Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Albums Of 2009

10. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

As someone who’s permanently felt he was born in the wrong decade, I’ve always been a sucker for musicians who are able to capture the essence and spirit of the 1960’s and give that era a contemporary twist. Canadian indie pop band Camera Obscura accomplishes this feat yet again with their fourth album. Creating catchy pop hooks strung together with lavish melodies and illustrious harmonies all within the realm of what I like to call “vintage new wave,” the band has proven itself to be composed of a rare breed of artists, who manage to pay homage to the past in a way that makes today more fun to listen to.
Must-Have Track: “French Navy”

9. Passion Pit – Manners

Since the band’s formation in 2007, Passion Pit has been the electronica-meets-alt. rock band to watch out for. With the release of their first album, they’re quickly transitioning into the mainstream, receiving heavy rotation of their brilliant single “Sleepyhead” everywhere from movie trailers to ads for the Palm Pixi phone. Dominated by lead singer Michael Angelakos’ irresistible Freddy Mercury-meets-Brandon Flowers falsetto vocals, the album is an experimental and fun debut, providing a track listing of eleven songs that you’ll easily catch yourself humming on the subway. If this is just the start for this band, I can’t wait to see what they create next.
Must-Have Track: “Eyes As Candles”

8. Florence And The Machine – Lungs

When I first heard Florence And The Machine’s unapologetically sassy first single “Kiss With A Fist,” I knew right then that I was listening to a new musical tour de force. This fire-haired chanteuse’s debut album soul-meets-grunge rock sound makes me have faith in the idea of a collaboration album between Joan Jett and Joss Stone (imagine!). With hard-hitting lyrics, this powerful record draws inspiration from everything from the harsh realities of contemporary violence to modern literature (the song “Howl” is inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s iconic 1956 poem of the same name) in an undeniably beguiling and upbeat fashion.
Must-Have Tracks: “Kiss With A Fist,” “Drumming Song”

7. Jemina Pearl – Break It Up

In the debut solo LP from Be Your Own Pet’s lead singer, Jemina Pearl, we are presented with a portrait of a brash yet vulnerable woman, who mixes attitude with sentimentality at the same fearless rate that college students mix Adderall with caffeine. Part girl-next-door and part ruthless rocker chick, Pearl successfully uses her solo record to break away from her Be Your Own Pet sound to create a new, individual musical persona. The result is a slew of intelligently written and sometimes sarcastic hard rocking pop songs that any fan of The Gossip or Yeah Yeah Yeahs will ecstatically add to their collection.
Must-Have Track: “I Hate People” (featuring Iggy Pop)

6. Metric – Fantasies

You can never have enough Emily Haines in your music library. Her haunting stripped down solo material and evolving rock goddess status as the front woman of Metric have made her into one of today’s female artists with the biggest musical range and acclaim. This is Metric’s fourth album, and the band has left behind much (but not all) of its electronic influences in favor of a more Garbage-esque purely rock oriented sound – a risky move that luckily the band executed extremely well. Songs like “Help I’m Alive,” “Sick Muse,” “Front Row,” and “Gold Guns Girls” all serve as delicious slices of upbeat indie rock pie. But the album’s true gem is the unforgettably gorgeous “Gimme Sympathy,” a mid-tempo track intricately layered with some of the most beautifully and intelligently written music and lyrics Haines and Co. have ever recorded.
Must-Have Track: “Gimme Sympathy”

5. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Formed in 2000 in Versailles just outside of Paris, Phoenix orchestrated their triumphant return to the music scene in 2009, garnering them their first Grammy nomination (in the “alternative album of the year” category). With Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the rock band establishes itself as a strong musical force to be reckoned with. Pushing the boundaries of their sound further than their previous efforts by encompassing an even wider electronic infused pop fusion to alternative rock, the band has been receiving much mainstream exposure. Its new music has been placed in various trailers (“Where The Wild Things Are,” “New York, I Love You”) and on several television programs and commercials. Clocking in at barely over 35 minutes, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a critical album that not only augurs a very promising future for the band, but also serves as a cultural marker about the state of indie music today - both what it has evolved into and where it can go from here.
Must-Have Tracks: “1901,” “Lisztomania”

4. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

In TIME Magazine’s “The Top 10 Everything of 2009,” Bitte Orca (German for “please whale”) placed as the second best album of the year. The article’s author, Josh Tyrangiel, explained how the experimental rock band Dirty Projectors has complicated his life. “The job of a music critic is essentially to describe music,” he wrote “For the past few years, the job of Dirty Projectors mastermind Dave Longstreth has been to make the critic's job undoable." Combining elements of everything from raw acoustics to next level electronica, Bitte Orca is a genre-molding album that compacts as much variety as it can into the formula of its songwriting. The result is a stunning and ethereal musical masterpiece that gives us a real, meaty taste of what artistic expression is all about.
Must-Have Tracks: “Stillness Is The Move,” “Two Doves”

3. Miike Snow – Miike Snow

Months before the release of Miike Snow, the band’s identity remained a secret as their debut single “Animal” was making its way around the internet, creating much buzz and speculation. All that was known was that their album artwork was that of a mythical jackalope, leaving the people behind this piece of electronic pop/rock genius a huge mystery. Later, it was revealed that the band was the product of a trio of Swedish friends, singer/songwriter Andrew Wyatt and production duo Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg (more commonly known as Bloodshy & Avant, the Grammy winning team responsible for Britney Spears’ megahit “Toxic”). The lyrics of their eponymous debut album are equally dark and hopeful, all set to near flawless electronica infused rock. Wyatt’s haunting tenor voice has the power to send chills down one’s spine and simultaneously evoke a striking glow of warmth. After receiving incredible amounts of critical acclaim, preparing for a nearly sold out nationwide and UK tour in the first quarter of 2010, and remixing songs for acts such as Peter Bjorn and John, Passion Pit, and Vampire Weekend, Miike Snow is one of the most refreshingly original and exciting finds of 2009.
Must-Have Track: “Black & Blue”

