Best Books (that I read) 2008

December 30, 2008

My “Best Books of 2008” is misleading, I’ll inform you up front. I was able to make such a list in regards to music and comics, my film list noted the few exceptions and kept the ordering out of it until a later date, but as for books, this time around it’s far too difficult for me to rank the best print had to offer in 2008. Ideally, I would list from 10 to 1 the best in fiction and the best in nonfiction. Well, although I did a lot of reading this year I can count on two hands the great fiction books I read (and on one hand the ones of those that were actually first published this year). In nonfiction, quite a few of my favorites were published this year, but towards the end of the year I began reading in depth in a few certain areas and most of those books weren’t published in 2008. So, what follows here are a few of the notable books I read and recommend from the 2008 publishing year, and the rest are books I read that were published in years past that I read for the first time this year and also recommend.

So, presenting the best books (that I personally read in) 2008 (unranked and in no particular order):

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* Case of a Lifetime: A Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Story by Abbe Smith
I think for every reader that has treaded through “Gideon’s Trumpet” as an assignment in a journalism or law class should follow it up with “Case of a Lifetime.” “Trumpet” is a wealth of knowledge concerning the workings of the Supreme Court, trials and trial lawyers but it’s also dry and a bit plodding in narrative structure. Smith doesn’t produce anything startlingly ground-breaking with “Case of a Lifetime” but it is very engagingly written and it’s highly informative concerning what makes a good trial lawyer, the typical cases and daily work such a lawyer is apt to face, and it’s also a heartbreaking study in the ways in which the system is apt to fail and let people down. A phrase like “Case of a Lifetime” evokes an image of once in a lifetime, make or break success. Smith flips that on its head and uses is very literally–in this book it’s a case she spent her entire career working on in one form or another. It’s an approachable work that is told from someone who knows what they’re talking about, and for anyone who wants a non-fiction yet readable account of the legal system a typical worker is likely to face, I’m sure you could do much worse than this one.

*Somebody Scream!: Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power by Marcus Reeves
Reeves, a lifelong music journalist, released one of the best hip hop history books of all time this year with “Somebody Scream…” Each chapter is an essay on a specific group or artist that best defined and excelled at a particular time. The first chapter covers the early days, followed by a Run DMC chapter leading all the way through to an Eminem chapter at the end of the book. Reeves focuses each essay most heavily on the artists earliest and most important work, thus progressing the book chronologically, but each chapter does cover each artists full career as well. Reeves does a good job of balancing his work, neither going too easy on much of hip hop’s less positive aspects nor berating it too hard unnecessarily. This book makes me wish Reeves would delve deeper and release a weighty, genre defining tome for hip hop much the way Gioia did for Jazz and Guarlnick has done for roots, country and rock and roll.
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* The Fall of the Evangelical Nation by Christine Wicker
Wicker has spent a  career covering religious issues for several newspapers. She grew up in an evangelical church and uses this book as a balanced exploration of the faith, what drives it, what it has to offer, and profiles many of the good hearted and well meaning members such faith contains, as well as what factors are not so great in the modern Evangelical church and how some of those factors are leading to a coming decline and/or “fall” of the large mega-churches.

*The Power of Progress: How America’s Progressives Can (Once Again) Save our Economy, our Climate and Our Country by John Podesta
Podesta, a Clinton cabinet member, early Hillary supporter and now Obama’s transition chief, released this book early this year detailing the history of progressive politics, his own family history with it and profiles of many leading progressives like both Roosevelts and Clinton.
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* Money Shot by Christa Faust
Hard Case Crime is a book label that publishes out-of-print or hard to find 50s paperback novels as well as new noir tales written by new authors.  Christa Faust penned the best new noir novel Hard Case released this year with “Money Shot.” For 5.99 you get a nonstop thrilling suspense novel with a gritty pulp cover, that’s hard to beat.

* Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire by Rajmohan Gandhi
A dense, comprehensive tome. Granted, my brief library borrow only gave me time to grace the surface; it needs to be a book to own and spend time with to fully appreciate.

*Just Before Sunset by Stephen King
Just now picked up a copy, the first few tales show promise of yet another great King short story collection.

Other top rated books I’ve read this year, though not published in 2008:
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*The Last Week by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan
“The Last Week” is a detailed account of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem from his arrival to his crucifixion. This was one of the most enlightening and inspiring theology books I read all year. By far the best historical Jesus overview I’ve read, and I read nearly a dozen along those lines this year.

*The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright
Borg and Wright follow a point-counterpoint series of essays in which Wright presents a more traditional yet intelligent interpretation of Jesus while Borg presents a more revisionist, liberal and “modern” interpretation. Very insightful and entertaining.
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*The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

Decades old yet still just as powerful. I just now read the book in its entirety for its first time this year, and the article it inspired is back a few pages on this site, “We Like Our Icons Clearly Defined.”

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*20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
The best modern collection of short stories I’ve read in years, from terrifying to absurd, heartfelt to moving.

Well, those are just a few I recommend.

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So I’m taking a little time here to interject yet another journal like entry. I’ve mentioned before that I try to keep my articles somewhat de-personalized and topic oriented, but when discussing religious issues I feel the need to occasionally take one of these detours to lay out what I am experiencing and debating with myself. For one, it helps me formulate my thoughts and plan my direction. I go ahead and post it because if you visit my site very often at all, whether you know me or simply stumbled across something I have written and enjoyed it enough to come back again, then such explanations shed a little light on where I’m coming from and where I’m possibly going. For one, discussing religious, political and philosophical issues always involves a bit of personal investment. I can’t possibly read everything, write about everything or focus on everything. So by taking stock of things and writing about what I’m considering, you as a reader will possibly know why I write some of the things I do and what types of things I’ll write about in the future; thus you’ll know whether to stop back by or not, I suppose.

If you’ve read most of my articles you’ll know that I’ve thrown in information about theology and philosophy, and you’ll see me weighing the pros and cons of what various spiritual thinkers have written. I’ve taken these personal interludes before as well, recounting my own personal experiences with religion, church and God. Recently I’ve found myself evolving quite a bit in that sense. I’m taking this space to try and describe what such evolutions I’ve experienced and what my new goals are, professionally and personally.

A combination of conversations with friends and family, a massive amount of reading that has exposed me to theology and beliefs that I’ve never really considered, involvement with a church that “clicked” with me in ways church hasn’t before and personal emotional and intellectual development are factors that have all converged on me to make me have a “duh” moment in determining what I want to do with my life. I say “duh” moment because once it settled in with me I was all sorts of “why did I never think of this,” until I further thought of it and realized I’ve never though of it before because it never would have been right for me before now. A lot of things over the years have occurred to make me who I am today, and it’s only now that I see what this path is. I’ve realized I desperately want to be a Religion Professor. I want to teach World Religion, Theology and Philosophy on a college level and in conjunction work heavily in areas of social justice.

I had once thought I’d be a Philosophy teacher, but upper level Philosophy courses left me somewhat cold. I loved the reading, debating and thinking, but when it came down to it such things didn’t seem applicable. We can argue all day about Epistemology: “How do we know what we know and where did such knowledge come from?” That’s fine and all, but the idea that I may never wrap my head around some of those courses and concepts and the feeling that even if I do how do I apply it in a useful manner left such a career just out of imperative purpose for my life.

So the factors I spoke of earlier started to converge and I realized I wanted to be a Religion Professor. It allows me to combine everything I’m looking for in a job. I would be able to spend the time reading, writing and researching that I enjoy doing. I would be able to talk about and debate an array of issues that feel important to me. Most importantly, I would get to do a job I feel would be worthwhile: something that isn’t a waste of time and something that hopefully would aid in teaching, enlightening others, hopefully making at least a little bit of the world a little better than it was before had I done nothing.

This brings me to what I feel is the most important part of this article. It’s probably only interesting to people that actually know me in some form or other, because this is me trying to explain why I’m planning on doing what I’m doing, what I feel is important about it and why I’m fairly specific on the area in which I want to apply any skills I might have. See, I feel that since this realization has come to me many people possibly have an idea in which they feel I might should slightly shift my focus in a different way, to the left or to the right so to speak. Hearing me speak of my drive to immerse myself in spiritual study, my interest in religion, Christianity and applicable faith, my developing sense of personal growth and purpose and my passion for social justice issues several people have suggested I at least consider ministry, say Episcopal priesthood. Others seem to wish I would keep my broadening scope more focused on traditional religious views and focus and downplay the academia. Still others seem possibly worried of the religious focus whatsoever and knowing many other aspects of me probably better see me teaching something a bit more secular, say Philosophy or Sociology. I feel that anyone expressing any interest at all in my professional direction is well intentioned and has suggested (or wanted to suggest but were more subtle) other approaches for very good reasons: I feel many people know different sides of me and only the few who really see me fully rounded possibly understand why some of these other areas are just slightly out of how I would be most effective. I’ve considered every other shift, and where I stand right now I see my originally stated goal as what is right for me and here is why.

*Why Religion?
First off, this is what’s worth addressing. As little as three years ago I would never have considered the idea of getting any sort of degree in Religion or attending any school with a deep religious connection. In fact, although I wanted to again attend some sort of church on some sort of regular basis someday, I really thought I would never find a type of ‘church-going’ faith again. So what has changed for me?
My interest for such things has always been with me, from childhood Sunday school debate to college courses in world religion and a minor degree in philosophy. Once I allowed myself to read in detail the wide variety of Theological study instead of eschewing it for only philosophy I discovered writers who debated every major issue there is to debate and yet still be Christian. I found through my historical Jesus studies a vision of Jesus as I believe him to have actually been: A social prophet, wise teacher, holy healer and peaceful revolutionary. His message of unconditional love, ultimate pacifism and his speaking out against Empire, against government and social structures that oppress the poor, wage expansive war, and his righteous anger at those that hid away in church pretending all was good when they did nothing to make the world around them a better place and instead grew rich off of a system that builds itself up on the backs of the poor and the different? That’s a vital and integral message even today. Although Jesus spoke of heaven he was not focused on it and it was rarely the subject. He instead spoke of “the kingdom of God,” a system and state of being that every Christian should strive for. Instead of waiting for a reward when we die we are to follow Christ now by acting in the aim of social justice and urge a system of peace, respect, love, forgiveness and equality. Jesus is for Christians the perfect picture of what a person looks like and acts like when that person is completely consumed by God, filled with God’s compassion and desire for nonviolent justice. Along with my new picture of Jesus, my reading allowed me to consider scripture again. I now understand the Bible to be a lens through which we can use to see God. We don’t have to treat the lens as infallible, inerrant or divine but we don’t need to disregard it as unimportant. We can approach the Bible and use it in conjunction with a knowledge of history, culture, and emerging development. We can allow it to speak to us through our informed and inspired interpretation and we can use it as a guide to understanding the ancient Hebrew faithful as well as the early Christian church and how they perceived Christ and their mission in light of that.

