In ‘At Eternity’s Gate,’ van Gogh remains mad, bad, dangerous to know

Wilem Dafoe already played an artist. In To Live and Die in L.A., William Friedkin’s shimmering tone poem about posing in Los Angeles’ fickle light, Dafoe played Masters, a painter and counterfeiter so sure of himself — so psychotic — that he can postpone the creation of masterpieces to kill cop William Petersen. Already in 1985 the actor boasted the ovular jaw and worn leather wallet of a voice that would make casting him a challenge for the next thirty years. Watch the jaw, though, whose positions he manipulated as surely as John Gielgud did pitch and timbre.

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James Ingram and his sweet seduction suite

Too often when considering selections for my Worst Songs Ever series I lingered over “I Don’t Have the Heart,” an example of the moist sponges that regularly topped the Hot 100 during the Poppy Bush Interzone. Poison didn’t sing it — that was the difference. In the end, no matter how high it ended on my short lists, I dismissed it. James Ingram co-wrote “P.Y.T.” He deserved better. Continue reading

The spirit of extravagance: Joseph von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich

No one in twentieth century cinema wore costumes with the panache of Marlene Dietrich, and no one photographed a person, men and women, in costume as fetchingly as Joseph von Sternberg. Thanks to Criterion’s Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, viewers can watch the six films in which von Sternberg turned the German born chanteuse into an icon who never ossified into a public monument: her wit, vitality, and irony blew away the Norma Shearers and Ruth Chattertons making the transition into sound (but not Garbo or Stanwyck). These 2K or 4K digital restorations prove revelatory; it’s possible the films didn’t look this crisp in the 1930s. Continue reading

The best teen pop hits

A list of thirty-five wonderful performances by teenagers. I limited performances to those who were in their teens at the time of writing and recording. A caveat: had I included K-pop I would’ve tripled this list, and, anyway, I’m not sure it doesn’t deserve its own rundown.

1. The Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back”
2. Backstreet Boys – “Quit Playing Games (with My Heart)”
3. Martika – “More Than You Know”
4. Britney Spears – “…Baby One More Time”
5. Debbie Gibson – “Out of the Blue”
6. Hilary Duff – “Come Clean”
7. Tevin Campbell – “Round and Round”
8. Christina Aguilera – “Come On Over”
9. New Kids on the Block – “Step by Step”
10. Demi Lovato – “Here We Go Again”
11. Boys Club – “I Remember Holding You”
12. Robyn – “Show Me Love”
13. Tracie Spencer – “This House”
14. “Little” Stevie Wonder – “Fingertips”
15. Ashlee Simpson – “Pieces of Me”
16. Spice Girls – “Stop”
17. Aaliyah – “One in a Million”
18. The Boys – “Dial My Heart”
19. Debarge – “All This Love”
20. One Direction – “Story of My Life”
21. Another Bad Creation – “Iesha”
22. Justin Bieber – “Boyfriend”
23. New Edition – “Cool It Now”
24. Monica – “Don’t Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days)”
25. Kylie Minogue – “I Should Be So Lucky”
26. Bay City Rollers – “Saturday Night”
27. Ricky Nelson – “Lonesome Town”
28. The Jets – “Crush On You”
29. The Undertones – “Teenage Kicks”
30. The Runaways – “Cherry Bomb”
31. Kate Bush – “Wuthering Heights”
32. Jackie DeShannon – “Buddy”
33. Taylor Swift – “Hey Stephen”
34. Roxanne Shante – “Roxanne’s Revenge”
35. Kriss Kross – “Jump”

Ranking Jay-Z albums

He kept going after 2003, releasing a 2006 comeback that’s better than I remembered, a soundtrack called American Gangster that I overrated but sounds fine, and more product, some of which, like Watch the Throne, deserves a third listen.. As he ossifies into a scion, it’s hard to remember how thin, tall, and fearsome he presented himself in 1997, the most impregnable of surfaces. He remains so, unassailable as representative of how far a black artist can go. For a while his approval ratings were higher than Barack Obama’s.  Continue reading

It’s Britney, readers

At The Singles Jukebox we publish mid-career reports a couple times a year. We decided Britney Spears deserved one. Boy, did we. I don’t remember previous retrospectives inspiring so many blurbs, and so many blurbs in which colleagues outdid themselves: Edward Oculicz’s “Born to Make You Happy,” Sabina Tang on “Perfume,” Isabel Cole on “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” and “Do Something,” Joshua Copperman on “Do You Wanna Come Over,” so many.

In 2017 I ranked her best tracks.

Below are my blurbs:

“Heaven on Earth” [7.43]

Beginning with a rattling sequencer out of 1977 that signals Britney’s intention to feel love, in the flesh or cybernetically depending on her mood, “Heaven on Earth” ravishes praise on a guy whose taste, touch, tongue, his big toes too, I’m sure, evoke what it must be like to see the face of God. Had Robyn released “Heaven on Earth” in 2005, we’d have praised the expression of man-machine lust. With Britney Spears there’s always a sense in which we expect such lasciviousness. “Fall off the edge of my mind,” she coos in the last third before the beat returns for a last round of thwacketing. The pleasure of her text should have set Barthes studies alight.

“Seal it With a Kiss” [6.43]

Pushing the synthetic virtues of her endlessly recombinant pop to their extreme, Femme Fatale is Britney’s peak, a souped-up techno shock masterpiece whose love-you-downs contrasted sharply with Lady Gaga’s virtue signalling in Born This Way. Dr. Luke and Max Martin know their employer, understand her strengths. She’s not an erotic presence; she suggests an erotic presence like organic ketchup suggests tomatoes. Anchored to insistent ooh-ee-oohs and Spears’ electro-puckered sigh, “Seal It With a Kiss” insists on keeping its titular promise.