Year: 2008

The Best Albums Of 2008

There was a lot of music released in 2008. I didn’t listen to most of it because I was too busy listening to the following albums to listen to much of anything else. I don’t expect to see any of these albums honored at the Grammys, but I still love them like my own hypothetical children. So here are the five albums that had me rapt in 2008.

copleand_yams-296x3001. You Are My Sunshine by Copeland

I didn’t think Copeland could top their 2006 release Eat, Sleep, Repeat-one of my all-time favorites-but sure enough, with a change of labels and general disposition, they drop You Are My Sunshine, their sunniest project yet. It’s rife with glorious choruses, delectable pop rock invention, though-provoking lyrics and angelic falsetto from lead singer/guitarist/pianist Aaron Marsh. Marsh has iterated that the band has no agenda for their music other than art. In this, they pass with flying colors. —– Standout track: “On the Safest Ledge”

61mljyjsk5l_sl500_aa240_2. Canopy Glow by Anathallo

This Chicago-based octet has been making music for awhile now, but Canopy Glow is their crowning achievement. It’s a Monet in musical form-full of nuance and lush color with a huge canvas of tools in use from the concert bass drum to hand bells. It’s also much more focused than previous works; no track runs longer than six minutes and, in spite of unconventional song structures and jarring time signatures, the album as a whole is far more accessible. The complex storytelling and musical technique leaves much to be discovered in Canopy Glow. —– Standout track: “All the First Pages”

51qrwqxpurl_sl500_aa240_3. Volume One by She & Him

Normally, I’d say stay the hell away from a CD made by an actress or non-musical celebrity (case in point: Paris Hilton). But for Volume One, Elf actress Zooey Deschanel teams up with alt-folk rocker M. Ward and actually creates something good. Something really good, actually. Deschanel’s voice, nasally but sexy, is the cornerstone of this folksy album-a mixture of sultry ballads, string-fueled anthems, and straight-up bubblegum pop. It’s pop music with gravitas and I’m loving every minute of it. —– Standout track: “Sentimental Heart”

611o6extubl_sl500_aa240_4. Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends by Coldplay

I know I’m just another hitchhiker on the “Coldplay is good now!” bandwagon that revved up after the release of their latest album Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, but I can’t help it; it’s just a great album from what was once a tolerable band. I like it when bands who get stuck in a boring funk decide to spice things up and take some chances-Chris Martin and Co. have done just that and have a beautiful epic to show for it. The title track may have been overplayed on the radio, but it’s still the best track of the year, hands down. —– Standout track: “Viva la Vida”

512fqtv0d8l_sl500_aa240_5. That Lucky Old Sun by Brian Wilson

For a long time I appreciated the Beach Boys just as much as the other guy, but it wasn’t until I dug into Brian Wilson’s solo stuff when I realized his musical genius. There isn’t a better melody writer out there than Wilson, and his newest album That Lucky Old Sun gives a familiar yet welcome taste of classic surf rock in the form of a narrative ode to his native southern California. This album will fit snugly beside the immortal Beach Boys tracks of old, but it still deserves its own love. —– Standout track: “Live Let Live”

Honorable Mentions:

Harps and Angels by Randy Newman; Stop Heartbeat by The Foxglove Hunt; Be OK by Ingrid Michaelson

My Mouth’s Bleedin’!

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Today is the day, the only day of the year, when I watch It’s A Wonderful Life. Watching the classic Christmas movie with a bowl of popcorn and a crackling fire on Christmas Eve has become perhaps the longest tradition with my family. Another tradition, getting up at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning and waiting for our parents to wake up, luckily has died out now that we’re all grown. But I suspect watching George Bailey on his “red letter day” will never get old.

Firing Off A Warren Shot

You know you’re doing something right when you piss off both sides of the political spectrum. Kudos to Obama for not being afraid to ignore the yelps of progressive hell bent on revenge post-Bush.

As for Warren himself, I have no opinion. Obviously it’s nice that he chooses to promote an agenda that isn’t solely based on gay marriage and abortion. One can only hope that the broader evangelical community will expand theirs too.

Lovin’ Lincoln

I finally went on the most important pilgrimage a history buff must go on: to Springfield, IL, for the loads of Lincoln lore there.

First, I went with my dad to the Old State Capitol where Lincoln worked as a state legislator. Though mostly recreated, the building smacked of authenticity.

But the biggest and best place to be in Springfield is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. Packed to the brim with memorabilia, the museum had a traveling exhibit of campaign gear from presidential elections past. The exhibit also displayed one of the three cameras used in the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960.

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Lincoln's hat.

Next, a recreation of Lincoln’s early life locales: his log cabin home, the general store he owned for a bit, and the law offices in Springfield. My favorite part, however, was the walk-through of his White House years, where we saw Mary Todd’s dresses, a tableau of the famed “team of rivals” in the Cabinet room debating the Emancipation Proclamation, and finally the assassination at Ford’s Theater. Outside of that section was more memorabilia: locks of Lincoln’s hair, personal letters, and one of his three trademarked stove pipe hats which had two worn spots on the brim from when he would tip his hat to passersby.

I repeat: I saw Lincoln’s stove pipe hat.

Later we visited the Lincoln home. We walked where the man walked and touched the same banister. I know I’m nearing idol-worship here, but I appreciate the man more having been through his life a little bit. We also visited the Lincoln tomb, which was very solemn and reverant experience.

I’ve started reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. I’ve been meaning to get to it for a while, but now I actually have some motivation to delve further into the man’s life, having now been through it (albeit superficially).

With Lincoln’s 200th birthday coming up in February 2009, I’d highly recommend checking out Springfield, if only for a day. Make sure to get to the museum and the Lincoln home. They far exceed the worth of the drive.

Hottest. Cast. Ever.

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Yes, even Hurley. It seems a little smaller cast than years previous, but I think it’s definitely the strongest.

The fifth and penultimate season of Lost premieres January 21 at 9/8 central. I can’t wait.

Happy-Go-Millionaire

Hallelujah! It’s Oscar season!

I guess seeing Rachel Getting Married was technically my first dive into this year’s plethora of Oscar bait, but tonight I dove down further by seeing Happy-Go-Lucky and Slumdog Millionaire, two small films that are getting a lot of buzz and landing on some critics’ Best of 2008 lists. Naturally, I have to see them for myself. My pre-viewing expectations were altered after seeing the two — one for the better and one for worse.

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Sally Hawkins in “Happy-Go-Lucky”

First, Happy-Go-Lucky. A British film, it’s about a 30-year-old woman named Poppy who is a naturally happy and bubbly person. I thought this would come off as irritating, but it does not at all. She is hilarious in dealing with the cynics and party-poopers that surround her. But she’s not delusional or masking a secret depression; she’s genuinely positive about everything. I think that’s a nice antidote to the hugely depressing times we’re living in.

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Who wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?

The second film in my double-feature adventure was Slumdog Millionaire, the British film about an Indian boy who grows up in the slums of Bombay and makes it on to the Indian equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It’s a cool concept: each question on the game show recalls a memory from the boy’s past, centering around his thieving life as a young boy or his life-long crush.

The movie is getting a lot of good press, but I don’t think it fully lives up to the hype. The director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) creates a hyperstylized look and feel that helps keep the energy up, but ultimately doesn’t sync with the setting of the trash-filled slums of Bombay. It is a love story that is central to this movie, but it feels more manufactured than genuine. I’d still recommend that you see it, but not that it get any major awards.

In conclusion:

Happy-Go-Lucky = YES!

Slumdog Millionaire = no.

The Sting

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle in October 2008 as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

Welcome back to “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.” I was catching up on more recent films over the summer but I’m excited to start a new year of discovering the new in films of old. This year’s first installment examines the 1973 flick The Sting in honor of the death of its star-screen legend and cool customer Paul Newman. Newman stars along with Robert Redford as two Depression-era grafters in Joliet, Illinois, who team up to con a ruthless mob boss.

The Sting starts by doing what every crime caper seems to do by showing the main characters pull a small but clever job, just to set the stage and show us they’re good at what they do. And they are good at what they do. Johnny Hooker (Redford) and his friends scam others partly out of desperation and partly because they enjoy it. They’re like the crew from the “Ocean” movies; they don’t know, or want to know, a life without a gamble and the risk of high reward.

Especially Hooker. He is so anxious to gamble the money he conned from another hapless bystander that he blows it all on a rigged game of craps. His elder and wiser partner-in-crime Luther calls him on it: “You’re a con man and you blew it like a pimp!” With Hooker on the run from a crooked cop, he finds Henry Gondorff (Newman) to enlist in a big con per Luther’s advice. Hooker finds Gondorff snoozing between his bed and the wall after a long night drinking. When Gondorff is sober, Hooker convinces him to try a big con on a big-time mobster.

From there the movie unfolds like a play neatly divided into four acts: the Set-Up, the Hook, the Tale, and the Sting. Each act even has its own title card. If you see The Sting after seeing a lot of modern crime flicks like Matchstick Men and Ocean’s Eleven it will seem predictable. But the truth is to the contrary. Modern-day crime capers owe their existence to the ingenuity of movies like The Sting. The story moves along so fluidly, adding the twists and covers required for a decent crime movie, that the audience doesn’t feel cheated with any new revelation.

But you don’t have to worry about being out of the loop until the very last scene like you are in some mystery films. The Sting lets us know about the con, but doesn’t give out details, so we can watch the bad guys squirm. Once the con is laid out, we can just sit back and enjoy. And enjoyable it is. For winning seven Academy Awards in 1973 (which by all accounts was a light year for film) including Best Picture, The Sting is a lightweight fare. Newman especially seems to just be enjoying himself. He has a few scenes playing drunk which will make you smile.

The mood changes throughout; sometimes there is tragedy, suspense, or drama, but underneath it all there is always comedy. And most of the time it’s not laugh-out-loud. It’s like the entire movie is a joke but the joke-teller never smiles. The merry-go-round in the indoor amusement park Gondorff lives in does all the laughing; when it’s turned on it disguises the fact that the amusement park doubles as a tavern and a brothel.

In many ways, The Sting is the unofficial sequel to the equally funny and thrilling 1969 flick Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both movies share the same leading men, playing similar characters, and director (George Roy Hill) and pull off the same light-mixed-with-heavy dynamic that so many movies today try to duplicate. The characters in both films are criminals, but criminals we want to be friends with.

This wouldn’t be possible without Newman and Redford as the leads. With Newman’s trademark blue eyes and devilish smile and Redford’s con-man good looks, we believe them in their roles and root for them too. Even when the movie runs flat-a rare occurrence-we never give up on it simply because it’s so entertaining. Entertaining like the soundtrack, anchored by Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and other ragtime songs like it. The upbeat music screams irony when it plays over scenes with such bleak surroundings.

The Sting isn’t on any of the American Film Institute Top 100 lists; no matter, it’s still fun, and good. You don’t see that combination too often these days. That’s why, sometimes, you have to dip into the past. There is plenty to see. The Sting is one of many golden oldies sitting on the shelf at Blockbuster that deserve much more attention than the underwhelming bunch of movies in theaters now are getting, so rent it now and give it some love.

Canopy Glow by Anathallo

One of my favorite albums of the year:

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Over the last eight years they have been making music together, Anathallo’s sound has evolved slowly and subtly. Starting in 2001 with Luminous Luminescence in the Atlas Position and continuing with A Holiday at the Sea two years later, the band had adopted an almost avant garde twist to their orchestral indie flare. This trend continued with the Japanese folklore-centered Floating World in 2006. But in Canopy Glow, the band’s latest endeavor, their happy asymmetry has been slightly smoothed out in favor of a more streamlined yet still wholly original sound.

Still, the Anathallo touch remains strong in Canopy Glow. They follow the hypnotic opening track “Noni’s Field” with “Italo,” one of many tracks in which the dual male/female vocals from Matt Joynt and Erica Froman and the exceptional drumming lead the way. Other highlights include the flighty “John J. Audubon” and “Northern Lights,” which is a perfect example of art imitating life; the aurora borealis comes to life in this song’s droning glow.

The tone throughout Canopy Glow is relatively more somber than their previous works, especially Joynt’s vocals. The Chicago-based octet uses the piano and guitar in a much more traditional way than they have in the past, mixing a funky piano riff into the steady groove of “All the Same Pages.” It’s like they’re running for president: moving to the center while still holding on to some radical roots. In the end, though, it’s still the same Anathallo-the perfect mix of quirk, catchiness, and a whole lot of talent.

The War by Ken Burns

I’m still working my way through it, but I’ve already come to appreciate Ken Burns’ seven-part 2007 miniseries The War.

Burns explains in the making-of feature that he wanted to show the war not through historians but through average citizens, men and women and children from every corner of the country who endured the front lines abroad or did their part at home. He focuses on four towns—one in California, Minnesota, Alabama, and Connecticut—and uses interviews with the veterans and their families from those towns to make the enormous scope of World War II more intimate.

It’s a great historical record of the American involvement, delving deep into topics that are not often discussed like Japanese internment and the segregation of minorities in the Army. Burns employs his trademark use of photos, footage, and interviews in each scene. Some photos we’ve seen before, but most are new and show us a different view of what has become a very familiar war.

Norah Jones’ “American Anthem,” the series’ theme, is very good, though not as good as the theme for Burns’ The Civil War, called “Ashokan Farewell.” And while I really love David McCullough’s narration in The Civil War, actor Keith David’s here has quickly grown on me.

So if you have 15 hours to spare one these days, fill them with The War.

No Direction Home

Just watched Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home about Bob Dylan and I loved it. A great, detailed history of the moment and the man.

I must admit that I have not really gotten into Dylan that much until recently. I have a few of his records on vinyl—Blonde on Blonde is definitely my favorite so far—but now I’m inspired to dig deeper into his work as well as that of his main inspiration, Woody Guthrie.

My growing love of folk music was also boosted by this film. I’m fascinated by folk music’s impact on the 1950s and 60s culture, Dylan being a big part of that impact.

Either way, I’d highly recommend the documentary if you love music, history, or America. Or all of the above as I do.