Saturday, December 23, 2006

Useless Film Snob Recommended Holiday Viewing

Christmas gets more films and television specials made about it than all the other holidays put together. While I have no problem with Christmas movies, it seems that for every It's a Wonderful Life that gets released, there's a pile of dog crap like Ernest Saves Christmas or whatever to go with it. So I'm here to help you with some of my favorite Christmas stories.

As a child of the 80's, I'm going to have get all nostalgic and go back to that decade. The 80's had its share of dreck (there was full length Yogi Bear Christmas movie that I found on VHS a year of two ago; there's no way this would be on television today). Besides the old Rankin-Bass standby, there were a pair of specials that are mostly forgotten today mostly because they're out of print and rarely shown:

A Muppet Family Christmas
This was shown on ABC in '87 I believe, at least that's the year we recorded on VHS. This must have been a wet dream for my six year old self seeing that it was the first time that all Jim Henson creations, Muppets, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock, were on the same show. It's a surprisingly funny show, even watching it now. The jokes appeal just as much to adults as little kids. I'm so attached to this show mostly because the now almost 20 year old tape I have of it is all that it remains, seeing that the DVD of it is out of print and often get $100 or more for ones on Ebay. Plus, the commercial version released has many songs cut out because Henson productions was too cheap to get clearance for everything. All in all, A Muppet Family Christmas is a forgotten gem that still is my favorite Christmas show of all time.

A Claymation Christmas
This is also on that revered VHS and another special that was released in '87. This was most notable at the time as being a tie-in with the California Raisins, whose commercials were somehow a cultural phenomenon. The show is various Christmas carols done in vignettes with various characters. It's nothing great but its nostalgic value makes it rate very highly, also because it can't be found on DVD or VHS. (Side note: South Park did something like this a couple of year ago, Mr. Hankey Christmas Classics. That episode still is one of my favorite South Parks of all time.)

There are the obvious choices here, especially A Christmas Story, which ranks highly but TBS's overkill has left my wanting to see something else. So, once again we go back to the 80's to pluck out a forgotten and overlooked film:

Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988)
In the last couple of years, this has become my favorite Christmas film. It's an updated take on A Christmas Carol with Bill Murray playing a Scroogesque television exec. If you know the Dickens story, then nothing of the basic plot is a surprise. What does work so well in the film is the biting satire of television, which in itself is a reflection on the decade. The film was partly written by Michael O'Donohouge, who was one of the original writers on SNL and was as probably as influential as shaping that show as any of the actors. The entire beginning, which is a big send up of bloated TV events, had to come from him. Bill Murray does a great job handling a familiar character but giving him enough humor and humanism to breathe new life into said character as well as the story. This film used to get shown on cable once and a while around this time of year, but less and less has been seen of it lately. It is dated, but that doesn't mean that it's not a entertaining film anymore. I happen to think it's one of the more refreshing holiday films released at least in my life of watching films. It sure beats the rampant idiocy of something like Deck the Halls. (Side note: and while I haven't seen Deck the Halls, if the trailer is any indication, it would be a complete waste of money.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I Hope I Don't Think I'm Important Now

This site has been around since January, and in the past year I've had around 120 page views or whatever qualifying feature sitemeter uses to track people visiting this blog. I'm certain that out of those 120, a good percentage were myself (I'll say around 35 to 40%). I've never created this site wishing to have a lot of visitors; it was mostly a way to stoke my ego because who doesn't want to read a half-assed review of Casino ten years after it was released? The lack of anyone else finding the site never really bothered me. I kind of accepted that The Useless Film Snob wasn't that great either.

