Best Albums of 2009 (thus far)

It’s late August and I’ve already got a top ten list for the best albums of the year.  As I pointed out in an entry last year, it isn’t really my thing to jump on ‘new’ music per se.  I am typically balancing myself between ‘new’ music and ‘old’ music that’s ‘new’ to me.  This year I wanted to challenge myself to listen to more “new” music (i.e. music that has been/will be released in 2009).

With the trusty aid of music blogs, Lala, random databases, and Greg I’ve been able to become exposed to a larger body of ‘new’ music this year and I decided that before I leave to Scotland and my postgraduate occupation with a large number of books, I would compile a list of my top ten albums of the year.  Who knows, maybe this will be my final top ten list for the year (though it has been altered a bit even in the last 24 hours).

10 - Catacombs

10.  Cass McCombs—Catacombs
Cass McCombs reminds me of T Bone Burnett and Neil Young more than ever.  He remains very unpretentious and sincere, perhaps on this album more than his previous records.  Two tracks to reel you in: “You Saved My Life,” & “Lionkiller Got Married.”

09 - Noble Beasts

9.  Andrew Bird—Noble Beast
I really thought I would hate this album.  I’m not much of a fan of Andrew Bird’s music.  I’ve never enjoyed his voice.  Perhaps Noble Beast’s inclusion on this list is a response to how much I tolerated it as opposed to how much I loved it.  But I am leaning more toward its inclusion because I thoroughly enjoy listening to this album.  Two tracks to reel you in: “Masterswarm,” & “Not a Robot, But a Ghost.”

08 - Mythomania

8.  Cryptacize—Mythomania
This album was very surprising.  I hadn’t been very impressed with Chris Cohen’s work with Curtains on Asthmatic Kitty, so I didn’t expect a lot.  I saw Cryptasize for the first time with Danielson last November and they didn’t leave a very strong impression, but this album really brings out their strengths.  It has a great mood—unpredictable but not irritating (like the Dirty Projectors’ new album…).  Two tracks to reel you in: “Blue Tears,” & “Gotta Get Into That Feeling.”

07 - These Four Walls

7.  We Were Promised Jetpacks—These Four Walls
Thanks to Sgt. Grumbles for this suggestion a couple months back.  It reminds me of high school, in the best way possible.  Enjoy the lovely accent, the token glockenspiel, and the incredible sincerity—one of the most important qualities I look for in an artist.  Two tracks to reel you in: “It’s Thunder And It’s Lightning,” & “An Almighty Thud.”

06 - Pains

6.  The Pains of Being Pure at Heart—The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
American faux-Brit pop never felt so great!  It’s delightfully reminiscent of The Smiths, Jesus & Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine.  Two tracks to reel you in: “Young Adult Friction,” & “A Teenager In Love.”  Note: the album cover bears a ridiculously close resemblance to Belle & Sebastian’s 2006 album, The Life Pursuit:
Compare
05 - Dragonslayer

5.  Sunset Rubdown—Dragonslayer
This album is a great step forward for Sunset Rubdown.  It’s not obnoxiously poppy like Shut Up I Am Dreaming tended to be.  There’s a lot going on musically, yet no component is overpowered by another within a song.  Two tracks to reel you in: “Silver Moons,” & “Idiot Heart.”

04 - My Maudlin Career

4.  Camera Obscura—My Maudlin Career
Let’s face it, I’m a sucker for Scotch indie-pop.  This is probably my favorite release from Camera Obscura.  Maybe I love it so much because Belle & Sebastian hasn’t released an LP since 2006.  Even if there is a hint of my love for B & S in this pick, the album (and the band) stands on its own through musical precision and artistic maturity.  Thank you Tracyanne Campbell for your exceptional wit.  Two tracks to reel you in: “French Navy,” & “My Maudlin Career.”

03 - Mama

3.  Cursive—Mama, I’m Swollen
Mama, I’m Swollen probably seems to be an odd pick for this number three slot, but I will always have a soft spot for Cursive.  This is not to say that this album is undeserving of praise.  Cursive is not interested in being another experimental freak-folk-electro-post-rock-cross-genre-remixed piece of overproduced crap like so many other groups are becoming (namely Dirty Projectors).  They are faithful to their expressive indie roots, this album being far less poppy than Happy Hollow.  It reminds me of Domestica even.  Tim Kasher is still obsessed with refuting a theistic/morally superior worldview, but he does it with so much passion and angst I can’t help but be stirred.  Cursive encourages us to realize the failure of our Enlightenment/modern ideals and to accept our animalistic/primitive nature.  I don’t buy it but not because it’s not packaged well.  Two tracks to reel you in: “From the Hips,” & “Let Me Up.”

