The 1900s is the century where music, movies, video games, and TV shows bursted onto the art scene with great force due to the huge technological innovations that made decent audio and video recording possible, as well as the accessibility to television sets and radios in nearly every American home. Because of these huge technological innovations, music and film were shaped into what we are familiar with today. The music you hear on the radio, the movies you watch in theater, the shows you watch on Netflix, the video games you play on your PC / console… the artists of the 1900s were pioneers in a multitude of genres, pushing the envelope in their respective mediums, creating the blueprints that we still use today.
So without further ado, let’s kick this list off…
Yellow Trash Bazooka by The Gerogerigegege
Louder, more abrasive, and more punk than any album that you could name, The Gero’s ‘Yellow Trash Bazooka’ is the definition of catharsis. A step above the other The Gero’s noise-core releases, such as ‘Instruments Disorder’, ‘Recollections of Primary Masturbation’, ‘Mother Fellatio’, and ‘Saturday Night Big Cock Salaryman’. If you haven’t noticed by now, The Gero’s are somewhat subversive. The first song is titled “G” which sets the theme for the entire album , the theme being that every song begins with the letter ‘G’: “Gangbang”, “Gay Deceivers”, “Genderfuck”, “G.I. Shit”, “Glory Hole”, “Gynecologist”. Running at a mere 14-minutes, ‘Yellow Trash Bazooka’ is still as forward-thinking and as subversive as it was when it come out over 27 years ago.
Nespithe by Demilich
Along with Gorguts, Demilich represents the pinnacle of death metal. The music is technical, complex, abstract, dissonant, aggressive, and downright bizarre at times. Antti Boman’s vocals are difficult to get into (even by death metal standards), the songs are structured like a dizzying labyrinth, the time signatures are uncommon (the drumming on here is unusual, as Mikko starts a lot of his drum fills a full beat before you would normally expect), and the guitar riffs are intricate and unorthodox. Modern death metal bands such as Blood Incantation and Tomb Mold owe a lot to Demilich with their atmospheres and riffing being heavily reminiscent of Demilich. That being said, none of them are able to surpass ‘Nespithe’ which is still a gold standard in weirdo death metal.
Tarr’s 7+ hour epic is one of the greatest accomplishments by any director in film history. Like all of Tarr’s films, ‘Sátántangó’ is mostly about the futility of life with some socio-political commentary laid underneath. It’s entirely possible to do a fully socio-political analysis of any of Tarr’s films but what sets him apart from other socio-political directors is his remarkable ability to integrate deep philosophical ideas into the fabric of his films while avoiding intentioned didacticism. The world falls apart around us and we are left utterly helpless in our human weakness. Yet, we endure. By the time ‘Sátántangó’ is over, we are left with no real answers and more questions than we had when we came into it. Tarr never made another film close to this length but he never had to. ‘Sátántangó’ makes 7+ hours feel like 3-4 hours, entirely because of Tarr’s masterful direction.
‘Mulholland Drive’ is usually considered Lynch’s masterpiece film but I have always preferred the darker, colder, more nightmarish ‘Lost Highway’. Like ‘Mulholland Drive’ (and ‘Inland Empire’), ‘Lost Highway’ has a narrative that is typically described as a Möbius strip, or a pair of intertwined Möbius strips. Bill Pullman & Balthazar Getty play their respective parts as a unified whole, Patricia Arquette plays her role as the beautiful Renee Madison / Alice Wakefield to perfection, Robert Loggia is terrifying as Mr. Eddy, and Robert Blake is absolutely nightmare-inducing as the Mystery Man (one of the strangest and most terrifying characters ever put to screen).
‘Lost Highway’ is about the nature of memory (“I like to remember things my own way.” – “What do you mean by that?” – ” How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”), the effects and implications of surveillance (the Mystery Man films with his handheld camera, Fred and Renee receive VHS tapes on their porch which show them sleeping in their bed in the middle of the night), and the ways in which we build or destroy our own sense of identity (Fred undergoes a psychogenic fugue).
