Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Top Songs: 2010

 As promised, here are my favorite jams of oh-ten, in one easy-to-burn list (if you're still into burning cds). A pretty good start for the decade, all in all. In alphabetical order (the bolded ones are the best):

Against Me! – “Spanish Moss”
AM Taxi – “The Mistake”
Bad Religion – “Only Rain”
Chromeo – “The Right Type”
Eminem – “Almost Famous”
The Forecast – “Kisses”
The Gaslight Anthem – “The Diamond Church Street Choir”
The Hold Steady – “Hurricane J”
Ida Maria – “Bad Karma”
Jeff Bridges – “Fallin' & Flyin’”
Jenny and Johnny – “Just Like Zues”
Jimmy Eat World – “Coffee And Cigarettes”
Kanye West – “Hell of a Life”
Katy Perry – “California Gurls”
Minus The Bear – “Into the Mirror”
Motion City Soundtrack – “Pulp Fiction”
Sara Bareilles – “Uncharted”
She & Him – “In the Sun”
The Spill Canvas – “Our Song”
Stars – “Wasted Daylight”
Tim Barry – “Thing Of The Past”
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – “Jefferson Jericho Blues”

And, as a bonus, some "b-sides" -- aka my next few favorite jams. It's just short of 50 in total. Again, alphabetical order:

The Apples in Stereo - "Nobody but You"
Arcade Fire - "Ready to Start"
The Bird and the Bee - "Maneater"
The Bouncing Souls - "We All Sing Along"
Brandon Flowers - "Was It Something I Said?"
Four Year Strong - "Wasting Time (Eternal Summer)"
Gold Motel - "We're on the Run"
Jukebox the Ghost - "Mistletoe"
Kate Nash - "Paris"
Kevin Seconds - "There's a Hole"
Kid Cudi - "REVOFEV"
LCD Soundsystem - "You Wanted a Hit"
Linkin Park - "Blackout"
Matt & Kim - "AM/FM Sound"
My Chemical Romance - "Party Poison"
Ra Ra Riot - "Shadowcasting"
Rouge Wave - "We Will Make a Song Destroy"
Shout Out Louds - "Show Me Something New"
Smile Smile - "Cancer"
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - "Bottled in Cork"
Torche - "Cast into Unknown"
Wavves - "Post Acid"
!!! - "Even Judas Gave Jesus a Kiss"

Finally, even though I do not normally endorse reading Pitchfork, they did assemble a pretty good collection of music videos from this year. There are videos for the Ted Leo, Wavves, and She & Him songs, as well as other videos by artists on my lists. Make sure to check out the "Miracles" video by Insane Clown Posse (seriously, amazing). Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Top Albums: 2010

It's been a while... time to dust off the old blogging machine (had to change the name though; the old one didn't make sense anymore). Four summer classes and eight, count 'em, EIGHT fall classes will do that to ya. Anyway, there's only about a week and a half left in the year, so I thought I'd share my favorite records with y'all. They made me laugh, cry, and ponder the meaning of life... not really. Mostly, they just kept me company on my commute to work and while I graded hundreds of papers. I even saw some of them live. I'll post my favorite songs and movies later. Who knows, maybe I'll be able to regularly spout my patented brand of B.S. at ya on a more regular basis. Anyway, we'll start with the Honorable Mentions, in alphabetical order:

!!! - Strange Weather, Isn't It?
AM Taxi - We Don't Stand a Chance
The Bird & The Bee - Interpreting the Masters Vol. 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall & John Oates
The Black Keys - Brothers
The Bouncing Souls - Ghosts on the Boardwalk
Crazy Heart - OST
Eminem - Recovery
Gold Motel - Summer House
The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever
Kate Nash - My Best Friend Is You
Minus the Bear - Omni
Sara Bareilles - Kaleidoscope Heart
Sundowner - We Chase the Waves
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks
Wavves - King of the Beach

Put that in your hollowed-out apple and smoke it. That's 15 records, meaning the forthcoming Top 10 (with pictures and videos... ooohhh! aaahhh!) makes it an even 25 (although that's definitely an odd number). Here we go:

 10) She & Him - Volume Two/Jenny and Johnny - I'm Having Fun Now (tie)
Produced by: M. Ward/Jenny and Johnny
Standout tracks: "In the Sun," "Don't Look Back"/"Scissor Runner," "Just Like Zeus"

A little controversy right off the bat! I'm good like that. But I figure I can get away with lumping these two together into one entry. You know, the whole "former actress decides to make '60s throwback pop album with well-known dude guitarist" thing. Granted, Jenny "Jenny" Lewis has been doing it a lot longer than Zooey "She" Deschanel, but they both pull it off with equal aplomb here. I'll give the M. Ward (the eponymous "Him") the nod for his excellent guitarwork, but Johnathan Rice ("Johnny"... duh) gets credit for lending his vocal talents to many of the tracks. Regardless of who does what, both are near-perfect summer albums -- vibrant guitars/keys, bounding rhythms, sunny harmonies, fetching choruses, the works. The friendly interplay between each duo is as palpable as summer sunshine. Makes me wonder what the next actress/guitarist combo will be... Natalie Portman/Brendan Benson? How about Lindsay Lohan/Sufjan Stevens? I might actually pay to see that. Or maybe these two acts just do the musical equivalent of wife-swapping. Or maybe get Deschanel's hubby (Ben Gibbard) or Lewis's former bandmate (Blake Sennett) involved. Sounds like a hell of a musical orgy.

She & Him - "In the Sun":

9) Motion City Soundtrack - My Dinosaur Life
Produced by: Mark Hoppus
Standout tracks: "Disappear," "Stand Too Close," "Pulp Fiction"

See my last post (waaaaay back in April, yikes) for a more detailed write-up, but I'll just say that the band made a good choice teaming up with Mark Hoppus again for this one. Some really good, poppy stuff. The album is rife with clever, albeit nerdy, lyrics about everything from anime to Veronica Mars; a pop culture junkie like yours truly can't help but smile at every reference. Coupled with the songwriting sensibilities and instrumental panache that the band perfected over three previous albums, MCS's major label debut (seriously? seems like they've been on a major the whole time...) is their most polished effort yet, even if it lacks the emotional depth of their first two records. But who cares about emotional depth when you have dinosaurs and keyboards, right (not to mention Quentin Tarantino references)? Speaking of Tarantino references, "Pulp Fiction" is easily one of my favorite jams of the year -- too bad they don't have a video for it.


8) Chromeo - Business Casual
Produced by: Philippe Zdar
Standout tracks: "Don't Turn the Lights On," "The Right Type"

I first heard of these guys when flipping through the channels when I lived in L.A. a few years ago (has it been that long? Damn...). I stopped on Fuse when the video for "Bonafied Lovin'" came on. It's definitely inspired by one of my all-time favorite videos (Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing"), so of course I was watching, regardless of the band. Turns out the song was also awesome -- funky, synth-y, and irreverent. Years later, I'm still not entirely sure if I'm supposed to be taking these guys seriously (watch their videos to see what I mean), but I don't really care. Their latest is smooth, immaculately produced, is an absolute blast to drive to, and makes me feel dirty in the best possible way. Do yourself a favor and check it out -- just be careful if you listen to it in public, because panties are gonna be a-droppin'. Bring an umbrella. A panty umbrella.

