Monday, December 26, 2011

The Best in Music: 2011

I'm going to spoil it for you: yeah, M83 and Bon Iver are on here. But they deserve it. It's universally acknowledged that they put out some great music this year. However, you're also going to see a host of other names that are unlikely to crop up on similar lists. I know what I like, and it ain't always what your snotty online music 'zine of choice likes. Read on ...

Overall, 2011 was a very good year for music. In fact, its only real problem was that it had the unenviable task of following 2010, which was an outstanding year for music. I think my biggest nagging problem was its distinct lack of an album that just felt like an unequivocal home run. When I heard Ashbury Heights' Take Cair Paramour last year, I knew immediately it would be the best album of the year. This year, that moment never came. My #1 album always felt like it could be nudged out of place at the last minute. Not that it isn't a fantastic album, mind. Everything I'm about to go over, albumwise and songwise, is tremendous. It's just that 2011 is the first year I can remember when I didn't have that Moment. (I did have such an epiphany for my #1 song, though. We'll get to that.)

Even so, the year held its own. There were tons of songs and records and concerts that are likely to go down in the annals of personal history for each and every one of us, and as such it's hard not to call 2011 a success. A year spent in transition, absolutely, but a good one nonetheless.

Before we begin celebrating, however, let us first have a moment of silence. 2011 cruelly relegated many artists to the musical graveyard. A special R.I.P. to a handful of personal favorites: Pure Reason Revolution, Sunset Rubdown, Wolf Parade, Innerpartysystem, R.E.M., Lou Reed and Metallica's good taste -- you will be dearly missed. May we see you all reunite someday.

And now for the fun stuff. Let's kick off the festivities with ...

  • The Most Overrated Artist of 2011: James Blake, whose supposedly groundbreaking debut sounds to me like little more than auto-tuned lounge music.

  • The Most Underrated Artist of 2011: The Rosebuds have been excelling at pop songcraft from the depths of obscurity for the better part of a decade.

  • Musical Crushes of 2011
    Chloe Alper (formerly of Pure Reason Revolution)
    Mark Foster (center, of Foster the People)

  • Favorite Music Videos of 2011
    Battles, "My Machines"

    Beirut, "Santa Fe"

    Cut Copy, "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution"

    Fleet Foxes, "The Shrine/An Argument"

    Foster the People, "Call It What You Want"

    The National, "Conversation 16"

    Tyler, the Creator, "Yonkers"

  • Top 5 Concerts of 2011
    This year I had the pleasure of attending eighteen shows and one three-day festival (which, for obvious reasons, can't be ranked). These were the best.

    05. Yeasayer @ The Music Box (Hollywood, CA)
    04. M83 @ The Music Box (Hollywood, CA)
    03. VNV Nation @ House of Blues (San Diego, CA)
    02. The Rosebuds @ Santa Fe Brewing Company (Santa Fe, NM)
    01. Arcade Fire @ Ukrainian Cultural Center (Los Angeles, CA)

    Once again, this list does not geographically discriminate. Albuquerque feels left out, though, so I'll give an honorable mention to Interpol @ Sunshine Theater. Great show; it deserves it.

  • The Best Albums of 2011
    Honorable Mention:
    The Antlers, Burst Apart
    Taking tips in equal part from Radiohead, The Cure, and Talk Talk, Burst Apart is a lean and muscular reinvention of the funereal dirges that haunted their 2009 breakthrough Hospice. It rocks harder, the melodies are stronger, the ambition is more varied, and the overall product is superior. [YouTube: "Parentheses"]

    Cold Cave, Cherish the Light Years
    I'll always have a special affinity for post-punk (you know, the likes of Joy Division, New Order, Wire, The Cure, and so on), which is why there will always be a place on my shelf for bands like Cold Cave. Without changing one thing, this record sounds like it could have been made in 1982. Before you go ripping on it for that, stop to consider that that's exactly the point. [YouTube: "Confetti"]

    Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
    2011 was, without a doubt, the year for American beard-folk revival. But if it's all going to be this good, then why the hell not? Fleet Foxes' sophomore album is a huge, sprawling affair with big songs and little songs and in-between songs, all immaculately composed and produced. I have endless respect for someone who can create something both monolithic and deeply personal, and that's exactly what Robin Pecknold has done. [YouTube: "Helplessness Blues"]

    Other Lives, Tamer Animals
    More American beard-folk for youse, although I like this one better. It's darker and richer and affects me more. Where Fleet Foxes woo me with their technical skill, Other Lives do it by rigging their somber ballads to produce small but powerful bursts of emotion. It's an understated triumph, not revealing its secrets all at once, slowly sinking in. [YouTube: "For 12"]

    Panda Bear, Tomboy
    I'll be the first to publicly scorn Animal Collective if given half a chance, but something about Panda Bear's solo work tends to click with me. If Person Pitch was a sunny, drugged-out beach party, then this is the ensuing psychedelic ritual at the bottom of the sea. It's darker, moodier, trippier, and much less welcoming, but there's still something alluring about it. [YouTube: "Slow Motion"]

    Sepalcure, Sepalcure
    Think of it as a sunlit Burial with a less singular style and a dancier, more mainstream (or at least mainstream electronic) sound and you've got a highly enjoyable record that doesn't try to be anything it isn't, but still manages to mix many of the best aspects of dance music in 2011 into a neat, fun little package. [YouTube: "Pencil Pimp"]

    TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light
    If you were hoping for another "Wolf Like Me," I think you've always been doomed to disappointment. This, the band's highly underrated fourth album, finds them settling down and mellowing out and producing some of their prettiest, most contented music to date. Sure, it won't shake your world, but you already have their other albums for that. [YouTube: "Will Do"]

    The Top 11:
    11. VNV Nation, Automatic
    Now here's an album that brings me nothing but joy. For a decade, VNV Nation -- amidst a nonstop string of some of the best live shows you will ever see -- have struggled to release another album as good as 1999's Empires. Some are better than others, all are dreadfully inconsistent. Automatic still doesn't quite reach that high water mark, but it's by far their best effort: a bright, optimistic (no, seriously!) set of songs so strong I didn't think they could still pull it off. But here we are. And fuck, did I mention they kick ass live?
    [YouTube: "Space & Time"]

    10. Pnau, Soft Universe
    As it turns out, all Pnau had to do to make the best record of their career was sell out completely. The best moments of their enjoyable but patchy 2007 self-titled ("With You Forever," "Embrace") were straight-up pop, and as if they had read my mind for an attack strategy (as well as taking tips from none other than Elton John), those tracks serve as the blueprints for their entire fourth album. The result comes off very, very well. Soft Universe is immediate, catchy, polished, and tight. Nick Littlemore steps into the frontman/lead vocalist position with an ease that makes you wonder why he hadn't before, and the songcraft is uniformly the strongest of his career. It's the perfect kind of summer album: one where everyone is likely to find their own favorites, but no one can deny they're having a great time.
    [YouTube: "Solid Ground"]

    09. Moonface, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped
    In a way, Spencer Krug's hilariously and accurately titled solo LP hits me in the same way I imagine it hit him as he was making it: as a necessary, if more than a little bit melancholy, ode to growth and change. Having sadly left behind both Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, he uses the opportunity, through one of the most unique and focused musical conceits in years, to confront some demons. It is by far the darkest work of his career, and in many ways the most inaccessible. His lyrics have always been challenging, off-kilter, and unquestionably among the very best out there, but here, still cloaked in metaphor, they feel decidedly and restlessly personal. This is a Krug album for Krug devotees; very few are going to find an in here if they haven't already. People often speak of "concept albums." Here's one: a man writes his most personal songs to date and sets them to an odd but endearing array of outdated 80s organ sounds. The artistry can't be denied; the enjoyability is up to you. [YouTube: "Fast Peter"]

