When The Americans premiered back in January 2013, it had all the makings of a fun throwback. ’80s fashion! ’80s politics! Felicity gracing our screens again! It quickly revealed itself to be a much more serious exploration of the crisscrossing allegiances to family and country than its sexy logline implied, albeit with plenty of time for bone-breaking and tooth-extracting, and with some of the most complex (and perplexingly under-awarded) performances on television. And in hindsight its granular exploration of the old Cold War was remarkably prescient of our current quagmires, constantly forcing the audience to question just how much it should be sympathizing with characters that want to undermine our very way of life, antiheroes whose destructive reach extends beyond even Heisenberg. What the show’s ultimate legacy will be after its May 30th finale remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: it had some of the most artful era-appropriate music cues this side of Mad Men. In honor of its six masterful seasons, here are the 10 best cuts from the entirety of the series (up until the eighth episode of season six, that is), presented in the order they first appeared. Also, though The Americans has its favorites like everyone, I limited this to one soundtrack cut per artist out of fairness. Otherwise this list might be mostly Fleetwood Mac. Speaking of…
For the impending end of 2017, some of our writers are going back and talking about beloved songs from this year, especially from artists not covered on our upcoming podcast.
In case it wasn’t clear yet, single women are tired. Match, OkCupid, Tinder, Bumble; you can text multiple people for months and still never nail down an actual in-person date. And everywhere we look these days are, in the TLC parlance, scrubs. Or is it actually a bit more complicated than that? Is it also a matter of facing our own insecurities and acknowledgments before we can really accept love? Nobody embodied this ambiguity of being a modern, sexually “liberated” woman better than SZA in 2017. Her full-length debut Ctrl explores all of the contradictions and frustrations of modern romance and that’s never better encapsulated than in “Love Galore.”
While some of the other tracks on the album depict a woman grappling with being a “sidepiece” or revenge-fucking an ex-boyfriend’s bro on Valentine’s Day, “Love Galore” is the sound of gentle reclamation. Of time, of body, of peace of mind. Buoyed by backing vocals from Travis Scott, it’s an amiably slippery examination of dating in the digital age, when any given person is a well-timed message away. “Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?” she assails her listener and it feels like a clarion call for everyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted “U up?” text. It works, though, because SZA isn’t afraid to acknowledge the vulnerability that lives just underneath her bravado, dramatizing in the most sonically pleasing way the belief that love is worth it because it requires so much work on our part to find it.
For the impending end of 2017, some of our writers are going back and talking about beloved songs from this year, especially from artists not covered on our upcoming podcast.
Remember February? I sure don’t. Woe to the artists who happened to release their albums so early in the year because I have mostly forgotten them in the midst of all the insanity, and great music, that’s happened since then. Anyway, if you’d told me last week that I’d still have patience for a sad white guy bemoaning his girlfriend leaving him I’d have laughed in your face. And yet “Up in Hudson,” from Dirty Projectors’ self-titled 2017 release, remains in my rotation despite fitting that description to a T. Because that also sells it short. At almost eight minutes, unfolding over a luxurious horn-based hook, it’s a break-up anthem that manages to be incredibly even-handed while also being honest about its creator’s pain, considering the girlfriend in question was an integral, and celebrated, member of the band.
The next move for Dirty Projectors has never been easy to predict: they’ve done jagged art pop on Bitte Orca; Dylan-flecked folk on Swing Lo Magellan; even a recreation of Black Flag’s Rise Above done entirely from memory. So it’s interesting to see what it’s morphed into now that Dave Longstreth is essentially a solo artist performing under an established name. The stripped down, distorted aesthetic on display here isn’t always easy to love in comparison to their past classics, but it does feel like a honest reckoning, and “Up in Hudson” is its early highlight. If Longstreth seems like he’s working out his own bitterness and resignation in real time, at least the end result is something we can all share in.
