel better”), while “Where Life Begins” waxes erotic on the perks and pleasures of oral sex (“You can eat all you want and you don’t get fat”). But that’s not to say there aren’t any pop-friendly moments. With its of-the-moment house beats, swirling keyboard synths and flamenco guitar, “Deeper and Deeper” is both a product of its time and a timeless Madonna classic. Her sonorous vocal harmonies glide atop the frosty beats and skyward drone of the gorgeous “Rain,” while the dance track “Words” is both inventive and sleek. Though she enlisted “Vogue” producer Shep Pettibone for most of the album, Madonna could have more successfully achieved her gritty, raw sound had she handed the reigns over to Andre Betts, who produced just three tracks here. While Pettibone’s often-suffocating productions now sound dated, Betts’ jazzy piano parts and hip-hop beats were way ahead of their time. Long before her rap on “American Life,” Erotica’s “Waiting,” a veritable sequel to the steely, in-your-face spoken-word of “Justify My Love,” found the singer sharpening her questionable rhyming skills. The album’s most personal, revealing moment comes in the unexpected acid jazz/drum n’ bass closer “Secret Garden,” in which Madonna pines for an unborn child: “I just wish I knew the color of my hair/I know the answer’s hiding somewhere.” While two socially conscious tracks, the reggae-infused “Why’s It So Hard” and the icy AIDS ballad “In This Life,” seem to break the flow, Erotica’s irrefutable unsexiness probably says more about the sex=death mentality of the early ‘90s than any other musical statement of its time. And whatever words one chooses to label the album with—cold, artificial, self-absorbed—Madonna embraces those qualities and makes it part of the message. It was also around this time that Madonna’s famous beauty mark fell off her face.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Bedtime Stories (1994)

When Madonna declared, “Only the one who inflicts the pain can take it away,” on 1992’s “Erotica,” she wasn’t kidding. Following the funk of the Erotica album and her notorious Sex book, Madonna provided the creamy balm of Bedtime Stories, a fluffy-pillowed concept album that unfolds like a musical fairy tale. The album’s first single, “Secret,” is perhaps the most naked performance of her career. Acoustic guitars, expertly sweetened vocals and producer Dallas Austin’s signature R&B beats soulfully transport the listener into Madonna’s troubled yet soothing world. For years, Madonna spoke in metaphors, fantasies and blatant shock tactics, but the performer indignantly struck back at her critics on “Human Nature.” She didn’t just hold up a mirror, she became the mirror: “Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex/I musta been crazy…I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about you.” But whether it’s the poetic ballad “Love Tried to Welcome Me,” which was inspired by a stripper Madonna met in a club, or the enchanting “Sanctuary,” in which she quotes Walt Whitman’s “Vocalism,” Madonna seemed more interested in literature and human psychology than sexual biology. The album’s mix of sorrow and romance (she compares rejection to an aphrodisiac on “Forbidden Love” and equates death and desire on “Sanctuary”) exposes a woman who might have been in need of some serious therapy. Despite the album’s multiple producers and genre jerkiness, it’s this theme of yearning that holds it all together. Working with superstar producers is a rarity for the singer, so Babyface, who penned and produced “Take A Bow,” was in scarce company. The ballad is at once syrupy and bittersweet, calling on the words of one William Shakespeare to help recount the tale’s dramatic conclusion: “All the world is a stage/And everyone has their part…But how was I to know you’d break my heart?” “Take a Bow” became Madonna’s longest-running chart-topper, but it’s the Björk-penned “Bedtime Story,” perhaps the single with the most unfulfilled hit potential in Madonna’s 20-year career, that could have been the next “Vogue.” “Let’s get unconscious, honey,” she sings hypnotically over pulsating beats and electronic gurgles courtesy of Nellee Hooper and Marius DeVries. The song was the germ that would later inspire Madonna to seek out and conquer electronica with the likes of William Orbit and Mirwais.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Ray of Light (1998)

Ray of Light, Madonna’s first studio album in four years, marked the singer’s return to pop music after a detour that took her from Argentina to motherhood to spiritual reawakening. After reuniting with longtime songwriting partner Patrick Leonard (who played a key role in many of Madonna’s greatest songs and whose contributions to this, her eighth album, are often overlooked), Madonna called on U.K. electronica whiz William Orbit to assemble a batch of songs that nimbly married electronic music with pop. With “Frozen,” the album’s first single, Madonna, Leonard and Orbit crafted what can only be described as one of the great pop masterpieces of the 90s. Its lyrics are uncomplicated but its statement is grand: “You only see what your eyes want to see/How can life be what you want it to be?” The song’s bewitching melody and cinematic string arrangement is pumped up with Orbit’s expressive drum fills and pulsating electronic effects. Tracks like the frenetic “Skin” and “Shanti/Ashtangi,” a Yoga techno prayer only Madonna could pull off, are similarly lacquered with a bubbly electronic sheen. But for all the studio gimmicks, there’s a healthy spoonful of live guitars and percussion thrown into the mix. Orbit’s cycles of analog synths and electric guitar licks perfectly supplement the elasticity of Madonna’s then-newly-trained vocal chords. Like no other Madonna hit in recent memory, the title track found the singer in a celebratory tech-frenzy. Whether it was an epiphany of the spiritual or sonic kind (Ray of Light marked a dance-rooted homecoming for the pop star), her elation was unmistakable: “Quicker than a ray of light, I’m flying…And I feel like I just got home!” Though she’s made an entire career out of revealing herself, Madonna hadn’t been this emotionally candid since Like a Prayer. Layered with vocal samples and buoyant drum n’ bass beats, “Drowned World,” the title of which was inspired by J. G. Ballard’s apocalyptic novel of the same name, sums up much of Madonna’s personal tribulations with fame: “I got exactly what I asked for/Running, rushing back for more…And now I find, I’ve changed my mind.” “Mer Girl,” the album’s final, spooky offering, is a surreal meditation on mortality and the death of the newly-dubbed Ethereal Girl’s mother: “The earth took me in her arms/Leaves covered my face/Ants marched across my back.” But while time has yet to leave its mark on Ray of Light the way it has True Blue and Erotica, it’s difficult to tell how the album will hold up in years to come.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Music (2000)

Madonna once told producer Shep Pettibone that an artist should never do the same thing twice, and two new collaborations with Ray of Light’s William Orbit, “Runaway Lover” and “Amazing,” prove that when you do, it will probably be completely uninteresting. Orbit may not have had enough tricks up his sleeve for an entire new album and perhaps Madonna knew that. As such, she enlisted French electronica guru Mirwais for most of 2000’s Music, which seems more like a collection of songs than a cohesive album, and was an unexpected answer to the Grammy-winning Ray of Light. But strangely, in an attempt to make a “fun,” less-introspective album, Madonna revealed more of herself than ever. No longer shrouded with pedantic spirituality, she became even more human, exposing her fears on tracks like “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Paradise (Not for Me)” and revealing her joys on “Impressive Instant” and the massive hit “Music.” With its stop-and-go guitar riffs, atypical structure and peculiar lyrics (“Tell the bed not to lay/Like the open mouth of a grave/Not to stare up at me/Like a calf down on its knees”), the soulful “Don’t Tell Me” was an unlikely hit, but its fusion of stuttering electronic beats and acoustic guitars seemed to be striving to define the sound of the new millenium. Two tracks took a striking folk direction. “I Deserve It” found Madonna singing in a warm yet detached tone, but her vocals were completely untouched by effects. “Gone,” another collaboration with Orbit, ends the album and is possibly one of Madonna’s best performances. In the vein of “Live to Tell,” the song seems to sum up everything Madonna has tried to tell us about being the most famous woman in the world. It is also, perhaps, the most human she has ever been. Self-deprecation and vulnerability have never been Madonna’s strong-suits, but the way she sings “I’m not very smart” could make you wonder.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

American Life (2003)

Having made a career out of taking us by surprise, Madonna curiously chose to shack up with French producer Mirwais a second time for her tenth studio album, American Life. Back are the oscillating filters, clunky beats, stuttering guitars and irksome Auto-Tuned vocals, but while 2000’s Music was all over the place musically, American Life is more consistent, and this time M+M have perfected the experimental guitar/synth sound they christened with “Don’t Tell Me.” Much like Music’s aptly-titled “Impressive Instant,” “Nobody Knows Me” is the album’s most immediately gratifying tune. The track has a patently retro quality (think Stacey Q on acid) that bridges the synth-happy gap between “Material Girl” and “Music.” While Madonna’s attempt at rapping on the title track is cheeky at best (the song also finds Mirwais regurgitating his signature beats and grinding synth sounds), her digitally spliced rhymes on “Mother and Father” are starling and inventive. The album’s best tunes, though, mostly abandon the techno-rap ether and dive headlong into folk-rock territory. With several songs stacking layers of sophisticated vocal harmonies on top of sparse acoustic guitars, the influence of Joni Mitchell, an early Madonna favorite, seems to be finally floating to the surface. If it’s true that rock stars make their worst music when they’re happy, then Madonna must be faking it. She may appear to be head-over-heels in love with someone (her husband and/or son on “Love Profusion” and “Intervention,” respectively) or something (God on the Gospel-flavored “Nothing Fails”), but it seems like Madonna’s in the throes of a full-fledged midlife crisis. Where she used to rage against the machine in deeds (or misdeeds), Madonna now bites back more directly with her lyrics. Her vocals hark back to songs like “Burning Up” on the guitar-driven “I’m So Stupid,” a track with a decidedly punk-rock sensibility: “Please don’t try to tempt me/It was just greed/And it won’t protect me.” After years of flip-flopping between sub-genres and finally finding a comfortable niche in electronica, then teasing us with her electric guitar-wielding rock goddess persona during 2001’s Drowned World Tour, and now showing promise as a folk-rock songstress, the only thing left for Madonna to do is plug in and make a full-blown rock album.