"Don't Turn the Lights On":

7) Jimmy Eat World - Invented
Produced by: Mark Trombino, Jimmy Eat World
Standout tracks: "Heart Is Hard to Find," "Coffee and Cigarettes," "Action Needs Audience," "Mixtape"

Hey, I'm from Arizona (thank god not Mesa though); it had to be on here. Local hero shoutout aside, Jim Adkins and Co. have established themselves as the consummate purveyors of heart-on-the-sleeve pop-rock, and this record further hammers that point home. Tonally speaking, this record bears a striking resemblance to 2004's Futures (maybe my favorite JEW record... don't tell anyone) with its crushing guitars, brooding basslines, electronic flourishes, and world-weary sensibilities. Definitely more of a downer than their last one, Chase This Light. I think this is actually the record I was expecting them to release after Futures (which is why I didn't like Chase This Light as much at first). At the same time though, it also feels like a possible throwback to/update of their seminal (haha... seminal) 1999 masterpiece Clarity. If you don't believe me, just listen to the title track. Or "Mixtape," the latest in JEW's patented series of epic album closers. Or "Action Needs Audience" -- yup, that's Tom Linton on vox, who we haven't heard from since, you guessed it, Clarity. They even brought back the same producer. A step forward while looking back. Sounds dangerous, but JEW pulls it off with confidence.

"My Best Theory":

6) Bad Religion - The Dissent of Man
Produced by Joe Barresi
Standout tracks: "Only Rain," "Wrong Way Kids," "Cyanide," "I Won't Say Anything"

It's almost hard to believe that Bad Religion has been around for 30 years... and they're still putting out excellent music! Even crazier is that they're not even the oldest band on the list (see #2). Released 31 years after their formation, The Dissent of Man marks Bad Religion's best album in at least a decade, a multifaceted effort that blows the last few by-the-numbers releases out of the water. Rather than an assortment of >2:00 filler tracks peppered with standouts ("Sorrow," "Let The Eat War," "New Dark Ages," et al.), Dissent's offerings are consistently full-fledged, ranging from the blistering ("Only Rain," "The Resist Stance") to the tuneful ("Devil in Stitches," "Cyanide"). It's a decisively mature effort from a band that seemed to have plateaued in recent years -- and it plays great live too, even if the band is a bunch of balding graybushes.

5) Stars - The Five Ghosts
Produced by: Tom McFall
Standout tracks: "Wasted Daylight," "Fixed," "We Don't Want Your Body," "The Passenger"

There's just something about Canucks and their indie rock -- moody, haunting, grandiose, and maybe a bit self-indulgent. You'd think I'm referring to the Arcade Fire and their critically-fellated The Suburbs, but no. The Suburbs is a fine album... but no -- clocking in at over an hour, for every resonant high note ("Ready to Start," "City with No Children," for example), there's two or three aimless, ephemeral interludes or refrains (I'll stop just short of calling them filler). I'm all about appreciating music on the album level, but I generally like my music (especially indie from Canadia... spelling intentional) a bit more grounded. Enter Stars, something like second cousins once-removed from Arcade Fire in the incestuous Canadian indie family (probably closer than that... I know both bands have been involved with the musician's orgy that is Broken Social Scene). Stars takes the general aesthetic (male/female vocals, spellbinding choruses, moody atmospheres, etc.), adds a few electronic flourishes and slightly saccharine lyrics, and bottles it up into a spacey, 40-minute indie-pop gem. Torquil Campbell is solid as ever, but Amy Millan might be at the top of her game here.


Hyperlink, because their record company is lame.

4) Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
 Produced by: Kanye West and about a billion other people
Standout tracks: "Dark Fantasy," "Monster," "Hell of a Life"

Although someone needs to teach Kanye a thing or two about comma usage with coordinate adjectives (not to mention, I don't know, general douchebaggery), he's nonetheless about as singular a talent there is in mainstream music today (be it rap, hip-hop, pop, or whatever you want to call this). After a couple years of misstep after misstep (808's and Heartbreaks, Taylor Swift, etc.... although I think "George Bush doesn't care about black people" is one of the quotes of the decade), he's back in full force with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye's strengths -- production, pop sensibilities, A+-list guest talent -- are on full display here. Fantasy ranges from elegant and personal ("Dark Fantasy") to good, dirty fun ("Hell of a Life") to full-on, rap-orgy shitshow ("Monster," featuring, no joke, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and Bon freaking Iver... not that that's a single person or anything). Although Kanye's weakness has always been his lyrics, even the missteps are gold here: "So much head, I woke up to Sleepy Hollow," for example. I get what he's trying to say, but it still makes no sense... and it's kind of genius. Just like most of Kanye's stuff. The only real swing and miss is "Runaway," a lumbering 9-minute quasi-apology track ("Let's hear it for the douchebags") that drags the record down in the middle of a strong run. But, as always with Kanye, you've got to take the... not necessarily bad, but at least strange, with the good. And there's plenty of both to go around on this record.

Short video for "Power":

3) Against Me! - White Crosses
Produced by: Butch Vig
Standout tracks: "White Crosses," "I Was a Teenage Anarchist," "Spanish Moss"

Again, see the April post for my last writeup on the album, but this is one that has stayed with me all year (having leaked all the way back in March). I actually saw these guys in July (opening for Silversun Pickups in Vegas), and the new stuff plays pretty well, even if the crowd wasn't exactly amped up to hear it. I'll have to make a point to see them headlining. Moving on, the same stuff I said about them last time holds true -- another step away from their roots, and they're better off for it (even if many "fans" don't exactly think so). Why can't bands mature and change in peace? They don't want to make the same record, and play the same sound, over and over, and I certainly don't want to listen to it. Move along if you don't like it. End mini-rant.

2) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Mojo
Produced by: Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Ryan Ulyate
Standout tracks: "Jefferson Jericho Blues," "First Flash of Freedom," "Running Man's Bible," "High in the Morning," "Good Enough"

Speaking of bands from Florida, bands maturing, and bands I've seen live this year, let's talk about Tom Petty and the mother fucking Heartbreakers. They've been my favorite band for a long time, but their studio work has been stagnant, having not released a great record since freaking 1991 (Into the Great Wide Open, although Petty's solo work, especially Wildflowers, has been more than enough to bridge the gap). Enter Mojo, recorded entirely live and a rollicking return to form for one of American rock and roll's most legendary acts. Far and away the Heartbreakers' best work, Petty takes a backseat to his prodigious (and criminally underappreciated) bandmates, especially keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell. In fact, this could easily be said to be Campbell's album, as his scintillating guitarwork is the driving force behind the record. Recalling greats like Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore, as well as the highlights of his own five decade-spanning career, Campbell marks his territory as one of the best rock guitarists around. Master of the slide guitar, Campbell sears, shreds, and picks his way through stompers ("I Should Have Known It"), slow-burners ("First Flash of Freedom," "Good Enough"), and everything in between -- even a bit of (perhaps ill-advised) reggae ("Don't Pull Me Over"... a Tom Petty song about weed, 'nuff said). Also prominently featured is Tench, owner of probably the coolest name in rock and roll (just say it.... Benmont Tench... awesome) and smooth pimp on the keys (check out "Running Man's Bible"). Behind it all, of course, is Petty himself, rock and roll's aging bearded badass. Easily the most musically impressive release of the year -- and it's phenomenal live. Glad to have my favorite band back in top form. This record wails.

"Jefferson Jericho Blues":

1) The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang
Produced by: Ted Hutt
Standout tracks: "The Diamond Street Church Choir," "Boxer," "The Spirit of Jazz"

I'll admit it -- I dropped the ball on The '59 Sound.  I completely underappreciated it at first -- it's definitely a top-3 album for that year, not buried in the late teens like I originally had it. Obviously, I won't be making the same mistake a second time, as American Slang has occupied its #1 spot practically since it leaked back in April. I say "practically" because it didn't get to that #1 spot until track 4 -- "The Diamond Street Church Choir," easily my favorite, and the best, song of the year. I knew it from the glib first few chords, the "Woo-hoooo" vocal intro, and the suave, lilting first few lines: "Now the lights go low on the avenue / and the cars pass by in the rain..." Then it all came together in the Van Morrison-esque chorus and totally blew me away. This is a band capable of making some of the best music of this generation is what I thought, and still think. Hailing from the ripe musical turf of New Jersey (influences as far-ranging as, duh, Bruce Springsteen to Frank Sinatra to The Bouncing Souls are evident here), Gaslight's songs are endemic of that tradition and indelibly American. And American Slang is a veritable melting pot of those influences, their punk rock roots (explored on their debut, Sink or Swim), and '50s-era rock 'n' roll (The '59 Sound). The result is a sound, a language, all their own, distilled by Brian Fallon, who barks, growls, and croons his blue-collar, punk-laureate lyrics over clean guitars and forceful rhythm and percussion. The production is perfect and the harmonies are tight -- not a note or beat is misplaced. After a few listens, it hit me that these aren't songs so much as they are anthems, wrought by guys that clearly just love making, and listening to, music.