*Why Teach?
I want to be a lifelong student in my pursuit to understand and develop in faith and service. I want to teach others that Religion is more than one simple, narrow thing. I want to teach that religion does not have to be nor should it be racist, sexist, homophobic or exclusive. Many people come from bad religious experiences and assume all religion is that way. Many who would never go to a church or even possibly find the church that is right for them will take a class that looks at all religions on their own terms. People in America live in vastly different Faith landscapes: Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists all call America their home. It’s important we understand and respect what each other believes and doesn’t believe. I feel it’s important to discuss and teach about the positive cores that all religions share, to shed away dogma and fundamentalism and realize that we can all find our way to the same goal of positive global service, inner peace and social justice if we bring to light what religion and spirituality really are beneath their surface. That “our way” is important, viable and real but others may also have that real and valid way for them. Education, ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue and a focus on promoting peace and social justice is a goal for us all to share.

*Why not minister?
I now have a sense of prayer, worship, church ceremony and ritual that promotes an open, peaceful and positive sense for me. I believe the “kingdom of God” is applicable here and now, for all, and is un-discriminatory. I want to write and lecture, publish and teach, travel and speak in addressing social justice issues that I feel driven to confront. So why not minister? Because, as I said, those that would never seek or might never find the right church for them might take a class in a university or at a community college. Because I could speak to those of all faiths and those with no faith, not just the “converted, indoctrinated or leaning.” Because those that know me know I have many qualities, passions, interests and quirks that aren’t conducive to a limelight lit public ministry. I don’t feel that I intentionally or actively do things that are wrong, that’s not what I mean. I’m working every day to be less angry, more compassionate, etc. The things I enjoy aren’t “bad” nor would I think they are bad were I a minister, but I feel that a minister must represent a congregation, must exude faith, hope and dash doubt. Because I love rock and roll, comics, dirty jokes and sometimes blunt conversation when amongst friends. Because I’m open to what all religions and philosophies have to say and am still sometimes quite doubtful. Because every great and successful minister I know is capable of tying together the most disparate portions of their congregation–their most liberal and their most conservative and dealing with them from the middle. I’m far too liberal and my Christian studies show a system of faith and action rooted in “liberal” and “socialist” thought at the heart of the religion– I would find it hard to politely minister to very conservative folks. I could love them, talk to them, but I’m not sure I could be their minister. Ultimately all of these factors are minor, the major reason for me not to be a minister? There’s not a call there for me. I feel I can be most effective and useful as a teacher in a secular school pointing towards an inclusive and peace promoting call to global service and worship for all religions.

*Why Social Justice?
It’s highly important for me to help pay for my education by finding work-study programs that allow me to involve myself with community service and work with the poor, homeless and searching. It’s highly important for me when I reach my career to devote some of my time actually working in the community with labor aiding in social justice. Lastly, it’s highly important for me to write about, speak about , publish works concerning and seek to help issues of social justice. Why? Because the good people are too few and can’t do enough, the average people don’t even try, and the “bad” folks never take a day off. I’ve always criticized inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia and bad politics. I’ve always spouted off about MLK, Malcolm X, Gandhi, Jesus, etc. But what have I done? Nothing yet, so that makes me a sort of hypocrite. I hope to be used in such ways to do all I can to make the world around me better than it is. From small, daily kindness to bigger things if I am so able. Briefly a few major issues I hope to address in my public life if I’m ever able.
1) Fair and Just Immigration laws and citizenship opportunity for the USA
2) The end of Gay discrimination, gay marriage bans and the misguided support some churches give to the opposition of equality in this modern day civil rights ordeal
3)Universal Health Care
4)Debt Relief and the war on poverty (we live in a nation where some buy ice cream for their dogs yet people go hungry and sleep on the street)
5)Drug Law Reform which leads to Prison Reform
6)Education that leads to the falling away of Fundamentalism
7)Education about Responsible Consumerism (personally I feel it ridiculous that a frivolous and useless product like diamonds is sold in such quantities in industrialized countries when it causes such global havoc in its mining, sell and distribution)
8)Responsible citizenship of the world, which means respect to all differences, and end to irrational nationalism, war, etc: Middle East Peace negotiations, etc.

I could go on but you get the picture.
Next up, the last slew of “Best of 2008” articles. Then more “Under-Rated and Over-looked” albums, a look at the best runner up music albums that I heard too late to include and who knows what all. As always, thanks for reading.

The Best Films of 2008

December 21, 2008

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I put off my Best of Films recap for 2008 mainly because I know of a few films that would likely rank high on the list if I had a chance to see them- – “Milk,” “Doubt,” and “Frost/Nixon” primarily. I guess not being able to see “Milk” angers me the most. It’s been fully released for going on two months now and out of a dozen or so theaters within an hour’s driving distance of where I live, none of them are showing it. Since it’s been consistently raved about and applauded for its cast, acting, direction and story I can only assume it’s not in local theaters due to prejudice. Thus far the closest I’ve found it showing is in a fairly large city about two hours driving distance from me, so I’ll see it when I’m there in a couple of weeks. As for “Doubt” and “Frost/Nixon” I’m not sure when I’ll catch them. Anyway, my solid ranking number 1 pick has already been discussed previously in its own article, “The Dark Knight,” so check out my “Plea to the Academy” on this site from a few weeks ago to read more about it if you missed it then. Here’s the best of what’s rest, in my opinion (and un-ranked due to factors discussed above).

* Changeling– – Clint Eastwood is apparently incapable of directing a bad film – – from “Unforgiven,” to “Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River,” and now this years “Changeling,” he’s consistently excellent. The scriptwriter, J.Michael Stracynzki, is one of my favorite comic writers. He made his career in television, specifically writing “Babylon 5,” and I guess the reason for the delays on his superb run on “Thor” this year were due to his phenomenal script for this film, based on a true story from the 1920s. “Changeling” showcases a tremendous performance by Angelina Jolie as a mother who’s child goes missing. The LAPD bring back to her a child they swear to her is hers and she swears he is not. John Malkovich is perfect as a minister who devotes his life to outspoken pursuit of justice and reform. The story is troubling, depressing yet often inspiring in its call to act and overcome. A great film.

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*Bolt — “Bolt’ is worth the price of admission for seeing Rhino the hamster, the most hilarious family friendly animated character in years. Add in excellent voice acting by John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, digital 3-D showings complete with glasses and a fun song by Jenny Lewis that fits into the film perfectly? Plus a moving and funny script? Disney’s best work in quite some time, and one in which the whole family actually can enjoy .

*Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Kevin Smith has admittedly not made a film worth critical raving since “Chasing Amy,” and none as hilarious as this since his first effort, “Clerks.” As a Smith and View Askew fan I’ve enjoyed most all of the other efforts but feel this is the first time he’s made a film that reaches beyond his cult of fans in a long time. “Zack and Miri” is raunchy, vulgar and blue as all get out but it really never seeks to offend for the sake of offending. It’s just a fun, dirty adult comedy with heart and story to back up the jokes. Smith casts many of his usual crew, but in open and non-repetitive roles. With Seth Rogen in the lead the casting plays off like a mash-up of Apatow’s crew and Smith’s Askewverse group. The laughs never let up, and the romantic conclusion is given but still appreciated. A more hilarious time at the movies wasn’t’ to be had this year.

*Shine a Light
Scorcese must be a fervent rock and roll fan in addition to being one of the best directors of our time. His “The Last Waltz” is one of the absolute best concert films ever made, his Dylan biopic “No Looking Back” was amazing and this year’s “Shine a Light” gives us the Stones in their late sixties giving it their all. With flashback interviews and current performances inter-mingling, Jagger’s voice a bit aged but his movements scarily agile, Keith Richard’s defiantly awesome undying rock and roll persona, and guest backup by folks like Jack White and Christina Aguilera its the best rock doc all year, and a great precursor to Scorcese’s upcoming George Harrison biopic.

*W
Critics loved Brolin’s performance but weren‘t overly enthusiastic about this film as a whole. All of Stone’s films require at least two viewings and many have been certifiable classics. So, “W” doesn’t live up to Stone’s best work (“Wall Street,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Natural Born Killers”) or even his previous presidential themed films (“Nixon,” “JFK”). But it is a solid film, with great performances. The fact that all actors managed to look, talk, walk and act like the current real life figures they were portraying was amazing. As an audience it seemed we were watching Bush, Cheney, Rice, Powell and Rove on the screen. The story made even the most fervent Bush opponents look at him like an actual person. If Bush is actually like the Bush that Brolin portrayed, he seems like a good man with good intentions yet in the completely wrong job acting in misguided ways, being advised by men that aren’t so good. His character seems on a perpetual mission to live up to his father but unable to do so and the film makes it (plausibly so) seem that he would have been better off working in Major League Baseball. Colin Powell seems to be the only cabinet member with good and accurate intentions and common sense and he is soon silenced into agreement with the others. “W” was notable for dramatically showcasing people and places even handedly as they were still fresh and ongoing in current events.