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.

Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.

Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”

Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.

Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

Tags: Academy Awards, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker, Thomas Newman, 1917, Alexandre Desplat, Little Women, Randy Newman, Marriage Story, John Williams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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Under the Radar 2020: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, Not I, & More

Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder.

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The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes
Photo: Public Theater

Most of the plays I see in New York City are created by able-bodied, Anglophone playwrights. (More often than not they’re men, and more often than not they’re white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, “international” means “imported from London.” If it doesn’t, it probably means “directed by Ivo van Hove.” But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater’s 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what you’re getting yourself into.

Despite the relentless pace, marathoning in a festival setting like Under the Radar works against the critical impulse to get in and get out. Lingering in playing spaces beyond the curtain call to soak in the experience and seeking threads of connections between plays before cementing my verdict on any are rarer opportunities than I’d realized.

Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival—especially taking in shows at high quantity in quick succession—replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I haven’t adored every offering at this year’s festival, but, in each theater space, I’ve been keenly, refreshingly alert to my presence and my perspective as an audience member, to the ways in which I hear and watch and engage. I’ve looked sideways as well as dead ahead, and over the weekend, I saw two performances that required lengthy, committed conversations with the strangers sitting next to me. (And that’s especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other people’s opinions coexist alongside ours.)

This year’s lineup of plays has been particularly successful in making audiences acutely aware of themselves as a whole, as people who lug assumptions and anxieties and uncertainties into their seats. Take The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the first play I saw this season and the festival’s most rewarding in its complexity. Throughout its hour-long run time, I had occasionally taken note of a long strip of yellow tape at the front of the playing space. During the play, the four actors, all of whom are neurodivergent and play characters who are neurodivergent, frequently step up to that line to speak to the audience. I imagined the line as a necessary, neon beacon for the performers to find their way forward.

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes

A scene from The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes. © The Public

Yet, in the final moments of the play, actor Simon Laherty (who also co-wrote the script with his castmates and other members of the Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company), tears the tape off the floor and exits. The gesture reads as a direct rebuke to the very ideas I’d been holding for the play’s duration: It seems to ask, ”Who are you to assume that the world of this play was built for its performers instead of for the characters they play? How can you, sitting there, decide what we, putting on a show for you up here, need in order to perform?” And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?

Directed by Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes stars four performers with disabilities playing characters (with their own first names) who host a sort of town hall meeting to educate the people in attendance about what it’s like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesn’t mean the characters with disabilities they play are them, any more than neurotypical roles match the neurotypical actors playing them. Again and again, through moves so subtle I’m not sure I didn’t imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audience’s assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while I’m not entirely sure of the title’s meaning, it might have something to do with the play’s constant shadowy evasion of comforting resolutions: Never once is an audience member allowed to feel like they have mastered the art of empathy.

An early sequence seems deliberate in putting an audience on edge, as the long stretches of silence as actor Sarah Mainwaring prepares to speak made me wonder whether it was the actor or the character who had forgotten her lines. Was this discomforting silence performed or real? It’s part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theater’s long pauses. But I feel sure that The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes anticipated my discomfort and my doubt. That dark cocktail of emotions following the clarifying moments—relieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasy—stayed with me for the rest of the play’s rich hour.

In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and there’s nimble, layered playfulness as the characters obsess around whether the imagined audience at the town hall meeting are understanding their message. And while some of the sections of the text work better than others (I’m not sure about the suggestion that everyone will be deemed disabled when artificial intelligence overtakes human thought), the actors also engage brilliantly with the supertitles, which are supposedly transcribed live at the meeting by Siri. Supertitles seem at first like a tool for us, the audience, to understand the performers’ speech. As Scott Price laments, “I have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.” But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. “You can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,” Sarah notes with disdain. “The subtitling is offensive.”

This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: “I’m a disabled person here and I’m proud and I don’t want to weave my way around language.” But there’s no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.

Perhaps the play’s sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as “very childlike” and insinuating that he can’t understand what’s going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (“You’re talking like Simon’s not even in the room”), and it’s not just an indictment of how individuals with disabilities can be dehumanized to their faces but also an illuminating glance into how internalized measures of normalcy have permeated the disability community. This quartet of characters doesn’t include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. It’s a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what I’ve learned from my first encounter with Back to Back to do better the next time.

If The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes invites us to project imagined limitations on to the performers and then to watch those assumptions crumble, the creator of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at BRIC (the Brooklyn venue hosting this show) wants us to know exactly what to expect from the beginning. Yes, this is a performance—and an exhilarating one—of Beckett’s 15-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue, first performed in 1972, but this production positions the piece at the center of a conversation with the performer, Jess Thom.

Thom, who’s best known in the U.K. for Touretteshero, an alter ego aimed at educating and spreading awareness of Tourette’s syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are “biscuit,” “sausage,” and “I love cats,” plus a few words and phrases that aren’t quite so “cute,” as Thom describes them. Unlike The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the sense of unpredictability here is shared by the performers. A few times throughout the day, Thom explains, she will lose control over her body and speech, and this possibility creates a space of “genuine jeopardy.”

Not I

A scene from Not I. © James Lyndsay

Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thom’s central work here: envisioning a truly inclusive performance space and then co-creating that space with her audience. There are no surprises in Not I. Thom explains, in detail, that her wheelchair will be lifted eight feet into the air atop a hydraulic lift; that only her mouth will be lit (as in all productions of Beckett’s monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckett’s explosively high-velocity text, plus each unexpected tic along the way; that the post-performance experiences will include watching a video, discussing the monologue with a stranger, and participating in a Q&A.

The audience sits on padded benches and pillows on the floor, and Thom invites people to move and make noise during the piece as needed. An online guide to the performance even includes a sound map, alerting audience members to patches of loud noise, like applause and a section of the monologue featuring terrifying screams. With its shrieks and terrorizing, relentless intensity, Not I certainly defies expectations for the sorts of theater pieces that tend to offer relaxed, inclusive performances. But by reclaiming the character of Mouth through the lens of disability, Thom has made the jumbled thoughts of the character suddenly specific and, if not quite understandable, accessible through empathy.

Though Beckett meant for Not I to unnerve its auditors with its impenetrableness, Thom uses the text to grant entry into her own experiences of losing control over her own speech and movement. Thom’s tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouth’s words. In fact, as Thom explained in the Q&A section, the tics actually multiply to fill the spaces between breakneck sections of monologue; the speed with which she articulates the text temporarily displaces her tics, “like a stone in water,” but they flow back in during Beckett’s indicated silences. “My version of silence,” Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 “biscuits” in a row. If we can embrace and understand the charismatic, wisecracking Thom, we should be able to extend that compassion toward embracing and understanding her version of Mouth too.

After the performance of Beckett’s monologue, Thom sits on the floor as a short video about the making of this piece plays. In the video, Thom attributes her emergence as a performer to the exclusion and isolation she experiences as an audience member: on-stage seemed to be “the only seat in the house I wouldn’t be asked to leave.” And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: It’s only during this section of the performance—a few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the dark—that I reverted to experiencing Thom’s tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the video’s celebration of inclusive theatrical spaces, I was simultaneously sensing my own flashes of concern or maybe frustration or maybe fear that someone sitting beside me in the darkness was breaking the sacred rules of stillness and silence. With love and warmth and unvarying good humor, Thom manages to shine a glaring, pointed spotlight on our own limitations as compassionate stewards of the spaces we strive to co-inhabit. Then she asks us to look around the room and gives us the chance, right then and there, to change.

The limitations of the human intellect—and the human spirit—are put to the test in Grey Rock, an English-language commission by Palestinian playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi which premiered at La MaMa a year ago. Zuabi’s play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: It’s a family comedy, actually one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.

Grey Rock

A scene from Grey Rock. © Carlos Cardona

Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is perplexed that her father, the widower Yusuf (Khalifa Natour), has suddenly started working out vigorously. Why the sudden focus on getting in shape? At first she thinks he’s seeing someone new—it’s been three years since her mother died—but that doesn’t explain why he’s also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusuf’s plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.

It’s in Yusuf’s very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabi’s play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audience’s expectations of the performers’ failures, Grey Rock anticipates the need for viewers to see conflict and war in every image and line of dialogue with Palestine attached to it.

Israel is a reality in the world of Grey Rock, of course, and one which diminishes what some of these characters think they can become: Fadel describes the Israeli forces as “stop signs for the imagination” and Yusuf later tells Lila’s ill-matched fiancé Jawad (Alaa Shehada), “You have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.” But Zuabi seems less interested in using the play to protest the Israeli presence in Palestine than in advocating for a Palestinian uprising of imagination and creativity in the face of dehumanization. There’s an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rock’s structure and plot twists, but the play remains grounded enough to suggest real-world pathways forward for oppressed peoples to dream big. (The fact that these performers, who all identify as Palestinian, have overcome complex visa hurdles to perform in New York twice in the span of a year, is a dream realized already.) Except for the final scene (a tonal shift that doesn’t entirely pay off), Grey Rock keeps the darkness at bay. The Israeli occupying forces are a constant off-stage presence, an invisible menace that the characters must sometimes ignore in order to live and shape their own stories.

Most of the story careens through amusingly familiar tropes, but it’s a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but there’s something appealing in the transparency with which it draws us in. The play was written for English speakers, with the intention of exposing the ordinary vibrancy of quotidian Palestinian existence. Knowing some of the well-trodden arcs of the plot in advance narrows the space between Anglophone audiences and the world they encounter.

