Sunday, June 7, 2020

Review: ‘Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street’

I finally had the opportunity to catch Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, the documentary that explores the infamous homoerotism of the first sequel to Wes Craven’s 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Co-directed by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen, this heartfelt documentary examines this aspect of the oft-maligned ’85 sequel in a unique way—by focusing on the human toll the film’s reputation took on its leading man.

Mark Patton was just 25 when he was cast as the lead in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, quite the professional coup after leaving home in the Midwest at 17 to pursue his dreams of a career as an actor. Patton’s all-American good looks led to immediate bookings in national commercials, with his big break coming shortly thereafter when he landed a plum supporting role in the Broadway play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, directed by Robert Altman and starring Cher, Sandy Dennis, Karen Black, and a pre-Misery Kathy Bates—a role he repeated in the subsequent film version. By the time he landed the role of Jesse Walsh in the Elm Street sequel, Patton—who was gay and closeted, as the times dictated—had moved out to Hollywood where he met and began a relationship with Dallas actor Timothy Patrick Murphy.

Despite its commercial success, Freddy’s Revenge was widely derided and eventually became known in the early days of Internet film analysis as "the gayest horror movie ever made." Although time—and evolving social mores—have been kind to the film and elevated it to the status of a cult classic and even revered because of its not-so-subtle-after-all gay subtext, Patton’s career became collateral damage. The actor was wrecked by the negative response to the film and comments about his performance. Following an episode of Hotel and a CBS Schoolbreak Special, in which he co-starred—ironically—with A Nightmare on Elm Street final girl Heather Langenkamp, his acting career came to an unceremonious end. His personal life was no better—Murphy would die, tragically, of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 29 and Patton’s own HIV-positive diagnosis would eventually follow, complicated when he came down with tuberculosis. He left Hollywood in due course upon his recovery, retreating down to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he entered into decades of self-imposed exile—albeit with some newfound personal happiness in the form of a husband and an art store, where he sells works of his own creation, including a line of painted handbags he designed.

In 2010, Daniel Farrands, director of the exhaustive Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again, tracked Patton down and entreated him to speak openly about his experiences and his legacy as part of the iconic film franchise. It was during his participation in Never Sleep Again that Patton came to realize just how dramatically the critical and cultural tide had begun to turn in favor of Freddy’s Revenge, with the film now hailed for the very thing that had caused him so much past anguish. Patton found himself applauded across the horror convention circuit, and that led to his desire to get his life story out into the world by developing a film (then) called There Is No Jesse. Unbeknownst to him, he would soon cross paths on social media with two aspiring filmmakers with a shared love for A Nightmare on Elm Street 2—and four years later, the trio gifts fans with Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.

Chimienti and Jensen have crafted a polished and engaging documentary, utilizing interviews, archival footage, and a “day-in-the-life-of” approach as they follow Patton from one convention to another. Although the documentary threatens at times to burst at its seams with all that the filmmakers earnestly include here, it’s Patton—the film’s center—who grounds the proceedings with his candid, sometimes achingly bittersweet recollections of his journey. Watching Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, I found myself raging at times over the homophobic inner-workings of the Hollywood machine during the AIDS plague, cheering for Patton’s self-discovery and journey to reclaim his legacy at others. It’s hard not to find yourself in a puddle of tears watching how Patton is revered by the Elm Street fans and to feel the palpable sense of empowerment as he takes to the stage to rightfully affirm his place as horror’s original “final boy” while embracing the “scream queen” title that was once weaponized against him. 

The central conflict of the documentary is framed between Freddy’s Revenge screenwriter David Chaskin and Patton, with the latter holding firm to the claim that Chaskin disingenuously skirted responsibility for the film’s overtly gay subtext. Chaskin long-maintained that it was Patton’s performance that was responsible for the film’s gay overtones that unsettled audiences upon its release, even going on record with the proud admission that his screenplay was meant to be homophobic versus homoerotic. In this 2007 interview with Bloody Good Horror, Chaskin says:

“Yes, there was certainly some intentional subtext but it was intended to play homophobic rather than homoerotic. I thought about the demographics for these types of films (young, heterosexual males) and tried to imagine what kinds of things would truly frighten them, to the core. And scary dreams that make them, even momentarily, question their own sexuality seemed like a slam dunk to me.

