Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best of Whatever

The big pop cultural moments of 2009 have already been voluminously covered by Frost, Chester, Kantrowitz and Schwartz, or as I like to call them: Frestowartz? Schwantrochestfro?

I’m going to go ahead and throw my tuppence in anyway; God knows I love beating horses to death.

Presenting my indiscriminate “Best of 2009” list:

Best Sleeping Position: On your stomach with one arm stretched out under the pillow and the other tucked against your chest, fetus-style.

Best New Fruit Snacks With The Worst Name and Packaging Ever: Florida's Natural Au'some Fruit Stiks. Two questions: 1) Does that strawberry have fangs? 2) Is that orange coming on to me?

Best Spot To Think: At the bottom or top of any long flight of stairs.

Best Place to Propose to Me: In the Enid A. Haupt Garden next to the Downing Urn behind the Smithsonian Castle on a bench facing the carousel on the Mall in Washington, D.C. preferably in October when the cherry blossoms are blooming.

Best New Addition To My Vocabulary: Bejuggle: To outwit by trickery or deception; to cheat. Outrageous impostor! Fool, dotard, oaf! Did he think to bejuggle me with his preposterous gibberish! –From Mardi, by Herman Melville.

Best Texture: Horse nose—it’s like velvet, but softer!

Best Pseudo-Curse: Sweet Honey in the Rock!

Best Quebecois Food Item That America Has Finally Noticed: Poutine. Yes, we’ve had gravy fries for a while, but we’ve been leaving out the cheese curd.

Best Take Away Show: The Tallest Man On Earth does These Days.

Tallest man on earth - These Days (Nico Cover) - A Take Away Show from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.

Best Awkwardly Phallic Newly Discovered Animal Species: Blind Cave Eel.

Saddest Truth: Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year is Unfriend.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009- Best TV Moments

As Chester so affectionately reminded me, my seasonal allergies prevent me from having a sense of smell, therefore rendering me ill-equipped to write about odors of any kind. What does a lilac tree smell like as the frosted glaze of winter melts away and its buds begin to appear? What does it feel like to step out of your sedan after a long drive to the ocean and take in your first whiff of the salty ocean breeze? What does my furnished-in-crumbs Valley apartment smell like?

I will never know. Never know. I'm okay with that last one. My guess is bad. It's bad isn't it?

What I can tell you about, however, are my favorite TV moments of 2009. Bear in mind, I gave up snobbery a long time ago when Six Feet Under ended and I had to fill the void of one brilliant show with twenty-seven shitty ones.

Most Out Loud Reactions Per Episode: Lost, Season 5 Episode 16/17: The Incident
I watched this on a computer screen with Tristan in a hot tub in a lodge by a lake in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains. Just thought that was worth mentioning. After two years of abuse from TV's shitty girlfriend you keep giving second chances because, at the end of the road you think it's gonna turn out all right, Lost creators Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse were given an end-date. And it showed in season 5. Finally after season after season of wondering if this show had a game-plan or if its point was to screw with your head in a way only David Lynch does because he doesn't think things "making sense" is an important element of filmmaking, the pieces began to fall into place. Episode after episode, Lost heat up this season, culminating in a wide, teary-eyed, scared, confused, bubbly (from the hot tub) scream from Tristan and I. The statue, Jacob, Locke, The Smoke Monster, The Island, Juliet, the white background. Well-played, you two. Well-played indeed.

Best Small-Screen Performance since James Gandolfini: Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad", Season Two
Yeah, the dad from Malcolm in the Middle. Yeah, the show on AMC that's not Mad Men. I believe Matt Chester has written about Cranston's portrayal of Walter White, Nobel Prize Winning Chemist turned High School Teacher turned Cancer-riddled Meth Kingpin, so I'll be brief. In short, I have not seen an actor carry a show on his shoulders the way this man does in each and every episode since The Sopranos. Every decision he makes is calculated. He's subtle, slow-to-act, always thinking, always trying to improve, and then, at a moments notice, he'll flip a switch and become Heisenberg, his meth cartel alter-ego. His story is compelling, the show is fascinating, the other characters are engaging, BECAUSE of Bryan Cranston's work. It's no coincidence that he's taken the Emmy two years in a row. I don't see anyone beating him as long as this show continues to air.