Zuabi is a far nimbler writer than director; the play’s magnetic energy only diminishes in its awkwardly staged moments of physical comedy and occasionally rudderless transitions between scenes. But his dialogue briskly fleshes out his five characters, who also include the village’s anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). There’s a particularly delightful rapport between Natour’s gruff stargazer and Azazian’s overeager yet tentative assistant.

Beyond the crisp comedy, the relationship between Yusuf and his beloved, aspiring daughter Lila feels almost operatic in its balance of tenderness and tumult: Lila harbors years of resentment that her father allowed himself to be jailed for anti-occupation propaganda, leaving her mother to raise Lila independently for five years. When Yusuf leaps to his feet jubilantly upon hearing that Lila’s broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, it’s both hilarious and sweetly moving.

I’m not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: “I order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,” Yusuf says, explaining his rocket-in-progress to an ever-expanding community of supporters. But to go Under the Radar, the Public has ordered up a series of shows which are anything but small in their expansive commitment to transforming audiences, preparing them to be more perceptive, empathetic people, perhaps even in time for the next performance.

Under the Radar runs from January 8—19.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.

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Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.

Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.

No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.

On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

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The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs

We count down Janet’s 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites.

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The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs

Nothing summarizes Janet Jackson’s contributions to pop music any clearer than the interlude that serves as the transition between Rhythm Nation’s opening trio of socially conscious tracks and the largely feel-good love songs that follow: “Get the point? Good, let’s dance.” She’s gone through many phases (industrial trainee, man-conquering vamp, spiritual gardener, 20-year-old), but span her entire career and those stages seem less clearly delineated than most comparable icons’ respective chapters, with symmetrically uniform peaks and surprisingly rare valleys. With Janet, the pleasure principle has always served as her musical conscience, and it’s guided her through a career near unparalleled in its ability to serve unfussy pop confections. Unlike that of big brother Michael or her rival on the ‘80s and ‘90s dance charts, Madonna, there ain’t no acid in Janet’s delivery, just bubblegum. The nasty boys of Slant have decided once and for all to count down her 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites. Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2015.


25. “Feedback”

Technology is the thrust of 2008’s infectious and ridiculously weird single “Feedback.” With it, Jan got her 4/4 back, equating her vagina to a subwoofer (and, notably, her clit to guitar strings) and her swagger to a heavy-flow day. The beats are spare but oppressive, the synths scratchy and impatient, the perfect accompaniment for the singer’s libidinous frustration. Sal Cinquemani


24. “All for You”

Hard to tell which was bigger: this comeback disco anthem (which sat atop the Billboard charts for a lusty seven weeks in 2001) or the size of the impressive basket the guy who caught Janet’s eye apparently had (and upon which, according to the lyrics, she later sat atop). What was striking about “All for You” at the time wasn’t its unabashed frankness (the entire song is Jackson basically knocking the listener upside the head with the promise that she’s not hard to get), but the atmosphere of airless frivolity around it. It’s a sex jam that sounds like a carnival ride. Henderson


23. “Funky Big Band”

Realness, as anyone who’s seen Paris Is Burning knows, presumes aspirational designs among those who espouse it. “Funky Big Band” grasps that harshly glamorous concept right from its opening interlude, “The Lounge,” which drops listeners into the illicit milieu of a password-only speakeasy before reminding them, “You’ve got to be real/If you want to hear the funky big band.” From its tangy clavinet doodles to its roaring Lionel Hampton-sampled jazz loops (producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had clearly spun Soho once or twice), “Funk Big Band” is the militant bastard stepchild of the zoot-suit antics of “Alright.” Henderson


22. “Velvet Rope”

A song about self-empowerment, featuring a children’s choir and violin solo to boot, smacks of inevitable mawkishness. But with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s thoughtful production, Janet’s unpretentious delivery of even lyrics like “One love’s the answer,” and violinist Vanessa Mae’s edgy solo, this potential schmaltz-fest became a thoughtful theme-establishing introduction to Janet’s most personal album to date. Cinquemani


21. “Lonely”

Throughout Janet’s imperial phase, the template called for each of her albums to close out with a suite of love ballads. Skippable as any of them may have seemed when all you wanted to do was follow Janet’s own mantra “Get the point? Good, let’s dance,” the best of them—like this sultry, intimate invitation from one isolated soul to another—expose themselves at the most unexpected moments. Just like sex. Henderson

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2020 Oscar Nomination Predictions

We were so sure that last year’s Oscars would be the last Oscars. Okay, not really.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

We were so sure that last year’s Oscars would be the last Oscars. Okay, not really, but the endless parade of stupid decisions to improve a show that no one who watches thinks ought to be anything other than the silly, dated, gaudy thing it’s always been gave us no confidence in its future. Nor, for that matter, did the Academy’s utter acquiescence to the Golden Globes’s selection process, rubber-stamping the latter ceremony’s much-derided choices of Bohemian Rhapsody for best drama (!) and Green Book for best comedy (!!) by allowing those films to become the two biggest winners of Oscar night. As it turns out, only one of the many lame suggestions proffered by the AMPAS’s board of directors actually came to pass, if only temporarily. It’s the accelerated calendar that shortened this year’s Oscar season and forced everyone (including us) to scramble to get ahead of the much-tightened deadline. So, like Tom Hanks’s Fred Rogers, we’ll get right to the heart of the matter.


Best Picture

Ford v. Ferrari

If there was ever a year where we’d feel comfortable going with fewer than eight nominees here, something the Oscars haven’t done since the expansion beyond five a decade ago, this would be that year. From festivals to critics’ awards to the ongoing guild nominations, such has been the uninterrupted love streak for four specific films—Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite—that it’s easy to imagine the quartet hoovering away enough of those necessary first-place votes to leave almost no room for the remaining candidates.

Did we say four? Maybe make that six, since the last few days have proven to us that both 1917, which upset for the best drama and best director Golden Globes, and, arguably, Joker, which earned the most BAFTA nominations, are firing on all necessary cylinders. We’re still not entirely sure that the love for Joker’s incel overtures isn’t more of a European thing (beyond the BAFTAs, its strongest endorsement came from its surprising Golden Lion triumph at the Venice Film Festival) and that the majority of American’s cultural gatekeepers aren’t repulsed.

But a hit is a hit is a hit, which is why we’re also predicting a surprise nod for this year’s foremost Dad Movie™, James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari, and would be likely to predict the same for an even bigger hit, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, if only its devilish depiction of the underlying racism residing within even the most well-meaning moneyed white people didn’t hit so close to home. And, of course, were it not for the alternative chance for voters to instead shoot broadly satirical, and safely historical, Nazis in a barrel.

Will Be Nominated: Ford v. Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and Parasite

Closest Runners-Up: Bombshell, Little Women, and Knives Out


Best Director

Pedro Almodóvar

No nomination gave us more reason to believe that AMPAS’s cleaning up of its voting roster may have actually changed things than Paweł Pawlikowski’s for best director last year, over the likes of Bradley Cooper and Peter Farrelly. Sure, the directors branch has always been among the most likely to nominate foreign-language candidates, once the seal was broken in the ‘60s during Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman’s heyday. But last year everyone knew their due diligence would be taken care of by Roma’s Alfonso Cuarón, and yet they still nominated a second foreign prospect, marking only the second time that’s ever happened, after Lina Wertmuller and Bergman earned nods for 1976’s Seven Beauties and Face to Face, respectively.

That, after Wertmuller, only four other female directors have been nominated isn’t of itself the kiss of death for Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Marielle Heller, Céline Sciamma, Lorene Scafaria, Mati Diop, Chinonye Chukwu, Olivia Wilde, Alma Har’el, Claire Denis, Kasi Lemmons, Melina Matsoukas, or Joanna Hogg. But the fact that BAFTA and the DGA could both assess a year with not just one top-drawer distaff candidate but legitimately more than a dozen, and still come up with nothing but penis sure feels like it.

The AMPAS branch of directors, though, still feels one or two steps hipper than the room. Maybe not hip enough to give the Safdie brothers their due, but we at least expect them to hold their noses about giving their slot to the director of The Hangover movies, and to stand another foreign director alongside the given Bong Joon-ho. Of the many options, we feel pretty bullish about longtime Academy favorite Pedro Almodóvar, whose Pain and Glory is as much a valedictory lap for elder artists as Tarantino and Scorsese’s offerings.

Will Be Nominated: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman; Sam Mendes, 1917; Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Pedro Almodóvar, Pain and Glory; and Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Closest Runners-Up: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit; Todd Phillips, Joker; and Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story


Best Actress

Cynthia Erivo

It’s hard to dispute what Mark Harris months ago saw happening in this category, namely that four slots were thought to be all but locked in for white actresses, despite wide acknowledgement that this was a weak year for the category except when it comes to actresses of color. Well, we’re going to dispute it anyway. In particular, we’re nowhere near as convinced as Gold Derby that Charlize Theron is a slam dunk. (Their collective has assigned her even more “predict nomination” points, whatever those are, than winner-elect Renée Zellweger.) Theron’s turn may be more physically transformative than co-star Nicole Kidman’s, but she’s still playing Megyn Kelly, no matter how much Bombshell opts to highlight her lawyerly “objectivity” behind the scenes and only pays momentary lip service to the sort of “Jesus was white, and so is Santa Claus” rhetoric that made her a star at Fox News in the first place.

The film’s underperformance in theaters and with precursors also doesn’t bode well, but it’s hard to imagine even the same voters who handed Green Book the top award siding with Kelly over Saoirse Ronan’s Jo pointedly throwing a passive-aggressive wedding at the end of her book to please an editor in Little Women. Lupita Nyong’o’s precursor run for starring in elevated horror gave us flashbacks, but she has one thing Toni Collette didn’t: that SAG nod. So, we think she emerges from the underworld to stand alongside Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo.

