Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (80-76)

“So I thought you were counting these albums down in groups of 10?” absolutely nobody will ask when seeing this group of five ’90s albums. Well, I haven’t had a lot of time to write lately, and rather than have these sitting around like yesterday’s dirty diapers, I figured I’d bundle them up and take them down to the dump (a.k.a. post them). So there you go. Enjoy!

80. Propellerheads – Decksanddrumsandrockandroll (1998)

Whether they’re the result of the legitimate, organic rise of a new artistic sensibility, or something manufactured by critics who are magnanimous with their “next big thing” proclamations, all pop music trends are fads, destined to flame out. So instead of letting them dictate the way you walk, talk and dress, why not do something that will never go out of style – find a good groove and dance to it. This is the message of Propellerheads’ single “History Repeating,” a propulsive spy movie rave up, complete with a gutsy Shirley Bassey vocal, that realized the mainstream potential of electronica while mocking the hype machine that had been predicting just that for years. On the British duo’s first and only LP, they give several examples of the kind of tracks that could inspire critics to go all Nostradamus, doing monstrous things with drums and bass lines that could seemingly stretch on forever without losing their adrenaline-spiking energy. “Take California,” “Bang On!” or the Matrix-approved “Spybreak!” make driving to work feel like a million-dollar chase sequence. When sequenced with quieter, quirkier moments like the groovy kitsch of “Velvet Pants” and the loping, skater hip hop of “360 (Oh Yeah?)” (which features De La Soul at their effortless-sounding best), Decksanddrumsandrockandroll becomes an evergreen listen, an album that will always be as much fun as it was the day it came out. My flannel is long gone, and these beats are forever.

The understatement of the album comes on “Velvet Pants” – “It’s groovy, I guess.”

79. RZA – Bobby Digital In Stereo (1998)

By the time RZA got around to releasing an album under his own name, he was seen as a pretty solid hip hop double threat – a genius producer who had garnered respect as a rapper as well. Bobby Digital In Stereo solidified this status. Not only was it the treasure trove of dramatic, confrontational beats we’d come to expect (and this a year after the double-LP Wu-Tang Forever. Damn, were we spoiled), it was the first real revelation of RZA’s abilities on the mic. He dishes out some wild, brilliant tongue-lashings here, making the record’s kinda lame “digital v. analog” concept sound like the toughest street battle this side of Mobb Deep, and shouldering the burden of keeping the adrenaline flowing over the course of 17 tracks. That said, Bobby Digital drags just a bit in the middle, but it’s thanks to a glut of guest rappers (RZA only contributes six verses from tracks 8-15). And it pretty much doesn’t matter, because the man closes things in unforgettably explosive fashion. “My Lovin’ Is Digi” is grand and ridiculous and sublime; pairing a huge string loop with a chorus that’s sung with hilarious gravity: “Sometimes, I find someone fuckin’ with my pussy.” Then there’s “Domestic Violence.” Jesus Christ, “Domestic Violence.” An ugly, misanthropic argument between RZA and guest Jamie Sommers, the track is both a raw nerve of rage and bitterness, and a massively successful piece of entertainment. Hearing Sommers laundry list all the things about RZA that “ain’t shit,” how could you not join in?

78. Leaders of the New School – A Future Without A Past … (1991)

The title of Leaders of the New School’s debut album is a reference to youth, and all the hope and possibilities it implies. And it completely delivers on that idea. Charlie Brown, Busta Rhymes, Dinco D and DJ Cut Monitor Milo inject every track with endearing, juvenile energy – these guys weren’t just skilled MCs, they were kids whose dreams were coming true, and their joy informed everything they laid to tape during these sessions. This is what makes A Future Without A Past one of the upper-echelon Native Tongues albums; where A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were exploring the power of positive thinking, Leaders of the New School was about innocence. A loose schoolyard concept informs classic tracks like “Case of the P.T.A.,” where the guys reflect on how parents and teachers just don’t get it over a completely infectious New Jack Swing groove, and “Show Me A Hero,” a “Gambler”-lifting warning shot to bullies in which Busta steals the show just by reciting his height and weight. If the rising star’s commanding baritone tends to shine just a little brighter than his bandmates, it was all part of LOTNS’ perfect pH balance, leveling out the bizarre shrieks of Brown and the steadying force of Dinko. Hearing them gleefully playing off each other really shines a light on how much the group dynamic has faded from modern hip hop. If you ever get tired of hearing solo records littered with guest spots, crank this up loud, and rejoice in the blissful synergy. Who cares if it gets you detention?

Just try to deny the youthful energy of “Case of the P.T.A.”

77. Lou Reed – Magic & Loss (1992)

Lulu, Lou Reed’s much-maligned 2011 collaboration with Metallica, has joined the likes of Gigli and Glitter as shorthand for an artistic train wreck. And on paper, Reed’s 1992 effort Magic & Loss looks like something destined for a similar fate – a concept album about death from an aging auteur striving to prove he’s still relevant. But in reality, this is the polar opposite of Lulu’s fancifully misguided theater. Shaken by the actual death of a friend from cancer, Reed sat down and wrote lyrics that are as subtle as chemotherapy. He marvels at the fact that the same thing that killed people at Chernobyl was helping his friend buy time. He wrestles with ideas of spirituality, bowing to their sanctity one moment, deriding them as “mystic shit” the next. And through it all, no matter how crushingly depressing the songs become, Reed handles them with that classic sense of cool, his resigned sing/speak translating it all into something like hope. He’s always been great at tackling material rich in conflicting moods – “Perfect Day” kicks your ass every time, because it’s about happiness in the context of sadness. Magic & Loss is “Perfect Day” on steroids, then, an album that finds beauty and mystery in the brutal unfairness of life. “I’m sick of looking at me/I hate this painful body,” he sings over the lone, mournful guitar figure on “Magician,” a harrowing tale of a spirit longing for freedom that’s among his best work. Like the album it anchors, it’s riddled with loss, yet feels like magic.

Put on a leather jacket and your best contemplative expression, and give “Magician” a spin.

76. Depeche Mode – Violator (1990)

When you’re alone, you can rule your own universe. It’s a theme that’s been used for several classic pop songs about adolescence. But when I first saw the video for Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” I’d never heard “In My Room” or “I Am A Rock.” I was in 7th grade, an introverted kid who typically loved extroverted music – bands like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Guns n’ Roses  possessed such audacious confidence, it seemed like an interplanetary transmission to a boy like me. But the “Enjoy the Silence” video spoke to me on a deeper level, and could very possibly have been the first work of art to do so. It told me that I wasn’t the only one who shied away from social situations, that, in fact, it was a kingly pursuit to avoid the everyday noises of life. “Words are very unnecessary/They can only do harm,” sings David Gahan as he walks through one gorgeous landscape after another, dressed in a crown and cape and carrying a lawn chair, stopping from time to time to heed the direction of the song’s title. Violator is full of introspective struggles like this – my 12-year-old brain wasn’t savvy enough to understand these songs that wrestled with ideas of faith, and truth, and love. But those haunting goth-pop melodies were more than enough to make me obsessed; plus, as a Catholic school kid I could sense the delicious sacrilege that was being committed on “Personal Jesus.” I loved this album then, despite it standing out of my cassette collection like a sore thumb, and it has only become more poignant with age. The more I’ve discovered about why I love Violator, the more I’ve learned about the younger me, that awkward king of his own quiet world.

Here’s “Enjoy the Silence.” Please enjoy it, even though it’s interrupting your silence.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (90-81)


90. Cibo Matto – Stereo ★ Type A (1999)

As delightfully trippy as it was, Viva! La Woman, the first album from the duo of Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda, boasted a formula that seemed best suited to a one-off project – a band that names itself after the Italian translation for “crazy food,” and writes a bunch of weird acid-jazz songs about food. But luckily for us, instead of belaboring things, Cibo Matto expanded its artistic vision, along with its lineup, for its outstanding follow-up. Gastronomy is only a passing fancy here, with Hatori and Honda applying their distinctly strange lyrical touches to wider themes of love and cosmology. More importantly, they keep the non sequiturs to the verbal realm – Stereo ★ Type A ditches the muddier patchwork production of Viva! for widescreen accessibility. On the earwormy dance-pop of “Spoon” and “Lint Of Love,” the geek-rap of “Sci-Fi Wasabi,” and the light samba of “Stone,” Cibo Matto suddenly sounded like a group that was meant to make great records deep into the next millennium. Of course, they broke up in 2001.

Here’s the eminently funky “Spoon.” Feel free to cut a rug, or freak dance, or whatever the kids are calling it these days.

89. Barenaked Ladies – Maybe You Should Drive (1994)

Here’s the second wonderfully talented Toronto band to appear on this list, and hindsight hasn’t been kind to either. But unlike Moxy Früvous, who was just more of a live animal, Barenaked Ladies’ oeuvre is colored by the mainstream success it experienced later in the decade – success that can mostly be attributed to one completely obnoxious single, and a handful of innocuously bland tracks released in its wake. Listening to the band’s earlier work now, I can’t help but look for evidence of the “One Week” formula everywhere (finding it all over its debut, Gordon, for the record). But Maybe You Should Drive emerges from this pop forensics investigation largely unscathed. It’s the band’s most “grown-up” album, a collection of cleverly penned, XTC-indebted pop tunes and whisper-serious ballads. Steven Page was on a roll here, contributing his classic unrequited love song “Jane,” the country-pop beauty “You Will Be Waiting,” and the charmingly unabashed novelty cut “A.” And while Ed Robertson’s groovy folk melodrama “Am I The Only One?” might not clench my heart the same way it did 18 years ago, it still has its way with me when it comes on. I selfishly wish BNL stayed down this path, instead of beginning their inexorable decline with the forced cheerfulness of Born On A Pirate Ship. They most certainly wouldn’t have hit pay dirt in that fashion, which is why I don’t manage rock bands for a living.

