Monday, December 27, 2010

Best of 2010

2010 has come and gone, my friends. Or, at least, it's about to. This was, I think, a great year for music, with a remarkable number of mini-masterpieces, and two big ones. This was a big year for bands with A Sound. Of the 16 albums which are featured in this list, eight are by bands which trade in a unique sound more than anything else. Two are by individuals who could trade in A Sound if they wanted to, but they're far too happy jumping around and playing in the different ponds available to them. Like last year, I will be sticking with an unnumbered format, as ultimately naming a favorite would be impossible. My preferences for any one of these over any other shift constantly, which is why such lists are ultimately an inane exercise. Still, it's fun to write about the music you love, and there's no better excuse. The further down the list the album is listed, the generally higher marks I would give it. Let me know your favorites in the comments section, and what you do or don't agree with in my list.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West
The more I talk about and think about this album, the less I like it. Kanye West is, let's not fool ourselves, frighteningly talented. His producing and sampling in rap are the best in the world. His rapping skills have improved with each album, but it's still not what he's meant to be doing. It's just not. His ego is so rampant, and his self-confidence so minute, that he has to do it all. He has to make himself the best artist in the world. This is an incredible album, musically. "All of the Lights" has a world-straddling hook. "Power" has one of my favorite moments of the year, every time King Crimson blast in with "21st Century Schizoid Man". "Runaway" uses a gorgeous, simple piano loop. "Lost in the World" makes a mammoth out of a gentle Bon Iver track. The only bad thing I can say about the music is that all of the songs, all of them, are too long. Where it falls apart is when he starts rapping. And all of his guests start rapping. And we learn that Kanye has stopped rapping about trying to bring his mother some flowers in the hospital, and he's now rapping about having money, power, sex. Yes, these are the hallmarks of the genre, but that's not why Kanye has always managed to transcend. He used to pay them relatively little mind. And now he wallows in them. The people who say this album is about a personality trying to come to terms with his internal contradictions are, I think, wrong. I don't think Kanye is that honest. I don't think he can be. Some people find that compelling. I find it to be nothing special. But the music, ye gods, the music.

I Speak Because I Can
Laura Marling
There is a long line of singer-songwriters following in the steps of Joni Mitchell. Attempting to, anyway. I'm not a massive fan of Mitchell, outside of Blue, but even I can tell most of her admirers pale in comparison to her peak-period work. Laura Marling, all of 20 years old, may be the heir to the acoustic-folk throne. The Joni Mitchell comparisons are easy, and they do Marling no favors, as she already has her own voice and style readily apparent, but they also work. All the hallmarks of a good influence are there; her style will remind you of Mitchell, but you won't think you're listening to Joni. Where they differ the most is in their voices; Both have singing voices of startling beauty, but where Joni's was high, Marling's is low to the ground. She sounds far more weathered than 20 years of life could possibly allow. Marling's voice is my favorite part of this album; once her songs can match that voice, as happens on "Made by Maid" and "Blackberry Stone," this will be something special indeed.

Have One on Me
Joanna Newsom
How much is too much? I think that's really what this album comes down to. It's a triple-album, divided into three sets of eight songs. Any one of those three sets is astonishing in its own right, and this is a case of an album deserving more appreciation than I can give it. As a whole, it's practically perfect. Newsom's songwriting abilities are beyond questioning at this point, and her musicianship is to such a degree that thinking about her playing makes me a little queazy. The arrangements that support her throughout are wondrous things, inventive and inviting. Her voice continues to improve, though I could also just be used to it at this point. I could easily understand saying this was your favorite album of the year. I could easily understand not being able to make it through the first song. Taken on its own terms, the whole thing is perfect. I just can't digest this much information in one sitting.

Teen Dream
Beach House
Beach House have a sound that makes you feel as though all of their songs are waltzes. I don't know how else to explain it. The instrumentation is limited to a reverb-drenched electric guitar, an electric keyboard, and a combination of drum machine and real drums. With this limited palette, though, they've created a sound you could sleep inside. Victoria Legrand's voice has a quality which makes it simultaneously sexy and sexually ambiguous; I'd thought the singer was a man up until I saw them play at Pitchfork over the summer. Her voice sits beyond gender identification, as does the songwriting, which is a unique thing. It is an album that could easily pass by in a dreamy haze, but it deserves more of your attention than that.

How I Got Over
The Roots
In a class on popular music, we had a discussion on the state of Hip-Hop. We were attempting to discern between Rap and Hip-Hop. Eminem raps, we all agreed, but I don't think anyone would refer to him as a Hip-Hop artist. He's a rapper. So what makes it Hip-Hop? Is Hip-Hop extant? Someone mentioned The Roots as an argument for the continued existence of Hip-Hop, even if they are just about the sole survivors, or rather the sole purveyors. And it was a good call. One listen to How I Got Over is all it should take to ensure the nervous listeners out there that Hip-Hop is still alive. What's the distinction? Hip-Hop isn't solely about posturing. It's quick to comment on the social issues happening around it. It has a different feel; there are drum machines here, but most of the percussion is provided by the rightfully adored ?uestlove, a man I would desperately like to buy a beer. There are samples, including a perfect sample of Joanna Newsom's "The Book of Right-On". The rhymes are dense, the flows are faultless, and the backing music is sublime. If I'd given this the time it deserved, it would likely be higher.

I love Spoon. I really do. They're right up there with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in my Best Band of the Decade list. With their last album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon made a blockbuster, everything planned out and executed perfectly. With Transference, you get the impression that they wanted to relax. And that's fine. They deserve to take it easy. Spoon have always been known for their sound, which Britt Daniel curates with a jeweler's eye for detail, and on this album he moved the sound to the fore. "Written in Reverse" is a fierce, groove-riding beast. "Trouble Comes Running" ranks up with "The Underdog" and "Sister Jack" as some of the best power-pop Spoon have recorded. "Got Nuffin" is a steamroller. "Nobody Gets Me But You" rides a tense bass hook, and is my favorite closer to a Spoon album (I'm big on album closers). All of them sound just as great, if not better, than Spoon ever have, but they have done all these songs before, and they've done most of them better. The only composition here without a companion in the canon is the delicate, lovely, lullaby-esque "Goodnight Laura." Never before have Spoon sounded so stripped down, never before has Daniel sounded quite so consoling, and, as with the relative (very, very relative) sloppiness that pervades this gem of an album, never before have they sounded quite so human.

Vampire Weekend
This album and I didn't speak to each other for about nine months. I still don't like a large portion of what Ezra Koenig says, though I do love how he says it. Their sound is unique, and the music is insidiously catchy. The arrangements are clever. And while I think it was good this album and I took a break from one another, one of the only songs to stay with me all year was "I Think Ur a Contra," a striking, hauntingly beautiful song about a relationship that just isn't going to work. "I had a feeling once that you and I could tell each other everything for two months," it begins. Vampire Weekend are regularly an excellent, entertaining band, but when I love what Koenig says as much as how he says it, this is a band to reckon with.

The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)
Janelle Monáe
If ambition alone made for perfect albums, this would be one of the all-time greats. Divided into two suites, and encompassing a mind-boggling array of musical styles and influences, The ArchAndroid was one of the bravest commercial releases of the year. Monáe is a small woman with a big voice, and remarkable writing chops. The songs here go from P-Funk to Gershwin to Psychobilly to, well, an Of Montreal song. Really. For reasons I can't even begin to fathom, there is a song written and recorded by Kevin Barnes. There is literally an Of Montreal song shoved in the middle of Suite III. But it seems fitting, given that Monáe clearly doesn't want to settle in one place. The sequencing is great, with songs constantly not only bleeding, but evolving into one another. "Cold War" is an electrifying combination of funk, R&B, and straight-up Rock, and one of the more impressive achievements in music this year. This is a young artist still finding her voice, no question, and what makes The ArchAndroid so exciting is how far Monáe's willing to go to find it.

