Music

The Kamasi Washington Phenomenon

PopMatters' jazz critics didn't include Kamasi Washington's The Epic on their "Best of 2015" list, despite its huge acclaim by mainstream critics. Here's why.


Kamasi Washington

The Epic

Label: Brainfeeder
US Release Date: 2015-05-04
UK Release Date: 2015-05-04
Amazon
Amazon
iTunes

When John Garrett and I published our “Best Jazz of 2015” list here at PopMatters, we knew that we were not including the jazz recording that made the year's biggest splash among folks who were not necessarily jazz fanatics: The Epic by saxophonist Kamasi Washington. We could have commented on this omission in the introduction to our list, but that might have seemed churlish — like a movie critic not putting Star Wars: The Force Awakens on her top-ten and then rubbing in the exclusion in a preface.

So, The Epic was not in my top handful of 2015 releases, and I didn’t review if for PopMatters. But just about every major publication writing about the year’s jazz put Washington in their headline. In fact, PopMatters’ own “The 80 Best Albums of 2015”, ranked The Epic fourth despite it not making our list. A commenter on our list was quick to point out the disc’s absence.

So, let’s talk about that absence. Let me start by saying that I’m a big fan of The Epic, and I’m not here to put it down. My thesis, however, is that, aside from its audacious length (three compact discs of music coming in around three hours!), it's not a revolutionary or super-innovative record that has turned the jazz world on its head. Rather, it’s a strong and super-interesting record that is mostly in line with today’s superb and wide-ranging, historically aware jazz.

Jazz Sensations Are Made Beyond Jazz

If I’m right that The Epic is a fine but not game-changing jazz album, then why did so many other writers find it so important? PopMatters’ John Paul, in his “Top 80” blurb, wrote that the recording "helped bring a much-needed changing of the proverbial guard in the somewhat staid world of contemporary jazz” and "helps establish the long overdue case for jazz as a vital 21st century art form”.

Well, I don’t mean to pick on my colleague, but that is some historically classic hype talking.

The hype around The Epic is precisely in line with the hype that -- rarely but occasionally -- attaches to jazz artists or projects. When a jazz artist receives publicity and gets acclaimed in the larger culture, it's almost always because he has been involved in a high profile recording outside of jazz. When Wynton Marsalis rose to fame in the '80s, making magazine covers and being touted as some kind of jazz savior, it was not just because he was reviving post bebop jazz with astonishing trumpet technique. Nope. It was because the same year that Wynton Marsalis (his debut on major label Columbia Records) won a jazz Grammy, Marsalis also won a Grammy for classical music. The wunderkind had skills! Herbie Hancock has 14 Grammys and an Oscar, but not one of them preceded his proto-hip hop hit, “Rockit”.

That doesn’t make Marsalis or Hancock (or Esperanza Spalding or Norah Jones) less than excellent. But this is how it works in the US. Jazz musicians get a big boost if they are seen as part of the non-jazz culture. Washington got hype in 2015 because he was a vital part of the year’s biggest and most ambitious non-jazz album: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which was recently nominated for 11 Grammys. (Washington wrote the string arrangements for To Pimp a Butterfly, and was part of a cadre of great California/Los Angeles jazz players to participate, including trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere, pianist Robert Glasper, producer Terrace Martin, and bassist Thundercat.)

Aside from the history, why do I believe that it’s the hype that boosted The Epic so high on so many lists? Well, to quote Paul again: “The Epic is a masterful blending of old and new” that is “[e]qually informed by [Washington’s] spiritual jazz predecessors and modern hip-hop”. You see, there is not a trace of hip hop in The Epic.

As much I hate to use a review from Pitchfork to contradict a PopMatters colleague, Seth Colter Walls is dead-on correct in referring to the record as “a hip-hop-free zone” that mainly draws on jazz history that is mostly about 50 years old.

