Friday, January 22, 2010

"This should give you a dim view of human potential..."

Having just recently watched a documentary about Werner Herzog and marveled at (and joked about) his particular way of speaking, I had to laugh quite a bit at this parody:

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Decade in Music, Part 3: Best Albums

1. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002, Nonesuch)

Disregard the David vs. Goliath record-biz mythology, disregard the band’s internal conflicts, disregard the phenomenal making-of documentary and what you still have is an absolute masterpiece – a perfect record for the decade, for any decade. This is timeless rock ‘n’ roll – energetic, ambitious, tuneful and as finely balanced as an album could be.

Lyrically it’s both compelling and mysterious as Jeff Tweedy shrugs off a bit of Summerteeth’s darkness, yet still puts together songs wrought with uncertainty, anxiety and a completely familiar yearning. YHF is one of those albums that simply requires the use of the adverb sonically in any description. Layered with sounds as well as music, so much floats in and out of the songs, but with each listen, there everything is, falling together perfectly, yet again.

Remember that at the time, Wilco was simply another ascendant band, capable of adding pop sheen to rough-and-tumble, one for the rock snobs to keep an eye on (though I’d been a fan dating back to the Uncle Tupelo days), and not a festival headliner. YHF is the difference.

It’s also an album that’s deeply personal – one that took me through the final year of college, thousands of miles on the road the following summer and the one that cemented Wilco as the favorite band of my generation.

2. Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004, Epic)

At turns spacey, sharp and stomping, this record found Modest Mouse tighter than ever, with songwriting focus replacing some of the rawness of the band’s earlier albums. To my ears, it’s just what the band needed, and the fact that “Float On” exploded that summer is hardly a surprise.

Second to “Hey Ya” on my list of the decade’s best songs, “Float On” has a dance-punk stomp, guitars that sound like sharpened steel blades, a bouncy lead-guitar melody and impressively optimistic lyrics.

But the record’s strengths don’t end there: “Ocean Breathes Salty,” “The World At Large,” “Blame It On The Tetons,” “Black Cadillacs,” “One Chance” and “The Good Times Are Killing Me” should’ve all been No. 1 singles as well.

On the heels of The Moon And Antarctica, Modest Mouse was king of the indie world, but it’s this endlessly enjoyable album that I’ve been listening to as much as anything else for the last six years.

3. Steve Earle - Transcendental Blues (2000, E-Squared)

Perhaps no other album has better embodies the Gram Parsons’ term “Cosmic American” music than Transcendental Blues, a rich stew of psychedelic rock, bluegrass, folk, Celtic and country. Steve Earle shot for the moon here and hit it, with a forward-looking and magnetically irresistible record that meanders purposefully in and out of atmospheric haziness to deliver many of the strongest songs of his career.

The opening title track is awash in fuzz, a swirling opus type song that stands alone in Earle’s lengthy catalog. The song itself bottles a certain sort of transcendence, like the last fading rays of a bright afternoon’s sun.

There’s heartbreak, hope, loneliness, rambling, love, longing and the final desperate thoughts of a condemned prisoner. And throughout, the album is a meditation on the two sides of feeling the blues – the misery and the release.

4. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America (2006, Vagrant)

The most amazing thing about The Hold Steady is how the band instantly transports you to the Best Saturday Night ever. The magic is in the potential, drawing near to those tipping points when lazy routine gives way to adventure, and that adventure gives way to some unexpected party, or roadtrip, or encounter.

Rock ‘n’ roll is glorious, the band reminds everybody who might have forgotten, even for a moment. Boys and Girls in America encapsulates that attitude as well as anything, with big, shout-along hooks in the driver’s seat. Craig Finn as slacker poet and mumbly singer is the sort of successful everyman I find endlessly inspiring. He stuffs his songs with weirdos that reoccur album to album, a charming way of inviting his audience along for the ride.

The Hold Steady is a rush of a band, embracing and defiantly clinging to the good times, while also finding redemption in the morning after. DOWNLOAD: Chips Ahoy.

5. Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy (2005, Jagjaguwar)

At times as spooky as the fantastic album artwork that ties together this album and its Appendix, at times an energetic surge of rock n’ roll, this album is a songwriting triumph that never lets up in its examination of the outsider archetype.

Will Sheff runs through plenty of paces in stretching out this “black sheep boy” into a sort of antihero with many faces, pairing harsh imagery with chaotic, crashing sounds to create the feeling of a lost outsider, hurt and strange and longing for solid ground. It’s like the swirling TV static dizziness of a head rush, but with stronger emotions and more dimensions than you know what to do with. The songs build together, each taking little detours into its own little world of abandonment and the identity-questioning of a born outsider.