Caribou's newest release had opportunity to grow on me for an unusual reason; I played a lot of Super Mario Galaxy back in May and June of this year, and Swim happened to be what I chose to put on most of the time I was playing. To this day, several months after I put the game down for the last time, I cannot hear "Sun" without seeing Mario in my head. And I am okay with that. From what I've read, Caribou was attempting to make Liquid Dance Music. And I feel like he achieved his goal. The whole thing feels drenched... in what, exactly, I'm not sure, but it feels like it's drenched. This was the year's great Break-Up album, every song imbued with that sense of loss and directionlessness. What I love is that you get that sense from it without it ever being an explicit part of the equation, and that keeps the album from ever taking sides. It's possible the whole Break-Up thing is only in my head, but I don't care; it made it a great experience.

The Age of Adz
Sufjan Stevens
I didn't know what hit me. I didn't write a proper review of this album for Thought's Dowinion, it so thoroughly confused me, but, then, I didn't give this a proper listen the first time through. This is a headphone album, and I listened to it on a boombox on the roof of a Home Depot. The arrangements are intricate and marvelous, inventive and fresh. As per my original thought, the songs are still not "songs", but Stevens manages to hold my attention for the entirety of the 25-minute closer, "Impossible Soul." There are four minute "proper" songs which fail to keep me so rapt as that song did the second time I listened to it. Music collides, falls apart, and restructures itself constantly. This is a remarkable achievement, is what this is. It goes beyond being an album to being a true work of art. Could I hum it for you? Never, and that will keep it from ever being one of my favorite albums. But I will likely return to it for years to come, always puzzled and intrigued by what's inside.

The Suburbs
Arcade Fire
Finally, we have the mature Arcade Fire album. Funeral was a massive debut, of course, by a group of kids with a lot of grief to air. Neon Bible was equally impressive, though it felt weighed down with its own expectations of being important. The Suburbs feels like the first Arcade Fire album to be done from a perspective of comfort; it is the sound of a band riding a wave of confidence and certainty. Arcade Fire were never musically adventurous, and that hasn't changed. They are about bombast, about dynamics, and what's edifying here is how they seem to be leaning on the bombast less than before. Win Butler's lyrics, as ever, concern worry and the terror of the everyday, and if he frequently strays into the overly-broad and under-applicable, he sounds so full of conviction that you just go with it. What makes this album better than its contemporaries is that it never takes sides; the suburbs are not loathed, and they are not treated as the enemy. They are treated as a reality which must be dealt with. Another top-flight album from a band which seems to be inexhaustible as far as such things are concerned.

Field Music (Measure)
Field Music
Every Field Music album takes a while to sink in. Addled with the sort of musical ADHD which only seems to affect God's chosen few, Field Music songs cannot stand still, and what's terrifying is that the Brewis Brothers have between them enough hooks, guitar lines, and killer melodies to afford such luxuries as getting bored halfway through a song. While they know how to ride a good thing out, as in "Let's Write a Book", they're equally as capable of using up four or five songs' worth of material in the course of a three-minute exercise. While their previous full-length, 2007's Tones of Town, was more flagrant about burning through material, Field Music (Measure) is the sound of the band stretching out. They let themselves take up a bit more room, and the results are so uniformly stunning that you will forget how good the album is as a whole until you hear any one of the songs on its own later. That's an odd fault for an album to have, but there it is; the songs are all so good that the whole doesn't feel stunning enough. There aren't any valleys to make the peaks feel more remarkable.

Plastic Beach
With each Gorillaz album, Damon Albarn has ushered in a new set of collaborators, trying to keep the creative juices fresh. For this album, he brought in the most diverse set yet, and the results are quite possibly the best of his career. Despite the wider breadth of talents involved, this is the most focused Gorillaz album, and it's the first one where you can really feel Albarn ceding the spotlight to others. Bobby Womack owns the new-wave soul of "Stylo," and "White Flag" features some excellent tag-team verse swapping by UK rappers Kano and Bashy. This is simultaneously the most varied and the poppiest album of Albarn's career. In the middle of it all, he managed to create "On Melancholy Hill", quite possibly the loveliest thing he's ever written. I always see a couple dancing to it at their wedding. So it is a mixture of the gorgeous, the melancholy, the upbeat, the danceable, the aggressive, and the ponderous. You get the feeling that this is what Albarn wanted Gorillaz to be all along.

High Violet
The National
I listened to High Violet about 35 or 40 times in two weeks over the summer. That's not an exaggeration. I listened to it at least twice a day for two weeks straight, and on several days, I even gave it a third spin. It's an album in which I find it frighteningly easy to lose myself. And it never wore out. After two weeks of near-constant listening, I started to forget how amazing it is, but I never tired of it. The music of The National has always been good, but what makes or breaks the songs is Matt Berninger's lyrics, which have never been better than they are here. He manages to combine abstract imagery with hypnotic repetition and specific details to create a lyrical persona all his own. "Lemonworld" and "Conversation 16" are the best-written lyrics of the year, the first about a soldier struggling to readjust to life after war, and the second about a couple falling apart at the seams while trying to hold it together. There are individual lines that will stick out and haunt you for weeks; "Conversation 16" has one of my favorites, 'I tell you miserable things after you are asleep.' Everything you need to know about the narrator's situation is in that line. Just about a masterpiece.

This Is Happening
LCD Soundsystem
It should have been impossible for LCD Soundsystem to follow up Sound of Silver. Their sophomore outing was one of the decade's best albums. It was a quantum leap over the self-titled debut, bringing into the consummate sound a sense of emotion and heart. It turned out that James Murphy could not only be clever, but genuine and touching. This Is Happening picks up where Silver left off, and you can't blame him for not trying to improve what was already perfect. "North American Scum" found its counterpart in the destructive "Dance Yrself Clean," an absolute monster live. But what made LCD into a great band was when they began tapping into Murphy's uncanny awareness for the complications of relationships, both romantic and otherwise. The emotional nucleus of This Is Happening is provided by the yearning "All I Want" and the desperate "I Can Change," a remarkable 1-2 punch in the middle of the album, and the whole thing finishes with "Home." The sense of melancholy that song instills will stay with you for days. To think that we may never get another album from this band makes me incredibly sad, but then I consider that there may not be much left for them to say. If This Is Happening really is their final album, then their legacy is just about pristine. How many bands can say that?

Body Talk
Back in June, Robyn released Body Talk, Pt. 1, an excellent, eclectic collection of nine songs. She followed it up a few months later with Body Talk, Pt. 2, and promised that a third volume was almost complete. In a masterstroke, instead of Body Talk, Pt. 3, she released Body Talk, picking her five favorites from each of the first two volumes, and including five new tracks. She has released an album that, on its own accord, could be a best of. She has released the best no-holds-barred pop album to come out this year, the best one to come out since her last album, 2005's Robyn, and one of the most purely enjoyable albums I've ever heard. It is a masterpiece of the genre, toying with its conventions while delivering fresh, invigorating, intelligent music. Robyn is a gifted singer. Her ability to emote complex situations with simple lyrics in three-minute songs is unrivaled. "Call Your Girlfriend," "Dancing on My Own," and "Hang With Me" all manage to convey the complexities of relationships in danceable, hummable, euphoric bursts. "U Should Know Better" is manic, four minutes of braggadocio with Robyn and Snoop Dogg (He had a great year for cameos) trading lines. And "Get Myself Together" might be my favorite, with a chorus you can't ignore. I said in my review of this album that it should make Robyn the biggest pop star on the planet, though I accept that it won't. That still stands. If the music industry still made any sense, this would be bigger than Thriller.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West

It is a difficult thing, in this day and age, to release an album as an event. It used to be easy, even a bit of a given, as the album was impossible to hear ahead of time, and often the best taste you could get was a single, released a month or two before. In modern times, with albums leaking as a regular course of events, the actual release is typically seldom more than a formality. The artists try to keep their albums a secret, but it doesn't work.