Funniest Actor Who Hasn't Been Funny For a Very...Very Long Time: Chevy Chase, in Community.
So Chevy Chase was very funny as Clark Grizwald. He did his I'm Trying to Be a Good Dad, But I'm Not So Good Because I'm An Idiot, It's Funny!, thing pretty damn well...maybe Vegas Vacation excluded. And then he lost his way. But he's found it again with his character in Community, Peirce Hawthorne, the aged moist towelette tycoon. He's rediscovered his comic ability (being a hilarious idiot) by playing the card that could have ended his career completely: dude's old. As Peirce, he's sexist, racist, tries to be young and cool and fails, buys spy technology to aid in gossiping, and wears strangely tinted almost purple reading glasses. Everyone in the cast does well with this fresh and hilarious new show. But I think I might laugh the most at Chevy Chase. And I didn't think I'd ever say that.

Sharpest, Most Well-Informed Writing: Damages Season Two
Stylistically, Damages is one of the most stark, potent, sexy, and biting shows around right now. And they must have a hell of a good team of legal consultants. The legal talk is as convincing as anything concerning the political process heard on The West Wing. And almost every line of script stings just a little.

Most Ambitious Start to a New Season of a Teenaged Show: House MD, Episode One, Season Six
They constructed an entirely new facility for this film-length season premiere, based almost exactly off of the actual Mayfield Psychiatric Hospital. It featured none of the ensemble cast; instead it featured an entire new crew of talented actors who, it was extremely disappointing to say goodbye to. At the top of this list was Lin Manuel Miranda, best known for writing and starring in one of my recent favorite musicals, "In The Heights".

Ballsiest Move: Fringe, Season One Finale "There's More Than One of Everything"
I'll keep this to the point. The main character is trying to figure out if she's made it into a parallel universe. This is confirmed by a long, pull-out shot of her standing inside an office building in the World Trade Center. Balls, Fringe. Possibly misguided, but nonetheless heavy, full balls.

Looking forward to 2010. I like TV.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Personal "Best Of '09" - Music

I want to formally welcome our esteemed friend Alex Frost to the RSF cavalcade of contributors. After reading his list of best music from '09, it made me want to take a crack at it. And, much like Frosty, I'm gonna let things get personal, since that's what lists and blogs are all about: our personal taste. So here goes:

The Safest Bet When Making A Music Recommendation To Almost Anyone: Freelance Whales

Band Totally Worthy Of What Could Have Become A Crippling Amount of Buzz: Phoenix

Best Album To Tide You Over Between Spoon Albums*: "It's Frightening" by White Rabbits (*Please note: this might be the highest honor I can give.)

Best Swedish Indie Pop Princess: Lykke Li

Best Future Wife For David Kantrowitz: Please see "Best Swedish Indie Pop Princess."

Best Song To Listen To When Driving: "Radar Detector" by Darwin Deez

Best Song For Making An Instant Party: "Daylight" by Matt & Kim

Best Song For Wishing You're In Love: "Orange Shirt" By Discovery

Feel Good Album of the Year: "Technicolor Health" By Harlem Shakes

Best Song That "Beatles: Rock Band" Led Me To Re-Appreciate: "Don't Let Me Down"

Best Album To Improve My Opinion of Your Band (And Give You A Second Chance After You Totally Sucked Opening For The Decemberists) : "Veckatimest" by Grizzly Bear

Best Album That I Know Deep Down Is Pretty Lame But Hot Damn Does It Ever Get My Toes A Tappin': "Aim and Ignite" by fun.

Best Band To Watch In The Following Year: Sleigh Bells

Last but not least, if I could choose the song to hear at the stroke of midnight on New Years, it'd be "Strictly Game" By Harlem Shakes. Aside from the fact that the chorus includes the lyrics "this will be a better year," it's looking like the Shakes have parted ways and are a band no more. Add them to the list of things that will be missed from 2009.

Honorable Mentions: "Lust for Life" by Girls, "Softshock" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Wet Hair" By Japandroids, "A Teenager In Love" By The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, "Luna" By Fanfarlo

Saturday, December 26, 2009

How Much Do I Love Thee? I Won't Know Until I See Where You Land On My List

Well, it’s late December now and you know what that means: a torrent of year-end lists. By mid-January I’ll be so tired of looking at the numbers 10 through 1 that I might have to start using roman numerals for everything. I knew learning roman numerals would pay off some time, I should write a thank-you note to my second-grade teacher Mrs. McCarty.

