Best of 2000: John Kenyon

John Kenyon

1. Radiohead, Kid A (Capitol)
Ignore the critics who call this too challenging, too out there. Anyone who's ever listened to ambient, free jazz or post-rock will tell you this is a pretty mainstream record. What it does it does well, and that's to synthesize a whole host of seemingly disparate musical styles into one, coherent whole, making it sound like a logical follow-up to OK Computer in the process. Thom Yorke has learned how to use his voice as an instrument, and by subverting the usual crush of Jonny Greenwood's guitars, the band learned how to create sonic tapestries that are seamless, a wash of blissful sound on each track.

2. Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker (Bloodshot)
In what will seem a theme to this year's list, Adams was spurred to do his best work after label trouble forced his hand. The Whiskeytown leader found his band without a label after Geffen folded, so he headed back to his friends at Bloodshot Records and cut his first solo album. Recording with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (with guests that include Kim Richey and Emmylou Harris), Adams came up with a record that is equal parts Blonde on Blonde and Grievous Angel. His promise, long hinted at, is fulfilled here.

3. Travis, The Man Who (Epic)
While Radiohead was busy pushing the envelope, this middling Britpop combo was putting together a clutch of songs that mined that band's sweet, near-soulful side. While not exactly an album full of "Fake Plastic Trees" ripoffs, this is clearly influenced by Radiohead. Fran Healy has an angelic voice, and he uses it well, soaring above these sparely arranged songs. The band's first LP, Good Feeling, was over done bombast in comparison. So is this a fluke or artistic growth? Can't wait for the follow-up to find out.

4. Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne (Island)
While it's probably not a good idea to piss off this sassy soul-country crooner, the results are worth the wrath. Fed up that Nashville didn't get what she was trying to do, Lynne split, wrote a batch of songs, and cut them with a soulful combo. The result is an album that mixes country, rock and soul in a way not heard since Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis LP. Lynne pours her pain into her music, giving a gut-busting performance that will be hard to top.

5. Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2 (Superego)
This might have been the top disc of the year if every song didn't seem to have her record label battles as a lyrical undercurrent. Artists can and should use personal struggles as songwriting fodder, but her continual insistence on painting herself as poster child for a forgotten class of musicians — especially in light of her well-selling, major label soundtrack to Magnolia and the resulting Grammy nomination — made these songs ring hollow. Too bad, because it's a stunning collection musically. Would that she had the same ability to channel her angst as Shelby Lynne.

6. Badly Drawn Boy, The Hour of Bewilderbeast (XL/Twisted Nerve)
The Brits conferred the Mercury Prize on this disc, annoiting it the best of the year. It's not, but it's certainly among the best. The Boy, Damon Gough to his mother, has crafted an album that likely would not have been made without Elliott Smith's success to pave the way, yet owes as much to Nick Drake as to anyone making music this decade. His is a meandering album, instrumental passages giving way to full-blown songs, ideas presented and then cast aside. It takes a keen ear to appreciate this, and it is definitely not the record to throw on to get your party started. But for the thousands who sit in their bedrooms pouring over every syllable and note on their favorite records, that collection just got bigger by one.

7. Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man (American)
Getting anything out of the Man in Black at this late date is worth celebrating. When it's this good, it's nothing short of miraculous. Cash offers a cover-heavy set in which the originals aren't half bad. But his interpretations of two songs — Will Oldham's "I See a Darkness" and Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" — are stunning, serving as a deep centerpiece to the album. Neither songwriter is a slouch as a performer, but Cash blows both away.

8. Jurassic 5, Quality Control (Interscope)
Remember when rap was good? While you're thinking on it, pick up this record. While it is thoroughly modern sounding, it does reference the late '80s/early '90s sound of the Native Tongues (Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, et al). No bitches, no hos, just solid beats, clear, clever rhymes and a whole lotta groove. This six-member collective takes a step forward by taking a look back. A liberating breath of fresh air for a tired form.

9. John Hiatt, Crossing Muddy Waters (Vanguard)
True, Hiatt's last disc didn't light up the charts or fill the airwaves the way his Perfectly Good Guitar album did for a few brief moments a few years back, but it was still a risk for the good-time rocker to offer an acoustic folk blues album before the coals of his past success have cooled. This plaintive collective strips away the gloss that has increasingly infected Hiatt's work, leaving only the singer and his songs. Lucky for us, these are some of his best. Dylan makes an album like this and people fall all over each other trying to heap on the praise, but Hiatt's latest is no less accomplished, no less real.

10. Greg Brown, Covenant (Red House) / Over and Under (Trailer)
A parochial pick, to be sure, but that doesn't lessen its value. Brown is a buried treasure of sorts, an Iowa-based folk singer with a low, rumbling voice that seems to come from the basement of his soul. On Covenant, his 15th album (and his "official" release this year), he sings about both the loss of and search for love on songs that are the most accomplished of his career. On Over and Under, a small-label release that vents a dozen quickly written songs, Brown shows his raunchy side, growling through rockers and ravers, never losing his keen eye for detail or his lyrical dexterity. Consider it a double album, the yin and yang of one of our most gifted songwriters.


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.

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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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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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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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