    08. Radical Face, The Family Tree: The Roots
    The best I can tell, Ben Cooper's sole songwriting agenda consists of grabbing onto your heartstrings and yanking them so hard you tear up involuntarily. On The Roots, the first of a supposed Family Tree trilogy that is scheduled to be continued next year, he does a pretty damn good job. This is the epitome of old, sad bastard music. It's also gorgeous, earnest, and very very compelling. The ostensible concept of these three albums is to tell the multi-generational story of a fictional family, starting in the 1800s and working to the present. This by itself is ambitious enough, but Cooper has challenged himself to render these songs with only the instrumentation available during the timeframe in which his narrative is set. As such, this, his 1800s album, is recorded entirely on acoustic instruments: guitars, pianos, accordions, and so forth. Whether he updates the sound as he continues his odyssey remains to be seen (I'm sort of hoping for the third album to be an Electric President-esque wash of melancholy synth-pop songs, but that's just me), but if the ensuing two volumes are as good as the first, we're headed straight for a modern masterpiece. [YouTube: "Black Eyes"]

    07. M83, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
    I love M83, and you do too, so let's get the elephant out of the room and clear up any misconceptions: he has never made a fully consistent album. Each has been very good, but they all have their rough spots. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is no different, but it makes up for this shortcoming with its sheer, beauteous sprawl. The album's the thing here. While it does contain several of Anthony Gonzalez's finest songs, it is specifically designed and sequenced to be listened to as a whole. It's this approach that ultimately makes it his defining achievement, as well as the perfect soundtrack to an exuberant night in the city. There is so much to love here, and everything is so obviously in exactly the place Gonzalez wanted it to be, that it's virtually impossible not to become immersed. Its sweeping, epic scope is irresistible. Joy radiates from every synth line, all earthly problems seem to vanish, and the world takes on a warm glow that does not dissipate until the final notes have faded out. When we're old and grumpy and looking back on the music of our youth that made us feel happy, we'll think of M83. We'll throw this on and live it out and feel young again. How many albums do you know that can do that? [Soundcloud: "Reunion"]

    06. The Rosebuds, Loud Planes Fly Low
    If half of pop music is about love and attraction, it stands to reason that the other half should be about love's sometimes inevitable dark side. We've all heard tons of break-up songs. Enough to not faze us anymore. But, see, Loud Planes Fly Low isn’t like most break-up music, and so it works on different terms. Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp have spent the better part of the past decade as man and wife, churning out excellent and woefully underrated music. Somewhere in there, since the release of 2008's Life Like, their marriage fell apart. They could have disbanded. They could have done a lot of things. And yet, against all odds, here is an album of astonishing bravery and poise. This is moody, thoughtful, introspective music that never points fingers and, honestly, comes across as quite hopeful. The two acknowledge that their romantic ties have dissolved, but there’s a strong, uplifting sense that they will be able to successfully turn that page in their lives and continue as friends and bandmates. Where most would be content to sulk, the Rosebuds have taken their rocky emotions and challenged themselves to make something both inspiring and mature. It’s a hell of a feat, and they pull it off. [YouTube: "Come Visit Me"]

    05. Innerpartysystem, Never Be Content
    Innerpartysystem's final release is an intriguing breed of album (or EP, whichever; at 36 minutes, it's as long as many proper LPs): the kind with myriad noticeable flaws, yet nothing whatsoever that I would change. Call it an unconditional love. Never Be Content is a dramatic, tightly constructed overview of everything this band could do, as well as a tantalizing hint at where they might have gone had they not chosen to call it a day. A shift from their past work is immediately apparent: "And Together" announces from the gate that this will be a more overtly dance-oriented affair, and from there the record rollercoasters through six tracks of ups, downs, bumps, pivots, and loops. If the jarring, taken-on-its-own-terms first half seems a bit rough, hold out: the final three tracks are so incredible that they cast light back on the first three, allowing the entirety of the record to come together in a way that's both challenging and elegantly cohesive. Sound effects recall prior compositions, lyrics cross-reference themes, songs gang up to create a shattering sense of unity. The band might chide me for ignorning their advice, but even with its imperfections, this is exhilarating. I'm content. [YouTube: "Out of Touch"]

    04. Foster the People, Torches
    I could write a dozen pretentious things about Foster the People, from their lightning-fast rocket to fame to this album's awesome Where the Wild Things Are-style cover art to how preternaturally good-looking all of them are while still maintaining more than a modicum of musical talent, but the fact of the matter is that Torches, their auspicious debut, ranks so highly on this list because it is simply the best pop album I heard all year. Nothing more, nothing less. And I don't mean that as a pejorative. We all crave a good pop album now and again, and a pop album is exactly what it is: ten radio-ready synth-pop songs, all winners, with some (not to get ahead of myself) among the best any band had to offer up in the last twelve months. When this first dropped in May, I scarfed it up like the tasty early-summer treat that it was and readily came back for more. Well folks, it's winter, about as far removed as one can get from the sunny fire most of these songs were forged in, and I still can't get enough. I don't see the charm wearing off anytime soon. [YouTube: "Waste"]

    03. Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver
    Has this analogy been used before? Probably, but I thought of it too, and it's a good one: if Bon Iver's universally acclaimed debut For Emma, Forever Ago was (quite literally) the sound of a man sitting in a secluded cabin in the snowy dead of winter, his follow-up finds him in the thaw of spring venturing back into the real world. Where For Emma was cold and insular and monochrome, Bon Iver is painted in a rich, vibrant palette that breathes new life into each of its painstakingly crafted vignettes. In keeping with its themes of nature and geography, I like to imagine the album as a leisurely trip down a leafy, coiling river, each song a separate place or landmark along the way. As a journey, it is unparalleled. The reason for Bon Iver's near-mainstream success is as simple and pure and straightforward as most of the songs on this record: Justin Vernon is just damn good at what he does, and most people have the good sense to know a stroke of genius when they hear it. [YouTube: "Holocene"]

    02. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead
    This is probably the smartest album The Decemberists could have made. Regardless of what you thought of it, it is undeniable that they put a portion of their fanbase at arm's length with their divisive, Zeppelinesque hard-rock opera The Hazards of Love. Some loved it, others considered it a bewildering misstep (I'm somewhere in between). The King Is Dead finds Colin Meloy taking about three or four steps back, re-entering territory I think most everyone can agree upon. Gone, at least for now, are the lengthy suites and thematic song cycles, and in their place, a concise assortment of catchy, emotive, well-written, well-performed American folk songs. It's the most straightforward and approachable record the band has ever made. It's also perhaps the most unpretentiously enjoyable, a quality which has allowed it to move many, many copies and finally give them the bona fide breakthrough they deserve. So who cares if they're not breaking any new ground? In the end, The King Is Dead provides me with one of the greatest pleasures that music can give, and one that jaded music snobs like me always seem to forget is possible: the simple joy of hearing another great album by one of your favorite bands. [YouTube: "Rox in the Box"]

    01. Cut Copy, Zonoscope
    It has been almost four years, so I think I can stake this claim without too much second-guessing: Cut Copy's 2008 release In Ghost Colours is, to date, my all-time favorite electronic album. From stem to stern, it is a flawless masterpiece. Creating a worthy successor must have been an stressful task indeed, so instead of trying to re-capture the high points of that record (who could?), the band has smartly opted to move in a new, if still recognizable, direction. As such, Zonoscope is a very different record: looser, more experimental, less geared toward packing dancefloors, spurred on by the variety of sounds and song structures they can weave into their already vibrant tapestry. The expansion suits them well. They don't always hit it out of the park like they did on In Ghost Colours, but the numerous highlights easily stand among the band's best material, while the rest still rises miles above the generic product that plagues so much of this genre. To wit: Zonoscope is not another perfect album, but it is an immensely satisfying one that cements Cut Copy at the forefront of electronic pop music. To have one #1 album is a hell of a feat. To have two in a row, well, that's a prestige reserved for giants. Bring on #3, guys; I know you have it in you. [SoundCloud: "Take Me Over"]