The most intricately meditative record of the decade, it’s filled with hopelessness, anger, abandonment, listlessness, optimism, confusion, paranoia, love, hate and ultimately an inescapable sense of solitude, for good and bad, out of choice and out of necessity. DOWNLOAD: Black

6. Crooked Fingers - Dignity and Shame (2005, Merge)

This album is such a creeper that I’m sure very few music critics and serious fans stuck with it long enough to recognize just how brilliant Eric Bachmann’s odd, elliptical tale of love and loss, inspired by a real life bullfighter and Spanish actress. At first it may appear like a stylistic mess, careening from Spanish folk to piano ballad to driving indie rock, but it’s more accurately a patterned complexity.

The album unfolds like a film, with Bachmann sketching each song as a scene. “Call To Love” is amazingly catchy, a duet about not letting go, and one of the decade’s best songs. “Twilight Creeps” has Bachmann pondering how toughness and tenderness are employed to build and bridge gaps between people. “Destroyer” follows a slow drumbeat and piano before cracking open with a mournful, distorted guitar lead.

Throughout, Bachmann searches for whatever underlying honesty exists in how people relate to one another. And when he sings on “Sleep All Summer,” with a gruff and weary voice, “I would change for you, but babe that doesn’t mean I’m going to be a better man,” he just might have found the very core of what the album has been searching for.

7. Gillian Welch - Time (The Revelator) (2001, Acony)

Spare and haunting, this record doesn’t come within a country mile of a wasted note. Two guitars, sometimes a banjo, and two perfectly intertwining voices make this a deceptively simple album. But the mood and spirit conjured as this album slowly unspools becomes a dominating, hypnotizing presence, gradually stripping away the here and the now until all that’s left is this other world, a slow and dusty one, with a simple cabin and scruffed wood floors, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

This album sounds like the woods where I grew up. More specifically, it somehow sounds like those types of memories formed on dirt roads, with sunny afternoons and chilly dusks, and sitting on rocks or stumps around a backyard campfire.

The opening title song sets the rustic stage with an immediacy to Welch’s plaintive vocals, while the closing “I Dream A Highway” is a 14-minute song that passes as if in a dream. Folk music is nothing new. But Time (The Revelator) is itself a revelation – that brilliance, talent, honesty and ambition together can add up to perfection, and make folk music sound new again.

8. The Helio Sequence - Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop, 2008)

I’ve been more and more impressed with this album each time I’ve listened to it over nearly two years – which is a rare feat for a band that I’m already been following for a while. Somehow the Helio Sequence went from good to amazing on this record, a dense soundscape that hardly seems like the work of just two musicians.

I even missed seeing the band play on three separate occasions since the album came out. And I still love it – every song. The songs are crisp and carry a bright sheen that instead of indicating overproduction strongly suggest that the band absolutely nailed their vision for the album.

It’s largely an energetic album, filled with pounding rhythms and an urgent bombast. But the delicate moments give an overall balance. Ultimately, it’s a taught and surprisingly melodic 37 minutes, with songs that just haven’t stopped burrowing into my head yet. DOWNLOAD: Can't Say No

9. Calexico - Feast of Wire (Quarterstick, 2003)

Calexico’s fourth album is the band’s most varied, and, no surprise, most compelling work. Opener “Sunken Waltz” is the Calexico calling card – insistent and distinctive drumming, acoustic guitar and accordion, all wrapped together in an evocative indictment of desert sprawl.

Feast of Wire has Calexico exploring all the sounds in the band’s arsenal – folk, country, mariachi, jazz and their signature combination of it all. And rather than sticking to formula, Calexico transcends it here, making the elements exist in a harmonic balance that the band hadn’t quite achieved before, or since.

All excellent songs on their own, “Black Heart,” “Across the Wire” and “Not Even Stevie Nicks” remain live favorites, but it’s the pacing and careful sequencing of Feast of Wire that makes them work best.

10. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar, 2008)

Muted and hushed, this record breathes with an often aching solitude. Justin Vernon’s vocals, that high and borderline spooky howl, that his music with such a tremendous feeling of isolation.

Almost as mythologized as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, For Emma’s story is so compelling because it’s so hard to separate from the music. Recuperating from breakups of both his band and relationship, Vernon hid out in a Wisconsin hunting cabin and when he left, he had this amazing record.

