25 January 2010

2009 in retrospect (part I)

I am so totally over this end-of-the-year list thing that it's not even funny. Why, then, you ask, am I compiling and submitting to the Internet my own list? Mostly, it's for the purposes of an historical experiment I'm attempting to run.

Let me explain. No, is too complicated. Let me sum up. I think the only way to truly know what was significant and good about a particular year is to look back five years after the fact. That way, you're emotionally distant enough that there is no way you can be caught up in the hype (*cough*AVATAR*hack*), plus, enough time has passed that you can see which stones cast into the pond created the most significant ripples. You can't do that right at the year's end. We have no way of knowing if a spate of alternate history revenge films will get kicked off by the success of Inglorious Basterds, or if elderly people are going to get leading roles in more films than Up, or if any kind of potential boycott of Jay's re-return to the Tonight Show will have any affect on NBC at all. We just don't know.

Five years ago, 2004 had ended. That particular year saw the release of:

Patton Oswalt's Feelin' Kind Of Patton
The Dillinger Escape Plan's Miss Machine
Converge's You Fail Me
The Beastie Boys' To The 5 Boroughs
TV On The Radio's Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes,

Green Day's American Idiot
The Arcade Fire's Funeral
Devotchka's How It Ends
Isis' Panopticon
The Roots' The Tipping Point
These Arms Are Snake's Oxeneers or The Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home
that enormous Nirvana box set With The Lights Out
Mastodon's Leviathan
Kanye West's The College Dropout,

and a shit ton of other music that I don't have in my iTunes library at the moment.

[ASIDE: In the interest of providing some perspective on how dramatically the contents of my iTunes library differs from the prevailing taste of the American public, here are the 10 best-selling albums of 2004 - thanks, Wikipedia:

Usher's Confessions
Avril Lavigne's Under My Skin
Britney Spears' In The Zone
Eminem's Encore
Norah Jones' Feels Like Home
Ashlee Simpson's Autobiography
Kenny Chesney's When the Sun Goes Down
Gretchen Wilson's Here for the Party
Tim McGraw's Live Like You Were Dying
Maroon 5's Songs About Jane

And here are some of the 2005 Grammy winners - thanks to CBS.com:

Album of the Year: Genius Loves Company, Ray Charles and various artists
Record of the Year: "Here We Go Again," Ray Charles and Norah Jones
Song of the Year: "Daughters," John Mayer
Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal: "Vertigo," U2
Country Album: Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn
Rap Album: The College Dropout, Kanye West
R&B Album: The Diary of Alicia Keys, Alicia Keys
New Artist: Maroon 5.
Rock Album: American Idiot, Green Day.


In the world of moving pictures, we got to see:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,
Spider-Man 2,  
Hotel Rwanda,

The Corporation,
Fahrenheit 9/11,
Shaun of the Dead,
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,

Control Room,
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring,
The Incredibles,
Friday Night Lights,
The Bourne Supremacy,
Kill Bill Vol. 2,
Million Dollar Baby,

The Aviator,

Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead,
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,
and Team America: World Police.

[ASIDE: The 10 top-grossing films in America in 2004 were:

Shrek 2
Spider-Man 2
The Passion of the Christ
Meet the Fockers
The Incredibles
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The Day After Tomorow
The Polar Express
The Bourne Supremacy
National Treasure

And the major Oscar winners in 2005 were:

Best Picture: Million Dollar Baby
Best Actor: Jamie Foxx (Ray)
Best Actress: Hillary Swank (Million Dollar Baby)
Best Director: Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby)
Best Writing: Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Best Animated Feature: The Incredibles
Best Foreign Language Film: The Sea Inside


The Apprentice, Deadwood, Rescue Me, Lost, Veronica Mars, Boston Legal, Joey, House, Pimp My Ride, Desperate Housewives and Drawn Together all premiered on television in 2004.

The point that I think I'm making with these oversized lists is that if you look back on 2004, there were some pretty damn good movies and albums released that year (and I'm sure I skipped far too many things), many of which were ignored in favor of... other fare (it's certainly the best that a glorified snuff film will ever do at the American box office), both when you look at the final financial tallies and at many awards lists.

It's like with those big award wins Avatar had a few weeks ago. For good or for ill, everyone can get caught up in the hype, the excitement of the moment, the anguish of death, and ignore things that were quieter/less recently released in favor of that overwhelming feeling. It happens every year, so it's not really worth complaining about that much, but this is why I'm advocating this five year plan of mine.

After five years, you know what influenced what, what you listened to steadily, rather than for six months and forgot about, what you thought was good enough to buy and regularly watch on whatever format you prefer, and what stands some variation of the test of time. You never know that at the end of the year, especially when some things have only been out for three months, rather than almost twelve. 

To this end, I'm going to fashion two sets of lists this year (and see if I can keep this up, so that in five years, I can compare lists and see how my tastes have morphed). One wherein I list off the things I enjoyed most this past year that were released in this past year (like everyone else), and the other wherein I try to define what's meant the most to me from five years previous. The really substantial stuff, you know? A critical list.