  • The Best Songs of 2011
    Honorable Mention:
    The Antlers, "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out"
    Binge drinking meets sexual frustration in The Antlers' most immediate and accessible song to date, a paranoid and electrifying spiral into hell that sounds nothing like the band we knew two years ago. [YouTube]

    Burial, "Street Halo"
    With special shout-outs to its two phenomenal b-sides, "NYC" and "Stolen Dog." Burial's first proper solo release since 2007's game-changing Untrue is a shrewd update of his signature sound that incorporates elements of house into his spooky ambient textures and skittering rhythms. Though more streamlined, the feeling remains the same: a perfect evocation of the unsettling isolation of nighttime. [YouTube]

    Coldplay, "Hurts Like Heaven"
    I wrote in 2008 when I put "Viva La Vida" on my Top Ten (I stand by it, motherfuckers) that Coldplay would never record a better song. It's still true. This is the next best thing: an anti-"Viva La Vida," brazen, energetic, sunny, and upbeat. That it's by Coldplay doesn't keep it from being good. [YouTube]

    The Decemberists, "Down by the Water"
    It's hard to pick a favorite from The King Is Dead. I'm not even sure I have one, so I'm falling back on this, the excellent harmonica-driven lead single that harkens back to early-80s R.E.M. in the best possible way. [YouTube]

    Example, "Changed the Way You Kiss Me"
    This, a concise and tuneful electro-pop track with a conspicuous hip-hop and dubstep influence, was a #1 hit in Example's native Britain. It failed to chart stateside. You tell me what's wrong with that. [YouTube]

    Fleet Foxes, "Blue Spotted Tail"
    Robin Pecknold went super ambitious to craft his band's excellent sophomore album only to have its most affecting moment be its simplest: a soft, brief, acoustic meditation on that all-encompassing question, "What's the meaning of it all?" [YouTube]

    M83, "Midnight City"
    The only thing greater than the massive hype surrounding this song is the song itself. Chalk it up to Anthony Gonzalez's tremendous ability to write a hook. There wasn't a more instantly recognizable track this year. Listen to it once, come back to it any amount of time of time later. Days, weeks, months, whatever. It'll take you two seconds to realize, "Oh! It's 'Midnight City'!" When Gonzalez wails, "The city is my church!" I still get chills. An instant classic. [YouTube]

    Pure Reason Revolution, "Tempest"
    The swan song from one of my favorite artists. Lots of bands broke up this year, but none broke my heart as much as this one. A gorgeous and fitting goodbye. [YouTube]

    Radiohead, "The Butcher"
    There was, if you were paying close attention, exactly one song this year that showed that Radiohead is still worth a damn. So of course they gave it b-side status on a vinyl-only single. Thanks, guys. [YouTube]

    The Whip, "Best Friend"
    A late-year contender that swooped in at the last minute and showed me once again how much I enjoy the electropop genre when it's done right. At this point in my life, it could well be the type of music I enjoy most unreservedly; my musical best friend, one might say. I'm okay with that. [YouTube]

    The Top 11:
    11. Wolf Gang, "Lions in Cages"
    Few songs this year better filled the seemingly obligatory role of anthemic indie pop song than this little morsel, the lead track off Wolf Gang's solidly enjoyable debut. Though lyrically dark, the music is catchy, upbeat, and memorable, with the sort of chorus you'll find yourself absent-mindedly humming as you're carting through the supermarket. The sound is big and important, and Max McElligott sells every note with his strong vocal delivery, winding the song up into a low-key victory. I am sure this is not the best song he can write, but it's a hell of a start, and I'll be one of many onboard to see what he tries next. [YouTube]

    10. Silversun Pickups, "Seasick"
    Brian Aubert's secret is that he smolders beautifully. Always stopping short of exploding outright, he conveys seething tension that never quite boils over. Where most can only communicate rage, Aubert's restraint allows Silversun Pickups the luxury of a sexy dangerousness that's just as apparent as ever on their newest single. It's nothing less than ear candy for those of us who believe that this sexy dangerousness makes for some seriously invigorating music. [YouTube]

    09. Innerpartysystem, "Not Getting Any Better"
    It's hard work writing a lengthy song that merits its runtime. Far too many veer off course and become boring or tiresome. "Not Getting Any Better" is the ideal antidote: a song that starts modestly, then spends every second of its eight minutes building in exactly the direction I want it to. This is Innerpartysystem in microcosm: the one track that evenhandedly shows they could write both pop songs and dancefloor monsters and emerge doubly fulfilled. From the careful melodies of the vocal sections to the eventual dance breakout, and the slow-burning synthesized strings that link them together, this is an underrated band at the top of their game. Maybe they thought they weren't getting any better; I beg to differ. [YouTube]

    08. Other Lives, "Tamer Animals"
    I was a champion of Other Lives' debut in 2009, but for all its lovely piano ballads and mournful melodies in self-referencing keys, it lacked a standout that was able to worm its way into my heart. The title track from their superior sophomore album rectifies any and all problems. This is a lush and cloudy affair, every bit as beautiful as it is subtly defeating. Make no mistake: this is not the soundtrack to your next hipster bake sale. This is quiet, secluded music, for when you're feeling down and just need some time to stop and sort everything out. We all have those days. Winona Ryder said it best in Heathers: "If you were happy every day of your life, you wouldn't be a human being; you'd be a game show host." Other Lives understand this. They've got your back. [YouTube]

    07. Destroyer, "Bay of Pigs (Detail)"
    The thing about this song that makes it work so beautifully is that, at least as far as I know, it's the best possible version of what it is. In other words, when I say "drunk poet rambling for eleven minutes over guitars and ambient synths," neither you nor I nor anyone could find a better exemplar than Destroyer's "Bay of Pigs." I have been hating on Dan Bejar for years, and almost always with just cause, but this song proves that artists a person doesn't especially like can still strike gold if the time is right. I don't question its magnificence. Bejar's lyrics are crisp and pointed and beautiful, while the atmospherics he chooses to accompany them are ideally suited to the sort of foggy, intoxicated, deeply nostalgic nighttime stroll that the words evoke. And if this all just sounds oh so pretentious, he rewards you for your patience: the final portion is the clearest and catchiest music he has written, allowing the song to culminate exactly where it should -- in the stratosphere. So thank you, Dan. I am the last person I ever thought would put a song of yours on a top 10 (or 11) list, but this one deserves it. It's marvelous. [YouTube]

    06. Radical Face, "Ghost Towns"
    I'm still an English major at heart. I love words and stories and am trained to instinctively read symbolism into anything that will let me. I could write entire theses on "Ghost Towns," a heartbreaking song about a drifter whose inner monologue seems to double as a metaphor for the entire human condition. True, Ben Cooper is singing as a fictional character within the narrative framework of his album, but this character is so achingly universal that anyone who crosses his path is likely to relate to him. "I've seen more places than I can name, and over time they all start to look the same. But it ain't the truth we chase. No, it's the promise of a better place. But all this time I've been chasing down a lie, and I know it for what it is, but it beats the alternatives, so I'll take the lie," he sings, and lest you have a heart of stone, I challenge you not to feel something. When the coup de grâce comes in the form of a mournful accordion solo, you'll hardly know what came over you, but you'll know it moved you and you'll realize how powerful it was. [YouTube]