If you really wanted to have fun, one might argue that the entire movie is a metaphor—Jesse is, in the end, finally able to control the monster inside him (his latent homosexuality) with the love of a good woman. Maybe they should show this film at one of those evangelical deprogramming sessions where they try to ‘fix’ gay people into regular Americans.

That said, there were certain choices that were made (e.g., casting) that, I think, pushed the subtext to a higher level and stripped away whatever subtlety there may have been. To this day, Jack Sholder says he read no such subtext into the script. It must have been by osmosis. At any rate, he should have seen it coming—when we opened in New York, we got a rave review in The Advocate.”

It’s here—with the resolution of this central conflict—that my one and only criticism with this otherwise pitch-perfect documentary comes into play: Chimienti and Jensen should have skipped it. It falls flat and lacks the requisite catharsis necessary to resolve the focal tension the film devotes much of its 99-minute running time to exploring. What should play as a pivotal moment in Patton’s liberation from this emotional shackle that he’s carried with him for more than three decades comes across as anticlimactic, with Chaskin’s “apology” being anything but. It’s a jarring moment of insincerity in what’s been nothing but a pervasive sense of sincerity throughout the rest of the film. Even Patton looks nonplussed. It’s an awkward scene that fails to give the audience the payoff it’s expecting—and the moment of unequivocal apology that Patton deserved.   

Yes, Chaskin is an asshole for intentionally injecting homophobia into his script, but I found Freddy’s Revenge director Jack Sholder far more culpable for his part in dodging accountability—and almost insultingly so. The film—as in, the one Sholder directed—includes a sequence in a gay bar (that was shot in an actual gay bar!), frequent male nudity, crotch shots, and glistening male chests, a bare-assed towel-whipping of a naked restrained man in the shower, a scene in which Freddy Krueger caresses Jesse's face before suggestively sticking a clawed finger in his mouth (which actor Robert Englund even admits was meant to be homoerotic), Patton in tighy-whities, Patton in a jockstrap, and Patton's butt-bumping solo dance to “Touch Me (All Night Long)” by Wish featuring Fonda Rae. That Sholder can claim no knowledge, no awareness of the gay subtext in his own movie is maddening to watch—especially in a later scene in which he basically tells Patton that it’s time to “get over it.” I was left shouting “WTF?!” at my television and wanting to throw the remote at Sholder’s clearly dishonest attempt to remove himself from any semblance of answerability by claiming naiveté. 

Chimienti and Jensen wisely employ a diversity of voices to fill their documentary’s requisite talking head roles, from the film’s cast and crew, to fans, to film scholars. UC Colorado Film Studies professor Andrew Scahill provides some of the film’s best academic moments, providing salient points in support of reclaiming A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 as a progressive film about sexual identity. Drag performer Peaches Christ also speaks persuasively about the connection between horror and the queer experience. The reunion scenes between Patton and his NOES2 cast members have a trepidatious energy running throughout—no one (besides maybe character actor Marshall Bell) seems completely at ease. Still, it’s great to see Kim Myers, Clu Gulager, Robert Rusler, JoAnn Willette, Englund, and Bell all together again.

The filmmakers take on a lot—from online bullying and the devastating effects of the AIDS crisis on the gay community to final girl film theory and queer cinema. Despite its ambitions that—in less capable hands—could have derailed the train, Chimienti and Jensen somehow manage to keep this hefty cinematic locomotive on the tracks, ultimately crafting an intensely personal, often painful, and surprisingly moving exploration of the life of a young gay man who reached for his Hollywood star during the Reagan era only to watch it fall from the sky as quickly as it began to rise against the backdrop of AIDS and the homophobia of the period. While Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street may have started out as a passion project for two gay horror fanboys and a lost celebrity they connected with online, it establishes itself as an instantly significant contribution to the oeuvre of film and the canon of LGBTQ studies. That Chimienti and Jensen are able to, in effect, teach an important lesson in queer history to a predominantly heterosexual audience by following Patton’s journey from closeted Missourian teenager and aspiring actor to self-described “Greta Garbo of horror” to his creative rebirth is nothing short of remarkable—especially for two first-time documentarians. As Patton says near the end of the film:

“My generation is gone. I have no friends my age. I want people to know their history. I want them to at least hear from somebody that the way the world is now…it wasn’t this way five minutes ago.”

