Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Best of 2009: Music

This list always takes me a while to compile and I'm never entirely satisfied with the results. I really should invest in iTunes or some other music service to give me a wider pool of music than just what I buy on CD or stumble across on the internet. (Though I doubt anyone would accuse me of being limited in my tastes.)

10. All I Ever Wanted - Kelly Clarkson
Still the best thing that ever came out of American Idol, Kelly followed up the rather somber My December with an album more in tune with her smash Breakaway. Kelly is the anti-Taylor Swift, an artist who accomplishes pop pervasiveness without the faux-"I'm a delicate flower that no one understands" schtick. She doesn't break any molds, but she makes music fun while making fun music.
Highlights: "My Life Would Suck Without You," Whyyawannabringmedown," "Tip of My Tongue"

9. It's Blitz! - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Karen O. can count two big moments for the year, scoring the wonderful Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack and releasing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs third album, a set of tunes that wouldn't be out of place mixed in a dance club but still remain unmistakeably alt-rock.
Highlights: "Zero," "Heads Will Roll," "Runaway"

8. Only By the Night - Kings of Leon
Hardly new to the music scene, you'd be hard-pressed to find a handful of people that had ever heard of them before "Sex on Fire" stormed the airwaves. Night has the feeling of a sweaty, smoky club where couples make out in dark corners and the band drinks heavily before and during the set. It is the definition of a sexy album.
Highlights: "Sex on Fire," "Use Somebody," "Notion"

7. Life Starts Now - Three Days Grace
Of the hard rock acts releasing new albums last year, Three Days Grace' latest was the only one that didn't disappoint (I'm looking at you Breaking Benjamin and Alice in Chains). A little more anthemic than their first two discs, Life gets by on slick hooks and the increasingly recognizable voice of Adam Gontier.
Highlights: "Bitter Taste," Lost in You," "The Good Life"

6. Them Crooked Vultures
The Vultures are exactly what Queens of the Stone Age should have been after Songs for the Deaf. Lead singer Josh Homme teams up again with Dave Grohl and, in a stroke of supergroup genius, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones for an album filled with rock goodness. Rumor has it Paul McCartney wanted in on the act, too.
Highlights: "No One Loves Me & Neither Do I," Mind Eraser, No Chaser," "Dead End Friends," "Elephants"

5. Backspacer - Pearl Jam
Let's be honest here, Pearl Jam hasn't been particularly relevant or exciting since 1998's Yield. After a stream of socially conscious but ultimately unenthusiastic albums, it took a solo project from frontman Eddie Vedder, the Into the Air soundtrack, and the re-release of the album that started it all, Ten, to get the last of the great grunge acts back on track. Many a listener hearing this set in my car actually inquired as to their identity...Eddie's voice is unmistakable but the tone isn't. He sounds happy...almost filled with a newfound joy for life. After a nearly two decade career that's seen so many contemporaries fade away, Eddie has a reason or two to smile. Not that Backspacer is all shiny happy setlist, but as Eddie admits on standout track "Just Breathe" I'm a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love... We'll be lucky if this is simply the beginning of the next phase for a band that is definitely iconic.
Highlights: "Got Some," "The Fixer," "Just Breathe"

4. It's Not Me, It's You - Lily Allen
It was hard to imagine how sassy young Lily would top her sharp-tongued debut, Alright, Still, but she accomplished the mission by simply growing up a little and learning a few new ways to tell everyone off. Her sing-song wit is still there and you still get a bit shocked when she slips a sweetly accented "fuck you" into a song or makes no allusions about being disappointed at "spending ages giving head" with nothing in return. She tells it like it is and it turns what could be poppy tunes into frank confessionals about young adult life.
Highlights: "Everyone's At It," "The Fear," "Who'd Have Known," "Him"

3. The Resistance - Muse
It really was inevitable that Muse would release a rock opera. Resistance isn't the best Muse has offered, but it's certainly the most cohesive...a sometimes overly symbolic tale of fighting the powers that be that is really best heard in one sitting, singles be damned. They also unabashedly unleash their synth-loving, Queen-inspired power rock.
Highlights: "Uprising," "Undisclosed Desires," "United States of Eurasia," "MK Ultra"

1 (tie). 21st Century Breakdown - Green Day
Let me confess something to you...I didn't think American Idiot was the earth-shattering album some made it out to be. It was filled with some solid tunes, but I felt it was a bit of a sell-out from Green Day's early punk days. Breakdown, on the other hand, takes what I think Idiot wanted to be to the next level...grand scale stadium rock and roll. Perhaps I enjoy it so much because the beats and diversity remind me of my beloved Oasis (who they blatantly ripped off on Idiot) fused with modern punk-pop.
Highlights: "21st Century Breakdown," "Know Your Enemy," "Before the Lobotomy," "Last Night on Earth," "21 Guns"

1 (tie). Swoon - Silversun Pickups
I always felt like Smashing Pumpkins never got gritty enough often enough for my tastes. I loved them, but every time I really got into a down and dirty song like "Zero," "Siva" or "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," they'd spin off into some nostalgic catchy tune like 1979 or Today (both great songs in their own right). Silversun Pickups never lets up on the grinding guitars and vocal drive. Throw in the lead singer's kick-ass scratchy, effeminate-in-a-rocking-way voice, some well-placed strings and you have a fine album.
Highlights: "The Royal We," "Growing Old is Getting Old," "It's Nice To Know You Work Alone," "Panic Switch"

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Best of 2009: Movies

First, I have to follow up on my statement on the Avatar review that I wasn't sure it would even recover production costs. Yeah, my bad...but really, who knew? I thought all the nerds (I'm including myself in that group) would rush out to see it the first week or two and then it would quickly fizzle out, unable to attract the mass moviegoer. I guess the buzz, the allure of the special effects and the premium 3D pricing ($12 at my local theatre, I can only imagine the price in major cities) helped it rake in some money.

So, onward with my first top 10 list for 2009. As always, the usual caveat...not all films were necessarily released in '09. A couple '08 films I didn't catch until last year are also on the list.

10. Inglourious Basterds
Not the best Tarantino flick, but this WWII fantasy (trust me, the last half hour is pure revisionist history, but fun) features his trademark brilliant, tense dialogue punctuated by moments of bloody violence.

9. Avatar
A fairly predictable story takes a backseat to some state of the art special effects. Worth seeing in a theatre.

8. Up
Ah, Pixar...spectacular animation, soulful storytelling. I've yet to see one of their films I didn't enjoy...I hope I never do.

7. Slumdog Millionaire
The Best Picture winner is a sweet, coming of age, boy-gets-girl concoction wrapped up in some very modern and stylish film-making.

6. Watchmen
The slavish interpretation of the acclaimed graphic novel may be too faithful at times, but it's still a fascinating story of "heroism" in a darker world.

5. The Hangover
Easily the funniest movie in years, a very adult comedy for a modern audience.

4. Where the Wild Things Are
Ah, Spike Jonze...will you please make such wonderful movies out of all of our favorite childhood stories?

I know...this one really doesn't belong on a 2009 list, but I waited to watch this film for too long and it deserves some love. Pixar's most beautifully animated flick...I highly recommend watching it on Blu ray.

2. District 9
The most surprising film of the year was this under-the-radar sci-fi gem with apartheid parallels.

1. Star Trek
Take a franchise that really hasn't been relevant for a decade, put it in the hands of a hot uber-producer/director (J.J. Abrams), go back to the basics and perfectly cast it. Accessible to almost anyone.

There you have it...look for the Music list soon...I'm still re-visiting this year's CDs to make my decisions.