This week’s question comes from reader Matthew Russell:
I’ve read a lot of reviews and comment sections and I have a pretty good idea of what I’m “supposed” to like. But while I love more than a handful of well-respected bands, my favorite albums are often the also-rans. I lean toward things like Hüsker Dü’s Candy Apple Grey, Liz Phair’s Whip-Smart, Beck’s Midnite Vultures, Blur’s Blur, and Weezer’s Maladroit. Which “not great” works by great artists do you love more than the critical darlings?
Amid the never-ending fight over which Final Fantasy game is superior—for a brief stretch in the late ’90s, all internet message boards were used exclusively to have this argument—you’ll find few partisans in the Final Fantasy VIII camp. The eighth main entry in this role-playing game series is maligned for its weird combat system and irritating lead characters. But those are the things I love about it. FF8’s Junction system, in which you essentially harvest the talents of foes to enhance your own powers, certainly has its problems—the constant harvesting, for one. The hassle is worth it, though, for the exotic combinations you can create once you’ve filled up your Junction Satchel or whatever with monster souls. And sure, the central hero of FF8, Squall, is a petulant asshole. I like that. In a series where 80 percent of the heroes are, in essence, angsty teens—with some goofballs and duller-than-dust stoic warriors to round it out—I appreciate the realism of an angsty teen who’s an unabashed, selfish dick. So while everyone swooned over the recently announced remake of the acclaimed Final Fantasy VII, I was left wondering when Square Enix was going to give FF8 its own lavish do-over. (Answer: never.)
With Songs In The Key Of Life, Stevie Wonder solidified his place among pop music’s most talented songwriters and conceptual artists, but he also set a high-water mark he would never be able to top. But Wonder didn’t really try to best Songs, at least not right away. Instead of following up with a proper album, his next new release was the soundtrack for a documentary about, um, the neurobiology of plant life. Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants was quickly dismissed as a terrible fluke in an otherwise unblemished discography. The album is definitely weird, and it’s far from perfect, but it’s better than it gets credit for. The instrumental pieces used as the film’s score are challenging, but contain flashes of brilliance, and the title track is gorgeous once you get past the silly title. Plants also includes “Send One Your Love,” which remains one of Wonder’s finest love ballads. It’s probably no accident that the album’s most enduring song is the one not about botany.
My love affair with Rush started in high school, thanks to the influence of some older friends and how perfectly the band’s longer songs suited my daily, rural commute to and from said school. Though the band’s talent speaks for itself, throughout my fandom I’ve always been elated to see Rush winked at in pop culture. From Jason Segel’s adoration in Freaks And Geeks to I Love You, Man and every nod before, in between, and beyond, I appreciate the recognition. So I was over the moon when, after 41 years of performing, Alex, Geddy, and Neil graced the cover of Rolling Stone this year. But then I noticed the same thing that brought about a pit in my stomach when I watched 2010’s Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage documentary: Power Windows and Presto aren’t getting the massive amounts of love they deserve. I realize the 1985 synth-heavy album and the 1989 softer (for Rush) rock album aren’t typical of the prog Rush most people know and respect—2112, Moving Pictures, Permanent Waves, A Farewell To Kings—but both are the ideal combination of Rush’s best qualities—masterful musicianship and poignant and playful lyrics—one paired with a pop sensibility, the other with more singer support, both allowing for a broader audience to enjoy the band. I urge you to give them a listen if you haven’t.
Peyton Reed seemingly came out of nowhere to replace Edgar Wright as the director of one of this summer’s best-received action movies, Ant-Man. But a look at his earlier output shows that he has deftly juggled surprisingly different genres throughout his career. Down With Love was an inspired send up of Doris Day-Rock Hudson 1960s sex comedies, and The Break-Up a gifted unromantic comedy. And we only need look at Reed’s 2000 directorial debut to predict his eventual box-office greatness: Bring It On. Even though some might be quick to write it off as just a Kirsten Dunst cheerleading comedy—tainted by a string of straight-to-video sequels and a Not Another Teen Movie spoof—Reed turned what could have been a teen schlock piece into an inspirational ode to two vastly different schools, a cute romance, high school leaders, and oh yes, cheerleading. Just try to view a routine by the East Compton Clovers and not get completely rocked. Bring It On is so fast and fizzy it remains one of those movies I am physically unable to turn off if I am ever fortunate enough to come across it on cable. So I am unsurprised but could not be happier for Reed’s success this summer, even as Bring It On remains my favorite of his films.
