The future is over-rated.

Though I could make a “things I hate about social media”  list (posting and commenting on stories without reading them, constant outrage at what celebrity Z said about Y, knowing what a kid in 3rd grade I never saw again thinks about the Democratic party) this isn’t that article. Like I wrote last time, I like some outlets more than I used to and enjoy them (Goodreads, Yelp) and others less than ever (Facebook) but I appreciate keeping up with friends—I can think of several friendships that if it’d been down to the pen and postal service or the long-distance phone call we’d long ago fell out of touch. Likewise, though I recoiled (a bit) at the new CNN ad for “the Nineties” in which it begins with a CD inserted into a top-shelf stereo component—I couldn’t help but think (crappy song choice aside) mock it all you want, that sound quality is miles ahead of what most people are blaring from their smartphones or Bluetooth speakers today (as they obsessively skip from song to song). I love my CD set up, prefer a full album played on CD in my car on the way to work in the morning, and love my LP set up even more…but, I do love the heck out of Spotify, personalized mixes, and the money saved by exploring artists without purchasing an album first. No, this article is about how the future is overrated in another way. Sure it’s over-rated in that: (a) I still don’t have a jet pack; (b) Trump is president; and (c) and we still can’t cure the deadliest diseases. But a more simplistic way it’s over-rated is with movies. Not that they suck, there are good ones every year. But watching Andy Cohen’s “Then and Now” the other night the panel mentioned how huge Blockbuster used to be and then it imploded (though they neglected to mention the curious growth of Family Video around the south and Midwest in recent years). Now you can access any movie from home without leaving the couch” they said.

Hmmm…..

I am fortunate I know in that with a living wage and a spouse who earns likewise I can afford to pay for not only cable but streaming services. I spent my college years and twenties cutting those expenses and for the most part didn’t miss them too much at the time. Busy, other options, etc. But to have them is nice especially in the modern era with DVR and on-demand. I know when I’m working out on the exercise bike I can flip on my recordings and catch up on my choice of news, binge-worthy episodic TV, or special interest programming. Not only that, I can pull up Amazon, HBO or Netflix and choose from thousands of options. Seriously thousands, you can get lost for an hour in any one of those portals just trying to determine what you want to watch.

On cursory glance you’d think Cohen and company were right—everything is at your fingertips. As a continual Netflix subscriber I once jettisoned a few boxes of my DVD collection. Many of those were all I had to choose from in the days of no cable and Ramen. Why keep them all? There’s always something on Netflix. But a curious thing happened: TV got good. What used to be a “slumming it” domain for writers, directors and actors became cutting-edge. There have always been some “good shows” and there have always been plenty of crap that condescends to the lowest common denominator. But suddenly, following the lead of shows that began to hint at efforts of scope, intricacy, grandiosity and TV artists taking their craft seriously (BTVS, West Wing, The Wire, Sopranos) there was a steady stream of quality, acclaimed and ultimately addictive TV. First on the premium channels but then on many of the networks and basic cable channels, then on the streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu).

What happened next was that companies like Netflix—who were supposed to be our go-to video store—began to cut their budget for films to free up money for more shows and most expensively, making their own shows. Suddenly there were fewer and fewer movies in the stream. By this point Blockbuster was out of business, Redbox sprang up to at least give you a way to rent the new-to-disc releases, and you’d long since cancelled your disc subscription to afford all the damn streaming services.

Which brings me to my whole point and the focus of my next several posts: shows are great and all. I mean, I loved the Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. I enjoy (current) Better Call Saul, Einstein, American Gods. I rarely get the urge to straight up “binge” a show anymore though I like a good, solid show that has 3-5 seasons of quality and wraps up in a satisfactory manner. I like watching them in weekly chunks as they happen or if they’re finished an episode here and there. But I was missing movies again. We go to see the major films we want to see in theaters but certainly not everything that comes out. Netflix (or Amazon, HBO) get a set of new choices each month (and drop a few with each addition) but we’ve spent many a night scanning through and though ultimately finding something it was usually not what we set out looking to watch.

Then I got the urge to revisit some old horror movies—to watch the entire franchise of several series’ (Friday the 13, Halloween) and the filmography of several directors (John Carpenter, David Cronenberg) to see how the ones I knew held up and how the ones I’d never seen were. I’ve always been a horror fan and had a (modest) collection of them on Blu-Ray or DVD but I suddenly had a long list of things I wanted to see….and only about 5% of them were available on any of the cable or streaming options I have. There’s actually a horror-specific streaming service (Shudder) and most of them weren’t even on that (though I was loathe to pay for another service anyway). This “everything is available from your couch” was proving to be laughable. Of course, throw on iTunes or Amazon and you can rent or buy digital copies of most films…$4-7 to rent, $8-30 to “own”. So there’s that. If I’m going to pay $4 to have digital access to a film for 24 hours or so fine but if it’s an old favorite and I can physically own it to watch when I want, as many times as I want, in better picture quality (if blu), and with commentary and bonus documentaries for a few dollars more I’m going to opt for that. But back in the day I could rent any older movie for $1-2 from the local video store.

So over the past 6 months or so I’ve picked up random horror films on blu and DVD, some from thrift shops here and there for 2 bucks, some from ebay when the price is right. I’ve enjoyed watching them and have ranked them for my own fun. Which is the best in a given series? How do competing series stack up against each other? My upcoming posts will showcase ranked horror franchises, observations I’ve made from watching how horror changed from the ‘50s-today, etc. I hope to do the same for other genres in future years—crime/noir, sci-fi/fantasy, action, comedy. So if that’ s your sort of thing, stay tuned.

My Top TV of 2016

December 11, 2016

It didn’t occur to me until compiling this list that for the first time ever I had more viable choices to winnow through picking the best TV of the year than I did movies of the year…I actually had trouble coming up with 10 solid films for that list (more on that in that entry) which hasn’t been the case ever. But TV…between premium cable options, Amazon Prime, and Netflix in addition to network TV struggling to stay competitive in that arena there were lots of choices for quality, exceptional television this year.

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10) Blackish/The Goldbergs (tie)

I’m calling spot 10 a tie for the (IMO) two best traditional network sitcoms running. Blackish takes the traditional family sitcom and injects each episode with a level of seriousness and topical awareness that hearkens back to All in the Family but from a wholly African American perspective. The Goldbergs takes the family sitcom and douses it in heavy (but non-cloying) nostalgia by setting the action in the 1980s and focusing each episode tangentially around a key pop-culture or historical aspect of that decade. Both shows succeed based on stellar performances and authentic heart.

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9) Frequency

There were oddly a handful of shows this year that remade old movies in serial yet updated form (Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, etc.). One that worked for me was Frequency which is an update of a 2000 movie about a son who talks to his dead father via ham radio and the “butterfly effects” that flow there out of. The CW update revamps the story a bit, stretching it out and lathering it in two era settings and substituting a female detective daughter (played by Peyton List) for Jim Caviezel’s original role. I’m just a sucker for time-travel tales that deal with the consequences of action so that’s likely what sold me on this show but I enjoyed every episode thoroughly.

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8) Better Things

While I certainly missed having a new season of Louie this year, Better Things was the next best thing. Louie C.K. is on board as a co-writer and co-creator in this, Pamela Adlon’s  (who played Louie’s romantic foil on a few seasons of that show) version of that show’s concept of an honest, artsy, uncomfortable single parent show this time from a a mother’s perspective. Adlon plays Sam Fox, mother of three daughters and working actress in L.A. Better Things shares the wit and unconventional nature of Louie while also being totally its own unique self.

