Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Top Five Favorite Albums of 2010

5. Wu Massacre - Raekwon, Ghostface Killah & Method Man

This cracks my top five for the album artwork alone. I got to see the Wu Tang Clan live this year, and they were actually fairly underwhelming - all shouting over each other and sich. But Method Man is a beast and Ghostface Killah has an inimitable style, both of which made this album quite enjoyable. The three standout tracks are "It's That Wu Shit" along with "Our Dreams" and "Gunshowers" but the whole album has a brisk energetic tone to it which I dig. There's a big gap between this and the rest on my list, except for the album art where it matches or exceeds some of the other awesome album covers of this year.

4. Down There - Avey Tare

Avey Tare of Animal Collective deploys some pretty groovyspooky beats and bleats on this record. I especially like "Ghost of Books" which has a fairly mesmerizing end refrain that I was repeating a lot with variations on a recent mountainside trip. As with some of my favorite Animal Collective and related solo act materials, I love the feeling he establishes of being up in outer space and also right beside a homey campfire simultaneously. I love the madhouse avant gardeish take on 1966/67 Beach Boys and Beatles harmonies and song textures. I love the seductive dream of musical entheogenic insanity which combines a sense of isolation with a staunch belief in total collectivity. The album also features some amusing interstitial snatches of dialogue. These bits are both funnier and less forced than the comedy sketches that pop up on albums like the aforementioned Wu Massacre (though Tracy Morgan is pretty amusing on "How to Pay Rent Skit" come to think of it). Purely for the goofy mantras it has planted in my head, this album makes my top five.

3. New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh - Erykah Badu

There's also a big gap between Down There and this record, which might have a fair claim of tying with number one and two on this list. Erykah Badu takes neosoul into new dimensions with this album, particularly with the first and final tracks. The opener, "20 Feet Tall," is an ethereal declaration of unsettled confidence while the closer "Out of My Mind, Just in Time" is a chameonlike opus dedicated to exploring the psychology of longing and coping. In between, one can get lost in the smooth and sensual diversity but "Can't Turn Me Away (Get Munny)" is undoubtedly the most fun song on offer. It combines two other versions of the same song into one feisty, lusty cover. It's too soon for me to say whether it matches the masterful New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) but it most definitely comes close which is quite a feat for any self-conscious follow up. Erykah Badu is a musical visionary with majestic horizons on the brain and I really can't get enough of her.

2. Highway Rider - Brad Mehldau

Speaking of visionaries, Brad Mehldau is this generation's Bill Evans. Like jazz innovators of the past, he is not content with following the old formulas and conventions of his (hopefully) ever evolving genre. The previous record he made with producer Jon Brion (who movie fans will note has scored Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche NY, and I Heart Huckabee's among others) was the sonically ambitious Largo which was also easily one of the coolest achievements of contemporary jazz. Highway Rider takes the next logical step and brings in a full orchestra to go all out for the gold and the grandeur. It works out superbly, with Mehldau's compositions working beautifully not just with his fabulous trio but also with guest saxophonist Joshua Redman and the rest of the orchestra. This a double album that actually has very good reason to be a double album, as it is filled with a diverse array of fascinating musical ideas. "John Boy," "Don't Be Sad," "The Falcon Will Fly Again," "We'll Cross The River Together," and "Capriccio," are all worth mentioning as standouts which gives an idea of how well this album soars and sparks throughout its considerable runtime. Of course, it would be irresponsible to omit the epic double song endings to each disc -- "Now You Must Climb Alone" flows gorgeously into "Walking the Peak" while "Always Departing" / "Always Returning" provides a suitably splendorous close to one of the most transcendent fusions of jazz and classical music since George Gershwin. I was lucky enough to catch the Brad Mehldau Trio playing a live show around when this album came out in the spring of this year (and I got a pretty good recording of it with my cheap digital tape recorder). Mehldau only played a frenetic, rollicking version of "Into the City" from among all the tracks on Rider during both concerts I saw that night (early and late show) but this is understandable since most of the album requires the presence of a saxophonist or an orchestra or both.

