The Sunday Magazine: Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

I am one of those who enjoys lists. I have come to enjoy making my own list of the best perfumes of the year annually. Whether it is me or others the process of judging different genres of anything is guaranteed to generate conversation. This week one of the biggest lists was updated.

Rolling Stone magazine released their new list of the 500 greatest albums which was last released in 2003. It is a mammoth project where they asked 300 people throughout the music industry to send in a list of their top 50 albums. Once it was all compiled, they debuted the new list at the beginning of last week. There have been a lot of discussions on the music boards but what I find most interesting is not that anything was left out. It is more on the placement of an album. Even then it isn’t that it is wildly overrated just that in one person’s opinion the albums under the one in question are better. Which is why this list works so well for me because they had 300 someones decide what the top is.

I don’t really feel too exercised about positioning because within the top 50 are Ramones (#47), The Clash (#16) and Talking Heads (#39). What I think is the greatest hip-hop jazz fusion album “The Low End Theory” by A Tribe Called Quest checked in at #43. The biggest surprise of the top ten percenters for me.

I own all the top 100 albums which was not the case in 2003. The ability to download and stream has allowed me to create my own reference library. After seeing the list I spent some time renewing my acquaintance with the top three.

I forget what a brave album Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” was when it was released in 1971. As the accompanying text to the entry says it was a singer-songwriter putting her life on vinyl for the world to hear. The authenticity of it rings true almost fifty years later. Ms. Mitchell was one of the few women who stood with the mostly boys of the early days of rock. The list reminded me why that was so.

I was a late convert to the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”. I wasn’t a fan of the whole surfer style pop which caused me to dismiss them while I was listening in the early 1970’s. It wasn’t until I started into the NYC music scene in the mid 1980’s when I kept reading about “Pet Sounds” influencing this sound or that sound I finally gave it a chance. I understand the high placement, but this is the one which seems like the foundational album which is difficult for me to embrace. Relistening to it this week it reminds me of what it inspired more than what it is.

There were two albums in the 1970’s which constituted my introduction to soul. Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to “SuperFly” which is #76 on the list and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. This was part of a window into a world a young white teenager couldn’t experience or understand. Music has always been one of the ways to communicate to an audience the life of a person of color. That “What’s Going On” still sounds like it belongs in 2020 is testament to its vision and commentary on society.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Streets of Fire

When I got my first VCR in 1984, I used to have what I called “Bad Movie Wednesday”. I would pick a critically panned movie off the shelf and see what I thought. That exercise has created a list of movies I enjoy because of their flaws.

Being housebound because of quarantine I have been revisiting some of my favorites from back then when something reminds me of them. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to my playlist of all the Meat Loaf songs when something not by him shuffled to the top. It was a song called “Tonight is What it Means to be Young”. It is on the list because it was written my Meat Loaf’s longtime collaborator Jim Steinman for the 1984 movie “Streets of Fire”. I re-watched the movie and caught up on some of what I didn’t know about how it came to be.

The movie was the idea of director Walter Hill who wanted to make a comic-book movie, but he wanted to write his own hero. He had just come off the huge success of directing the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte buddy film, 48 Hrs. That meant he could pretty much do anything he wanted. Once he showed studios the script, he has said it was the quickest a movie was given the go-ahead in his career.

“Streets of Fire” was meant to be the beginning of a trilogy of films featuring Tom Cody as played by actor Michael Pare. It didn’t work out that way. The movie was a huge flop at the box office not even making back half of its budget. I don’t care about any of that. This is a movie that lived up to Billy Crystal’s SNL impersonation of Fernando Llamas, it was better to look good that to feel good.

The movie takes place in a stylized city that never existed. It has similarities to Chicago, LA, and NYC. Tom Cody returns to town after the war to rescue his old flame Ellen Aim who is kidnapped by the head of the city’s motorcycle gang. It all leads up to a final act showdown where the protagonists battle with sledgehammers.