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7) Luke Cage

While we approach superhero critical mass at the cinema, on network TV and now on Netflix as well, Luke Cage emerges in much the same way as last year’s Jessica Jones did–by using the trappings of “superhero” to tackle something much bigger. That’s what the best modern superhero comics do and that’s what Netflix has found a way to do that big budget pictures do not. Luke Cage is a fully realized world complete with great textures, environment and sound (that soundtrack tho!).

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6) Better Call Saul

A spin-off like this shouldn’t work but it does. Breaking Bad was one of the best shows in history and rather than repeat the formula here, this show takes its own direction. Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as the crooked lawyer Jimmy McGill (Saul) but we see his origin  and that of other Breaking characters unfold naturally and somehow surprisingly. A great comedy noir and character piece that would have been unheard of ten years ago.

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5) Atlanta

Man, this was Donald Glover’s year. What with the surprise release of a Childish Gambino album at the end of the year that was straight on ’70s soul funk perfection to cap off a year when his baby project Atlanta launched to critical and commercial success, he should be celebrating. Atlanta was a blast in so many ways and it’s unapologetic both in its authenticity and its unapologetic refusal to moralize or simplify. Great cast, great soundtrack, totally timely.

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4) Bosch

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite crime writers working today. His Lincoln Lawyer and Harry Bosch series’ have both been reliable reads every year for the past couple of decades. Mainstream accessible pop-crime fiction that doesn’t insult your intelligence in the way say James Patterson does. Anyway, here we have his titular creation Harry Bosch brought to the screen–and it works completely thanks to Titus Welliver. Two seasons in we see a cop show that deals with the real issues facing such an institution today being addressed while also handling character development and big-budget action all the while.

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3) Stranger Things

The 1980s are the go-to focus for nostalgia seekers today–the best episode of Black Mirror (see below), the focus of one of the best comics today (Paper Girls), the setting for one of our best current sitcoms (see above), the source for synth and beat and sample inspiration (see a lot of current popular music). To that note, Netflix’s Stranger Things banks on the celluloid memory and loves of a couple generations by nodding to E.T., Indiana Jones, The Lost Boys, Monster Squad, Firestarter and a ton of others in this year’s smash Stranger Things. It would be pandering to fanboy and fangirl biases if it weren’t so damn entertaining and well executed. Such a good cast, such a good original soundtrack (not even considering songs, I’m talking the score by Survive who made two great soundtracks and an original album this year all worth your time) such an exciting story. Worthy of a binge and a re-binge.

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2) OJ Simpson: Made in America

Some folks threw this in their best movie list as it is a documentary, but as it was serialized across 5 installments on ESPN I’m counting it as TV. The 30 for 30 series is dependably solid even for those of us who aren’t sports junkies (Believeland this year was also superb) but with Made in America ESPN upped their game to the next level. It was the year of revisiting 90s news but particularly OJ Simpson’s story. I didn’t catch the biopic recreation but I did tune in for all 10 hours of this documentary and found it superb from first shot till last. Not only do we get the full scope and history of OJ’s tragic personal story arc, we get the entire historical and sociopolitical implications of his story from race relations in the 1970s through the police state of Compton in the 1980s on through Rodney King and the impact of the verdict itself. This is a nuanced, full on examination of everything OJ from his humble beginning through his historic trial and beyond and the issues raised are worth our reexamination today more than ever.

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1) Black Mirror

Netflix picked up the British sci-fi cult favorite that depicts dystopian near-future scenarios and though they only released six episodes this season those six episodes were the best of the show thus far. Each episode was perfect in pretty much every aspect and each was all too plausible in its scenario from the extreme impact of social media in the near future (“Nosedive”) to 3D violence in video games (“Playtest”) and the desensitization of soldiers (“Men Against Fire”)…heck even the disappearance of the bees tied in with the inhumane behavior of folks on the comment sections (“Hated in the Nation”). It wasn’t all grim of course. The best episode of the batch was pretty happy (“San Junipero”) as it layed out our love of nostalgia (particularly for the US 1980s) for all to see in its natural conclusion.

Honorable Mentions: Though I’m not all the way through it yet Netflix’s The Crown is truly amazing, after a crappy week of depression for everyone who loves rationality SNL gifted us the comfort and encouragement of their best episode in years  with Dave Chapelle and A Tribe Called Quest as guests, and BBC’s superb crime drama Undercover is recommended to all; while not as strong as last season Showtime’s The Affair remains compelling.

 

Best of 2015

December 21, 2015

*Note–I will likely be revising and editing this over the next two weeks but these are my top picks for albums, tv shows, movies and comics as of Dec 21, 2015.

Music  (in alphabetical order but bold are my top 10)

Beach House: Depression Cherry/ Count Your Lucky Stars                               Both records Beach House released this year, like 6 months apart, were great. I give a slight edge to Depression Cherry but likely just because I had a few other months to absorb it. The chillest yet captivating music you were apt to hear this year.

Ryan Adams: 1989

Gary Clark Jr. – The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

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Craig Finn: Faith in the Future
I enjoyed but didn’t love Finn’s first solo record. This one I love. Short and sweet with some of the best lyrics he’s ever written–including Hold Steady–but a different style than his band, much more singer-songwriter.

Deerhunter: Fading Frontier

Drive By Truckers: It’s Great to be Alive (live box set)

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Ghost: Melioria ; Lucifer – Lucifer I ; Christian Mistress – To Your Death

These three acts all in their own way brought back the best of ’70s era pre-metal/early metal traditions particularly the occult rock stains of it and made it sound fresh and new. Ghost has been at this bit awhile now and though they’re certainly not for everyone they have made their catchiest most accessible record yet with Meliroria particularly with lead single “Circe”–and who would have ever thought the band would perform on network cable as they did on Colbert’s late show for Halloween? Ghost are kind of the band fundamentalist pastors and parents thought Kiss were but actually weren’t. Ghost, with their anti-pope frontman and “clergy” band are all spectacle and tongue in cheek satanism but with undeniably catchy riffs, vocals and hooks. Lucifer on the other hand, Johanna Sadonis’ new band mines the feel of forgotten Sabbath records (particularly the excellent and underrated Technical Ecstasy), Blue Oyster Cult and a slew of female heavy “witch” rock to make a gem of an album. Christian Mistress, featuring Christine Davis’ excellent vocals and great riff after great riff edge closer to the NWOBHM scene that followed ’70s acts but bridge the gap between the two. All three records sound like classic heavy metal that fans from any metal era can appreciate.

Grave Pleasures: Dream Crash

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Horrendous: Anareta

Horrendous are the best metal act on record right now. Three albums in each excellent and each better than the last. It’s solid OSDM that hits all the highlights of classic DM bands without retreading their ground–instead it mixes in experimental highs, hooks, riffs, atmosphere and an odd sense of joy. Lyrically they find peace in absurdity and I freaking love this album.

Iron Maiden: The Book of Souls

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Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free
This one is tied neck and neck with Sufjan as my album of the year but while I may think Carrie and Lowell is the overall better record, I listened to this one quite a bit more. Isbell may be America’s best working songwriter today. “Children of Children” “24 Frames” and the title track were some of 2015’s best songs. Isbell seems to have found his own space and style in his post DBT career. I hate that those who are now flocking to Isbell aren’t by and large giving the Truckers catalog (other than maybe Jason’s songs therein) much of a go but I always felt Isbell was much more of an accessible artist than Hood though I prefer all things considered Hood and Cooley–I’d actually call them America’s best current songwriters but they don’t seem to have the reach and pop sensibility that Jason does.

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Carly Rae Jespen: Em.ot.ion

Fine, it’s some seriously sugary bubblegum level pop music. Sorry. Carly Rae was my guilty pleasure jam this year and I’m feeling less guilty with each spin because it’s just so much fun. This is some synth style 80s mall pop  filtered by way of indie rock to today’s pop radio hits but better. Carly’s voice fits the earworm hooks so well and I hear M83 in those back-beats.