While I believe ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ to be Lynch’s true masterpiece, I also believe that ‘Lost Highway’ is easily Lynch’s best film. One of the greatest mystery films ever made.
In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson
When you have a 5-song album and every single one of those songs is a timeless masterpiece, your album is likely to be remembered 50 years after its release.
“21st Century Schizoid Man” is one of the most iconic album openers of all-time (further popularized by Kanye West’s sample of it in his song “Power”), “I Talk to the Wind” is an atmospheric triumph in its simplicity and serenity, “Epitaph” is one of the most majestic and beautiful songs ever written, “Moonchild” is a masterwork in free-form instrumental improvisation, and “The Court of the Crimson King” is not just one of the greatest album closers of all-time but also one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded.
‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ is an epic, dense, passionate album where every song is a masterpiece and its cover is one of the most recognizable in music history. One of the most important albums of all-time and one of the most perfect albums ever crafted.
The Seventh Seal
One of the greatest philosophical films ever made, ‘The Seventh Seal’ contains many iconic images that have been parodied and imitated since its release (for example, the image of Antonius and Death playing Chess, as pictured above). ‘The Seventh Seal’ is a meditation on faith, death, suffering, and (in some ways) love. I have always seen ‘The Seventh Seal’ as Bergman being his own version of Shakespeare and the film’s aesthetic lends itself very well to that reading. Less cinematic than some of Bergman’s other films, ‘The Seventh Seal’ is filmed as if it were a stage production with very little motion happening on screen at any point. ‘The Seventh Seal’ makes heavy use of allegory, symbolism, and philosophy in order to craft something that is deeply poetic and beautiful.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Probably the most well-known and beloved art film in Western societies, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is one of the most perfect films ever made and shows Kubrick at his absolute peak. ‘2001’ is an extremely ambitious film that could have easily collapsed under its own weight, as most attempts at making an art film do. Instead, ‘2001’ delivers on its ambitions with flying colours: it is a philosophical statement about the nature of man, the nature of machine, and man’s place in the universe; it is a portrayal of human history from prehistoric apes who come into contact with a mysterious black monolith to a species capable of space travel (perfectly captured visually when a bone (bones being shown to be used as a weapon for a murder) is thrown into the air and transforms into a space shuttle); it is a contemplation on the potentials of human evolution (perhaps we will all become a Star Child some day).
Obscura by Gorguts
For me, ‘Obscura’ is the pinnacle of metal. It is one of the most chaotic and dissonant albums ever made, often being described as the ‘Trout Mask Replica’ of death metal. While I can understand the comparisons to Captain Beefheart’s bizarre album, it is a disservice to ‘Obscura’ to simplify it in such a way. From the opening moments of its title track to the final moments of its closing track, ‘Obscura’ delivers some of the most forward-thinking, heavy, and inventive music ever recorded.
The atonal and noisy guitar playing contribute to a dense atmosphere that is both cathartic and spiritual (Hurdle’s guitar-work is out of this world and has had a massive influence not only on the way I approach guitar playing, but also in the way I approach song-writing); the drums are in a world of their own as they step away from their usual purely rhythmic duties and offer something more intricate, working in tandem with the other instruments (I have often described the drums on this album as being “drum riffs” because you could isolate the drum parts and it would still be a blast to listen to); the vocals by both Lemay and Hurdle rip into your soul as they deliver some of the most terrifying performances in extreme metal history (like his guitar-work, Hurdle’s vocals are also out of this world – the dude had such a unique yet amazing style in everything he did).
‘Obscura’ is the greatest metal album of all-time and metal bands today are still trying to catch up to what Gorguts did 22 years ago. I hope that one day, we will see another metal album with the same level of creativity and forward-thinking that can be found on ‘Obscura’.
