Twenty years ago today, Björk made her Debut, which landed at #29 on our list of the Best Albums of the 1990s in 2011. While American critics, perhaps still beating off to the U.S.’s exalted alt-rock movement, were divided on the album at the time of its release, it’s aged remarkably well. And even if Björk hadn’t gone on to record her masterpieces Post and Homogenic, Debut was enough to cement her legacy as one of pop’s most forward-thinking performers. And that includes her contributions to the music video form.
10. “Human Behaviour” (Dir: Michel Gondry). Björk’s very first music video as a solo artist was also the start of a fruitful professional relationship with innovative director Michel Gondry, who would go on to helm a total of eight videos for the singer. “Human Behaviour” isn’t their most successful collaboration, but it literally set the stage for both their careers.
9. “Mutual Core” (Dir: Andrew Thomas Huang). Eric Henderson calls this video “little tectonic plate of horrors.” The lyrics to “Mutual Core” sometimes feel like Björk is reading from a science textbook (“As fast as your fingernail grows/The Atlantic Ridge drifts”), but the video, a sort of sequel to the Gondry-directed 1997 clip for “Jóga,” brings the song to explosive life, with Björk, naturally, in the role of neglected Mother Nature.
8. “Isobel” (Dir: Gondry). While making suggestions for this list, Ed Gonzalez referred to the surreal, visually striking “Isobel,” Björk’s third video with Gondry, as “Jean Epstein-ian kabuki horror.”
7. “Triumph of a Heart” (Dir: Spike Jonze). To quote Gonzalez again, this time from our list of the Best Music Videos of the Aughts: “Letting off steam has never felt so touchingly conveyed as it does in this quirky and unexpectedly poetic rumination on the nature of affection and dependency.”
6. “Pagan Poetry” (Dir: Nick Knight). Long before Lady Gaga donned Alexander McQueen and hired Nick Knight to direct her “Born This Way” music video, Björk was stirring up controversy with “Pagan Poetry,” which was banned by MTV in 2001. About a woman preparing herself for marriage, the clip features scenes of oral sex reportedly shot privately by the singer herself and a topless Björk literally sewing herself into her gown.
5. “Declare Independence” (Dir: Gondry). Gondry’s videos come in two subtly distinct flavors: strictly arithmetical but nevertheless breathtaking in their mind-boggling execution, and arithmetical but inextricably bound to the human condition via narrative or allegory. “Declare Independence” falls into the latter category, Björk’s kaleidoscopic rage coloring the threads of a giant bass guitar via a megaphone while soldiers with the flags of Greenland and the Faroe Islands emblazoned on their shoulders declare their independence via rainbow-colored graffiti.
4. “All Is Full of Love” (Dir: Chris Cunningham). Henderson calls “All Is Full of Love” the “perfect pre-millennial precursor to our current gadget-assisted culture of self-love.” He confided via iChat, which I have summarily cut and pasted here: “When it was released, I thought it looked cool and stressed the importance of loving yourself. Now I think it’s a terrifying and sealed-off nightmare wherein you find out that you are the only person who will ever love you.”
3. “It’s Oh So Quiet” (Dir: Jonze). This figuratively and literally weightless lark pays homage to the spring-loaded energy of the best film musicals. Jonze admits to being influenced by Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the 1964 Cannes Palm d’Or winner starring Catherine Deneuve. Interestingly, the film also inspired Lars von Trier’s own Palm d’Or winner, Dancer in the Dark, featuring both Deneuve and Björk.
2. “Bachelorette” (Dir: Gondry). From our 100 Greatest Music Videos list: “Destiny plucks Björk from the obscurity of her forest home and her success story is exploited and re-exploited to where reality is no longer discernible from its aesthetic representation. With each staged adaptation of Björk’s bestselling book, My Story, we move further and further away from the truth of the forest nymph’s origins, so much so that it becomes someone else’s story. These reproductions turn on themselves, falling into an existential vortex that ushers in Björk’s return to nature. Björk cries, ’I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl!’ Destiny rewrites itself and words disintegrate, as does the flesh.”
1. “Big Time Sensuality” (Dir: Stéphane Sednaoui). If Björk’s often high-concept videos seem hit or miss, it’s partly because her songs conjure a rich and intense imagery all their own. So it’s no surprise that, like “It’s Oh So Quiet,” the Icelandic singer’s best video is as simple as they come. The celebratory “Big Time Sensuality,” from Debut, finds Björk cavorting playfully on the back of an 18-wheeler driving through Manhattan. Her famous childlike disposition is on unbridled display here as she makes New York her own personal playground.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2019
Unlike past years, Slant’s most popular pieces of 2019 skewed cearly and unapologetically negative.
Unlike in past years, where many of our most-read articles were middling or even slightly positive takes on franchises whose ardent fans seemed displeased that we didn’t shower their favorites with praise, Slant’s most popular pieces of 2019 skewed clearly and unapologetically negative. Our most-read review of the year, Avengers: Endgame, clocked more than twice as many eyeballs as the runner-up, a testament to the public’s continued interest in all things Marvel as well as the passion of the property’s followers. Of course, it wasn’t all pans: Our review of Madonna’s most daring album in years, Madame X, wasn’t just the site’s most popular music review of the year, but our most-read piece on the queen of pop ever. And you loved our painstakingly compiled lists more than ever, with our 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time and 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time cracking the Top 10. Alexa Camp
10. Film Review: The Lion King
It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment. [Read More]
9. Game Review: Remnant: From the Ashes
There’s a lot of deadwood, literal and figurative, in Remnant: From the Ashes. The literal kind stems from the plot, which tasks you with sending tree-like creatures known as the Root back into the dimension they were inadvertently, experimentally summoned from. And the figurative kind is just about everything else that stands in the way of this action shooter’s gameplay: three-player co-op with no means of communicating with your teammates; enemies that spawn directly over a downed teammate, keeping you from reviving them; and an as-yet unpatched glitch that may outright prevent you from seeing the ending. [Read More]
8. Film Review: Joker
Todd Phillips’s Joker is a film that might have been dreamed up by one of the cynical bros at the center of the director’s Hangover trilogy during a blacked-out stupor. Not so much part of Warner Bros.’s ongoing Batman series as adjacent to it, Joker imagines a Gotham City that looks suspiciously like Manhattan in the early ‘80s, with crime-ridden streets, movie titles like Blow Out and Zorro, The Gay Blade on marquees, and trash piling up due to a garbage strike. The air is stinking with gloom and decay, and among the morbidly downcast populace is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), our Clown Prince of Crime to Be. [Read More]
7. Album Review: Madonna, Madame X
Madame X plays like a musical memoir, sometimes literally: “I came from the Midwest/Then I went to the Far East/I tried to discover my own identity,” Madonna sings on the Eastern-inflected “Extreme Occident,” referencing her rise to fame and spiritual awakening, famously documented on her 1998 album Ray of Light. A multi-part suite that shifts abruptly from electro-pop dirge to classical ballet and back again, “Dark Ballet” is a Kafkaesque treatise on faith and her lifelong crusade against the patriarchal forces of religion, gender, and celebrity—an existential battle echoed in the Jean-Paul Sartre-quoting closing track “I Rise.” [Read More]
6. The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time
Our list acknowledges the classics of the genre, the big-budget studio noirs and the cheapest of B noirs made on the fringes of the Hollywood studio system. But we’ve also taken a more expansive view of noir, allowing room for supreme examples of the proto-noirs that anticipated the genre and the neo-noirs that resulted from the genre being rebooted in the midst of the Cold War, seemingly absorbing the world’s darkest and deepest fears. Then and now, the best examples of this genre continue to evoke—shrewdly and with the irrepressible passion of the dispossessed—humanity’s eternal fear of social disruption. [Read More]
5. Film Review: JoJo Rabbit
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is the work of a free man. A man, that is, with all the short-term independence that Marvel money and Hollywood blockbuster street cred can buy. This spectacularly wrongheaded “anti-hate satire” (as per the how-the-hell-do-we-market-this-thing ad campaign) is the feature-length equivalent of the “Springtime for Hitler” number from Mel Brooks’s The Producers, sans context and self-awareness. It takes place in a goofball period la-la land of its own creation, with sets as minutely detailed and shots as precisely composed as those in a Wes Anderson fantasia. Indeed, Jojo Rabbit suggests what that dapper hipster auteur might generate if he was to remake Elem Klimov’s hallucinatory, horrifying World War II epic Come and See, and that’s not a compliment. [Read More]
4. The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms. [Read More]
3. Game Review: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
After the release of 2011’s Dark Souls, Hidetaka Miyazaki became one of the most respected names in the gaming industry, and with good reason. After all, Dark Souls is much more than a difficult action title with a fascinating semi-open environment, as its tense purgatorial trials and the ambiguity of its dread-inducing journey leaves one with a sense of ennui. Now years later, Miyazaki’s latest game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, offers the best opportunity yet to question the media’s worship of this undoubtedly talented artist. While Dark Souls represents a distinctive landmark in game history, Sekiro is more like an uninspired contemporary clone of 1998’s Tenchu: Stealth Assassins in which the stealth gameplay largely comes down to you watching little awareness meters above the heads of enemies and running away with ease when you’ve been spotted. [Read More]
2. Game Review: Days Gone
Days Gone is the apotheosis of the more-is-more philosophy: more bars to fill, more gates to progress, more hours of playtime, more zombies per square inch because “more” is supposed to fill the hole where some semblance of meaning ought to be, bridging the gap between one mind-numbing mission template and the next. It’s the purest example yet of the video game as mere content to be consumed, down to the very fact that each storyline you’re supposed to be emotionally invested in is marked with a completion percentage. Days Gone is a void. [Read More]
1. Film Review: Avengers: Endgame
There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness. [Read More]
The 100 Best Video Games of the 2010s
Wherever the medium goes from here, these are the games that point the way forward.
