PM Pick

Johnny Clegg: A South African Story

Robyn Sassen

He was the first vocal artist to use Nelson Mandela's name in lyrics, but South Africans only got to hear them after the new democracy had come about.

The thrilling thing about existence in a continent that for centuries has been mauled, stigmatised, colonised and fought over by the west, is the crossover culture that's a by-product of it all. Sure, we, as "whities" have been taught self-hatred like any colonising people in the face of the colonised. We, or our forefathers, signed sealed, and legitimised racial hatred and to corroborate it, developed a practice of indoctrination: the very stuff that makes a serious cultural practitioner straddle values and reinvent himself.

Of course, not everyone heir to the South African contradictions does this, which is what makes it so interesting. Take Johnny Clegg for instance. This Jewish boy, born in England, grew up with a tapestry of cultures surrounding him. His experiences gave him the balls to challenge governmental acts prohibiting the integration of culture; he spit in the face of apartheid authority, and learned to stick fight, dance and sing like a Zulu man. It was from him that I filched the name of this column, in fact. "Just Another Day in Africa" originated from one of his lyrics, and in many ways that phrase encapsulates the pot-pourri of cultural realities that South Africanisms represent.

Although he was born in England and grew up in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, and therefore gained a broader understanding of a social framework than most young white South Africans ever could, Clegg could only have developed as he did in our contradictory and complicated culture. Deeply aware of the baggage that being white, Jewish, middle-class and African in a country disjointed by racial conflict entails, Clegg slipped between definitions of behaviour, broke new ground in the music arena, and became a cultural phenomenon.

But his tale is not that simple. From making wire cars with other nine-year-olds on the edge of Lusaka, Zambia, to fleeing from landlords during jamming sessions in the servants' quarters of Killarney, a smart apartment-based suburb of Johannesburg, as a teenager Clegg's career has rich, happy and blood-curdlingly exciting roots. From the age of 14, Clegg developed a secret life that intersected with his growth as a white young boy in Johannesburg. On an errand one evening, he met a Zulu guitarist called Charlie Mzila. At that stage Clegg was fascinated with Celtic folk music which reminded him of his father, who had absconded when Clegg was very young. The Zulu sounds evoked a Celtic 6/8 for Clegg and with the candour of many people in their early teenagerhood, he asked Mzila, 10 years his senior, to show him how he did it. Mzila was bemused and charmed, and so began an important relationship for Clegg, with the music, culture, and people of South Africa.

But the part of this story that tends to remain implicit is the South African climate of the time. A law existed called the "Group Areas Act". This law was about keeping people of different skin hues away from one another in order to prevent integration of any kind (to illustrate: if you were a black woman, you could only be in white suburbia after curfew hours if you were someone's nanny and had papers to prove it.) Clegg used to jam with Charlie in Charlie's servant quarters, which conventionally comprised a room atop middle-class buildings and by implication for a white boy, this was dangerous and illegal. Clegg explains:

The caretaker of the building was a very aggressive young English guy who used to go off to work during the day. I knew I must get out the building by about 4:45 because the caretaker would return and come straight up to see if I was still there. One Saturday, I was in Charlie's quarters . . . I was playing there with him, and the caretaker came in drunk. He was going to call the police, and a fight ensued and Charlie beat him up.

This fight for Clegg's integrity was almost like a coming of age gesture. Suddenly he had a role model who represented values for him that surpassed anything he'd been taught or experienced before. It was in these surrounds that Clegg was introduced to the migrant labour cultural community. He discovered shebeens (or informal night clubs — blacks were not officially allowed to sell liquor and by and large did it behind closed doors) and experienced the whole underbelly of Johannesburg: where people would gamble and drink and play music and try to outperform one another.

A rather delicious irony is that Charlie Mzila was a very traditional and unanglicised individual. He couldn't speak English. Music rather poetically became the medium of communication between him and his new young protégé. By the age of 15, Clegg become well-known to the long arm of the law and was arrested on numerous occasions for trespassing and for contravening the Group Areas Act. But by that time, he was one of the Zulu dancers, accepted by these artists, and they defended and supported him during police raids. He'd learned how to infiltrate into a group of black men, thus avoiding the awareness of police watching out for "whities" entering black hostels or compounds. In 1967 Clegg experienced Zulu dance for the first time.

There was a single electric light and there was a concrete sports yard, very big, surrounded by buildings . . . I heard the dance before I saw it . . . I heard an incredible humming sound . . . and I saw these 60or 80 men performing this dance and I had an overwhelming sense that I was the only young white person who was being exposed to this . . . I had a sense that the universe was winking at me, saying, 'There's a very big secret here and it can be yours if you want it.'"