1. Cosmogramma - Flying Lotus

The easiest way to explain why this is my favorite album of 2010 is to say that I listened to it a good 20-25 times all the way through without stopping before I felt comfortable listening to any of the tracks individually. Cosmogramma is really an album, that is a set of songs that is meant to be listened to together as one full work just like a movie is a set of scenes meant to be watched together as one whole. It is an electronica album that glories in the magic of computers while bursting from their considerable constraints with lots of live instrumentation. It is a hip hop album but not a rap album, unless you count goofily sexed riffs on the word 'satellite' as rap. It is a jazz album in that it explores rhythm and melody without a sense of arbitrary boundaries. It is a pop album that eschews vocals as anything other than another set of sounds to dance with - well, it's not really a pop album but I think it's fun in the same way that great pop music is. The songs echo and quote each other, and often songs transform without much warning which is one my favorite musical tricks. Flying Lotus might be the most promising young musical artist working today. I also got to see him work his unique voodoo live earlier this year, opening for Atoms for Peace no less. It might be the best show I've ever heard. I will not single out any particular tracks in keeping with my belief that the album should be subdivided as little as possible but as you might be able to tell, I highly recommend obtaining a copy so that you may have your mind blown all over yo ass. It's truly a resonant revelation.

PS - Albums not on this list because I have not fully explored them, but are likely to bump off Wu Massacre at least when all is said and done: Carry Me To Home - The Deadly Gentleman ; Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty - Big Boi; Antifogmatic - Punch Brothers ; Shame, Shame - Dr. Dog

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Google TV? Where have I been? What episodes do they play? Where have I been? I need to make my billions so I don't miss out on these things.

PS - With apologies to Miss Maya Songbird

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Disappointment at the Drastic Decline in Quality of This Once Promising Movie Series, Part I

So I saw the new Harry Potter movie and I have to tell you, it was a major let down. After the hours of entertainment and consistent excellence of the previous six movies, I was shocked that the producers allowed such a collapse in standards for the penultimate episode of this multibillion dollar worldwide franchise.

First of all, the special effects were a mess. I mean, animatronic owls? Really, guys? I remember the previous movies had state of the art computer generated graphics, and there was some of that in this one but other parts just looked cartoony. Some of it actually looked to me like hand drawn animation, which I thought did not mesh well with the rest of the movie.

A lot of the actors' English accents did not sound authentic. Some would drop in and out of different accents, others just spoke in a way that was nearly impossible to understand. The wands they used looked cheap, as if they were made out of plastic. They looked like toys you could buy at the store. 

Many of the sets were very poor. The paint was cracked and honestly some of it looked like the kind of backdrops you would expect in a high school stage production, not a $200 million blockbuster. There were also a lot more house plants lying around than I think would be in a place like Hogwarts.

I was also thrown off by the giant monster truck rally that occurs in the middle of the movie. It completely derailed the story and felt very forced. The long shots of monster trucks loudly revving their engines really took me out of the world of magic and wonder that the filmmakers tried to create.

The product placement was crass and unsubtle. Ron Weasley never mentioned that he liked Mentos in any of the other movies, but in this one he seemed to take out mints every time he was on screen. He held the Mentos packaging in a way that was really unnatural and seemed to designed to get Mentos as close to the screen as possible.

Sometimes, in the middle of a scene, I got extremely frustrated because the camera would drift off away from the main action and just linger for a long time on staircases and other parts of the set. You could still hear the dialogue, but it was really difficult to follow what was going when you couldn't actually watch the actors perform their parts. Come on, that's like moviemaking 101 guys.

I thought it was very unnecessary to bring back Dumbledore after he died in the last movie (spoiler alert). But the way they decided to do it made it even worse. Portraying the deceased wizard as a brain in a vat was tasteless to say the least. Especially because the "brain in the vat" actually just looked like a lump of clay in a murky fish tank. The scenes where the characters just sat with Dumbledore's brain looking uncomfortable were not very dramatic. There was no dialogue, and the actors would enter and exit for seemingly no reason.

Denzel Washington seemed like an odd addition to the cast. I know he's a great actor, but his intensity seemed to frighten the children in the audience as well as many of the other actors in the many scenes he was in. I don't want to say affirmative action played a role in his unusual appearance in a movie of this kind, but I'm pretty sure affirmative action played a role in his unusual appearance in a movie of this kind.

All in all, it was a very poor experience from start to finish. Which reminds me, the movie was way too long. I remember the other movies were all well over two hours and I had no problem because they were adapted from very dense books that I have no intention of ever reading. But this one clocked in at nearly four hours, which I think is testing the limits of what's an acceptable running time for a children's movie. I actually left halfway through because I was bored and hungry. I made myself a ham sandwich and took a nap but when I woke up I remembered that I wanted to see the ending. So I went back to the theater to catch the last couple of scenes. When the credits rolled I realized why the movie was such a disaster. They had like twelve directors on this thing! Talk about too many cooks in the kitchen. Knowing that, the bizarre tonal shifts - like when a dramatic scene would suddenly turn comedic without warning - made a lot more sense. It's the worst movie I've seen since The Last Airbender (I know, I shouldn't say things I can't take back, but I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that it really came close to matching how bad The Last Airbender was).