*Iron Man / Hulk
Though neither of Marvel’s great summer films matched the greatness that was “The Dark Knight” but both were excellent action packed comic book films. Robert Downey Jr. and the entire cast of Iron Man combined with top notch special effects and a realistic yet fantastic sci-fi edge combined to make Marvel Studio’s best work yet. Right behind that was the superb “Hulk” starring Ed Norton which gave us deep personal drama and psychological thrills as well as all out monster battles.

*Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Judd Apatow and his group of young stoner, comic loving, self described “Jew Tang Clan” have been the best thing going from way back on Apatow’s TV series “Freaks and Geeks,” and “Undeclared” through “Knocked Up” “40 year Old Virgin,” and “Superbad.” This years “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” gave Jason Segel a chance to shine and featured a terrific Kristen Bell from “Veronica Mars.”

So, those are just what I thought was best at the cinema this year, at least at the local ones. Some of the absolute best may have to wait for DVD and I can rank all of these accurately by spring next year I suppose.

The Best Comics of 2008

December 16, 2008

I’m sure many of you who stop by to read what I have to say mainly in regards to my music, political or religious articles probably scratch your head over the comic thing. Nevertheless, I know preachers, teachers and stoners alike who enjoy what the modern graphic novel medium produces lately, and there’s something for all of them on this year-end round-up.

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10) Zorro by Matt Wagner and art by Francesco Francavill

Dynamite entertainment gave Matt Wagner, famed creator of “Grendel” and writer of things like “Batman and the Mad Monk,” a chance to re-envision Zorro for a new set of readers. Really, though, his take is nowhere near a re-imagining or re-envisioning. Dyanamite’s “Lone Ranger” is radically amped up and done so successfully in the only way such a character could become relevant to modern readers, but Wagner maintains the classic elements of Zorro that work for readers of all ages in all time periods. Zorro is a warrior for the downtrodden and a fist against the oppression of a corrupt and controlling government presence. The art, directed by Wagner and executed by Francavilla, is majestic, the story is effective and the hero is noble. A better book for boys from 8 to 80 who enjoy action, history and westerns doesn’t exist.
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9) Batman RIP by Grant Morrison art by Tony Daniel
Sure it was messy, confusing, a bit implausible and totally out of left field. It was Grant Morrison, so that’s to be expected. Morrison never bothers to give you all the details, like some sort of existentialist novelist he makes you catch up without stopping to elaborate. Between issues in this story things have occurred, often in each issue things seem to occur in between panels and pages and out of sight and we as readers are left to figure out just what is really going on. All the while, Morrison pulls from every bit of the story he’s built over the course of his 25 plus issue run on the title. That old, 3-part seemingly throwaway story in which Batman is solving a mystery on an island? Highly relevant, though we didn’t know it at the time. In fact, he pulls not only from his work but from major and minor details from the entire 60 odd year history of Batman, using story elements and characters that most of us assumed had been written out of continuity and forgotten about. Not to mention the gorgeous pencils of Tony Daniels. It’s been reported that the delays between issues were a result of Daniels painstaking attention to detail, and if so it was worth it. So sure, this was a love it or hate it proposition, and now Bat fans are left without their main character for what’s being said to be a year, but all in all it was one of the best events of the year.

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8. Amazing Spider Man by various

“Amazing Spider Man” has been one of the most consistently enjoyable lightweight and fun books on the racks this year. Fans moaned at the results of the “One More Day” storyline which dissolved Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s marriage as a result of a pact with the devil (the Marvel Universe‘s “Mephisto“) Parker made to save his aunt’s life. Ultimately, that was silly, but now Parker exists in the same world, albeit one in which he and Mary Jane never married. So, several other details in his life are now different as a result. It’s a post “One More Day” world, and the now thrice monthly “Amazing Spider Man carried the banner “Brand New Day ” for months to notify folks. Harry Osborn is alive and currently friends with Parker. Parker is single and settling in an apartment with his cop roommate after moving out of his aunt’s house. May is alive and well working in a homeless shelter. The new direction strips the story down. What Stracynski had been doing for the past years on the title had been good, but increasingly too dark and dramatic for a character like Spider Man. Now we have a mid twenty Parker who’s a struggling photojournalist and a doting nephew, who’s juggling his superheroics, his dating life and his journalism job for Front Line (after the Bugle was sold out from under JJJ and became a tabloid.). New villains, new acquaintances and a revolving creative team incorporating the best up and coming writers and artists (check out Marcos Martin‘s phenomenal non traditional art) as well as the best veterans (Mark Waid, Roger Stern). Fun, humorous, action packed and all-ages enjoyment, exactly like “Amazing Spider Man” should be.

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7) Locke and Key by Joe Hill and art by Gabriel Rodriguez
Joe Hill has consistently proven himself to be quite capable in any writing exercise. His first novel, “Heart Shaped Box” was terrific, his collection of short stories, “20th Century Ghosts,” is the best short story collection I’ve read in years, and now he’s trying his hand with comics to the same success. “Locke and Key” is human and heartfelt, spooky and occasionally violent, realistic yet supernatural and fantasy based. It’s beautifully illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez (who equally excelled in illustrating the Beowulf comic adaptation IDW released last year). It tells the story of a woman and her three kids who move across country from California to New England after the woman’s husband and the children’s father is murdered by two of the students he worked with as guidance counselor at the local high school.  The family move to the childhood home their deceased father grew up in, which his brother still lives in and care-takes. It’s  a sprawling old mansion named “Lovecraft.” Once there, the youngest of the children discovers a certain door in the house that passageway through results in the person becoming a ghost.  That door is but one of many that leads to odd places, and I’m sure we’ll get to read of more of them when volume 2 picks up in the spring.
The entire first volume is one story arc, collected in  a nice hardcover that came out a few months ago. Check it out.
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6) Final Crisis (and tie ins); main series by Grant Morrison, art by J.G. Jones
Although Secret Invasion is over and Final Crisis still has a little to go, I already pick FC as the blockbuster comics event of the year. Secret Invasion sprawled across most Marvel titles yet managed to delay all major revelations and twists as long as possible. As it ends, parts of its conclusion are satisfying and what it sets up to follow seems more interesting than the actual event itself, but in comparison we see DC delivered much more in much more concentrated doses. Better art, more shocks and ultimately a better story was found in Final Crisis. Secret Invasion’s only real fatality is the Wasp? Well, FC took away Martian Manhunter in the first issue, followed through in subsequent issues by bring back Barry Allen, capturing Batman, reintroducing the multiple versions of the Legion, setting up “Blackest Night,” fully realizing Darkseid’s earthly presence and the list just goes on and on. Plus every tie-in miniseries was excellent, from “Rogue’s Revenge” to “Revelations.” Sprawling, thought-provoking and entertaining.


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5) Young Liars by David Lapham

“Young Liars” is David Lapham’s latest tale. The first 8 issues of this series arrived monthly this year and at the end of the year the first 7 issues were collected into an inexpensive trade paperback. A lot of people wait for those collected editions with Vertigo. By doing so they’re usually missing out on the best monthlies, but especially so in the case of Liars. The first few issues sometimes had portions set in the present, actually dated on the date that issue was released in shops. This made those issues very timely and added an extra layer of enjoyment. This story is one of the most unpredictable and random stories I’ve ever experienced in any medium. Time jumps around quite Tarantino-esque: in one issue it might jump from the present day, back a month, back 5 years, back two weeks. It never reveals all of the details but usually doesn’t let you know that its avoided them. What I mean is that after reading an issue or two you’ll think you know where the characters have been and where they’re going. Then the next issue will flashback to a point often right between other events you were already aware of but will reveal aspects of the story you never would have suspected. I finally thought I knew what was going on then issue 8 told a tale that seemed to move the story in a completely new direction. Then, I read the next issue and found out I was closer in my first assumption. Aside from the unexpected, there’s also plenty of visceral shock: the insane lifestyle of Sadie’s father, the failed suicide of Danny, the “midget and mr. Johnson,” the item Cee Cee carries in her purse in issue 10…there’s plenty of out of left field shock and awe. Music permeates the series as well, whether it’s the mixtape selections listed at the beginning of each chapter, the work Danny and his band do for their band, or the concerts the liars occasionally see. Ultimately, Danny and the gang are almost void of admirable qualities yet they remain tragically flawed and likable. So check out Lapham’s latest gusto filled effort. Hopefully this one will reach a natural conclusion in a few years, unlike his on hiatus “Stray Bullets” series.

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4) “Joker” by Brian Azarello, Art by Lee Bermejo

Who else to pen a Joker crime noir tale than the mastermind behind Vertigo’s ultimate long running noir “100 Bullets.” I suppose off of the success of the Heath Ledger portrayal of Joker in “Dark Knight” DC comics wanted to capitalize from it by issuing such a tale rooted in the same version of the character. “Joker” could be a sort of sequel to Dark Knight in many ways, although the prominent presence of one character that died in Knight would create a problem for that in the overall sense. Anyway, all of the villains present in this graphic novel seem to be Nolan versions of their comic characters. They all look grounded in a sick shady reality, portrayed scarily realistic: Killer Croc, Penguin, Joker, Harley Quinn, even the Riddler. The central tale focuses on the Joker being released from Arkham. He enlists a low-level hood to drive him around as he seeks to regain his criminal empire. The Joker is calculating yet impulsive, driven yet distracted by psychotic urges and always untrustworthy. The story is quick, fast and fun. It’s noir in the true sense of the word, and there’s really no great resolve or overarching victory or message. What really sets “Joker” over the top is the artwork by Lee Bermejo. Bermejo has done some of the best covers of the past year or two, specifically his “Hellblazer” covers and its great to see him do full interiors that pop right off the page. His style fits this version of the characters perfectly.

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3) “Y the Last Man vol. 10: Whys and Wherefore’s by Brian K. Vaughn art by Pia Guerrera
Brian K. Vaughn finished his epic series Y the Last Man and the final story arc was collected and released this year as “Volume 10: Whys and Wherefores.” The entire series has been unbeatable, full of shocks turns, twists and emotional resonance. If you’ve never read it, go back to volume 1 and follow the adventures of Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, the last two males to survive the ‘gendercide’ that kills off all others carrying the Y chromosome. Its funny, scary, and surprisingly realistic at most moments. This last volume gives us one of the saddest single moments the comic medium has ever produced as well as the most poignant last page a series has ever had.