2. Lissy Trullie – Self-Taught Learner

In case you couldn’t already tell from the rest of this list, I love female rockers. Who would have known that the beauty of Lissy Trullie, the spunky ingénue who served as the muse to Oscar de la Renta’s son’s first fashion line and the face of Chloe Sevigny’s clothing line, would transcend the boundaries of her Elle Magazine photo spread and translate into grungy pop/rock? And you thought models couldn’t jam out on guitar. Shame on you. “Self-Taught Learner” is the premiere EP of Trullie’s four-piece rock band, and it serves as only a teaser for what her debut album has in store for us in early 2010. But this teaser is gloriously tasty and you should savor every bit of it. Along with the EP’s energetic title track, first single “Boy Boy,” and a phenomenal cover of Hot Chip’s “Ready For The Floor,” there is not a single boring or filler song on this record. It’s no wonder that music legends such as Courtney Love and The Smiths’ Johnny Marr are all singing Lissy’s praises. Her impressive alto vocals mixed with the band’s fierce guitar and percussion instrumentals along with their spirited and zesty lyrics bond together to form the perfect party soundtrack. From high fashion to music’s next big thing, Lissy Trullie has it all and is not afraid to dish it out with a fist and a guitar riff.
Must-Have Track: "Don't To Do"

1. Ingrid Michaelson – Everybody

Many of Ingrid’s fans were incredibly skeptical about the release of her second album. There was a lot of speculation that she had “sold out” after her 2007 breakthrough hit “The Way I Am” became the theme song to every commercial or love story on television. Then there were all the rumors about Ingrid ditching her simple folksy sound for a bigger band/orchestra feel, which many feared would be the death of the Ingrid they fell in love with and the birth of another Jewel or Alanis Morrisette wannabe. Then Everybody was released and blew everyone out of the water. Yes, the album is far more musically advanced and progressive than Ingrid’s previous effort, but rather than muffling her already trademark sound, the record enhances it. The album gorgeously spins out the narrative of a relationship, starting with the fear of letting someone in and the butterflies in your stomach during the “honeymoon period,” and ending with the ultimate downfall and feelings of despair, resentment, and hurt that come with a painful breakup. Ingrid does what she does best by capturing the rawest and most vulnerable of human emotions through lyrics, wearing her heart on her sleeve at the most tender moments. Sophisticated instrumental diversity accompanies her powerful words. Standouts include the empowering “Soldier,” the multi-layered harmonies of “The Chain,” the upbeat and beautiful “The Mountain And The Sea,” the incredibly dark “Locked Up,” and the Joni Mitchell-esque single “Maybe.” The record serves as a statement of musical maturity, while still remaining faithful to the sound that made people fall in love with Ingrid for the way she was years ago.
Must-Have Tracks: “The Chain,” “The Mountain And The Sea"

Rounding out the Top 25:
11. Girls - Album
12. Julian Casablancas - Phrazes For The Young
13. Lady GaGa - The Fame Monster
14. Discovery - LP 1
15. Band Of Skulls - Baby Darling Doll Face Honey
16. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
17. The Bird And The Bee - Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future
18. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It’s Blitz!
19. Plastiscines - About Love
20. Fanfarlo - Reservoir
21. The XX - The XX
22. Tegan & Sara - Sainthood
23. Jay Ferrar & Benjamin Gibbard - One Fast Move Or I’m Gone
24. Raveonettes - In And Out Of Control
25. Morrissey - Year Of Refusal

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Have Yourself A Dirty Little Christmas

So here’s the thing about the holidays: it doesn’t matter what you celebrate, whether it be Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, or the birth of L. Ron Hubbard, they’re all supposed to send out messages of positivity, warmth, family, and love. Now that’s really cute and sentimental and all, but then riddle me this - why have they become so hyper sexualized? What do slutty Santa outfit inspired lingerie that make their way onto the mannequins in the display windows of every Victoria’s Secret from every November through December, have anything to do with the “Christmas spirit”? I don’t think the idea of “giving” refers to amateur lap dances. How does mistletoe promote the birth of Jesus? I guess making out with strangers under a little plant is how Mary got a place in that stable, huh?

Especially sexualized is the holiday music we have all learned to love and play on loop starting the day after Thanksgiving. We sing these carols walking around in the sleeting weather clutching our mittens and chorus books, knocking on people’s doors and invading their personal space by showering them with our own beliefs and holiday “cheer.” Not every Grinch or Scrooge wants to be entranced into a Prozac induced Christmas coma, where their natural goodness and glee about the festive season overshadow the fact that they’re actually bitter, cynical, and alone (side note: did anyone ever realize that this incessant spreading of one’s own personal customs already happened? The Crusades, anyone?).

So let’s start with some of the classics. Dean Martin crooned “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for years before anyone really knew what the clinical term “date rape” meant (yes, this song was released around the same time as other promiscuity endorsing holiday songs such as “Santa Baby” - which by the way is SO creepy - or the classic sexualized twist on the myth of Santa coming down your chimney with instead your mom being the one going down in “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause”). The song serves as a holiday anthem to the sketchy, persistent man who does not take “no” for an answer. In the track, the female singer spends the entirety of the song trying to leave the male singer’s home - an act that he won’t let her do, whether it be by physically stopping her or playing mental games to trick her to stay. She comes up with a million reasons of why she can’t stay and has to leave, but rather than responding to her concerns, he simply continues to take off her jacket and ensure that she has no way of leaving.