02 - Merriweather

2. Animal Collective—Merriweather Post Pavilion
Though it is more accessible (think Pet Sounds) than their entire repertoire (a bad start in my odd musical sense), this album is very unique, big (to the point of breathtaking at times), and yet more cohesive with itself than any other Animal Collective album.  The songs don’t leave you asking, “When is this going to end/how does that even fit?”  Two tracks to reel you in: “My Girls,” & “Summertime Clothes.”

01 - Veckatimest

1.  Grizzly BearVeckatimest
My first listen of this record was a positive, but not profound experience.  Only two tracks really stuck out to me: “Two Weeks,” and “While You Wait for the Others.”  I was even a little disappointed with the album version of “While You Wait for the Others,” at first (compared to their incredible live performance I saw on Morning Becomes Eclectic last year).  I sat with the album for another month and at that point it hit me.  This is by far (maybe I’ll get harassed for saying that) Grizzly Bear’s best record.  By best I mean that they demonstrate great maturity and excellence both in writing and execution, two points that have always seemed to miss one another by an ever-so-slight degree.  This record is certain to remain among my favorites unless I fully give myself over to jazz-fusion or something.  Two tracks to reel you in: “Two Weeks,” & “I Live With You.”

Compilations worth mentioning
Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison a compilation of George Harrison’s solo music spanning his entire post-Beatle career.
Dark Was the Night – a compilation release benefiting the Red Hot Organization.
Royal City – a Royal City B-side compilation released by Asthmatic Kitty.
God Help the Girl – a music/film project written Stuart Murdoch, the singer of Belle & Sebastian.  Members of Belle & Sebastian with guest vocalists.  CD Booklet features a short story that goes with the music.

Honorable mention
Lou BarlowGoodnight Unknown
David BazanCurse Your Branches
CastanetsTexas Rose, the Beasts, and the Thaw
Dan Deacon—Bromst
The Decemberists (primarily because of Shara Worden’s contribution)—The Hazards of Love
Passion Pit—Manners
St. Vincent—Actor
Wye OakThe Knot

Look out for
Converge—Axe to Fall (20 October)
Atlas SoundLogos (20 October)

Why does anyone like
Dirty ProjectorsBitte Orca – It could’ve been so great, but it’s incredibly obnoxious.

Childhood & the All-American Pastime

Ever since baseball swam across the Atlantic Ocean and grew legs to walk upon the Hoboken shore it has been a fiery All-American Pastime.  If you don’t like love baseball you are either a Communist or you’re not a true [red, white, and] blue American.  Or you weren’t an athletic child.

Little League baseball has been the scourge and triumph of young boys for seventy years.  I remember my first years as they were divided into four major categories: tee-ball, farm, minors, majors.  Those years were not good to me.  I would have rather read a book or have built something out of LEGO.  I was afraid of the ball and of human interaction, both of which are key elements of baseball.  Only to add to the torment, at some point I gained weight and achieved the status of ‘husky’.  But, fortunately for me, upon my entrance into high school I grew six inches almost instantly and—for the first time in my life—demonstrated athletic prowess.  Sure soccer (otherwise known as football) is extremely fun, but baseball was and is my true athletic passion, which is attributed to the unique challenges it presents to a player, for instance: you need a sprint and a mind, a glove and a bat, an arm and an eye.

Even throughout my awkward years I still loved the concept of baseball.  I certainly had my aversions: ‘cups’, practising, fastballs near my face while I was at bat, striking out, sitting the bench, etc.—but I also had my passions:  cleats, sunflower seeds, getting on base, making a great catch, the Detroit Tigers, going to watch a professional game, guessing what was going to happen next, etc.  But with my well-rounded appreciation and disdain for the sport nothing could have never prepared me for what the Major League sport seems to have become.

