Friday, April 22, 2016

Top 10 Prince songs

"Dearly beloved, we're gathered here today to get through this thing called life"

Sadly, we lost one of the true musical geniuses yesterday when Prince passed away at the far too young age of 57. Born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7, 1958 he changed modern pop music with his blend of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown filtered through one of the most singular talents we've seen in modern music. The word genius is overused in our society and especially when talking about musical talents. In my mind there are less than ten and maybe even less than a handful. Surely, Prince was near or at the top of the list (his album credit generally read "all songs written, produced, composed, and performed by Prince, like McCartney and Stevie Wonder, he was genius enough to be his own completely brilliant band). He's been a favorite artist and an influence and inspiration to me in my own music for a long time. Here in tribute to The Purple One is my list of his top ten songs.

1. "Gotta Broken Heart Again"

I was at one point so obsessed with this song that I listened to it over and over again on my drive to and from work. I had a 40 minute drive and this song in only 2 minutes, so you can imagine how many times I've heard this song in my life. A simple song about losing his girl to his best friend, this is just a perfect pop song, culminating in Prince harmonizing with himself at the climax of the song so beautifully that it still gives me chills. Off his first masterpiece, 1980's Dirty Mind, it's my favorite Prince song.

2. "Purple Rain"

Rare is it that an artists most famous song actually might be their best, but "Purple Rain" is certainly Prince's defining track, serving as an enduring classic song, the name of his best movie and the accompanying mega-hit soundtrack that helped define the sound of 1980's pop for better or worse. It's a slow building ballad, mostly recorded live, with Prince's best and most impassioned vocals and some of his best guitar work. Every time I hear the break and Prince's pained "Honey, I know, I know, I know time have changed" I tear up a little bit simply from the power of his voice and song construction. Maybe I should've put this song #1.

3. "Bambi"
My favorite Prince guitar solo is the scorching one he gives us on this Chasing Amy-esque song, a song telling a lesbian that sex is better with a man and Prince wants to prove it to her if she'll let him. You know, standard stuff from a 21-year-old in 1979. It's a hard rocking song with a funky and distorted guitar riff and high pitched yowls that would become a trademark. It all builds to a song ending, face melting solo before the fade out.

4. "Call My Name"

A later years Prince tune, the soulful R&B love song, showcasing Prince's underrated voice as well as his way with an ear worming chorus. A song about the beautifulness of monogamy and sex, it's a mature Prince, showing that just because he got more into his religious beliefs as he got older didn't mean he'd abandoned those sexy parts of his soul, and this song is wonderful proof.

5. "When You Were Mine"
A big hit when Cindy Lauper covered it in the 80's, this is another (like its album mate "Gotta Broken Heart Again") of Prince losing his girl to another man. Lauper's version is famous for not changing the pronouns in the song, indicating that she lost her boyfriend to another man. But Prince's original is full of yearning and passion and hurt. He loves this girl even more after he's lost her, but doesn't know what to do. Another brilliant, simple, short pop song from one of the best to ever make them.

6. "Let's Go Crazy"
One of Prince's most famous is this Purple Rain kick-off song. When I first began exploring Prince's music in earnest, this was the first song I heard, since naturally I decided to start with his most famous album. I thought the song was pretty good and I liked it a lot, then the teenage guitar player inside me found a new hero when everything stops and Prince delivers one of his best solos. Drenched in his wah wah pedal and at the height of his power, this was the song that hooked me into his music.

7. "Kiss"
Another of his most famous songs is this all-timer of a dance number. Prince was a particular kind of genius at creating every possible type of song. This one had no bass line, funky guitar, and Prince's high pitched vocals that are so high in his falsetto that they break sometimes. And somehow Prince made it all work. I'm still not quite sure how, but I listen to this song over and over again and never tired of it or really ever figure out why I love it so much.

8. "Raspberry Beret"
Maybe Prince's best set of melodies, "Raspberry Beret" is also just a terrific pop song. Not one of his most musically innovative or even interesting songs, it's really a testament to his genius of arranging his band and utilizing all of their talents as well as his own. The harmonizing vocals from Lisa are wonderful alongside Prince's easy chorus.

9. "When Doves Cry"
This was where Prince first really experimented with having no bass in a song. Prince was a tremendous bass player, capable of beautifully melodic of funk slapping brilliance, but here he tried something new and it worked like crazy. The lack of bass, something most listeners hear but aren't really paying attention to, gives the song an almost otherworldly tenor that makes it feel off balance. Prince contrasts that against heavily effected guitars and his famous yelping vocals tics evoking the crying birds of the title.