The songs – “Re: Stacks” and “Skinny Love” in particular – get under your skin and stick to your bones. They bleed with raw emotion. And what’s more, the now-four-piece band sets them on fire live, with a show as intense as a gathering storm. DOWNLOAD: Skinny Love

11. The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (Warner Bros., 2002)

Uncompromisingly weird, even by the Flaming Lips’ standards, Yoshimi is the sort of listening puzzle that few bands can ever pull off. The imaginative sci-fi distopia of the album’s central story is treated with utmost seriousness, a combination that could only come from this band.

With a sound equally driven by electronic dissonance and steadily strummed acoustic guitars, Yoshimi manages to both collapse into pools of psychedelic noise as well as come together like a beautifully balanced orchestra.

12. Elvis Perkins in Dearland – Elvis Perkins in Dearland (XL, 2009)

On his second album, this extraordinarily talented songwriter assembled a full-time band to perfect a ramshackle folk sound — full of horns, organ and unorthodox percussion — that updates The Band by way of Neutral Milk Hotel. “Doomsday” is the song of 2009, with an exultant horn intro becoming a stomping celebration of life, defiant even against doomsday.

Elsewhere, Perkins’ careful and concise songwriting paints incredibly vivid mental pictures, touching on dreams, loneliness and evocative images of nature. Lines as rich as “I’ll be arriving ‘til the day I die, when the golden chair comes down from the sky” are everywhere.

If Elvis Perkins’ first album indicated tremendous songwriting potential, this one shows he’s already capitalized on every bit of his skill. DOWNLOAD: Shampoo

13. The Pernice Brothers – Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont, 2003)

Few bands fit the music writer cliché of “shimmering” quite so well as the Pernice Brothers, and this album finds the band at its peak. With a sharp sense of how to build memorable hooks into a dense sound, Joe Pernice has crafted one compelling song after another.

The album touches heavily on the twin themes of nostalgia and longing – meditating on how we fall short of being the people we want to be. It’s a dreamy and gorgeously melodic trip through wants and desires, all strung together in hopes of brighter days to come.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Decade in Music, Part 2: Favorite Tucson Albums

I want to stress that this list is one of favorites rather than anything I’m claiming to be the best. I’m good friends with too many on this list to claim any sort of broad objectivity, so it’s hardly definitive. And while it’d be easy to find more expertise on Tucson music, I’ve been an active fan of local music all decade, and started writing about it with the inception of this blog in 2004. I promise every one of these records is amazing.

1. Calexico – Feast of Wire (2003)
A masterpiece from Tucson’s best band.

2. Fourkiller Flats – Fourkiller Flats (2001)
Hard-charging rock ‘n’ roll that’s rough, twangy and loud, and full of raise-your-drink-and-sing-along hooks, the Flats debut barely edges out their 2009 follow-up, mainly because I’ve gotten to soak up these songs for nearly the whole decade.

3. The New Drakes – Staircase Wit (2005)
The return of the Drakes – older and wise, of course – is a mellower, more thoughtful record, but one that shows a versatile band driven by top-quality songs.

4. The Swim – Random Walk (2008)
Indie rock that’s alternately somber and catchy, full of bombast and edgy guitars, Random Walk wins with the anthematic “Margaret With Comets” and the closing eight-minute triumph “Piles on the Floor,” which begins as a wistful slow-build before dissolving into an exultant guitar solo.

5. Giant Sand – proVISIONS (2008)
It’s very tough to pick between the decade’s three excellent Giant Sand albums, but proVISIONS stands out for being the most cohesive package of songs. It combines road music with late night music, pairs the off-kilter with the straight-ahead, and like most of Howe Gelb’s music, turns on a dime from being vaguely unsettling to feeling like you’ve just settled into an easy chair.

6. Greyhound Soul – Alma de Galgo (2001) / Down (2002)
I couldn’t choose between these two albums because I saw Greyhound Soul so much during that period that the songs will always blend together for me. The band ranges between classic rock and what I’ve called peyote blues, and Joey Peña's rough desert drawl holds it all together.

7. Chango Malo – The Whiskey Years (2007)
Loud, heavy and practically vibrating with energy, Chango Malo is known to leave its mark on stage than on record, but here the band comes very close.

8. Golden Boots – Winter of Our Discotheque (2009)
The gypsy country weirdness of the Boots peaked on this year’s Park The Van release.

9. Al Perry – Always A Pleasure (2004)
This is a delicious blend of Congress Street honky-tonk and plenty of Telecaster fireworks from our Great One. I know he didn’t write it, but “We Got Cactus” is pure Al Perry.