In the golden years an alcoholic could be a magnificent baseball player and even though everyone knew his vice was the bottle, his glory was the bat.  Maybe the fall of this idealism of Major League Baseball came with the Information Age.  Soon everyone knew that the Straw used the straw for other things, beat his wife and the list goes on.  How could a fan love to watch someone with such moral failings play the All-American Pastime?  But the slugfest of 1998 would soon bring back the spirit of the game, at least until performance-enhancing drugs became a hot topic.

That’s where baseball is today, tarnished by unethical behaviour of which performance-enhancing drugs are the crowning glory.  There are massive amounts of illegal drugs administered to willing athletes and recently professional baseball has been front-page news.  Who would’ve thought the highest paid baseball player in history would get caught up in this mess?  He did, as well as the player with the most career home runs in history.  And even the virtuous alliance of brotherhood can get a man mixed up in this heartbreaking moral defeat.

Some people have passionate hatred for baseball.  They might suggest that we adopt basketball, American football, ice hockey, anything over this boring and morally corrupt money pit called Major League Baseball.  But the sport cannot be to blame for the poor decisions of some players.  And this bad judgement is all that we can fault players for.  If baseball fans have a problem with the size of players’ salaries then we can turn off the televised game and not buy the baseball cap or the season tickets.  Fans can make baseball players demigods and when we learn that they are not so perfect it is devastating.

In the end there is something profoundly redemptive about baseball, something honourable and magical that I cannot fully explain (watch Field of Dreams).  And if our remembrances of Joltin’ Joe and Derek Jeter remain free from steroid use the sport will always remain alive—even if you detest the Yankees as I do.

UPDATE:  Thanks to The Onion,

arod_toptop_story1

Eight (Films) Is Enough

MY BEST FILMS LIST OF 2008 (I only saw 22 films this year, so it seemed like choosing ten of them was skewing the odds a bit—here are eight for 2008:
1. Wall-E…likely, there is no explanation needed here & you’ve probably seen it and thought it was pretty amazing yourself. (There is hope for us tubs of lard!)
2. The Dark Knight…same as above (except for the tubs of lard part). I will say that I wasn’t that blown away for the first 20 minutes, but then…something changed, and it became unbelievably captivating for the next two hours. Except for the part where he drives the “Bat-pod” up a wall—a sell out moment in an otherwise powerfully engaging, intense and haunting film. Christopher Nolan is pure gold (pretending Insomnia never existed).
3. Son of Rambow…now this may require a bit of explanation. A British film which some list as being released in 2007—but since it had it’s limited release here in May 2008 & because I’d love to sing its praises, we’ll include it in this year’s list! When I originally heard the pitch (two English kids remake “First Blood” using home video cameras) I was uninterested. Somehow, I ended up seeing it and deeply enjoyed every single moment. It transported me back to the transitional years between my childhood and adolescence with it’s 80’s setting & soundtrack, had me laughing loudly at the stunts the kids do in their film (obviously effects of some sort) and hit some deep places with its depiction of one of the young boys who is part of a Plymouth Brethren church (which places a high value on separation from secular culture), yet who feels drawn to creative expression, particularly as a way of dealing with his father’s death. Don’t make the same mistake I did—see this soon!

This movie is bloody good.
This movie is bloody good.

4. In Bruges…another example of a film I had no desire to see—I couldn’t quite tell what it was even about from the preview. But someone (perhaps YOU?) recommended that I see it & I’m so glad I did—the acting, cinematography, script are all excellent. It is dark humor on a pitch black scale, but there is also tremendous beauty and some glimmer of hope and redemption in this story of two hitmen running from the aftermath of a job gone very wrong. If you need a happy ending, don’t watch this. If you can deal with a morally complex dark comedy, this should be mandatory viewing. It’s sad that marketing almost killed this for me (the same thing happened a few years back with Moulin Rouge!).

The advertisements may suck, but the film does not.
The advertisements may suck, but the film does not.

