Saturday, January 24, 2009

My Favorite TV Series of 2008

Though derailed by the Hollywood writer’s strike, there was plenty of good TV to be had in 2008. Here’s a look at my nine favorite series (keep in mind: not all were actually broadcast in 2008).

9. "Pardon the Interruption"
Tony and Mike are big TV stars now because of this show, so it's ironic that's exactly what's hampered the vehicle that got them there. It may not be as good as it used to be, but "PTI" remains daily viewing for me, a way to catch up on sports news of the day in 20 minutes and laugh at the same time.

8. “Undeclared”
Between the first-season cancellations of this excellent college-freshman comedy and his previous high school dramedy “Freaks and Geeks,” it’s no wonder producer extraordinaire Judd Apatow gave up on TV and started making movies.

7. “The Office” (Season 4/5)
Though this series’ 2008 began with an all-time classic episode (“The Dinner Party”), it was a steady decline over the rest of the calendar year. "The Office" can still be counted on each week for moments of utter hilarity (Andy vs. Dwight in a college interview death match!), I’m worried the writing staff may just plain be running out of ideas of absurd things to do in an office, so they’re left to focus on things like love triangles and out-of-the-building trips. Still a must-see for me each week, but showing signs of age.

6. “Bones” (Seasons 3/4)
Perhaps the hardest hit by the strike of any show on this list, “Bones” was forced to ram its Season 3 serial killer storyline home in a hurry, which was unfortunate. Still, Booth and Brennan have the best chemistry of any team on TV, and the writing staff continues to provide an offbeat procedural with a deeper level of character and emotion than its contemporaries. Season 4 to this point has been a bit too focused on the bones and not enough on the hearts of its two leads, but that just makes the eps that go the opposite way that much more meaningful.

5. “WWE Monday Night Raw”
Though I’ve been a professional wrestling fan since elementary school, my fervor for the sports entertainment showcase has come and gone over the years. In 2008, it was back with a vengeance, as “Monday Night Raw” offered one of the most exciting stretches of its long run. I don’t know if it was a ploy to buoy ratings or simply a reaction to the boneheaded decision to give mid-carder CM Punk the championship belt (probably a combo of both), but this fall “Raw” was suddenly offering matches on a weekly basis typically saved for big pay-per-view events.

The lion’s share of the credit goes to the man who used to be known as “Lionheart,” Chris Jericho. The formerly flamboyant superstar’s monotone heel turn has been one of WWE’s best-ever moves, as Jericho turned everything—and everyone—he touched this year into gold. His feud with Shawn Michaels was one of the best I’ve ever seen; when it ended, Jericho didn’t miss a beat, moving on to ratchet up the intensity with the likes of Batista, John Cena, and whoever else came across his path. “Raw” really was Jericho this year.

4. “How I Met Your Mother” (Seasons 1-4)
I devoured this show on DVD in 2008. Alternately hilarious and touching, Ted, Barney, Robin, Marshall, and Lily gave me some of the biggest laughs of the year. Offering up episodes on everything from Slap Bet to Swarley to Woo Girls, this is the latest in a (short) line of worthy “Seinfeld” descendants. It’s my favorite sitcom on TV today, and from week to week is as consistently funny as any show I’ve seen in a long time.

3. “Survivor: Micronesia/Gabon”
I’m not an every-season “Survivor” watcher; of its 17 iterations, I think I’ve watched six. But the two seasons aired in 2008 had me hooked from the beginning and all the way through—at several spots, the action was downright riveting. This is the only reality show I watch with any regularity, and a lot of the credit goes to longtime host Jeff Probst, one of the best personalities on TV, reality or otherwise.

2. “Lost” (Season 4)
When a show is as consistently brilliant as “Lost,” its greatness can become almost commonplace, expected, routine. But in preparation for this past week’s return, I re-watched the final three episodes of Season 4, and was reminded anew how there has never been another show like this—so ambitious, intricate, and epic—in the history of TV. Sure it can get buried beneath its own mythology at times, but this, the first of “Lost’s” final three shortened seasons, proved now that the producers have an endpoint in sight, they’re moving toward it at breakneck speed.

1. “Dexter” (Season 2)
Though it seemed impossible, the producers behind one of television’s best series managed somehow to surpass their debut season with an even more tense, dramatic, and entertaining sophomore run. It became less about whom Michael C. Hall’s serial-killer-with-a-code would slice and dice each week, and focused more strongly on an edge-of-your-seat storyline that left my heart pounding and my mind spinning. Superb.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Album That Shouldn’t Be Left Behind: How to Evaluate an ‘Atomic Bomb’

The hype machine is in full effect for U2’s new album, “No Line on the Horizon” (due March 3—love that title!), with numerous magazine features and what not. The intensity went up a few notches Monday, when the album’s lead single, “Get on Your Boots,” hit the Internet (though not as exciting on first listen as “Vertigo” was in 2004, “GOYB” gets better with each play).