The Velvet Underground by The Velvet Underground
If you consider this album to be anything lower than a 10/10, I don’t trust your musical opinion. More than any other album that I have listened to in my life, ‘The Velvet Underground’ is a masterpiece because the song-writing is simple yet extremely effective. One of the most bare-bones rock albums ever created, ‘The Velvet Underground’ is a major change from the bands previous 2 albums which were noisy, experimental, artsy proto-punk masterpieces (the debut wasn’t quite proto-punk though it had elements but ‘White Light / White Heat’ is definitely proto-punk). However, it is still reflective of The Velvet Underground as being so far ahead of their time that even 50 years later, these songs feel like they are pushing boundaries.
From the beautiful opening moments of “Candy Says” to the gentle ending of “After Hours”, The Velvet Underground’s self-titled album is packed full of fantastic yet simple ideas that are executed to perfection: “What Goes On” is a joyous romp with an excellent instrumental break; “Pale Blue Eyes” is saccharine-sweet in its straight-forward sentimentalism; “Beginning to See the Light” is a highlight of the album with Lou delivering some of the most memorable vocal ad-libs ever recorded; “The Murder Mystery” is another highlight of the album with its opposing vocal sections working in tandem with the rolling guitar and haunting organ, eventually culminating in an aural overload.
While not as genre-breaking and boundary pushing as their first two albums, ‘The Velvet Underground’ is reflective of a band that is still clearly at their peak in terms of song-writing. ‘The Velvet Underground’ is a masterpiece by a band that was always ahead of its time.
While there have been thousands of versions of ‘Tetris’ created since the original, with varying design choices (i.e. the pieces can be randomized through different methods such as pseudo-random, 4 piece history with 4 rolls, 7-bag (much more common today due to higher predictability), etc.) and different gimmicks (i.e. ‘Tetris Effect’ and ‘Tetris 99’), the basic idea and execution of ‘Tetris’ is perfection: the player must move and rotate descending tetrominoes into the desired location on the game board, a row disappears when it is filled (if 4 lines are cleared at once, it is called a “tetris”), and the player loses when a new descending piece can not fit onto the game board (or, in some multiplayer variants, the player beats another player).
‘Tetris’ has 3 requirements for decent performance: intelligence, skill, and experience. Over the hundreds and hundreds of hours that I have played ‘Tetris’, the game’s extraordinary depth revealed itself to me: stacking for “tetrises”, clearing garbage, even stacking, well placement, T-spins, combos. For a game as simple as ‘Tetris’, it offers an endless amount of replayability that is entirely dependent on how willing you are to improve on your previous best. Go watch any of the recent Tetris World Championship finals to see the extraordinary peaks of this beautiful game called ‘Tetris’.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
‘The Phantom Menace’ is perhaps the greatest ‘Star Wars’ film ever made: its idiosyncratic CGI stylings (anticipatory of the digital age to come) are used to create some of the most beautiful digital paintings imaginable (CGI is used to craft a world filled with life and detail – this was also one of the first uses of a high-definition digital camera and digital projectors to screen a film… let the importance of that sink in for you), the menacing Darth Maul (and the extraordinary Duel of the Fates which is by far the greatest lightsaber fight in the entire film series), Jake Lloyd as a young and entirely innocent Anakin Skywalker (people criticize Lloyd for his acting, people criticize Lucas for his decision to make Anakin this innocent… but I respectfully disagree with these people), the excellent Qui-Gon Jinn who tries to be a father-figure for Anakin, pod-racing is just straight-up dope, Jar Jar Binks is a CGI masterpiece and excellent comedic relief (his creation was influenced by Disney’s Goofy and silent film actor Buster Keaton, and was the first entirely CGI character ever shown in a film… let the importance of that sink in for you).
