Top Albums of 2009

Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Domino Records

The true test of a great album is longevity–can the record be revisited a year after year and still pack the same punch that you get during its initial run? Merriweather Post Pavilion was released just six days into 2009 and has been the one album all year that has given listeners more than ample time to soak up what it has to offer. As Collective’s eighth studio album, the hype surrounding the album’s release was high. In the end the group delivered.

The music seems to be the culmination of the band’s musical progression, which in the past featured records with moments of brilliance, sandwiched between harder to handle filler. The past albums, while excellent, never sufficed as being singular masterpieces (the group’s 2004 album, Sung Tongs comes closest to perfection but suffers from carrying on for too long with not as much deviation).

Post Pavilion’s “My Girls” was the perfect first single and easily one of the top tracks of the decade. “Summertime Clothes” floats along on a sea of processed sounds but manages to be the album’s most catchy and fun tune. On “Daily Routine,” rising vocalist/multi instrumentalist in the group, Panda Bear, muses on the daily grind of being a father set to sprinkles of keyboard swirls and pounding drum and bass rhythms. The record’s closer, “Brother Sport” is the one arena rocker on the disc that could truly bring the house down at the real Merriweather Post Pavilion outdoor arena in Maryland. The dreamy “Bluish” may be the band’s most beautifully lush song to date, overtaking Sung Tongs’ spine chilling opener, “Leaf House.” Comparisons to The Beach Boys have been made when discussing Animal Collective and in particular Panda Bear’s solo endeavors, however, the band has gone beyond mere imitation.

Through its impressive career thus far (eight studio albums, four EPs in ten years!) the group has continued to create a sound that is entirely their own. With Merriweather Post Pavilion their importance in the lexicon of modern music is completely realized. Now we wait for what’s next.

St. Vincent

Actor

4AD Records

Rising from the cult shadow of Polyphonic Spree, a fairly kitchy group that never managed to find their relevance in my humble opinion, Annie Clark put out one hell of a twisted record. Actor is at times truly like the Disney movie soundtracks she quoted as being influential. At the other end of the spectrum the album has moments that are truly frightening, both lyrically and with her use of screeching distortion and eerie background vocal walls. The music is puzzling at time. The lyrics range from tender, “I lick the ice cubes from your empty glass” to the macabre, “We’re sleeping underneath the bed / To scare the monsters out / With our dear daddy’s Smith and Wesson / We’ve got to teach them all a lesson.” The album may be the prettiest dark album of the year or the darkest pretty album of the year. Clark leaves you to decide.

Songs like “Save Me From What I Want” open with a suspenseful crescendo of electro string notes which then burst into a steady and terribly catchy back beat set to Clark’s ethereal pipes. “The Neighbors” finishes her musings on “psychotropic Capricorns” with a mighty closing stanza that could serve as the album’s unofficial manifesto on who Clark is, where she fits in the arena of indie rock, and what this album is all about.

How can Monday be alright

Then on Tuesday lose my mind

Tomorrow’s some kind of stranger

Who I’m not supposed to see

Were it not for Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and Animal Collectives Merriweather Post Pavilion, Actor would be the clear victor for album of the year. It’s a triumphant sophomore release from an artist to keep an eye on. When she sings on the harrowingly titled, “Laughing With A Mouth of Blood,” “And I can’t see the future / But I know it’s got big plans for me,” one can’t help but think she’s right.


Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

ANTI- Records

To say that Neko Case can do no wrong would be a bit unfair but throughout her solo career she continues to release masterful albums that showcase her lovely voice, which seems to only improve with age. Middle Cyclone, along with most of Case’s past efforts is the perfect album for driving on a warm summer’s night, windows open and the air tickling your dangling hands.

“This Tornado Loves You,” a song that truly swirls into motion like a cyclone, opens the album with a bang. The song showcases a funnier and wilder side to Case until the following stanza brings home the true Case: a poetic lyricist, in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and Carole King who wants nothing more than to write tender love songs.

“Cause I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

How you’d sigh yourself to sleep

When I’d rake the springtime

Across your sheets”


“People Got A Lotta of Nerve,” is a masterpiece (joining the ranks of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood’s “Star Witness” as essential Case) and contains a moment that brings Case’s vocal range to the forefront and has the ability to induce a surge of the shivers with every revisit. Even on the record’s two covers, Case manages to add her own touches, with Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” taking an otherwise cautionary tale and fusing it together with bubblegum pop.

“Magpie to the Morning” is an oh-so-tender lullaby with Case’s vocals shining bright. “I’m An Animal” makes best use of the album’s various notable guest musicians, including The Band’s virtuosic organ player, Garth Hudson.

Middle Cyclone has been tagged by Case as an homage to nature and the singer’s fascination with its mysteries and beauty. With any other artist fifteen songs devoted to mother earth (including an unnecessary 31-minute track of birds chirping) might seem silly or predictable but it suits Case. This is Case’s best record to date. It’s funny, beautifully romantic, deeply saddening, but is all together candy to the ears.

Phoenix

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

V2 Records

The feeling you get after listening to a completely awe-inducing record from start to finish for the first time is what music enthusiasts yearn for. It’s what keeps us listening. It’s our drug of choice and is potent enough to make a junkie out of us all. French electronic pop band, Phoenix’s album Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a perfect drug.

The record is short at just over 35-minutes but still manages to assault the ears with a sound that borrows and references damn near every rock genre–pop, prog, synth, rave, Kraut techno, indie. The songs are often of the historical nature with the band alluding to classical music obscurities (“Lisztomania’s” Franz Liszt), but lyrics aside, the must is what counts here.

Make no mistake, this is a pop album, but it’s one with surprises. The back-to-back album changers, “Love Like a Sunset Parts 1 & 2” come at nearly the album’s halfway point and are remarkable exercises crescendo. While lacking lead singer Thomas Mars’ signature squeaks and high notes, the first part is a Kraut rock-inspired groove instrumental that is at times menacing and at times hypnotic as it trudges along. It’s the album’s most surprising moment and easily the one track that sets this album apart from being, “just another French pop effort.”

“Lasso” might be the catchiest pop song of the year, and “Girlfriend” is a tender lament to loosing someone close.

Arising from the same French town that gave us Air, Phoenix is officially on par with its country cousin. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a flawless record, albeit a concise one. It takes the best elements of the aforementioned electronic genres of yesteryear, and sheds a new light on the familiar.

This is an album that begs you to seek out Phoenix’s past efforts and one that has remained timely well into 2010.

The Best of the Rest

Maxwell

BLACKsummers’night

Columbia

The return of neo-soul? How about simply put: the hottest R&B album of the year. “Love You” weaps. “Pretty Wings” channels Prince in his prime. While “Phoenix Rise” brings back the long-honored tradition of featuring one solid synthesizer instrumental track, the “Contusion” to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.

Sonic Youth

The Eternal

Matador Records

Fans who commented that 2006 Rather Ripped showed a mellower, more conventional side to Sonic Youth were shaken from their lament with The Eternal. Raw, visceral, pounding, loud, and most importantly, laden with the band’s signature guitar butchery, are just a few ways to describe Youth’s newest opus. At 56 Kim Gordon still knows how to bring the sexy with “Anti Orgasm’s” pulsating guitar waves and primordial vocal grunts. By the time you get to The Eternal’s nearly ten minute closer, “Massage the History” the record has taken on through Youth’s lush musical history and back to the present, showing us that these New Yorkers’ sound is eternal.

