Friday, December 27, 2013

The Best Of 2013.

Patsey explains to Epps why Gone With The Wind is so whack while Solomon looks on.

Best Film: 12 Years A Slave.

America's original sin has been the subject (or feature) of countless cornerstones of American film--Birth Of A Nation and Gone With The Wind among them--but none portray it quite like 12 Years A Slave. Time will tell if it is truly a great film, but it is certainly the greatest portrayal of slavery we've seen yet--an Uncle Tom's Cabin of our time. Chiwetel Ejiofor's portrayal of freeman-turned-captured slave Solomon Northup is nothing short of a revelation, as we watch him slowly descend into the living hell that surrounds him. It is clear that slavery was a system designed to break men, and it is through Northup that his eventual victory gives a window into all of those who toiled, suffered, and died in silence.

Best Movie: In A World...

Lake Bell wrote, directed, and starred this love letter to the industry of voiceover work. The movie's title originates from the late Don LaFontaine's cliched opening line to movie trailers, as the film chronicles a fictional version of the hunt for his successor. It is among the most original film-about-film to come along in a long time, and uses features one of the best casts of the year (Demitri Martin, Michaela Watkins, and Rob Cordoy playing against type) and surprises (Eva Longoria! Geena Davis? Cameron Diaz?!), but it is Bell's movie, and she holds it (and directs it) wonderfully. In a world of hackneyed male-dominated entertainment, In A World... provides a fresh voice and story about an industry that is hiding in plain sight.

Best Television Show: Orange Is The New Black.

In an exceptional year for television, the Netflix original series Orange Is The New Black arrived and quickly established itself as the television event of the year. Officially about a fish-out-of-water story of a fashionista who enters a female prison, this only scratches the surface: It is a portrait of being female in America--a microcosm of whites and blacks, foreigners and latinos, thugs and nuns--held together by Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who herself is stuck in the balance between gay and straight, as she leaves her fiance (Jason Biggs) to go to jail after getting ratted out by her lesbian ex-girlfriend (Laura Prepon), who just happens to be in the same prison as Piper. Hilarity ensues, but so does tragedy and complexity in equal measure, building until the cliffhanger finale of the most intense Christmas episode I have ever seen. Like everyone else, I can hardly wait for more; and with Prepon leaving midway through the next season, it seems unlikely they will ever top this one.

Best Song: "Royals" by Lorde.

17-year-old girls have always loomed disproportionately large in pop music, be it the girl who was just 17 (you know what I mean) in The Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There," Janis Ian learning the truth "At Seventeen," or Gram Parsons' singer being saved by a 17-year-old angel in The Flying Burrito Brothers' "Juanita." This year we have 17-year-old New Zealander Lorde and her meditation royalty, celebrity, and the luck of being to the manner born. Meanwhile, the song and production is pure pop craft. Sparse beats give way to Beach Boys-esque bursts of harmony and Dylan-esque runs of phrase that draw you into its hypnotic, weird vibe. "You can call me queen bee," she sings at one point. "And baby, I'll rule." If this song is any indication of what she is capable of, we should take her at her word.

Best Book: Autobiography by Morrissey.

So, for the third year straight, I have not actually read my pick for Book Of The Year. As the great Warren Zevon once said, when you buy a book you also think you're buying the time to read it. And I for one need about five books' worth of time to read one book. But I've been a huge Morrissey fan since college and have read nothing but wonderful things about it, so I will buy it, and will read it, hopefully before it even goes to paperback. Besides, I have to give it props for making no attempt to divide the book into any sort of sections but just go on for one straight narrative. Kicking us in our collective too-modern world face? Sounds like vintage Morrissey to me--I'm in.

Best Game: Candy Crush Saga.

This instantly-addictive, shrewdly-designed, seemingly never-ending (now at 300 levels and counting), it's like Tetris's cooler, younger offspring, if Tetris could shift the parameters and objectives of its game while tantalizing players by only allowing up to five free plays with a half-hour wait for each one. Watch out, once you're hooked, you'll see your life transform into half-hour segments divided by rounds with Candy Crush. You've been warned. Now, I think I better go check if it's been a half-hour since my last round of Candy Crush...