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street is a heartrending requiem to missed potential and man’s ability to rewrite his narrative—tracing a proud scream queen’s journey from promise and unlimited potential through the darkness of crippling pathos and out into the light of hard-won personal peace. It’s about the promise of a second act no matter how long the first one runs over. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

‘Underwater’ Keeps Its Head Above the Déjà Vu

Movie audiences have been long conditioned toward preconception and expectation based on a film’s release date. It’s become generally accepted that films released just before Memorial Day and July 4th are expected to be the big-budget summer blockbusters—those box office juggernauts whose special effects budgets are eclipsed only by their marketing costs. The more serious, arty films are released between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with the expectation of garnering awards nominations. Then there is January—that post-holiday cinematic graveyard when studios unceremoniously dump films for which they have little to no expectations into theaters where they sink or swim. Deep-sea actioner Underwater neither sinks nor swims—it dogpaddles.

As far back as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), there’s been a fascination with what lurks beneath the depths. Like deep space, the deep sea holds an element of the unknown and limitless possibility for all manner of imagined terrors, and filmmakers have been mining these creative waters since the early years of the Cold War era. I can trace my love of these underwater-set creature features all the way back to my childhood and one film, in particular—1966’s Destination Inner Space, in which a group of scientists aboard an undersea laboratory do battle with an extraterrestrial amphibian monster.

There have been no shortage of terror-under-the-seas flicks since—from 1973’s The Neptune Factor to 1998’s Sphere and 2005’s The Cave. 1989 seemed to be a particularly robust year for underwater monster mayhem with Leviathan, The Abyss, Deepstar Six, Lords of the Deep, and The Rift (aka Endless Descent) all released to varying degrees of success. Sometimes, the underwater terror made its way to the surface in films like Humanoids from the Deep (1980), Deep Rising (1998), and The Rig (2010). Other times, amplifications of familiar sea creatures—sharks, killer whales, piranha, octopus, even crabs—skimmed the surface to wreak havoc on fictional seaside communities.  

Underwater is the latest entry in this dubious tradition of sub-genre, a stylized big-budget film whose price tag (estimated at $80 million) can’t hide its B-movie pedigree. Sharing more plot-wise with Deepstar Six and Leviathan, Underwater takes place seven miles beneath the ocean’s surface on the bottom of the Mariana Trench at an underwater mining operation owned by one of those nefarious-sounding, faceless corporate entities called Kepler. The audience is barely introduced to aquatic engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart) before all hell (literally) breaks loose and much of the undersea complex is damaged or destroyed by (cue the ominous Marco Beltrami/Brandon Roberts score)…something. The deep-sea action is relentless, with Norah making her way through the ruined, leaking complex toward the central command of the drill and picking up a few survivors along the way—including Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), Paul (comedian T.J. Miller), Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), research tech Emily (Jessica Henwick), and computer engineer Liam (John Gallagher Jr.). Ragtag team of survivors assembled, it’s on to full-tilt aquatic misadventure—the requisite blocked escape routes, imploding bulkheads, risky underwater excursions across the sea floor, and the Lovecraftian sea monsters picking off the survivors one by one.

Sure it’s derivative, another submerged riff on Alien that wears its Lovecraftian influences rather conspicuously. But Underwater is also lean and very mean, pushing the accelerator to the floor from its opening moments and never taking its foot off the gas. The aggressive pacing contributes to a breathlessness to the whole affair that helps the film rise above its unoriginality. Director William Eubank hones in on the sensory elements of his setting, using tight spaces, limited oxygen reserves, and the disorientation of the ocean bottom’s zero visibility to heighten the claustrophobic tension.  What the film lacks in narrative depth, it compensates for with its respectable visual aesthetic—courtesy of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who also stylishly lensed Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993), The Ring (2002), and A Cure for Wellness (2016).