The movie is full of colors which represent the different parts of the city. The cars are all 1950’s era styles while the music is 1980’s power pop. Mr. Hill wanted an unidentifiable landscape where he could impart his sense of style. He gets all of that.

What he also got was a kind of wooden lead actor. Michael Pare plays the hero so low key he is outshone by his sidekick and the villain. What makes the movie fun is an actor who has about two or three emotional gears working against others who have hundreds. In every scene he looks like he is in over his head. When reading about the production they were trying to interest Tom Cruise, Eric Roberts, or Patrick Swayze to play Tom Cody. They took a risk on a relative newcomer and paid the price.

The same risk paid off for the female lead Ellen Aim who was played by Diane Lane. She showed she could deliver outsized exposition with emotion and belief. The scenes between Ms. Page and Mr. Pare are great indicators of who was going to have the larger career.

Finally the music was the fun part. Written by Mr. Steinman the two original songs were part of his rock operatic style of rock and roll. One of the funny things I learned was Mr. Hill had no experience staging musical numbers and the two big set pieces within the film were him learning on the job. It would have been interesting to bring in one of the early music video directors to have provided a hand. But then it wouldn’t be the kind of bad movie I love.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Cobra Kai

One of the great things about the current state of television is there is a platform for most any creative effort to find an audience. There are exceptions even among the largest names in the tech business. Back in 2018 YouTube started a series of original programming. The centerpiece of that was to be a series called “Cobra Kai”. A sequel to the 1984 movie “The Karate Kid”. The first season garnered positive press, but YouTube just couldn’t get eyes on their service. They would give it one last try a year later with a second season. In the crowded world of streaming services they were getting edged out. Earlier this year they decided to sell off their programming to other providers. Netflix picked up Cobra Kai and immediately approved a third season. Which is when I finally had the opportunity to see it.

I liked the original movie fine as it was the classic sports underdog story told with martial arts. It leads up to the big match where our hero wins. Cobra Kai picks up the story 34 years later. Where the underdog has become a successful car dealer and the guy he beat has been much less so. The actors Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso and William Zabka as johnny Lawrence reprise their roles now as grown middle-aged men. I was surprised to be drawn into the story as it is told mainly from Johnny’s perspective. You get the chance to see how the villain of the movie sees his actions. The Cobra Kai series is about how he tries to rebuild his life through rebuilding the karate dojo he trained in, Cobra Kai. As Daniel finds out it has been reborn his antagonism towards it resurfaces. Causing the men to clash.

Both eventually take in students. The show focuses on a group of them who go to the local high school. The writers have just enough fun with the analogy of karate as the big spectator sport instead of something else. At the end of Season 1 it comes to the same tournament the movie ended on with the dojos facing off. The success of the series is I wasn’t sure who I wanted to win. The characters were all sympathetic enough that it was tough watching one lose. This was the opposite of the sports underdog story as there weren’t cartoonish villains to hiss. The writers created a set of characters we rooted for on both sides. Season 2 follows up the aftermath of the first season ending on a cliffhanger.

The team of Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg are to be commended for finding new ways to tell the story of the ability of sports to elevate. That they do it without turning their players into cartoons is why I am glad Cobra Kai has found a place to be seen.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: X-Men Comics a Year Later

If there has been a consistent disappointment in my life of reading superhero comics it is the follow through on big events. Every hero has had giant big climactic things happen only for a reset button to be pushed. This happens a lot of the time before we can even explore the ramifications of said big change. It is why it has been so refreshing to see that the Marvel X-Men series have not been doing that over the past year.

My favorite comic series of last year was the complete shuffling of the X-Men universe in House of X/Power of X by writer Jonathan Hickman. I expected to get a few issues of pleasure before things began to decay back to baseline. A year later I am here to say that hasn’t happened. The template Mr. Hickman laid down has been picked up in six series which have hit issue 12 in the last month. I have continued to read the new books because there hasn’t been any attempt to backtrack on what was done. I don’t think I’ve read as many X-Men books in a row in many years.

