The Best Films of 2009

December 29, 2009

* A quick note to say that not being a paid staff critic means not seeing all contenders, especially those that decided to open in 12 theaters nationwide despite the hype. “The Road” didn’t come to any of 50 theaters within an hour radius, nor did “The Hurt Locker.” I also have not yet seen: “Sherlock Holmes,” “Avatar,” “Nine,” “The Young Victoria,” “The Messenger,” “Precious” and a few other possible contenders. If in January or February after catching them on DVD or at my dollar theater I feel they would have significantly altered my list, I’ll make a postscript post!  Now, here we go.

10)  Up

Pixar is great at making visually stunning animated films that use the best and most innovative technologies. Yet they are also  great at instilling the stories they tell with these flashy tools with real humor, intelligence and heart. The first 10 minutes of “Up” is arguably the most emotional and heartbreaking sequence of the year– I doubt kids were able to get the depth of that opening scene, that one was just for the adults. As powerful as that scene was, luckily the Pixar gang breaks things up after that and settle in for laughs, thrills and zaniness. The angry dog with the malfunctioning voice box is worth the price of admission alone, and the sub-plot dealing with a Howard Hughes-like hero turned villain is just icing on the animated cake. Last year I had to throw “Bolt,” on the list, this year the animated winner is “Up.”

9)  Watchmen
This one holds up for repeated viewings; the time I saw it way back in March on the big screen had dulled a bit in my brain, but a recent spin of the DVD was a quick reminder of the testosterone-fueled manic mayhem artistry of Zach Snyder. Snyder’s never shooting for an Oscar– as fun as “300” was it wasn’t really a “great” film in the glorious sense, but it is still fun these few years later and worth a view if you missed it. It proved he could adapt a graphic novel and maintain the feel of the substance in a new format, he does that on a much larger scale here. “Watchmen” was and is the greatest graphic novel of all time, cracking “Time” magazines list of best 20th century novels and worthy of any college reading list in lit class. Alan Moore also penned it to be un-filmable and un-adaptable and balked at the idea of anyone trying to do so; as such his name is nowhere to be found in the credits of the film. His work stands on it’s own and this film doesn’t top that, but neither does it destroy it either. This is one of the few adaptations that neither disgraces its source material, tries to one-up or re-format it, or makes it more palatable. This is a film that works best for  fans of the comic, and it doesn’t insult them. You can enjoy this without having read the book, but it’s so much better as a companion piece, one that steps into the epic story and brings the characters and situations to life. There isn’t time for everything and the ending is different, but we know why this one works better on the big screen and that one worked better in print. It’s just a thrill to see Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan and the rest living and breathing in the cinema and retelling this dark, cynical and unflinching tale of what could be if it were possible for “heroes” to live among us and what the true cost of peace might be in this present world. Every actor does a great job of embodying their character, there are not blatant missteps in that area in the slightest. The music wraps it all together in a bold way, the action is visceral and the attention to detail is at least in the same neighborhood as the original graphic novel: a really fun, flashy film.

8)  Where the Wild Things Are

This was the year to be a movie-going twenty-something indie-geek. Why? For numerous reasons, but just look at the work our generations beloved writers got at the Cineplex– Dave Eggers was the driving force for this screenplay and another one higher on the list (you’ll see soon enough); Nick Hornby wrote another great film a little higher on the list. The director of this one? Spike Jonze. The soundtrack is done by Karen O and friends (“the kids”). These kind of names were everywhere this year if you noticed. Anyway, this one adapts a children’s book that is close to the heart of most Gen X and Gen Y kids that was full of great pics and a handful of words. Jonze and Eggers bring it to life with sheer beauty and creativity, yet maintain the threat and under-current of childhood aggression. The voice acting is superb, the use of real suits rather than CGI is awesome, the whole thing plays wonderfully surreal and enveloping.

7)  Inglorious Basterds

There are times I really want to hate Quentin Tarantino’s films. He’s so full of himself. He’s pretentious, self-aggrandizing, and guilty of lapses in judgment. Yet he’s also capable of great, great film-making: Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Death Proof and now this. I’m glad he seems to not do commentary tracks, because I couldn’t bear to hear him evaluate his own work, but if I don’t have to hear him and I can just appreciate the work at face-value, I’m always entertained. “Inglorious Basterds” is a big, violent, stylistic piece of near meta-fiction and it doesn’t have a dull moment in it. It’s pulpy, funny, scary, and it pulls emotional strings like a puppet master but it’s also over-the-top, ethically questionable and it loves itself. It builds to a fantastic conclusion that gives the audience such a burst of pay-off even though we quickly remind ourselves that “it didn’t really happen that way! What’s up with this?” Oh, but Quentin wanted to make us wish it had ended that way with him being the one supplying it to us. It’s probably his best work since “Pulp Fiction.”

