Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Ten Years, Ten Albums

Well, the decade ends tomorrow, and I have to say, it's been a great decade for music. It was the decade of Napster, and of the iTunes store, and of the return of the working band, the kind that tours extensively between recording albums. The big labels have seen a decline, and the independent bands have figured out a way to thrive as the idea of the album declines. I thought I'd share my top album of each year of this decade, one per year, as a way of looking at the music that I've loved as my musical tastes have evolved and the industry has shifted. So, without further introduction...

2000: Modest Mouse, "The Moon and Antarctica." This record might still be my favorite Modest Mouse album. It has some of the band's strongest work, including "3rd Planet" and "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," as well as the band's biggest hit before "Float On," "Gravity Rides Everything." More than any other album of 2000, I feel that this record set the band's agenda for the decade. There is a lot of unhappiness and dire imagery through the lyrics, but there is also something strangely hopeful about the scenes the songs paint.

Runner-up: "Mass Romantic" by the New Pornographers

2001: Wilco, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." Remember what I said about the shifts in the industry and the return of the working band? Well, if there's any one record that marks the moment this all began, it's this one. Wilco left their label and released this album themselves, encouraged illegal downloads, and have pretty much been touring ever since. They sell out every show they play, and it works for them. The album itself is fantastic, with some of the strongest songs Wilco have ever performed, and the use of "assassin" as a verb in "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" is incredible. Also, while this album wasn't technically released until 2002, I'm going to put it in this slot because that's when it was completed.

Runner-up: "Is This It" by the Strokes

2002: The Mountain Goats, "Tallahassee." This was a tough choice, as there were two classic Mountain Goats albums released in 2002, this one and "All Hail West Texas." While the latter has "The Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton," this one has a bunch of songs that edge it over the top, most notably "No Children," a song that never fails to simultaneously excite and depress everyone. Plus, I love an album that tells a story, and this one--about a couple that moves to Florida to escape their demons only to find that they never can--is one the band did a lot with.

Runner-up: "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" by the Flaming Lips.

2003: The Decemberists, "Her Majesty." Turns out 2003 was a pretty incredible year for music, with everyone from the White Stripes to the Shins to Outkast releasing great records. But "Her Majesty" is the one that influenced my taste most, so it gets the spot on this list. "Red Right Ankle" remains one of my favorite songs, and the stories Colin Meloy tells with the band are excellent and atmospheric and literary. It's a nerdy choice, but...well, I'm a nerd.

Runner-up: Outkast, "The Love Below."

2004: Arcade Fire, "Funeral." One of the biggest albums of the decade, and also one of the boldest. The first five tracks are kind of a mini-concept album, a post-apocalyptic look at a neighborhood buried under the snow. It took me a few listens to understand what the album is really about, but it's all about grief and loss (the title is a big hint), and growing older. The band immediately exploded, and for good reason: the tracks on this album are just incredible. "Wake Up," in particular, is amazing, and this album remains a perpetual favorite.

Runner-up: Elliott Smith, "From a Basement on the Hill."

2005: The Hold Steady, "Separation Sunday." There are albums, and then there are complete revelations, and when I first heard this album, it completely knocked me out. Another kind-of concept album about a hoodrat named Hallelujah who gets lost in the Twin Cities' party scene and ultimately redeemed. It's a very Catholic album, all about resurrection and the unexpected presence of Grace at the last possible moment. The last track, "How a Resurrection Really Feels," has become an Easter tradition for me, and every few months I listen to this album just to be reminded of how it's put together, how it works.

Runner-up: Sufjan Stevens, "Illinois"

2006: Sufjan Stevens, "The Avalanche." For a record of b-sides and extra tracks that didn't make "Illinois," this collection is fantastic. The title track, as well as "The Mistress Witch..." and "The Henney Buggy Blues Band" are all excellent songs, and there are a few that probably should have made the cut on "Illinois." I really like Sufjan's ability to make a great album out of what are essentially extra songs, and this collection really demonstrates his range as a songwriter and composer.

Runner-up: The Hold Steady, "Boys and Girls in America."