Talib Kweli: F*** the Money

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Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

They say for every hip hop fan there’s a shark waiting to be jumped–that eventually mainstream hip hop will leave every fan. I kind of thought this was my time and it may still be but though I enjoyed the heck out of Drake’s “If You’re Reading This…” it wasn’t great art (though it was above average pop). Kendrick’s latest work however is, divisive as it may be and as hipster embraced as it was. By far the best hip hop record of 2015 from one of today’s strongest rappers.

Lucero: Lucero (2015 S/T)

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The Night Flight Orchestra: Skyline Whispers                                         Second only to perhaps Carlie Jae for just sheer fun, Night Flight Orchestra have been described as montage music–every song on the album could easily soundtrack an 80s movie montage. It’s fun, cheesy soaring “dad rock” without trying too hard or over reaching. This isn’t down and dirty Steel Panther style parody, this is much more subtle and unoffensive. Catchy tunes that rock in a throwback manner.

Myrkur: M

Nile: That Which Should Not Be Unearthed

Purity Ring: Another Eternity                                                                          Indie synth pop with a great hip hop undercurrent that actually works. Almost (almost) as catchy as Carly Rae.

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Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell
This one was probably my favorite record of the year even if not my most listened to. It’s simply a bit heavy and sad to listen to on a daily or even weekly basis but it’s so beautiful. Sufjan’s love letter to his deceased mother in a warts-and-all biographical lyrical narrative is set to some of the most gorgeous arrangements of his impressive career.

Tribulation: Children of Night

Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss

Movies –
alphabetical again but with a disclaimer–I’m sure I’m forgetting some great films I’ve seen and I know that about 5-10 of those I have planned to watch over the next month or two (Star Wars, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Hail Caesar, Joy) will also deserve a space on this list.

Far From the Madding Crowd
Relatively simple period piece but so good.

It Follows   The best horror film I’ve seen in five years easily.

Spotlight  – So far my favorite film of the year Great cast, captivating and important story, good on every cinematic level.

Steve Jobs –
I really enjoyed this though I know some didn’t. It’s certainly warts and all and who knows how much liberty Sorkin took to weave his trademark snappy dialogue but it’s a great character piece.

Trainwreck  – Shumer is my favorite (perhaps second to Louis C.K.) working comedian and her team up with Apatow was awesome.

Trumbo –
Sadly this is still a timely tale if we just switched the terms out a bit. Cranston is terrific.

 

TV

The Goldbergs

Homeland

Bosch

The Man in the High Castle

Jessica Jones

Master of None

Blackish

Larry Wilmore Show

Daily Show

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Comics

Killing and Dying – Arienne Tomine

Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses

Southern Bastards

Harrow County

Ms. Marvel

Nailbiter

The Fade Out

 

 

 

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I’ve been vaguely bummed out ever since Dave’s last show. My wife and I DVR-ed the last couple weeks of the “Late Show with David Letterman” and it was some of the best pure television (in a classic sense) I’ve seen in some time. Certainly each episode, especially the last, was touched with a bit of sadness as each of Dave’s favorite guests said goodbye. But it was funny, warm, and entertaining. I guess more than anything it was nostalgic in the best sense of that word (I’ve written here a few times about the dirty side of nostalgia).

Yet it’s that nostalgia I suppose that is most causing my vague sense of bummer. Dave has been on TV since I was born. He’s hosted “the Late Show” on CBS since I was a child/pre-teen. Pretty much every time I watched a late night talk show for the first 20-25 years of my life it was Letterman’s. Leno always had the top ratings but I never really met a Leno fan in my life, so that’s always confounded me (and pretty much every other fan of comedy). Of course, Leno was middle-of-the-road always making the safe jokes in a generally likable way so that’s probably the biggest explanation for his success. Letterman was a wiseass, but a loveable wiseass. My wife was an even bigger Letterman fan than I was, watching it on a pretty regular basis through her childhood and teen years. The other kids in her family and their friends were little comedy students and comedians in their own right so it’s obvious the appeal Dave had for them as he’s responsible for so much of the comedy that came after him. She even had VHS copies of his 10th and 20th anniversary specials which she  watched religiously.
But I really haven’t watched the “Late Show” other than a random moment here and there for the past 5-7 years. Watching it these past two weeks reminded me of why I loved it, but had it not been coming to an end I know I wouldn’t have tuned in. Letterman was something I always watched when I was near the TV at that time before or after a night out, when in a hotel on the road, or when up watching TV when I was home for the holidays. It’s been since my college years that I’ve caught the show much at all. Not that I replaced it with one of the Jimmy’s or Conan’s TBS show. I’m simply not up at that time since I hit 30 and work in the mornings. I’ve always caught “The Daily Show” when possible, particularly in the age of DVR as it’s a quicker next morning catch-up process (and alas my trusted news-anchor Jon Stewart is also retiring). But knowing that Dave is no longer on the air is just sad. Network TV (and TV in general) are just so different now—fractured, niche, on-demand, internet spliced for YouTube)- Dave’s show ending feels like the end of an era—and I feel older.

So thanks, Dave. You were the best to do this whole late night thing (and I’ve watched all the old Carson highlights). I hope Letterman has a long happy retirement with his family and that maybe his fans will get a chance to see him do a special or something in some capacity in the future.

A few things happened last week. Rolling Stone ran one of the best, clearest, and most exhaustive yet concise pieces about where we stand right now regarding Global Warming and how climate change will affect us over the next 16 years. The article gave sound numbers and facts that showcase further what we’ve heard (and ignored) for years, and detailed the problems true progress and reversal on this front will face up against Shell and the other Oil, Gas, and Coal profiteers of the world. Over on NPR, Florida’s Republican senator Mark Rubio criticized NPR’s funding while being interviewed by the station, making the claim that with so many other “options” public radio is no longer the necessary public service it once was. In world news, Iraq had its most violent day since the withdrawal of US troops as attacks resulted in the deaths of several Iraqi police officers and civilians. At the box office, Christopher Nolan released his conclusion to the best superhero trilogy of all time. And of course, the tragedy that will sadly always be tied to that film occurred, as many  innocent people died in a horrible manner while simply trying to watch a movie.

What do these things, if anything, have in common?

Obviously there are those who will try to link the film with the tragedy, beyond an experiential manner (because obviously the tragedy did occur at a screening of the film and the suspect did choose this particular film as the scene of his crime), in an attempt to link the art with the crime, as direct inspiration for the tragedy. The aftermath of anything horrific like this results in the old arguments that always cycle around–is art responsible for our violent society? Is the internet? Is our culture? What about gun laws vis-a-vis gun control and should we revisit the issue? What about the state of and the emphasis on (or lack thereof) mental health care in this country? As always, in the interest of “fairness,” most news-forums gave almost equal time to each of these possible “causes” so that proponents of one could nay-say proponents of the others. I say that not each of these potential causes deserves equal table time and that at the expense of one in particular another is trotted out, but more on that later. But suffice it to say for now for anyone who turned on the TV this past weekend, if you tuned to any news channel or network news hour, you likely saw only, or overwhelmingly primarily, coverage on this particular issue. You might think nothing else occurred.

