Monday, December 27, 2010

Year In Review: My Top Music of 2010

So, 2010 was a pretty good year for me and music I dug -- old hands like Neil Young and Paul Weller put out stellar work, while young turks like Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti and Arcade Fire also delivered grand new sounds. Here's my 10 favorite albums of 2010 in alphabetical order:

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
PhotobucketThree records and not a duff move yet by this Canadian assembly. There's a beautiful melancholy over this latest set, a kind of ode to vanishing childhood, with one anthem after another. My favorite: "We Used To Wait," which makes the pre-digital era of the 1980s seem as faint and far away as Victorian England.

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Before Today
I have a mixed record with getting into indie-rock Pitchfork-certified cool bands -- I love Grizzly Bear, didn't really get what the fuss about Animal Collective is about, but this band -- wow, what a curious, haunting record, like early Guided By Voices mixed with Prince and an '80s horror-movie soundtrack. Vague and strange, with keyboards washing in and out, hooky choruses diving in out of nowhere and quirky strange collages of sound. It's a ramshackle gem.

Roky Erickson, True Love Will Cast Out All Evil
A burned-out '60s psychedelic legend surfaces after years of problems to record a battered, beautiful record with the band Okkervil River. While it lacks the wacked-out frenzy of his old 13th Floor Elevators classics, there's a world-weary wisdom and gentle optimism to this fine comeback.

Grinderman, Grinderman II
PhotobucketNick Cave's dirty ol' rock' n' roll band releases its second disc and it's even more raw than their first, with Cave's sinister power harnessed to raunchy garage rock. Way more unhinged than the Bad Seeds, it's loud and mean and fun.

LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
Darker and spacier than James Murphy's first two discs, but still filled with marvelous half-snarky, half sincere tunes exploring the frontiers of dance-punk. Also notable this year was Murphy's soulful music for the "Greenberg" soundtrack which points in interesting new directions.

The New Pornographers, Together
Indie-rock's finest all-star collective produces yet another album of power-pop goodness, highlighted by Neko Case's wail and A.C. Newman's bittersweet romanticism. Consistently one of the best bands going.

PhotobucketPhoenix Foundation, Buffalo
This New Zealand group swerve from the terrific hooky pop of their last album into a halfway instrumental record that meanders and sways through deeply textured songs that end up in surprising places. Subtle and gorgeous and something distinctively Kiwi about it all.

Paul Weller, Wake Up The Nation
I finally saw the man live this year backing this well-received album, which distills his nearly 40 years of music with The Jam, Style Council and solo into one diverse whole. Hard-charging dad-punk, blissful balladry, psychedelic strangeness -- it's all here in this sweeping statement.

PhotobucketWeezer, Hurley
There seems to be a love-hate relationship with these guys on the internet but I loved the poppy simplicity of their 8th record, which made fine listening as I zipped along the epic highways of California this autumn. Full of energy and optimism and playfulness, which may infuriate some snooty fans who want Rivers Cuomo to record nothing but "Pinkerton Part II" for the rest of his career, but I enjoy a band that doesn't take itself that seriously and still deliver fun summer pop tunes. Give me this over Katy Perry any day.

Neil Young, Le Noise
Young's so prolific even into his mid-60s that this one snuck by many, but it's a real treat, produced by music legend Daniel Lanois and featuring nothing by Young and his feedback-drenched guitar creating a really fascinating brooding sound that hovers between Crazy Horse crunch and "Harvest" pastoral melancholy. One to crank up right around midnight, and bathe in the glow.

Runners-up: The National, High Violet; Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me; Wolf Parade, Expo 86; Eels, End Times and Tomorrow Morning; Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World soundtrack.

Worst record I bought: Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back.
As a giant fan, this one makes me sad. The man goes a decade or so between albums for this? A limp collection of tired covers, done with a bland orchestral backing. While Gabriel's voice is still gruff and terrific, there's a dour, labored feel to this entire enterprise, with even the world music textures that colour his best work lacking. Joyless.

