Monday, December 14, 2009

Deep Breath. Go.

I'm starting to feel the pressure.

The new issues of all the music magazines are coming out now, with their best-of lists, and this December/January is the big game; we're talking Best of the Decade lists, folks. Not just Best of the Year, but the last ten. That's a tall order for one multimedia critic to handle, and I'm not sure how to handle it. Certainly a numbered list will not suffice. I will spend hours debating whether Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid warrants a place at #38 or #37 (arbitrary numbers; I imagine it might even place a bit higher), and that's not productive for any of us.

I may use a stratified approach. And, no, Kid A will not be my number 1 album of the decade. Those of you who follow the music press probably just giggled appreciatively.

But this is not why we're here right now. I'll get to that once the semester has ended and I can put real time into those lists. I want to do right by them. Why we're here today, is I have a lot of catching up to do. And in the name of (relative) brevity, I'm going to do it all right now.

In music, we've had a bit of a resurgence, as far as releases of interest are concerned. For one thing, I purchased a copy of the new Bee Gees collection, Ultimate Bee Gees, and was reminded that they were a truly formidable, impressive band. I can listen to "Nights on Broadway" for days, I suspect. And I'm damn near making it happen. The new Rihanna album, Rated R, sounds fantastic. It's not as airtight as she tends to be, but this is her "I wanted to be an artist" album, and that's typically how it goes; you trade commercially undeniable stuff for the more expressive business. Again, though, the sounds alone are worth the price of admission.

There's an unexpected, late entry into the Best of the Year arena, XX by The xx. (That's them to the right, there. Don't you just want to hug 'em?) It's all a bit minimalist, like Joy Division stripped themselves down and cleaned up their act. It's also exceptional. I read a review of it which said it feels as though several other, noisier, less-accomplished albums should have come before this one, and I think that about says it all; this is the sound of a band arriving fully-formed, and it's thrilling. Yes, it's their debut. And, yes, it gets better every time you listen to it. Check this one out.

I've started digesting Monsters of Folk, and they're better than anything Bright Eyes has ever put out. I don't care for M. Ward, and I don't care for Bright Eyes, but the two of them together, diluted (perhaps?) by Drive-By Truckers' Jim James is really delicious. That other super-group for this year, Them Crooked Vultures, is also superb. What happens when you put Josh Holme from Queens of the Stone Age, Dave Grohl from Nirvana (he's drumming, so saying "from Foo Fighters" gives you the wrong idea), and John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin in the same studio? I don't know, but it sounds fuckin' amazing.

The new Weezer album is something to sneeze at. "(If You're Wondering if I Want You To) I Want You To" is awesome, in that plastic-sort of way, but other than that, it's really drivel. Still on my to-do list are Fuck Buttons, Biffy Clyro, Norah Jones (good so far... very good), Kid Cudi, and Shakira. Why not?

I've also recently finished several books, but I want to direct your attention rather specifically to Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann. It's new from this year, and you would be hard-pressed to improve on it. The story is one of those multi-faceted, Magnolia-type narratives, where a number of characters are inter-connected in ways simultaneously inconsequential and incredibly important. The story-telling device McCann uses, having a different character narrate every chapter, has been done before, but he does it so brilliantly that it ceases to be a hook, a novelty, and becomes an incredible part of the story. Before I started the last chapter, I was excited just to find out who the narrator was. And I wasn't let down. A brilliant book with wonderful sentence structure and word choice. As forensic as that sounds, those things matter to me. It's why I never finished The Lovely Bones.

Movie-wise, I saw The Princess and the Frog and Up in the Air this past weekend, and both were wonderful. The Princess and the Frog was a very, very enjoyable movie, and it's a great way for Disney to reinvigorate the hand-drawn animation productions they never should have abandoned in the first place.

Up in the Air may be the best film I've seen all year. It's a wonderful, touching, funny, deep, and, most of all, entertaining film. And George Clooney is reliably great. Michael Clayton and Up in the Air have served to remind me that he is oddly underrated as an actor. Expect a lot of Oscar nominations for this one. Anna Kendrick is tightly-wound to the point of perfection, and deserves a nomination of her own. I'd say it should win Best Picture, but I haven't seen The Hurt Locker yet, and I have my suspicions.

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