    05. The Good Natured, "Wolves"
    I am a man of simple but discerning taste. Sometimes all it takes to quench my musical thirst is a good, solid slice of electropop. Few were able to do it better this year than up-and-comers The Good Natured do on "Wolves." Think Witching Hour-era Ladytron with more drive and less flourish, sacrificing not one bit of the former's melodic prowess (the last 45 seconds feature a beautiful, and frankly unexpected, vocal coda that takes the song to another level). It's just about as immediate and engaging as this type of music gets, with enough hooks to keep you tethered and enough pure satisfaction to make you rush back to that replay button again and again. [YouTube]

    04. Guillemots, "Walk the River"
    I thought Guillemots were a flash in the pan. I never thought they'd match their brilliant "Trains to Brazil" (the only song I've ever heard that satisfyingly, and for that matter perfectly, addresses terrorism on a personal level), but here, trading universality and worldliness for an uncomfortable level of intimacy, they have. "Walk the River" may not be the better song, but it hits me harder. A lyrical masterwork, it better describes my day-to-day feelings at this point in my life than anything else I've heard. Most artists struggle for entire careers to pen a turn of phrase that can take my breath away. Here, in this very song, Guillemots do it twice. [YouTube]

    03. Bon Iver, "Michicant"
    I'll tell it to you straight: I wept the first time I heard this song. Not torrentially, but there were tears in my eyes. Who's to say why? Maybe, on some level, I related to Justin Vernon's impressionistic lyrics about youth, or maybe -- what with its harmonies and lullaby-ish vocal melody -- it really was just that beautiful. I have listened to it countless times since and, although the tears don't always come, the feeling is always there. And while much has been said already about this song's canny use of a bicycle bell, I have to agree: it is likely the most perfectly implemented use of that sound that I know of. [YouTube]

    02. Cut Copy, "Need You Now"
    A tour de force of build-and-release. Having shown the world about twelve times over on In Ghost Colours that they can write a perfect pop song, Cut Copy try their hand at something decidedly less immediate: a slowly percolating anthem that starts off modest and low-key, only to finish with fireworks and confetti and party streamers. It's a testament to their craft that it's impossible to pinpoint any one moment where the build backshifts into release, but somewhere along the way you'll realize you're flying where just minutes ago you were grounded, chugging away towards an unknown destination. The feeling is beautiful, cathartic, and just about the best thing I could have possibly asked for from this band. And I ask for a lot from this band. I hate giving nods to Pitchfork, 'cause they're a bunch of wankers, but they hit the nail on the head: "Need You Now" is the perfect side A, track one; an ideal kickstart to just about any album, mix, party, or life event it may be soundtrack to. It's rare for a band to shoot for the stars and actually make it. It's even rarer for them to keep going once they've gotten there. [SoundCloud]

    01. Foster the People, "Helena Beat"
    This is it, I think. It's the first weekend of my last undergrad spring break and I am standing, beerless and by myself, in a tiny bar in Santa Fe, NM, with about thirty drunk, mostly inattentive people, listening to an L.A. band no one has ever heard of (Foster the People? The hell kinda name is that?) play "Helena Beat." This is the best song of 2011. Corazón has now closed its doors and Foster the People have since become one of the most popular bands in the country, but despite these radical changes, I firmly keep to my assertion. There wasn't a better song this year. There couldn't have been. What "Helena Beat" does, it does perfectly. Whatever it is that makes this song so mindbogglingly great, it has satisfied all of my requirements for an entire genre. That's a big fucking deal. But I know, definitively, it isn't any one thing. The voice, the melodies, the appealingly processed instrumentation, the gradual build to that glorious final thirty seconds -- these all coalesce into one of the most satisfying four and a half minutes I have ever spent listening to pop music. "Helena Beat" wasn't the hit, wasn't the song that put this band on the map and made everyone turn their heads, but it should have been. [YouTube]

    And that's it, folks! As always, comments about my ridiculously questionable taste are always welcome and encouraged. See you all in 2012!
  • Tuesday, June 28, 2011

    the rosebuds @ santa fe brewing company

    Other Lives: I could have listened to these guys play all night. It was obvious the crowd (all thirty people or whatever), most of whom obviously had never even heard of these guys, were duly impressed.

    As I Lay My Head Down
    Dark Horse
    For 12
    Tamer Animals
    Dust Bowl III
    Old Statues

    The Rosebuds: Before the show started, there were a pair of setlists just sitting on a table. No one was around and nobody seemed to care, so I took one. It ruined the surprise factor, but so what? Badass.

    Go Ahead
    Limitless Arms
    Second Bird of Paradise
    Cemetery Lawn
    Leaves Do Fall
    Come Visit Me
    Waiting for You
    Life Like
    Cover Ears
    Nice Fox

    Overall, absolutely amazing. During "Nice Fox," the band actually exited the stage and came down into the (again, very small) audience and proceeded to coach us through an acoustic sing-along. It was the most intimate moment I have ever had at a show. There were so few of us and we were all just standing right next to the band and singing with them and having a great time. It was ... really something special.

    Sunday, November 21, 2010 survey!

    1. How did you get into 29?
    Artist: M83
    Answer: This was back in the days when I actually gave a shit about Pitchfork. Saturdays=Youth had just come out, so I checked that out. The rest is history.

    2. What was the first song you ever heard by 22?
    Artist: The Morning Benders
    I'm sure it was "Excuses." I also have a huge crush on this band, collectively.

    3. How many albums by 13 do you own?
    Artist: The Beatles
    Oh, god. Of course it had to be The Beatles. HANG ON. ... It looks like 26 on CD. I'm not driving across town to count my dad's vinyls.

    4. What is your favorite song by 5?
    Artist: The National
    It's "Lemonworld." Although "Fake Empire" is pretty much perfect, too.

    5. What is your favorite song by 15?
    Artist: Gorillaz
    They're arguably the best mainstream singles band of the past decade, but ... oh, who the hell am I kidding? "Clint Eastwood."

    6. Is there a song by 6 that makes you happy?
    Artist: tie between Sunset Rubdown and Arcade Fire
    As far as SR goes, "The Mending of the Gown" is the single greatest live song I have ever seen performed. This has held true on more than one occasion. As far as Arcade Fire ... man, happy really isn't what they do. I may have to abstain.

    7. What is your favorite song by 10?
    Artist: Sufjan Stevens
    "Casimir Pulaski Day." It is the best, most beautiful, and ultimately most devastating song about losing a loved one I have ever heard.

    8. What is a good memory you have involving 30?
    I have no #30. Therefore, good memories are more or less hard to come by.

    9. Is there a song by 19 that makes you happy?
    Artist: Pink Floyd
    Happy in the traditional sense? Probably none. But any given track off Animals still makes me quiver with joy.

    10. How many times have you seen 26 live?
    Artist: The Radio Dept.
    Thaaaat would be none.

    11. What is the first song you heard by 23?
    Artist: AFI
    Very, very easy question. Flashbulb memory from 2001. "Days of the Phoenix."

    12. What is your favorite album by 11?
    Artist: Wolf Parade
    Apologies to the Queen Mary.

    13. Who is your favorite member of 1?
    Artist: Pure Reason Revolution
    I know full well that Jon Courtney is the creative genius and frontman of this band, but man, Chloe Alper fuckin' rocks it.

    14. Have you ever seen 14 live?
    Artist: The Moody Blues
    Indeed. Three times! They rock hard for a bunch of dinosaurs.

    15. What is a good memory involving 27?
    Artist: The Rosebuds
    I think just being introduced to them (via Night of the Furies) by my friend back in '07, and slowly coming to realize that that particular album is one of the best things I've ever heard.

    16. What is your favorite song by 16?
    Artist: Frightened Rabbit
    "The Modern Leper." I take my self-loathing very seriously.

    17. What is your favorite album by 18?
    Artist: Of Montreal
    Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? There's not even any competition.

    18. What is your favorite song by 21?
    Artist: Crystal Castles
    ... yeah, seriously, how can you not say their version of "Not in Love" with Robert Smith? That would've been one of the best songs of pretty much any year it could've chosen to come out in.

