Thursday, January 22, 2009

EJP's Top Albums of 2008: 1-10

What this list ultimately comes down to for me stems from one question: Which albums did I end up listening to the most this past year? Obviously I don't keep track of how many times I listen to every album (I'm not that anal retentive about my music...yet), but I usually have a pretty good feeling about how often I pop something in the CD player or bring it up on my iPod. So, with the exception of one album that I got fairly recently but that I really, really like, these are the albums that I listened to over and over again in 2008. They might not be the best music in terms of quality--and really, quality is pretty subjective, right?--but they gave me what my ears craved, and that's good enough for me.

10) The Nobility--The Mezzanine
First blogged about this Nashville group back in April, and I kept on listening to them. The title track was one of my favorite tunes of the year, but the rest of the album was plenty catchy, too.

9) Eliza Carthy--Dreams of Breathing Underwater
Carthy has apparently been around for a while, but this was my introduction to her crazy-good mixture of traditional folk with a splash of rock and also some other stuff that I can't pin down. Whatever it is, it's a great listen. Carthy has a strong voice without a trace of the whispiness that tends to characterize some British folk singers (ahem, Vashti Bunyan). The album starts out strong with "Follow the Dollar" and ends even stronger, with my favorite track, "Oranges and Seasalt", a song about terrible margaritas. If you only listen to one song from this album, listen to that one, but trust me when I say the whole thing is worth a try.

8) Michael Franti & Spearhead--All Rebel Rockers
So this is the aforementioned album that I haven't actually had for all that long, but that I really, really like. A humungous thanks to Nat at ...and sometimes why for introducing me to this artist. A little background, and a much overdo thanks to Nat. When she posted about her local folk festival, I was intrigued because I'd never heard of most of the bands she'd seen. Not only did she give me a detailed description on nearly ever set she watched, but she sent me a mix with music from all the artists (and an excellent bonus disc CD with several other Canadian artists). It was awesome. I'm still listening to them, and I'm still figuring out which groups to explore further (personal note to Nat: the Weakerthans are awesome, but their album wasn't 2008, so didn't make the list).

But I digress. I loved the Michael Franti song Nat put on my mix (see video for "Say Hey" below), and it turns out I really liked the whole album. Nat says they're awesome live, and I can believe it. ARR gives us a mix of funk, rock, soul and plenty of other good stuff. Some songs are political, some are simple, many will make you shake your booty (again, see video below).

7) Vampire Weekend--Vampire Weekend
I realize there's been some backlash with VW, but the album's still catchy as hell and definitely worth a spot on this list. Older posts can be found here and here.

6) Blind Pilot--3 Rounds and a Sound
How have I not posted on this album? That was an oversight. Consider it a pleasant surprise. This Portland group hit a sweet spot for me. There's nothing outrageously innovative here...some nice strings pop up throughout the songs, occasional horns, mixing seamlessly with some guitar plucking and minimal percussion. Pleasant vocals, good harmonies, incredible hooks. Hmmm...I'm probably not really selling these guys. All I know is I found myself playing this CD a lot. Like, a lot a lot. It was my comfort food for the year. Give "Oviedo" a listen below--it's one of my favorite tracks on the album, the song that initially got me hooked. If you like it, I can assure you the rest of the album is worth a listen.

5) Fleet Foxes--Fleet Foxes
Simply put, if you didn't put this album in your top ten of 2008, you are a crazy person and should go live in a crazy house. Full stop.

4) Try Me Bicycle-Voicings
Well, this is awkward. In finding the links to write his entry, I learned that this album was actually released in 2007. Oh well...screw it. I've already put way too much effort into this and I'm not going to rearrange my list now. I'm pretty sure this got a re-release in 2008, so we'll just count that. This a pretty album from beginning to end. That's really the best word for it. Pretty. The guitar and piano are perfect, Andy Naylor's vocals are comforting--the complete opposite of abrasive. I could sit down in a dark room with nothing but this album playing and a nice glass of red wine and I would very happy. OK, that sounds pretentious, but it's true. This is the perfect album for unwinding after a long day.

3) Jim White--Transnormal Skiperoo
Loved this album from the very first listen. The only reason it dropped a notch or two on my list is that the songs are so all over the place in terms of how they make me feel--from silly to sappy to very, very sad--that eventually it became exhausting to listen to the album from beginning to end all in one go. Still one of the more underrated albums of the year, in my opinion.

