Friday, December 31, 2021

jeffery berg's top 10 albums of 2021

Here are my Top 10 Albums of 2021!




Windchimes and air and and plaintive guitars and fingertips upon creaky piano keys, this atmospheric record from Texan duo Rob Lowe and Michael A. Muller is a pleasing and transportive listen. Sometimes the chords grow more ominous and dissonant, a reflection upon the chaos and uncertainty of the natural and modern world. Track "La Vagabonde" and its lilting brass takes inspiration from Greta Thunberg's journey to the United States, the title, the namesake of the vessel.



Cassandra Jenkins

I was immediately taken by Jenkins when I first heard her music in early '21. Reminiscent of Aimee Man, Jenkins' record has wryness and "comedy-tragedy" that's both adventurous and cohesive. "Hard Drive" fuses spoken word, sprawling jazz and folk. The delicate "Crosshairs" is one of the prettier melodies and songs of the year.




It's been nearly 30 years since his debut and Nas is still on a remarkable roll ("I'm on top / And I keep rising") with these two excellent albums. The production by Hit-Boy is crisp as all get-out (each track is laid fresh and distinctive from one another), and Nas' rhymes and delivery remain blunt and surprising. On "Ugly," from Magic, a litany of societal problems swirls over a muggy spool of sound. The guest spots from Eminem, EPMD, and Lauryn Hill on the Kings Disease II record are pretty mind-blowing.



St. Vincent

While music shouldn't all be about image, Annie Clark's blonde-wigged dip into mid-70s drag was certainly eye-catching and synonymous with this slick rock record. Her voice curdles on the dagger-sharp "Pay Your Way in Pain." Then there are beautiful, aching tunes like "Somebody Like Me" and the painterly, Bowie-esque "The Melting of the Sun." "My Baby Wants A Baby" brilliantly interpolates Sheena Easton's "Morning Train (9 to 5)" with the fears of an artist ever entering motherhood.



Laura Mvula

On this spunky and colorful electro album ("More than ever that you can imagine"), British artist Laura Mvula conquers plushy pink 80s-sounding synth soundscapes with heated, brassy and raw vocals. With thrumming, kicky dirges that suddenly break out of time signature and rhythm into splayed, widescreen choruses ("Conditional" and the masterful "Magical," for example), every track makes a splash. 




Josiah Wise's shivery vocals, concrete, dry-humored lyrics, and beguiling melodies make up this bluesy-bruised tapestry. The slow but jaunty "Same Size Shoe," the gospel-esque "Malik" ("Blessed is the man who wears socks with his sandals”), and intimate "Derrick's Beard" are haunting queer love songs. The celebratory "Fellowship" closes out the record with sonorous drums. 



Japanese Breakfast

One of the best openings of an album this year is surely the back-to-back brilliance of the stately and soaring "Paprika" and the yearning "Be Sweet" on Japanese Breakfast's third record Jubilee. Confident and vulnerable at the same time, the tunes have an air of familiarity and boldness (like on the airy electrowaves and vox synth ride of "Posing in Bondage"; and the strummy, Mac DeMarco-esque "Savage Good Boy"). Michelle Zauner's vocals and deft songwriting shine throughout.



Tyler, The Creator

There are continual sparkly surprises over grumbly, tumbly beats on this masterwork from Tyler, the Creator. There's the laid-back neo-soul of "WUSYANAME," the droll stomper "LUMBERJACK," and the whole lot of "MANIFESTO." But overall, to neatly categorize the songs in writing (from their thorny lyrics and choppy, jagged sounds and transitions) feels inadequate. Definitely one of the more adventurous albums in some time.



Polo & Pan 

"Take me back," Channel Tres demands on slick thumper "Tunnel." On the fittingly titled, Cyclorama, Polo & Pan cycle samples and melodies with soft, crisp beats, which sound modern and retro. From its gossamer prelude ("Come") & upbeat intro ditty ("Ani Kuni") to lush, pulsating French electropop ("Attrape-reve" & "Melody"--replete with some Van McCoy "The Hustle" rhythms) to the orchestral elements on "Bilboquet (Sirba)" (jaunty flutes on fleek!) and "Requiem"--the beat and synth flipping to freeze-frame waterfalls (like dissipating fireworks). The brisk and beachy "Feel Good" is kind of the opposite of these times (tumbling pianos and optimistic vocals and lyrics) has been a staple on my mixes this year.