‘The Phantom Menace’ could be considered a masterpiece solely because of its technological innovations and its influence on Hollywood film-making in the 21 century. But that wouldn’t paint the whole picture. ‘The Phantom Menace’ is a masterpiece because it is a film about an innocent little boy whose downfall and eventual demise is fated. We, as the audience, know this. We know that Anakin becomes Darth Vader. The child prodigy with so much potential will one day become a terrifying monster capable of doing horrendous things. And so Lucas crafts a visually-stunning, heavily stylized film (that is free from the nostalgia of the original series) to tell us a simple story of a boy who lost it all.
Lucas isn’t here to please fans of the original series. In fact, every interview with him seems to reflect his lack of care for the obsessed fan boys of the originals. He cares about the kids. Lucas exists on planet Earth to give hope to kids – something he achieves through his extraordinary vision and his desire to push the medium forward. And there is no better example of this than the masterful ‘The Phantom Menace’.
The great Ingmar Bergman had this to say about Tarkovsky:
“Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language,
true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”
Although ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ is a fantastic film, ‘Andrei Rublev’ is the film that saw Tarkovsky going from “exceptionally talented film school student” to “cinematic auteur”. At the early age of 34, Tarkovsky showed near-unlimited potential in his depiction of the life of renowned icon painter Andrei Rublev in the world of medieval Russia. It is a meditation on art, artists, faith, human suffering, and the ability to endure in a bleak world bent on destruction. Tarkovsky’s visual poetry (his “sculpting in time”, as he called it) is on full display here, pushing the film towards the transcendent.
Supposedly, Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ was a response to Kubrick’s ‘2001’ with Tarkovsky telling an interviewer in 1970 that he thought ‘2001’ was phony. Tarkovsky’s goal with ‘Solaris’ seemed to be making a more emotional and less cold science-fiction film without the pretensions and “phoniness” of ‘2001’. While I don’t fully agree with Tarkovsky’s hot take, ‘Solaris’ is certainly my favourite of the two: it has deeper philosophical roots (themes of existentialism, identity, truth, love, and epistemology are all explored deeply), it is far more gorgeous (Tarkovsky is head and shoulders above all other directors when it comes to visuals), and its electronic score is one of the greatest ever written (it is the perfect auditory representation of the planet Solaris).
If the transition from ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ to ‘Andrei Rublev’ saw Tarkovsky going from “exceptionally talented film school student” to “cinematic auteur”, the transition from ‘Andrei Rublev’ to ‘Solaris’ saw Tarkovsky going from “cinematic auteur” to “cinematic genius”. Anyone who refuses to acknowledge Tarkovsky’s genius after watching ‘Solaris’ can not be trusted – it is a masterpiece.
‘The Mirror’ is a loosely structured, semi-autobiographical film about a dying poet recounting key memories from his life. The film flows like a river, putting the viewer into a para-oneiric state, as its visuals shift between colour, black & white, and sepia. Tarkovsky pushes his visual language to the extreme with some of the most beautiful, dream-like imagery ever captured on film. ‘The Mirror’ is one of the most personal, introspective films I have ever seen; it unfolds as if we were watching what was happening in Tarkovsky’s mind as he meditated and reflected on his own life, as he philosophized about life, the Universe, and everything. Continuing on with the semantics of Tarkovsky’s career progression, ‘The Mirror’ saw Tarkovsky going from “cinematic genius” to something nearly indescribable, becoming something of a “cinematic God” whose cinematic prowess reaches towards the Divine. ‘The Mirror’ is perhaps the most beautiful and perfect film ever made.
Revolving around the central theme of “Who watches the Watchmen?”, the ‘Watchmen’ graphic novel from the 1980s (written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons) was a maturation in the world of superhero storytelling (even today, ‘Watchmen’ stands above every other superhero story in terms of maturity). The situation between the U.S. and Soviet Union is tense in this Cold War-era graphic novel where superheroes exist – however, the superheroes are controversial (“Who watches the Watchmen?”) and become outlawed. Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian act as government-sanctioned agents while Rorschach is a vigilante. The rest of them give up the superhero life and decide to live normally. The graphic novel opens immediately after The Comedian has been murdered in New York, pushing Rorscach to investigate his death.