The PR onslaught of a new U2 release brings all sorts of hyperventilating and hyperbole by media and fans alike; I’m no less susceptible to this than others, so I thought it would be worthwhile to reexamine the band’s most recent album, 2004’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” to find a little perspective in the this-is-the-best-U2-album-ever hysteria that is about to descend upon the world.
With the new album, I predict some revisionist history will occur regarding the band’s previous work this decade, especially the last album. While “Atomic Bomb” received, in general, good to great reviews from the press, somewhere along the line it became cool for a vocal portion of the U2 fan community to bash the living crap out of the record. I’m thinking with “No Line on the Horizon,” there’s going to be a lot of stuff about getting away from the “old U2,” or the “tentative” and “safe” tendencies of the previous two albums, like they weren’t any good or something.

Overall, I still stand by my A- review of the album; I would certainly listen to arguments to drop it maybe to the B range, but I think it’s otherwise unfairly vilified by a vocal faction of the U2 community. Though its low points have become harder to overlook, its great points still soar just as high for me today as they did originally and more than make up for a few lackluster tracks. The fact that U2 can still write songs that live up to their own legacy is quite a feat, indeed.

Here’s a track-by-track look:

So what if it was on an (undeniably cool, iconic) iPod commercial? This remains one of the band’s most ferocious tracks of their entire career. Go back and listen again for when Edge explodes back into the song after the bridge. The lyrics are underappreciated, as well, as Bono examines the struggle between heart and head, and maintaining faith in an age that seeks to make the word meaningless. This 21st century can indeed make you feel dizzy, and “Vertigo” starts a conversation about faith and living in this world of ours that runs through the entire record.

“Miracle Drug”
From the very first time I heard it, “Miracle Drug” has always sounded like a “Beautiful Day” knockoff. Plodding along, it’s U2 trying to be U2, which is never a good thing. Bono’s lyrics are weak, his delivery even weaker; his slow cadence throughout just drags the entire thing down. It’s the first of several state-of-the-world songs on this album that fall rather flat.

“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”
The hands-down high point of the record, this track still makes me just stop and listen. It demands attention, refusing to be relegated to background music. The “siiiiiing” moment may seem like not as big a deal now, but it’s easy to forget that prior to “Atomic Bomb,” Bono’s voice had been slipping dangerously away into ragged nothingness. He hadn’t sounded this strong and clear in a decade, and “Sometimes” is one of Bono’s best-ever performances, as both a writer and a singer.

“Love and Peace or Else”
Boy, Bono was all over the place early on in this CD. Here a solid, sinewy rocker is wasted on his vapid lyrics. The millennia-long conflict in the Middle East is just a bit too complicated for a five-minute rock song.

“City of Blinding Lights”
As opposed to “Miracle Drug,” this is epic U2 at its best, an absolute freight train of a song. The chorus, especially, is as roof-rocking as the band’s ever been. And as is the case throughout the album, Bono’s lyrics come much easier and more natural when he’s writing about his own experiences, rather than addressing global issues. “City of Blinding Lights” encapsulates the overall theme or the record, as here he refers back to the issues addressed first in “Vertigo” and again in “All Because of You,” with themes of lost ideals and innocence, his head distracting him from a heart open to God, and God striving to drag him back from the vortex of this world and return to a place of childlike faith. A tremendous song.

“All Because of You”
The second case on “Atomic Bomb” where a loose, easy rock song belies the intensity and insightfulness of the lyrics. This homage to The Who packs a spiritual punch equal to a Pete Townshend guitar squall, as Bono continues his career-long conversation with the Almighty. Go back and read the words; they’re really quite brilliant, right down to the “I am” line, which could be either Bono addressing the great “I Am,” or saying “I am” what I am thanks to you, Lord. After all this global icon and has seen and done, “All Because of You” serves as a powerful reaffirmation of his faith—again, hidden inside a blistering “throwaway” rock and roll song.

“A Man and a Woman”
Certainly the most lyrically dense track on the album, this one’s a little tough to get my arms around. I interpret it as another reaffirmation from Bono, this time to his wife, promising he would never sacrifice the true love they share for the fleeting pleasures available to the world’s biggest rock star. A nice, mature change of pace leading into the second half of the record.