2) The Airborne Toxic Event--The Airborne Toxic Event
Every year, I seem to have at least a few guilty pleasures on my list. TATE should probably be this year's, but I refuse to feel guilty about the pleasure I get from listening to this album. Pitchfork gave this puppy a whopping 1.6. Wow. I'm not saying this band is highly original. And honestly, some of the lyrics might make Rick Springfield roll his eyes. But I'm sticking with my first impression: these songs are pure and simple rock and roll, and I can listen to this album over and over again.

1.) Thao and the Get Down Stay Down--We Brave Bee Stings and All
You can learn more about Thao, hear some of her music, and see a cool video in one of my older posts. It's like her song "Bag of Hammers" says, her music soothes me like a lick of ice cream. I fully realize this album won't be #1 on many lists, but it's the CD I listened to the most by far, so there you go. Listening to it made me happy, and usually that's what it all comes down to for me.

So that's it for 2008. For any regular readers (both of you!) who actually take an interest in my musical opinions, sorry it took me so long to get my act together this year. I'd planned on throwing up some favorite tracks in this post, but this has already taken me too long. Maybe a future post. But 2009 has already produced some good to excellent albums in a few short weeks, so it may be time to move on...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Movie Review: Phantom Of The Paradise

This 1974 unhinged, queer-ass horror/comedy/musical by Brian de Palma tackles an age-old enigma that has plagued all of mankind: what the fuck is up with Paul Williams?

Truly ahead of its time, its flaws are--in retrospect--endearing. And you'll have to decide which is creepier: Paul Williams as Swan or the music (which he wrote) actually being good.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Movie Review: The Ruins

As long as we're talking horror movies, I happened to watch my first horror movie in a long time last week. The Ruins was in movie theaters last spring very briefly and was barely a blip on the radar for most people, but I'd heard some reasonably good things about it, so I gave it a shot.

It wasn't terrible. I'd even go so far as to say it was pretty good. The setup is pretty standard: some attractive people on vacation in Mexico follow a complete stranger to an off-the-map ancient temple so they can have one more adventure before they leave the country. Things go awry quickly when one of the group gets killed by some local villagers the moment they set foot on the pyramid. I'm not really spoiling much when I say that the Big Bad that lurks in the temple has nothing to do with Mayan ghosts or the like. It's the EVIL VINES that grow all over the place.

I know, sounds lame, but it's better than it sounds. There's lots o' killin' going on in this movie, but very little of it is actually done by the vines. They're just sort of the grease for the wheels of murder here. Though there is plenty of visceral gore to admire (and I did my fair share of wincing, because the gore effects are pretty convincing), there's a psychological element that makes this flick a bit smarter than your maniac-in-a-mask slasher film. There's also a "real" actress in this--I'll watch Jena Malone in just about anything. Finally, the fact that most of the film takes place in broad daylight and still manages to be scary is exceptional.

Not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but worth a gander if you're a fan of the genre and missed it last year.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Movie Revie: My Bloody Valentine 3-D

Schlocky, over-the-top, slasher horror fun. The 3-D was AMAZING, the plot semi-intriguing yet still comfortably formulaic, the actors (some throw-back) stilted, and the obligatory horror elements (teeners drinking where they shouldn't, boobies and crotch [in 3-D no less], red herrings, unbelievable 80's-style blood and guts) all were aggressively covered in what seemed to be a "FUCK YOU!" to the tired 90's self-reflective, minimalist gore horror genre of popular TV actors overstepping old stereotypes for overstepping's sake.

Thus, I loved it: the 3-D effects and the fantastic gore alone are worth every penny. Especially impressive was the miner's hat light shining through the screen (how did they do that?). But the movie could have easily failed as an effects piece and didn't, something rare both to the horror genre and 3-D genre.

I'd even watch it again in 2-D.

It had a preview of Coraline 3-D; we all have to go see that next month.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

EJP's Top Albums of 2008: 11-20

OK, let's just get this going. I'm not going to expound upon the albums about which I've already written, 'cuz this whole exercise will take a while as it is. There are tons of links on here though, so click on the band name to go to a relevant web site or the album title for the Amazon profile.

20) Nerf Herder--IV
Yes, I know they're simplistic and fairly ridiculous, but I thought this was a strong effort for these aging bubblegum punks.

19) Jesus H Christ & the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse--Happier Than You
Like Nerf Herder, the band borders on a novelty act, but the music is very competent and the lyrics are whip smart. Risa Mickenberg's vocals leave something to be desired, but the songs themselves tend to make up for that. "Liz the Hot Receptionist" has received a little press, but it's "Back Burner Guy" that got my attention with lyrics like this..