Step into the shoes of a sensitive, creepily possessive dude, with the jazzy acoustic ballad “Am I The Only One?”

88. Arsonists – As The World Burns (1999)

As The World Burns begins with a clever nod to “A Day In The Life,” blending studio chatter with a clip of that string section burning chromatically through the octaves. The reference works, because while As The World Burns isn’t Sgt. Pepper’s, both albums share a similar goal – to off-set the expected with the occasional tripped-out detour. Arsonists gives you the adrenalized street-rap showcases you’d expect from a late-’90s Brooklyn hip-hop group, like “Backdraft” and “Shit Ain’t Sweet.” But they follow them up with “Pyromaniax,” a track that finds MCs Q-Unique and D-Stroy getting profoundly whacked over a goofy calliope loop, to the point where they’re doing a Monty Python-esque impersonation of a screaming Cockney couple (an experience that rivals dog whistles and backwards recordings in the fantastically strange department). It reminds me of a recent Wu-Tang show, where Method Man spent a good amount of time complaining about how today’s hip-hop artists have forgotten how to have fun. I’m not sure I agree with him, but listening to this album does make me see his point – we don’t hear too many records like As The World Burns these days, albums whose only goals are to stop people in their tracks, get them laughing, and keep them dancing.

“Pyromaniax” is the quintessential Arsonists song for sure, but my favorite is “Backdraft,” a powder keg of NYC hip-hop that storms out the gate, and impressively, never flags.

87. Tori Amos – Boys For Pele (1996)

As a teenage boy who spent the ’90s attempting to play keyboards and pretending to not be deathly afraid of girls, I was heavy into Tori Amos. Sure, I didn’t understand much of anything she was singing about, but it was art, man. Sensitive art that showed what an amazingly sensitive man I was. As I slowly grew out of this juvenile cocoon, met my ravishing wife, and realized that few things were more insufferable than a man who hopes his CD collection will get women to like him, Amos’ records started to lose the magic I so resolutely believed they had when I was 16. But Boys For Pele holds a shadow of that mystique to this day, possessing everything that the artist does best – complicated clusters of piano and harpsichord notes, seriously dramatic dynamic shifts, the occasional stone-cold groove, and lyrics that go where the flakiest lyricists fear to tread. Like any Amos album, it’s heavily indebted to Kate Bush, but Pele has her discography’s highest percentage of original ideas, from the neo-classical piano licks of “Father Lucifer” to the grinding harpsichord riffage of “Professional Widow” and the rainy day blues of “Little Amsterdam.” Most importantly, as a player, Amos is at her best here, keeping the show-offy passages to a minimum and letting the chords do their thing. I still look at it with more nostalgia than anything else, but in the context of all the boring dance tracks, labored literary references and bat shit characters that followed it, Boys For Pele has aged pretty darn gracefully.

“Little Amsterdam” is my favorite cut here, if only because it shows how good Amos could be when she kept things simple.

86. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – Question The Answers (1994)

I mentioned this in my comments about Sublime earlier, but you probably didn’t read that, so I’ll say it again – I was once smitten with the mid-’90s mini-revival of ska/punk. As a quiet kid with plenty of pent-up energy, I loved these bands with seemingly boundless reserves of adrenaline, soaking up their irreverent material and catchy horn parts. But like anything that’s heavily templated, 95% of this stuff was too repetitive to make any lasting impact on my listening habits. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are one of the few artists that survived this ska-pocalypse; they were a party band, yes, but one with a little depth and nuance beneath all the fun hooks. In my view, they were able to do what no other group could – staying comfortably within the restrictive ska-punk guidelines (horn section part, sped-up reggae verse, thrashy punk chorus, repeat) while crafting a sound that’s completely their own. Question The Answers was the zenith of the group’s rowdy-yet-accessible sound, combining “singer” Dicky Barrett’s Tom Waits-meets-Henry Rollins growl with some of the decade’s most skillfully arranged horn charts (the riff on “Hell Of A Hat” is that forever kind of cool). Jet-fueled punk tunes like “Dollar And A Dream” and “365 Days” contrast nicely with the poppy nostalgia of “Pictures to Prove It.” And the working-stiff lament “Jump Through the Hoops” closes everything with an effective mix of the boisterous and the forlorn. Put it all together, and you’ve got a record with wider shades of grey than any ska-punk band had a right to explore.

“Hell Of A Hat” isn’t the best complete song on the record. But that horn part. Damn.

85. Eminem – The Slim Shady LP (1999)

Remember when Eminem was funny? Before he was equal parts hero and pariah? Before he cared about haters and leaned on melodramatic drug metaphors? It’s understandable if you don’t, because the polarizing MC only had one album under his belt before he became a passionately beloved and despised superstar. The Slim Shady LP will always be his best musical accomplishment, because it couldn’t possibly be tainted by the rapper feeling like he had to respond or live up to anything. He could be a scrawny no-name white dude hilariously berating Dr. Dre for condoning non-violence, the moment that, for me, best encapsulates the joy of Eminem’s debut. The song, “Guilty Conscience,” was a brilliant concept – have Em play the devil, and Dre play the angel, appearing over the shoulders of a series of protagonists experiencing moral crises. By pitting this mega-talented youngster against his legendary old-guard producer, challenging him to be relevant again, reminding him how much fucking fun music could be, the track bristled with a thrilling kind of energy. Not to say Marshall Mathers couldn’t carry a tune on his own; the rest of the record finds him unfurling verses full of snarky humor and random blasts of open-vein honesty, over dance-floor ready beats that remind us these tracks were not meant to be taken too seriously. The most controversial cut is also one of the best – a blistering spoof of Will Smith’s squeaky clean “Just the Two of Us.” “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” puts the rapper in the shoes of a father driving his baby down to the beach, so he can dump his wife’s body in the ocean. Like a South Park episode that creates an entire plot line just so it can make fun of a celebrity, Eminem crafted this pitch-black satire for the express purpose of dissing Smith’s bland, pandering hit. Future albums would have snatches of this vibrant, rebellious personalitybut ultimately fail, because Eminem had become one of those people he so gleefully skewered on The Slim Shady LP – somebody who gives a fuck.

Of all the examples of Eminem’s singular talent in evidence here, the purest is “Brain Damage,” which shows the artist was at his best in the role of bullied outcast.

84. Urge Overkill – Saturation (1993)

After grunge and alternative rock exploded, A&R execs bent over backwards to sign any band with loud guitars and self-loathing issues. Criticize the approach if you will, but it did result in a major label contract for Urge Overkill, despite the fact that the band wasn’t all that grungey, sounding more like Elvis Costello moonlighting in a cock rock band (not exactly a template to get them on “120 Minutes”). Yes, Saturation, the group’s first effort for Geffen, shares some of the same glam influences as fellow Chicagoans Smashing Pumpkins, and a couple of the riffs possess a slight whiff of Seattle grit. But the pervading mood is Saturday night swagger, not Sunday morning regret. Whether they’re tearing through big, shiny rock anthems like “Sister Havana,” filthing things up with the bloozy riffage of “The Stalker,” or channeling the Ramones on the kinetic “Woman 2 Woman,” Urge Overkill put their desires to be bad-ass above any need to make deep emotional connections (the exception to the rule being the stunning ballad “Dropout”). Add singer Nash Kato’s rich, puckish tenor to the mix, and you’ve got one of the sexiest LPs to ever be pigeonholed as alternative rock. Urge Overkill might’ve worn flannel, but it was most definitely obscured by black leather jackets.

And after all that raving about UO’s manly swagger, I’ve gotta go with “Dropout” as my favorite Saturation track. A stripped-down plea to get away from a life of hanging out in Dairy Queen parking lots, it stands out like a nightingale in a biker gang.

83. Outkast – ATLiens (1996)

“Holding on to memories like roller coaster handle bars,” shares Andre 3000 on “E.T.,” one of the many subdued, introspective tracks on ATLiens. It’s an apt sentiment on a record that finds the motormouthed twosome exploring sounds that had little to do with the past, ending up with a record that could arguably be called the birthplace of Dirty South hip hop. Casting themselves as Peach State aliens with checkered pasts, uncertain futures and healthy egos, Andre and Big Boi were fully aware of the bold artistic leaps they were taking on their second album. Leaving the Death Row-Native Tongues hybrid of its debut in the dust, Outkast isn’t afraid to let the music simmer to a slow boil, building “Wheelz Of Steel” on little more than a mournful B3 loop, crafting something truly ominous with the soft vocal hums of “Babylon.” Equally important is the duo’s remarkably constrained vocals; both rappers manage to temper the volume of their rapid-fire verses, without sacrificing any of their intensity. ATLiens suffers a bit from the even more rarified air explored on ensuing Outkast albums, where its formula was expanded to include Parliament-sized funk workouts and world-beating pop singles. These days, it plays like the artful come-down after Stankonia’s life-changing mind fuck. Which is surely cooler than a polar bear’s toenails.

