Connect with us

Lists

Top 15 Babyface Singles

We took a look back at Babyface’s impressive list of hits and picked our 15 favorites.

Published

on

Top 15 Babyface Singles

It was recently announced that ‘80s and ‘90s hitmaker Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and frequent collaborator Toni Braxton (star of the reality show Braxton Family Values and the recent Lifetime original movie Twist of Faith) have reunited to record a new duets album together, set for release this fall on Motown Records. Braxton, who fake-retired from recording music and announced her desire to play a lesbian in a movie earlier this year, has sold over 60 million albums worldwide, while Babyface has, according to Billboard, written or produced over 125 Top 10 R&B and pop hits, including 16 #1 pop songs. During a Wikipedia binge on all things late-20th-century R&B and new jack swing, we decided to take a look back at Babyface’s impressive list of hits and pick our 15 favorites, including two Braxton singles and one by the ’Face himself.

Editor’s Note: Listen to our Babyface playlist on Spotify.

15. After 7, “Heat of the Moment”

Babyface had every reason to give some of his A-grade material to After 7. After all, two of its members were his own brothers. Their big hit was the stately “Can’t Stop,” but in retrospect the bouncy “Heat of the Moment” sounds a lot more like what today’s retro hunters want when they seek out new jack swing: spare, hollow synth hits, aggressive drum patterns, and, perhaps most of all, dudes who aren’t afraid to beg “Please, baby, let me ex-plain,” and then proceed to do so in full-out tenor. Eric Henderson

14. The Whispers, “Rock Steady”

The title may as well be referring to the Whispers themselves, an L.A.-based R&B group who started their career with faux-Philly soul in the early ‘70s, jumped aboard the disco express just in time to score a few of boogie’s greatest moments (“And the Beat Goes On,” “It’s a Love Thing”), and, well into middle age, staged a remarkable, trend-bucking comeback with Babyface. Common sense says they should’ve ended up looking like this. The R&B history books will list them among the spiritual godfathers of new jack swing. Henderson

13. Boyz II Men, “End of the Road”

In his quasi-Kurt Cobain biopic Last Days, Gus Van Sant positioned Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” as the piss take of the sort of mid-‘90s schmaltz that truly took off with the group’s 1992 single “End of the Road,” then the longest running pop hit ever. The silly spoken bridge prevents the song from aging as well as some of Babyface’s other hits, but his timeless hook and the boyz’ cooleyhighharmonies created a template that countless R&B and pop artists would emulate for nearly a decade. Sal Cinquemani

12. En Vogue, “Whatever”

By the time Babyface teamed up with multiplatinum girl group En Vogue, then down one member after Dawn Robinson’s departure, hip-hop had begun to overtake R&B and electronica was on the verge of becoming the next big (brief) thing. The result was a surprisingly understated, trip-hop-inflected midtempo number more reminiscent of the sleek title track from the group’s 1993 EP Runway Love than their smash swan song with Robinson, “Don’t Let Go (Love).” Cinquemani

11. Pebbles, “Girlfriend”

If Babyface crowned Bobby Brown and Toni Braxton as his king and queen, then Pebbles, for at least a few brief years before her misguided sojourn into backstage management, was his Disney princess. Albeit, a jaded, boy-weary incarnation who just wants to let Ariel and Belle know their main things ain’t all that. Not one, not two, but at least three of her tracks stand among Babyface’s most urgent, paranoid anti-love bangers. The beautifully skeptical “Giving You the Benefit” puts Pebbles in the drivers’ seat, but she’s truly on her home turf with “Backyard” and the enduring underdog “Girlfriend,” in which her tough love is matched by tougher synthesizer hits. Henderson

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Features

The Best Albums of 2020 (So Far)

These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves, the patriarchy, systemic racism, and our connection to the planet.

Published

on

Dua Lipa
Photo: Hugo Comte

It’s been a very long year—and we’re only at the halfway mark. So it seemed like a good time to take stock of the human experiment circa 2020 with our first-ever mid-year albums list. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed who we are at our cores, both good and bad, the best albums of the year so far—almost all of them created prior to the crisis—reflect the simmering tensions that have been roiling beneath the surface of American life for years, if not decades. These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves (Arca’s kinetic Kick I), the patriarchy (Fiona Apple’s prismatic Fetch the Bolt Cutters), systemic racism (Run the Jewels’s electrifying RTJ4), and our (dis)connection to the planet itself (Grimes’s boundless Miss Anthropocene). As we grapple with what it means to shut down and rise up, music can give us an outlet, a voice, or—in the case of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?—an escape. Sal Cinquemani



Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Like fellow singer-songwriter Scott Walker, Fiona Apple achieved fame at a young age by making music that was more sophisticated and adventurous than that of her peers. Now, with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she’s made an album not unlike Walker’s The Drift—that is, unmistakably in the pop idiom but aggressively unconventional. But if Walker’s late-career music was alienating and difficult, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is compulsively listenable, full of catchy melodic hooks and turns of phrase that linger with you long after the album is over. Released in the midst of a global economic and health crisis that could have been largely prevented if not for the disastrous mismanagement of a ruling class for whom mediocrity is an unattainable level of functionality, the album is prismatic for all that it reflects. On a purely musical level, it’s a bold experiment in pop craft, a collection of songs on which Apple stretches her talents in adventurous new directions. It can be read biographically, as a self-conscious act of narrative-building that continues to define Apple’s legacy as an artist. Most importantly, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a vituperative catalog of the failures and pointless cruelties of a society propped up by fragile, nihilistic, patriarchal ideology. Seth Wilson



Kick I

Arca, Kick I

Where Arca’s past efforts sought to express states of dissociation, rendering a consciousness flitting in and out of reality, the songs on Kick I are noticeably present and tuned-in. Arca’s gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout the album, Arca’s beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridge—stretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when you’ve grown accustomed to a sound or riff, the floor drops out, shifting to another mode and vibe altogether. The production oscillates wildly between harsh and smooth, as in the way the kinetic, abrasive “Riquiquí” segues into the graceful ballad “Calor”; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arca’s career, Kick I is a celebration of actualization, whether that’s spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another. Charles Lyons-Burt



YHLQMDLG

Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG

With his inclination for pairing heartbroken lyrics with fiery dembow beats, Bad Bunny has finetuned the art of crying in the club. On his second solo album, YHLQMDLG, the Puerto Rican reggaeton star offers dance floor-ready sentimentality that feels familiar, but he breaks out of his reliable formula with the most blistering production of his career to date, courtesy of Tainy and Subelo NEO. The viral “Safaera” is the best example of this audacious streak: Over an episodic five minutes, the track pivots between eight exhilarating beat changes, simulating the head-spinning pyrotechnics of a DJ club mix. With collaborations from today’s hottest Latin-trap heavyweights and legendary reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, the album solidifies Bad Bunny’s rightful place in the Urbano canon. Sophia Ordaz



Punisher

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Throughout her sophomore effort, Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers is often transfixed by a feeling of stasis. Songs like “Chinese Satellite” and “I See You” evoke the sensation of being frozen, exacerbated by the perpetual anticipation of doom. “I’ve been running in circles trying to be myself,” she sings on the former. Again and again over the course of the album, the singer-songwriter laments her inability to find solid ground, her voice low but certain. These songs simmer beautifully and quietly, eventually boiling over in intermittent moments of sonic boisterousness, and the results are often stunning. Punisher’s closing track, “I Know the End,” is a travelogue at the end of the world, explicitly illustrating the cloud of uneasiness that hangs over the album. It ends with blood-curdling screams, until all the sound fades out and Bridgers’s voice is hoarse. The end of the world is a central detail on Punisher, an influence over the uncertainty that falls over these dark but gorgeous songs. Jordan Walsh



Melee

Dogleg, Melee

Dogleg’s Melee is a bristling, relentlessly cathartic collection of pop-punk. From the moment that the opening track, “Kawasaki Backflip,” bursts into its full-band glory, the album never slows down or backs off from the Detroit group’s loud, crunchy, anthemic style. Lead singer Alex Stoitsiadis shouts every word with dire conviction, his voice shredding and straining to deliver some of the best shout-along hooks of the year so far. “Any moment now, I will disintegrate,” he frantically yells at the explosive climax of “Fox.” Melee is the sound of a band pushing off self-destruction through sheer force of will. This isn’t to say that these songs aren’t complex, or that their loudness is a cover for a lack of imagination. The guitars on “Cannonball” splash loudly, creating violent ripples over the rest of the track, while “Ender” closes the album in a six-minute punk odyssey wherein Dogleg ups the stakes at every turn. Melee is exhausting in the best possible way, a cleansing release of tension in a howling, desperate rage. Walsh



Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways

Sharp and precise in its references, descriptions, and personal confessions, Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways is thematically universal and powerfully prescient, in many ways acting as the culminating expression of the apocalyptic spirituality that’s preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. It’s also a masterpiece of mood as much as lyrical poetry, and as stunningly and surprisingly atmospheric as many of the major musical achievements in a career more associated with monumental songwriting than sonic mastery. This is an album that showcases a similar comprehensive spectrum of ideas, attitudes, citations, perspectives, stories, and jokes as Dylan’s greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spots—like “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” and “Key West (Pirate Philosopher)”—are well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind “To Make You Feel My Love” as well as “Not Dark Yet,” and along with dispensing fire and brimstone, Rough and Rowdy Ways keeps romantic and spiritual faith alive, through both the fervor of unshaken convictions concerning the high stakes of the soul as well a basic yearning for love, companionship, and peace. As with his best work, the album encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster that can be clearly discerned but rarely summarized in the most turbulent of ages. Michael Joshua Rowin



Miss Anthropocene

Grimes, Miss Anthropocene

Claire Boucher has said that the process of writing Miss Anthropocene was an isolating experience, and that much of the material came from a dark, personal place. Even the album’s most apparently apocalyptic lyrics, like the reverb-drenched “This is the sound of the end of the world” on “Before the Fever,” seem to do more to elucidate the kind of headspace Boucher was in at the time of writing than any grand message about the world’s climate woes. But while this overarching concept might seem flimsy, Boucher’s broad-strokes approach to lyricism and confident, cinematic production allows her to explore concerns that feel at once both deeply personal and fundamentally communal. The latter in particular is bolstered by the way she dissolves the limits of genre, splicing together ethereal electronics with nü-metal guitars on “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth.” On “Darkseid,” deep bass and doom-laden beats grind beneath a brittle performance by Taiwanese rapper 潘PAN, and a Bollywood sample butts up against drum n’ bass on “4ÆM.” On an album as sonically diverse as Miss Anthropocene, the most significant thread that holds it all together is Boucher’s wild imagination and commitment to experimenting with her sound. And the result is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society. Anna Richmond



Women in Music Pt. III

HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III

While there’s plenty of genre-hopping on Women in Music Pt. III—hip-hop, reggae, folk, heartland rock, and dance—HAIM has created an album that’s defined not just by exploration, but by their strong sense of individuality. Unlike the sparkling, thoroughly modern production of 2017’s Something to Tell You, this album’s scratchy drums, murky vocals, and subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements sound ripped straight from an old vinyl. It’s darker, heavier fare for HAIM, for sure—a summer party record for a troubled summer. HAIM’s instincts to veer a little more left of the dial result in an album that strikes a deft balance between the experimental and the commercial, the moody and the uplifting. You’re unlikely to hear these songs on Kroger’s in-store playlist—on which 2017’s “Little of Your Love” seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of “Eye of the Tiger” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—but these songs are riskier, and ultimately that much more rewarding. Jeremy Winograd