When I’ve got you i’s a funny thing

I w
on’t be neurotic. I won’t have to cling
As long as I know you lust after me.
I can be the girl he wants me to be

Because I know I've been that guy, as have some of my friends. You just have to listen to the song to know what I mean. Nearly all the songs are a mini essays or short stories, which is how this bizarre album ended up on this list.

18) The Hold Steady--Stay Positive
Touted as a great summer album, I have to agree. I'm probably in the minority who liked this album more than Boys and Girls in America, but I'm used to being in the musical minority by now. Not every song on the album is great, but they all seem kind of...big. There's lots of piano and in-your-face guitar work. "Constructive Summer" seems to be the the stand-out track for a lot of critics--and it is a good song--but it's two of the darker songs, "One for the Cutters" and "Lord, I'm Discouraged" that really struck a chord for me. I suppose it's odd to like two of the downer songs on an album called Stay Positive, but whatevs.

17) Flight of the Conchords--Flight of the Conchords
Whereas #s 20 and 19 on this list are borderline novelty albums, FotC are proud of being the fourth best novelty act in New Zealand. Don't know if I can add much about this group that hasn't already been said. The songs are brilliant and still make me laugh the tenth time around. Some of them were better in the context of the show, but I know plenty of people who enjoy the album and have never seen the show. I thought the songs on the first episode of the second season were a little weak, so I'm wondering if Bret and Jemaine can keep up with the high standard they've set for themselves.

16) Blitzen Trapper--Furr
It's been about a week since my last post, which praised the title track of this album. The album has grown on me enough that it had to move onto my list for the year. It's a great album to drink a beer to, and I wish I'd stumbled across it earlier in the year. For some reason, I think it will sound even better on a hot summer night. I have a feeling I'll be looking into the previous albums before too long.

15) Tilly & The Wall--O
This album only got an honorable mention at this year's halfway point, but after seeing them live and giving the album several more listens, O not only became my favorite Tilly and the Wall album, but it made it into my top 20 for the year. With all the tap dancing, it's easy to call them a novelty act, but they definitely don't write novelty songs, and it's nice to hear a band with some real energy once in a while. Also, they score a few points for unique CD packaging--every CD had a unique piece of art for the cover. Neat trick.

14) Noah & The Whale--Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down
Already heaped praise on this one here.

13) The Black Keys--Attack and Release
I already I don't see eye to eye with certain people on Black Keys albums. I really liked this one. "Strange Days" is the stand-out track for me. It just doesn't sound like it was written in this decade, nor do a lot of the songs. That's not a bad thing. Unlike the 80s, the 70s were a treasure trove of music. The Black Keys have tapped into that treasure and given it a modern edge. A bit more on this album here.

12) Emiliana Torrini--Me and Armini
I'd never heard of Emiliana Torrini before a month or so ago, but this album was one of the rare gems that I liked upon the very first listen. By the artist's own admission, it's all over the place stylistically--sometimes she sounds like her countrywoman Bjork, but then she's got the happy-go-lucky "Big Jumps" or the silly, but dancable "Jungle Drums". Honestly, I'm not entirely sure what to think about this album, other than to say that I really like her voice and I've been playing the CD a lot. If I'd picked it up earlier in the year, it probably would have been bumped up into my top 10.

The song in the video below is actually not on this album, but it gives you a taste of what to expect, though I like most of the songs from Me and Armini even better.

11) She & Him--Volume One
I was happy to hear that according to NPR's top listener picks of 2008, this album came in at 11. For a while, I thought I was the only person who liked it. Indeed, I liked it enough that I wouldn't mind seeing a Volume Two some day. Until then, I'm looking forward to M. Ward's new album coming out next month. More on this album here.

Honorable Mentions
Make no mistake, even though these are only honorable mentions, these are all albums that I enjoyed thoroughly. I wish I had time to do a top 30 again so I could write about why I liked these albums, but I've already mentioned several on the blog. Check them out if you get the chance.

Ponytail-Ice Cream Spiritual
Love Psychedelico-This is Love Psychedelico
The Dodos-Visiter
Jonathan Richman-Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild
Flogging Molly-Float
The Kills-Midnight Boom
The Ditty Bops-Summer Rain
Carla Bruni-No Promises
The Terrordactyls-The Terrordactyls
Nana Grizol-Love It Love It
Golden Animals-Free Your Mind and Win a Pony (also wins prize for best album title)
Jenny Lewis-Acid Tongue
TV on the Radio-Dear Science
Jared Mees and the Grown Children-Caffeine, Alcohol, Sunshine, Money
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan-Sunday at Devil Dirt


As I've been compiling my favorite album list for 2008, I've also been thinking about my favorite songs of the year. Blitzen Trapper's "Furr", the title track off their most recent album, is not only my new favorite song about a man living in a wolf pack, it's easily one of my favorite songs of 2008.