Kristen Stewart, who’s spent quite a few years trying to painstakingly shake the trio of Twilight movies that have long dogged her career, ably carries the film. She commands and holds our attention, no easy feat when the character is very clearly—and unimaginatively—drawn as an Ellen Ripley surrogate. (If the close-cropped hair and bomber jacket weren’t enough, the writers even find a way to have the character unnecessarily running around in a sports bra and panties by film’s end.) To her credit, Stewart goes all in with her performance, rising above the sub-par material to fashion a respectable science-fiction/horror heroine. With little from the script itself to aid in her character’s development, Stewart instead shows us who Norah is through a series of conflicting emotions as the situation on the ocean floor worsens. She’s simultaneously terrified and panic-stricken, pragmatic and resilient—an everyday nobody who transforms into a durable, kick-ass heroine.

Underwater knows what it is and never pretends to be anything but. It’s a pure B-movie creature feature throwback to 1989—slick schlock that understands the rules and never tries to break or bend them (for better or worse).

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Will the “Better” Laurie Strode Please Stand Up?

I read this recent piece at Spinsters of Horror with great interest. The writer fashions an excellent comparative analysis of the Laurie Strode character as depicted in H20 and H40, respectively. There are some spot-on observations and she makes a compelling case why the H20 version of the character may be "better" than the H40 version. I encourage anyone with an interest in the Halloween franchise and, particularly, its enduring final girl to read this. It’s really quite good and got me thinking, which is what all great writing should do.

The fact that the writer herself grapples with PTSD every day, though, both strengthens and weakens her argument. She's approaching the character with a very specific first-hand experience (aka bias) and reaction to that experience that is both personal and necessary to her ability to function in the everyday world. She sees the H20 version of Laurie as more relatable to her own experiential survival—a projection or manifestation of the manner in which she's been able to function.

But because she sees so much of herself represented in H20 Laurie, I feel her argument loses some of its steam when she attempts to dissect the H40 version of Laurie. For the writer, hope is an essential element to a successful recovery. In the H40 version of the character, she is dismayed that what she sees as the character's hopeless representation "does not leave us survivors of trauma a positive representation of recovery." Herein lies my criticism of her argument: Not every survivor of a traumatic event comes out the other side intact or with the ability to heal. Some victims of trauma are left broken. The H40 version of Laurie opts to explore that.

H20 Laurie is a very realistic portrayal to the writer because that character's story arc is largely how she struggles with her own PTSD. But that doesn't make the H40 Laurie any less realistic. It's simply a different depiction of the same character who suffers the same traumatic event but comes through it with a markedly different outcome. While H20 Laurie may represent hope, H40 Laurie should elicit empathy. Sometimes, for some people, there is no coming back from a traumatic event. There is no one prescription for successfully coping with PTSD because "success" is a relative term and will vary based on many factors—the degree of trauma, the victim's pre-trauma psychological health, the victim's support system, the immediacy and quality of the victim's after-care, etcetera.

I'd counter-argue that H20 and H40 give us two differing versions of the aftermath of trauma—both engendering varying degrees of generational trauma in the process—with two victims who have found a way to continue on and achieve freedom in their post-trauma lives. For one, as the writer points out, there is an effort to move beyond her past and build a life for herself; for the other, there is no moving beyond her past and a consumption to prepare and protect herself and those she loves from a never-ending threat. For one, there is hope; for the other, there is only survival.

Both have chosen the flight and fight responses—they just vary in terms of what they're fleeing from and fighting for. H20 Laurie is fighting to return to a place of normalcy by (literally) fleeing from her past, whereas H40 Laurie is fighting for a physical survival she sees as forever threatened and (metaphorically) fleeing from her future by avoiding any pretense that her life could ever be normal again. But whereas the degree of freedom from the past H20 Laurie achieves through flight may seem more obvious and comforting to our own ideas of the concept, I'd argue that H40 Laurie also finds her own version of freedom through her fight instinct. For her, the hypervigilance of her physical barricades, sharpshooting, and methodical planning gives her reprieve from the feelings of helplessness she experienced during and after the events of Halloween, 1978. She achieves a degree of freedom from what she's come to regard as a weaker version of herself. Isn't this also a personal evolution in the wake of trauma?