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2) Wolverine- Old Man Logan by Mark Millar and art by Steve McNiven
This has been Mark Millar’s year. He penned an enjoyable mini-series, “1985” the last issue of which (and the last page specifically) was a career highlight. He released the first few issues of the creator owned and controlled series “Kick-Ass” under Icon, and is already helping oversee the film version of that (although finishing the series first would have been preferable, talk about delays). To top it all off, he penned two mainstream Marvel titles, taking them in new and great directions–Fantastic Four and Wolverine. “Wolverine,” was the most anticipated monthly action adventure series this year. “Old Man Logan” tells an alternate future story in which Logan (aka Wolverine) has retired from his pubic life and embraced a pacifist existence (in an obvious homage to Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”) He hooks up with the now blind Hawkeye for a cross country adventure in a world where the heroes are all dead or retired and the U.S. is carved up and owned by the villains. Not to mention an “anti-virus” of primordial dwelling goblins who’ve surfaced to cleanse the overpopulated planet. Millars story nods to every corner of the Marvel universe and its history and runs games with fan boys wishes. McNiven’s art surpasses his previous work on “Civil War.” Although there are a few issues left to go and the inevitable hardcover edition is yet to come, this belongs near the top of the best 08 had to offer. Which means if it ends as strongly as it’s been thus far, it could be back here next year.

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1) Local by Brian Wood art by Ryan Kelly

I could write pages about the excellence of “Local,” but I’ll be brief. This maxi-series was supposed to run a year, but delays prompted it these twelve issues to spread across 2006, 2007, and the final 2 issues came out earlier this year in 2008. Months later the entire run was collected in a nice Hardcover that is the perfect gift to give a comic fan looking for something outside of the box or for a casual comic fan, say someone who’s only read “Watchmen” and the like. It’s a series of 12 short stories, all work alone yet all go together. The same girl is in each story, sometimes as the central focus and sometimes merely as a background character. Each issue is set in a different city spread across North America, from California to Virginia to Canada. Readers see her age from a 16 year old girl to a 28 year old woman; the final page really kicks you in showing her as a full grown woman who finally finds her place in the world. Each story is cram packed with detail–Kelly and Wood visited each city they set their story in, each panel is minutely and beautifully detailed, local qualities each city has appear continuously. The stories are about everything from a rock band returning to their hometown after a career abroad to a violent confrontation between brothers over a family inheritance. Do yourself a favor and pick up “Local.”

There were many, many close contenders: “Criminal vol 2” by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, “Thor” by J.M.Stracynzki, RASL by Jeff Smith,Green Lantern: Secret Origins by”Hellblazer” by Andy Diggle

The Best Singles of 2008

December 11, 2008

First off, I should note that all of the following songs are not on any of the albums I picked in my “Best Albums of 2008” article. I wanted to showcase some of the best music from albums that didn’t quite make the cut. Most of these were singles released on radio, i-tunes or video, but a few are just album cuts that should’ve been singles. Most of these tracks would have made the list had I also considered music from my top album picks, but a few would have been sacrificed to make space for “The ’59 Sound” by Gaslight Anthem, “Sequestered in Memphis” by the Hold Steady, “Lollipop” by Lil Wayne, and “Hero,” by Nas. Anyway, enjoy.

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10) Workin’ On a Dream – Bruce Springsteen
Bruce and the E Street Band recorded an album full of energetic, first take rock songs while on the comedown of the high from the “Magic” tour, and the album will be out in January. Springsteen teased his fans by offering up this single at the end of the year to build up anticipation for that new release. Here’s assuming it will be great, this song is evidence that it probably will be.

9) Swagga Like Us- Jay-Z and T.I. featuring Lil Wayne and Kanye West

Jay-Z, T.I., Lil Wayne, and Kanye West trading off one-up verses over a hook crafted from M.I.A.s subversive single “Paper Planes?” The best one-off  of the year.  Now go back check out M.I.A.’s original.

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8. Rock ‘N Roll Train – AC/DC
I didn’t discredit “Black Ice” from consideration simply because AC/DC went with a Wal Mart exclusive deal even though I hate Wal Mart. I did refuse to go to WM to get a copy though. No, I understand their deal and approached the album on its own terms, actually hoping it would be the later career classic we’ve yet to hear. See, those ‘70s albums with Bon Scott yielded a lot of rock and roll perfection, and upon losing Scott the band came back with an all time classic to pay tribute to him, “Back in Black.” We’ve had bright AC/DC moments since, but none in full length form. The first track on the album, which is also the first single, “Rock ’N Roll Train” is pure energy and a new classic to add to their canon. Unfortunately the latter half of the disc lacks a bit, but this song doesn’t disappoint in the slightest.
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7. I’m Amazed – My Morning Jacket
“I’m Amazed” was the lead off track released by My Morning Jacket this year to promote their new album, “Evil Urges.” MMJ makes a habit of evolving their sound every year or two and almost no two albums focus on the same sound. We’ve heard them go from southern tinged hard rock to quiet folk. “I’m Amazed” announced to their listeners the direction their new album would take: 70s AM style pop rock. This simple, lilting and pretty jaunt is kind of like Yankee Hotel era Wilco minus the distortion. Pop music without pandering, so listen up.

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6) You Know What – N*E*R*D*
“Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in Line for the Bathroom)” was the lead off single from “Seeing Sounds,” the latest album by the rock identity of the Neptunes. A music critic for AMG once noted that the hit qualities musicians seek out the Neptunes production for on their albums and songs is not the same type of thing that you’re likely to find on a NERD album. No, the weirder, more avant garde and odd, experimental aspects the Neptunes save for themselves. Perhaps in part because they’re not always guaranteed pop hit qualities. Well, “Everyone Nose” was fine but the brightest moment on “Seeing Sound” was this simple, funk/disco/pop gem, the best thing that Gnarls Barkley didn’t record this year. Pharell sings about a friends-with-benefits situation in which he fears the friendship might suffer over funk guitars and subtle dance beats, resulting in pop perfection in the Prince vein.
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5) Love Locked Down – Kanye West
Kanye’s released 3 certifiable classics in his career so far so I guess it was about time for an experimental, artsy and ambitiously different approach like “808s and Heartbreaks.” He teased us with the album by releasing “Love Locked Down” on his own blog months before the album was available. It’s a synth drum beat propelled pop song, sung vocoder style (but in a viable way). It’s a great song, the best but one of the only moments on “808s” in which ‘Ye’s ambition matches his talent. The rest of the album is serviceable and admirable, but a bit dreary and R&B-emo’d out. This is the highlight.
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4) Roxxanne – The Knux

“Roxanne” is the best song from “Remind Me in 3 Days, in my opinion. “Cappuccino” may have been the first single but Roxxanne should have been. For an album full of promise, a sonic pasting of electronica, old school hip hop and pop, this is the song to showcase that promise at its highest level. Like RUN DMC riding a Prodigy beat covered in Clash guitars, The Knux rework the Police classic for the i-pod generation.
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3) Re- Education (Through Labor) – Rise Against
“Re-Education (Through Labor)” is a concentrated dose of what Rise Against is and does best. As a single, one-off song it’s almost comparable to the bands excellent full length, “Siren Song of the Counter-Culture” from a few years ago. The lyrics envision the working class rising up against the ruling elite. “We are the rust upon your gears, we are the insect in your ears.” They do this because, “sometimes dreams they still come true, our days are precious and so few.” This song sounds like gospel! The full pitch hard rock guitars, the proud declarations of “I won’t sweat one more drop for you,” the pounding yet melodic tempo all are signs of protest rock done right. A perfect song.
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2) Discipline – Nine Inch Nails
“Discipline” is the best moment on “The Slip,” this years initially free NIN album. In fact, although the entire album doesn’t live up to Nails classics, “Discipline,” may be one of Reznor’s most simple yet effective singles ever. Rolling Stone called it “death disco” when it first came out earlier this year, and that’s about as apt a description as any. It’s the most darkly danceable song he’s had since way back on “Pretty Hate Machine.” So give it a spin or five, once you start you may not be able to help yourself.

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1) My President – Young Jeezy featuring Nas
Young Jeezy is quick to inform you he didn’t write the best cut off the otherwise standard fare “The Recession” album. His opening proclamation “The realest…I ever wrote…I didn’t write this by the way” is a nod to the opening shouts on many earlier Jeezy songs (“The realest…I ever wrote). “My President” was penned by the guest artist on the track, Nas, who included his own Obama endorsement at the end of his own album this year. In retrospect, sounds like he gave the best away. Sure its silly and contradictory; in a verse following a hopeful endorsement of Barack, Jeezy ponders a cocaine run to Texas. But overlooking that, for any proud Obama supporter and even moderate hip hop fan there really wasn’t a better single or a more timely one than this. Nas and Jeezy trading verses complaining about the Iraq war, unemployment woes, the high cost of raising children, the overall sad state of the economy and nation but the hope of a better
future and the proud endorsement of Barack. A lot of us probably have to admit we felt like Jeezy did at the time, that win lose or draw, he was already our president.

