TV

Watching 'Search' Is Like Carrying the Internet Around in Your Head

When you pay for Probe's services, you're not only getting the agent of the week but also a passel of experts with their tiny cameras, microphones, and zirconium-shelled "audio implants".


Search: The Complete Series

Distributor: Warner Archive
Cast: Burgess Meredith, Hugh O'Brian
Network: NBC
Release date: 2014-02-13
Amazon

When you pay for Probe's services, you're not only getting the agent of the week but also a passel of experts with their tiny cameras, microphones, and zirconium-shelled "audio implants".

"The Coolest Spy-Fi Show You've Never Seen!" is how the package trumpets this on-demand DVD set from Warner Archive. That may or may not be true, depending on what you've seen, but this lost one-season wonder has indeed surfaced from the ether's nether regions for us all to enjoy 40 years later.

Hailing from the 1972-73 TV season, Search is a globe-trotting adventure centered on an organization called Probe: a private high-class detective agency, or the world's most expensive Lost and Found. A division of World Securities Corporation, Probe is hired by companies or governments to locate missing people or information. Sometimes these are scientists who have the formula for some semi-science-fictional McGuffin of earthshaking import, but more often it's a perfectly mundane McGuffin.

When you pay for Probe's services, you're not only getting the agent of the week but the whole apparatus of Probe behind him. A passel of experts monitor the agent's progress via tiny cameras and microphones, and communicate with him through zirconium-shelled "audio implants" or "earjacks" in the ear.

The human monitors wear white lab coats and sit in a red-tinted room of uncertain proportions, known as Probe Control. Sometimes it doesn't seem to have walls. It looks like a corner of the brain inspired by the bridge in Star Trek, complete with multi-ethnic technicians working in harmony and addressed by surnames. They use fancy words like "online". They sit at huge consoles and consult various screens while machinery beeps and reels of tape twirl.

They play videotapes of uncertain origin, then zoom in and freeze on details while a computer voice yammers details. Names and numbers appear onscreen in the same nearly unreadable computer-y font used for the opening titles amid color-clashing computer graphics. It's all super-mod and too technical for ordinary mortals to understand. (I'd wondered if this voice was John Forsythe because it sounds similar, but a late episode shows the narrator onscreen reading his text, and it's character actor Vernon Weddle.)

The "captain" calling the shots is Cameron, the only character who appears in all adventures. As played by Burgess Meredith, he sounds like Burgess Meredith, avuncular and cantankerous at once in his crackling tones, now twinkling, now bristling, always crouching beneath his cowlick except for later episodes where he's used a comb. He explains the story not only to his agents but to the audience, bridging certain plot points where he can, and bleating like Jiminy Cricket or an exasperated duenna when his agent dallies too aggressively in swimming pools and discos and limosines with this week's Foxy Lady.

A convention borrowed from The Wild Wild West via James Bond, the Foxy Lady may be good, bad, or indifferent, but she's always a modern gal swayed by the hero's charms and ready to reward him for an assignment well done. It must be the liberated '70s. Good times! For those keeping score, as it were, the guests who get busy with our heroes include Capucine, Stefanie Powers, Barbara Feldon, Mary Ann Mobley (frolicking poolside after her father is killed!), Jo Ann Pflug, Louise Sorel, and Ina Balin. Some spoilsport put the kibosh on this oversexed convention before the series' halfway mark.

Shall we walk you through it? Let's say the agent must go to some glamorous and exotic foreign locale to secure the magic whatzis. He watches a bunch of tapes in the control room, and then we see a flurry of shots with airplanes cruising the sky and the agent relaxing with stewardesses (not called flight attendants then), and then establishing shots of some famous landmark like the Eiffel Tower or Parliament, and then we're on the backlots and California mountain roads familiar from other TV shows.

The handsome masculine agent, turtlenecked and sport-coated, wanders around smiling and holding up his camera-ring, unless he wears it on a flashy medallion (not called a necklace). Signs are printed in a foreign language, or he wishes to eavesdrop on a conversation, and a magic voice in his ear translates for him. Someone tries to trip up his feigned expertise with a trick question, and another expert supplies the right response in time. It's like carrying around the Internet in your head!