First, a confession, which may not seem immediately related to the subject at hand: until December 3rd, I had never seen a Batman movie in full. Not a Nolan, not a Keaton, only dim memories of Val Kilmer clips interrupting Seal in the “Kiss From a Rose” video. But that night I gathered with some fellow SportsAlcohol-ics to watch Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, in a thinly-veiled attempt on Jesse’s part to (a) get me to finally watch one of these things and (b) put forth the argument that Returns is part of one of my favorite genres: not unequivocally holiday-themed films like A Christmas Story or Elf, but what I’ll call the Christmas-Adjacent. These are films whose plots do not revolve around, say, getting the family together for a big dinner, taking over for Santa after accidentally killing him, or having your marital infidelities exposed with poorly hidden gifts intended for your mistress. Rather, they use the holiday, or holiday season, as a motif or backdrop for other stories, variously invoking the warmth, loneliness, and occasional homicidal rage the season brings. You can also watch them any time of year and it doesn’t feel too weird. Having now seen Batman Returns myself (Ed. note), I absolutely agree that it fits the genre, and is fun to contemplate as one of the strangest studio tentpoles to exist. But the following, in my opinion, are the best, and the ones that most often end up in my holiday-watching rotation.
Continue reading Happy Holidays-ish: The Top Six Best Christmas-Adjacent Movies
This was a good year, musically speaking, for women on a tear (which is heartening, because we’re going to need them if we’re getting through the next four). In addition to the ones who made our albums of the year list (no spoilers here!), there was the spiky art rock of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, the electric alienating fuzz of Mitski, and the shimmering delicacy of Springtime Carnivore. It’s probably no great coincidence that many of these records were borne from painful separations, both from lovers and family, and Angel Olsen’s MY WOMAN might be the most surprising of them all for previous fans of her work: the album feels as much like a departure as the apex of her many talents, from the unexpectedly slinky opener “Intern” through the seven-minute sprawl of “Sister” and beyond. But on no track is this artistic volatility better exemplified than “Shut Up Kiss Me,” the most immediately arresting song on the record and also the most vulnerable.
At first listen it seems all insouciant demands: “I ain’t hanging up this ti-i-ime/I ain’t giving up toni-i-ight” is the gauntlet thrown down at the very start and it doesn’t let up over its lean 3:22 runtime, with Olsen’s voice at its most seductive and rock n’ roll snotty. But don’t let her cheeky attitude and sparkly wig in the video fool you. As with many things in life, the brazen come-ons mask a deep well of insecurity and pain, and the posturing gradually gives way to exasperation. “It’s all over baby, but I’m still young,” she repeats desperately at the song’s end, backed by her own insistent wailing, and it’s unclear at that point if she’s even still reaching out to her fickle, frustrating lover. In a year that saw so much apocalyptic upheaval it’s as good a rallying cry as any, not unlike Janis Joplin’s exhortation to “get it while you can.” Intimacy is vital to our shared humanity, even when it’s begged for. And when it’s the end times, whether in your own world or the one at large, what point is there in waiting?
Let’s get this out of the way now: whatever artistic debt Solange owed to her older sister Beyonce when she first started out is more than paid now. The two make very different kinds of music which, if it wasn’t apparent before 2016, was made clear by the very different albums the two put out this year. I may be in the minority in favoring the younger Knowles but that’s because I tend to prefer my girl power songs introspective over anthemic. While I probably wouldn’t put it on at a party, “Cranes in the Sky” gets more replay from me because it feels like a warm embrace from an empathetic friend, albeit one who is radically woke and wants to pass along her insights into years of oppression as much as she wants to offer comfort in shared pain (also, I don’t have very many parties).