Will Be Nominated: Cynthia Erivo, Harriet; Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story; Lupita Nyong’o, Us; Saoirse Ronan, Little Women; and Renée Zellweger, Judy

Closest Runners-Up: Awkwafina, The Farewell; Charlize Theron, Bombshell; and Alfre Woodard, Clemency


Best Actor

Taron Egerton

On the flip side, we’re unable to shake the specter of Ethan Hawke failing to land an Oscar nod despite winning approximately four times as many critics’ awards as any other single performer last year. There will likely be plenty of time to unpack what AMPAS has to say about masculinity in the midst of the #MeToo backlash, but suffice it for now to say that the alchemy straight actor Antonio Banderas brings to Almodóvar’s queer universe, not just now but for literally a generation, feels particularly out of line with the zeitgeist held up against not just the likes of Joaquin Phoenix’s sociopathic Joker, but arguably almost everyone else we see breezing by Banderas for the nod in the year’s most competitive acting category.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s existential crisis as fading B-list actor Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is also, often explicitly, a crisis of professional virility. The initial post-feminist-friendly reluctance of Adam Driver’s character to do battle with his soon-to-be ex-wife in Marriage Story eventually shatters into what Film Twitter (yes, shallowly) categorized as the wrath of someone who’s never had to deal with being called on their privilege. And, of course, Ford v. Ferrari’s last word on Oscar darling Christian Bale’s Ken Miles comes in the form of one of his tools, predicating his entire existence on “the work.”

And speaking of work, if Rocketman’s Taron Egerton looks increasingly likely to take the most up-for-grabs slot, it’s as much due to his willingness to put in the hours on the glad-handing highway as it is Oscar’s increasingly grudging fondness for male ingénues (Rami Malek, Eddie Redmayne). In the context of all this, we won’t be terribly surprised to see Robert De Niro’s central performance in The Irishman, as a man’s man who way too late in the game realizes the cost of his brand of masculinity, reduced to an also-ran.

Will Be Nominated: Christian Bale, Ford v. Ferrari; Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood; Adam Driver, Marriage Story; Taron Egerton, Rocketman; and Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Closest Runners-Up: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory; Robert De Niro, The Irishman; and Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes


Best Supporting Actress

Margot Robbie

Academy rules prevent Margo Robbie from getting nominated twice here. But the fact that the BAFTAs reserved not one but two slots for her on their ballot, despite all headwinds indicating that the consultants and publicists pulling the strings on the campaign trail had fully installed Bombshell as “the one” for Robbie’s Oscar chances this year, feels an awful lot like Kate Winslet in 2008 to us. As you recall, everyone fell into line with the narrative that she was to be nominated for lead actress for Revolutionary Road and supporting actress for The Reader. And as you recall, the Academy didn’t like the former film and found the latter downright irresistible, and so they went their own way. That’s the benefit of being the Oscars. (Everything else is called a “precursor” because they’re not the Oscars.)

We don’t need to tell you of the sizable overlap between BAFTA’s membership and AMPAS’s for you to take a wild guess as to which of Robbie’s two contending films is better liked. Also, the backlash against those who would dare point out Robbie’s Sharon Tate, aside from her feet, has a lot less to do in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood than in Bombshell is very much in the air. I mean, we’re that close to including Anna Paquin among our list of closest runners-up, specifically because of the volume among those decrying her lack of dialogue in The Irishman.

Will Be Nominated: Laura Dern, Marriage Story; Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit; Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers; Florence Pugh, Little Women; and Margot Robbie, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Closest Runners-Up: Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell; Margot Robbie, Bombshell; and Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell


Best Supporting Actor

Alan Alda

About this category, we have roughly as much to say as Anna Paquin, or maybe Joe Pesci, whose uncharacteristically verbose acceptance speech took everyone by surprise at the New York Film Critics Circle gala this week. Five slots, and Parasite’s Song Kang-ho aside, Oscar’s elder statesmen look to fill them all. The dual nominations for Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira last year would seem to portend good things for Song—to say nothing of SAG’s perception-altering (and still mind-blowing) nomination of Bong Joon-ho’s film for best ensemble cast over the likes of Marriage Story, Little Women, and Knives Out, but neither of Roma’s actresses faced as much competition in their fields for others’ valedictory victory laps.

Even more so than in best actress, this category simply has four slots all but reserved already. For the fifth, BAFTA and the Golden Globes went for Anthony Hopkins as Bad Pope, and SAG opted for Jamie Foxx as Good Incarnate. We’re expecting Oscar voters to go somewhere in the middle: Alan Alda, a welcome breath of fresh air playing the one lawyer in Marriage Story who recognizes how the whole system is rigged, unfair, and predatory, and who yet still possesses enough humanity to regale his client with a long-winded joke (on the clock, naturally).

Will Be Nominated: Alan Alda, Marriage Story; Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; Al Pacino, The Irishman; Joe Pesci, The Irishman; and Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Closest Runners-Up: Jamie Foxx, Just Mercy; Song Kang-ho, Parasite; and Sam Rockwell, Jojo Rabbit


Best Adapted Screenplay

Little Women

You may have noticed that we’re not yet convinced that Little Women is going to pull a Phantom Thread as the late-breaker that gets ignored by most precursors only to finally arrive at the station when it comes time for Oscar nominations. But Greta Gerwig’s updating of Louisa Mae Alcott’s universe for modern sensibilities feels like the frontrunner here, alongside Steven Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, which at approximately 4,680 pages of script earns the spot on ream-girth alone.

While it’s all iffy territory beyond those two, we actually feel pretty good about the WGA’s nominees enough to quell our reservations about leaving off the crowd-pleasing, feminist antics of Hustlers and the, we guess, Catholic-pleasing antics of The Two Popes. Jojo Rabbit and Joker were both written or co-written by the films’ directors, which never hurts, and this is one of the few categories where we could see the subtleties of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s treatise on masculinity trumping the revving of Ford v. Ferrari’s.

Will Be Nominated: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, and Little Women

Closest Runners-Up: Ford v. Ferrari, Hustlers, and The Two Popes


Best Original Screenplay

Knives Out

We can’t go five-for-five with WGA on this side of the script categories, as Quentin Tarantino remains ineligible for guild consideration. Also, you know, Booksmart, as we’d be more shocked to see that one included on the Oscar roster than we would be to see Tarantino left off. Because, beyond Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Parasite, there are already way too many candidates that fit the classic template for original screenplays that earn their movies its only Oscar nod out there, among them Rian Johnson’s riotous Knives Out, the Safdie brothers and Ronald Bronstein’s unrelenting Uncut Gems, and Lulu Wang’s nuanced The Farewell. Johnson’s political whodunit hybrid is in with a bullet syringe filled with morphine, but the other two look vulnerable to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, filled as it is with copious speechifying, and (again) Pedro Almodóvar’s don’t-call-it-a-swan song Pain and Glory.

Will Be Nominated: Knives Out, Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Pain and Glory, and Parasite

Closest Runners-Up: The Farewell, Uncut Gems, Us

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Interview: Ladj Ly on Sounding an Alarm Bell with Les Misérables

The filmmaker discusses the public reaction of the film, bringing it to Emmanuel Macron, and more.

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Ladj Ly
Photo: Amazon Studios

Titling any feature, much less one’s feature-length directorial debut, after one of your country’s most beloved shared texts might initially smack of hubris. And yet, Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables defies expectations of imposing grandiosity from its name alone. His tale of escalating tensions between the ethnic and religious minorities living in one of the banlieues (or suburbs) of Paris and the police force designated to keep them in check offers a portrait of his country from the most grounded, bottom-up level.

Ly has long been a filmmaker of the people. Primarily through web documentaries and more recently through docu-fictions and short films, his work elevates the voices of his native Montfermeil. Les Misérables feels at once like what Ly has been waiting to say his entire life and a righteously indignant encapsulation of what he’s been expressing about his community for decades. Inspired by the 2005 Paris riots but rooted in a visceral now, the film follows the complications that arise when an anti-crime squad attempts to make an arrest among the local gangs. With an impressive even-handedness, Ly charts the frenetic, verité action as it spirals outward. The film doesn’t seek out to expose one side so much as it looks to illustrate how each faction conditions itself to only recognize the humanity of those within their own group.

I caught up with Ly in New York shortly after Les Misérables opened for French audiences in November 2019. Our discussion covered how both the public and the government received his film, why the titular text didn’t serve as much direct inspiration, and how he pulled off the high-stakes opening sequence in the midst of France celebrating its World Cup victory.

At what point did you decide to title the film Les Misérables? Were you looking to draw parallels to Victor Hugo from the beginning, or was it only in development that you realized the film could enter into conversation with the text?

It’s a title that I’ve had in my head for a really long time. I’ve always told myself that my first film would be called Les Misérables. It’s a title I’ve had for over 12 years.

You’ve mentioned that the neighborhood in the film is the same one in which Gavroche is from in the novel. Were there any other characters or archetypes from the original Les Misérables from which you drew? I thought I saw a bit of Valjean and Javert, people on both sides of the law convinced of their own righteousness.

Not really. There are certain parallels you could find. For instance, Javert, you could compare him with BAC, the anti-drug brigade. But really, I concentrated on Gavroche. I guess I accept this Javert/anti-drug parallel, but those are the only two that come from Hugo.

Especially in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo conveyed how systems of law and order could dehumanize people and often leads them back into the very acts these institutions are designed to stop. Was that on your mind at all?

My film is first and foremost an alarm bell calling out politicians: those who are responsible for the system put in place and that they have allowed to rot. They just allow this system to stay in place, and they know full well it doesn’t work.

You don’t get on a soapbox and directly point a finger at the institutions that create the conditions influencing the characters’ behavior, but that feels like the villain of Les Misérables. How do you get that message across without being didactic?