6)  Funny People

Judd Apatow’s name gets slapped on most comedies that come out these days, but he’s usually just a producer or the guy signing checks for his buddies to make their films. The only ones he’s been fully involved with as writer, director and producer are “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” and this one. They all are laugh-out-loud funny movies that can be watched a zillion times without losing appeal and they all work in surprising warmth and sentimentality for their characters of perpetual adolescents, lazy stoners, commitment-dodging dorks and funny people. “Funny People” is Apatow’s best work yet— it’s also his most serious. At times it feels like 3 movies in one: the main story of George Simmons, stand-up comedian turned star of critically ravaged money-machine earning films finding out he has a rare blood cancer and only has an 8 percent chance of living much longer; the story of Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) a new stand up comic who becomes Simmon’s assistant and writer and his roommates trying to make it in comedy; and the story of Simmon’s “one that got away” (played by Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife– the couples children play the children in the movie). The first hour and a half and the last fifteen minutes are beautiful– funny, dark, emotional. This is the “ugly side” of comedy and what a life in the field often entails and the varied reasons that propel people into the field in the first place. It pokes fun at Sandler in a way, we all know he’s taken a critical beating in almost every role he’s ever portrayed– in “Funny People” you see such ridiculous fake movie clips from Simmons filmography— his head on a baby’s body in “Re-Do,” or as a “Mer Man” in a movie of the same name (really not that far from “Little Nicky” or the “Water Boy” in premise).  Adam Sandler gives a truly great performance in this movie– you get to see the wit, charm and silliness that made audiences love him in critical hate-fests like “The Wedding Singer,” “Happy Gilmore” and “50 First Dates” (and I stand by all three of those as being good movies), the crudity and blue humor of his stand-up, the music appreciation of his albums and the dark, angry, sad, dramatic character traits he used in his critically appreciated turn in “Punch Drunk Love.” The story of his illness and how he deals with it out of the public eye, his journey to making as much peace with that as he can and then finding out he is better and not knowing what to do next is the heart of this movie. The Rogen, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman scenes are truly funny and keep the laughs in place to balance things out, but the ex-girlfriend and kids 40-minute sequence goes on for about 15 minutes too long and throws the pacing off. It’s disruptive, a bit; it makes sense in retrospect why it is needed, to get to that last fifteen minutes of pay-off and not-quite-resolution we have to take that journey in some way, but it lingers too long and perhaps could have been arrived at in a more fulfilling way. That’s enough griping, though, because the things that work in this film really work and more than make up for any possible over-length. Is this the first major-studio “Meta-Comedy?” If so, it’s a good one.

5)  It’s Complicated

It seems like that as soon as the hype for this film emerged and people began praising Nancy Meyers for making intelligent films for grown women, every male talk show host and newscaster had to make comments like “is it weird that I want to see this too?” (Here’s looking at you Letterman and Lester Holts). First, there’s a difference between “chick flicks” and “excellent movies written and directed by women featuring female characters that aren’t clichés.” “Chick Flick” is a term for churned-out, re-treaded romantic comedies or crying-movies that women will watch ad infinitum, dragging along their significant others; they don’t care that the plot is recycled and the emotional reactions are forced and insipid, they just want a feel-good love story or a feel-sad cry story. And that’s fine, the same terminology can be applied gender-crossing genres like “slasher films,” “shoot-em’ups,” “family comedies” and the ever-increasing “bro-mance.” Nothing wrong with paying for a particular thing and getting what you paid for without over-thinking it. But what Nancy Meyers has done here, like she did in the excellent “Something’s Gotta Give” in 2003, is produce a film that features grown women in real ways, but also a film featuring an excellent cast from top to bottom– Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski and the rest of the entire cast deliver hilarious performances in a truly fun and entertaining film. Heck, the guys get as much screen time even though Jane (Streep) is the main protagonist. What I notice more in Meyer’s films than gender is money— all of these people seem to be doing very well for themselves, living in nice houses, driving nice cars and working flexible enough schedules to not only find themselves in these predicaments but to make them funny. I get the feeling that a movie about a woman falling for her ex-husband and having an affair with him when he’s married to a young woman as well as potentially finding herself courting another newly divorced middle-aged man would be a lot less light and funny if they were all broke and working crappy jobs. Anyway, it’s very funny and Krasinski is on a roll this year with this, “Away We Go,” and the “Office.” Baldwin and Martin are hysterical together and here’s hoping the proposed joint-hosting of the Oscars by them will really happen (speaking of joints, the pot sequence featuring Martin, Baldwin and Streep is pretty hilarious).

4)  Up in the Air

There are two types of great actors. One type disappears into their role so much so that you forget who you are watching. They become who they portray down to every look and every expression; their voices change, their appearance changes, you can totally forget who you are watching if you don’t remind yourself. Daniel Day Lewis and Johnny Depp are that kind of an actor. Then there are great actors who are so recognizable and consistent that you couldn’t possibly forget who they are. They don’t drastically alter their voice or appearance, and you always know it’s them up on the screen yet they’re such a joy to watch and so capable of giving wonderful performances that it doesn’t matter. George Clooney is that type of actor. He is also great at being likable and entertaining even when he is playing people who shouldn’t be that likable and whose moral compass is a bit suspect. “Up in the Air” could be his finest performance (but “Michael Clayton” is so close it’s too tough to call). In “Up in the Air” Clooney plays a man whose job it is to fly around the world, landing in a city where a company is firing employees and go in to do the firing for the managers who are uneasy of doing the dirty work themselves. He’s also a motivational speaker whose main message is aimed at encouraging people not to be too attached to either things or other people, and he spends as much of his time as possible living in a way to do just that himself. This is a good film, a timely film, a very 2009 kind of movie. The director, Jason Reitman, also directed “Juno,” “Thank You For Smoking,” and some “Office” and “SNL” episodes, all of which are sort of evident in this film. There’s no happy ending and no real resolution, so if you like things in nice little packages you might want to step away. But if you like intelligent films that tell their story on their own terms regardless of what the audience thinks they want and ones that do it in such a way that you wouldn’t have changed a thing after all when you think it over, this is your movie.

3)  (500) Days of Summer
Yeah, it is a bit of an indie hipster comedy. It’s post-emo generation film (first wave emo, folks, we‘re talking “The Smiths“); it’s a romantic comedy that really isn’t all that romantic when you re-think it. It’s about the idea of love and how bad people want it without really knowing what they want or caring who they want it with. It’s a realistic dating movie, one that certainly doesn’t go where such a thing usually goes and is thoroughly entertaining even so. It’s funny; it’s creative. The style of the plot takes a few dozen days over the course of a relationship between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt– yes, the kid from “3rd Rock From the Sun” all grown-up) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel in a friggin’ charming performance that is crush-worthy), chops them up and throws them at the audience in random order. So we see happy scenes, romantic scenes, funny scenes, silly scenes, angry scenes, depressing scenes, and like in any relationship any one of these scenes may be from any point in the relationship, the beginning or the end. The soundtrack is great, and this is certainly the kind of movie in which the soundtrack is part of the cast and integral to the story. A really great, really true sort of movie that is too honest to be a real date movie, but one that will make a lasting impact more than any of those typical flicks do.

