Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Top 25 Albums of the Aughts (15-11)

15. Ciara - "Goodies" (2004)
Here's where I become a stereotypical Atlantan (or de-facto Atlanta, as is more accurate). Ciara is just about the most exciting female R&B artist to emerge from the 2000s. Her voice is good enough, but her music is just so melodic and perfectly produced. Jazze Pha's work on this album is stuff legends are made of. Her subsequent efforts, particularly "Ciara: The Evolution," which was just shy of making this list are also worth a listen. But her debut album is her most impressive to date, in a very impressive catalogue.
Best Track: "Oh" featuring Ludacris

14. Erykah Badu - "Mama's Gun" (2000)
I was but a lowly ninth grader when this album came out. I recently and randomly revisited it. It's great to rediscover just how amazing this album is (and I liked Badu already). Badu truly takes her place as the heir to Nina Simone in her follow up to 1997's "Baduizm" (if this countdown included the 90s, surely that album would also be on it). I don't love every song on "Mama's Gun," but when it's good, it's really really good and it's an album I love to revisit every so often.
Best Track: "Didn't Cha Know"

13. John Legend - "Get Lifted" (2004)
So much bad R&B came out of the 2000s (and continues to come out in the aught tens). It's definitely becoming more and more faceless, without true identity or distinction, which makes me sad because R&B is such a huge part of my musical narrative. But I'm at least encouraged by artists like John Legend, who infuses the genre with the old school flair of great vocals and instrumentation. His debut album is a thing of beauty and he continues to be one of the best R&B artists working today (check out his cover of U2's "Pride," not featured on this album, but definitely a great track).
Best Track: "So High"

12. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Fever to Tell" (2003)
Like the Scissor Sisters, I have not really kept up with Yeah Yeah Yeahs beyond their debut album, save Karen O's fabulous work on the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack. The best music is evocative and takes you back to a time and place. For me, I turn on "Fever to Tell," almost entirely listenable, if a little repetitive, and I'm transported back to my senior year of high school. Karen O's voice acquired taste. I've heard from many a people who liken it to a duet of Fran Drescher and nails on a chalkboard, but I was swept up in it right away. I love the wild, undisciplined feel of these songs and how they all feel as if they were performed in a dive bar.
Best Track: "Maps" (Here's where I get cliche...)

11. Iron & Wine - "Our Endless Numbered Days" (2004)
I love pretty much everything Iron & Wine came out with this past decade. I played around with the idea of placing "Woman King" on this list (mostly because of "Jezebel," which is unequivocally his best song), but with only six tracks it didn't really seem fair. Speaking of evocative music, I feel pulled back to the beautiful south whenever I turn on Iron & Wine, particularly this album. Like Ray LaMontagne, he's as artist who you've probably heard before, even if you don't know it. Featured in many a film and television shows, but used most effectively in Jonathan Caouette's 2003 personal documentary Tarnation.
Best Track: "Naked As We Came"

Top Ten Begins in the Next Post with (10-6)

The Top 25 Albums of the Aughts (20-16)

20. Norah Jones - "Come Away With Me" (2002)
I wasn't crazy about her sophomore effort "Feels Like Home," even though it does contain an awesome duet with Dolly Parton. However, "Come Away With Me," remains utterly listenable more than eight years after I first heard it. Her marriage of jazz, country and folk music, combined with her sweet, whispery voice definitely made an impression.
Best Track: "Nightingale" I didn't even have to think twice.

19. Green Day - "American Idiot" (2004)
That's right, I like Green Day and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Say what you will about them, but they are often imitated (badly I might add...My Chemical Romance, I'm looking in your direction) and quite influential. After a four year hiatus, they returned with what remains their strongest album to date and one of the best of the 2000s.
Best Track: "Are We the Waiting"

18. Feist - "The Reminder" (2007)
A truly unique sound that emerged when her sophomore effort received mainstream commercial success. I loved this album to pieces and listened to it obsessively. "One, Two, Three, Four" was such a great introduction as an amazing first single (and it's not even the best song on the album). I'm happy to include Feist on this list with a little swell of Canadian pride.
Best Track: "Brandy Alexander"