10. Tracy Shedd – Cigarettes & Smoke Machines (2008)
Shedd’s dreamy, languorous vocals and buzzing, feedback-prone guitars were in effect well before she moved to Tucson, but her latest record definitely goes down as her best so far.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Decade in Music, Part 1: Honorable Mentions

I have no grand pronouncements for the music of the 2000s. Defining it in terms of its technology downplays the music. Defining it by any singular trend or genre ignores the incredible expansion enabled by the technology. Marketers tried shoveling crap down everybody's throats while the fans revolted. All I can say is I found a tremendous amount to love and above all else, it was a decade of joyous discovery and celebration of great music.

In developing this Decade in Review, I spent a lot of time listening, a lot of time thinking and jotted a lot of notes all the while. What I came up with, at least in terms of format, is a relatively short list of the best albums, another list of my favorite Tucson albums of the decade, and a fun and loose catch-all that covers a good deal of the rest.

So today, enjoy these lists, of close to 100 albums that helped define the shape of the decade, and certainly what I listened to. Best of the decade and Tucson favorites to follow:

Where you been?
Nobody can manage to be on the leading curve of every great album or band, but there are several of the decade’s best that I found myself catching up to, years too late:

Drive-by Truckers – Decoration Day
The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism
The National – Boxer
The Gaslight Anthem – The '59 Sound
The Mountain Goats – The Sunset Tree
Dan Bern – New American Language
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – Shake The Sheets

Again & Again
Few bands ever make truly excellent albums – but all of these struck gold multiple times in the decade. Some could do no wrong in the 2000s, some had an excellent string of several albums, and some had consecutive peaks, but all could be counted on time and time again for great music:

The White Stripes – White Blood Cells, Elephant, Get Behind Me Satan
Band of Horses – Everything All The Time, Cease To Begin
OutKast – Stankonia, Speakerboxx/The Love Below
Bob Dylan – Love And Theft, Modern Times, Together Through Life
Neko Case – Blacklisted, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Middle Cyclone
The Shins – Oh, Inverted World, Chutes Too Narrow
M. Ward – The Transfiguration of Vincent, Post-War, Hold Time
Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It In People, Broken Social Scene
Feist – Let It Die, The Remainder
TV On The Radio – Dear Science, Return to Cookie Mountain
The Walkmen – Bows + Arrows, A Thousand Miles Off, You & Me
Giant Sand – Chore of Enchantment, Is All Over The Map
Kathleen Edwards – Failer, Asking For Flowers
New Pornographers – Mass Romantic, Twin Cinema, Electric Version
Spoon – Kill the Moonlight, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
The Decemberists – Her Majesty, Picaresque, The Crane Wife
James McMurtry – Childish Things, Just Us Kids
Clem Snide – The Ghost of Fashion, End of Love
Wilco – A Ghost Is Born, Sky Blue Sky, Wilco (The Album)
Okkervil River – Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See, The Stage Names, The Stand-Ins

Early Decade Favorites
While all of these albums did have some pretty good staying power, each one was the shit for me at various points in time in the decade’s first couple years.

Old 97s – Satellite Rides
Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American
Dwight Yoakam –
Lambchop – Nixon
Mike Doughty – Skittish

Out of Touch?
It’s no surprise the mainstream music buying populace and I would find little to agree on. I own just four of the top 40 selling albums of the decade (according to Nielson, which I don't find online, but it's printed in the back of the Rolling Stone decade in review issue), but let's not kid ourselves here, it was a decade of almost entirely shit when it came to radio and MTV. I'm surprised these four even sold as much as they did:

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack (12th)
Green Day – American Idiot (28)
OutKast – Speakerboxx/The Love Below (31)
Dr. Dre – 2001 (39)

Gone Before Their Time
Chronicling all of the musical deaths of the decade would be a whole separate post, but I wanted to mention those musicians who died young, and the posthumous projects that were all the more treasured as memorials:

Morphine – The Night
Elliott Smith – From A Basement on the Hill
Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros - Streetcore
All Autonomy (and my friend, Brian Gianelli) – Nothing New For Trash Like You (reissue)

Old Favs
Since when should making some of the best music ever count against you? Some of my all-time favorites are still rockin' - and if the very latest albums are always their absolute best work, they all too often get overlooked. I say screw that, these albums are better than most people will ever make:

Bruce Springsteen – The Rising, Magic, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Tom Petty – Highway Companion (and though The Last DJ wasn’t excellent, “Have Love Will Travel” is my favorite Petty song of the decade)
Social Distortion – Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Loved & Lost (Track Of)
Prolific artists can be the easiest to lose track of, and no matter how great these albums are, or how much I hear about the newer ones, sometimes I find it hard to want to wade into album after album after album. But I'll always love these ones:

Beck – Sea Change
Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker, Gold

San Francisco Bay Area Bands
Since I began writing for the East Bay Express, I’ve paid much more attention to music from the Bay Area, and got to vote in the newspapers Best of the Decade poll. Here are my top three albums:

Green Day – American Idiot
Rogue Wave – Descended Like Vultures
Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts of the Great Highway

Best Comebacks
Whether cult favorites from ages past or Hall of Famers already, some unexpectedly make stunning return albums, typically with a young buck producer on hand to guide the way:

Solomon Burke – Don’t Give Up On Me
Levon Helm – Dirt Farmer
Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose
The Flatlanders – Now Again

Stellar Debut Albums:
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
Arcade Fire – Funeral
Iron & Wine – The Creek Drank The Cradle
Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour of Bewilderbeast
Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary
The Strokes – Is This It?
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
The Format – EP

The New Dylans
Troubadours & folkies will never die. Here's to the emerging generation, some of whom are stunningly accomplished already, and all of whom are making timeless American music (even the dude from Sweden):

Elvis Perkins
Josh Ritter
Ezra Furman & The Harpoons
Mason Jennings
The Felice Brothers
The Tallest Man On Earth

Tip of the Iceberg
Highly creative and musically imaginative bands with deep catalogs are some of the most daunting things to me, and they’re the ones that invariably yield side projects that are just as well regarded. My listening has barely started:

Will Oldham
Animal Collective
And more, yet undiscovered...

Kid A Can Suck It
Probably the most often cited No. 1 album of the decade, Radiohead’s 2000 effort didn’t do it for me. Not remotely. Not even after going back to it, years later, after finally seeing them live. I was (and still am) a huge fan of the band. But why Radiohead would abandon guitars – and frankly, songs – in favor of making a middling techo record was always a mystery to me. So was the universal praise that followed as a response. And so were the next two albums.

So when the band made In Rainbows, an album as textured and esoteric as any of their techo albums, but which marked a return to what I loved about the band, I couldn’t help but listen and listen and listen and listen.

Favorite Record Label
Several of the stalwart indie labels had outstanding decades - Merge and Matador both broke excellent new bands and continued their support of those who'd been making great music for years and years. Jagjaguwar released some fantastic albums, especially in the last few years.

But for me, Sub Pop takes the honor, for its complete redefinition, moving beyond grunge to woodsier, folkier bands. Make fun of the beards if you want, but try arguing with the excellent albums from Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes, The Shins, Iron & Wine, Postal Service, The Fruit Bats, Wolf Parade, Blitzen Trapper and a great many more.

And finally, here's a short mix of the Best Songs of the Decade

Friday, January 08, 2010

Best television of the decade

Mr. Chair has argued that television has outpaced movies in overall quality during the last several years, and I'll agree, especially in terms of complexity, narrative arcs and the finely wound humor.

Audience involvement is at an entirely different level with beloved shows and television has a certain responsive capability that enriches the whole experience. Networks may pander as much as ever, and cut shows before giving them much of a chance, but cable has more than stepped up to fill the void. In many ways, the decade was a new Golden Age for television. The ambition behind the shows on this list is absolutely staggering.

1. Arrested Development

Practically everything is an inside joke, which ensures that repeat viewings will continue to yield more discoveries, more nuance and and more side-splitting rewards. No other comedy demands so much attention or gives so many thrills along the way. But "getting it" is just the beginning. From the characters' names to the myriad of signature quirks to the cycling of plot motifs, everything is in its right place. I've intentionally deprived myself of Arrested Development for the last few years, just so I can appreciate it all in one quick stretch again (probably soon), with as many of the surprises as possible seeming as genuine as they were the first time around. Favorite moments: The individualized chicken dances.

2. The Wire
The Wire is a feast, and so ambitious and expansive that it's more or less stopped even qualifying as television. The Wire is essentially its own new type of art, as much novel as it is show. I'd guess there are more than 200 characters you have to keep track of over the course of five seasons, and no matter how long they've been off screen, they're all likely to return - and you'd better remember who's who. It's also unflinching in both its display and critique of the crumbling American city, carefully showing again and again how degradation goes through its paces. I cruised through the last four seasons in less than three weeks, a bleary-eyed addict who had to have just one more episode every night. Along the way, I debated favorite characters in my mind, but at the end of it all, it's gotta be Omar.

3. The West Wing
This was my go-to show on DVD for most of the decade. Nearly every episode across the entire seven-year run is filled with inspiring and thought-provoking moments. The dialogue reins supreme. The sets shine with realism. Some plot lines verged on the outlandish, but they were always executed well. Despite a few late-season turnovers, the cast was uniformly excellent. My first exposure was the season two finale, and after hearing President Bartlett call God a "feckless thug," I was instantly a fan. And never underestimate how much good will and devotion the show earned by letting people dream of actual integrity in the White House during the Bush years.