Why is our culture so obsessed with rating everything that it comes in contact with? Why must everything be rated in relation to its yearly peers? I blame TRL for starting the count down trend, but I’m sure it dates back way before that. Heck, the Ten Commandments are probably to blame.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most up-to-date guy there is around—I pick up the New York Times every once in a while, and I turn on Sports Center to see how my favorite teams are doing, but otherwise I’m pretty much ensconced in my own solipsistic bubble. It’s working out for me now in college, but pretty soon I’ll be entering Life University and the rules there, I hear, are pretty different. The exception to the current “Alex Frost Rule of Total Isolation”, however, is music blogs/ on-line magazines. They are my hobby, my infatuation, and on my worst days: my reason for waking up. A professor of mine at school claims that he tries to learn a new word every day—I try to read at least one record review every day. This is where my curiosity about lists come into play. Every year, starting in late November through December (and sometimes even into early January), every music blog I read posts its “Best Of” lists. At first, this was interesting to me. I was happy to find bands that I’d yet to listen to high on some blogs lists—I would go out and get that band’s album and give it a listen. Over the years though, I’ve realized the various shortcomings of these obligatory “Best Of” lists.

The problem with music blogs’ “Best Of” lists is that so many of them are simply reiterations of the same claims they’ve been making all year. A certain band garners “blog buzz” (I hate that term, but it’s the most appropriate) and becomes noticed on the indie scene. By the time the end of the year comes around, said blog must then back up their claim on this band by putting them on their year end lists. Recently I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that these “Best Of” lists have already been decided on far before the year is even over. Animal Collective’s album “Merriweather Post Pavilion” is the perfect example of this conundrum. MPP came out in January of 2009, and several music blogs (my favorite ones, in fact) claimed that this album was a work of genius—placing on it so much praise so early on that to not have it high on their “Best Of” lists would make their initial praises seem unschooled and preemptive. Now, don’t be mistaken: I love Animal Collective and I love “Merriweather Post Pavilion”. I can’t tell you how often I listened to “My Girls” this year, both by myself and with crowds of people. I’m simply using it as an example. The fact is though, I don't believe that it really deserved to be on the top of everyone's lists.

The second issue I have with the “Best Of” list trend is that it makes reading music blogs boring. The reason I read different blogs is because they come at the subject from various different perspectives. Each blog I read has its own specific layout, style and most importantly—voice. When the “Best Of” lists start coming out, I start feeling like I’m reading the same blog over and over again. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

While I clearly have issue with the “Best Of” list trend, I do also see one very strong reason for their continued existence: they give good bands good press. Individually, blogs tend to preach only to the choir—they reach a specific readership that is generally educated on the subject, and not many people else. Yet when the “Best Of” lists start coming out and the same bands appear on all of them, it’s hard for people outside of that original readership to notice. Hell, Rolling Stone might even decide to put them in their “What’s Hot” section. Since the music blogs that I read are for the most part interested in what one might call “indie” bands that aren’t being heavily publicized and shoved down your throat every ten seconds on the radio, “blog buzz” (again, that damn term) is important for bands. MGMT is certainly one example of a band that benefited heavily from this.

So, now that I’ve moaned for far too long about the problem, here’s my solution: a more personalized format of recognition. Instead of placing bands and songs on lists for purely subjective reasons that are often questionable, why not eliminate the list aspect of this equation and increase the subjectivity. After all, when it comes to something like music we simply can’t escape subjectivity-- so why not embrace it?

In an attempt to recognize the music that I’ve most loved over the past year, while still maintaining my own voice on the matter, I’ve come up with twenty categories, each with only one band, song or album in it. Some categories are pretty traditional, and some were created simply because I thought a song, album or a band deserved mentioning. I also tried not to mention one band more than once. So here it is, my 2009 non-list:

Most Depressing Song I Sang Along To in My Car On a Regular Basis

Two by The Antlers

Best Example of What I Think a “Cover” Should Be

Stillness is the Move by Solange Knowles (Dirty Projectors cover)

Song That Most Made Me Want to Be in Love

Northern Lights by Bowerbirds

Most Straight Up Rocking Album By A Female

Fortress Round My Heart by Ida Maria

Album That Could Never Have Lived Up To My Love For Their Previous Album, But Came Close