    19. What is the first song you heard by 25?
    Artist: Janelle Monae
    I don't remember exactly. It was probably "Cold War."

    20. What is your favorite album by 2?
    Artist: Ashbury Heights
    Take Cair Paramour. Like, duh.

    21. What is your favorite song by 3?
    Artist: The Cure
    God DAMMIT. Fuck this question. How the hell can I possibly determine? Fuck it, let's just say "Fascination Street" and get it over with. But there are like seventeen others.

    22. What is your favorite song by 8?
    Artist: Silversun Pickups
    "Future Foe Scenarios." Always has been, always will be.

    23. How many times have you seen 17 live?
    Artist: Yeasayer
    None. But that's not going to stop it from happening. I wanna see a show where the same band can somehow manage to play "2080" and "Mondegreen" in the same set and have it work.

    24. What is the worst song by 12?
    Artist: Apoptygma Berzerk
    Ohhh, they've had some clunkers along the way. Probably any one of the unmemorable tracks from Rocket Science, which was, like, 80% of that album.

    25. What was the first song you heard by 28?
    Artist: Radiohead
    I may. Be paranoid. But not an. Android.

    26. What is your favorite album by 7?
    NO #7. OH NO. I have two bands tied at #6 and one at #8. I'll give you my favorite albums from all of them instead.
    Arcade Fire: Funeral
    Sunset Rubdown: Random Spirit Lover
    Silversun Pickups: Carnavas

    27. What is your favorite song by 24?
    Artist: Scissor Sisters
    Is it in my genes that I always had to like this band, or did I CHOOSE to like this band (and Jake Shears, who is hot)? LET THE DEBATE BEGIN. "Sex and Violence."

    28. Is there a song by 9 that makes you happy?
    Artist: Foals
    "Balloons." It's, like, if I were ever going to have a hipster barbecue, that'd be my music of choice.

    29. What is your favorite album by 4?
    Artist: Brand New
    The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. It's pretty much my #2 album of all-time.

    30. How many albums do you own by 20?
    Artist: Modest Mouse
    Uh, all of them, I think. All of their studio albums, anyway (plus Building Nothing Out of Something, which is awesome and might as well be).

    Monday, November 1, 2010

    of montreal @ sunshine theater

    Black Lion Massacre
    Coquet Coquette
    The Party's Crashing Us
    Suffer for Fashion
    Our Riotous Defects
    Like a Tourist
    Sex Karma
    Girl Named Hello
    Plastis Wafer
    St. Exquisite's Confessions
    Gronlandic Edit
    You Do Mutilate?
    Hydra Fancies
    She's a Rejecter
    Casualty of You
    Around the Way
    Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse
    For Our Elegant Caste
    A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger

    Michael Jackson Medley (Thriller/Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'/PYT)

    Overall: Holy shit! A REALLY GREAT SHOW at the Sunshine? It CAN be done!

    Tuesday, July 27, 2010

    silversun pickups @ the fillmore

    Growing Old Is Getting Old
    Well Thought Out Twinkles
    Sort Of
    There's No Secrets This Year
    The Royal We
    Little Lover's So Polite
    It's Nice to Know You Work Alone
    Future Foe Scenarios
    Kissing Families
    Catch and Release
    Panic Switch
    Lazy Eye

    Three Seed
    Common Reactor

    What they played was one hell of a setlist. Granted, they only have two albums and an EP out there, but their selections were excellent. "Three Seed," one of my favorites from Carnavas, was an especially lovely addition.

    ...but they didn't play "Rusted Wheel," which is even more of a favorite from Carnavas. Even so, this is the only major complaint I can make about the set. The two songs from Swoon they didn't play ("Draining" and "Surrounded") are inessential, and the Carnavas tracks were well chosen. It might have been nice to hear "Comeback Kid" from the EP, but they did do "Kissing Families," so I'm callin' it good.

    The highlight was undoubtedly the one-two punch of "Panic Switch" and "Lazy Eye" at the end of the set. Though they were plenty animated before this, it felt like they saved the bulk of their energy for those two songs. They were incredible. And why not? Those are probably their two most famous tracks, so it's fitting they should be performed with gusto.

    The low point, even though I love love love the song, was "Catch and Release." It's one of the best songs off Swoon, but in a concert setting it just kind of trips up the momentum a bit. Again, as far as the slow songs go, "Three Seed" fared much better.

    Brian Aubert has one of the most amazing voices in rock music (he goes from fragile and timid-sounding to ferocious screaming with nary an ounce of hesitation), and he has an extremely endearing stage presence. He just seems like he's a very, very friendly guy, and his comments and anecdotes were hilarious (the bit about playing "The Royal We" at Monolith in 2008 and not having memorized the lyrics yet, leading to him singing something like "la la da da la la THE ROYAL WE!", was especially entertaining).

    The whole band looks like they're having a whole ton of fun at what they're doing, and that makes them compulsively watchable (in addition to the fact that, ya know, they're playing tremendous music). It also brought to my attention just how good of a guitarist Aubert is. He rattles off some pretty ridiculous riffs while he's singing and makes it look effortless.

    The crowd was very interesting. They were perhaps the least physically animated crowd I have ever been in (I mean, we were standing still), but they were unbelievably receptive towards the band. We're talking like super enthusiastic screaming and applause almost constantly. Brian screams? Crowd goes wild. Nikki sings? Crowd goes wild. Chris does his (freakin' awesome) drum solo at the beginning of "Common Reactor"? Crowd. Etc. But it was awesome, too, and the band was obviously very flattered by it. "We've played in Denver before," Brian said to us. "But never like this."

    The Fillmore needs to get some goddamn ventilation. It was fucking TOASTING in there. "Is it hot in here?" Aubert asked us part-way through the set, smiling. Oh god yes.

    The opening bands were The Henry Clay People and Against Me! Both were unusual in that their stage presence was much, much more interesting than their actual music. The Henry Clay People may or may not be the drunkest band I've ever seen, but they certainly acted the drunkest (especially the rambling singer and the guitarist who kept trying to get close with his bandmates, and ended up kicking over the keyboard). Against Me! were energetic, and I probably would have liked them more had I been familiar with their stuff. A couple songs sounded good, though. I'll do some digging.

    So yeah. Overall: really awesome night.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010

    Halftime Report: 2010

    God, this year is getting away from me fast. It really does not feel like 2010 should be half over already, but there you have it. As is my annual tradition, it's time to revisit some of my favorite new music from the past six months, as well as briefly look forward to some Stuff of Promise that might crop up between now and December 31.

    Ten favorite songs of the year so far, five favorite albums. Let's do it!

    The Songs:
    10. Owen Pallett, "Lewis Takes off His Shirt"
    Owen Pallett, formerly known as Final Fantasy and also the man responsible for Arcade Fire's string arrangements, is a gay Canadian violinist who has recently discovered the joys of electronic pop. Let's be honest: this song sounds exactly like you'd expect it to. That it is also tremendous goes without saying.

    9. The Golden Filter, "Frejya's Ghost"
    If Perfume Tree made electropop, it would probably sound something like this. Now, if the world were a just place and people actually knew who the hell Perfume Tree was, this statement would carry a lot more weight. Suffice it to say, "Frejya's Ghost" is a gorgeous and even somewhat eerie foray into atmospheric disco, with an enchanting vocalist who makes her singing feel effortless.

    8. Go Periscope, "Crush Me"
    They're cute, too. See, I have no dignity.

    7. Foals, "Black Gold"
    The obligatory favorite track from the new Foals album. I know I'm "supposed" to give this award to "Miami" or "Spanish Sahara" (both fantastic songs in their own right, mind), but there's something about that "they buried the gold..." bridge that I just can't deny. So be it.