The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

Capitol & Rough Trade Records

The return of the truly weird progressive rock record. While its previous album, The Crane Wife, told a similar story, its music tended to be more on the cute side than Love’s hair-raising tracks. With church organs, an accordion, strings swells, and probably a lute or two thrown into the fold, Love’s mythical love story sounds like a joke gone terribly wrong on paper, but is fully realized when listened to thanks to Colin Meloy’s lyrics and notable guest vocal appearances from Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the latter actually stealing the show on the folk rock album’s only arena rocker “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.”

Moby

Wait For Me

Little Idiot/Mute

Surprised? Yeah, me too. After the breakout hit, Play, it seemed like Moby was on that oh too familiar trajectory into musical irrelevance. His 2008 club album, Last Night was a terrible let down, and past attempts to be the leader of a rock band rather than being the maestro at electronic symphonies that he truly is didn’t pay off. Sure Wait For Me follows the exact formula that Moby used on Play and its underrated follow-up, 18, but it still manages to sound fresh. Moby could be written up as ambient, since Wait For Me is a cool record to leave lingering in the background at the end of a long day, but really the best way to describe this album is: it’s Moby, but done well.

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If I chose the nominees



Thursday morning the nominations for the 2009 Academy Awards Ceremony will be announced. Normally the press release sends shock waves down the spines of anyone even remotely interested in the industry, however, after a fairly mediocre year of film (one in which the best films were rarely seen or put in the spotlight) it’s hard to say how big the Oscars will be this year. Unlike last year in which there were a number of sure fire wins (Daniel Day Lewis) and some extremely tight races for top prizes (Best Picture, Best Actress) this year’s lineup of possible contenders seems kind of uninspiring.

Sure this will undoubtedly be the year of Heath Ledger’s posthumous prize for The Dark Knight (hopefully the film’s sole prize of the night) and Mickey Rourke is ripe for a roaring comeback but other than that what is there to look forward to. Kate Winslet is one of the finest actors working today and has been nominated and passed over many times in the past. Will this be her year? Will she carry the burden of being nominated in two different categories (Julianne Moore was hindered by this curse in 2003 for a leading role in Far From Heaven, and a supporting turn in The Hours. She lost both)?

Wall-E was one of the most fascinating and prevalent films of the year (besides being a visual triumph of filmmaking, but does it have enough to clench a Best Picture nod? Will there be any love for some of the year’s top indies (many of which were the best films of the year, period) such as Rachel Getting Married, I’ve Loved You So Long, Happy Go Lucky, In Bruges, to name a few?

Overall this was a year of standout performances with very few solid films as a whole. Will strong, thought invoking character performances (Melissa Leo, Frozen River) best Oscar bait, star studded mediocrities (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) only time will tell.

The following is my list of the top contenders at this year’s Oscars if I were picking the nominees.  NOTE: Having not seen a handful of films, including Steven Soderbergh’s Che and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy this list is subject to change.

Best Actor

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Sean Penn, Milk

Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

DARK HORSE NOD: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche New York

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Chiewetel Ejiofor, Redbelt

Still Haven’t Seen: Benicio Del Toro, Ché

Best Actress

Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky

DARK HORSE NOD: Kate Beckinsale, Snow Angels

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Emily Mortimer, Transsiberian

Still Haven’t Seen: Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy 

Best Supporting Actor

Eddie Marsan, Happy Go Lucky

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

Robert Downey Jr, Tropic Thunder

DARK HORSE NOD: Bill Irwin, Rachel Getting Married

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges, John Malkovich, Changeling, Nick Nolte, Tropic Thunder, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man

Best Supporting Actress

Kate Winslet, The Reader

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married

Francis McDormand, Burn After Reading

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

DARK HORSE NOD: Samantha Morton, Synecdoche New York

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married 

Best Film

Rachel Getting Married

Milk

Wall-E

Slumdog Millionaire

Frost/Nixon

DARK HORSE NOD: TIE Synecdoche, New York OR The Wrestler

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (snubbed from last year), Let the Right One In


Best Director

Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married

Gus Van Sant, Milk

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York

DARK HORSE NOD: Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Tarsem, The Fall, Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World

Best Screenplay-Original

Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York

Dustin Lance Black, Milk

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen

Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married

Philippe Claudel, I’ve Loved You So Long

DARK HORSE NOD: Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon, Wall-E OR Martin McDonagh, In Bruges

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading

Best Screenplay-Adapted

Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon

Justin Haythe, Revolutionary Road

Eric Roth, Curious Case of Benjamin Button

John Patrick Shanley, Doubt

DARK HORSE NOD: David Hare, The Reader

DESERVING OR MORE RECOGNITION: John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In 

BEST DOCUMENTARY QUAGMIRE

Three surefire nominees for Best Documentary will most certainly be Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, and Standard Operating Procedure. All three are radically different and brilliant in their own regards and this creates undoubtedly the toughest category race at this year’s Academy Awards. Man on Wire has been one of the highest rated films of the year and is the epiotome of what a quality documentary should be–gripping story, unusual subject, and flawless execution. Encounters is Werner Herzog at his finest, a fascinating look at man’s desire to explore their physical world, even to its extremes. Standard Operating Procedure is Errol Morris at his most intense and though provoking. Morris asks the question, is it possible to put a human face on acts of pure evil? Mark my words, the Best Documentary category will be the most gripping race to follow. 

Ten Great Albums of 2008

It was a great year for music with lots of destined to be classic albums to pick from. This shortlist represents the records that will no doubt be stand the test of time. Vampire Weekend had a good year but will the whitest band around really be remembered twenty years from now? Lil Wayne stirred things up but was he the best Hip Hop had to offer this year?

We’ll see how this list stands up to time. Until then here they are, Ten Great Albums of the year in no particular order.

Portishead, Third

Of all the comebacks and regroupings–Guns and Roses’ overly hyped Chinese Democracy, My Blood Valentine’s magnificent tour but lack of new material, or The Smashing Pumpkins unnecessary half-reunion–the most rewarding return came from Portishead. After two equally exciting trip-hop outings from the early 90s, the Bristol, England trio went on a twelve-year hiatus destined to drift into nostalgia. The group’s third record, appropriately titled Third, showed a musical maturation that few bands ever achieve. Instead of resurrecting its trip hop roots Portishead went an entirely different route blending carefully orchestrated electronic harmonies and rhythms with Beth Gibbons’ ethereal pipes. While each of the album’s tracks stand out in their own way the absolute moments of brilliance come with the opener, “Silence,” guided by a driving bass and drum beat and featuring an otherworldly vocal sample (in this case a recording of someone speaking in Portuguese) and “The Rip,” a dreamy ballad with a crescendo of electronics and vocal range that make it the album’s one true repeat track. That Johnny Greenwood and Thom Yorke of Radiohead both covered this song extensively during the sound checks on their last tour only adds to the song and this album’s genius.