"American Slang":

Hope you enjoyed the list. Let me know what you loved this year -- lord knows I missed more than a few great albums. Leave a list or a link in the comments. I'll follow this up with my favorite jams of the year in my next post. Until then (and I promise it'll be sooner than eight months...), ciao!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

2010 Faves

I know we're still pretty early in the year, but there's been some damned good music released so far, and I need something to get me back into writing/blogging mode. So I figured I'd share some of my favorite 2010 releases with y'all. In alphabetical order:

Honorable Mentions:  Broken Bells - Broken Bells (Shins + Danger Mouse = good), Cold War Kids - Behave Yourself [EP] (if only for the song "Audience of One"), Four Year Strong - Enemy of the World (good, balls-out pop-punk), MGMT - Congratulations (need to spend a little more time with this one, but I like what I hear), Brendan Kelly/Joe McMahon - Wasted Potential (my second favorite Larry Arms singer goes acoustic... and so does some other guy).

File:Against Me! - White Crosses cover.jpgAgainst Me! - White Crosses
Produced by: Butch Vig
Standout tracks: "White Crosses," "High Pressure Low," "Spanish Moss," "Rapid Decompression"

Tom Gabel has always reminded me of Tom Petty a little bit.  They're both named Tom, they're both from Gainesville, and they both have the same utter disdain for the music industry. But whereas Petty railed against record prices and recording contracts, Gabel gripes about the corporatization of rebellion ("Unprotected Sex with Multiple Partners" from Searching for a Former Clarity), grapples with questions about the digital age of music ("Up the Cuts" from New Wave), and, now, grumbles about the hypocrisy of the "scene" that he came from on "I Was a Teenage Anarchist," the lead single from White Crosses. Yes, Gabel seems to be leaving his anarcho-punk roots behind, both philosophically and musically.  On their second tour of duty with Garbage-man producer Butch Vig, the band explores a much more polished sound than even New Wave hinted at. There's keyboards, bouncy hooks, anthemic choruses -- I mean, listen to the opening riff of "High Pressure Low" and tell me it doesn't sound like a Cheap Trick outtake.  There's this whole '70s glam/punk thing going on with this album that I just love.  Those expecting a balls-out punk record will be disappointed, but they clearly didn't listen to New Wave.  It's a huge step away from their roots, but a welcome one.  This album isn't officially released until June, but, somehow, I doubt that Tom Gabel cares that it's been leaked.

Here's the video for "I Was A Teenage Anarchist":

Motion City Soundtrack - My Dinosaur Life
Produced by: Mark Hoppus
Standout tracks: "Disappear," "Stand Too Close," "Pulp Fiction"

If I wasn't exactly expecting a pop-tinged masterpiece from a Butch Vig-produced Against Me! album, I would've been disappointed with anything less from a Mark Hoppus-produced MCS album.  And disappointed I was not.  From the first few tracks that leaked -- "Disappear," "Her Words Destroyed My Planet" -- I knew I was in for more pop than a bunch of Midwesterners in a soda shop. (Get it?? ...because they call soda "pop.")  While I enjoy the work of The Cars and Fountains of Wayne, the band made the right decision bringing blink-182 frontman Hoppus back into the studio rather than another go-'round with Ric Ocasek and Adam Schlesinger.  In many ways, My Dinosaur Life feels like a sequel to the last Hoppus-produced MCS record, Commit This to Memory -- it has the same combination of lively synth lines, pop culture-junkie lyrics, and just enough earnestness to keep the record grounded.  Definitely an impressive major-label debut, if only because they've been making music worth of wider release for years.

"Her Words Destroyed My Planet":

She & Him - Volume Two
Produced by: M. Ward
Standout tracks: "In the Sun," ""Ridin' in My Car," "Over It Over Again"

I'll be honest -- I didn't listen to the first She & Him record (Volume One, obviously).  I dunno... it just seemed like a novelty act or something.  You know, like Scarlet Johanssen's singing "career" or Britney Spears's acting "career."  Little did I know that Zooey Deschanel -- long a favorite actress of mine (and I'm going all the way back to Big Trouble here) -- can actually carry a tune.  And write a song.  And play a keyboard.  She's actually a talented musician!  I had no idea.  So, long story short, after I fell in love with this album, I acquired Volume One and fell in love with it as well.  The song that got me hooked was "In the Sun" -- a strong early contender for song of the year (Against Me!'s "Spanish Moss" is the main competition right now).  I think that song -- and this album -- was written to be played in a convertible on California State Route 1 on a beautiful summer day.  Or maybe it's the other way around -- they bottled that shit up and distilled it into music.  I tend to think the former is easier.  So yeah.  Summer road trip music for sure.  California, here I come! (At some point.)

"In the Sun":

Streetlight Manifesto - 99 Songs of Revolution: Volume 1
Produced by: Streetlight Manifesto
Standout tracks: "Just," "Skyscraper," "Punk Rock Girl," "Such Great Heights"

If some of those song titles look familiar... it's a coincidence.  No, I'm just kidding -- 99 Songs is a cover album.  Or, rather, the first in a series of eight planned cover albums.  Whatever, Tomas (Kalnoky, lead singer/songwriter/guitarist/procrastinator) -- I'll believe it when I see it.  (Or, like I said about Somewhere in the Between, "I'll believe it after I've listened to it ten times.")  Anyway, Streetlight does the whole upstrokes-and-horns thing on eleven tracks, ranging from Radiohead to Bad Religion to the Squirrel Nut Zippers (remember them? Didn't think so) to Paul Simon.  Their bombastic horn section is disappointingly restrained this time around, as the band opts for a more straight-ahead style of cover. They make up for it with some inspired selections (definitely didn't see the Radiohead cover coming) and the fact that this actually came out.  Now, if we could just get that BOTAR album, or the 99 Songs project finished before 2050, I'd be a little less bitter at Tomas for the ill-advised (and even iller-executed) Keasbey Knights rerecording.  (Ska rant/namedropfest over.)

"Such Great Heights" (no video):

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks
Produced by:
Standout tracks: "Mourning in America," "Even Heroes Have to Die," "Bottled in Cork," "Gimme the Wire"

I haven't listened to the album closely enough to figure out why it's called what it's called, but it's the perfect title -- The Brutalist Bricks.  What else to call a record built from the ground up with perfect 3-4 minute guitar rock gems?  Ted Leo's latest spends a brisk 41 minutes pummeling the listener with riff after riff, punctuated with Leo's trademark vitriol.  Just try to keep up with tracks like "Mourning," "Wire," "The Stick" or "Where Was My Brain?"  All in all, Bricks is a much more taut effort than 2007's sprawling, loosey-goosey (but still excellent) Living with the Living.  He doesn't explore much new musical territory here, but, like Buster Bluth's cartography classes, "It never hurts to double-check," and Leo treads the same tracks with vim and vigor (I apparently have a thing for alliteration tonight... just go with it).  Compact, concise, and other c-words (yup, another AD reference), The Brutalist Bricks is built like a brick shithouse (never understood that saying, but I'm using it anyway).  Also, it's got a bee on the cover, and bees are badass.

Ted covering Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps" :

Tim Barry - 28th and Stonewall
Produced by:
Standout tracks: "Thing of the Past," "Prosser's Gabriel," "With Ease I Leave," "(Memento Mori)"

I know next to nothing about Tim Barry.  Apparently, he was the singer for a punk band called Avail that I've vaguely heard of but never heard.  His first album was recommended to me by, I was bored, so I checked it out.  It was pretty good, so I downloaded his next record.  It was even better.  So I downloaded this.  It was excellent.  Sometimes, it's just that simple, people.  I've always liked the "punk rocker goes folk" angle (see: Kensrue, Dustin and Ragan, Chuck and Kelly, Brendan).  Mr. Barry does it with just as much aplomb as any of those guys, if not a fuckton more irony.  His songs range from the serious ("Gabriel," "With Ease") to the silly ("Bus Driver") to a bit of both ("Thing of the Past"), which is when he's at his best.  Probably my favorite line of the year (from "Thing of the Past"): "Money is a thing of the past / You spend it once and it don't come back."  That sort of devil-may-care, DIY spirit permeates all his records and makes me feel less bad about stealing his music.  Don't worry, Mr. Barry, I'll see you when you come to Tempe!

"Thing of the Past":

Various Artists - Crazy Heart soundtrack
Produced by: T-Bone Burnett
Standout tracks: "Somebody Else," "Fallin' and Flyin'," "Gone, Gone, Gone," "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?"

I know, it surprised me too -- a country album.  But this one has a few things going for it: 1) The film's star, Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges, can actually sing (and so can co-star Colin Farrell -- I'm sensing a theme here...); 2) The record (and film) is more focused on older country music, rather than the pop-masquerading-as-country crap that everyone is referring to when they say "I like everything except country" on their facebook profile; and 3) It's produced by T-Bone Burnett.  I mean, the dude's name is T-Bone Burnett.  That, and he's probably the preeminent authority on film soundtracks (remember a little film called O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- same guy).  The standouts here are definitely the Bridges songs, especially "Fallin' and Flyin'" -- I really thought the wrong song was nominated (and won) at the Oscars.  However, a lot of the non-originals are excellent as well -- see the Waylon Jennings track ("Are You Sure...") and the Townes Van Zandt track.  Just a well put-together album, and one that is making me rethink my stance on "country."  So if any of y'all have any suggestions, feel free to let me know!

"Fallin' and Flyin'" (no video):

Well, there's still most of 2010 left, and a lot more good music to come.  Here are a few that I'm looking forward to just around the corner (physical release date in parentheses):
The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever (5/4)
Minus the Bear - Omni (5/4)
Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away (5/4)
The New Pornographers - Together (5/4 -- a big day, apparently)
The Black Keys - Brothers (5/18)
The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang (6/14)

That's all she wrote.  Except I'm a he.  Anyway.  If anyone likes what they see/read/hear/etc., just let me know -- I can get you a link for any of these albums. But remember -- support live music if you're gonna steal the recorded stuff! Or at least buy a t-shirt or whatever. Thanks for reading, and until next time... whenever that may be.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscar Predix

I'll keep this brief. I'll list the nominees and asterisk the predicted winners. A caveat: Of the major category nominees, I have yet to see The Last Station and Nine. But, they aren't expected to win much (if anything) so I'm not worried about it. Here we go:

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker*
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Jeff Bridges*
George Clooney
Colin Firth
Morgan Freeman
Jeremy Renner

Sandra Bullock*
Helen Mirren
Carey Mulligan
Gabourey Sidibe
Meryl Streep

Matt Damon
Woody Harrelson
Christopher Plummer
Stanley Tucci
Cristoph Waltz*

Penélope Cruz
Vera Farmiga
Maggie Gyllenhaal
Anna Kendrick

Kathryn Bigelow*
James Cameron
Lee Daniels
Jason Reitman
Quentin Tarantino

The Hurt Locker - Mark Boal
Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino*
The Messenger - Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman
A Serious Man - Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Up - Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, Thomas McCarthy

District 9 - Nel Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
An Education - Nick Hornby
In the Loop - Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche
Precious - Geoffrey Fletcher
Up in the Air - Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner*

Note: For the non-major categories, I'm just going to list the winner:

Avatar - Mauro Fiore*

The Hurt Locker - Bob Murawski, Chris Innis*

The Young Victoria - Patrice Vermette, Maggie Grey*

Bright Star - Janet Patterson*

Star Trek - Barney Burman, Mindy Hall, Joel Harlow*

Up - Michael Giacchino*

Crazy Heart - "The Weary Kind" - T-Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham*

The Hurt Locker - Paul N.J. Ottosson, Ray Beckett*

Avatar - Christopher Boyes, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle*

Avatar - Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham, Andy Jones*

Up - Pete Docter*

Un prophète (France)*

The Cove (nominees TBD)*

Music by Prudence - Roger Ross Williams, Elinor Burkett*

Logorama - Nicolas Schmerkin*

Kavi - Gregg Helvey*
I'm really pulling for Kavi... nah, I haven't seen it. That and doc short were total guesses. Everything else I feel confident about. I'll tell you what though: I'll take a drink of wine for each wrong pick. Sound good? Good. I'll probably post a short reactions piece after the ceremony. T-minus 45 minutes! Better suit up. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

2002 Playlist

Again, here are my favorite tracks from 2002. This one was hard because there's so many long songs. Still, it would probably make a pretty sweet road mix. Just sayin'. As always, alphabetically:

The All-American Rejects - "Swing, Swing"
Authority Zero - "Mesa Town"
Bad Religion - "Sorrow"
Ben Folds - "Army" (Live)
Big D & the Kids Table - "Scenester"
The Decemberists - "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect"
dredg - "The Canyon Behind Her"
Foo Fighters - "All My Life"
John Murphy - "In a House - In a Heartbeat" (28 Days Later soundtrack)
Johnny Cash - "The Man Comes Around"
Minus the Bear - "Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo"
New Found Glory - "Sonny"
Queens of the Stone Age - "Go with the Flow"
Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Can't Stop" (or "Venice Queen")
Reel Big Fish - "What Are Friends For"
Rilo Kiley - "The Good that Won't Come Out"
Something Corporate - "Punk Rock Princess"
Unwritten Law - "Sound Siren"
Vanessa Carlton - "A Thousand Miles"
The Vines - "Get Free"
Weezer - "Keep Fishin'"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Top 10 Albums: 2002

Bless me, blogosphere, for I have sinned. It has been over two weeks since my last blog entry. The days have been filled with work, sleep, drinking, San Diego trips, and more procrastination than a cohort of second-year freshmen. These are not excuses, and I ask not for atonement (awesome book/film combo, by the way). I merely ask that you bear with me as I, slowly and somewhat un-surely, make my way through this backlog of entries. After all, it's not like I'm getting paid for this... ha!

Moving on, today we're talking about the year 2002 and my favorite albums thereof. It was a good year, 2002 -- I began my second year at ASU, I moved into an off-campus apartment, went on an epic trip to San Diego with high school friends, and spent the summer working at a bar on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. It was also a good year for driving -- which means it was a good year for music. Many of these albums (the ones I actually bought and listened to in 2002) were on regular rotation in my pre-boat Corolla (if you don't know, you don't) as I crisscrossed between California to New Mexico and everywhere in between. I remember cruising I-8 back from SD blasting RBF and screaming down Route 666 with dredg as my soundtrack. There's nothing like getting to know an album like scorched rubber and cracked asphalt under an unrelenting sun.

