Music Monday Top 5: Favorite Albums of 2011

Of all the different forms of media I have consumed in the past year, music was right at the top. (Well, probably podcasts were first and then music. Comic books round out the top three.) A lot of it was finding things that I had missed out on – Sufjan Stevens’ albums, Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Anamanaguchi, Fitz and the Tantrums, and the much-beloved M. Ward, for example. But some of this year’s music was actually from this year, and some really struck me.

I do want to note that three rap albums – Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, Childish Gambino’s Camp, and Das Racist’s Relax – were all considered for this list, but each missed the cut for different reasons. I really enjoyed Watch The Throne, though not to the same degree I liked Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and certainly not to the degree the gravitas of the project seemed to demand; that said, it’s probably number 6 on the list. I’ve only heard the first half of Camp so far, though it’s pretty damn good. Finally, Relax didn’t seem to jive with me as much as Das Racist’s first mixtape, Shut Up, Dude, did – it wasn’t the kind of album where the rapping was particularly remarkable, at least not as much as their debut.

With that said, here’s my five favorite albums of 2011:
5. Alabama Shakes – Alabama Shakes EP

I belabored quite a bit over including this on the list, because it’s only four tracks, but the Alabama Shakes’ debut is the kind of production where you want the band to get back into the studio and record a full album right now. Band leader Brittany Howard has an incredibly emotional, powerful voice – and some pretty substantial guitar skills (as seen here), to boot – and the country-rock band works really well together. The Alabama Shakes have the talent to be pretty big in the next couple of years.

My favorite song on the EP is the second track, “I Found You”:

4. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Bon Iver reminds me of how ridiculous the Grammy Award for Best New Artist has become. Among this year’s field for the award are The Band Perry, whose hit single “If I Die Young” was first released in June 2010 and whose album squeaked in under this year’s Grammy purview by only a month; Skrillex, whose third solo album came out this year (to be fair, it is kind of awesome that a dance music artist like Skrillex was nominated – I suppose the only thing more surprising than that would have been for Girl Talk’s album All Day to have been nominated for a Grammy); and Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver, which began in 2008 with For Emma, Forever Ago, an album that received fairly widespread critical acclaim.

In any case, Bon Iver’s second, self-titled work is a remarkable shift from For Emma. Now featuring an actual band (instead of Vernon shacking up for a couple of months in a Wisconsin cabin, writing and multitrack recording), Bon Iver furnishes a fuller sound, but not without the emotional resonance For Emma exuded. Surprisingly, Bon Iver gave the band a slightly more melancholy sound, but still flecked with a few moments of happiness – a formula that has given Vernon a great deal of success.

Favorite songs on the album: “Holocene” and “Wash.”

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Top 5: Movie Musicals

James Franco at the Harvard Yard to receive hi...

James Franco has nothing to do with musicals...yet. He's just here because he's a cool dude. (Image via Wikipedia.)

As Greg Proops often says on The Smartest Man in the World, I’m a heterosexual male…though I make little case for it. I maintain a multitude of bromances (that towards Random Musings‘ favorite polymath, James Franco has been one noted here); have often contended that Rachel Maddow and Kate Moennig are attractive females (probably not the general thinking of the American male populace, but I don’t particularly care either way); and, though not at the level of the many Broadway fangirls I know, I greatly enjoy musicals. (Currently I have three different musical soundtracks on my iPod – Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Book of Mormon, and the downright adorable 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – I usually have 1776 and most of Les Miserables on there, too, but I haven’t fully reconstituted my iTunes library, so they remain absent.)

But we’re not talking about musicals here; we’re talking about movie musicals! While at times different from their stage counterparts (for the record, I have a big-tent point of view on movie musicals in the first place – you’ll see a Disney movie on the list here), movie musicals can bring a story all their own – and sometimes can be even better than performance on the stage. Let’s begin with the #5 position on the list…

5. The Sound of Music (1965)

To be honest, the Rodgers and Hammerstein movies were a little weak, considering their source material (though Carousel’s kind of an underrated film – or at least oft-overlooked – and The King and I is pretty good, though largely due to Yul Brynner). This one, though kind of absurdly long at almost three hours (it has a goddamn intermission, for goodness’ sake!) is quite enjoyable. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer prove impeccable as Maria and the Baron Von Trapp, and it’s a lot of fun to see Maria influence the kids while the Baron is away. Plus, any film in which the Nazis lose (however indirectly and indecisively) seems to be fairly enjoyable.

4. Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog (2008)

The result of the 2007 writer’s strike, Dr. Horrible is less a movie musical and more of a musical webseries (it only clocks in at 42 minutes in three acts, though it really packs in the music, with 11 unique numbers – plus another 13 other songs for the DVD commentary alone), but it is brilliant. Combining a superhero-villain rivalry for the ages between Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) and Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), some downright hilarious comedic lines, and a spirit of hokeyness and a genuine “let’s put on a show!” morale, Dr. Horrible earned a Creative Arts Emmy (albeit, as director/co-writer Joss Whedon noted, for basically “Most Incomprehensible Category”), probably the first time that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded something to an Internet series.

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Top 5: Favorite Humongous Entertainment Games

I played a pretty good amount of PC games as a kid – not large ones like World of Warcraft (’cause high-speed internet didn’t happen yet), but ones that ran on CD-ROM, like Carmen Sandiego (spoken for earlier) the PC adaptations of Jeopardy! (2nd Edition!) and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and crappy versions of Madden.

But most of my time in the PC children’s game world was spent playing games from Humongous Entertainment (which I think still exists – the rights are currently under the purview of Atari (really Hasbro, which in turn has the rights to Atari), if that means anything – but have turned their attention more to console gaming), which produces some pretty fun games for kids. They were relatively highbrow – they certainly didn’t talk down to children, yet maintained a sense of fun – and they had a very distinctive animation style that spread throughout their main franchises. Here were and are my five favorites:

5. Putt-Putt Goes to the Moon (1993)

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: I never played a full game of Pajama Sam or Freddi Fish. I definitely played demos of both of them that came on other Humongous Entertainment discs, just not an actual complete game in that franchise. However, I played a relative crapload of Putt-Putt (along with Buzzy the Knowledge Bug as part of the Junior Field Trips series, though that didn’t make the cut for this Top 5). Moon was the second game in the Putt-Putt franchise, and it featured our eponymous automobile hero and his (her? its?) pet dog Pep…well…going to the Moon. The animation was 16-bit, and it was the first Putt-Putt game to feature a MIDI soundtrack; not only does it harken back to my childhood, it harkens back to a long-lost age in gaming. It may not have been the best game story-wise, but for its time, it was quite enjoyable.

4. Backyard Baseball 2001

I freakin’ loved the Backyard Sports games as a kid – hell, I still love them. If I had any clue where my favorites were, I’d still be playing them (provided they were cross-platform – frankly, I don’t think they’d work on my Mac.) And while I loved playing with the likes of Dmitri Petrovich, Pete Wheeler, and Lisa Crocket (and to this day am confused by the fact that Jocinda Smith was always touted as, but never really was, a good player – kind of the Christian Laettner of the Backyard Sports games) – not to mention with Sunny Day and her rotating team of punnily-named color commentators on the call – bringing Major Leaguers as kids into Backyard Baseball really made it a great game in my mind. While looking back, it seems really weird to see Sammy Sosa and Jason Giambi as kids whilst they were packing their bodies with myriad chemicals, I was innocent and naive back then, so I didn’t care.

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Required Listenings Top 5: Favorite Podcasts

First generation iPod Shuffle with the cap rem...

I used to have this iPod model. (Small in storage, but pretty damn sturdy - unsurprising, considering it was a USB flash drive with a headphone jack.) (Image via Wikipedia.)

I never really got into podcast listening (and certainly not podcasting) until about February, when I got my iPod touch (and therefore a music listening device that held more than a gigabyte – sorry, 1st Generation iPod shuffle). But since I started, I’ve been listening in a huge way. I regularly listen weekly to (by my unofficial count) 19 different podcasts. (My goodness, that’s a lot.) Obviously, I enjoy listening to them, otherwise I wouldn’t – but of course, I have a few particular favorites. (For the record, I’m going to have to disallow inclusion of PodQuiz, ’cause while it’s awesome, since I was once on the show, I don’t feel like it’s right to include it.) In any case, here they are:

5. Startalk Radio (Curved Light Productions)

Quite a few podcasts I listen to are educational, specifically about science, for which I have a great affinity. (One of the podcasts that didn’t make the cut, WBEZ’s Clever Apes, is a fun science show too.) But Startalk is very different: as they say in their intro, it’s where “space, science, and society are converging.” They fulfill that by having astrophysics rock star Neil DeGrasse Tyson as host, and a rotation of stand-up comedians as co-hosts (Leighann Lord, Chuck Nice and Eugene Mirman have all appeared). Speaking to experts in both the lab and the studio, there is both substantive discussion and a little funny commentary – from the co-host and Tyson both. Along with scientists, Tyson has spoken to people who have been inspired by science, like Moby and Jonathan Coulton, and those who have inspired scientific endeavors, like Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame, a two-part interview from which I was greatly moved.