4. The Shield
I've never seen a pilot lay claim to such high stakes as this show did. And the consequences that spilled from that first episode reverberated clear through to the series finale, which was a satisfying a conclusion on a number of levels. Gritty and filled with moral ambiguity, this show cast aside any notion of heroes and villains in the classic cop-show sense, opting to display its characters monsters of varying degrees. And whatever vices, faults or weaknesses they had were the very things that caused the most trouble. What's most amazing is how the various characters' - chiefly Detective Vic Mackey, though he's hardly the only one - internal and personal struggles somehow outweigh the demands of policing LA's most troubled neighborhoods.

5. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Greedy, mindless narcissists have the most fun. The gang hasn't yet met a situation they couldn't hopelessly fail to capitalizing on, and though it's formulaic, watching these fools blunder time and time again is rich humor. The bizarrely close roommate relationship between Mac and Frank alone goes farther than most shows would dare. What's more, from what I've seen of this season, the show is still gaining steam. The characters are so barbaric and preposterously unlikable that I don't imagine It's Always Sunny will ever break through to anything resembling a general audience, but for those who like their comedy salty, jagged and full of peculiar injuries, it's a charming winner.

6. 30 Rock
Well, I clearly like my comedies to consist of ensemble casts, filled with strange characters, that draw most of their humor from endless quirks and intertwined plot threads. That's OK, because Tina Fey and Co. serve it up just right. As with Arrested Development, nearly every character plays everything completely straight, leaving the viewer to crack up at every mention of Dr. Spaceman (Spe-chem-in). If you need hand holding, click on over to Two & A Half Men. If you want your laughing mind blown week after week, it's 30 Rock that you need. And while the current season seems a little weak, just remember how high the bar is set with this one.

7. Weeds

I've definitely fallen for Mary Louise Parker. Weeds is a show that has been quick to evolve, quick to up the stakes and eager to give its secondary characters plenty of scenes. Nancy Botwin is the core, but she's definitely not the entire show. Andy, Doug and Celia are often more compelling, and often get the better lines and scenes. And while this last season didn't really do it for me, it was hardly a black mark on the entire series. The final moment made up for a lot and I'm honestly excited for the coming sixth season. It's tough to sum up a show still in progress, because as others on this list (The Shield, The West Wing) show, some of the greatest payoffs for many series can be a brilliant and satisfying ending.

8. The Sopranos
This may be a bit low, but I've only seen the first three seasons, and the first one was actually in 1999. But there's no denying the excellence of The Sopranos, and the breakthrough it meant for HBO. Since I was slow catching up, I've avoided nearly all of the references to the show on other best-of lists, or upon its conclusion. While I don't think it actually spoils much, somehow I still know of the Journey ending. Not much of a deterrence. I officially reserve the right to bump up The Sopranos upon viewing the series to completion.

9. The Office
Perhaps the greatest joy of watching The Office (greater even then Jim & Pam coming together) was seeing how it began to transcend its British forebearer. I doubt its creators ever intended for the American version to become such a fully realized entity in its own right. The plot lines, the jokes, the characters and the very heart of the show have come such a long way since the first season. I'm not disparaging the British version, because I truly like it, but the American Office is simply better. There's a simplicity running through the show that's refreshing, week after week.

10. The Daily Show / The Colbert Nation
Fake news overtook real news for actually providing real information in the past decade. And, really, what's better than a watchdog for the watchdogs? That's right, two watchdogs, both of which deliver on the promise of several laughs every night. Ultimately they share this honor because they're two sides of the same coin. And I'd hate to even imagine what depths the national broadcast and cable media would have fallen to if Stewart and Colbert hadn't been riding them. The shows represent as much of a shibboleth as I think exists today for the educated and frustrated folks who find outrage is a bit easier to swallow with some laughs.

Honorable mentions:
Freaks & Geeks
Chapelle's Show
Reno 911!
Veronica Mars
How I Met Your Mother

While television had an excellent decade, and the viewing experience was improved tremendously by DVDs and TiVo, it still has largely earned its boob tube name (and I'm not even talking about 'reality TV').