The series I am enjoying most is the Marauders written by Gerry Duggan. One of my favorite pieces of the X-Men comic universe is the Hellfire Club. With Emma Frost as one of the main characters the now renamed Hellfire Trading Company has Kate (not Kitty) Pryde leading a team of mutants into the machinations of the Hellfire world. I have enjoyed everything Mr. Duggan has done on this series.

One of the interesting offshoots of the House of X was the integration of the mutant villains into the fold. Mister Sinister has always been a favorite one I’ve loved to hate. In the six-issue limited Fallen Angels he pulled the strings in the background for Psylocke, Cable, and X-23. That segued into Hellions where he oversees the more ethically challenged mutants. Psylocke is again with him and it is this story which has drawn me in. Over the past year he has been feeding Psylocke what she needs but whether it is with good intentions is still TBD.

One of the best things about the original 70’s resurrection of X-Men by Claremont and Byrne were these huge cross-over events involving all the titles. Mr. Hickman is getting ready to take his turn as he starts the X of Swords from mid-September through November. For many years these have just been giant unfocused disasters. I am looking forward to what Mr. Hickman and the other writers on the other titles can do here. If you need any more evidence of how I feel about X-Men a year later that excitement should provide a clue.

Disclosure: I have purchased all the comics mentioned.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Chadwick Boseman

1

One of the things I’ve written about before is how important representation is in geek culture. The ability for anybody to look on the movie screen and see a hero that looks like them. Two years ago “Black Panther” gave that to the African American community and the world. The person who lived that beyond the movies was star Chadwick Boseman who died on Friday. There are few movie stars who took on the extra responsibility more graciously than he.

Chadwick Boseman

We live in the Washington DC area and Mr. Boseman is an alumnus of Howard University. As a result we got to see a lot more of him. What always struck me is he knew what an impact he had made in his portrayal of an African king of a nation that was technologically advanced populated with fierce warriors. He knew this was a new way for people who looked like him to see themselves. That meant once the cameras were off and the movie long gone from the multiplex Mr. Boseman still had to represent Black Panther.

Most actors would shy away from that responsibility. I watched Mr. Boseman lean into it time and again. Whenever anyone crossed their hands across their chest in the “Wakanda Forever” salute he returned it. I know this because Mrs. C and I were out walking around DC over a year after the film was released. I saw these kids making the arm gesture wondering what was going on until I turned around. Mr. Boseman was a few yards behind me with a big smile on his face as he returned the salute. There were no cameras or anyone to notice yet he lived the responsibility of his movie role in his life.

When I read that all of this came after he had been diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer it makes it even more beautiful. He was one of the few who knew he wasn’t going to be around to watch Black Panther grow old. He seized every opportunity to make sure it didn’t go by without notice.

He was a talented actor in so many roles. Yet it will be this portrayal of a comic book superhero that will allow him to live on for decades. He will inspire for as long as people watch. Truly living up to “Wakanda Forever”.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Umbrella Academy

1

Ever since the success of The X-Men there has been a place for angst filled superheroes. There is an appeal in watching characters who aren’t heroic but who just want to get through the day. The latest iteration of this is the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy.

The series is based on the comic book series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. It just released its second season at the end of last month. The premise is on October 1, 1989 43 women gave birth without having been pregnant until they began the birth. A billionaire, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, adopts seven of them. He realizes there is something special about them. He learns they have superpowers and trains them to be a force for good known as The Umbrella Academy. As teenagers they are a part of pop culture until something happens to cause them to separate. When Season 1 begins they are drawn back to the mansion they grew up in for Sir Hargreeves funeral. While there they learn they are responsible for a future event which will end the world.

The entire first season is all about learning the backstory of the characters as they try to avert the coming disaster. The story strikes a balance between the interpersonal and the heroics. As adults each member carries the effects of an upbringing from a man who saw them as a tool for good rather than the children they were. Those psychological scars lead to an explosive climax.

The second season picks up after that, where the members of The Umbrella Academy have been scattered through years in the early 1960’s in Dallas Texas. Each of them finds their own way to cope with their new circumstances until they all find their way back to each other in November of 1963 just prior to JFK’s tragic trip. This time left on their own each of them finds a measure of happiness in their respective time in 1960’s America. To avert disaster they must give up something that was missing from their previous life.