Here's my list of some stuff I was into in that road-weary summer, some stuff I found out about much later, and some stuff that's just timeless. As always, we begin with some Honorable Mentions:

Ben Folds - Ben Folds Live (probably my favorite live album ever, if only for "Army"), Millencolin - Home From Home (doesn't hold up as well as Pennybridge, but it was one of my favorites back in the day), Minus the Bear - Highly Refined Pirates (plenty raw but awesome), Phantom Planet - The Guest (actually pretty decent, if you can get past "Californiaaaaaaaaa..."), Vanessa Carlton - Be Not Nobody (Damn right... "Makin' my way downtown, walkin' fast, faces pass...), and I'll be honest -- I've never really listened to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If you have a lawyer, go ahead and sue me).

Now the top 10:

10) Unwritten Law - Elva
Produced by: Unwritten Law and three other dudes
Standout tracks: "Up All Night," "Sound Siren," "Seein' Red"

One of my favorite all time "punk" (so it's more like pop-punk, but still) albums is Unwritten Law's self-titled album. It was my entire JAM junior year of high school and it got me cred with the "punks" at my high school, who in turn introduced me to some pretty awesome bands that I still listen to (Bad Religion, All, Strung Out, etc.). Now, as "punk" as that album was (or wasn't), its follow-up removes all pretense of "punk." It's more like pop-rock with just enough edge/brashness to keep it from being mainstream. I think this album was actually pretty big on MTV2 if that gives you any idea. Anyway, this is the last good album by what was once one of my favorite bands, and I still give it fairly regular airplay, so I figured I'd throw it on here at #10 over the Millencolin album Home From Home, which I don't really give much airplay to anymore. It's the kind of anthemic chorus and hook-laden album that smacks of blink-182 meets Jimmy Eat world (and I mean that as a compliment). Tom DeLonge even gives a shout out after the last track -- SoCal "punk" at its finest.

9) Foo Fighters - One By One
Produced by: Foo Fighters and two other dudes
Standout tracks: "All My Life," "Times Like These," "Come Back"

Dave Grohl once told Rolling Stone that he didn't much care for this album. Something about it being rushed. What's funny is that it later won a Grammy for Best Rock Album. I'm not sure if that says more to the badassitude (it's a real word, trust me) of the Foos that they can basically shit an album out and take home hardware, or to the general crapitude (again, a real word) that is the Grammys. Either way, I respect both points of view -- I can see where the album pales in comparison to some other efforts by the Foos (although it's not my least favorite Foo record), but I can also see how it's better than probably 90% of the other stuff out there (I'd rather listen to a recording of Dave Grohl taking a shit than, say, the last 3-4 U2 records). The singles are right up there with anything Grohl and Co. have ever released (the opening to "All My Life" is aurgasmic (see what I did there?)), and the album cuts aren't half bad either, especially the slow burners like "Disenchanted Lullaby," "Burn Away," and "Come Back." Not exactly live show staples, sure, but perfect for the sunshine-and-shrubs monotony of the I-40 East.

8) Queens of the Stone Age - Songs for the Deaf
Produced by: Josh Homme, Adam Kasper, Eric Valentine
Standout tracks: "You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar...," "No One Knows," "Go with the Flow," "Another Love Song"

Speaking of driving through the desert, Songs for the Deaf is a concept album about just that. That's right, a concept album about driving through the desert. In any other hands, this would probably be a complete disaster, but it turned into a minor masterpiece in the confident hands of Josh Homme, Nick Oliveri, Mark Lanegan, and, you know it, Dave Grohl. This is probably one of the most badass collections of musicians this decade has seen. Key word: "badass." No wonder it only lasted one album -- too much testosterone for one recording studio. If only they got "THE" Bruce Dickinson to produce... Regardless, their one foray into the studio is as rockin' as some bands' entire discographies. I'm also a sucker for concept albums -- all the songs are linked together by random snippets of Mojave Desert radio stations -- from hippy deejays to Spanish stations to what sounds like some guy broadcasting out of his trailer. It makes a stark counterpoint to the blistering rhythms, screaming guitars, and triumvirate vocals that mark the songs themselves. The resulting record is as complicated and varied as the desert itself -- alternately rugged, challenging, spare, and even tranquil. It's a trip, man -- too bad this experiment couldn't have lasted longer.

7) Reel Big Fish - Cheer Up!
Produced by: Reel Big Fish, Val Garay
Standout tracks: "Ban the Tube Top," "What Are Friends For," "Valerie," "New York, New York," "Boss D.J.," "Drunk Again"

This is probably the best -- but not my favorite, I don't think -- Reel Big Fish album. It's a ska record, so take that how you will. Can there even be such a thing as a "good" ska record? Tomas Kalnoky sure thinks so. But whatever your stance on ska, this is just an awesome record that contains a lot of staples of their always fun live shows -- "Tube Top," "Where Have You Been?" and the title track come to mind. It also continues their tradition of upbeat, vibrant covers (remember "Take On Me"?) -- their mostly a capella rendition of Ol' Blue Eye's "New York, New York" and the positively pop-tastic cover of Sublime's "Boss D.J." are both fantastic. The standout, however, might be album-capper "Drunk Again" where trumpeter/sidekick Scott Klopfenstein takes center stage for a Burt Bacharach-esque ballad about, what else, drinking your troubles away. It's not exactly a "cheery" track (or album), but RBF never really did shy away from irony.

6) New Found Glory - Sticks and Stones
Produced by: Neal Avron
Standout tracks: "Understatement," "Sonny," "It's Been A Summer," "The Story So Far"

A quick note before we begin: I recently saw NFG perform their self-titled album in its entirety. It made me realize that I probably ranked it too low in a previous entry. My bad, and I apologize to all involved.

That said, while this album isn't as good as that one, I'm still probably ranking it too low. But how do you rank an album (band) that has such obvious aesthetic flaws (it's unclear if they know you can have more than three chords in a song) and very limited subject matter (read: all the songs are about girls... literally, all of them)? It's tough, especially since it's so easy to relate to the material. Relationships, breakups, casual hook-ups, the one who got away, the one you're chasing -- there isn't a song in the band's catalog that I haven't been able to relate to personally at some point. I have memories attached to just about all of these songs like so many post-it notes. There's not many bands out there -- at least for me -- that I can say that about. I know they're just silly pop-punk songs about girls, but I'd like to think they mean something, dammit! Or maybe I'm just a sucker for three-chord love songs with breakdowns.

5) Rilo Kiley - The Execution of All Things
Produced by: Mike Mogis
Standout tracks: "The Good That Won't Come Out," "Paint's Peeling," "With Arms Outstretched," "Spectacular Views"

Another moment of honesty: I've never really been into the whole "Omaha Sound"/Saddle Creek thing. I'm only really into Cursive's later stuff, Bright Eyes bores the fuck out of me, and I've never heard The Faint. All that Midwest scene shit is slow, morose, and with a predilection toward quiet -- hey, kinda like life in the Midwest must be! All kidding aside, yes it can be intricate and moving at times, but what on this list so far would make you think I'd be into that scene? That said, I absolutely love this record. Maybe it's the L.A. connection or the random flourishes of electronica (probably the same thing anyway), but Rilo Kiley hits all the right buttons on this one. The songs all seem like little short stories, with full-fledged characters and arcs, all sung/narrated by my indie crush Jenny Lewis. Yes, guitarist Blake Sennett makes an occasional appearance, but who really listens to Rilo Kiley for his vocals? I mean, really? As a whole, the album dips from country to electronica to indie rock all with a kind of playful, self-aware vibe that only makes sense from a band featuring two former child actors (Lewis and Sennett). To sum the album up in four words: As Lewis says in the phenomenal final track "Spectacular Views": "It's so fucking beautiful."