“Say, what’s in this drink?” she asks, as she tastes something funny in the cup she most likely did not watch him pour her. Do you really want to know what that is, sweetheart? That’s a little pill that’s going to make you black out and wake up by the yule log with only your underwear around your ankles as a way of triggering the little memory you have of the night before. “At least I’m going to say that I tried,” she continues to sing, as the drugs start to kick in and she realizes she’s going to be staying overnight. This way when she presses charges, she can truthfully say she said “no.”

On top of that, our chauvinistic male protagonist doesn’t understand rejection, as he asks the age old question: “what’s the sense in hurting my pride?” Well with that argument, how can anyone resist that sultrily delicious eggnog with the crushed, little, dissolving white chunks on the bottom of the glass? This is an actual Christmas carol! It’s literally a song about a woman saying no and a man ignoring that to try to get his way with her, despite her clear refusal. Personally, I know that nothing says “Happy Birthday Jesus” to me like some good, old fashioned, date rape.

Then there’s that new holiday classic that seems to be everyone and their mother’s favorite Christmas song of all time – Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” The song is everywhere – from being on loop at Macy’s to being performed nearly flawlessly by that incredibly talented eleven-year-old girl at the end of Love Actually. While yes, I will admit that the song is ridiculously catchy, and is probably as intelligent of a career choice for Carey as Glitter was not, but has anybody ever actually listened to the actual lyrics?

First of all, the setting of the song is the materialization of Christmas. It has nothing to do with the holiday itself, but rather with the idea of it being an excuse to give and receive gifts amongst the privileged. All you want for Christmas, Mariah? How sweet. You cut back on your list of diva demands this year. People can’t afford food or homes all over the world, but you only want one thing this year, so that makes you a good and charitable person. But wait, what is this material good that you so strongly desire? A human? Oh okay. I get it. By objectifying someone into a gift that can be received on Christmas, it’s like they’re devoid of any humanity and instead are just your playthings and objects. Wow, fuck my Tickle-Me-Elmo, I want a real human doll I can make do whatever I want too! Thanks for the idea, Mimi.

As a heterosexual woman who has just one “thing” she needs, Mariah is using her song as a way of saying that men are objects that can be used however she pleases – something that the lyrics equating a man to a material good don’t even attempt to veil. I’m so glad that you’re using your celebrity status to send such a positive holiday message, Mariah: Who needs inanimate objects as gifts, when you can own one that literally moves and can “hold you tight”? It’s like slavery all over again! I’ll totally trade you my ex-boyfriend for that guy you hooked up with at Rachel’s party last weekend. He wasn’t the one I asked for for Chirstmas anyway, lolz. Gag me.

Then there’s the new wave of “contemporary” Christmas songs. Lady GaGa’s “Christmas Tree,” for instance, is literally about having sex underneath a Christmas tree. “Light me up, put me on top, fa la la la la la, la la la la,” she sings, while you as the listener, can’t help but wonder how all that garland doesn’t somehow get in the way by furling around her, unless of course, she’s celebrating an auto-erotic asphyxiation themed holiday this year – which in hindsight would actually not be that surprising. This theme reoccurs on “Under My Tree,” a track off of NSYNC’s holiday album, except the catch is that that this time, not only is the couple having sex underneath the Christmas tree – but Santa is sitting there watching. That old, bearded pervert! No wonder he’s so jolly. You would be too if you were saving money on porn subscriptions and Viagra prescriptions by watching people who decide to rock around their Christmas tree and offer you their cookies and milk for free.

I’m not saying I agree with the objectification and the severity of the situations in the aforementioned songs, but people need to be aware of what they’re singing about. So next time you knock on someone’s door, instead of singing a little festive ditty, just go all out – deck your halls, jingle your bells, take off your pants and go inside. And always remember to pull out before you come, all ye faithful.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Top 5 Films of 2009

It’s that time of the year. Hollywood is releasing all of their biggest blockbusters and front runners for February’s Academy Awards ceremony, and critics everywhere are compiling their “best of” and “worst of” the year lists. While December looks like it’s going to be a month full of good films, including the drama Brothers, the musical Nine, the animated The Princess And The Frog, and the action packed Sherlock Holmes, I’ve decided to make a list of my top 5 must-see films of the year thus far. Who knows: maybe by the time Christmas rolls around that list will have changed. But for now, add the following to your Netflix queue. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

5. Adam

New York love stories have the tendency to be very cliché. They usually consist of a small-town boy or girl trying to make his or her way in the big city, and after a series of setbacks, obstacles, and culture shock due to hanging out with a series of Carrie Bradshaws, the newcomers reign over Manhattan as successful Upper West Siders with happy jobs and happy relationships. In Adam, we see a romance unfold between two young, steady working, semi-struggling, artistically tortured New Yorkers. Within the walls of their tiny apartments (unlike the multi-million dollar places depicted on “Friends” or “Gossip Girl”), we see the evolution of a tender romance. These two learn to love one another and deal with the hardships of everything from New York living to handling Adam’s Asperger’s Syndrome and Beth’s emotionally damaged heart. It’s an unusual tale that shows how unconventional love really is. It also offers the more conventional message that loving someone means being able to get through the best and worst times together, with feelings intact and continuously growing stronger, and overcoming the greatest of obstacles, even something as serious as a disorder. This film was not distributed nearly as widely as it should have been, but it is an inspiring and endearing movie that is guaranteed to melt even hearts of stone.

