Leonard Cohen:"Songs of Leonard Cohen" (1968)

Leonard Cohen Songs of Leonard Cohen
At a time when a growing number of pop songwriters were embracing a more explicitly poetic approach in their lyrics, the 1967 debut album from Leonard Cohen introduced a songwriter who, rather than being inspired by "serious" literature, took up music after establishing himself as a published author and poet. The ten songs on Songs of Leonard Cohen were certainly beautifully constructed, artful in a way few (if any) other lyricists would approach for some time, but what's most striking about these songs isn't Cohen's technique, superb as it is, so much as his portraits of a world dominated by love and lust, rage and need, compassion and betrayal. While the relationship between men and women was often the framework for Cohen's songs (he didn't earn the nickname "the master of erotic despair" for nothing), he didn't write about love; rather, Cohen used the never-ending thrust and parry between the sexes as a jumping off point for his obsessive investigation of humanity's occasional kindness and frequent atrocities (both emotional and physical). Cohen's world view would be heady stuff at nearly any time and place, but coming in a year when pop music was only just beginning to be taken seriously, Songs of Leonard Cohen was a truly audacious achievement, as bold a challenge to pop music conventions as the other great debut of the year, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and a nearly perfectly realized product of his creative imagination. Producer John Simon added a touch of polish to Cohen's songs with his arrangements (originally Cohen wanted no accompaniment other than his guitar), though the results don't detract from his dry but emotive vocals; instead, they complement his lyrics with a thoughtful beauty and give the songs even greater strength. And a number of Cohen's finest songs appeared here, including the luminous "Suzanne," the subtly venomous "Master Song" and "Sisters of Mercy," which would later be used to memorable effect in Robert Altman's film McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Many artists work their whole career to create a work as singular and accomplished as Songs of Leonard Cohen, and Cohen worked this alchemy the first time he entered a recording studio; few musicians have ever created a more remarkable or enduring debut.


David Cronenberg:"Videodrome" (1982)

Well before he adapted William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, David Cronenberg's debt to the beat writer was laid bare with Videodrome, a phantasmagoric journey through fractured psyches and cathode tubes. The film features several of Burroughs's trademarks, including a stream-of-consciousness narrative, a paranoid, conspiratorial tone, and overriding themes of desire and addiction. At the same time, this movie is perhaps the best articulated vision of Cronenberg's ongoing exploration of the edges of technology and human physiology. Detailing the transformation of a sleazy television producer into literal media terrorist, Cronenberg presents a world of pulsating videotapes, televisions that undulate like flesh, and large, vagina-like abdomen slashes that function as a biomechanic VCR. Though the technology, special-effects, and fashion sensibilities all seem dated, Cronenberg's basic questioning of the media through Max Renn's particular psychological affliction seems more relevant today than it did when his film was first released. As technology becomes more advanced, Cronenberg explores not only whether it will affect our sense of reality but also our evolution as a species. His Videodrome is a postmodern masterpiece that unsettles, shocks, and provokes.

Elastica:"Elastica" (1995)

Elastica's debut album may cop a riff here and there from Wire or the Stranglers, yet no more than Led Zeppelin did with Willie Dixon or the Beach Boys with Chuck Berry. The key is context. Elastica can make the rigid artiness of Wire into a rocking, sexy single with more hooks than anything on Pink Flag ("Connection") or rework the Stranglers' "No More Heroes" into a more universal anthem that loses none of its punkiness ("Waking Up"). But what makes Elastica such an intoxicating record is not only the way the 16 songs speed by in 40 minutes, but that they're nearly all classics. The riffs are angular like early Adam & the Ants, the melodies tease like Blondie, and the entire band is as tough as the Clash, yet they never seem anything less than contemporary. Justine Frischmann's detached sexuality adds an extra edge to her brief, spiky songs -- "Stutter" roars about a boyfriend's impotence, "Car Song" makes sex in a car actually sound sexy, "Line Up" slags off groupies, and "Vaseline" speaks for itself. Even if the occasional riff sounds like an old wave group, the simple fact is that hardly any new wave band made records this consistently rocking and melodic.