Part One will be the standard lists, music and film (actually, it'll just be the music list. Tackling music and film in the same posting smacks of overkill). I'd like to fashion some kind of "favorites in graphic fiction" list as well, but that's probably going to take a lot more work. So, that's forthcoming (except to say that Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of Richard Stark's first Parker book - The Hunter - was incredible. It's the kind of comic that even people who know nothing about comics should be impressed by). Part Two is also forthcoming.

Now, to the lists! First up, music:

[ASIDE: As always, this is in some kind of order, likely "Fifth Most Favorite" to "Most Favorite." And I reserve the right to mock myself incessantly if, at any point in the future, I discover I made a horrible decision. END ASIDE]

5. Pelican - What We All Come To Need

I love Pelican, almost as much as I love to complain about them. They're so hit-or-miss, when it comes to their releases speaking to me, that what I consider their finest work, The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw, becomes more appropriate as a career-defining work by the year; it's rather replete with stunning highs ("March To The Sea" - which is not as good as its longer twin, "March Into The Sea," which was available on the EP of the same name) and lackluster lows (most of Larry Herweg's stunningly inappropriate drum parts). Pelican's imperfect, but that's sort of what makes them awesome.

It was time for a great Pelican album with What We All Come To Need, since their previous record, City of Echoes, just didn't do it for me (they evened out the peaks and valleys from The Fire, but that made it infinitely less interesting). They succeeded pretty spectacularly with What We All; it reaches much further than City of Echoes, and since ambition's much of what defines Pelican's music for me (what can you do with two guitars, a bass and a drum kit? A hell of a lot, it turns out), that alone makes it infinitely better. I adore "Glimmer;" it's the kind of song you can only make without vocals (plus, it groves as well as any song anyone heard in 2009). "The Creeper" is like the perfect track 2 (building on what came in the first awesome track, while pushing the music out in new directions the rest of the album can explore." The last two tracks would've been enough to make me trek south for their show, if I'd purchased the album before the band's latest trek through Denver. And while Pelican's music is less cinematic than Explosions in the Sky's, there's a brawny, muscular quality to their music (even though their guitar players - Laurent Schroeder-Lebec and Trevor de Brauw - get exponentially better with every record. They were, unquestioningly, the saving grace of City of Echoes. I didn't care for the songs, but I did like hearing Laurent and Trevor play them).

A song like "Strung Up From The Sky" (far from the best track on the album) is made far more interesting because of its bookending by "Specks of Light" and "An Inch Above Sand." Pelican's at their best when they're being aggressive; the acoustic breaks on The Fire were iffy at best, but they made the music surrounding them better for their inclusion. "Strung Up From The Sky" is not much compared to the songs that precede and follow it, but it makes them better by its presence and placing on the album. I think that's kind of daring, and it speaks to me.

Also, and the importance of this cannot be overstated, Larry has figured out how to incorporate his drumming into the music, and not just string together nonsensical flourishes that do nothing to advance the song as a whole. He's figured out, well, what a drummer (a musician, really) is supposed to do. Now, if Pelican could just get back to playing 10+ minute epics...

4. Booker T. - Potato Hole

One of the first CDs I ever owned was The Best of... Booker T. and the MG's. My father bought it for me, and in the interest of being efficient with digital space, you can read the story (plus my initial reactions to Potato Hole) here.

Nothing about my opinion of Potato Hole has changed from the first time I heard the record. It became my default "released in 2009 album to listen to" when I didn't have anything specific I wanted to hear. That may not sound like a resounding endorsement, that it's the CD I preferred to listen to when I didn't have anything I desperately wanted to hear, but I'm going to stand by it. It almost brings me comfort, which is a strange thing to say about a recently-released CD, but there you have it.

3. Michael Giacchino - Star Trek (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

It's a matter of record that I loved J.J. Abrams' Star Trek (read my reaction to it if you don't believe me). It was not the best movie released in 2009, but it was, without question, the viewing experience I had that I enjoyed most. The boost that Michael Giacchino's music brought to the table cannot, under any circumstances, be undervalued. Hell, it even works without the onscreen action.

It's important to note, before I dive fully into my nerdgastic exploration of the Star Trek soundtrack, that I seriously doubt anyone not so terribly enamored with all things Star Trek would find nearly as much in this collection of music (and, of course, if you weren't in the pro-Star Trek camp, you likely won't enjoy reliving the aural component of the film). Giacchino's repeated tips of the hat to the musical history of Star Trek (the 0:09 mark of "Nailin' the Kelvin" one of many examples) nearly turns the Star Trek soundtrack into the musical equivalent of a Tarantino film, so replete with knowledge and self-awareness is it.

The greatest thing about Michael Giacchino's music is its rapacious sense of adventure. It infused the film with the scope that it demanded; Star Trek did, after all, rewrite over 40 years of entertainment history (it did not make them irrelevant, it simply spun them off in a new direction, and if you didn't like that, well, I'm sorry). The propulsive force of the music, always a moment away from bounding off in a new exciting direction, does just as excellent a job of holding my interest as a listener as it did when I was a viewer.