“Crumbs from Your Table”
One of The Edge’s best riffs of the album goes by the wayside here as Bono once again goes on the global warpath. I’ve always read this as Bono chastising America—or at least all wealthy nations—for not doing enough to help the poor. Save the preaching for the podium. Still, it’s really solid otherwise—Chiming Guitar Edge in fine form, familiar but not a rehash.

“One Step Closer”
If a track would’ve been trimmed off “Atomic Bomb,” this should have been the one. Not great, not bad, just rather blah on all fronts. How this surefire B-side made the cut and “Mercy” did not is beyond me.

“Original of the Species”
Now we’re talking. “Original of the Species” is the bright spot of the second half of “Atomic Bomb,” a beautiful, soaring, sweeping pop song about the wonders of parenthood. Bono returns to the themes of authenticity and truth, found first in “City of Blinding Lights,” as he speaks as a father to a child.

There’s a good song here, but it’s buried beneath layers of cheesy, ham-fisted production. The stripped-back acoustic version of this song U2 played on tour was far superior. A kneeling motif runs throughout “Atomic Bomb,” and though Bono doesn’t actually use the word here, this song is all about kneeling before God in prayer—“Take this heart/And make it break,” he says. Too bad the strong lyrics were robbed of their power in the studio.


One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered as part of my “Albums of the Aughts” project is that despite dominating much of my musical life for the past decade, U2 failed to record one of my 10 favorite albums in that span (that list is still coming, by the way!). Cull the best of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and “How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” and you have a collection of tremendous songs that I cherish. But the band for whatever reason didn’t have enough umph to put together enough of those tracks on one release and deliver a truly classic album. Maybe that’s asking too much of a group of soon-to-be 50-somethings trying to hold their place at the top of a young man’s game.

That’s kinda the point, though, isn’t it? How many other bands at this stage in their respective careers are still relevant to the culture at large, to multiple generations, and expected to produce classic albums? The fact that U2 remains essential pop culture today is as impressive as anything they’ve ever done. Only a few bands in the history of rock and roll have been able to produce a record of the quality of “The Joshua Tree”; even fewer have followed it up with something like “Achtung Baby.” If U2’s output from this decade hasn't quite reached those peaks, I can live with that. They’ve done more than enough to make us believe—or hope, anyway—that maybe they can find that magic again with “No Line on the Horizon.”

Monday, January 19, 2009

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’

The most curious thing to me about “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is why it’s getting so much praise.

This is the type of movie that will make you think about it afterwards, but in all the wrong ways; the more you ponder it, the more it falls apart. Credit that nifty trick to screenwriter Eric Roth, who plagiarizes his own Oscar-winning material by essentially re-presenting “Forrest Gump” in a slightly different—and much lesser—format.

By now you’ve all heard in broad strokes what this film is about: Brad Pitt plays the title character, who is born with the characteristics of an old man (wrinkled skin, arthritis, etc.) while still a baby; his body ages in reverse as he grows, well, older. The story unfolds just like “Gump,” as we follow Benjamin through his life as a series of flashbacks told by a present-day narrator. Some of the experiences Benjamin encounters are straight out of Forrest’s box of chocolates:

—He’s raised by a single mother in a communal home
—He has trouble walking
—He falls in love with a girl when they’re just children, but she moves away to experience the world
—He hooks up with a surly older man who shows him the ropes while the two set out to sea on a boat; this includes his first sexual encounter (hello, Lt. Dan!)
—He becomes independently wealthy, through no real doing of his own
—And the woman he loved as a child comes back to him later in life—for awhile, anyway

I think I could even live with all this heavy Gump-lifting, but unfortunately the one element “Button” doesn’t borrow from Forrest is his heart. What made “Forrest Gump” such a triumphant film was not just the way Roth and director Robert Zemeckis worked the title character into so many historical events, but how much we ended up loving the man, and how all of his life’s events led him to what ended up mattering to him the most: his son. The best, most memorable scene in “Gump,” to me, is right at the end, when Forrest talks to his dead wife, his dearest Jenny, about their son; there is no such moment in “Benjamin Button.”

The film provides a fascinating-at-times tale that ultimately leads nowhere, other than a waterfall of tears—the final half hour is so depressingly sad, it’s like Roth wasn’t satisfied until he had exhausted every last option for twisting the knife in your heart. It comes off as all the more manipulative, though, because unlike Gump, Button leaves no legacy behind, other than pain and heartache. I got to the end of this film and wondered, “What was the point of all that?”