2)  An Education

This is such an excellent movie. It’s now up for a Golden Globe, so at least it’s retained memory for some critics– I was worried this one would slip right under the radars and be forgotten since it came out a little earlier than most-award show contenders. Carey Mulligan got a lot of hype over her role as Jenny in this early 1960s London-set coming-of-age story, with folks declaring her a new “Audrey Hepburn.” Watch this and you’ll see why, and the comparisons are valid. She shines in this story about a high school girl planning on college when she falls for an older man who woos her with trips to Paris and nights on the town, causing her to rethink her plans. Peter Sarsgaard is that older man, and a character seducing a girl 20 years his junior, a senior in High school no less, should be too creepy to like but Sarsgaard plays David well enough to where when you almost do like him through much of the film. David is charming Jenny’s parents as much as he is her, and he’s a con artist of the highest caliber in this story. The screenplay is based on a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber and it’s adapted to the screen by Nick Hornby. Hornby usually hones in on Gen X slacker male characters and throws their neurosis’s onto the pages of his novels or on the screen with his adaptations with flair– “About a Boy,” “High Fidelity,” “Fever Pitch“– so as much as I love his work I never would have guessed he could so greatly  feature a smart, strong young woman as a protagonist, but he does and the script works excellently. The director, Lone Scherfig, is from Denmark and she hasn’t really done anything American so I’ve never seen her other work but going on how beautifully this one is shot I’ll be sure to check her future projects out. The most pleasantly surprising 2 hours I spent at the movies this year, totally sneaking up on me to make my list– from the 3 dollar theatre to number 2 on my list of the best 2009 pictures!

1 )  Away We Go

This one’s it. I really, really loved this movie. Apparently it’s a love-it or hate-it pick because I’ve read every opinion imaginable about this one and I honestly can’t see how you could come down on the “hate it” side of the aisle. It’s so much fun, it’s such a warm, funny, clever, unique, realistic, relatable, entertaining flick! Dave Eggers, who I mentioned way back on number 8 with “Where the Wild Things Are” pulled double duty on fantastic films this year, writing two truly great screenplays–this one‘s his best; Sam Mendes takes a more optimistic turn at the camera with a great directorial job (not that he didn’t do a good job with “Revolutionary Road,” “Road to Perdition” or “American Beauty,” just that judging by those films I wouldn’t think he would give anything close to light-hearted a shot). John Kransinski of “The Office” gives a funny and great performance– I’m beginning to think he’s the 21st century John Cusack, someone we average yet possibly quirky guys can relate to when we see him on the screen. Krasinski is the lead, playing Burt Farlander. Maya Rudolph is the other lead, playing Burt’s girlfriend “Verona,” and when the couple decide to hit the road in an attempt to find a home and something to do with their lives as they approach the end of their twenties, they run into every possible kind of acquaintance and character actor, all played to perfection by various joys-to-watch like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeff Daniels and Jim Gaffigan. The best screenplay of the year in a movie that works with all emotions and never dumbs itself down.


10)  RASL  (Cartoon Books)

I almost crossed this excellent series off of the list out of frustration at it’s infrequent release schedule, but had to relinquish out of love for Jeff Smith’s work. Jeff Smith wrote the epic and infinitely important-to-the-field work that is “Bone,” a book that shipped in single black and white issues about 6 times a year for around a decade, selling mostly to adults, which was then repackaged in a graphic novel form that sold to teens, then it was colorized and packaged in small, portable volumes which Scholastic publishing stocked in book stores and school libraries causing it to catch on with kids. So, the book that was meant for all ages and works on multiple levels for them all finally reached it’s wide scope of an audience. Smith returned with “RASL” as his follow up, a book that is meant only for adults and older teens– it’s not gory or offensive, but it’s obvious by some of the content and complexity that this one wasn’t casting the net quite as wide as “Bone.” So it’s a nice change of pace to showcase Smith’s versatility in a heavy science-fiction tale that weaves noir, romance, and flawed characters into a great read unlike anything else on the shelves. This year we got the great, over-sized trade collection that reprints the first 3 issues as well as two new issues to further the story. We’ve been patiently waiting for issue number 6 which was due to ship back in October and has yet to show– but the teaser art for issue 7 is already on Smih’s “Boneville” website. So get these books to us, Jeff—we’re willing to pace ourselves with 4 issues a year if the material is this good, but we at least want those 4 issues to come out relatively on time!

9) Echo (Abstract Studio)

There’s quite a lot of similarity between this pick and the previous. Like “RASL,” this book is the follow-up work that is written, drawn and produced by someone coming off of a long running, industry shaking series (Moore’s was an alternative comic that was all romance, comedy and drama for adults — “Strangers in Paradise”). Moore’s new series also makes the jump to something that  features heavy science-fiction with full, realistic explanations; Moore also throws in a Hitchockian chase in his work with the tale of a woman (Julie Martin) who finds herself wearing a new alloy after it rains down on her when the scientist flying it in  it’s test phase is murdered by her own company. Now Julie has inherited the power of the suit and the memories of the woman murdered while wearing it. Helping her is the deceased woman’s boyfriend and on their trail is both the government-funded research group behind the secret project and a serial killer wearing the other half of the suit. Enough with the plot synopsis– it’s a great story with Moore’s great ear for dialogue and penciling that details vivid, emotion-displaying facial features. The black and white art in both “Echo” and “RASL” are some of the simplest yet most entertaining comic art being produced right now. To gripe Smith a bit more, though, it’s worth mentioning that Terry Moore has been getting “Echo” out every month even though he is the sole driving force in it’s art, story and production as well. So, Jeff, if Terry can do it, why not you? I know it must be difficult and I’m impressed either of you are making such left-of-center and creator-driven projects these days, but…I’m just sayin’…