There's always a beautiful woman who specializes in "medical telemetry". She not only monitors the agent's vital signs, in order to inform the room when he's knocked unconscious, but can even monitor the signs of other people via remote control. In the first episode, the camera zooms in on a corpse emerging from a waterlogged car, and she's able to declare "Pulmonary resonance does not indicate death by drowning." Who needs an autopsy? Unfortunately, the "pulmonary response" wasn't detailed enough to reveal that the victim had been shot, but it's still handy.

That's not all. The writers come up with clever ways for the monitors to be helpful, or sometimes thwarted. They can use infrared and sonic scanning to pick locks or disarm bombs. They use microwaves to detect radioactivity. They use facial-recognition scans and comb rapidly through international data records as smoothly as any hackers, apparently with unlimited access. With the power to magnify sounds and images, the agent almost has what would soon be called "bionic" powers.

You can see why the premise of this show hasn't dated, even if the plots and styles and bulky techno-furnishings have. This series could easily be remade today, since none of the gadgetry seems truly implausible. In fact, it kind of is remade today as another Warner Brothers production called Intelligence, and 20 years ago there was a short-lived series with a similar premise, Fortune Hunter. You can't keep a good idea down.

One problem with Search is that despite the high concept, the basic plots are very much of their time, which means often ramshackle affairs evenly divided between expository dialogue and setpieces with much screeching of tires, swinging of fists, and random running and jumping to the sound of Dominic Frontiere's pulsing, blasting music. Disposable polyester goons run around saying things like "It's got to look like an accident!" When it's time to shut it down, our hero cowboys it instead of waiting for help, and it ends with bad guys pointing guns at him and patiently explaining the last plot points until they get distracted. Cue another physical workout to more blasting music, and that's a wrap.

Ironically, the worst scripts are often written by series creator and executive producer Leslie Stevens, who sets the tone in the first four episodes. For example, the premiere involves a racket for high-class gambling and political blackmail in which the surprising revelation of villainy isn't surprising at all, but makes up for it by being senseless. That's the story where the pulmonary response didn't indicate drowning. One smart detail in that script is that Lockwood informs the villain that his actions are being broadcast and recorded. That revelation would take the wind out of most confrontations, and that must be why this tactic is never used again.

So we're reminded that the standard for action fare on American TV wasn't that high in 1972, scriptwise. Most stories relied on formulas conveyed with attractive players amid sleek and pretty designs. At least this is true for the first half of the season, but we'll notice an improvement later, so hold that thought.

Stevens was an intelligent figure in the biz. A playwright as well as producer and director, his projects included The Outer Limits and the early episodes of It Takes a Thief. Here, you can see that his insights into the possibilities of high-tech spying and the power of information are solid, even brilliant, and this was created before Watergate. The pilot movie, Probe, aired in January 1972, and by the time the series premiered in the fall of the same year, "bugs" were all over the news. The pilot has previously been released by Warner Archive and reviewed on PopMatters, here.

Most importantly, the show's ingenious premise creates a "doubling" quality such that even if this week's search is mediocre, the self-conscious element is always fascinating. The Probe monitors are not only a shadow team in the background but even surrogates for the audience, and sometimes offer unsolicited punditry in the manner of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. This often comes in the form of snarky comments from the female monitors, who themselves may be the subject of inappropriate banter.

The series rotates the adventures of three agents who are virtually interchangeable, or at best exhibit minor distinctions. Hugh O'Brian plays Hugh Lockwood, a former astronaut code-named Probe One. Carried over from the pilot movie, Lockwood is the swingingest lady-killer, although it's a close call. He's always smirking under a bush of dark curly hair and bodacious sideburns. He's furry chestwise, too, and shows it often enough, as do the other Probes.

Tony Franciosa, who previously worked with Stevens on '60s TV series, The Name of the Game, plays Nick Bianco, sometimes called Omega Probe (because he's the last?). He's an ex-cop and therefore the swingingest fist-wise, Mike Hammer style, always ready to rough up some shmoe who gives him any lip. He's got what we now call "street cred", and his sideburns are more modest.