Q-Tip, The Renaissance

Sure Lil Wayne will probably steal the thunder of best of Hip Hop this year (and Tha Carter III is indeed a great album) but one of the most exciting and rewarding albums to be released was from one Jonathan Davis, known around the Hip Hop community as Q-Tip. It seems like ages since A Tribe Called Quest disbanded and it’s been a striking nine years since Q-Tip’s first solo album, Amplified hit the streets. The Renaissance is a closer venture to Quest’s jazz funk influenced, socially conscious hip hop than Amplified and shows that Q-Tip still remains one of rap’s best lyricists–nasally, sarcastic, and electrifying. The album features a number of guests most notably from Norah Jones whose appearance on “Life is Better” dwarfs her work on Outkast’s The Love Below. “Believe” makes good use of D’Angelo’s still active pipes while Raphael Saadiq (whose 2008 album The Way I See It is just shy of being a top contender) shines on the hook of “We Fight/Love.” Q-Tip has long been a hip hop favorite but has been out of the spotlight in recent years primarily landing guest spots on other artist’s records. The Renaissance may not end up being as important or timeless as The Low End Theory but amidst other hip hop artists working today it’s nice to see that one of raps pioneers still has what it takes. 

Brian Eno & David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Much like Radiohead’s pleasant internet download surprise with last year’s In Rainbows, David Byrne and Brian Eno’s unexpected collaboration and subsequent internet stream/release of new material was the stuff of music geek’s dreams. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is a testament to just how perfect some musical matches are. Absent were the now predictable African polyrhythms and worldly samples of the duo’s previous collaborations–the stand alone project My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the three peat of Talking Heads masterpieces culminating with Remain in Light–instead loyal fans were treated to a rare mix of uplifting electro pop gospel songs the likes of which neither musician has ventured towards before. Sure a bit of nitpicking would find flaws in the album’s two minor tracks–the penultimate “Poor Boy” or “Feel My Stuff,” a track that needs to be heard/seen live in order to truly appreciate–but overall this is one of the most enjoyable albums of the year. “The River” alludes to early Heads quick hit pop tunes. “Strange Overtones” brings the duo’s appreciation of groove and funk to the forefront and the album’s title track–a heavenly ballad anchored by the album’s hopeful money line From the milk of human kindness/From the breast we all partake­­­–is quite simply a joy for the ears. Both artists have continued with solo and producing careers over years but nothing comes close to matching the masterful music they produce together.  

M83, Saturdays = Youth

Often donned this year’s ultimate homage to the 1980s, M83’s latest album is much more an ode to the teenage wildlife. Musically the album carries on the torch of electro and synth pop outfits like The Orb and dream pop pioneers like Cocteau Twins, while lyrically referencing adolescent angst, naïve love and wonder. On “Kim and Jessie” M83’s chief Anthony Gonzalez sings, Kids outside worlds / They are crazy about romance and illusion behind a blanket of keyboards and thunder drums. “Up!” alludes to cosmic travels of two characters who may or may not be carefree intergalactic vampires (of the galaxy we fly we feed we suck we bleed we need…), while “Skin of the Night” feels like a forgotten soundtrack to the countless fantasy films of the 1980s, from Labyrinth to, as a friend hinted to in her enthusiasm for the album, Ridley Scott’s “so bad it’s good” Tom Cruise vehicle Legend. Saturday = Youth is the ultimate ode to the synthesizer, a relic from the advent of sampling and electro pop that has seen a resurgence in years past mainly in the hip-hop world (Common’s recent lackluster release, Universal Mind Control is very much a similar wink and nod to the electro funk forefathers) but rather than merely a silly collection of dated melodies M83 gives us fresh, modern take on the 80s electro pop glory days.


TV on the Radio, Dear Science

TV on the Radio’s follow up to the universally celebrated Return to Cookie Mountain somehow got lost in a sea of other new albums and failed to get the monumental release it deserved. Sure it was instantly a critic’s darling with many claiming that it improves on its predecessor by straying away from the dark undertones and ultimately being more accessible musically but in terms of popularity it didn’t make as big a splash. Dear Science is proof once again that there are few groups working today as unique and innovative as TV on the Radio. Musically trying to classify the songs that make up Dear Science is a futile exercise for Radio has always been a band to just soak up and experience. Funk, hip-hop, art-rock, EMO…the list could go on. Lyrically the messages on Dear Science aren’t as bleak as its predecessor but still manage to convey a level of political and social unrest. 

TV on the Radio is a band that doesn’t require adoration. It has realized its place in modern music and is currently in the state of simply showing off the extents that it can take its sound. “Halfway Home,” arguably one of the best opening tracks to any album in recent years (world’s apart from Mountain’s terribly bleak opening “I was your lover, before this war”), is a promising start to what ends up being a flawless album from start to finish. “Family Tree” propelled by an electronic symphony of strings and reverb drenched piano is a heartbreaking love song set, one would assume, during times of slavery, alluded to in the verse, “And in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree / There’s a hundred hearts or three / Pumping blood to the roots of evil to keep it young.” “Crying” returns to the band’s penchant for commentating on society’s woes with lead singer Tunde Adebimpe crooning, “Gold is another word for culture / Leads to fattening / Of the vultures” while the album’s closer “Lover’s Day” may be the closest thing to an unadulterated, uplifting love song the group’s ever released–a highly erotic and exuberant tribute to the physical act of love. TV on the Radio established itself as the “IT” band to keep an eye on with Return to Cookie Mountain. Dear Science secures their future legacy as one of the few bands that mattered during the 00s. 

Gnarls Barkley, The Odd Couple

Like TV on the Radio’s follow-up to their massive hit The Odd Couple didn’t make nearly as big a splash as its predecessor, St. Elsewhere. Much of this might be attributed to Barkley’s refusal to provide another runaway hit single. “Crazy” was arguably the song of 2006 and up their with “Hey Ya” as possibly one of the best of the decade. Many viewed Elsewhere as nothing more than a vehicle for “Crazy,” an attitude that hindered an otherwise triumphant debut record. 

The Odd Couple continues Barkley’s mission of blending psychedelic rock with soul, funk and hip-hop in a bizarre melting pot of sounds and influences. To truly respect what these two innovators are doing you have to appreciate Cee-Lo’s soulful pipes and DJ Danger Mouse’s tight production. The Odd Couple is not only better than its predecessor but arguably one of the forgotten gems of the year. The lyrics are more poignant (i.e. “Got some bad news this morning / Which in turn made my day”), the production more varied and interesting and Cee-Lo’s vocals have never been better. Add this to a bizarre internet download leak of the album played backwards in its entirety from the group themselves and you have one of the year’s most weirdly rewarding releases from a band that proved its beyond a mere one-hit-wonder legacy.


Erykah Badu, New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)

Those who said the neo-soul movement was ancient history were only half correct. It seemed fitting that the artist who helped start this budding genre would be the one to help propel it in a completely new direction. It had been eight years since Erykah Badu’s last proper album, five since her 2003 EP Worldwide Underground and fans were starting to fear Ms. Badu had gone the way of D’Angelo. New Amerykah: Part One is the first of what appears to be a series or duo of albums with Part Two: Return of the Ankh slated for release next year. The album is a hodgepodge of sounds from soul’s varied past brought to a modern, politically fueled stage. Its opening track “Amerykahn Promise” sounds like a forgotten piece of the Parliament catalogue featuring sirens, sound effects, driving funk guitar and dance rhythms unlike anything Badu has ever done before. What follows are a series of wildly varied tunes borrowing sounds and styles from damn near every genre even remotely linked to soul and R&B. “The Healer/Hip-Hop” takes the album down a notch to a dark bumping groove, while on “Me” Badu dishes out a down to earth personal message about getting old and becoming one with herself and her surroundings. New Amerykah is one of the early albums of 2008 that may have been forgotten amidst what followed it. Its release marks a new day for Badu and a radically different musical direction that is not only fascinating but also welcomed. Part One’s only flaw is that we must wait till sometime next year to see how she continues this new project.

