The Smiths:"The Queen Is Dead" (1986)

Meat Is Murder may have been a holding pattern, but The Queen Is Dead is the Smiths' great leap forward, taking the band to new musical and lyrical heights. Opening with the storming title track, The Queen Is Dead is a harder-rocking record than anything the Smiths had attempted before, but that's only on a relative scale -- although the backbeat is more pronounced, the group certainly doesn't rock in a conventional sense. Instead, Johnny Marr has created a dense web of guitars, alternating from the minor-key rush of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and the faux rockabilly of "Vicar in a Tutu" to the bouncy acoustic pop of "Cemetry Gates" and "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side," as well as the lovely melancholy of "I Know It's Over" and "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." And the rich musical bed provides Morrissey with the support for his finest set of lyrics. Shattering the myth that he is a self-pitying sap, Morrissey delivers a devastating set of clever, witty satires of British social mores, intellectualism, class, and even himself. He also crafts some of his finest, most affecting songs, particularly in the wistful "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side" and the epic "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," two masterpieces that provide the foundation for a remarkable album.

Sam Peckinpah:"The Wild Bunch" (1969)

From the opening image of children happily watching fire ants kill a scorpion, Sam Peckinpah presents a relentlessly pessimistic view of frontier life in 1913 as it gives way to modernity; any sense of honor is strictly relative, and "civilization" means venal businessmen and mercenaries. The western's myth of "righteous" violence is literally blasted to pieces in the two battle sequences evocative of the 1968-69 carnage in Vietnam. In elaborately edited montages using different camera speeds and distances, Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard show what it looks like when bullets hit flesh, drawing out moments of death amidst bloody chaos in a balletic yet repellent spectacle. The Wild Bunch eventually became a moderate hit, and it got Oscar nominations for Jerry Fielding's score and Walon Green's and Peckinpah's script. Unsatisfied with Peckinpah's 145-minute cut, Warner Bros. pulled the film after its debut and shaved 10 minutes of exposition but left the violence intact. The footage was fully restored in 1995. With its stunning technical finesse and uncompromising view of the West's bloody demise, The Wild Bunch remains one of the most powerful "last" westerns ever made.


Miles Davis:"Birth of the Cool" (1956)

So dubbed because these three sessions -- two from early 1949, one from March 1950 -- are where the sound known as cool jazz essentially formed, Birth of the Cool remains one of the defining, pivotal moments in jazz. This is where the elasticity of bop was married with skillful, big-band arrangements and a relaxed, subdued mood that made it all seem easy, even at its most intricate. After all, there's a reason why this music was called cool; it has a hip, detached elegance, never getting too hot, even as the rhythms skip and jump. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about these sessions -- arranged by Gil Evans and featuring such heavy-hitters as Kai Winding, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, and Max Roach -- is that they sound intimate, as the nonet never pushes too hard, never sounds like the work of nine musicians. Furthermore, the group keeps things short and concise (probably the result of the running time of singles, but the results are the same), which keeps the focus on the tones and tunes. The virtuosity led to relaxing, stylish mood music as the end result -- the very thing that came to define West Coast or "cool" jazz -- but this music is so inventive, it remains alluring even after its influence has been thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream

Akira Kurosawa:"Ran" (1985)