His most interesting of the early episodes is Don Balluck's "Let Us Prey", not because it's the thousandth rip-off of The Most Dangerous Game (every adventure show did one), but because it demonstrates the flipside of being audio and visually monitored at all times. In order to hunt him, the villain (Albert Paulsen) lures him to a private island, takes his scanner, rewires his earjack, and turns him loose where his every step is observed. This is one of the episodes where Probe Control is out of contact for most of the show, because their presence was otherwise supernaturally convenient.

The Probe agent with the smallest cred is C.R. (for Christopher Robin) Grover, an easily distracted, smooth-chested, dirty blond California beach bum who at one point indicates special military training. His cases are the most played for laughs, or so we suppose by the mugging of Doug McClure, whose goofy double-takes get on at least one reviewer's nerves. Although McClure was famous for TV's The Virginian, he'd starred on an earlier high-tech crime show, Checkmate, a spiritual ancestor to Search.

The most amusing of his early outings is "A Honeymoon to Kill" with Luciana Paluzzi as an heiress and racing driver who steals his little yellow Stingray and hightails it for Luxembourg. It ends with a nice switch on the tradition of assuming he'll get laid. This is one of four scripts by S.S. Schweitzer, who co-created the previous season's cancelled Hal Holbrook drama, The Senator.

Meanwhile, back in Probe Control, Cameron is flanked by lovelies. Keach (Ginny Golden), a beautiful Anglo woman with big black hair, sits to Cameron's right and consults computer records. On Cameron's left is usually Murdock (Amy Jones) or some other equally blonde specialist in medical telemetry. Mary Cross shows up twice as June Wilson. On three episodes, it's one Amy Love, as played by Cheryl Stoppelmoor, soon to change her name to Cheryl Ladd on her way to a gig as one of Charlie's Angels.

Speaking of an Angel: In the premiere, Angel Tompkins occupies the telemetry chair as the inappropriately saucy Gloria Harding, whose leering dialogue implies she used feminine assets to get a promotion. She was never seen again until her second and final appearance in the 11th episode, "The Gold Machine". Oddly, both episodes spotlight her as a regular in the opening credits, but it clearly didn't work out. Those assets don't always pay off, unless they were her ticket out of there.

That second adventure sends Gloria to help Lockwood in San Francisco after he loses his hearing, and she's no help at all. It makes no sense that after he regains his ears, he stays saddled with her--literally so in the horseback segment, which at least isn't as endless as the scenic helicopter segment. When she's not shamelessly vamping him with kisses and suggestive comments, she's uttering lines like "There's nothing in woman's lib that says a girl can't be scared out of her britches." That's a mixed signal of the era's sophistication, when pop culture was so giddy to announce people having sex that it crossed into today's lawsuit territory.

This is a typically random Stevens script. There's a bunch of caucasian actors being Chinese ("We're not Chinese, we're Eurasian", announces one emphatically to explain the lousy makeup) and one clever cameo by Kurt Kazsnar as a bookseller with a map. By the way, in the telemetry chair for this episode is the only male to hold the spot, one Arthur Burrell (David Gilliam), who'd appeared in a previous episode as a full-fledged Probe who gets kidnapped in the field ("One of Our Probes Is Missing", another Stevens special). He supposedly got promoted at the end of that one. It doesn't look like it, unless he requested a desk job.

Returning to Probe Control: Sitting in what we might call Sulu's chair is Kuroda (Byron Chung), a Japanese name played by a Chinese actor, and monitor of all trades. To his left is Griffin (Albert Popwell), a patrician African-American or possibly West Indian who translates all languages. To Kuroda's right is one Hispanic or another, either Ramos (Tony De Costa) or the one billed as Carlos (Ron Castro)--although Cameron often calls him Valdez, so maybe we know his full name. Or maybe the old guy gets confused.

A funny thing happened at mid-season. The show got better. This isn't unusual, since shows not only take time to find their stride, but disappointing ratings often lead to changes and sometimes a sense of going for broke. Many one-season wonders improve notably by the time it doesn't make any difference, since nobody's watching anymore.