A song like "Does It Still McFly?" shows off Giacchino's composition skills like few others. In the span of two minutes and three seconds, he whips the listener from loud to quiet and back to loud again with the sort of flair nominally reserved for bands like Nirvana and the Pixies (but, of course, Giacchino also had to tailor his to support a motion picture). "Enterprising Young Men" reappropriates the title music to bring back memories of the introduction not only of this film's Enterprise, but of every miniature/digital ship to share her name. "Nero Death Experience" is like a little movie all in itself, with the highs, lows, crescendos and climaxes that every grand adventure film begs to possess.

My tense anticipation of Abrams & Company's second Star Trek is followed closely by my desire to hear Giacchino's score for the next film. I never thought Trek would be able to match Jerry Goldsmith (or James Horner), but clearly (and gleefully), I was wrong.

2. Converge - Axe To Fall

There's a lot that I can say about Converge (and I started to right here), but the upshot of all the things that I could say is that Converge was rather like the gateway drug that got me into the weird little world of metalcore/hardcore metal/whatever you want to call it. My affection for United Nations, or Dillinger, or The Refused, or Isis, or Intronaut, or Torche, or Yakuza, or any of these weird bands, all dates back to the first time I heard You Fail Me. So, thanks for that, Converge.

Despite the great debt of gratitude I owe Converge, Axe To Fall pretty much kicks the ass of every piece of music released in 2009 on its own merit. Sure, a familiarity with Jane Doe and When Forever Comes Crashing and the rest of their catalog would be handy when approaching Axe To Fall, but it's not entirely necessary. "Dark Horse" clubs you over the head with its on-all-fronts sonic assault and doesn't care if you were eagerly anticipating hearing it or stumbled upon it purely accidentally. The guitar solo on "Reap What You Sow" shreds you from top to bottom whether the words "Deathwish Inc." mean anything to you or not.

Compared to You Fail Me (which not only demonstrates the virtues of a smoldering introduction, but actually slows down for a song or two), or No Heroes (which saw the band experimenting within the boundaries of its style of music and pushing those boundaries out further than anyone might've imagined - but should've expected), Axe To Fall is a return to form of sorts (whether I'm actually going to where I fear I'm going to, which is to compare Axe To Fall to All That You Can't Leave Behind... Well, I guess I just did. I know Converge won't begin the slow slide into self-parody that U2 is coming precariously close to doing, but just like Bono and the lads, Axe To Fall does signal a return to the form that the band made its name on, just like ATYCLB did for U2), recalling the days of their masterwork, Jane Doe.

There's a lot of Jane Doe in the tracks from "Wishing Well" to "Slave Driver," actually. That album's fascination with the exceptionally close relationship between "music" and "noise," the exploration and tweaking of the riff, the emphasis on the sound produced by the band rather than different elements of it... The parallels are there, and they are most clear.

"Cruel Bloom" and "Wretched World" are probably as close as the band will ever get to recreating the epic nature of the title track on Jane Doe, but they attack it from a different angle. Instead of relentlessly crashing against you like a typhoon of music, "Cruel Bloom" builds to the freakout of its closing seconds gradually, before unleashing itself, and, just as quickly, bottling itself up again. Jacob Bannon's as intelligible as he's ever been in "Wretched World," morphing his mournful moaning into what has to be one of the top five or ten cathartic screams ever put to tape. And, considering how much screaming Jacob's done, I reckon that's saying something.

1. Thursday - Common Existence

I've come pretty far around on Thursday in a rather short span of time, I think. Oddly enough, this means that, for two years running now, I've declared a Geoff Rickly-helmed album as my favorite of the year. Appropriately, though, the circumstances conspiring to make United Nations my favorite album of 2008 are fairly similar to the ones that banded together to make Common Existence my favorite of 2009. Most of them, shockingly, are depressing.

At least in 2008, I had the somewhat tenuous hope that things were going to turn around. Maybe they wouldn't right themselves right away, but at least I was able to convince myself that the seemingly unending spree of disaster that the last eight years had brought was coming to a close. And yeah, when I look back on the words I wrote on November 5, 2008, I feel some of that old cynicism creeping back in, the stuff that I've worked so hard to expunge from, if not my script-writing, at least my daily life and attitude. I also feel guilty, that in less than a year, I've fallen back into my old smoldering fury towards that most ineffective of American political parties, the Democratic party.

The nice thing about Common Existence is that it doesn't limit the target of its anger to ineffective politicians, or posing, fraudulent patriots, but anything that does a spectacular job of letting you down. It taps nicely into that high schooler inside of me who still loves nu metal, as well as the older fellow who's developed an appreciation for more out-there musical stylings, and the large aspect of my personality that will always and forever be able to find fifteen things about which to be disappointed.

There's still something beautiful to me about the music in this album. "Beyond the Visible Spectrum" and "Time's Arrow" sound almost fragile at times, and the hollow echo that drowns Geoff's voice in "Subway Funeral" is one of those rare moments where the literal becomes gorgeous.

Common Existence speaks to me on a variety of levels, and does so in a way that's easy to internalize. For that alone, it deserves my respect, but because it does everything and more so very well, I can't not name it my favorite album of 2009.

I'll follow up with my (abbreviated) list of movies as soon as I can.

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