4. Away We Go

It is very rare that a film comes along that manages to evoke hysterical laughter and a tear-jerking response all within its allotted time frame. In Away We Go, John Krasinski (yes, that lanky guy from “The Office”) and Maya Rudolph (of “Saturday Night Live” fame) star as Burt and Verona, a couple in their mid-30’s with a baby on the way and no direction in life. The film follows them as they travel from city to city, trying to find a place to settle down to raise a family. Along the way, they encounter a large ensemble of brilliantly exaggerated characters, including Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels as Burt’s parents, Allison Janney as Verona’s old boss (playing her most hilarious role since 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous), Melanie Lynskey and Chris Messina as old college friends who are raising their own adopted family, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a woman so Zen and free, that she breast feeds her colleague’s five-year-old children. The couple’s journey from place to place teaches them about life, love, each other, and what it takes for them to find their own inner peace as a family. At the end, when they find what their personal definition of “home” is, the couple stirs an undeniable sense of hope and happiness in their audience. Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) and written by Dave Eggers (Where The Wild Things Are), this is an indie gem that truly exemplifies the art of a road trip film done masterfully and tastefully.

3. Sunshine Cleaning

This phenomenal indie dram-edy tells the story of two sisters (played by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt), who go into business together cleaning up after crime scenes. The film centers on the struggles which these two women face and their personal journeys, including dealing with single parenthood, sexuality, suicide, nostalgia, and self- discovery, all while trying to remain a happy, functioning family. Supported by a terrific ensemble including Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn, and Cliflton Collins Jr., Sunshine Cleaning exemplifies all the qualities that so much of contemporary cinema lacks, particularly a sense of realism. Everything from the character development to the plot to the dialogue is more than relatable, creating a story that I guarantee you will remember for a long time.

While it should come as no surprise that Adams is fabulous in her heart-wrenching role as a single mother seeking to better her life for the sake of her child, the real star of the film is Blunt. I’ve been a huge supporter of Blunt ever since she captivated me with her charmingly devilish role in The Devil Wears Prada. Many would eagerly burn me at the stake for writing this, but I firmly believe that her performance as the sassily bitchy assistant easily outshone Meryl Streep’s in that film. In the coming months, Blunt will be starring as the heroine in the eagerly anticipated horror re-make The Wolfman alongside Benicio del Torro, and will also be taking on the lead in Young Victoria, a biopic (which is already garnering a significant amount of Oscar buzz) chronicling the love story between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. iIt’s only a matter of time before Blunt explodes into a household name, and it is refreshing to see a young actress whose talent transcends genres and has allowed her to tackle so many different types of characters nearly flawlessly. In Sunshine Cleaning, she proves that not only does she have an incredible range of versatility as an actress, but that she is also truly a driving force who, if given the right opportunities, will be a threat to all the Kate Winslets, Sally Fields, and Meryl Streeps out there for years to come.

2. An Education

Written by Nick Hornby--the genius behind High Fidelity, About A Boy, and the gorgeously written page-turning new novel Juliet, Naked-- this quirky little British film is one Hollywood should be very afraid of come time for the Academy Awards. Newcomer Carey Mulligan stars as Jenny, a properly raised bookworm in 1960s suburban London. At sixteen, Jenny sets her sights on being accepted to Oxford University, a dream spoon-fed to her by her father (played splendidly by Alfred Molina). But when one day she meets David Goldman (played by Peter Sarsgaard), a playboy over twice her age, her life is turned inside out. Their love affair takes Jenny on a journey that exposes her to culture, art, good food and alcohol, traveling, and adventure – all forms of vivacity that her suppressed, prim lifestyle never showed her. Now, with a new view of the world, Jenny must decide between the life she has always worked for and the life she learns to love that she never dreamed she could have. While this film could easily rely on clichés to inspire its plot, it has surprising twists that are not only refreshing, but incredibly intelligent and enthralling as well. Featuring a spectacular supporting cast including Emma Thompson, Dominic Cooper, and Rosamund Pike, An Education is easily the best European film export of the year, and one that will make you cheer, laugh, and cry all at the same time.

1. 500 Days of Summer

Finally, Hollywood! Thank you for creating a love story without the same recycled plot! I’m so tired of the same old boy meets girl, boy betrays girl, girl forgives boy, boy and girl live happily ever after formula. It’s been done. We’ve all seen How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days. Changing the actors and setting and turning Kate Hudson’s journalist into Sandra Bullock’s book publisher doesn’t mean that you can use the exact same story board and call it The Proposal, marketing it as if it were a different movie.

In 500 Days Of Summer, we know right off the bat that the film’s main couple, Tom and Summer, don’t have a happy ending. In fact, the film circles around Tom’s obsession with the breakup and how he retraces his steps to see what went wrong in the relationship. Tom, the hopeless romantic, believes that Summer, the non-commitment oriented loner with emotional baggage, is the one. The use of flashbacks between “then” and “now,” from when he and Summer were a happy couple to how the breakup effects his life, is a brilliant technique that not only keeps the audience interested and invested, but allows us to fairly see both sides of the story. There is not a single person who can walk out of the movie theater and not strongly relate to either Summer or Tom (or sometimes, due to given circumstances, both). Despite the fact that I’m a gay man, I haven’t had a bigger crush on anyone than Zooey Deschanel in this film in God knows how long. Her sultry voice, intoxicating smile, stunning eyes, hair as dark as Snow White’s, cute hipster-y dresses, and nonchalant attitude about life make it impossible for the audience not to see her through Tom’s eyes and fall completely head over heels for her. And just like it was the ultimate selling point for Tom, when Zooey sings The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” in that already famous elevator scene, my heart skipped a beat and I was ready to propose. Overall, this film is one of the rawest and most honest films about love that has ever come out of Hollywood, because it shows how brutal love can really be-- and that, sometimes, people are just not meant to be together, despite all the glitz, glamor and magic they feel. This is a work of art not to be missed, and is by far the best film of 2009, perhaps even of the last few years.