4. The Nerdist (Nerdist Industries)

The flagship and namesake of Chris Hardwick’s burgeoning podcasting empire, The Nerdist is similar to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in that instead of trying to be funny all the time, it’s quite poignant – it’s an interview show first. At least, when they have a guest. When they do, it’s great – even when I may not enjoy that guest’s work (like when they interviewed 4-Hour Body author Tim Ferriss or, more recently, Tom Green), Hardwick and co-hosts Jonah Ray and Matt Mira bring out the best in them. But what I truly love are their regularly recurring “Hostful” shows, where it’s just Hardwick, Ray and Mira riffing for an hour. It’s not even an interview at that point – it’s a conversation between friends, and it’s great to listen in on that. Continue reading

Required Listenings Top 5: Favorite Mountain Goats Songs

If New York magazine’s write-up on the relationship between John Darnielle, lead singer for (and really, the brains and soul of) the Mountain Goats and his fans is a true bellwether, I’m not of the normal sort of Mountain Goats fans. I didn’t come into enjoying Darnielle’s admittedly fantastic songwriting due to unfortunate circumstance, it didn’t change my life in any capacity – emotional, spiritual, or otherwise) and while I certainly admire Darnielle and his work, I don’t hold some deity-and-disciples reverence for him (the same goes for Jeff Tweedy, M. Ward, &c.). Certainly, the Mountain Goats serve as a musical and, frankly, literary inspiration, but in the same way a lot of the music I enjoy serves as a musical inspiration.

I’m just a guy who holds John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats in high regard and enjoys his albums and songs. With that, here’s my Top 5 favorite Mountain Goats songs:

5. “High Hawk Season”, All Eternals Deck

Admittedly, the Mountain Goats’ latest project, All Eternals Deck, wasn’t as well received as some of their older albums (though to be fair some of their older albums set a high bar), though that’s certainly not to say that there are some good tracks on the album. This is one of them – “High Hawk Season” may be the most musically adept track on the album, what with its barbershop-style harmony (music theorists, please don’t hit me over the head with the exact definition of barbershop, for as a layman, I probably won’t understand it anyway).

4. “Alpha Rats Nest”, Tallahassee

The last track on 2002’s downright brilliant album Tallahassee, “Alpha Rats Nest” is much jauntier fare melodically (even if lyrically it’s just about as dark as “The Best Death Metal Band in Denton”, and, frankly, the rest of the album) than the rest of the album – the story of a marriage constantly at odds (which I’ll get to in a moment) – and kind of represents the sort of middle finger to the fictional couple’s separation; bad things are going to happen, but they’ll go through it anyway, and will relish it (a bit like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in that regard).

3. “Love, Love, Love”, The Sunset Tree

While this is a great song both lyrically and melodically, I’m starting to get sick of all the people covering it.

2. “Get Lonely”, Get Lonely

To be honest, I think I enjoy Get Lonely as a whole more than I do Tallahassee, as it has the power to both lift me up and make me feel a little melancholy almost simultaneously. This track sort of crystallizes it.

1. “No Children”, Tallahassee

Remember that fictional couple with the downright toxic marriage I was talking about with “Alpha Rats Nest”? The chickens come home to roost on “No Children,” quite possibly the most poignantly angry song I’ve ever heard. Darnielle goes back to his punk roots on more than a couple of tracks in his catalog – “Oceanographer’s Choice” off of Tallahassee, “Psalms 40:2” from The Life of the World to Come and “Estate Sale Sign” from All Eternals Deck are three I can think of just offhand – but instead of a raised voice, it’s a much softer one, but with just as much – if not more – bite.

Top 5: Favorites from “100 Years…100 Movies”

Actor Charlton Heston, president, American Fil...

Charlton Heston, classic actor/late-in-life crazy person. (Image via Wikipedia.)