Sigur Rós, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

Sigur Rós continues to release music that can’t really be described with words; it must be experienced firsthand. Much of the band’s success over the years is its blending of traditional and new sounds with lead singer Jónsi Birgisson’s signature falsetto. To say that Sigur Rós is a bit of a one-note wonder may be a bit of a stretch but the fact is album after album they continue a formula that consistently works. A little ambient pop, a bit of building crescendo for each song and lyrics that are only familiar to Icelanders and sometimes solely the band itself. If one were to categorize Með suo… among Rós’ other albums it could be described as the most stripped down and folk oriented release to date. There are few songs that utilize the band’s signature bowed electric guitar sound instead the group rely on acoustics and an array of live horn arrangements. Sigur Rós will remain one of those rare groups that are embraced no matter what they put out. Ranking this album among the rest is pointless. They are band to see live, a band whose albums should be listened to whole, and preferably with good headphones, and so far the group can’t seem to go wrong.

She & Him, Vol. 1

The move from music to acting has always been an easier feat to accomplish than the opposite. Zooey Deschanel is the last person who you’d expect to be part of one of the best albums of the year but here we are. Deschanel is the She of the duo with indie darling Matt Ward wearing the shoes of Him. Together they have crafted one of the most enjoyable albums of the year–a collection of pure, unadulterated catchy throwback pop tunes. Unlike other actors making the jump to music (Scarlet Johannson’s failed Tom Waits covers album comes to mind) Deschanel has long been an amateur songwriter with a voice of gold. On Vol. 1, which is comprised of all original songs (may written when Deschanel was younger) and two memorable renditions of standards, Zooey sings of love lost, broken hearts, love found, dreams come true, and being “alone on a bicycle for two.” M. Ward’s music mixes acoustic folk rock with the big sound production of yesteryears, fully equipped with string arrangements, female backup singers and plenty of “ooooohs,” “lalalala’s,” and “oooh dum dee-das”–enough finesse to make The Supremes proud. “Sweet Darling” feels like a time capsule from the wall of sound production days, “I Thought I Saw Your Face” features some of the best whistling solos of any album this year, and the duo’s acoustic picking cover of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me” is enough to send shivers down the spine. There have been many throwback albums from female artists in recent years, particularly post Amy Winehouse but none feel as honest or unique as She & Him’s debut. Deschanel and Ward have both stated in interviews that Vol. 2 is just around the corner and will be even better and it’s in the opinion of this writer that they just keep ‘em coming. 

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

It’s fitting that Nick Cave, a well-seasoned veteran who’s been writing and performing for over thirty years now is currently making some of the best records of his career. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! comes on the heels of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ side project Grinderman and its eponymous debut album and is in many ways its continuation. Gritty guitar heavy garage rock married with Cave’s densely written lyrics, and Ellis’ penchant for traditional instrumentation. Cave has always been an intriguing writer with his lyrics and crooning voice being his trademark. At 51 Cave is at the peak of his talents. The album’s opening title track alludes to the tale of Lazarus set in modern day with the subsequent tracks referencing other biblical common themes–love, war, murder, sin, etc. Cave has always been a storyteller first and foremost and the tales he weaves song after song are fascinating. Venturing into the Southwest on “Albert Goes West,” and tackling the day in the life of a hooker in “Today’s Lesson.” On “We Call Upon the Authors” Cave references his influences in the literary world, fellow storytellers who use the written word to comment on the world around them. Musically Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! showcases the influence that Warren Ellis has had on The Bad Seeds since his arrival in the band in the mid 90s. The multi-talented musician shines on the album’s most tender moments, primarily when he’s behind the viola and mandolin. The two have gotten closer than ever over the years having collaborated on side projects including Grinderman and two memorable film scores, most notably for The Proposition. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! may not be as personal as past Bad Seeds efforts (The Boatman’s Call comes to mind) but its refreshing testament to just how well Cave has aged and matured over the years.  

NOTABLE RUNNER UPS

The Roots, Rising Down-The talented lineup from Philly continues to release poignant, socially conscious hip hop that reflects the past and present. Musically they remain the crème of the crop in instrumental hip-hop.

Raphael Saadiq, The Way It Is-Motown harmonies and production blended with modern day, adult-themed vocals make this yet another successful throwback to the past.

Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes-Stunning debut album from some of best vocalists working in the indie rock arena.

King Khan and the Shrines, The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines-Technically a compilation album this first official wide release from Khan and his funk star orchestra is the most fun dance record you’ll find this year. James Brown style soul combined with often slapstick dirty lyrics makes Khan a rising name in the genre bending psychedelic rock genre.

AC-DC, Black Ice-The hard rocking album Axel Rose wishes he could put out. AC-DC does, well, AC-DC, again. But it’s still some of the best sounding roadhouse rock around. 

Girl Talk, Feed the Animals-The second best dance record this year. 50 minutes of the finest mish-mosh of pop music history money can’t buy. 

Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts I-IV-It was a good year for Trent Reznor. This collection of inspired instrumental cuts shows NIN is currently making the most of its independent musical freedom. 

Two albums that will undoubtedly be appreciated more with time: Kanye West, 808’s and Heartbreak, My Morning Jacket’s, Evil Urges 

Best stand along song: The so good its worth buying: “I will Possess Your Heart” Death Cab For Cutie, Narrow Stairs

Best Underrated Release From an Underrated Musical Powerhouse: The Black Keys, Attack and Release

Best Epic Album Closer of the Year: “Kissing the Beehive” Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer

 

 

Top Ten Underrated Thrillers

(Article written for starpulse.com in time for Halloween)

Horror movies are some of the most consistent pieces of the film industry. Sure there have been highs and lows in the genre, and resurgences have come and gone, but one thing remains true: people will always yearn for those cinematic chills.

The demand, however big it may be, is always constant. The golden age of cinema through the 60s brought on big studio monster movies, sly noir thrillers, and of course, Hitchcockian suspense (a subgenre, respectively). The 1970s, arguably the paramount epoch of cinema, period, saw the expansion of the genre and gave filmgoers some of the best nail biters out there.

The creation of VHS and movie rental houses triggered a massive wave of low-budget, schlock video nasties from across the globe during the 1980s and helped spawn the current highly exploitative, gross-out horror phase that horror movies are stuck in now. Then there were the 90s, dominated by a fairly lame return to teen slasher films-the Party of Five horror heyday.

Some say the new millennium has been a breath of fresh air for the genre with an overall rise in popularity of no holds barred gore fests (Saw, uh hum, V opens soon) and a surge of film curiosities coming from East Asia, aka. the “fear the black haired ghost chick with eerie feline larynx” genre. It could be said that the horror of today is more focused on shock than on scares. Still, over the years (despite a saturated market of genre films) there have been a fair share of gems that managed to break through to stand the test of time.