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani claimed some years back that video games are the only art form that got better solely because of technology. While that’s arguably been true for much of the medium’s history, it ceased to be the case in the 2010s. The decade in gaming didn’t lack for astounding technical achievements, but its arc was defined less by powerful technology than powerful ideas.
This was the decade that saw tiny studios, lone creators, and crazy concepts reign supreme. This was the decade that saw every platform become a viable place for ideas to sprout and bloom. The limits of the medium are seemingly bound only by the human imagination, and at every level, regardless of the horsepower needed, it now feels like anything is possible.
The decade’s best games took full advantage of that new freedom by pushing the envelope in every direction. Wherever the medium goes from here, these are the games that point the way forward. Justin Clark
100. BioShock Infinite
BioShock Infinite is a visceral experience about an irredeemable psychopath murdering a city of despicable fundamentalists. Booker Dewitt is tasked with saving a reality-tearing woman from a floating white-supremacist paradise, leading to the interactive slaughter of its inhabitants; so much was made of the game’s violence that many overlooked that the repugnant brutality was exactly the point. While most shooters shy away from grue or any consequences to the player’s actions, BioShock Infinite vividly depicts these rippling across universes, where a single choice can carry disastrous results. This is an astonishing game that philosophizes on the human condition—consider that the opponents of Columbia’s segregation aren’t interested in equality, only in suppressing their suppressors—while critiquing its entire genre, concluding that the protagonist of a first-person shooter shouldn’t be allowed to live in any universe. Ryan Aston
99. The Norwood Suite
The public is more aware than ever of the infallibilities of well-known artists, and Cosmo D’s The Norwood Suite evokes the discomfort that many of us often feel when the dirty secrets of an icon are put on display. The setting here is a hotel that houses the legacy of a bandleader named Peter Norwood, whose exploitative relationships with other musicians come to the player’s attention via surreal trips down hidden passageways. Yet this building also bears numerous odd pleasures to behold, not least of which is a soundtrack that seamlessly morphs as you move from room to room. The characters are literally riffs in Cosmo D’s stupendous orchestration; different instruments and notes accompany different lines of dialogue as they appear on screen. The more you explore this strange location, the more you see the threat of commercialization in the form of corporate employees aiming to turn the hotel into a greater moneymaking scheme. Cosmo D gives no easy answers on how capitalistic culture can reconcile the sins of artistic giants, and that ambiguity makes The Norwood Suite a complicated and essential illustration of contemporary concerns. Jed Pressgrove
To make it absolutely clear that Overcooked isn’t your traditional cooking game, developer Ghost Town Games opens mid-apocalypse. A giant, ravenous beast—imagine the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man made of spaghetti and meatballs—threatens to consume your rooftop kitchen. The Onion King, cheering from the sidelines, implores you to fend him off by hastily preparing a soothing selection of salads; after you’ve failed, he transports you back through time, so that you can be a more seasoned chef next time. The subsequent missions, then, are less about tapping out increasingly complex orders, as with Cooking Dash and its ilk, or the exquisite, Zen-like Cook, Serve, Delicious. Instead, Overcooked keeps the recipes simple and the kitchens about as unconventionally chaotic as they come. At times, the difficulty can make this party game feel like a lot of work, although in fairness, the same can be said for Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, another demandingly chaotic, but ultimately enjoyable, couch co-op title. The meat of the title—cooperative, chaotic cooking—is almost perfectly handled, as are the garnishes, from the catchy musical score to the delightful crew of unlockable animal chefs. By keeping the kitchens varied and the action constant, Ghost Town Games avoids the flavorless death known as repetition, and doesn’t overcook its premise. Aaron Riccio
Downwell is a quarter-eater without the quarters, an arcade game from out of time. As your character tumbles down an enclosed space, collecting gems and shooting bullets from his feet, the game feels like something you play as much as you give yourself over to. Each run demands split-second decisions. Do you go back for more gems, as a cabal of monsters closes in behind you? Do you risk a stomp attack that demands more precision but will reward you with a badly needed reload? Do you break the block for gems at risk of losing space to maneuver? Each run showers you in game-changing upgrades that introduce still-more variables to consider at a moment’s notice, while you continue blasting your way into the abyss. Like the very best action games, Downwell becomes its own trance state. Steven Scaife
96. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Prepare to die a lot. The modern gaming landscape is one littered with checkpoints, save states, and wonky AI. 2K Games’s reimagining of the XCOM strategy series harkens back to the cult classic’s unsettling gameplay and punishing difficulty. The rewarding sensation one receives after successfully commanding a squad out of a heated skirmish with strange intergalactic warriors is unparalleled in modern games. These tense battles eventually lead the player to actually form an emotional bond with your team members, which makes their inevitable demise that much more crushing. These interactive elements lend XCOM’s tense action an atmosphere that’s engrossing and wholly addictive. It’s easy to treasure an old-school counter-offensive game that understands the motivating power of fear. Kyle Lemmon
95. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
In the not-so-distant future, large corporations and multinational firms have developed their operations beyond the control of national governments, and human biomechanical augmentation is simultaneously rising in popularity across the world and being demonized for its role in changing humanity. Like the very best sci-fi, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about ethics and consequences; this is a game that asks what it is to be human. The game presents both the rise of biotechnology as a means to advance human ability and the human experience, and the subsequent consequences on the world. Its layered narrative matches its deep multifaceted gameplay, set in a rich and atmospheric universe that feels not too far away from our own. Despite a slow start and occasional missteps (the much maligned boss fights were “fixed” for DLC), Eidos Montreal has created an engaging, compelling experience that does justice to the critically acclaimed Deus Ex series. Aston
94. Death Stranding
Hideo Kojima’s first game away from Konami, Death Stranding, finds him tearing down the familiar structure of the open-world game and building it back up again as something weirder, more deliberate, and more honest about what it is. It transforms basic traversal into the entire conceit rather than more or less a time sink between story missions and side activities. It peels away the artifice of open-world structure, revealing the dressed-up delivery missions underneath while declaring that they’re a worthwhile pursuit in their own right. And once you’ve totally internalized that idea, the tools the game provides become enthralling revelations: You eventually build sprawling highways and ziplines that propel you across arduous terrain. You’ve worked for them. You’ve earned them. Death Stranding is an admirable experiment for big-budget game design, playing like one long, bizarre, and startlingly persuasive argument that the journey is fulfilling in its own right. Scaife
While Iconoclasts’s bright and imaginative 2D pixelated graphics would look right at home on a 16-bit console of yore, its themes and ideas are very much that of the modern day. The game’s silent protagonist, Robin, is trapped in a fascistic society ruled by fundamentalist dogma, where her skills as a mechanic are outlawed, positioning her as a criminal and counterforce in a setting that opposes scientific advancement and free-thinking. Robin’s journey to escape execution and expose the truth of her society’s dominating political organization aligns her with other well-crafted characters who oppose the tyrannical theocracy both in ideology and ability, and it’s through its characters’ unique facilities that Iconoclasts demonstrates a kind of Ludonarrative harmony, as the gameplay and themes are in lockstep, crafting an experience that tackles important issues of faith, religion, and totalitarianism. Throughout, Iconoclasts’s varied gameplay mechanics directly serve the narrative. Consider Robin’s special tool, an illegal wrench, and how it not only symbolizes suppression of science and personal freedoms, but is used as a weapon against enemies and a means of controlling technology and traversing obstacles, often directly modifying and rearranging objects in the world. It also pushes Robin toward her ultimate goal of fixing the broken world for good. Aston
92. Yakuza 0
This prequel faced the unenviable task of taking a decades-old abstruse Japanese series and making it accessible for the masses. Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, important underworld figures later in the series, are introduced to us as a low-level recruit and disgraced outcast, respectively, from different organized crime syndicates. They’re pulled into a conspiracy after Kazuma is framed for murder and Goro rejects an assassination job after finding out that the target is a defenseless blind girl. Their captivating narratives come together in a larger plot brimming with sociopolitical intrigue about property development and clan territory. Think of Yakuza 0 as noir through the lens of ‘80s Japan. Its gameplay simplifies the series’s complicated mechanics without limiting the player or compromising the variety in the details. One can take part in any manner of activities throughout the Tokyo and Osaka settings while progressing through the campaign, allowing the game to prove itself both as a compelling prequel to an ongoing series and as its own self-contained story. Aston
Arkane Studios’s Dishonored combines elements of other immersive sims, like BioShock and Thief, to create a mechanically enjoyable first-person stealth game that challenges your awareness and resourcefulness. While its narrative about betrayal and revenge is familiar, the game is enticing for the autonomy it offers players. Dishonored is very much a gamer’s game: It hands you a target—kill High Overseer Campbell, for example—before then turning you lose, giving you the freedom of the world and Corvo’s powers to deal with your target however you see fit. Though the end of every mission may resort to a binary lethal/non-lethal choice, the ways you can approach any mission are bountiful, making each run different enough to warrant multiple playthroughs. Jeremy Winslow
The Best Theater of 2019
This was the year of playwrights saying what they mean.