17. Scissor Sisters - "Scissor Sisters" (2004)
A lot of great debuts in this section. Scissor Sisters are sadly a band I haven't been following since their amazing burst onto the scene in 2004 (note to self: must remedy this), but this album got a lot of play from me and I can't imagine this list without it. And I fell in love with it all over again during the third season of "Big Love" when Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) did her crazy dance to this song after her mom died (seriously, are the Scissor Sisters even legal in Utah? Brilliant...)
Best Track: "Take Your Mama"

16. Ray LaMontagne - "Trouble" (2004)
Rounding off this section of the countdown is yet another amazing 2004 debut. Ray LaMontagne will be featured on this list again, rest assured. This album just warms my heart every time I listen to it. And you've probably heard some of it, even if you don't know it. A lot of these tracks were featured on various television shows, movie trailers, etc. Remember that great scene in the second season of "Rescue Me" where Dennis Leary's five-year-old son is killed by the drunk driver? Yep, that's Ray LaMontagne's "All the Wild Horses" playing in the background (incidentally, I know someone who worked on that show and the story behind the decision to kill off the son is a hilarious one involving an annoying child actor and an unruly stage mom). Give it a listen when you have a chance and let LaMontagne's "Trouble" croon you to sleep.
Best Track: "Hold You in My Arms"

Countdown continues with 15-11...

The Top 25 Albums of the Aughts (25-21)

A little break from our regular programming and part of my "Best of the Aughts" series (I thought it foolish to make such lists at the end of 2009 without a little bit of time and distance to let various dust settle). I realized that I rarely talk about music on this blog. The reason being that my taste in music is incredibly unpretentious. For me, these are without question the 25 albums that defined the 2000s for me.

25. Common - "Be" (2005)
So, let me say something first...I don't buy into the myth of Common. I don't fancy his music some sort of intellectual experience as some do. I've said it before and I'll say it again: being light-skinned with facial hair and a hat does not make one intellectual. Not to say that I don't have a great amount of respect for Common as an artist, but don't get it twisted...where was I going with this? It sounds like I don't like him at all. I loved his 2005 release "Be." It goes down incredibly smooth and relaxes you. If only Common's movies were as good as his music...
Best Track: "Be (Intro)" Not one bit ruined by its inclusion in the horrendous It's Kind of a Funny Story.

24. Amos Lee - "Amos Lee" (2005)
One of those artists who seems to perpetually be languishing in that "ones to watch" realm, even though he's been making music for a very long time. What a soulful, arresting debut this album was, reminiscent of the best of Otis Redding, Bobby Caldwell, with a twinge of something personal and unique rolled in. His subsequent releases (particularly "Supply and Demand") definitely offer something to recommend, but this is his best by a wide margin and one of the best of the decade.
Best Track: "Arms of a Woman"

23. Missy Elliott - "Miss E...So Addictive" (2001)
Deciding exactly which Missy Elliott album from the 2000s to include on this list was tough. I'm not a huge fan of "This is Not a Test!" and even less so of "The Cookbook," but it was a pretty tight race between this one and "Under Construction." Ultimately, I feel that "Miss E...So Addictive" is her magnum opus and is (as the title suggests) quite addictive and infectious. Make no mistake. A great lyricist, Missy Elliott is not. Her songs are rarely about anything at all. But for a great producer and assembler of producers, you can't do much better that Missy.
Best: Track: "For My People"

22. Lady Gaga - "The Fame Monster" (2009)
I've already expressed my feelings about Lady Gaga on this very blog. For the record, I don't buy into the Lady Gaga myth (the artifice, the interview comments, etc.) But I'm all about honesty and honestly...I loved this album. Lady Gaga seems to get pop music more than any other artist out there. Her music is incredibly infectious and not cerebral, which is everything that pop music should be. Love her or hate her (I fall somewhere in the middle), you can't discuss music of the 2000s and ignore her impact.
Best Track: "Telephone" featuring Beyonce' (I know a lot of people would say "Bad Romance," but I like what I like. Deal with it).