There were several strong records that addressed the singularity of the black experience in America in 2016 (see Blood Orange, Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino, among others) but none were quite as transcendently, painfully gorgeous as Solange’s A Seat at the Table and “Cranes in the Sky” is the album’s early peak. Like the titular birds the song evokes a delicate grace, the instruments and vocals unadorned but stealthily powerful. At the start Solange’s airy voice settles over a simple percussive beat and tentative strings, knitting together in a mournful funk that both enfolds and unsettles the listener. What at first sounds like a litany of post-break-up salves (Solange has variously tried to drink, dance, sex, and read “it” away) soon becomes a eulogy to all the things in life that can’t be changed, particularly for black women trying to make it in a world that, more often than not, devalues them. While the repetition of “away” in the refrain almost seems in danger of floating off, it’s the insistence that “Sometimes I don’t wanna feel those metal clouds” that pins it all back in place. It’s self-assertion as origami, a folding up that also gives oneself shape. We’re all works in progress, and our best chance of surviving together comes from accepting that.
By just about any measure 2016 has been a rough year. In addition to the turbulent, terrifying political sea change of Brexit and President-elect Trump, we’ve lost many great artists this year, artists whose work in the years ahead would be especially welcome. While the passing of Leonard Cohen on November 7th was not as shocking as Bowie or Prince, given his age and his recent proclamation that he was “ready to die,” it is an immense loss nonetheless. Less a songwriter than a poet putting music beneath his words, Cohen made songs that are both legendarily melancholic and exquisitely beautiful, the cutting, cynical lyrics buoyed by delicate mandolins and soulful female-backed choruses. Often they have a confessional feel to them, particularly when he is plundering the lower moments of his own life (as in the epistolary “Famous Blue Raincoat” which, while not strictly autobiographical, is written as a direct address from Cohen to a man who ran off with his girlfriend, and is simultaneously affectionate and merciless to all three participants.) But that gives his work a generosity as well, the sense that he is pouring all of himself into every line, with the signature graveled delivery that makes a listener lean closer, hold it tight. It would be near impossible to put into words how much his music has meant to me; cliches about feeling less alone and better understood don’t seem nearly enough to honor such a talent. But I’ll try.
It’s tempting in these dark, uncertain times to write about one of Cohen’s more pessimistic, later period songs, and there are many to choose from – “The Future” (“I’ve seen the future, baby/And it is murder”); “Everybody Knows” (“Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich”); hell his final album was called “You Want It Darker,” and apparently we do. But I’m choosing instead to focus on a song from his debut album, and one that was likely on his mind in his final days: “So Long, Marianne.”
Upbeat by Cohen standards, “So Long, Marianne” is a shimmering, strumming ode to a love that doesn’t always come easy. It’s fragile and fraught, the singer struggling to reconcile his wish for freedom to wander with a longing for the shelter that such intimacy offers, balancing both the yearning and loneliness that can creep in even after knowing your partner for decades. In one touching, wistful turn of phrase that speaks to Cohen’s origins as both a poet and novelist he says they met when they were “almost young” (something it’s difficult to think of Cohen ever being), and you can sense in every passing stanza how the years between the couple have created both an uncrossable chasm and a shared history that can never be forgotten. There’s a lived-in warmth that feels unique to the rest of Cohen’s catalogue, probably because it is based on a real woman, a real relationship that Cohen had over several years with Marianne Ihlen, whom he met in Greece and eventually moved to Montreal with, along with her young son. The relationship ultimately did not last but the song stands as a monument, not only to her and what they shared, but, to borrow from another Cohen number, to the cracks that let the light in, the beauty in life that makes the pain bearable even if just for a moment.
And so I’m going to close this by quoting, in full (which hopefully doesn’t break any copyrights), Cohen’s letter to the real Marianne, written when he learned she was dying:
“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
In the years ahead, there will be many times when we might feel hopeless, despondent, scared, all of which is perfectly understandable, even advisable to a certain point. But let us also be the ones who stretch our hands out to one another rather than push one another away. I’ll see you down the road. Thank you, Leonard Cohen, for all you’ve given us and for getting there first. And for the love of God, 2016, please don’t take anyone else with you on your way out.