8)  Amazing Spider Man (Marvel)
This book makes it’s appearance here again this year. It’s the only mainstream work on the list this time around, and it’s unabashedly that; this is full-on, spandexed, brightly colored and perpetually adolescent superhero work. It’s the best example of what that can be now, for teens and adults who maintain their childhood adoration of the characters they grew up with. It’s still coming out 3 times a month, it’s still 2.99 (keep it that way Marvel) and it still features a rotating stable of great writers and artists doing their best work on it. We get jokes, suspense, action, Pete’s Aunt May’s marriage to JJJ’s Dad (?), Pete juggling work, dating and super-heroing, new and old villains and the return of the letter column! This is the best almost-weekly 15-minute escape a nerd can ask for and it’s really the only Marvel book worth checking out right now.

7)  Chew (Image)
This book is purely bizarre and sound ridiculous on paper. It features Tommy Chu, a naturally born cibopathic– which means that when he eats any food he gets mental pictures and sensations of everything that happened in the production of that food, from slaughter or harvest to production and preperation. Tommy gets recruited by the FDA which is the strongest arm of the federal government in an alternate US future. The strongest, because a bird flu has devastated the country, resulting in the outlaw of poultry, resulting in a huge black market and gang-run business of fried chicken dinner shacks and raw poultry sales. It’s a goofy, shocking, funny story by John Layman and the art by Rob Guillory is very reminiscent of old “Ren and Stimpy” cartoons. It also changed my mind about “Image,” since I have mentally castigated Image for being a dumping ground of stylistic-steroid-pumped art and zero story (an image crafted by their early hits like “Spawn” and “Youngblood”). No, with “Chew,” “The Walking Dead” and the “Killing Girl”  mini a couple of years ago, it’s evident that Image has the potential for producing off-the-wall and innovative work.

6) The Illustrated Genesis by R. Crumb
No one could have expected such a faithful and non-satirical adaptation of the book of Genesis to come from R. Crumb. Crumb was a key figure in the underground “comix” scene that pumped satirical, foul, edgy and subversive work out to college kids in head shops and acid-rock concerts in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yet when Crumb took on the task of adapting one of humankind’s oldest stories he surprised himself by falling in love with the text. He didn’t become a believer, but he rendered the characters and events of this Religious pre-history scripture faithfully to the text, relying most heavily on the KJV of the Bible and Robert Alter’s translation of “The Five Books of Moses.” Reading Crumb’s adaptation brings the narrative out in strong,  gripping fashion. You at times are on the edge of your seat in suspense even though you know where the story is going, and the intricately detailed pictures liven up even the genealogical passages. Of course, reading the story with complete illustration makes this an adult work (the only Biblical book with a parental advisory, probably) and it may highlight the difficulties in holding to a literal understanding of such early biblical works– detailing the two opposing creation stories and both versions of the flood tale of Noah may cause fundamentalists great frustrations. Yet it’s a great read for the rest of us.

5)  Locke and Key  (IDW)
Joe Hill made this list with this series last year for “Welcome to Lovecraft.” That mini was followed with “Head Games” early this year and as the year draws to a close we get the third mini-series detailing the family’s plight in “Crown of Shadows.” Gabriel Rodriguez’ art is beautiful, Hill’s prose is as exciting in this format as it is in novels (“Heart Shaped Box”) and short stories (“20th Century Ghosts”). Get either trade and jump in, but start from the beginning if you can because although all of the mini’s stand on their own they also interlock and tell a much larger and developing story when read together. Plus they keep the same characters (following the Locke family), so it only makes sense to do so if you like this stuff!

4) The Unknown Soldier   (Vertigo/DC)

This one may be Vertigo’s most ambitious and important work ever. It details life in Uganda complete with child soldiers, internal politics, flawed assistance service, civil war, humanitarian drive, potential, tragedy, love, fear, death, disease…it’s dense and full of life bursting from every seam. It’s exciting but not exploitative, sad but not pandering, important but not pretentious. This is deserving of study in school and general awareness raising of the general populace– writer Josh Dysart actually traveled to Uganda to fully immerse himself in it and the artist of the latest arc is an African artist who renders his characters beautifully.

3) The Unwritten  (Vertigo/DC)
“The Unwritten” follows Tom Taylor whose father used him as the basis for “Tommy Taylor,” a boy wizard in a series of classic, best-selling novels read by more than 1/3 or the world population– kind of like a fictional, amped-up “Harry Potter.” Early in the series, Taylor is framed for a series of gruesome murders by some otherworldly villains who are linked to metaphysical “story” creators of some sort. “The Unwritten,” is Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s multi-layered examination of “word as flesh,” as stories that become real simply by being written. It’s a look at fiction becoming reality and it weaves in characters from classic novels, religious texts, fables and myths. We’re less than a year into this fascinating story and we can’t be sure of where it’s going, but every twist along the way thus far has been exciting.

2) Scalped  (Vertigo/DC)
“Scalped” may be the best comic book on the shelves each month. Everyone tries to do noir, it seems like, but Jason Aaron does it right and does it in a fresh, exciting, and wholly American way. “Scalped” follows life on the “rez” as Dashiell Bad Horse goes back to the reservation he fled in rejection. He’s back as an undercover FBI agent, hiding as a cop on Tribal Leader Chief Lincoln Red Crow’s force of crooked cops. Bad Horse’s mother Gina is murdered in the first arc and the mysteries flowing out of that incident propel the story forward and flash it back to a fateful night 20 plus years ago. R.M. Guera’s art is murky and muddy yet perfectly fitting and twistedly pretty. Nothing will end well for anyone in this story, we can be sure of that, but every event is worth looking at in microscopic and sordid detail. Check out all of this series, now available in 5 trade collections (so far), the latest of which is “High Lonesome,” which came out last month, the current arc “The Gnawing” is wrapping up this month and will likely be out in collected form at the first of 2010.