    6. Gorillaz, "Stylo" and "Rhinestone Eyes"
    I couldn't choose just one. But listen, you've got to understand my position: how did Damon Albarn's so-called "virtual hip-hop" side project (essentially just created as a lark about a decade ago while he tried to figure out what to do with Blur) become not only the best act in their field, but also one of the best singles bands of any discipline from the past decade? It blows my mind. And it's no small compliment when I say that these two tracks easily hold their own with the best stuff the band has recorded.

    5. Yeasayer, "O.N.E."
    I justify the absence of this song from my life until just recently by reminding myself that this is, indeed, the perfect Summer Anthem and that any prior exposure would have probably diminished said summery effect. Or something. Glorious retro-80s dance-pop; the last sixty seconds pretty much kill me every time.

    4. De/Vision, "Flash of Life"
    I'm running out of clever ways to say "this song is good." This song, my personal favorite from a very consistent and even album, is good. If you like synth-pop, there's a really good chance you'll enjoy this. If you don't, there's a really good chance you won't. That's pretty much as simple as I can make it.

    3. Brighten, "Without You"
    Y'know, I'm still not entirely sure why I like this so much, but maybe that's part of its charm. It's catchy and it's sweet and it makes me wish the nine thousand other bands that sound like this could be even a fraction as enjoyable.

    2. The National, "Lemonworld"
    The National's genius lies in the fact that they are masters of twenty-something everyman angst. Tons of artists whine about relationships and loneliness and sorrow, but few -- if any -- capture life's day-to-day ennui with the same poignance as Matt Berninger & co. "Lemonworld" is a song that feels like it could have been written about my life (the "this pricey stuff..." verse hits especially close to home), and while such an admission is not particularly flattering for me, it goes a hell of a long way to showing how deeply this music has moved me.

    1. Wolf Parade, "Cloud Shadow on the Mountain"
    As solid a #1 as there can be, Spencer Krug's surreal, frenetic jam may be his single finest track since 2007's "The Mending of the Gown." As usual, I don't have the slightest clue what the hell his (characteristically wonderful) lyrics are supposed to mean, but I can sleep soundly at night knowing my life would be woefully incomplete without them.

    The Albums:
    5. Wolf Parade, Expo 86
    There's little doubt in my mind that, taken as a whole, Expo 86 is the weakest entry in the Wolf Parade canon thus far (but look what it's up against, eh?). Still, it's a textbook example of an album where the weak tracks ("Palm Road," "Two Men in New Tuxedos," and so forth) are vastly overshadowed by the best material: "Ghost Pressure" may well be the best song Dan Boeckner has ever written, while Spencer Krug's "Cloud Shadow on the Mountain" and "What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)" are staggering additions his already inhuman resume. No, it's not an album I see myself listening to from start to finish very often, but its best moments stand with the band's strongest material. And that's high praise.

    4. The National, High Violet
    If their (still ridiculously good) 2007 breakthrough Boxer was the sound of The National proving that their signature brand of understated, moody indie-rock was compatible with the world at large, then High Violet shows the band capitalizing on those strengths and making their biggest, lushest collection of songs to date. It, like all National albums, took a few listens to grow on me, but now I'm firmly under its spell. I'd even hasten to say that it's the best record these guys have made.

    3. De/Vision, Popgefahr
    If Depeche Mode hadn't lost it after Violator, this is the kind of album I could imagine them making in 2010. Popgefahr is 45 minutes of slick, enjoyable, semi-darkwave synth-pop with a keen ear for melody and tons of danceability. So, uh, what more do you need, exactly?

    2. Foals, Total Life Forever
    Something happened to Foals. Their hipster barbecue-ready Antitodes was one of the funnest, most enjoyable albums of '08, but never in a million years would I have thought that that band was capable of making something like Total Life Forever. Play "Spanish Sahara" back to back with "Cassius" and you'll see what I mean: the bouncy, prickly math-rock that used to define their sound has been replaced by a dark, lush, restrained beauty. While they still allow themselves a little levity ("Miami" and "This Orient," while lyrically downbeat, are excellent pop singles), the overall growth and maturity on display are unmissable. The fact that no one saw it coming just adds to the thrill: it's the year's biggest surprise so far, and just a damn fine album.

    1. Yeasayer, Odd Blood
    The more I listen to this, the more I realize that I can't get enough of it. The whole 80s revivalism thing has been going on for years, but rarely with the creativity and exuberance that Yeasayer show here. While the vaguely Animal Collective-ish progressive elements help to keep the songs interesting, it's the overall quality of the songwriting that really makes the album soar. Of course "O.N.E." and "Madder Red" are essential listening, but even the dumb schlocky tracks like "Rome" and "Mondegreen" are immensely satisfying. Sure, Odd Blood may suffer from a little bit of an identity crisis, but against all odds I think it's actually better for it. Simply put, this is what synth-pop should sound like in the year 2010.

    Honorable Mentions: Broken Social Scene (Forgiveness Rock Record), The Golden Filter (Voluspa), Gorillaz (Plastic Beach), Minus the Bear (Omni), The Radio Dept. (Clinging to a Scheme).

    And, of course...
    People Who Have Promised Us New Stuff in the Latter Half of 2010: Arcade Fire, Ashbury Heights, Interpol, Of Montreal, Panda Bear, Pure Reason Revolution, Radiohead(!).

    See you in six months when I do this to myself for the entire year. It should be exciting, and it will happen sooner than you think. 'Til then!

    Friday, June 4, 2010

    Reading Log: Summer 2010

    Let the annual summer reading binge begin! Comments will be added here whenever I finish reading something. There's no concrete schedule or anything, but I'm hoping to put something in here about once a week or so. So stay tuned!

    June 4:
    The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall (2007)
    A fun and inventive, if somewhat restless, postmodern fantasy/horror novel that plays out like the natural combination of Danielewski's House of Leaves and Gaiman's Neverwhere. Hall's problem is that he, like the titular shark, bites off a little more than he can chew. In telling the story of Eric Sanderson, Hall effectively constructs an entire mythology which, despite being fascinating and clever, is never really detailed for the reader as much as it should be. The story runs as such: Sanderson awakes one morning, memory completely erased, only to discover that he is being preyed upon by an especially aggressive species of "purely conceptual fish" that swims through thought streams and feeds off memories and information. It's a gleefully enjoyable premise, and for the most part Hall runs with it (the House of Leaves-esque textual stylings are especially effective). He just lets the details and finer points of his creation get the better of him. Even so, the story is well told (even if the central romance does feel a bit strained in places -- one is left wishing Hall would have come up with a plotline as ingenious and original as his overall concept) and the ride is quick, snappy, amusing, and consistently intriguing. And it is the guy's first novel, after all. More than just cutting him some slack, I really want to give him a giant pat on the back for even attempting something so audacious and, frankly, relevant to the internet generation. So yeah: all nitpicks aside, it's good stuff. And Ian is just delightful. Grade: B+

    Sunday, April 11, 2010

    vnv nation @ the launchpad

    I have seen these guys three times now. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that they are the best live band in existence. A VNV Nation show is not a concert; it is a life experience. I ... really. Words escape me. These guys are so amazing.

    Pro Victoria
    Tomorrow Never Comes
    Dark Angel
    The Fathest Star

    Encore 1:

    Encore 2:

    What You Played: Was goddamn incredible. No, really. Look at that setlist. Plus the second encore included a completely impromptu decision to jam out and play "Electronaut," during which Ronan and Mark entered into some pretty intense keyboard dueling.

    ...But You Didn't Play: Anything from Praise the Fallen. C'mon, guys. You did "Honour" and "Solitary" last July. And I've still yet to hear you play "Joy." Also, I don't think you've ever once played "Where There Is Light," and you should rectify that. Other than that, bravo. REALLY.