Best old music I discovered: The dB's awesome first two albums from 1981-82, "Stands for Decibels" and "Repercussion" together on one disc, which I stumbled across at Real Groovy. I've always wanted to check these guys out as you often hear about them as the missing link between Big Star and R.E.M., and they don't disappoint at all. Top-notch power pop with wit and stylistic experimentation galore.

Worst music news: Other than the continual closing and shuttering of old-fashioned record shops in the MP3 age, I'd have to say the worst news of the year was the death of Alex Chilton.

Best concert: Some good stuff this year like legendary Paul Weller, fantastic and sexy Florence + The Machine and an intimate audience with The New Pornographers, but I have to admit, being in the crowd for the reunited Pavement's first show in 10 years in humble lil' New Zealand was pretty dang cool, and Steve Malkmus and the gang were in full quirk-rock frenzy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry Christmas and all that jazz

We return from a brief camping getaway to Coromandel Peninsula and on into the Christmas rush! More posting including my Top 10 albums of 2010 before the year's out!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Angel-A-Thon: Season 1, And So It Begins

So a while back, over the course of a couple years, the wife and I whipped through all seven seasons, 144 episodes of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" , which I regularly blogged about in progress reports. How on earth to follow all that vampire-staking action up? With the spin-off showcase "Angel," which ran from 1999-2004 featuring everyone's favorite antihero vampire-with-a-soul.

PhotobucketI was actually rather hesitant to dive into the whole five seasons of "Angel," because spin-off shows rarely reach the heights of their parent. And for about the first half of this series, "Angel" kind of felt like a show trying to figure out what it wants to be. After having left Sunnydale and a broken-hearted Buffy, Angel heads to Los Angeles and sets up shop as a kind of supernatural private detective -- basically, he's vampire Batman. Whiny "Buffy" castmate Cordelia comes aboard as his secretary/damsel in distress, and a mysterious wisecracking guy named Doyle joins the show as they amble about various supernatural adventures.

While entertaining, the early episodes kind of fall into a rut and too often the show doesn't really seem sure where it's going. The gothic rock'n'roll video slash-cut editing style sometimes gets annoying, too. I also have one pet peeve -- wayyyyy too much of Angel strutting about in broad daylight, which spoils the whole vampire mystique thing. I don't care if he's not in direct sunlight, if he's in a brightly lit office, it just ain't... vampirey.

Soon, though, dreary Doyle is killed off (a good move, as the whole dark brooding guy with a secret role was already filled by Angel) and ex-Watcher Wesley (a very solid Alexis Denisof) joins the team. The show needed a "Giles" sort of character, the know-it-all geek with courage, and Wesley and Cordelia provide much-needed comic relief to the show's generally dark demon doings. I also enjoyed the cynical policewoman character Kate, although she starts to move into the background after a couple of appearances. By the end of season one and a few really entertaining episodes featuring the demonic law firm Wolfram and Hart, "Angel" seems a much more focused show than it started off as.

PhotobucketBest episode: Is it a bit of a cheat that my favorite episodes of this series featured guest appearances by "Buffy" characters? Well, either way, episode 8, "I Will Remember You," is a great piece of romantic melodrama when Angel is "cured" of his vampirism, Buffy shows up for a little romantic tango, and in the end Angel has to make a rather tragic decision. The Buffy/Angel thing has been run into the ground, but this episode still packs a nice sting. Honorable mention: the two-parter featuring another "Buffy" character, Eliza Dushku's rogue slayer Faith.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Year In Review: My Top 10 Movies of 2010

...No, I refuse to believe it's mid-December already and the year 2011 looms out on the horizon like some Kubrickian monolith. It's time for the usual year-end review wrap-ups to begin littering the blogosphere. So in the first of an intermittent series wrapping up the year that almost was, here's my Favourite Movies I Saw In 2010. As usual, several of the big Oscar hopeful movies haven't opened down under yet like "The King's Speech," "127 Hours" and "True Grit," so I'm keeping this strictly to what I've seen -- and a couple of movies from the tail end of 2009 sneak in as well.