The following is a run down of some of the most underrated thrillers out there. Some have a large niche following, others have gone under the radar for too long, but all are worthy of checking out this Halloween season.

Lost Highway – David Lynch, 1997
Lost Highway
Trying to classify the films of David Lynch is one of those futile exercises that is part of the reason his work is so polarizing for filmgoers. Lynch does not make horror films in the traditional sense of the genre but he is a master of crafting horrifying scenes and psychologically disturbing stories. “Lost Highway” is often overlooked amidst the auteur’s more renowned films but it remains one of his creepiest. Much of this can be attributed to Robert Blake’s bone chilling portrayal of the Mystery Man-a pale-faced spook with shaved eyebrows and a knack for videotaping people while they sleep. Add this to an eerie soundtrack-a blend of Angelo Baldamenti’s creepy sonic ballads and 90s industrial rock-and menacing cinematography and you get what is not so much a horror movie but rather a surreal, nightmarish, and mind bending viewing experience. The late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch’s films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t.” “Lost Highway” does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing.”

Suspiria – Dario Argento, 1977
Suspiria
Dario Argento has always been an atmospheric weaver of gruesome films, which are drenched with stylized cinematic technique. From a storytelling point of view his films are full of plot holes, laughable dialogue and the kind of low-brow over dubbing that was the norm of so many 70s genre flicks. “Suspiria” is no exception. It is, however, one of the most frightening films for the senses. Already an established giallo or crime genre filmmaker, “Suspiria” was Argento’s first foray into the supernatural, blending classic ghost story themes with eye piercing gore. Thanks to a driving score from Euro prog-rockers Goblin and a visionary color and shadow palette, “Suspiria” manages to make some of the most unassuming moments truly hair-raising. A blind man walks a dog in an empty plaza, the protagonist is awoken to a spine chilling wheezing sound, even the creepy Bavarian dance school where the film is set carries the kind of unsettling gothic feel to arise suspicion during the daylight scenes. A possible remake is in talks with indie filmmaker David Gordon Green at the helm, but nothing will ever come close to capturing the brutal suspense of Suspiria.

Jacob’s Ladder – Adrian Lyne, 1990
Jacob's Ladder
Lyne is often painted as an erotic thriller filmmaker thanks to films like Fatal Attraction andUnfaithful but his true masterpiece is this little psychological thriller. Tim Robbins (in one of his best performances) plays a Vietnam Vet who is forced to deal with some inner demons, literally, and uncover some haunting discoveries about his past. The film deals with paranoia, the use of mind altering drugs, the collapse of the human psyche and true-life conspiracy theories regarding government experiments on American GIs in Vietnam. Going more into the plot might spoil the movie, which is best viewed fresh but it should be noted that one of many horrific dream sequences set in a hellish hospital ward remains one of the most frightening sequences on celluloid.

The Fly – David Cronenberg, 1986
The Fly
To be fair Cronenberg’s gross-out remake of a mediocre, late-50s Vincent Price sci-fi vehicle is widely considered to be one of the best monster films of time. Those who view it as just that are missing Cronenberg’s true raison d’etre. The film is an allegory for themes of madness, romantic jealousy, the pitfalls of modern science, the deterioration of the human anatomy (flesh has long been one of Cronenberg’s many twisted fascinations) and even abortion and fear of childbirth (as seen through a truly horrifying larvae labor sequence). Then again it also lives up to its clichéd monster movie tagline of, “be afraid, be very afraid.” An operatic stage re-imagining of the film is in the works but there is no replacing Cronenberg’s grotesque but strangely poetic vision of modern day horror.

The Descent – Neil Marshall, 2005
The Descent
Amidst a slew of procedural teen slasher flicks, remakes of Asian ghost stories, and countless torture porn gore fests there are a handful of modern day horror films that have joined the ranks of some of the staple horror classics. “The Descent” is one of these recent examples. Tagged as the ultimate spelunking nightmare film, “The Descent” is a one of a kind terrifying experience that taps into that exhilarating emotion of fear-fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of tight spaces, fear of heights, etc. Sure the film features subterranean Gollum like monsters brutally terrorizing a group of fearless cave explorers, but the real horror comes in the films claustrophobic moments (an homage to Alien) as the characters descend deeper into the crevices of the unknown. By the time the monster element to the story arrives halfway into the film the viewer is already exhausted from the nail biting climbing sequences and that mounting sense of unavoidable doom that the protagonists are soon to face. See also Marshall’s premiere outing, Dog Soldiers, a smart little werewolf flick shot in Scottish forests.

Wait Until Dark – Terrence Young, 1966
Wait Until DarkOne might not consider the oh-so-dainty Audrey Hepburn as being a horror movie icon but witnessing her shear brilliance in Wait Until Dark changes on all common misconceptions. Adapted to film (the original text was a play) during the grand old days of simply told tales of suspense, Dark is horrifying account of trust, loneliness and overcoming a physical disadvantage during harsh times. Hepburn stars as the blind tenant of a dimly lit basement apartment who is drawn into a home invasion scheme perpetrated by a gang of drug smugglers trying to track down some lost goods. The storyline is not without its flaws but the film is all about moments of intense shock, often shot in the dark. When the film was released theater patrons around the country killed the house lights during crucial moments of terror on screen as a neat little gimmick to enhance the experience. While not as grisly as the horror of today, this is film is an essential viewing for Hitchcock enthusiasts and those who like jumping out of their seats.

Repulsion – Roman Polanski, 1965
RepulsionPolanski is generally credited for Rosemary’s Baby, an essential in the genre, respectively but two of his lesser known works, 1976s The Tenant and “Repulsion,” remain his unspoken masterpieces. Repulsion is, above all, a disturbing look at psychological trauma induced by sexual angst. The film was the first in what has now been coined Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” (“Baby” and The Tenant completed the run) due to its characters trip to madness in a confined space. “Repulsion’s” Carol (played by a very young Catherine Deneuve) is trapped inside a surreal world of paranoia, ill thoughts of her sister’s sexual habits and some external threats from male visitors. A scene involving a dark hallway with hands suddenly reaching out through the walls, boxing our protagonist in, is one of the film’s many unexpected scares.

Session 9 – Brad Anderson, 2001
Session 9Director Brad Anderson may be one of the most underappreciated thriller filmmakers working today. His most recent film, Transsiberian, is a sly “fear of travel” picture set largely on a confined Soviet train en route from China to Moscow and 2004s The Machinist (featuring one ofChristian Bale’s finest performances to date) was the type of twisty psychological thriller that someone like M. Night Shyamalan wishes he was still making. Session 9 remains one of the best modern ghost stories that actually avoids the supernatural. Set inside an extremely creepy and perfectly chosen mental hospital this film is dripping with atmospheric frights. The camera follows a group of asbestos removers as they roam the abandoned wards and discover secrets from the hospital’s twisted past, while also uncovering their own personal mysteries. Anderson is all about building a feasible story (in this case one part Poltergeist one part Blair Witch) and then destroying all preconceptions towards the climax. The scenes filmed at night (in that nauseating handheld camerawork style) are certain to draw unease no matter how well seasoned you are at scary movies.