The story Rolling Stone ran, “The Reckoning,” by Middlebury scholar in residence and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, which I linked to above, is well worth your time whether you’ve read much or nothing about climate change because it concisely and profoundly brings us up to date on where we now stand in regards to climate change and the threats it poses. To briefly summarize the story for our purposes here, Mckibben provides us with 3 numbers that beg our attention now: (1) 2 degrees Celsius, which is the amount scientists had previously predicted we must not pass in raising the global earth temperature if we want to avoid catastrophic changes. World leaders recently met to vow to do what they can to help keep carbon emissions low enough to avoid that 2 degree change. The trouble is, beyond being able to hold countries to their actions on this issue, is that now that number seems too high. The record heat numbers, the ecological devastation and erratic weather, the melting ice caps and the other incidents our world has witnessed over the past year has called scientists to question how much lower the degree change must really be kept to since such effects are already being witnessed; (2) 565 gigatons, which is the amount of carbon emissions which can “safely” be dumped into the atmosphere and “probably” not cause the 2 degree change, but the problem with this number is that with recent events it seems likely that even an immediate cessation of fossil fuel burning would still leave us with quite a bit of temperature change as a result of previous burning; lastly, (3) 2795 gigatons, which is 5 times the amount of our previous number and is the amount of carbon that will be released by the time the major oil, coal, and gas conglomerates are done burning through their current reserves. The major problem with this number is that it is tied to resources already on the ledgers of Shell, BP and the like. This will come from the use of fossil fuels these companies already have in reserve and already plan to use, reserves which are the foundation of the companies financial ledgers. So the problem is that even were the major Oil, Gas, and Coal companies to immediately end drilling, mining, and allocating further resources today yet still burn the reserves they already have in stock, 5 times the “safe” amount of carbon will still be dumped into the atmosphere and irrevocable, catastrophic change will occur. Yet if the big companies were told tomorrow they were not allowed to use their reserves, the reserves which their stock, trade, and financial numbers are already based on, these major companies would fold. So it is sadly obvious why BP, Shell and the like have no real interest in moving to alternative fuels even though it is possible and completely necessary for the future of our world.

As to Iraq’s recent news, further violence occurred, more intense violence than the country has seen since US forces left the area. As lives were lost and a fragile population suffered yet more tragedy, sadly similar events occurred elsewhere across the planet, in Syria for example. Mark Rubio took his time to attack  public radio and if his claims that the mainstream news media adequately reports all worthwhile current news is true, you might think such events would have been mentioned at least in passing. Rubio’s complaints are a strong recurrent far-right sentiment because apparently objective journalism which doesn’t cater to the sensationalism that the ratings game has forced even CNN into, and because public radio uses facts, analysis, and at least attempts to address issues from all sides and angles it is undoubtedly a bastion of liberal bias.

What ties all of these issues together is what I’m calling here “the politics of information.” The Colorado shooting was a horrific, terrible event. Many were killed, many were injured, and many families and an entire community will never be the same. The person responsible must be held accountable for his actions, and whatever actions that can be taken to ensure such a thing is less likely to happen in the future must be taken. The victim’s stories should be told, their memories are worth celebrating in protest to the injustice of their untimely deaths. Now, all of that said, the Colorado shooting was not the only thing that happened last week. Violence occurred all over the world; many more homicides occurred around the country the same night, many tied to gun violence. Further violence, wars, and atrocities occurred around the world. I make these statements, not to be dismissive or inconsiderate, but in contrast to many recurrent comments I’ve heard in the wake of the tragedy:

* A repeated comment made by many after this story broke was that “we can’t be safe anywhere any more.” Certainly we can never be 100%, completely safe at all times without any chance of anything bad happening to us; not here in the US and not anywhere else in the world. But “The Dark Knight Rises” screened at countless theaters around the country at midnight the same night and no other major incidents occurred. For the most part, America is still an overwhelmingly safe place to live and move around in going about our daily actions.

* The violence in Iraq exacerbated; there are places right now where it is incredibly unsafe to go outside or to conduct any daily activities whatsoever. Places throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Places in the poorest sections of our own country as well. Obviously our attention and our emotions are more drawn to something that hits us closer to where we live and that scares us because it seems much more likely to happen to us, but the  deaths of people to senseless violence anywhere and by any method is always bad, and if this one story drew such coverage, why not other stories of equal tragedy involving people equally deserving of our sympathy, attention, and respect?

* It is a disservice to those who lost their lives in this tragedy to create a media whirlwind of infamy to a deranged individual who likely sought attention more than anything in the first place. The details of every action, the screen shots of chaos, the constant repetition of this one heinous event captivated the complete control of all mainstream media last weekend. Others on the edge seeking their own infamy may very well latch on to such shock-tactic sensationalism.

Okay, now to get more at the politics of information at play here–why is a story like the Colorado shooting, which devastated the lives of hundreds and which is now far past the point of prevention and instead now in the realm of justice and punishment alone more widely covered than an event like looming catastrophic climate change that can be averted and which will devastate the lives of all of us, particularly (at first) the poorest who live in the most susceptible areas? Even in the realm of this particular tragedy, why are certain things “off limits?” Monday night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart showcased a series of clips from FOX news and statements by today’s leading conservative pundits and politicians that “now is not the time to talk about gun control.” On mainstream news outlet round-tables, in the interest of “fairness,” pointing fingers at art, such as Nolan’s film itself, was given equal consideration as talking about gun control. Now, earlier I mentioned the relative safety of life in the US in comparison to many other countries. In countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc. violence is a daily fact of life. Yet those countries are flooded with guns and are incredibly war-torn. The one major factor that jumps out as an aberration to the US’s general safety level in deviation is gun violence. Our yearly numbers regarding death due to gun violence are out-ranked only by such war-torn countries as listed above. Canada and every European country report numbers that are minuscule in comparison. And they have the same entertainment and art that we have, the same internet access, the same “culture wars.” Art is a measurement of a society, it showcases, exemplifies, contrasts, criticizes and reflects current mores, fashions, ideals, and fears. A film like “The Dark Knight Rises,” if it is good, acts as a barometer or Zeitgeist of current dialogue to craft art that is different enough to serve as escapism for us but close enough to comment subtly on our own world. It is false and unfair to give equal table time to point blame at art and to refuse consideration of revisiting our current gun laws. Certainly art can be facile, vapid, and promote a culture of materialism, superficialness and ignorance. But it cannot force one to pick up a gun and commit a crime. Yes, mental health does play a role in that only someone who is unstable could truly act in the manner this particular individual did, but mental illness does not result in instant ownership of an arsenal capable of outfitting a militia. Revisiting our current gun laws is the only thing that truly makes sense in the wake of such a tragedy so that we could try to emulate some of the countries who have very little gun violence. There is no need, not in the name of any personal freedom, that should allow private ownership of automatic weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Certainly there are other issues at stake and there are other steps to take to curb such events, but the politics of information ease serious discussion of this matter out of the picture. The NRA and the gun-rights organizations and politicians have too much money and influence to allow very much discussion on this issue in a mainstream outlet.

Moving far beyond gun violence, why is it that a serious, daily discussion on climate change and the damage it is already causing and the exponentially worse damage it is likely to cause is not part of mainstream news? The damage possible in the next 20 years will affect all of us living on this planet if proper precautions and real change is not made soon. Yet this is not covered on CNN, the local news, and certainly not on FOX. Why? BP and Shell pay a lot of money and advertise quite a lot on TV; their conglomerates and political lobbyists box in this conversation because too much profit is on the line working to maintain the status quo. If it weren’t for journalists not beholden to such companies, especially those on public TV and radio, much of this information wouldn’t make it past the science journals. Waking up the masses to the fact that we must move from coal, oil, and gas to electric cars, wind, solar and green energy or we will have no planet to leave our grandchildren is paramount; letting them know that we can make such a shift, that it is possible; that we can come out better than we were if only the right emphasis and support manifests. It will take a break in the political information deadlock to truly stir such a groundswell. Because science as fact doesn’t cut it, expressing it through art usually goes over too many people’s heads, living through a summer of 100+ and daily heat-record breaking intensity doesn’t clue enough of us in, and an issue that should never have become so political in the first place has because of money and the politics of information.