Kanye West has taken a different, very intriguing approach to making My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy an event; instead of hoarding to the best of his abilities, he has released a song every week for the past several months. Not all of them are on this album, but they were all produced in the same session, and a number of them are indeed featured here. The quality of the tracks was such that anticipation ratcheted up with each song, until finally this week the album was released.

The danger West faced in this tactic, of course, was that we would get the album and find that they put all the funny bits in the trailer. It was crucial that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in order for it to truly do well critically (commercially, West is at the peak of his powers, so there was no danger there, unless it was horrible, which, thanks to the inclusion of "Power" and "Monster," it couldn't be), make these songs work well together. I think the most impressive thing about this album is the feeling of an arc. When it finishes, you feel everything come together as a cohesive whole.

West's greatest gifts have always been in producing. His first big success was the track he made for Jay-Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," which relied on a sample of "I Want You Back" by The Jackson 5. An obscure sample it wasn't, but his utilization was great. The most interesting part of any West album, 808's & Heartbreak aside, has been the tracks. His skills as an MC have improved, certainly, but there are dozens of better rappers out there. I don't listen to Kanye West for how he rocks the mic. I listen for what's going on behind him. And My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy provides some of his best. The sample of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" thrills me every single time I hear it. West leaves the first blast of saxophone after the vocal in, to propel the song into the next verse. It's perfection itself. His programming on the drum machine transforms Bon Iver's "Woods" from an intimate experiment in harmony into a behemoth of a tune, and it sends a chill down my spine every time those drums kick in. "All of the Lights" is the other standout, with a world-straddling horn loop.

As far as the verses go, the best ones are consistently provided by the guests, which brings me back to my belief that West shouldn't be an MC. But here's where the disappointment in this album lies. Previous West albums have had songs about faith, about trying to visit his mom in the hospital, about things that aren't common to rap. They were what made his otherwise-mediocre rapping interesting. Not what he was saying, but why he was saying it. If the sound of this album now soars above those previous releases, and it does, then he's made the words less essential. I've never liked that rap sticks to braggadocio so insistently, and I like it less when it's inserted itself in songs by a man whose statements have never been humble, but whose music has always sought elsewhere for inspiration. It works in one spot, on "Monster," because Nicki Minaj is so off-the-wall bats that she's wildly entertaining. But it wears thin on the rest of the album.

To summarize: The music on this album, straight through, is brilliant. Most of the songs are too long, and by several minutes at that, but the tracks are all fresh, inventive, and harbor great samples. With some aforementioned exceptions aside, the rapping will decide for you if this is a masterpiece, or just another example of why Kanye West should be the biggest producer, and not the biggest artist, in Rap.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Body Talk

Body Talk

At last, it is here.

At the beginning of 2010, Swedish avante-pop star Robyn announced that she would be releasing three albums over the course of the year. It had been five years since she released the kooky masterpiece Robyn, and she was ready to flush out the vaults. The albums, titled Body Talk Pt.1, Pt.2 and Pt.3, would be staggered over five or six months, and each would be a mini-album. The nine songs on Body Talk, Pt.1 were released to general critical praise in June, and it was the pop album of the summer. Not, you know, for the greater population, but those of us who were "hip" to it spent the summer dancing away to "Dancing On My Own," one of the best pop songs to come out of the last ten years. No joke. Pt. 2 dropped in September, and if its eight offerings didn't quite hold up as well, it was still a great EP.

It was announced about a month ago that Body Talk would be the name of an album, cherry-picking the five best songs from each of the first two mini-albums, and adding five more. That Robyn actually did pick the five best from each of the previous portions was a miracle in its own right. When the songs she chose were confirmed, it was a case of the new songs making or breaking the album. Considering the modern pop album, where there are typically four singles, one or two ballads, and six or seven inoffensive fillers, an album with nine killer (and I mean killer) tracks and one arguable filler (I don't have strong levels of affection for "Love Kills," but it's enjoyable enough), this was already going to be better than most, and possibly great. She could only fuck up.

Body Talk runs at an impossibly fast, taught 61 minutes, and it's packed to the point of bursting with radio smashes. That is, of course, if they get played on the radio, which they may not. Robyn doesn't make album tracks, really. She's here to make singles, and the efficacy with which she accomplishes her task is dizzying. It should be this easy for everyone. Pop is a formula known for not taking risks, and if Robyn isn't as inventive as she was on her self-titled offering back in 2005, she's certainly not resting on her laurels.

Highlights are impossible. This album feels like a Best Of collection. I haven't heard an album this calculatedly perfect from start to finish in a long time. The only disappointment is the Max Martin-penned "Time Machine." Considering that Martin has regularly provided the standout pop songs of the last 15 years ("Baby, One More Time," "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," "Show Me Love" for Robyn in her late-nineties incarnation, "Since U Been Gone"), "Time Machine"'s status as the second weakest track on the album is truly a disappointment. The momentum was in favour of it being a masterpiece. Ah, well.

Each of the Body parts has a standout track. The first album had "Dancing On My Own," which is, I reiterate, the best thing to happen to dance-pop in the last ten years. The second album had "U Should Know Better," which hearkened back to the quirky and experimental nature of Robyn. "Dancing On My Own" could have been released by any artist, which is often my problem with pop music, the lack of individuality. "U Should Know Better," which, by the way, featured a brilliant guest turn from Snoop Dogg, could only come from Robyn. I was ready for the next addition to the trinity to be "Time Machine," but it's "Call Your Girlfriend." The way the melody stretches on, "And the only way her heart will mend/is when she learns to love again", defies description. It's four minutes of utter dance-floor bliss.

In short, Robyn has unleashed a masterwork that balances her natural tendency towards the odd with an unflinching eye for massive pop hooks and choruses. That she manages to still sound like Robyn throughout is a tribute to her talent, and her willingness to explore complex emotions and situations within the idiom of the pop hit. This album won't make Robyn the biggest pop star on the planet. But it really should.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Odds 'n Sodds 2

I received an exciting item in the mail today.

Jack White has always impressed me, though I'm not quite as enamored with him as I think I should be. I do respect his label, Third Man Records, and I like all the random releases they put out. I discovered last week that Laura Marling had released a limited edition single, and as I'm still in love with this woman's voice, I picked up a copy through the Third Man store.

It's a 7" with covers of "Blues Run the Game" and "The Needle and the Damage Done." They are more sparse than her records, both tracks stripped down to just an acoustic guitar and that voice. This is all fine with me, as her voice is the reason I'm head-over-heels for the woman. You can listen to both tracks here, courtesy of Pitchfork.

I'm sorry for the lack of real reviews in recent months, but I've found a lack of albums to review. Whether this is my failing or not is probably open to quite a bit of debate. Avey Tare, member of Animal Collective, has released a solo album, Down There, which I have listened to, but I'm still digesting it. The new Girl Talk album came out this morning, which I'm listening to now. Again, give me some time.

Robyn's Body Talk trilogy comes to a close today with the release of Body Talk. Originally expected to provide a third collection of ten new songs, Robyn has instead delivered a full album, comprising of ten tracks from the previous 2010 releases Body Talk, Pt. 1 and Body Talk, Pt. 2, in addition to five spankin' new songs. Most of the ten chosen holdovers are great (I'll express my disagreements when I review the album in the next week), and from what I've heard of them, the five new songs are very respectable. I saw Robyn play at the Metro on Saturday night, and she was brilliant. They oversold the venue, so there was no room to dance, but, had there been, it would have been every bit as good a show as when LCD Soundsystem tore the roof of the Aragon Ballroom two weeks ago. They were fucking great. No other word for that.