The Begotten – E. Elias Merhige, 1991
The BegottenArguably the most obscure films on this list, “The Begotten” is a visually horrifying but fascinating piece of the avant-garde that is, dare I say, biblical horror. God, Mother Earth, mortal man, and evil humanoids make up the dialogue-free story, which plays out as a twisted end of days scenario with the self-induced death of God opening the film. If you thought the deadly videotape featured in The Ring was creepy, “The Begotten” may or may not be for you. From a filmmaking standpoint E. Elias Merhige’s film is one of those cinematic achievements that is both dazzling and disturbing. To this day there is nothing that even remotely matches the film’s lasting effects. Shot in grainy black and white and then painstakingly altered and deconstructed during editing (Merhige has said that each minute of the film took ten hours of alteration to create the signature, almost primitive look), “The Begotten” is a mystery of a film with unforgettable nightmarish imagery. Merhige would eventually follow his masterpiece up with the interesting but overly preachy Shadow of a Vampire and the disappointing psychological serial killer vehicle Suspect Zero.Marilyn Manson enthusiasts will see much of “The Begotten” in the equally creepy music video for the song “Cryptorchid,” which Merhige helmed.

Them – David Moreau, 2006
While the international horror scene is currently favoring all films coming out of the “Extreme Asian” movement of Japan, Hong Kong and S. Korea (a subgenre which has grown rather tired thanks to recycled themes and Americanized remakes), some of the truly best thrillers are being made by the French. Them (or Ils in its native tongue) is the ultimate home invasion thriller. Set deep in the woods of Romania (always an effective setting for horror) the film involves a French couple being plagued by a group of hooded evildoers who raid the large farm house and make lots of goose bump inducing noises along the way. The focus on silence interrupted by man made sounds (party noisemakers never sounded freakier) is part of this film’s charm not to mention the director’s knack for crafting quick, jump out of the shadow scares. Clocking in at a surprisingly appropriate 77-minutes, this film benefits from edge of your seat tension that erupts in the film’s opening and carries through to the end.


The Best and Worst of Anthony Bourdain


It’s amazing how may people despise Anthony Bourdain. Whatever it may be–his giant ego, smug demeanor, and food snobbery–he seems to be one of the most polarizing television personalities working today. Foodies believe his culinary chops are overrated to say the least. Reality TV fans still can’t believe he helped vote off the promising young chef Dale on Bravo’s “Top Chef” and it’s safe to say Rachel Ray supporters (and there apparently are quite a few) fail to find any humor in Tony’s relentless ragging of the overly exuberant quick-meal vamp. Say what you will about the Anthony Bourdain persona, when it comes to travel shows go his series “No Reservations” is at the top of its game.

 “No Reservations” remains one of the only reasons to tune into the Travel Channel. For travel enthusiasts and globe trekkers alike, Bourdain has not only the coolest job around but also provides viewers with a different take on some of the world’s most familiar and unfamiliar destinations. Through his fascination with world history, varying cultural characteristics, and above all the culinary fabric of the world, Bourdain provides a fairly eye opening window into all corners around the globe. With the series well into its fifth season Bourdain’s had his share of successes and failures. With Tony’s raging ego aside and from a pure armchair explorer point of view, the following showcases some of Tony’s best and worst moments across the globe.

Best Destinations

1) Paris, France-It seems fitting that Bourdain chose to jumpstart “No Reservations” with a close and compassionate look at France, arguably the culinary Mecca of the world. Having years of classical French cooking training behind him Bourdain is perhaps a bit biased when it comes to the Parisian offerings presented in this episode. Still Bourdain argues that there has been a shroud of political and social negativity over France in recent years, which has made us forget just how wonderful France can be. By giving us a glimpse into the art of perfecting something as simple and pure as a baguette or embracing the hole in the wall neighborhood restaurants and cafes that give tourists a glimpse into real local cuisine, this episode is the perfect preface for the rest of the series. Bourdain’s message in a nutshell: when traveling one must put all preconceived notions aside and enjoy the many diverse cultures this world has to offer.

2) Vietnam-Bourdain calls Vietnam one of his favorite destinations. As a country with years of foreign influence in its culture and cuisine Vietnam still has a strong inner identity just waiting to be explored. Bourdain, along with a local friend and guide, tastes his way around the capital of Hanoi along with the picturesque Ha Long Bay. From the perfect bowl of Phó, a mysterious dish of porcupine to a shot of a locally made strong rice whiskey infused with fermented insects and animal carcasses, Vietnam provides viewers with all the gross out moments that audiences love while also showing the cultural importance of traditional cooking ingredients and techniques.

3) The Pacific Northwest-Bourdain has done a number of episodes on U.S. soil but none were as eye opening and unexpected as his tour through Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. Bourdain believes that the Pacific Northwest is an area concentrated with creative culinary artists who, with a bountiful selection of fresh food and resources at their disposal, are able to work their magic among fellow masters. He dines on a rare Puget Sound seafood delicacy, enjoys the tasty but insanely wrong donuts at Portland’s wild Voodoo Donuts, and finishes the episode with a look into the Batali family’s acclaimed Italian salami and sausage store. Pair this episode with Tony’s adventures in Vancouver, Canada and you get a fascinating look at one of North America’s treasured regions.

4) Korea-Here’s one of many episodes devoted to one of the underrated, yet to be discovered regions in the world. Coaxed to Seoul by one of Bourdain’s production assistants, Nori, a Korean native, Tony and crew show a side of South Korea that most people don’t realize exists. From the bustling outdoor markets serving up all kinds of curious treats to a farm in the country that specializes in the historic Korean staple condiment, Kim Chee, Bourdain finds a new favorite destination.

5) Peru-Perhaps it’s the lure of Machu Picchu, quite possibly one of the most beautiful sights in the world or maybe it’s the mystery surrounding Peru’s ancient past. Whatever it is that draws Bourdain to this small Latin American country the payoff is worth it. From the snowcapped mountains, the steamy jungles and the bustling cities. Peru seems to have it all. The examination of traditional ceviché still remains one of “No Reservations” most mouth watering onscreen moments.

Worst Episodes:

1) Romania-It’s a shame that the Romanian episode didn’t succeed in showing the true side of this ignored Eastern European country. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and the country’s unforgiving dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu Romania has been on the rise and is slowly becoming a tourist hotspot. Transylvania, the dominating Carpathian Mountains, the Iron Curtain time capsule capital of Bucharest, Romania should have made for an interesting show. Instead Bourdain, along with a heavily intoxicated Russian travel guide (also featured in the past Russia and Uzbekistan episodes) visit some of the more cliché and tourist hotspots of the country like Dracula’s Disneyesque castle attraction. Bourdain himself claims the episode went horribly wrong.

2) Las Vegas-It could be argued that Bourdain’s pseudo Gonzo tour through Las Vegas was supposed to be a tongue and cheek affair. Sent by some food magazines to cover some of Vegas’ world renowned restaurants, Bourdain and companion spend the majority of the episode showing how truly tacky the city of lights really is. While some cannot stomach watching Bourdain swallow tripe, testicles or other nasty bits it could be said that Tony scarfing down $.99 deep fried Twinkies and Oreos is an equally, if not more sordid spectacle.



3) Namibia
-This episode is famous for Bourdain’s ultimate gross-out television moment. After already dining on an omelet cooked in dirt and ash, the local tribesmen hunt and kill a wild warthog and eventually prepare Bourdain a tasty helping of grilled un-cleaned warthog anus. Even Tony can’t finish the serving. Nasties aside, this episode lacked eye-opening sights and was only aired once on the U.S. airwaves.