The Best Albums of 2008

December 10, 2008

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10) The Walkmen: You & Me

“You and Me” is like a homecoming log for someone who has spent too long on an aimless, cheap vacation. “There is still sand in my suitcase…there is still salt in my teeth,” Hamilton Leithauser, the lead singer narrates in such away as to imply he’s trying to shake off certain aspects of a retreat he just quite can’t. “I know that you’re married, the rings on your hand, so I didn’t stay ‘till the end,” he says later in the same song, “Donda Esta la Playa.” The album sort of works as a journal of the fall through winter following that same years-long vacation. “Last Christmas was black and blue, this year’s is white.” Is followed by the song “The New Year”, a horn filled hopeful song about the common hope that the coming year will be better than the last. “It’s been 7 years of holidays, cafes, bars and sunny days” goes “ “Seven Years” but it doesn’t sound like a great thing. It sounds like a period of aimless wandering, fun yet unfulfilling times in which the narrator was left not knowing where to go or what to do with his life.
“You & Me” perfectly occupies the space that The National’s “Boxer” did last year. Walkmen singer Leithauser doesn’t have the southern gothic bible-black baritone of National singer Matt Beringer, nor does the music either band makes sound overly similar. What makes them occupy that same spot, at least for me, is the songs that manage to sound beautiful and tragic, happy and sad, regretful and hopeful at the same time. The lyrics are backpack-poet literate, the music is often understated and low-fi. The layers unravel the more times you hear the songs, in a very positive manner. The layer of garage rock fuzz that covers much of the album initially invokes a more intelligent Strokes, but after repeat listens peels back that fuzz a bit you hear the other sounds more strongly. The overwhelming bass lines that pull “Donda Esta la Playa” along, the country road at night of Dylan and the Band in “I Lost You.” The short, sad and pretty instrumental “Flamingos (For Colbert).” Tambourines and flair round out a garage folk sound. Admittedly, I’m a newcomer to the Walkmen party, so I’m not sure how this new disc adds up to the well-received “Bow + Arrows,” or the band’s other work, but 2008 had very little as warm, intelligent and introspective as “You & Me.”

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9)Guns N Roses: Chinese Democracy

Sure, call it self-indulgent. Axl spent 15 + years, millions of dollars and countless hours, severing ties with friends and band mates on his road to craft “Chinese Democracy.” What’s odd though, is that the lightning in a bottle that Axl and his earlier group created with “Appetite For Destruction” all those years ago wasn’t anywhere close to being topped with this , but I’m not sure it’s even fair to compare the two. The earlier was a drunken, smashed, fast and raunchy rock rip, the newer is a layered, dense, technical somewhat proggy rock record. Each song seems to contain ten songs–multiple hooks appear one after the other, technically virtuoso riffs courtesy of guys like Buckethead erupt mid chorus, and Axl piles on a “wall of sound” not unlike a metal Phil Spector. So, yeah, Axl didn’t craft an all time epic, and no, it doesn’t quite seem like it should have taken close to two decades to compile this work. But he did finally release it, he made no concessions, and he did it his own way no matter what people said along the way. That’s fairly admirable. It’s a bit odd that the Chinese government publicly condemned this album. It’s certainly not a deep and literate indictment of China, its government, or anything else. Axl lyrically sticks to discussing his personal paranoiacs, his inability to trust others in light of perceived double crossings, bad breakups and peer letdowns. He doesn’t trust the critics, the press, the wishy-washy fans, but he feels none of them can take him down. It’s rarely corny or schmaltzy yet its rarely worthy of study. What’s the best on display here is the towering rock paste of sound and the full throttle application of one of metal’s best and most missed instruments–Rose’s voice. The full tilt shriek, the never-ending wail and the bass rumble never misses. The only time it fails are the few verses in which Rose attempts to sound like he’s crying while he sings, which would have been better left out. Other than that, his voice is still quite capable. The NIN touring guitarist Robin Finck layers an industrial metal sound to many of the songs and the ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson handles other guitar riffs, as well as the previously mentioned Buckethead. “Better” is a highlight, best showcasing that multiple hook meld, the mixture of wailing highs and guttural lows in Axl’s voice, and pure pop-metal magic. “Madagascar” is a strange highlight, melding sound bites from MLK’s “I have a dream” speech with quotes from Cool Hand Luke.
In short, there’s plenty of reason to dislike Axl and to wish him failure, I suppose. I can’t help but look past his previous faults and respect him for devoting this much of himself into his work and releasing it on his own terms, damn the torpedoes. It’s a chance to wish him success and peace, hoping he’s happy with how it turned out. “They’re just songs,” he sheepishly admitted when he backed out of concerts aimed at promoting the album on one of its previous cancelled release times. And it is, but as AMG noted as well, they’re actually good songs. They’re original, entertaining, and they grow on you a bit more each time you hear them, so I couldn’t really ask for more.

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8)Lil Wayne: The Carter III

For his 26th birthday, Lil Wayne received a briefcase containing $ 1 million in cash from his friend and the man who first gave him his record deal over a decade ago, Baby. Wayne is far from a social commentator, revolutionary or a progressive rapper, at least in the substance and content sense. In fact, much of his music and personality is like that Birthday anecdote that makes you not want to like him. It often contains over-the-top, glaring, “iced-out,” caricatures that even lifelong hip hop fans are beginning to criticize. Over the course of “The Carter III” he threatens to “run up in your house and shoot your grandmother up,” (in “3peat”), he’s ‘hanging over the wall of the VIP” smugly grinning at you to make you jealous (in “Got Money”). In “A Milli” he’s dancing on top of his Lamborghini taunting police. Like I said, not a lot of social substance…but there is a little. There’s the Nina Simone sampling ode to Wayne’s feelings of being misunderstood, “Don’tGetIt,” and at the end of that track Wayne spends a few minutes simply speaking while the beat softens; over the course of those few minutes he addresses hypocrisy in our national drug policies, police profiling, inner city school problems and verbally reprimands Al Sharpton for not being a MLK or a Jessie Jackson and accuses him of self-promotion and tearing down others instead of really helping to build up the community. The other socially relevant moment on the album is also its most heartfelt moment, and that’s “Tie My Hands Down,” which enlists Robin Thicke to croon the chorus while Wayne laments the damage done to his hometown of New Orleans and the way Katrina made him feel powerless.
Aside from that, it’s more hyperactive antics. So why such acclaim? Why did Time magazine praise him, his yearlong avalanche of mix tapes which led up to the hype for the release of this album, and this album specifically? It’s his rhyme talent, it’s the way he utilizes his voice like an instrument. It’s his drive to be the best in his field that leads him to constantly record. It’s the risks he takes that other mainstream rappers would never attempt: trying to sound like E.T. as he raps on “Phone Home,” using a mental ward inflection in his voice on “Playing With Fire,” or going head to head with Jay Z on “Mr. Carter” and holding his own. There’s the indie-art rap type experiment on “Dr. Carter” where Wayne portrays himself as a hip hop surgeon detailing the factors that are important in good rhymes and proceeding to ‘fix” what’s wrong in others. There’s the lead off single which is such stupid big fun that Wayne seems to be daring radio not to play, “Lollipop.” His overall mic progress is astounding considering how basic and unremarkable it was over the course of his entire first decade of recording. Listen to him back on “The Block is Hot,” when he was 16 or so and compare it to something from Carter III, say “Let the Beat Build.” He now uses internal and end sentence rhyme schemes, as Rakim and Eminem have done; in such a technique mid-sentence words and multiple syllables from one sentence are rhymed and echoed in the next sentence, then sometimes it will switch to the traditional end-sentence rhyming, then alternate back and forth at Wayne’s leisure. Metaphors and left-of-center references pop in from nowhere. Accents and voices emerge at any unannounced moment, the speed of rapping is likely to slow or speed up at any time and the words chase themselves around each bass hit. Profanity and slang hide for the general public the actual literary talent something like this showcases, so it’s great a publication like Time can recognize it, even if their comparisons to classic Blues, Jazz and Soul musicians is a stretch considering Wayne’s limited substance at this point in his career. He’s expanding himself musically at least, even learning to play guitar and using that on “Lollipop,” and we’ve now seen him tackle socially conscious issues at least twice on this album, so let’s hope the unchecked and manic id that circulates as his record persona can evolve a bit more professorially next time around.

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7)The Counting Crows: Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings

Adam Duritz, the lead singer and songwriter of the Counting Crows told A&E’s “Inside Track” that “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings” was the bands shot at a last, big “Album.” If mp3s, digital singles and video game tracks were the future, Duritz wanted the Crows to craft their biggest and most cohesive ode to album rock. Regardless of what the future of popular music holds and what form the next Crows album will take, this is by far the strongest work the Crows have done since their debut “August and Everything After.” The Crows have something in common with the artist who released the album I placed at number four on this list in that both this band and that artist, although working in completely different genres, have both spent a decade trying to live up to their initial critical success. “August” was a beautiful, modern folk-rock masterpiece containing perhaps the absolute best lyrics to grace mainstream in the nineties. Since then, the bands released many records, each containing at least a couple of notable songs, but a full length album has never come close to matching “August’s” overall quality- – until now. “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings” doesn’t quite match up but it’s as close as they’ve come. It’s first half, the Saturday Night half, is the heaviest and loudest they’ve ever been and the second half harks back to much of their earliest work. Lyrically, nothing is as beautiful as “Anna Begins” or “’Round Here” from that first album, but the stark, cinematic and mentally stimulating “Cowboys” and “1492” are top-notch and can be mentioned in the same sentence as those early songs. “Cowboys” lyrics of “Mr. Lincolns head is bleeding while she’s weeping,” and satellite surveillance has an existentialist novelists ear for detail.
Conceptually, the album is split in half, the first 6 songs are Saturday Night and the last 8 are Sunday morning. Very basically and on the surface the Saturday tracks are the hard rock songs and the Sunday morning songs are the quieter acoustic ones. More deeply than that, Saturday is the desperate, scared escapism and Sunday is the hangover, recovery and ultimate inspiration. Saturday’s not a party on this record. A couple of the songs on that side have an upbeat melody, but even the lead off poppy single “Los Angeles,” is filled with lyrics about the singer’s efforts “trying to make some sense out of me.” Faithlessness builds as Saturday progresses. “I don’t believe in anything at all,” is sung on “Sundays” (not to confuse, but that’s the title of the song that comes near the end of the Saturday half–perhaps another title would’ve helped keep this thing straight in print, but alas). The last portion of “Cowboy” at the end of Saturday builds and builds to desperation- – “this is a list of what I should’ve been but I’m not”- – but ultimately becomes a cry for something more. “I am not anything” segues into “I dream of a place where Saturday is a memory and Sunday comes to gather me into the arms of God who welcomes me because I believe, oh I believe.”
The loud crashing end of Saturday makes the following track even more subtle and calm in comparison. “Washington Square” is a sweet reflective stumble into grace. Anyone who feels they’ve survived a Saturday night where everything seemed to take one step to many and wakes to the somewhat lonely but beautiful Sunday morning after can recognize the feeling this song provides. It’s like a more subtle version of Cash and Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” at least in the context of this album. “When I Dream of Michelangelo,” does the somewhat modernly fashionable trick of a band referencing one of their earlier songs (“Angels of the Silences” from “Recovering the Satellites”), and it’s a nice, pretty song, sort of an acoustic playful version of that referenced song.
There’s not a bad song on the album. For any slight misstep there’s always a great makeup note to cancel it out. There are snatches of great lyrics, melodies that stick, and a nice, cohesive feel that most modern rock records miss. Here’s hoping the band has another true capital A- Album in them.