Again, please note that this is not a criticism of The Epic, the marvels of which I will shortly extoll, but it is an explanation of the recording’s hype: which is pretty much unrelated to its content. Another way of putting this: writers who haven’t been paying much attention to the current state of jazz were led to believe that The Epic was some kind of breakthrough, a thrilling new fusing of classic jazz with the music of today. But this is about 95 percent not true.

The truth is:

- Kamasi Washington is terrific.

- But The Epic doesn’t join jazz and hip hop, even though Washington has tons of hip hop experience and might well have worked in that vein.

- And lots of other jazz is doing that in interesting ways and has been for about a decade.

The hype for The Epic, therefore, was both misdirected and kind of great anyway. Hooray! that this wonderful music got a huge audience because Washington has the taste, daring, and ambition to work with great artists like Lamar, who happen to be popular. But Boo! that this phenomenon of misunderstanding and underestimating non-hyped jazz continues unabated.

The Epic Celebrates a Somewhat Forgotten Era of Great Jazz

Speaking to musicians these days, you’ll hear plenty about the common lineage of jazz and hip-hop. Both forms rely on a revolution in rhythmic language, combining voice and rhythm in daring syncopation. The music on The Epic draws almost entirely from the African-American music tradition that precedes hip hop -- the jazz that flourished, entertained, and challenged listeners between 1960 and 1980, music largely grounded in the sonic experiments of John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and electric-era Miles Davis.

The first notes on The Epic are a set of banging chords from pianist Brandon Coleman that sound as much like McCoy Tyner as possible. Tyner, of course, was the pianist in John Coltrane’s early 1960s quartet, and the signal from Washington could not be clearer. Though the tune is called “Change of the Guard”, what’s being referenced is decidedly Old Guard. The string section is teamed up with a vocal choir as well the recording’s three horn front line (Washington’s tenor, Igmar Thomas on trumpet, and trombonist Ryan Porter). The maximalist approach is reminiscent not just of the more ambitious and produced Coltrane records (such as Africa Brass and Ole) but also the immediate offshoots of Trane that blossomed during the later ‘60s and ‘70s in a soulful variant on his driving freedom.

In short, The Epic won’t create much sense of recognition for fans of To Pimp a Butterfly, but it should tickle the same spot that was reached by albums like McCoy Tyner’s Fly With the Wind (1976) and Song of the New World (1973) or Pharaoh Sander’s Karma (1970) and Journey to the One (1980). These projects married the incantatory elements of Coltrane’s melodies to two pop-oriented elements: driving rhythms and more lush production. It would be crude to call it Trane with a Motown sheen, but in the context of '70s FM radio, it’s simply true that Tyner and Sanders were getting airplay. With The Epic, Washington is following this path quite closely.

“The Rhythm Changes”, which is also on the first disc (subtitled “The Plan”), features lyrics and lead vocal by Patrice Quinn that echo a different post-Trane band of the '70s: saxophonist Gary Bartz’s Ntu Troop, which put a whole bunch of Stevie Wonder-ish soul into the avant-garde zone (check out the band’s great I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies from 1973, which puts some hip-shaking grooves under serious jazz solos and soulful singing). Washington has Graves on a Wurlitzer-sounding electric keyboard here, which comes close to sounding like the Rhodes played by Hubert Eaves on Rivers.

Here’s another tasty '70s referent that Washington gets to early on The Epic: the most soul-pop band in jazz, The Jazz Crusaders. The mix on much of the disc favors the trombone over Thomas’ trumpet, and so when the horns take the center stage on a tune like “Final Thought”, the dominant combination is tenor/trombone. That earthy sonority, combined with the B3 of Coleman, evokes the best of The Crusaders, a blues-drenched brass attack that isn’t afraid to be funky.

Finally, Washington also delves at times into grooves that would not have been out of place on the early electric records of Davis: Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, and the like. Again, these were discs from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “Askim” from the first disc teases us with abstractly funky bass from Miles Mosley and some electric bass courtesy of Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner that becomes something like the searching guitar of John McLaughlin from Bitches Brew.