It was important for me not to show things in too heavy a manner. We understand things if you see the film. For instance, by reading the sentence at the end of the film [a postscript taken from Hugo’s novel: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators”]. What was important for me was to describe situations in an accurate way and not cast judgment, including on the characters.

How do you not take sides without being completely morally ambivalent? For instances, it’s clearly wrong to use excessive force.

I just try to be as accurate as possible. This is a territory I really know. I grew up there and have been there for 30 years. These are people that I know. I know the high schools, everything. I’m just trying to describe the reality in an accurate way and inspire myself from what I’ve seen.

What has made you gravitate toward fiction? What does it offer you that pure documentary doesn’t?

I always wanted to make fiction, but I took my time. I’m self-taught. I didn’t go to film school, so I really did things one step at a time. Initially, I started out with documentary because I was filming my neighborhood. With time, I had a lot of material and was able to make that into films. Then I came to docu-fiction and really tried to avoid hurrying. At the same time, there was this pressure because my colleagues in the collective [Kourtrajmé, which he began with Romain Gavras and Toumani Sangaré in 1995] had become feature directors. I didn’t want to show up with something that wouldn’t be really strong. I had to take my time on a fiction film that everyone would agree [on] and would be really good.

The film opens with a striking sequence during the 2018 World Cup victory celebrations in Paris. At what point did you realize this would be a good way to start the film?

I’ve always had this film in my head, but the sequence you’re describing came along much later. Maybe it was around the beginning of that year when we realized that the World Cup might be a possibility. We told ourselves, “Well, if France gets to the semi-finals, we’ll have a crew ready.” As we have it, France won, and we were able to get those images. We took advantage of what was happening that year.

How did you pull the shoot together? How did you make sure you didn’t lose sight of the characters in the high stakes production?

I come from documentary, [so] I’m used to these things. It was more or less simple to shoot that one. It wasn’t specifically hard. Of course, it’s not easy to deal with crowds and especially a triumphant, celebratory crowd. That’s not the simplest thing, but we managed.

Is the team at all a metaphor for the France you portray in the film? The country rallies behind a group of mostly non-white Frenchmen on the world stage but then turns a blind eye to the plight of immigrant communities around the corner from them.

That’s what that means, yeah. Unfortunately, it’s only soccer today that makes us all French, that makes us all equal. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” only works during the soccer game. Afterward, everyone goes back to their own social condition. That’s it.

“I appeal to your team spirit,” the police chief says at the beginning of the film, which feels like such an ironic introduction into a world where these events fracture people so distinctly. Is Les Misérables at all a commentary on the limitations of solidarity?

Yes, it’s especially solidarity within groups—the slogan you hear in the film, that spirit of solidarity no matter what. You see that with the cops. Even when they do something wrong, they’re going to protect each other. That’s the golden rule. When we were writing the film, we met some cops and they told us that. We might get into disagreements among ourselves, but if someone breaks with this solidarity, that person is going to disappear.

In the U.S., there’s been a lot of progress in holding police accountable through having video cameras on cellphones. Here, you have a drone capturing a really crucial moment of tension, which can fly away and be separated from the body of the person. At what point did you decide to use this technology in the story?

I had written a short earlier in which there were several drones. Ultimately, I didn’t shoot that film, but I decided I wanted to use the drone in the feature. But I didn’t want to use it like everyone else because, nowadays, everybody is using them all the time just to make pretty pictures. I wanted the drone in my film to be a full-fledged character. It’s a kid [Al-Hassan Ly’s Buzz] who’s using the drone and, in a way, that’s my story because I’ve been filming this area for so long. The drone allows us to get some elevation, so it also allows us to know the territory. And it does allow us to have some beautiful images!

I also think of a drone as more of a tool of government surveillance, so it felt a bit ironic to see it in the hands of the people used against the police.

Yeah, cops use drones a lot. But Buzz is the eye of the neighborhood. I’m not going to get into the end of the film—people should see it for themselves—but we do see that he remains the eye of the neighborhood. To flip the drone around against the cops, that really makes sense.

You’ve said that you wrote to Emmanuel Macron asking him to screen the film. Has there been any progress there now that the film is the French submission to the Oscars?

Yes, he heard the message! He invited us to come to the president’s residence to show the film, and eventually I declined that invitation and invited him to come to my film school in Montfermeil to see the film. I didn’t get any answer to that invitation, so we sent him a DVD. Last week, I heard he saw the film and heard he was tremendously moved by it. Right now, his government is working on coming up with measures to help these kinds of neighborhoods. So that’s the latest news from Emmanuel Macron.

How has the reception been since opening? What are you hoping the French do in response to the film?

So far, it’s been great. I made this film to get people talking and start debates. We can see on social media, for instance, that people are really responding. I made the film so people could understand how people really live in these neighborhoods, and that’s working.

Is the role of the fiction film just to start the debate, not incite action?

It’s a little bit of all of that. Already, to describe these situations and really deal with these issues is a really good thing. But I think in France today, there are fewer and fewer politically committed films, so it’s really good to have this kind of film.

Translation by Nicholas Elliott

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The 50 Best TV Shows of the 2010s

The decade proved that the future of TV lies in its ability to democractize via technological expansion.

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Hannibal
Photo: NBC

We will likely look back at the 2010s as a simpler time, when sea levels remained relatively stable, Disney hadn’t decimated the last remaining movie houses, and there were only three networks: Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Two thousand and nineteen was a watershed year for the expansion of streaming, so it seems like a fitting moment to reflect on the events that led to the Great War.

If the aughts represented a new golden age of television, then the following decade proved that the future of the medium lies in its ability to democractize via technological growth. Event television has replaced appointment television, as the sheer volume of content continues to balloon and more viewers shift to on-demand viewing. Our expectations, too, have evolved as the format bends and morphs to adapt to its new environment, with years-long gaps between ever-shorter seasons and shows once thought dead resurrected like zombies from our salad days.

And yet, humans crave familiarity: Game of Thrones reinvented the viewing party; networks rebooted or revived well-known properties, albeit to varying degrees of success; and we’ve replaced our old cable bill with an à la carte menu of streaming options that add up to more or less the same price. More importantly, as we venture out into the proverbial Wild West, and as the boundaries between TV and film continue to vanish, one thing remains constant: our desire for stories that reflect who we are, what we fear, what we treasure, and what we find side-splittingly funny. But then, even those lines have begun to blur. Sal Cinquemani



Portlandia

50. Portlandia

The array of archetypes portrayed by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen on Portlandia aren’t impressive in their scope so much as their narrow specificity, each one delicately carving Portland’s milieu into a well-observed sub-niche. Armisen plays multiple variations of the emasculated goof while Brownstein portrays a bevy of self-righteous killjoys with great aplomb. Yet Portlandia is so much greater than the sum of its caricatures. That the show’s humor is entirely derived from its two co-creators gives it a winning constancy, while the improvisational aspect adds an almost surreal element to much of the dialogue. In fact, the bizarre obsession with food (a mixologist crafts a cocktail with rotten banana and eggshells, 911 dispatchers are inundated with calls from beet-eaters) suggests the fever dream of a very hungry hipster. Peter Goldberg



House of Cards

49. House of Cards

House of Cards allowed David Fincher’s seductive aesthetic sway to carry on well beyond the inaugural diptych he helmed, despite TV’s well-noted preference for story over artistic signature, but that’s almost besides the point. The scheming exploits of Kevin Spacey’s silver-tongued congressman-devil provide a galvanic shock of political satire and thrillingly modern melodrama, but the real hook is Robin Wright’s stirring performance as the politician’s better half—and worse half in the show’s botched final season. In the thick of it, this addictive series convincingly depicts a shifting political landscape, wherein an ascending class of strong and brilliant women retools man’s ruthless personal and professional strategies to better advance a contentious, testosterone-weary nation. Chris Cabin



Jessica Jones

48. Marvel’s Jessica Jones

Marvel’s Jessica Jones breaks so many molds, and with such brio, that it feels almost super-heroic. In immediately denying us Jessica’s (Krysten Ritter) origin story, it keeps her at arm’s length—a masterstroke because the series understands that it’s a story Jessica isn’t ready to give yet, freely and under her own terms. If the violence on Marvel’s Daredevil, no matter how kinetic and operatic in its brushstrokes, is primed to excite, the violence on Jessica Jones seeks to disarm our pleasure centers. And if this violence is so discomforting, it’s because of how hauntingly, stubbornly, necessarily it’s rooted in the traumas that connect the victims of the ominous Kilgrave (David Tennant). The aesthete in me wishes the series exhibited a more uncommon visual style. At the same time, maybe the show’s portrait of abuse, of heroes and villains whose shows of strength and mind control are so recognizably human, wouldn’t exert half the chill that it does it didn’t approach us so unassumingly. Ed Gonzalez



Killing Eve

47. Killing Eve

With Killing Eve—which Phoebe Waller-Bridge adapted from author Luke Jennings’s Villanelle series—she uses the whip-smart voice she employed in Fleabag to explore women whose bad behavior extends beyond the limits of rapacious sexuality and crass humor: specifically, to murderous psychopaths. The series suggests a delightfully demented, considerably more violent spin on Broad City, Insecure, and Fleabag. Those shows are wryly comical and sexually frank, with complex female relationships at their center, and Killing Eve brings us all those attributes in the guise of a crackerjack mystery. The series combines a dry comedy’s affection for the mundane with the slick look and tone of a psychosexual thriller, and the result is something wholly original, suspenseful, and caustically funny. Julia Selinger