What props this “Curious Case” up, of course, is the exceedingly fine production, direction, and acting on display throughout from every corner. Leads Pitt and Cate Blanchett are excellent, and director David Fincher delivers the kind of arresting scenes that have defined his career and made him one of my favorite filmmakers. It is certainly an impressive feat of technical wizadry to watch Pitt age in reverse. The talent infused in this movie from everyone but the writing staff turns a deadweight D+ script into a somewhat likable film with enough high points to garner a C+ … just as long as you don't try and think too much about it along the way.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Future Is Now

William Gibson started writing about the present because he said reality has caught up with science fiction's future.

When I read the sentence "Mind-control games may be the coming thing" in the USA Today, I understand exactly what Gibson's talking about. That proclamation comes from this article about a Star Wars-themed toy due out this year that will allow you to use brain waves to manipulate a small ball—with your mind.

And then, elsewhere in the paper, there's this story about LG unveiling a video cell phone that you wear on your wrist.

I can't decide whether these developments are awesome or scary as all crap.

I don't want to live in William Gibson's future. Or, come to think of it, his present.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Albums of the Aughts: 2007

In case you couldn’t tell from this whole “Albums of the Aughts” thing, I’m an album guy. Always have been, even when albums turned into cassettes, and cassettes turned into CDs. I don’t cherry pick. If I hear a song I like, I don’t buy that song, I buy the album it’s on. If a song goes on my iPod, its surrounded by the songs the artist intended it to be surrounded by. A completist (which means I’m concerned about the death of the album, but that’s another story for another post on another day).

So that made things a little difficult looking back at 2007, which turned out for me to be a year marked more by individual songs than entire records. For some reason, there’s a whole batch of CDs here that have some incredible tracks—some of my favorites of the decade—but have some holes on their resumes, as well.

Consider Feist’s “The Reminder,” for example: It has several catchy numbers as good as you’ll find from this year, but the album’s last four songs blend into a big mush. Same thing happens with Ryan Adams’ “Easy Tiger” or the “Once” soundtrack: Amazing high points, but too many skippable tracks to be considered favorite albums on the whole. The Arcade Fire produced two of my all-time favorite songs in 2007, “Keep the Car Running” and “No Cars Go,” but I don’t feel the need to listen to the rest of “Neon Bible” all that much anymore the way I do their 2004 debut, “Funeral.”

So, the list of honorable mentions this time around is especially potent; I can’t believe some of the artists relegated to such status from this year, but I just can’t justify picking one over the others when they all suffer from the same problem. Knocking those potential slot-fillers out of the running leaves me with just eight favorite albums from 2007 …

“Sink or Swim,” The Gaslight Anthem
Labeling “Sink or Swim” a “great debut” is probably the understatement of the decade. It’s a punk classic for this millennium, as the New Jersey quartet channels Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, and R&B and soul legends of the ’60s through the filter of modern-day punk rock. Though the band would refine their sound to great effect the following year, “Sink or Swim” still stands as one of my favorite albums of the decade, an effort of near perfection from a band who made it readily apparent they were destined for greatness.
Favorite Track: “We Came to Dance”
[original review]

“Because of the Times,” Kings of Leon
“Knocked Up,” the first track on this, the Tennessee misfits’ third album, is seven minutes long. That right there is all the signal anyone ever needed that the Kings had turned a corner and weren’t looking back. Whether you like the new direction or not I guess depends on whether you like your bands to stay in the same frame for their entire careers or not; I prefer the latter, and “Because of the Times” is my favorite KOL album to date. The term “arena rock” has been turned into a pejorative over the years, due I guess to way too many imitators to the crown bands like U2 and Pearl Jam carry with ease. But the Kings effectively made the transition with this album, especially great shootin’-for-the-upper-deck tracks like “McFearless,” “Black Thumbnail,” and my …
Favorite Track: “Fans.”

“Boxer,” The National
It seems to me The National spent the aughts building to this dark masterpiece. Each of the band’s previous three albums took steps in “Boxer’s” direction, stretching their sound in new directions before unveiling in 2007 this sweeping, majestic, orchestral stunner. Frontman Matt Berninger has a rich, canyon-deep voice you can drown in, and his measured tones mix with Bryan Devendorf's melodic drumming to carry the album to melancholy perfection. This is an arresting effort you listen to with purpose (preferably on long drives through a dark night), and after pushing play on opening track “Fake Empire,” it’s basically impossible to find a place to stop. “Boxer” marked back-to-back albums produced by The National with nary a weak track; it flows perfectly from up- to down-tempo, electric to acoustic, as devastating with a whisper as it is with a bellow—all in a decidedly minor key.
Favorite Track: “Slow Show”