If you’re a Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, it’s pretty much a given that at some point you’ve ranked the seasons from best to worst. (Though we all know “worst” refers here to “slightly less than utter perfection.”) And on nearly every list I’ve ever seen online, my two favorite seasons come in last place, time and again. I’m referring, of course, to season seven and season four. Buffy fans normally argue the series was running out of gas by the final season, a criticism I’ve never understood, as it contains some of the most epic and involving storylines of the whole show. The writing and performances were both rejuvenated, I found, as the show raced toward the finish line. Similarly, the fourth season is generally criticized for being both uneven and lackadaisical, as the series struggled to transition the Slayer into college life. But that ignores not only the aptness of that year’s allegory—trying to figure out what “growing up” means—but more importantly, how damn funny the season is. Season four includes the best comedy the series ever did (“Something Blue” and “A New Man,” to name two of the greats), and the Initiative arc is woefully underrated. Even “Beer Bad,” almost universally considered a low point of the show, contains better stuff than you remember. Whenever I want to binge watch some of the series, I find myself reaching for those two years time and again. I know I’m right, dammit—though this probably would’ve sounded more commanding if I wasn’t wearing my yummy sushi pajamas.
My connection to The New Pornographers’ Challengers runs deep and personal, and I can pinpoint when and where the record finally clicked with me: It’s August 2007, and I’ve just left a going-away party. Challengers is in the CD player (in a vehicle I can soon officially call “my parents’ car”), and it feels like I’m hearing “Unguided” with completely different ears. At six minutes and 30 seconds, it’s easily the longest track in The New Pornographers’ otherwise punchy catalogue, and it epitomizes Challengers’ less-than-enthusiastic reception: midtempo, kind of ponderous, more power ballad than power pop. But that reputation would improve significantly if Challengers convinced everyone who heard it that moving to Austin was unequivocally the right choice, or if “Unguided,” “Go Places,” and the title track soothed their anxieties about being the first family member in a generation to move away from Michigan. Had it been sold exclusively to people going through major life events, Challengers would be The New Pornographers’ most celebrated release. It’s like I always say: You’ve never really heard “Go Places” until you’re psyching yourself up to get out of your car (and it’s really your car now) and start a job you’ve taken to a) bankroll your nightly freelancing adventures, and b) stay in Texas with the love of your life.
I got into the film criticism racket partly to write about movies that I thought were underappreciated or underseen, so it should come as no surprise that I happen to like a lot of movies other people don’t. I think that Hitchcock’s Topaz is pretty nifty, if intentionally difficult to relate to, and that Ghosts Of Mars is plenty fun. I like Paul W.S. Anderson movies, Roland Emmerich movies, and a lot of those M. Night Shyamalan movies folks like to rag on. I prefer Heaven’s Gate to The Deer Hunter, though that’s not that uncommon an opinion nowadays; Michael Cimino’s nearly four-hour look at the grisly underpinnings of American industry has aged very well, and its critical reputation has significantly turned around, even if it remains a pop-culture punchline. I like Cimino’s very pulpy Year Of The Dragon, too, and the all-but-forgotten Mario Puzo adaptation that followed it, The Sicilian, which contains, in a single Steadicam sequence, one of the smartest shorthand depictions of class relations I’ve ever seen.
My love of the Beatles kicked in during the mid-1980s, a period when all three of the surviving members of the band were going through a major commercial drought. Even though it proved to be the lowest-selling album of his solo career up to that point, I loved—and still love—Paul McCartney’s Press To Play. Macca was co-writing with Eric Stewart of 10cc, resulting in some compositions that were decidedly different from his previous work; Pete Townshend and Phil Collins contributed to a few tracks; and Hugh Padgham’s production made the whole affair sound contemporary. The single, “Press,” was a minor hit, but despite releasing three other tracks as singles (“Pretty Little Head,” “Stranglehold,” and “Only Love Remains”), nothing on the album turned into a full-fledged smash hit, which I always found very surprising. Listening to it now, it may not be Band On The Run, but it still strikes me as a strong album. Maybe the world just wasn’t ready to hear McCartney trying to switch things up a bit.
I’m a huge late-period Replacements fan, which puts me at odds with the band, the majority of fans, and snooty critics. I came to love The ’Mats backwards, starting with solo Westerberg and working my way to Let It Be. I know this goes against most conventional logic, but I’m a melody guy, and Stink, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, and the majority of Let It Be is too ramshackle and, quite frankly, fast for me at 33 years old. When I saw them live in L.A. on the last tour, the early punk stuff just didn’t hold up well. Sure, it got the old drunks pushing and shoving, but it felt forced, and the juvenile charm of “White And Lazy” and “I’m In Trouble” pale in comparison when placed against a more mature (and sober) Westerberg. I’ll argue that “What A Day (For A Night)” or “Looking Up In Heaven” rival any of the early “classics.” And if you think he can’t rock solo, give “My Daydream” a spin. Everyone grows up, but those who only think The Replacements mattered with Bob Stinson never did.