If I hadn’t played the title track to death over the years, it would be my choice here. Hence, I’m picking the harrowing, slinky “Babylon,” which finds Andre 3000 rapping about being born addicted to coke, and Big Boi struggling with Catholic guilt.

82. Emmylou Harris – Wrecking Ball (1995)

He’ll probably be best remembered for the massive hit records he produced in the ’80s, but it’s the deeply resonant career resurrections of the ’90s that impress me most about Daniel Lanois. The producer proved himself to be the polished, perfectionist counterpart to Rick Rubin, exhibiting an uncanny ability to put his own, richly detailed touches on albums by artists with their own fully developed egos (a decade working with Bono will do that). On Emmylou Harris’ 17th album, Lanois pulls off the most sophisticated trick of his career, de-twanging the arrangements for the legendary country songbird, relying on her inimitable voice as the only connective tissue between her previous work and this lushly produced blend of adult contemporary and Americana. It was a calculated risk, one that paid off beautifully. Wrecking Ball is a gorgeous offering of wide-screened, cloudy sky pop, on which Harris proves Lanois right with every syllable she sings. Her crystalline instrument infuses all the regret and hard-earned joy these tracks call for, bringing songs by Neil Young, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan to new levels of delicacy and poignancy, supported all the way by Lanois’ generous washes of reverb. It’s the kind of record that could start a spirited “what is country?” debate – is it the instrumentation and the subject matter, or is it a more intangible vibe? If you’re prepared to argue the latter, make Wrecking Ball your Exhibit A.

When Emmylou sings Welch’s “Orphan Girl,” the heartbreak of it all is almost too much to bear.

81. The Black Crowes – Amorica (1994)

For somebody following a band from the very beginning, there’s no better moment than the realization that they’ve elevated their game. To somebody who would have been thoroughly pleased with the same old, same old, even the smallest sign of growth can hit like a firecracker. Yeah, I know I’m talking about The Black Crowes, whose brand of Georgia bellbottom boogie isn’t normally associated with artistic boldness. The band initially caught on as fodder for fans of classic rock dinosaurs in the early-’90s – a time when my love of classic rock dinosaurs was at its peak. I got heavy into the Crowes, loving how Chris Robinson sang to the rafters over all the southern-fried Zeppelin riffs and gospel slow-burns. By the time Amorica came out, the group’s first two albums were classics in my mind. So when I first heard how loose and confident they sounded on the percussion-heavy groove of “Gone,” it was like a Stones fan hearing Beggars Banquet for the first time. That familiar sound had become something richer, earthier, and more significant. Now that it’s been almost 20 years since Amorica gave me that feeling, its pleasures have descended from the spiritual plane. But pleasures they remain, from the organic grooves of “High Head Blues” and “Wiser Time” to the regret-laden epic “Cursed Diamond” and the gorgeous, stoner/Bruce Hornsby ballad “Descending,” whose piano outro still chokes me up.

Here’s “Wiser Time,” a lazy river of a country-rock song with a great, cowbell-inflected beat.

Franz List: Top 100 Albums of the 1990s

For five years now, I’ve been lucky enough to review concerts as a freelancer for The Buffalo News. It’s a gig that’s gotten me free admission to some of the best performances I’ve ever seen. But there’s a small downside. Not only do I have to encounter artists that I don’t like from time to time, but I have to contemplate the reasons for their popularity. And in the case of a Daughtry show I recently covered, this experience shook me. The massively popular band represents the worst nightmare of a listener who once worshipped the likes of Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains – not “post-grunge,” but “post-post-grunge.” Sure, Daughtry rips off Eddie Vedder, but it’s by way of Scott Stapp. It’s like a mad scientist created club-footed, brain-dead clones of the best bands of the 1990s, and then made those clones procreate. This concert filled me with pop culture paranoia – was any of the music I grew up with actually any good?

Which is a long way of explaining why I’ve decided to revisit the soundtrack to my high school and college years, and list my top 100 albums of the decade. It was refreshing to realize that, even seen in hindsight’s harsh, unforgiving light, a lot of the stuff I loved holds up. I’m sure nostalgia is clouding my judgment on many of these choices, but jeez, I’m human, for fuck’s sake.

So, when the biggest rock band of 2021 credits Daughtry as its main influence, I’ll have this list to come back to, and remind myself that yes, it was good. Let’s start with albums 100-91, along with my favorite track from each.

100. Moxy Früvous – Bargainville (1993)

Remember how I said that thing about nostalgia just now? Well, this record’s on here largely because of it. Don’t get me wrong, Moxy Früvous was teeming with talent – a Toronto quartet of multi-instrumentalists who harmonized like a hybrid of The Beatles and The Andrews Sisters. But in concert was where the group really shone; its energy, humor, and awe-inspiring tightness made for some of the most memorable live experiences of my teenage years. Bargainville is its best album, a mix of poignant folk and quirky novelty tunes. Listening to it today does make me cringe just a bit – why, oh why, does it begin with a ballad about our dying environment (“River Valley”)? Sure, Bargainville might be an awkward mix of the self-serious and the seriously nerdy. But that’s also a dead-on description of me at 15.

My favorite track is the album’s closer, the a cappella beauty “Gulf War Song.” Yeah, I know, groan. But you can’t deny those harmonies.

99. Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)

If this exercise was an attempt at listing the albums I loved and obsessed over in the 1990s, The Chronic would crack the top ten for sure. I was 10 when Straight Outta Compton came out, so Dr. Dre’s solo debut was my first exposure to the lurid, hilarious and irresistible world of gangsta rap. But listening to it now is a bit of a chore – the production remains some of the best in rap history, and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s flow is unimpeachable, but so much of the lyrics are bogged down by Dre’s obsession with his own personal beefs, and frankly, his mediocre rapping ability. To quote Chris Rock: “It’s hard to drive around singing songs about ‘Easy-E can eat a big fat dick.'” Also, this might be the most misogynistic hit record of all time. The song “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is ironic, because the song is most definitely shit. Hearing this album now makes me understand why I can’t get with artists like Odd Future, despite a sound that appeals to my sensibilities – it’s a pain in the ass to have to constantly rationalize to myself why I like something. Despite all of this, I still can’t deny a genius when I hear him; The Chronic makes this list because of Dre’s production wizardry, a singular talent that would shine even brighter on the superior Doggystyle.

The obvious choice, but my choice nonetheless: “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang,” one of the greatest tracks of the decade, let alone this album.

98. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998)

I don’t want to be one of those people who calls something like Lauryn Hill only releasing one album “tragic.” But it is a bummer. Especially when you consider the major flaw of her magnificent debut – its 77-minute running time. So much of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is so impressive, blurring the lines between R&B, gospel and hip hop, laying down a “neo-soul” template that few would come close to matching, brilliantly juxtaposing the bitterness of failed love with the hopes and mysteries of childbirth. Still, it’s tougher than it should be to get through the whole thing, what with the schoolroom skits, the hidden Frankie Valli cover, and the stretch of five long R&B tunes that get you from “Final Hour” to “Everything Is Everything.” One hoped that Hill’s future efforts would maintain this dizzying level of artistry, while exhibiting a stronger ability to self-edit. But that was a lot to expect, it turns out. This one’s all we have, and we should thank god for all 77 of those minutes.

My favorite cut is “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Miseducation‘s biggest hit, and the perfect distillation of its singular neo-soul gumbo.

97. Sublime – Sublime (1996)

By the time ska-punk and swing had infiltrated the mainstream in the mid-’90s, I was immersed in it. Looking back, it’s embarrassing to remember Carson Daly introducing a Reel Big Fish video in a two-tone suit, and it’s more embarrassing to remember how much I loved Reel Big Fish. But even after all this time, and all the guilt I’ve had to process, there’s no doubt in my mind –  Sublime’s third album kicks ass. And I don’t care how many frat boys in pre-torn South Carolina Gamecocks hats agree with me. Bradley Nowell’s swan song revealed him as some kind of stoner-poseur genius. He appropriated hip-hop and reggae tropes in ways that should’ve been embarrassing. He sang about tits, butts and bong loads. But his voice ached and cracked with seemingly unwarranted pathos. Were we hearing an addict struggling to hold on to the good times? Were we just hearing a super-talented guy at his peak? No matter the reason, Sublime rules, bro.

I especially dig “Burritos,” Nowell’s Brian Wilson-ish ode to never getting out of bed, complete with period-appropriate O.J. reference.

96. Soundgarden – Superunknown (1994)

Grunge is often credited as the genre that snuffed out hair metal, which is probably correct. But it’s ironic that Soundgarden was one of these vaunted acts responsible for killing the Crüe, poisoning Poison, and slaughtering Slaughter (I’ll stop there). While it did a better job with the follow through, the band’s formula wasn’t so different from Whitesnake’s – Zeppelin-esque ambition, Sabbathy riffage and a disarmingly pretty lead singer. If you had to bet on one of those Seattle bands becoming rock stars, they were the obvious choice. And Superunknown made good on all of this critical and commercial potential, a darkly tinged arena rock album with just the right mix of killer riffs, power ballads and moody meditations. Its only misstep is “Kickstand,” an workmanlike attempt at snarling punk that just underlines how different Soundgarden was from Nirvana. But what it lacks in gut-punching attitude, Superunknown makes up for in production value. An immaculately crafted work, performed by a singer and lead guitarist at the pinnacle of their powers, this is Soundgarden realizing its destiny – to play those big-ass venues that David Coverdale and company used to pack to the gills.