21. Kanye West - "College Dropout" (2004)
This is Kanye's first appearance on this list, but it will not be his last. An album that took nearly four years to make, it was well worth the wait. Kanye West remains the most interesting thing in hip-hop to emerge from the 2000s. This album resonated greatly with me as I was just entering university when it was released. I know he's hated by many (hallmark of a great artist, by the way). Even I think he's kind of a douche...okay, a complete douche, but this was one of the most audacious, well-produced debuts I've seen from a musician.
Best Track: to even choose? If pressed, "School Spirit"

Continued in the next post with 20-16...

Friday, December 17, 2010

2010 in Film (part 4)

It's Kind of a Funny Story (dirs. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)
Ryan Fleck is credited as the sole director of 2006's Half Nelson, but apparently Anna Boden co-directed. What a wonderful, naturalistic, film it was. The actors hit the right notes. Every line of dialogue spoken seemed birth from meticulous human observation. It sits on my list of one of the 100 best films of the 2000s (I promise that list is coming soon). And their sophomore effort, Sugar? Sure, it falls short of the brilliance of their debut film, but Boden and Fleck crafted another realistic portrayal of (wait for it) human beings. I bring this up before I discuss their third feature, It's Kind of a Funny Story because I wanted to explain my bias towards these filmmakers up front, and it's always good to find something nice to say. From here on out, I will sound like Oscar the Grouch. It's Kind of a Funny Story, based on the novel of the same name, depicts a slice of life (less than two weeks, if I'm not mistaken) inside of a psychiatric hospital as told through the eyes of a teenage boy named Craig (played by Keir Gilchrist). The result is an incredibly and offensively facile look at mental illness, a very complicated issue. Craig is feeling suicidal, though (as stated plainly by the film) he has no real reason to, nor has he ever attempted suicide. While at the hospital, he meets a host of characters who all show him that his cushy, magnet school, New York life isn't all that bad. It all feels syrupy, patently false and packed to the rafters with paint-by-numbers quirk. I'm kind of floored that the people behind Half Nelson had anything to do with it. In my write-up of The Greatest, I spoke of the incredible liability that is Zoe Kravitz. I get the urge, at least on paper, to cast her in films. She's the daughter of Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz, arguably two of the most beautiful people on the planet (and arguably artistic in their own right). But Zoe has a complete non-presence as a performer. Her eyes are dead, her line readings are cringe-worthy and she seems to be working against any given scene. Granted, she has the burden of playing characters that are the complete creation of male fantasy in both films, but is there any excuse for this when there was at least one female writer/director at the helm in both cases? The rest of the story is predictable. Craig falls for a fellow teenage psych patient (Emma Roberts) who's pretty, but damaged. Their courtship is played against a soundtrack of what I like to call "hey, it's that band!" That is, a particular brand of scruffy-boy rock by a bunch of Thom Yorke fetishists. These bands are also notable for their small, devoted pockets of fans who will inevitably abandon said band once the lure of obscurity is lost by having one of their songs played in a film like this or on an episode of "Grey's Anatomy." It's all incredibly trite and (I'm sorry to go here) incredibly white. Between this film and Up in the Air, I've completely lost patience for films that set their ordinary, retread narratives (in both cases, boy meets girl) against the backdrop of a larger issue (ie, unemployment or mental illness) in a transparent attempt at emotional gravitas (incidentally, I rated Up in the Air a "B" when I first saw it, but the longer I sit with it and one subsequent viewing has shown me that I can no longer stand by that).
Grade: D