Pitchfork, which just happened to post the video for the song the other day, calls the album a "slow-burner", and though I've only had the album a few weeks, I'd say that's a good call. Listening to it, I hear some Wilco, I hear some CCR, and on some songs like "Furr", I only hear Blitzen Trapper. Though the album will certainly earn at least an honorable mention from me, I have a feeling that if I'd had it a little longer before compiling my list, it would have moved up the ranks. Of the pile of new albums I got before the holidays, it's one of the CDs I play relatively frequently.

Before watching this video--which is a perfectly good video, but nothing to write home about--try just listening to the song first. I'm not even sure why I like it so much, but I do. Have you ever seen those tacky wolf T-shirts, with, like, a giant wolf head howling at the moon or something? Imagine this song as one of those shirts, but it's the most comfortable shirt you have ever worn, so comfortable that you don't care that it's kind of tacky. Maybe the shirt reminds you of a good friend who lives far away, or a cool dream you once had, or your first kiss in the woods at summer camp. I don't know why you like your damn wolf shirt, you just do. Now listen to this song about wolves.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

I Can Read!

So I actually did some reading while I was on vacation. I finished two books, one of which I'd been reading for an embarrassingly long time. Here's the rundown...

Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
So this was the book that took me way too long to read, but in my defense, I was reading other things on the side. Like, umm, comic books, which is kind of ironic since this book tells the story of two cousins who write and draw comics together. Chabon is a member of the McSweeney's group of writers, headed up by David Eggers, who are essentially writing modern classics. At least, they're the ones winning the awards (TAAoK&C won a Pulitzer) and garnering critical praise. This was my first Chabon novel, and though I obviously didn't find it a real page-turner, I did enjoy it for the most part. Set immediately before, during, and after WWII, the prose is rich and meaty and the characters are fleshed out well without spoon feeding too much to the reader about their thoughts and motivation. Ultimately, much as I enjoyed Moby Dick for its description of the whaling industry, I enjoyed this book for its description of the Golden Age of comics. Many of the events and characters Chabon describes in relation to the comics industry were real, and it was pretty cool to compare that time period with today's comics comeback. Though I found the characters and their various story arcs interesting, I didn't find that I had to know what was going to happen to them next, especially as the book progressed and nothing good happened to anyone anymore. I'm glad I read it, but I longed for a book that could be thought provoking and a fun read. Which is why the next book I read was...
Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
I firmly believe that everyone should read at least one of Moore's novels in their life, and of the four I've read so far, Lamb is my favorite. The premise is simple: the angel Raziel is sent down to resurrect Levi (known as Biff), Christ's best friend during those 30 years of Jesus's life that the Bible conveniently skips, and force him to right a new gospel. Biff is kind of a jerk, but he's loyal to his best friend and they go on some amazing adventures, during which JC learns to become the Messiah. Moore concedes in his afterword that based on his research of the time period (and it's obvious he did do some research), Jesus's early life was probably not nearly as fun as this depiction. It's an interesting balancing act, making the life of Christ funny, but not sacreligous. I think Moore pulls it off--he definitely pulls of the funny part anyway. I'm probably not the best judge of what might be considered sacreligous, but I'd like to think my Christian friends could read this and not be offended. Nor is the book particularly preachy, so my atheist friends should get a kick out of it, too.
Moore is no Vonnegut, who could be funny and thought provoking, but knew that brevity is the sould of wit. Sometimes the book drags on in parts that could have been more succinct--descriptions of the Jewish hierarchy 2000 years ago might prove that Moore did some research, but they do little to move the story along. The final section of the book also drops the funny altogether, but then, I have to imagine that it's really, really hard to make crucifixion funny. Monty Python pulled it off at the end of The Life of Brian, but really, I think they're the exception that proves the rule. And though the end of Biff's gospel takes a decidedly dark turn, it stays true to the character as we've come to know him.
All of Moore's books are pretty amusing, and they're certainly quick reads. The humor is often sophomoric, but I'm always up for a good fart joke. If it happens to be Jesus farting, all the better.