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6)Death Cab For Cutie: Narrow Stairs

Death Cab For Cutie just might be responsible for making some of the best pop rock albums of the past decade. Lead singer Ben Gibbard has the sort of heart-on-sleeve lyrics and earnest voice that turns some away in fear that they might be sucked into listening to emo, but DCFC are closer to being a post-millennial Beatles than any type of typical emo rock band (say, Senses Fail?). Gibbard has a novelists ear for dialogue and narrative. It’s short like poetry, often cracking like it as well. “Transatlanticism” was the one of the first truly classic albums of the 2000s, followed a few years later by “Plans.” “Plans” opened things up with the addition of keyboards and sonically free landscapes, stretching out in the opening track (Manhattan) to spread its arms around an entire city. In it’s successor, this years “Narrow Stairs,” Gibbard and the guys tighten things up, occasionally in a claustrophobic sense (that’s not a negative, either). “Stairs” works as the flip side of the coin or the dark underbelly of “Plans.” The lead off track, “Bixby Canyon” could’ve been on Plans, but it’s quickly followed by “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the first single from this album. That song is long, clocking in at 8 and a half minutes. The first four minutes are all build up, without a word spoken. It’s like a spookier “I’ll Be Watching You,” in which the narrator of the song swears he’ll be keeping an eye on his love until she loves him, he will “possess” her heart. Musically its stark and tight, the antithesis of “Manhattan.” Gibbard writes primarily about disaffected twenty-something’s, whether it’s the unhappily yet newly married girl in “Cath,” who “holds a smile like someone would hold a crying child,“ or the woman who junks her double sized bed in favor of a twin knowing she’ll never need the extra space in “Your New Twin Sized Bed.” The highlight of the album, at least for me, is “Grapevine Fires” which has an even more current feel in the wake of the rampant California fires that have gone on this year. In the song the narrator watches wildfire burn from a cemetery on the hill with a date; while the woman’s daughter dances amongst the tombstones, the man and his date drink wine from paper cups. The song’s music and lyrical inflections seem to mirror the man’s nervous and scared life apprehensions that he ponders from his rented room and seemingly hoping that Armageddon is on its way. As the song ends the firefighters are working in double shifts and “it’s only a matter of time,” but we as listeners don’t know that means until the fires are out or they consume everything in their path. “The Ice is Getting Thinner” is the album closer, a poignant and uncertain tale of un-fulfillment, a sort of goodbye to a romance and to the narrator’s youth. It’s the turning 30 of a dreamer who’s currently given up. So all in all, this album is nowhere near as hopeful and optimistic as much of “Plans.” Even when the music is upbeat the lyrics aren’t (“Long Division,” “No Sunlight”). But its equally beautiful and it’s art points to growth and hope simply on its own terms. During an uncertain day in the present world and economy, the simple future uncertainty and doubt can be uplifting when shared, in an odd way.
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5)Kings of Leon: By the Night

“By the Night” is Kings of Leon doing it big. Big guitars, big drums, big vocals and a big sound. For that reason, some of the fans that were on board in Leon’s indie days and some of the small press critics that pushed early Leon albums like “Youth and Young Manhood” felt that this is “too commercial.” Hopefully those folks gave “By the Night” a second spin, although it’s the sort of album that should grab you upon first listen. It’s the bands best sounding and most fulfilling work yet. It’s a big, professional hard rock sound, but not in a big, dumb middle-of-the-road way (like, say, Nickleback), more like some sort of ‘70s rock archetype mixing Zepplin, The Allman Brothers, AC/DC and The Band.
The opening song, “Closer” is slow-burning, infectious, and introspectively beautiful. At the very end of the album closing it out is “Cold Desert,” a song that is sad, frail and ethereal. “Jesus don’t love me, no one’s ever carried my load” lead singer Caleb Followill moans in such a way that it makes it the saddest album closer of the year yet still remains pretty and oddly inspiring. A little history of the guys in the band makes such a line a bit deeper. Caleb and his band mates are preachers sons and the like, from very strict Pentecostal homes and they grew up playing the church music for their fathers. They left out on their own and settled in Nashville to be rock stars. Their early albums were southern fried garage rock, made when the guys were 16-22 years old and lyrically focused on showing everyone just how horny they were (not really in an explicit way though). So a song like “Cold Desert” may be as much as Caleb as lyrically touched on spirituality in years, so hopefully he’ll be able to approach such areas in the future, though not necessarily in such a sad and hopeless way.
Between these two fantastic bookends the album “Whoa-ohs” and rocks along. Speaking of their early lyrical focus, the single “Sex on Fire” is a bit of a return to form. A very silly name for a song but it couldn’t be better and a catchier hard rock pop song from this year would be hard to point to. “Use Somebody” is making the rounds in the backgrounds of teen soaps and television drama, a la bands like The Fray, and its far superior to most of what plays those circuits these days. “Manhattan” has Caleb singing about dancing all night and day with a beat to support him.
“By the Night” is an excellent big rock record with amphitheater filling vocals and chords, and if it’s the direction the Kings are moving in I’m along for the ride.

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4)Nas: Nas (untitled)

If you read much music journalism, you know what Nas originally wanted to title this album. He ended up releasing it untitled but kept a cover photo (a close up of a back with whip scars that form the letter N) and a title song (N.I.***R.) that remind you. The controversy aside, this is definitely his strongest album since his debut “Illmatic.” Critics and fans have praised that debut for around fifteen years now and it’s important to remember that at the time it was released not much weight was placed as the importance of wordplay, vocabulary and “mic skill.” Nas was one of the few responsible for helping shift focus from west coast, beat and attitude heavy gangsta rap back to the east coast and re-focus the importance on lyrical skills and album cohesiveness. Nas had released many albums since Illmatic, many filled with quite a few great songs but no full albums have come close to reaching “Illmatic”s level of importance. Last years “Hip Hop is Dead” seemed to be that album at first with its perfect lead-off single and many other important tracks, but much of the latter half of that album unravels and shows itself to be a bit tired, recycled and not quite important upon full and further listening.
But now we have this new, “untitled” record and Nas has achieved album perfection in the vein of “Illmatic.” A full decade and a half older, in some ways it’s a better album for displaying a more mature and well read Nasir Jones. This is a quietly angry and “street” political album. It’s thematically bound together, musically excellent and his lyrics are honed to perfection. It explores the history of, the use of, and the relevance of the N word. If the NAACP held a funeral for the word, then Nas is following in what comedian Chris Rock claimed himself to be doing in a recent stand up, and that is “giving it a resurrection.” Nas and Rock both feel that ignoring the word simply sweeps it under the rug and aids in ignoring much of what goes on in the world today and what has gone on in the past. Nas uses the album to evaluate and report issues that no other mainstream rappers ever bother to look at, at least not since the days of Public Enemy. “Fried Chicken” showcases Nas and Bustah Rhymes trading off, using the history of the dish to explore poor cultural dietary decisions and sexism alike. “Sly Fox” sonically echoes the classic PE track “She Watch Channel Zero?!” and lyrically attacks Rupert Murdoch, Bill O’Reilly, Fox News and media distortion and dishonesty as well as the hypocrisy of cherry-picking which violent entertainment is socially acceptable. The track “Untitled” is a subversive sounding revolutionary track which praises Louis Farrakhan. “America” questions the access of the American Dream by those born into ghettoes in the country; the same song also attacks the use of Christian scriptures to justify mistreatment of women in family hierarchy and condemns the use of the death penalty in America as well.
Nas has always tried to do lyrical exercises in his songs whether it was recounting his narrative in reverse on the classic track “Rewind” or attempting to sound like a Bogie inspired 50s gumshoe on “Who Killed It?”, and on this album he continues that with “Project Roach” which narrates from the perspective of the insect and then shifts to use the roach as a metaphor for how much of America views its minorities. “Testify” even attacks some of his own fans, those that “buy my songs, download my albums, understand my struggle, you claim?” and only come to his concerts to sing along with the curses and are in no way ready to support his political agenda.
It’s not all dark. “Hero” should’ve been the radio hip hop hit of the year. It’s a sonically perfect track, the way the beat builds and shifts, all the while Nas forms his verses around each turn in the beat. It’s got a quiet/loud /revert shift that most modern hip hop eschews and it sounds great from any car stereo system. “Make the World Go Round” features Chris Brown singing the hook and Nas labeling Brown the new “Mike Jackson.” “Black President” is Nas’s endorsement of Obama and it ends the album.
All in all, this is the best mainstream hip hop album an icon in the genre has released in quite some time. It’s weighty enough to debate, discuss and think about. It’s musically appealing enough to keep in steady rotation. It’s lyrically superb and controversial, what more could you want from a great rap CD?
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3) The Hold Steady: Stay Positive