What ensues is a deconstruction of the superhero genre which forces the reader to reflect on the nature of superheroism, authority, power, nihilism, existentialism, motivation, morality, ethics, and truth. The superheroes in Moore’s world are not ideal nor are they empowered, they are just as rotten as the world they are trying to save and they are egotistical enough to use their power to enforce their morality on the world around them. It is a condemnation of overt authorities that use violence and threats of violence to achieve their own goals. In the year 2020 in a world filled with police brutality and militarization, ‘Watchmen’ is as relevant as ever. One of the greatest genre-benders ever written and it still feels fresh today, even in a world over-populated by superhero-themed films, video games, and TV shows.
The Velvet Underground & Nico by The Velvet Underground & Nico
Brian Eno once said that although the album initially only sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”, speaking to the intense influence that ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ had on underground music in the 1960s and beyond. Far ahead of its time, ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ is still as listenable and forward-thinking as it was when it came out 53 years ago: drug abuse, sadomasochism, prositution, and other forms of deviance are discussed over the course of the album; the band experimented with drones, de-tuned guitars, distortion, and feedback; and the opposing vocals of Lou Reed (in his dispassionate coolness) and Nico (in her atonal bizarreness) gave the album an even more undeniably unique atmosphere beyond the already unique instrumentation.
From the opening track “Sunday Morning” (which I would argue is the greatest opening song on any album ever) to the epic closing track “European Son”, the album takes you on a magnificent journey of raw coolness (“I’m Waiting for the Man”, “Heroin”), emotional flamboyance (“Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”), and abrasive torment (“Venus in Furs”, “The Black Angel’s Death Song”). Arguably the greatest and most influential album of all-time, bands are still trying to catch up to what The Velvet Underground were doing 53 years ago. The greatest band of all-time and their best album… almost.
White Light / White Heat by The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground continue with the socially transgressive lyrics, the dispassionate vocal performances, and the experimental instrumentation found on their debut album, but expand on these things in meaningful ways and push them to their absolute limits.
Over the album’s meager 6 tracks, The Velvet Underground achieves more than most bands do in their entire careers: inventive, genre-creating, iconic instrumentals laden with some of the most interesting dead-pan vocals ever recorded (Lou Reed’s vocal performance on “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is noteworthy with his interruptions of John Cale to deliver darkly humourous lyrics) as well as some of the most memorable lyrics imaginable (the entirety of “The Gift” is one of the best examples of story-telling in a song, as John Cale recites a story written by Lou Reed over the left speaker while a basic but enjoyable instrumental plays out in the right speaker).
From title-track album opener “White Light / White Heat” (a piano-driven rock and roll song similar to “I’m Waiting for the Man”) to epic album closer “Sister Ray” (a song about drug use, homosexuality, transvestism and a giant orgy), The Velvet Underground deliver some of the most unique and energetic songs ever recorded (the guitar solos on “I Heard Her Call My Name” are some of the most mind-bending, chaotic, noisy solos that I have ever heard; I wish I could be as cool as Lou Reed, but nobody is ever as cool as Lou Reed – in fact, everyone seems like a loser compared to Lou Reed (speaking of losers, Nirvana once recorded a cover version of “Here She Comes Now”… and, as expected, they completely butchered it)).
While not quite as notable or as influential as their debut album, bands are still trying to catch up to what The Velvet Underground were doing 52 years ago on “White Light / White Heat”. The greatest band of all-time and their best album… definitely.
Twin Peaks (Seasons 1 + 2 + ‘Fire Walk with Me’)
‘Twin Peaks’ is far and away the greatest show in television history. Nothing else comes close to the characters and stories that Lynch imagined for his weird little world of Twin Peaks. Campy detective fiction with Lynchian supernatural elements, ‘Twin Peaks’ stars the great Agent Dale Cooper (one of the most recognizable, funny, cool, and likable protagonists ever created) who is investigating the death of Laura Palmer.