This was the year of playwrights saying what they mean. Of writers like Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me) putting their own stories, or some version of themselves, right up there on the stage. Of writers like Stephen Adly Guirgis (Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven) and Donja R. Love (one in two) demanding that audiences take note, listen, and do something. Of writers like Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) and Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview) putting it all out there, all of it, and leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces and make sense of what they’ve seen.
Even if that brutal honesty made it all the way to Broadway, it didn’t permeate musicals with the same lucidity yet. The deadly parade of jukebox musicals continues, and most new scores, especially on Broadway, have also been dismayingly shallow. Much of the best—and most honest—theater in New York this season came from playwrights and directors of color, with texts both present and past (with powerful revivals of Ntozake Shange, Anna Deavere Smith, Lynn Nottage). Yet, despite the more diverse programming of the city’s leading nonprofits, there are the same number of new plays premiering in the 2019-2020 Broadway season by Tracy Letts, one individual person, as by playwrights of color (it’s just Jeremy O. Harris and Matthew Lopez). (The same goes for female playwrights as only Bess Wohl and Rona Munro have new plays premiering.)
If Slave Play’s appearance on super-safe, hit-me-baby-with-one-more-jukebox Broadway, in all that play’s harrowing, shocking glory, is the transformative, theatrical event of the year, the persistently white forecast for 2020’s biggest stages is a painful twist worthy of Harris. What’s most promising about New York theater is also what’s most frightening: As Harris himself told Playbill this year, “we’re also not doing the work of social justice if we pretend that there wasn’t a history of immediately erasing the hard work of putting women and people of color on stages—there’s always a renaissance and then it disappears.”
As this list of the best New York theatrical productions of 2019 suggests, it’s up to nonprofits like the Public Theater, the Signature Theatre, the Atlantic Theater Company, and Theatre for a New Audience to ensure that this renaissance leads to an extended enlightenment.
The American Tradition (New Light Theater Project)
The other anachronistic “slave play” this year, The American Tradition largely slipped under the radar at the 13th Street Repertory Company, where it ran briefly in February. But Ray Yamanouchi’s biting play, staged with breathless momentum by Axel Avin Jr., was just as caustic and challenging, even if it lacked some of Slave Play’s haunting ambiguity. Surrounded by language dripping with satire, light-skinned Eleanor (Sydney Cole Alexander) disguises as a white man to get herself and her husband (Martin K. Lewis) to freedom. Without abandoning its Antebellum setting, The American Tradition makes some of the same deep cuts at 21st-century white wokeness that Slave Play does, with its send-up of an abolitionist who insists he doesn’t see color. Danie Steel’s seething performance as an enslaved woman forced to memorize a speech of praise for her master has especially stuck with me throughout this year. There’s room for more than one play in New York City about the relentless legacies of slavery, and The American Tradition continues that conversation with chaotic clarity.
Buried (New York Musical Festival)
Sometimes extraordinary things come in small packages. Buried, written a few years ago by undergraduates at the University of Sheffield, boasts a darkly gorgeous folk score and a charmingly creepy romance between two serial killers who give up their mutual habit of offing their blind dates once they find each other. It’s a bonkers Bonnie and Clyde-like premise, but Cordelia O’Driscoll’s haunting melodies (bolstered by Olivia Doust’s lovely orchestrations) transform psychopathy into sweet, wry romance. And it’s a nice surprise to encounter smart lyric writing, a collaboration here between O’Driscoll and Tom Williams. Let’s hope Buried, which had a five-performance run at the New York Musical Festival, doesn’t stay underground for long.
Choir Boy (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)
For Tarell Alvin McCraney, Broadway has been a long time coming. An Oscar winner for Moonlight and the author of the acclaimed Brother/Sister Plays, he’s also the chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama (from which Slave Play’s Jeremy O. Harris just graduated). But Choir Boy, in its at-last Broadway iteration, was an unsettling and playful examination of queerness at a historically black boarding school. Animated by wrenching and exuberant singing (arrangements from Jason Michael Webb) and exhilarating step routines (choreography from Camille A. Brown), Choir Boy may well have had the most effective musical moments of any play or musical this year, including a heartbreaking locker room chorale of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” But the story itself—anchored by Jeremy Pope’s defiantly beautiful central performance and Trip Cullman’s intense direction—paints a deeply compelling picture of what it takes to survive.
Coriolanus (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)
After reading it a couple times and seeing one burdensome production outside New York last year, I’d all but written Coriolanus off as a Shakespeare play too philosophically knotty to be staged coherently or compellingly. I was proven wrong by Daniel Sullivan’s breathless, crystalline production. Jonathan Cake’s performance in the title role of a would-be consul of Rome who can’t hide his disdain for the common people made psychologically legible each of Coriolanus’s politically incomprehensible choices. Kate Burton made Coriolanus’s mother a ferocious powerhouse of a match for her firebrand son. And as the cunning tribunes, Jonathan Hadary and Enid Graham laid bare a hypocrisy that’s all too familiar: Even the politicians who claim to value the voices of the citizens are still manipulating the people they claim to serve every step of the way. One of four Public Theater productions on this list, Coriolanus’s insightful, incisive reifying is a perfect example of the Public’s grippingly relevant output.
Fairview (Theatre for a New Audience)
Perhaps Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, shouldn’t count for a 2019 roundup, since it premiered at the Soho Rep in summer 2018 before transferring to Theatre for a New Audience with the same cast and creative team a year later. But every performance of Fairview—a play as much about the audience as the characters—is a different experience. What seems at first like an undemanding comedy about an African-American family morphs violently, first when we watch the opening scene again from the perspective of four white viewers and then when those white bodies invade the stage, enacting their fantasies of black existence. For the play’s final monologue, the white members of the audience are asked to switch places with the actors of color on stage, to feel themselves being watched and surveyed. In the months since Fairview, I’ve wondered whether participating in that physical act lets white audience members off the hook too easily, especially given how few people of color were left in the seats the night I saw the show: Have the tables really turned or only the angle of observation? But in its provoking structure and its thoughtful transgression of the norms of performing and being an audience member, few shows this year struck as deeply as Fairview.
Fires in the Mirror (Signature Theatre)
Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman recounting of the 1991 Crown Heights riot, the apex of a conflict between the black and Jewish communities, received its first major New York City revival at the Signature Theatre, 27 years after its debut. In this incarnation of Smith’s verbatim drama, with text taken from dozens of interviews, it wasn’t a one-woman but a one-man play, with Michael Benjamin Washington shape-shifting between the many characters, ranging from a Hasidic mother to Reverend Al Sharpton. Vocally and physically, Washington breathed new and humanizing life into two worlds of strangers staring at each other over a great divide. Smith’s masterful dramaturgy (and extraordinary story-gathering) still stuns, and the sense of these testimonies passing from voice to voice—from their original speakers to Smith and now to Washington—provided the production with an added layer of poignancy.
Gary (Booth Theatre)
From the moment blood started spurting from her neck in the prologue, Julie White stole the show in Taylor Mac’s shocking, delicious Gary, a madcap sequel to Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy. Even though Nathan Lane was an amply amusing headliner, White and co-star Kristine Nielsen elevated Mac’s farting-corpse comedy to dizzying slapstick heights. And, somehow, amid the blank verse and zippy zaniness, Mac also unfurled a pointed pacifist message about the meaningless messiness of war. Perhaps Mac, a celebrated performance artist and playwright who uses the pronoun “judy,” asked a lot from absurdism-wary Broadway audiences in judy’s most mainstream outing to date, especially with the deep-cut Shakespearean in-jokes. But Gary, despite its naysayers, achieved its goal of giving gas its own grotesque gravity.
Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (Atlantic Theater Company)
One of the year’s saddest plays, and also quite possibly its funniest, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is a brutal, big-hearted landscape study of a New York City halfway house from Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherfucker with the Hat, among other attention-getting titles). What’s most impressive about Guirgis’s sprawling play, which also features a cameo by a live goat, is how he gives full life and rich, specific language to each of eighteen characters. His gift for using large-scale ensemble scenes to instantly, meticulously develop characters and shade in relationship histories is unrivaled. And what a cast, with particularly shimmering performances from Elizabeth Rodriguez as the dauntless director of the residence, Liza Colón-Zayas as a hurting, harassing veteran, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes (also excellent in New York Theater Workshop’s runboyrun and In Old Age earlier this fall) as a long-forgotten film star. With unafraid humor, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven serves a generous helping of humanity.