Little Simz

As a fan of Little Simz' last album GREY Area, I was looking forward to more. Throughout this year, singles were being released from the British-Nigerian rapper, and it seemed to be mounting towards a significant work. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is a grand piece of artistry and embraces the art of the album through and through. There are lavish, symphonic, broad moments such as the album opener, "The Rapper That Came to Tea," and "Standing Ovation" to the more organic, and stripped-down: swingy banger "Point and Kill" and smooth "Two Worlds Apart."  All including passionately intimate and personal lyrics and idiosyncratic delivery.

My Spotify playlist of my favorite tracks of 2021.

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

jeffery berg's top 10 singles of 2021

Here are my Top 10 Singles of 2021!



Yola hits a mighty climax with her emphatic "I'm alive!" refrains in this glimmery and rootsy anthem.



Minimal Schlager

Sunny wave of synthpop from sibling duo Minimal Schlager.



An immediate earworm--girlhouse's pulsating rock single with distinctive lyrics ("Don't trust a man that can dance with a knuckle tattoo ... / he's got a band with a van and a bad attitude") felt both familiar, like a worn 90s grunge track, and yet, like a breath of fresh air.



In another difficult year, Jungle kept things going with this forward-looking, string-drenched dance nosh


Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine

Somehow Sufjan Stevens manages to churn out so many well-crafted, yearning pop songs. This bittersweet tune reaches back into childhood and the fever dream that is Return to Oz.


St. Vincent

Extremely grand rock song cleverly references some golden music influences of yesteryear and also includes a killer vibrating guitar solo. The SNL performance from this year was a memorable showstopper.


Nation of Language

Pleasing, driving epic post-punk tune that feels celebratory and bittersweet. Like the girlhouse song, this one is a cozy alt-rock throwback while simultaneously sounding fresh. 


Tyler, the Creator

Fabulous song from Tyler, the Creator. Unapologetic (and funny) lyrics. Its sounds swirling like a record, this brief track was on repeat for me throughout the year.

2. "MAGIC"

Polo & Pan

I've been a fan of Polo & Pan's trip-pop music and remixes for a few years now, and also Pino Donaggio's Body Double score is a favorite of mine. So I was particularly chuffed to hear a mashup of Donaggio with Pilot's "Magic": a skilled, incredible sonic experience.


Japanese Breakfast

Beautiful, quietly powerful pop-rock. The chorus, perhaps unintentionally, reflects the hope a lot of us are feeling in the midst of chaos right now ("Be sweet to me, baby / I wanna believe in you"). Impressively, lead singer Michelle Zauner also released her haunting memoir Crying in H-Mart this year as well.

My Spotify playlist of all my favorite tracks of 2021.

My Top 10 singles of 2020, if you want to look back.

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, December 16, 2021

red rocket

Sean Baker's (The Florida Project) Red Rocket flies as far as it can go on a pretty good premise: a washed-up porn star (Simon Rex) moves out of Cali and in with estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and Lexi's Mom (a perfect Brenda Deiss, a former secretary Baker met by happenstance when she had car trouble) in rural Texas, starts selling pot for a living, and lewdly crushes on freckled local donut shop girl Strawberry (Suzanna Son). As in The Florida Project, the film takes on a focused point of view in specific marginalized America. In Florida, Baker portrayed lives of motel dwellers on the outskirts of Disney World; here, we see a mélange of characters living on very little on the Gulf outskirts of Big Oil.

An exquisite ensemble fuels the movie with tough, but humorous flair. These are characters who don't want to be pitied, and Baker portrays them for who they are in all their flaws and questionable decisions (like masquerading as a vet while hawking flags in the mall--an excellent Ethan Darbone). Judy Hill as Baker's no-nonsense boss is another effective and funny presence. Even if the film runs out of steam in spots--its bike-riding-in-circles-monotonous-aimlessness part of the point, but also a detriment to the movie's momentum--Rex shines in his centerpiece role and carries the film with relish. It's hard to imagine anyone playing it with such gusto and realism. It's also a meta turn in a way. The soundtrack includes brilliant uses of *NSYNC's "Bye Bye Bye," a plastic pop classic both from the decades ago era of Mikey's award-winning adult film star streak glory years and Rex's own career heyday on teen-appeal TV. Red Rocket is squarely set on the eve of the incoming disaster of the 2016 election, personally, a traumatic time to return to. Caught between the turbulent times with Lexi and his burgeoning adventures with Strawberry, Mikey's predicament is cut into different directions--a pang for past heights, a desperate remodeling of the future, and an unraveling, futile present.