The show is home to one of the greatest scores ever written (by the fantastic Angelo Badalamenti) and set a new standard for decent cinematography in television although Lynch and Frost’s lack of control over some of the later episodes of season 2 saw a downfall in quality. Luckily, Lynch and Frost returned for the final episode of the original series with the mind-blowing “Beyond Life and Death”, one of the all-time great television episodes, unsurpassed until Lynch’s very own ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ in 2017.
A year later, Lynch followed up the original series with a prequel film titled ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me’ that would set the tone for the series that would come 25 years later. It is both haunting and heartbreaking to see Laura’s life before her murder as she finds herself in the company of bad people. As tragic as it was, her death was the only thing able to remove her from her own suffering. In the end, Laura sees her angel and is happy again. After everything she has endured, after all the pain and suffering, Laura is safe. Lynch gives us optimism in a decaying world.
Despite its occasional downfalls, the ‘Twin Peaks’ series of the 1990s is one of the greatest creations of art to ever exist.
Fanny och Alexander
Immediately following my initial viewing of Bergman’s 5.5 hour ‘Fanny och Alexander’, I was certain that I had just watched the best movie ever made. That was around 6 years ago and that sentiment has hardly changed. It may not be as tightly woven or as deeply philosophical as some of Bergman’s other films (i.e. ‘Persona’, ‘The Seventh Seal’), but it is his most personal and grandiose.
It bathes in visual extravagance, framing gorgeously created sets filled with beautifully dressed people. It is filled with a child-like wonder, appreciating the small things in life, laughing with family and friends, in this miracle we call life. This is all broken when Fanny and Alexander’s mother marries the Bishop and they move in with him. From that point on, Fanny and Alexander are in Hell (and Bergman makes us feel like we are stuck in the Bishop’s house with them). Nykvist’s masterful cinematography and Bergman’s masterful direction (and writing) pulls us into both the Heaven of the Ekdahl family Christmas and the absolute Hell of the Bishop’s house. Bergman does not shy away from strong emotions or difficult scenes, instead embracing them fully which renders the audience powerless in having a say in what they would rather watch (the audience must watch what Bergman wants them to watch, harshness and all).
Magical realism, family conflict, religious devotion – the film covers a lot of ground. It is ambitious in all of the right ways and delivers on all of those ambitions in satisfying ways. Ultimately, it is Bergman’s excellent craftsmanship that propels this beautiful yet haunting family drama into the masterpiece that it is. Arguably the greatest film ever made but there is one other film that stands in the way for me…
The greatest film ever made and Tarkovsky’s masterpiece (okay, he has a lot of masterpieces but this is the masterpiece). There has never been a film as profound, as beautiful, as mysterious, and as endlessly fascinating as ‘Stalker’.
It is a film that gets better and better with subsequent viewings as its hauntingly beautiful imagery and atmospheric score feel more and more natural (‘Stalker’ makes you wonder why all films aren’t made like this – in comparison, every other film feels forced and plastic). It is a film that sits with you long after you watch it, digging its way into your soul and leaving a deep mark, forever changing the way you think about this fleeting thing called life. There has never been a film that has captured the truths of the Universe in the way that ‘Stalker’ does. Deeply contemplative and introspective, ‘Stalker’ is a meditation on what it means to be human.
I don’t think that there has been a day that has gone by where I did not think about ‘Stalker’ in some way. Whether I am thinking about its masterful score, its perfect cinematography, its deep philosophical themes, or even specific scenes (i.e. when they are traveling to the Zone; when they sit outside the room while it is raining; Porcupine’s story; the final scene with Monkey), I doubt there will ever be a film that matches the sheer depth and intensity of ‘Stalker’ – it is the pinnacle of artistic creation in the 1900s.