The show is marvelously cast with an ensemble cast which shines in their respective roles. There really isn’t a single stand out as they are all excellent. Even though I have described a serious plot above there is a lot of fun in between. The writers have a particularly good time having our 2019 heroes assimilate in the 1960’s. The early moments of each of them and how they make their way in the past are a lot of fun.

The Umbrella Academy is the kind of superhero fun that feels exactly right these days.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: November by Matt Fraction

1

If there is anything readers of this column should know after six years, it is this. I love noir. I love non-linear storytelling. I love graphic novels. I love good writers. When all those things come together it is a gimme that I will want to write about it. The new graphic novel November by Matt Fraction checks all those boxes.

November is a story being told in three volumes. The first one came out last year and volume two a few months ago. I thought the first volume was amazing, but I wondered if it could continue. Volume two was even better. I believe in Mr. Fraction’s ability to tie up everything he has put in to play.

The plot was inspired by a real-life incident outside the home he lives in. There was a significant police incident outside his front door. A few days later they would discover a gun in one of their bushes. They called the police. Mr. Fraction’s mind did the “what if?” a person didn’t. November is that story spooled out through three women he describes as “a survivor, a Good Samaritan, and one struggling against her own obsolescence.”

As I mentioned the narrative jumps back and forth in the time frame covered. Mr. Fraction is such a talented writer that it isn’t always apparent when we are at the beginning of a conversation. It is that which makes November such a fun read. I was constantly trying to put the pieces together. Much of it feels like a verbal jigsaw puzzle where the outside frame has been completed but the picture on the inside is still forming.

Elsa Charretier is the artist working with Mr. Fraction. She seems to enjoy laying out this dialogue in equally interesting visuals. There are a couple of scenes where her panels brilliantly mirror what is happening.

I am being purposefully obtuse about the plot because much of the enjoyment of this is figuring it out for yourself. November is worth spending some time with.

Disclosure: I purchased the book being reviewed.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Summer 2020 Playlist

It is a different summer when I think of the music I have been listening to. In a typical year, my mega summer playlist would have been on constant shuffle. I looked at my stats and it has been over three weeks since the last time I cued it up. This summer has been less about a song of the summer than a group of four albums which have helped provide the contours for this year.

One of those is Haim’s “Women in Music Part III” I spent a whole column on it a few weeks ago. But I find the songs “Don’t Wanna”, “The Steps”, and “Gasoline” add some pop to the summer days.

I have always felt Taylor Swift was underestimated as a songwriter. It is easy to dismiss her because she seemingly aims her music at a younger demographic. It wasn’t until a few different musicians decided to do acoustic versions of her songs that the smart lyrics became evident to me. Underneath the cotton candy was a woman with something to say. The recent album “Folklore” is her attempt to do that without the glitzy pop trappings.

She shows off her ability to capture the current zeitgeist. Nowhere does that come out than in “epiphany” which is about the frontline workers dealing with the pandemic. I find it uplifting there is a real feel of the enormity of the job we are asking these people to do. Through the album there is a three-song story of a love triangle from each participant’s perspective. “cardigan”, “august” and “betty” form a tale of summer lovin’ with the sweet and bittersweet on display. This is a great piece of musicianship which reminds me there will be a world of emotion to return to. For now I’ll let Ms. Swift invite me to hers.

My final two are full bore dancehall discs. Even by myself I just want to dance and swing my arms around. Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa both dropped their latest just as things closed down. Both women harness the energy of dance floor beats from past time. Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” goes right back to the era of 1970’s disco given a new spin. She doesn’t look down upon disco she exalts it. The first single “Don’t Stop Now” had a little time to rule the dancefloor. The rest of the songs are just as hook laden and fun.

Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica” has the song which I think would’ve ruled the roost in a normal summer; her duet with Ariana Grande “Rain on Me”. For all that Gaga has embraced other musical forms her return to what put her on the map shows it is where she thrives. “Chromatica” slips into gear with the first track “Alice” and then accelerates from there. Her other collaboration “Sour Candy” with K-Pop girl group Blackpink is another standout. “Chromatica” reminds us no matter how far Gaga moves away from the dance floor she is just one step away.

I hope you are finding some music to lift your spirits this odd summer.

Disclosure: I purchased all the music reviewed.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Old Guard

By the first weekend of August I am usually sated on action movies I’ve gone to see at the theater. It is part of summertime. The very definition of popcorn movies. Find an air-conditioned dark room to watch larger than life thrills and chills. Except 2020 is not a normal summer. Black Widow, James Bond, and The Fast and Furious crew are all delayed. What am I supposed to eat my popcorn with? Netflix to the rescue with one of the best action movies I’ve seen in a while; “The Old Guard”.

As it seems almost everything is these days “The Old Guard” is based on the comic book of the same name by Greg Rucka. This is one of the rare occurrences where the movie was better than the book. The big reason for that is the director and the star. It is not that there are significant differences in the plot since Mr. Rucka wrote the screenplay. It is that Charlize Theron who plays the lead character Andy adds so much to the nuance of the character. Plus director Gina Prince-Bythewood makes the action pop.

The premise of the movie is there are a team of assassins led by Andy who are immortal, kind of. You send them on a mission they get killed only to rise and take down those who killed them before. Andy is short for Andromache of Scythia and she has been doing this for centuries. When a new immortal comes into being, they dream of him or her and are compelled to seek them out. At the beginning of the movie a new immortal arises from the fighting in Afghanistan. Having a new member allows for all the audience’s questions to be asked by the newbie. The villain is a maniacal preening pharmaceutical executive who wants the immortals’ genetic secrets to make a profit.

As I watched this, I realize how reliable an action star Ms. Theron has become. Her physical ability to lay down the stunts is impressive. She spends most of the movie with the new immortal Nile played by KiKi Layne. Ms. Layne also successfully transitions to action star.

The Old Guard has a little more on its mind than the typical action movie. There is a twist which is not in the comic book which provides a greater meaning for the lives of these immortals. It really appealed to me making a good plot better.

By the end we are left with a potential lead-in to a sequel. I really hope to see these characters again. Maybe next time in a future summer at the theater.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The New Normal for Geek Culture

It is a given once this worldwide virus is controlled everywhere, things will be different. We won’t be going back to normal but defining a new normal. There have been too many summers where I have spent part of my life in a convention center at a Comic-Con and/or gaming con. It is the geek version of summer camp; even when you’re 60. This weekend has given a preview of what these events might look like once things become virus-free.

If you are a fan of popular culture the middle of July means San Diego Comic Con (SDCC). Writers and artists of comic books mingle with stars of our favorite television and movies. This year the organizers had no choice but to cancel the live event. In its place for the past three days has been what they call SDCC @ Home. The same panels which would have taken place in Hall H are now happening over video meeting. All the things I would have eagerly waited to hear reports about I have been to watch live from my living room.

Concurrently if you are fan of mobile gaming and specifically Pokemon Go, July means Go Fest. In the US it took place in Chicago turning the city in to the epicenter of Pokemon Trainers. This year that was also not going to happen. What the game company behind it, Niantic, chose instead was a worldwide event. One where everyone could play if you bought a ticket. It turned what was an event for a few thousand people into something global. I spoke with other players from all over the world during my playing time. I played in cooperative events that were taking place in Tokyo, Johannesburg, London, and San Francisco. No longer just Chicago.

Here is the thing that ties this all together. I never left the house. All of this came to me using current technology. If I had been on my feet crossing convention centers while doing either of these, I’d normally be leg weary and dehydrated. Instead I’ve been safe at home as the world of geek culture comes to me. I feel certain the success of events like these will be the beginning of a new way for geek culture conventions to take place. Now that I am an old man, I am happier on my own sofa.

Mark Behnke