5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button…I almost jumped out of my seat when the screen FILLED with buttons in the first minute of this film (for some psychologically undiagnosed reason, I can’t stand buttons), but it really is an incredibly engrossing & lovely film. I deeply enjoyed all 3 hours of it and was actually holding in HUGE SOBS at the end. After I left the theater, I started thinking maybe there were some problems with the plot, a bit of sentimentality glazing the characterizations (the old folks home in the movie seemed pretty idealized) and that on a subconscious level, the whole last third of the film may have been an apologetic for irresponsible parenting (I won’t give away exactly how this works), but on the whole, it was just incredible viewing. David Fincher is one of the great cinematic geniuses of our time.
6. The Fall…my friend Katherine, whose taste I implicitly trust, recommended this & as I was watching it, I became seriously bummed that this film seemed to fall under the “buzz” radar (it took a few years to even GET a release, but was “presented” this year by none other than David Fincher!), however it does make sense that something as odd as this would miss a big audience (as a film, it’s kind of a blue rose). Roger Ebert put it on his year’s best list and I’ll just point you to his review for further details. The visuals (set design, cinematography, etc.) are simply unparalleled in my mind.

Criminally underrated.
Criminally underrated.

7. Prince Caspian…this is a bit of a surprise to me as well. But I thought this was an excellent piece of fantasy—I found myself lost in the world of the film in a way I had not since the final Lord of the Rings trilogy (certainly not in the first Narnia movie). I’m not a C.S. Lewis purist, so perhaps that helped!
8. Iron Man…you saw it (over 500 million served!)—superb superhero film of a comic that I frankly knew nothing about. Robert Downey is the freaking phoenix.

Films I Wish I Could Have Seen that Might Have Made It On the List, But Which I Will Probably Not See in the Next 3 Days:
Transsiberian, Pineapple Express, Blindness, Slumdog Millionaire (update: saw it, loved it–it would probably fall somewhere between 4-5 on this list), The Brothers Bloom, Revolutionary Road, Synecdoche, New York, Waltz with Bashir, Defiance.

Any additions from your viewing of 2008 films? Anyone else remember the 70’s show “Eight Is Enough”?

Bibleman Begins!
Bibleman Begins!

Prick Up Your Ears…2008 C.E.

What follows is my unsolicited list of the finest 10 music albums of this year.  Full disclosure:  I have a rather limited musical palate and have been called a bit “elitist” when it comes to music (i.e. all tastes are not equally valid), so I apologize ahead of time for any arrogant presumptions or pretentious hype.prick-up-pic

Continue reading “Prick Up Your Ears…2008 C.E.”

W.

This is my [hopefully not too] awkward first post. While I’d like to write about the Gospel or something more strictly theological (since politics have been invading every facet of American existence for the past 21 months), I am choosing to write about the current American President, George W. Bush.

Comedic persona Neil Hamburger once told a joke during a stand-up routine that went something like this: ‘Hey, is it just me? Is it just me or is George Bush the worst president in the history of the United States, huh, am I right? The anti-Bush crowd during this routine—not unlike the national crowd, which according to at least one poll is composed of 70% of Americans—cheered at this rhetorical question. Hamburger continued, ‘Which makes it all the harder to understand why his son, George W. Bush, is in fact the best president we’ve ever had.’ This punchline was followed by a wave of ‘boos’ from the displeased crowd.

It seems possible that we live in a ‘post-Bush’ culture, one that ignores the fact that he exists or at least looks forward to the day when he will cease to. Though I would not consider myself as a fan of Bush’s presidency, I find it perplexing that our culture is so infatuated with hating him. Perhaps we don’t realize that Bush is ten years younger than John McCain, which means that we potentially have another decade or more of Bush in the public eye.

He’s a truly fascinating person. If you’ve not seen Oliver Stone’s W., I suggest you do. It’s a well-crafted caricature of Bush’s adult life and the various people who have surrounded him. I left the theater with a far more empathetic attitude toward the man (the person, not the politician), who is portrayed as a simple guy, caught up in a wave of dirty politics. The guilt of the Bush Administration is really shifted toward Dick Cheney in the film. That may be a cop-out.

But in addition to the empathy I gained toward Bush the man, I was also filled with a sense of mourning; mourning for a man who has been painted as a villain in our culture by not-as-much-fault-as-America-thinks of his own. It seems as if he is already numbered among the deceased presidents of our generation—Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan—yet has been painted with more dishonor than Herbert Hoover. He’s still in office until January, yet we replaced him with an over-publicized bout for the seat of the 44th President of the United States nearly two years ago.

Any conclusion or resolution? Maybe we ought to not view those in the public eye as demigods. Maybe we ought to not expect our political leaders (any other person, for that matter) to make the perfect decision every time. Perhaps his failures are indicative of a more corrupt and insidious political system.