Dictionary.com defines nostalgia as “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.” Perhaps “a driving force in the political conversation” and “an erroneous reconstruction of the past resulting in a lack of progress for the future” should be added to that definition.

We all engage in nostalgia from time to time, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. Looking through old photos, telling family stories, celebrating good things from the past that shouldn’t be allowed to slip away, or recovering old memories unexpectantly when the right song comes on are all (or can be) great blessings in life. The danger of nostalgia comes when one allows oneself to live in the past and forgo the present or when one idealizes the past so much so that they forget the bad of it. This is especially dangerous when it manifests itself politically and people or parties work to reassert a past that was not really  as good for everyone as they remember it to have been and thus halts positive progress to a more viable and just future. But we’ll return to that in a moment.

Two pop-culture items exemplify the good and bad of nostalgia, they are what caused me to mull the ideas for this post. One is the classic sitcom The Wonder Years. Earlier this year Netflix added it in its entirety to the instant streaming queue and I began re-watching it an episode or two at a time. For someone in their late twenties like myself, the show is an odd multi-layered nostalgia machine. Here’s a show that was made in the 1980s depicting the protagonist’s nostalgic recollections about growing up in the 1960s. It aired on Nick-at-Nite and the like throughout the nineties and many people I know grew up seeing it there. So it’s a show that places nostalgia at the center of it’s structure and through the narrator’s “recollections” utilizes it as the active vehicle which outlines each episode and the series as a whole; furthermore, it deals with universal themes of adolescence that almost anyone can relate to, which alone is enough to induce viewer nostalgia. But in mythologising the sixties and early seventies, being a product of the eighties, and being something I remember fondly from my own childhood and pre-teen years in the nineties, it’s like an ultimate nostalgia onion. Now, certainly The Wonder Years falls victim to many of the nostalgia traps in that youth and the years in which a person’s youth took place look brighter and better than they perhaps were for everyone else, but the show does a fairly good job of at at least mentioning the struggles, problems, and tragedies of both youth and the sixties. It’s thematic organization can often result in trite platitudes and cliches, but for a sitcom in which a bit of cheese is to be expected, the show does a solid job of showcasing nostaligia in it’s more positive aspects. The other item, as a work in itself, is terrific; Stephen King’s 11/22/63 from last year is perhaps one of his five best novels to date, which is impressive for someone in their fifth decade of publishing. In it he tells the story of a man who finds a gateway back in time, one that always leads him to the same alleyway in the same town on the same day in America in the late 1950s (no matter how long he stayed in the past during his last trip in). Urged by the friend who discovered the phenomenon, he decides to set up life in that world, to wait and plan to prevent the JFK assassination. The protagonist at first revels in the positive of the past, but what first makes him jump back and really begin to see the very bad aspects of the past is when he stops at a gas station to use the restroom. Handed the key by the station attendant, he passes a “colored only” sign pointing to a trail that winds through a field. He takes a look to see where the trail turns out and sees a plank over a creek and another sign there, “For Colored Use Only.” Now of course someone from our day would be aware that such things would be present, but actually seeing them would be a clear reminder of the bad. He notes in the journal he keeps of his time in the past something akin to, “For those who think the past is all ice-cream sodas, cheap prices, and clean air just think about that plank over the creek.” The narrator in 11/22/63 finds much to love about life in the past but much to hate as well, which is the point that nostalgia too often obscures–no time was all good or all bad, not the 1950s and not today.

It’s all too often heard and it manifests itself politically through votes and misplaced activism. A friend of mine mentioned a chain e-mail he kept finding in his work computer inbox, about the “1950s were the decade that made me,” about how great those times were and that the actors were really stars, the music was real, the food was good, the air was clean, the world was safer for children to play in, with all the other usual suspects present (usually with such emails or ads, the suggestion that our current president is at least part of the problem that is moving us away from such things is inevitable). At my own workplace I heard a senior employee remark when introduced to new safety regulations that our workplace, “like the federal government,” was getting out of control with rules and that she felt sorry for her grandchildren to have been born in this day and not in hers. Now, these type of sentiments are always present in certain people as they get older; every generation stereotypically hates the pop-culture and trends of the next (or are supposed to I suppose). So sure, the argument that music, film, and actors of today are inferior to their predecessors misses the glaring point that there has always been good and bad music, good and bad films, and that of that what is not subjective is an inconsequential preference in the big picture anyway. The allegation that the world was safer in the past is simply preposterous; the world has always been dangerous, but there have always been pockets of relative safety and the odds of a child being abducted in the US today are no greater than in 1950–it’s just that today, 24 hour news coverage lets everyone else hear about it. In one of the many books detailing the modern “culture of fear,” someone once pointed out that in the ancient past when a traveller on foot walked the road between villages and was robbed, killed, and pulled off into the bushes, his acquaintances just never heard from him again–there was no news coverage to report on it and there were no police officers to launch an investigation. Now, those who yearn for the past have a point about the air and food being cleaner, but strangely they rarely connect the dots to the deregulation that has caused that to be so. Only by pro-active progress, sane regulation, and a move away from some of the practices that began back then to a way we now know is more sustainable can we reclaim the positive aspects they point out in those particular instances. Paradoxically, we must move forward to reclaim something lost.

That is where the problem with nostalgia really emerges; in the mind-sets that see the past as better and the present as terrible. Coming out of that, the political move to become reactionary, forgoing progress, and regressing in the hopes of reclaiming the past is damning. Were it contained to only some of an older generation misremembering the past it wouldn’t be too dangerous, but current political movements have tapped into that same zeitgeist, advocating and working to “reclaim” a past they never lived in at all, that in fact, never really existed. We have to be truthful when dealing with the past. Sure there may have been times in which certain groups were more prosperous and comfortable; if you were white, male, and middle-class the 1950s were pretty solid. If you were black, female, gay, poor, or an immigrant things often weren’t so idyllic. Reactionary Politics ignores the truth that for most of history, minorities and the disadvantaged have suffered disproportionately. Reactionary politics refuses to concede that tremendous advances have been made in the realm of equality–in gender equality, religious equality, and racial equality. Reactionary politics refuses to admit that despite progress in those areas there is still a long way to go in terms of real, lasting, full equality for many people and that to do so further progress (which reactionary politics always inhibit) is necessary. Reactionary politics fails to admit that of those good qualities that truly have been lost, sometimes the only way to reclaim them is, paradoxically, to move forward in new ways. Reactionary politics are the rotten fruit of a misguided and corrupt nostalgia.

All Hail the Cloud

June 1, 2012

So, every month or so Yahoo! “News” posts a story like this:   Daddy, What Were Compact Discs?

I happened to read this one while listening to the Uncle Tupelo “7 inch singles” collection i snagged at the independent- record-store promotional holiday National Record Store Day this past month. I mention it only because I found it somewhat ironic to read about the “future” of media consumption jettisoning all things physical while enjoying a product released in support of  what is left of the  “dying” brick and mortar stores. The article read like all similar such Yahoo! promoted stories of the sort, like more or less an advertisement for Apple products while once again the comment thread consisted of bickering back and forth between physical media devotees and digital stream-embracers. This particular piece was pulled from the New York Times finance section. In it, Sam Grobart predicts the very soon demise of physical media and speculates about the “what were CDs, DVDs, VCR’s, etc.” child to parent conversations of the allegedly very near future. He detailed briefly the history of the format wars, the vinyl to 8 track to cassette to CD to ipod, the film strip to BETA to VHS to DVD to Blu Ray, etc, and its history of “mostly” progression (though sometimes regression as well).