1) Asterios Polyp

David Mazzuchelli crafted the most fulfilling, creative and boundary-pushing graphic novel of the year, one also worth being on any short list of best graphic novels of the 2000s and in the top 25 of all time as well. “Asterios Polyp” is that good– the style and shifting art, mood expansion, thematic structure, brave new ways of telling a tale— these artistic workings are some of the best the genre has ever displayed. The story is simple enough, but it’s also good and tends to get lost in reviews when faced with the amazing art and creative styling’s present here. The story follows Asterios Polyp, a world-renowned architect who has never had any of his critically acclaimed designs actually built– his work always stays in the blueprint and theoretical phases. He’s arrogant, too sure of himself and he’s a smug professor who loves the sound of his own voice. We read as he deals with a crumbled marriage, the end of a career and a journey of self discovery and nostalgic remembrance. It’s a great story that would be good in any format but one that works best as a comic because it pulls out every trick imaginable to show just what the comics medium is capable of. This one’s a beauty to look at, a thrill to read and surely one to own and pull off the shelf at least once a year.

20 Best Songs from 2009

December 21, 2009

One quick note to remind you that for my singles lists I always disqualify any song from an album that makes my best album lists — this gives me the chance to highlight a larger amount of music and keeps things from being bogged down with the same representation of artists.

20) His Master’s Voice – Monsters of Folk
This album closer from the side-project super-group is repeat-button worthy. Lyrics of “Mohammed rolling dice with Christ” roll into a melody quite ethereal that conjures the great explorations of pop musicians fumbling with God of the past. The rest of the album’s good, but the best follow up to this amazing song is the “Tribute” EP that Jim James (of this group and My Morning Jacket) released this year– it covers George Harrison songs stripped down and acoustic and it’s a must-own (just be prepared to look under “Yim Yames” to find it).

19) Queen of the Supermarket – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Okay, I’ll admit that when I first heard this song I thought it was maybe the weakest track on “Working on a Dream.” It felt off and close to cheesy. But the more I heard it and the more I listened through it all the way through to the closing notes and the check-out scanning sound effects, the more I loved it. It’s the attention to detail and the authenticity it contains, it’s like a heartfelt short story of love and longing based in vivid reality that should be mundane if it weren’t presented with such passion. There are great moments all over the album and it’s sad not to put my favorite artists work on my top 10 album list, but the competition was just too fierce this year and for me this album as a whole had a couple of weak links on it in which it didn’t measure up to its past few predecessors; had every moment on the album evoked this much emotion and adult-pop sensibility, I’d have been forced to throw it at the top.

18) Best I Ever Had – Drake
Drake, an alum of the best teenage melodrama soap of all time (Degrassi) caught the attention of Lil Wayne and Young Money with his rapping skills, got signed, blew up all over the internet and released the entertaining EP “So Far Gone” this year. He’s not the next Pac, Kanye or Q-tip; he lacks the street cred for “Gangsta rep” and the political consciousness of Protest Rap, the quirkiness of backpack rap, etc. al. Yet he does have clear skill, and this pop rap track about a romantic liaison was one of the best summer songs this year. Find your niche and take it for all it’s worth, Drake.

17)  Neighbor’s Know My Name – Trey Songz
Trey has promise but clutters his album with the occasional guest spot of a terrible rapper (Gucci Mane, who deserves to be in prison by the way) or an asinine chorus (pick a track at random off the final quarter of the album). But when he’s on, he’s on, as this catchy, fun, ridiculous, silly and dirty pop single proves. Does he sing these things with a straight-face? Does he read the lyrics of early R Kelly albums as if they were scripture? The verdict is still out.

16) Shining Down – Lupe Fiasco

Lupe released this single back in the late summer to tease the upcoming “Lazers” album that has yet to emerge (it’s now currently due in January). It’s not on par with his 2 full length albums he’s had thus far, but it features a great hook by Matthew Santos and enough Lupe wit to keep us ready to hear another proper full-length release from the best and most politically conscious young MC out right now. He followed the momentum by crafting a 25 minute show-off set of rhymes on the Thanksgiving-day released mixtape “Enemy of the State: A Love Story.” Now get the album out, Lupe!

15) Lungs – Steve Earle

Earle’s new “Townes” record (which is a collection of cover songs by Steve of his idol and deceased friend Townes Van Zandt) was on my list at one point–ironically it was upstaged by Earle’s son (who in another ironic note is named after Townes Van Zandt). This is the best moment on that record, a short quick blast of a song that stands out in large part by the layer of distortion, murk and fury courtesy of Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.

14) I And Love And You- The Avett Brothers

The Avett brothers, for whatever reason, tend to invite freakish levels of devotion and adoration in most of their fans. Their music is good– a palatable and inviting blend of modern alt-country and folk– and this song brings out all of their best qualities at once.

13) Know Your Enemy – Green Day

A punky, repititive, fist-in-the-air track that rocks like the Clash and the Ramones off of Green Day’s latest rock opera outing, “21st Century Breakdown.” Go ahead, “Give me revolution!”

12) Two Weeks – Grizzly Bear

“Vecktameist” was a fine album this year, but there were a few somehwhat snooze-worthy sections on it. This song is the major highlight (followed closely by “Southern Point”) a harmony-layered romp through what sounds like late 60s era Laurel Canyon.  A gorgeous song that is a little bit better each time you hear it but one that also feels familiar on the first spin.