If there’s any filmmaker (or pair of them) it’s difficult to find fault with, it’s Joel and Ethan Coen, who continue to make expertly written, challenging, darkly hilarious films no matter what genre they tackle. But anyone looking for a weak spot in their impenetrable wall of cinematic classics inevitably goes for three movies. Intolerable Cruelty and (their remake of) The Ladykillers—for which the brothers didn’t write the original stories—are excused away as not “real” Coen brothers pictures. But the third, The Hudsucker Proxy, is roundly considered their weakest wholly original film. It has a 58 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t terrible by any means, but apart from The Ladykillers, it’s the only Coens film that falls below 75 percent. (A full half of their 16 films are rated above 90 percent.) So it’s not a popular opinion that Hudsucker is far better than the revered films they made before it—Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing. But it is. It deserves to be grouped with the run of brilliance that followed: Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Maybe it’s the weakest of those four, but that’s like being the least impressive face on Mount Rushmore. Like those other three, Hudsucker is a Coen take on a genre they have obvious admiration for, with a blend of goofiness and dark humor, brilliant quotable dialogue, an unimpeachable cast (Tim Robbins, Paul Newman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, for starters), and an inspired, hilariously convoluted plot (an aw-shucks mailroom worker is promoted to CEO by a board of directors who wants to torpedo its own company). It’s not without its flaws—it’s debatable whether the film’s ending upends the “magical Negro” stereotype or simply swallows it whole—but it seems to me that it’s a terrific film that was sunk with audiences and critics because it has an awful, nigh-incomprehensible title.
I’ve generally been more of an admirer than a fan of Canadian arthouse director Atom Egoyan, which may explain why one of my favorite movies of his is the widely panned 2009 thriller Chloe, an adaptation of Anne Fontaine’s French film Nathalie… that ended up becoming Egoyan’s biggest box office hit. I like Chloe because it makes no pretense of having anything serious to say about the human condition. Instead it’s baldly lurid and campy, with Julianne Moore giving a game performance as an uptight gynecologist whose attempt to test her husband’s fidelity goes ludicrously awry. Egoyan has worked around the fringes of this genre before (including in 1999’s Hitchcockian Felicia’s Journey, which is the only other film of his that I genuinely love), but usually with a certain sobriety and aloofness. Chloe, though, has gratuitous sex scenes and stupid plot twists galore. To me, it’s the best kind of sellout: one so effective that it suggests a viable alternate career for its maker.
Every once in a while, some venom-spitting online dildo will tell me I’m clearly a hipster, because I “pretend” to like clearly unlikable things like Of Monsters And Men or Lars Von Trier films or whatever else the dildo doesn’t like. And if I wanted to defend myself, I’d probably just admit that R.E.M.’s Out Of Time was my first R.E.M. album, and it’s still my favorite. Which makes me part of the colonizing mainstream masses who ruined R.E.M. by discovering the band when it sold out and went populist and blah blah blah whatever. To this day, Out Of Time ranks fairly near (though never actually at) the bottom of any online ranking of best-to-worst R.E.M. albums, and people gag over “Shiny Happy People” and “Radio Song” like they’re made of audio smegma. For me, though, that album came out the year I graduated college, and it sounds like the ebullient soundtrack of a whole new life, for me and for R.E.M., and I still love every track.
There are countless albums I could list here, but our reader Matthew Russell seems to have eerily similar taste in that department (seriously, Matthew, I’d like to shake your hand and also ask if you like The Stone Roses’ Second Coming), so I’ll stick with movies. For me, being a fan of director David Gordon Green doesn’t just mean loving his first couple of Malick-ish indies, tolerating Pineapple Express, and grudgingly admitting that some of his later return to the indie world is acceptable enough. It means that I will go to bat for pretty much every movie he’s ever made, including his pair of 2011 big-studio comedies that he made after Pineapple boosted his profile: Your Highness and The Sitter. Those forays into lowbrow comedy made me appreciate Green more, not less, because his stamp is all over both of them: the bucolic cinematography even in unexpected settings, the oddball touches, the empathy he shows to his characters. To me it’s impressive, not depressing, that the same guy who made George Washington also did a movie where Danny McBride cuts off a minotaur’s penis. I can’t say that I think Your Highness is “better” than George Washington (though I would say that about Pineapple Express!), but I can’t deny that I’d rather re-watch the stoner fantasy than the celebrated indie debut; even among Green’s more serious movies, I prefer Undertow and Snow Angels to his earliest, most beloved work.
