Best of 1999: Justin Stranzl

Justin Stranzl

1. Beck, Midnite Vultures (DGC/Interscope)
"Great party record," "sexiest rock album since early Prince," blah, blah, blah. Everyone keeps talking the album up, and while Midnite Vultures is both of these things and everything else people claim it to be, no one talks about how amazingly textured and diverse the album is, from the Stereolab-ish horns to the strings buried deep in the mix on several songs which give their decadent sexual narratives a haunting, "we're going to pay for these sins" feel. There isn't a bad track on the album, and while Midnite Vultures is absolutely the loud party record that it's hyped up to be, it's also at times chilling and one of the greatest headphone albums to be released in recent memory.

2. The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (Merge)
Despite a ridiculous 69 newly-recorded tracks, Stephen Merritt has included less filler on his grandiose box set than some bands release on one EP. To release 69 songs based on the same theme and not have the subject matter become trite is quite an accomplishment; to write 69 songs and have practically all of them be exceptionally good is flat-out amazing. Disc one of the box set is so excellent it merits inclusion on any top 10 list by itself, and discs two and three of 69 Love Songs are nearly as great as the first. In a year when several bands released double albums that probably couldn't be whittled down to even one solid LP (The Fragile, anyone?) Merritt's sprawling new collection is as solid as most multiple-disc sets that cover bands' entire careers.

3. Old 97's, Fight Songs (Elektra)
Wilco and the Old 97's released their latest albums at roughly the same time early this year; both albums saw the alt-country outfits showing off their pop smarts like never before, and the two records were often reviewed together. Wilco's Summerteeth received higher praise, but Fight Songs was the better album. Summerteeth was often as gorgeous as its model, Pet Sounds, but where Wilco spent its time in the studio trying to flesh out an amazing sound, the Old 97's spent their time piecing together brilliant songs. Fight Songs is undoubtedly a simpler and more modest effort than Summerteeth, but it is just as honest, much more refreshing, and, on its closer, "Valentine," infinitely more poignant. Summerteeth will likely go down in history as one of 1999's landmark albums, but Fight Songs is, without question, a far greater achievement.

4. Fountains of Wayne, Utopia Parkway (Atlantic/Scratchie)
Utopia Parkway isn't just a tribute to soccer moms and suberbs, although it spends a considerable amount of time lovingly referencing both. It's a splendid re-creation of every kid's teenage years, when life seemed like such a struggle but in reality was far simpler than he or she could have realized at the time. It's prom night, it's a weekend benefit car wash, it's a summer drive to the mall with girls and bullies and laser shows along the way. And it's excellent, a sentimental pop record no one should be without.

5. The Promise Ring, Very Emergency (Jade Tree)
With smiles and shouts of "happiness is all the rage," the Promise Ring shut up everyone who had ever mocked the group for its miserable, emo past and kicked off the upbeat pop-punk album that has Green Day kicking itself for not recording the thing first. Davey Von Bohlen may be shouting " S.O.S.! Very emergency!", but anyone who deens the Promise Ring's new sound a crisis needs to have his or her head examined. Fast, punchy and fun, Very Emergency is the best punk album of the year.

6. Superchunk, Come Pick Me Up (Merge)
Jim O'Rourke records avant-garde jazz that at times can be unlistenable, but his production on Superchunk's seventh album has guided the band to its most melodic, pleasing work to date. Mac McCaughan's breathy singing is a drastic departure from his shouting on previous albums, but it gives Come Pick Me Up a sweet, mellow feel that's as beautiful as anything the band has done in the past. A decade old, Superchunk is as good as ever, as their latest excellent album attests.

7. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, I See a Darkness (Palace)
Will Oldham has always been a miserable fuck, so it seems appropriate that as the world grows ridiculously excited over the ending millenium, he closes it out with an album solely about death. I See a Darkness is sparse, haunting and, at times, a guilt trip no one needs to bear and is, of course, brilliant just like practically everything Oldham has ever done.

8. Tom Waits, Mule Variations (Anti/Epitaph)
Tom Waits' voice at times sounds like that of a man older than God. And his Mule Variations is proof that he deserves the deity tag that his fans have placed upon him. Mule Variations touches on every style Waits has dabbled in on his umpteen recordings and is a nearly flawless album from start to finish, and while his latest recordings can be as scary as ever (see "What's He Building?" or "Eyeball Kid"), several of these latest songs — most notably "House Where Nobody Lives" — rank amongst the prettiest treasures of Waits' large and distinguished body of work.