Best Reissue: Safety Last!

Although Harold Lloyd ranks a distant third to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in silent screen comedians, in his day Lloyd was far more popular than Keaton and at times rivaled Chaplin. Safety Last! is his masterpiece--you know it as The Movie With The Guy Hanging Off The Clock--and it's been lovingly reissued by itself on DVD for the first time by Criterion. As silent comedies go, it's on par with The Gold Rush and bested only by The General. The plot is little more than an excuse for Lloyd's hapless department store employee to scale the side of the building with increasing absurdity, pioneering a sort of thrill comedy. Criterion's special features help to reconstruct the trick shots, but in this film's pre-CGI world, you really are looking at a man dangling far above the distant street below. And it's a dazzling sight to behold.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Essential Rock 50/50.

This is the basic rock & roll library—50 albums and 50 songs not already included on those albums—that comprise the essence of rock & roll.

For the LPs side, I tried to choose the artist's classic studio album, & only relied on greatest hits compilations when the artist never made a classic album (such as many of the early rock stars, like Chuck Berry & Jerry Lee Lewis) or the greatest hits became a classic album in & of itself (such as for Bob Marley & Sly & The Family Stone).

For the 45s side, I used to this space to include artists who could've been included with the LPs but had a single that was strong enough to speak for an album (artists as diverse as Grandmaster Flash, The Eagles, & Smokey Robinson, among many others), or essential artist tracks that never landed on a classic LP (The Beatles' "Hey Jude," Elvis Presley's "Burning Love," & The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women," to name but three). Finally, the 45s allowed for iconic songs that would otherwise be left out. Because where would rock be without Bill Haley & His Comets' "Rock Around The Clock," The Ronettes' "Be My Baby," or The Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie"?

Overall, the list is definitely slanted towards the older (none of this music was issued after 1991 & none of these albums were released after 1994), but that only seemed appropriate—if this is the canon where everything came from, it would be counterintuitive to expect it to be contemporary. To this end, I stuck with the "most classic" editions of the albums, including modern substitutes if it has gone out of print.

Finally, for the reviews, I stuck within a 140-character "tweet-size" review/statement/headline to get a one-sentence gist of what the album & artist were doing here. & I left the singles section without commentary, as a great rock song can largely speak for itself.

'Cuz as the old line goes, if you gotta ask, you ain't got it.

The Rock 50, Part 1: The LPs.

1. The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds

A tale of love found & lost, told through rich harmonies & dense instruments—in the finest LP up to its time.

2. The Beatles: 20 Greatest Hits.

A history of the 1960s in 20 #1 US Beatles hit singles or less.

[OOP: Substitute The Beatles: 1]

3. The Beatles: Rubber Soul

The Beatles' first masterpiece, taking in Dylan & drugs for a deeper, folkier, & more introspective sound.

4. The Beatles: Revolver

As the artistic ambitions grow, so does the quality & richness of the music—song-for-song, their finest album.

5. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper.

The "Greatest Album of All-Time"—at least in terms of influence—proving that Rock could be Art.

6. The Beatles: Abbey Road.

A fitting finale of the greatest band of all-time—with production & musicianship, they went out on top.

7. Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight.

With "Maybellene," "Rock & Roll Music," & "Johnny B. Goode," the rock upon which rock & roll rests.

[OOP: Substitute Chuck Berry: The Definitive Collection.]

8. David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust.

A passion play about an alien who saves the earth, & the breakout of the even stranger star who created it.

9. James Brown: 20 All-Time Greatest Hits.

A history of modern black music by the man who pushed it the hardest & drove it the furthest.

10. The Byrds: Greatest Hits.

With "Mr. Tambourine Man" & "8 Miles High," a perfect summation of the band from folk-rock through space-rock.