One could also argue that the H40 Laurie may ultimately fare better than H20 Laurie because the former chooses to confront the reality of the present-day embodiment of her past in contrast to the latter who chooses to run, hide, and create a new reality through avoidance of the past. One stands ready, prepared to confront and—ultimately, hopefully—defeat the past; the other playacts through a façade that barely achieves a sustainable false sense of security. One is looking right through the barrel of a shotgun; the other is looking over her shoulder.

Quality of life arguments notwithstanding, while we might more readily find hope in one version's depiction of the character, we should have great empathy for the other version's depiction of the character. All victims of trauma find their own path through their unique experience and none should be judged in subjective terms of success or failure. Ultimately, both types of survivor should be appreciated for the same thing—their endurance.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Xavier Dolan’s ‘Death and Life’ Matters

Watched an interesting film last evening called THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F. DONOVAN, a determined arthouse muddle that suffers for its ambition but is nonetheless a compelling watch that I'd recommend.

The film boasts an impressive cast: Kit Harrington (fresh off GAME OF THRONES), Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Natalie Portman, Thandie Newton, Michael Gambon, Jared Keeso, Chris Zylka, Amara Karan, Ben Schnetzer, and an astonishingly good Jacob Tremblay (of ROOM fame). Jessica Chastain was also in the cast, but her part was excised from the final cut of the film in an effort by director Xavier Dolan to address issues with pacing and the film's running time.

In 2006, the title character (Harington) is a popular TV and movie star and the object of an 11-year-old aspiring thespian named Rupert's (Tremblay) devout fan worship. Rupert, an American expat living in England with his drifting, neurotic mother (Portman), is a precocious outsider struggling to fit in and subject to the cruel bullying by classmates that carries a strong undercurrent of homophobia. One source of comfort in his isolation is an unlikely (and clandestine) pen-pal correspondence he strikes up with Donovan and the string of handwritten letters they exchange over the five years before Donovan’s shocking tabloid-ready death.

The film totters back and forth between 2006 and 2017, as adult Rupert (Schnetzer)—also now an actor—publishes a book around the now-infamous correspondence and Rupert's interpretation of Donovan's tragically short life in the context of his writings. Using an interview with a reluctant journalist (Newton) in Prague, Dolan provides a serviceable—if somewhat anemic—framing device to recount the parallels and interconnected pasts of Donovan and the pre-adolescent Rupert.

Thematically, the film tackles quite a bit—the price of celebrity, familial resentment, the eternal struggle of self-acceptance at odds with the need for the acceptance of others, queer isolation, the impact that movies have in shaping our identities. It's a lot of philosophical meat to chew on, and this is where Dolan loses his storytelling grasp a bit. He seems determined to cram it all in and, unfortunately, some of the weightier themes get glossed over in his ambition. You’re left with the impression that Dolan’s film—despite its Chastain-erasing edit—would have benefitted from more time in the editing room. There’s also a nagging ambiguity about the epistolary relationship between Donovan and Rupert, with the impression of scandal hinted at but never delved into in any meaningful way. What was it about Rupert’s initial fan letter that caused an in-demand celebrity like Donovan to reply—and what was it in their subsequent letters that kept the correspondence going for years? These are questions that go frustratingly unanswered.

Visually, the film is a treat. Cinematographer André Turpin's sumptuous, burnished color palette and stylish camerawork lend a dreamy quality to the film. Likewise, the acting ensemble—particularly some of the supporting players here like Bates, Karan, and Gambon—grounds the film even when it threatens to go airborne with some of its loftier concepts. Sarandon, in particular, is excellent as Donovan’s alcoholic mother, even when her scenes splashing booze around threaten to descend into pure camp.