Finally for now, I've spent the last two weeks working my way through Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat, a collection of the lyrics for his shows featuring his comments, notes, and stories. It's been a highly entertaining, informative, instructive, valuable read. If you're into musical theatre or the technique behind lyrics, you should give it a look.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Odds 'n Sodds 1

October has been a peculiarly fallow time. Only one album has come out this month that's crossed my radar, Sufjan Stevens' The Age of Adz, and I was underwhelmed. This is, I think, in large part to my preference for "a good song." This is an album of impressive music, but it's not something I'm keen to listen to again. Well-made, as all of Stevens' work is, just not for me. As such, I don't feel giving it a review is fair, since I couldn't possibly do it properly. Such is life.

I've been listening to a lot of Randy Newman lately, which is balancing well with the brief Robyn overdose I went through; her Body Talk, Pt. 3, a summation of the first two Body Talk albums, comes out in a month, and I'll certainly be reviewing that. Both previous installments are well worth your time. I'm partial to Body Talk, Pt. 1 as a whole, but since Pt. 3 is going to feature the five best tracks from each of the first two albums, in addition to five new ones, it bodes very, very well. It will be the best pop album of the year, and it could be the best one in the last ten years. No pressure, Robyn.

I just recently finished reading Alex Ross' Listen to This, a collection of essays and articles he's written over the course of his career as a music critic for The New Yorker. Ross is a remarkable writer. He has a gift for relating music to you in a way that makes it palpable. No individual writer is more responsible for making me seek out new music I haven't heard. Anyone can tell you why they like something, but it's a rare talent that can make you feel and share in their enthusiasm for things you have no prior knowledge of. I highly recommend both of Ross' books. The other, The Rest is Noise, is a survey of compositional music in the twentieth century.

I'm in the middle of reading Infinite Jest for the second time. It's still an exhaustive, busy, sprawling, and chiefly indulgent read, but it is hilarious, and staggering in its scope.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica
Sci-Fi Network (Not that Syfy bullshit)

My love for this show is no secret. I have harangued friends to start watching in order that I may talk to them about it. I've kept an entire friendship alive through discussing it. After the first three seasons, I'd already ranked it as my sixth favourite television show. I've now finished watching all four seasons. It won't ever crack the Top 5, an impenetrable fortress of perfection, but this is one hell of a television show.

It goes way beyond the notion of "genre." This is, I've said it a hundred times before, the science fiction program I would recommend to people who don't like sci-fi. Yes, the enemies are robots, and, yes, it is set almost entirely on space ships. But it doesn't allow the conventions to get in the way of telling an amazing story. At least give the two-part first episode a try before you come to a decision about whether or not you'll give it a spin.

The wealth of material this show provides is incredible. I never once feared the writers were losing direction, or were unaware of where to take things. It is a flawless trail from the first to the last scene. The show remains varied throughout its run, helped in large part by its willingness to deal with a wide breadth of topics. Is it a sci-fi adventure? Is it a political thriller? Is it a character study? At various points, the writers deftly attempt everything. Religion, just barely mentioned in the first two seasons, is a crucial part of the show by the end.What the writers do with it is perfection. I won't spoil anything for you if I can help it, but you'll find yourself pulled along by the story while being intellectually impressed and fascinated by what's going on on the screen.

The show is realistic about the situation humanity is in, cast adrift in space with nothing but a fleet of spaceships. Supplies run low. Ships break down. People break down. Relationships fall apart and come together with that peculiar speed only duress can bring about. The dynamics between characters are constantly, organically, sensibly changing. Nothing ever seems forced; no one ever feels inconsistent as an individual. People don't act illogically, in so as they are always true to their character. You will find yourself disliking people you thought you were very fond of, because they are real, and, like real people, they do some things you'll like, and they'll do some things that drive you up a wall. Over four seasons, I loved and intensely loathed President Laura Roslin, and for that she has left a greater impression on me. There is no Good Guy, there is no Bad Guy. There are only people put in an extraordinary situation. Even the Cylons aren't left as the Big Baddies.

In approximately 75 episodes, the show only bothered me twice, at the end of season 3 and at the end of season 4. Season 3 uses an anachronism, and the last scene of the series works too hard to drive home the otherwise subtle and intimately understood point of the whole show. These are minor gripes in the grand scheme of things. When I attended ComiCon over the summer, the identities of the Final Five Cylons were revealed to me before my time. I was upset at the time, but as I watched the show, I realized I wasn't missing nearly as much as I thought. Not knowing would have been a blast, and it denied me a few gasps, but the writing is so well done that you still find yourself getting caught up in the idea of their identities. It's hard to pull that off, but they did it brilliantly.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Laugh, Lenny

I Speak Because I Can
Laura Marling

Outside of Joni Mitchell's Blue, I don't really "do" acoustic solo folk. The lyrics tend to be hyper-poetic, something I've never been a big fan of. For all the praise shoveled on Leonard Cohen, with the exception of "Hallelujah" and "Diamonds in the Mine," I've never gotten it. This is music populated by lines like "There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in," which seems deeper than it really is. I feel that way about everything he wrote, even those I enjoy, such as "Dance Me to the End of Love." It's full of the sorts of general, broad, intentionally obscure lines that other writers get belittled for scribing. The idea almost seems to be to make the lyrics so general and so meaningless that everyone will assume them to mean only the deepest things. This is, of course, only one man's opinion.

There's a line in "Made by Maid," the beautiful second track on I Speak Because I Can, where Marling says, "On the hill where I was born, there is a rose without a thorn. They cut it off each year and give it away." I have no idea what it means, but it's lovely, and, unlike when I listen to Joni Mitchell or Laughin' Lenny, I don't feel like Laura Marling is judging me for not knowing what it means. Perhaps it is the canonical pressures attached with listening to Mitchell, Cohen, or Dylan, but I've always felt like I'm a lesser listener for their music not meaning anything to me. It could be that they all take themselves so damned seriously.

I know why I love "Diamonds in the Mine," on Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate; it's the sound of Cohen having fun, something he's really only ever done the once, something Dylan's getting better at as he gets older, and something Joni Mitchell has never been accused of. I bring this up because Marling, whom I realize I have barely mentioned in a review of her own album, sounds as though she's enjoying herself. She is serious, she is astonishingly mature for 20 years old, she has a gorgeous voice and is a formidable guitar player, and her words are clearly invested with more meaning than most, but it doesn't get in the way. I don't feel like she's judging me for not knowing what she means when she talks about the rose on the hill. And for that, I am more willing to try and form my own interpretations.


This review is admittedly premature. I've only listened to this album three times, twice on Saturday and once last night, and I don't believe that's enough time to digest anything. I will likely be driven to reappraise this album in the coming month.

A Change in Policy

As those who've regularly read the blog over the last two years know, I am in constant struggle with the notion of a grading system. I like grades. They're nice, in the arcane sense of the word. But I can no longer be bothered by trying to pick the inane differences between a B+ and an A-, between a C+ and a B-, etc. And, really, what's the point in giving an album an A- instead of an A? Yes, one of them is better than the other, and there are differences, but they are going to be personal. Is High Violet an A-, an A, or an A+? Well, it's not an A+. That's a completely different thing. But you see my point.

I'm making a change today to a different, less-precise system. The new rating system is by no means revolutionary, you've seen it in other places, but here we go, from highest to lowest:

Masterpiece- Perfection. The album transcends the idea of genre. Albums will likely only earn this "grade" in hindsight.

Highly Recommended- An exemplary album, often appealing to those who don't enjoy the genre.

Recommended- If you like this type of music, you will like this album.

Genre-Exercise- If you are enthralled by a type of music, or by the band behind this album, you'll likely still enjoy it. Otherwise, there's not much here.

Slim-Pickins- There may be a song or two worth your time, but as a whole, there is no cohesion, nothing really impressive, nothing to stand out.

Awful- Nothing about it to recommend. At all.