Sherlock

46. Sherlock

Sherlock has always shown a keen but loving disregard for its source material. Despite serving up a bevy of classical crime-solving tropes, its fluid aesthetic and modern-day realism eschew the stuffy reverence of countless other re-toolings of Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated series. Instead, co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have allowed Benedict Cumberbatch to chart his own course as a character who’s become a landmark of fiction. The actor effortlessly owns the role with his ice-cold stares and burly voice, and yet what makes the series such a distinct interpretation is how it envisions the complicated relationship between Sherlock Holmes and his partner, John Watson (Martin Freeman), whose everyman humanity serves as a spiritual contrast to the impenetrable title character’s isolated genius. Ted Pigeon



Ramy

45. Ramy

It’s the tension between Ramy’s (Ramy Youssef) secular and spiritual leanings that serves as the thrust of the Hulu series that bears his name, as he considers what kind of person—what kind of Muslim, son, and man—he wants to be. Intensely critical of himself, Ramy recognizes that he’s done much self-mythologizing, mostly in regard to his religious observance, and acutely feels his lapses in judgment, and Ramy derives its soulfulness from the ruins of the myths that Ramy and his family and friends tell themselves and those around them. There’s profound pain to be found amid the rubble. And, maybe, peace. Niv M. Sultan



Treme

44. Treme

David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s abbreviated fade-out on post-Katrina New Orleans is tattered yet hopeful, perfect in its soulful imperfections. Decisions in the Big Easy are slowed down by good booze and better boogie, and by the time the Big Chief (Clark Peters) bows out, very little about this intoxicating menagerie of musicians and other truth-seekers has been convincingly settled on. Life’s not tidy in the Treme and the show’s creators let all the bad omens hang out, including the impending birth of Delmond’s (Rob Brown) first child and Janette’s (Kim Dickens) third restaurant opening. Of course, all the trouble made the music sound all the sweeter, as careers begin to congeal and legacies found (temporary) footing amid the city’s riotous buzz. The fat lady is singing for Treme, and she’s belting it out loud, if not for long. Cabin



The Handmaid’s Tale

43. The Handmaid’s Tale

Few television shows can match the commitment of The Handmaid’s Tale to withholding catharsis from audiences. The series, which maintains a visual lyricism that both clashes with and magnifies the brutality on screen, is most heartbreaking during moments of doubt, when Elisabeth Moss’s June appears resigned to her fate. Yet it consistently obscures her true motivation, mining mystery from her submissiveness: Is it genuine, or another tactic? When she’s able to seize, however briefly, the upper hand from her tormentors, the series offers tantalizing glimpses of their chagrin. For a moment, we’re prompted to envision that chagrin morphing into sorrow, shame, maybe even fear. That would spell some kind of catharsis, but until it actually arrives, The Handmaid’s Tale remains intellectually nourishing, easy to admire, and difficult to endure. It’s a beautiful test of stamina, offering only small reprieves from June’s suffering. It embeds us alongside her, and remains dedicated to illustrating how exactly the villains can win. Michael Haigis



High Maintenance

42. High Maintenance

High Maintenance more than made good on its transition from the Internet to HBO. Its intimacy has been retained, and yet the narrative strands have grown more thoughtfully variable and distinct in their reflection of the adult rituals, wild yearning, and long-overdue release that power the denizens of New York City’s boroughs, revealing their neuroses, deep-seated fears, self-delusions, and artful exercises. More than ever, the show’s tapestry of unexpected connections and backstories reach deeper into the quotidian experiences of city life. Cabin



Primal

41. Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal

Genndy Tartakovsky’s work as an animator is most striking for its embrace of silence. Even in the cacophonous realm of children’s cartoons, the Samurai Jack creator favors wordless moments that lean on the flapping of cloth in the wind or the exaggerated sounds of a clenching fist. Adult Swim’s Primal, then, feels like something Tartakovsky has been building to for much of his career, a dialogue-free miniseries following a caveman and his T. rex partner fighting to survive in a violent, unforgiving world. The show’s violence is a reflection of its characters’ existence, a cycle from which there’s no escape. Children are swallowed whole, prey is devoured on the spot, eyeballs are smashed in by rocks, and dino jaws are smeared in vivid red blood. The story of the caveman and T. rex’s survival, in Tartakovsky’s hands, is totally enthralling, as terrible as it is beautiful. Steven Scaife

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The 100 Best Music Videos of the 2010s

In many ways, the rebirth of the music video set the template for streaming long-form content more broadly.

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FKA twigs
Photo: YouTube

The 2010s saw the continued democratization of media: more content, more ways to access and consume it, and, as a result, a more diverse audience. In many ways, the rebirth of the music video, formerly the withering marketing tool of what Jack White might refer to as the “corporation,” set the template for streaming long-form content more broadly. Choose what you want to watch, when you want to watch, and how often. Even more so than film and TV, though, short-form videos have the potential to provide an almost real-time commentary on the politics, technologies, and even sexual mores of the times. Of course, MTV programmers have been replaced by YouTube algorithms, which, when they’re not sending you down a rabbit hole to white supremacist screeds and 9/11 conspiracy theories, force-feed us what’s already popular. The decade’s most viewed music video, Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” has been streamed 6.5 billion times in two years. In fact, none of the clips in YouTube’s Top 10 came even close to cracking our list of the 100 best music videos of the 2010s. The more things change…. Sal Cinquemani


100. Disclosure featuring Lorde, “Magnets”

Lorde has never been anything less than uncomfortably mature for her age, but the music video for Disclosure’s “Magnets,” a standout cut from the U.K. garage duo’s Caracal, transforms the gawky teen into a bona-fide femme fatale. The clip, directed by Ryan Hope, finds Lorde cavorting with a married man while his meek, buttoned-up, and sometimes bruised wife cautiously prepares his morning coffee and stares blankly out the window of their L.A. manse. “Let’s embrace the point of no return,” Lorde urges as she zombie-struts in her usual way down a glass-encased hallway in a patent-leather trench coat and blood-red lipstick. She gives the wife a knowing glance and pushes the man, tied to a chair, into the pool. Then, of course, she sets the whole thing on fire. Cinquemani


99. Alex Cameron, “Miami Memory”

Having met while making a mockumentary-style video for the song “Marlon Brando,” Alex Cameron and Jemima Kirke continue their fruitful collaboration with “Miami Memory,” at once a Technicolor dreamscape and a fearlessly intimate exploration of their dynamic as a real-life couple. The first third of the video seems to cast Kirke as a beautiful object—Cameron films her receiving a massage, then watches her dance—but the remaining two-thirds reset the balance. Kirke matches his gaze with hers, taking the camera over for herself, directing him, taking her turn to watch him dance. Anna Richmond


98. Gwen Stefani, “Make Me Like You”

Target teamed up with Gwen Stefani for the first music video ever created on live TV, which aired during the Grammy Awards in 2016. The video, which opens with the No Doubt singer awakening after an ugly car crash and being primped for a first date, offers audiences the chance to bask in its creators’ virtuosity, as well as the thrill of watching them fall on their faces—figuratively and literally. In fact, Stefani and longtime collaborator Sophie Muller, who directed the clip, were clearly betting on the latter sensation. During the song’s vocal breakdown, Stefani’s glittery orange high heels are swapped for roller stakes by a stagehand whose fingers momentarily peek into frame, and Gwen is whisked off to an adjacent roller rink, where she’s cleverly swapped for a body double who takes a hard spill. It’s quickly revealed, of course, that Stefani is safe and sound in the center of the rink, preparing for the video’s impressive final aerial shot. Cinquemani


97. Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop”

If the surreal images in “We Can’t Stop” were simply a tribute to youthful hedonism, it would be among the decade’s most pupil-dilating eye candy, but deconstructed down to its macabre symbols—edible skulls, blow-up dolls, taxidermia—it’s one of the trippiest, scariest videos of the 2010s. Cinquemani


96. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “No Church in the Wild”

Though it was filmed in the Czech Republic, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s breathtakingly shot “No Church in the Wild” plays as a broader comment on the civil unrest that’s enveloped both the Middle East and director Romain Garvas’s native Greece, as well as the violent conflict that seems to be roiling beneath the surface in places as distant as Wall Street and Madison, Wisconsin. Cinquemani


95. Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”

The lead single from Katy Perry’s fourth album is a strikingly subtle piece of Caribbean-inflected protest pop. The breezy track isn’t just a slow burner, but its message—that we’re all living in bubbles, “happily numb”—is also decidedly bipartisan. Whether the song, co-written by Sia and produced by longtime Perry collaborator Max Martin, is an endorsement of self-care or a critique of escapism in times of political upheaval is up for interpretation. What is certain is that a track with a hook that implores listeners to “Come on, turn it up/Keep it on repeat” had better deliver the goods, and this one most definitely does. Cinquemani


94. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”

The ambitious “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. Zachary Hoskins


93. Chairlift, “Met Before”

Jordan Fish’s video for Chairlift’s “Met Before” gives viewers the freedom to dabble in some alternate outcomes for a trio of uncertain science grads caught in a potential love triangle. In having users act as the powerbrokers for all sorts of subtle decisions, Fish has essentially constructed a Choose Your Own Adventure for the YouTube generation. Kevin Liedel


92. St. Vincent, “Los Ageless”

Annie Clark portrays Tinseltown as a vivid dystopia in “Los Ageless,” lampooning the superficiality of the showbiz capital as she endures a cosmetic procedure that pulls at flaps of excess facial skin, à la Brazil, or standing, Barbie-like, next to a shredder that destroys the word “No.” A woman’s legs stretch out through a TV screen and writhe before a quivering Clark; she swallows otherworldly, undulating organisms; the lime-green slime of a foot bath appears to gain sentience and climb her leg—all striking images that take to outlandish extremes the very real absurdity of adherence to oppressive beauty standards. Josh Goller