4) dredg - El Cielo
Produced by: dredge and a bunch of guys
Standout tracks: "Same Ol' Road," "Whoa Is Me," "The Canyon Behind Her"

"It's so fucking beautiful" might be an even better descriptor for this album -- to date, dredg's finest work. This one is another concept album based on -- wait for it -- a painting by Salvador Dali. It's about as mindblowing as you'd expect. I've taken the liberty of embedding the painting below. Let this marinate for a minute:

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bumblebee around a Pomegranate One Second Before Awakening
It's got it all: fish, tigers, fish eating tigers, flying elephants, a naked chick, bees, cliffs. The album's got it all too, traipsing around from hard rock to metal to jazz to prog, all with excellent musicianship and featuring vocals by one of my favorite singers, Gavin Hayes. The guy seriously has one of the best voices around -- and it totally translates live as well. And, to keep with the theme of amazing album closers, "The Canyon Behind Her" is probably one of the most beautiful songs of the decade.

3) The Decemberists - Castaways and Cutouts
Produced by: The Decemberists
Standout tracks: "Leslie Anne Levine," "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect," "July, July," "California One"

This was the first Decemberists record I ever heard... and I didn't really like it. I think I was still firmly entrenched in my third-wave ska phase, and this record was too slow, too acoustic, too... accordion-y. I definitely missed the boat there (get it... there's a boat on the album cover!), but it's a good thing I came back to this record after hearing -- and falling in love with -- Picaresque and The Crane Wife. I would have missed the macabre amazingness of the aborted baby-POV "Leslie Anne Levine." I would have missed the hypnotic melancholy of "Here I Dreamt..." (one of my favorite all-time Decemberists songs). I would have missed the sunny, twisted shout out to my birth month, "July, July!" And I would have missed "California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade," perhaps the best tribute to the two-faced nature of my home away from home, California. And I would have missed all the Gothic-folk-indie gems in between, peppered with accordion and sarcastic barbs and sailors and literary references and star-crossed lovers and dark humor and a distinct fascination with the morbid. And that would have been a damn shame. This was the first Decemberists record I ever heard -- and it just might be my favorite.

2) Johnny Cash - American IV: The Man Comes Around
Produced by: Rick Rubin, John Carter Cash
Standout tracks: "The Man Comes Around," "Hurt," "In My Life," "Sam Hall"

Honestly, I'm not sure which is the greater achievement: the use of "The Man Comes Around" over the opening credits of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake or how Cash absolutely crushes NIN's "Hurt" (and the accompanying video). Either of them -- an appearance in a zombie movie and the Grammy the "Hurt" video picked up -- is a feat, marking Cash as a cultural force in his 70th year. I mean, the man was DYING as he made this record. As if you couldn't tell, with cover choices like "In My Life" and "Desperado" -- not to mention "I Won't Back Down" off the previous American Recordings record. There's just something abso-fucking-lutely profound about a man confronting his fate with nothing more than a gravely, world-weary voice and a guitar. There's an added earnestness, an urgency, when he sings a line like, "You better let somebody love you, before it's too late." Whether it's an old country standard or a contemporary industrial song, to hear Cash cover it here is to hear the song again for the first time. Here, here, ya hear? It was the last album released in Cash's lifetime, and it has to be considered one of his best.

1) Red Hot Chili Peppers - By the Way
Produced by: Rick Rubin
Standout tracks: "By the Way," "Can't Stop," "Midnight," "Minor Thing," "Venice Queen"

The Keidis/Frusciante/Flea/Smith incarnation of the Chili Peppers (everything from Mother's Milk through Stadium Arcadium, with the exception of One Hot Minute) is one of the most ridiculously talented collections of musicians of this generation. I'm not even kidding. Say what you will of Keidis's lyrics, but I've always thought they were more of a compliment to the group's sound than the driving force behind the music, and there's no denying the superior talent of the Flea/Smith rhythm battery. But the star of the Chili Peppers (or, if you're cool like me, RCHP -- and yes, I know that's not the correct abbreviation), to me, has always been lead guitarist/backup vocalist extraordinaire John Frusciante. Just think about it: the opening riff to "Under the Bridge" or "Soul to Squeeze." The slide guitar solos in "Scar Tissue." The haunting backing vox that permeate By the Way. All Frusciante. Without Frusciante, they're a bunch of funk-rock wannabes with socks on their dicks that hang out with Dave Navarro. With Frusciante, they're one of the defining mainstream rock bands of the last 20 years. All of which makes me nervous about the future of the band without Frusciante. That said, this album is Frusciante's finest hour. His guitar sound throughout is... incendiary. Incendiary. And his pitch-perfect backing vocals add a layer of depth to an already-deep album. Just listen to the song "Venice Queen" (quite possibly a) the best song the Chili Peppers have recorded or will ever record and b) one of the best songs of the decade). The song -- a heartbreaking tribute to Keidis's late drug counselor, Gloria (or G-L-O-R-I-A) -- is a veritable playground for Frusciante's many talents. From the delicate fingerpicking of the first half of the song to the frenetic acoustic strumming of the second half to the melodic backing vox throughout, it's all a stunning display of talent. It's a shame his solo stuff -- what he ostensibly left RCHP to pursue -- isn't as good as his stuff with the Peppers. But enough talking. I'll let the song speak for itself:

Done at last. Lemme know what you think. As always, thanks for reading. Until next time, whenever it may be...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oscar Nominations Ramble

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has just announced that next year's Super Bowl will feature a whopping FOUR entrants and will be played as a free-for-all/melee, Braveheart-style battle. But with a football instead of swords. Okay, not really (although the Pro Bowl actually did have over 100 players involved -- ridiculous). But a Super Bowl with four teams is about as good an idea as having TEN Best Picture nominees. I know, I know, that's how they used to do it back in the day, but if we did everything like they did 70 years ago, we'd be in the midst of an economic depression and deposing foreign dictators. Oh wait. Whatever. If I wasn't so sure it was just a marketing ploy by the studios to slap the 'Best Picture Nominee' tag on DVDs and get a theatrical re-release, I'd be more open to it. But it just seems like a money grab. Either way, there will probably be one or two nominees that flat-out don't deserve it, and one or two that were rightly rewarded.  Sounds like a wash to me -- why bother? Oh well. I sound like a crotchety old man. All I know is that the Oscars with 20 Best Picture nominees would be a more legitimate awards ceremony than the Grammys...

Moving on, we're a few scant hours away from the nomination announcements. True to form as a legendary procrastinator, I've waited until now to offer up my predictions. I'm sticking to the main eight categories (Picture, Director, all the acting awards, and both screenplay awards), because a) I'm lazy, b) I don't care about documentaries, c) the red tape for foreign films is just retarded, and d) the tech categories would be a crapshoot anyway. The lists are roughly in order or likelihood of a nomination. I'll even offer a waaaaay too early winner prediction in each category as well. You can also probably look forward to (or dread) a reactions piece and final predictions closer to the ceremony. Enjoy. Or not.

The Hurt Locker*
Inglourious Basterds
Up in the Air
An Education
A Serious Man

Also in the running: District 9, A Single Man, Star Trek, (500) Days of Summer
Possible WTF? nomination: The Last Station
Haven't seen: Nine, The Last Station

I think there's really only one spot that's still up for debate -- everything from Hurt Locker to Invictus seems fairly well locked in to me. Hurt Locker and Avatar are the clear front runners at this point, while Up in the Air, Basterds, and Precious (I refuse to type out the whole title) have plenty of precursor awards and momentum themselves. One-time contender Education leads the pack of also-rans, along with the now probably automatic Coen nom (I can't imagine they won't get nominated in any given year with TEN spots) Serious Man, Eastwood award-bait Invictus and Pixar's Up (it'll be good to finally have them get a nomination in the big boys category though, I'll admit). I really didn't want to pick Nine for the last spot, but I really couldn't see any of the other films in the running snagging the spot. District 9 and Star Trek are both sci-fi (NOT SyFy), and we've already got Avatar. A Single Man is too small (like Crazy Heart and The Messenger), while Summer probably skews too young for most of the Academy. Nine, critical raping aside, still has pedigree and a lot of Academy-friendly talent behind it. I think it gets a pity nom. I would say it's undeserving, but I haven't seen it. So I'll just say that it's probably undeserving. I wouldn't actually mind that and Invictus being dropped from two of the other ones in the running. As for the WTF? nom, I don't think The Hangover has a shot, but The Last Station seems like the kind of hoity-toity picture that, carried by strong veteran performances (from what I hear), could get the Merchant-Ivory Memorial nomination.