11. Ray Charles: The Very Best Of The Atlantic Years.

With "I've Got A Woman" & "What I'd Say," the Rock Of Ages that created Soul music.

12. The Clash: London Calling.

After the apocalyptic title track, the band surveys rock, pop, & reggae, remaking it into its own punk image.

13. Sam Cooke: The Best Of.

Effortlessly mixing rock, pop, & R&B in hits like "You Send Me," they call it soul—& for good reason.

14. The Doors.

Lodged behind Sgt. Pepper during the Summer Of Love, the dark, doomed (& more timeless) underbelly of rock's diamond sky.

15. Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home.

Dylan plugs in—on record, anyway—& brings lyricism to rock—brash, surreal, & utterly indispensable.

16. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited.

From the gunshot opening of "Like A Rolling Stone" to the winding end of "Desolation Row," his masterpiece.

17. Bob Dylan: Blonde On Blonde.

The poet-king hooks up with Nashville's finest session men & spins surreal songs of love, drugs, & wine.

18. Bob Dylan: Blood On The Tracks

Half-electric, half-acoustic, & with "Tangled Up In Blue," all gold—his finest album since the '60s.

19. Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved A Man...

The Queen Of Soul pushes the sacred into the secular, & on "Respect," love into politics.

20. Marvin Gaye: What's Going On.

Motown's slickest star grows weary & scruffy, looks inward, & crafts his—& soul music's—masterpiece.

21. Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced.

Rock's best musician delivers the music's finest debut—an acid blast of sex, drugs, & "Purple Haze."

22. Buddy Holly: 20 Golden Greats.

Rock's 1st everyman (& early death)—featuring "That'll Be The Day," "Peggy Sue," "Not Fade Away," & the rest.

[OOP: Substitute Buddy Holly's The Definitive Collection.]

23. Michael Jackson: Thriller.

For one brief, shining moment, rock, pop, & R&B became one—& in songs like "Billie Jean," it was Good.

24. Janis Joplin: Cheap Thrills.

Rock's greatest white female singer—she looked like a hippie & had hits like a pop star, but sang from a tortured blues soul.

25. Led Zeppelin: Untitled [IV].

The "first" heavy metal band's finest hour, with the epic "Stairway To Heaven" & "When The Levee Breaks."

26. Jerry Lee Lewis: Original Golden Hits, 1 & 2

With "Great Balls Of Fire" & "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," rock's wildest goes mad.

[OOP: Substitute Jerry Lee Lewis: 18 Original Sun Greatest Hits.]

27. Little Richard: Here's Little Richard.

From "Tutti-Frutti" to "Long Tall Sally," the "ooooo" that launched a thousand bands.

[OOP: Substitute Little Richard: The Very Best Of.]

28. Madonna: The Immaculate Collection.

'Tis a party, she's a whore—until "Like A Prayer," in which the artist suddenly lives up to her name.

29. Bob Marley: Legend.

Reggae's master summed up on the genre's best-selling album ever. I'd say you should own it, but you already do.

30. Van Morrison: Astral Weeks.

Ignored then, revered today, a journey into the mystic by the most mystical performer of them all.

31. Nirvana: Nevermind.

After two failed attempts—one US, one UK—punk finally broke. Out of Seattle, of all places.

32. Elvis Presley: The Sun Sessions.

The Big Bang of rock & roll, built around 10 perfect singles—blues on one side & country on the other.

[OOP: Substitute Elvis Presley: At Sun.]

33. Elvis Presley: Elvis's Golden Records.

Rock's premier icon defines the music on "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," & lots more.

34. Prince: Purple Rain.

The Purple One at the peak of his talent & popularity, turning funk into confession & lust into love.

35. Public Enemy: It Takes A Nation Of Millions...

The Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop—i.e., if not the actual, then the "official" greatest rap album.

36. The Ramones.

14 songs in 30 minutes. No solos, no bullshit. As their singer once said, it was "bubblegum music for sick kids." 1-2-3-4!