2007: Okkervil River, "The Stage Names." The opening track of this album, "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe," is probably one of my favorite songs of the decade, and the album continues at the same pace to the end. The album is like a series of high points, with "Unless it's Kicks," "Plus Ones," and one of the two best songs about John Berryman's death, "John Allyn Smith Sails." (The other one is on "Boys and Girls in America"). Okkervil River's previous albums are all great, but I think this one is the most cohesive, most grown-up record they've put out.

Runner-up: Iron and Wine, "The Shepherd's Dog."

2008: Fleet Foxes, "Fleet Foxes." The first song I heard off of this album, "White Winter Hymn," is a beautiful, haunting round, and those adjectives describe the rest of this album really well. Fleet Foxes are probably one of my favorite newer bands, and this album is them at their best. "He Doesn't Know Why" and "Blue Ridge Mountains" are great starting points, and the music--this is strange for a band from Seattle--really reminds me of Appalachia and the woods I grew up in, mysterious and teeming with life.

Runner-up: The Silver Jews, "Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea."

2009: Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone." Was there a better song this year than "This Tornado Loves You"? Well, maybe "People Got A Lot of Nerve." Neko Case has become like a legend, a force of nature like the ones she sings about in both of these songs. And the best part is that she knows it--over and over, this album returns to the theme of violent forces of nature and their inability to be understood, from "I'm an Animal" to "Magpie to the Morning." I felt that this year and this decade were both turbulent times, and I can't think of an album that does a better job of both encompassing and transcending that.

Runner-up: The Avett Brothers, "I and Love and You."

So that's my list. What's yours? Where are my glaring omissions? The albums that mattered more than these? Well, to me, these are the ones that were the most influential, the most formative. But I want to know what else everyone else listened to in the past ten years. What did your decade sound like?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Surprise Tuesday: Outside, Two Million Drunk Bostonians are Getting Ready to Sing "Auld Lang Syne."

I'm back! Well, not today, but tomorrow. I just wanted to let everyone know. The holidays and deadlines knocked me out of my blogging schedule leading up to Christmas, so I didn't get to write the posts I wanted to, about "Fairytale of New York," or how cranky George Bailey is in "It's a Wonderful Life," or anything else holiday-themed. Well, there's always next year.

But tomorrow: Musical Wednesdays returns! I was thinking about doing my top 10 albums of the year, but it's the end of a decade, and it seems appropriate to do something a bit wider-ranging--I'm thinking "My 10 Favorite Songs of the Decade." God, that sounds difficult just thinking about it. Maybe 10 favorite albums? Of the year?

Well, you'll have to check in tomorrow to see where I go with it. But for now, in anticipation of New Year's Eve, here is a video of the best song ever about New Year's eve. Get up on the stage and feel nostalgic, would you?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Ten Christmas Songs I Don't Completely Dread Hearing

There are some Christmas songs that I avoid more than any other music, songs that make me cringe and desperately change the station. If I can get through the Christmas season without hearing "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" or "Wonderful Christmastime," I'm really glad. But there are some songs that I actually look forward to hearing...the ones that I actually like.

1. "Blue Christmas." This one is kind of a weird choice for me, as I'm not that big of an Elvis fan, but for some reason I like it. There's a great cover version by Bright Eyes that really amps up the sadness of the lyrics, and a lot of times the original gets suddenly, inexplicably stuck in my head.

2. "Baby, It's Cold Outside." This isn't really a Christmas song, I guess, but it's a song for Christmastime, so it's on here. I love the version featured in the movie "Elf," but there are a lot of versions that are pretty good. Others--there's a Ricardo Montalban version--not so much.

3. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." This wouldn't be a list of my favorite Christmas songs without Darlene Love, and this is my absolute favorite. This is another one that's been extensively covered, but the original is still the best.

4. "Happy Christmas (War is Over)." Well, at least the first half. The more you hear of Yoko, the worse this song gets, but the beginning is fantastic, the perfect combination of bitter and hopeful. The way Lennon sings, "So this is Christmas" is just fantastic.

5. "The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth," David Bowie and Bing Crosby. This song has one of the strangest set-ups in the world, with these two chatting about Christmas before starting the song. It's from a Christmas special, the kind where celebrity guests just stopping by to chat was completely normal. The weirdest part of the whole thing? The song works.

6. "River" by Joni Mitchell. Is this a Christmas song? It takes place at Christmas, and I always look forward to hearing it around now. It's...well, it's another sad Christmastime song, but I like it anyway.