Now, I admit I can be a bit of a curmodgeon on this issue and acknowledge that I’ve spilled too much digital “ink” on something so relatively asinine. The fact of the matter is that I do love my physical media–my vinyl records, including 180-gram pressings of new albums, my CDs, my Blu-Rays, etc, but I also love the convenience of digital. I stream Netflix and use an i-pod practically every day, but I have also scraped through my phsyical collection to condense and skim every time I’ve gotten ready for a move (because boxes of records and books are indeed heavy, a selling point for which digital certainly comes out on top by a mile). When it comes down to it, I listen to 75 % of  new music via digital, whether streaming a new discovery online or syncing something to my ipod to listen to for a review. As I’ve mentioned before though, if I love an album chances are that by the end of the year I’m going to spring for the vinyl pressing or at least the CD of it. But for most albums, the cheaper more convenient digital format works just fine. Audiophiles can argue about sound quality, but at least sites like Band Camp now offer full quality digital music. Though I prefer certain music on vinyl and certain on CD (and I make the case for the delivery medium as part of the art itself in this previous post), I recognize that some of that is nostalgia, some of that is my identity as a “collector” of various things, some of that is tied up with subtle forms of “materialism.” Though I don’t think digital can replicate the feel of going to a record store on new release day, running into friends there, getting unexpected recommendations from knowledgeable and like-minded clerks, or of remembering a forgotten album while poring through and organizing your collection and throwing it on the stereo in rediscovery, or of soaking in the artwork and liner notes from a big record sleeve while that album spins, or of scouring thrift stores and yard sells for missing pieces of your collection, or of buying an album from the merch booth at a concert and seeking out a signature from the artist, or the good and bad aspect of being limited to what you have on hand and not being overwhelmed by the vast ocean of choice, or a whole host of other experiential issues, I do see the positive ways the online age has opened up the music frontier, from connecting fans and artists who are separated by continents, from exploding the options one has in discovering new music, from instant gratification of a new acquisition, and certainly even legitimate and legal digital music purchases are now for the most part far cheaper than the physical items often were (and are), especially CDs at the height of corporate price-fixing. So if the future holds only digital and the LPs and CDs are all for the collectors alone, I’ll hold on to my favorites, eventually piece together the optimal physical stereo to support them that magazines like Rolling Stone always highlight during this vinyl boom of new collectors, and find the best way to play digital music in a way that presents its sound authentically.

But what still concerns me regarding the author of the finance article’s “completely digital in the near future” prediction is this:  we’ve all seen what a financial recession can do to numbers and money that isn’t “really” there, what about art and media in a synonomous situation? I mean, I realize the “cloud” is “physical” somewhere. I trust back up and such; I use Carbonite and a detached hard drive to back up information, so a personal computer crash isn’t the threat in such a complete way as it once was, though I am always finding CDs I lost between backups as I scour my  shelves to re-rip them. But this article supposes a set of speakers streaming an online collection of music and a TV streaming all movies is the only way to go very soon. I keep thinking of all those times my Netflix decides to stop working at 10:30 every night due to whatever reason it has (I sometimes suspect Netflix of limiting output quality to make sure you don’t get too much bang for your buck). I keep thinking of that movie I want to see that Netflix doesn’t offer on the stream and then kicking myself that I got rid of it. I think about the music I try to listen to that has to “buffer” or is interrupted by ads. I think about the 2 or 3 bucks Amazon, Vudu, or On Demand want to charge for an episode of “Breaking Bad.” The point is, if digital is the near future how do we prevent limited information and media availibiltiy or price fixing? How to stop a “digital monopoly?” Netflix became the primary game on the block and then dropped half of their movies from their digital stream to focus on the cheaper acquisition of television shows. In towns that have lost video rental stores because of Netflix, someone wanting a movie from the 80’s or 90’s on a whim some Friday night is out of luck until the mail runs next week. Sure there is competition to Netflix, but it often seems like they’ve cornered the market and now I’m thankful that I hung onto my favorite movies every time I’ve consolidated my shelves. It’s why, as someone who loves and reads books for learning, pleasure, and practicality that I find it unlikely that I’ll every make the full-on Kindle jump. I don’t even have an e-reader of any kind yet. I decided before my last big move to jettison the bulk of my fictional books aside from favorites and collectibles, that paperbacks for the most part in that department were “disposable,” to save room only for those works I love, reference, and return to. So in theory I’d have no problem e-reading all my “pop” fiction but until I can get those novels and one-time-only reads of whatever genre as cheap as a thrift store or as free as a library, until the device I read them on is so disposable I could care less that it’s sun, water, or element damaged, I’m not ready for that jump yet. But the worst case scenario, for me, about an all digital future is that if all of my music, video, pictures, books, and art were floating on some cloud, or if I didn’t even “own” my entertainment merely streamed it from a provider, what happens when the internet price hikes or the music/movie/book provider doubles their monthly charge? Or I need to cut my service a month or two to save money? Or a “pulse” knocks out all wireless signals for a month, a year? There are any number of scenarios, however unlikely, that could effectively keep me from listening to a song or watching a movie or reading a book I would like to.  Far more likely though is that the equipment I use or the internet service provider my apartment owner makes me use will act up in the way my computer, no matter how new or protected, does from time to time. Whether bad weather, bad signals, or a computer virus there are times when most of us curse technology as we rewire and test out our devices so that we can make an ordinary, daily transaction or action of some sort that was done with far less technology in the not-too-distant past. That’s the reason why, other than being a bit of a curmudgeon, that many of us like at least some of our media in a physical, tactile format. I find it good that both online options are expanding and that younger collectors are discovering the warmth and enjoyment of vinyl music and turntables. I don’t want the “cloud” to be the only option; I want to go to a library, go to a movie theater, go to a record shop and interact with people and products.

*By the way, that Uncle Tupelo 7 inch singles box? Fantastic. Hearing those early songs by such an influential yet often unacknowledged band in 45 form really amps up the borderline between punk and country where they staked their ground, especially their cover of “I Wanna Destroy You.” And also? I did follow the link and enter the code from the enclosed coupon to get that free download of the box in digital form. Like I said, I like both options.

The vehicle which transmits a particular media can itself be part of the artistic expression–secondary, certainly, it isn’t on equal footing with the creator or artist but rather subtly intertwined with the expression itself as an added layer of entertainment. This is not always the case either, because the vehicle of transmission is often totally irrelevant. But when it is part of the entertainment package, the vehicle of transmission enhances the experience of a particular media item wonderfully albeit sometimes imperceptibly.

Two particular things got me thinking about this concept specifically at this time. First, I recently took a beach vacation and before going I stopped by a few local used bookstores to stock up on cheap paperbacks. Now the ideal beach read, at least for me, has to be something that is fast-paced, exciting, and page-turning and not to dense or hyper-literate yet without being dumb, poorly written or overly cliched. Thus a good beach read is by someone like Michael Connelly who detours “literary fiction” without becoming a James Patterson and does so by writing creatively and, well, “good.” Anyway, it had been a long time since I had bought fiction paperbacks; typically the sort of thing I’d want in a fiction paperback is something I’d try to find at the library; I’d resort to buying it if I couldn’t find it there, but any fiction item I purchase typically is something by a favorite author I know I’ll want to re-read and keep or something I’ve read before and know is a classic that I want to hold onto, in which case I want a nice, presentable softcover TPB or Hardcover; if a classic work of literature, I want it in an even nicer format if I can find a deal on it.  Anyway, since I was in the process of moving and thus in between libraries, because I wanted specific authors and books, and because I knew there was a high-probability that what I read on a beach would get sandy and water-logged, my best bet was purchasing these books myself.  So armed with a stack of Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Graham Joyce paperbacks I made way to the beach. Down by the water each day, I realized that there’s no better companion to a shady beach chair, a cooler of drinks, and a fifteen minute dip in the ocean every hour or two than a great paperback thriller or mystery. Certainly the story itself has to be good–the author has to suck you in, get you flipping the pages, and never drag on to bore you out of the forward momentum. You have to be dying to know what will happen next, otherwise you’ll just throw it down and zone out in the sun. But the paperback format itself adds to this enjoyment tremendously; looking around to see what other beach-goers were reading I spotted the occasional Kindle and I just kept thinking that I would be continually nervous that the water dripping off of me, the waves rolling in, the sun beating down, and the sand everywhere would have me constantly nervous that my electronic device would go kaputz and not only would I be out a hundred or more bucks, I’d be without a read for the day. Armed with a 2 or 3 dollar used paperback, I could fold the pages, toss it in the beach bag, read it while covered in sand and not be overly concerned with its overall condition–it just had to hold up for me to finish reading it. If I fell in love with the book and wanted it for my library, I could hunt it down later in hardback. Even off the beach, the perfect format for a thriller you only need to read once is the used paperback; it’s fun and perfectly sized for reading wherever you want and easily portable. I suppose the Kindle could replicate this experience better than many other reading experiences if and when the price per item is comparable but until that is a reality I’ll hold out.