“Mailman” is my favorite tune here, a sludge-rock masterpiece spiked with an awesomely bitter chorus – “I know I’m headed for the bottom/But I’m riding you all the way.”

95. Primus – Sailing The Seas Of Cheese (1991)

“As I stand in the shower/Singing opera and such/Pondering the possibility that I pull the pud too much/There’s a scent that fills the air/Is it flatus?/Just a touch/And it makes me think of you.” This, my friends, is the essence of Primus, a band that thrived on bass solos, dissonance, nasal sing-speak and songs like “Grandad’s Little Ditty,” the old-weirdo-in-the-shower vignette that my friends and I would croon to each other like it was a Perry Como ballad. It’s just one of many moments on Sailing the Seas of Cheese made to be obsessed over by strange teenage boys, on an album that should’ve aged terribly on paper. But Les Claypool, Larry LaLonde and Herb Alexander happened to be very gifted musicians, and the obtuse nerd-funk grooves they let fly on “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver,” “Is It Luck?” and “Tommy The Cat” are evergreen. The band eventually lost me with 1995’s Tales From A Punchbowl, but for the record, it wasn’t because I’d become an adult or anything – to this day, “Grandad’s Little Ditty” makes me laugh.

This was a tough choice, but I’ve gotta go with “Tommy The Cat” as the ultimate Cheese cut. The guest spot from Tom Waits doesn’t hurt. Speaking of which …

94. Tom Waits – Mule Variations (1999)

After releasing the harrowing Bone Machine in 1992, Tom Waits took a break (1994’s The Black Rider was the soundtrack to a play he wrote and began recording in 1989). When he returned seven years later, it was to introduce yet another phase of his illustrious career. Not a Swordfishtrombones-level reinvention, mind you, but a nuanced move similar to the one Bob Dylan was making at the time – an organic, nostalgic embrace of Americana. The blues always informed Waits’ sound, whether through the hotel bar piano playing of his early records or the wonky pentatonics of his ’80s avant garde period. But on Mule Variations, the style comes through with a clarity that no Waits album, before or since, has possessed. “Lowside of the Road,” “Get Behind the Mule” and “Filipino Box Spring Hog” could all be Muddy Waters covers, and ballads like “Picture In A Frame” take the 12-bar structure into achingly beautiful places. Waits also dabbles in gospel, spoken word and adult contemporary (still waiting for Rod Stewart’s cover of “Hold On”), all with the same clear-headed approach. He lets the songs do the heavy lifting here, minimizing his vocal flights of fancy and keeping the clanging percussion to a minimum. Now I happen to really like those two things, which makes Mule Variations a second-tier Waits album in my mind. One that still kicked the shit out of most of the albums released in the ’90s.

“Don’t want no Abba-Zaba …” Waits delivery of that phrase is just so damn cool, it makes the candy-coated blasphemy blues of “Chocolate Jesus” my favorite song on Mule Variations.

93. Ice Cube – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990)

At NWA’s height, its most talented rapper broke away and went right coast, making a solo album with The Bomb Squad, the production team responsible for Public Enemy’s massive, martial sound. I was too young to know about all of this, but for rap fans at the time, it must’ve been like John Lennon joining The Rolling Stones. To top it off, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted delivers. Ice Cube is at his most breathtakingly volatile, charging out the gate yelling, “I’m sick of getting treated like another damn stepchild!” A simultaneous description of his falling out with NWA and the common plight of African-Americans, the song, “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate,” proved Cube was up to the challenge posed by the Bomb Squad’s crackling soul thunder. Like every gangsta record from this period, Cube’s verses devolve into meathead misogyny from time to time. But the prevailing mood is righteous anger, with the ultimate goal of shining big, fat flood lights on life in Los Angeles ghettos, exposing the problem underlined by the Tom Brokaw clip that kicks of “Rollin’ Wit The Lench Mob”: “Few cared about the violence, because it didn’t affect them.”

Just try and resist the emotional and sonic onslaught of “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate.”

92. Everything But The Girl – Temperamental (1999)

I was never more than a casual fan of electronica during its ’90s heyday, appreciating its propulsive energy and imaginative approach to sampling, but always returning to rock and hip-hop at the end of the day. But a few of these records managed to break through my stubborn listening routine, including this one, in which Everything But The Girl suggested a world of listening possibilities that I was willfully ignoring. Temperamental wasn’t like any electronica I’d heard, a mix of moody synthesizers, jazzy samples and laid-back drum loops that wasn’t meant to get anywhere close to the dance floor. Tracey Thorn’s voice floated majestically over these post-punk techno pastiches, analyzing fizzled relationships with a resigned sense of grace. It’s a beautiful soundtrack for a long bout of after-hours introspection, and while this approach was nothing new to EBTG fans (Temperamental was its 10th album), it was, and remains, an eye-opener for me.

Check out “Low Tide Of The Night,” which includes one of the most elegant descriptions of depression I’ve ever heard – “Inside out in the daytime/Outside in in the night time.”

91. Cracker – Kerosene Hat (1993)

Cracker doesn’t get the breathless critical raves of its contemporaries, despite Kerosene Hat being in the same alt-country ether as Uncle Tupelo’s best work. That probably has everything to do with “Low,” the huge-ass hit song that was the only way a kid like me could become aware of David Lowery’s post-Camper Van Beethoven ensemble. Despite its rootsy, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers groove, “Low” bumped shoulders with “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Today” on radio playlists, meaning Cracker was seemingly all about the “alt,” and not about the “country.” Which just ain’t the case. Dusting off this disc has been the most pleasurable thing about this whole project so far; I’d simply forgotten how great these songs are – “Get Off This” and “Sick Of Goodbyes” join “Low” as examples of alt-country at its peak.

What a segue! Here’s “Sick Of Goodbyes,” whose chorus still gives me goosebumps.

Franz List: Unintentional Scares

Hey, list fiends. Halloween is creeping around the corner like a scary ghost. Which means it’s time for a list about being scared about stuff. Last year we counted down the “funnest” horror movies of all time, exploring such feel-good titles as The Gingerdead Man and Sleepwalkers. This year, we analyze some pop culture that isn’t supposed to be scary, but still manages to make me pee in my pants a little.

1. Unexpected Cookie Monster
John Lennon, “Hold On”

When I fell in love with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, I was doing a lot of driving – my incredible girlfriend (now my wife) was going to school an hour and a half away, and I sped my Dodge Neon down there every chance I got. On one of these voyages, I heard “Hold On” for the first time. A sparse, sauntering lullaby, “Hold On” is a quiet moment on an album informed by scream therapy. But at the 1:08 mark, just as you start to settle into the song’s aesthetic, a gravelly voice flies out of leftfield, stating “Cookie.” When I first heard this, I whipped my head around in the driver’s seat, fully expecting to see a wild-eyed drifter in the back, making to stab me with a rusty switchblade. Turns out that was John himself, imitating Cookie Monster for reasons I still don’t understand. But that moment has stuck with me – when he sings “It’s gonna be all right” on the chorus, I’m not convinced.

2. The Famous Amos Penis Scene
Burlesque

There’s not much that isn’t frightening about Burlesque, the 2010 musical about a wooden small-town girl who flees to the L.A. of an alternate universe, where one can become a huge star as a burlesque performer, because the general public cares about burlesque. Christina Aguilera wanders through the shots like a lobotomy victim, Cher looks like a Madame Tussauds monster, and the songs are horrible, but those things are to be expected. Not so the scene where Aguilera’s excruciating flirtations with love interest Cam Gigandet come to a head – Gigandet does an extended strip tease that’s intended to be cute (enter the bedroom fully clothed, come back into the living room under some pretense but a little more naked, repeat). Then, just as we’re lulled into a catatonic acceptance of this sequence’s “romantic” endgame, Gigandet walks up to Aguilera with a box of Famous Amos cookies covering his dong. “Wanna cookie?” he asks. It’s gross. It’s nonsensical. It’s not even the funniest box of cookies that one could use to conceal their genitals (Otis Spunkmeyer, anyone?). When you’re done screaming, this is the kind of insult to your intelligence, and your sweet tooth, that lives on in your nightmares.

3. Arnold Knows Best
Commando 

The daddy-daughter montage during the opening credits of Commando is intended to be the brief calm before the storm – because like any brilliant action film, this 1985 Schwarzenegger classic knows to get the character development out of the way as quickly as possible, and get right to the ass-kicking. But nothing in the ensuing shoot-em-up is as frightening as the beginning of this sequence, which finds an especially bulgy Arnold chopping wood. A shadowy presence approaches, and the music implies that this must be a bad guy. Arnold sees his enemy in the reflection of his axe, and at the last second, he spins around and … grabs his daughter Jenny, laughing and shaking her awkwardly. Is this a game they play, where the kid tries to sneak up on her father while he’s wielding an axe? It doesn’t matter, because now they’re goofing around at ice cream stands and feeding fawns in the wild. Still, although the entire premise of Commando is that Arnold loves his daughter so much that he’d annihilate an island nation to save her, you’ve gotta wonder if she’d be safer with the terrorists.