7. "It's Christmas! Let's be glad!" by Sufjan Stevens. This one is on my iPod, so it's not one of those songs that suddenly comes on the radio--actually, I can't imagine this suddenly coming on the radio--but it's a song about being glad at Christmas, no matter how bad the year has been, and I think that's a notion I can get behind.

8. "Linus and Lucy," Vince Guaraldi Trio. Really, you can extend this to all of the songs in "Charlie Brown Christmas," but this is the one that instantly brings me to Christmas, to Snoopy dancing, to the kids waving their hands around a tree and magically saving it.

9. "Sleigh Ride." The Ronettes version is probably my favorite, with its "ring-a-lings" in the background and quick tempo, but the song in general really deserves its status as a classic. This is another one with a related "Saturday Night Live" sketch, featuring Molly Shannon.

10. "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," Bruce Springsteen. I didn't like this one much as a kid, but now I really do. I think having seen him play live, I feel like his banter in the song's introduction is really natural, and the way he throws all of his normal Springsteen swagger into such an upbeat pop song is really outstanding.

Well, those are mine. There's one more, but that's getting its own post on a different Wednesday coming up. What about you? What Christmas songs do you look forward to hearing?

Monday, December 7, 2009

(Non) Fiction Mondays: Zeitoun and Pictures at a Revolution

I've been on a nonfiction kick the past few weeks. Since I finished "Gravity's Rainbow," I've read two great nonfiction books, a genre that for some reason, I don't read much of. I'm not much of a memoir or biography fan, preferring to learn about people through the lens of fiction (even if they're historical figures, like Tesla in "The Invention of Everything Else").

The two books I've read are Mark Harris' "Pictures at a Revolution" and Dave Eggers' "Zeitoun." They're both excellent, if extremely different, works of nonfiction, the former a big book about the 1968 Academy Awards and the five films nominated for Best Picture, and the latter a story about a man in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina who begins rescuing people in his canoe, only to be arrested and put into several prisons.

"Pictures at a Revolution" is definitely a film nerd book, about the end of the old studio system and the birth of the "second golden age," where filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese took the reins of the studios and made some of their most incredible movies. These filmmakers, often called the "film school brats" completely reinvented the movie business, bringing a European sensibility that they had picked up in college (for a great look at the era after this book, rent the movie "A Decade Under the Influence"). In my undergraduate film classes, we covered this era pretty briefly, but the main thing I remember is that the big musicals, trying to jump on the success of "The Sound of Music," really destroyed the studios: "Paint Your Wagon," "Camelot," and the one featured in this book, "Doctor Doolittle." These were movies with huge budgets that were completely out of touch with the realities of moviegoers, and they were completely destroyed by movies like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate," both nominated for Best Picture. The stories of each individual movie (including the eventual winner, "In the Heat of the Night," and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner") are incredibly researched and detailed, and the overall story, about the movie business blinding itself to the changing realities of their viewers, is really interesting.

"Zeitoun," about a contractor who stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, is completely harrowing. Zeitoun gets arrested in a building he owns, and without due process, a phone call, or a hearing, he is sent to "Camp Greyhound," a prison set up outside of the city's bus terminal. Before his arrest, he sets out in a secondhand canoe to rescue anyone who needs help in the city, including animals and elderly neighbors. He is arrested on suspicion of looting, without being questioned or formally charged. The story is insane, mostly because you do not want to believe this happened in America. The fact that a major American city can come under martial law, the rights of citizens left in the care of hired mercenaries like Blackwater, is just unbelieveable. And all of this happening as people are dying without help from the government agencies they depend on. It's really shocking and frustrating, but the book somehow manages, at the end, to be really hopeful, a story about unshakeable faith in the promise of the country.

I really recommend both of these books. Like I said, I'm not really a nonfiction reader, but these stories were incredible. I think I'm going to jump back to fiction now, but I'm not sure what book I'm going to read. Any suggestions?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Films: "That Was Some Pure Wild Animal Craziness"

This week, I went to see "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Wes Anderson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic book, and I am very glad to say it did not disappoint. My faith in Wes Anderson was shaken after "The Darjeeling Limited," and I was worried that the director would continue to make movies that amounted to little more than a collection of incredible details without the plot or character development to support the overall design (I'm talking to you, luggage in "Darjeeling Limited.") But this movie was, if I'm allowed to say it this way, a return to form. It was a reminder of why I loved Anderson's movies in the first place. There was still an obsession over the minute detail, but the characters and story that the details were nestled among (and not the other way around) were extremely likeable and actually fun.