Here's hoping Part II is better.

PS - Hermione was not naked in a single frame of this movie as far as I can tell. This was very annoying because I think that actress would look good naked and also I'm pretty sure there's only one movie left so they are running out of opportunities to have Hermione be naked for a few scenes. I know it's sort of a minor quibble considering the monumental raft of problems with the rest of the movie, but it's important to point out some of the obvious ways they could have redeemed the really shoddy work they did.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Am I Allowed to Listen to Hip Hop?

It occurs to me that in my last two betamax posts, I have made fairly showy references to two major rappers in a way that makes my love of hip hop rather conspicuous. It's true that I had a rather torrid affair with hip hop this summer. I discovered that Jay-Z is all of the following (using his words not mine): the "ruler,"  the "best-rapper-alive," an "American Gangster," a "black superhero," a "muhfuckin' renegade," as "real as it gets" (which is why they "feel him in the favelas in Brazil" since as you know "real recognize real"), made "from the cloth of the Kennedys" etcetera, etcetera. Here's a guy who apparently has the President of the United States "on the text" and is not afraid to tell the whole world about it. I have absolutely nothing in common with this giant who is from "the murder capital where [he] murders for capital" and yet I listen to his rhymes nonstop.
Look at that punnum! Best rapper alive, yo! Best rapper alive!

Ahem. Anyway, at the end of the summer I had the privilege of seeing the singular Snoop Dogg close the Rock the Bells festival at the Shoreline Ampitheatre. Snoop played his classic album Doggystyles in its entirety along with several songs from Dr. Dre's 1992 masterpiece, The Chronic. Needless to say, he was easily the best of a lineup that included such luminaries as the Wu Tang Clan, Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One and Rakim among many others. His bass lines were sweeter than candied yams on a warm, moonless night.
If Jay-Z is the best rapper alive, Snoop Dogg is the smoothest. Which brings me to whether I am allowed to listen to hip hop. If I have absolutely nothing in common with Jay-Z, I may share even less with Mr. Snoop Eastwood (yes, he actually calls himself that). As a white kid from the suburbs, I am about as far from Jay-Z as you can get. Still, I am fascinated by how Jay-Z has "too much ambition" and "gotta be the best" maybe because I detect a tiny sliver of insecurity behind seemingly endless layers of arrogance. With Snoop, what's crazy is how insecurity doesn't even seem to cross his mind. He just doesn't give a fuck. He is America's stoner par excellence. He can convince you of anything with a playful whisper. He was once a member of the Crips, and he beat back a murder charge. Yet his meditative, laid back coolness would make a zen buddhist monk on the verge of nirvana look like a sweating, drunken Richard Nixon on the eve of resignation. I couldn't be that cool if I was the first man to set foot on Mars while simultaneously making Scarlett Johansson come for a worldwide audience.

Wikipedia sez that gangsta rap has been accused of "promoting violence, profanity, sex, homophobia, racism, promiscuity, misogyny, rape, street gangs, drive-by shootings, vandalism, thievery, drug dealing, alcohol abuse, substance abuse and materialism." Should a nervous paleface such as myself really be allowed to embrace all of this? Maybe not.

But this is America. Who the fuck's stopping me?

PS - I want to highlight one of most philosophically self-reflective moments in all of gangsta rap. Dr. Dre's song "Big Egos," which appears on the album 2001, is a truly trenchant exploration of high self-esteem and narcissism. At one point, after saying he hits switches and makes bitches eat bitches, he adds wistfully "See me grab my dick every time I pose for pictures." One could interpret this as referring to the listener. So is it we who see him grab his dick every time he poses for pictures? I prefer an alternative explanation first proposed by my friend Tommy O'Mahony (who also helped developed the betamax idea that my previous post was based on, credit where it's due). Tommy believes that given the context of the previous line which pointedly uses the pronoun "I," it only makes sense that the next line is also referring to Dre himself. At that moment in the song, Dr. Dre takes pause and notices that in every picture he sees of himself, he is holding his own dick. What epiphanies ran through his mind as he came to this realization? We may never know, but it sure is fun to think about.