Films that almost made the Top 5:

Where The Wild Things Are

Directed by Spike Jonze, this big screen adaptation of the beloved children’s book is one of the most beautifully written and shot films of the year. By no means is it your traditional children’s film because it goes for realism rather than a happy ending. The movie shows that creating scenarios to avoid one’s problems doesn’t in fact solve anything, and instead can often times be harder than dealing with things head on. It’s a message not often depicted on screen for children - which initially turned many critics off to the film. However, it truly is a gorgeous film that is sure to become an instant classic.

New York, I Love You

I’ve always been a sucker for movies consisting of various slightly interwoven stories about groups of unrelated characters going through similar experiences. When Paris, Jet’aime was released a few years ago, I completely fell in love with each of the short films inside of that movie – yes, even the bizarre vampire one. There was no word to describe them other than just simply “beautiful.” So when I heard that the people who made that glorious film were making an American version of it centered in New York, I eagerly checked IMDB weekly to find out when the movie would finally be released. While this film also has some substantial and gorgeous stories, there were a few that dragged, making the overall product far inferior to its’ French predecessor. Standouts include a storyline about a girl in a wheelchair attending a high school prom, and an old couple going on their annual trip to Coney Island to celebrate their anniversary. The film is a crowd pleaser, but it is not one you need to rush to the theater to see.

Julie And Julia

Anyone who walked out of the theater saying they didn’t like this movie was a dirty, rotten liar. There is no way that the combination of Meryl Streep’s elegance and determination as Julia Child and Amy Adams’ charm as the humble Queens inhabitant looking to pursuing her passion—actually, her obsession-- for cooking can leave someone unmoved. And anyone who says they felt nothing after this movie is certainly not telling the truth, even if it’s only for the reason that there’s no possibly human way anyone can watch this movie and not get hungry. I know that I went out to Whole Foods the next day and got all the ingredients I needed to attempt to make my own beef bourguignon. If anything, this film is a guaranteed feel-good, fun film that will make both your hearts and your stomachs hungry for more.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Finally, Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book hits the big screen. Directed and adapted to screen by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums), this stop motion film is a clear work of genius. Featuring the vocal talents of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Willem Dafoe, this film version of the adored novel brings the story into the twenty-first century with a perfect ratio of humor and emotion. Just as in Where The Wild Things Are, the movie takes the structure of its short book, and expands on it to create a fantastical world that both stays true to and gives new life to the original text. Because it’s an Anderson film, it’s obviously incredibly quirky, with sharp dialogue and moments of extreme satiric melodrama. The “indie” spin on this tale makes it enjoyable for both children and adults alike, adding structured layers of intellect and wit. Since the entire film is about three farmers trying to kill a chicken-slaughtering fox, many parents have already dubbed the film too dark for their children. However, it’s a gorgeously shot, artistically brilliant, and truly hilarious film that years from now will have people saying “remember when they used to make kid’s movies as well as that?”


Sunday, November 8, 2009

November 23rd: A Fight To The Death

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November promises to be the most musically heavy and aurally pleasing month of the year. With new albums by industry heavyweights such as John Mayer, Norah Jones, Leona Lewis, OneRepublic, Janet Jackson, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Bon Jovi, The Killers, Weezer, Dashboard Confessional, and Tori Amos, it seems as though every major record label will be handing out bonus checks with all the money they’ll be making. While most of these records are spread out across various release dates throughout the month, there is one date where the most likely front runners of who will be crowned the Billboard chart champion of 2009 will all be releasing their heavily anticipated new releases: November 23rd.

Earlier this year, we saw a race to the finish when divas Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Madonna all released new albums in September. Reminiscent to the infamous Kanye West/50 Cent album release day battle of a few years ago, fans everywhere held their breaths to see which of these three female powerhouses would reign above the other two on the charts. Well, apparently this marketing gimmick is one the music industry is trying to explore further, as on November 23rd, an even more intense battle will be fought. With new releases by pop icons Britney Spears, Lady GaGa, Rihanna, and Shakira, and the debut album of crowd pleasing pop star/glam rocker Adam Lambert, who will reign the new victor of the mainstream charts?

Britney Spears, The Singles Collection

In the past decade, Britney Spears has become the definitive symbol of the word “superstar.” Her music redefined what pop music was, and still to this day, her successors cite her as a major influence they aspire to be ranked on par with. After Britney’s personal life took a major downfall and she became more known for her tabloid worthy antics than her controversial performances and sexy lyrics, she pulled herself back together and had one of the greatest comebacks in music history with her 2008 release Circus.

Not many other artists can say that they’ve had five albums debut at the #1 spot of the Billboard Top 100 albums chart, had twenty-three Top 40 hits, sold out stadium arena concerts and sold over 63 million albums worldwide. Now, celebrating her 10 year anniversary as the name and voice behind a pop dynasty, Britney is releasing The Singles Collection, a collection of her greatest and legendary hits, including her brand new #1 single, “3.”

With all of the tracks digitally re-mastered for the crispest quality sound, fans will be able to play all of Britney’s chart topping hits back to back. Ranging from the opening lines of “… Baby One More Time” to the sultry dance number “Toxic,” to the deliciously addictive chorus of “Womanizer,” this collection of songs not only is a catalog of the best of Britney’s career, but is a culmination of tracks that show the evolution of pop music in the past decade. Starting with bubble gum cheeriness and ending with techno infused dance numbers, the songs Spears provides us are a primary source of how our tastes, as a music consuming society, have morphed from one end of the pop spectrum to the other. If history really does repeat itself, nobody has a chance against the phenomenon that is Britney Spears.