If you’ve read this blog for more than thirty seconds, you would know I enjoy watching movies. Since I’ve only come into my own as a young person, though, there are still quite a few films on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list that I haven’t seen. (As of the 2007 list – which is what I’m going by for this Top 5 – I’ve seen 25% of them…or 25 films. MATH!) To cull the list  down to 5 favorites, I had to pare off a few really good films – from Dr. Strangelove (ranked number 39) to Raiders of the Lost Ark (#66) to The Graduate (#17) to Toy Story (yes, Toy Story – #99 on the list, and a new addition in 2007). In any case, here are my five favorites among the AFI’s best:

5. A Night at The Opera (#85 – 1935, dir. Sam Wood)

While I’m actually a bit more attached to The Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races (source of the famous “tutsi-frutsi” scene), that’s not on the list – so I have to settle for A Night at the Opera. I certainly don’t mind settling, for the record – it’s a downright absurd film, as the Marx Brothers were wont to make, with Groucho Marx playing the wisecracking Otis B. Driftwood, a smarmy socialite, and Chico and Harpo each playing stowaways to New York, where the film takes place.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird (#25 – 1962, dir. Robert Mulligan)

Along with The Wizard of Oz, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the few films to do its adapted work justice – in its case, the novel by Harper Lee, written two years prior. While the film can boast fantastic source material, a great screenplay by Horton Foote and probably the greatest dad in the history of film, Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck), it’s the portrayal of Scout and Jem Finch (by Mary Badham and Philip Alford, respectively) that is its true crowning glory. By casting real kids as real kids, they elevated a classic work of literature that much higher. Continue reading

Top 5: Most Important Game Show Hosts

(Ed. Note: This is the second part of a three-part Top 5 series on game shows. Last week, I covered the Top 5 game show themes, and next week, I’ll talk about the Top 5 most important game shows of all time.)

A game show’s success is, in my view, based on three main criteria: (1) the skill in creating the format for the show; (2) excellent contestants; and (3) a game show host that ties everything together. While they aren’t the most important part of the show, game show hosts become the show’s public face and leave their mark on culture in conjunction with the show. (Maybe that’s why I wanted to be a game show host as a kid.) Here are, in my view, the Top 5 most important (American) hosts of all time:

5. Bob Barker (active 1956-2007; best known for Truth or Consequences and The Price is Right)

Let’s be honest here: even though Bob Barker hosted Truth or Consequences for almost 20 years, no one remembers him for that. They remember him for The Price is Right. They remember him for being the dapper, distinguished old man who hosted the show gracefully for 35 years before handing over the reins to Drew Carey. They remember him for “helping to control the pet population” and refusing to have animal-based products on the show (hence a lot of cream of mushroom soup in the Bag Game). They remember him for both letting his hair go gray and still looking like he could kick some rear (as he did in Happy Gilmore). And they’ll probably continue to remember him for generations for these things, due to his supreme longevity.

4. Wink Martindale (active 1972-1998, 2010; best known for Gambit and Tic-Tac-Dough)

I don’t know if a lot of people of my generation know who Wink Martindale is, but the man just looks like a game show host. I mean, just look at him!

And that’s him in 2010, when he was called out of retirement to host the GSN show Instant Recall, his 15th show hosted (behind only Bill Cullen at 23 for the record). Wink Martindale isn’t just a quality game show host; he sets the archetype.

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Required Listenings Top 5: Favorite Game Show Themes

(Ed. Note: This is both the first of a 3-part series on game shows that will continue Wednesday with my Top 5 Favorite Game Show Hosts and conclude next Wednesday with the Top 5 Most Important Game Shows of All Time, and what I think is the 7 billionth post I’ve done on the topic of TV theme songs.)

As always with these posts, we begin with the standard introduction:

As a fervent viewer of television, one thing  I love to discuss is the TV theme songs. A great show can be made better (or sometimes worse) because of a great theme. This is still true with theme music for game shows – which may have an even more indelible mark than themes from scripted television. It can not only set the tone for that show, it can also be an exemplar for the genre. Here are my 5 favorites:

5. Pyramid (composed by Bob Cobert)

It’s not a terribly well-known theme, but it gets the job done – it’s clean, and somewhat regal, much like Dick Clark himself. (Oh, and here it is on piano.)

 

4. Match Game (composed by Bob Israel)

 

Every time I hear this one I think of Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly and, oddly enough, Gene Rayburn dancing goofily. That last one I can’t explain. (And here this one is on piano.)