I shudder to think of how many hours I've spent with the (mostly) empty calories of the network dramas. At one point or another, and for varying durations and degrees of intensity, I've been hooked on a surprising percentage of the decade's crime procedurals: Law & Order, Law & Order Criminal Intent, Law & Order SVU, CSI Miami, CSI, Las Vegas, House, Numb3rs, Cold Case and my current addiction (three hours on TNT tonight!) Bones. I guess comfort TV will always have a place.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Best movies of the decade

Since the 2000s lined up almost precisely with my 20s, this whole decade-in-review crap is an interesting way to think very personally in terms of what cultural elements have guided and influenced me along the way.

There's no denying that the movies and TV shows I've watched have shaped not only how I've related to and perceived the world around me, but has all been part of the formulation of an identity that has largely drawn its joy from outsider art and storytelling, irreverent and caustic humor, in-depth narrative that rewards continued close attention, irresistible and ironic cool and mind fuckery in general.

Here's the what and at least some of the why of my treasured movies of the 2000s. Stay tuned tomorrow for the best television shows. A music list will come another day.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The perfect marriage of unique visuals and as unique storytelling, I love how it forces the childlike impulse of "I wish I never met this person" into something resembling the real world. The acting is at all points compelling and honest, and the chase scene of Jim Carey trying to recapture his own rapidly erasing memories is pure genius. Volumes could be written about how this film portrays the intersection of technology and a number of feeble, misguided human desires and how the battle between "can" and "should" is more treacherous than ever in modern life. But what's most telling is how clearly the film argues that the self is made from the contributions of others, that no identity is formed in a vacuum. I didn't watch this over and over like some films on the list, but I have savored my few viewings as much as any movie I've ever watched.

2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy
Epic, in every way. The attention to detail from the first frame to the last, and from the tightest angles to the most sweeping panoramic views is truly stunning. Jackson's Middle Earth is so fully realized that this trilogy gives me more of an escape than anything else of the decade. I made the mistake of starting my reading late, so that I only finished the books after watching the Fellowship. But that's my fault, not Jackson's. The anticipation level just rose as each film came out, and even still for the extended DVD versions (I've never spent so much time with DVD bonus features, either).

3. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Coen genius, Cloony camping it up, a nod to The Odyssey, amazing music... It's hard to decide whether this or The Big Lebowski is my favorite of the Coen films. Its comedy runs both slight and deep, drawing on character quirks, situational recklessness, Old South stereotypes, slapstickings and endless charm. George Cloony plays unjustly arrogant like none other and John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson make the greatest pair of bumbling idiots in film history. It's quotable and still draws laughs every time I watch it. Do Not Seek The Treasure!

4. The Royal Tenenbaums
After watching this in the now-defunct Catalina Theater, I went on a long evening drive, compelled to meander around for a bit while I let the film really sink in. Watching that collection of odd balls bounce into each other for two hours - with each new scene giving a different combination of characters, failed dreams, illogical obsessions and and selfishly destructive behavior - I simply needed time to process the whole skewed world of the Tenenbaums. The idiosyncrasies never stop adding up, piled on top of each other in a heap like thrift-store clothes, but they never seemed forced. The plot is secondary to the characters, but doesn't feel absent. This has too many priceless scenes to mention, but I'm partial to Pagoda stabbing Royal and of course Margot's slow-motion descent from the Green Line bus. The musical selections - always a strength of Anderson - are as good as anything I've seen. It's still my favorite Wes Anderson film by far.

5. Adaptation
Another gem from Charlie Kaufman, who's clearly my favorite screenwriter of the decade (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was close to making this list). Less quirky and more expansive than his previous collaboration with director Spike Jonze (1999's Being John Malkovich), this is a film that stretched not only my expectations of movies, but also what I was able to soak up in a movie. Originality is at the core of every Kaufman movie, but with this one in particular, it's hard to imagine anyone else writing something even remotely similar. The self-referential aspects never got in the way of the story, which twisted marvelously. The swamp scenes toward the end are amazing.

6. Kill Bill (Vol. 1 and 2)
I've always been a Tarantino fan, and it was awesome to see him ditch the gritty realism of Reservoir Dogs for this fantastic amalgamation of comic book and kung fu influences. Uma rules, the late David Carradine had his best role in decades and the over-the-top revenge fantasy just seemed like a playground for Tarantino. Perhaps best of all, I liked how the two halves played against each other as such stark contrasts, showing that Tarantino is equally adept at stunning action and slower, dialogue-driven scenes. It's over the top and not without faults (the dialogue couldn't be cheesier at times, but at least he didn't cast himself again), but for entertainment value, few things come close.

7. A History of Violence
Definitely my favorite movie of a very good 2005, this was the first David Cronenberg film I'd seen, and it was interesting to dive into reviews comparing it to his other works. Well-paced and shocking, it did an amazing job of hinting at just how much is bubbling away just below the surface, in individuals, in relationships and in the unexpected return of past moments that ought to remain buried. The film deftly handles the fall out from shifting identities and realities. Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris both kicked some major ass in roles seething with primal urges, but somehow Cronenberg was able to turn the unmerciful, coiled readiness of violence itself into the film's standout character.