11) Rebels – Drive by Truckers

Taken from the odds’n’sods rarities collection DBT released this year, this cover of an old Tom Petty song rocks stronger than I can possibly describe here. These lyrics were made to be sung by Patterson Hood– now that I’ve heard their version I’m thinking it had to have been their song all along.

10) Meet Me on the Equinox – Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab didn’t release a full album this year but remained consistently present; they released a nice 5 song EP, “The Open Window” as well as this terrific single which ended up on the “Twilight-New Moon” soundtrack (which was inexplicably loaded with new music by indie bands). So the best thing to emerge fromt that clustermug mess of vampire-lite was a decent soundtrack, and this is the best moment from that. It ranks with Death Cab’s finest singles containing lyrics a bit more gothic than usual and a melody that taps in with it perfectly, crooned by Gibbard who sounds in fine form.

9) Got Nuffin – Spoon

Spoon key up a bouncy bass guitar beat and make an indie hipster dance out of lyrics about having “nuffin” to lose but “darkness and shadows.” Dance hipsters,dance!

8 ) California – Wild Light

This poppy sing-along song will run circles around your memory, getting you to sing along with a profanity laden chant deriding the entire state of California before you realize what you’re saying. It’s like the Beach Boys cussing uncles formed a band.

7) Blood Bank – Bon Iver

Iver’s most emotionally connectional song to date is a haunting ballad about a couple seemingly falling for each other in line to give blood. This is folk music for the 21st century and it sticks with you as soon as you hear it.

6) DOA – Jay Z

Jay dropped “The Blueprint 3” which played like a string of great singles, at least in its first half. The best of those (although a close second, so close it almost brushes up against it is “Run This Town”) is this one, an almost tossed off  braggadocio mic control fest by Jay showing off and urging the death of mediocrity and banal repetitiveness that is evident in the myriad of auto-tune hip-pop singles cluttering the airwaves of the 2000s. The horns hit here, accenting the raps perfectly.

5) Sugarfoot – Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears

This group flew out of Nashville to start making the closest thing to funk and rhythym perfection since James Brown passed on. “Sugarfoot” is the funnest, loudest and most exuberant track off the excellent as a whole “Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is” album. This song was given away promotionally from a lot of magazines and web music download services this year, so if you missed it then just  buy it now because it’s freaking awesome.

4) Unity – Trevor Hall

I cringed when I found out that Trevor Hall was a white guy in a Buddhist monastery in southern california, especially when I saw photos of him and he looked like a hippy version of Kurt Cobain. I did so because listening to this song, he sounds Jamaican. Something about aping reggae culture right down to vocal inflections that aren’t naturally yours doesn’t quite set right with me. That being said, this songs is near perfect. It’s such a well of spirtual power, a call to sacred religous universalism sung and played in such a stirring, powerful way. The rest of the album might not be worth much, but this song justifies Trevor’s attempt at sacred art.

3) The Fixer – Pearl Jam

Eddie Vedder roars like always but the band tigtens up and plays loud, fast and furious, moreso than ever before, getting right to the point. The lyrics are the most upbeat and poisitive of perhaps any Pearl Jam single ever, all about “fighting to get it back again, ” cleaning up the dirty, finding the lost, making things fixed and new. A timely song if ever there was one for anyone feeling like it’s well past time to do something relevant and meaningful in the world.

2) French Navy – Camera Obscura
God this song is pretty. It sounds like a Phil Spector produced ’60s girl pop record that would have been a smash back then but it sounds fresh and timeless today as well. The strings are so poppy, the vocals delicious. Play it on repeat and I guarantee you’ll be in a good mood.

1) My Girls – Animal Collective
A big, joyous dance song. “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things,” they sing. “I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls!” It’s a trippy, freak folk dance song about a man providing for his family that just happens to be the catchiest song of the year.

The Best Albums of 2009

December 17, 2009

pic from this years RNR Hall of Fame Concert, unrelated to my alb pix tho!

I’ve had my 2009 year and 2000s Decade “Best Of” lists close to final form for quite awhile now. Seeing as how everyone is throwing theirs out this week, I thought it might be time to go ahead and begin posting mine. Leafing through “Rolling Stones” latest issue I noticed a lot of overlap on Decade’s Best Singles, so I thought it even more pertinent to rush mine out before it looks like I’ve just absorbed everyone else. For the record, I made my decisions before reading the critics picks! So, from now until the new year rolls in there will periodically be a new best-of list posted. I’ll begin with Best of 2009 then move to the Best of the Decade. As far as movies of the year go, I’ve held out as long as possible to catch the big Oscar bait picks that are held till the last minute, so as of this writing I have not seen many that could make the pick. We’ll go with what we’ve got, though!

The Best Albums of 2009

10) Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies

Son of cult fave alt-country and folk rocker Steve Earle made the best country record of the year with this excellent album, with likely no radio play on any country station on the FM dial. He may have gotten noticed by being the son of a great– a thing he probably loathes considering his lukewarm relationship with his pops that’s written of in the music mags and is shown to the world in the excellent “Mama’s Eyes” track from this record– but he sounds little like his dad, and writes in a very different tone and style from him as well. Justin sounds a bit more like the original Hank Williams than like Steve, especially on songs like “What I Mean to You,” “Here We Go Again,” and “Poor Fool” where the vocal similarities are hard to miss and the western swing is layered strongly yet un-apingly on. Balancing out the sound of the record are great contemporary alt-country style ballads like the opening title track and the aforementioned “Mama’s Eyes.” An excellent country cover of the Replacements classic “Can’t Hardly Wait” ranks with the best cover songs of all time– not one-upping a perfect song but staying true to it and reinterpreting it enough to make it wholly original. “They Killed John Henry” shouldn’t work, simply because every folk, country and punk singer has tried to claim a version of Henry’s tale as their own, but it does work remarkably well. Earle writes a version of the folk epic that is rousing and electrifying and more punk than most punk songs while never musically veering away from folk territory. Now if someone could get a copy to the local country stations…