PhotobucketIn alphabetical order --
Black Dynamite
Man, this movie is a hoot. In and out of theatres in about 15 minutes last year, it's a spoof of classic '70s blaxploitation movies that is one of the funniest comedies in years. It's the kind of thing Quentin Tarantino tried to do with his 'Grindhouse' movies. The movie parody genre has been pretty much kicked to death by the hugely unfunny "Scary Movie" type flicks, but "Black Dynamite" harks back to the original "Airplane!" with how lovingly it parodies '70s cheese and Michael Jai White's great turn as the unstoppable Dynamite. And any movie that ends with a kung fu battle with Richard Nixon must be on a Top 10 list.

PhotobucketThis New Zealand charmer became the top grossing movie EVER here this year, and writer/director Taika Waititi proved he's a talent to reckon with. His first feature "Eagle V. Shark" was a goofy romantic lark. Here, he digs in to make a surpassingly kind-hearted comedy/drama set in 1984 about a teen boy's life in an isolated East Coast Maori community when his shiftless, braggart father returns home. This ain't like the hushed and mythic "Whale Rider," though -- Waiti's fanciful script, witty asides and even Michael Jackson tributes make it feel uniquely New Zealand, yet accessible to anyone. If you like the "Flight of the Conchords" sort of deadpan humour seek this out.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Another one from late 2009 that opened in New Zealand in 2010, and I'd take Wes Anderson's take on Roald Dahl's kiddie classic over 100 "Shrek" movies. I'm a fanboy deluxe for pretty much every movie Anderson's ever done, but this was something special because both the 6-year-old and I could get into it. I love the charmingly low-fi animation, the production design filled with all of Anderson's trademark flourishes, and a pitch-perfect George Clooney as the voice of Mr. Fox. I've watched this at least 3 times so far and love it every time. I wish all movies aimed at children could be more like this one.

The Hurt Locker
The "best" movie of 2009? I dunno, I never place too much seriousness on that Best Picture Oscar, but this is miles better than the all-flash, little substance "Avatar," with a topical Iraq war story that incorporates more knuckle-whiteningly tense scenes than I thought I could handle. I've been a fan of director Kathryn Bigelow's eye for ripping action scenes ever since "Point Break." It may stumble a bit in scenes not on the battlefield, but the ones set in the heat of war are scorching.

There's a kind of gun-metal coldness to Christopher Nolan's style as a director -- movies like "The Dark Knight" and "Memento" are pretty much utterly humorless, shadowy views of the world, polished like gemstones. This one is almost a remake of "The Matrix" with more brooding and less sci-fi, and an excellent cast (highlighted by one of my favorite young actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Several fantastic set-pieces make this a summer blockbuster that sticks with you. Does the story make a lot of actual sense on a second viewing? Not entirely sure yet, but it sure sucks you in while you watch it.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
This one didn't do great at the box office, because for some reason it was perceived as a "hipster movie." Maybe it's Michael Cera, whose itchy dork characters seem to annoy some people. But Edgar Wright's high-octane adaptation of the graphic novel series may be one of the most faithful comic adaptations ever - like the "Sin City" movie with a video game gloss. It's tremendous entertainment, incorporating video-game effects, snappy wit and cartoony violence into a mish-mash of gleeful fun.

A Serious Man
Here's the Coen brothers in full-on "weird" mode, as in more "Barton Fink" than "Raising Arizona." But what a strange, captivatingly weird one this is -- a kind of tangled meditation on fate, faith and the cruel whims of the universe, all cycling around one Larry Gopnik's tragic, slow downfall in 1960s Minnesota. Gopnik (a superb Michael Stuhlbarg) is a college professor who over the course of the movie battles infidelity, spoiled children, crazy neighbours and student blackmail. It's the Coen brothers at their best -- comic in as black a fashion as possible, but also quizzical, with plenty to chew on afterwards.

