Saturday, December 31, 2011

Greatest Tracks of 2011

The second installment of my music musings from the past year wastes little time getting down to business with the 15 definitive tracks of 2011.  Look closely now and you'll observe certain patterns emerging.  Two songs have carried over from my opening tracks list, and another few artists make a second appearance.  Signifiers, perhaps, of my forthcoming list of great albums?  Or maybe not.  I'm still not sure I've got that one all worked out.

I nearly went with 10.  I was there, so I thought, until another indispensable inclusion occurred to me, at which point I was more than willing to cheat and declare a tie for 10th place.  That's about when I thought of a 12th, the 13th.  And perhaps you'll forgive my lack of creativity, because this is the third time I've redrafted my intro to accomodate these choices, but I've settled in on a top 15 that I'm really rather pleased with.  One very deserving artist even snagged two spots, and many of the rest could have easily done the same.  But I think 15 is inclusive enough, so there will be none of that honorable mention silliness that would only demean this declaration of the greatest songs 2011 had to offer.  They're ranked, which is a hard thing to stand by since the order could change by tomorrow morning, but that's what I do, even without a number one a decisive as "Sprawl II" was for me last year.

And here it is, friends, for your listening pleasure.

15. "Little Cup" by Thao & Mirah (Thao & Mirah)

Quiet. Unassuming. Infectious. Staggeringly beautiful.

14. "Elijah" by Alela Diane (Alela Diane & Wild Divine)

Apologies for the poor quality.  There's not a song this year with more soul, but I sure plucked it from the depths of obscurity.

13. "Shake It Out" by Florence and the Machine (Ceremonials)

If "Elijah" has soul, then "Shake it Out" has had the soul ripped straight out of it.  It's gothic gospel with one of the greatest vocalists currently working.

12. "Bizness" by Tune-Yards (WHOKILL)

A contender for music video of the year, no doubt, but the quirky highlight of the quirky highlight reel that is WHOKILL cannot be ignored.  It was love at first listen for me.

11. "Midnight City" by M83 (Hurry Up, We're Dreaming)

Funny enough, "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" has done more to remind me that "Saturdays = Youth" ranks among the greatest albums of the last decade than it has to secure it's own place in my pantheon, but it's a mighty fine effort, and that all stems from the electronic epic of "Midnight City."

10. "Video Games" by Lana Del Rey (Born to Die)

Sleepy, but not dreamy, and yet that's entirely a compliment.  Lana Del Rey could crank out ten thousand songs all the same, and I would happy drift along with every one of them.

9. "Get Some" by Lykke Li (Wounded Rhymes)

Ferocious, that's what this song is.  It should probably be higher, if only because it could eat most of my remaining selections alive.  Pop perfection.

8. "Cruel" by St. Vincent (Strange Mercy)

As opposed to pop confection, which despite its indie rock veneer, is essentially what St. Vincent's "Cruel" is.  And I love it for that.  Did I mention the delightful music video?

7. "Only If For A Night" by Florence & The Machine (Ceremonials)

Well, you knew this was coming.  It's miraculous, really, and if Ms. Welch really has taken up that mantle of a modern day Kate Bush (which, in itself, is a bit of a paradox).  She can belt out a song like no one's business, but what really fascinates is how she seems to spring from another age entirely.  Evocative doesn't even begin to describe it.

6. "A Real Hero" by College featuring Electric Youth (Drive soundtrack)

Either the most obvious of choices or one from well outside the box, there was no way I was ignoring the most significant song from one of the most significant films of the year.  It shines and sparkles, but it also glides, and...hell, what do these words even mean?  Just watch the damn movie.

5. "Afternoon" by Youth Lagoon (The Year of Hibernation)

Glorious, hitting the heights that M83 aspired to this year (and very very nearly hit).  What it does better than anything this year is escalate, and that's got to be my most prized trait in any song.  Or better yet, album, but we will get to that soon enough.

4. "Cats & Dogs/Coeur D'Alene"by The Head & The Heart (The Head & The Heart)

The release and subsequent re-release makes this perhaps a dubious choice, but it was a band I firmly discovered in the summer of '11, and at least one of the multiple release dates falls in my favor.  Like "Afternoon," there's a tremendous build to this two-part album opener, which is still one of the greatest packages of indie folk I've ever laid ears on, Fleet Foxes be damned.

3. "The Words That Maketh Murder" by PJ Harvey (Let England Shake)

"What if I take my problem to the United Nations?"  We were long overdue for a album bursting with political fury to emerge from the UK.  Here, then, is blustery core of Let England Shake, and my oh my does it rattle.

2. "The Bay" by Metronomy (The English Riviera)

My most played song of the year by a country mile, though that may be due to the strange power it has to evoke paradise in the most unlikely places.  It's a song that transports you, perhaps to the south of England as the album title suggests, or maybe to some equally unlikely paradise.

1. "Desire" by Anna Calvi (Anna Calvi)

A total vocal explosion with the force of a hurricane.  It sits nicely on top, if only because it seems more singular than so many songs before it.  Most artists, there was at least some debate in my mind as to which song of theirs felt most at home on this list, but to listen to Calvi's self titled album is to instantly gravitate to the deeply hued "Desire."  There were no easy choices across these rankings, but if a number one had to emerge (and that is the point, is it not?) then this is as fine a choice as I could have hoped for.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Opening Tracks of 2011

It's always list season here at the Library of Babel, but were there an official list season, it would now be in full bloom, what with the imminent end of 2011 a mere week away.  Now while it's true that the past month or so has been largely spent overdosing on Oscar bait, the movie list will have to remain on the back burner, as I bide my time, once again, to upstage the Academy and their silly little ceremony.  Yet somehow, I've actually found the time to take in an album or two, and the result is the paltry series of notable tunes to follow.