Lady GaGa, The Fame Monster

After the release of her debut album The Fame, Lady GaGa skyrocketed from a new up-and-coming New York singer to one of the biggest names in the industry. In the past year, GaGa has made Billboard chart history by being the only artist to ever have four consecutive #1 singles from their debut album.

The Fame Monster is a re-release of her epic pop extravaganza debut, but featuring eight new and additional tracks. With the lead single “Bad Romance” debuting at #9 on the charts and making it her fifth Top 10 track, it is safe to predict that another #1 song is in the very near future for our favorite fashionista pop-star. After hearing the Latin-infused “Alejandro” and dark-electronica track “Dance In The Dark,” two newly leaked songs from the album, it is clear that in the past year GaGa has evolved her already signature sound and is quickly growing into “the Madonna of our generation,” as Kanye West labeled her.

Rihanna, Rated R

At only 21-years-old, Barbados native Rihanna returns with her first new studio release since her 2007 smash Good Girl Gone Bad, which contained the chart topping, Grammy Award winning hit “Umbrella,” as well as #1 singles “Take A Bow,” “Disturbia,” and Top 10 hits “Shut Up And Drive,” “Hate That I Love You,” and “Don’t Stop The Music.” According to her label, the album “spent 98 total weeks on the Soundscan chart, and earned cumulative sales of more than 36-times platinum in at least 20 territories around the world.”

With an album like that, one would think a follow up would be a bonafide shoe-in for success. However, everything leading up to the release of Rated R is signaling it to be very meek in comparison to its predecessor. Lead single “Russian Roulette” was panned by critics, with most citing it as dull, boring, forgettable, and not worthy of triggering a comeback. In response, it is rumored that Rihanna’s label was responsible for leaking two other tracks from the album, “Wait Your Turn” and “Hard.” Both tracks were cited by bloggers and message boards as superior to “Russian Roulette,” yet still incredibly lackluster in comparison to anything off of Good Girl Gone Bad. Therefore, despite heavy promotion and a loyal fan base, the lukewarm reception of her new material seems to ensure that although she’ll secure a spot in the top five, she will not be polishing her trophy amongst the competition facing the release of Rated R.

Shakira, She Wolf

While one cannot argue that Shakira is not an incredibly talented performer with jaw-dropping dance skill, she has never seemed to be much of a vocalist. Despite the fact that her singing sounds like the slaughtering of a constipated goat, for some reason, Forbes Magazine has declared her the 4th richest woman in the music industry – behind Madonna, Barbra Streisand, and Celine Dion.

After being crowned the highest-selling Colombian artist of all time by having sold more than 50 million albums worldwide, Shakira’s newest release She Wolf does not have the same driving force behind it as have her older efforts. While previous songs like “Hips Don’t Lie,” “Whenever, Wherever,” and “La Tortura” remained on the top of the charts gaining hype for their respective albums, lead single “She Wolf” has failed to have much impact. Currently, it holds the #46 spot on the iTunes Top 100 charts, proving the track does not have much gusto to support it.

When She Wolf was released in the U.K. last month, it failed to bode well in comparison to her last albums. Debuting at #4, it is apparent that the rest of the world is beginning to realize that even though she can put on a good show, Shakira does not have the capability to produce good music.

The American release of the album will feature a song not included on the U.K. release. The Timbaland produced track, “Give It Up To Me” features rapper Lil’ Wayne, and is a boring, repetitive upbeat “dance” song that sounds like it was scrapped from Timbaland’s first compilation album, Shock Value. Also on the American release will be the Kid Cudi remix of second single “Did It Again.” While this remix takes a bland song and makes it remotely listenable, it still doesn’t exude enough caliber or force to have Shakira reclaim her spot at the top of the charts. While for some reason this woman still has fans which will ensure her a successful first week of release, there is no plausible way that She Wolf will eat up its competition.

Adam Lambert, For Your Entertainment

Although he was only the runner-up of this past season of American Idol, Adam Lambert has one of the most devoted fan bases since the creation of the show. Just because he didn’t win the show, doesn’t mean he won’t win in long term revenue sales. Take the mega successful former losing contestants Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson, and Clay Aiken, for instance. Does anybody even remember who won the seasons they were on? Better yet, does anyone even care?

While winner Kris Allen’s first single “Live Like We’re Dying” has gone rather unnoticed, Lambert’s debut “For Your Entertainment” has slowly but steadily been creating quite an impact since its release last week. After unveiling the ultra campy cover art for his album and appearing in controversial photo shoots that landed him on the covers of Details and Rolling Stone magazines, Lambert has gained far more press than Allen. Additionally, he will be sharing the stage with Lady GaGa and fellow Idol alums Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry, and Carrie Underwood, when he performs at the American Music Awards on November 22nd.

The production team behind Lambert’s debut has all the makings of a smash success. The Sam Sparro-inspired noir electronica fused mashing of pop and glam-rock is certainly not the typical type of release one would initially expect from the debut of an Idol contestant. Enlisting the help of various titans of the industry, Lambert’s debut promises to be thoroughly satisfying. Amongst many of the album credits, Lady GaGa penned the track “Fever,” Christina Aguilera’s hit-making songwriter Linda Perry wrote “A Loaded Smile,” rock band Muse contributed the track “Soaked,” and Pink wrote “Whataya Want From Me” with Max Martin, the man behind Britney Spears’ #1 hits. In addition, Ryan Tedder, the lead singer of OneRepublic who is also responsible for writing huge hits for Leona Lewis (“Bleeding Love”), Beyonce (“Halo”), and Kelly Clarkson (“Already Gone,”), contributes the track “Sleepwalker.” With a team of experienced and profitable producers and songwriters like this, Lambert’s album is one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year, strongly threatening his competing musical veterans for the chance for his debut to hit #1.