91. Grimes featuring Janelle Monáe, “Venus Fly”

Adorned in some sequences in regalia that appears paradoxically both indigenous and extraterrestrial, while dressed as a steampunk-meets-Soul-Train getup in others, Janelle Monáe joins Grimes, who feverishly hammers away on drums, dons black angel wings, and bathes in crude oil in this slow-motion-heavy video for “Venus Fly.” Both directed and edited by Grimes, the video subverts fairy-tale princess tropes with the two artists cast as fierce warriors who shatter mirrors, devour apples, stomp roses, rip apart pearl necklaces, and wield flaming swords. Goller


90. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “In Good Faith”

A simple song for dark times, “In Good Faith” is nothing short of a secular hymn. Will Oldham sings about small moments of grace and nature: rocks being shaped into diamonds, people helping one another through each day. The accompanying video is similarly gentle, with a documentary-style look at a group of people making their way through the world. We see them in homes, tending crops, generally filling their time with the tasks that constitute the bulk of life on Earth. The climax shows most of the characters singing in Sacred Harp choirs, joyfully joining voices to celebrate the possibility one finds in the sacred and infinite. At a time when religion divides people as much as any other force on the planet, the song and the video gesture to a world where our shared humanity joins us more than our ideas divide. You can’t go five minutes on the internet without seeing someone accused of lacking it, but “In Good Faith” celebrates the possibility that we might all make it out alive. Seth Wilson


89. 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. Alexa Camp


88. Scott Walker & Sunn O))), “Brando”

In her video for “Brando,” filmmaker Gisèle Vienne isolates a child’s glimpse of a disturbing image and lingers on it, suspended in perilous motion—a cinematic motif comparable to Scott Walker & Sunn O)))’s knack for stretching a single reverbed-out twang to a repetitive standstill. This is a story of trauma told with the fewest possible strokes, wherein the dew in the mountain air feels fresh even as you realize you’re witnessing a long-buried memory play out for what must be the hundredth time. Vienne closes with an isolated, insinuating close-up that silently tells you everything you need to know. Steve Macfarlane


87. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”

Chance the Rapper may have come up as the acid-addled suspended school kid, but at heart he’s the coolest nerd in the drama program. The homespun stage sets of “Sunday Candy” pair with daring juke choreography for a heartwarming performance of the endearingly welcoming song. The fact that it was all done in one take gives it the exhilarating thrill of a barely rehearsed school play, executed perfectly just in time for opening night. James Rainis


86. Destroyer, “Kaputt”

In capturing the playful spirit of Dan Bejar’s air-rock odyssey, director Dawn Garcia has rewritten the manual. Clearly, if you want to make a good music video nowadays, it needs to include soft erotica, greasy teenagers, false oases, and flying whales. Liedel


85. Earl Sweatshirt featuring Vince Staples & Casey Veggies, “Hive”

If Tyler, the Creator’s videos are all about overblown, colorful images in line with OFWGKTA’s Loiter Squad aesthetic, Earl’s “Hive” acts as a counterbalance, more in touch with the menacing Odd Future of a few years ago. The minimalistic, barely lit setting presents Earl and his crew as a hooded force lurking in the shadows, and suggests that Odd Future—and rap music—doesn’t have to be loud and abrasive to be threatening. Kyle Fowle


84. Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”

As if the threat of having a scathing pop song written about them weren’t enough to make the world’s eligible young bachelors think twice about shacking up with the country starlet turned pop star, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” portrays the singer-songwriter as, to quote the song’s lyrics, “a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” In the clip, directed by Joseph Kahn, Swift and model Sean O’Pry spend a romantic weekend at the former’s lavish mansion. When she suspects him of texting another woman, she flies into a mascara-streaked fit, taking a switchblade to his portrait, a torch to his clothes, and a golf club to his sports car. By the time Sean discovers a hallway lined with the defaced paintings of Swift’s former suitors, it’s obvious Swift has also taken a skewer to her (perhaps unjustified) reputation. Cinquemani


83. Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood”

Claire Boucher’s video for “Flesh Without Blood” doubles as an ambitious look-book, a compendium of Grimes’s many sides: blood-stained 19th-century socialite, brooding gamer goth, high-fashion lounge lizard. Boucher manages to look devastatingly badass in every getup, reflecting her gleeful ability to integrate disparate pieces into an alluring, unprecedented whole. Rainis


82. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”

Director Chino Moya paints a vibrant but empty portrait of a techno dystopia filled with clean lines, monotone colors, and dull, repetitive tasks to complement Annie Clark’s ambivalent reflection on our digitally consumed lives. Donning a dress that pointedly resembles a straitjacket, Clark’s mindless drone warns of a future where TV replaces windows and, in turn, windows become mere objects over which to hang venetian blinds. Cinquemani


81. Tyler, the Creator, “Who Dat Boy”

Flower Boy may have been Tyler, the Creator’s “mature” album, but his self-directed music video for “Who Dat Boy” is proof that he still hasn’t lost his demented touch. Over the song’s horror-movie beat, Tyler disfigures himself in a mad-science experiment gone wrong, gets guest A$AP Rocky to “fix” him by replacing his face with white rapper Action Bronson’s, and hits the road. But as arresting as those visuals are, the cherry on top is the non-sequitur closing sequence, in which four multi-exposed Tylers show up to croon “911” like a one-man New Edition. The whole thing crackles with manic energy. Hoskins

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The 100 Best Singles of the 2010s

The 2010s marked the end of what we’ve come to know as the “single,” which officially met its demise in the wild west of the streaming era.

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Robyn
Photo: Interscope Records

The 2010s marked the end of what we’ve come to know as the “single,” which dates back to Billboard’s jukebox charts of the early 1940s and which officially met its demise in the wild west of the current streaming era. In the end, though, a single is just a song, and these 100 songs defined the decade that began in the throes of recovery from the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression and ended with the systematic dismantling of our democratic norms.

The crumbling of our institutions was accompanied by the euphoric beats of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” and Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” the former of which epitomized the increasing irrelevance of radio, the term “single,” and even the charts themselves. Hip-hop served as our cross-generational conscience, with veterans like A Tribe Called Quest and newcomers Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino reflecting and responding to the times. R&B and country, too, both staked a claim to the mantle of the decade’s most empowering songs, from Beyoncé’s “Formation” to Little Big Town’s “Little White Church.”

History will be the final arbiter of what we’ve done to the planet, to the country, and to each other over the last 10 years, but the songs that served as the soundtrack to this modern dystopia are already etched in time. Long live the single. Consider this list its epitaph. Sal Cinquemani


100. Clairo, “Bags”

With “Bags,” Clairo navigates the line between friend and lover with a crush who could be straight. Her approach pinpoints ephemeral moments with a wide-eyed recollection: the sensation of fingertips on her back, a mane of hair blowing in the wind of an open car window, a love interest standing in a doorway. You get the feeling that the experiences she recounts are firsts for her, so vivid and formative are her memories. Sophia Ordaz


99. Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”

Most of the songs on Angel Olsen’s 2016 album, My Woman utilize the singer’s marvelously evocative voice for poignant purposes, bemoaning the loss of love in damaged, defensive terms. But the undertone of aggression that undergirds those imprecations bursts to the fore on “Shut Up Kiss Me,” an attempt to salvage a foundering relationship that finds Olsen embodying both traditionally male and female roles simultaneously, delivering soft and hard in equal measure. Backed by a surging tide of guitar and drums, she pushes from wounded desolation to commanding confidence and back, eventually settling for the latter. Along the way, the song pursues a swaying, woozy build-up that walks a fine line between heartbreak and renewal, while working as a strong showcase for the singer’s staggering musical chops. Jesse Cataldo


98. Taylor Swift, “Look What You Made Me Do”

The similarly themed “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” whose bouncy pop beat and comical overtones recall those of past hits like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Shake It Off,” might have made a safer choice to introduce the world to the New Taylor than “Look What You Made Me Do.” Which is exactly why this droll single—with its deceptively lush strings, pulsing hip-hop beat, and Right Said Fred-aping non-hook—will likely go down in pop history as Swift’s first bona fide misstep. It’s also what makes the track the boldest and, quite frankly, most authentic thing she’s released to date. Cinquemani


97. Little Big Town, “Little White Church”

Country singers are generally too polite to come right out and ask, “Whose pussy is this?” the way, say, Nicki Minaj might, but that’s still the gist of Little Big Town’s ultimatum here. Karen Fairchild gives a throaty, lived-in performance that spells out exactly what her man stands to lose, lest he make an honest woman out of her. The blues guitar riff that drives the song dirties up the arrangement a bit, but it’s the handclaps-only B section and, as always, LBT’s impeccable four-part harmonies that really make “Little White Church” distinctive and seductive. Jonathan Keefe


96. Sia, “Chandelier”

As a songwriter, Sia has scored copious hits by channeling the voices of pop stars as varied as Rihanna and Celine Dion. On “Chandelier,” her heart- and lung-rending delivery of a song about addiction feels entirely her own, the kind of full-throttle catharsis that you can’t fake no matter how big the paycheck. From the reggae-inflected verse asserting that “party girls don’t get hurt” to the sky-high chorus declaring the singer’s intent to swing from ceiling fixtures while drinking her face off, “Chandelier” captures how denial can morph into jarring revelations about the extent of one’s self-destruction. The song, however, keeps that reckoning in abeyance, riding its thudding beat and reveling in those final moments of exhilaration before the hangover inevitably hits. Annie Galvin


95. Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”

The lead single from Katy Perry’s fourth album is a strikingly subtle piece of Caribbean-inflected protest pop. The breezy track isn’t just a slow burner, but its message—that we’re all living in bubbles, “happily numb”—is also decidedly bipartisan. Whether the song, co-written by Sia and produced by longtime Perry collaborator Max Martin, is an endorsement of self-care or a critique of escapism in times of political upheaval is up for interpretation. What is certain is that a track with a hook that implores listeners to “Come on, turn it up/Keep it on repeat” had better deliver the goods, and this one most definitely does. Cinquemani