Despite its miscalculations, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F. DONOVAN can be appreciated for Dolan’s confidence as a filmmaker. Although the cluttered fragmentation undermines the pace of the film at times, it also lends a surrealism that pulls you in. It’s a thought-provoking film that—despite how much it packs into its 123-minute running time—still feels unfinished. The film limps into the U.S. marketplace weakly in select theaters and VOD—arriving more than a year after its ill-received premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival—where I hope it finds some appreciation for the beautiful disaster it is.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Top Ten Albums of 2019

No, there was no new music this year from Adele. Or Alison Moyet. Or Jessie Ware—at least not beyond a pair of new singles. So perhaps 2020 will bring me that holy trinity of new albums.  

In the interim that was 2019, there were quite a few excellent new releases—only two by artists who have made a previous year-end list. Included in this year’s ranking are four albums from bands, two from male artists, and four from female artists—three of which are the artists’ debut albums.

I share these year-end lists because I love music—and I love sharing my favorite music picks in the hope that something here may pique your interest and you’ll end up with a new artist or two that you end up really digging.

Without further comment, my picks for this year’s ten best albums:  

10- FEVER DREAM / Of Monsters and Men

If you’ve yet to discover Icelandic indie folk/pop band Of Monsters and Men, make this one of your New Year’s resolutions. And FEVER DREAM—the band’s third album—is a great place to get acquainted. Trading the orchestral folk sound around which earlier efforts were largely centered, the five-piece band opts for a complex, at time disjointed, synthpop soundscape—complete with propulsive basslines, shapeshifting drumbeats, and unpredictable song structures anchored by the band’s patent lyrical poeticism.

Lead vocalist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and singer/guitarist Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson alternate vocal duties on some tracks and are paired together on others to great harmonious effect.  Overall, FEVER DREAM is a bold departure from the band, bringing it out of the musical realm of Mumford & Sons and into the edgier dominion occupied by Arcade Fire.

Standout tracks: “Alligator,” “Wars,” and “Soothsayer”

9- FINE LINE / Harry Styles

The former One Direction singer earned high praise on my 2017 year-end ranking, with his eponymous debut album coming in at #2. He returned just before the strike of midnight this year with FINE LINE, the much-anticipated follow-up to that well-received set.

Tapping into a new flock of rock influences here like David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, and even Pink Floyd, the album breathes musically a little more than the decidedly sparser, Beatles-esque classic rock stylings of his debut. Incorporating some more jaunty tempos and lean funk-pop grooves, FINE LINE is a solid sophomore set that confirms Styles won’t be a one-note artist with a reliable formula. He’s the kind of singer-songwriter who’s going to dabble and stretch musically until he’s satisfied—and even then such satisfaction’s not likely.

Standout tracks: “Watermelon Sugar,” “Adore You,” and “She”


Marking the band’s first album with all three original members—vocalist Terri Nunn and co-founders John Crawford (bass, synthesizer) and David Diamond (synthesizer, guitar)—since 1984’s LOVE LIFE, the original incarnation of Berlin returned in 2019 with TRANSCENDANCE. The 80s New Wave darlings, who scored both an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song for “Take My Breath Away” from the juggernaut TOP GUN soundtrack, are in fine form on the ten synth-pop tracks here, proving that creative lightning can indeed strike more than once.

On this eighth studio album (over the span of 41 years), Berlin employs much of what worked on their earlier efforts, not straying too far from the synthesizer-laden electro-pop formula that earned them legions of fans back in their heyday. Nunn still coos sensually, an enduring vixen of the first video generation. And there’s even a bombastic trance re-tooling of one of their earliest hits, the radio-banned “Sex (I’m A…).”

True story: This longtime fan saw Berlin (first band I ever saw live in concert) open in ’84 for Thompson Twins on the latter’s INTO THE GAP world tour. Year’s later, when I interviewed Terri Nunn for AUTOGRAPH magazine and shared that factoid, she laughed and claimed to have stolen my musical cherry!

Standout tracks: “Lust,” “All for Love,” and the title track

7- IN THE END / The Cranberries

Would it sound cliché to say that The Cranberries have saved their best for last? The aptly-titled IN THE END indeed draws the curtain on the venerable Irish alt-rock outfit that rose to international fame in the 1990s and now takes its final bow following last year’s tragic drowning death of lead singer Dolores O’Riordan—inarguably the distinctive voice of The Cranberries.