So which of these five musical superstars will come out on top? Will nostalgia of a decade of pop hits give Britney her sixth #1 album? Or will GaGa prove that she is indeed dethroning Britney as the princess of pop? Will the success of Rihanna’s previous efforts cover up the critical backlash of her new material to give her another chart topper? Will the allure of Shakira’s mind blowing performances mask the fact that she doesn’t have anything else going for her? Or will the boy from American Idol trump over all of his female competition and reign as the victor? Only time will tell.

Personally? My money’s on GaGa. While Britney should gain the coveted #1 spot as an homage to everything she has done for pop music, the lack of new material on her release won’t have people rushing to CD stores to purchase music they most likely already own. Instead, the appeal lies with GaGa, whose consistent dominance of the charts since her arrival on the scene last year secure her as the most likely winning candidate. However, despite who receives the highest honor in this battle to the top, one thing is for sure: the intense desire for entertainment and music never dies – even in a crumbling economy.


Monday, October 19, 2009

The Rebirth And Contemporary Significance Of The Smiths

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“Of all the ways in which music changed over the course of the twentieth century, the most fundamental was the shift from being something played to something they consumed,” music historian Elijah Wald writes in the opening to his book How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll. This idea of music evolving from a leisurely pastime into a set of guidelines of how to deal with human existence propelled the careers of an uncountable number of artists and musicians who made their livings presenting themselves as the personal messiahs to the everyday person. This person looks for answers to questions he cannot understand, and finds solace in lyrics that assures him that he is not alone in what he is experiencing. Whether it is the voice of hope that Leonard Cohen provided during the Cold War, the message of peace that Simon and Garfunkel spread, or the promise of a light at the end of the tunnel that The Smiths offered, music can have a profound impact on its listeners – an impact that can influence their entire being.

But why does music that perpetuates this type of hope and acceptance have such a universal influence? It is because even in the greatest state of loneliness, one can listen to a meaningful record that shows them that somebody out there understands how they feel.

Although they were only a band from 1982 until 1987, The Smiths managed to record in a half a decade’s material that conveys a message of understanding adolescence that even today, twenty-two years after the band’s demise, still inspires and guides the band’s fans. But why, all of a sudden, have The Smiths emerged from the vault of ‘80s treasures and slowly crept their way back into mainstream pop culture? With more pressing desires (and larger contracts) than ever for the band to reunite, more and more appearances on contemporary film soundtracks, and more musicians citing Morrissey and Co. as their biggest influences and musical heroes, The Smiths are gradually morphing from a subversive underground movement into icons and musical therapists for a brand new generation.

Contemporary culture is embracing the world of independent art more than ever before. The number of independent films gaining box office recognition and dominating over Hollywood blockbusters at the Academy Awards, for instance, has skyrocketed in the past decade. Audiences are beginning to appreciate the intelligence and beautiful artistry of films such as Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Garden State, and Little Miss Sunshine in ways that mainstream culture previously had not. Quotes from these films have made their way into the everyday American’s lingos, and memorabilia (such as the “hamburger phone” made famous in Juno) have become recognized materialized manifestations of today’s pop culture. When indie heroes Death Cab For Cutie penned the title track to the new Twilight movie, it was clear that the division between the underground and the mainstream is a much thinner, blurrier line than it has been in the past. In other words, the unknown has become the most recognized, the underground is the popular, the small is large, and the underappreciated is the most appreciated. Our subculture of hipsters and tortured artists has suddenly risen to the forefront of the mainstream media, creating a world where independent art is cherished by more than a select few—in fact, it’s embraced by the masses.

On top of unmasking the underground movement, contemporary music has also backtracked to the 1980s for inspiration. Many of today’s biggest pop artists, ranging from Lady GaGa to Britney Spears, are reverting back to the 1980s to create their modern sounds. This homage to the past is not only present in club music, but also heavily in indie rock. Therefore, it only makes sense that The Smiths are making their way back onto the mainstream radar. They opened up the gates to teenage freedom, giving their listeners a chance to rebel against the mainstream and feel however they pleased. As author and musician Joe Pernice writes in his novella Meat Is Murder (based on The Smiths’ album of the same name), The Smiths’ music “was so raw, so vivid and so melodic that you could cling to it like a lifeboat in a storm.”

Even though their sound was not particularly original or innovative (although it was undeniably breathtaking), it was The Smiths’ lyrics that have captivated their fans since 1982. They gave hope to those who had none. Those who listened to their music felt inspired and understood in a world of misunderstanding. Their music gave chances to those who couldn’t find chances elsewhere. Whether you were the most popular kid or biggest outcast in school, The Smiths had a way of making you relate to them. They took the basic principles of rock and roll, and turned them inside out and made it their own by using their music as aural diaries – places where they could divulge their inner most thoughts, feelings, and views about the world.

“If you compare The Smiths with previous Great White Hopes of preceding eras, it’s clear that the rebellion of the Stones, Who, Pistols, Jam, was based in some kind of activism or at least action, an optimism about the potential of collective or individual agency. But The Smiths’ rebellion was always more like resistance through withdrawal, through subsiding into enervation … The Smiths, hooked on the glamour of the misfit, could only occupy an impossible position, attempt to create a rock music where aggression was replaced by vulnerability, hedonism by asceticism,” author Simon Reynolds writes in his book of essays on underground music, Blissed Out. “Why were The Smiths ‘important’? Because of their misery. Never forget it,” he adds. “And The Smiths were important because of their extremism, their unbalanced view of the world, their partiality … Morrissey is ‘half a person,’ his very being constituted around lack, maladjustment – this is the vantage point from which he launches his impossible demands on life, his denial of the reality principle. Satisfaction and adjustment could never enter The Smiths’ picture, for this would breach their identity,” Reynolds concludes.