37. Otis Redding: Otis Blue.

Sung like blues, marketed like soul, & backed by funk, this was music that dug so deep, it felt bottomless.

38. The Rolling Stones: Big Hits.

With "Satisfaction," "Get Off Of My Cloud," & "It's All Over Now," the hardest rock of its time.

39. The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet.

They master their own voice on "Sympathy For The Devil," then dig deep into their folk roots.

40. The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed.

With "Gimme Shelter" & the rest, the music that made them The Greatest Rock & Roll Band In The World.

41. The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St.

Their masterpiece—a mix of rock & rhythm, blues & country, pain & irony, mud & swagger.

42. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind The Bollocks.

The anti-leaders of the aborted 3rd wave of rock—an implosion of anarchy, nihilism, & fury.

43. Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The calm in the storm of '60s rock at the end of the decade & fracturing—beautifully.

44. Sly & The Family Stone: Greatest Hits.

Archetypal funk as psychedelic rock as American utopianism. "I Wanna Take You Higher," indeed.

45. Bruce Springsteen: Born To Run.

Rock's biggest fan goes for the music's biggest statement—& for a fleeting moment, gets it.

46. U2: The Joshua Tree.

Outside is America—or, the album that made them the biggest band in the world, which they have been ever since.

47. The Velvet Underground & Nico.

Punk, alternative, indie—it all starts here. The rare album (& band) that literally changed everything.

48. The Who: Who's Next.

The '60s mods become '70s rockers through their fiercest anthems: "Baba O'Riley" & "Won't Get Fooled Again."

49. Stevie Wonder: Innervisions.

The '70s most-celebrates star survives a car crash, becomes a one-man-band, & makes the music of his life.

50. Neil Young: After The Gold Rush.

The '70s iconoclast at his finest—wistful (title track), fierce ("Southern Man"), & uncompromised.

* * *

The Rock 50, Part 2: The 45s.

1. The Band: "The Weight." The rock ballad as quasi-spiritual pilgrimage, with grace, the devil, & Crazy Chester's dog.

2. The Beach Boys: "Surfin' USA." In five words—"If everybody had an ocean"—westward expansionism with harmonies as dense as the terrain.

3. The Beach Boys: "Good Vibrations." A staggering masterpiece of sound & vision, completed just as Brian Wilson lost his way.

4. The Beatles: "Strawberry Fields Forever." Their finest recording—which makes it a strong contender for rock's finest, too.

5. Johnny Cash: "I Walk The Line." The eternal Man In Black's signature tune.

6. Ray Charles: "Hit The Road Jack." Brother Ray's most iconic post-Atlantic hit.

7. Jimmy Cliff: "The Harder They Come." Not just the first major cry of reggae, but proof that rock had broken through to the third world.

8. Sam Cooke: "A Change Is Gonna Come." Passionate, heartbreaking, & controversial, this was the greatest soul ever sung.

9. Derek & The Dominos: "Layla." Eric Clapton + heartbreak x Duane Allman = Slowhand's epic masterpiece.

10. Bo Diddley: "Bo Diddley." The beat that launched a thousand songs, though this one is still the best.

11. Fats Domino: "Blueberry Hill." The signature song of rock's steady-rolling New Orleans piano man.

12. Bob Dylan: "Blowin' In The Wind." Dylan's first masterpiece & the theme-song to an entire social revolution.

13. Bob Dylan: "Lay Lady Lay." Dylan quits cigarettes, goes to Nashville, & scores a rare Top 10 hit.

14. Bob Dylan: "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." Dylan scores a film no one remembers with an instant-standard that no one will ever forget.

15. The Eagles: "Hotel California." Westward expansionism as a paradise-in-hell, with 16 guitars.

16. The Everly Brothers: "Bye Bye Love." The primer for any group who wants to employ two-part harmonies as a lead vocal.

17. Marvin Gaye: "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." A masterful, deceptively simple record that was Motown's biggest hit up to its time.