Baker's films have a very distinctive, appealing visual style while also being dotted with un-famous actors, including many non-professionals. Both of these elements are at odds with one another: the sense of controlled artistry against the rawness of the cast--which make an exciting clash. The humor of the script (written by Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch) keeps a thin distance from the grimness of the material. Red Rocket's intoxicatingly sugary cinematography is by the talented Drew Daniels. The pink-lit dusk, the glinting of oil refineries, and the pastel donut shop and home of Strawberry, are evocatively presented without feeling distracting. Even if Red Rocket fizzles a bit in its overlong runtime, there's much to cherish here. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

bad luck banging or loony porn

Writer / Director Radu Jude's vibrant, bold and bracing Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is simultaneously very, very serious and very, very silly. The discordant nature of this film is part of its swirling cauldron of cacophony: full of gags and gagging, didactic sagacity, rough New Wave-inspired visual and sound irritations, and a smack of immediacy as one of the few films I've seen this year or last that has placed itself so sharply and evocatively in the middle of the pandemic.

Jude's picture follows a respected history teacher Emi Cilibiur (Katia Pascariu), in jeopardy of losing her job, after a sex tape of hers leaks online. This is the main plot point slivered into sections--including the movie's ultimate trial-by-school-jury sequence, and a visual and aural odyssey of an array of aphorisms and witticisms. Hot pink title cards announce the next thematic and situational swerve. 

Set in current Bucharest, the most riveting journey for me was watching Emi walk through the city streets with various stops along the way (a bookshop visit to purchase Spoon River Anthology; an unpleasant grocery detour; and a request at the pharmacy for a single Xanax). It's such a stirring portrait of urban life. Cities in modern cinema are often portrayed either extraordinarily bleak and gritty or extraordinarily sleek and pretty. Most, if not all, cities, in all its people, billboards, buildings, trash, and vehicles, lack an overriding, continuous aesthetic. Here, Jude and cinematographer Marius Panduru's camera reveal the incongruities of Bucharest--religious books displayed with Disney backpacks; plastic toys; huge vehicles parked on sidewalks; nauseating music and sirens; hostile customers and fast food conglomerates. Almost overwhelming on first viewing, I would love to return to this sequence alone, to take it all in, the rich visual layers of it, as the camera glides to and fro, some of the people on the streets gawking (and performing) as Emi walks on and around, seemingly going nowhere.

The sad underpinnings of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn are not only that its people are in the middle of the pandemic (masked; buying flowers for the sick and the dead; or lashing out at one another), but also, the relentless unease throughout--the feeling of an unresolved violent history that's been paved-over and reimagined with exalted heroes, rotted-out materialism and glinting nationalistic pride. This could apply to so many places and countries. I felt a different sense of reckoning in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's haunted (by many different aspects) Drive My Car, where we see modern Hiroshima. In Bad Luck, especially in the trial scenes, we watch characters twist themselves into sanctimonious speechifying pretzels over hang-ups about sex, history, racism, technology and politics. It's a splashy finale, and one can feel the ebullient sense of freedom Jude has with the material, even if its still all maddingly frustrating and ongoing. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Monday, December 13, 2021

retro movie love podcast: the final 1991 podcast!

Meep (Michael Ferrari of Retro Movie Love Podcast) and I discussed the films released between November and December of 1991). 

Certainly it was an embarrassment of riches from those two months (Cape Fear, Hook, Beauty & the Beast, Bugsy, The Prince of Tides, The Double Life of Véronique, The People Under the Stairs, The Addams Family, and underrated gems like Billy Bathgate, December and Strictly Business... just to name a few!). 

The whole year was such a journey cinematically and fun to be had across a broad array of genres.

After watching for the first time and also revisiting the majority titles from 1991. Below is my current Top 10 list of the year!

My Top 10 of 1991 (films released in US / NY in '91):

1. The Silence of Lambs (Jonathan Demme)

2. An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion)

3. Strangers in Good Company (Cynthia Scott)

4. Dogfight (Nancy Savoca)

5. Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston)

6. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)

7. Boyz in the Hood (John Singleton)

8. Life is Sweet (Mike Leigh)

9. Bugsy (Barry Levinson)

10. Jungle Fever (Spike Lee)

Friday, December 10, 2021

west side story

A few weeks ago I saw the comeback of the gender-swapped revival Company on Broadway after being shut down due to COVID-19. Amongst the party hats and murmurs, much to the delight of the audience, the frail-looking, but vibrant Stephen Sondheim himself was escorted to his seat a few rows ahead of me, and given a rousing standing ovation. The return to Broadway was a visibly emotional one for the cast as the curtain rose over the masked crowd. Only several days after that electric show, Sondheim would pass away at the age of 91.

