Monday, January 31, 2011

9. Mad Men (Blowing Smoke and Holding Mirrors)

“Why would you deny yourself something you want?”
-Joy asks this of Don, though it’s his job to get everyone else to ask themselves that question; 
“The Jet Set” (Season 2, Episode 10)

Run time: July 19, 2007 - present
Created by: Matthew Weiner
Broadcast via: AMC

Don Draper is not Don Draper. In a show about deceit and identity, it is always known to the viewers that Don Draper is a cinematic enigma, an existential antihero indicative of the trapping of the American Dream, desperately fleeing a shameful past while facing up to the demons of his present. Shows are often about people not being what they seem, but Mad Men is the first show I can think of where the main character is so largely living on a lie. He carries a secret with him (several, actually), which he shares with nearly no one for reasons that don’t always seem worth it. Not that there is no truth to the guy; all I’m trying to say is that Mad Men is a show about many things, and one of them is the concept of identity that truly took shape as we know it now in the middle of the twentieth century. The sense of solipsistic self, and the need to address individuality, became popular as many other ideas were beginning to take shape in America.

Capitalism and commerce had been running rampant throughout the 1950s, along with that now old-timey public duty towards an honorable life (versus an indulgent one, the kind we many of us seem more accustomed to now), but ideals were shifting and paradigms changing to accommodate the needs of an accelerating society that was moving faster than ever before – shifting by leaps and bounds with regards to politics, politeness, gender and race dynamics, sexuality, music… You know the deal. Everything changed in the ‘60s, but people still needed things sold to them. Mad Men chronicles the turbulent times of a group of Madison Avenue advertising agents and their friends and family. At the core of this group of mostly upper/upper-middle class Americans is the dashing Don Draper, a stern and selfish suit of a man that nonetheless displays many notable qualities that exemplify him as a so-called self-made success story, the best kind that the American Dream has to offer. Don is cool, “cooler than most players claim to be” as Big Boi would put it, and watching him interact with others through moments of visionary creativity and lackadaisical curiosity are a joy to watch. Being not all that he seems, Don’s mysterious past is fraught with dramatic tensions, the kind that will make everyone (including himself) question just what kind of person he is. (Give it up to Jon Hamm, arriving from obscurity to give one of the most assured performances a lead has had to offer.)

Mad Men isn’t only about identity, or our obsession with ourselves. It’s also about alienation, and ruthlessness, and obliviousness. In the guise of a symbolism-rich soap opera, Mad Men aims to reveal both how far and how little we’ve come, using the prism of the ‘60s to show what we currently feel about ourselves, then as well as now. I seldom ever speak in absolutes, despite my tendency towards fanciful fanfare when I really think something is the shiz, but let me be upfront here and now that this list of shows designated Best are never flawless. I don’t suppose anything made by all-too-fallible humans could ever be flawless, and come to think of it, isn’t something flawless therefore flawed? So getting past the fact that Mad Men is a far from perfect period piece, it is strangely easy (if you’re willing) to relate to and empathize with a bunch of snooty, white fat cats that make far more than what they’re worth “growing bullshit” (a dead farmer’s ghost’s words – it can be that kind of show on occasion) from their corner offices high within skyscrapers in New York City. It helps that they have good writers, and that the crew works meticulously towards creating an authentic feeling world from not too long ago. The sets, the clothes, the props, the products, the camera angles and framing – it almost seems if this all could have been filmed within the ‘60s themselves, except for the fact that Mad Men is mastered in HD.

Though it focuses largely on Draper, Mad Men does feature an ensemble cast, and a great one at that. Most of the characters seem to be fairly typical archetypes at first, more three-dimensional that cardboard cutouts but still easy to recognize for the mores and values they represent. Though each episode is mostly self-contained, Mad Men is another of those multi-season shows that finds characters and situations slowly expanding as each season runs its course. And what appear initially to be mere models emerge into fascinating portrayals of fractured people. Like I said, it’s kind of modeled after soap operas in a way, but this makes for a great cast to zing lines at each other. And for all the joys to unearth within this series, the humor is the kind you don’t have to search for. Sure, there’re moments of unspoken awkwardness and (a little too) on-the-nose winks towards terrible indiscretions of the past, but Mad Men’s writing is filled with brilliant exchanges and succinct lines that are entirely quotable upon first utterance. They are so much fun to repeat because they are delivered by world-class performers when we first hear them.

An interesting facet of Mad Men, to me, is its relationship to time. To paraphrase someone much wiser than myself, all stories are actually about time, whether directly or obliquely. Narration being the controlled release of information that it is, one might logically reason that Mad Men, a time capsule highlighting the 1960s, would be strictly bound by chronological storytelling. But bound is the wrong word for it, because the show deals with the passage of time in interesting ways. Since 2007, each summer audiences have been given a brand new season to feast their eyes and ears and brains upon, yet so much time has passed for the Drapers and company. Season one is set entirely within 1960 (the final scene takes place on Thanksgiving), but the second season starts on Valentine’s Day of 1962. Season 4’s first episode is set around Thanksgiving of '64, the second at Christmas, with the rest of the season coasting through 1965. For any other serial drama, this might seem strange, with weeks passing between episodes, months or years between seasons; yet Mad Men is graceful not just for its acting chops or cinematic flair on display, but also for its seamless transitions between scenes as well as seasons. And Mad Men isn’t even strictly chronological: Several scenes (mostly involving Don) drop back into the past (or future on occasion), but it all flows. Sure, Mad Men can seem to move at a glacial pace sometimes, so wrapped up in the details of everything. But it’s also willing to show things in different contexts, a risky move that I believe pays off enough to warrant its continued use through the series.

Some say Mad Men overtly fetishizes a deeply flawed past, others say it’s too light in its critiquing of former crimes to qualify as relevant. I see it as, simply, a brush-stroked mosaic period drama, a portrait of a time, if not in the time. Yes, Mad Men is about Something, but that something doesn’t have to amount to some obscenely profound statement of political correctness. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of Mad Men to explicitly explore race relations or social mobility or any other facet of what made the ‘60s such an exhilarating time, even though all of those topics are fun to ruminate upon and discuss with others – and yes, it’s a show that takes place in that time, so we expect the time’s events and etiquette to matter. But all that creator Matthew Weiner and his cast and crew have to do is take an interesting batch of characters, place them in an intriguing setting and have them interact in a way that entertains us. What Mad Men excels at is giving us restrained drama that doesn’t spell everything out. Scenes are presented for us to pick apart: How authentic were they? Did they get a reference or set piece right or wrong? Is what’s going on dramatically all a reflection upon the age they inhabit? Some scenes leave enough unsaid for there to be two or three (or more) distinct interpretations of a character’s motives or machinations. Of course, this causes tons of semantic arguments and un-substantive debating, but so it goes when you deal in putting a finer point on things, as opposed to hammering the point home.

I could keep going on, but I think I’ve said enough about this show. If you dig slowburning drama with complex characters and high production values (not that money is everything, but each episode costs about $2 million, and you can see every dollar in every frame), this one is worth your time as much as anything else out there. And don’t let my previous “soap opera” mentionings throw ya – this stuff almost amounts to a great literary work, and certainly is a cinematic coup that will continue to inspire well-crafted dramas for years to come.