18. Grandmaster Flash: "The Message." Rap music as urban protest.

19. Bill Haley & His Comets: "Rock Around The Clock." The shot-heard-'round-the-world of a still-unfinished revolution.

20. Jimi Hendrix: "All Along The Watchtower." Somehow, Hendrix's only Top 20 US hit (!) & the greatest Dylan cover of all-time.

21. The Impressions: "People Get Ready." Soul music as social prophecy, a rock & roll "Keep Your Eyes On The Prize."

22. Elton John: "Your Song." Sir Elton's breakthrough—& many would say finest—hit song on both sides of the Atlantic.

23. Janis Joplin: "Me & Bobbie McGee." A man's country song sung by a female blues singer, & a natural #1 hit.

24. The Kingsmen: "Louie, Louie." Ground zero for punk rock: Three chords & the (garbled) truth.

25. The Kinks: "You Really Got Me." Physical obsession as a blueprint for heavy metal.

26. John Lennon: "Imagine." Radical socialism disguised as wistful sentimentality.

27. Martha & The Vandellas: "Dancing In The Street." A call to arms, an answer to rioting, & one hell of a dance record.

28. Van Morrison: "Brown-Eyed Girl." The soundtrack to everyone's favorite summer fight, or at least the way we choose to remember it.

29. Roy Orbison: "Oh, Pretty Woman." After countless songs of heartbreak & pain, rock's king of gloom finally gets the girl—in the final seconds of the record.

30. The Penguins: "Earth Angel." An unfinished demo buried on the flipside of a single that's now in the National Recording Registry as the quintessential doo-wop record.

31. Elvis Presley: "Can't Help Falling In Love." Schmaltz as sincerity.

32. Elvis Presley: "Suspicious Minds." The centerpiece of Elvis's late-'60s comeback, a study in paranoia that rivaled Vertigo, & the King's final #1 American hit.

33. Elvis Presley: "Burning Love." One final burst of mad joy before the sorry decline.

34. Otis Redding: "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay." Written while listening to Sgt. Pepper over and over, recorded three days before his plane crashed into the icy waters of Lake Monona. 

35. R.E.M.: "Losing My Religion." The pioneering college (later "indie") rock band breaks into the Top 10 & takes the history of the music with it.

36. The Righteous Brothers: "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'." One version of the Wall Of Sound: Mature, dynamic, & as subtle as a tidal wave.

37. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles: "The Tracks Of My Tears." A three-minute testimony explaining why Bob Dylan called Robinson America's greatest living poet.

38. The Rolling Stones: "Paint It, Black." An attack on psychedelic rock, with tar brush in hand.

39. The Rolling Stones: "Ruby Tuesday." An embrace of psychedelic rock, with flute in studio.

40. The Rolling Stones: "Honky Tonk Women." Country sleaze as blues swagger—& their best-selling stateside hit to date.

41. The Ronettes: "Be My Baby." Another version of The Wall Of Sound: An endless sea of instruments, voices, & echo that could be summoned into submission by a single kick-drum.

42. Sly & The Family Stone: "Family Affair." Funk as weird, druggy protest—& somehow, a natural #1 hit.

45. Patti Smith: "Gloria." Punk's greatest poet throws down the gauntlet in eight words or less: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine."

46. Ike & Tina Turner: "River Deep, Mountain High." A third version of the Wall Of Sound: An apocalyptic blast of sound & fury.

47. U2: "One." The biggest band in the world nearly breaks up, writes this song, & is literally saved by it.

48. The Who: "My Generation." One bass solo, two key changes, three instruments, and four musicians, all hanging on the five most exciting words ever (almost) sung in a rock song: "Why don't you all f-f-f—"

49. Stevie Wonder: "Superstition." The funkiest funk ever told.

50. Neil Young: "Heart Of Gold." Rock's most uncompromising rebel at his most surprising: Friendly & mainstream, with a #1 hit.