Walking Proof

Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof

Lilly Hiatt’s songs are disarmingly personal and immensely endearing, even when she’s singing about fucking up—which is pretty often. There’s an almost parasocial element to Hiatt’s songwriting: Her voice is like that of an old friend who’s perpetually in various stages of getting her shit together. Hiatt’s fourth album, Walking Proof, forms something of a thematic trilogy with her last two albums: 2015’s Royal Blue, a portrait of a relationship in its death throes, and 2017’s harder, darker Trinity Lane, which depicted its immediate aftermath. Hiatt spent both albums seeking solace and guidance for her troubles everywhere she could, from family to her favorite records. On Walking Proof, she’s emerged wiser and more confident, ready even to dispense advice of her own. She also finds herself in full command of her broad stylistic palette, melding influences as disparate as backwoods country and garage punk into a cohesive signature sound. There are a couple of lingering references to Hiatt’s past relationship problems. But when, in the hauntingly stark closer “Scream,” she claims, “I swear to God I’m done with him,” it’s convincing this time. Winograd



Dedicated Side B

Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated Side B

A defining feature of last year’s Dedicated was Carly Rae Jepsen’s embrace of her sexuality—a topic the singer had, for the most part, previously sidestepped in favor of more chaste subject matter. The dozen songs that comprise Dedicated Side B, all leftovers from the original recording sessions, double down on pillow talk, lending the album a uniformity that its predecessor lacked. That songs as strong as the sublime “Heartbeat” and the anthemic “Solo” were left off Dedicated speaks to not just the wealth of treasures she had to choose from, but her ability to craft a cohesive narrative. “I’m at a war with myself/We go back to my place/Take my makeup off/Show you my best disguise,” Jepsen offers wistfully on the meditative “Comeback,” demonstrating the tangled multi-dimensionality of both her own psyche and the act of sex itself. Alexa Camp

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The Best Games of 2020 (So Far)

Making the old new again could be the mantra of this year’s gaming.

Published

on

The Best Games of 2020 (So Far)
Photo: Square Enix

There are various reasons why the games on this list are our favorites of the year so far, but the key one is how many of them are so strikingly illustrative of how the old ways of gaming are increasingly evolving into something resolutely new. Doom Eternal and Streets of Rage 4 showed that small tweaks to well-established gameplay modes could breathe new life into beloved franchises. Countless technological advancements made in the 13 years since the release of Half Life 2: Episode 2 have allowed for the world of this iconic series to be realized anew, and in virtual reality, with Half-Life: Alyx.

Elsewhere, Final Fantasy VII Remake not only shows how far games have come graphically in 23 years, but also how storytelling sensibilities have shifted. Yes, the game’s battles are more active and strategic than ever, its characters more well-rounded, its environments more breathtakingly expansive, but it’s most impressive for the way its narrative engages with our memories and interrogates our expectations of what a remake should be.

Indeed, making the old new again could be the mantra of this year’s gaming. But sometimes what’s new today is simply what was unseen, or unheard, yesterday. An eraser is the dominant mechanic of If Found…, and how a trans woman from the west coast of Ireland is pushed toward erasure is its dominant theme. And The Last of Us Part II not only centers the experience of the queer surrogate daughter of the first game’s prototypical white male protagonist, it evinces a hyperawareness about the nature of violence in games and the world at large.

For those of us who’ve been playing video games since a young age, there’s something comforting about sitting with a great game and realizing that the medium has grown with us. Like a best friend, such a game sometimes even gives you a gentle ribbing, as in the way Lair of the Clockwork God addresses our evolving tastes and the medium’s growth head-on, constantly breaking the fourth wall to point out how it’s updating platformer and adventure conventions. And in 2020, when the world is continuing to predictably and catastrophically disappoint us, that this industry is still surprising and delighting us feels like a salve. Aaron Riccio


Alder’s Blood

Alder’s Blood (Shockwork Games)

Alder’s Blood’s intimidating and intense sense of atmosphere, the need for precise decision-making, and even the term “Hunter” register as a strong nod to Bloodborne. But whereas Bloodborne was just another incarnation of the hack-and-slash, lock-on-and-dodge formula that was popularized by Dark Souls, this game shakes up the foundation of a long-standing genre, stretching the familiar into a realm of nightmarish wonder. Not even leveling up from consecutive victories dampens the bleakness of Alder’s Blood. Each Hunter creeps toward insanity, which forces the player to commit bloody human sacrifices in order to transfer experience points to new heroes. Here, success is more ephemeral than it ever has been in a turn-based tactics game, implying that a godless world should not be coveted. Jed Pressgrove


Desperados III

Desperados III (Mimimi Games)

This first installment in the Desperados series since the 2007 spinoff Helldorado is a prequel, and it opens with a flashback to protagonist John Cooper’s last adventure with his bounty hunter father, during which he learns to “think slow, act fast.” That’s basically the modus operandi of German-based Mimimi Games’s latest, because deliberate, stealthy gameplay is the player’s key to victory. For one, it’s more than satisfying to watch your minutes-long action planning, of furtive repositioning and queuing of unique skills, result in the swift and simultaneous sacking of guards at the hands of your five colorful posse members. While the plot and characters in Desperados III may be familiar, and the gameplay recalls that of other modern real-time tactics titles like Mimimi Games’s previous Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun, each scenario feels distinct. You’ll need different skills to burn down a riverboat than you do to blow up a bridge or defend a ranch. Even slight shifts in terrain and available party members (or their inventories) serve to shake up your tactics. Riccio


Doom Eternal

Doom Eternal (id Software)

Doom Eternal is another frantic dance through meaty pink grottos and wide-open metallic arenas littered with colorful pickups, environmental hazards, and enemies. Where so many shooters opt for verisimilitude, there’s something primal and thrilling to id Software’s further embrace of video-gamey conventions, complementing the floating power-ups with extra lives and optional challenges. This is a game blissfully liberated from the shackles of plausibility and realism, demanding constant motion and engagement to manage health, ammo, and armor that you pull from demon carcasses via fist, fire, and chainsaw. Throughout, the variables crash together in endless, enthralling permutations as the weapons, their modifications, and the upgrades to those modifications create combos against the encroaching hordes. Everything has its response, its counter, and its priority, each of them shifting constantly as new demons appear and your ammunition dwindles. Steven Scaife


Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake (Square Enix)

Final Fantasy VII Remake is directly in dialogue with the player about what a remake can and probably should be, about how much of a waste it might be to proceed past the endpoint of this particular story—essentially the moment in the original where you’re allowed to freely explore the world outside Midgar—and realize that the journey and the outcome has remained the same. You’re given the chance to choose a different path, to face a literal hideous embodiment of the hands of fate in the game’s climax. It’s a forceful, kinetic statement—that this remake should not be bound by what we already know. And as monstrous as it can be, the symbolism of that gesture is incredibly daring. The game flips the script on the very idea of nostalgia being the only guiding creative force behind a remake, making it another enemy to be slain. The final hours of this game constitute an extraordinary act of subversion, actively challenging us through gameplay to expect more. Justin Clark


Half-Life Alyx

Half-Life: Alyx (Valve Corporation)

Creating a sequel-slash-prequel to an iconic video-game series 13 years in cryosleep is just as an unenviable a task as launching a big-budget title using new technology that might evolve the entire medium, yet Valve delivers with Half-Life: Alyx. Returning fans to the sci-fi nightmare of City 17, a young Alyx Vance fights the omnipresent alien invasion alongside other members of Earth’s resistance, pulled into a plot to rescue a mysterious individual who disappeared some 20 years earlier. While Half-Life: Alyx’s core gameplay doesn’t deviate too far from that of other VR titles, Valve has refined the exploration, shooting, and physics puzzles that this series is known for into something that isn’t played as much as it is experienced. In Half-Life: Alyx, fighting the Combine is just as compelling as exploring the derelict buildings of City 17, and being able to lift and inspect and throw any object contributes greatly to the game’s feeling of immersion. Guns are reloaded by physically putting a new mag in and pulling the slide, marker pens draw on whiteboards, and liquid even sloshes around inside bottles. Boasting visuals that border on the photorealistic and intuitive 1:1 controls that feel entirely natural, Half-Life: Alyx pushes virtual-reality gaming to new heights. Ryan Aston


If Found...

If Found… (DREAMFEEL)

DREAMFEEL’s interactive novel If Found… is mostly told through the early-1990s diary entries of a young Irish trans woman, Kasio, who returns home to Achill Island in Ireland’s west coast from college in Dublin. Scrawled with her memories and feelings, the diary’s pages tend to be unassuming and use color sparingly, with just a few shades dominating the sketches of people and environments. At times those images will be scribbled out or written over, which is when the player breaks out the eraser. The framing device for purging Kasio’s diary isn’t totally clear until the very end of the game, leaving you to ruminate on the action itself rather than the context. If Found… never relies on a last-act twist, instead finding its power through the empathy and truth with which it traces the divergent trajectories of so many relationships. And if the sci-fi elements don’t totally land, the strength of its characters and the specificity of its Irish setting most certainly do. Scaife


Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition

Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition (Cardboard Computer)

Kentucky Route Zero is a game often content to remain as mysterious as its namesake, an underground highway seemingly unbound by physical laws. Any fights, between unions and predatory companies, have already happened or doubtless will happen again. Instead, it explores the aftermath of cultural devastation, of how people survive in the ruins of the American experiment and how they build atop (or beneath) that wreckage, with the strange reality meant to represent what capitalism has done to the world. The magic is there, only contained and warped by the society that has grown around it. The characters’ paths narrow as the game continues, as the fist of an unfeeling system closes and people are overwhelmed by weaknesses; you drift from the role of driver to the person being driven to a simple observer of what’s to come. The people you encounter are refugees of greed and exploitation and obsolescence, and there’s a sliver of hope as they defiantly continue, finding pleasure in creation and companionship. They write, they compose, they perform, and they record, inspired by past struggles and a world content to forget its own history beyond facile preservation attempts in arbitrary little museums. After seven years, this visionary masterpiece concludes, an impressionist portrait of people doing what they can in a world that will never recover. Scaife


Lair of the Clockwork God

Lair of the Clockwork God (Size Five Games)

“Why play only one genre of game when you could be playing two slightly different ones at the same time?” That’s a somewhat misleading tagline for Lair of the Clockwork God, as you never simultaneously control the game’s self-aware protagonists, Dan and Ben. Rather, you swap between them, as well as control schemes. Dan is a platformer enthusiast who refuses to interact with objects, while Ben is a stubborn LucasArts point-and-click adventure junkie who doesn’t care to jump. Figuring out how to use the skills we associate with their favorite genres of game to navigate through a Peruvian jungle, apocalyptic London, and an alien spaceship results in a game that’s fresher and more innovative than yet another standalone platformer or adventure game would be. Lair of the Clockwork God is an exciting way for creators Dan Marshall and Ben Ward to not only set it apart from their prior Dan and Ben titles (Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please), but to successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres. Riccio


The Last of Us Part II

The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog)

The consequences of Joel’s stunning decision at the conclusion of The Last of Us come home in the game’s sequel, which opens with a brutal execution as seen through Ellie’s eyes. Abandoning her relatively carefree life in a Jackson, Wyoming colony, Joel’s surrogate daughter and her romantic partner, Dina, travel to Seattle on a quest for revenge. A shift in perspective reveals the hollowness of Ellie’s vendetta, as she’s barely a blip on the radar of her supposed antagonists, who are consumed in a larger conflict brewing between two sets of “adults” playing war at the cost of countless lives. (If any of the character choices here seem foolish, glance outside at the real world and take in how well we’re doing as humans in our present-day.) While much has been made of this game’s grueling violence, its smaller moments of intimacy and empathy are what resonate most, with much of the lengthy campaign centered around your aiding of innocents caught in the aforementioned war’s crossfire. In the end, The Last of Us Part II is about moving on from complicated legacies, ones for whom forgiveness might never be possible. Aston


Moving Out

Moving Out (SMG Studio, Devm Games)

Wacky mechanics and obstacles abound throughout the game’s 50 levels, from Dread Manor’s haunted floating chairs to the Flamethrower Factory’s titular deathtraps. Each level adds another zany complication to your job. While at first your biggest challenge may be manipulating large or oddly shaped furniture through tortuous hallways, the increasingly outlandish assignments soon become full-on obstacle courses that not only require players to optimize their routes, but to nimbly move in unison across collapsing walkways. All of these various challenges make Moving Out overwhelming in the best possible sense. Even better, accessibility options allow players to modify things like the number of hazards in or the maximum time for each level, which is nice if you want to play with friends of differing skill levels—and stay cordial with them after a failed level. While the game takes pains to differentiate itself from real-world moving, there’s one area in which it remains the same, and that’s in the way it nails that feeling of accomplishment where, at the end of a move, something that once seemed impossible has nevertheless fallen perfectly into place. Riccio

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The Best Films of 2020 (So Far)

It’s hard to tell whether we’re in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, or both.