4) Uruguay– One of the most recent episodes to air is also one of the least compelling to watch. This edition introduces Tony’s quiet brother to the show as they head to Uruguay to retrace a distant family history. Sure the Latin American country is given a proper run through but unlike past successful episodes in Argentina, Colombia and Brazil, this small supposedly overlooked country remains just that for a reason. Oh and the brothers Bourdain come away empty handed in regards to retracing their family heritage.

5) Into the Fire NYC-This was a special episode devoted entirely to seeing if Tony still has what it takes to work the line at his own New York restaurant Les Halles. Put in front of the stove for the dreaded weekday double shift this episode only adds fuel to the fire poked by foodies who question Bourdain’s credentials. In the end we realize that the life of a TV travel host has taken the high-octane, in the zone cooking chops out of Tony’s blood. 

Spike Lee’s Best and Worst


(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)

It’s difficult to rank the films of Spike Lee in order of best to worst because, quite frankly, the auteur hasn’t really made a horrible film. With nearly 20 feature films under his belt and more to come (his upcoming WWII film looks promising) Lee has of course put out his share of minor works, but even the projects that failed still had enough of the director’s signature characteristics-fascinating characters, intriguing dialogue, and race relation undertones-and ultimately are merely cinematic experiments gone wrong. Consider this a list of best and minor works of one of America’s finest filmmakers.

THE BEST FILMS

Do The Right Thing1) Do The Right Thing

It may seem obvious to start top the list with arguably Lee’s most critically acclaimed and polarizing films, but it’s without a doubt his sole masterpiece. It still remains one of the most fascinating and honest looks at race relations in America ever to hit celluloid, while also gives us a convincing glimpse into the life of one of the many New York City neighborhoods. As the sweltering hot summer day carries on, tensions brew with the colorful residents of Bed-Stuy. From Lee’s Mookie to Radio Raheem, Da Mayor, Buggin Out, Sal and of course scene stealing Sweet Dick Willie, all of the film’s players witness the turn of events as we do, with eyes wide open. While some argue that this film fails to say anything new about racism in America, it could be said that it succeeds by making people think about this controversial topic. In the end we’re left questioning if anyone did the right thing. To quote Mister Señor love Daddy, “And that’s the double truth, Ruth.”

When The Levees Broke2) When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

The trick of Lee’s 2006 four-part HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina is that the film is not about the storm that tore through the Gulf coast but rather the city of New Orleans. Much of the film is spent examining the engineering flaws and many conspiracies surrounding the breach of the levees, not to mention the government’s disregard for lower classes, with Lee never once pointing any fingers. The rest of the time we get a healthy dose of the history and culture of what many believe is America’s most unique city. While certain wards of “The Big Easy” remain in shambles Lee argues that the spirit of New Orleans has endured.

Clockers3) Clockers

One of Lee’s often-overlooked films from 1995 is also one of his best. Adapted from Richard Price’s novel of the same name, “Clockers” is Lee’s take on the drug trade told from the point of view of not only the cops enforcing the streets but also the pawns or clockers pushing the goods. The film opens with a vivid montage of real-life crime scene photographs depicting the shear brutality that a bullet inflicts on the human body. Later while surveying a fictional crime scene the film’s main detectives (played wonderfully by Harvey Keitel and John Turturro) and the citizen onlookers appear eerily unfazed by the dead body, as if numb from the street violence that is now a routine in their lives. This is the tragic message conveyed by Lee in Clockers – the destructive nature of the open-air drug market is here to stay.

Malcolm X4) Malcolm X

This is Lee’s sole epic film and rightfully so. Working from Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X, Lee set out to tell this controversial figure’s whole story. From his early years as a young hoodlum to his rise as one of America’s most important political leaders, Denzel Washington (whose Oscar loss to Al Pacino in 1993 for Scent of a Woman remains one of the Academy’s biggest blunders in its history) devours the role as X. While some argue that the film is a bit long its scope was needed to capture who this man was.

25th Hour5) 25th Hour

Besides having one of the best closing ten minutes of any film, “25th Hour” is an intense character study of an ex-drug dealer living it up on the eve of a seven-year prison term. In typical Lee fashion it’s also much more. Lee has always had a love for New York City and almost all of his films share this love with the audience. “25th Hour” was Lee’s first post 9/11 film and without a doubt his first honest look at modern day NYC. Many draw comparisons of this film to “Do The Right Thing,” specifically a certain race rant but if anything Lee uses this film as an extension of the ideas presented in Thing.

Honorable Mention
Another of Lee’s smaller HBO documentaries is the must see 4 Little Girls, which uncovers the past surrounding the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.


THE MINOR FILMS

1) Girl 6

Hands down Spike Lee’s most forgotten, throwaway films. “Girl 6” is about an actress turned phone sex operator and the crazy odyssey she goes on. Sure, a character like this would be ripe for exploration, but Lee does it in the most cliché manner. Rather than presenting a complicated person who is stuck in a unique career we got a raunchy comedy that begs to be taken seriously but is ultimately forgettable.

2) She Hate Me

Upon its release critics around the country labeled this one of the worst movies of 2004. While this misunderstood film is hardly Lee’s best, it’s also one of his most ambitious. Its biggest fault is it tries to do too much. At its core it’s about corporate corruption in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals and the importance of whistleblowers. It’s also a bit of a screwball comedy about impregnating lesbians. Lee did comedy better early on with She’s Gotta Have It.

3) Mo’ Better Blues

Lee grew up in a family of musicians. His father Bill Lee, a jazz bass player and composer, would eventually score a number of Spike’s first films. “Mo’ Better Blues” is his ode to jazz and growing up around music. Unfortunately, the only memorable part of this film is its beautiful score by modern jazz sax master Branford Marsalis. Denzel Washington delivers in “Malcolm X,” “He Got Game,” and most recently The Inside Man. The same can’t be said here.

4) Summer of Sam

Like “25th Hour,” this is a film about New York City. It’s set back in the infamous summer of 1977 amidst the “son of Sam” murders. Of course there are more layers to the story than just catching a murderer. Despite standout performances by Adrian Brody and John Leguizamo this film follows too closely in the footsteps of “Do The Right Thing” in regards to its small Italian neighborhood ablaze with fear and prejudice.

5) Jungle Fever

It’s a shame that the only notable part of this film is Samuel L. Jackson’s side story as Gator Purify, a larger than life crack head living in the wake of his successful younger brother played by Wesley Snipes. While the film tackles issues of acceptance and interracial relationships, Jackson steals the show. Too bad his onscreen time is limited.

Best of Lists: The Best Of


When it comes to best of lists you either love them or loathe them. Whatever your opinion may be these carefully or hastily compiled lists always seem draw readers dying for a quick fix of opinion based rankings.