“Raising Sand,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
The biggest surprise of the decade? Gotta be. Seriously, whoulda thought the hedonistic former frontman of Led Zeppelin and bluegrass belle with the voice of an angel could find any common ground whatsoever, much less meld their voices together like they were born for one another? The results are simply, purely magnificent, however. Led by T. Bone Burnett, Plant and Krauss glide in and around one another over the course of these 13 tracks with a generosity that never pushes too hard or forces the issue—they just let the songs unfold naturally, easily, wonderfully. Listening to “Killing the Blues,” for example, it’s not hard to imagine the two of them looking across the studio at each other, saying as much with their eyes and ears as with their voices. When it’s all sung and done, “Raising Sand” just feels … right. It brought Krauss more attention than she’s ever had outside her home genre, and for Plant the album was a return to relevance he hasn’t had since John Bonham died nearly three decades ago. An instant classic—and, hopefully, the start of a long, long journey.
Favorite Track: “Please Read the Letter”
[original review]

“Into the Wild,” Eddie Vedder
This one took a long time to grow on me, requiring I just get over the fact it wasn’t the true solo album I was hoping for but, first and foremost, a movie soundtrack. I still wish several of the songs were given full-track treatment, but I’ve come to love the first four entries—“Setting Forth,” “No Ceiling,” “Far Behind,” and particularly “Rise”—kinda as one long song in four parts, like the rock operas Vedder loves so much. “Guaranteed,” meanwhile, took on new meaning for me seeing it performed live during EV’s two solo shows in D.C. in August. And the entire venture is worth it if nothing else than for my …
Favorite Track: the beautiful and stirring “Hard Sun,” one of Vedder’s best vocal performances.
[original review]

“Icky Thump,” The White Stripes
Jack White abandoned his unfortunate detour into marimbaland from two years earlier and returned to what he does best—melting faces—with this blood-boiling guitar manifesto. Opener “Icky Thump” is a call to arms on the six-string, and it’s followed by some of the heaviest rock-and-blues tracks the band’s recorded to date (“Bone Broke,” “Little Cream Soda,” “Catch Hell Blues”). But “Icky Thump” is more than just a return to the band’s original template. Elsewhere White taps his considerable influences to great effect on songs such as country-tinged stomper “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told),” the Irish folk tale “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn,” and the Flamenco-hammer of “Conquest.” This all culminates literally and figuratively with “Rag & Bone,” a call-and-response blues extravaganza recalling Jack and Meg’s more playful days that has the dynamic duo flaunting their ability to meld all these various pieces of musical history into a new tapestry for this millennium.
Favorite Track: “A Martyr for My Love for You”
[original review]

“Sky Blue Sky,” Wilco
With more than a year to reflect on Wilco’s most recent album, I’d best describe it as … solid. And, perhaps, a missed opportunity. That doesn’t sound like all that good a reason to be listed as a favorite album of the year, but such is the standard set by obviously one of my all-time favorite bands. There are plenty of songs to love on “Sky Blue Sky,” most notably the double shot of “You Are My Face” and “Impossible Germany.” What holds this record back, to my ears, is the confining production, which seems to dampen the sound and spirit of these tracks. It’s all a bit close for my taste, especially coming off the sonic palettes of the band’s previous two albums. Still, all that said, “Sky Blue Sky” is a good listen from start to finish, and that’s enough to push it above some of the other more scattershot albums of 2007. There’s something to be said for consistency.
Favorite Track: “You Are My Face”
[original review]

“Is Is,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Rolling off the success of 2006’s tour de force “Show Your Bones,” this five-song EP may be even better than its predecessor. The YYYs followed the same template of complicated, menacingly ethereal songwriting, blistering their way through 17.5 minutes of some of the best angular rock and roll of the decade. And this release didn’t even include the trio’s tremendous contribution to the “Spider-Man 3” soundtrack, “Sealings,” which may have just been their best song of the year! The EP made a strong showing during the aughts; “Is Is” is a testament to the format’s ability to punch you in the gut and leave you desperately wanting more.
Favorite Track: “Down Boy”
[original review]

“Easy Tiger,” Ryan Adams
“Follow the Lights” [EP], Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
“Neon Bible,” Arcade Fire
“Favourite Worst Nightmare,” Arctic Monkeys
“The Meanest of Times,” Dropkick Murphys
“The Reminder,” Feist
“Once” [soundtrack], Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
“Kala,” M.I.A.
“Magic,” Bruce Springsteen