Published

on

The Best Films of 2020 So Far
Photo: Grasshopper Film

It’s hard to tell whether we’re in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, or—most likely—both. The long-predicted collapse of the movie theater as an institution may be underway, though drive-ins seem to be having a moment. Brett and Drew T. Pierce’s low-rent spooker The Wretched led the domestic box office for seven weeks starting in early May, Trolls World Tour became the first studio success story of the year, and June’s biggest release wasn’t a mega-budget superhero movie, but a Spike Lee joint on Netflix.

Nobody could have seen 2020 coming, but reflecting on the best movies of the first half of the year, it’s clear that unrest was already in the air. Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You tracks the devastating, cascading effects of a gig economy on its workers—whose fates became immediately uncertain when a health crisis locked down the economy. In The Cordillera of Dreams, behind the mountain range that ensconces Chile, documentarian Patricio Guzmán finds the suppressed record of popular uprisings against Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship—images of militarized police forces attacking unarmed protestors that look unnervingly familiar. Dramas about women’s experience in Trump’s America, like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Kitty Green’s The Assistant, may end up being cinematic landmarks of fourth-wave feminism.

Of course, given our acute sense of living in an historical moment, perhaps we’ve been particularly drawn to films that reflect history and history-making, and apt to filter our interpretations through our consciousness of the tumult outside our windows. Even Andrew Patterson’s enigmatic 1950s-set The Vast of Night, whose Twilight Zone-esque story—which is advanced largely through conversations on various telecommunications networks—about an unseen menace threatening a small town, feels tied to 2020 in ways that the filmmakers likely did not intend. In the final analysis, cinema can’t help but reflect our world, because—even in the absence of theaters—it remains an inextricable part of it. Pat Brown


The Assistant

The Assistant (Kitty Green)

With The Assistant, Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in a film mogul’s Tribeca offices, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing its resonance. This is a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae, and it’s designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as the young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), at its center. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the mogul is only evoked via male pronouns. Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere, and after a while it becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable. Chuck Bowen


Bacurau

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac



Beanpole

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting—and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole



The Cordillera of Dreams

The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán)

Patricio Guzmán understands the totemic power of the long strip of Andean mountains that runs between Chile and Argentina, effectively severing the former from the rest of the world. But the ruefulness in his voice also gets at something else: that this wall of rock and earth is also a mausoleum. Throughout interviews with writers and sculptors, among others, Guzmán accords to the Cordillera a level of importance that’s nothing short of reverential. And just at the point where it feels you can take no more of his metaphorical heavy lifting, the documentary gives way to an extended survey of the ravages and legacies of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, including the doctrine of neoliberalism that’s brought Chile to its knees in the present day. If The Cordillera of Dreams leaves us on a razor’s edge between hope and futility, that’s by design. Guzmán knows that the day when those looking for the disappeared are themselves lost to time is an inevitability, and it will be as tragic as the day when there are no more images left to depict the story of that search. But the documentary advances the belief that, until then, we will be stronger for exhorting ourselves to reflection and atonement. Ed Gonzalez



Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

Da 5 Bloods is a mix of genre film and political essay, and it exudes, especially early on, a lurid, confrontational electricity that’s often been so exhilarating in prior Spike Lee joints. Regarding a Ho Chi Minh City that, with its active nightlife and proliferation of fast food establishments, might be mistaken for a contemporary American city, Eddie (Norm Lewis) says that “they didn’t need us, they should’ve just sent Mickey D’s, Pizza Hut, and the Colonel and we would’ve defeated the VC in one week.” The sly implication is that, one way or another, America got its hands on Vietnam. Minutes later, the Rambo and Missing in Action movies are familiarly criticized for offering a white-man savior fantasy of “winning” the war, while Otis (Clarke Peters) reminds us of a true hero, African-American soldier Milton Olive III, who jumped on a grenade for his platoon, a picture of whom Lee briefly and movingly cuts to. These pop-cultural references make us privy to how war is committed and then sold back to us as an often-exclusionary fantasy—a double dip of atrocity. Bowen



First Cow

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

If it’s true, as Balzac had it, that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, then perhaps behind every minor prosperity lies a misdemeanor. In Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, that petty offense is the theft of some cow’s milk, which gentle-hearted chef Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and his friendly yet opportunistic companion, King Lu (Orion Lee), use to build a successful enterprise selling delicious fried honey biscuits in a small, not-quite-established town in 1820s Oregon. Like most of Reichardt’s work, the film is a deceptively diminutive affair, an intimate, almost fabulistic story told with the warmth and delicacy of a children’s picture book. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s images honor the verdant lushness of the Pacific Northwest, making us feel as if we’re seeing its Edenic beauty through the soulful brown eyes of Eve, the titular bovine who’s been brought to this new land by her owner (Toby Jones) as an ostentatious display of his own wealth. But the film’s boxy 4:3 aspect ratio serves as a constant reminder that Cookie and King’s lives (not to mention Eve’s) are ultimately constrained by forces greater than themselves. Even here, at the far distant edges of civilization, the film pensively suggests, the machinery of industrial capitalism is tragically inescapable. Keith Watson



Fourteen

Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)

The dominant theme of Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen is the relentless march of time and its indifference to personal hardship. Balancing a fine-grained attention to character with placid detachment, the film traces a decade in the friendship of Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), former grade-school friends who’ve sustained their bond into young adulthood, where they’ve both managed tenuous livelihoods in the Big Apple. Through his unannounced and often startling leaps in chronology, Sallitt cultivates a feeling of implicit tension, a growing fissure in Mara and Jo’s chemistry that bears itself out in pauses in conversation and in their interactions with a rotating gallery of supporting characters. One of the last times we see Jo, she’s walking away from camera into a busy Brooklyn intersection—perhaps a call back to the earlier long take of the train station, a reminder of a larger network of people whose trajectories we ultimately have no control over. In Fourteen, Mara must come to accept the limits of her ability to influence these peripheral lives, and in doing so prompts an evolution of spirit that’s at once painful and transformative. Carson Lund



The Grand Bizarre

The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)

A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism. The Grand Bizarre is a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century. Watson



Heimat Is a Space in Time

Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise)

Documentary cinema’s most popular formal device is the so-called Ken Burns effect, that famous slow-motion slide across an archival photo until the camera settles on the main subject of the image. Heimat Is a Space in Time abundantly indulges this device but never quite in the way you might expect. Instead, filmmaker Thomas Heise’s photographic material creeps across the screen as if it were a tectonic plate, indifferent to the camera documenting it, which often only catches human faces for a brief moment before dwelling in negative space. All this time spent contemplating blown-up grain and blur might seem counterproductive in a film that, at least on paper, is a survey of 20th-century German history through the lens of Heise’s own genealogy. But the emphasis on the micro over the macro extends to every facet of this sprawling four-hour work, which seeks to excavate real human thought and feeling beneath the haze of larger political structures. Lund



Liberté

Liberté (Albert Serra)

As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 100 Best LGBTQ Movies of All Time

Cinema isn’t the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can be among the most powerful.

Published

on

The 100 Best LGBTQ Movies of All Time
Photo: Kino International

Four years ago this month, in the aftermath of the attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, one call to action rose above the din: “Say their names.” New Yorkers chanted it steps from the Stonewall Inn. The mother of a child gunned down at Sandy Hook penned it in an open letter. The Orlando Sentinel printed the names. Anderson Cooper recited them. A gunman murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others in the wee hours of that awful Sunday, massacring LGBTQ people of color and their allies in the middle of Pride Month, and the commemoration of the dead demanded knowing who they were. “These,” as MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell urged his viewers, “are the names to remember.”

The titles on our list of the best LGBTQ movies of all time are a globe-spanning, multigenerational testament to our existence in a world where our erasure is no abstraction. From Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael to Todd Haynes’s Carol, naming and seeing emerge, intertwined, as radical acts—acts of becoming (Sally Potter’s Orlando) and acts of being (Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason), acts of speech (Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied) and acts of show (Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning) that together reaffirm the revolutionary potential of the seventh art. “My name is Harvey Milk,” the San Francisco supervisor, memorialized in Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk, proclaimed in 1978, less than one year before his assassination. “And I’m here to recruit you!”

The cinema isn’t the sole mechanism for making our presence known, but it can, if the films listed below are any indication, be among the most powerful, projecting the complexities of the LGBTQ experience onto the culture’s largest, brightest mirror. There’s rage here, and also love; isolation, and communal spirit; fear, and the forthright resistance to it. These films are essential because we are essential: The work of ensuring that we aren’t erased or forgotten continues apace, and the struggle stretches into a horizon that no screen, no matter its size, can quite capture. But this is surely a place to start. Matt Brennan

Editor’s Note: The prior version of this list, published on June 7, 2019, can be found exclusively on our Patreon page.


Michael

Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924)

Many critics have chosen to downplay the film’s gay subtext, but to do so would deny the power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s fastidious attention to the polarity of love’s vicissitudes. If stripped of the notion that the artist Zoret’s (Benjamin Christensen) attraction toward his titular muse (Walter Slezak), whose alleged bisexuality is clearly of a solely opportunistic strain, is physical as well as social, Michael essentially becomes an embittered (and fairly rote, despite the astonishingly suffocating mise-en-scène) tale of two cuckolds. Eric Henderson


Madchen in Uniform

Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan, 1931)

An early landmark of queer cinema, Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform sees youthful desire as fluid, disorienting, and rebellious. Sagan sensitively regards the female camaraderie within the confines of a strict German all-girls school, as well as the burgeoning lustfulness of the teenage Manuela (Hertha Thiele). The young girl’s affection for her sympathetic teacher, Fraulein von Bernberg (Dorothea Wieck), is expressed and reciprocated through furtive glances and brief sensual gestures that hint at an underlying and forbidden passion that can never come to fruition. Released just prior to the rise of the Third Reich, Sagan’s tender portrait of unrequited love in the midst of oppression both excoriates the regressive ideals of the school’s, and by proxy, the nation’s, power structures and advocates instead for compassion, tolerance, and the normalization of all forms of desire. Derek Smith


The Blood of a Poet

The Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau, 1932)

Enrique Rivero’s shirtless torso remains the most enduring emblem of Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, whether the actor is clutching his bare chest after witnessing his palm sprout a pair of lips or peering through keyholes while drifting through a gravity-free hallway. But this surrealist masterpiece isn’t merely about flesh; rather, the body becomes an entry point to memory and art, where hands and mouths breed images to defy the mind. Decades of close readings, whether along psychological or self-reflexive lines, have been unable to diminish or demystify the film’s effervescent sensuality. Clayton Dillard


Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Much of Beauty and the Beast’s deep magic comes from Jean Cocteau’s sense of himself as a vulnerable beast in love: In his mid-50s when he made the film, Cocteau was openly gay in an often viciously homophobic post-Vichy France, an opium addict, plagued by skin-disfiguring eczema, and yet still enamored of his much younger star, the Adonis-like Jean Marais, his sometime-lover and great friend and collaborator. In Marais’s triple role—as the monstrous yet tender-hearted Beast; Avenant, the hunky but caddish suitor of Josette Day’s La Belle; and the ensorcelled Prince Ardent, whom the Beast is ultimately revealed, with some ambivalence, to be—the actor lends virtuosic as well as symbolic appeal to Cocteau’s cinematic inquiry into the complex interplay of identification and desire. Max Cavitch


Fireworks

Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)

Fireworks inaugurates not merely Kenneth Anger’s own private mythology, but also the subversive expression of gay sensuality in American film, a torch carried into the early days of the New Queer Cinema. A veritable dictionary of homoerotic iconography, it is also, literally, a home movie shot while Anger’s parents were away for the weekend, and a transfixing view of the violence and seditious rapture of being “different” in the 1940s. Fernando F. Croce


Un Chant d’Amour

Un Chant d’Amour (Jean Genet, 1950)

Jean Genet’s overpowering 1950 short, Un Chant d’Amour, is a milestone not just of gay rebellion, but also of pure sensual expression in film, a polemical vision of desire forged with the provocateur’s randy ardor and the artist’s spiritual directness. Having never made a film before or after, Genet nevertheless had an in-the-bone awareness of the medium as a procession of raptures—visual, cosmic, sensual—that could match and expand the passion of words on a page. Croce


Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)

Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing casting the plush-lipped Farley Granger as the straight man in his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s cruise-baiting thriller Strangers on a Train. Robert Walker’s flamboyant Bruno Anthony gets all the ink, but it’s Granger’s poker-faced, blank-slate attractiveness as Guy that captures the illicit thrill of the chase. And the consequence. Once Bruno has availed Guy of his inconvenient woman and Guy refuses to return the favor, Bruno sets out to integrate himself into Guy’s social circle and carry with him the threat of exposure and public shame. Their erotic one-upmanship reaches its breaking point in one of Hitchcock’s gaudiest set pieces, a runaway-carousel climax depicting their rough trade of blows amid contorted petrified horses whose pinions look like they’re pornographically violating their sockets. Henderson


Rebel Without a Cause

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

The most complicated aspect of Rebel Without a Cause, and the thing that makes it seem daring even today, is its depiction of sexuality. Nicholas Ray brings Natalie Wood’s beauty into full flowering and gets a simple, touching performance from her. And with Sal Mineo, he craftily put together a portrait of a tormented gay teenager. Stewart Stern’s script tells us that Plato is searching for a father figure in Jim (and Plato’s famed locker photo of Alan Ladd shows that he wants a Shane-type father, not a lover), but the way Mineo looks at James Dean leaves no modern audience in doubt as to what his real feelings are. Dan Callahan


Victim

Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961)

There’s a striking sense of fatalism that infuses Basil Dearden’s masterful Victim, a scathing examination of England’s rampant homophobia and problematic social codes. Dick Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a closeted lawyer victimized by an elaborate blackmail scheme targeting high-profile gay men. Constructed like a detective film, Victim follows Farr’s investigation into the various catacombs of the London elite, where far-reaching compromise and repression construct a pressure cooker of emotional fear. Since homosexuality is illegal in England at the time, Farr’s stake in the vexing search for the truth is both personal and professional. Mostly, Victim is fascinating for its consistent attention to the complex emotions of its gay characters, men who often show an unwavering honesty in respect to their sexuality. “I can’t help the way I am, but the law says nature played me a dirty trick,” one particularly conflicted character says, and this type of substantive dialogue reveals Dearden as a surveyor of progressive ideologies way ahead of the norm. Heath


Flaming Creatures

Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963)

Flaming Creatures was Jack Smith’s first finished film. Well, in truth, it’s his only finished film, since it ricocheted out of his hands when a trend of underground film raids made his opus a trophy for either side of a decency debate. Seized at the same time as Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, it made it all the way to the Supreme Court, who could detect little value in its over-exposed rumpus of genitalia, transvestitism, baroque orgies, and dance dervishry. Meanwhile, Susan Sontag and Jonas Mekas heralded the film as high art, hijacking (so Jack saw it) his vehicle to bolster their tastemaker status. Bradford Nordeen


The Servent

The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963)

If gayness remains figured as a malignant force in The Servant (a half-acknowledged deviance here mobilized in the pursuit of manipulation and personal gain), there’s also something undeniably thrilling about watching it wind its destructive path, vivified by Joseph Losey’s taut pacing, stylish formal play, and distressing-as-ever atmospherics. A film such as this probably couldn’t be made now without cries of protest over its representational politics, which is probably a good thing. Matthew Connolly


Scorpio Rising

Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1964)

Scorpio Rising merges Kenneth Anger’s fascination with rough trade with his burgeoning interest in the Dark Arts, at least as it applies to the standard “sex, drugs, rock n’ roll” scene. What begins with references to James Dean and the soaring beefcake photography of Bob Mizer ultimately ends in a whirl of skulls, swastikas, the spiritual sacrilege of pissing on the Catholic altar, and the societal blasphemy of rubbing mustard into the crotch of a stripped leather geek. This is the Gospel according to Anger. Henderson


My Hustler

My Hustler (Andy Warhol, 1965)

The commodification of desire (and the desire in commodification) have rarely been examined with the cool wit of Andy Warhol’s landmark film. Whose hustler is Paul America, the blond stud whom we first see lolling about on a Fire Island beach? Men and women of various sexual orientations spend the film’s 67-minute running time lusting after, bitching about, probing into, and yearning for this midnight cowboy. Throughout, America remains a lanky libidinal enigma, or maybe just a chiseled blank slate. He embodies a distinctly Warholian vision of queer erotics that’s tantalizingly ambiguous, achingly aloof, and always connected to that essential bulge in your pants: your wallet. Connolly


Portrait of Jason

Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)

In Portrait of Jason, Jason Holliday’s waning lucidity becomes a clever rhetorical weapon against Shirley Clarke’s occasional attempts to turn him into an icon of the gay black experience. But she wins out overall, and quite devilishly. As Jason sinks into disorientation, the clarity of the skull perched on the bookshelf behind him increases. When he breaks down after being harangued by off-screen voices, his tears feel nearly funereal. Jason exposes his self-destructiveness to Clarke because he intuits that the resulting object will outlive him—and that it will allow him to outlive himself, and his self-destructiveness. He’s correct. But the film is a conversation between two disadvantaged artists with indelible personalities, both of whom are unabashedly manipulating their way into at least the esoteric side of the everlasting. Clarke’s portrait immortalizes Jason in the same sense that a death mask—one covered in its sculptor’s quick, pithy fingerprints—might preserve its subject’s uncanny likeness. Lanthier


Funeral Parade of Roses

Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)

Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses takes the thematic and stylistic template of Hiroshima Mon Amour—traumatic memory, documentary interests, elliptical editing—and further layers it with reflexive elements related to the nature of identity as it pertains to a group of queens in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Matsumoto’s Oedipal tale has influenced directors from Stanley Kubrick to Tsai Ming-liang, but the film remains a singular work on the ways gender performance, whether in sexual practice or art, ubiquitously informs human behavior and interaction, right down to a trick who asks Eddie (Pîtâ) if she likes his muscles before lifting a chair to narcissistically show them off. Dillard


The Boys in the Band

The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin, 1970)

Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band, whose melodramatic act-two truth-telling owes a significant debt to the bitter gaming of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, isn’t a great one. Shot in the year of Stonewall, William Friedkin’s film adaptation is indeed a time capsule of its era’s mores, but if Crowley’s limited palette of self-loathing and camp-drenched cattiness made the play an instant “period piece” per Vito Russo, the notion that it blames these men for their fears and lies (which sat well with moralists viewing it as a cautionary tale) seems a clear misreading. The dishy wit and behavioral truths of its late-‘60s demimonde of sophisticated New York homos doesn’t dilute the unnerving shame and emotional warfare that explode in its scabrous second act. The partygoers are caught in the tragedy of the pre-liberation closet, a more crippling and unforgiving one than the closets that remain. Michael’s (Kenneth Nelson) final wish—“If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much”—has been largely fulfilled. Not quite so very much. Weber


Trash

Trash (Paul Morrissey, 1970)

With her googly eyes, a nest of burgeoning dreads atop her head, and a pronounced overbite that turns her lips into a pair of string beans, the transgender Holly Woodlawn’s untraditional sort of glamour lends a surprising poignancy to the wrenching scene when she unleashes a volcanic tantrum of violated trust, festering jealousy, and, ultimately, wounded pride at the realization that perhaps it’s her and not heroin that keeps Joe Dallesandro’s cock flaccid in bed. The frazzled, cracked-glass-Cassavetes close-ups that Paul Morrissey bequeathed to her talent caught the eye of none other than George Cukor, who started an ultimately unsuccessful petition campaign in support of an Oscar nomination. Oscars, schmoscars. To call Holly’s performance in Trash one of the very greatest in all of cinema would be an understatement. Henderson


Death in Venice

Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971)

An aging composer, Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), takes refuge in a resort to recharge his intellectual energies, only to be completely unsettled by the beauty of a blond adolescent boy who’s also staying at the resort. Luchino Visconti’s masterful Death in Venice tackles complicated notions of idealization, adult-child affection, and the virtual impossibility of reciprocity with a philosophical depth that never feels immaterial. It also features a grand finale set to Gustav Mahler’s magnificent “Symphony Number 5” where beauty, and the desire it begets, is proven to not stand a chance before man’s propensity for annihilation. Diego Semerene


Pink Narcissus

Pink Narcissus (James Bidgood, 1971)

At this point in American underground cinema, gay directors were celebrating those sweet sticky things in contexts cerebral and performative (Flaming Creatures) and matter-of-factly declarative (Wakefield Poole’s bawdy of work). Photographer James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus transcends any niche descriptor that applies—queer, camp, avant-garde, softcore, documentary expressionism—and plunges into the deep end of consciousness-annihilating erotic desire. If Cate Blanchett’s Carol marveled, to her romantic conquest, “I never looked like this” (a pretty hot line in its own right), Pink Narcissus flips the equation to explore the electric sexual charge of finding in others the things that are also available at one’s own fingertips. Henderson


Sunday Bloody Sunday

Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971)

Though it depicts an eventful week in the lives of two semi-swinging Londoners—Daniel, a gay doctor (Peter Finch), and Alex, a divorced civil servant’s scion (Glenda Jackson)—who begrudgingly share the affections of an aimless bohemian named Bob (Murray Head), Sunday Bloody Sunday is almost naïvely nonpolemical. No one needs to fight for the right to screw who they want, when they want, and with whatever paucity of adjoining obligations. It simply happens, with very little effort. Even the sex act itself is continually viewed as a compromise between two passive bodies; here director John Schlesinger foregoes the carnal thrusting that forced an X rating upon his previous film, Midnight Cowboy, instead showing blemished layers of flesh curled delicately and forgivingly up to one another. This calmness is never titillating, and thus never exploitative. But we soon learn that the characters are treating themselves and each other with such quiet unfairness that to exploit them visually would be crude and redundant. Lanthier

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 100 Best Dance Songs of All Time

Dim the lights, pump up the volume, and join us as we imagine a future where we won’t be dancing on our own.