8. I Heart Huckabees
Few films tread anywhere near cogent expositions of actual philosophy. To do so while simultaneously treading on humor steeped in absurdity is an achievement on a whole different level. Like the Royal Tenenbaums, this is a film loaded with strange characters and like Anderson, David O. Russell takes great joy in bouncing them off each other in progressively more ridiculous situations. Naomi Watts is amazing as an eye candy wife plummeting toward nihilism; Marky Mark Wahlberg has his best role yet fumbling through the contradictions of his idealism and real life; Tomlin and Hoffman are delightful; Schwartzman is pitch perfect as a scatterbrained idealist prone to profound narcissism. I want another Russell film, and soon.

9. A Mighty Wind
I've never laughed harder in a movie theater than I did during this Christopher Guest masterpiece, when a burned-out Eugene Levy examines the elaborate model train village in the basement of his ex-love's new house. Levy just nailed his part as Mitch Cohen, a walking ghost from the 1960s who has survived, partially intact, from an unrevealed but heavily implied regimen of who-knows-what. His post-breakup album covers chronicle this hilarious skid. Guest had an amazing run with Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show and this one, and for my money, the sendup of folk music takes the cake. The humor is everywhere, especially in the songs that ingeniously parody folk music - "Never Did No Wanderin'" always cracks me up.

10. No Country For Old Men
Brutal, harsh, stark and understated, this is the Coen's second masterpiece of the decade. Tommy Lee Jones equals his performance from The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Josh Brolin is hard-boiled and amazingly stoic and Woody Harrelson plays up smarm. But it's Javier Bardem who steals the show, creating a character who joins Darth Vader as the greatest personification of evil in all of American cinema. This one was neck and neck with There Will Be Blood on just about every list of 2007, but I'm with No Country For Old Men all the way for its powerful yet restrained look at fate and the uncontrollable march of evil across human nature.

Honorable Mentions:
Children of Men
Wonder Boys
High Fidelity
Almost Famous
Bubba Ho-Tep
Sin City
The Incredibles
Lost in Translation
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
I'm Not There
Masked & Anonymous
The Bourne Ultimatum
Mulholland Drive
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

Six years

Have I really kept this blog for six years already? Sure enough. On Friday, Jan. 2, 2004, I joined the ranks of the crazy Internet ranting folks. I've had fits and starts and long dry spells along the way, but this is my 556th post and counting. It's good to still be rolling along. Thanks for reading...

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Review: Tom Waits - Glitter & Doom Live

I reviewed the new Tom Waits Glitter & Doom Live album in this week's East Bay Express:

Part barnstorming preacher, part carnival barker, and part scarecrow come to life, Tom Waits took the stage in a string of theaters and ballrooms last summer for the aptly named Glitter and Doom tour, shuffling across the country with his wildly imaginative and profoundly weird songs.

A two-disc live set culled from ten of those performances now stands as a permanent artifact for those fleeting, ethereal moments savored by Waits enthusiasts. The reclusive and self-mythologizing Waits rarely tours, so it's no surprise that Glitter and Doom Live shows the fingerprints of a perfectionist.

The vivid and thrilling record captures Waits at his peak as a showman, backed by an excellent and versatile band that shines in Karl Derfler's clear and precise mix. At nearly two hours, the set is teeming with memorable moments, both in the first disc of 16 songs and one characteristically odd story (about buying the last dying breath of Henry Ford on eBay) and in the second disc, a single 36-minute track of priceless Waits banter.

The set, strung together like one live show, focuses on his latter-day material (2004's Real Gone is the best represented album, at four songs), proof that his records over the past decade are as good as any in his long career. The songs selected lean more toward brawlers than bawlers, to use Waits' own parlance, as he growls, moans, and wheezes his way through them. The jazzy, slinking menace of "Dead in the Ground," the wistful "Fannin Street," and the gorgeously mournful "Lucky Day" are just a few of the highlights.

Ultimately, the only thing left to ask for is simply more. The Glitter and Doom shows were typically 20 to 24 songs, with setlists that varied widely from night to night. Surely there were enough off-beat treasures to stretch this live album by another disc or two.

And reaching back about a year and a half, here's what I wrote after seeing the Glitter & Doom stop in El Paso.

Tom Waits - Live NPR Broadcast 2008-07-05 (2 hours 20 minutes, 130 mb)