10. "Musicology"
Another of late era Prince that I adore, this was the starter track for Prince's comeback album in 2004. This title song is simply a funky, fun jam that you can't help but smile and dance to. Showing off his great bass skills and his always impressive and never praised enough vocals, this song is just fun and Prince having fun was always infectious.

You could make another top 10 or top 20 songs and not have a single dud in there. Like how could I make the list and not have "I Wanna Be Your Lover" "Darling Nikki" "Little Red Corvette" or "Head" (a song one of my bands used to play at gigs to great delight for all)? Because Prince was brilliant. Like Frank Zappa, he simply released too much material (and if legends are to be believed, his vault has many years of new music that we may get to hear now after his passing) so it can be daunting to dive in, but on every album there's something worth loving. If you wanted an intro into his genius, here you go. If you just wanted to relive his memory, I hope I helped. RIP you beautiful one.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Top 10 most beautiful movies

Now, I guess I should start off by saying that when Clint and I decided to end our lists with this one, we didn't set out any criteria on which to base "most beautiful", we left it up to interpretation. So I've turned mine not into "most lush cinematography" or "most beautifully costumed and set decorated" but more into "most visually impressive for all of those previously mentioned reasons and maybe some more too." So these aren't always going to be images you'd want as your serene desktop background, but they are the movies that I find most visually interesting, inspiring, and fascinating. The last bit I will add is that I don't love all of these movies. There's only one I actually dislike, a couple more I'm just "meh" on, but the majority are ones I'd recommend both for their visuals as well as their overall merits as films. Okay, enough stalling, onto the list! Oh, and check out Clint's list too, it's terrific.

1. Heaven's Gate

I said in my initial negative review of the notorious Heaven's Gate that it was the most beautiful movie I'd ever seen, and that's what got me through the ass-bustingly long run time. I stand by that, both parts, the gorgeousness of the movie, and the fact that I don't think it's a good movie.

It's the only movie I can think of that I don't like, but would recommend for people to watch. These photos don't even come close to doing the movie justice.
Director Michael Cimino ruined his career with the notorious budget and schedule overruns of this movie in addition to its commercial failure (3.5 hour slow moving westerns aren't typically box office gold).

Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond had just won an Oscar for his work on Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and had already worked his sepia toned western genius on Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but this movie, this movie is his masterwork.

It's been said that Zsigmond went into a deep depression over the critical and commercial drubbing this movie took, because he was so proud of the work he'd done. He deserved to be, it's the most beautiful movie I've ever seen.

2. Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick makes beautiful movies. Each one of his movies could've been on this list, and in fact many would probably choose The Tree of Life over this one, but for me it's gotta be Days of Heaven.

Texas never looked so good, and neither did any of the actors, including Richard Gere and Sam Shepard.

The astounding work from cinematographers NĂ©stor Almendros and Haskell Wexler (both already legends in their own right, working together here) is some of the best photography ever put on celluloid.

Malick is a wonderful filmmaker, and I think this is his best movie, both narratively and visually.

3. The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien has long given us wonderful images to look at. Until last year, my favorite were those in his 1960's set first section of Three Times. But when he made The Assassin, he topped everything else he'd done put together.

His command of framing, how it influences the story, and the sheer beauty on display in the landscape, set design, and costuming created some of the greatest visuals we've ever been given.

It never hurts to be filming beautiful people as well, but Hou's ability to show us gorgeous nature as well as man-made beauty is impeccable.

This is, surprisingly, a movie that comes across just as beautiful watching at home as it did on the big screen. Hou's images are amazing no matter the size of the screen. Be prepared for a slow moving journey if you watch it, but the pace lets you soak in that visual glory all the better.

4. Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubrick was one of the most visually exacting talents we've ever had, and his movies were always the better for it. Here in Barry Lyndon I think he achieved his greatest visuals, but surrounded it with a sadly unengaging narrative.

Barry isn't an interesting character, nor is anything that happens to him particularly exciting. There's also an awful narration that robs any dramatic tension that Kubrick might've built up to begin with.

Still, when Kubrick set out to make each frame look like an oil painting, he succeeded.

So no matter what I think of the movie as a whole (and it's still worth watching, even as it's too long and only holds my interest in the story at the very end), it must be on this list, and high up too.