In this case, Robert H. Justman (late of Star Trek and Then Came Bronson ) had been producer for 15 episodes, with Anthony Spinner as something called "executive story consultant". Spinner was a longtime TV writer (including Checkmate ) whose production experience included The Invaders and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. Suddenly Justman departed and Spinner got his chair, employing several writers and directors from his previous job at the short-lived Burt Reynolds cop show Dan August.

Under Spinner, Probe Control got a makeover and most of its monitors got the pink slip for the remaining eight episodes. The new white-walled area is now lit brightly so they can see what they're doing. Cameron is still in charge, though now he sometimes shows up in the outside world, dressed in street clothes and looking uncomfortable. His old Control crew has been replaced by two people who handle all functions: Harris (Tom Hallick), a standardly attractive and youthful white guy, and Miss James (Pamela Jones), a standardly attractive and youthful black female with Afro. Extras try to look busy in the back, but they don't count. (Two of the Justman shows with the old crew were held back and aired at the end of the season.)

Ford Rainey had occasionally appeared, usually on video screens, as Dr. Barnett, the gruff, bushy-browed CEO of World Securities. Under Spinner, Barnett was now played by lean, silver-haired Keith Andes, who seemed to have even less to do but at least showed up in person.

However, the most important change is with the scripts, not a one by Stevens. Jack Turley's "The 24 Carat Hit" is directed by Barry Shear as a tense, gritty urban crime plot that seems dropped in from a random cop show, and not a great one, but it plays to Franciosa's strengths. A guest Probe agent (Dane Clark) races against time and his bullet wound to save his kidnapped daughter (Annette O'Toole) amid a grim, downbeat atmosphere. This one throws in a stunt-cameo from Wally Cox as a preacher running a soup kitchen.

For the most part, Spinner has Franciosa specialize in domestic tales that often feature organized crime, since his character investigated the mob as part of New York's Crime Commission. He travels to exotic Texas for one such trackdown ("The Mattson Papers" with prominent African-American roles, including Terry Carter and singer Nancy Wilson) and to Washington DC for political blackmail ("The Clayton Lewis Document"). That episode is most notable for glamorous guests Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn ), Julie Adams, and Rhonda Fleming.

Franciosa's last episode is his best and a series highlight. "Ends of the Earth", written by TV crime vet Robert C. Dennis and helmed by Ralph Senensky, is what the show should have been all the time: swanky and surprising, with a good story that doesn't preclude the wildly far-fetched. This time Bianco gets out of the country and winds up in Tanzania. He adopts a fun, playful alter ego and infiltrates another expensive, well-run organization that provides an exclusive service. This one employs such dapper, style-conscious figures as Sebastian Cabot (who formerly ran Checkmate !) and Diana Muldaur. Also present is Jay Robinson, best remembered as Caligula in the Cinemascope epics The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators.

Surprisingly, Spinner only allotted O'Brian a single adventure. "Countdown to Panic", from writer Judy Burns and director Jerry Jameson, is a race-against-the-clocker, this time a star-studded (for TV) variation of the classic movie Panic in the Streets, where an unstable person with a contagious virus is running about on a personal vendetta. Ed Nelson is the guy (an astronaut buddy of Lockwood's), Anne Francis his frantic wife, Robert Webber the top-secret government hard-ass who wants to take everyone down, and Howard Duff the secretive scientist. This taps into the Vietnam/Watergate era's paranoia about cover-ups and biological tests, but in the end it can't quite go there. However, it concludes on the most downbeat note of any episode.

The Spinner regime treats McClure with respect. First he gets his classiest show yet in "Numbered for Death", a gift from writer Schweitzer and director Allen Reisner. After he's alerted by his cousin (Joanna Miles), who married an English peer (improbably played by Bert Convy), that her husband's Swiss bank account has been compromised by a blackmailer, Grover flies to Zurich and confronts a well-cast list of suspects: Luther Adler, Peter Mark Richman, Whit Bissell, Ramon Bieri. As a bonus, Lauri Peters plays an entirely competent female Probe who also has interesting plot details. Aside from the requisite fistfights and car screeches, the story has real cleverness and so does its hero.

Alas, McClure's next case is hands-down the silliest and most absurd, with the most worthless ingenue and most obvious villain. Feeling like a lost dossier for The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., "Goddess of Destruction" is the old chestnut about restoring the Indian Thuggee cult, with lots of peregrination about a golden statue of Kali. At least it's consistent with the show's attempts to find new directions, or old directions yet untaken (and rightly so).