Entertainment Weekly Magazine recently released its “New Classics” list for the publication’s 1000th issue. The extensive feature compiled the top 100 supposed new classics from the past 25 years covering damn near every medium–film, music, books, video games, stage, and even technological advancements. While there were a number of WTF entries in each category and countless “I can’t believe you left that out” moments, the lists were entertaining.
Best of lists are inevitable in the world of pop culture criticism. The media realizes that it’s easier for the masses to skim through a list of what certain highly opinionated folk deem the best of the rest than actually dive into something more substantial. Whether it’s Rolling Stone’s recent “Top 100 Greatest Guitar Songs,” Spin magazine’s upcoming “Top 25 Greatest Live Bands,” or the countless end of the year critics picks, there is an over abundance of best of lists for media hounds to soak up.
While an entire column could be devoted to merely debating Entertainment Weekly’s recent feature (its poorly thought out series of lists is most certainly begging for discussion) I thought it might be interesting to list a handful of truly thought out and highly comprehensive lists that are available for music, film and literature. Consider this the Best of “The Best of lists.”
Rolling Stone Top 500: Sure Rolling Stone puts out a lot of pointless, space filler lists (the formerly mentioned Greatest Guitar Songs being one of them), the magazine’s Greatest 500 Albums of All Time may be the most well put together list for rock geeks out there. Sure the Beatles take up four of the top ten slots (and rightfully so in the grand scheme of things), the list focuses primarily on America and British artists, the top ten entries all come from the 60s and 70s, and certain classics end up lower on the totem pole than one might expect (Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation at #329, twelve slots below No Doubt’s Rock Steady), but reservations aside, this list pretty much nails it. Reading through each album’s descriptions and arguments for their importance, one can’t deny that a lot of time and painstaking debate went into compiling this list.
Moment of Brilliance: Listing Stevie Wonder’s terribly underappreciated 70s masterpiece Innervisions (#23), propelled by the epic centerpiece “Living for the City,” above more obvious choices like Talking Book (#90) or the mass hit Songs in the Key of Life(#56) shows that substance always prosper over hype and sales.

ImageTime All-Time 100: The most striking aspect of Time Magazine’s take on the greatest albums, films and novels of all time was the decision not to rank the entries by greatness. By taking away the urge to argue for the placement of certain titles over others, the critics were able to focus on why these selections are the most important. For films, Time’s two main critics Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel, compile a global list that includes obvious choices like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, or Fellini’s 8 ½, with more curious but respectable picks like Terry Gilliam’s surreal sci-fi classic Brazil, Kurosawa’s highly influential samurai classic Yojimbo, or David Cronenberg’s gross out, mind bending horror film The Fly.
Like the film list Time’s All Time 100 novels encompasses the best of a world of literature placing as much emphasis on modern American authors such as Philip Roth or Don DeLillo with the likes of international greats such as Nabokov or Chinua Achebe. They also pick the best of certain underappreciated genres such as science fiction (Philip K. Dick’s Ubik), fantasy (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien) and even a bit of horror (James Dickey’s frightening Appalachian woods novel Deliverance).
For music Time’s critics again tried to highlight the album’s impact on music in terms of its importance. Understanding that an artist like Little Richard influenced everyone from Paul McCartney to Axl Rose or playing up the importance of the Prince’s genre bending double LP Sign of the Times (they believe it is the best album of the 80s) shows a focus on how the album’s hold up now, the criteria for true greatness. Skimming through the list (organized by decade) and noticing the absence a single Pink Floyd record (a band that many feel is overrated) is evidence that the crew at Time spent many grueling late nights and drank lots of bad office coffee while debating the history of popular music.
Moments of Brilliance: Film critics choose the Coen Brother’s often forgotten noir masterpiece Miller’s Crossing over Fargo, book worms play up the importance of Alan Moore’s staple graphic novel Watchmen as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s beautiful Their Eyes Were Watching God, music critics highlight two of alternative’s best female leads by including Hole’s Live Through This and PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert: When it comes to film criticism Chicago has given the world some of the greats. Rosenbaum, the long time critic for the Chicago Reader street publication and Ebert, head critic for the Chicago Sun Times, are both living encyclopedias of a world of film that stretches well beyond Hollywood. Both continue to recognize the current greats while also going back to shed light on the forgotten gems of yesteryears. Ebert’s ongoing Great Movies series is the place to look for the film masterpieces of past and present. Ebert revisits his picks for the Greats often highlighting their importance in present day and why some classics only get better with age. While he covers the obvious greats in his bi-weekly or monthly entries to the lists he also plays up lesser-known titles that are often overlooked upon its release and forgotten with time. Take his admiration for Nicolas Cage’s daring and haunting performance in the great but devastating Leaving Las Vegas or his argument for Sam Peckinpah’s brutal Western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film reviled upon its release but important in the long road, paving the road for films like Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
Rosenbaum goes even further down the obscure rabbit hole of global cinema. His end of the year best of lists go completely against the grain of his fellow, more predictable film critics shedding light on films that the majority of moviegoers never saw. At his website, www.jonathanrosenbaum.com, this one of a kind critic provides readers with a different take on the best films of each year as well as an alternative to the American Film Institutes top 100 films of all time. While the AFI played up obvious choices likeCitizen Kane or Casablanca, Rosenbaum argues for more obscure fare like Jim Jarmusch’s surreal Western Dead Man (a film which Rosenbaum also wrote a book on) or Kubrick’s early heist film The Killing. Of his list of the best films of the 90s only three–Dead ManEyes Wide Shut, and When It Rains–were American, while the other hailed from Taiwan, Iran, Hungary, Belgium and Portugal.
Moments of Brilliance: Ebert’s in-depth essay on Spike Lee’s still polarizing film Do The Right Thing discusses, among other things, how certain movie going experiences–that is sitting in theater alive with other viewers–can truly penetrate your soul. While it’s clear Rosenbaum has a bit of a soft spot for indie-darling Jim Jarmusch, there is no denying the importance of this unique auteur whose films continue to puzzle viewers.

National Public Radio’s 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century:Leave it to NPR to create the snobbiest best of list for music. Rather than focus solely on recorded albums (as almost every other list does) NPR 100 goes beyond to cover all composed pieces of music. From rock to reggae, classical to country, songs to albums, NPR tries to encompass it all and does a damn good job. For serious listeners out there this is one of the best reference lists out there for important pieces of music. Similar to Time’s All-Time 100, NPR does not rank the pieces but rather focuses on their importance in the tide of time. From Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” to Paul Simon’s multi-cultural record Graceland, NPR’s critics intermix their own opinions of the recordings with interviews with experts and the artists that helped shape American music.
Moment of Brilliance: Rather than talk more about Talking Heads’ records or its unforgettable concert film Stop Making Sense, NPR focused on David Byrne and gang’s composition, “Once in a Lifetime” as being one of the first popular jam tunes. The Heads were able to compose an entire song built around Tina Weymouth’s simple but tight bass line and worldly percussion rhythms.

Amazon.com’s Listmania Feature: While the latter lists and list makers are all from well-seasoned critics and know-it-alls, sometimes you just want to know what the average Joe likes. Amazon became much more than a bookstore years ago and while it tries to everything–some better than others–one of the sites most ingenious features was the creation of Listmania. Want to know which are the best James Bond flicks? Interested in diving into the music of Neil Young but don’t know how to navigate through a discography of over 30 albums, check out the many Young fans who post their rankings on Amazon. Sure some lists will interest you more than others, the feature gives fans a chance to be the critic.
Moment of Brilliance: Want to dive into the world of avant-garde, experimental films? Check out one user from Japan’s list of“Totally Trippy Films For Your Multi Colored Nights.” Other random and fascinating lists are waiting for those curious.