5. Blade Runner

Another that I find overrated as a movie, but not as a visual experience is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

I find the movie itself to be much more shallow than its admirers would ever admit, and overall every time I watch it I think "this is just a crappy action movie wrapped up in some of the most amazing visuals we've ever seen." But since this list is about the visuals, it's gotta go on here.

There's no doubting the kind of influence this movie has had on science-fiction over the years. The visual world building that Scott did is truly extraordinary and made a sizable impact.

So I don't think it's terribly successful narratively, but do give it a positive rating as a movie, still the real draw here anyway are the images. And that's fine by me.

6. Lawrence of Arabia

I said upon my first viewing of Lawrence of Arabia that I didn't care much about the movie, we spend 4 hours with TE Lawrence and yet we really know nothing about the man or why he was the way he was. But I said immediately that it was one of the most visually splendid pieces of cinema I'd ever watched.

The large desert landscapes, sandy battles, and just overall visual brilliance on display from director David Lean is extraordinary.

I've not softened on either position. I don't think much of the movie as a narrative or as an experience even, but the visuals are undeniable.

It's not Lean's masterpiece as a movie (that's probably Brief Encounter or Bridge on the River Kwai) but it certainly deserves a high placing on this list.

7. Dark City

Probably despite being one of the shorter movies on the list, I'm guessing Dark City has the most actual shots in it. The average shot length of the movie is something like 1.8 seconds, meaning that for a 100 minute movie there are well over 3,000 shots.

But director Alex Proyas had his background in music videos and knows how to make a big impression in a small window of time.

I've actually watched this DVD in slow motion before and come across images so perfectly framed that I didn't want the next one to come yet.

The frenetic pace of the editing has a narrative purpose, to put us into the fractured mind of the protagonist, but it also serves to give us an innumerable amount of wonderful images on which we can feast our artistic souls.

8. Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite filmmakers as well as one of our best visual stylists. His movies are always impeccably made, even going back to his feature length debut Cronos. But his magnum opus as a stylist (as well as a writer and an overall filmmaker) is 2006's Pan's Labyrinth.

Fantasy is ripe for great visuals, but Del Toro takes things to an unexpected level in his dark fairy tale world.

Alternating between colder "present day" (present day 1940's Spain at least) and more lush fantasy landscapes, Del Toro gives himself even more room to play in visual brilliance. The flawless way he transitions, often having foreground objects act as a wipe to the next scene, is a Del Toro trademark and one I never tire of.

I've seen the movie many times and, like the previous entry, not once failed to be blown away by some new image I'd not really paid attention to before.

9. The Hourglass Sanatorium

By far the least seen movie on the list is this 1973 surreal work from Poland's Wojciech Jerzy Has. It is the most unseen because until recently it didn't have a DVD release in this country. Now it sort of has one, as part of a limited edition box set for Martin Scorsese's Masterpiece's of Polish Cinema.
While I may have had slight problems with the storytelling, which is something that happens for me with surrealism, since narrative can often take a backseat to image and tone, I still loved this movie and when I saw it on the big screen was astounded at the sets, costumes, cinematography and Has's mastery of camera placement and movement.
Even more visually assured than his more narratively successful masterpiece The Saragossa Manuscript, The Hourglass Sanatorium is filled to the brim with unforgettable images. I said in my initial review of it "The way Has moves from sequence to sequence has an incredible flow to it, as sets seem to almost disappear, or open up into the next segment. It's truly astonishing filmmaking on every technical level. I am not always one to say go see a movie just for the visuals, but if you can see this movie, do it, even if it's only for the visuals."

I believe it's available to watch with English subtitles on YouTube, but if you do, please, for your own sake as well as the movie's, please watch it on the biggest and best screen possible. You'll thank me later.

10. Stalker

Andrei Tarkovsky is often thought of as one of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history. While I don't personally hold him in that high esteem, his movies are always fascinating to watch. Of the three I've seen, Stalker is the most extraordinary in its visuals.

There are moments in Stalker that I won't ever forget, simply because of Tarkovsky's care in creating the most astounding visuals.

I think his movies are too long, but there's a command of tone and narrative in them that never lets me wander very far away before being brought right back. Honestly, I would sit down and watch this movie again right now if only to experience the visuals again.

I really like the movie a lot as well, but it deserves a place on this list for bringing us these unforgettable images.

This was probably the hardest list to whittle down, so here's another 10, unranked, in honorable mention form:


The Wizard of Oz

The Fountain

What Dreams May Come

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind


Cloud Atlas


Night of the Hunter

Road to Perdition