BEGINNING & End Credits Score: 6.5/10
A Hitchcockian (well, Vertigo and North by Northwest) styled trailer featuring a nondescript suit (and a silhouette occupying it) falling from a skyscraper, passing by iconic images that were surely conceived by the helplessly falling ad man. It abstractly suggests to you what to expect of our main protagonist’s ambiguity (not to mention the show’s). The anachronistic use of Rjd2’s “A Beautiful Mine” doesn’t bother me – I actually enjoy this more than the Magnificent City instrumental, because without Aceyalone rapping it becomes a little tedious after a bit. The endings (either a sustained fade or a well-placed smash cut to black before credits) feature a classically composed score by David Carbonara, or occasionally a Bob Dylan song. Again anachronistic at times; again, who cares?
BEST CHARACTER: Margaret “Peggy” Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss)
People who complain about unfavorable portrayals of women in this show seem to forget about Peggy Olson. Sure, she’s the one that got out from under (the exception to the rule), starting in the pilot as a secretary and working her way up to copy writer, so she’s not the typical female experience – but she is Peggy Olson, and she wants to live life, and do good work, and be taken seriously, and make something that matters (and smoke a little marijuana). Elizabeth Moss plays a daring young woman learning to stretch her wings with the kind of subtlety that few can pull off convincingly. And yet Peggy is also a force to reckon with, like an unexpected breath of fresh air, glimpsing into the eye of the maker like Don does at his best moments (whether he knows it or not – and I suspect he suspects it – Don is mentoring Peggy in the ways of their world, because he sees in her what he knows he is capable of). If Mad Men is telling me nothing else, it’s that women can achieve everything that men do in the work place. This does mean that Peggy is also capable of lying, obliviousness and manipulation, but Peggy has come a long way from the naïve secretary she started out as, and her arc, more than any other, symbolizes the changes that came with the times that were a-changin’ plenty. She is the female Don, which – given the timeframe – makes her even more fascinating to watch.
BEST SEASON: 4 (of 4 thus far)
Yes, I miss Sal and Paul Kinsey, but the show keeps getting better for me as it goes along. There isn’t a bad episode of Mad Men (this point is hugely debatable), though the first few (or even half) of any season can seem slow and meandering at first; season four, however, had nary a dull moment, I don’t care what people say about “The Suitcase.” Many will disagree with me, of course, but the point I’m trying to make is that everything someone could call a success about Mad Men is highlighted in this season. The actors keep getting sharper (especially Kiernan Shipka as young Sally Draper), and the show is maintaining a consistently quality pace. Matthew Weiner has said he plans to end it on either season six or seven. This sounds like a good plan. It will be hard for him and everyone else to maintain this level of excellence much longer. Plus, the ‘60s gotta end sometime. My money is on Woodstock being a key component to the final season, similar to the Nixon-Kennedy presidential race in the first, or President Kennedy’s assassination in the third (spoiler alert?).
BEST EPISODE: “The Jet Set” (Season 2, Episode 11)
Many people would debate with me on this one (which is always welcome), because it’s not an easy one to understand unless you’ve been following along Mad Men from the beginning; not to mention that many bemoan it, and it is a less than typical example of what the show typically deals with.  It’s an unusual episode in that it largely takes place in California, finds Don skirting work meetings to hang out with a bohemian family in an “open door policy” mansion, and takes his misanthropy to its natural conclusion. Of course, there are many sterling office scenes as well: Peggy (and the entire Sterling Cooper office) learning of foreign Kurt’s homosexuality (after he asks her to go see Bob Dylan with him), Roger deciding to marry young (and go about like he was the first one in his position to do so), Duck Phillips negotiating a series of meeting to sell the Sterling Cooper agency to a British firm. All this, set against the riots of ’62, right around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (with a sweet drop of The Sound And The Fury), and setting up a rewarding final two episodes that conclude a second solid season (and set up stories that will pay off in future seasons); it all makes for one densely rewarding episode of the Mad Men experience that shows how eccentric and off-beat the show can let itself be.
BEST MOMENT: “The meaning of nostalgia,” (from “The Wheel,” Season 1, Episode 13)
I know, choosing this scene for best moment is like when Rob Gordon chose “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as one of his Top 5 Side 1, Track 1 selections, but sometimes the most obvious example is the best one. Don redefines the coolness of the Kodak wheel slide projector by branding it the Carousel, and in selling the importance of nostalgia (“the pain from an old wound”) he also succumbs to it. Mid pitch, Don watches himself and his family in the images on the screen and nearly breaks down into tears. He often seems detached of emotion, but obviously no one is, because Don even sends one of his own out the door, and clearly gets an emotional reaction out of the rest of his staff and his clientele. The monologue and sequence sum up much of the theme and tone of the entire series, but really, it’s simply a great scene in an entire episode full of them, proving that Mad Men is the type of show that builds towards its conclusions patiently and delivers in the final moments. If I were to choose a slightly less obvious mega moment, I’d probably have to go with Season Three’s “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency…” You’ll know which moment I’m talking about.

BEST ENDING: The road to "Babylon" ("Babylon," Season 1, Episode 6)
Setting the bar pretty high very early on, "Babylon" is one of the better first season episodes, largely due to Don's interactions with Midge and her beatnik other lover, but also for its symbolic linkage towards exile, one of Mad Men's many themes. Since this is a "decline and fall" type of modernist take on recent history, Mad Men plays plenty with the whole "tying it all together" type of endings, and few play out or pay off better than this episode's conclusion. Don, Midge, and her bearded chum Roy talk in a coffeeshop about "perpetuating the lie" and "people want[ing] to be told what to do" and the great divide that is beginning to surface in America, and then a young artist onstage plucks a mandolin as he chants the Don McLean song "Babylon" - and the scene shifts to montage, music carrying over mystically, as all the loneliness (solutitary and shared) existing in our characters' world is made clear as crystal. It's a sweeping cinematic moment, a little saccharine admittedly, but very evocative and highly stylized storytelling.

-Benjamin Schwarz wrote a mostly precise essay for The Atlantic about the equal merits and blunders of the show. I don't fully agree with his treatment of Betty or January Jones, I also can't deny that she does come off as the most cliché of the bunch, and it doesn't help the pick types that she'd played by a former model. Still, Schwarz (like Mad Men itself) gets it right more than he gets it wrong.
-Snarky people who know how to point out everything wrong without being able to recognize what is right crack me up. The idea that we watch Mad Men for its escapism and a wistful sense of longing for a different past is obvious to anyone who encounters even the premise, let alone the pilot. A more interesting angle to me is, "How does the writers' use of deliberate clichés, symbols and stereotypes create a source of verisimilitude and authenticity within the fictional universe of Mad Men, and how does that alternative reality reflect upon our actual past and our current view of it." But some people like to get mad that other people enjoy what they don't.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Top 10 Flicks I Missed in 2010

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I hear that Robert Pattinson is quite an actor. I thought he made a good Cedric Diggory and all, but I have yet to see any of the Twilight movies in their entirety, and I don’t mind it staying that way. But I am looking forward to Water For Elephants, and I’ve heard lots of great things about Remember Me. And thankfully no one has spoiled what I understand to be a remarkably divisive ending (some loved it, others hated it). I also think Chris Cooper and Pierce Brosnan ain't half bad most of the time.
Zack Galifianakis reteaming with director Todd Phillips for more comedic misadventures? The only thing that could possibly make this any better was if Robert Downey Jr. were to some how get involved? Say what? He is? This can’t fail, right? What? Not as good as The Hangover? So it goes, I suppose, but maybe this means they'll aim with a little more precision towards making Hangover 2 a success.
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I like docs, even (purported to be) fake ones. Obviously I don’t know if this one’s good or not, since I’ve been hearing all sorts of good and bad about it. But if for no other reason, I wanted to see it so I could compare and contrast a movie about the skewing of perception via Facebook with a movie skewering our perception of the guy who made Facebook (The Social Network).
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Like all good film geeks, I fell unfailingly in love with Let The Right One In. Unlike many enthusiasts, however, I did not get frothy with rage when I heard that Matt Reeves (of Cloverfield) was going to be directing the inevitable American remake. Neither was the original Let The Right One In’s author (yup, it was a boook first). It seems like we were both close to correct, since the response has been mostly positive. Thirteen-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz continues to impress me with the movies she chooses – I’m looking forward to her performances ten, twenty and maybe even thirty or forty years from now. And I always enjoy me some Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas.
This isn’t the first HP movie I failed to see in theaters, but I’m a little surprised that I didn’t make it to this one. I’ve always enjoyed the Potter films, and since I’ve stopped reading the books after Azkaban (don’t ask me why I stopped or haven’t picked them back up, cos I enjoyed those more than the movies), I rely on the movie to feed me my magical mythos. I also enjoy multi-part feature length films. Kill Bill, Smoke/Blue In The Face, John Woo’s awesome Red Cliff… will Harry Potter’s final film be amongst the most epic two-parters?
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I’m a major David O. Russell fan, so I’m surprised I didn’t check this one out in theaters, especially since we all missed the chance to see his “politically-charged romantic comedy” Nailed when production was halted before completion. The Fighter looks fantastic, not just for Russell reteaming with the remarkable Marky Mark, but also for him working with Christian Bale as a recovering crack addict ex-con who trains his brother to box. Bale is usually at his best when working with extremes, as is Russell. I’m sure their pairing is inspired.
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James Franco as Allen Ginsberg + one of the world’s most infamous poems being read & defended (and glances into the origin of the artist behind a revolution) + the cinematic mixture of storytelling, documentary and animation + fantastic supporting cast (David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels, and Mary-Louise Parker? Nice!) = I’m not sure how I missed it.
I’ve been waiting a while for Sylvain Chomet to show us some more of what he’s got. After The Triplets Of Bellville (and a short piece in Paris, Je T’Aime), I was excited to see something new in hand-drawn animation, and was curious to experience some cartoons not from America or Japan. This story about a magician being outed seems well suited to Chomet’s distinct sketchy stylings, and I hope he has some more tricks up his sleeve than just a solid debut.
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Quentin Tarantino and Greg Dulli both called it one of their favorite films of the year. That alone tells me how good this Australian crime drama must be (that, and Guy Pearce is in it).
Of all the films I managed to not see, how did I not see this? I loved Tron growing up. I love The Dude now. And I enjoy remakes. Even if they aren’t artistically satisfying, they can be culturally, and who can disagree that Legacy looks amazing? Throw in a skillful score by Daft Punk and I’m amazed that I wasn’t overcome by whatever disease turns a movie lover into a drooling fanboy waiting in line weeks before the premiere. And more so than any other movie, I know I missed out on something by not seeing this one in theaters. I can watch every movie on this list tomorrow, but I can’t go back to when this film was first blowing collective minds wrapped around 3D glasses. My bad.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Top 10 Shows of 2010

David Cross is still on a comedic roll: not just a well-loved standup comedian and character actor in random films, Mr. Cross is now a part of three great comedy vehicles. His first major contribution to television was the manically mirthful HBO sketch series Mr. Show, followed shortly after by his remastering of physical comedy in Arrested Development. And now David Cross has given us Todd Margaret, a bumbling office temp who hilariously is offered to go to the UK to spearhead promotion of a new energy drink by his hotheaded and demanding Type A boss (reuniting Mr. Cross with Will Arnett to extraordinary effect). Lying his ass off at every opportunity, the in-over-his-head fish out of water must contend with a sarcastic and conniving underling as well as maintaining his subterfuge at the cost of all sense of dignity. It was only six episodes, but this first season of The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret finds David Cross perfecting foolhardy comedy and leaves us hanging as to just how this will all come to end (we learn early on that things will not be turning out well for Mr. Margaret). Season two can’t come quick enough.
9) EASTBOUND & DOWN (Sundays on HBO, September 26 – November 7)
The continuing chronicles of Kenny Powers (no doubt Danny McBride’s best character and finest performance) finds the down and out antihero cockfighting in Mexico (and sporting corn rows). Steve Jankowski makes it down in time to witness (and assist) Powers return to baseball through the Mexican league team The Charros, becoming La Flama Blanca and buying himself a ticket to his long hoped for comeback. Co-creater Jody Hill described this season as “a cross between the films Amores Perros and The Bad News Bears.” That pretty well sums it up. The cameos are as mackin’ as KP himself: Michael Peña, Adam Scott, Deep Roy, Efren Ramirez (Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite), Matthew McConaughey (in Tropic Thunder funny mode) and, of course, Don Johnson – everyone bringing a wonderful new character to this strange saga. Overall, everything that made the first season of Eastbound & Down epic comedy is back here and all the better this time around. And the one-up bump from six to seven episodes was a good call. It may not get any better than this, kids. The third season is reported to be the final, and we all know how bittersweet it is when shows go out, even if it is in a blaze of glory (here’s hoping, anyhow).
8) MAD MEN (Sundays on AMC, Sundays July 25 – October 17)
I must admit, I haven’t seen this season of Breaking Bad still, and from what I hear, it deserves to make this list. But I can’t talk about what I don’t know (not with any fairness intact, at least). But what I do know is this: The forth season of Mad Men was a series best. For those that weren’t willing to give the show a shot after disliking the first, it’s hard to convince you that this show has been getting more engrossing and enriching as it goes along (which is the case, by the way). But for those who can look past the anachronisms and sometimes soapy sentimentality to see this sterling period drama for more than its “we should known better” ticks (which remain pretty funny for me and my crew), the show is a glowing example of the type of drama that is possible since The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Sure, it’s a glimpse made in hindsight, but a glimpse nonetheless into some fascinating characters set together against a authentic 1960s backdrop. I don’t want to spoil any of the events, so let me just say that I loved the ending arc of this season more than even season two’s twist-turning final three episodes (where we first saw Don take that trip to California that plays so poignitly in hindsight of this season). I don’t see this show fading away, nor do I see it going anywhere catastrophic or monumental. But Mad Men isn’t that kind of show to begin with. It’s one where you simply sit back and enjoy the well-crafted ride.
7) THE WALKING DEAD (Sundays on AMC, October 31 – December 5)
AMC is building a good reputation for taking on exciting and offbeat work. Not just confined to the alliterative Mad Men or Breaking Bad, they also tried Rubicon and The Walking Dead out for size. The jury hasn’t even started for me on the former (I’ve only seen the pilot thus far), but I have seen the light that is Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the graphic novel series (the later). I wouldn’t have thought that the guy who brought The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile to the screen would have it in him to try adapting any comic series, especially a very modern Romero-esque zombie wasteland story. It’s a slow moving but characteristically engrossing film, essentially (only six episodes in the first season – I picked a lot of short order seasons for this list, didn’t I?), one that builds towards a taut conclusion and the promise of a thirteen episode second season by next Halloween. In the meantime, we’ll have to make due with what we’ve got: a desperate band of human survivors rambling across the country looking for any hope or salvation they can find. Sure, we’ve seen this story a hundred times before, but the gory and grungy series has some fine performances and great turns throughout. And with plenty of source material, this show could end up there with True Blood as a great modern spinning of a tired monster genre.
6) IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (Thursdays on FX, September 16 – December 9)
The Gang have progressively bigger shoes to fill each season, but they have yet to not outdo themselves. Season Six features many classic moments, on par with Kitten Mittens or “Wild Card, bitches!” or Sweet Dee potentially dating a retarded person: who could forget The Gang buying a boat? Or getting lost in the woods? How abut the incredible Halloween mystery Who Got Dee Pregnant? Or Charlie’s multi-episode defection from bar bitch to school janitor (and the inevitable bounce back to Paddy’s)? And how great was the unbelievably uproarious finale wherein Dee finally had that baby they’d been trying to hide the first few episodes of the season? Not a bad episode of the bunch, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia continues to exaggerate America’s foibles to farfetched but insanely insightful capacity. Their selfishness is on par with Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David (now there’s a crossover), and they are even more self-oblivious separately than David Brent and Michael Scott put together. The low-budget comedy remains king, chugging along on its way to becoming the most successful situational comedy on the air. As it continues to tackle controversial subjects with a boost of blue humor and a dark turn of mind, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is starting to make other contemporarily long-running comedies look a little lazy. Then again, these guys only do 13 episodes a season instead of the usual 20+ of network television. Oh well, it does leave me salivating for more. It’s weird that I’m almost willing to skip summer just so I could get to September for more Always Sunny.
5) TREMé (Sundays on HBO, April 11 – June 20)
David Simon’s kept busy since finally leaving Baltimore be. In the same year as The Wire’s fifth and final season, he brought his adaptation of Evan Wright’s book Generation Kill to HBO as a miniseries, and then he set to work on a new city drama, this time set in late 2005 New Orleans. Dealing with the atrocious aftershocks of Katrina and the failure of the levees to protect the city, Tremé stays surprisingly upbeat despite delving into so many disparaging aspects of what can happen when bad fortune, bad weather and bad planning all coincide. The reason for Tremé's abundance of positivity (certainly in comparison to Simon’s previous TV work) has much to do with the large focus on the people who make the city the vibrant wonderland that it has remained, even post-Katrina. A large portion of the cast are musicians, and the jams thrive on this show. I think most music lovers wouldn’t have minded seeing and hearing a little more, but when there were musicians onscreen, an extra electricity jolts out of the program (and into our shufflin' feet). The blending of drama and melody is inexplicable, capturing the spirit of the joy of being alive as much as anything else the city (and neighborhood where the show gets its name) has to offer. If it seems like it’s going nowhere during your first time watching it, just enjoy it for the performances from many notable musicmakers (including, but not limited to, Kermit Ruffins, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Coco Robicheaux, Elvis Costello, Tom McDermott, Steve Earle, The Pine Leaf Boys and Galactic); not to mention the delectable looking foods, simmering cuisines cooked up by several chefs that pop in and out of this show (including one played by Deadwood alum Kim Dickens); as well as the finely tuned performances from several notable thespians of the screen. It's nice see Khandi Alexander (The Corner, News Radio) and Melissa Leo (Homicide) returning to good TV. Wendall “The Bunk” Pierce and Clarke “Cool Lester Smooth” Peters reunite (though their characters never meet), and it's nice to see John Goodman return to TV (on that note, give it up for Steve Zahn for making his film-to-TV transition much smoother and more admirably than most). And trust me, by the end, all doubt of actual story-driven plot is obliterated by the finale's fierce final moments that reveal the entire season has been a profoundly insightful meditation on the plight of cross purposes – Katrina was the impetus of many festering and conflicting tensions amongst the citizens of the city, which all became relevant in a new way once survival and restoration became factors. But the people of Tremé keep on keepin’ on (well, most of them), and I am curious for how Simon and company plan on carrying this jazzy new creation.
4) PARTY DOWN (Fridays on Starz, April 23 – June 25)
Starz dropped the ball. Screwed the pooch. Deserves to be motherfucked. I understand that Party Down wasn’t looking like their most profitable decision, but what did they expect when they aired their first original program on a Friday night? Nobody knew Starz was doing its own thing – most people I know don’t even have Starz. And who’s watching TV on a Friday night? That is the one night to not put any brand new programming on, especially non-established commodities. I call Party Down a commodity because it was something special. Not since Arrested Development has a comedy been so daring, original, succinct and clever. Call it a happy accident, but Party Down was the right guys getting the green light at the right time. The first season was unique, a sharp show about struggling workers and starving artists schlepping as caterers while waiting to get famous in Los Angeles. This newest season maintained the same “everything happens at the event being catered” setup and kept upping the stakes on just how far they could take things. And every episode consistently got better and better, from the welcoming “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party” (with one of the McPoyle twins from Always Sunny) to “Constance Carmell Wedding” (which featured the return of season one’s shining star Jane Lynch, when since left to get richer on Glee). Big things started happening for all the actors, turning Party Down from a catering comedy vehicle to a solid actor launching pad. I know I’m going to enjoy Adam Scott on Parks & Recreation, and Ken Marino is killing it on Childrens Hospital (Megan Mullaly, too), but I’m sad to see this show go. I believed it had potential to be the next big thing, as unique as Freaks & Geeks and as continual inspired as The Larry Sanders Show. Apparently I was wrong, but this season remains one of the funniest things I have seen all year (and I make it my business to see the funny stuff above all else).
3) FUTURAMA (Thursdays on Comedy Central, June 24 – September 2/Sunday, November 21)
The return of Futurama may have been preceded by the revival of Family Guy a few years back, but this rebirth was more rewarding experience, for a much rougher road was travelled to reach that point. Despite production being halted for over five years, Futurama always held a special place in my heart. By the second season, I was enjoying new episodes of Futurama more than The Simpsons (still the pinnacle that most other cartoons aspire to, even if its golden days are far past), and each season has delivered the goods in similar fashion, outdoing every other cartoon for fun, adventure and even emotion. The return to the third millennium brought lots of fun new escapades for our interplanetary travelers to endure. The comedy continues to take topical subjects and make them both fodder for parody and an excuse to snazzify it by making it all futuristic and stuff (my favorite being the eyePhone). And the animation, if possible, has gotten even more gorgeous. The picture perfect blend of traditional cel drawings and three-dimensional computer rendering is a feast for the eyes. And the voice cast has not lost their charm – Fry, Leela, Bender, Farnsworth, Zoidberg, Amy, and all of our favorites are back and better than ever. The sixth season of Futurama is a marked victory for fans. But only for being a consistently great string of episodes, but for making us feel like caring for a show can still matter. This is one of the few cases where a show that shouldn’t have been cancelled was, only to be picked back up – and all the more amazing that it’s core of writers, animators and actors were able to come back and make it seem like no time at all had passed. Certainly the upcoming season shall be equally splendiferous.
2) LOST (Tuesdays on ABC, February 2 – May 18/Sunday, May 23)
What more can I say that hasn’t already been hashed and rehashed to death by the fans, the critics, the skeptics, the haters, the not-so-sures and the die hards? Lost had to end sometime, and any show so heralded is going to divide people on whether or not the ending sucked. I was someone who didn’t find Lost to be mega-compelling until somewhere in the middle of the third season, so I don’t share some people’s view that the later season got increasingly off their rocker. For me, each season got better, because Lost was the type of show that was best experienced live. Anyone uninitiated has a great story of mythic (nah, biblical) proportions, but they will never get to experience what it was like when the whole world was tumbling down the rabbit hole together, discovering an Island so beautiful, dangerous and mysterious that it couldn’t be avoided. I loved the ride for as long as it lasted, and I dug the flash sideways, the origins reveals, the theories debunked and the multitude of further questions raised. Though I still think season five was pound-for-pound the best, this season does play with your mind and your ideas about everything you’d previously watched on Lost like no other final season has. The two dudes known as Darlton (and their writing team) truly crafted one crazy concoction, a televised labyrinth, a cinematic puzzle, a video game that didn’t need to be played merely felt… The Island and the character of Lost will remain in television fan’s collective hearts for a long time to come, and it's thanks to this season, for finally getting our Losties back home.
1) CHILDRENS HOSPITAL (Sundays on Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, August 22 – November 7)
It’s not a cartoon, but this vaguely-ongoing Airplane-on-acid style satire of hospital dramas (chiefly ER and General Hospital, but also St. Elsewhere, Grey’s Anatomy, House, Scrubs, Chicago Hope… you get the idea) sure does feel unreal, filled with rapid-fire guffaw-inducing hilarity: nonstop non-sequiturs, over-the-top puns and wordplay, and a terrific ensemble. I love Adult Swim’s persistence in pushing the fifteen-minute format on its product; it is about the exact amount of time that any crew or viewer should devote to any such lunacy that is aired nightly. But for all of their strung out, high octane, severely skewed animated series, this year a live-action team consistently came off as more outrageous than even Venture Bros. and Metalocalypse (not to be confused with metaocalypse) – which is no disrespect to the two solid seasons those shows both had this year (or half, in VB’s case). If you agree that the best part (or only tolerable part) of Will & Grace was Megan Mullaly, then you need to be watching this business. But you’ve also got creator Rob Corddry, along with Ken Marino, Erinn Hayes, Rob Huebel, Lake Bell, Henry Winkler, Malin Åkerman, Nick Offerman, Ed Helms, and (the voice of) Michael Cera… A great batch of comedic acting pranksters (plenty beyond the ones I just boasted about) and the showrunning skills of the maestro himself David Wain (The State, Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models). If you love medical melodrama or savage slapstick, visit Childrens Hospital post haste. Most fun finder’s keepers show of the year.

8. Arrested Development (Development Indefinitely Arrested)

“Now, the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. 
It’s Arrested Development.”
-The uncredited narrator Ron Howard during the quick slide-show introduction sequence

Run time: November 2, 2003 – February 10, 2006
Created by: Mitchell Hurwitz
Broadcast via: Fox

Arrested Development was the true anti-sitcom. It didn’t have a laugh track or a three-camera setup. It wasn’t filmed in front of a live audience, nor was it bound by a couple studio sets. It was presented almost as if a reality series, even though it was scripted, rehearsed and absurdist (and none of the characters acknowledged the camera). It was hyper and hyperbolic, a quick-witted and quick-paced show that naturalistically blended so many disparate influences into one of the most unique creations of serialized storytelling. Scathing topicality, wacky wordplay, continuity callbacks (and call-forwards), omniscient narration, eclectic intertextuality, ultra-aware postmodernism, allusions to incest as well as irony – nothing was too much to handle in this dense and reflexive live-action cartoon, a continuing saga about the riches-to-rags lives of a spoiled, snooty, selfish, scheming and super-materialistic family that nonetheless love and depend on each other. The Bluth family begins as a wealthy lot, with patriarch George Sr. (played by the blusteringly blissful Jeffrey Tambor) running a real estate development firm (as well as a frozen banana stand) to great success. Or so it seemed, until it is revealed that the company has been defrauding customers and engaging in some “light treason.” George goes to prison, and the spend-happy Bluths are roped in by his straight-man son Michael (the return of Jason Bateman!) to get their lives and livelihood back on track. The odyssey of these down-and-out folks makes for one of the best comedic misadventures to ever grace that proverbial boob tube.

It’s another case of too much of a good thing to last long enough. Arrested Development won several awards, critical acclaim and a devoted “cult-sized” following, but it never got the ratings it needed or deserved, and it was only allowed three seasons to shine. It’s the network/comedic equivalent of Deadwood in that sense. And in that line of thinking, Arrested Development started just as strong, taking an exceptionally well-made pilot episode and straight running with it, not encountering a bad episode in its path. It also featured a diverse ensemble cast of very distinct actors delivering some first-class work in a highly collaborative yet tightly orchestrated creative environment. That’s about where the similarities end, however. Deadwood was on HBO, and allowed to unleash any filthy word that came from the writers’ minds. AD was a show that was fairly naughty as well – it just had to be cuter about it, since it was broadcast on a family network during prime time. But by scaling back the swears (or bleeping whenever necessary) and ratcheting up the subtext, the writers still managed to make plenty of jokes about oedipal conflicts, sexual innuendo, body parts and other scatology, identity crises, self-sustaining narcissism, adolescent angst, aging, alcoholism, sibling rivalry, familial manipulation – and because they seldom swore, they somehow managed to never get offensive. They benefited from their own need to censor, and they often called themselves out on their own trappings (they mined chuckles out of every opportunity they got, always to good effect).

Before it was en vogue, Arrested Development employed a mockumentary styling that really hasn’t been attempted since. Not just content to pretend that their cameras are capturing spontaneity unfolding, the show utilizes abrupt cuts to supplemental materials to help get its point across. Security camera footage, archival footage, family photos, fake posters, website screen shots and various other pieces of imagery to make this fictional tale entrenched in its own alternate reality. And again, I gotta bring up Ron Howard, who narrates the on- (and off-)camera shenanigans succinctly. Not just on-the-ball with keeping the audience up to speed, he also engages in some surreal banter with the onscreen characters. Banter is the wrong word, actually; they do interact, but not directly. For instance, there is a scene where Michael is talking with his brother Gob (pronounced like the biblical Job, but frequently mispronounced as a lump or clot of something gross – it’s actually an acronym for George Oscar Bluth). They both went out to a bar the night before, and recall their misadventures. Michael slept with a blind attorney, while Gob (a pitch perfect Will Arnett) flirted with a woman (played by Arnett’s real life wife Amy Poehler), turning the encounter into a series of escalating dares, wherein they stayed up all night daring each other until they ended up getting married. But by the time they got to their hotel room, it was morning and she had to get to her job (before they could consummate anything).

          MICHAEL: Boy, the lengths you will go to sleep with a woman.
          GOB: Believe me, we didn’t do any sleeping. I had sex last night.
          NARRATOR (offscreen, not missing a beat): But he really didn’t.
          GOB (satisfying himself more than anyone else): Yes, I did…

Howard’s voice is as essential a character as any member of the Bluth family. It’s perfectly in keeping with the off-the-walls approach of the comedy contained within. Even though we don’t see him, Howard’s narrator musters just as many guffaws as the rest of the brilliant cast. It’s a prime example of how nothing goes to waste of this show. Even bit players are every bit as apt to make us laugh out loud. This show is cast to perfection, and holy schlamoly, are there soooo many great actors on call here. The main cast that was assembled couldn’t have congealed more correctly. Casting is a crap shot, because no matter how well any individual is suited to their role, it’s all for nothing if the actors are not able to play well together. For such a random arranging, it sure works well more often than not, and Arrested Development deserves some recognition for this. Not only did it give us a major reason to love Jason Bateman (and that trademark wink of his) all over again, but it introduced us to Michael Cera, Tony Hale and Alia Shawkat. The main cast was incredible, not just for Tambor, Bateman and Arnett, or the new kids; there was Jessica Walther as the hyper- (and hypo-)critical mother Lucielle; and Michael’s twin sister Lindsay was played by Portia de Rossi, who did an amazing job of convincingly portraying a woman attracted to a guy like analysist-therapist (or, analrapist) Tobias Fünke, who was played to never-nude precision by David Cross. It was quite the dysfunctional family lineup, but add to that dozens of characters popping in and out through the fifty-plus episodes. Arrested Development has more talent per capita than any other series on this list, I’d wager. To whit: Dave Attell, Scott Baio, Justine Bateman, John Beard, Ed Begley Jr., Richard Belzer, Zach Braff, Dan Castellaneta, Gary Cole, Mo Collins, Rob Corddry, Bud Cort, Andy Dick, Jeff Garlin, Heather Graham, Judy Greer, Harry Hamlin, Ed Helms, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Clint Howard, Rob Huebel, Thomas Jane, Jamie Jennedy, John Laroquette, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Kevin McDonald, Liza Minnelli, Martin Mull, Frankie Muniz, Bob Odenkirk, Judge Reinhold, Andy Richter, Rob Riggle, Ian Roberts, Craig Robinson, Andy Samberg, Martin Short, J.K. Simmons, Richard Simmons, Ione Skye, Phyllis Smith, Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Charlize Theron, Dave Thomas, Alan Tudyk, Dick Van Patten, Carl Weathers, Henry Winkler… There’s more, of course, but I think you get the idea. Whether they were on for one episode of several, either as a fictional creation or a farcical self-parody, every person listed brought a new and fully realized character into this chaotically comedic family’s self-absorbed universe.

Since the show’s premature cancellation (though the crew obviously knew it was coming, as the later episodes made many jokes about its impending doom), the cult has remained strong, and thanks to home viewing and the internet, plenty more people have been catching up. There has been a lot of talk about a possible movie, but creator Mitchell Hurwitz has been pretty busy and, in fact, most of the people mentioned above have been doing pretty good for themselves. It’s hard to get that many good people together, and harder still to get them together years later when they’re increasingly famous and tied up. But whether it happens or not, I gotta say, this short-lived show is never short of complete. It’s surprisingly great storytelling, and it’s a new style of comedy that I hope never catches on. Arrested Development has its own style, it makes its own statement, and sometimes I’m thankful that it never had a chance to spoil itself.

Quick and the point, just like the series itself. Seldom starting with a cold opening, each episode begins with the show’s jumpy theme music and a series of slides introducing the audience to the Bluth family. It’s another good case of a not-too-much-never-too-little type of intro. The end credits theme is a little jazzier, almost like a ‘70s day time talk show, sending out the viewer of a festive vibe.
BEST CHARACTER: Byron “Buster” Bluth (played by Tony Hale)
I love Buster. In a show filled with mostly hard-to-side-with sick and twisted individuals, Buster is one of the few (mostly) good-natured people. The youngest of George Sr. and Lucielle’s kids, he’s a stern foreshadowing of what George Michael (Michael Cera’s character, not to be confused with “the singer/songwriter”) could be, in that he’s endured a life of confinement due an overbearing and highly judgmental parent, and he is often nervous but curious whenever he steps out into the world. He dates a woman his mother’s age (also named Lucielle), and has a disfiguring encounter with a loose seal (get it?) while taking a swim in the ocean. Normally, this kind of character would be a bit of a creep, but Tony Hale played him with a sweetness, naivety and vulnerability that was never less than hilarious, yet always rooted in a strangely relatable sense of longing for acceptance.
BEST SEASON: 2 (of 3 total)
Though it had a slightly shorter run (18 episodes instead of 22), the second season found the show going full speed ahead towards nowhere in particular (though Michael is initially headed for Phoenix, Arizona before he’s ordered by the court to stay in state) with the same temerity and tenacity that made the first so famous. I find the second season to be the best because it’s far enough along to still be going strong, maintaining its continuing storyline with plenty of the good humor that made it so appealing in the first season. And it’s far away from the end of the show’s run that it doesn’t make you wince at the end of each episode as you realize you’re one step closer. This season had plenty of memorable moments: Tobias discovering and becoming a stand-in for the Blue Man Group ("I blue myself!"), the fifteen-year-old Maeby getting a job as a movie studio executive, Tobias and Lindsay deciding to have an “open” relationship, Buster joining the Army (and then getting kicked out by becoming a self-proclaimed monster), George Michael and bland Anne’s (literal) music burning party that turns into a (copying) music burning party, the return of the Hot Cops male dancer squad, Michael & Maeby singing "Afternoon Delight" without realizations its true connotations, Buster’s first drink of alcohol since nursing, Motherboy, Mrs. Featherbottom, Ice the Bounty Hunter/Party Planner, the introduction of Franklin the puppet, and Ron Howard’s sly critiques of shotty narration. And that’s just scratching the surface of what makes this season (and series) such an irreverent masterpiece.
BEST EPISODE: “Pier Pressure” (Season 1, Episode 10)
The set up alone is hilarious: having been scared by his father’s own “valuable life lessons” (achieved through elaborate means and a one-armed wingman), Michael decides he still must teach his son George Michael a lesson when he discovers that the boy is trying to procure pot (assumed to be due to stress from slipping grades in school, but actually to help his Uncle Buster’s girlfriend with her vertigo-induced nausea). But as all the pieces move into place, the set up becomes nothing compared to the pay off scene set at the titular pier. Without giving anything away, a valuable lesson is indeed learned, and the Hot Cops make for lousy police. This is a solid episode, as good as AD gets, and an early example of just how amazing the show is.
BEST MOMENT: “…There’s Always Money In The Banana Stand!!!” (From “Top Banana,” Season 1, Episode 2)
In the second episode of the series, Michael begins to realize just how much trouble the Bluth family is. Consulting his dad in prison, he continues to fret over their well being, to which George Sr. simply clicks his tongue and says, “There’s always money in the banana stand.” Out of options and with nothing left to lose, Michael decides to burn down the banana stand to collect the insurance money (as well as make a statement to his father about taking control of the company’s direction). When he tells George Sr. this, his father suddenly gets exasperated, revealing that there was $250 thousand dollars in cash lining the stand’s walls. As Michael tries to takes this in, the elder Bluth angrily grabs his son and demands, “How much clearer can I say, ‘There’s always money in the banana stand!’?” – it’s a sublime moment, perhaps the best thing Arrested Development (or any good show) can strive for.
There’s a plethora of interesting names for characters in Arrested Development – Maeby Funke (or, as George Michael often introduces her, “My cousin, Maeby,” which is the double entendre that it reads as), Maggie Lizer (as in “lies her ass off), Gene Parmesan, Kitty Sanchez, “Annyong” – but the best one was easy for me to identify (even if belonged to the character played by Chaci from Happy Days). Unlike choosing my favorite character, I knew exactly who deserved this spot. In fact, who am I kidding? I created this entry especially for Bob Loblaw. A super serious lawyer brought in to replace the incompetent Barry Zuckerkorn (played by the guy who played The Fonz – get it?), Mr. Loblaw has some of the finest advertising on the air (“Why should you go to jail for a crime someone else noticed?” being my favorite) and perhaps the coolest blog name around: The Bob Loblaw Law Blog. Pure tongue-twisting genius. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Top 10 Albums of 2010

10) THE ROOTS How I Got Over (June 22, 2010)
The Roots remain one of the hardest working bands in the music business (let alone hip-hop). 2010 saw our boys from Philly continue to rock it as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, team up with John Legend to record a bunch of ‘60s and ‘70s protest/soul covers, and somehow even managed to release their highly-anticipated ninth studio album. Though it’s only two remain of the original members that formed in 1988, those two happen to be the most integral to what has kept The Roots such an incendiary band over the last twenty-two years: MC Black Thought (one of the finest in the game, even if his rhymes can be stiff or oblique at times) and drummer ?uestlove (the true driving force behind the band). And this is one of the finest albums The Roots have crafted. Though not the sonic masterpiece that Things Fall Apart (or even Phrenology) is regarded as, How I Got Over is solid, a product of gracious studio tinkering and a fierce understanding of how the last two years have shaped the American conscious. And The Roots continue to let a wide array of guests shine on their spots. Not only do we get the usual suspects (John Legend, Dice Raw, P.O.R.N., Peedi Peedi), but fresher faces show up (Blu, STS, Phonte), not to mention some surprises (Joanna Newsome, Monsters Of Folk [the super group consisting of M. Ward (She & Him), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Conor Oberst & Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes)], Patty Crash). All this diversity does not distract from the mission statement: The Roots have always been a daring and provoking force, but on How I Got Over, they’ve never been more consise, restrained or methodical. And it all pays off. This is some of their most straightforward songwriting, and the band as well as the fans benefit from this. 2008’s Rising Down was rumored to be their last, but there’s been no word if The Roots plan on calling it quits any time soon. Based on how good these last two albums have been (and all of them, as far I’m concerned), I hope they never stop.