The movie combined the best parts of "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore," and "The Royal Tenenbaums," along with a few choices pieces of "The Life Aquatic" (There was one point where I couldn't help but think, "Let me tell you about my boat.") It's a caper, a family comedy-drama, and a movie about a flawed but endearing big dreamer all at once, and it works. Everyone in the cast, from Clooney as the title character to Bill Murray as Badger, his lawyer, was completely suited to the characters they were playing, and the puppets, with fur that always seemed to be in motion and impeccable suits, were really incredible bits of Anderson's detail that somehow came to life. I left the theater with a huge smile on my face, so glad that the director had returned to the kinds of characters and stories that I really loved. Jason Schwartzman's character, Ash, is especially hilarious, with a few lines that completely steal the scene with their understated humor. When his lab partner, a female fox, stares at his cousin, he says, "You're supposed to be my lab partner. You're disloyal," in a way that I don't think is present in any other director's work. It's a strange coupling of over-the-top design and understated voice acting that completely works.

Of course, since this is a Wes Anderson movie, there are countless quotable moments, references to other films, and, yes, a shot of a group of characters underwater. Mr. Fox, arriving at home, calls his family, "my darlings," a bit of Royal Tenenbaum that made me unbelievably glad. Toward the end of the movie, there's a great moment with a silhouette of a wolf: Mr. Fox, spying it in the distance, calls out, "Mr. Wolf! Canis Lupis!" and then asks, in French, if the wolf thinks it will be a rough winter. The wolf doesn't answer, but instead wanders off into the forest--it's a strange, weirdly funny moment, and it really stuck with me. Throughout the movie, the characters, animals in suits, talk about their wildness, with Mr. Fox complimenting his son by saying, "That was some pure wild animal craziness," but this wolf is different. It's truly wild, without any of the human influences of the rest of the animals, and it's clear, even in the puppets, that Mr. Fox views it with equal parts terror and deep respect.

I love it when an adaptation manages to both capture the spirit of the original material and the vision of the director, and I feel like "Fantastic Mr. Fox" does this incredibly well. I'm sure Dahl never imagined a sequence of Mr. Fox vs. the farmers to be set to the Rolling Stones' "Street Fightin' Man," but after seeing the movie, I can't imagine it being any other way.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: It's a Marshmallow World

Well, now that it's December, I'm going to kick off this edition of Musical Wednesdays with a song somewhat related to the time period of my NaNoWriMo project: Darlene Love's version of "Marshmallow World." Even though the song was recorded in 1950 by Bing Crosby, the Darlene Love version is probably the best-known. It appeared on the 1963 album "A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector" (Holiday Tip: don't open any box that says "from: Phil Spector." It's probably dangerous.) along with the Ronette's "Sleigh Ride," the Crystal's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," as well as many others that you'll hear if you're listening to the right radio stations this season (I'd suggest the Sirius/XM station "Little Stephen's Underground Garage).

The song itself is kind of...strange. It begins, "It's a marshmallow world in the winter, when the snow falls to cover the ground," and then completely loses its mind around the second verse: "And the sun is red like a pumpkin head"...I'm sorry, what? There are a lot of things that are, you know, actually red and actually associated with Christmas, rather than Halloween or the Headless Horseman. But still: it's a Phil Spector production, so it somehow works.

But the strange, amazingly produced song isn't the only reason I wanted to post about Darlene Love and holiday music. I also wanted to share one of my all-time favorite SNL Christmas moments (related: does anyone know if they're showing the "Christmas Past" episode this year? I really hope so.). This sketch was part of "TV Funhouse," which has done a bunch of great Christmas sketches, but this one cracks me up every time. It's "Christmas Time for the Jews," a Darlene Love-sounding songs about the one night of the year that Jewish people can play for the Lakers, see movies without waiting in line, and beat up Quakers without any Gentiles bothering them:

What better way to kick off the season?