King Lear (Cort Theatre)
This was a production more sinned against than sinning. Though I may be in the critical minority for adoring Sam Gold’s abstract, perhaps overly academic King Lear, I found it to be an eye-opening vision for Shakespeare’s most engulfing tragedy. Hard to follow for newcomers to the play itself? For sure (I don’t begrudge the King Lear neophytes sitting near me who left at intermission), but what a collection of performances: Ruth Wilson’s heartbreaking dual portraits of Cordelia and the Fool (a mainstay original casting theory from King Lear scholarship working wonders in action); the sometimes-justified charismatic cruelty of Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O’Sullivan as Goneril and Regan; John Douglas Thompson as a cantankerous, devoted Kent; and the deaf actor Russell Harvard as the Duke of Cornwall, accompanied by an interpreter (Michael Arden). Gold’s casting choices tightened the dramaturgy: When Cornwall killed that servant, he lost his “ears” in the same scene that Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell) literally lost her eyes. And, most centrally, having seen Glenda Jackson play Lear in an utterly incoherent production (not directed by Gold) at London’s Old Vic in 2016, I was astonished by the newfound wit, anger, and ferociousness in Jackson’s second look at the role.
Little Shop of Horrors (Westside Theater)
Unlike the revisions and reinventions of other musical revivals this year (Kiss Me, Kate, Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish), Michael Mayer’s giddy production of Little Shop of Horrors is just a really, really good staging of the show that heightens everything you’ve always loved about it. Jonathan Groff gave a delightfully nerdy performance as Seymour Krelborn (he’s soon to be replaced by Gideon Glick) with Tammy Blanchard a tender and tenacious Audrey. Mayer’s direction reveals, much like Seymour’s own transformation, a diamond in the rough: Little Shop of Horrors is a magnificent mixture of ridiculous dark comedy and, somehow beneath the carnivorous leaves and thirst for blood, sweetness. The cast’s superb rendering of Alan Menken’s score (and Howard Ashman’s witty lyrics) has also been captured on a recently released recording, and if you can’t make it to the tiny Westside Theater before the show closes in March, it’s worth the listen.
The Michaels (Public Theater)
The eighth play in Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama detailing episodes in family’s lives in the Hudson Valley, The Michaels is as gorgeous, subtle, and quietly perfect (or perfectly quiet) as any production staged in New York this year. Calmly riveting, the play takes place basically in real time as the glued-together fragments of a family (plus a visiting friends) cook and eat dinner. On the one hand, it’s a glistening portrait into the world of modern dance: Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) has come home to recreate the legendary choreography of her mother, the ailing Rose Michaels (Brende Wehle), for a tribute performance. Nelson beautifully weaves patches of dining-room dancing into the play. But the play’s tensest conflicts lie between the present and the past, as Rose battles her once-buoyant body, and her girlfriend Kate (an astonishing Maryann Plunkett) contends with the ever-present memories of Rose’s longtime partner. Nelson masterfully delivers the richness of whole lives wrestling with the passage of time, distilled into the duration of a single dinner.
Mojada (Public Theater)
Luis Alfaro’s Mojada migrates the Medea myth to present-day Queens in a terrifying, literarily inevitable unspooling of an undocumented woman’s battle to preserve her family and her dignity. In the Public Theater’s production, Chay Yew’s fluid staging intermingled Mikhail Fiksel’s vital sound design with Alfaro’s poetic text, brought to life especially by Sabina Zúñiga Varela in the title role and Socorro Santiago as a wry Greek chorus of a domestic worker. A flashback sequence to the family’s frightening escape across the border was probably among this year’s most horrifying, tense stretches of drama (along, perhaps, with the final scenes of Slave Play and Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!). In Alfaro’s assured hands, the mythical and the modern meld powerfully, yet another win for the Public’s superb track record of marrying the classic and the contemporary.
Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)
Shakespeare’s seldom made this much sense. In Kenny Leon’s glorious production of Much Ado About Nothing, Messina is transformed into 2020 Georgia at the height of Stacey Abrams’s (fictitious) presidential campaign. Leon’s resetting felt so special not just because of its all-black cast or potent use of music throughout, but because each line of Shakespeare’s text blossomed as if dug out and replanted in a brand-new garden. I’ve rarely seen a Shakespeare production that felt as freshly explored, and I’ve also never seen an audience allowed to receive a Shakespeare play with such total comfort and confidence in the language’s accessibility. Leading the phenomenal cast in conversational clarity was Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks, a sweet, salty, stunning Beatrice. And the best news for fans of Shakespeare (or strangers to Shakespeare) who missed the show: It was filmed for PBS’s Great Performances and is available to watch here.
Native Son (The Duke on 42nd Street)
The Acting Company moved into the Duke on 42nd Street this summer, running Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son in repertory. While Measure for Measure was uninspired, and the repertorial combination didn’t add much to either play, Native Son triumphed. A tense, taut terror ride, directed with careening force by Seret Scott and centered around two major performances—Galen Ryan Kane, seething and sorrowful as Bigger Thomas, and Jason Bowen as the violent spirit of the Black Rat that Bigger feels society pressuring him toward—this production never let up in momentum. Despite the 1940s setting, this adaptation distills the distancing near-century of racial oppression into a shocking 90-minute thriller that felt, in this fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat staging, bracingly immediate.
one in two (The New Group, Signature Theatre)
Written during the height of Donja R. Love’s struggle with depression as he approached his 10th anniversary of living with HIV, one in two is a work which rends its author’s identity apart into three figures, all queer black men tasked with telling the tragic—but does it have to be?—story of an HIV-positive man. At each performance, audience applause selects which actor will take on which role, bringing to life the lottery of being a queer black man in America, the unimaginable statistic that one in two gay or bisexual black men will contract HIV in their lifetimes. That’s the only chance for applause the audience gets: In an arresting dramaturgical move, there’s no curtain call, just a silent exodus from the theater as the actors stare up at the ever-increasing tally of diagnoses. It’s a riveting, riotous play that pierces with its sense of vital urgency and its unwillingness to follow the rules.
The Rose Tattoo (American Airlines Theater)
For audiences familiar with Tennessee Williams’s best-known classics, Serafina Delle Rose’s happy ending seems hardly likely to happen. But Marisa Tomei’s take on the young widow Serafina refuses to succumb to her loneliness like Tom Wingfield or Brick or Stanley Kowalski, the tragic heroes of other Williams works. If The Rose Tattoo is a tonal rollercoaster, it relies on its central actress to prevent the play from riding off the rails: Tomei delivered, offering a shape-shifting performance oscillating from joy to grief and back to passionate hope. Partnered brilliantly with the Scottish actor Emun Elliott, Tomei transformed The Rose Tattoo into a spirited, deeply funny tour de force. Director Trip Cullman (Choir Boy) decorated this production with healthy dollops of physical comedy and a warm mist of candle-lighting and Italian song.
Slave Play (Golden Theatre)
I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about Slave Play since I saw it nearly three months ago. And that’s very definitely the point. More than any play I’ve seen this year—maybe ever—it’s come up in conversation again and again, not just because I want to recommend it (which I do), but because I’m still wrestling with it. Jeremy O. Harris’s unanswered questions have also burrowed deep, unsettling the norms of theatergoing: A viral video of a white audience member screaming at Harris as he calmly hears her out in a post-show talkback pretty much sums up the revelatory detonation this play has become. But what’s most admirable about Slave Play remains that, stripped of all the noise outside and around the play, it’s still a thoughtful, honest story about four interracial couples learning how to listen to their partners and taking terrible risks to be heard.
The Sound Inside (Studio 54)
Though The Sound Inside is a play that doesn’t demand a Broadway-sized house, it certainly deserves one; a mesmerizing miniature, it’s perhaps the best new play on Broadway in 2019. Starring Mary-Louise Parker (in her first of two Broadway lead roles this season), this small-scale gem tells the story of Bella Lee Baird, a Yale professor who asks for a shocking favor from a student. Both teacher and students are novelists and their fiction works blend blurrily into their lives. This is as much a play about writing as a play about people, and I was wholly won over by the sense that Bella is shifting and shaping the story the audience receives. Parker is devastating as an unreliable narrator wrestling with the power she alone has to reveal or conceal the truth.
What the Constitution Means to Me (Helen Hayes Theater)
When the national tour of What the Constitution Means to Me takes off in January, it will be the first time playwright Heidi Schreck hasn’t also performed the central role. It’s hard to imagine the piece without her. After all, this play is her, as Schreck recounts her experience as a teenager entering constitutional debate competitions for college tuition cash and then describes, through scintillating monologue and conversations with onstage companions, how her understanding of the constitution’s impact on women and American identity has evolved. The play peaks with a face-off between Schreck and a real-live NYC high school debater (I saw the brilliant Thursday Williams) before asking each other questions provided by the audience. A moving model of what it looks like to listen deeply to other people’s stories, in a season filled with painful questions, What the Constitution Means to Me was the rare play that softly started to offer answers.