The other thing that made me think of this format as part of the art argument came from a few Yahoo news story. One story was the rehashed filler they pull out every month or so, the “businesses that are as good as dead”article which names video rental stores, costume stores, etc. Record Stores made the list, with the same old reasoning that people download, and when they do buy CDs they do so cheaply in big box stores. The article said that despite what hipsters, DJs, and collectors want to believe, the indie record shops are largely on the way out except for the ones who’ve managed to adapt and adopt business methods that work in the digital economy. Conversely, there was a story a day or two later that talked about how many record shops that struggled when the bottom fell out of the CD business were gaining enough ground to level off by switching to vinyl for the bulk of their sells. Indie stores in big cities and college towns around the country now devote more of their sales floors to LPs and 45s than to CDs  and the annual “Record Store Day” event in which artists release limited edition vinyl releases directly through independent music retailers was another huge hit this year. Vinyl sales were up more in 2010 than in any year since Soundscan began taking numbers in 1990. New albums by established artists and up and coming indie acts release their albums not only on CD and download, but on at least 500-1000 vinyl pressings; vinyl reissues of albums by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Who sell very well each and every year. Such stores in areas like Charlottesville VA, Cincinnati, OH and Louisville Ky have begun stocking high quality turntables because they were tired of turning away the teenagers and college kids stumbling into their stores to buy vinyl but needing the system to play it on. Now, vinyl collectors and audiophiles have kept vinyl in business and popular for years (this even made it to film in the classic 1990s comedy “High Fidelity” based on the Nick Hornby book), but the popularity among indie rock fan teenagers and twenty-somethings has helped it boom out more than ever to such a point that artists as mainstream as Taylor Swift make sure to press vinyl editions of their new work. Of course it’s still a niche market and the price of new vinyl coupled with the limitations and requirements it poses to mass consumption will never make its sells a drop in the bucket compared to legal and illegal digital downloads. But it is interesting. The part of this prompting the argument I am making here comes largely from the comment-thread in that last story. Every time there is a “vinyl is booming” new-story, there are dozens of people commenting things like “Huh? Why?” and dozens of audiophiles posting about the superior sound quality of vinyl vis-a-vis digital. These comment threads explode into over-the-top arguments as people seem to find each others arguments completely incomprehensible. Both have their points but both miss a key aspect of this hobby too. Vinyl does offer a warmer, fuller sound when the record is clean and well cared for, the turntable is of good quality, and the amp and speakers are the correct components. The clicks and pops won’t be there on new cared-for LPs (contrary to the arguments of those never having heard a new vinyl) and on older items a few introductory pops are indeed pleasantly nostalgic. The sound on a vinyl copy of, say,  “Abbey Road” compared with every CD pressing before last year’s remastering overhaul was miles ahead–I had no idea there were as many instruments and notes in the background as there were because of digital’s habit of maxing every sound to its top volume and then leveling it flat in a digital sample onto CD. Vinyl has a particular sound, one that jazz, blues, and classic rock built itself to suit for many years so of course a Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan, or BB King record from the 1960s will sound miles ahead of its CD pressing. Yet the digital folks have their point to; properly mastered CDs sound great on the right system, are more portable and sound great cars. MP3s are enervated a bit every time they are opened to a certain extent but aren’t susceptible to human sound warping through scuffs and scratches and are the height of portability thus far. They do limit the sound by compressing it more than any format before (LPs give off sound waves, CDs sample soundwaves, mp3s compress those samples even more), but now high-quality 320 and up kpbs digital tracks are available that in most cases catch the quality of a sound recording the way it was supposed to be; the fact that sometimes that results in a high-gloss sheen that sounds “artificial” to some in comparison to the “warmth” offered by vinyl is due more to aesthetic and nostalgic sensibilities than fact. What both sides of this (admittedly to the outsider rather pointless and arbitrary) argument don’t give priority to nearly enough is the format-as-part-of-the-art fact: it certainly isn’t just sound that draws collectors and hipsters to vinyl. If I just want to hear a new album, a download is the most efficient way to get to do so, often cheap or free; I can carry it around with me and hear it in my car or with headphones. If I want a better sounding copy to carry with me most anyplace that also offers me the intended packaging, there’s CD. For me, I preview and listen and can love albums that I download but once I truly find a great one (or know beforehand it will be a great one), I don’t feel I have it in the proper format until I get it for my turntable. Not just for sound–for presentation, collection, and process. It sounds good on an old fashioned home stereo; it requires my involvement in that I place it on the turntable and put the needle to it. I hear the first and last track of the first side, which especially in vinyl-era releases was the result of a deliberate sequencing decision and then I flip it to side two and repeat the process. It requires my care in that I keep it clean and safe. It gives me a giant cover with full-size artwork and an inner sleeve, often liner notes and extras tucked within. It gives me a collectible to place on the shelf and pull down when I want to. The vinyl hobby itself sends me to new and used and out of the way places in the towns I live in or bargain hunting on line. There’s nothing better than getting a record never pressed on CD or sampled digitally or one you’d never have thought to get and getting it for a few dollars only to find out you love hearing it spin on your turntable.

Great art is great art regardless of how it is presented. Yet the vehicle of transmission can add to the joy of the experience one has when consuming such art. Certain movies look great on the big screen and are a joy to see collectively in a theater and seeing them alone at home on the TV often cannot match that. A visually stunning movie looks excellent on a a Blu-Ray player with a proper screen and sound-system and can be much more fun that trying to squint your eyes at your smartphone to watch it. A classic jazz record sounds best on the turntable; a nineties hip-hop album sounds best on CD in a car with great bass speakers. A great comic-arc reads best in a nice and carefully presented Omnibus but a one-off fun short story comic works best as a single issue. A thriller works best as a cheap paperback, a dense erudite work is best in a hardcover sewn volume. I would argue that a newspaper still reads best via newsprint but those days are almost gone. So sure, this involves primarily matters of opinion and personal taste and I’m sure there’s an entire generation of kids growing up right now who will find no problem digesting every bit of their media with a handheld device. Perhaps by then every bit of media will be created and be tailored for display on such a device and thus be unfit for presentation in any other way. But for now, in the supposed last days of physical media there are still things that work best in the format they were created in and for; and hey, if the digital pulse ever comes knocking out all RF, satellite and wi-fi signals those of us with any digital media at all might be able to use our collectibles as widespread currency ala “The Book of Eli.”

2010 Addendum (Last Recap)

January 6, 2011

As always, I find myself with odds and ends that did not make it on any of my year-end “best of” lists but warrant a mention anyway, so I have one last catch-all post to highlight those items.