No Line On the Horizon- Only the most execrable albums earn this. The album is not only terrible, but it dares to insult you by clearly considering itself to be a masterpiece. Your life will be worse for having listened to this piece of trollop. You will have lost an hour of time you will want desperately to retrieve, but you never, ever will.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 1. The Office

I first watched The Office when I was around fifteen. My uncle bought me the Complete Series when we were at a Borders in Connecticut. I had only heard about it, and when I watched it, I wasn't impressed. I was too young, and it was too different from anything I'd ever watched. It was too stayed, and too quiet.

I have a few friends who have loved it since it first aired. It was through their persistence that I kept giving the show further chances. I've watched the whole series a good five or six times over the years, but it wasn't until the last viewing, very recently, that I really felt how brilliant the whole thing is. Considering I'd watched it only two or three months prior to that, what had changed?

I've always watched The Office as a comedy, which is what it's always been sold as. And it is funny. Painfully so, in some cases. But it's a little too natural, I think, for it to really work for me on that level. While the U.S. adaptation of The Office ratchets up the humour, the original doesn't ever set up jokes. They happen as a result of the behaviour of the individuals, but they're never laboured, and they never feel written. It was when, on that last viewing, that I decided to watch the show not as a comedy, but as a story, that everything fell into place. It sounds odd, I know, but it made a huge difference. The show is so well written, and the characters are so perfectly portrayed, that you can't help but feel for them. Even when you wouldn't like them in real life.

David Brent feels there's a rivalry between him and his boss, that they're in competition with one another to be the most popular. It doesn't exist. It's entirely in his head. It's the most realistic rivalry on television, I think, for that reason. Unlike America's Michael Scott, who is a git, but a well-meaning one, David Brent is just plain deluded. There's almost nothing to like about him, and what little there is would be quickly undermined by his attitude and behaviour. He works, though, because we fear we might be him. We'd have no way of knowing if we were, so who's to say?

The heart of the show has to come from elsewhere else, then, if the lead is as emotionally unappealing as he is. The relationship between Tim and Dawn proves to be the most touching aspect of the program, and it's the reason I kept coming back. Their love for one another is so palpable in the performances that you want them to be together, desperately. Fans of the U.S. version will insist that we all felt the same way about Jim and Pam, but those people are watching a stretched out, distilled version of the brilliance that is Tim and Dawn. There's no comparing them. During the Christmas Special which served as the finale for The Office, I was literally on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what would happen between them, and I already knew from having watched it before. When they finally kiss at the Christmas Party, I don't know that any individual event so small as that has ever made me feel as good. I cried out of sheer joy. Because we all want that.

I'm admittedly not always in the mood to watch The Office, largely because it does make me incredibly uncomfortable. Originally, it was placed at #5 on this list, but as I began writing the entry, I realized how strongly I feel for the characters, and as I think that's the highest indicator of great entertainment, I had to readjust the list. As I said yesterday, The Wire is the best show ever made. But The Office is a quiet little masterpiece, and it makes you care in a way that is utterly remarkable.

I once told a friend I thought the U.S. version of The Office was better than the original. He countered that, while The Office (U.S.) may provide more laughs than The Office, it is by no means a better show. And he was right. The characters who populate The Office (U.S.) are just that; they are characters. Genuinely funny (for the first three seasons), and enjoyable, yes, but they are not real people. The denizens of The Office are human, and profoundly so. If you let yourself, you'll love them for it.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 2. The Wire

Those who prefer reading over movies or television cite many reasons for their preference. Primary among these is that reading is a longer, more involving process, with greater rewards for the patience it can demand. You become more familiar with the lead characters. That's my favourite part, and it's why I prefer great television to movies. It's hard to develop a connection with characters over the course of ninety or one-hundred and twenty minutes. And even most television shows, most of the ones on this list included, don't address that problem. The Wire is television for book people.

There's nothing specific I can think to cite as a testament to The Wire's greatness. If Arrested Development is the perfect comedy, The Wire is the perfect drama, and it does not lend itself to isolating strengths. It is natural, and, again, perfect. There is an impeccably crafted plot through all five seasons, and once you notice it and look for it, it is incredible, but you don't consciously feel it working. It's invisible, as the best plots should be.

It is the textbook example of ensemble writing. Within the world of The Wire, there is no main character. There are only characters we see more, and characters we see less. We become invested in all of them, and they are all developed over the course of the series. You hear the word "Dickensian" thrown around a lot in conjunction with this show, and quite rightly; the scope of its story, the breadth of its subject matter, is remarkable in every facet.

As far as the story is concerned, The Wire neither begins nor ends. We come into the middle of things in the first episode, and we leave in the middle of things in the sixtieth. Despite this, it is fulfilling. You do not leave the series feeling things were unresolved. And watching it again is possibly more rewarding than watching it the first time.

The first season of The Wire was the best season of any television show I'd ever seen. No hyperbole there. The second season was better. The third was better still. The fourth is, I would say, the best individual achievement in all of television. Combined, the overall work is unrivaled. That this show never won Best Drama at the Emmys is an embarrassment the continued success of Mad Men is only barely helping to rectify.

The Wire was originally my choice for Number 1 on this list, until I began writing an entry for the show that is now Number 1, and I realised I had to promote it. Either way, I remain unfazed in my belief that The Wire is the best television show ever made. You can only do worse.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 3. Arrested Development

Arrested Development is just about the only comedy I'd ever credit with having vision. It is so singular in its execution, so unrivaled, that it leaves every other sitcom in the dust. M*A*S*H, its closest peer on this list, is a Greater show, in relation to its impact and influence, but Arrested Development is the perfect comedy. It exists for no reason but to amuse, and it is astonishingly good at it.

Arrested Development is the modern farce. It never once attempts to preach or to teach, it never tries to make the world a better place by any means other than by simply existing. It aims only to be hysterical. It blends the same range of humour you find in The Simpsons with a strange brand all its own, that's impossible to describe. You just have to experience it.

Across the board, the performances are pitch-perfect. The writing is extraordinary. There's an attention to detail this show has which is individual. When one of the characters auditions for the Blue Man Group, smears of blue paint can be seen all over the sets, quietly sitting in the background for anyone to notice. And they are funny, every time. Familiarity with the material serves to make it better. Arrested Development is funnier the more you watch it, as you notice more things.

It was, of course, under-watched in its time. But its commercial failure was key to its ultimate survival. The last season, when everyone knew the show would be canceled, is the crown jewel. The writers and actors let loose, doing everything they wanted, knowing they'd never have the chance again. Many bemoaned that the greatest show on television was being taken away from us when the news arrived that, yes, Arrested Development was in its death throws. But even those people will admit it was a gift; Arrested Development will forever remain pristine, never given the opportunity to become less than what it was, like The West Wing after Aaron Sorkin left, or like The Simpsons has been doing for the last ten years.

Arrested Development hasn't been as influential as either M*A*S*H or The Simpsons, or many other shows not on this list. And it never will be. It's too unique, and too perfect. No one will ever try this again.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 4. Mad Men

Who is Don Draper?

This question is, quite possibly, the best thing to happen to television in the last ten years. I would find it hard to argue that Don Draper isn't the most compelling protagonist of any television series. You'd be hard-pressed to find any one character I've found more consistently intriguing, fascinating, and frustrating. His decline from suave, sophisticated charmer to drunk lech in the beginning of season four has been one of the most intensely disappointing experiences I've ever been through. Well, within the realm of fictional entertainment, at least.

But enough about Draper. The writing on Mad Men is in a league all its own. There is no other ongoing series on television with writing this good, full stop. Most shows with predetermined ends and a limited run don't manage to stay as focused and on-the-ball as Mad Men has over three perfect seasons, and a fourth off to an auspicious start. No ongoing character is left unexplored. We have an idea of the personal lives of all the individuals. Some, of course, are more developed than others, but Mad Men never takes anyone for granted.