But whoa! In a bit of creative whiplash, McClure next bags the Best Episode Ever, or at least a Very Special Episode. Curiously, he's almost superfluous, since "Moment of Madness" belongs to Cameron. It opens with a careful, virtually wordless sequence of Cameron being kidnapped out of his office by a man who scales the building on a window-cleaner's scaffold. Clearly World Securities' own security leaves much to be desired, as we'd already learned in an early episode where a lunatic (Jeff Corey) who helped design the place tried to plant a device in the basement.

While Grover runs around with Cameron's only relative, niece Virginia Carr (Brooke Bundy), Cameron proves capable of handling the situation even when locked in a cell with drive-you-crazy lights and sounds out of The Prisoner. All this gives the composer and director excuses to get freaky and psychedelic, and there's another fine lengthy wordless sequence of detailed preparation on Cameron's part.

Cameron's captor (Patrick O'Neal) is a Korean war veteran and ex-POW, who's been in the loony bin for years and blames Cameron, his former military trainer. He's not exactly of the burgeoning Vietnam psycho-vets who would soon be all over TV, but he belongs to the strand by which Korea served as a psychic displacement for the ongoing Vietnam conflict. This type of character became a tiresome cliché while serving the hopeless symbolic burden of reflecting America's ambiguous feelings of guilt, anger and sadness.

As cued by his casting, O'Neal's is a patrician, civilized craziness, and Cameron is determined to help him and assuage his own conscience by giving him the reassurance and apology he never received. The finale is ham-handed (partly to give Grover something to do), but otherwise the show is solid, and incidentally conveys the bustling, far-reaching World Securities machine as basically helpless in the face of history's personal shadows, which must be confronted by the isolated individual.

This episode is important to the show's mythology because characters give the boss' name as V.C. Cameron for the only time, and a printout seems to indicate his name is V.C.R. Cameron, which is now how he's referred to on websites and the DVD packaging.

The script is by Richard Landau, a TV vet whose long, diverse credits include minor noirs, horror, the classic The Creeping Unknown, and John Wayne's Back to Bataan. Director George McCowan, a subject for further research, came up in Canadian TV during the 60s and went back in the 80s to handle the entertaining Seeing Things, a comedy-adventure about a gabby psychic journalist. In between he did lots of U.S. TV, including some offbeat items, and the cult goodie Frogs.

Russ Mayberry is the primary director of a series that really ought to have a smoother style than it does. He showed more pizzazz in the pilot movie, but then pilots have bigger budgets. Other directors, besides those already mentioned, are Philip Leacock, William Wiard, Marc Daniels, Nicholas Colasanto, Robert L. Friend, Joseph Pevney, Paul Stanley, and Michael Caffey. Additional writers are Irving Pearlberg, Norman Hudis, Brad Radnitz, Michael R. Stein, John Strong, and Lou Shaw.

As the reader has noticed, episodes are populated by a phalanx of notable guests, some of them familiar from other spy antics. Among those we haven't mentioned are Maurice Evans, David White, Allen Garfield, Milton Selzer, Larry Linville, Ann Prentiss, Leslie Charleson, Torin Thatcher, Martin Kosleck, Mary Frann, Edward Mulhare, James Gregory, Abraham Sofaer, Malachi Throne, Logan Ramsey, Bill Bixby, Deanna Lund, G.D. Spradlin, Linda Cristal, Joanna Cameron, Hurd Hatfield, Mark Lenard, Diana Hyland, Antoinette Bower, George Coulouris, William Smith, Michael Conrad, Nehemiah Persoff, George Murdock, Anitra Ford, Ahna Capri, Anjanette Comer, Alfred Ryder, John Vernon, Reggie Nalder, Cameron Mitchell, Tim O'Connor, John Kerr, Jeff Morrow, James Sikking, Mel Ferrer, Dabney Coleman, Paul Mantee, Byron Morrow, and Michael Pataki.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans


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59. Everything Everything - A Fever Dream (RCA)

Everything Everything is a band of impossible ambition, apparent from even the name. Merely everything is not enough for this prog-pop quartet and frankly, the world may not be ready to oblige. "I want this planet, and I want it now / to beat like an anvil 'til the poison's out" begins "Desire", one of the album's early gut-punches. If these were times of hope and prosperity, maybe egos this size would be celebrated. But we've made that mistake before. Hovering in our minds is the expectation that we must repent for generations of excess with modesty, conservation, quiet introspection. A Fever Dream embodies none of this. It reeks of English imperialism and mulish masculinity. It's bombastic beyond belief, and it's exactly what we need.