The rapturous feeling a hearty musical can inspire with a large audience still is so needed, and yet the ability and desire to come together is still so fractured, and in repair. That's why it still feels like we are in a period of transition for such a grand musical like Steven Spielberg's cinematic revival of West Side Story to land in wide release, as older audiences in America, young when the original 1961 Robert Wise film came out, are reluctant to go back to the theaters. 

There have been few musical marriages as kismet as the duo of Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. Sondheim's soulful, occasionally witty lyrics (on the blazing  "America" and "Gee Officer Krupke!" in particular) interlaced with Bernstein's emotional, resplendent music of rhythmic and slip-sliding harmonies, has made the sound of West Side Story distinctive from any other musical. Bernstein's music is intricate and gorgeously-wrought, every single number indelible. It's a brassy, un-mistakable American score of hope, skyscrapers and steel, with dramatically mournful undertones. The music alone makes West Side Story a difficult musical to really flub, but its Romeo and Juliet timelessness and dueling gangs, also allows for modern interpretations and choices that could make or break the piece. 

Luckily Steven Spielberg's affectionate and splashy retelling stands on its own. One could compare and contrast all the differences between Wise's version and this one, but it feels a fruitless exercise to do so, as both feel vital for their own reasons. I will take an exception: I missed Jerome Robbins' original choreography, which feels more nightmarish, ballet-like and light-to-the-touch; the fiery garage-set "Cool" (which inspired the iconic music videos of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and "Bad") of dancers breaking into impossible-looking moves, hurtling towards the viewer in wide-screen with finger snaps and hunched jumps. Spielberg, a director known on paper for both his smoothly edited action scenes of awe and sentimentality, combines these elements throughout this adaptation with his crew and alongside the choreography of Justin Peck

The film is staged in the interim between the teardown of neighborhoods and the construction of Lincoln Center in its place; as he did in Ready Player One, Spielberg conjures the massiveness of urban isolation and displacement with the aid of production design and visual effects. Throughout the film, we see people peering out of windows--and the marginalized, both in the forefront (for the Sharks) and on the perimeter, of soaring numbers and dance sequences. While these broad gestures could be termed obvious, they also have sinking and menacing cues of people being visually pushed out--immigrants trying to stake a claim in a place that finds them unwelcome except for subservient labor. This is another instance in American cinema where there is the dissonance between a big budget Hollywood product and the film's own pessimistic portrayal of Capitalism. 

This broken setting makes the strife between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, a tense and messy one, especially when the film moves into its powerful, shadowy final act. The adult world, especially its shambling law enforcement, is unable to heal the strife they are all complicit in creating. One exception is sympathetic and empathetic shopkeeper Valentina (Rita Moreno, Anita from the original film, in a moving performance and a wistful stroke of genius casting), who having been married to a white man, has been part of the Jets' lives since their childhoods, especially protagonist Tony (Ansel Elgort). This shopkeeper role is revitalized in this version, especially with Moreno's affecting portrayal. Still, as the two young lovers from different worlds, Tony and Maria (the angelic-voiced Rachel Zegler, in an impactful screen debut) dash off to make love, duet on fire escapes and behind bleachers, the discord between the gangs continues to enflame. 

West Side Story has inherently always been more from the white perspective--gang leader Riff (Mike Faist) and cohorts, including the misfit Anybodys (a memorable Iris Menas), are more textured characters compared to ringleader Bernardo (David Alvarez) and his Sharks; one exception that emerges in this version is Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), who is given a richer presence that I've ever seen before, including a complex, believable arc. Much of the forward-moving action and early songs are driven by Tony and the Jets. However, it remains true that the most compelling character in West Side Story is Anita. With a committed fierceness, Ariana DeBose sails through this role with joyful, effortless-looking dancing and acting, melding her wide-eyed zestfulness with the grout of pain and tragedy. While clearly the cast standout, she doesn't annihilate her peers. In a "A Boy Like That," she lashes out until her and Zegler come to an incredibly moving plane of unity. 

In re-creating this late 50s New York, Spielberg's team of wizards--including Tony Kushner and his thoughtful script (as many have mentioned already--the addition of speaking in Spanish, without subtitles, is a very welcome one), pitches the musical in stirring set pieces. In the buoyant "I Feel Pretty," wedged within the story's most violent moments, the unknowing Maria takes a break from her after-hours cleaning job among her friends in a high-end department store, frolicking amongst bone-white mannequins, and swiping a silk scarf from a rack. In "Gee Officer Krupke!" the Jets are confined in a police station, twirling--with papers thrown and spun in midair--highlighting their uselessness in the face of larger social disarray. It's these kind of ironic dance scenes that make me eager to return to the film again, especially knowing how masterfully done the inevitable tragedies of the latter half are--what the film, and all its strands of characters are zooming towards. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg