28 January 2010


Hirokazu Kore-eda applies his usual nimble touch and graceful understatement to this deceptively straightforward tale of a family that reunites annually to commemorate the anniversary of its eldest son’s death. While paying tribute to Ozu’s timeless domestic dramas, it still retains a singular, contemporary feel. Set over the course of one day, it does not contain many shocking revelations or artificial culminations, and it doesn’t need to: Kore-eda and his cast find beauty in simplicity while crafting a fully-realized family portrait.

Having hit an enigmatic plateau with the inscrutable L’INTRUS, Claire Denis pulls back a little for this intimate tale of a single father, his adult daughter and their neighbors in a Parisian apartment building. Communicating less through words and glances and more with evocative stylistic choices such as the lengthy, hypnotic shots of commuter trains in motion or a mesmerizing Tindersticks score, Denis remains an unconventional storyteller, but this is her most likable, possibly most affecting effort.

Some films defy all logic, and this one is at the head of that class: you’ve got veteran weirdo Werner Herzog directing a sequel-in-name-only to the Abel Ferrara cult flick, starring a bug-eyed Nicolas Cage as a coked-up cop. What could go wrong? Well, in this case, practically nothing—the end result is inspired lunacy, redolent of Herzog's classic 1970s films, and only he could have tempered such an unexpectedly great turn from Cage.

This war film about an American bomb squad in Iraq is first and foremost a character study about the thrill and pull of having to do an ultra-risky job that infects a life to a degree that that's all there is. Daringly refusing to take a political stance, Kathryn Bigelow’s film is an exciting blend of realism and dramatic tension, courtesy of its fantastic, you-are-there cinematography and editing, but also due to Jeremy Renner’s searing, stirring lead performance.

This Austrian thriller about an ex-con who attempts a bank robbery to pay off his debts and retire for good kicks off unassumingly, like hundreds of interchangeable thrillers. Then, something truly unexpected happens and REVANCHE splendidly comes to life. Director Gotz Spielman has crafted a film that’s Hitchockian in every positive sense of that term, but he’s also a true original in how he creates and sustains suspense while taking the genre into rarely visited moral and emotional territories.

I explained/dismissed THE DARJEELING LIMITED as a transitional work, but it turns out it was an aberration. This lovingly crafted, stop-animation Roald Dahl adaptation is more of a logical (if belated) follow-up to THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, recalling that film’s wild creativity and occasionally matching its poignancy while working with a pitch-perfect cast and a medium that plays to all of the director’s strengths. As usual with Wes Anderson, I anticipate additional great things to surface on subsequent viewings.

In their darkest, most personal (and possibly most hilarious) film yet, those Coen Brothers look to their 1960s suburban Jewish Minnesota adolescence for inspiration in exploring the existence of God via a kind nebbish whose luck is worse than Job’s. Yiddish folk tales, record club scams, bad television reception, and the wackiest bar mitzvah ever depicted on screen all disquietingly lead towards nothing less than impending apocalypse in what is (seriously) the Coens’ mature masterpiece.

Nearing her 80th birthday, French New Wave icon Agnes Varda examines and reminisces over her lengthy career, and this luminous essay film proves she’s still a master of the form. Her affable, whimsical persona lithely guides us from one topic to the next; whether musing on everything from her Belgian childhood to her late husband Jacques Demy or constructing a beach in the middle of a city street, she always engages with her playfulness and insight.

Political satire is an increasingly tricky business, especially as the models themselves approach new peaks of ridiculousness. Armando Ianucci’s film confronts this challenge head-on with brisk, witty dialogue and a labyrinthine plot that successfully splits the difference between utter satire and a frighteningly plausible situation. However, it all soars thanks to its exceptionally gifted ensemble, from Tom Hollander’s overconfident, underqualified politician to Peter Capaldi’s delightfully foul-mouthed communications director.

Fernando Eimbcke’s follow-up to DUCK SEASON may not ascend to its predecessor’s giddy, poetic heights, but then, few films do. Leaving the confines of an apartment building for the streets of a run-down coastal town (but still using long, static takes), Eimbcke follows a young man trying to get his crashed car fixed so he can leave town—only the film is about something else entirely. This eventual revelation, so simple yet unexpectedly profound, is marvelously executed, and it leaves a staggering imprint.


I hate heavy metal music, but I loved this documentary about a long-running, fairly obscure Canadian metal duo, for it rapidly transcends the obvious “Real Life Spinal Tap” tag with an unlikely compassion for its subjects.

A refreshing alternative to every last faux-inspirational teacher film, Laurent Cantet’s study of a multiracial Parisian classroom gives us a winning but flawed instructor whom, like most of his profession, doesn’t know the answer to everything.

In a better-than-average year for big budget animation, Henry Selick finds a kindred spirit in Neil Gaiman and his darkly comic little fable, and apparently no pressure at all from any studio suit to soften or dumb down the material.

This fairly basic documentary about unconventional art collectors The Vogels gives viewers a unique, touching story and a neat crash course introduction to modern art—what’s not to love?

Good to see Tilda Swinton hasn’t sacrificed any of her eccentricity following her Oscar win: she’s absolutely lacerating in this outrageous extended riff on John Cassavetes’ GLORIA, and arguably no one else could have pulled it off.

First timer Oren Moverman takes on a difficult, sensitive subject few veteran directors would even touch, and guides Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson to career-best work (and gets more great work from Samantha Morton).

Making a long-awaited return to his essay-film roots, Terence Davies expertly weds documentary footage, a carefully selected soundtrack and his own agreeably grumpy narration, and the whole is a monumental requiem for a vanishing city.

Bent Hamer’s film tells a well-worn story about how retirement breeds complacency and regret over a half-lived life, but you probably haven’t seen it told this way before, with an odd but engaging blend of wistfulness and surreal, deadpan humor.

With the “mumblecore” genre having gone as far as it can reasonably go, The Safdie Brothers invent what could possibly replace it, retaining the low budget, DIY aesthetic and irascible characters but infusing them with a real lyricism and depth that suggests a bright future indeed.

Shane Meadows collects Thomas Turgoose, his remarkable young lead actor from THIS IS ENGLAND and plops him into a noticeably different slice-of-life that could be a British take on mumblecore, only much more fun.

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden are more than up to the task of following the great HALF NELSON with a perceptive meditation on immigrating to America and what it means to follow a dream—even if it means not pursuing it.

Part mystery, part period piece (a rural German village on the eve of World War I), part creepy children film, Michael Haneke’s Cannes winner may be his most accessible work to date, but rest assured, his fixation on the worst aspects of human behavior has not diminished one bit.

Other films that received at least 4 stars out of 5


24 January 2010


This year, I'm late posting my ballots for the annual Chlotrudis film poll -- so late, in fact, that the results are already in. I don't know if they're just popular, obvious choices or whether few people voted this year, but my top films also topped the polls.


1. Before Sunset (dir: Richard Linklater, 2004)
2. 2046 (Wong Kar Wai, 2004)
3. The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2005)
4. Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980)
5. Russian Dolls (Cedric Klapisch, 2005)
6. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Joe Dante, 1990)
7. After the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936)
8. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Leonard Nimoy, 1986)
9. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
10. The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, 2003)
11. Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
12. Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
13. X2 - X-Men United (Bryan Singer, 2003)
14. Saraband (Ingmar Bergman, 2003)
15. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

For me, BEFORE SUNSET was an immediate choice for number one. Initially, it seemed like a terrible idea that Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke would craft a sequel to BEFORE SUNRISE (1995), a charming film about a young man and woman who meet on a train in Vienna and have one day to spend together. What makes BEFORE SUNSET such an unexpectedly successful sequel is in how it opens up this limited premise, allowing the two leads to meet up a decade later, only this time not by chance or coincidence. Linklater uses this reunion to say a lot about how time changes and weathers us. Transpiring in real time and long takes, this sequel reveals so much more to us than the first film; its lovely, daring conclusion is practically exhilarating in all of the possibilities it suggests, none less than an urge to see them reunite again.

However, for the most part, I hate sequels - many are uninspired attempts to build a franchise and it's pretty depressing how many of these dreary cash-ins are successful at doing so. One could submit up to 25 entries for this poll and I barely made it to 15. Most of my favorites are, predictably, independent and foreign films from the past decade that I loved, although SUPERMAN II instantly sprung to mind as the rare sequel that outclasses the original in almost every way. As for the anarchic GREMLINS 2, I haven't seen it in nearly twenty years, but I remember it gleefully tearing the original film apart, which is something more sequels should do.

In compiling this list, I completely forgot Michael Apted's "Up" series because I see the films as parts of a whole rather than sequels, but if they're eligible, then 49 UP should've had a place in the top five.


1. Far From Heaven (dir: Todd Haynes, 2002)
2. Nosferatu (Werner Herzog, 1979)
3. Happiness of the Katikuris (Takashi Miike, 2001)
4. The Beat that My Heart Skipped (Jacques Audiard, 2005)
5. Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)
6. 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)
7. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999)
8. Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
9. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
10. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
11. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
12. Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982)
13. The Manchurian Candidate (Jonathan Demme, 2004)
14. Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical (Andy Fickman, 2005)
15. The Quiet American (Philip Noyce, 2002)
16. A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954)
17. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
18. Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 1986)
19. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
20. Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004)
21. An Ideal Husband (Oliver Parker, 1999)
22. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Frank Oz, 1988)
23. Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003)
24. Oceans 11 (Steven Soderbergh, 2001)
25. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton, 2005)

Remakes are so much more fun than sequels because they give filmmakers an opportunity to provide a unique spin on an old story. While not by any means a straight ahead remake of ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (Douglas Sirk, 1956), FAR FROM HEAVEN lovingly recreates the style of 1956 but takes the basic outline of the original story, and retells it in a way that could only be done long after that - making the Rock Hudson stand-in African American and one other major character gay. Instead of doing so with a nudge-wink "boy, weren't the 1950s wacky" glibness, Haynes is completely serious, making exactly the film Sirk would have if issues such as interracial romance and homosexuality (which, after all, were around in 1956) weren't taboo in Hollywood. FAR FROM HEAVEN is as revisionist as it is a tribute.

Other entries on this list are either vast improvements on the originals (THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, FLOATING WEEDS), terrific new versions of obscurities (THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATIKURIS, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS), wildly original takes on old films (Herzog's Klaus Kinski-starring NOSFERATU), films redone in different genres (REEFER MADNESS: THE MOVIE MUSICAL, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) and true oddities like Demme's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, not at all better than Frankenheimer's brilliant original, but a gutsy, modern day take that's far more effective than most lazy, unimaginative remakes of seminal films.

12 January 2010


My top 50 albums:

# 50-41
# 40-31
# 30-21
# 20-11
# 10-1

Favorite compilations released this decade:

Serge Gainsbourg - INITIALS S.G.
Teenage Fanclub - 4766 SECONDS: A SHORTCUT TO...

And finally, 50 great songs not on my top 50 albums:

Emm Gryner, "Almighty Love"
Suzanne Vega, "Anniversary"
The Shins, "Australia"
The Hidden Cameras, "Ban Marriage"
The Dandy Warhols, "Bohemian Like You"
Hot Chip, "Boy From School"
Sia, "Breathe Me"
Nikka Costa, "Can't Please Everybody"
Garlic, "Courgette"
Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton, "Crowd Surf Off a Cliff"
Lykke Li, "Dance, Dance, Dance"
Ivy, "Edge of the Ocean"
Stars, "Elevator Love Letter"
Tamas Wells, "Even in the Crowds"
Andrew Bird, "Fake Palindromes"
Alphabeat, "Fascination"
Art Brut, "Formed a Band"
Camera Obscura, "French Navy"
Basement Jaxx feat. Lisa Kekaula, "Good Luck"
Jon Brion, "Here We Go"
PJ Harvey and Gordon Gano, "Hitting the Ground"
Neko Case, "Hold On, Hold On"
Mr. Airplane Man, "How Long"
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Hysteric"
Junior Boys, "In the Morning"
Pet Shop Boys, "Integral"
The New Pornographers, "Letter From an Occupant"
A Girl Called Eddy, "The Long Goodbye"
LCD Soundsystem, "Losing My Edge"
Brazilian Girls, "Losing Myself"
Shivaree, "Mexican Boyfriend"
Herbert, "The Movers and The Shakers"
Delays, "Nearer Than Heaven"
Marit Bergman, "No Party"
The Ting Tings, "Shut Up and Let Me Go"
Rilo Kiley, "Silver Lining"
Bebel Gilberto, "Simplesmente"
Tompaulin, "Slender"
Sparks, "Suburban Homeboy"
Junior Senior, "Take My Time"
Scissor Sisters, "Take Your Mama"
Jem, "They"
Res, "They-Say Vision"
Moloko, "The Time is Now"
Amy Rigby, "The Trouble With Jeannie"
She & Him, "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?'
Robyn, "With Every Heartbeat"
Martha Wainwright, "You Cheated Me"
Sleater-Kinney, "You're No Rock 'n' Roll Fun"
Pernice Brothers, "7:30"

10 January 2010


By nature alone, double albums practically scream for attention as Major Artistic Statements, although the majority of them are overstuffed, quality-control lacking slogs. Wynn, formerly of 1980s Paisley Underground stalwarts The Dream Syndicate, turned out this effort a decade into his solo career, and explained its 81-minute length by saying he simply couldn’t leave off any of its 19 selections, and he was absolutely right—Miracles is solid in a way most of Wynn’s single albums aren’t as it ekes out one impressive variation after another of his acerbic, cathartic garage rock.

9. Nellie McKay – GET AWAY FROM ME
Another double album, only considerably more precocious—the two half-hour long sides could easily fit onto one disc, but the then 21-year-old McKay (whom a friend once astutely summed up as a “delightful nutcase”) insisted on two, and it proved a wise decision. Given her ADD-like tendency to incorporate everything from Blossom Dearie vocal jazz and Broadway-ready toe-tappers to unconventional takes on rap and Eurodisco, the two halves are far easier to digest. Together, they comprise this decade’s most remarkable, original debut, the arrival of a real (if somewhat polarizing) talent.

Years before he won a Tony award for Passing Strange, Stew ardently explored the wafer-thin veneer between art and life, writing songs about such outlandish characters as “girls who carry switchblades and are very well-read” but always memorably inserting himself into the narrative. Landing somewhere between a live album, an original cast recording and a lushly-produced studio set, this unusual hybrid of a second solo effort may structurally seem like a jumble of loose ends, but it plays out with the wit and precise detail of a short story collection, plus terrific melodies and a musical vocabulary to match.

7. Sam Phillips – DON’T DO ANYTHING
By now, it should be obvious that Phillips is my favorite artist of the decade—she released only three albums, and they all ended up in my top 50. Trading a tried-and-true sound for a strange new one was an admittedly gutsy move, but the long-term endurance of these new recordings (see # 15 and 26) confirmed it was a risk worth taking. With this record, she came full circle, wedding her recently honed out-of-time acoustic cabaret vibe to some of her sharpest hooks in well over a decade while also delving into a bold new terrain full of clanging percussion, distorted guitars and a startling, bare-bones immediacy.

6. Calexico – FEAST OF WIRE
This Tucson-based group (really a duo with a revolving supporting cast) never broke into the indie mainstream because their regionally-derived aesthetic encompasses too much to be easily boiled down into a descriptive soundbite. A few have tried, but “alternative rockers play mariachi music” only partially covers it. This fourth full-length is their furthest reaching effort, containing Morricone-inspired fanfares, hard-bop jazz, a sci-fi instrumental and even some Fleetwood Mac-like pop. I’m not entirely sure how it all coheres, but it does in a way that’s assured and unique—no one will ever accuse them of sounding like someone else.

5. The Go-Betweens – OCEANS APART
Robert Forster and Grant McLennan spent the ‘80s together crafting compelling, literate music that few people (apart from rock critics and music geeks) heard, the ‘90s apart pursuing solo careers, and the ‘00s first half reunited. Following two tentative efforts, they got it right here, reclaiming the full-bodied production of their classic period with passion and drive, but also wisdom that could only come with age. Although Forster’s personal narratives are at a marvelous peak, McLennan, who would sadly pass away the following year, delivers this key lyric: “What would you do if you turned around / And saw me beside you / Not in a dream, but in a song?”

4. Kings of Convenience – RIOT ON AN EMPTY STREET
Having forged an entirely distinct, fully realized sound on their previous record (see # 32), Erlend and Eirik sensibly chose to stick with it, not so much radically changing as refining their template—they slightly quicken the tempo (on the disarming “I’d Rather Dance With You”), adorn their acoustic guitars with minimal but effective string and horn accoutrement and even employ a pre-fame Feist to warble on two tracks. And yet, Riot is a great leap forward from its predecessor. Every song sounds like the aural equivalent of a pretty picture, but each one wavers between gleeful abandon and pensive hesitation to a degree where they both glow like an autumnal sun and cut like ice.

3. Kate Bush – AERIAL
I recently listened to this woman’s discography in chronological order and was left with a shocking revelation. Her twin ’80s masterpieces (The Dreaming and Hounds of Love) predictably held up well, but the album that affected me most deeply was this one, her only release this decade and her first in a dozen years. Full of touchstones that beam in like satellites from various points of Bush’s career, it refuses to commit to one particular style. Songs about the number Pi, doing the laundry and a tribute to her deceased mother (startling for its piano-and-voice sparseness) lead into an indecipherable, magnificent suite about art and flight over the cycle of one day, building from impressionistic calm to a rising intensity—confirming that in middle age, Bush is as eccentric and brilliant as ever.

This very British trio forged an entire career out of celebrating those mundane quirks about a person and their environment that often make a life transcendent and whole, with a thrift shop-inspired approach to appropriating musical styles they liked and made their own. On twelve songs spanning the single day in the life of a London apartment building, they found a concept perfectly suited for their sensibility. By working with pop British production team Xenomania and employing the Pet Sounds-ish harmonies of Tony and Anthony Rivers on nearly every track, they concocted their most fully realized work, from the euphoric, alternate-world number one hits like “Lightning Strikes Twice” and “A Good Thing” to the devastating one-two closing punch of “Teenage Winter" and “Goodnight”. (*Original UK edition)

1. The Avalanches – SINCE I LEFT YOU
I was going to list fifty things I love about this album, but that exercise would give it all away—the sense of discovery so necessary in order to fall in love with the work of six Australians constructing new music entirely out of an existing array of wildly disparate sounds. The art of sampling has enabled many a dubious talent, resulting in Franken-songs that hammer their borrowed hooks deep into the ground, yet here, never has such a monster moved around so gracefully. Suffused with layers, echoes and recurring motifs, this is an orchestrated work; “Frontier Psychiatrist”, for example, creates supple, silly, thrilling pop out of a dadaesque symphony of random snippets. But it all really works as an album, a whole that begs to be heard on headphones to feel its impact; it just doesn’t register well as background noise. Since I Left You is not necessarily better than anything else the ‘00s produced, but it's a summation of everything that came before, with advances in technology, a wealth of inspiration and the right kind of imagination making it possible.

08 January 2010


Although rockers tend not to age too gracefully, this indie co-ed quartet does a lot to dispel this myth on their fourth album, especially on “Room With a View”, which urgently and poignantly expresses what a gas it is to become middle-aged. Elsewhere, their songcraft reaches a mature peak even as they keep their scrappiness in check.

19. Aimee Mann – BACHELOR NO. 2
Mann kicked off the decade with this third gem in a row (following her ‘90s albums Whatever and I’m With Stupid). Packed with more prickly tales of relationships (both personal and professional) gone sour, it also upped the ante musically, at times suggesting a precise confluence of The Beatles and Burt Bacharach—and she’s struggled a bit since to sustain such alchemy.

18. Regina Spektor – BEGIN TO HOPE
Frankly, last year’s FAR was a huge disappointment because it went too far into the mainstream, its multiple big-name producers rendering this oddball’s quirks merely cloying. However, on this previous record, she almost magically achieved a Zen-like stasis of accessibility and eccentricity, pushing herself into a more disciplined place while retaining her singular charms.

17. Belle and Sebastian – DEAR CATASTROPHE WAITRESS
After nearly falling apart at the turn of the decade, Stuart Murdoch finally realized that what held his band together were his brilliant songs and not a democracy of contributions from his mates. With some unexpected help from uber-80s producer Trevor Horn, he gave B & S a thrilling second life where they all stopped trying to recapture their unattainable past and instead, they simply decided to evolve.

16. Super Furry Animals – DARK DAYS/LIGHT YEARS
Very few groups make it to their ninth album, much less make it their best, but these guys have rarely played according to rules of convention, even though their polyglot music wouldn’t exist without drawing from hundreds of popular influences. Though eclectic almost to a fault, this is an hour of pure joy for anyone who listens to music because they love possibilities it can suggest and occasionally achieve.

15. Sam Phillips – A BOOT AND A SHOE
Much in the same vein as Fan Dance (see # 26), but a little more open to the world (as one song puts it), this former Christian singer’s sixth secular album is all understated, smoky cabaret bliss where the slightest, most intermittent and unexpected shift in tone possesses a gorgeous, rare, surging power.

14. Sufjan Stevens – SEVEN SWANS
Those who only know Stevens from his more theatrical, state-centric work (see # 33) may find this record’s unassuming, acoustic, hushed essence a shock to the system like a cold shower. In trying to decode this deceptively simple-sounding set of fascinating puzzle-songs about love and faith, I remain rapt in awe on every attempt.

13. Tori Amos – SCARLET’S WALK
Her last great album is an arresting stream-of-consciousness travelogue inspired by her tour across America in the weeks after 9/11. While surely not more essential than Little Earthquakes (as I may have once claimed), it’s still a stunning achievement—and perhaps Amos’ only record that pauses to consider a world beyond herself.

The Shins’ didn’t really need the generous plug Garden State gave them, for they already had lived up to such hype with a near perfect set of ten power pop songs that recalled everyone from Nilsson to the Nazz but also seemed to emanate from its own planet. Instead of living up to the notion of changing people’s lives, they then faced a weightier challenge: how in the world to top this album.

11. Alison Moyet – HOMETIME
Following an eight-year stalemate with her record label and, one presumes, a particularly painful end to a long-term relationship, this veteran diva came out of hibernation to make the album of her career. Soulful, warm and dynamic, Moyet sounded better than ever, and the music, heavy on guitars with subtle electronic and orchestral undercurrents, was her most inspired, simpatico setting since her days in Yaz.

06 January 2010


30. Stew – GUEST HOST
As quirky a debut one would expect from an African-American who led a band called The Negro Problem. Meant to showcase his acoustic songwriter side, it’s full of lovely pop songs, none lovelier than a critique of perpetual drug rehabilitation followed by an ode to consensual marital sodomy.

29. Rufus Wainwright – WANT ONE
Layered with references to Bolero and bad sitcoms, Wainwright's compositions are larger-than-life as usual, but this time out, he reveals a wise, wounded soul who keeps his excesses under control by letting the music and songwriting (more so than the voice) take center stage.

28. Black Box Recorder – THE FACTS OF LIFE
Only Sarah Nixey could sound so creepy, so knowing and yet so… wholesome on this album’s sexual-advice-for-budding-teens title track. Like the rest of the record, it’s a perfect distillation of BBR’s peculiar fusion of pristine easy listening sparkle and pitch black humor.

Some pooh-poohed Harvey for this shiny, happy ode to falling in love in New York City; as much as I’m entranced by spooky, angry PJ, she’s never been more appealing this way. From the blissful jangle of “A Place Called Home” to the primal stomp of “This is Love”, she’s never gathered together such a solid assortment of songs, either.

26. Sam Phillips – FAN DANCE
Initially, I was not sure what to make of this, her first record in five years. Often, the minimal songs seemed barely there, threatening to evaporate. But though Phillips left her signature retro-pop sound behind here, she also opened up a new world of hidden gestures and small pleasures—nine years later, it continues to grow on me.

25. Paul Brill – NEW PAGAN LOVE SONG
Brill began his solo career as another alt-country crooner, but gradually revealed the eclectic pop craftsman waiting in the wings. With this record, he began dabbling in electronics, but carefully folded them into his well-crafted songs with a suppleness that provided enrichment instead of mere decoration.

24. Charlotte Gainsbourg – 5:55
Coming in and out of focus like a hazy dream, Gainsbourg’s musical debut (as an adult, anyway) is a lovely thing to listen to in the middle of the night (or, as the title suggests, the break of dawn). She may not have a “good” voice (nor did her father), but she sure as hell knows how to use it, always adding texture and presence to a lush, if enigmatic whole.

23. Goldfrapp – SEVENTH TREE
Never content to make the same album twice, Alison Goldfrapp especially threw fans for a loop when she followed the glam-tastic SUPERNATURE with something completely different: an almost pastoral collection of chilled-out, slightly sinister psychedelic folk music. Fortunately, it turned out to be an even better fit.

This lovably mopey Swede established himself as the heir apparent to Morrissey and Stephin Merritt by writing songs about posing as a lesbian friend’s paramour and how he accidentally cut his finger off after his girlfriend snuck up behind him for a hug. He also went one better by constructing a handmade, comprehensive sonic palette that his forebears would have never come up with by themselves.

21. TV On the Radio – DEAR SCIENCE
Having created an uneasy, challenging, seemingly new sound out of many disparate parts, this much-hyped Brooklyn band turned heads when, on this release, they started using their powers for good instead of evil. Every track here may at first sound like the work of a different band, but by favoring beauty over dissonance, they strengthen their impact and confirm that smart music can be fun, too.

05 January 2010


40. The Weakerthans – RECONSTRUCTION SITE
“I hate Winnipeg” is the standout phrase here, although you get the sense that John K. Samson and his bandmates have a more complicated love-hate relationship with the frozen Manitoba city they call home, for the real key lyric is, “I know you might roll your eyes at this / but I’m so glad that you exist.”

39. Junior Senior – D-D-DON’T DON’T STOP THE BEAT
A now-defunct Danish duo of a fat gay man and a skinny straight one, singing/rapping/shouting out B-52’s inspired nonsense about dancing, partying, shaking and aspiring to be white trash, quoting Kool and the Gang one track and Billy Idol the next—of course they were just too weird and wacky (and too good) to last.

38. A. C. Newman – THE SLOW WONDER
His power-pop supergroup The New Pornographers put out four good-to-great albums this decade, but none of them cohere as well as this first solo effort, which sounds cozier and more economical while containing just as many hooks; much of it also wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack to a vintage Scooby Doo cartoon.

37. Mekons – OOOH! (OUT OF OUR HEADS)
This long-running/long-suffering British collective celebrated their 25th anniversary when they released this, their most vital recording in well over a decade. A 9/11 response record only in a cryptic sense, it aims to understand violence and fundamentalism with a heady but affecting mixture of fury, warmth and blasphemy.

36. Tompaulin – THE TOWN AND THE CITY
Hearing this obscure, mostly forgotten British indie band’s charming debut now hints at a grand wasted opportunity—between all of its wistful, witty character studies and vocalist Stacy McKenna’s gorgeous, siren-like call, it’s enough to hang your head and sigh that they should have been at least as big as Belle and Sebastian.

35. Metric - FANTASIES
Smoothing out all the rough edges has proven disastrous for many an indie band, but for Emily Haines and her cohorts, it suits them brilliantly, perhaps because Haines is as adept coming up with a catchy chorus as she is adding depth and nuance to her sleek, gleaming electro-rock.

34. Super Furry Animals – PHANTOM POWER
Revisiting all of this Welsh collective’s vast catalogue last summer, I was struck by how well this particular record has held up. It’s eclectic as ever, veering from the scathing indictment of “Liberty Belle” to the shimmering psychedelia of “The Piccolo Snare”, but these guys have a special knack for making everything sound like it belongs—which they will show to an even finer degree on a later record further up this list.

33. Sufjan Stevens – ILLINOIS
What I’ve always admired most about Sufjan is that he’s a little nuts—it takes longer to read some of his song titles than to actually listen to them! Good thing, then, that he’s also something of a genius. ILLINOIS exemplifies Steven’s original blend of folk, Charlie Brown music and symphonic experimentation as it meshes story songs and personal essays into a gestalt that no one else has replicated

32. Kings of Convenience – QUIET IS THE NEW LOUD
What initially struck me about this Norwegian duo was how adorably geeky they looked on the cover. Actually hearing them confirms that it’s no act or pose—they’re genuine through and through and what lends their dynamic acoustic balladry its power is that you believe every word they sing.

31. Belle and Sebastian – THE LIFE PURSUIT
By the time this record came out, Stuart Murdoch had little left to prove. So, with ample help from his band, he showed just how far he could go, switching from bubble-gum glam and blue-eyed soul to squishy funk and good ‘ol chamber pop, with incredible dexterity and a frightening consistency that one would never dare call twee.

04 January 2010


Here we go--my top fifty albums of the last decade (aughties, naughties, whatever you want to call it), counted down in multiples of ten. With music, I've noticed I need time to live with a recording to develop a strong assesment of it, which is why the proportion of post-2005 records is small (and keep in mind 2006 and 2007 were compartively naff years for new music). When I look back at this list in a few years, I'm sure almost everything will be changed around, but for now...

50. Florence + the Machine – LUNGS
I initially hesitated to include this here because I’ve had less than two months to absorb it, but this passionate, glittering set is the first debut album I’ve instantly adored in a long time, so it kicks off this list (and may place much higher on it in years to come).

49. Ivy – IN THE CLEAR
This languid trio will probably never top APARTMENT LIFE, but this comes awfully close, striking a perfect balance between gauzy, effervescent dream pop and sharp, perky songcraft.

A subversive, slightly scattered yet succinct political song cycle that came out at exactly the right time (Fall 2007) and flopped commercially. Even with a dramatically changed political climate, it remains ripe for rediscovery.

47. Roisin Murphy – OVERPOWERED
The straightest pop music this ex-Moloko vocalist has ever recorded is still delightfully, wickedly bent, from lyrics like, “I wanna get you out of your cave, man” to this album cover, which certainly influenced Lady Gaga.

46. St. Vincent – ACTOR
Speaking of bent female singer-songwriters, it was immediately apparent on her first album that Annie Clark had talent to spare, but on this follow-up, she shows a more keen sense of how to utilize it, cloaking her David Lynch-ian quirks with Disney-friendly melodies (if just barely).

45. Marit Bergman – BABY DRY YOUR EYE
Chances are you would've heard of this Swedish songstress by now if she had ever signed an American record deal. Her winning underdog persona had been in place from the start, but her second album provided the best showcase for it, practically overflowing with equally winning, disarming songs.

44. Sleater-Kinney – ONE BEAT
This has all of the raucous energy and musical dexterity of ALL HANDS ON THE BAD ONE (which I almost included in its place), but it gets the edge for adding new dimensions to their sound that easily snap into place, like the punk/Motown hybrid of “Step Aside” or the bluesy, Stones-inspired closer, “Sympathy”.

43. Death Cab for Cutie – TRANSATLANTICISM
Between his band’s consistent discography and his influential, one-off side project The Postal Service, Ben Gibbard has constructed a remarkable resume, and this record is its crown jewel. A song cycle about such universal themes as loneliness and distance, it nonetheless scans like a one-on-one conversation even as it employs a gigantic choir on the stirring title track.

42. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – HEARTS OF OAK
Passion is a reoccurring theme on this list, and Leo has enough of it to hold his own in a duet with Florence Welch (see #50), even though his music sounds nothing like hers. His energy is just as infectious, though—both when he laments the long lost second wave of ska (“Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”) and shrugs off the hopelessness and complacency of his fellow left-wingers.

41. Gillian Welch – TIME (THE REVELATOR)
Her most minimal and pure statement, it studies the past in order to understand the present, and really says something about time and loss, not to mention celebrity, ethics, desire and other concerns, all with a total lack of pretense.

01 January 2010


In 2009, I read 22 novels, 11 memoirs, 10 nonfiction books (ranging from a cookbook of sorts to a history of American radio post World War II), 5 books of essays and/or lists, 2 short story collections and 1 graphic novel.

My five favorite books that I read this year:

Pictures at a Revolution - Mark Harris
This account of the five films nominated for Best Picture at the 1967 Academy Awards is, at once, a simple, obvious idea and an ingenuous premise for all of the possible directions it suggests and explores. A rich, highly entertaining narrative that may replace Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as the definitive account of how New Hollywood broke down the studio system.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke
A Dickensian doorstop of a book, it feels wrong to call it an epic because of its sheer length. More finely tuned than that, it conjures up (sorry, couldn't resist) an elaborate fictional history of two dueling magicians in early 19th century England. It's compulsively readable precisely because the two leads are so memorably drawn.

The Magic Kingdom - Stanley Elkin
Elkin's inimitably dense, loquacious style kept him from ever becoming a household name. After tackling the brilliant but difficult George Mills last year, this far more accessible work was a pleasant surprise; the reason why it was not a popular success probably has something to do with it being about a man who takes a group of terminally ill children to Disneyworld. Neither depressingly maudlin or pointedly satirical, it's somewhere in between--clearheaded, humane, and at times, even droll.

My Winnipeg - Guy Maddin
I was not aware that Maddin had published a screenplay for his latest film until I found a copy of it in Toronto. And given that the film is a strange docu-fantasy hybrid, it makes perfect sense that Maddin would heavily annotate it. Better than a DVD commentary track, and essential for Maddin fans, including everything from a brief anecdote about Isabella Rossellini's pet pig to an extended account of working with the aptly named Ann Savage.

American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld
Don't let the chick-lit friendly cover deter you: Sittenfeld's third novel is an imaginative, audacious, sobering look at a character explicitly based on Laura Bush that works as both a compelling, masterful novel and a fascinating alternate history.

The 2009 booklist (in order of when I finished each book):

1. Absurdistan - Gary Shteyngart
2. Joe College - Tom Perrotta
3. The Ferrari in the Bedroom - Jean Shepherd
4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby
5. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team - Patrick M. Lencioni**
6. The Wordy Shipmates - Sarah Vowell
7. Pictures at a Revolution - Mark Harris
8. The Film Club - David Gilmour
9. I Like You - Amy Sedaris
10. The Pitchfork 500 - Eds. Scott Plagenhoef and Ryan Schreiber
11. Microserfs - Douglas Coupland
12. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke
13. Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami
14. Morvern Callar - Alan Warner
15. Orange Roofs, Golden Arches - Philip Langdon
16. Then We Came to an End - Joshua Ferris
17. B is for Beer - Tom Robbins
18. Candy Freak - Steve Almond*
19. When I Grow Up - Juliana Hatfield
20. Faraway Places - Tom Spanbauer
21. Dance, Dance, Dance - Haruki Murakami
22. The Magic Kingdom - Stanley Elkin
23. Not Becoming My Mother - Ruth Reichl
24. Catherdral - Raymond Carver
25. Killing Yourself to Live - Chuck Klosterman*
26. Prep - Curtis Sittenfeld
27. Something in the Air - Marc Fisher
28. JPod - Douglas Coupland
29. The Great Rewind - Nathan Rabin
30. The White Album - Joan Didion
31. Kiss Me Like a Stranger - Gene Wilder
32. The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon - Tom Spanbauer*
33. Niagara Falls All Over Again - Elizabeth McCracken
34. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee*
35. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs - John Lydon
36. Old Friend From Far Away - Natalie Goldberg
37. Runaway - Alice Munro
38. Heavy Rotation - Ed. Peter Terzian
39. My Winnipeg - Guy Maddin
40. Wrack and Ruin - Don Lee
41. Inventory - The Onion A.V. Club
42. Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates
43. Dusty! Queen of the Postmods - Annie J. Randall
44. Another Green World (33 1/3) - Geeta Dayal
45. Kicking the Pricks - Derek Jarman*
46. That Old Cape Magic - Richard Russo
47. Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight - Chris Onstad
48. The Fortress of Solitude - Jonathan Lethem*
49. American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld
50. You Better Not Cry - Augusten Burroughs
51. The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Michael Chabon

**assigned reading for work!
Maybe 2010 will be the year I finally get around to The Satanic Verses, which I picked up a used copy of for $3 back in 2003; I'd also like to devote a few weeks (months?) to reading an actual Dickens novel (I've only read A Tale of Two Cities--assigned in 7th grade!). Stay tuned...