Everything Everything's fourth record is its most personal and urgent yet. The lyrics seem to be a document for primary songwriter Jonathan Higgs' psychological condition, and it's a troubling one, to say the least. He wears his insecurities like armor, and his pride gleams like Excalibur. Enshrouding his big plans for this world gone mad are doubt and defeatism and a predisposition for hedonism. It's the battle of Jonathan vs. the world, but also of the world vs. the world, and of Jonathan vs. Jonathan. For us sons and daughters of the microprocessor, a mere trip to the grocer's forces us to contend with the unruly exponential growth of this absurdist empire—our neighborhoods and international networks, ids and egos are in constant need of rewiring

That concluding track of A Fever Dream rides out with the mantra: "Never tell me that we can't go further." The title of this track is "White Whale"—that impossible desire perpetually just out of reach. Whether for peace on earth or a little peace of mind, the struggle to satisfy it can lead only to insanity or death. But Everything Everything would never strive for anything less. - A. Noah Harrison



58. Do Make Say Think – Stubborn Persistent Illusions (Constellation)

Sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone and other times you don't realize it until it returns. Following an eight-year hiatus since Other Truths, Do Make Say Think's previous album, Stubborn Persistent Illusions is the boldest, most arresting progression of songs that the Toronto unit have crafted since Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn in 2003. Among the swells and cries of their heavier-hearted Constellation label mates such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Silver Mt. Zion permutations, Do Make Say Think always set themselves apart by keeping spry and limber. The band was, and remains, a kind of compact jazz orchestra in rock band's clothing. Not a moment is wasted even in the record's tranquil stretches. This is fitting for an album whose concept comes from something as deep yet fleeting as an "image in a Buddhist poem about working with a wild mind." - Ian King



57. The Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti-)

Thirty years on from their last studio album, 1988's Ghost Stories, Steve Wynn has reconvened the Dream Syndicate to release what is arguably the band's best record ever. Yes, Days of Wine & Roses will always remain a touchstone for longtime fans, its surprises still fresh after decades, but How Did I Find Myself Here? distills every lesson Wynn had learned over a long and adventurous career into a coherent eight-song set that finds his band confident and playful in equal measure, amped up and in sync. Here, Wynn is joined by longtime drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Mark Walton and, as he has since the Dream Syndicate's 2012 reformation as a touring unit, Jason Victor (Wynn's longtime partner in Miracle 3) has replaced Paul Cutler on guitar. Further, Kendra Smith's surprising and welcome return on album closer "Kendra's Dream" evaporates time to connect past and future in a perfect psychedelic drift. It all adds up to a triumphant and fitting capstone for the legendary band.



56. Lee Ann Womack - The Lonely, the Lonesome, & the Gone (ATO)

Lee Ann Womack recorded The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone in Houston, not far from the small town where she grew up. The album is rich with a mythical Texas in the best possible ways. Womack sings with a twang and gets sentimentally soppy or wickedly mean as the songs suggest. She goes to the extremes one would expect of a Lone Star musician. It may not be the biggest state geographically, but Texans have always done things bigger. Like her fellow state-mate George Jones, whose gospel "Take the Devil Out of Me" she covers, she's pure country, meaning she probably won't be played on country radio these days. Womack wrote half of the songs here, and redoes classic material associated with Patsy Cline, Lefty Frizzell, and Johnny Cash. She covers them with a style that shows her respect for past masters and still manages to make their songs her own. - Steve Horowitz