This blend of references is reproduced with variations on each of the three discs. On the second disc: “Re Run” punches you with Crusader-ish horns; “Seven Prayers” sounds darn-near identical of Miles/Wayne Shorter/Joe Zawinul playing “In a Silent Way”; “Henrietta Our Hero” is an uplifting soul tune for Patrice Quinn over a backbeat; and “Miss Understanding” gets your Pharaoh Sanders on all over again, including a cooking swing that can’t be denied.

So Where’s the Innovation?

Disc Three of The Epic is subtitled “The Historic Repetition”, and that really says it all about Washington’s project. Kamasi Washington is fully versed in hip-hop and how jazz might share/blend with/already be the new music’s innovative heart. But that is not what this project is about.

On the last third of The Epic, Washington is more innovative and more historical at the same time. “Re Run Home” repeats a theme from Part Two but adds funky Clavinet to a groove powered by two drummers at once, plus percussion. The open-ended funk owes a little to today’s jam bands and a whole lot to all of the influences that the rest of the disc is so in love with. Next, Washington radically recasts the Ray Noble super-standard “Cherokee” with a combination of doo-wop introduction, a funky horn-driven rhythm feel that could come from the Meters, and a sunny AM pop radio vibe. It’s a winner that works much like the Fats Waller conversions that Jason Moran dreamed up on his last project.

Washington’s version of French impressionist composer Debussy's “Claire de Lune” casts the impressionist classic as a greasy 12/8 ballad that winds itself into a frenzy of voices, strings, and expressive piano over time.

“Malcolm’s Theme” nods to hip-hop at least in the sense that it mashes up Ossie Davis’s famous eulogy for Malcolm X, set to Washington’s melody for two voices, with a recording of Malcolm himself speaking over a swirl of acoustic jazz. But the truth of even this cut is that its sensibility sits squarely in Malcolm’s time: the jazz of Coltrane and his disciples, of which we must now count Kamasi Washington. It’s not that the music is not adventurous and rich in power and creativity, but just that it finds its power in harkening back to a specific period between 65 and 45 years ago.

But, Maybe, What’s to Come...

The last track on The Epic is my favorite. “The Message” isn’t all that different from what precedes it. It features of core ten-piece band: the front line of three horns, the two keyboards and two basses (each acoustic and electric), plus twin drummers and hand percussion. The theme is a punching brass blues melody that sits over a throbbing Latin groove in 7/4 time.

In several respects it leans forward and suggests the music is still to come from Washington. Keyboards feed otherworldly squeals into the sound with a certain artful atonality, and Thundercat’s bass solo attacks the song’s structure without traditional jazz phrasing. Washington’s solo here pushes outward like Pharaoh Sanders, no doubt, but it also feels more individual and distinct, less like a recreation and more like a reclaiming for a new purpose. The polyrhythmic blend of drummers, percussion, and the percussive keyboard attacks is not hip-hop -- it is most certainly jazz -- but it comes at an old jazz virtue with the awareness of how hip-hop sampling and hip-hop rhythmic attack updates that tradition.

Will Washington continue to make music that leans so heavily on a similarity of much older music? I doubt it. His utterly contemporary associations and affiliations certainly suggest rich territory for moving ahead. I suspect that the real masterpiece from Washington is a few years ahead.

In the meantime, I don’t at all dislike The Epic, and I think that it is commendable in how it grounds its creator in his roots even as it feints toward the future. Though Kamasi Washington is already a mature artist, this was his first complete solo recording, and I deeply respect its humility if not its length, which perhaps was excessive. If it wasn’t in my top handful of 2015 releases, these are the reasons why. But also the reasons why may not want to ignore it.

Note to fans of the great David Simon’s Treme: the string section on The Epic includes, quite anonymously, violinist Lucia Micarelli, who played Annie on the HBO series.

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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