The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)
Any praises I offer up are going to seem redundant at this point. The Social Network is sweeping the year end critics awards and is poised to be one of the most honored films of 2010. Everything seems to be working in perfect synergy in this wildly exaggerated (to its benefit) account of Mark Zuckerberg's (a wonderful Jesse Eisenberg) creation of Facebook at Harvard and the legal and social drama that ensued.
Aaron Sorkin's justifiably lauded, razor-sharp script has an amazing rhythm to it, sustaining a subject that could have easily ran out of steam in the wrong hands. And what is there to say at this point about Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's outstanding and unique score. After 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, (whose pedestrian leanings and meandering pace gall and bewilder upon subsequent viewings almost as much as the acclaim it received), David Fincher seems once again justified in his title of visionary director. His direction here elevates what could have been an average film into something singular, specific and richly engrossing. Almost every actor here seems to hit the right notes. There's Jesse Eisenberg, who I've admittedly not been a huge fan of in the past (though I did finally watch Zombieland, which I found immensely enjoyable). Here, he plays an embellished cinematic version of Mark Zuckerberg, forging his own creation (apart from similar curly mops, Eisenberg's Zuckerberg and the real Zuckerberg don't seem to be all that behaviorally similar). He plays him with a consistent, even tone of equal parts coldness, obliviousness and befuddlement at how off-putting people find him to be. It's a great turn that may read as effortless in some circles, but luckily seems to be getting a lot of year end accolades. I loved the performance when I saw the film, but awards season could have reacted either way (completely ignoring or fully embracing) and I would not have been surprised. More surprised am I by the myriad of nominations for Andrew Garfield, who plays co-founder Eduardo Saverin (though that SAG snub is telling). I much preferred him in Never Let Me Go, which is admittedly a much baitier performance in a film that I'll finally concede has totally bottomed out, both commercially and critically. This is in no way to imply that Garfield's work in The Social Network doesn't impress. The script gives him few actorly moments to sink his teeth into, but I do like a lot of the choices Garfield makes as an actor. His awards clip will probably be the now famous laptop smashing scene, but for my money, Garfield hits it out of the park in the quieter moments--the luau mixer, his initial reactions to Sean Parker at the restaurant. Reacting is such an important aspect of convincing acting and Garfield seems adept at being very communicative in this way. But it's rather low key and in no way the type of supporting turn that would ever be swept into awards season if it wasn't on the coattails of an inevitable best picture nominee. I would have much sooner expected Justin Timberlake, who plays Sean Parker of Napster fame, to be in the mix, though his is the weakest performance of the film. It is, however, a showy and in a lot of ways fun supporting turn. But it would seem that all the actors tried to dig deeper except Timberlake, who doesn't turn in a bad performance persay, but one that reeks of taking script and direction at face value without looking for subtext--the hallmark of an untrained actor. It's so heartening that such an amazing film seems to be the frontrunner going into awards season (and it's not even my favorite of the year).
Grade: A (after 2 viewings)

Catfish (dirs. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)
How appropriate that I saw this film mere minutes after walking out of The Social Network. They serve as very interesting companion pieces. In many ways Catfish actually says more about the virtual social networking culture than David Fincher's film, though both are certainly arresting and resonant pieces of filmmaking. The documentary (though many inquests have been made into the film's legitimacy as a piece of bonafide nonfiction) follows Nev Schulman (director Ariel Schulman's younger brother), a New York photographer who strikes up an online friendship with who he thinks is an attractive girl. When he goes to meet her, things are not as they seem, to say the least. I went into the film virtually (no pun intended) with nothing except people's urging not to let it be "spoiled." Walking out, I was surprised by those admonishments for this was not a "spoiler" movie, at least not from where I was sitting. Despite its documentary format, it unfolds very much like a character study in a traditional narrative. When Nev, his brother and their friend (Henry Joost, the other director) go to see this family, the interactions, the situations all feel incredibly heartwrenching and fascinating in a way that was very akin to 2005's Junebug (one of the best films of the past ten years). No, the woman was not who she said she was. And yes, she lied to them every step of the way, even after being found out. But I was surprised by the conflicting emotions drummed up inside of me. Nev Schulman has the benefit of point of view and arguable physical attraction (at least in some circles) that cloud how he may not be so morally superior to this woman who conned him. He did worm his way into this family under false pretenses and he certainly dropped little white lies here and there. Perhaps if the documentary had been told from the point of view of the other family, we might have seen the Schulmans as interlopers, out on a campaign of gotcha journalism against an already down and out clan. My point is, this movie was incredibly provocative and deeply emotional, regardless of whether it's true documentary filmmaking or not. I took it at face value because most documentaries are scripted and choreographed to a certain extent and I feel this standard is being put on Catfish in a way that it's not being put on movies like Man on Wire, which was filled with unreliable reenactments (just my two cents).
Grade: B+