As for the eventual winner, I'd say The Hurt Locker has got its statue signed, sealed, and delivered. Or whatever the actual logistics for getting a statue are. Avatar is a threat, but Cameron has already been rewarded for directing the highest-grossing movie of all time, No need to do it twice (plus, I don't think the movie has much support in the acting or writing branches). Basterds is the real dark horse here (and I'd love to see it win), but I don't see it happening. The Globes snub killed Up in the Air's chances, and Precious never really had a chance but would seem to be the final contender. Hey -- that's five movies! Weird! Anyway, the rest are filler nominations with varying degrees of worthiness, from Education (very) to Nine (not at all). The Hurt Locker is just the right movie for the right time. I'll be keeping tabs on what will probably either be an Avatar backlash or groundswell of support. For now though, it's Locker.

Kathryn Bigelow* - The Hurt Locker
James Cameron - Avatar
Quentin Tarantino - Inglourious Basterds
Jason Reitman - Up in the Air
Lee Daniels - Precious

Also in the running: Nobody really, but Clint Eastwood (Invictus) and the Coens (A Serious Man) are probably next in line
Possible WTF? nominations: Lone Scherfig (An Education), Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon)
Haven't seen: The White Ribbon

This one's easy -- one through five seem pretty locked in to me. I don't see any of them getting bumped. Coincidentally (or not...), these are the same films that are the probable top five front runners for Best Picture. Bigelow's mastery of tension and explosions (how cool is it that one of the best action directors of all time is a woman?) made Hurt Locker one of the most engrossing films of the year; Cameron is a shoo-in (and, again, NOT a shoe-in) for Avatar -- I just hope he wears a suit made of $100 bills to the ceremony; Tarantino delivered the goods after a lengthy wait with Basterds and is probably a bigger contender than Cameron (did you see his Golden Globe acceptance speech? smug, smug, smug); Reitman will be happy with his second nomination (although, for the life of me, I don't see what's so special about his fairly lackadaisical pacing, "more indie than thou" soundtracks, and lazy endings -- he's like a more polished Zach Braff, although he does get great performances from his actors); finally, Daniels is actually probably the true dark horse in this category -- Precious is raw and hard to watch at times, but there is an undeniable energy and soul about the film that speaks to Daniels's abilities behind the camera.

As you can tell by my strategic placement of the asterisk next to Bigelow's name, I think Locker pulls the double whammy and wins both Picture and Director. The time is ripe for a lady director to take home the top prize, and the veteran Bigelow is as worthy as any -- I mean, come on, surely you've seen POINT BREAK. If she wins, AMPAS should just call it like it is and make it retroactive for what is probably the best action movie of all time. On another serious note, The Hurt Locker was fantastic and I think being shut out at the Globes actually helped its -- and Bigelow's -- cause (by getting them more #1 votes). I think Tarantino and Daniels are the only other interesting candidates here -- I don't think Cameron or Reitman have much of a shot. As for the WTF? noms, the Academy could go overboard with two female nominees, and Scherfig would be a very deserving one for Education. Haneke's Ribbon, meanwhile, won the Palme d'Or, which, while not necessarily a very good prognosticator of Oscar success, brings a certain amount of prestige to the table for an already-well-respected vet. At the end of the day (well, it'll actually be night), expect to see Bigelow at the podium. (Yes, I know Bigelow and Cameron used to be married and, no, I don't think it's worth discussing.)

Jeff Bridges* - Crazy Heart
George Clooney - Up in the Air
Colin Firth - A Single Man
Morgan Freeman - Invictus
Michael Stuhlbarg - A Serious Man

Also in the running: Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), Viggo Mortensen (The Road), Tobey Maguire (Brothers)
Possible WTF? nomination: Nicolas Cage (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans)
Haven't seen: The Road, Brothers

While I think Jeff Lebowski... er, Bridges has this wrapped up tighter than Jesus Quintana's pants, the rest of the category is more loose than Bunny Lebowski herself. Extended Big Lebowski analogy for the win. Moving on, Clooney and, to a lesser extent, Firth are both basically locks, but all bets are off after that. Freeman would seem to be a sure thing, but the movie was mediocre at best and received barely more than a smattering of applause from critics. I'm counting him in for now, but it wouldn't shock me not to hear his name called in the morning (I might even be up to watch). As for the fifth spot, I really have no idea. Renner would seem to be a good bet, as Locker figures to get a lot of love, but there are other, more established, names on his heels -- Maguire has the Globe nod and Mortensen is probably the best actor of the last 10 years. My money's on Stuhlbarg though. He's got a couple things going for him -- 1) he's a theatre vet and has paid his dues, and 2) he's in a Coen brothers movie. That might be enough for some voters. Or, you know, his excellent performance.

Whoever the other nominees wind up being, this is Bridges's time to shine. I can't think of many actors that are more due for a statue than him. While Crazy Heart as a film isn't exactly a revelation, Bridges as Bad Blake is exactly that -- a revelation. The film is a quiet character study of a broken man putting himself back together again and Bridges puts his all into it. His win will be more or less a lifetime achievement award, but that doesn't take anything away from this performance. Clooney was good as Michael Clayton again, and Firth was even better as a gay college professor in 1960's L.A. who has just lost his partner and must fend off the advances of a drunken Julianne Moore. Freeman was perfunctory as Nelson Mandela in a role that he could have sleepwalked through and picked up a nom (and perhaps he did). WTF?-wise, Nic Cage as a drug-addled, post-Katrina Nawlins detective was truly something to behold, if only for the line, "Shoot him again... his soul is still dancing." Amazing stuff. I haven't seen The Road or Brothers, but I'm sure Viggo is excellent, and I have a hard time believing that Tobey Maguire turned in an Oscar-caliber performance. If he sneaks into the field of five, I'll have to check it out. I'll leave you with this: Jeff Bridges performing "Fallin' and Flyin'" from Crazy Heart. No video, but well worth listening to:

       Jeff Bridges Fallin and Flying - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

Meryl Streep* - Julie and Julia
Sandra Bullock - The Blind Side
Carey Mulligan - An Education
Gabourey Sidibe - Precious
Helen Mirren - The Last Station

Also in the running: Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria), Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones)
Possible WTF? nomination: Abbie Cornish (Bright Star)
Haven't seen: Julie and Julia, The Blind Side, The Last Station, The Young Victoria, Bright Star

As you can probably tell from the lengthy 'Haven't seen' list, this category is not my forte. I've got Julie and Julia in my Netflix cue, and I'll probably see The Blind Side this week, but the other ones are less likely. I'll *try* to see all the nominated performances though -- it looks like all of these movies are either out on DVD or still playing at Camelview. Anyway, the performances I *have* seen -- Mulligan's and Sidibe's -- were both fine work. Mulligan is probably the best female performance I've seen this year and would be a contender if she was a bigger name. Sidibe showed equal parts bravery and spunk in Precious, but the nomination was her win. Those two are locks. The fifth spot is wide open -- I'm giving it to Mirren for now based on her track record and less-than-stellar reviews for Victoria and Bones. Blunt is thisclose though. I've heard very good things about Cornish's performance in Star, so that's my Melissa Leo in Frozen River Memorial left field performance.