I became aware of shows introducing characters for plot purposes when I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A character would be introduced, and the next episode would see them either be, or be subject to, a demon. Many dramatic shows follow this format, as it's a good way to keep things moving. It's nice, but it feels artificial. Mad Men introduces new characters in a similar way, but it takes its time. Like The Wire before it, Mad Men offers the promise that every character will have an important part to play, at some point or another. No one is simply there.

It's also a gob-smackingly pretty show. The best arguments for High-Definition cable I've seen are The World Cup and Mad Men. The cinematography, and the retro look, are so rich and detailed, you get the same satisfaction from looking at an episode as you'd get from biting into a juicy apple. It's really that great.

A large part of the appeal of the show is its attention to detail for the early 1960's. Sexism is absolutely everywhere. With an entirely white cast of characters, as befits a 1960's marketing firm in Manhattan, Martin Luther King, Jr. dies without practically any mention, while JFK's assassination all but debilitates most of them. You watch the sexism and realize that hasn't gone away, it's just become quieter. You watch the racism and realize the same. Perhaps Mad Men's greatest feat is in showing us just how little we've changed since a time most of us think of as being the stone age.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 5. M*A*S*H

For the first ten years of my life, I didn't have television. My mom and I had a t.v. and a VCR, but there was no cable, and we lived in a valley between two massive, signal-blocking mountains. It sounds ridiculous, but it's the truth. My earliest exposures to television were through video tapes of M*A*S*H we received in the mail. From just about as early as I can remember, I lived for those tapes. A cassette with three new episodes would arrive every month, and I'd consume it. I have the first four seasons of this show all but memorized, and the great thing is they never depreciate.

A lot of my sense of humour can be traced back to this show. Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce -more commonly known as Hawkeye- and I share a fondness for bad puns. We share a fondness for good puns, too, but those circumstances present themselves so much less frequently. There are occasional moments of slapstick, but it's never something to watch the show for. This is a show more about the one-liners, about not what I'd call underacting, but about balancing the outright hilarious with the wry observation. I've been watching this show for sixteen years, and I'm still noticing new jokes. The number of sexual jokes they got away with in the seventies (Hawkeye walks into a tent to find Hot Lips giving Frank Burns a back massage with a hand vibrator: "I've always said it; behind every great man, there's a woman with a vibrator.") is incredible. That they got away with so much is a tribute to the writing. There's an early episode about a gay soldier, and it's handled so delicately that it took me until I was twenty-one to notice.

M*A*S*H was one of the first shows to allow its characters to change. The Hawkeye of the Pilot episode is not the same Hawkeye we say goodbye to (albeit in an unfulfilling manner) in "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen." Major Houlihan went from an uptight stickler for the rules to an understanding and caring individual, prone to relapses though she may occasionally be. Klinger stops wearing dresses, which is remarkable for the fact that they did not allow the dresses to ultimately define the character. When he stepped into uniform, he was still a full human being, with a story and characteristics we cared about. The show could have run for six or seven successful years without striving to make such changes, but it never stood still.

There were some remarkable individual episodes, and the show constantly tackled big themes. There's a joke in Futurama where a doctor, imitating Alan Alda in this show, has a switch that goes from something like "Funny" to "Maudlin." The show, at times, didn't handle the balance well, but it so often did that you can hardly hold the failed moments against it. Season seven includes an episode about the dreams experienced by the officers as they are deprived of sleep. I have not seen it since I was eight or nine, but I can still remember it clear as day. There are not a lot of laughs in that half-hour. It was a genuinely troubling episode. At the time, I found it terrifying.

The show also liked to shake things up, which is unusual in a successful sitcom. When Larry Linville, who'd portrayed Frank Burns for three seasons, left the show, they replaced him not with a character of similar description, but almost his polar opposite. Charles Emerson Winchester III, a man of great ego and towering intellect, took his place, providing lead character Hawkeye not with a foil of interminably inferior status, but with a man who was definitely his equal, and arguably his better. When you're the highest rated show on television, there's no reason to change the status quo like that. But M*A*S*H never shied away from a challenge.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 6. Battlestar Galactica (Reimagining)

Ten years ago, Battlestar Galactica was a mark of the extremophiles of nerdom. To profess a fondness for the 1970's television series, even in passing, was to brand yourself. You were an outcast. You wore the scarlet BSG.

I was not aware of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica when it first came on the air. But I like to imagine, when the first episode of the miniseries was about to broadcast, that a small, quiet group of fans were gathered around the televisions in their parents' basements, hoping that finally, their sweet, sweet love for the original BSG would be vindicated. Their hopes, I can only assume, were wildly exceeded.

To call this a reimagining is to undersell what has been done. The source materials exist solely in the names and set designs. The characters, the stories, the tone... there is nothing here to relate it to the original program. The only reason to keep the name I can imagine is that it was guaranteed to bring the SyFy network- then still Sci-Fi- a certain amount of audience.

I will admit, unlike every other deceased program on this list, I have not finished BSG yet. I am halfway through the third of four seasons. Given that the writers were already focused on how it would conclude by that stage in production, I'm not concerned about the quality sliding. There's nowhere to go from here but up. In some ways, BSG is the show Lost wanted to be. It is cramped. It is paranoid. There is constant tension, without it ever becoming wearing. Things aren't left unexplained, but you are constantly asking questions. The best decision they made with this new version was to make some of the Cylons, the robot enemies responsible in this version for almost wiping out the human race, resemble humans. There are 12 models. You learn of them slowly, one model at a time, as events progress. It's all handled brilliantly, and I love the way the show doesn't shy away from exploring the tension between the humans and cylons on those occasions when they are forced to coexist.

The thrills are a big part of BSG, so it's important to make a distinction here; Lost is a thrill ride the first time through. So is Dexter. But neither of those shows are on this list. Lost stretched itself out for too long; had they stayed focused the whole time, things might be different. More importantly, neither Dexter nor Lost holds any great amount of entertainment value when you start to view it a second time. That's because both shows are predicated on the thrill of not knowing. The characters in those shows, particularly Dexter, are overshadowed by the stories. There's no reason to come back.

There are thrills, there are blistering action scenes, and the special effects look damn good. These things make the show easy to get into. But what keeps me coming back, of course, is that BSG has characters, and it develops them. I just finished watching the episode "Unfinished Business," an entirely character-driven piece centered around a boxing competition. The last two and a half seasons have been relatively relentless in their forward progress. It felt good to take an episode to let everything settle, for us to take stock of where we've been with these people, and to think about where we're going.

(ed.'s note: BSG is one of two shows on this list with the chance for forward mobility.)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 7. The Simpsons

Well, I mean, really.

It's not just about the longevity, though that's not to be belittled. It's not about the animation, though it's way better than most people give The Simpsons credit for. It's not about that amazing theme song, which we've all heard so many times that we forget just how bonkers it is. It's about the writing. It's about the characters. In its prime from season 3 to season 8, The Simpsons was not only the best sitcom on television, it was the best show, period.

What is it that makes The Simpsons so exemplary? It is the summation of every sitcom to come before it, and some that came during it. From The Dick Van Dyke Show to Married... With Children, it can all be found within the world of Springfield. Subsequently, the range of the humour is unmatched. The show easily coasts between traditional jokes, puns, sight gags, slapstick, surrealism, popular references, obscure references... No source of humour has been left unexplored. The balance of low-brow and high-brow is beyond admirable, it's almost impossible. That's why The Simpsons has appealed to so many people for so long; it manages to be stupid and smart, often in the same sentence.

But it isn't just the humour. Futurama, during its initial four-season run, was funnier than The Simpsons has ever been. What Futurama lacks that The Simpsons has in spades is heart. There is a real emotional core at the center of the madness. There are real relationships between the characters, and you grow to care about the characters. For all the differences between them, Bart and Lisa Simpson clearly love one another. We never question why Marge is with Homer; for all the woe he brings upon the family, they do love one another, and they both love their children. That's what matters the most in a traditional family sitcom, that we care for the characters and that we can sense that they care for one another.