94. Lana Del Rey, “National Anthem”

The fifth single from Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die doubles, much like the album, as a critique and a glorification of materialism and artifice, name-dropping “upper echelon” status symbols like the Hamptons, $2 million sports cars, and Page Six to paint a portrait of a girl looking for love in all the well-fixed places. Del Rey boasts of “blurring the lines between real and the fake” in the lyrics, and though she’s taken on various guises during her short run in the spotlight (“gangster Nancy Sinatra,” Ione Skye from Say Anything…, and, in the video for “National Anthem,” a 21st-century Jackie O), what makes the song feel authentic is the singer’s simple, robotic performance. She doesn’t try to affect a deeper, more “serious” tone the way she has on other songs, content to sing in her more natural higher register. “National Anthem” suggests what it might sound like if trip-hop had conquered hip-hop and Britney Spears actually had something to say. Cinquemani


93. The Weeknd featuring Daft Punk, “Starboy”

Few people would accuse Abel Tesfaye of being too modest. Yet, the artist known as the Weeknd has described “Starboy” as his manifestation of the “more braggadocious character that we all have inside us.” That heightened swagger finds Tesfaye looking down at the gaudier accoutrements of the celebrity lifestyle, blaming pop culture at large for creating his outsized persona in the first place (“Look what you’ve done/I’m a motherfuckin’ starboy”), all while signaling a transformation that’s portrayed literally in the single’s music video, where Tesfaye assassinates his former palm-tree-afroed self to announce the arrival of his shorn Starboy period, a not-so-subtle nod to David Bowie. By joining forces with Daft Punk, Tesfaye adds gloss to this smooth, bombastic sound, resulting in a song that sleekly and effortlessly thrums and sparkles like one of his beloved luxury cars driven under neon lights. Josh Goller


92. LCD Soundsystem, “I Can Change”

Self-interested, defeatist, and angry, James Murphy is practically a distillation of every obsessive character from a Jonathan Franzen novel. He is also, like them, open to change, even if it sounds as if it will take much prodding for him to even get halfway there. The silver lining in This Is Happening’s collection of downers, “I Can Change” boasts the album’s most succinct and vivid illustration of Murphy’s doubts and resentments as a lover. It’s woozy, glitchy synths are the sounds of a man wanting but resisting to give in to happiness, light beaming outward from a very dark void. Ed Gonzalez


91. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”

There’s something about “Digital Witness” that hearkens back to a song by one of Annie Clark’s most obvious influences: David Bowie’s “TVC15” Both songs use herky-jerky vocal hooks to deliver sly existential horror about the prevalence of technology in the modern age, and almost 40 years after Bowie sang about a television swallowing Iggy Pop’s girlfriend, Clark sounds even more distressed: “Digital witnesses, what’s the point of even sleeping?/If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?” But the funky, chopped-up horn bleats that form the backbone of “Digital Witness” manage to place the tune squarely in the 21st century. Jeremy Winograd


90. Janet Jackson featuring J. Cole, “No Sleeep”

Giving precisely zero fucks after dispensing a string of albums and singles that were desperate for them, Janet Jackson trusted the soft sell when choosing the lead-off single from her Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced reunion album, Unbreakable. The downtempo “No Sleeep,” languorous (or “plush,” as she coos twice) in every respect but for those sharp, assertive echoing claps on the backbeat, isn’t so much sexy as it is something increasingly less easy to come by in pop: intimate. Which isn’t to say its replay value hasn’t proven tantric. Like making love with someone you truly know, “No Sleeep” somehow gets better the more times you lay it down. Eric Henderson


89. Luke James, “Drip”

With a falsetto vocal that goes from aching to ecstatic and a wah-wah guitar lead that channels vintage Ernie Isley, New Orleans singer-songwriter Luke James’s “Drip,” the first single from his forthcoming sophomore effort, sounds like it could have fallen out of heaven, or at least the early 1970s. The only real clue to its 2017 origins are the lyrics, which don’t even try to pretend that the title isn’t about what you think it’s about. At a time when contemporary R&B at large was blander and more samey-sounding than ever, “Drip” was a breath of Afro-Sheen-scented fresh air. If every neo-neo-soul track can be this good, then sign us up for the revival of the revival. Zachary Hoskins


88. Sky Ferreira, “You’re Not the One”

There’s nothing genuinely threatening or dangerous about Sky Ferreira, a former teen model who’s adopted a confrontational stance on her first album, Night Time, My Time, most clearly manifested in a revealing, forcefully unattractive cover photo and a faux-punk aesthetic. Yet these signifiers are useful in establishing the type of artist Ferreira wants to be: fearlessly self-possessed, sexual on her own terms, more focused on lacerating breakup songs than bubblegum love ballads. All these things come through on the intermittingly fierce, completely catchy “You’re Not the One,” its industrial drums and bittersweet vocals setting up another thick-skinned sendoff track from an artist intent on establishing her independence. Jesse Cataldo


87. Hot Chip, “One Life Stand”

The title track and lead single from Hot Chip’s latest album may be the sweetest and most genuine ode to monogamy that exists anywhere. Forget about dates, forget marriage; Alexis Taylor is interested in so much more, as he affirms “I only wanna be your one life stand” with his convivial everyman charm. It’s a lovely message, and serves as a splendid centrepiece for this single. The verses are accentuated by deformed Caribbean steel drums and laser sound effects, while the chorus boasts a barrage of warm, sonorous synths. This could be the most radio-friendly slab of upbeat pop we’ve heard from Taylor and company, but it struggled to chart significantly on either side of the Atlantic as the record-buying company parted with their money for messages of promiscuity and bad romances instead. Oh well. Their loss. Huw Jones


86. Azealia Banks, “1991”

So maybe it’s all a bit too on-the-nose as an homage, but it’s not like Azealia Banks is one for subtlety. She’s dialed back the inventive potty-mouthing that made “212” such an attention-grabber, but there’s so much going on in “1991” that Banks could never be accused of slacking off. She spits a rapid-fire 16-bar rhyme that’s a triumph of female sexual agency and makes it sound as effortless as snacking on a little pain au chocolat, and then she nimbly interweaves those rhymes into an onomatopoeic secondary vocal track before unraveling it all so she can do a spot-on impression of Ce Ce Peniston. Keefe


85. Jenny Lewis, “Just One of the Guys”

There are several very good songs with almost uncomfortably personal lyrics and poppy earworm hooks on erstwhile Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis’s third solo album, The Voyager, but “Just One of the Guys” is one of the few that had the benefit of not being produced by Ryan Adams, with his ‘80s AOR-rock fetish. Instead, the Beck-produced single possesses more of a late-‘70s singer-songwriter feel that suits Lewis’s voice and personality better. But it’s not the arrangement, or even the incredibly catchy see-sawing chorus that stands out the most; it’s Lewis’s daringly close-to-the-bone bridge: “There’s only one difference between you and me/When I look at myself all I can see/I’m just another lady without a baby.” Winograd


84. Disclosure featuring Lorde, “Magnets”

“Pretty girls don’t know the things that I know,” Lorde sings on “Magnets,” an understated offering from Disclosure’s sophomore effort, Caracal. The tropical house track, which features Indian rhythms, backward synth washes, and a patient, pulsating beat, succeeds—with a little help from its fiery music video, of course—at shifting the New Zealand pop singer’s profile ever so slightly from gawky teen to sultry chanteuse, her performance at once singular in its edgy hesitance and startling in its unexpected seductiveness. Cinquemani


83. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Jesus Alone”

The structure of “Jesus Alone” serves as an appropriate mirror for the emotional state its composer found himself in while formulating it. As the song begins, with a grumbling electronic groan and Nick Cave reciting vivid but obtuse imagery, the singer sounds despondent and detached, adrift in darkness and abstraction. But as the improvised track builds, its cold swirls of electronics, strings, and piano gradually coalesce into a grievingly reposeful refrain, as Cave comes to grips with his pain: “With my voice/I am calling you.” It’s a pretty chorus, but when considering that Cave is “calling” his dead son, it becomes far more devastating than the gloomier musical passages that precede it. Winograd


82. Kelela, “LMK”

Kicking off in the club and resolving in the gauzy ether of a potential meaningless hookup, Kelela’s “LMK” sounds both ominous and alluring, an aloof seduction condensed to three and a half minutes. In its delivery, the singer turns the standard come-hither suggestiveness of so much female-fronted pop on its head, abandoning intimations of virginal purity or masculine power transfer for cold transactional consumption, all cards immediately laid out on the table. By removing desire entirely from the equation, she reduces the procedural essence of the mating ritual to its barest elements, within a track that pulls off a similar musical process, stripped down to Jam City’s slim ambient production and the singer’s silky, expressive voice. Slinky and soothing despite its aggressive tone, blending plainspoken confidence with low-key virtuosity, “LMK” represents the finest qualities of Kelela’s sumptuous debut, concentrated into a sui generis amendment of pop sexual politics. Cataldo


81. La Roux, “Bulletproof”

There’s really no explaining how or why British synth-pop duo La Roux managed to sneak itself onto U.S. radio playlists while the likes of Robyn, Little Boots, and other Euro pop acts remained largely ignored. Not that “Bulletproof” is undeserving: It’s all video-game bleeps and stiff beats, with singer Elly Jackson fancying herself an impenetrable computer. But with a malfunctioning communication system (“I won’t let you in again/The messages I tried to send/My information’s just not going in”), Jackson’s declaration that “This time, baby, I’ll be bulletproof” ultimately just sounds like wishful thinking. Cinquemani

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