All of this lead to the decision to just remove the site until I had a realization that since every other blog out there was posting a year-end list of the best albums, I might as well feed my ego and join in. So the Useless Film Snob got reinvented as a music site for a few days. Then, something weird happened. Since I posted the first part of my list on Sunday, I've gotten half as many visits in the last two days as I've gotten since I started the site in January. I found out the reason was that my list got posted on Largehearted Boy's index of best 0f lists, which I never expected to happen. I guess it's flattering to be on the same list with credible publications and well-known blogs. But I just made the list to for myself; and never really thought it would be taken seriously, or even seen, by hardly anyone else. I'm not trying to be an influential music blogger; there are too many of those already. What I'm trying to say is that I don't think I have any credible opinions to offer about music. I just like music a lot and happen to post about it from time to time. I do appreicated Largehearted Boy for adding me to his list. They do a great job of posting Bonnaroo and Vegoose sets to download. They are a credible music blog. And while I do appreciate that it has brought more visitors, I hope it doesn't mean this site will actually be taken seriously now.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Best Music of 2006 - Part Two

Now comes the time to reveal my top ten albums of the year. Before I start, I just want to say that 2006 was the first year that I really started to listen to lots and lots of different albums. It used to be that I liked what I liked and that was it. I was really into the whole jamband scene, but since much of it has fallen into boring repetition, I've gone elsewhere to find other stuff, and I've been pleasantly surprised at the wide range of albums that have made up this list.

Here's a category that I forgot to put on Part One of the list:
Best Music Related Website
An Aquarium Drunkard
Stereogum may be more entertaining at times, but nobody brings out the good stuff like this site. Besides the excellent podcasts, this site brings out rare stuff like The Black Crowes' "Lost Crowes" Material. Any site that posts about Califone, The Louvin Brothers, and the Bowie/Bing Crosby "Little Drummer Boy" track is worth a look. Plus, his Best of 2006 list is pretty much right on.

The Best Albums 0f 2006

10) Blood Meridian - Kick Up the Dust
Another Canadian group but their name and sound makes it sound like they come out of the American West. I consider this country-tinged rock with a hint of weirdness, music that recalls the violent and drunk West that been mythologized in literature and song. The album is a fantastic group of songs about simple themes (jobs, relationships, death) but done in such a captivating, haunting way.
Choice cuts: "Most Days", "Kick Up the Dust"

9) The Black Keys - Magic Potion
One of the appealing aspects of The Black Keys, but it also may be seen as a fault, is that you're pretty certain what you're going to get: straight-ahead blues rock. While Magic Potion may not stray that far from the sound of their previous albums, I think it's a better album than Rubber Factory, their previous effort. The sound here sounds fat, large, and almost impossible to be coming from two people. They may not be re-inventing the wheel, but if you're a sucker for classic guitar riffs and bluesy vocals, this album will appeal to you.
Choice cuts: "Your Touch", "Modern Times"

8) Bob Dylan - Modern Times
This is a natural progression for Dylan after Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft but it just doesn't seem to have the refreshing rejuvination of the first or the sublime nature of the latter. It almost sounds like these songs were outtakes from the Love and Theft sessions, they're that similar in their themes and musical qualities. Still, from Dylan, an album that almost sounds tossed off at times is infinitely better than what most other artists have released in the current year.
Choice cuts: "Thunder On the Mountain", "Rollin' and Tumblin'

7) Cat Power - The Greatest
A lot has been made of Chan Marshall's sobriety and newfound strength as a live performer, and I think some of the credit has to go to the fact she has quality backing musicians instead of just being a solo act. This album could be called Chan in Memphis, seeing that it has so many comparisons with Dusty Springfield, all the way down to the backing musicians. She sounds confident on the album, and her voice fits perfectly with subtle touches of the Memphis Rhythm Band that's been backing her.
Choice cuts: "The Greatest", "Lived In Bars"

6) Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat
Jenny Lewis steps out of Rilo Kiley and makes an album that embraces country and southern soul without a hint of irony. Everything on this album is sublime, starting from the vocal harmonies on the opening track. The vocals clearly stand out but Lewis's lyrics, straight ahead and vaguely spiritual, are just as strong. The Watson Twins' harmonies add a touch of country gospel that really makes the album. I've read some reviews that this album is kind of a campy schtick, but I feel that Jenny Lewis honestly cares about this music and the country influences in it.
Choice cuts: "Rise Up With Fists!!", "Happy"