 

3. Card Sharks (composed by Edd Kalehoff)

 

Kind of the “wild card” of this Top 5 (pun definitely intended), I’m not sure why I like it so much. I only got into watching Card Sharks, much like Match Game, in the late-morning block of shows on the Game Show Network a few summers ago. I think it’s the clapping in the background at the beginning.

 

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Top 5: Chocolates and Candies

Wrapper of an M-Azing bar.

Pour one out for the M-Azing bar, y'all. (Image via Wikipedia.)

 

I’ll be honest: I’ve always had a bit of a sweet tooth (mitigated by a relatively high metabolism combined with a crapload of walking and other physical activity). Sugar is a pretty damn addictive drug and when I crave it, it can be one of many different chocolates or fruity candies. In this double-length post, I count down with my top 5 favorites in each category.

First, my top 5 favorite chocolates, starting with…

5. Twix

George Costanza tirade aside, these cookie filled bars are pretty unique and generally deliver. And you get two of them, which is cool.

4. Snickers

I generally have an on-again, off-again relationship with Snickers – most of the time I like it, but sometimes I’m just not feeling caramel. The peanuts are always a nice touch ’cause I loves me some peanuts but sometimes the caramel just isn’t right.

3. M&M’s

You know that joke by the late Mitch Hedberg about rice? Same thing kind of goes for M&M’s – it’s the chocolate you choose if you want to have a few dozen of something. But seriously, they’re obviously a really good chocolate and the fact that they can withstand some degree of heat is a pretty big attribute. (Honorable mention to the dearly-departed M-Azing M&M-studded chocolate bar, which was really good.)

2. Crunch

It doesn’t really matter that Crunch bars were first made by Nestle in the 1930s – when I have one I get nostalgic for the ’90s when POGs ruled the world and Shaquille O’Neal – then with the Orlando Magic – was starring in movies and hawking Crunch. While they’re generally ludicrously expensive based on the price-to-weight ratio (it’s a pretty thin bar to boot), when I have them, I really enjoy them – not only for the taste but for revisiting my childhood.

T1. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups & Reese’s Pieces

I know I’m fudging things with the number 1 choice – but sometimes I’m feeling the Cups and sometimes I’m feeling the Pieces. Either way, they provide basically the same great peanut buttery taste, along with about 5 grams of protein from those peanuts that make me feel an iota better about getting them.

And my 5 favorite fruity candies: Continue reading

Top 4: “What were they thinking?” Examples of Frivolity by Political Candidates

(Ed. Note: usually I like to keep the blog apolitical – this largely from the fact that my last blog, Notepad (which by the way remains somewhere in the detritus of the Internet), was completely political and as a result I wanted to get as far away from that as possiblesince it’s Guest Week, I’m making a special exception. Anyway, this post does not necessarily represent my views or the views of Random Musings and Trivia, yada yada yada. – Daniel)
Politicians are supposed to represent the people.  But every once in awhile, they do things that leave us wondering what people exactly they think they are representing.

4. Sarah Palin’s $150,000 designer wardrobe.  At the Republican National Convention, Sarah Palin proclaimed that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick.  I say, the difference between a hockey mom and Sarah Palin?  The price of said lipstick.

3. Newt Gingrich’s $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany & Co.  As House speaker, Gingrich preached fiscal conservatism.  However, there is nothing fiscally conservative about a six-figure jewelry bill.  In my opinion, this is one costly mistake.

2. McCain’s inability to remember how many homes he owns.  In the midst of the economic crisis in 2008, a time when unemployment was at a high and many Americans had lost their homes, the country looked for a leader to help them out of the dark times – someone who could relate to the common man.  During this time, the Republican nominee for president could not count how many homes he owned.  Nice. (The answer is 10, by the way).

1. John Edwards $400 haircut.  Even before news broke of his extramarital affairs with Rielle Hunter, John Edwards gave us reason to question his judgment.  For a democrat striving to live up to the image of a “mill worker’s son,” Edwards’s decision in 2007 to invest $400 into a new ‘do is enough to make my hair stand on end and definitely enough to write him off.  Hair today, gone tomorrow.

Most people are struggling to feed their families. If you can’t count how many homes you own, if you dish out $400 for a haircut, or if you are spending over $500,000 a year at Tiffany’s & Co…good luck representing the people of this country.