First, I did not manage to catch “The King’s Speech” prior to ranking my favorite films of 2010, but managed to finally view it last week. I’m not sure where it would have made it on my list if I’d seen it sooner–arguably right in the middle, but anywhere on the list would have forced my tenth slot, “The Town,” off of the list and into the “honorable mentions” category. “The King’s Speech” is a truly wonderful film, full of humor and heart. Colin Firth is an excellent actor as always, giving a performance that ranks with or quite possibly is his single best yet as “Bertie,” or Albert, or the man who adopts the title of “King George VI” when his brother deserts the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. The friendship he cultivates with his speech therapist Lionel Logue (played terrifically by Geoffrey Rush) is the core of the movie, but everything about this one clicks from the expertly crafted sets that recreate England in the 1930s to the marital relationship of Albert and his wife (another fine performance from Helena Bonham Carter), the charming look at Princess Elizabeth and Margaret’s childhood, etc. Every performance is out-of-the-park, and writer David Seidler and director Tom Hooper manage to craft suspenseful scenes out of public addresses as Firth gives his heart and soul (as George) into attempting public speaking–who could have thought a battle to overcome a speech impediment could rank with the best of “the big game” style scenes from sports movie classics?

I never do a TV best-of, primarily because I rarely catch a show all the way through as it debuts–my favorite shows from the past few years (The Wire, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Breaking Bad) were all viewed way after the fact via Netflix, but I did catch AMC’s “The Walking Dead” from the beginning each Sunday night this year and was thoroughly impressed. I enjoy Robert Kirkman’s Image comic that this is based on, and the entire premise that makes that series work is that it is a detailed, in-depth look at the survivors who have to live in the world at a time after the spot most zombie movies roll the credits–a film adaptation of this simply wouldn’t work, it would miss the point. So this AMC approach is phenomenal, it gets to adapt this story in the format that the comic did. Not only that, by having years of material to draw from, the series can know where each player will end up and thus be more certain of their portrayal early on. This show was harrowing and taut, wonderfully acted and shot uber-creepy. The first episode was arguably the strongest, but each of the six from this first season had plenty to offer whether psychological or visceral, action or drama, focused on the zombies or the internal human threats. I look forward to the second season and hope that the director’s idea to move from a writing round-table to a BBC style freelance script submission will prove to be a good move.

I still heartily recommend Stephen King’s “Full Dark, No Stars,” which I reviewed here. It was his best book in years. I’ve had a blast playing “Red Dead Redemption” on the PS3, I’m sure many gamers have reviewed that one all across the web so I’ll add nothing to that other than say it’s a lot of fun. Also, “Scalped,” “Northlanders” and “The Unwritten” continue to be some of the best ongoing series Vertigo has put out into the comics field in some time and they deserve a shout-out even though their particular runs for this year didn’t make the top 10.

 A few more albums that didn’t get listed on my best of but deserve a listen: Eric Clapton: Clapton, Elton John and Leon Russell: The Union, Vampire Weekend: Contra, Ra Ra Riot: The Orchard, Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch: The Social Network Soundtrack, Danzig: Red Deth Saboth, High on Fire: Snakes for the Divine, Girl Talk: All Day, BoB: No Genre, Hold Steady: Heaven is Whenever, Gil Scott-Heron: I’m New Here

Woe is Me, The Grammys 2010

February 1, 2010

Dropping the ball, making bad choices, and a few bright spots……

Expecting worse than I got, I remember writing a fairly moderate appraisal of the Grammys last year. I never expect much, so anything good is a plus—but I’m still amazed at the results sometimes.

No offense to Taylor Swift, who seems like a perfectly nice young girl, but “Fearless” is not album-of-the-year material by any respectable measure.  She shows promise, and she has obvious talent and massive appeal for a target audience. Giving her the top honors at the CMAs was too much considering she’s more truly a pop star, but giving her full album of the year is puffing up a young artist far too much, far too soon. She needs to grow a bit, broaden the scope of her diary-penned lyrics and show us what she really has. She’s a good 5 to 10 years away from a best album, but she will get there if she keeps it up; I just think she’s getting too much too soon, which hopefully won’t result in burn-out. The only nominee for best album worth its nomination was “Groo Grux King” (sadly mispronounced by John Legend in the reading of nominees), and it truly deserved the award; at least DMB got to give a good performance.

Best New Artist is always a joke—whoever wins usually disappears, never to be heard from again, so I guess I shouldn’t be too upset that MGMT lost to Zac Brown Band; MGMT was the only artist on the list of nominees with a near-perfect debut album, but I guess they were simply too hip for the middle-of-the-road Grammy’s. Zac Brown cheesed it up for the cameras, unfurling the American flag in a song shouting out to the troops, the veterans, cold beer, a mother’s love and “jeans that fit just right,” in a song penned strictly for middle-American success, but OMIGOD, is that Leon Russell, assisting them straight from brain surgery! A true rock-country icon enhanced their performance and probably went unrecognized by most viewers.

Best Rock Album went to Green Day for “21st Century Breakdown.” A fine enough album, but maybe they got the award belatedly for their true masterpiece “American Idiot.” Sadly, DMB didn’t get even this for “Groo,” and the amazing “No Line on the Horizon,” U2’s best in almost 20 years, didn’t either.
Best Rap Album, an award we didn’t even see given, apparently went to Eminem’s “Relapse,” an album so atrocious Eminem has even publicly disavowed it, stating that he had still been “getting the drugs out of [his] system.” In years past, yes, he would have deserved this award. But for a rehashed album of serial killing and pop star-baiting, no. At least the true best hip hop album of the year, “The Ecstatic,” by Mos Def, got a nomination.

Taylor Swift won the country award, over real country legend George Strait. Dylan lost the award for Americana album (which is like Jordan losing an award for basketball); other great nominees in that category (Lucinda Williams, Wilco, and Willie Nelson) lost as well. The winner? Levon Helm.

Tragedy of tragedies, the regrouped Spinal Tap lost to…Stephen Colbert (for comedy album).

The Black Eyed Peas gave a god-awful performance. How is this band this huge? It boggles my mind. I blame it all on Fergie—the rest of the group has talent. They added Fergie, dropped the talent and then they began to sell records. Fergie raps and talks about “I’ma be blingin” and I cringe— I get physically embarrassed for her and for her fans in light of her horrendous attempt at hip hop, her flow is horrid. BEP have become the hip hop version of Creed.

What was with Quentin Tarantino? Talking about a blues legend and then announcing the Hip Hop performance, Quentin proved once again that despite being a great filmmaker, he’s a moronic douche sometimes. Was that a faux urban, hip hopish accent he was going for? It reminds me of when he fought with Spike Lee and told Lee that he “knew black people and culture” better than him…hmmm….

Let’s move on, shall we? Bright spots?
Beyonce. I admit it, she’s crazy good. Big, fun, silly pop songs that are insanely catchy and that don’t quickly grow to grate on your nerves are her specialty. She makes fun songs, dances great, looks great and deserved the clean-up she made with her six awards. The performance by Drake, Lil Wayne and Eminem was pretty fantastic—or at least it would have been had it not been bleeped out to protect our sensitive ears resulting in us missing half of each verse. It was nice to see Em back, free of his Rehab fat and really spitting—here’s hoping Rehab 2 is actually good. Lil Wayne can cool off in jail and hopefully learn to write about more than pot and BJs, and Drake can continue his ascent to hip hop superstardom. Elton and Gaga together was entertaining—Jeff Beck on stage was cool. Kings of Leon won Record of the Year, Phoenix won alternative album of the year.

Okay, next year—let the winners give their speech, actually show their acceptance, and hire a more diverse group of voters. Please, Grammy’s?