The 100 Best Films of the 2010s
Our top films of the decade offer insights and riches that are inexhaustible.
While the increasingly tiresome bubble of online film discourse only seems capable of processing one or two works of art in any given week, the number of films released in North America each year has doubled in the past decade. The story of the next decade is likely to be one studio’s stranglehold on the box office and the theatrical moviegoing experience writ large, but the sheer volume of new voices with fresh ideas and perspectives continues to grow unabated. It’s up to us to grant them the attention they deserve.
Our top films of the decade contain ample proof that much of the most vital art being made today comes from a place beyond the ken of the algorithms attempting to control our attention. They offer insights and riches that are inexhaustible. Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret began the decade spinning a city symphony out of a teenager’s first brush with tragedy; today, its classroom scenes are a harrowing, uproarious omen of the discourse we trudge through each day. Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God are twinned in their monochromatic, overwhelming shrugs toward the apocalypse, while other final films (Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames and Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie) mine the sublime from stillness.
Most of the directors cited here more than once (including Lonergan, Kiarostami, and Kelly Reichardt) are firmly ensconced in the canon of contemporary auteurs, while a few have more stealthily entered the conversation. Maren Ade’s Everyone Else and Toni Erdmann are scabrous examinations of moneyed classes that are nonetheless immensely heartfelt. Robert Greene has developed a remarkable body of work scrutinizing the nature of performance, but this phrase does nothing to explain how one filmmaker could produce films of such disparate conceits and ideas as Kate Plays Christine and Bisbee ‘17. Don Hertzfeld, conversely, puts his inimitable tragicomic stamp on two distinctly expansive animated visions.
Surrounding the dozen-plus filmmakers making numerous appearances here are a string of works by both established and emerging artists that point to the continued innovation of both studio and independent film. Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat is a marvel of contradictions, diffusing a boisterous family drama into a patchwork of discrete asides. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan and Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana are sumptuously designed documentaries that reorient our sense of the cinema as spectacle, a word that must be associated with George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Leos Carax’s (Holy Motors) lone outings this decade. And works as unalike as Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour, and Mariano Llinás’s La Flor reminded us that seemingly any manner of story can be worthy of a length most audiences reserve for a season of television.
The difference between the two mediums is becoming increasingly slippery, and for some unearthly reason a noisy portion of the internet never seems to tire of pedantic debates about which creators and which works belong in which canon. A few entries on our list aired as TV miniseries here or in Europe (Li’l Quinquin and Olivier Assayas’s Carlos) but were released theatrically in North America. Some of us saw most of these one hundred films in theaters, but they made their way to us in many different scenarios, on screens that were inches, feet, or stories high. They’ll endure on any format. Christopher Gray
The Voters: Chuck Bowen, Pat Brown, Jake Cole, Clayton Dillard, Ed Gonzalez, Christopher Gray, Wes Greene, Glenn Heath Jr., Eric Henderson, Rob Humanick, Oleg Ivanov, Joshua Kim, Carson Lund, Sam C. Mac, Niles Schwartz, Diego Semerene, Derek Smith.
100. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
If the modern franchise product is Lebron James, pummeling opponents and raking in billions through sheer might, then Creed is its Steph Curry, infusing a familiar formula with an uncanny and seemingly effortless grace. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti has been rightly hailed for Creed’s mid-film, single-take fight scene, but hasn’t received enough credit for realizing one of the decade’s most complex and indelible shots, literally projecting the legacy of deceased fighter Apollo Creed onto his illegitimate son, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan). As Adonis shadowboxes with the ghost of his father, Alberti, Johnson, and director Ryan Coogler set up both the film’s primary plot and its meta-textual thesis: A legacy is both a burden and a privilege. This is one of many clichés that Creed infuses with an earnest, timeworn vibrancy. Bolstered by charismatic performers and a patient sensibility that allows dramatic scenes to last a few self-questioning beats longer than expected, Coogler has transformed a very white franchise into one pointedly concerned with black lives and traditions. The triumphant result is, like Adonis running through the streets of Philadelphia with a crew of dirt bikers and updated version of Bill Conti’s iconic score, at once unapologetically schmaltzy, supremely self-conscious, and resoundingly progressive. Gray
99. Bastards (Claire Denis)
Bastards is to the classic American noir what director Claire Denis’s prior Trouble Every Day is to the biological horror film: A beautiful essay on the potential moral perversions of intense human hunger that’s structured around genre trappings that are, in turn, refreshed and shaken free of the cobwebs of stale irrelevancy. The self-consciously derivative plot is a classic tale of a man lured into trouble, partially by his penis, who discovers a world of nearly primordial rot that far exceeds his comprehension. But, typical of Denis’s films, it’s the movement of bodies and faces you remember, particularly Vincent Lindon’s poignant, commandingly gruffy and weathered cheeks and weary eyes, as well as Chiara Mastroianni’s gorgeous body and deceptively tentative gestures. The love scenes are marvels typical of Denis: trysts that honor both the super-charged eroticism of genre tropes and the revealing physical vulnerability of sex as some of us might actually have it (perhaps, if we’re lucky). Chuck Bowen
98. The Lost City of Z (James Gray)
“I will help you, because you will make sure that nothing will change,” says a plantation owner and rubber baron (Franco Nero) dressed in a fine white suit and fanned by a native slave, to Major Percival “Percy” Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). The baron assumes that Fawcett’s mapmaking expedition in the Amazon is meant to maintain the constancy of early 20th-century colonialism—of occupations that mitigate conflict through control. But in actuality, like Marion Cotillard’s Ewa Cybulska in James Gray’s earlier The Immigrant, Fawcett exists outside of the strictures of his time—a deliberate anachronism. The man’s break from the era’s accepted social norms, his belief in exploration as more than a means of exploitation, and his dreams of the future as a corrective for the past reflect both his repentance for an “unfortunate” ancestry (his father was a gambler and a drunk) and broadly represent emergent 20th-century modernism. Gray’s opulent formalism channels Fawcett’s delusions of grandeur, making for an intoxicating adventure film. And the director’s typically bracing intelligence—employed here to examine the psychological toll of obsession, and the philosophical weight of understanding, and accepting, change—lends the narrative the scope and detail of a classical epic. Like The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z is about ideologies out of step from the present moment of the world they exist in, and is itself a film out of its own time. Sam C. Mac
97. In the Family (Patrick Wang)
The decade saw the release of many impressive debut films, but they all feel weightless compared to Patrick Wang’s ambitious, compassionate, and devastating three-hour masterpiece. The story may seem small and contained on the surface: interior designer Joey (Wang) loses his partner Cody (Trevor St. John) in a car accident, which upends his paternal relationship with Cody’s young son and isolates him further from a surrogate family who were once so close. But there’s nothing minor about the brilliant way In the Family handles regional identity and societal contradictions, themes that are explored during dialogue-driven set pieces where humility and understanding can be found in every pause. With an Ozu-like attention to detail and silence, Wang establishes a palpable sincerity toward Joey’s disintegrating sense of family that never trivializes or moralizes his suffering or scorn. Instead, the film values conversation, the impact of waiting, and the power of optimism. Unlike most sentimental Hollywood schmaltz, In the Family earns its tears by spending long amounts of time with characters we care about, those who speak to each other and not at each other. Most notably, in Wang we have found a major talent, a chronicler of complex emotional collisions and reflections who expresses himself profoundly without resorting to theatrics. Glenn Heath Jr.
96. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)
A uniquely crafted hybrid film, incorporating narrative, travelogue, and art-essay conceits, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours saliently channels the excitement and alienation of traveling. Charting the fledgling friendship between a charitable museum guard and a middle-class Canadian woman who’s visiting her hospitalized cousin in Vienna and passes time by wandering the galleries of the grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, the film insightfully cherishes the act of observation and a peculiar curiosity about life. Exceedingly proving the richness that patience yields, the audience—like the characters themselves—becomes acquainted with backstories and interests of the unassuming protagonists. At once pensive and playful, the film’s most brilliant stroke comes from Cohen’s ability to organically link the characters with the art that surrounds them to illuminate the power of observation and various existential inquiries inherent in art, leading to an understated personal investigation into the lives of these people we’re asked to consider. With a keen eye for detail, Cohen offers the viewer a lens that shapes, and discovers, new ways to view both cinema and the world. Nick McCarthy
95. Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)
Drug addiction is by now overly familiar cinematic terrain, and yet Joachim Trier finds new ways to investigate the struggle to manage dependency with Oslo, August 31st, a piercing snapshot of one man’s struggle to survive a day-long trip out of rehab for a job interview. Along that journey, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) also visits an old party buddy and attempts to reunite with his estranged sister, and Trier’s camera sticks to Anders with an intensity that’s matched by Lie, whose inner turmoil bubbles with increasing volatility beneath his placid, haunted exterior. Lie radiates wrenching confusion and aimlessness, lending Anders the quality of being on the constant precipice of either transcendence or doom. Throughout, the film never operates as a straight melodrama, instead assuming a tranquil, compassionately observant stance on its lost, ambiguous protagonist, who seems potentially incapable of not just big-picture change, but of making the daily transitions—in attitude, in emotion, in reaction—required by life. It’s a tragedy of personal proportions, imbued with greater dimension through Lie’s magnificent performance and Trier’s affectionate portrait of the titular Norway capital as a place of both perpetual change and of unforgettable, and inescapable, memories. Nick Schager
94. The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)
A (literal) excavation of Romanian history, Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure explores a single, unremarkable plot of land (it had previously served as a kindergarten, steelworks, brickworks, and bar, but now lies empty and abandoned) as a microcosm of a nation’s variegated past and desultory present. With meticulous pacing and rigorously composed long shots, Porumboiu develops an ever-so-subtle suspense as we observe a trio of down-on-their-luck men equipped with metal detectors comb the land for loot supposedly buried there by a wealthy ancestor before the country’s communist takeover. The meticulousness of Porumboiu’s form provides ironic contrast to the hapless bumbling of his characters, creating an abiding air of melancholy deadpan that’s relieved only by the film’s jarringly triumphalist final image, a swooping crane shot that soars up to the heavens. After so long staring at the ground, simply looking up can feel like liberation. Keith Watson
93. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is a modern exploration of the role of feminine certitude within the context of the dyed-in-the-wool codes and attitudes of the American West. Three strivers embodying gradients of progressive womanhood—a headstrong lawyer (Laura Dern), an eco-conscious homebuilder (Michelle Williams) managing her own husband, and a solitary rancher (Lily Gladstone, in a breakout performance) harboring inchoate lesbian longings—all carry the titular quality, and yet the film dramatizes, in Reichardt’s characteristically sobering manner, the clash of that conviction against obstacles that invariably thwart the fulfillment of desire. The film is thus a delicate rejoinder to the all-American bromide of self-sufficiency and will power as routes to fulfillment, the defining thematic constellation of the western in its classical form. That Reichardt emulates the genre’s components just cannily enough (expansive landscape photography, a climactic horse ride) while also subtly defamiliarizing them (plentiful dead air, unnervingly detuned ambient sound) makes her persuasions—her certainty—that much more revelatory. Carson Lund
92. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Much like Fritz Lang’s M, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty begins with violent death that’s aurally suggested rather than seen, and concludes with a woman’s ambiguously symbolic tears. These disorienting overloads of affect bookend a deceptively rational police-procedural thriller, cataloguing the steps taken by a steely C.I.A. operative (Jessica Chastain) to hunt down Osama bin Laden through a political decade defined by torture and mishap. Hyperkinetic drama trumps context throughout; discussion of Operation Cyclone and even Islam is riskily absent, as though Bigelow were writing history with lightning. The code-named characters meanwhile behave like they’re auditioning for HBO; Chastain’s self-proclaimed “motherfucker” of an agent, who scrawls angry notes on her male superior’s office window (a.k.a. “the glass ceiling”), has an anemically sketched inner life. Yet all of these vernacular tropes form a shrewd, daring rouse. In a move worthy not only of Lang but of Brecht, Bigelow has politicized her pop aesthetics. Her compulsively watchable film brings a global exchange of unthinkable pain down to earth while still retaining the essence of its ineffability. Zero Dark Thirty is ultimately about unknowable cost—not only the cost of keeping a worldwide hegemony afloat with grisly violence, but the cost of maintaining a worldwide entertainment industry with facsimiles of the same. Joseph Jon Lanthier
91. La Flor (Mariano Llinás)
Mariano Llinás slyly constructs La Flor as a series of loosely interlocking labyrinths with no clear resolutions, presupposing cinema as being solely about the journey rather than the destination. Across its exuberant 14-plus hours and six episodes, several of which add digressions within digressions, Llinás upends expectations and stretches his formal muscles as his film traverses an array of genres, styles, and spoken languages and playfully dismantles and toys with the very notion of storytelling itself. As its production lasted for a full decade, Llinás’s sprawling magnum opus inevitably sees its four main actresses, who star in all but one of the six episodes, gracefully age as they shapeshift from musicians and scientists to spies, assassins, actors, and, ultimately, themselves. As a structural gambit, La Flor is as ambitious as anything released in the past decade, let alone year, and the symbiotic relationship between Llinás and his magnificently malleable performers—particularly Pilar Gamboa, whose brooding intensity reaches its height during the emotionally wrenching song which concludes episode two—lend the film’s wildly inventive metafictions an unmistakable warmth. Derek Smith
The 100 Best Albums of the 2010s
The music of the past 10 years has felt like a streak of shifting genres and seemingly rehashed trends.
There’s a popular meme—shared most often by Gen Xers and tech-capable boomers—that self-deprecatingly laments the perception that the 1990s were just a few years ago. The absence of a generally recognized way to demarcate the first two decades of the 21st century (aughts? Teens? ‘10s?) has, perhaps, rendered the “decade” as a measure of time more arbitrary than ever before, resulting in one nebulous blur. The music of the past 10 years has likewise felt like a streak of shifting genres and seemingly rehashed trends.
Of course, a lack of obvious trends—like synth-pop and hair metal in the ‘80s, and alternative rock and R&B in the ‘90s—doesn’t mean there weren’t important milestones in music. Bolstered by albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, hip-hop continued to rediscover both its conscience and its voice in the 2010s, while artists like Robyn and Katy B proved that even when dance-pop is pushed to the margins, as it was after the EDM explosion of the late aughts, it will always find its groove.
As is often the case with pop music, whose wiles aren’t often immediately apparent, some of the titles on this list of the greatest albums of the decade took their sweet time taking root. Taylor Swift’s 1989, for example, sits at a lofty perch here but failed to garner a mention on our list of the Best Albums of 2014. Others, like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, were released just days after we published our list that same year. And yet another 2014 album, Bright Light Bright Light’s sophomore effort, Life Is Easy, came to our attention a year after its initial release.
Some of the artists with multiple entries on this list, like Kanye West, began the 2010s at their creative and commercial zenith but floundered on both counts by decade’s end. Others, like Lana Del Rey, started out with great but uncertain promise and ultimately fulfilled it as the decade came to a close. Holdovers from the ‘90s like Radiohead, PJ Harvey, and Björk, as well as artists whose legacies stretch even further back, like the dearly departed David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, released some of their most compelling work to date in the last 10 years, making the task of clearly defining the decade even more of a fool’s errand. What these 100 albums do have in common is quite simple: They moved us. Sal Cinquemani
100. Bright Light Bright Light, Life Is Easy
At a time when pop music is defined foremost by cynicism, Bright Light Bright Light, né Rod Thomas, offers a refreshingly sincere voice, unafraid to be poignant or vulnerable. Though the melodies on the Welsh singer-songwriter’s sophomore effort, Life Is Easy, are often uncomplicated, they’re also instantly familiar and accessible. The album’s opening synths nod to Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks, as Thomas paints vivid, cinematic scenes of love lost and imagined, drenched in retro-minded synth-pop reminiscent of Pet Shop Boys and George Michael. The album is littered with tales of disintegrating love (“Everything I Ever Wanted,” “I Wish We Were Leaving,” featuring Elton John) but also the wide-eyed optimism of a hopeless romantic (“An Open Heart,” “I Believe”). It makes life—and love—sound easy. Cinquemani