9. Prince Paul, A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy)
A Prince Among Thieves may not be the catchiest hip-hop album of the year but it's certainly the cleverest. On his first great full-length of 1999 (his Handsome Boy Modeling School album was fantastic too) Prince Paul has put together the first rap musical and his work as director, seamlessly tying together hilarious skits and great songs, is deserving of an award. Newcomer Breeze is great as the show's star, Tariq, and guest appearances by De La Soul, who Paul used to produce, and Kool Keith are just as good. The whole thing, the tale of Tariq's quest to go from the street to store shelves, flows wonderfully, and it's proof that Paul is a producer without peer.

10. The Crown Royals, Funky-Do! (Estrus)
Ken Vandermark's a rather prolific man. He's got a zillion groups of his own (these Crown Royals and the Vandermark 5, to name two) and has contributed sax and clarinet to countless albums by other artists (including gems by Superchunk and Common Rider this year). He's a hero in Chicago for his contributions to the city's exploding avant-garde scene, and his music has earned him plenty of critical acclaim, including a 1999 MacArthur Foundation Genius grant. So it's somewhat surprising that his best work this year might be Funky-Do!, 10 songs of sleazy all-instro soul. It's not Vandermark's trademark free jazz but rather Booker T.-tinged R&B driven by Pete Nathan's dirty, raw work on guitar, with hints of swing that put todays interpreters of the genre (such as the similarly-named Royal Crown Revue) to shame. Vandermark may have been dubbed a "genius" for his free jazz, but the fun interpretations here of a couple standards and eight funky originals are nonetheless brilliant themselves.

Runners Up:
11. Guided By Voices, Do the Collapse (TVT)
12. The Roots, Things Fall Apart (MCA)
13. Wilco, Summerteeth (Reprise/Warner)
14. Moby, Play (V2)
15. Sparklehorse, Good Morning Spider (Capitol)
16. Super Furry Animals, Guerilla (Flydaddy)
17. Pavement, Terror Twilight (Matador)
18. Dirt Bike Annie, Hit the Rock! (Mutant Pop)
19. The Mr. T Experience, Alcatraz (Lookout!)
20. Asie Payton, Worried (Fat Possum/Epitaph)
21. Fiona Apple, When the Pawn (Clean Slate/Epic)
22. The Chemical Brothers, Surrender (Astralwerks/Virgin)
23. Eminem, The Slim Shady LP (Aftermath/Interscope)
24. Make Up, Save Yourself (K)
25. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)
26. The Rentals, Seven More Minutes (Maverick)
27. Blur, 13 (Virgin)
28. The Donnas, Get Skin Tight (Lookout!)
29. Beulah, When Your Heartstrings Break (Sugar Free)
30. The Dismemberment Plan, Emergency & I (DeSoto)
31. The Folk Implosion, One Part Lullaby (Interscope)
32. Handsome Boy Modeling School, So...How's Your Girl? (Tommy Boy)
33. Marine Research, Sounds from the Gulf Stream (K)
34. Built to Spill, Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.)
35. Paul McCartney, Run Devil Run (Capitol)

Biggest Disappointments of the Year

1. Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars)
It's absolutely amazing that after one of the greatest albums of the decade, Dig Me Out, the girls in Sleater-Kinney managed just ONE good song for their new album ("Get Up," which still isn't as good as the worst stuff on The Hot Rock's predecessor). A total disappointment, and one of the most boring albums of 1999.

2. Foo Fighters, There Is Nothing Left to Lose (RCA)
Tracks one and two are each as good as any Foo Fighters song, ever. Tracks three through 11 are more boring than a junior high study hall. Everyone says this album is too radio-friendly, but there's no way any radio station is going to touch anything this drab. Dead people have recorded more interesting albums.

3. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)
This really isn't a bad album. It just was a lot better last year, when it was called Deserter's Songs, and the band name on the album cover was Mercury Rev.

4. The Get Up Kids, Something to Write Home About (Vagrant)
Prime example of the most overdone trend of the year — unnecessary synthesizers cluttering up already-bad and utterly souless whiny rock. At least the band is cute.

5. Nine Inch Nails, The Fragile (Nothing/Interscope)
Completely terrible, but not as big a disappointment as the other four albums because what it follows, The Downward Spiral, is one of the most overrated albums of all time.

Cutest Boyband Members
1. Justin Timberlake, NSYNC
2. Nick Carter, Backstreet Boys
3. Sean Conlon, 5ive
4. Ronan Keating, Boyzone
5. Stephen Gately, Boyzone
6. Brad Fischetti, LFO
7. Drew Lachey, 98°
8. Rich Cronin, LFO
9. A.J. McLean, Backstreet Boys
10. Jeff Timmons, 98°


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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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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'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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