The only two contenders are Streep and Bullock though. The cagey veteran vs. the fan favorite. It's kind of like Kobe vs. LeBron (yes, now TWO sports analogies in an Oscar blog!), except with strappy dresses and sequins instead of puppets (I hate those commercials). I've seen a lot of bloggers and entertainment writers predicting gold for Bullock, but I don't buy it. The Globes were her moment in the sun -- Streep will pick up a long-deserved third statue. Respected comedienne Bullock has to settle for the Bill Murray/Lost in Translation treatment, watching the veteran Actress win the award she thought was hers.

Christoph Waltz* - Inglourious Basterds
Woody Harrelson - The Messenger
Stanley Tucci - The Lovely Bones
Christopher Plummer - The Last Station
Christian McKay - Me & Orson Welles

Also in the running: Matt Damon (Invictus), Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker)
Possible WTF? nomination: Alfred Molina (An Education)
Haven't seen: The Last Station, Me & Orson Welles

The supporting categories are so locked in, it's barely worth talking about. Christoph "Don't Call Me Christopher" Waltz will win this award -- and deservingly so. SS Colonel Hans Landa is one of the year's truly memorable characters, along with Alan from The Hangover, Up's Dug the talking dog, the aforementioned Bad Blake from Crazy Heart, probably Nic Cage's character from Bad Lieutenant, and in a very different way, Claireece Precious Jones from, you guessed it, Precious. So yeah. He's winning. The other nominees are tricky -- I can really see the Academy taking some chances here. I think Harrelson, Tucci and Plummer are more or less locks, but the fifth spot is there for the taking. Matty Damon has the name brand and the Eastwood factor, but I just don't think the performance was that great (although he could get support from those that don't want to vote for him in lead for The Informant! but want to see him nominated). I think he'll get his later. Mackie could swoop in, but I'm just not seeing much love for the actors of The Hurt Locker. McKay was initially my WTF? nom, but, in this category, I'm actually thinking the Academy does pull one out of their asses. McKay -- an unknown playing Orson freaking Welles -- would seem to fit the bill. I still need to see this one, but I think enough AMPAS members will have McKay high enough on their ballots for him to sneak in. He -- and everyone else -- is just fodder for Waltz though.

Mo'Nique* - Precious
Anna Kendrick - Up in the Air
Vera Farmiga - Up in the Air
Julianne Moore - A Single Man
Penélope Cruz - Nine

Also in the running: Marion Cotillard (Nine), Samantha Morton (The Messenger), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart)
Possible WTF? nomination: none, really, since this is so wide open, but Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) is the closest thing
Haven't seen: Nine

Again, this statue is Mo'Nique's to lose, although I don't think the performance is worthy of the prohibitive favorite status it so obviously has. Acts I & II -- yell and curse a lot, throw things. Act III -- channel Viola Davis in Doubt. Yeah, I just don't see it. Oh well. She's winning, so what are you gonna do? I'd love to see either of the Up in the Air girls win (they were the strongest part of the movie for me), but the Mo'Nique train and possible vote-splitting means it's not happening. Moore is the next closest thing to a lock, but in reality, the last two spots are... wait for it... up in the air. Moore gets one because she's Julianne Moore. I think someone from Nine could easily nab the last spot and Cruz is the best bet because she won here last year and was also excellent in Broken Embraces. Cotillard is another former winner with another fine performance under her belt this year (Public Enemies -- which was once thought of as a Best Picture contender, believe it or not, but then the movie actually came out...) and could get the spot as well. Morton is yet *another* vet with past nominations and probably has even odds with the two Nine ladies. Gyllenhaal will probably get in if Crazy Heart picks up a Picture nom, and Kruger (who was excellent) is a dark horse. Like, if she was a horse, you wouldn't be able to see her very well at night. I wonder where that term comes from, anyway. A name that's missing here is Mélanie Laurent, also from Basterds, and also excellent. From what I understand, however, she was campaigned as a lead actress, which she probably won't get and probably crippled her chances here. Again though, it doesn't matter as Mo'Nique is winning this.

NOTE: Emily Blunt's performance in the largely forgotten Sunshine Cleaning is as good or better than anything listed here. Too early in the year, I guess.

Quentin Tarantino* - Inglourious Basterds
Mark Boal - The Hurt Locker
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen - A Serious Man
Bob Petersen & Pete Docter - Up
Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber - (500) Days of Summer

Also in the running: James Cameron (Avatar), Pedro Almodóvar (Broken Embraces), Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman (The Messenger), Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon)
Possible WTF? nominations: Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated), Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida (Away We Go)
Haven't seen: The White Ribbon

One thing about nomination morning is that you NEVER know what's going to happen in the screenplay categories, especially Original. In Bruges, Lars and the Real Girl, Happy-Go-Lucky and numerous other smaller films have been nominated here in recent years -- it's practically its own WTF? category. Hence the lengthy 'also in the running' and WTF? lists. I wouldn't be surprised if any or all of those were nominated. (Well, maybe if *all* of them were). I think the top five are pretty solid though. There's no way Tarantino doesn't get nominated, and I have him winning right now more because I'm a fan and it's so wide open than any real inkling of AMPAS's intentions. Boal and the Coens are also incredibly likely, but the other two spots could go to two of any number of films. I just picked the two most likely. If you were about to shoot me in the face and asked me to tell you the best script of the bunch, I might just say it is Up's. Just a great story, and Pixar usually does well here. Summer also had great script, but, again, I wonder about demographics here. I wouldn't think Cameron would be able to get a nomination for ripping off Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves, but stranger things have happened (and the script, while the film's weak point, wasn't actually bad, in my opinion). Almodóvar is a past winner and always gets consideration. The Messenger could get the Frozen River treatment, and I just have a feeling that we'll be seeing The White Ribbon outside the foreign category somewhere. The WTF? noms both skew comedically, but that shouldn't hurt their chances in this category. I'd be willing to wager that I get the most wrong here.

Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner* - Up in the Air
Nick Hornby - An Education
Geoffrey Fletcher - Precious
Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell - District 9
Scott Cooper - Crazy Heart

Also in the running: Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach (Fantastic Mr. Fox), Nora Ephron (Julie & Julia), Anthony Peckham (Invictus)
Possible WTF? nomination: A bunch of guys (In the Loop)
Haven't seen: Fantastic Mr. Fox, Julie & Julia, In the Loop

This one's a bit easier to call since AMPAS doesn't take as many chances in Adapted, but there's still a couple spots... wait for it... up in the air (yes! twice!). Speaking of which, Up in the Air appears to be the favorite after the Globes win, although support for the rest of the movie is clearly starting to dry up, so I could see Hornby sneaking in for the win. The Precious and District 9 scripts are both solid bets, but no sure things. Cooper's Crazy Heart script is even less of a sure thing, but the words behind Bridges's performance is surely worth a nom (although it must be said that the story is fairly weak, if not entirely derivative). I may be making a mistake by not putting a script written by two former nominees in my top five, but then I remembered the script was about a talking fox. Still, it's got a great shot at a nomination. Ephron's and Peckham's scripts are buoyed by strong performances, so they merit consideration as well. While I haven't seen it, I've heard In the Loop is the kind of crazy genius script that could propel it to the top of voter's ballots (those who have seen it anyway), making a surprise nomination a distinct possibility. However the field turns out, I expect it to be Reitman and Turner against Hornby. The former has the edge right now, but there's plenty of time for a late charge from Hornby (or someone from the field).

Egads, that was close to 4000 words. Well, we'll see how I did in about four hours -- when the actual nominations are announced. I did fairly well last year -- hoping for a repeat performance. Thanks for reading. Must sleep now.