When Robert Altman died in 2006, the now compulsory list-making began, with the director’s oeuvre pulled apart, ranked, and re-ranked, until something like consensus was reached—or at least until everyone agreed to disagree over the relative merits of Nashville, The Player, The Long Goodbye, and Mash (even though the correct answer is McCabe & Mrs. Miller). What was less contentious was the bottom spot of most lists, which (misfires like Health or Quintet aside) invariably went to 1985’s O.C. And Stiggs, Altman’s even-more-ramshackle-than-usual entry in the ’80s teen comedy genre. Based on a (mostly discarded) series of stories from National Lampoon, the film was ignored, then panned, with even Altman admitting that it didn’t work, even as he praised the improv skills of his typically eclectic cast. But I’ve always found O.C. And Stiggs to be a deceptively smart and funny satire of the genre, with lively, nimble leads in Daniel Jenkins and Neill Barry as a pair of bored, rebellious teens dedicated to slyly mocking the suburban hypocrisy all around them. Whether pranking rich, racist neighbor Paul Dooley, scoring booze and girls (including a young, bright Cynthia Nixon), or setting up a riotous country club invasion scored to the live performance of King Sunny Adé, O.C. And Stiggs are Altman’s undercover agents in the world of mindless teen sex comedies. In a dry patch in his career, Altman could have served up the commercial flick the studio wanted—I’m always tickled how he just couldn’t help himself.
There aren’t that many Snoop Dogg albums that are widely acclaimed, though heaven knows that his contributions to The Chronic and Doggystyle have rightly and deservedly been praised. When Snoop Dogg—desperate to end his professional and personal affiliation with Death Row head bully Suge Knight with his life intact—signed on with Master P’s then-red-hot No Limit Records, it was a fairly dire omen. Sure enough, Snoop’s first albums with No Limit were pretty terrible, mired by forgettable production, bloat, and the need to water down Snoop’s charisma with guest appearances from the No Limit stable. Snoop finally managed to put it all together, however, with the strangely overlooked and underrated No Limit Top Dogg. It helps that Snoop reunited with Dr. Dre for three tracks. But elsewhere Snoop explores a very fruitful vein of 1980s R&B and soul that finds its most irresistible expression in “Trust Me,” which should have been a massive hit. The album may not be a masterpiece, but there are at least six or seven songs on it worthy of regular rotation in your iPod, which is the definition of a winning album to me.
Maybe this is just Stockholm syndrome from that time I wrote the TV Club 10 on it, but dammit if I don’t have a huge soft spot for Star Trek: Enterprise. There’s really no way I can launch into a positive appraisal of the show without it sounding like a defense or an apology, but I’ll just say this: For all its well-documented issues and voluminous creative miscalculations, the show did, at its best, find a way to take the far-flung, utopian vision of Star Trek and bring it just close enough to the present—a mere 150 years in the future!—that its world felt recognizable as something we today could bring into being if we really wanted to. The design of the Enterprise itself is utilitarian and small-scale in a way that emphasizes that this really is the beginning of humanity’s journey to the stars, and the push-pull between the preservation of optimism and the recognition of naïveté is what drives the show at its best. Honestly, more often that not, Enterprise wasn’t good enough to live up to its own ideals, and it proved just as willing to throw itself into grim and gritty territory as any other sci-fi show of the last 15 years. But there’s something beautiful about Enterprise in the way that all Star Trek shows are beautiful for their essential idealism, and its more primitive 22nd century did end up saying something new and worthwhile about Gene Roddenberry’s vision, even if the signal-to-noise ratio could have been a hell of a lot better. Also, eh, I just really like Scott Bakula. He was on Quantum Leap, you know.
I’m not sure many people would call Lyle Lovett a “great artist.” I would, though, and I’d argue that a few of his albums (Pontiac at least, and maybe his debut or Road To Ensenada) rank among the best of whatever the hell genre he works in—some kind of country blues melancholic oddness. (There are reasons I’m not a music critic.) But I love his album I Love Everybody more than either of those, even as I can recognize and appreciate their greatness. I Love Everybody is a collection of loose ends, goofs, song sketches, and other quirky cast-offs combined to make for a shambling, messy, occasionally repetitive chunk of music. It was the first Lovett album I bought, and one of the first albums I ever owned on CD that I really loved, so I find myself coming back to it every now and again in a way I don’t always with the musician’s other work. It’s partly nostalgia, and partly the ramshackle charm of a lot of 3 a.m. musings collected in one place. (I mean, there’s a song called “Penguins” on it. How do you not love that?)