55. Charly Bliss - Guppy (Barsuk)

On the first track of Charly Bliss' debut album Guppy, the pop-rock band, led by potent vocalist Eva Hendricks, makes a bold declaration of self. On "Percolator", Hendricks defines her artistic self and if that definition includes some uncertainty and some conflict, so much the better as Hendricks's confidence bursts forth in accepting all those elements. The rest of the album, a joyous bash of guitars and energy, pounds through related but non-repetitive territory. Hendricks takes on relationships, abuse, and harassment (and more), vocalizing complex feelings and ideas that need to be heard. She shifts quickly from anger to humor to questioning without breaking stride. The band and its sound of eating candy in the garage delivers catchy melodies and bright sounds that matches the sense of seeking and realization throughout the album. Guppy looks for sense in a demanding world while retaining a strong center, keeping a strong self-assurance in the face of various challenges. - Justin Cober-Lake



54. Tyler, the Creator - Flower Boy (Columbia)

After baiting the media with controversial, derogatory statements for years, the fact that Flower Boy was hyped as the album where Tyler, the Creator came out of the closet was, for some, reason enough to dig into it, to give him a second chance, to reassess his past statements or, you know, dismiss him all over again. Yet despite lines about "kissing white boys since 2004", the crux of Flower Boy isn't Tyler revealing his sexuality so much as he's revealing his loneliness. This is a profoundly sad album, where the immaculate production hits all of your brain's pleasure centers at once while distracting you from how isolated he feels. Happiness is always elusive, which is why he pulls out every trick he can to prevent us from seeing the real human beneath, from stacking the tracks with guest spots to releasing the worst song as the lead single. Yet the more time you spend with it, the more you wan to keep coming back to the emotional world he's constructed for himself. You'll share in his loneliness, too. - Evan Sawdey



53. Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life (Interscope)

The image of physically scaling the Hollywood sign's "H" encapsulates Lana Del Rey's ethos in that celebrity is not some abstract pinnacle one reaches but one that needs to be experienced in person. Chasing the rush of fame drove the impeccable Born to Die and, five years later, the feeling of having achieved it is evoked by the smoldering warmth of Lust for Life. Still, the disarray of the world broke through even to pop's foremost escapist, but she addresses it and her well-earned status with cryptic optimism; "Is it the end of an era? / … / No, it's only the beginning." What Lust for Life teaches is that one can – and, possibly, should – stay as vigilant towards the affairs that affect us all while also indulging in the selfish, beautiful act of seeking love. - Brian Duricy



52. Paramore - After Laughter (Fueled by Ramen)

Many bands know what a Herculean undertaking reinventing their sound is. This year, nobody did it better than former pop-punkers Paramore. Four years since their last release, Hayley Williams and co. released After Laughter, which fuses sleek elements of '80s new wave, funk, and synthpop while keeping their emotional foundations intact. The most important ingredient to Paramore's success is the return of founding member Zac Farro, whose musical direction in side project HalfNoise point to the influence he had on crafting the new Paramore. Although ten years removed from their breakout, Riot!, they're still "in the business of misery" with songs like "Fake Happy" and hit single "Hard Times". But if the misery business means more of these grooving bass lines and tropical marimbas and guitar riffs, sign me up. - Chris Thiessen



51. (Sandy) Alex G - Rocket (Domino)

Alex Giannascoli refines his paradoxical impulses on Rocket. On his eighth full-length overall, and second for Domino, he crafts a beautifully strange brew of haunting folk with a narrative that's oddly indistinct. He's learned to work within the constraints of an album, a format that he treated with some flippancy during his Bandcamp years, though he still finds any excuse to circumvent the format as he draws upon a patchwork of ideas. Giannascoli finds his muse in longtime collaborator, and partner, Molly Germer, an accomplished violinist who adds whim and character to his otherwise sparse arrangements. From yearning country ballad "Bobby" -- their voices entwined and harmonized to their lush, string-led compositions -- to the gliding melancholy of "Powerful Man", they provide a touching ode to traditional folk that comes across as some alien take on a Smithsonian Folkways recording. And yet Rocket is so much more, taking on a surfeit of modern and antiquated music styles set against a backdrop of bucolic terrain. But even at its most eccentric, Giannascoli has accomplished a winsome collection of handcrafted songs that leave a lasting impression. - Juan Edgardo Rodriguez

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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