Overwhelming in scope and magnificent in visual style, Ran is less an adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear than an amplification of its themes of greed, betrayal, and honor. Though set during the turbulent Muromachi period in Japan, the film achieves a surprising universality by perfectly marrying style and content. Master director Akira Kurosawa distilled the play and stripped it of its numerous lengthy speeches (Kurosawa accused Shakespeare of being too wordy). In their stead, he packed the film with images pregnant with resonance and visual poetry. Deftly employing all of the techniques associated with his long career, Kurosawa creates a powerful portrayal of a kingdom coming apart at the seams through such techniques as dynamic, painterly compositions that emphasize depth of field; striking, expressionistic color; and brilliant sound design. In one scene, Kurosawa confronts the viewer with a silent, dream-like montage of human brutality: concubines committing ritual suicide, soldiers porcupined with arrows, spilling blood, and grisly dismembered limbs. In that same scene, the ghost-like Hidetora, Kurosawa's Lear, witnesses the armies of his two sons, one bedecked in brilliant yellow, the other in equally vibrant red, clash on the black slopes of Mount Fuji. Few films have imbued battle sequences with such beauty and with such horror. Tatsuya Nakadai gives perhaps the finest performance of his long career as the former vainglorious tyrant who slowly fills with shame and regret as his world comes crashing down, while Mieko Harada is flawlessly ruthless as the revenge seeking Lady Kaede. A brilliant cinematic feast ten years in the making, Ran proved to be the last masterwork by one of the greatest filmmakers.

Whiskeyton:"Strangers Almanac" (1997)

1997's Strangers Almanac was Whiskeytown's major-label debut and the album that first introduced Ryan Adams to a wide audience, but at the same time it marked the beginning of the end for the group. When Whiskeytown went into the studio to record Strangers Almanac, the band had undergone the first of what would become a long line of personnel shakeups, and in addition to Adams, the only proper members of the group on hand for the sessions were violinist and vocalist Caitlin Cary and guitarist Phil Wandscher; session musicians filled out the lineup, while the new rhythm section, Jeff Rice (bass) and Steve Terry (drums), was hired only two weeks before recording began. Despite its chaotic creation, Strangers Almanac sounds stronger and more cohesive than its ragged but forceful indie predecessor, Faithless Street, and there's a deeper resonance in Adams' tales of wasted nights and wasted lives, such as "Inn Town," "Losering," and "Dancing with the Women at the Bar." Strangers Almanac doesn't rock as hard as Whiskeytown's earlier material, but when the guitars kick into high gear on "Yesterday's News" and "Waiting to Derail," it reveals just how good a match Adams and Wandscher were, and "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" and "16 Days" are as strong and moving as their country gestures got. However, though Strangers Almanac starts strong, most of the best material is used up by the two-thirds mark, and editing one or two tunes from the final innings would have done this album a world of good. Regardless of its faults, Strangers Almanac captures Whiskeytown when they still had some business calling themselves a band rather than just Ryan Adams' backing musicians, and the glorious world-weariness of its best moments makes it a far more satisfying listen than most of what would follow once Adams struck out on his own.

Roman Polanski:"Rosemary's Baby" (1968)

In Roman Polanski's first American film, adapted from Ira Levin's horror bestseller, a young wife comes to believe that her offspring is not of this world. Waifish Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her struggling actor husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and only elderly residents. Neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon) soon come nosing around to welcome the Woodhouses to the building; despite Rosemary's reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises that she keeps hearing, Guy starts spending time with the Castevets. Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Minnie starts showing up with homemade chocolate mousse for Rosemary. When Rosemary becomes pregnant after a mousse-provoked nightmare of being raped by a beast, the Castevets take a special interest in her welfare. As the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castevets' circle is not what it seems. The diabolical truth is revealed only after Rosemary gives birth, and the baby is taken away from her. Polanski's camerawork and Richard Sylbert's production design transform the realistic setting (shot on-location in Manhattan's Dakota apartment building) into a sinister projection of Rosemary's fears, chillingly locating supernatural horror in the familiar by leaving the most grotesque frights to the viewer's imagination. This apocalyptic yet darkly comic paranoia about the hallowed institution of childbirth touched a nerve with late-'60s audiences feeling uneasy about traditional norms. Produced by B-horror maestro William Castle, Rosemary's Baby became a critically praised hit, winning Gordon an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Inspiring a wave of satanic horror from The Exorcist (1973) to The Omen (1976), Rosemary's Baby helped usher in the genre's modern era by combining a supernatural story with Alfred Hitchcock's propensity for finding normality horrific.

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