PhotobucketThe Social Network
Here we have a movie about a bunch of over-privileged geeks sitting around at their computers. So why it is so bloody fascinating? David Fincher brings the same ultra-intense feeling of dread he brought to his "Zodiac" to this tale of social hustling and nerds avenged. Aaron Sorkin's crackling script and some truly good performances by actors playing quite unlikable people make this one zip by, and I think it sums up the zeitgeist of life in 2010 as well as anything else could.

Teenage Paparazzo
I wrote about this one back at the NZ International Film Festival, and still think back fondly on this funny, insightful look at the relationship between the famed and the fans. "Entourage" star Adrian Grenier has made a nicely low-key documentary about a teenage celebrity shooter that twists and turns in amusing ways.

Toy Story 3
This is pretty much a no-brainer, but if this movie consisted of nothing more than its final 15 bittersweet minutes, it would still be a classic for the ages. As it is it brings together Pixar's usual top-notch quality storytelling with an ode to vanishing childhood that will make all but the most soulless of cretins sniffle a bit at the end. Happy trails, Woody.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wednesday shuffle: Sing the song don't be long / Thrill me to the marrow

PhotobucketA man's got to get his workout on. Treadmill shuffle, go!

1. Up The Dosage 2:40 Paul Weller
2. Hollow Cheek 0:32 Guided By Voices
3. Run For Your Life 2:19 The Beatles*
4. American Gangster Time 3:47 Elvis Costello & The Imposters
5. All Night Stand 2:05 The Thoughts
6. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes 7:25 Crosby, Stills & Nash**
7. You Came Through 2:48 PJ Harvey
8. That Is All 3:51 George Harrison
9. Good Morning 5:01 The Dandy Warhols***

* And of course, it was 30 years ago today, John. Hard to believe he's been dead for a good 3/4 of my lifetime. RIP.
** I wouldn't imagine a rather goofy hippy-harmony song like this would be good on the treadmill but to my embarrassment I found myself getting quite into it -- who knew CSN could be workout music?
*** They may be swept up in a kind of hipster backlash in a lot of parts but I still dig these guys, and this slow-burning, bombastic stoner-rock churn of a tune is a fantastic cooldown song.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Superheroes I Love # 7: Hercules

PhotobucketYes, that Hercules. The icon of Greek mythology has made the leap to comic books several times in various incarnations -- why not use the legendary strongman as a superhero, after all? The most lasting portrayal of Hercules in comics has been Marvel Comics' version of him, who first appeared in Journey Into Mystery in 1965 as a sparring partner for the Mighty Thor. Hercules as proper superhero has had a long life in the Marvel universe, joined the mighty Avengers and fought Wolverine and all that kinda jazz. He's been an arrogant yet chivalrous force for good.

Who: The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, the demigod Hercules is a fearless warrior renown for his strength and courage. In the Marvel Comics, Hercules is part of the modern world of superheroes and villains. It's always a bit interesting when a centuries-old mythological figure is shoehorned into modern stories, but Hercules fits better than most.

PhotobucketWhy I dig: Herc has always been the down-to-earth, impulsive braggart counterpoint to Thor's stuffy restraint. Thor always struck me as thick and impenetrable in the comics too much of the time (unless done by Walt Simonson or Jack Kirby). Too much thee-ing and thou-ing. Hercules is the god you'd sit down and have a tankard of mead with. The best portrayals of Hercules combine his chummy bravado with heroism, while in lesser ones writers err too much toward making Hercules an addled man-child. Hercules has had an excellent revival as the star of "The Incredible Hercules" comic, teamed up with a teenage boy genius and having various adventures, loves and epics. Writers Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente have provided some interesting spins on Hercules' character -- notably focusing on the fact that this demigod has lived a very long time and is no stumbling buffoon, while he still has a sense of humour about himself.

Read this:
The classic 1982 "Hercules: Prince of Power" series by Bob Layton were sci-fi action mixed with godly feats, and funny to boot. They're set deep in the future when Hercules -- banished yet again from Olympus by his angry dad Zeus -- is roaming the stars. Then pick up any of the recent "Incredible Hercules" paperbacks by Marvel which nicely weave in a variety of world mythologies and other Marvel hero storylines into a complex, witty and wild ongoing epic.