The best of the "best of" lists

Why film critics' choices are far from simple.

Though top ten lists are often criticised for their perceived encouragement of critical myopia and crude categorisation, they can still offer illuminating insights into how different critics in different countries judge films. In this spirit, it is interesting to compare the best of 2010 polls from three leading film magazines: Britain's Sight and Sound, America's Film Comment and France's Cahiers du Cinéma.

There are immediate differences in the compilation of these lists, which must be acknowledged before making more general comments on them. Both Sight and Sound and Film Comment's lists are formed from critics' opinions taken from within their editorial team and from outside of it, and Sight and Sound's list also includes the choices of international critics (including some from Cahiers and Film Comment). Only one (Cahiers' house editorial only list) is actually a top ten, with Sight and Sound having a top 12 and Film Comment having a top 50 of 2010.

Having accepted these differences though the polls still offer tantalising comparisons. Several observations jump out when looking at the lists side by side. The first is the European predominance in both the Sight and Sound list (eight of the top 12 films) and Film Comment's list (six out of the top ten), and the contrary lack of European films in that most iconic of European film journals, Cahiers du Cinéma, which has five American films in its top ten and only three from Europe (a confirmation of Emilie Bickerton's pessimistic view of Cahiers'' current direction.) The second is the almost complete absence of documentary films from the lists (Sight and Sound has two documentaries in its top 12, Film Comment has one in its top ten and Cahiers has none), though given how poorly distributed documentaries are in both the US and Britain this is relatively unsurprising.

It is intriguing to look at Film Comment's top 20 unreleased films (i.e. films which have not yet come out in cinemas in America), a list often condemned for its connotations of cinéaste festival-circuit snobbery but one that is in fact very necessary, given the notoriously poor distribution of foreign films in America. This list is headed by the runaway winner of the Cahiers' poll (and runner up of Sight and Sound's list), Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Palme d'Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Other interesting points include the high placing of Olivier Assayas's French produced terrorist biopic, Carlos, in both Film Comment's list (where it came out on top) and Sight and Sound's poll, where it was placed fourth, and its surprising absence from the Cahiers' top ten where it only featured in one of the thirteen separate writer's lists. This might be partially due to the fact that Carlos was originally shown on television in France, but it still seems a bizarre omission for such a blisteringly cinematic film.

Film Comment's and Cahiers' lists compare particularly oddly because many of the films on Film Comment's top 50 came out in 2009 in France (such as A Prophet and Wild Grass.) The absence of Werner Herzog's well received Bad Lieutenant from Sight and Sound's list is slightly odd, as is the high placing of Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme (as of yet unreleased in the UK) in all the polls. The three lists certainly give a good view of the contradictions and contentions at play in the world's film industry.

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.