The brilliance behind Morrissey’s lyrics is that they can apply to anyone at any time. While, yes, much of what he wrote was inspired in response to what he believed was England’s desire to become more “American-ized,” the anguish he feels in terms of change and unwanted transitions apply to any generation. An example of one particular group of people that connected to Morrissey’s lyrics was the homosexual community. Morrissey’s own sexuality has been speculated about since the start of his career, largely due to the fact that his lyrics were often interpreted as being veiled with references to homosexuality and the homosexual identities of many of his biggest idols, including Oscar Wilde, James Dean, Klaus Nomi and The New York Dolls.

The Smiths’ song “How Soon Is Now” became an anthem of the 1980s gay rights movement, as it signified that love is a universal human need. “How can you say I go about things the wrong way? I am human and I need to be loved just like everybody else does,” he passionately sings on (ironically) one of the most upbeat records The Smiths ever put out. This example perfectly demonstrates the passion and acceptance in Morrissey’s lyrics that caused so many to find solace in his words. “The Smiths dealt with gay themes in a realistic and thought-provoking manner. A review in Rolling Stone Yearbook 1984 described their first album as follows: ‘Lead singer Morrissey’s memories of heterosexual rejection and subsequent homosexual isolation were bracing in their candor, and Johnny Marr’s delicately chiming guitar provided a surprisingly warm, and sympathetic setting,’” note scholars Michelle Wolf and Alfred Kielwasser in their textbook Gay People, Sex, and The Media.

The need for the type of voice of hope that The Smiths provided is as strong now as it was in the 1980s. While countless musicians have cited the band as their greatest influence, few have managed to live up to their inspirational and timeless status, and even fewer have secured themselves a place in the rock and roll hall of fame under the same umbrella of being able to capture and understand adolescence and misery.

In 2009, Morrissey had his most successful year as a solo artist since his debut in 1988. His newest studio album, “Year Of Refusal,” produced his highest U.S. chart debut on the Billboard 200, he is currently finishing a sold out stadium world tour, and he has re-released upgraded and re-mastered versions of two of his best albums from the 90s. Furthermore, he will be releasing an 18-track collection of B-sides entitled “Swords,” which chronicles his entire career as a solo artist, on November 3rd. “Morrissey's god-like status has relatively little to do with those sporadic moments in history when the release of a new album or globe-trotting tour spawn an avalanche of commercially-driven media attention. The fuss Morrissey has been generating lately is little more than a peak in the hype cycle that spins around any pop singer, model or movie star lucky enough to have a career that lasts longer than one chart-topping album or blockbuster film. Rather, it is his obsession and affiliation with the margins of culture and society — all that is unpopular, ugly and damned — that fuels this uncommonly extreme devotion of his fans,” writes music critic Chloe Veltman.

Perhaps this overwhelming demand for Morrissey is simply a result of his being the closest thing to a contemporary Smiths album or tour. For years, rumors have been circulating about a possible Smiths reunion, none of which have yet to see the light of day. When Morrissey was offered five million dollars to reunite for a single performance with the band at the 2005 Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival, he turned it down by explaining that money was not a factor. It was later reported in 2007 that Morrissey had turned down a forty-million pound contract to reunite with Johnny Marr and tour under The Smiths name for a world tour in 2008-2009. This insistence on the return of the band, however, did not go unnoticed by its members. Although unwilling to reunite, the band did issue a hand-picked greatest hits album entitled “The Sound Of The Smiths” in late 2008, and re-issued digitally re-mastered and restored versions of all of their albums on vinyl in September of 2009.

The Smith’s influence on contemporary music is undeniable. L.A. Times music critic Scott Timberg wrote in April 2009 that Morrissey “patented the template for modern indie rock.” That belief is shared by Philadelphia Weekly music critic Steven Wells, who in December of 2007 wrote an article that stated Morrissey was “the man who more or less invented indie,” and was an artist “who more than anybody else personifies indie culture.” Morrissey has sat firmly on the throne of the indie kingdom since the early 1980s, but it is only now when we as a culture are beginning to embrace the underground art movement that he is being recognized by a new generation of musicians and fans alike as the voice of not just a generation, but a century. He is to us what John Lennon was to the baby boom generation, and in fact is the only candidate who rivals his brilliance as both a songwriter and a musician. While we may never see The Smiths together live in concert or hear another album from them ever again, their messages of acceptance, peace, rebellion, and dealing with misery will forever serve as the inspirational hymns for fans all over the world and continue to influence future generations of musicians. You can’t have a much better legacy than that.

Works Cited

  • Kielwasser, Alfred and Wolf, Michelle. Gay People, Sex, And The Media. London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Pernice, Joe. Meat Is Murder. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2007.
  • Reynolds, Simon. Blissed Out. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990.
  • Timberg, Scott. "Coachella: Morrissey and the Smiths’ influence is apparent". LA Times. 13 April 2009.
  • Veltman, Chloe. “The Passion Of The Morrissey.” The Believer. August 2004: Online Exclusive.
  • Wald, Elijah. How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll: An Alternative History Of American Popular Music. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009.
  • Wells, Steven. “Big Mouth Strikes Again.” Philadelphia Weekly. 12 December 2007.