Sam Mendes:"American Beauty" (1999)

American Beauty
A darkly comic critique of suburban stupor with a measured touch of redemption, American Beauty became the most laureled film of 1999. As written by Alan Ball and directed by theatre wunderkind/film neophyte Sam Mendes, the tale of Lester Burnham's final year of life keenly delves into the repressed desires, rampant materialism, skewed values, and gnawing insecurities lurking behind the crisply manicured lawns and meticulously decorated houses lining Any Street, USA. Anchored by Kevin Spacey's gleefully sardonic yet sensitively attuned performance as doomed "seeker" Lester, the superb ensemble cast of adults and teens (including Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Chris Cooper and newcomers Wes Bentley and Mena Suvari) navigate the myriad dysfunctions with wit and flashes of pathos. Complementing the voiced desire for some kind of escape, Lester's and video voyeur Ricky Fitts' search for beauty in the mundane, whether in rose petal-strewn dreams or grainy images of a dancing bag, is given luminous life by veteran cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. Despite the complaint from a few critics that it did not truly "look closer" at the terrain previously covered by The Ice Storm (1997), Happiness (1998), and Blue Velvet (1986), American Beauty garnered several critics' circle prizes and a fistful of Golden Globes on the way to winning the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Cinematography.

Magnetic Fields:"69 Love Songs" (1999)

Magnetic Fields 69 love songs
As the sprawling magnitude of its cheeky title suggests, 69 Love Songs is Stephin Merritt's most ambitious as well as most fully realized work to date, a three-disc epic of classically chiseled pop songs that explore both the promise and pitfalls of modern romance through the jaundiced eye of an irredeemable misanthrope. A true A-to-Z catalog of touchingly bittersweet love songs that runs the gamut from tender ballads to pithy folk tunes to bluesy vamps, the sheer scope of the record allows all of Merritt's musical personas to converge -- the regular use of guest vocalists recalls his work as the 6ths, the romantic fatalism suggests the Gothic Archies project, and the stately melodies evoke the Future Bible Heroes. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, however -- for all of Merritt's scathing wit and icy detachment, there's a depth and sensitivity to these songs largely absent from his past work, and each one of these 69 tracks approaches l'amour from refreshing angles, galvanizing the love song form with rare sophistication and elegance. Naturally, given a project of this size there's the occasional bit of filler, but all in all, 69 Love Songs maintains a remarkable consistency throughout, and the highlights ("I Don't Believe in the Sun," "All My Little Words," "Asleep and Dreaming," "Busby Berkeley Dreams," and "Acoustic Guitar," to name just a few) are jaw-droppingly superb. Also available as three individual releases, 69 Love Songs was nevertheless conceived as a whole and is best absorbed as such, with all of its twists and turns taken in stride; despite its three-hour length, the music boasts the craftsmanship and economy that remain the hallmarks of classic American pop songwriting, a tradition Merritt upholds even as he subverts the formula in new and brilliant ways.

Bernardo Bertolucci:"Last Tango in Paris" (1972)

Ironically, the film that heralded the arrival of a mainstream adult cinema, with its frank and often brutal depiction of impersonal (and often nearly fully clothed) sex, was actually one of the last films to give such raw and uncompromising treatment to the subject matter. Last Tango in Paris certainly ranks among Marlon Brando's greatest acting achievements (he improvised a significant portion of his part), as he makes us care about his distraught, damaged, misogynistic character. Director Bernardo Bertolucci's favorite cameraman, Vittorio Storaro, provides cadaverous color that moves through a half-lit space as evocatively as it travels through the character's emotions. The characters of Paul and Jeanne (Maria Schneider, in an often overlooked but remarkably vulnerable performance) spend the film enveloped in a sexual cocoon, engaging in animalistic acts of passion in order to escape or ignore their lives on the "outside." Such subject matter has rarely (if ever) been treated with such emotional and intellectual seriousness; while one may question the film's conclusions (Paul's declaration of love leads to his death), it is an inescapably bold film, untempered by a fear of public disgust or outrage -- much of which it in fact received at the time, despite (and partly because of) the equally strong favorable views of such critics as Pauline Kael, who called it "a landmark in movie history" comparable to Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in music.