4. You WHAT into me?
Dave Matthews Band, “Crash Into Me”

Like most Dave Matthews Band ballads, “Crash Into Me” meanders along inoffensively, pairing pleasant open chords with loving sentiments like adult contemporary hits are supposed to. It’s exactly the kind of tune that shouldn’t have a chorus about having unprotected sex with Dave Matthews. “Crash into me/And I come into you,” Matthews warbles, making for one of the most uncomfortable and messy-sounding come-ons in rock history.

5. Boohbah

As if the concept of tripping human-animal hybrids with TVs for stomachs wasn’t creepy enough, Boohbah ups the ante on grotesque, oddly fascinating programming for babies. The Boohbahs are furry, fluorescent-colored creatures who look like mauled genitalia – bumpy oval heads peeking out of big furry sacks. When they’re not chanting “Booh-bah” like a children’s choir, they’re bobbing their heads up and down and making fart noises. Saying their names in a certain order is a surefire way to raise the dead – Humbah, Zumbah, Zing Zing Zingbah, Jumbah, Jingbah …

6. America’s Sweetheart Has A Seizure
Steel Magnolias

Southern women are sassy and strong. That’s basically the plot of Steel Magnolias. Even when one of them dies tragically, it only serves to underline the point that these ladies are more resilient than a million Tom Skerritts. So when Julia Roberts has a horrifying diabetic seizure in Dolly Parton’s salon chair, with Sally Field and Olympia Dukakis watching, it’s a harrowing chink in the armor of these superhuman Southern belles. But that’s not necessarily scary. What is scary is that Roberts looks like a tapeworm monster in this scene. Which probably explains why I curl up in the fetal position when I hear the words, “Drink your juice, Shelby.”

7. Did you kill my son?
Changeling

Some of the scariest sci-fi stories involve the alien takeover of human consciousness, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Thing. How else can we explain how Angelina Jolie behaves in Clint Eastwood’s underwhelming 2008 period piece Changeling? She plays a woman whose child is kidnapped, only to have the authorities try to pass off some other kid as hers. You’d think there’d be some righteous fury here, something to give the audience the sense of catharsis that results in Oscar nods. But Jolie is bewilderingly robotic. When confronting the man who she thinks is her son’s murderer, the script requires her to ask the question “Did you kill my son?” about 400 times. And while Jolie tries to mix it up, first asking politely and then yelling it in the guy’s face, there isn’t a trace of human emotion to be found – by then, the pod people had completely taken over.

Franz List: Oldies But Newies

Last week saw the release of Rave On Buddy Holly, a lovingly slapped together collection of artists interpreting the work of one of rock history’s most enduring phenoms. Which got me thinking about where these covers rank alongside other great versions of classic tunes. Here’s my list of the top 10 oldies covers of all time (we’ll classify “oldies” as stuff originally released in the ’50s and ’60s). One Rave On track moved me so much, it threatened to be #1.

10. Elliott Smith – “Because” (1999)

Of all the crimes that American Beauty has committed (portraying women as nagging psychos, portraying homosexuals as murderous psychos, etc.), slapping this heartbreaking performance from Elliott Smith over the end credits is one of the worst. (If you aren’t sure if Sam Mendes takes himself too seriously, here’s your proof.) “Because” might be the most “spiritual” song in the Beatles catalog, one that asks huge questions in the humblest ways. But Smith, a patron saint of loneliness in pop music at the time, delivered these lines with less wonder and more existentialist dread. While the mid-song instrumentation is loyally aped, it doesn’t provide much of a catharsis. Because at the core of it all is Smith, building four-part harmonies all by himself, singing gorgeously into the void.

9. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” (1980)

There’s usually nothing more throwaway than a punked-out version of a slow-burning oldie. But there’s nothing usual about The Attractions, whose caffeinated take on Sam & Dave’s 1967 torch song is one of their most aggressively catchy recordings. Factor in Costello delivering those man-scorned lyrics in his beautifully bitter tenor, and you’ve got a cover that’s the opposite of disposable.

8. She & Him – “I Should Have Known Better” (2008)

You could argue that a Beatles cover is actually the coward’s way out – if you nail it, then you’re a genius who can reinterpret The Beatles. If you flub it, it’s a Beatles song, what did you expect? On their debut album, She & Him might’ve played it safe with this dreamy hula cover of my sixth-favorite Fab Four cut. But boy did they nail it. It’s a recording that’s perfect for the seaside, but thanks to a slower tempo and some shoegaze vocals, it never crosses over to the twee-side.

7. The Black Crowes – “Hard to Handle” (1990)

When the Black Crowes released this fiery sendup of an Otis Redding gem as the third single off its debut album, the mix of ’60s soul and Southern bar band boogie inspired me to make Shake Your Money Maker the first compact disc I ever bought. Considering that my earlier purchases included Natalie Cole’s “Pink Cadillac” cassette single, this cover will always sound like a profoundly new experience to me.

6. Nina Simone – “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (1971)

One of the finest interpreters of popular music takes a typically hazy Bob Dylan song – a guy goes to Juarez at Easter time, gets tired of making oblique literary references down there, and decides to go back to New York City – removes the jocular sneer, and replaces it with a gentle, sympathetic tone. Over light percussion and delicate jazz guitar, Simone digs deep, turning some of Dylan’s more sarcastic lines into deeply tragic moments (e.g. “My best friend the doctor won’t even say what it is I got.”).

5. David Bowie – “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (1973)

On this Aladdin Sane highlight, Bowie manages to make one of the Rolling Stones’ perennial come-ons sound even more coked-out, combining frantically mashed piano chords and blast-off synths with a lightning tempo. The hypercharged arrangement makes the narrator sound less confident, more desperate, and leagues sexier.

4. Cat Power – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (2000)

Much like Simone did to Dylan, Cat Power does to the Stones, turning their iconic ode to unquenchable desire into a stripped, vulnerable folk song, exposing the constant pursuit of happiness for what it really is – a symptom of sadness and isolation.

3. Gram Parsons – “Love Hurts” (1973)

Before Nazareth screeched all over this tender Boudleaux Bryant original, people didn’t think of it as a regrettable one-night stand they had in the ’70s. The Everly Brothers captured its ache accordingly on its first recorded version. Roy Orbison crooned it over swelling strings and cooing backup singers, in the way only he could. And Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris did it best, accompanied by a light acoustic arrangement that allowed their ragged, magnetic vocal chemistry to carry the day.

2. Patti Smith – “Words of Love” (2011)

Rave On Buddy Holly includes plenty of mimicry and experimentation, and as usual, the latter approach is more rewarding. But the finest moment of the compilation falls squarely between those two categories – Patti Smith’s delicate take on “Words of Love.” The artist had Holly’s greatest melody to work with, yet opted to deliver it simply and directly, over a dreamy, meditative soundscape. It’s a work of stunning beauty, and a clever one at that, fading out to the reassuring whirr of crickets in the evening.

1. Klaus Nomi – “Lightning Strikes” (1981)

It’s easier to appreciate something truly unique when it’s placed in the context of something we’re already comfortable with. Such is Klaus Nomi’s cover of this 1965 Lou Christie smash. The original’s melodramatic delivery was a bit of a guilty pleasure, and its narrator was a straight-up sexual deviant. But Nomi transforms it all into a refreshing blast of avant garde pop, shifting between heavily accented song-speak and delirious bursts of falsetto over a chilly new wave beat. From note one of this cover, there’s no doubt who the original artist is.

[Oh, and for the record, the worst song in this category is James Taylor’s version of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” which manages to suck all of the joy out of the Marvin Gaye original, leaving behind a polished corpse of naptime folk. If Taylor can’t sound lovestruck with such generous source material, he must think a gift of drugstore perfume is guaranteed to get him laid.]

Franz List: Worst Pictures

How can you tell I’m not a real movie critic, beyond my lack of knowledge and questionable writing ability? I care about the Oscars. In 1992, when Silence of the Lambs cleaned house, I was watching the event for the first time. And considering that Silence of the Lambs was pretty much the greatest movie I’d ever seen, I thought this award show was pretty cool (despite Billy Crystal’s insufferable bullshit). Since then, however, I’ve felt like Clarice Starling – horrified and fumbling in the darkness.

With Oscar season upon us – nominations will be announced on January 25, with the ceremony set for February 27  – I figured why not relive some of those horrible moments? Here’s my list of the five worst movies to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in my lifetime.

5. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
What if Romeo & Juliet was autobiographical? This is the concept behind Shakespeare in Love, a movie that would be inane enough if it didn’t poison a grade A cast with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck. If whimsy’s what you’re after, there’s more than enough here to choke an ox.

What I was rooting for: The Thin Red Line. While I’m not one for war movies, and found Terence Malick’s meditative style a bit tedious, at least the thing was beautiful.

4. Crash (2005)
Do the Trite Thing.

What I was rooting for: Brokeback Mountain. Thought I’d actually be happy this time, as a movie I adored was the odds-on favorite. I hadn’t learned my lesson.

3. Titanic (1997)
There’s usually something moving about characters who carry flames for a lost lover, deep into old age. But when James Cameron tried to find a common thread between this type of romance and one of history’s most epic tragedies, the result was as unfeeling as the iciest of Arctic waters.

What I was rooting for: L.A. Confidential. Even though Russell Crowe is a walking cliché, it’s film noir done right.

2. American Beauty (1999)
In the real world, when a middle-aged man gets his mid-life crisis Corvette, it’s embarrassing. In American Beauty, when he does this times 100, he’s a hero. And beyond telling us to worship at the altar of the male ego, the movie teaches us a valuable lesson about closeted homosexuals: They will murder you!