If you hear Hold Steady’s early albums, like Separation Sunday, the band isn’t overly interested on traditional song structure or an overabundance of melody. Craig Finn, lead singer and principal song writer, seemed most interested in getting these really excellent lyrics out and telling a cohesive story about the kinds of people he knew, the kind of places he was familiar with and the kind of partying and praying he did. And it was excellent, the type of music punk purists and music journalists salivated over. It wasn’t un-musical either, powerful riffs and music formed around the stories to turn it into song. But with Boys and Girls in America, the band managed to add a new layer to the formula by upping the sing-along choruses, throwing in dozens more background “whoahs” and mixing in a bit of early E street band influence. Sources claimed Finn was taking vocal coaching and singing lessons prior to recording the follow up album, Stay Positive. There is noticeably more effort to hit different notes and sing a bit more this time around, and some fans and critics have complained that the overall album is a bit too polished for the Hold Steady. I have to say it’s a great album though. Not quite as excellent as Boys and Girls but equally as effective as Separation Sunday albeit in a different way. The opening track, “Constructive Summer” may be the bands best fist in the air rock anthem. “Sequestered in Memphis” is the best sounding classic rock type single the bands released yet. “Lord I’m Discouraged’ is almost as good of a ballad as “First Night.” “Both Crosses” brings back the heavy religious imagery that was so effective in “How a Resurrection Really Feels.
The title song is the feel good song of the year that mainstream never heard. Every song is good, it fits together perfectly and although it’s a half star shy of a five star album; I think the band has one of those up their sleeves in the future.
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2) The Gaslight Anthem: The ‘59 Sound

Well, this band and this album snuck up out of nowhere for me to edge out albums that otherwise would have made it to this spot. In fact, it came very close to landing right at number 1 for me, but after my initial month long burst of excitement died down I realized that the album that ended up out-ranking this one was simply better in that it evolved with each listen and fully captured a band comfortable in their growth and maturity. But ‘59 Sound was the absolute most exciting record I heard all year in that it grabbed me upon first listen and it has remained just as exciting as the months have gone by. I’m not really a dancer, but this album makes me want to dance. I wanted so bad to go to a small club and hear this band perform so I could unconsciously give dancing a go for; small rock clubs are forgiving for mid-twenty-something’s who have never been able to quite dance, and as luck would have it they were in a small club for ten dollars at about a four hour drive away from where I live, but things just didn’t work out. But at least I have this album.
And what an album it is. If you search back a few months you’ll see my article “Listen to the Gaslight Anthem ASAP,” in which I rave about this band upon first hearing them. I’ve since gotten their other full length album that was released a few years ago and their 4 song EP that followed and both are also excellent. In my initial review of the band I said that I hadn’t heard a bad song by them yet. Well, if they do have a “bad” song, it’s probably the last track on this album, “Once Upon a Time,” the only moment when cheese edges out nostalgia in the lyrical efforts.
From the record scratch effects which open the lead off track, “Great Expectations” and that songs first verse containing the lyric, “Mary, this station is playing every sad song, I remember like we were alive” through the following track (the title song), which is the best rock song I heard all year which managed to detail a teenage car wreck in a nod to many ‘50s hits without falling flat, on through the backyard romanticism of “Miles Davis and the Cool” to the Springsteen overboard influenced “Meet Me By the River’s Edge,” up to the song Meatloaf wished he could have made (and I mean that in a good way) “The Backseat,” this album is practically flawless. It’s like a successful meld of ‘50s, ‘70s and ‘90s rock filtered through 2008. Nodding to its influences without copying them, borrowing lyrical phrases from greats like Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Counting Crows without pandering, its bar none a sign of the most promising new, young rock band.
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1) The Drive By Truckers: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark

When all was said and done I couldn’t help but keep Brighter Than Creation’s Dark in the top slot. There have been a few close contenders, but overall this album showcases an ever-evolving mature band who are completely in control of their craft. It’s a long album, but it’s void of any filler whatsoever. At 19 tracks it’s one of those few albums that fully utilizes the extra space the CD and MP3 age have added to the possible album length for a band.
You might think it says something of modern music that an album released way back in January maintains it’s validity as “album of the year” into December, but I think it speaks more to the talent and musicianship of the Drive By Truckers. Here’s a band with three different singer-songwriters who all have their moments to shine on the album, and each manages to sound strongly and independently, yet taken all together the various approaches still sound unified. Some may have feared that after Jason Isbell’s departure the band would sag a bit. Isbell was an excellent guitar player and a great singer songwriter. In fact, many of the bands greatest songs came from Isbell– “Outfit” and “Decoration Day,” “Never Gonna Change.” But, DBT were a band long before Isbell and will be long after. Here’s wishing him solo success (and his “Sirens of the Dirt” solo album was good), but DBT have simply moved on and honed what made their earlier and more narrative (less chorus verse chorus Isbell traditional structures) albums work. Ex wife and remaining band member Shonna Tucker steps up to fill Isbell’s vocal and songwriting absence with three tracks of her own o this album: “I’m Sorry Huston,” “Purgatory Line,” and “Homefield Advantage” which are all terrific. Shonna’s tremendous on guitar in her own right as well. Band former and principal songwriter Patterson Hood is at the top of his game with “Righteous Path,” “Two Daughters and a Beautiful wife,” and “That Man I shot.” Mike Cooley is equally strong with “Three Dimes Down,” “Ghost to Most”
Thematically, this DBT album has been called the “soundtrack to the recession,” by a few music critics. There’s a “whole lot of debt and a whole lot of fear,” in contrast to “the need to blow it out on a Saturday night,” in Hood’s “Righteous Path.” There are the wives lonely and missing their husbands who are fighting in the desert. Those husbands are having nightmares of people they shot. “Did he have little ones that he was so proud of, that he won’t see no more? …I was trying to help him, he didn’t want me there.” in “That man I shot,” There are also the characters that DBT are always good at portraying, those small town folks that are everywhere. The aging party girl who “keeps on turnin’ 21,” in “Lisa’s birthday.” The middle-aged single man who lives his own way and seems peculiar to his neighbors in “Bob.’ There’s a moody song about a touring band “who used to be big” but are now just “the opening act,” in “Opening Act.”

Overall, it’s simply one of the strongest albums ever released by one of the absolute best American bands of the past few years. Well written and literate lyrics and excellently played music. DBT toured constantly during 2008, both for promotion of this album with their “The Home Front Tour 2008” and with the Hold Steady in “Rock and Roll Means Well,” and not surprisingly DBT’s live show ranks with the best of 2008 as well. Now is a perfect time to hear what you’ve been missing so pick up the best album released in 2008.

Next up, a much shorter article: The best singles of 2008. Single songs, great ones from albums that didn’t make it onto this list. All forthcoming “Best of 08” lists will be much, much shorter.

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I think I should take a pause and mention a bit more detail about another theologian I’ve been reading: N.T. Wright. If you click the “religion” tab at the bottom of my site and read back this entire recent thread of articles I’ve posted in regards to the subject you’ll notice my constant reference to searching, questioning and the doubt. Religion has always been an interest of mine, but as I’ve said philosophy overtook theology for me throughout my college years. My recent spate of theological reading could stem from a number of factors, I suppose, but for whatever reason I’ve returned to it in a semi-vigor. Wright is perhaps a thinker I might have avoided in past years out of fear that he would be too “conservative” for my tastes. Oddly, many people I know who lean towards the more conservative side tend to avoid Wright in fear that he’s too “liberal,” a view they take primarily for Wright’s newer work in the so-called “new perspectives on Paul” field.

I think both camps are missing out, my former self included. Now, I’m still not at a place in which I fully accept and take all of Wright’s viewpoints as my own. They are traditional viewpoints, very close to the heart of the type of religion I grew up familiar with. What’s different with Wright’s approach is that it feels much more inclusive and academic. This isn’t “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” philosophy. No, Wright returns to the scripture, the creeds and the Bible from a modern and inclusive stance. He uses academia and logic to kick open the door into classic and traditional viewpoints and explains how such views are still relevant, inclusive and revolutionary. In “The Meaning of Jesus” Wright recounts how as a college chaplain at Oxford he would often hear from incoming freshmen, “You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in God,” to which Wright said he began to respond to with, “Oh, that’s interesting. Which god is it you don’t believe in?” The students then typically describe God as “a being in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally intervening to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven.” Wright says his response to such a description then is “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.”
This anecdote captures best what I like of Wright’s theology, at least what I’ve read of it so far. He’s humorous, intelligent and approachable. Every time I almost give up on a type of traditional interpretation I find myself re-evaluating it yet again once I read Wright’s take on it.

One of my earliest religiously themed articles on this site mentioned that I got back into theology by reading works by Spong and the like. After digging deeper into works by Spong I became disenchanted with what he had to say as well, and then I discovered the work of Marcus Borg. His work hit home for me, it’s like Spong without pretension and “pop,” more spiritually sound (for me at least) and with more depth and academia. Well, every time I feel like nodding in agreement with Borg I read something by Wright that makes me step back and think of it in the opposite way. What’s really important here, for me, is that stripped of the details and debate what both men are essentially saying is the same. The central message and promise is independent of historical and philosophical debate, at least most of the time. Really though, I find it comforting that people with views that many churches would find irreconcilable manage to work together and be friends in the way that Wright and Borg are. Both writers have helped to open my eyes and send me to revisit concepts and scripture that I sometimes thought I never would. And of course there are religious, political and social issues I don’t or wouldn’t see eye to eye on with either writer. Both of them are merely human and neither have all the answers. They’re merely better educated , more intelligent and more devout searchers than I am. I’ve still got a long way to go before I can reconcile the disparate thoughts, feelings and questions that are entrenched in my personality, but I’m beginning to think it’s possible to do so and I’m seeing that there’s room under the umbrella of “Christianity” for a lot of different thoughts, ideas and perceptions–the central theme, purpose and message remains unchanged even though many of us (even in large groups) distort and misplace it quite often.

I urge anyone who has written off Wright in fear of his “liberal” or “revisionist” stance on Paul to re-read him. I haven’t read deeply on the new perspectives on Paul other than basic over-views. It seems that many have a problem with Wright asserting that works play a role in a person’s salvation. I feel right on board with a theme Wright pressed on, one on which I heard a sermon recently, that even Christians would face judgment. In Wright’s mind Christians will face up to not the bad they have done in this world but for the opportunities they missed to do good. You may disagree, I suppose, but is that a dangerous assertion? I myself have a problem picturing any type of hell other than a “second death end and annihilation” sort and even that only for a very few unrepentant, unbelieving and unaccepting group (I certainly may be wrong in my assertion however), but as for even the best of us facing judgment for missing out on the chance to do good? Seems highly plausible. Jesus spoke in constant urge to help those in need and very rarely commented on “moral” issues. Anyway, in regards to my plea, look at Wright’s work again. I think even the most conservative Christian will find a wealth of inspirational knowledge they will agree with. I equally urge more liberal Christians to look at Wright’s work, for it re-examines much of what you might have written off in a way that you might take something highly positive away from it.