Thematically, IN THE END resounds with finality, giving the album a funereal chill and added poignancy since there was no way for the band to know that this eighth album would also be its last. The effort is so polished that it’s almost impossible to tell that O’Riordan’s vocals were demo recordings, with her surviving bandmates later bringing the tracks to fruition with producer Stephen Street. My best advice is to resist the urge to dissect the lyrics and songs through the lens of O’Riordan’s untimely passing and let the tracks bring you back to the band’s heyday. That said, don’t fight against the tears that will inevitably form at the corners of your eyes during the album’s last track—and title track—when O’Riordan’s exquisite, singular voice laments, “All I know / Time is a valuable thing / Watch it fly by as the pendulum swings / Watch it count down to the end of the day / The clock ticks life away… / But in the end /
It doesn't even matter.”

Standout tracks: “Lost,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Summer Song,” and the exquisite title track


Original and avant-garde, Billie Eilish’s debut album is a tasty, trippy treat for the ears. With a deceptive sparseness that ingratiates upon repeated listen, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? is a hyper-modern, musically complex album with a macabre, almost-sinister aesthetic that feels like the soundtrack for a post-apocalyptic new dystopia. Eilish wears her weirdness—and her heart—on her sleeve on the dozen tracks here, many of which defy genre classification. She—and brother Finneas, who shares writing and producing credits—have crafted a musical journey that’s the equivalent of going through a carnival funhouse on ‘shrooms. It’s freakishly fun, a little creepy at times, and layered with just enough distortion that will leave you teetering between daydream and night terror.

Eilish sings with a dreamy detachment, an occasional nuanced jazziness in her vocals evoking a modern-day Billie Holiday at times that at once contradicts and complements her impish tomboy persona. In the continuing era of manufactured, carefully sculpted recording artist-artifices, Billie Eilish is seemingly poised to burn the whole building to the ground with her freshness and authenticity.

Standout tracks: “Bury a Friend,” “My Strange Addiction,” and “Bad Guy”


On her sixth studio album in the nine years since her 2010 eponymous debut, Lana Del Rey sticks to her distinctive, winning formula—gravelly, slurred vocals, the glamour and melancholia of Hollywood noir, and cultural references to 1950s and 1960s Americana. With her patent vocal languor intact, NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL! finds the 34-year-old artist stepping into her own—presenting an authentic sense of self versus the carefully construed persona of past efforts.

The abstracted cinematic quality of her music remains but the lyrical pastiche of previous albums has been replaced with something darker, something closer to the truth. This is particularly relevant in an era where “alternate facts” and “fake news” are helping to rewrite American history. Del Rey takes aim at this cultural devolution—an aim that’s lyrically sharp and fine-pointed. From the album’s title itself—where even the name of the SATURDAY EVENING POST’s famed cover artist is interrupted by profane expletive—Del Rey endeavors to deconstruct the idealized Americana she’s spent nearly a decade crooning about and Rockwell immortalized through his iconic series of magazine covers. And she does so with beguilingly vicious songwriting chops. Complex and elegant, NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL! ushers in a new era in the Del Rey songbook.

Standout tracks: “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman to Have,” “Doin’ Time,” and “The Greatest”

4- MINT / Alice Merton

This electrifyingly eclectic indie pop-rock collection from the nomadic German-born, Canadian-raised, English-based, singer-songwriter-pianist Merton was one of 2019’s earliest treats, dropping in January and preceded by single releases of four tracks from the album.

The fifteen infectious tracks on MINT (eleven on the album proper, four additional tracks on the album add-on MINT +4) are primarily dance-rock confections with an indie vibe, chockful of thumping bass lines and clapping backbeats, sing-along choruses and uplifting synths. Rising and falling between cool-calm-collected and pure rampage, Merton employs vocal pitch and the tempo of the music itself to both appease and agitate. Lyrically, the collection is one of positivity and youthful nomadism, striking a perfect balance between realism and idealism. Vocally, Merton may call to mind Florence Welch (of Florence + The Machine), especially on softer tracks like “Back to Berlin” and “Honeymoon Heartbreak.”