Published

on

100 Best Dance Songs of All Time
Photo: Universal Music

When we published the original iteration of this list back in 2006, dance music had been pushed unceremoniously underground, relegated to discotheques and niche radio stations that were increasingly incorporating hip-hop into their playlists. Of course, hip-hop can be traced directly back to ‘70s funk and disco, and the origins of dance are firmly rooted in black music—a circle that’s impossible to dismiss. But we lamented the apparent slow death of dance music’s popularity while holding out hope for its inevitable revival.

Be careful what you wish for. Just a few years later, EDM exploded, with artists like David Guetta dominating pop radio with garish bangers more interested in pounding you into submission than luring you to the dance floor. More than a few gems emerged from the rush, though, including a handful of instant classics: Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love,” and Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind” among them.

Eventually, the EDM bubble burst, but dance music seems to be on the upswing yet again, with disco throwbacks like Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” and Doja Cat’s “Say So” bumping and grinding their way to the top of the charts. So it’s ironic that Billboard has paused publication of its club play tally for the first time in almost 50 years due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now seems like the perfect time to dust off our record players and celebrate that most enduring of genres—even if it’s just in the privacy of our own homes.

We’ve added songs, both old and new, but we’ve also shaken up the entire list to reflect our evolving taste as well as the durability of some songs over others. So, dim all the lights, pump up the volume, and join us as we imagine a future where we won’t be dancing on our own. Sal Cinquemani

Editor’s Note: The original version of this list, published on January 30, 2006, can be found exclusively on our Patreon page.


100. Yarbrough & Peoples, “Don’t Stop the Music” (1980)

Recorded by childhood sweethearts on the cusp of taking both their careers and love lives to the next level, Calvin Yarbrough and Alisa Peoples’s “Don’t Stop the Music” is probably the most carnal, lusting set of marriage vows ever preserved on vinyl. Making Ashford and Simpson’s tasteful love songs look milquetoast in comparison, it’s a synth-gritty, pumping slow jam with a walking bassline that doesn’t so much strut as it does play Chutes and Ladders up and down the well-greased procession line and a steamy synthesizer wash that sounds more like a rush of blood to the tip. Because no marriage can sustain this type of sexual momentum forever, the song even comes with its own contraceptive device: those irritating chipmunk voices (be they sperm or the resultant rugrats) that interrupt every break with “You don’t really wanna stop? Nooooooo!” Eric Henderson


99. Stacey Q, “Two of Hearts” (1986)

Madonna copycat Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” was a fun, hi-NRG response to the Material Girl’s “Burning Up.” Madonna says, “Don’t put me off/’Cause I’m on fire/And I can’t quench my desire.” Stacey says, “My body’s burning/So come on heed my desire.” Neither song is empowering per se, at least in the sense that Madonna and Stacey Q hadn’t discovered masturbation like Cyndi Lauper had on “She Bop,” but less is more and the love-in-my-heart Stacey Q has Madonna beat, telling us her burning snatch needs hosing down in infinitely less words. I still don’t know if “When we’re together it’s like hot coals in a fire” is the stupidest or greatest lyric of all time, but “Two of Hearts” is still the quintessential white-chick-in-heat cheese anthem. Ed Gonzalez


98. Brass Construction, “Movin’” (1975)

One of Guyanan composer-musician Randy Muller’s string of train-centric tracks (he was also the man behind the chugging string arrangements of B.T. Express), Brass Construction’s “Movin’” is eight solid minutes of concentrated disco-funk synergy that surges like a runaway locomotive. Muller lets his band cobble together the industrial jam’s rising action with blue-collar professionalism, keeping one ear toward whimsical production effects: clanking percussion suggesting the sound of pennies under steel wheels, otherworldly autoharp glissandos, and a trendsetting, octave-leaping string arrangement. And there’s only about a line and a half’s worth of lyrics holding the song together, but the way they hold back devilishly on “Gonna get h-i-i-i-i-i-g-h” before reverting into Sly and the Family Stone/Sunday school mode with the suffix “-er” is playfully naughty. Henderson


97. Lisette Melendez, “Together Forever” (1991)

What better way to convey Latin freestyle’s telenovela-esque big, broad emotions than with a big, broad stream of clichés? (“Together forever, yours/Together forever, mine/Facing what we feel inside/Ready to stand the test of time,” goes the chorus.) It’s delivered by East Harlem native Lisette Melendez, whose nasal voice wasn’t nearly as heinous or happily off-key as many of her peers (here’s lookin’ at you, Lil’ Suzy). “Together Forever” helped indoctrinate freestyle’s new-school revision; by 1991, it was more rhythmically layered and complex than it was during its early days of tone-deaf melodies over electro beats. Producer Carlos Berrios would go on to recycle this style for the likes of Corina (in her inferior but infinitely more popular “Temptation”) and Jammy (in “Walk Away”—if you aren’t from Jersey, you can’t be faulted for not knowing that one), but Melendez’s bond with this beat is eternal. Rich Juzwiak


96. Lime, “Babe, We’re Gonna Love Tonight” (1982)

The hi-NRG “Babe, We’re Gonna Love Tonight” is all tease. Its infectious intro melody suggests a na-na-na-na-na-na schoolyard taunt, and every subsequent beat ladled on top evokes a teasing tickle or poke. With her giddy, Minnie Riperton-esque vocal, Joy Dorris gets to play out a shy creature pulling away from busy hands. It sounds ridiculous, but it seems like the only reasonable response to Chris Marsh’s at once earnest but disconcerting bullfrog-in-the-throat come-ons. Gonzalez


95. Sounds of Blackness, “The Pressure Pt. 1 (Classic 12” Mix)” (1991)

R&B’s gospel influence is so vast, it barely needs explaining. Because so much of house is derived from disco, which itself came from soul, the combination of full-on gospel elements (gigantic choirs, never-ceasing organs, Jesus praisin’) with house seems like a no-brainer. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis didn’t get that the first time around (they serviced “The Pressure” with a new jack swing production), but that’s okay—the late Frankie Knuckles was more than capable of doing the job. Outfitting the 40-person choir’s caterwauls with a frenetic bassline, giant four-on-the-floor beats and hip-house rattling, Knuckles could have blown the stained glass out of a church and make it seem like an act of God. Juzwiak


94. Bedrock featuring KYO, “For What You Dream Of” (1993)

A grandiose, perpetually oscillating stream of synthesized sounds and thumping bass, Bedrock’s prog house anthem “For What You Dream Of” is impressive not only for its many unpredictable ups and downs but also for the sheer force of its soulful vocal (by ex-Staxx of Joy singer Carol Lemming, appearing here as KYO), which posits dance as a form of spiritual healing. It sounds as if John Digweed and Nick Muir haven’t left a single button on their synthesizers unpressed, but “For What You Dream Of” scarcely feels synthetic. Gonzalez


93. Underworld, “Born Slippy .NUXX” (1995)

Who’s that boy? He’s dirty and numb but also capable of angelic poses. He’s also terribly fond of lager, chemicals, and blondes. Sounds a bit like the libidinous bugger Ewan McGregor played in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, the film that made this dark, long, chest-puffing techno anthem ubiquitous for a hot second back in 1996. Like Benton’s craving for smack, the beats are frantic, dizzying, ravenous, even pained, rippling outward like ginormous waves or cascading ribbons made of steel, grasping for the sort of ecstasy that seems to only come with absolute annihilation. Such is the gnarliness of Underworld’s music. Gonzalez


92. Inner City, “Good Life” (1989)

Before techno was “techno” (thanks to Juan Atkins’s sci-fi theorizing and subsequent dubbing), it was known as Detroit house, and before house was house, it was disco. But if distinctions were made to be blurred, consider Kevin Saunderson a supreme smear on the dance music landscape. Inner City’s “Good Life” clanks like techno, pumps like house, and features disco diva vocals from Paris Grey. “Let me take you to a place you know you wanna go/It’s a good life,” she belts, creating the clearest picture of dance floor halcyon since Chic sang about 54 and its roller skates, roller skates. The good times emanating from the track landed it on Top 40 stations around the country, giving all involved a tangible taste of the real live good life. Juzwiak


91. Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z, “Crazy In Love” (2003)

Beyoncé’s simultaneously calculated and fresh “Crazy In Love” made producer Rich Harrison the go-to boy for urban crossover success in the mid-aughts. Harrison composed similar-sounding tracks for the likes of Jennifer Lopez and protégé Amerie but failed to match the across-the-board sensation that was Bey’s breakout solo smash. A slice of retro-stylized ‘70s funkadelia including a show-stopping guest spot by then-DL boyfriend Jay-Z, a horn-y Chi-Lites sample, some go-go-influenced breakbeats, a proud, bottom-heavy, hip-pop posterior, and a hook so infectious that it permanently branded “diva” to the singer’s, uh, résumé, the song positioned the curvy bottle blonde as an MTV-generation Tina Turner. Temporary insanity never tasted so sweet. Cinquemani


90. Run-DMC vs. Jason Nevins, “It’s Like That” (1997)

Don’t be fooled by the slick bassline of mixmaster Jason Nevins’s awesome 1997 remix of “It’s Like That,” which doesn’t try to disguise Run-DMC’s blunt, bracingly honest polemic about black disillusionment. The original song’s sarcasm was coded in its spare design, but its effrontery was still palpable. It was an anthem blacks and the racially enlightened could all rally behind. (One wonders where modern rap and hip-hop would be had the song never been released.) Nevins updates the sound but doesn’t allow us to lose sight of Run-DMC’s embittered lyrics. The new sound gives the brutal discontent of 1983 a changing-times context, making the original’s disdain accessible to a new generation—if mostly to hipsters and ravers. It’s more danceable but still every bit as confrontational. Gonzalez


89. Cathy Dennis, “Touch Me (All Night Long)” (1991)

It’s ironic that a singer who carved out a second act for herself by writing iconic hits for other artists, including Britney Spears’s “Toxic” and Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” initially made a name for herself with someone else’s song. But Cathy Dennis made Fonda Rae’s disco trifle “Touch Me (All Night Long)” her own by completely rewriting the song’s throwaway verses, imbuing a fleeting physical connection with the weight of manifest destiny. DJ extraordinaire Shep Pettibone likewise put his signature on the track by amping up the melodic hook and distinctive Roland 909 house beats, propelling it into the stratosphere of early-‘90s house-pop. Cinquemani


88. Jody Watley, “Looking for a New Love” (1987)

“Looking for a Love” was the first in a long line of hits for former Soul Train dancer and Shalamar vocalist Jody Watley, who, by the end of the ‘80s, seemed poised to join the same league as dance-pop icons like Madonna and Janet Jackson. Like the latter, Watley aligned herself with a Prince cohort, Revolution bassist Andre Cymone, who whipped up some of the most defining dance-pop confections of the era for his muse. “Looking for a New Love” features jazzy piano, a portentous synthesized whistle, and Watley’s original stark 8-track demo vocal—“Hasta la vista, baby” was a calm, cool and collected sayonara long before it got cheesed up by the Terminator himself. Watley’s follow-up, “Don’t You Want Me,” might be more danceable, but it’s nowhere near as iconic. Cinquemani

87. Metro Area, “Miura” (2001)

Metro Area’s foot-thumper “Miura” is nothing if not all-inclusive, ladling economical spoonfuls of tribal beats, Latin drums and funk grooves across what may be the hottest eight-minute bassline in the world. It was released in 2001, when all eyes were on Moroder for dance revivalism. Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani, instead, chose to infuse their techno sensibility with disco strings and boogie keyboards, providing a much-needed alternative to electroclash. Others tried to convince us that what they were doing was new (even if “new” meant “injected with irony”), but the sound-for-sound’s-sake craftsmanship on this and virtually every other Metro Area offering bespoke a love for its source material so profound that it wasn’t afraid to make its throwback nature blatant. Juzwiak


86. Hercules and Love Affair, “Blind” (2008)

DJ and once-Butt magazine model Andrew Butler’s Hercules and Love Affair outfit paid poignant homage to the queer man’s feelings of yearning, wish fulfillment, and survival on their sensual, vaporous, and bittersweet self-titled debut album. A fabulous experiment at looking at the present from some kind of beyond, their splendiferous “Blind” was like a post-mortem address by “Queen of Disco” Sylvester, reminiscing on libertine days gone by through the gender-bending voice of Antony Hegarty. A groovilicious, undulating foot-stomper that continues to stir the soul. Gonzalez


85. Todd Terje, “Inspector Norse” (2012)

It could be said that the world of dance, a dozen years into the new millennium, was just ready for a little unabashed brightness amid the proliferating subgenres of EDM, grime, trap, vaporwave, and post-dubstep. (Just a single spin of Blawan’s homicidal 2012 hit “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage” would be enough to make one run screaming from the dance floor to never return again.) And if that’s the case, it should’ve surprised no one that that much-needed dose of uppers came from the Land of the Midnight Sun. Norwegian DJ Todd Terje (yes, that’s a riff on Todd Terry’s name, and yes, that’s what all Scandinavian humor is like) was already a rising figure thanks to “Snooze 4 Love” and a series of quirky re-edits, including Chic’s “I Want Your Love.” But the world reacted to the release of the knowingly absurd loping synth riffs of “Inspector Norse” like a group of preteen boys coming in from a game of touch football to a tray full of Sunny D. And when critics said his music was fit only for strandbars (Norwegian for “beach bars”), Terje turned around and called his next relentlessly chipper disco-house release, “Strandbar.” That’s some A-grade Norwegian passive-aggressiveness right there. Henderson


84. The Knife, “Silent Shout” (2006)

Pac-Man and his red-bowed honey’s wedding song? The metronomic production—minimalist but intense beats chasing each other as if in and out of love, or nightmares—is perfectly and surreally married to the equally disquieting lyrics, which recount a flashpoint in a person’s life when their sense of complacency is shattered by a dream of falling teeth. Is that love or death on their horizon? Like much of the Knife and Fever Ray’s music, or a Luis Buñuel film, the song seduces as it frightens. Gonzalez


83. The Flirts, “Passion” (1982)

Bobby Orlando became something of a disco pimp in the time between 1979’s “Disco Sucks” blowout and house music’s takeover. Representing New York, he released an unending stream of hi-NRG records in the early ‘80s, which varied wildly in quality. Among his best production work, though, was what he did for the Flirts, a trio of women with an almost constantly rotating lineup. Maybe it’s just that his pimpishness was never more lucid. Certainly, his girls more than held up their end: 1982’s “Passion” is a sleazy romp of gushing synths and a bobbing erection—I mean, bassline. The title isn’t trying to twist love with sex, it’s just describing work ethic. Juzwiak


82. Björk, “Big Time Sensuality” (1993)

Björk’s got the turtleheart of a bona fide boogie monster of the hardest order, as anyone who’s watched her jam out to LFO’s “Freak” while performing “Hyperballad” live can plainly see. But even at the height of her mixtape era (namely 1993’s Debut and 1995’s Post), she seemed to perpetually intellectualize herself out of simply reveling in, to borrow from Deee-Lite, just “a good beat.” Nellee Hooper’s original production on “Big Time Sensuality” had the bones of a great dance song, and Björk’s lyric appropriately harnessed her “big feelings” to match that message up. (If “I don’t know my future after this weekend, and I don’t want to” doesn’t sum up that most eternal 3 a.m., nothing does.) But it took Fluke’s scope-widening remix of the song to bring its anthemic potential into full bloom. It takes courage to try to best Björk, but in this case it paid off big time. Henderson


81. Armand Van Helden featuring Roland Clark, “Flowerz” (1999)

The resolutely hetero B-boy Armand Van Helden (the same dude who would later rap “I’m looking for them female ejaculates, spreading that koochy with the masturbates”) was probably the least likely house producer this side of Green Velvet to provide the resurgent disco-house craze of the late ‘90s with a swoony anthem. Surprise, surprise. He offered not just one, but two. His Carrie Lucas-sampling “U Don’t Know Me” was the overtly flamboyant club smash, a euphoric swirl of disco strings and an almost preternaturally perceptive approximation of just the sort of “Fuck you, I’m fabulous” soundtrack drag queens love to step off to. But, truthfully, it’s not all that difficult for straight guys to fake fierce. They “get” that aggressive aspect of gay culture. What’s trickier and more elusive is replicating the guileless, hedonistic abandon of total, submissive rapture. Thanks to a lush, spangled sample from Donald Byrd’s classy “Think Twice” and aided by Roland Clark’s astonishingly unbridled, almost Philip Bailey-esque falsetto, “Flowerz” is the gayest filtered disco record that doesn’t suck, executed without a trace of misguided testosterone. To be overwhelmed by the overdubbed vocal harmonies on the chorus is to experience the excitement of walking up that ramp to the Paradise Garage all over again. If you listen closely, you can even hear the tambourine from that club’s logo quivering in the background. Henderson

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

Artists understand violence as a transmission of energy that’s repulsive yet hypnotic.

Published

on

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked
Photo: Focus Features

Artists, as opposed to sensationalist technicians, understand violence as a transmission of energy that’s repulsive yet hypnotic. There’s a reason people slow down to watch highway accidents and street brawls, or reliably patronize gory blockbusters and TV series. No contemporary American filmmaker grasps—or channels—this conflict of the rational (moral judgment, or superior pretense thereof) and the irrational (fearful animal urge to get off on annihilation) more vividly than Spike Lee, who’s in the midst of a fertile creative cycle that began with 2012’s Red Hook Summer.

Now working with lower budgets, Lee has refined his aesthetic into a kind of hothouse poetry of compacted excess. His cinema is presently a series of contrasts and frictions: between large and small scale (the latter often symbolizing the former), and reverent and irreverent tones. The chief ambiguity of the filmmaker’s work, though, is his attitude toward violence, and its intermingling with the sexual tension existing between the over-charged men and manipulative women that populate his cinema.

On the occasion of the release of Lee’s new joint, Da 5 Bloods, which is being released in the midst the largest civil unrest in America since the protests of 1968 and benefits from this wrenchingly serendipitous timing, we look back at the filmmaker’s feature-length theatrical releases. Chuck Bowen


She Hate Me

28. She Hate Me (2004)

She Hate Me begins with a montage of dead presidents capped with a shot of a three-dollar bill that links George W. Bush to the Enron scandal. This “all about the Benjamins” sequence sets up what begins as a promising critique of our greed-driven corporate culture. Spike Lee contrasts corporate and familial responsibility, and though he doesn’t seem to see a difference between what happens in the workspace and what happens in the bedroom, his barely articulate theories are undermined by his laughable notion of what lesbians want and how they want it. Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), a rich brother working for a firm that’s on the brink of releasing an AIDS vaccine, becomes a whistleblower after stumbling upon evidence of financial malfeasance. His higher-ups then turn on him, and once Jack’s bank account is frozen, the film transforms into a whack-off fantasy in which every lesbian in the world wants to get some of Jack’s “man milk.” Most contracts are negotiated with John Hancocks, but in She Hate Me, deals are sealed with hot lesbian action. Ed Gonzalez


Girl 6

27. Girl 6 (1996)

Spike Lee is plain out of his element here, and it’s no wonder he falls back on stunt casting (from a post-Erotica Madonna as the boss of an illicit “no rules” phone sex ring, to Quentin Tarantino as, well, his own questionable self) and a ceaseless handpicked playlist of his favorite Prince songs. Girl 6, the story of a girl and her stint in the phone-sex biz, is a sloppy and problematic film, no diggity. But the opening audition scene and its thematic reprise at the film’s end aren’t among its mistakes. Actually, they’re among the film’s only signs of cognitively dissonant, Godardian life. Girl 6’s screenplay was written by a woman, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Theresa Randle’s disrobe-under-duress is, in actuality, Parks’s own built-in reminder to everyone who’s actually telling the tale. Tarantino and Lee aren’t so stylistically exclusive that most wouldn’t recognize the former’s obvious function as a stand-in. (Only the racial difference between them confuses the metaphor.) So, what Parks demonstrates by forcing Lee to force Randle into the dressing-down room is exactly what QT says: “It’s what the role requires.” Or rather, it’s what every current role for young black women requires. Eric Henderson


Miracle at St. Anna

26. Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

A dollop of Saving Private Ryan, a dash of Letters from Iwo Jima, and a sprinkle of Italian neorealism characterize the style and sentiment of Miracle at St. Anna, a generally ludicrous and—at 160 minutes—punishing saga meant to be Spike Lee’s bid to memorialize the heroism of African-American soldiers during WWII. While Lee’s joints often benefit from excellent performances from first-rate actors and clever visual design, these positives are often overwhelmed by an over-the-top narrative style that works to kill the inherent intelligence and poignancy of the material. The film is strewn with betrayals—sexual, political, familial and otherwise—all the way to the requisite, Saving Private Ryan-like gun-battle climax, in which soldiers try to evacuate the village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema as Germans storm in. Amid the obligatory pell-mell of screaming and gunfire, Lee wedges in a seemingly miraculous intervention—call it deus ex machina or Hollywood contrivance—on which the whole of this production hinges. For every decently observed scene, there are a dozen dull, asinine ones to be endured, awash in over-orchestration and silly visual choices. Jay Antani


Oldboy

25. Oldboy (2013)

It’s difficult to see any real precedent for this kind of pulpy material in Spike Lee’s prior work, and it’s perhaps as a result that he’s at his most anonymized and restrained here, plugging along in hired-gun mode. Josh Brolin floating along atop the dolly for a few short seconds acts as one of the few instances of self-reference, which is odd for a director who usually packs his films with as many signature touches as possible. Working off Mark Protosevich’s script, Lee does push up one interesting angle, flirting with a post-9/11 parable in the style of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, but the metaphorical implications of a man whipped into a frenzy by his thirst for revenge are undercut by the restorative properties of a too-neat conclusion. Where Park Chan-wook’s original imagined the wronged sibling taking revenge on the protagonist as a buttoned-down maniac mogul, the villain here takes the form of an obscenely wealthy, mustache-twirling British blue-blood (a tedious Sharlto Copley), a choice that, combined with some other absurd touches, pushes the last act into full-tilt farce. In this and other instances, Oldboy seems to be responding to the sillier qualities of its source material by ramping up the ridiculousness, adding heightened violence to spice up the broth. Jesse Cataldo


Pass Over

24. Pass Over (2018)

Where many filmed plays attempt to “open up” their source material, Pass Over doubles down on its theatricality. The film was shot at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, and filmmaker Spike Lee worked in close collaboration with stage director Danya Taymor, sporadically wedding theatrical restrictions with cinematic compositions. With a few notable exceptions, the film is set on the Steppenwolf’s stage, which has been abstractly dressed to resemble an austere Chicago city block. Audiences may wish, however, that the mediums of theater and cinema had been more playfully merged, as Pass Over can use all the variety it can muster. Based on a play by Antoinette Nwandu, the film is concerned with restriction, which Lee and Taymor embrace with a purity of intent that’s remarkable and actively stifling. Bowen


Inside Man

23. Inside Man (2006)

Inside Man is so thoroughly crammed with symbolic undertones that virtually everything contains allegorical culture-clash potential. For instance, is there some hidden meaning behind Dalton Russell’s (Clive Owen) thieves entering the Wall Street bank in white painter’s outfits, but then changing into gray jumpsuits later on? And what does it say about Denzel Washington’s persecuted detective Frazier Keith that he ultimately, triumphantly, dons a dapper cream-colored suit? In Dalton’s forcing his prisoners to wear matching, identity-negating outfits, Lee seems to be critiquing racial profiling by challenging Washington’s hero to distinguish criminals from innocents without the benefit of knowing his suspects’ skin color. Yet despite its leads enthusiastically breathing life into their sub-Sidney Lumet characters, the languid Inside Man offers few insights into modern societal discord and provides only scant cops-and-robbers kicks. Perhaps not Lee’s dullest joint, it’s nonetheless one of his most sloppily rolled. Nick Schager


Mo’ Better Blues

22. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

Spike Lee’s tribute to jazz may not stand shoulder to padded shoulder with Do the Right Thing, but it represents cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s masterpiece. The visuals give you life through a jazzman’s night-owl eyes, starting with an opening credits sequence that bathes a solitary trumpet in a sumptuous, shiny metallic blue light. Dickerson’s vibrant reds also dominate his canvas and are synonymous with sin: It’s in the bright red light that bursts forth from the open door of the jazz club as a man is dragged out to be beaten in the street, and in the same red dress that both of Bleek Gilliam’s (Denzel Washington) women wear to a meeting at which they weren’t supposed to simultaneously appear. Dickerson treats those cool blues and hot reds like the proverbial angel and devil on the characters’ shoulders. If only Lee had trusted these images more, instead of bogging them down with clunky dialogue and exposition. Because when he lets his directorial visions speak for themselves, the film’s flaws are temporarily forgiven. Odie Henderson


He Got Game

21. He Got Game (1998)

Considering Spike Lee’s courtside reactions at Knicks games, He Got Game’s fanatical regard for basketball is entirely believable. The film even has a savior named Jesus (former Milwaukee Buck Ray Allen), whose athletic prowess practically guarantees his ascension into the holy ranks of the NBA. Lee’s parable demands unshakable faith in the plotline that a warden (Ned Beatty) would spring Jesus’s estranged father, Jake (Denzel Washington), from jail so that he may convince Jesus to sign with the governor’s alma mater rather than turn pro straight out of high school. Jake has a week to make this happen while trying to re-establish a parental bond with his son. This plays out against a frantic quest by coaches and colleges for Jesus’s b-ball miracles, and Lee pulls no punches in showing the ruthlessness that accompanies billion-dollar sports organizations’ seduction of poor black kids with athletic promise, but that strength is undermined by the script’s reductive depiction of women: Jesus’s girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) is a manipulative, calculating gold digger and Milla Jovovich’s hooker with a heart of gold exists solely to provide Jake with some forbidden nookie. Washington gives Jake a hint of the meanness that would later fuel Training Day. His performance, along with Mayik Hassan Sayeed’s cinematography, help the film achieve a small form of grace. Odie Henderson

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Every Björk Album Ranked

For Björk, music has never been merely an outlet for her avant-garde impulses, but an essential mode of survival.

Published

on

Bjork
Photo: Stéphane Sednaoui

Björk began her musical career performing cute Broadway cabaret music in Icelandic and achieved international fame singing with art-rock band the Sugarcubes. She reached superstardom with a series of increasingly loopy but gorgeous electronic-pop solo albums that proved she’s not only a memorably deliberate vocalist, but also something of a precocious songwriter with a love for mixing analog and digital instruments into one heady brew.

By the late 1990s, Björk dropped the violently happy house party aesthetic of Debut and Post and began favoring the serious, the poetic, and the melodramatic, resulting in the titanic 808 Philharmonic masterpiece Homogenic and the deceptive, darkly sex-obsessed Vespertine. Eventually, she lost the plot and lurched into inaccessibility with albums like 2004’s Medúlla, which buries a few brilliant compositions among muddy a cappella art-fuckery, and 2011’s heady Biophilia.

Björk’s latest act has yielded a pair of critically acclaimed releases, the wrenching breakup album Vulnicura and the more reconciliatory Utopia, that have moved the artist away from the conceptual and toward something resembling the personal. It’s a reminder that, for Björk, music has never been merely an outlet for her avant-garde impulses, but an essential mode of survival. Eric Henderson



Medulla

9. Medúlla (2004)

By the turn of the 21st century, Björk’s albums had become progressively more progressive, stretching the boundaries of both contemporary pop and electronic music, challenging the way we hear words and melodies. Medúlla, the title of which references the inner core of certain organs or body structures (the essence of things, if you will), found Björk forsaking customary electronic instrumentation for human beatboxing, whistling, sighing, grunting, and hyperventilating. The effect can be awe-inspiring, most readily on “The Pleasure Is All Mine” and “Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left Carry My Pain on the Right).” Human voices sub for bass, horns, snare, and synthesizers on the house confection “Triumph of a Heart,” while the Icelandic and London Choirs fill in for the grandiose orchestral arrangements of past albums. But for all of the questions Medúlla raises about how we perceive music, the cacophonous multivocality of tracks like the meandering “Ancestors” are ultimately more exhausting than enlightening. Sal Cinquemani



Volta

8. Volta (2007)

You can imagine the roar of relief that accompanied early reports that Björk’s Volta would find her emerging from her increasingly hermetic cocoon and declare that’s there’s more to life than deliberately defying expectations. The album’s first single, “Earth Invaders,” recalls “Human Behavior” and “Army of Me” but gurgles with a more straightforward marching tempo, squelching acid synthesizer lines, and a snapping high hat. “Declare Independence” begins like an outtake from Telegram and grows in amplitude and hysteria until it almost eclipses “Pluto.” Two of the album’s most galvanizing moments—the ominously rolling dirge “Vertebrae by Vertebrae” and the volcanically expansive “Wanderlust”—envelop Björk completely within the emotional landscapes of “Jóga.” But none of it is much fun, even abstractly. In the album’s two collaborations with Antony Hegarty, Björk finally found a vocal sparring partner whose voice is as much, if not more, an acquired taste than her own. Brave? Sure. Good? Not so much. The seven minutes of cooing and over-crisp enunciation on “Dull Flame of Desire” are enough to send just about anyone bounding for their “Venus as a Boy” maxi-single. Henderson



Biophilia

7. Biophilia (2011)

By 2011, the free spirit who introduced herself on Debut had aged into a prickly, smart, and severe performer who didn’t mind coming off as pretentious in the pursuit of her art. And Björk’s seventh album, Biophilia, works best when it eschews pop altogether, instead forging into dark, minimalist territory that’s occasionally reminiscent of Steve Reich. “Thunderbolt,” “Dark Matter,” and “Hollow” comes closest to establishing a sonic identity as rich as that of Homogenic or Medúlla. On “Hollow,” the organ skitters around wildly like a carnie’s calliope, suggesting Tom Waits in space, before Björk and her backup choir engage in some freaky harmonic singing about DNA. One of the kōans on “Thunderbolt” is “universal intimacy,” and that’s not a bad description of the album’s aesthetic, which combines Vespertine’s chilly skin contact with the reverent, even religious, invocations of Medúlla. Matthew Cole



Vulnicura

6. Vulnicura (2015)

Let’s be honest: Björk, more than any chanteuse, needs no tangible catalyst to trigger emotive seizures in song form. She’s felt violently happy about the backs of men’s freshly shaven necks, imagined herself a girl-shaped fountain of blood, promised a volcano eruption just below your aeroplane simply so you would know that some day you’ll blossom. Losing the man whose dick once inspired an entire album of the porniest Christmas music ever penned? Well, you may as well go ahead and strap some LED lederhosen onto the Tsar Bomba. If you ever wanted Björk to get close to a human, the raw hurt at the heart of Vulnicura gives you the motherlode. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed, disoriented, ashamed. It wasn’t just her best album in ages, but her most shockingly unfiltered. Henderson

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Every Mariah Carey Album Ranked

We’ve ranked all of the singer’s albums, from Mariah Carey to Caution.

Published

on

Mariah Carey
Photo: Sarah McColgan

On May 15, 1990, Mariah Carey quietly released her debut single, “Vision of Love,” a contemporary R&B ballad marked by its retro swing and, of course, that voice. Though it gave birth to a thousand singing competition contestants caterwauling their way to instant fame, the song is more restrained than you might remember. Yes, “Vision of Love” introduced the world to that famous whistle register like a stripper popping out of a cake, and Mariah seems to express an entire song’s worth of emotion in one final vocal run, but it also boasts an economy of language, both musical and otherwise, that she’s recaptured rarely over the years.

“Vision of Love” took its time to reach its sweet destiny—four weeks at #1 on the pop chart—setting the stage for a career with very long legs. If Mariah’s handlers—her then-husband, Sony Music president Tommy Mottola, among them—wanted her to be a crossover queen in the key of Whitney, the singer evidently had other ideas. By the end of the ‘90s, both Mariah’s wardrobe and voice—not to mention her album sales—began to shrink. But she’d become a far more interesting artist, savvily incorporating hip-hop elements into her work, which surely extended her commercial viability even as it limited her audience, and developing a singular, idiosyncratic voice as a lyricist.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Vision of Love,” and her self-titled debut—released in June of 1990—we’ve ranked all 13 of her non-holiday studio albums.



Charmbracelet

13. Charmbracelet (2002)

The sense that Charmbracelet was rushed out to try and control the damage left in Glitter’s wake is inextricably tied in with the album’s DNA. At the time, we admit to feeling admiration that she was at least giving off the impression of dusting it off and stepping back up to the plate…or the hoop, given that the most enduring takeaway from the whole project remains her momentary penchant for basketball jersey scootchie dresses. But in hindsight, the album’s place at the bottom of her discography is incontestable. Throughout, the sense that her genre interpolations reflect a piece of her campy-kitschy persona consistently takes a back seat to the realization that now was not the time to lean into idiosyncrasies, with the one possible semi-exception being the incongruously chipper G-funk detour “Irresistible (West Side Connection).” I mean, on what other Mariah album would a track entitled “Clown” sound like the zero-calorie AC version of Timbaland this one does? Eric Henderson



Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel

12. Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (2009)

Having then-It producers The-Dream and Tricky Stewart on the boards for all 17 tracks of 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel makes the album one of Mariah’s most sonically consistent, but it also sounds cheap and same-y, lacking the fullness of her best work. Mariah is in fine voice throughout, and there are several standout tracks, including the hard-edged “Standing O,” the simmering “H.A.T.E.U.,” and “Up Out My Face,” on which she achieves a whole new level of lyrical ridiculousness involving Legos and an allusion to Humpty Dumpty. Lyrically, Mariah dips into her back catalog to depths unheard since 2002’s Charmbracelet, and the album’s final stretch devolves into a mess of rehashes: “Languishing” is a lazy rewrite of—take your pick—“Petals,” “Twister,” or “Sunflowers for Alfred Roy,” while the requisite ‘80s cover song, of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” climaxes prematurely with a cacophony of screaming and gratuitous whistle notes. Cinquemani



Music Box

11. Music Box (1993)

Notable almost exclusively for its hit singles, Music Box is the album that, following the slightly less chart-domineering Emotions, made Mariah a bona fide superstar. One of those singles, “Hero,” was, tellingly, written for another artist before Tommy Mottola insisted she keep it for herself. One of Mariah’s signature ballads, the song trades in generic, often nonsensical platitudes and is surprisingly short on the kind of vocal histrionics that might overly stimulate listeners—the perfect combination for infinite rotation on multiple radio formats. By this point in her career, however, Mariah had devised a strategy to keep her label happy while stealing whatever bits of creative freedom she could. With its drum loop lifted from the Emotions by way of Big Daddy Kane, “Dreamlover” was her first foray into hip-hop (sorry, “Fantasy”), but it was David Morales’s dark, sultry house mix, along with David Cole and Robert Clivilles’s remix for another single, the gospel-infused “Anytime You Need a Friend,” that truly broke new ground for the singer. The album itself, though, is unchallenging and easy to swallow—everything Sony wanted Mariah to be. And 10 million people ate it up like Ovaltine. Cinquemani



E=MC2

10. E=MC² (2008)

The problem with having a winning formula is that, eventually, it’s going to boil down to just that: a formula. The irresistibly titled E=MC² stands shoulder to shoulder, at least according to my TI-85, with The Emancipation of Mimi in that I honestly prefer Mariah in the loopier, more freewheeling territory of Rainbow and Glitter, but I can’t deny the dogged efficiency in action. Even if I wasn’t exactly sure what the “E” was supposed to mean in the album’s title at first (emotion? Ear-splitting melisma? Surely not energy…oh, it stands for “emancipation,” duh), there’s little doubt that “MC” stands for our own master of ceremonies, and she even threw in a little nod to her own public schizophrenia for good measure. But those who were hoping for reinvention would, in addition to being radically unfamiliar with Mariah’s career trajectory, be dismayed that the “2” also stands for “Mimi, Part 2.” E=MC² doesn’t dawdle long enough for you to ever discern just how overly deliberate it is: It’s an album composed entirely of radio edits. There’s a big mathematical difference between pop instincts and pop manufacturing, and most of E=MC² demonstrates the latter. Henderson



Glitter

9. Glitter (2001)

Especially in light of a #JusticeForGlitter Twitter campaign that shot the soundtrack to the top of the iTunes chart 17 years after its release on September 11, 2001, it’s tempting to look back fondly at Glitter as an overlooked gem that simply suffered from a case of bad timing. Indeed, the album is dotted with authentically ‘80s-inspired treasures—the sensual Rick James-penned “All My Life,” the squelchy Eric Benet duet “Want You,” and a beat-for-beat recreation of Cherelle’s “Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” among them. But Glitter is also marred by a series of misguided hip-hop excursions, in which Mariah serves as a mere hook girl, and a bunch of middle-of-the-road ballads that make Music Box’s adult contemporary slush sound radical by comparison. The real injustice of Glitter’s failure is the effective erasure from the singer’s canon of the camp-tastic “Loverboy”—the final piss take in Mariah’s series of sample-driven uptempo singles. Cinquemani



Rainbow

8. Rainbow (1999)

It’s funny to think that, chronologically, only two studio albums separate Mariah’s most lyrically and musically chaste effort, Music Box, with this, her most unbridled album to date. Butterfly gets all the credit for the singer’s personal and sexual liberation, but you won’t find Mariah dog-whistling herself to orgasm for nearly six minutes on that album as she does on “Bliss,” which suggests a cross between “Love to Love You Baby” and Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” as sung by Minnie Riperton. There’s a series of inferior rewrites here, including “Heartbreaker,” “After Tonight,” and “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme).” But the album also explores new adventures in frivolity, like the trend-chasing “X-Girlfriend” and the catty hip-hop nursery rhyme “Did I Do That?” But it’s “Crybaby,” featuring a tour-de-force vocal performance that finds Mariah exploiting the rough edges of her newly worn voice for the first time, that stands out amid all the slick commercial pop. On an album filled with artifice (just take a look at that cover), she never sounded so real as when she allowed herself to get ugly. Cinquemani

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 25 Greatest Neil Young Songs

These songs comprise a guide for the singer-songwriter’s signature brand of rock and mastery of poetic memoir.

Published

on

Neil Young
Photo: Gary Burden

For the last five-plus decades, Neil Young has been, along with Bob Dylan, one of North America’s most towering, influential rock figures. He’s that rare musical threat: a multifaceted songwriter, penning universally resonant acoustic ballads, crunchy electric stompers, and cryptic long-form epics; a virtuoso musician, pioneering novel proto-grunge and noise-rock textures and instrumental interplay; and an eternal maverick continually experimenting with sound and defying industry expectations, even at the expense of chart success.

Given the enormous shadow he casts on popular culture as well as a daunting discography (next month’s Homegrown, originally slated for a 1975 release, will be his 40th album), it’s difficult to know where to begin when exploring Young’s musical legacy. After leaving Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the man nicknamed “Shakey” has forged a solo career not only long and winding but also—as in 1982’s Krautrock- and new wave-inspired Trans and 1991’s live noise collage Arc—thorny and more than a little unusual.

Just as there is no definitive Neil Young album—not even 1972’s Harvest, his most successful solo effort—there is no definitive core of Neil Young songs, and any best-of list is bound to leave many dimensions of his musical personality unaccounted for. That said, these 25 songs comprise a guide for the singer-songwriter’s signature brand of rock (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Rockin’ in the Free World”), his mastery of poetic memoir (“Thrasher,” “Ambulance Blues”), and his adventures in bursting structural and stylistic boundaries (“Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Change Your Mind”). Michael Joshua Rowin


25. “Change Your Mind”

“Change Your Mind” is one of Young and Crazy Horse’s most epic compositions. Like “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Change Your Mind” possesses a basic verse-chorus framework broken up by extended jams, but this time Young’s solos are reflective and dreamy rather than propulsive and tense. That’s because “Change Your Mind” is about the redemptive power of love, and without being overly sentimental or naive. Indeed, the simple language Young uses to describe this power is often surprising, revelatory, and realistic: Love’s “magic touch” isn’t only “revealing,” “soothing,” and “restoring,” but also “destroying,” “distracting,” and “controlling,” proving it must be properly cared for and harnessed in order to truly, constructively “change your mind.” Rowin


24. “L.A.”

In 1972, on Harvest’s “Out on the Weekend,” Young was sweetly crooning about Los Angeles—his first home in the U.S.—as an idyllic locale where one could hope to “start a brand new day.” But just like the countless dreamers who have tried to “make it” there to no avail, it doesn’t take long for cynicism to set in. Just a year later, over a stinging blues-rock riff, Young was sneering about a “city in the smog” where “the freeways are crammed” and imagining the whole place collapsing into the ground. A standout cut from the once long out-of-print but captivatingly shambolic Time Fades Away, “L.A.” proves that Young at his nastiest was also often at his best. Jeremy Winograd


23. “Harvest”

The subtle title track of 1972’s Harvest has been undeservedly overshadowed by that album’s megahits: “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Strumming a lulling, melancholic rhythm on his acoustic guitar, Young spins a mysterious tale concerning himself, a woman, and her mother. Just as Young asks a series of questions to the woman, so do listeners come away from the song asking their own: Why is the mother “screamin’ in the rain”? Who might be the “black face” the woman understands? What is the “change of plan” referenced in the chorus? Even if he refuses firm answers, Young offers several possibilities for his relationship: “Will I see you give more than I can take?/Will I only harvest some?/As the days fly past, will we lose our grasp?/Or fuse it in the sun?” For all its obscure scenarios, the low-key drama of “Harvest” ultimately hinges on the narrator’s full acceptance of and gratitude for love. Rowin


22. “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)”

Only a heart of stone will remain unmoved by Young’s plea for emotional vulnerability in “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long),” one of two ballads on 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere that examine the isolating cost of hardened egoism. Built on achingly strummed acoustic guitar chords and a beautifully harmonized vocal by Young and Robin Lane, “Round & Round” shows that repeated failures to recognize and express one’s pain “weave a wall to hem us in” from true companionship. In the final verse, Young hints at a solution: “And you see your best friend/Looking over the end/And you turn to see why/And he looks in your eyes and he cries.” Whether you confront your pain or not, you’re going to experience grief, but in confronting yourself you can empathize and connect with the pain of others rather than suffering in solitude. Rowin


21. “Borrowed Tune”

If Young’s famous mid-‘70s “ditch trilogy” was a literal ditch, “Borrowed Tune” would be its very lowest point. Hunched alone over a piano, his voice sleepy and threadbare, and his “head in the clouds,” Young sounds so drunk and worn out that he’s not even able to conjure up an original melody to get his thoughts out (by his own admission, he’s singing a tune lifted from the Rolling Stones’s “Lady Jane”). The level of intimacy Young allows in such a dark moment is as uncomfortable as it is spellbinding. Winograd

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 10 Best Albums of 1989

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

Published

on

The Cure
Photo: Rhino Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: Lou Reed, New York; New Order, Technique; Soul II Soul, Club Classics Vol. One; Nirvana, Bleach; Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi; The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing; Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels; Bonnie Raitt, Nick of Time; Queen Latifah, All Hail the Queen; Original Soundtrack, Batman



The Sensual World

10. Kate Bush, The Sensual World

It’s hard to pin down what makes Kate Bush’s music so completely infectious, but it probably has something to do with the reckless abandon with which she tackles what could otherwise be preposterous material. The topics on The Sensual World, ranging from a musical rendering of the epilogue of Ulysses to a love song directed at a computer program, are often wholeheartedly silly, and yet these songs never come off as anything less than totally and achingly believable. Blessed with one of music’s most wildly expressive voices, Bush takes each song further than she has to, resulting in an album that forms its own unique world. Jesse Cataldo



90

9. 808 State, 90

If 90 was “Pacific 202” and 30 minutes of tape noise, it’d still be a stone-cold classic. But 808 State’s signature song (here a truncated six minutes of sax, synth, and roiling, rubbery bass), is just the most successful condensation of the diverse sonic tendencies explored on 90. Paced like an excellent DJ set from guys who’d spent enough time in the club to know, 90 doesn’t build so much as it ebbs and flows between the assertively groovy and the totally blissed out. A thrilling expansion of the possibilities for acid house and arguably the best LP ever produced in the style, 90 shows that even a transient fad can be an impetus for world-making. Matthew Cole



Pretty Hate Machine

8. Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine

Ever look back at your old junior high school yearbooks and see, with a shock, the last picture the kid voted “Most Likely to Shoot the Rest of Us Dead at Graduation” took before encasing himself inside that filthy, black trench coat? The last one he took with his natural hair color? The last one in which his eyes that would later reflect only cataracts of the soul still glinted with the hint of something obscene? That’s what it’s like to listen now to Trent Reznor scowl, “I’d rather die than give you control!” in “Head Like a Hole.” Before attempting suicide in The Downward Spiral and living with the wrist scars in The Fragile, Pretty Hate Machine sent out sleek, danceable warning shots. Eric Henderson



Rhythm Nation

7. Janet Jackson, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

“Don’t get me in here acting all silly now.” Nice try, Janet, but with Rhythm Nation, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got you in here acting all sober now. At least for three or four songs, anyway. The follow-up to Control‘s redux debut is in equal measure self-enlightened, self-defining, and self-pleasuring. The title track and “The Knowledge” lean heavy on new-jack beats, while “Alright” and “Escapade” radiate the Minneapolis sound at its warmest (she must’ve recorded them the one week it didn’t snow there). And with seven hits (the final of which reached number one almost a year and a half after the album was released), it was one of the decade’s biggest chartbusting juggernauts. Get the point? Good. Henderson



Doolittle

6. Pixies, Doolittle

The Pixies are rightfully credited as the progenitors of grunge, and to that end, Doolittle is their manifesto for ‘90s alt rock: dark, offbeat, slow-churning, humorously grim, and peppered with the kind of loud-soft dynamics that exemplify both the Pixies’ sound and the countless bands that followed in their wake. Arriving in 1989, Doolittle served as vanguard for modern rock both sonically and tonally, as evidenced by the descriptive, almost metaphysical nature of the band’s lyrics. When Black Francis screams, “God is seven!,” on “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” there’s little doubt about the gravity of the message—or where Billy Corgan found his inspiration. Kevin Liedel

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Trending