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 8. Foster's Home for Imagine Friends

It starts, as most programs do, with the theme song. A series of rising harmonics, followed by what sounds like a bunch of instruments winding up, launch us into a plonky, almost clunky, somehow mischievous melody, played simultaneously on a piano and, appropriately enough, a kazoo. It's wonderful. A girl once played it for me on the piano, and I remarked that it was one of the sexiest things I'd ever seen. I stand by that.

Few shows have run as fully with a premise as Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. Not only is the idea, a foster home for abandoned imaginary friends owned by an eccentric old lady with a seemingly endless (and pretty much unmentioned) fortune, a great one, but look at the designs! I don't believe I've ever seen a show where there's so much variety in the composition of the characters. The imaginary friends are allowed to inhabit an incredibly wide variety of styles. Watch it some time with a knowledgeable visual arts student. They'll spend the episode pointing out all the shout-outs to different influential designers.

But, the ongoing evidence of Gossip Girl aside, a show cannot get by on looks alone. There was always a heart to Foster's, as you always got the sense that characters genuinely like and care for one another. At the core is the relationship between 8-year-old Mac and his 5-year-old imaginary friend, Blooregard Q Kazoo. "Bloo," if you prefer. The most remarkable thing about this show is the way their relationship always feels genuine. They drive each other nuts, they make each other angry, and they don't always make the best choices, but at the end of the day, they'll end up on the floor together, laughing hysterically over the same thing. That you can not only observe, but always feel the relationship between them is, I think, the most impressive part.

Over six seasons, Foster's never allowed itself to become formulaic, which is commendable in any normal program, but astonishing for a program aimed at children. And it should be praised for that. But, more than anything else, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends should be lauded for knowing the secret to making a lasting kids' program, and never condescending to its audience. It's a show you can watch at any age and find something to appreciate.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 9. Creature Comforts

I still can't get over how they made it. The concept alone is perfect. The crew behind ITV's Creature Comforts, based on a short film and a series of advertisements created by Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit fame, went around Great Britain, interviewing the local folk. They amassed hours and hours of recordings, nothing but seemingly mundane answers to everyday questions. Then they weeded the garden, assigned animals to represent fixed people (Every time you see the two dogs in the dumpsters, no matter the episode, the same two people, who were interviewed together, provide the voices), and let it play.

The humour is very dry. One of my favourite moments comes in the second episode, when a women in the guise of a bright yellow budgie comments on why she doesn't like doctors; "Doctors have always scared me because when I was born I nearly died. I had a 50-50 percent chance of living when I was born and I was in a little incubator and my eyes were all covered over and I was yellow. Which was awful." The extemporized, genuine nature of the dialogue prevents any opportunity for cheap puns or groan-inducing lines.

One of the master-strokes of the show is the exclusion of the questions. We never hear the interviewer, an ever-present hand holding a microphone in the corner of the screen, and we're left to try and work out where these often bizarre answers could possibly have come from. That's a great deal of the laughter, right there. A lesser show would have included the questions, in an attempt to provide the setup to prepare us for the punchline. Creature Comforts simply gives the results, and it's all the better for trusting us to keep up.

A large portion of animated t.v. shows get by with half-assed animation. For every Simpsons, there's a Family Guy (We can debate the merits of the writing all day, but it's not a shining beacon of what's possible with pencil and paper. Or pen and tablet. Or whatever.). My last reason for loving Creature Comforts is the quality of the animation. Every aspect is impeccable. The character designs are flawless; every animal's personality is established from the moment they appear on screen. There are details everywhere, both in the movements of the characters, and in the designs of the backgrounds. A great running gag to look out for is how the interviewer handles the lioness. While you watch, remember you're looking at a medium that requires 24 frames per second, and a day where two seconds of footage are shot is considered a blisteringly successful one. Those little touches throughout are responsible for incredible amounts of extra work. And it's all worth it for the best unscripted fiction show in the history of television.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows: 10. Blackadder

Just look at that face. You want to punch it, don't you?

That's the beauty of Edmund Blackadder; He's a protagonist we don't so much love to hate as we just want to deck him once. You feel like he deserves it, even as you're rooting for him. Something about that face.

In the first series, Blackadder was about as bright as a burnt-out bulb, really, and his man-servant Baldrick was the brains behind the operation. While the brilliant Rowen Atkinson played dim with tenacity, you never really bought it, did you? He's got an intelligent glint in his eyes that few can match, and it was once the roles were reversed in the second series that things took off.

The revised Edmund is one of the great television protagonists. He's cocky, self-important, conceited, clever, witty, and as arrogant as anything. It should make him alienating, but we identified with the man too clever for his own good set adrift in an ocean of morons. That's the beauty of Edmund, really; even if we don't actually identify with that, even if we are one of the morons, we swear we're right there with him, and so he appeals to everyone.

Another way you can tell this is great television: Everyone has a different favourite series. Few people would pick the first (which is worth watching simply for this man), but the remaining three stand pretty evenly divided. I'm a big fan of the comedy in Series 2 ("Bob" is one of my favourite individual episodes of any comedy), the characters in Series 3 (Hugh Laurie as the Prince is, well, spectacular, really), and the stories in Series 4.

I strongly considered Yes, Minister for this slot. I adore the jokes in that show ("You know what it is, Dudley's envious of me." "It is one of the seven Dudley sins." I could go on and on.). And I imagine Father Ted could also have a very strong go at the number 10 spot. But what separates Black Adder is how it ends. Yes, Minister, like so many comedies, ends while maintaining the status quo, and, to be fair to Father Ted, they didn't have a chance to end it properly. But the finale of Black Adder Goes Fourth is an incredible achievement. At just the right moment, Edmund stops thinking of himself as above everyone else, and reveals himself to be profoundly human. I cried, I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Top 10 T.V. Shows; Prelude

What is it about lists? Why do we like them so much? I really can't say. I just know I love them. Even while finding them inherently ridiculous.

While lists present us with a nice, orderly presentation of what we feel to be the best or the worst, there's really no logic to them. It's very rare for someone to have a definitive favourite. Getting the shortlist is often easy enough; Ask me to tell you my favourite album, song, book, or movie, and I could get a Top 10 list on your desk within a few hours. It's the ordering them after that which proves trickier. And, to some extent, I'd argue there's little value. You may be able to get them within a few places, but it's the rare exception where you can say, "No, that is in fact my favourite television show, or movie." There's a lot of arbitrary placement within the designations.

Then there's the tricky balance of Best and Favourite. My lists of Favourite Movies and Best Movies are drastically different. Citizen Kane does not appear on my list of 10 Favourites, but it's in the top two or three for Best, as an example. And then there's the designation of Greatest, which takes into account influence and longevity. Best and Greatest often overlap, but there's a fine, fine difference there. I feel like lists don't take enough time to form a strong distinction between those categories.

What do lists tell us, anyway? They give us a sense of the individual's taste, I suppose. And we like making them because they bestow unto we the listers a temporary sense that, yes, our opinions on the subject really do matter. The existence of most blogs, this one not only included but of an exemplary nature, serves to strengthen the point.

Having said all that, I, over the next week or so, will be presenting my Top 10 Favourite Television Shows. Favourite, mind you. Not Best. And not Greatest. And I'll be doing it one entry at a time, just to keep you in suspense. Because I like to tell myself that you care.

The first installment will come tomorrow night.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


A lot has been made recently of the proposed mosque in New York City. I generally try to stay away from current issues, but I find it impossible to remain silent in this case. Let me be unequivocal when I state that we should not allow the mosque to be built on its proposed site, a mere two blocks from Ground Zero, our nation's searing, raw wound. Some of you will be surprised to hear me say that. Some of you might even be outraged. But, please, I beg you, listen.