Standout tracks: “Learn to Live,” “No Roots,” “Funny Business,” and “Lash Out”


Musical fusion is the gift that British singer-songwriter Yola brings to her dramatic country-soul debut, WALK THROUGH FIRE. With a lyrical bent that veers decidedly more Americana coupled with a retro country-western musicality—complete with fiddles and steel guitars, organs and glockenspiels—WALK THROUGH FIRE is a glorious genre-busting musical journey anchored by Yola’s powerful sonic palette that she instinctively knows when to harness and when to let loose and her poignant songwriting, which alternates between susceptibility to circumstance and chest-pounding emancipation from the past.

Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys uses his penchant for indulgence in a retro, pre-synthesizer vintage sound quality to great effect on WALK THROUGH FIRE and his robust production is nothing short of a glorious throwback to Nashville’s 60’s sound—that musical moment in time when country-western music went pop. One reason for this authenticity is Auerbach’s use of vintage session musicians like drummer Gene Chrisman and pianist Bobby Wood, both of The Memphis Boys—the original house band from American Sound Studio in Memphis, which was the musical point of origination for classic recordings like Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” and Dusty Springfield’s DUSTY IN MEMPHIS album. One listen and you’ll swear you’ve emerged from a time capsule circa 1969.

Standout tracks: “Faraway Look,” “Lonely the Night,” and “Love Is Light.”

2- CAUSE & EFFECT / Keane

On their first studio album in seven years, British foursome Keane returned this year with their most accomplished and authentic album to date. Musically, all of Keane’s trademarks remain intact: Sunny, radio-friendly fare punctuated by irresistibly swelling choruses, emotive piano chords, and Tom Chaplin’s soaring voice. But lyrically, the band goes deeper—daresay, darker—on this fifth effort, with the real-life addiction of one band member and the failed marriage and subsequent depression of another winding subtly through the proceedings. The result is a newfound depth and vulnerability that make CAUSE & EFFECT a standout effort while adhering to the band’s winning formula of sophisticated British pop rock that harkens as far back to the 1980s with predecessors like Spandau Ballet and Johnny Hates Jazz.

Standout tracks: “Love Too Much,” “Stupid Things,” “Phases,” and “Chase the Night Away”

1- WESTERN STARS / Bruce Springsteen

Confession time: I’ve never owned a Bruce Springsteen album. Nope—never been a fan of The Boss or, more specifically, his music. While my high school classmates were popping cassettes of his 80’s juggernaut BORN IN THE USA into their boomboxes, I was jamming out to bands from the second wave of the British invasion like Duran Duran, Culture Club, and Eurythmics.

But that all changed this year with Springsteen’s release of WESTERN STARS, a gorgeous, achingly contemplative musical reflection on life told through the eyes of an artist who’s lived one. The down-and-out male narrators of the thirteen country-tinged folk pop tracks that comprise the lush orchestral landscape of WESTERN STARS all have a similar story to tell—tales of failure and missed opportunities, reflections on their life choices and the mental, physical, and spiritual tolls of those choices. A pervading sense of being older yet still restless, lost and still wandering, while life has somehow quickly passed by gives the album an elegiac nod to the shortening timeline that each of us—and Springsteen as well—face in the never-ending succession of sunrises and sunsets that mark off each elapsing day. It’s an album about looking back on shadows long cast and the quest to find our own relevancy in life. And while the broken raconteurs of WESTERN STARS may lament being past their prime, Springsteen’s 19th studio album proves he’s anything but.

Just ask his newest fan.

Standout tracks: “There Goes My Miracle,” “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” “Tucson Train,” and “Sleepy Joe’s Café”

Not every album I enjoyed this year ranked within my Top Ten list but are nonetheless worthy of mention. Here are my Honorable Mentions of 2019 (in no particular order):

LOVE + FEAR / Marina


THE MEDICINE SHOW / Melissa Etheridge


DAYLIGHT / Grace Potter

CHAMPION / Bishop Briggs


COURAGE / Celine Dion


CHEAP QUEEN / King Princess

ON THE LINE / Jenny Lewis