    The Opening Band: Was System Syn, and they were really really good. And they played a kickass EBM cover of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." VNV Nation is really good at the opening band game. Seriously: Imperative Reaction, Ayria, War Tapes, these guys. Not a bad one in the bunch.

    The Launchpad: Is by far the best venue in Albuquerque and, despite employing the biggest douchebags on the planet as techies and bouncers, I'm immensely glad VNV played there again.

    The Crowd: Was tremendous. Seriously. They told us we were the loudest audience they'd had on this tour.

    Ronan Harris: Is the nicest man on the planet. As per usual, he signed posters and shook hands.

    The Best Shit of My Life: Was before the first encore. The band had some sound monitor problems, so the tech guys had to run around in the dark and mess with the equipment. This obviously delayed the band from coming back and playing their encore. SO, Ronan explains the situation, tells us to bear with them, and suggests we sing "a Journey song or something." The crowd then proceeds to sing in unision an entire medley of Journey songs. It was beautiful.

    Tonight: Was incredible. Thank you, Albuquerque, for reminding me that you really can play host to amazing shows. It's been over a year -- since February of '09 when I saw Streetlight Manifesto at, hey whaddaya know, The Launchpad -- that I've even been to a good one here, much less something like this.

    ... next for-sure show is Minus the Bear next month sometime. They're playing at the Sunshine (god I hate the Sunshine), but hey. At least they're playing here, right?

    Sunday, January 31, 2010

    brand new @ the fillmore (setlist)

    Setlist: (complete and in order, because I'm awesome)
    Soco Amaretto Lime
    Bought a Bride
    The Archers Bows Have Broken
    Sowing Season
    Sic Transit Gloria ... Glory Fades
    The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows
    Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don't
    Limousine (MS Rebridge)
    You Won't Know
    You Stole
    At the Bottom
    Welcome to Bangkok
    Jude Law and a Semester Abroad
    Seventy Times 7

    No encore, though. So it goes.

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    Movie Roundup: 10/23/09

    Holy crap. I am never letting one of these posts get so out-of-hand again. I guess I misjudged myself: school doesn't cut down on actual movie watching; it just cuts down on the spare time in which I can write about them. I waited two months to post this; now I face the consequences. In the interests of time, I've cut down on the wordage for some of them, but that's all right: you, venerable and blessed reader, would probably be here all day otherwise. I wouldn't want that.

    So. There are 31 movies here (an average of one movie every other day; I'm truly incurable). Lots of high scores, though, and very few low ones (and even an extremely rare 100). And of course, due to the fact that I'm taking a class on the Master, lots of Hitchcock as well.

    As always: films previously unseen by me in bold italics, films I've seen before in orange. Let's do this.

    The Scale
    100-90: Blissful, orgasmic cinema. This is something extremely special.
    89-80: An excellent, unmissable film. I probably own this (or will) and you should, too.
    79-70: A very strong film well worth seeing.
    69-60: This is good. It has some problems, but it's still an enjoyable piece of work.
    59-50: The gray area. Certain things work about this, other things don't. It depends on mood and taste.
    49-40: A mediocre or lackluster film. Not painful, but conspicuously flawed.
    39-30: Plain bad. Don't go near this, please.
    29-20: Incredibly terrible. Only worth a viewing if self-torture is desired.
    19-0: Hooooo mama.

    9 (Shane Acker, 2009) 62
    If looks were everything, 9 would be one hell of a movie. The thing is beautiful: from its broad strokes to its minute details, every aspect of its (admittedly very eerie) animation style is just about perfect. I just wish the story had been ... well, a little more engaging.

    The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935) 75
    Probably the first Hitchcock film that's regarded as a bona fide classic, and it's easy to see why. It's entertaining, suspenseful, intriguing, and just a lot of fun to watch. Robert Donat is great as the film's droll protagonist, and everything here just seems to fit together really, really well.

    2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004) 44
    Gorgeous. Well acted. Amazingly directed. Pretentious. Boring. Depressing. That's pretty much all you need to know about 2046, should you ever want to watch it. It's dense and complicated and, despite an abundance of eye-popping visuals, almost entirely dialogue-driven. And at the end of the day, especially with the lack of a satisfying emotional payoff, it's really just not worth it. I remember watching this few years ago and finding it really interesting. Upon revisiting it, it doesn't hold up nearly as well. There are plenty of strong ideas here (it's not a case of style over substance by any means; there's definitely a story, its episodic nature just fails to hold interest), but it doesn't seem quite like Wong Kar-Wai knows how to properly execute them. Still, pretty as hell. Those futuristic sequences are lovely eye candy.

    Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009) 73
    Wow, this is not the movie the trailers advertised. As I'm sure was the case with many other folks, I immediately dismissed this when I saw the preview last winter: it looked like yet another juvenile gross-out flick, albeit one set in an amusement park, and I wouldn't have been caught dead going to see it. And then when the movie actually came out it was met with some alarmingly positive reviews. Well hell, thought I, perhaps there is more to this. I never got a chance to catch it in the theaters, but now here it is on DVD, and you know what? It is a very good movie. Far from what I was expecting, this is a pretty straightforward romance flick. And while it definitely still falls under the umbrella of "comedy," it takes itself far more seriously than I would've imagined, and the result is a surprisingly strong emotional component to counterpoint the occasional laugh-out-loud moment (the "Rock Me Amadeus" thing really amused me, for some reason). While not as audacious or as clever as the more recent (500) Days of Summer, it shares a lot of its insight, and that alone should be enough of a recommendation. Adventureland was directed by Greg Mottola, the man also responsible for Superbad. While not as gaspingly hilarious as its predecessor, this is arguably the more mature product. It's smart, it's sweet, and it's absolutely nothing like you were led to believe.

    The Big Lebowski (The Coen Brothers, 1998) 91
    This has become such a cult film that I really don't have much to say about it anymore. Either you're in the camp who think it's self-indulgent and weird for its own sake and find that immensely irritating, or you're in the camp who think it's self-indulgent and weird for its own sake and realize that that's pretty much what's so damn brilliant about it. The movie's just fucking bizarre, almost to the extent that you have to watch it multiple times before you've assured yourself it's safe to laugh at, but each viewing just makes it funnier and funnier. Not the Coens' best (sorry to be a traditionalist, that honor still goes to Fargo), but certainly among their finest work, and one of my favorite comedies ever.

    The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963) 60
    Yeah, I know it's considered one of Hitchcock's classics, but especially now that I'm older (I first saw this when I was, like, ten) it just comes across as kind of silly to me. It's well made, as pretty much all of Hitchcock's films are, and there are a couple scenes that really stick with you (the iconic playground sequence, of course, comprises the best few moments in the film), but overall this is just a shadow of what the man was truly capable of producing. Add that to the fact that, unlike lots of people, I'm really not frightened of birds whatsoever, and you have an intriguing if flawed curiosity. Of course everyone should see it once, but it's certainly not among the Master's finest.

    Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929) 57
    Hitchcock's first talkie (and, indeed, the first talkie in Britain) is interesting from a historical setting (both in the way Hitchcock adapts to the changing medium, and in the way he comments on late-20s British society), but isn't quite as captivating plotwise as several of his other early films. The chase scene through the British Museum, for instance, becomes a bit tiresome. Not bad, though; just something that I'm sure the man could have done better.

    Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) 92
    I saw this at The Guild two days before Polanski got arrested in Switzerland. I feel strangely guilty, like my doing so upset something in the cosmos. But hey, whatever happens to the man himself, nothing can erase the fact that this stylish, edgy, bleak-as-all-hell film is just stone-cold brilliant (and stone-cold is, indeed, the right way to describe it).

    Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975) 59
    I don't know. I guess I'm just not cut out for this Argento fellow. I don't want to say the movies are bad, really, because they aren't. I just don't like them very much. Deep Red straddles an awkward line between absurd played-for-laughs humor (a tiny car with a sinking passenger seat) and moments of pointlessly excessive gore (a man's head -- unnecessarily, I might add -- gets run over and crushed by a car). Truthfully, I can understand the appeal; it just doesn't tickle my fancy all that much. At least the soundtrack is bangin'.

    Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) 70
    A provocative, if not especially surprising portrait of race relations in late-80s Brooklyn (and, I'd be willing to wager, inner-city anywhere in 2009). I appreciate what Lee is doing here, and the cinematography in particular is out of this world (you can almost feel the heat and sweat pouring out of the screen), though I do feel as if more recent films like La Haine and City of God cover similar territory more successfully. Still, the cut it makes is a deep one and I don't think anyone's going to argue that it's a very important film. Also: the opening credits sequence is among the best I've ever seen.

    The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) 96
    An astoundingly wonderful film that just seems to get better and better, both as I age and it does. No movie has ever taken the boredom, confusion, and society-instilled claustrophobia of twentysomething masculinity and handled it as pitch-perfectly as it is handled here. That its final scene is one of the most excellent endings in all of cinema is merely one of the reasons that this one of the best movies ever made.

    if.... (Lindsay Anderson, 1968) 61
    Very, very, very weird (and utterly British) social commentary that doesn't really succeed at anything it tries to do, but somehow remains bizarrely captivating. It drifts freewheelingly between fantasy and reality (even though they're handled with exactly the same tone, I think it's pretty easy to tell which is which), switches randomly between B&W and color for no reason whatsoever, and fails to arrive at any kind of satisfying resolution (as mentioned before, I'm of the firm belief that the last five minutes exist solely within the imaginations of the three main characters). And yet, somehow, it's entirely watchable. I really can't explain it. Nonetheless, one indisputably good thing came out of it: this was the film that led Kubrick to cast Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (in which he gives one of the all-time great performances), so there you go.

    Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) DNE
    In a sense, this is the film Lynch has been destined to make his whole career: a dense, thick, disturbing, utterly incoherent labyrinth of remarkably well-composed moments that winds on and on and on through an astonishing, WTF-worthy 179-minute runtime. I regard it fondly as an Experience, but assinging a numerical score to it is just as impossible as recommending it to anyone who isn't already really confident in their Lynch fandom. And if you aren't sure or haven't seen a Lynch film, dear god don't start here: Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet are much, much, much more user-friendly.

    In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009) 83
    Vicious, meanspirited political satire that is every bit as hilarious as it is nasty. It deftly combines the fly-on-the-wall atmosphere of something like The Office with the abject idiocy of Dr. Strangelove to form the best movie of its kind in years. Highly recommended.

    I Sell the Dead (Glenn McQuaid, 2009) 55
    A very uneven, but amusing and entertaining horror-comedy flick. McQuaid is far more interested in getting laughs than actually telling a story, so he throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Sometimes it works (the awesome vampire scene), sometimes it doesn't (yeah, okay, the so-called twist is really lame). On the whole, though, it delivers what is expected of it. It could be a whole lot better, but that's sort of beside the point.

    Jacob's Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990) 47
    An intriguing, well-directed, and even slightly creepy thriller that unfortunately suffers from a script that doesn't know how to handle these strengths. It isn't that the film is plagued by a lack of ideas -- on the contrary, there's practically an overabundance of them, and that's what makes it so damn hard for the script to reconcile all of them into a decent conclusion. Between war flashbacks, drug conspiracy, vivid hallucinations, and elaborate dream/reality confusion, there's a lot going on here; it's just a shame that the cleanest, tidiest interpretation of the ending (and thus the one I'm assuming is the "right" one) is actually the least satisfying. Oh well. While the film is unspooling, at least, it's captivating. I don't think there was a moment throughout when I wasn't engaged in Jacob's story and all of the bizarre, unsettling things that were happening to him. It's just ... ya know, when you get involved like that, you kind of wish the story would come full circle and really give you something to write home about. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, also in reference to wartime death: "So it goes."

    The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) 76
    Clever, endlessly entertaining black comedy/political thriller hybrid about a woman who disappears mysteriously during a train ride and the younger pair who are determined to find her. So basically it's like Flightplan except not a festering piece of shit.

    Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944) 49
    A very, very dated World War II statement that never really rises above its central one-location conceit. I didn't really care for it the first time I watched it, but the second time it's just -- pardon the description -- totally dry, if only for the fact that there are no surprises left to be had. It's the sort of thing where you get everything there is to get the first time; re-watching it simply isn't a rewarding exercise.

    The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926) 63
    Atmospheric, well orchestrated silent Hitchcock. It's very much a product of its time and can really only be watched for what it is (both a good thing and a bad thing), but it's easy to see based on its merits alone why Hitchcock found a name for himself really quickly.

    Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) 100
    Still just about the closest to perfection that any film has ever come.

    The five minutes of Gus Van Sant's Psycho I saw on TV a few weeks ago: -3

    Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) 98
    A lush, gorgeous, and utterly haunting experience that by all means deserves to be called one of the finest films ever made. It's definitely in my top ten, anyway.

    [REC] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007) 83
    Almost certainly one of the finest horror films I have ever seen. At times almost unbearably tense and frequently genuinely frightening.

    Scandal Sheet (Phil Karlson, 1952) 63
    A fun, kind of nondescript but well-made film noir. Although it doesn't really give me any sort of incentive to revisit it, it entertains while it's unspooling, which means it does its job right.

    Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) 79
    Still fresh, clever, and funny after all these years.

    Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943) 74
    A uniformly nasty and often brilliant tale of familial suspicion that, unfortunately, suffers from an abrupt and overly Hollywood-ish ending that sort of robs the proceedings of its wicked edge. Still, the majority of it is excellent.

    Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga, 2009) 90
    A devastating, scary, and indelible meditation on gang violence and immigration that is still far and away one of the best new movies I have seen in years.

    The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) 76
    The premise itself hasn't aged especially well, but the cinematography is the stuff of legends. Harry Lime has arguably the best character introduction scene in film history. Also: it's really hard to go wrong Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. I mean, I'm just sayin', 'cause they were in that one other movie too.

    The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988) 80
    A potent and disturbing film that, for me at least, is far more unsettling than the average horror flick for the simple reason that it bypasses the irritating in-your-face tendency that characterizes many of the genre's entries and instead opts for a slow, deliberate pace that doesn't reveal its secrets all at once. To me, true horror comes not from being startled or presented with eerie elements of the supermatural, but with the implementation of frightening things that are utterly possible in everyday life; The Vanishing, especially with its two well developed main characters, is never anything less than believable. Although I gather I stand alone among the movie night crowd, I found it chilling and fascinating.

    Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009) 37
    They managed to take one of the sweetest, most heartwarming children's books of all-time and turn it into something equal parts dreary, depressing, and tedious. Good job, guys. At least, thanks probably entirely to Jonze, it looks great, but that's about it.

    Zebraman (Takashi Miike, 2004) 65
    Typical Miike weirdness (if the words "typical" and "Miike" ever belong in the same sentence, which I don't think they do). If we're using, say, Audition or Ichi the Killer as a baseline, it's definitely one of his lighter films: self-consciously stupid and unapologetically campy, but also highly entertaining (as most Miike tends to be). Far from his best, but he's just such a bizarre director that I don't even really think I care how good or bad it is. I'm just glad to have seen it.

    Zombieland (Ruben Flesicher, 2009) 84
    It doesn't happen nearly often enough, but every once in a while a comedy comes along that just gets it right. Zombieland is that movie. Words can scarcely describe how good it is: it's delightful, fun, upbeat, and flat-out hilarious. The trailers made it look good; the actual film is clearly one of 2009's best.

    I'll be back. Sooner this time, I promise!