99. Big Thief, U.F.O.F.
The first of two stellar albums Big Thief released in 2019, U.F.O.F. is less immediate and rhythmic than the subsequent Two Hands. It’s all ambience and texture, unfolding like a reverie, with chiming acoustic guitar arpeggios and cooing melodies so natural and easy that they sound like they sprung up from the ground or out of the trees. Singer-songwriter Adrienne Lenker’s songs don’t so much progress as they circle mesmerizingly around themselves, and the best of them—“Cattails,” “Century,” “From”—seize on sing-songy melodic motifs with repetitious snake-like structures that become almost like mantras. Lenker and Buck Meek’s guitar work is sparkling throughout, with every pluck and strum sounding sonically optimized. This is an album as difficult to categorize as it is easy to listen to. Jeremy Winograd
98. Pet Shop Boys, Electric
Electric found the Pet Shop Boys taking an easy and well-earned career victory lap. This isn’t a nostalgia cruise through the sounds of its creators’ lost youth, but rather a daringly foolhardy effort to communicate with the kids in their own blissed-out lexicon. For this task, Electric brought in the man most perfectly suited to marrying ‘80s electro-pop classicism with genre-straddling EDM modernism, Stuart Price. More importantly, the duo brought a collection of wry and wonderful earworms that are every bit as huge as Price’s canyon-sized sound. A reminder that classic songs don’t have to arrive already frozen in amber. Blue Sullivan
95. Lindstrom, Real Life Is No Cool
Norwegian DJ Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and vocalist Christabelle’s Real Life Is No Cool is a pop-funk odyssey that draws on early Massive Attack, Prince, and especially the space-disco of Giorgio Moroder. The album is, perhaps, Lindstrøm’s most accessible work to date (the single “Lovesick” appeared in a car commercial and the U.S. version of the album is even more polished than the original Rough Trade incarnation), but despite clear standout tracks and copious pop hooks, it’s a testament to the strength of Lindstrøm’s singular vision that the album plays best as one whole piece, no small feat considering that it was at least seven years in the making. Cinquemani
96. James Blake, James Blake
A friend recently played me James Blake through his new subwoofer with the dial turned to about 5, an experience that nearly made our heads explode. It served as a reminder of how amazingly rumbly, strange, and unique of an album it is, a fact that may have been forgotten in the nine months since its release. Cloaked in a cloud of mystery, it defies the usual bedroom-recording template, with an expansive sound that ranges from creeping, percussively stripped-down R&B to eerie MIDI-inflected dirges, with textures that provide padding for one of the most uniquely smooth voices to come around in years. Jesse Cataldo
95. Aphex Twin, Syro
Few artists could record an album as downright adventurous as Syro. It jumps from eerily funky trip-hop (“produk 29”) to disjointed, robotic acid house (“CIRCLONT6A [141.98]”) and then concludes with a solo piano piece that wouldn’t feel out of place on a recital program alongside Chopin and Satie. But only Aphex Twin could record something this outlandish and appear to be toning down the experimentalism. Syro is a refinement of everything that Aphex Twin has accomplished in his career of genre invention and deconstruction. As a complete work, it’s enveloping, with moments of virtuosic composition (the prog-rock-on-ecstasy of “syro u473t8+e [141.98]”) balanced out by larger, propulsive gestures like rave banger “180db_.” While the rest of the electronic music world has been trying to catch up, Aphex Twin is finally taking a breath and, in turn, had released his most accessible—though still profoundly idiosyncratic—album to date. James Rainis
94. Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy
Tyler, the Creator’s obvious talent has always been undercut by an insistent immaturity, with callow, prankish antagonism proving a continued obstacle to his artistic development. With Flower Boy, rap’s resident enfant terrible has finally found a way to channel his hostility, on an album that still retains his inherent unruliness and intensity. Tyler taps into the internal reservoir of insecurity and doubt motivating his anger, expanding his range and revealing new creative layers in the process. Building on the glimmers of tuneful sweetness found on 2015’s Cherry Bomb, the album finds existing horrorcore inclinations mixing freely with polished electro jazz, hard-edged psychedelia, and hazy R&B. Surprisingly smooth but still never easily digestible, its diverse palette provides insight into the wide variety of sources influencing a mounting wave of paradigm-fracturing rappers, helping to spearhead the genre’s fervent push into new modes of expression. Cataldo
93. Kamasi Washington, The Epic
As everyone who’s caught his sprawling live show already knows, jazz bandleader Kamasi Washington’s maximalism will not be contained, and that, ludicrous as it may sound, even a three-hour label debut broken down into three volumes titled “The Plan,” “The Glorious Tale,” and “The Historic Repetition” and given the title The Epic still ever so faintly suggests the tip of the iceberg that sunk the RMS Titanic. “Change of the Guard”? That might be an overstatement, but there’s something undeniably thrilling about an artist who doesn’t seem to dislike a single reference point. Washington, better known as Kendrick Lamar’s go-to arranger, pulls not a single punch as he draws from big band, fusion, swing, and bebop traditions, pays homage to Malcolm X, Ray Noble, and Claude Debussy, and overlays heavenly choral and string arrangements to send the entire enterprise into orbit. Eric Henderson
92. Katy B, On a Mission
As the coolly altered colors of the cover art indicate, Katy B’s On a Mission is euphoric without aggression. It’s awash in the newness of discovery, and represents the perfect confluence of elements that all but transcends any single camp. This isn’t merely a house album, a pop album, a dubstep album, or an R&B album. It’s a bright, cheerfully mainstream-friendly record that’s almost completely built from the ingredients of much darker, grimier dance music subcultures in a way that recalls the sunnier moments of Basement Jaxx, or Kathy Diamond’s Maurice Fulton-guided retro jaunt through the Loft on Miss Diamond to You. But softer still. On a Mission is a glowstick Alice in Wonderland, a tour of sensations as narrated by an emotionally reserved young girl whose “curiouser and curiouser” reactions ultimately wind up giving in to the moment, hungry for the next chapter. Henderson
91. Mariah Carey, Caution
“Caution” is an apt warning for those about to consume Mariah Carey’s first album in over four years. While her voice may be a reedy version of what it once was, she makes it abundantly clear on Caution that she isn’t to be fucked with in this or any other decade. She wisely relies on the rap-inflected R&B sounds that have been her bread and butter since Butterfly, while bringing in unexpected collaborators like Skrillex and Blood Orange. She also switches up the message: In the aftermath of a highly public breakup, a sense of inevitable heartache hangs over the whole thing, from the delightfully salty lead single “GTFO” (“I ain’t tryna be rude, but you’re lucky I ain’t kick your ass out last weekend,” she quips) to the even more savage “A No No,” in which she summons her verbally gymnastic falsetto for a Gilligan’s Island-related diss. The adoption of patois and clearly intentional use of “irregardless” suggest Mimi (still) has no time for notions of cultural appropriation or grammar, and appearances by Slick Rick and Biggie (via sample) let us know that her heart will always lie in hip-hop. Where it belongs. Paul Schrodt
90. Destroyer, Kaputt
With the lone exception of Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest,” no music this year has better captured the glitzy, breezy, unaware charm of ‘80s air pop better than Destroyer’s Kaputt. There’s an almost stark obliviousness to the album’s caricatural, glossy atmosphere, obtuse lyricism, and plethora of jazzy brass, but therein lies its allure: Dan Bejar exists in his own little bubble, making songs for himself as much as others, and leaving us narrative riddles that perhaps only he can ultimately decipher. Yet as confoundingly esoteric as Kaputt can often be, it’s still a joy to listen to: Luxurious and blissful and playful in a way that conjures up the psychedelic pop storytelling of Al Stewart. From the bouncy hotel lobby ballad “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” and the delicate melancholy of “Chinatown” to the almost ridiculous, full-on saxophone and vibes explosion that is the title track, Kaputt is the consummate balancing act of the cerebral and the irreverent. Kevin Liedel
89. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
With Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 braintrust Anthony Gonzalez reportedly aimed to combine the aesthetics of the decidedly more shoegazey Before the Dawn Heals Us with the all-out, sparkling post-punk of Saturdays=Youth, with synth-pop tracks like “Claudia Lewis” and “Reunion” alongside ambient throwbacks like “Echoes of Mine.” As always, Gonzalez goes grand, aiming for the bright lights and saturated echoes of stadium anthems. One need look no further than the opening blast of “Intro” for evidence, where Gonzalez masterfully stacks buzzing circularity and distant choir strains with the seagull synths of “Kim & Jessie,” over which Zola Jesus delivers her muscular vocals. Liedel
88. Taylor Swift, Reputation
In the run-up to the release of her sixth album, Reputation, Taylor Swift was excoriated by fans and foes alike for too often playing the victim. The album’s lyrics only serve to bolster that perception: Swift comes off like a frazzled stay-at-home mom scolding her disobedient children on “Look What You Made Me Do” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” But it’s her willingness to portray herself not as a victim, but the villain of her own story that makes Reputation such a fascinatingly thorny glimpse inside the mind of pop’s reigning princess. Swift has proven herself capable of laughing at herself, thereby defusing the criticisms often levied at her, but with Reputation she’s created a larger-than-life caricature of the petty, vindictive snake she’s been made out to be. By album’s end, Swift assesses her crumbling empire and tattered reputation, discovering redemption in love—only Reputation isn’t so much a rebirth as it is a retreat inward. It marks a shift from the retro-minded pop-rock of 2014’s 1989 toward a harder, more urban aesthetic, and Swift wears the stiff, clattering beats of songs like “…Ready for It?” like body armor. Cinquemani
87. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
Righteous anger is potent fuel for art, and in a year that desperately beckoned for protest music that could stand up to systematic economic and racial oppression, Killer Mike and El-P drew on just that to create Run the Jewels 2. It’s not a political treatise (there are too many absurdist threats and flights of linguistic fancy to qualify), but tracks like the drug-dealer’s lament “Crown” and the accusatory “Lie, Cheat, Steal” hold a mirror up to society’s blemishes and implore you to get fucking pissed about it to El-P’s punishing, Bomb Squad-reminiscent production. Decades after It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the sonic revolution is still being fought, with brothers-in-arms Killer Mike and El-P as the new ringleaders. Rainis