A lot of the talk has been about turning this mosque away. "We don't want this to be interpreted as an infringement on freedom of religion," opponents say. "We just wish Muslims were more sensitive to how the rest of us feel." Build it further from the site, and the problems will go away. Personally, I think we should go the opposite direction; I think the Mosque should be built on ground zero.

What's a better monument to those who died on September 11th than a mosque, built on the same ground? It shows understanding, it shows that the terrorists didn't win. What's better than a community center, fostering a better understanding between those who live in the area? Something that will prevent future cultural disparities like the catalysts behind those attacks from happening again? What's a better sign that the United States of America is coming back into its rightful place, as a beacon for the world, as a leader not through de facto economic conditions (give or take a few trillion), but through its conduct and its thoughts? That we've recovered, and we're ready to move on? What's a better big middle finger to the people behind those attacks than a Mosque, built in the very place they attacked us? What's a better "Fuck Off" than a physical representation of the population of the U.S. continuing to embrace Muslims, despite the wedge that should never have come between us in the first place?

Nothing. That's what. You could make them move it away, if you really wanted, and show the rest of the world that we are exactly the immature lot of overgrown, paranoid, nationalistic babies we keep proving ourselves to be.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Suburbs

The Suburbs
Arcade Fire

When Arcade Fire first came around, I wasn't one for them. I actively disliked them. I felt they were over-hyped, an easy hipster (the term didn't exist yet, but I knew what I meant) benchmark for the self-consciously hip. They were over-rated, and would soon disappear into obscurity. Of course, I hadn't listened to a note of their music.

When I finally deigned to listen, a few months after Neon Bible came out, it took a while, but I got there. And I really enjoy that album. I do not love it, but I feel it every time I listen to it, which is what Arcade Fire are after. They do not make music to contemplate cooly, though you're welcome to if you'd like. They make music that's meant to get right into the core of you and slap you around, to stir up those emotions so many musicians forget.

It took me another two and a half years to listen to Funeral. That was about two weeks ago. And it's really brilliant. I haven't heard an album that good in years. It's better than most of my favourite albums, something I'll have to take into account the next time I do the poll.

Due to my conversion, I've been listening to The Suburbs with a bit more intent. Like Joanna Newsom's imposing Have One on Me, an album I still haven't worked all the way through (You try it. That's right. You can't either. Not all at once, anyway.), I haven't sat through the entirety of what's on offer here. I have listened to the whole thing, just not all at once. And I haven't made it through the album twice. I've listened to 3/4 of it twice, and that 3/4 is great. I imagine the last fourth will fall in line come its second go.

They're still reaching for the emotional gist. Win Butler has calmed down since the last album, likely out of a sense of futility, and it suits him. Neon Bible's weakest point was hard to define from its greatest strength; it is a record of bombast and straight-forward lyrics. "Better stop now, before it's too late. Eating in the ghetto on a hundred-dollar plate," he said, intoning the oncoming recession and venting frustration over six years of an inept President.

Here, he's more alone. It's called The Suburbs, but there is no song here about the soul-crushing nature of that particular residential community. Instead, it is suggested in the weariness of the everyday people. There are grand statements here, as there will always be on an Arcade Fire album (I hope), but they are presented with tact instead of a bullhorn. God bless 'im for it. Is it better than Funeral? No. And don't bother asking that question ever again. Because little is. But it is better than Neon Bible. Where that one was immediate, this one requires your patience, and a little time, to reveal how truly good it is.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Untitled Setlist #1

I have to apologise for yesterday's playlist; I was hasty, and upon further listening, it just doesn't work. I'll be editing it over the next few weeks in an attempt to get it right, because there are some things there I really like. Particularly the string of "History Song," "The Greatest," and "Indoor Fireworks."

Here, in the mean time, is a significantly happier set I made today.

1."Sie Liebt Dich" by The Beatles
2."Ticks" by Brad Paisley
3."Dreaming of You" by The Coral
4."Anything You Want" by Spoon
5."Memo to My Son" by Randy Newman
6."You're So Pretty..." by Field Music
7."All Is Love" by Karen O and the Kids
8."Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)" by Kate Bush
9."Tribulations" by LCD Soundsystem
10."Heartbeat" by Annie

Sunday, August 8, 2010

This is Not a Happy Playlist

1."Death Take Your Fiddle," Spiritualized, Songs in A&E
2."Atoms for Peace," Thom Yorke, The Eraser
3."I Don't Wanna Grow Up," Tom Waits, The Bone Machine
4."Lemonworld," The National, High Violet
5."History Song," The Good, The Bad & The Queen, The Good, The Bad & The Queen
6."The Greatest," Cat Power, The Greatest
7."Indoor Fireworks," Elvis Costello, King of America
8."All I Want," LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening

This playlist was assembled for a friend going through a "Folk Phase." I wanted to stay true to that spirit in what I chose for her, either aesthetically or formally. "Death Take Your Fiddle" and "Indoor Fireworks" are fairly straightforward in their being folk-related, while "Atoms for Peace" and "All I Want," for example, are not folk in timbre, but they are formally rooted in folk construction.

I'm a big fan of transitioning through sounds: the guitar sound carries over from "I Don't Want to Grow Up" into "Lemonworld"; the wigged-out piano on the end of "History Song" leads into the melancholy chords of "The Greatest." "All I Want" ends the disc symbolically, as this is meant to bridge someone out of folk into the wider world of... I don't know, whatever it is it's vaguely hipster.

The mood is overwhelmingly bleak; this may not be the best collection of songs to send to someone you've a crush on. Unless they know you have a crush on them. Then good on ya. If there's a Part 2, it will be a touch perkier. All told, it runs about 30 minutes. I'd say it uses them well.

Monday, July 26, 2010

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Kirby Dick's 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated explores, or, rather, exposes, the Motion Picture Association of America's film rating system. We're all familiar with the system, which deals out ratings for movies that range from G up through NC-17, which forbids entry of any patron under the age of 17. The film begins with a brief history of the system, which was instituted in 1968 as a way to prevent outright censorship. It seems a noble cause; so long as movies come with a ticket warning you to the content, it was reasoned, then there was no reason to forbid the inclusion of most content. It gave way to an underhanded form of the same censorship; an NC-17 rating pulls the rug out of most films, immediately reducing the distribution potential, the marketing budget, and can ultimately mean the loss of millions upon millions of dollars. This encourages the filmmakers to edit their films down to receive an R rating. Sounds like censorship to me.

The ratings board consists of a small group of individuals, who view and rate all the media content released. I imagine this to be a very angry group of people; they have to watch a lot of very bad movies, and likely don't get to say anything to the fact. At least critics get to tear into films, and that makes them feel better. The raters are kept anonymous, to preserve them from outside pressures, and the one part of this film I didn't like was Kirby's quest to find their identities. Don't get me wrong; I don't think so powerful a group of malcontents should be kept anonymous, but the segments involving the chase seemed gimmicky. Not that they weren't fun. He hired a private detective to track them down, and she does good work.

This film will make you angry, so long as you care about freedom of expression. Whether you care about movies specifically or not shouldn't matter. It will ruffle your feathers either way. My two favourite bits: Sex is more actively suppressed than violence, which is about as backwards as anything I can imagine, and during an appeal, should a filmmaker choose to pursue one when their rating is handed down from the mountain, the filmmaker is not allowed to cite precedent. TFINYR shows the hypocrisy of Sharon Stone's vagina being allowed in the R-rated Basic Instinct, while a bit of Maria Bello's pubic hair in The Cooler earned the film an NC-17. And they had notes, so, yes, they do know it was the pubic hair that did it. As Bello points out, she is a mother, and she doesn't want some censorship board telling her how to raise her children. Which is essentially what they do.