9) Wilco – Wilco (The Album)

Wilco’s obvious grab for reintroduction to the masses even features a track titled “Wilco (The Song).” Wilco has spent the decade pushing the boundries of their musical leanings,by either layering perfect pop songs with noise and distortion or paring things down to near silence on other occassions. “Wilco (The Album)” is the most straightforward and instantly accessible album they’ve made since last decades “AM” and “Summer Teeth.” Long story short, no, it’s not as good as any of those records, the old ones or this decades defining Wilco record “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” It’s still better than 90 percent of anything else you’re likely to hear though, and it well warrants a spot on any list of the best music of the year. With the assistance of folk pop singer Feist they craft arguably their best single ever, “You and I,” and fill the record with easy to digest and immensly joyous pop songs like “I’ll Fight,” and the title track.

8 ) Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

“Lisztomania” and “1901” are the best one-two punch of any power pop rock record this decade has had to offer, and then the French rockers settle in for 8 more songs that are almost as good in a quick pop of a record that’s over in barely past the half hour mark. “Love Like a Sunset, pt.II” comes in halfway to the end for an instrumental track that speaks paragraphs without a word and sounds like the summation of technical progress in a mere minute and a half. “From the mess to the masses!” is the rallying cry that works even if we don’t know what it means.

7) Mos Def – The Ecstatic

Mos has a few quirks that keep him from being as great as his potential suggests, but he tones those down here to craft the best hip hop record of the year and his best personal work since “Black on Both Sides.” A quick sound bite from Malcolm X kicks things off in the opening track “Supermagic” and Mos puts the pedal down without letup for the next hour. “Life in Marvelous Times,” “Revelations” and “Casa Bey” are career highlights and no matter what the topic– Iraq, armageddon, love, peace– Mos hits his mark.

6) Passion Pit – Manners

“Manners” was the most fun and catchy album of the year and it’s one I played repeatidly from the end of June to the beginning of August. Musically it sounded perfect on beaches, boats, car rides through parks, at BBQ’s and parties, on back porches and from window speakers; lyrically it traverses lonliness, isolation and mental confusion. A very odd juxtaposition, but one that works. I guess if you just listen to the music it’s a great summer album, then you can throw it on in the fall and digest the words if you feel like bringing things down a bit! “Little Secrets,” “The Reeling,” and “Sleepyhead” are standouts, but really the whole thing works. Loud keyboards, crashing dance beats and a piercing male falsetto; internet buzz made this band a geek phenomenon and caused some snobbish critics and fans to avoid them simply because they were “hipsters.” Their loss.

5) Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
Dylan’s backing band on this record is simply amazing. The guitars, drums and accordions all sound fantastic. We’ve got a bluesy, folky, noirishly romantic waltz through Dylan’s America and it’s a good one. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin” is his best single in 20 years or so and every other song is close to it in entertainment and listening enjoyment. Lyrically, it’s not Dylan’s most notable work, but it’s a nice change of pace to hear a sparser, less wordy Dylan record. His ragged and aged voice compliments the sound and somewhat sparseness perfectly, and this one’s just a few notches shy of being as good as Dylan’s best album of the decade, “Love and Theft” and a notch above his other notable recent work, “Modern Times.”
4) Patterson Hood – Murdering Oscar (and other Love Stories)
Patterson Hood’s solo work mixes polished off recordings of decade old material– songs he wrote and lost/forgot about, recently rediscovered and recorded. He mixes those with newly written songs that counterpoint and contrast those youthful ones; thus we get the emotional gamut– anger, depression, cynicism and joy, wisdom, consideration. There are folk tales of murder (title song), personal reflections on raising children in an uncertain world (Pride of the Yankees); a scathing and supringsly neo-feminest indictment of marriage from a male perspective (“Screwtopia”) balanced by a song recently written from the perspective of a happy husband and father hoping to be a wonderful grandfather some day (“Grandaddy”). His backing band who hit the road with him to support this work is sometimes called “The Belevederes” and sometimes “The Screwtopians,” after two of the songs in this collection– whatever you call them, they sound excellent and fit this sound perfectly.
3) Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Neko Case cannot make bad music. I really think this is the case; if she can, she has yet to do so, and if she hadn’t made “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” a few years ago this would be her best work yet. As it stands, it’s a very close second to that one. “This Tornado Loves You” would be the best single she has recorded had she not sung “Deep Red Bells” at the beginning of the decade– you get it, she’s her own competition. There are no flaws on this record, and her voice soars tremendously as it always does, her lyrics are original and poetic, her musical accompaniement is top notch.
2) U2 – No Line on the Horizon
This is the U2 record I’ve been waiting for. Apparently it’s the one most music critics has been waiting for  but one less than half of  U2 fans have been, going by the generally positive critical reviews but lackluster sells and fan reception. This record has everything U2 does best and it sounds fresh and new– great dancy pop songs: “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” and “Get on Your Boots”; hard, full throttle rockers: the opening title track; religious quandrying ballads: “White as Snow,” “Cedars of Lebanon”; and the epic, long yet gorgeous and career highpoint “Moment of Surrender.” Bono was wanting to jump off from here to make the holy pondering, “take off your shoes to listen to it” type of album that has percolated in him for decades; recent news has pointed to that being a 50/50 shot now. Fans may want something lighter, but let’s hope he goes the high road and delivers progressively from here.
1) Dave Matthews Band – Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King
I predicted this would be the album of the year on my stop-gap “Best of the 2009 Music So Far” article I posted back during the summer, and now I’m posting it here making it so. It was admittedly close this year, but all things considered this one marks 2009 the best. It’s a work by a terrific band that could be coasting yet somehow found it in them to release their best work at this late date– something a lot of rock veterans seem to be doing if recent U2, Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, Wilco and Green Day records are any indication. DMB are consistently good, occassionaly average, and every now and then excellent– this one hits excellent and pretty much stays there. To commemorate the death of their late, great sax man LeRoi Moore who died this year in an ATV accident, the album opens and closes with wailing notes he laid down before his unfortunate demise. The first full song to kick things off is “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” the best single they’ve had since the ’90s and the most energetic one possibly ever. “Funny the Way It Is,” the single that was released to promote this album follows, and it’s one that has grown on me the more I hear it; I didn’t care for it at first, something lyrically felt off, but now in context of the full album it works perfectly. “Lying in the Hands of God,” “Why I Am” and “Time Bomb” showcase Dave mulling over religion and God in deep, searching, loving, doubting, struggling, hoping and angry ways. “Alligator Pie” and “Squirm” pinch in a little cajun sound and rock out.”Dive In” is a perfect, cynical political and cultural critique. There’s not a wasted note, word or melody to be found here.