What I was rooting for: The Sixth Sense. One of the most imaginative ghost stories I’ve ever seen; the best of a very weak field.

1. Forrest Gump (1994)
A man does whatever he’s told – including going to war – without once questioning if it’s in his best interests, and lives an impossibly exciting life. A woman fights for what she believes in, and dies of AIDS. I’m pretty sure Dick Cheney wrote this.

What I was rooting for: Pulp Fiction. Like, duh.

Top 20 Tracks of 2010

I wasn’t gonna do this list. But now I did it. You wanna fight about it?

20. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – “In Pairs”

Life ain’t like Noah’s ark – human pairings are little more complicated. But this ragged little sing-a-long reminds you that it’s OK to smile, even if nobody’s there to see it.

19. M.I.A. – “XXXO”
This thunderous dose of electro-pop warns that bad sex leads to social media. M.I.A.’s narrator discovers that tweeted love notes are too easily tossed-off – just like those symbols for hugs and kisses.

18. The Body – “A Body”
A delicate choral passage reaches its crescendo, only to be mercilessly deconstructed, resulting in a 10-minute hurtle from heaven into hell.

17. Big Boi – “Shutterbugg”
Funky, buoyant and celebratory, Big Boi’s single didn’t just make for mandatory summer listening, it also showed that the talkbox might be about to give AutoTune a run for its money.

16. Eels – “Little Bird”
Nobody does melancholy quite like Eels. Here, their bandleader E is so hard up for affection, he bemoans his unrequited love to a bird that ho
ps onto his porch. How gorgeously pathetic.

15. Kanye West – “Runaway”
“You’ve been puttin’ up with my shit just way too long” – the closest thing to an apology you’re ever gonna get from a rock star.

14. She & Him – “I’m Gonna Make It Better”
Reassuring lyrics, floating on a bed of lightly twanging guitars. For fans of ’70s AM pop, it’s the cure for what ails you.

13. Vampire Weekend – “Diplomat’s Son”
I thought nostalgia trips resulted in some kind of sadness or regret. But when your memories are of lying around dressed in white, smoking joints with rich kids, they result in exhilarating synth-reggae songs.

12. The Roots – “Right On”
On a record about the power of positive attitudes, a beat that’ll make you feel invincible.

11. Rihanna – “What’s My Name”
How do you know you’re in love? When somebody gives you goosebumps, just by saying your name.

10. Sleigh Bells – “Crown on the Ground”
So. Damn. Loud.

9. Ke$ha – “Your Love is My Drug”
A melody that’s as tough to shake as lovesickness.

8. Jamey Johnson – “Heartache”
Heartache isn’t just a state of mind, it’s an evil entity. Johnson sings from the perspective of this grim reaper of relationships, breaking up everyone from caveman couples to Charles and Diana.

7. Janelle Monae – “Dance or Die”
Latin rhythms, undulating raps, soap opera organ – a lean, propulsive sonic assault unlike any other.

6. Antony & The Johnsons – “The Great White Ocean”
Spare, stunning chamber folk about family dynamics in the afterlife. Should be sung in church.

5. Gorillaz – “White Flag”
A Lebanese orchestra, a pair of imaginative British MCs, and Damon Albarn’s ever-expanding vision make for the most successfully eclectic track of 2010.

4. Bruno Mars – “Just the Way You Are”
The love song of the year, with a mighty catchy chorus to boot.

3. Cee Lo Green – “Fuck You”
The love child of “I Want You Back” and “Gold Digger,” brilliantly arranged and sung by the most expressive vocalist in R&B. Adorable.

2. Erykah Badu – “Window Seat”
An empowering anthem for both frustrated lovers and claustrophobic travelers, sung with the kind of quiet confidence we last heard on Baduizm.

1. Kanye West – “Monster”
The drums are huge, the personas even huger – a six-minute running time is barely enough to contain all the chest-beating rants and paranoid fantasies.
The year’s illest track, in both senses of the word.

Franz List: Horrors!

Hey, Franz here. While horror movie-related lists are a dime a dozen in October, I can’t refrain from making one myself. I did get more specific than just listing the scariest flicks of all time, however (He’s Just Not That Into You would’ve been in the top five for sure). Here are ten horror movies that are just fun to watch – we’re not talking about directors digging into your psyche to mine your deepest fears, or trying to make you think at all for that matter. “A hell of a good time” is the only criterion.

10. Dead Silence (2007)
In movieland, grizzled cops have predictable vices – booze, acting like a loose cannon, and … that’s about it. But in Dead Silence, Donnie Wahlberg plays a grizzled cop whose obsession is grizzliness itself. The character, Detective Jim Lipton, is more prone to pulling out an electric razor than a gun. It’s an awesome running gag amidst a beautifully idiotic, post-Puppet Master plot line, a steady reminder that the filmmakers aren’t taking their vengeful-ventriloquist-from-beyond-the-grave story seriously.

9. Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)
While the first two installments of the Halloween saga were genuine thrillers, with Michael Myers playing the relatively believable role of a psycho ward escapee on a killing spree, ensuing sequels got progressively more unrealistic, and more fun. Halloween V is my favorite, if only because Donald Pleasance, who plays Myers’ long-time psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis, is at his sweetest and frailest, trying with all his might to convince the authorities that Myers’ niece has a psychic connection, that she knows he didn’t die when he fell down that mine shaft at the end of Halloween IV. His earnestness garners some genuine sympathy in thoroughly stupid surroundings.

8. The Brood (1979)
A horror movie designed to freak out a generation of privileged, self-absorbed therapy addicts, this 1979 David Cronenberg weirdfest tells the story of a psychotherapist who invents a way for his patients to create physical manifestations of their negative feelings. Which, of course, leads to bloodthirsty troll children in adorable winter coats wreaking havoc at the whim of their “mother,” played by an understandably dazed Samantha Eggar. It might be overlong and hard to follow, but The Brood’s uber-twisted Grapes of Wrath-acid-trip ending will wake you up right quick.

7. Silver Bullet (1985)
After a paraplegic Corey Haim murders a werewolf priest by shooting him in the face, the girl who played Anne of Green Gables turns to him and asks “Are you alright?” He responds, “All except for my legs. I don’t think I can walk.” Cue the laughter. Oh yeah, and Gary Busey is there.

6. Bones (2001)
The clichés at the center of Bones sound too daunting to overcome. Snoop Dogg plays a ’70s numbers runner called Jimmy Bones, whose spirit haunts his old nightclub in the form of a red-eyed dog. But as Jimmy’s beloved neighborhood crumbles under crack’s ironclad grip, Jimmy’s spirit gets pissed, and his movie gets wildly entertaining. This is Evil Dead-meets-Superfly, pairing gallons of fake blood, arguments with severed heads and out-of-leftfield parallel universes with real ghetto commentary and a feasible love story. Snoop clearly relishes the role, and is magnetic throughout. And while the surprise ending isn’t necessary, that doesn’t make it any less cool.

5. Santa Buddies: The Legend of Santa Paws (2009)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Even though I sat through Santa Buddies, a movie about a post-apocalyptic future in which packs of talking dogs fly around the world every Christmas, spewing Christian propaganda and perpetuating black and female stereotypes everywhere they go, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

4. The Gingerdead Man (2005)
Gary Busey’s second appearance on this list is for a horror-comedy masterpiece that takes the rules from Child’s Play and applies them to a six-inch high gingerbread man. After psycho killer Millard Findlemeyer gets the death penalty, his witch mom mixes his ashes into some gingerbread dough, which she drops off at a bakery where Sarah Leigh (hilarious!) works – the woman whose testimony sealed Millard’s fate. Of course, somebody bakes the dough into a cookie shape, the cookie kills the shit out of people even though all you’d have to do is stomp on him or spray him with a hose, and everything is left open for a hopefully endless string of sequels. Plus, there’s the ultra-convenient 70-minute running time – you can watch this puppy on your lunch break.

3. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
As dark and imaginative as Gremlins was – it remains the ultimate cautionary tale about the evil that lurks inside all very cute things – the sequel is much more fun. Director Joe Dante returns for The New Batch, and does all the crazy stuff he probably wanted to do in the first, Chris Columbus-penned film, ending up with an anarchic, horror-comedy gem. When Gizmo shows up in a state-of-the-art NYC office building (where his old owners Billy and Kate both happen to work), he gets wet and spawns a brand new litter of havoc-wreaking bi-ped lizards. As the Gremlins infiltrate research labs and TV studios, become super-intelligent and transform into bat- and spider-like creatures, they create a chaos that’s both hilarious and cathartic – if only today’s massive corporations could be taken over with such ease and panache.

2. Sleepwalkers (1992)
Of the reams of junk that Stephen King has slapped his name on, the screenplay for Sleepwalkers is his campiest, most gloriously tossed-off accomplishment. A small town is terrorized by a mother and son who are telekinetic, vampiric shapeshifter werewolves that must feed on the life force of virgin women to survive. Director Mick Garris delivers it all with the requisite wink and a nudge, creating two of the most unforgettable horror/comedy moments of all time – a graveyard fight with a corkscrew-in-the-eye coup de grace, and a climactic slow dance between the main character Tanya and the half-dead monster Charles. Not to mention a catchphrase that should’ve took the world by storm – “Stop looking at me, you fucking cat!”


1. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
This straight-to-DVD effort is the easily the best Halloween movie of the 21st century, and stands up there with anything John Carpenter has churned out over the years. An anthology of horror story vignettes that weave together in wonderfully clever fashion on one eventful Halloween night, Trick ‘r Treat gives us spooky urban legends, vengeful ghosts, werewolves, a sadistic principal, and Sam, a tiny trick or treater in a creepy, burlap bag Jack-o-Lantern costume. Writer/director Michael Dougherty lets us see the events unfold in provocative, Tarantino-esque ways, without overcomplicating things – amidst the swirl of converging plot lines, Dougherty anchors everything on the crippling guilt of one old man. So while Trick ‘r Treat is loads of fun to watch, it’s also an important reminder for horrorphiles – nothing is scarier than a story told well.


The Top 10 Beatles Songs, by Franz List

Hello world. My name is Franz List. I shove opinions at you in list form. Ah, my lists. My lists my lists my lists. My lovely lady lists.

My maiden list for this blog is supremely ridiculous – listing the 10 greatest Beatles songs of all time, in order of greatestness. Got a problem with that? Well, so did your mom.

10.”When I’m Sixty-Four” (1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Paul McCartney has been known to get a little schmaltzy at times. But he remains the king of homespun romantic pop, with this being the finest example. Celebrating the joys of spending your life with one person, from reassuring routines to seaside vacations and time with the grandkids, “When I’m Sixty-Four” is a sweet slice of domestic bliss, a splash of bouncing piano and sprightly woodwinds amongst the clamor and ambition of The Beatles’ most celebrated album. Making it not only timeless, but brave.

9. “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” (1964, Beatles For Sale)
Of all the early Beatles songs in which they pretend to be shy, doe-eyed doormats, this one’s the most fun. As the light rockabilly beat saunters underneath, John Lennon sings with conviction about a girl who’s made him sad. He’s gotta leave the party he’s at for the sake of the other party-goers – they’d get sick of his mopey ass right quick. Then comes the chorus. The acoustic guitar chords ring full and true, and Lennon revels in the power of his puppy love – “I still love her!”

8. “Here Comes the Sun” (1969, Abbey Road)
I’m sure George Harrison’s crowning moment as a Beatle was like, all metaphorical and stuff, but it’s magical when you take it literally. Everybody who has lived through a winter knows how it feels when spring rushes in. It’s easier to wake up in the morning; you feel part of the world again; a new life force swells up inside you; you start humming for no reason – and it’s probably this song’s simple, hopeful melody. A shout out to the majesty of all new beginnings, and a weather forecast for the soul, “Here Comes the Sun’s” gorgeously picked guitar licks and “it’s all right” refrain are more therapeutic than any collection of nature sounds.

7. It’s Only Love (1965, Help!)
This ode to the ache of young love gone wrong finds Lennon exploring the poetry of passed notes (“When you sigh, my insides just fly”), peeking into the ensuing relationship’s demise, and delivering a chorus that brilliantly depicts a man trying to pass off his feelings as so much rubbish – all over the course of a handful of brief stanzas. The lead guitar and vocal melodies are precursors to the grand “In My Life,” making this song’s earnest simplicity all the sweeter.

6. I Should Have Known Better (1964, A Hard Day’s Night)
As earth-shattering as the band’s later experiments could be, they were bereft of the pure joy and rambunctious innocence of its early days. And this track is the supreme distillation of that magic, two minutes and 44 seconds of ingratiating chord changes, raw rock vocals, fluttering harmonicas and 2+2=4 lyrics about falling in love unexpectedly. Running through it all is the Beatles’ irrepressible energy, that intangible quality that made the quartet truly fab.

5. Mother Nature’s Son (1968, The Beatles [White Album])
Among countless other hyperbolic statements made about the Beatles include comparisons to Beethoven and Mozart. And while that’s pretty silly, the band’s ability to evoke moods, tensions and releases does deserve such lofty talk. McCartney’s obsession with English rusticity resulted in this White Album cut, and its mix of tenderly picked acoustic guitars, tastefully arranged brass and down-home bass drum smacking elicits as strong a visual of the rolling countryside as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Catchy, organic and optimistic, this is the Cute One at the top of his game.

4. For No One (1966, Revolver)
Has Paul McCartney ever been dumped? This song would make you think so. As much for its self-absorbed melancholy as for its stunning instrumental flourishes, “For No One” is unforgettable. The lyrics cut to the quick of why rejection sucks – she no longer needs the narrator; there’s “no sign of love” in her countenance. Couple that with descending piano chords, McCartney’s sentimental vocal and a lovely French horn solo, and you have what might be the prettiest relationship death knell ever laid to tape.

3. Because (1969, Abbey Road)
If the Beatles ever wrote a hymn, this is it. Driven by a basic lyrical construction from Lennon, “Because” celebrates the mysteries of the natural world, and the overwhelming effect they have on the mind, body and soul. Adding to this solemn, spiritual vibe is the most astounding vocal showcase the band had ever mustered – layering the voices of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison in triplicate, delivering every note in glorious nine-part harmony. It’s the kind of sound that makes you want to believe in something more.

2. I’ll Be Back (1964, A Hard Day’s Night)
The final track on A Hard Day’s Night was a beacon. Starkly different from the boisterous covers that closed out the first two Beatles records, “I’ll Be Back” was a dark, Latin-tinged Lennon original. Shifting from major to minor keys in a bold, haunting way, and without a chorus to speak of, the song marked an evolution from the fun mop-toppery of yore to the mesmerizing experiments to come. And no matter the context, the melody is enchanting, John’s seemingly effortless, subdued vocal the work of a master hypnotist.

1. I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (1969, Abbey Road)
The Beatles have been called many things, but “sexy” usually isn’t one of them. Which makes the wild, slithering opus “I Want You” all the more irresistible. Here you’ll find everything that makes this band timeless – a deep appreciation for early rock and R&B; a deeper desire to break the rules of those genres; utter mastery of recording techniques; the ability to take the simplest of statements and turn it into transcendent poetry – dished out with a primality they’d never before explored. Full of sensuous soul grooves, screaming B3 solos, a lustful mantra and a cacophonous, extended outro that cuts out like the plug’s been pulled, the seven-plus minute track is rooted both in the simplicity of the past and the anything-goes mentality of the time it was recorded. It’s the ingenious, aphrodisiac-ridden cousin of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and the band’s finest moment.

The Top 25 Flicks of the 2000s

I know, I know. The deadline has passed for Best of the 2000s listmania. But I just enjoy making lists so much, you could call me Franz Liszt, or Listy Brinkley, or Listerine, or The Listine Chapel. Hence, here’s my dry, uninformed take on the Top 25 Movies of the Decade. Picking #1 was easy, much easier than it will be ten years from now, when I’ll be deciding what was better, “Valentine’s Day” or “The Tooth Fairy.” Until then, I guess you’ll be feeling somewhat listless.

25. Persepolis (2007)
A beautiful, moving adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name, this feat of black and white animated storytelling is a coming-of-age tale, war movie and Iranian history primer rolled into one. This is more than just an interesting memoir; it’s a treatise on what truly defines a nation – not the people who make rules, but the people who make families.

24. Little Otik (2001)
Sometimes, people are more obsessed with the idea of having a child than the child itself. This imaginatively twisted tale from Czech director Jan Svankmajer details the depths that some couples will go, just to say they’ve got a bouncing baby something (in this case, a bloodthirsty, anthropomorphic tree stump). A horrifying, darkly whimsical, one-of-a-kind experience.

23. Coraline (2009)
My favorite movie of the past year was this stop-motion-animated gift from screenwriter/director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas). This eccentric, wondrously visualized story about a little girl’s discovery of her seemingly perfect “other parents” takes tired, no-duh morals like “don’t judge a book by its cover” and “be thankful for what you have” and reminds you why they became cliches in the first place.

22. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This movie begins with an all-too-familiar criticism of Valentine’s Day, with its hero, Joel Barish, lamenting, “Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” This might lead one to expect a self-absorbed soap opera a la Reality Bites to ensue, but instead, writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry smack us upside our rom-com-addled heads with the decade’s most breathtakingly creative interpretation of love conquering all. Part science fiction, part loopy comedy, and 100% positive on the existence of soul mates, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is as convincing and entertaining a pro-Valentine’s Day argument as we’re bound to come across.

21. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
This decade had more than its share of trite, lazy biopics, from the cliche-ridden Ray to the unabashedly rose-colored Walk the Line. And if it wasn’t for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, we’d have to make fun of them on our own. This largely overlooked satire of “behind the music” movies (and rock stars in general) featured the funniest actor of the decade, John C. Reilly, and a script that mercilessly mocks the way that your average biopic insults its audience – from actors in their 40s playing teens to telegraphed childhood tragedies, the requisite “dark periods” and hyperbolic displays of the power of the music. The original tunes are spot on as well, resulting in the most satisfying rock and roll comedy since Spinal Tap.

20. Secretary (2002)
No movie in the 2000s ignored the rules of romantic comedy as effectively as Secretary, a story of two lonely, misunderstood people who fall in love, wholeheartedly and realistically. There’s romance here, and comedy, but Sandra Bullock wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, and not just because of the characters’ non-traditional sexual proclivities. The way they test each other, understand each other’s problems and learn how to leverage their love to overcome them – this is the stuff of human relationships, the kind of bond that makes happily ever after a real possibility.