Monday, November 15, 2010

This Thing You Are Reading Is Now Called A Betamax

My friend Ben Stanton has just started something that unfortunately bears a name that makes him want to vomit. It's the b-word. No, not those that Snoop Dogg has in the living room getting it on (and they won't leave 'til six in the moan-nin'). Still can't guess? Fine, I'll say write it. That doesn't mean I have to like it. Blog. The word is blog. Ben is right: it's quite repugnant. It sounds like the kind of thing you should flush down a dark hole or bury in the sand so no one will ever have to see it.

I have always found this particular b-word loathsome, as has Maddox, and he's always right. I'm glad Ben has added his two cents to the matter, since it made realize something. We are not passive spectators in this world of b-words that we call an i-word. There's no good reason that putting words on a screen so that other people with other screens can read those very same words should have to be referred to as the b-word. Or at least not that b-word. We can think of our very own b-word if we want. We have the power! Or at least I think we do. And being an American, I'm just going to assume we do and if not then the U.N. can write a resolution of condemnation that no one will know or care about.

Here's my humble proposal. We pick a new b-word. Something better than bleching. Bleching is worse than blogging, so that's out for starters. Belching might be somewhat accurate, but it's not much of an improvement except in its greater honesty. Bowling is already something else that people do (usually right after saying "Fuck it, man") so that won't work. Beeping is too binary. Booping is just silly.

Wait. I've got it. Let's just repurpose an old school technological word from the 1980s that has since fallen into disuse. It will be recycling neologisms, so it will be good for the linguistic ecosystem on which we all depend for nearly all our precious communication. It will have the ring of instant nostalgia that VH1 has taught us all to love. Most of all, it won't be that gross word "blogging." It will be the perfect b-word.

It will be betamaxing. That's right, betamaxing. You know what I'm doing right now? Betamaxing. What does that make me? A betamaxer. And what are you reading? A betamax.

Unless you can think of something better. In which case, I'm all ears eyes.

P.S. - Seriously though, you have to admit that betamaxing is an elegant replacement. What better way to commemorate a dead technology, one that Sony thought would dominate the marketplace but ended up getting ignored in favor of VHS (which is also a dead technology but somehow couldn't replace the word blog). It has the added advantage of sounding a bit like masturbating, which let's face is what blogging really is.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Don't Worry About the Government

In the days leading up to November 2nd, I got paid to knock on doors for the reelection campaign of Congressman Jerry McNerney. In the last day or two it's been reported that he will likely win the extremely close race by a margin of 1000 votes or so. I'm glad that I can retire from the soul-crushing game of party politicking with a wry grin. My retirement could very well be Jay Z like in its brevity. Nevertheless, I am excited that it may allow me more time to spend on mirthful pursuits such as drugs, movies, and girls.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Health Care Postscript

There's been some discussion on liberal blogs lately about the true meaning of the recent health care reform victory that has reflected some of my own thoughts. It is a great progressive acheivement, and yet the legislation itself is pointedly centrist, even Republican. This has struck me as quite a contradiction. But over at Jon Chait's blog, a commenter known as 'Virginia Centrist' has articulated an accurate dissection of this idea:
I think the answer here is that this isn't really an ideal moderate Republican plan. It's a plan that a few moderate Republicans have proposed before...but they only proposed it as an alternative to an incredibly liberal plan. Very few moderate Republicans have fought for a plan like this or even supported one. Their support was nominal.

The exception was Mitt Romney...but even he was working with a huge liberal Democratic majority (8-1 in one legislature).

In a vacuum, would any Republican actually seriously push for this plan or any other healthcare plan? No. They simply don't care about healthcare. It's not on their agenda. So it's hard to really ascribe the plan to any of them and be 100% accurate. It works as a political rhetoric, but it's a stretch in practice.

I think this is a progressive victory. We're providing public insurance (Medicaid) for [~15] millions, spending on public health clinics, giving subsidies to millions, and we're moving towards a system where private insurance companies are more like heavily regulated utilities. That's a system that can work, and has worked in other countries.

There are many ways to skin the healthcare cat. There are many different systems that can work. We're heading towards the heavily regulated private market approach. That's fine.

One note: if progressives continue to enjoy political success for the foreseeable future, it's likely that some kind of Medicare buy-in or public insurance option will be added to the reform structure. If this happens, I would argue that something like French system of insurance may evolve over the coming decades. All else being equal, we're looking at a Dutch or Swiss system as a worst case scenario. Both countries acknowledge health care as a right, legally and culturally. That's why the Affordable Care Act is an historic progressive achievement.