Interpol:"Turn on the Bright Lights" (2002)

One might go into a review like this one wondering how many words will pass before Joy Division is brought up. In this case, the answer is 16. Many are too quick to classify Interpol as mimics and lose out on discovering that little more than an allusion is being made. The music made by both bands explores the vast space between black and white and produces something pained, deftly penetrating, and beautiful. Save for a couple vocal tics, that's where the obvious parallels end. The other fleeting comparisons one can one whip up when talking about Interpol are several -- roughly the same amount that can be conjured when talking about any other guitar/drums/vocals band formed since the '90s. So, sure enough, one could play the similarity game with this record all day and bring up a pile of bands. It could be a detrimental thing to do, especially when this record is so spellbinding and doesn't deserve to be mottled with such bilge. However, this record is a special case; slaying the albatross this band has been unfairly strangled by is urgent and key. Let's: there's another Manchester band at the heart of "Say Hello to the Angels," but that heart is bookended by a beginning and end that approaches the agitated squall of Fugazi; the torchy, elegiac "Leif Erikson" plays out like a missing scene from the Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen; the upper-register refrain near the close of "Obstacle 1" channels Shudder to Think. This record is no fun at all, the tension is rarely resolved, and -- oh no! -- it isn't exactly revolutionary, though some new shades of gray have been discovered. But you shouldn't allow your perception to be fogged by such considerations when someone has just done it for you and, most importantly, when all this brilliance is waiting to overwhelm you.


Ingmar Bergman:"Summer with Monika" (1951)

An innocent youth finds love and, eventually, heartbreak in this film, which ranks among Ingmar Bergman's simplest and most unaffected. Harry (Lars Ekborg), the unworldly, unhappy hero, suffers at his job and in his personal life. Then he falls in love with the superficial Monika (Harriet Andersson), who shows little capacity for sensitivity but radiates carnality. Defying the repressive, degrading ways of adult society, the couple flees from the city, their responsibilities, and their problems by stealing a boat and retreating to an island, where they live free of inhibitions or social restrictions. But when the glorious summer comes to an end, the young couple is compelled to return to the city, where their relationship soon disintegrates. Monika gives birth to their child but shows little parental inclination, preferring to sleep late and lounge about. Harry, meanwhile, tries to provide support. Bored, Monika eventually finds another lover, whereupon Harry moves his child from their filthy apartment and determines to make a better life. With its agreeable lead actress and its unadorned style, Sommaren med Monika constitutes one of Bergman's most immediate and accessible films. Harriet Andersson, who became a Bergman regular, shows an unabashed sexuality that would serve her well in subsequent films, and she reveals a canny ability to maintain audience interest, if not sympathy, for a character that is ultimately unappealing, even repellant. Bergman allows Andersson's performance to dominate the film. He generally abstains from emphatic lighting or provocative angles, preferring to accommodate his actress with rich close-ups and sunlit portraits. Andersson's compelling performance, together with the film's idyllic island setting and Bergman's unfailing direction, renders Sommaren med Monika an impressive, noteworthy work.

Antony and the Johnsons:"I Am a Bird Now" (2005)

Antony and the Johnsons' second full-length recording, the haunting and affecting I Am a Bird Now, is a far more intimate affair than their debut. Antony's bluesy parlor room cadence is more upfront here, resulting in a listening experience that's both exhilarating and disquieting. "Hope There's Someone" is a somber opener, and its plea for companionship, augmented by a sparse piano/vocal arrangement that rises into the air by song's end in a swirl of multi-tracked harmonies, is ultimately uplifting. This formula is applied to much of the record and never ceases to elicit honest emotion from either Antony or his numerous guests. Rufus Wainwright takes the lead on "What Can I Do?," a languid meditation on death that conjures up images of rainy streets, lonely lampposts, and cigar smoke -- it's brief (under two minutes) but alluring like the cover of a Raymond Chandler novel. Boy George joins Antony for a duet on the soulful and empowering "You Are My Sister," Devendra Banhart lends his warbly tenor to the lush "Spiraling," and Lou Reed plays noodly guitar and recites an anonymous poem on the mischievous "Fistful of Love." It's a testament to Antony's skill as a writer and arranger that these guest appearances are completely devoid of pretense, and while each artist is reverent to the source material, it's still Antony's show, as the most powerful moments on I Am a Bird Now are his.

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