86. DJ Koze, Knock Knock
DJ Koze’s eclectic third effort, Knock Knock, tones down the psychedelic flourishes of 2013’s Amygdala for a more accessible album that’s inviting and soothing while also, at times, preserving a plaintive sense of yearning. “Music on My Teeth” opens with a sample of Zen Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts intoning that “time is a social institution and not a physical reality.” Whether it’s a Gladys Knight & the Pips sample on “Pick Up” or a guest spot by an Auto-Tune-drenched Kurt Wagner from Lambchop on “Muddy Funster,” Koze seamlessly melds eras and genres to fashion shape-shifting sonic textures. He plays to his guests’ strengths, giving the music the semblance of a mixtape at times, but overall the sound nevertheless remains cohesive. Seamless shifts from trip-hop to R&B to deep house create a multidimensional aesthetic that runs the gamut from retro to futuristic, from analog to digital, all while exuding Koze’s mastery of making the uncanny feel oddly familiar. Josh Goller
85. Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love
“I hate ‘love’ in my own language,” Jenny Hval says on the title track of her seventh album, a spoken-word exchange between herself and Lasse Marhaug about the notion of reproduction and its impact on humanity. Although Hval has admitted to feeling some anxiety about dealing with love as a theme when she’s spent so much of her career focusing on anything but, on The Practice of Love she explores the concept with closely observed specificity. Over propulsive, trance-influenced musical backdrops that lend a disarming sheen to its raw lyrics, Hval analyses the presence—and lack—of love in nature (“Lions feat Vivian Wang”), in pregnancy and childlessness (“Accident”), and in communion with the dead (“Six Red Cannas”). Her lyrical style, equal parts allusive and up-front, makes for an exposing, raw album, as disquieting as it is dazzling. Anna Richmond
84. The Weeknd, House of Balloons
The collaboration of producer Doc McKinney and singer Abel Tesfaye, House of Balloons is entirely without precedent in R&B. The gothic production aesthetic is influenced as much by industrial, trip-hop, and downtempo as it is by urban radio, while Tesfaye’s tortured falsetto conveys both vulnerability and predatory intent. It’s a lurid exercise in subterranean world-building, its depictions of dependency and desperation soundtracked by some of the catchiest, sexiest R&B jams you’ll never hear in the club. Matthew Cole
83. Wild Beasts, Smother
True to their name, Wild Beasts builds on and fully inhabits an undomesticated musical world far removed from the familiar grounds of their indie peers. The band’s experimentation in flaky, embellished baroque pop is ultimately a reward for its loyal audience: The weirder they get, the better Wild Beasts become. For those who stuck with them through Two Dancers, Smother is another masterful step in that surreal journey, albeit a quiet, sensuous one. Largely shouldered by the band’s two lead vocalists (a libertine cooer in Hayden Thorpe and the earthier, huskier Tom Fleming), Smother is both alluring and purposeful, not to mention full of beautiful surprises. What other group could achieve something like “Invisible,” an undisguised hat tip to the kind of soft, safe ballads one would expect from Phil Collins circa 1985, and still manage to infuse it with their own brand of unpredictable artistry? Liedel
82. The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir
The knock against Stephin Merritt and company’s latest long-sit is the lack of “company” in the equation: Where 1999’s 69 Love Songs varied its three-CD sprawl with rotating vocalists, Merritt’s sad-sack monotone is all we get for five discs on 50 Song Memoir. But, then, per the title, this is Stephin’s story: The songs each correspond to a year in the prickly 50-year-old songwriter’s life, and it wouldn’t really make sense for anyone else to tell it. Merritt the aesthete understands this, and so he indulges in songs that wouldn’t really make sense for anyone else to sing: It’s hard to imagine “A Cat Called Dionysus” being such a laugh riot without his deadpan pivot from “He hated me” to “I loved him,” and only Merritt could find musicality amid the drolly listed maladies on “Weird Diseases.” What 50 Song Memoir has in common with 69 Love Songs is that it’s one of the Magnetic Fields’s most consistent albums. Merritt’s lyrical concepts hold together as albums better than his aesthetic ones—and duration only helps the charm of his offbeat writing to sink in. Sam C. Mac
81. Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe
With her punk-yelp drawl, Santigold at first seems to be trying to affect Karen O’s style on her second album’s first single, “GO!,” but then the beat drops out and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman herself takes the mic, all elongated syllables and spliced-up vocals, and it’s clear Santi isn’t just playing dress-up, but skillfully, reverently co-inhabiting Karen’s world. Santi is a shapeshifter, and the beats and arrangements of each track are likewise perfectly tailored to their lyrics. “Don’t look ahead, there’s stormy weather,” Santi warns just as guitar licks crackle like electricity on “Disparate Youth,” an expertly layered piece of dub-pop, while her cavernous background vocals reverberate beneath the mechanical rhythm section of “God from the Machine.” Even if hip-hop-leaning tracks like “Freak Like Me” and “Look at These Hoes” feel more derivative than the album’s copious nods to new wave and synth-pop, Master of My Make-Believe is still a genre-defying exercise in exerting one’s mastery over all. Cinquemani
The 25 Best Film Performances of 2019
It was an incredible year for acting, as it saw the superstar in ultimate communion with the auteur.
This year offered a cornucopia of brilliance in film acting, and it seemed in particular to be the year of the communion between auteur and superstar, in which many icons stretched the boundaries of their images to hit new and startling emotional notes. Looking back on many of these performances, two commonalities emerged: stars either going far bigger, far bolder than ever before, or, with equal audaciousness, reigning themselves in and daring the audience to follow. Chuck Bowen
Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig, Knives Out
In a film brimming with big stars and even bigger personalities, none were more dynamic than Daniel Craig, whose Benoit Blanc offered a hilarious Southern-fried twist on Sherlock Holmes. Craig’s hammy delivery often verges on parody, but one gets the clear sense that Benoit’s excessive gentility barely obscures a cunning mind that’s spinning at all times. Ana de Armas, on the other hand, is tasked with the far less showy role of the earnest, comedic straight woman, but her carefully calibrated performance slyly and poignantly conveys the difficult-to-soothe anxieties that immigrants feel when forced to hide in plain sight in a society ready to dispose of them once their usefulness wears out. Derek Smith
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
There has always been gentleness and vulnerability underneath Antonio Banderas’s playful stylishness, and these qualities rise to the fore in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. Playing a stand-in for his greatest director, a middle-aged filmmaker facing the emotional wreckage of past projects and relationships, Banderas turns frailty and heartbreak into a fashion statement. There’s some wish fulfillment at play here: If only midlife crises looked like this for the rest of us. But Banderas isn’t coasting. There’s a hunch to his physicality, a halt to his speech that communicates a terror of being touched. In this context, the character’s deep kiss with an ex-lover is both ennobling and tragic—a brief taste of the irretrievable. Bowen
Emily Beecham, Little Joe
Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe is a sci-fi character study that’s fixated on exteriors, with symmetrical images and coordinated outfits that embody a corporate stifling of souls. As Alice, a scientist who breeds a plant that enables complacency, Emily Beecham communicates a wealth of reactions in the rigidity of her stance and the fleeting pain in her eyes, risking obliqueness so as to honor the emotional claustrophobia of Hausner’s environment as well as the innate privacy of her character. We feel as if we’ve never entirely known Alice, and that’s precisely the point: Obsessed with her work, she doesn’t wish to be known. Beecham maintains a mysterious, haunting gap between Alice and the audience. Bowen
Tom Burke, The Souvenir
As the troubled lover to Julie, the aspiring filmmaker from The Souvenir played by Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke’s Anthony is quietly the most extravagantly costumed character of the year. Beneath his smoking jackets and striped socks, Burke reinvents the “bad boyfriend” with a frumpy, slouched demeanor that belies the acid in his haughtiest proclamations. In a film structured around ellipses, Anthony is the most detailed and complex portrait of an addict in recent cinema. Christopher Gray
Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
Few performers this year went for broke as relentlessly as Willem Dafoe as a surly, salty sailor in Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse. His remarkable command of 19th-century New England vernacular and cadence was as responsible as anything else in the film for setting its strange, mesmerizing tone. Complain about his accent, but don’t say ye don’t like his cooking. Smith
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
If Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson are the wounded heart of Noah Baumbach’s pseudo-autobiographical divorce drama, Laura Dern is the film’s vengeful wraith—a dream of women and nightmare of men in an era wracked by redefinitions of gender roles. As Nora Fanshaw, the bulldog attorney representing Johannson’s character, Dern gives a performance of sexy, crackling intensity, suggesting what might’ve happened if a 1930s comedy heroine had been updated to the nihilistic present day. Dern’s ferocity leads to a resonant friction: She often steals scenes out from under Johannson, as Nora’s allowed to have the stature of which her client can so far only dream. This idea is most unforgettably broached by a brilliant monologue about the social differences between struggling fathers and mothers, which Dern delivers as a reckoning, a verbal parting of the seas. Bowen
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
As Rick Dalton in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio has never been so vulnerable and melancholic. It’s as if the actor’s bravado, alongside that of his character’s, were being tempered by the cruel mistresses of time and show business. Whether Dalton is baring his soul to a young, up-and-coming actress or flubbing his lines on set, DiCaprio becomes inexorably tied to the aging actor he plays, eloquently and humorously unearthing the inner torment and insecurities that plague many a Hollywood star as they sense the limelight beginning to fade. Smith