Strict Joy by The Swell Season

Song With Lyrics I Found Most Applicable To My Own Experience

White Blank Page by Mumford and Sons

Best Band From Boston That Somehow “Made It” Without Having Something to Do with Being Irish, and Therefore Sounded the Least Like They Were From Boston

Passion Pit

Song That I Hope Does Not Describe my Future

Actor out of Work by St. Vincent

Song That Never Failed To Make Me Enjoy Driving in the Morning/Best Opening Track

Lisztomania by Phoenix

Song that Was Influenced By U2, That I Still Managed to Really Enjoy, Even Though I Hate U2 Now

Sweet Disposition by The Temper Trap

Song That Never Failed to Create a Unique, Almost un-Definable Mood

Seeplymouth by Volcano Choir

Song That Made Me Wish Their Last Two Albums Were As Good As This One Song

One Wing by Wilco

Best Song By An American Band That Made Me Want to Go Abroad Again

Camera Talk by Local Natives

Best Collaboration

Knotty Pine by David Byrne and Dirty Projectors

Best Job At Sounding Like Another Musician Without Also Sounding Like a Rip-Off

Laura by Girls

Best Song That Involved an Outdated Piece of Technology

Vcr by the xx

Most Surprising Fusion of Two Bands

Discovery (members of Ra Ra Riot and Vampire Weekend)

Favorite Grizzly Bear Song That Wasn’t “Two Weeks”

The Foreground by Grizzly Bear

The Late On My Radar Award

Sea Wolf

…and finally…

If I Believed in Guilty Pleasures, This Would Be It, But Since I Don’t, I’ll Just Call It A Pleasure

Party in the U.S.A. by Miley Cyrus

I have to say, 2009 was an especially good year for music (well not the music business, but they're really not the same thing are they?) , let's hope 2010 gives us just as much.

One Last Thought: Pay attention to what the last song you hear in 2009 is, and what the first song you hear in 2010 is. The results may be very telling. This of course, requires that you don't get too drunk and assault a potted plant--or at least not before you have time to write it down.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Princess and the Frog: Animation Review

A few weeks ago, myself and fellow RSF blogger Matt Schwartz attended an advanced preview of Princess and the Frog on the Disney lot. Not because we've got awesome connections that totally hooked us up, but because we shelled out enough money for this "Disney Experience," including activities themed after the film, a limited edition lithograph, and several photo opps with live Disney princesses.

Yes, we're a little lame, but Schwartz and I are unashamed of our Disney love. Growing up, we wore down our Aladdin and Lion King cassette tapes, and we're as pumped walking through the gates of Disneyland today as we were when we were five. For those brief moments we turn off our sardonic adulthood, and revel in some well-crafted nostalgia. Therefore, we could hardly wait to see what Disney's return to 2D animated musicals could offer us.

I'll touch on a few things, but I'll mostly focus on what I know best: the animation. Hopefully Schwartz will write an in-depth review covering the music of the film, but our general consensus was about the same: it ain't too bad.

For the first ten minutes, I was worried. Things were pretty bland and schmaltzy in the beginning, and I kept thinking to myself "these are just people walking around, there's no reason for this to be animated." Animation should be cartoony, it's best when exaggerated and doing the impossible, otherwise what's the point? You might as well film it live-action.

Thankfully, things pick up and they really pull out all the visual stops for the music numbers. The voodoo villain's interactions with shadows and black magic are all some beautifully playful eye-candy, and the scenes that turn the characters and their surroundings into stylized art-deco renderings are pure gold. I wish they'd make a whole movie that looked like that, and it was nice to get an extra taste of it during the end credits (which, coincidentally, were designed by my good friend Joe Pitt, one helluva talented guy).

The best performance comes from Louis, the fat alligator who wants to play his tiny trumpet in a real-live Dixie band. I wonder if they took a note from Tex Avery for some of the human-interaction antics? Unsurprisingly, Louis' lead animator was Eric Goldberg, whose first gig was the Genie (a perfect example of what animation should be used to accomplish). If only every part of this film dazzled me as much. Instead, there were lots of bland moments, which shouldn't be the case with a plot trying to bring together an overwhelming amount of diverse characters.

As I said, this film certainly ain't bad, I just really was hoping Disney would knock it out of the park. Although it feels like they've yet to get their sea legs back, it's still nice to have them at the helm again.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Trichrome Blue

This animated student film is pure eye-candy bliss, and apparently both Yellow and Red installments are in the works. Sweet deals.

Check out Trichrome, via Drawn.