Zulu dance was, indeed, a secret that he grabbed with both hands and feet and all of his talents as he broke new ground in the music industry. He formed his first band, Juluka, with Sipho Mchunu in 1976, in direct contravention to the cultural segregation laws of the time, and in the face of constant banning orders and criticism by the media and broadcasting channels. A little more than 25 years later, Clegg is still a showcase for South African possibility. Broadly to coincide with the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, Clegg, now in his late 40s, a little overweight and slightly balding, presented a show that was prized by Johannesburg’s public.

Part of the show was retrospective and contained a narrative overview of Clegg's development. Structurally, it was chronological, beginning in 1967 when Clegg was 14 and first became aware of Zulu dance. It represents a break in the type of work Clegg has done in the past.

"I'm at a time now when I'm consolidating. I'm gearing myself up to a new career on my own without a backing band. And this is my story, my debut and the release of my debut solo album. So it's all integrated into both a consolidation of what I've been through and an introduction to some of the directions that I will be exploring in the future", he said, sitting at a trendy coffee shop in Johannesburg, days before the opening of the show.

His backing band is called the Johnny Clegg Band. It comprises a group of young, versatile, talented men who have been working with Clegg for the last two years. Sipho Mchunu, Clegg's partner in Juluka (Clegg's first and better known band, whose title means "Sweat") and his influence and impetus for many years is not a part of this group, but he features in the show as an important part of the narrative. "It's all the music you want to hear from the Juluka period, but it has a very strong historical context, with the second half a total boogie," Clegg said. Once a Social Anthropology lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Clegg constructed a skeleton narrative for the show without a script, so the show differed each night, playing spontaneously to audience cues.

Clegg was hot and mainstream in the 1980s — with those examples of his music that were allowed through banning orders, that is. He was the first vocal artist to use Nelson Mandela's name in lyrics, but South Africans only got to hear them after the new democracy had come about.

A member of the United Defence Force (UDF) in the 1990s, Clegg worked with trade unions, which were at that time still illegal. He would translate the contradictions in the capitalist system spawned by the government into Zulu, for the average man-in-the-street. He was also instrumental in establishing the South African Musicians Association.

The refreshing thing about of all this, is that Clegg is not the embodiment of a do-goodnik. None of these gestures were made to reflect on a politically correct resume. Clegg refers to himself growing up in this culture as "an innocent abroad" — one swept by the currents of the world who was there to make something of himself. "I was on a personal journey at the same time I was in the context of a country in massive upheaval and change," he said.

But his work was never didactically or narrowly political: Clegg's work interfaced with the politics of the times, rather than kowtowing to it: "I managed to keep a semblance of autonomy in my own creative realm," he said, "I wasn't a slavish follower of the latest political decisions. And I think there was a lot of debate about what I was doing. It was stuff which technically wasn't allowed. Both sides, the government and hard-core politicos challenged me". Indeed, both often sides vociferously announced their pleasure at seeing concerts banned or closed down in the face of decisions bigger than Clegg's bands and affiliations. In 1986, Clegg formed Savuka, a politically focused and oriented-band, as a sibling to Juluka. This band sadly came to closure in 1993 with the assassination of one of its key members, Dudu Zulu, in a taxi war.

Too white, too black, too politically inappropriate. The gestures, by way of song and dance that Clegg made through the turbulent 1980s and 1990s were out of the range of expectation of the average South African. At that stage, culture was recognised as a political weapon. But as he said, "My music wasn't in anybody's ideological framework." And that, partly, is this music's strength.

Clegg told me about the culture of praise names which the Zulu give their people. The praise name has to do with the ability of the people to recognise an individual. The story told in the praise name is never one of obsequious admiration, but a wry, good humoured observation concerning the idiosyncrasies and slippages of an individual that make him special to his friends. Clegg's praise name runs smoothly off his tongue, as though he were a mother-tongue Zulu speaker, giving poetry to a language I don't understand. "Bakuzonda abelungu, bakuzonda eKilarney, bakuzonda okhethika", meaning the whites hate you, they hate you in Killarney, the people of the flatland hate you, and particularly the caretakers hate you. It is this type of narrative that enables one to be a man with dignity in Zulu culture. And it is this type of humour that allows one to take one's own dreams seriously.

Part of South Africa's cultural beauty and sense of wild anachronism has deep roots in the ways in which apartheid made people downplay themselves. Instead of becoming a group of people coloured by bitterness and oppression they became one deepened to the injustices of the world and grown with the ironies that punctuate it. And irony, within the right hands, produces humour. Not ever happy, easy go lucky, side-splitting humour, but the heart-wrenching variety, which lies deep as it confuses and elaborates on the so-called "black and white" definitive issues of our world. Having played to capacity audiences and being called back for two more concerts during September, Clegg's crossover sounds are as mainstream as you get, these days. It is indeed, Just another day in Africa.

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.

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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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