I do concert reviews here on RATDOTL when I catch a show worth commenting on, and occasionally I receive a comment from someone who stumbles across my blog and happened to see the same show. I’d be very surprised if that happens with this one, because the show I’m reviewing was to a very limited audience in a place a bit out of the way.

I’m an avid fan of the Drive by Truckers. I’ve seen them twice in concert—once for the Brighter than Creation’s Dark tour, once co-headlining with the Hold Steady for Rock and Roll Means Well.  I rave about their shows, their albums and their live DVDs on this site quite often and BTCD took the number one spot for album of the year here last year. Patterson Hood released a superb solo album earlier this year, Murdering Oscar (and Other Love Stories) and in support of that album he’s been on tour with the musicians that helped him bring it to life (called the Belevederes and the Screwtopians alternately). I found out on Facebook that he would be performing at the Zodiac theatre in Florence, Alabama the night before Thanksgiving to a limited audience and I knew I had to go. At the show, Patterson Hood explained that he had been to see a play at the Zodiac on a school field trip when he was a kid and had thought it would be cool to play a show there; years later, in town to visit his dad for Thanksgiving, he got to do just that. His touring band wasn’t with him, so he spent the night performing solo, alternating two acoustic guitars into two giant speakers. Although every member of DBT has a distinctive style and an immense amount of talent as songwriters, vocalists and guitarists, Patterson Hood has always been my favorite of the three current leads. It was amazing to see him pick his way through solo songs and tracks from various DBT albums. He’d take time to explain when he wrote a particular song and what it’s inspiration was. He’d stop to take a quick pull of whiskey, remarking that he was “fighting off a cold with all the medicine I can get.”

The sound was terrific; I’ve never heard an acoustic set so clearly and powerfully. The small theater worked great with the sparse amplification he was using. Generally I don’t sit down at shows, but theatre seating for a thing like this was the only way to go. The set list was one I’d love to have on CD; I’ve tried to piece it together in i-Tunes, but I wish I had the actual versions from the show recorded. I encourage everyone to check out  anything DBT related, but I realize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I can’t help but encourage the music though, because this is truly one of this generations best groups of songwriters performing some of the best rock and roll still being made. The band as a whole and Patterson Hood as a solo artist are unequivocally authentic– they sound like where they’re from, they write from where they are and they deliver something real. Like I said, it’s not for everyone. The songs are sung in thick southern accents with sometimes out of key voices — as Hood mentioned in the show, “sing along, doesn’t matter if you’re out of key– I am too.”  Yet if you’re a staunch country fan only–classic, alt or new pop–you’re apt to not like it either, because it’s often loud, messy, sometimes vulgar, often deep, messy and complicated. Hood and the Truckers cover southern history, race politics, rock mythology, southern crime syndicates, murders, family feuds and also love stories, family stories turned into songs and tales of debt, drinks, work, nature, doubt, fear, helplessness, hope, marriage, lust and regret. There’s not a one word description of the genre; I tell people it’s punk-country southern hard-rock folk music. Sounds heavy and loaded, but it’s all of these things in a bubbling melting pop. The truckers have done nothing but get better, each album one-upping the last. Patterson’s Murdering Oscar from this year emerged from some of his earliest songs put on cassette and recently rediscovered and re-performed mixed with his middle-aged and thoughtful counterpoint replies to those earlier songs. In the Zodiac show he performed his scathing indictment of marriage, “Screwtopia” followed by his recently written adult reply, “Grandaddy”  which he said he wrote from his “older and hopefully wiser viewpoint.” The set list included  many of Patterson’s great DBT album cuts– “The Living Bubba,” “Heathens,” “The Opening Act,” “My Sweet Annette,” “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife,” as well as tracks from the new solo album and songs like “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues,” and “The Great Car Dealer War” from the new rarities collection.

The Zodiac show was a lucky and great experience for me. It was such a relaxed event, walking right by him as he spoke with friends and fans, sitting right by the stage as he spoke to us like neighbors. Although this was a one-off, I highly recommend to anyone reading this to catch him with the backing band as he resumes the Murdering Oscar solo tour which runs through spring 2010. It won’t be an acoustic set, but it’s like seeing the Truckers any time; each show is different and well worth the price of admittance. The fact that you can usually see these folks for less than 20 bucks in a venue that’s up close and personal is remarkable from a fan perspective, but it’s sad in that they deserve to fill stadiums. Could they do so and remain pure and authentic? I think so; I can picture them following the model of the Heartbreakers or the E-Street Band in that respect. Regardless, catch this show and pick up any or all of the great 2009 DBT products– The live CD/DVD pack “Live from Austin, TX,” the Patterson Hood solo record (also available on vinyl with 3 additional songs) or the great DBT rarities collection, “The Fine Print.”