5) The Hold Steady - Boys & Girls In America
What's surprising to me about the Hold Steady's popularity and positive reviews in hipster circles is that they are making a straight-forward rock record and doing so without any irony. They're really just a bar band with songs that deal mostly with getting loaded and hookin up, none of which I think would appeal to that group. Part Springsteen, throw in a little twin guitar attack of Thin Lizzy, and some english major lyrics by Craig Finn, and you have a great rock & roll album.
Choice cuts: "Hot Soft Light", "Southtown Girls"

4) Solomon Burke - Nashville
Just hearing it, it doesn't sound like that great of an idea; the King of Rock & Soul doing an album of country covers. All it takes, however, is the first couple seconds of the opening track, "That's How I Got to Memphis" to change my mind. Burke understands that country music is just southern white should music, and the songs on this album have just as much passion and emotion of any of his soul classics. His voice may not be as spectacular as it used to be, but Burke's greatest quality on this album is the way he can make it adapt to each song presented. He can do the up-tempo numbers, and he can do the weepies. And the greatest compliment I can give is that Solomon Burke makes me feel what he's singing.
Choice cuts: "Valley of Tears", "Millionaire"

3) Band of Horses - Everything All The Time
When you want to describe Band of Horses to someone, you end up saying that they sound like The Shins mixed with My Morning Jacket. That's pretty much right on target; the songs here exist somewhere between the Americana guitar rock of MMJ and the power pop of The Shins. Ben Bridwell and company create shimmering songs that range from country influenced acoustic numbers to raw, guitar driven ones. Everything All the Time is a short (perhaps too short), concise album that I have repeatedly listened to over the past year.
Choice cuts: "The Funeral", "The Great Salt Lake"

2) Josh Ritter - The Animal Years
This album has been on or near the top of my best of list since I first got it. Up until recently, this was the album I had listened to the most over the past year, just being overtaken by the number one choice. The album is the standard singer/songwriter album, and while Ritter does nothing drastically different, the songcraft is done so well that innovation isn't something to be regarded. The melodies are superb, especially in the first three tracks. "Thin Blue Flame" is my choice for song of the year, with its vivid lyrical imagery and it quiet/loud crescendo. On a somewhat related note, in Stephen King's column in Entertainment Weekly, he declared this his number one album of 2006. Last year, he named Marah's If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry as his top choice. That album was my number two album last year, and Josh Ritter is number two this year. Strange.
Choice cuts: "Wolves", "Thin Blue Flame"

1) Howlin' Rain
Imagine a little more menacing Grateful Dead, throw in some Exile-era Stones, and you kind of have the sound of Howlin' Rain, a side project for Ethan Miller of Comets on Fire. The songs sound like the soundtrack to drinking beer in a isolated cabin on a dusty country road. The songs are more melodic than the Comets but they still feature psychedelic guitar chaos and the whiskey scarred vocals of Miller. The songs are shambling and border on the edge of disinegration, and maybe that's what appeals to me so much. Howlin' Rain isn't polished music; it's rough and imperfect, and yet it's still completely likeable. This album has that something that makes me want to listen to it over and over again. And for that, it's my choice for best album of 2006.
Choice cuts: They're all good but especially "Roll On The Rusted Days" and "The Firing Of The Midnight Rain"

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Best Music of 2006 - Part One

It seems that no matter what I say about ending this site I always manage to continue it for some particular reason. Because I refuse to go the multiplex and Binghamton has no independent theatres, it's impossible for me to go into a best films of 2006 yet because I haven't seen enough of the candidates yet. But what I can do is post my best of 2006 in terms of music. My top ten will be posted later on, but here are the honorable mention candidates as well as some miscellaneous awards.

Best of 2006 Honorable Mention

The Be Good Tanyas - Hello Love
The first of a surprising number of Canadian acts on the list. A subtle blend of country, folk, bluegrass gospel and sublime vocal harmonies that make a quiet yet effective album.
Choice cuts: "A Thousand Tiny Pieces", "What Are They Doing In Heaven Today"

Sarah Harmer - I'm a Mountain
Harmer leaves AAC territory behind and heads towards a more rootsy approach. The bluegrass instrumentation and arrangements fit her vocal style just fine.
Choice cuts: "I'm a Mountain", "Will He Be Waiting For Me?"