19. The Dark Knight (2008)
It’s a tired observation, but Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight is a revelation. The actor’s turn as The Joker was a glimpse into the eyes of pure nihilism – a fearless, captivating sociopath obsessed with outing the inherent selfishness and cowardice of his fellow man. Christopher Nolan’s movie doesn’t prove its villain right, going out of its way to show the heroic instincts of regular folks, but it blurs the line between good and evil with an honest, unflinching eye, making it the quintessential superhero epic of the decade.

18. Palindromes (2004)
Nobody captures the awkwardness of adolescent life quite like Todd Solondz, and in Palindromes, the director contrasts the resiliency of youth with the ignorance of adults in painfully funny, thought-provoking ways. With a battalion of heartbreakingly good child actors at his disposal, Solondz tells the story of Aviva, a girl dead set on finding herself, no matter how many self-centered parents and religious whack jobs get in her way.

17. Team America: World Police (2004)
Back in ’04, whether you were up in arms over the United States’ recent efforts to cast itself as a big, dumb superpower, or just in the mood for a great extended puke scene, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s puppet action movie was just what the doctor ordered. From songs that pair Top Gun cheese with W. administration arrogance to brilliant send-ups of action movie cliches and vigorous rounds of celebrity lambasting, Team America makes you view its inherent social commentary through tears of riotous laughter.

16. Three … Extremes (2004)
What Hollywood did to Japanese horror movies in the 2000s is way more horrific than the remakes themselves. If you had to sit through The Ring 2, this trio of Asian short films will remind you that movies can be awfully scary. After taking in “Dumplings,” an instant classic of a horror story in which an aging actress will consume anything to hold onto her youth, chances are you’ll forget about that grudge you were holding onto, as well as The Grudge.

15. Wall-E (2008)
A largely dialogue-less, computer-animated adventure about robot love, Wall-E proved once and for all that family movies don’t need wisecracking animals vomiting out early-’90s catchphrases to be successful (e.g. “Shake what yo mama gave ya!” – Alvin from Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel). A timeless romance between a pair of machines that have more heart between them than the whole obese, drone-like human race, Wall-E challenges the mind and stirs the spirit.

14. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
That rare case of a cultural phenomenon stuffed with one liners that don’t get old, Napoleon Dynamite is a humble geek love story that withstood the most unexpected merchandising blitz of the decade (e.g. Liger stickers were on sale at my gas station). Which only adds to its charm, of course. A hopeful story that celebrates teenage nerd-dom for all of its ugliness, discomfort and facades of superiority, rooting for Napoleon Dynamite feels so good that by the end, you’re ready to start all over again.

13. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Have the movies ever given us a family more impossibly eccentric than the Tenenbaums? They’re a mess of obsessive-compulsiveness, shattered dreams, blasé attitudes and chronic self-obsessions. And thanks to director Wes Anderson’s inimitable quirks, these cartoonishly dysfunctional characters are also thoroughly lovable. But while Anderson’s style makes The Royal Tenenbaums special (e.g. the closet full of board games, the matching track suits, Royal’s stab-happy best buddy), its themes of love and redemption make it timeless.

12. The Station Agent (2003)
When you’re in need of a friend, the last thing you want to hear is that you just have to “let it happen.” The Station Agent is about the merit of that advice, following the lives of three characters, all outcasts in their different ways, as they slowly and organically become friends. A sweet, quiet ode to the power of human companionship, Thomas McCarthy’s movie is an affirmation for anybody out there who’s ever felt alone (which is all of us, I presume).

11. Signs (2002)
Signs is a movie about loss, belief, family bonds and murderous aliens. As a thriller, it does all the right things, taunting the senses instead of assaulting them, using a rustling cornfield or the whimpering of a dog to strike fear in our hearts. As a drama, it tugs at our heartstrings without insulting them, detailing the dissolution and reconstruction of a family, in parallel to the spiritual doubt and reaffirmation of its minister father, played with surprising force by Mel Gibson. M. Night Shyamalan may not be capable of movies like this anymore, but the tender comedy, sharply honed horror and stark spirituality of Signs is evidence of a master at work.

10. Step Brothers (2008)
Of writer/director Adam McKay’s trilogy of attempts at groundbreaking absurdity, this is the purest – take a loose concept (40-year-old guys still living with their parents who become stepbrothers), give it to Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, and film what happens. The result is an anarchic comedy masterpiece, in which the leading men lead each other down increasingly juvenile, wildly funny paths, and supporting players Richard Jenkins, Adam Scott and Kathryn Hahn turn in hilarious performances as they play along.

9. Gosford Park (2001)
Gosford Park is a sumptuous treat in every way. From the detailed country house interiors to the beautifully interwoven story and tremendous ensemble of actors, Robert Altman’s last great achievement is an even larger embarrassment of riches than the combined bank accounts of its characters. A completely engrossing whodunit and exploration of classist attitudes in 1930s England, this is a period piece that looks old, but will never feel that way.

8. Borat (2006)
Most of the social experiment-as-entertainment projects of the 2000s were forgettable, from the trash barge of reality TV shows that began with Survivor to gimmicky documentaries like Super Size Me. But there was nothing formulaic or remotely trite about Borat, a hilarious and harrowing practical joke of a movie that shines a harsh light on our country’s collective ethnocentrism, mining it for several of the most explosively funny moments of the decade.

7. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
A common complaint against a poorly told story is that there are no grey areas – the good guys are Christ-like, the bad guys are repugnant. Few movies have explored the grey areas of real human existence like Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary about a family destroyed by the horrible compulsions of its father, the questionable tactics of the people who investigated his crimes, and the son who may or may not have deserved to get swept up in it all. Splicing modern day interviews with home movies that the family filmed as it was disintegrating, Friedmans leaves you disturbed, shaken and completely unsure whose side you were on.

6. Bad Santa (2003)
Christmas is supposed to be about selflessness, doing whatever it takes to make your loved ones happy. Which makes Bad Santa the perfect Christmas movie. Sure, this masterful piece of black comedy includes alcohol abuse, filthy language, armed robbery and child beating, but it also relays a strong message about the importance of family – when you care about somebody enough to bleed for their Christmas present, that’s the reason for the season.

5. There Will Be Blood (2007)
In theory, the American dream is an idyllic, magnetizing thing, a world of big, clean houses, white picket fences and laughing children. In practice, it’s dark and destructive, but just as magnetic. This concept is at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s mesmerizing There Will Be Blood, an imperialist allegory that positions cutthroat businessmen and fiery men of religion as two sides of the same twisted coin. Daniel Day-Lewis’ monumental performance as the heartless, fascinating oil man Daniel Plainview is one for the ages, as is Anderson’s crackling script and Jonny Greenwood’s sparse, disturbing score.

4. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Children banding together to fight a frightening common enemy – in terms of horror stories, it’s about as original as a monster under the bed. But in Guillermo del Toro’s enthralling, Spanish Civil War-era tale The Devil’s Backbone, the enemies are human, the group of children includes the spirit of a murdered orphan, and the overarching emotion is one of tenderness, not fear. An effective exploration of youth during wartime and man’s capacity for evil, this is a ghost story with soul.

3. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain was the great romance of the past decade, featuring two characters who fall in love against all odds, and not in a Serendipity kind of way. Under Ang Lee’s masterful eye, the story of Ennis and Jack’s pure, intense, ill-fated love is told with the quiet simplicity of a Wyoming landscape. There are no speeches in the rain or last-second rushes to the airport here, just two soul mates whose feelings for each other are demonized by society. And when the time does come for high drama, Lee gets it from two shirts, a faded photograph and three muttered words – “Jack, I swear.”

2. Spirited Away (2001)
For all of the highly conceptualized, visually stunning animation that the 2000s had in store, none of it came close to Spirited Away, the heart song of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki and one of the most imaginative fairy tales this side of Through the Looking Glass. When the main character, Chihiro, and her parents stumble across an enchanted, abandoned theme park en route to their new hometown, the ensuing adventure bubbles over with charming encounters, unexpected friendships, bizarre terrors and universal lessons about greed, loyalty and growing up. An extravaganza for the eyes, and a joyride for the mind.

1. The Lord of the Rings (2001-03)
Three epic-length movies with gargantuan budgets, heavily reliant on unproven CGI technology, tackling the “unfilmable” Holy Grail of fantasy stories, directed and co-written by a guy known mostly for campy horror flicks. This doesn’t sound like the recipe for the crowning achievement of the decade, but Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is just that – a mindblowing distillation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s intricately interwoven and minutely detailed story, delivered with the kind of fanboy loyalty and filmmaking magic that turns the grumpiest naysayers into born again devotees. (Yeah, I know they’re three movies, but I didn’t want them to suck up three spots on the list; plus, I’m still not sure what my favorite installment is.) For all of their technical achievements, which made us believe it was Middle Earth we were looking at, it’s the adapted screenplays that made these movies sing. Without skimping on the battles, creatures and other eye candy, Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh made a point to develop these characters in concert with the books, not shying away from depictions of love between Frodo and Sam, capturing Gandalf’s aloofness along with his power, treating Gollum’s tragic, schizophrenic struggles with a sympathetic flair. These 10 hours of film show us how strength and salvation can come from the most unexpected places – like the quiet gardens of The Shire, or the ambitious minds of New Zealanders.