9) TRENT REZNOR & ATTICUS ROSS The Social Network (October 15, 2010)
If you’ve been listening to any Nine Inch Nails since Trent Reznor came out of his drug-and-alcohol haze (pretty much from With Teeth on), then you could probably guess he had a hand in The Social Network score even if you didn’t see his name in the credits. His love for ‘80s synths and sounds has always been prominent in his music, but on this instrumental outing with fellow sound manipulator Atticus Ross, Reznor’s ability to make sounds fill your ear drums in the same way that poetry creates space in the heart owe a lot to the glitches and beeps of the late Reagan era. Seriously, this movie sounds like a video game sometimes. But this is not the say the score exists strictly to give some sort of symbolism to the whole computer/digital aspect of the story. This album could work on its own, branching off of NIN’s all-instrumental album Ghosts to masterful effect, but it also makes for one of the most interesting sounding films. Considering that film is pretty much 50% sound (audio/visual), it’s amazing how we don’t crave as much originality audibly as we do visually. Evoking the same feelings of paranoia, drive, frustration and destruction that make the man such a creative and motivated force to contend with (I'm speaking about Zuckerberg as much as Reznor), the score contained within The Social Network proves that disbanding the Nails may have not been the worst decision Trent ever made.
8) KAYNE WEST My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (November 22, 2010)
Here’s why Kanye’s still on the list: Fuck the politics. Kanye is not any god’s gift to our ears, nor is he some completely idiotic regurgitation of hip-hop. What I’m trying to say is he’s not quite as extreme as a lot of people make him out to be. There are three Kanye Wests: 1) The beatmaker. 2) The MC. 3) The human being. I’m a fan of the first guy, which means I have to put up with the second guy (who can seldom backup the size of his ego with skill), but the third guy doesn’t have to factor one iota into the music at hand. And let’s talk about that: the music. Sonically adventurous in the extreme, the ridiculously titled My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (I miss the simplicity of his college-themed album names) is the very definition of what people mean when they say that Kanye’s a creative genius of sampling, this time dipping extensively into rock ‘n roll (from chopping up the Beatles to collaborating with Bon Iver). Admittedly, his overblown sense of himself does allow for a diverse amount of larger-than-life productions, and this album is probably his least cringe-worthy from the microphone’s point of view (too bad the same can't be said for his guest spot on "Erase Me," which is the only reason Kid Cudi's song didn't make my Top 10 Songs list). Most of Mr. West’s guest stars don’t add a whole lot to the equation (“Gorgeous” being the obvious exception), but they never detract from the glory going on (although I’m starting to join my sister in wanting to hate on Nicki Minaj). But this album is far from flawless. It’s certainly not the hip-hop album of the year that 85% of the music publications made it out to be (and then retracted later, in some cases), but it is Mr. West doing a decent job of apologizing for that whole Taylor Swift thing. Keep ‘em coming, Kanye. And if you feel you have some instrumental albums in you, go with it.
7) ROBERT PLANT Band Of Joy (September 13, 2010)
Proving that the best bands know how to do a mean cover as much as rock an original, Robert Plant’s new supergroup Band Of Joy (also consisting of Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller and Darrel Scott) have released an album of musical bliss that is timeless. Timeless in the sense that this album feels like it could have been written and recorded at any point in time over the past fifty years. This isn’t the first time since Led Zeppelin broke up that Plant has put out a near-classic album; 2007’s Raising Sand with Alison Krauss was pretty sweet music to my ears. But Plant and his Band really go to some deep and exotic places here, with as much skill as the days he was rolling with Page, Jones and Bonham. And there’s not a wasted track on here. Nothing is redundant, but nothing is abrasively different, either. The album meshes well, a fitting tribute to Zeppelin’s album-oriented rock. This is the type of album to get lost in, where the space within the sound suggests lots of wide open places. Band of Joy achieve a majestic sense of near-mysticism that only the best bands in the world can. And Plant has already been in one of those bands once, which makes the idea of this album’s success even more splendid (and mysterious).
6) SADE Soldier Of Love (February 5, 2010)
Nobody takes their time between albums like Sade. It’s been a decade since Lovers Rock, but Sade the singer always carries herself with a confidence that anything she puts out is going to be worth your undivided attention, and her eponymous band can always back that coolness up. In many ways, Sade (the band) still sound like a product of the 1980s, but they continue to elevate, incorporating new elements into their sound with each new album that refuses to buck to the trends that have came and gone between each absence. And yet they will always be that band that you play when it’s time to cool out, preferably with someone lovely nearby. Seduction remains eternal, and so too shall be baby-makin’ music. Sade the singer benefitted tremendously from never trying too hard to be the center of the celebrity that is Sade the music. I think this is what has allowed her to not get swallowed up by the media blitzkriegs that try to turn people into icons. Ms. Adu simply knows how to communicate longing, need, desire, passion and loss better than most that have tried to take her place, and that’s had nothing to with her looks and everything to do with her band’s solid sounds that have helped listeners slip through the night a little more smoothly all these years.
5) KERMIT RUFFINS Happy Talk (October 26, 2010)
This is my kind of jazz. Some call it a bunch of other things that do and don’t apply, but in the end, I don’t know what else to call music that jumps, skips, bogeys and hops so endlessly and effortlessly as the kind of music that NOLA native Kermit Ruffins can play. Every time he makes an album, there’s another good excuse in this world to dance the day away. Though it’s hard to experience the excitement of seeing such a warm and charming musician without living in New Orleans (or watching Tremé), you can still feel the good vibrations coming from this eternally optimistic trumpter all over his newest album. Flying through a few classic Louis Armstrong (an undeniable influence) numbers including my favorite “Hey Look Me Over,” Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That (Good News),” and a funky Latin-spiced version of “If I Only Hand A Brain,” not to mention some get-ya-swingin’ originals – my personally preferred being the swampy blues big band closer “New Orleans (My Home Town).” Like Bob Marley or Marvin Gaye, Kermit Ruffins is the kind of guy we could use more of to bring some much need positivity to this world. Sometimes the answer to life’s woes and wonders is nothing more than some good music to move to. Look and listen no further than this barbeque master and bandleader who is all about the good times to provide you with all you need to get your party going.
4) GIRL TALK All Day (November 15, 2010)
Mashups have existed before the digital age, they just had to be covered by highly talented musicians (a prime example: The Afghan Whigs’ hybrid of “My World Is Empty Without You” and “Ain’t Nothing But A G Thang”). Turntables and samplers certainly have expanded the possibilities like never before, but with the infinite access came market saturation, and mashups just haven’t quite been the club owners that they were for a while mid-last-decade. This is a shame, because there’s still room for plenty of exploration, at least as far I’m concerned. Girl Talk is proof of this, though I know that seems like stretching it. Gregg Gillis is certainly no DJ Shadow, but he has shown some exceptional skill in blending beats and syncing songs over the last few years. And on All Day, he has maintained his knack for blending instantly recognizable pop hooks into insanely danceable “new” material. People can continue to discredit the art and science of loving re-playing your favorite records, but High Fidelity got it right, and people like Mr. Gillis are keeping it a steady rockin’ scene when they control the speakers at the clubs. Some of the best house parties I’ve been to had nothing more than a keg of Kokanee and Girl Talk CDs playing all night; they were the best because there was always alcohol accessible and the females never had a chance to stop dancing. Which makes All Day important for the new wave of kids who want to party but don’t have a DJ handy.
3) DAS RACIST* Sit Down, Man (September 14, 2010)
*I think it’s meant to be pronounced as “Dat’s Racist!” without the T (as opposed to German for “the” type of Das)
Hip-hop is a weird thing: some people still think of it as some fad (despite the fact that it’ll be forty in 2012), nothing to take with any musical seriousness; others take it so seriously that they’d have you believe it’s saving the world. People are so unswerving about hip-hop that it’s hard for them to take any rapper seriously if he or she deviates from the standard template. There are no openly homosexual rappers, and funny guys like MC Chris are labeled “nerd core” while multi-syllabic rhyme sayers like Slug are “emo-hop” or “backpack rap.” Yet some of the most visionary artists in the field (or any other) are the ones who eschew these conventional notions and simply present something as they see it (or hear it), while others are simply too busy having a good time to care what anyone else might think about their so call “artistic expression.” I’m not sure if Das Racist is more of the former or the latter, but neither is the point. What is important is this: Das Racist are making some of the most fun, funny, perplexing, freaky, self-aware-without-a-hint-of-self-conscious music I have ever heard. MCs Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez spit verbal somersaults of university-level cultural references, outlandishly crude jokes and profoundly poetic metaphors that blend together so seamlessly it’s hard to tell if this is all a big joke about rap or the next important voice of it. The density of their rhyming reminds me of the layers-upon-layers of sound found in the production of the seminal Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique – there’s a million things in a minute, all of it impossible to intake and decipher on the first listen. These guys make Ghostface Killa’s liquid fire raps look like boring declarative statements (and this is no disrespect to GFK). They cram so many literary references into a single line that you’d be too busy wondering how they make it look so easy if you weren’t having so much fun nodding along. The reason this mixtape wins over Shut Up, Man (another freebie, released earlier in 2010) is because the beats better match the elastic and chaotic stylings of the MCs. Forget that this is "only a mixtape" - this is the most off-the-cuff, yet easiest to enjoy, hip-hop album of the year.
2) DEFTONES Diamond Eyes (May 4, 2010)
More than any other album I picked, this album has a history that makes it all the heavier and more lyrically significant for the circumstances behind its creation. For Deftones fans, this is an album born of tragedy and perseverance. But to the casual listener, Diamond Eyes comes off as an energetic, almost upbeat record. Either way, it’s leagues better than bands that have been around this long should be making. It’s the kind of album that makes me seriously consider the possibility of listening to this stuff in my 60s, the way my father’s generation keeps blasting the Stones and Led Zeppelin. Deftones are still mostly under the radar for those not into heavy music specifically, but they make some of the most consistently engaging, interesting, and (more often than not) sexy music in hard rock over the last sixteen years. Something about Chino Moreno’s croon-to-scream and the band’s tight-wound and full-force wall of sound get people feeling very dark and primal things. Diamond Eyes was written and recorded in a six-month period after bassist Chi Cheng was put into a coma after surviving an auto accident. Despite this setback, while waiting for their friend to recover, the Deftones have endured. Enlisting Sergio Vega, they scrapped their previously planned (and mostly recorded) album Eros and decided to create something fresh to reflect their new state of mind. Instead of wallowing in misery, the ‘tones recorded what may be their most steady rockin’ album to date. Stephen Carpenter’s angular and anxious riffs grab each song by the collar and shakes it within an inch of its life, and drummer Abe Cunningham continues to implement the kind of spot-on hip-hip-influenced crisp beats that makes him one of the most underrated drummers in rock and roll history. Frank Delgado’s keys add textures and dimensions to the soundscape more clearly and effectively than ever before. And Sergio pays deft homage to Cheng, giving just the right amount of hammering thunder, the kind that would make Chi proud (the only thing Vega can’t replicate are Cheng’s shrill call-and-response screams). Note for note, this is not only one of the best albums of the year, but the best Deftones album since 2000’s breakthrough White Pony (a “metal” album that incoporated balladry, glitch and trip-hop to grand effect, reaching platinum status and winning the band a Grammy, and continues to influence both the Deftones sound and modern heavy business in general). If you’ve never given Deftones a try, there’s no better place to start then here.
1) THE BLACK KEYS Brothers (May 18, 2010)
If I say that it sounds like the Black Keys aren’t even trying anymore, I hope it doesn’t come off like I’m accusing them of phoning it in. Rather, the Keys have gotten so good at getting all the sound they can out of guitars and drums (with occasional flashes of keyboards or horns) that they make it seem almost too easy. Brothers isn’t deviating in any way from the progression that the Black Keys have been maintaining over the last decade, which is to say that they're making music that feels timeless all over again. Most musicians that have been so good for so long like the Keys have are either burned out or trying too hard to maintain that same fire; not the case here. Instead, we have our good ol’ Akron boys simply grooving to superior effect. It’s amazing how much two guys can get out their instruments, and the key to that is succinctness. The Black Keys have never really been about overdoing anything. Sure, they’ve incorporated many musical elements into their formula (I'm especially feeling the old school R&B flourishes on this release), but the Keys always stick with what works: Dan Auerbach’s singin' the blues while strummin' away as drummer Patrick Carney plays just the right amount of sanctified percussion to get the boogie where it needs to be. Brothers is a tight collection of 15 solid songs, quite a feat in an age where albums are becoming increasingly marginalized, yet largely continuing to consist of mostly filler tracks padding a good single or two. The Black Keys haven’t put out a bad song or album yet, and what makes Brothers so significant is that it seems so insignificant. This doesn’t try to be a big album in any sort of way. Even the rather basic cover does nothing to try to elicit anything extra out of you. All you’re getting here is good old-fashioned soul-manufactured music, pure and simple.