Gomez - How We Operate
A little too polished at times but I think it's still a much better album than some reviews have said. Having seen them live twice in the past year, this material does have more vitality live, which is its greatest plus.
Choice cuts: "Hamoa Beach", "All Too Much"

Derek Trucks Band - Songlines
Bands that get labeled as "jambands" get stereotyped as being incapable of making solid studio albums. Trucks & co. are much more than a simple jamband and they prove it here, a enjoyable blend of blues, R&B, and traditional Pakistani music. And Derek Trucks may be the best slide guitar player on the planet.
Choice cuts: "Sahib Teri Bandi - Maki Madni", "Crow Jane"

Comets on Fire - Avatar
Proto-metal guitar fireworks, screeching vocals, lots of noise; it's the exact opposite of anything else on the list so far. Even though its noisy, the band can still get a serious groove going on "Sour Smoke." Still not the best Ethan Miller related project of the year however (more on that later).
Choice cuts: "Dogwood Rust", "Sour Smoke"

Built to Spill - You In Reverse
Overall, it may not be the best Built to Spill album, but it has its moments that made the wait worth it. "Conventional Wisdom" easily gets the award for guitar riff of the year.
Choice cuts: "Conventional Wisdom, "Liar"

Drive-By Truckers - A Blessing & A Curse
I don't think this comes anywhere close to the previous three albums, mostly because of the lack of stronger material from Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell. But the Truckers have proved they are more than just a "Southern Band."
Choice cuts: "Gravity's Gone", "Goodbye"

Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
The thing with Neko Case is that her exceptional voice always overshadows her songcraft. This albums has her strongest songs to day but it's still her voice that carries the album. The Sadies have added a distinctive foundation her sound that suits here just fine.
Choice cuts: "Margaret vs. Pauline", "Star Witness"

Califone - Roots & Crowns
One of the best discoveries I made this year was the genre that has been labeled 'alt-folk' or 'freak folk'. Califone seems to get lumped into this category but their music seems to go beyond that ridiculous category. These songs take a while to get into, but one you do, they continue to grow.
Choice cuts: "Spider's House", "The Orchids"

Brightblack Morning Light
Another 'freak folk' group that is re-inventing the neo-hippie aesthetic. No longer are hippies associated with jam bands; they can also create atmospheric, trippy music made for listening to in a cabin in the woods with a good amount of a certain weed. Also, this album has the best use of a Fender Rhodes I've heard in a long time.
Choice cuts: "A River Could Be Loved", "Come Another Rain Down"

Secret Machines - Ten Silver Drops
The Machines' second albums finds them greatly improving their songcraft as from start to finish, I think this is a stronger, more compact album of songs than their debut. While some may like the more spacey approach, I feel more concise songs greatly improve them.
Choice cuts: "Lightning Blue Eyes", "1000 Seconds"

Cold War Kids - Robbers & Cowards
One of those blog buzz bands that I happen to like quite a bit. Their appeal lies in intriguing vocals and disjointed melodies that sound new and yet have something old and familiar about them.
Choice cuts: "Hang Me Up to Dry", "Red Wine Success"

Lucero - Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers
If your looking for plain and simple Alt-Country album, you're not going to find anything closer than Lucero. While their sound doesn't stray too far from the Uncle Tupelo template, this album finds them adding piano and accordion prominently to their sound. Not as good as Nobody's Darlings, but their willingness to expand their sound gets them credit.
Choice cuts: "San Francisco", "I Can Get Us Out of Here Tonight"

Biggest Disappointment of 2006
Ray LaMontagne - Until the Sun Turns Black / Damien Rice - 9
These albums aren't disappointments in that I think they are bad albums; they both have their strong points. The problem is that I loved each's debut so much that both these albums pale in comparison. I think no mater what each released, I was bound to be let down.
But still check out: Ray - "Empty", Damien - "Grey Room"

Live Band of 2006
My Morning Jacket
Their nearly four hour Bonnaroo performance was the best live show I saw all year, nearly reaching the greatness of their rain-drenched 2004 performance. Their live Okonokos re-enforces the fact that they may be the best live band in the country right now. Plus, besides The Flaming Lips, they're the only band that can unite the hipsters and the hippies.