You may have heard a little announcement out of Stockholm recently: Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the first American to do so since 1993 and the first musician ever so honored. It was, to say the least, a controversial choice among the literati. As a writer and avid reader of fiction, I sympathize with the complaints that awarding a literary prize to someone like Dylan robs an actual author, often one whose name is hardly known in the U.S., of a well-deserved boost in sales and recognition. And as someone who strives to read poetry more regularly, I understand the necessity of interrogating whether someone who is known primarily as a lyricist can or should be considered a writer of verse in the same way laureates like Szymborska and Heaney are. And as a woman who has experienced her share of man-splaining, I nodded my head at the annoyance that rippled through many Twitter feeds that perhaps the ultimate white male artiste beloved by every pretentious dickhead who ever picked up a guitar received an award of this magnitude and prestige.
Hold on! Before reading this, make sure you’ve caught up with yesterday’s kickoff. Now, wave like a human being!
Season 4, Episode 7: “Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001”
30 Rock’s ensemble cast began to sprawl out as the show went on, serving some characters better than others. In the first few seasons Jenna Maroney played an integral role as Liz’s best friend and working nightmare, the grotesquely narcissistic star of TGS who still made time to give her friend terrible life advice. But as Liz and Jack’s corporate relationship grew more personal, Jenna was often shunted into B and C stories; as her craziness became more outsized her position as Liz’s friend became more precarious. This is not to suggest Jane Krakowski doesn’t give everything she gets her all. But it does seem a bit of a shame in retrospect, especially when her presence can lift an entire episode into greatness, as it does with “Dealbreakers.” The early portion of season four introduced a new arc for Liz as she publishes a bestseller based on a catchphrase of one of Jenna’s TGS characters, but in another example of 30 Rock mocking the expectations of serialized stories (or, less charitably, losing interest in them), Liz’s shot at starring in a show based on the book is short-lived. After a disastrously hilarious shoot during which Liz turns into a bizarre marionette-approximation of a human (“Remember waving?” Pete yells helplessly) she locks herself in her dressing room and refuses to come out, just as Jenna often does, leading Jack to seek her counsel. This whole episode is about the fluidity of character traits; in Liz’s absence from the writer’s room, Frank, another supporting cast member I’ve yet to mention, steps into her role as den mother, scolding his colleagues and dressing in frumpy sweaters. It wouldn’t work if we didn’t know all these characters so well by now; by episode’s end the reset button has been hit but it’s still a jolt to a series that was starting to show its limits.
Continue reading The Best 30 Rock Episodes: A Chronological Journey, Part Two
Ten years ago this month a much-hyped new series premiered on NBC. Marketed as a rollicking satire of a very recognizable late-night sketch comedy show it boasted a starry cast and a strong TV auteur behind the scenes. It was Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and it tanked, hard. Its earnest investment in the trivial backstage drama of its characters, along with a tenuous grasp of what makes for good, or at least believable, comedy, doomed it to the cancellation bin after one season.
It’s odd now in hindsight to remember just how much of an underdog 30 Rock was when it debuted on the same network and in the same month as Studio 60. The brainchild of Tina Fey and based on her tenure as head writer of Saturday Night Live, the pedigree was more untested and it shows in the first several episodes. But voice and vision are paramount in a comedy and, at a time when NBC was struggling to find itself post Must-See-TV-Thursday, Fey and company stood out: the jokes were quick to the point of weaponization, often literally coming a second at a time, with a commitment to character beats as strong as to the outright bizarre set-piece. It also benefitted from a dynamite central pairing with Fey as the biographical-to-a-point Liz Lemon and Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, her right-wing blowhard of a boss and singular comic creation. Even in the sloppily paced pilot their scenes have a spark that carried over seven seasons and remained reliable whenever the storytelling faltered over the 138 episodes that eventually ran. Ten years on, in the midst of so much “peak TV,” no currently airing comedy quite comes close to its alchemical mix of breakneck zaniness and reluctant heart, though Fey’s own Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does its gosh-darndest. For a show that often worked deliberately against the serialization trend, 30 Rock amply rewards re-visiting and here are the fifteen best episodes to get you started, whether it’s your first time through or your thirtieth.
Continue reading The Best 30 Rock Episodes: A Chronological Journey, Part One