Okay, folks. For anyone tiring of the religious thread on my blog, I do have a lot of other things slated for the rest of the month. A lot of music, book, comic and movie articles as well as possibly one last 2008 baseball article, so check back with me. As always, thanks for reading.

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Cee-Lo is like a majority of hip hop musicians in that he seems to think very highly of himself, as evidenced by the lyrics to “Bad Mutha,“ the opening track of his debut solo album “Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections.” That’s about all he has in common with other hip hop musicians and mainstream rappers. Most people know Cee-Lo as the vocal half of the mash-up duo Gnarls Barkley, and they know of that group for it’s summer of 2006 omnipresence hit single “Crazy” that was the new “Hey Ya.” Cee-Lo had been around quite some time before that hit made him known to the world at large. He started out back in the nineties as part of the rap group Goodie Mob. Goodie overlapped on a lot of songs with their hometown friends Outkast and although their heavy collaborations even resulted in the “posse” album “The Dungeon Family,” (named for the studio where ‘Kast and Goodie recorded their songs in Atlanta not the role playing game), Goodie never got nearly as successful or popular as their friends Big Boi and Andre of Outkast.

After Goodie Mob disbanded, Cee-Lo arrived with his own debut album in 2002. “Perfect Imperfection” should be mentioned in the same breath as the all-time classic hip hop albums: “Fear of a Black Planet,” “Illmatic,” “The Chronic,” “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” all of those should share space with it. Maybe the fact it is often overlooked when those heavyweight discs are invoked is because it crosses out of the genre so much in such unexpected ways. It’s not simply a rap album, although it has some of the best rap verses in modern hip hop. It goes for the entire popular music spectrum at one point or another over the course of an hour, with the exception of country (although I have a feeling Cee-Lo Green could pull off convincing and good country music if he had the desire). There’s an excellent hip hop influenced jazz song, “Bass Head Jazz” that could be played on repeat for an hour and not get boring (which a friend and I did once and we can attest to such a claim). There are the moments of straight ahead rock and roll energy on “Under the Influence (Follow Me),” “Medieval Times (Great Pretender),” and  “Live (Right Now).” There’s the James Brown and Barry White tinged funk blues of “Spend the Night in Your Mind” and ‘One for the Road.” Remember I said it covers all genres but country? Well, it even comes close to doing that on “Country Love,” a song in which John Popper assists ‘Lo for a poppy southern blues romp. Then there are the club hip hop tracks like “Suga Baby.” There’s hardcore rap that remains convincing without becoming ‘gangsta,’ in “Microhard.” The albums only single is a pop song even better than the “Crazy” hit that made him well known, “Closet Freak” which treads Prince lyrical territory.  There are heartfelt and sentimental songs that are never schmaltzy, “Getting’ Grown,” and “Young Man (Sierra’s Song).” Cee Lo takes a break to display his lyrical mic skills on “Big Ole Words.”

All in all, it’s just a perfect album. Even the few obligatory skits are mercifully short and don’t take away from the music. It’s the type of hip hop album that fans of Prince, James Brown, Blues Traveler, and Barry White are apt to enjoy as much as fans of Outkast, Dr. Dre and The Fugees. It’s flawless, and for me it set the bar so high that nothing ‘Lo has done since has met up to it. Sure Barkley’s “St. Elsewhere” was good but it’s follow up “The Odd Couple” was somewhat lacking; neither lived up to “Imperfections.” Before Barkley, ‘Lo recorded “Cee Lo Green is a Soul Machine” and it was nice and had “Imperfection” worthy moments but not as a cohesive whole. So here’s hoping Mr. Green gives Gnarls Barkley a break and records a follow up worthy to be a successor to this album. Here’s hoping such an album would now find ears with the listening public and give evidence of Mr. Green’s wide ranging talents and influences.

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I’ve been reading a lot about the historical Jesus, and I’ve plowed through classical and traditional views by eminent and overwhelmingly intelligent scholars like N.T. Wright as well as liberal and revisionist Christian thinkers like Marcus Borg. I’ve read overviews by non-religious philosophy and history professors who’ve attempted evaluate without bias what can be known historically in regards to Jesus. I’ve got a long way to go but right now what is sticking out for me and resonating in ways that such things haven’t in years is that Jesus was a social prophet (as Borg excellently writes in one of his chapters in his and Wright’s co-authored “Jesus: Two Visions”). He was in fact a revolutionary, in the highest and most honorable sense of the word. He spoke out against oppressive government and corrupt hierarchy. The wealthiest in the city controlled the economy and the law not to mention the church. Jesus condemned any practice that took advantage of the poor within the Roman empire as well as all practices of military expansion that wrought havoc on those outside of the Roman empire. His act of over-turning the money changing tables in the temple likely put him on watch by the Roman authorities and his teachings like those just mentioned led to his execution.

This is what I feel much of my church history left me out on, this respect for and awe of the life of Jesus. So much emphasis is paid on his death, his crucifixion, the “passion play.” Jesus’ short life and even shorter public ministry is what reverberates today…his message was what “sin and the grave” could not hold. His teachings were “resurrected,” they lived on and will live on regardless of what churches and societies may do intentionally or unintentionally to miss out on the truth and impact of their message. Much of my study into the historical Jesus made mention of the “Q” source, an author and his scrolls labeled “Q” which many intelligent scholars and historians believe to be the earliest and most accurate teachings, parables, sayings and words of Jesus. The writers of the earliest gospels were believed to have had “Q” scrolls as a primary source to base their work on. I found a copy of “The Lost Gospel Q” by Marcus Borg in my local library and in it he gives a brief overview of the long history of the Q documents and then reprints the words of Jesus, directly translated from Aramaic into English. So we’re able to read the sayings of Christ, before they were filtered through Hebrew and Greek into Old English and before they were incorporated into Gospel writers who likely lived many decades after Christ died. So hopefully, these words are as close to what Jesus actually taught that we today can see. It’s astounding, and it’s evident that the teachings centered primarily on looking out for the poor, hungry and downtrodden. These were calls to social justice, a rally cry for helping those that society overlooks. Of course the most “revolutionary” stance Jesus took and instructed others to follow suit in is that of complete and total forgiveness. To always forgive those that trespass against us. To settle things peacefully between our brothers and sisters and ourselves without resorting to war, courts or rulers. To give what we have to those that have not, to love unconditionally and to strive to make this world better than it is. I think such simply stated yet often difficult to follow instructions are far too often “lost in translation” when many pastors speak, many Christians act and many people pray.

See, I keep thinking about the disconnect. I’ve also been reading a book a religion journalist wrote, “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation.” The author, Christine Whicker, speaks of the large gap between what the public thinks evangelical Christians believe and what they actually believe. The same gap appears between what many of their leaders say the groups believe and what the actual members of the group believe. The gap is also often present between what members of the congregation say (or sometimes even think) they believe and what they actually believe (and do). Whicker has spent a career covering religious issues for many papers and grew up in the Evangelical church. Her grandfather was a southern Baptist preacher, and she seeks to point out the good and kind-hearted nature of the types of evangelicals she grew up around, the type of aspects that get overlooked in the media perceptions of evangelicals. As such, it’s a fair and even handed book. Much of it deals with her prediction of the coming “collapse” of the conservative mega churches as well as explorations of what it really means to be an evangelical. Anyway, the points I want to bring up here from that book are the times that “gap” becomes present in the subjects she interviews. The fundamentalist Christian women in abortion clinics awaiting their own procedure who subscribe to the beliefs of and attend a church that wishes to repeal the right to choose that they are currently taking advantage of. The traveling evangelical pastor who is caught having sex with another man while representing a church body that accuses all homosexuals as partaking of a “lifestyle of sin.” I recently read an article about the California Prop 8 debacle and it was mentioned that the San Francisco Catholic Bishop that helped craft PR ads accusing gay marriage of being “dangerous to children” was the same Bishop who initially called reports of sexual abuse in one of his congregations “mere horseplay.” Many have made the point that the large-funding by the Mormons that wanted so desperately to define marriage as being “between one man and one woman” belonged to a church founded by a man with dozens of wives. This disconnect is infuriating to me. So many “Christians” lose sight of the real important messages. So many “Christians” seek to alienate, disparage and judge others and that is the very opposite of Christ’s teachings. I saw on the news this morning of a woman who’s young infant son almost died from “water intoxication” because she was watering down her baby formula to stretch it until WIC would allow her to get more of it. (Apparently infants under 1 can only have so much water in their diets or it can kill them, unknown to me as a childless twenty something). The recession hit’s the health of children the hardest, one expert mentioned in regards to this story. So once again, as mentioned in my “A New Definition for Pro-Life” article, I ask: are those that are “pro-life” interested in supporting policies that seek to usher in universal health care or at least expanded programs to help the less fortunate? WIC was cut back drastically during the Bush administration, did those that are pro-life wince?

I have a confession to make. It’s obvious that the most important and revolutionary concept of Christ’s teaching is still far out of my reach. I rant at pro life and homophobic people but if I were really like Christ I would be out doing too much and loving those I disagreed with too much to waste my space here condemning them. Such is the paradox I can’t best at this point in my life I suppose. The disconnect I speak of is present everywhere, and I often see it in myself as well. As a liberal and an embracer of progressive politics I believe in equality and helping all others, but after close to a decade of working in jobs dealing with the public sector from the service side (retail, restaurant, etc.) I’m the first to admit people are hard to like and hard to love with alarming frequency.

That’s all for now, I apologize for the very disjointed and wandering article….more on target with more focus next time, I assure you.