I'm by no means an expert here.  I've listened to a fraction of what was great in 2011, and stumbled upon more than a few favorites thanks primarily to the generous recommendations of friends, both real and existing only on the internet.  Given my impaired scope, I had thought to limit this to a simple Best Tracks/Best Albums kind of deal, but low and behold, a trend emerged.

2011 was a damn good year for the Opening Track.

You can probably name a few off the top of your head.  The year's most memorable single, for one.  Or the opening teaming of two pillars of rap, right alongside a rapidly rising star.  Or the title track off the year's most timely, politically charged album.  And what better way to launch into awards season than with a tribute to the album opener, presented here as 10 tremendous tracks that proved to be tough acts to follow (at least half are the best songs on their respective albums).  Some will resurface later on my Best Tracks of '11 list, others mark the only appearance by their artist this time out.  All can be proud to take part in these opening ceremonials.  Commence the fanfare.

10. Perth - Bon Iver (Bon Iver)

9. Don't Carry It All - The Decemberists (The King is Dead)

8. Youth Knows No Pain - Lykke Li (Wounded Rhymes)

7. To Begin - Alela Diane (Alela Diane & Wild Divine)

6. No Church in the Wild - Kanye West & Jay-Z featuring Frank Ocean (Watch the Throne)

5. Rolling In The Deep - Adele (21)

4. Let England Shake - PJ Harvey (Let England Shake)

3. Intro - M83 (Hurry Up, We're Dreaming)

2. Only If For a Night - Florence & The Machine (Ceremonials)

1. Cats & Dogs/Coeur d'Alene - The Head & The Heart (The Head & The Heart)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hugo: Or, Young Scorsese in Love

 Oh, hello.  I swear I didn't mean to set down the pen for so long.  It's actually been a very eventful few months.  There was much frolicking around the New York Film Festival, and my extensive foray into the films of '11 has kept pace ever since.  I've even managed to work in some revival screenings of favorites - the exhilarating Raiders of the Lost Ark, the mesmerizing Red Desert - so suffice it to say I've been having a good year.  And yet it's telling that it took a film like Hugo to inspire me to reopen the Library after what has been my longest absence since I first got it up and running.  Hugo, you see, is my favorite kind of film, a movie fueled solely by a burning passion of movies, and as such, it's a movie about falling in love.  That is was made by the reigning cinemagician of the day was just too perfect.  And now, awestruck and inspired, I've returned to recount what dazzling sights I've now seen.

You likely only know the vaguest details about Hugo, Martin Scorsese's first sojourn into the family film, and perhaps more significantly, the current 3D craze.  Residing within the walls of a Parisian train station is a mischievous waif who embarks on what's sure to be a wild and magical adventure.  So the trailer indicates.  That it reveals little else is just as well, for it allows even those who get a whiff of what's coming derive not-insignificant wonderment from the artfully handled reveals.  But I've already made up my mind to lay the cards on the table, so while this is not a film which hinges on any grand twist, should you prefer to remain in the dark, now is the time to turn away.  Just do so with my most enthusiastic endorsement on your mind.

Down to business.  Movie about movies come in all colors.  There are the clever, insider baseball kinds (The Player), the ones who take rapture in the creative process itself (8 1/2), and the one's that do or die based on your tolerance for name-checking (hi Quentin!).  And on the rarest of occasions, there are those that lovingly crafted odes to the medium itself, which without fail win me over every time, whether they're maudlin (Cinema Paradiso), erotic (The Dreamers), or practically perfect in every way, which I may prematurely be stating, is how I'm feeling about Hugo.  I mean, this film gets quite literally to the core of the medium, what with a budding cinefile stumbling upon the aging George Melies in (of course) a fucking train station.  And no one but no one was better suited to bring this story to the silver screen than Marty Scorsese, as not a director alive (save Godard...perhaps) possesses a better command of film grammar, nor a more deeply rooted love for his chosen profession.

And we're back again to love (or have we ever left the topic?).  Here it's a quantifiable object emanating from every frame of the film, though how much of that translates to each member of the audience will vary considerably.  While in no way inappropriate viewing for kids of any age, I suspect many will find the first half especially an exceptionally nice nap.  More than a few adults will sympathize with this as well, but I don't doubt that those who have a genuine love for movies will find within Hugo the ultimate validation for their obsession.  Here we get an automaton reminiscent of Metropolis, and our hero hanging Harold Lloyd style from a clock hand, and a runaway train breaking off the rails (and through the 4th wall!) as it careens through the station.  And of course the great Melies himself, illuminated late in the film though the most magical and heart-wrenching flashbacks you'll ever lay eyes on.  The honest devotion of Scorsese's achievement is enough to silence any cries of pretension, and those who find it overlong, my reasoning is that I'd rather spend a slow hour in a world as enchanting as Hugo's than a quick one anywhere else.  The movie isn't too long.  Your attention span is too short.

I haven't even scratched the surface, have I?  Perhaps some specifics then.  The cast populating Scorsese's Parisian snow globe circa 1930 is an absolute dream.  As Hugo, Asa Butterfield makes the ideal mirror image of any young artist or dreamer, not the least of whom would be Marty himself.  Chloe Moretz provides a nice foil, what with her literary aspirations aligned to counter his cinematic ones, and she delivers with great relish a handful of precocious adjectives ("clandestine" being my favorite).  There is Christopher Lee in a marvelous brief turn as a bookseller and Michael Stuhlbarg nearly stealing the show later on in full film preservationist glory.  We all could have used a little more Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, but their parts were the minor details that really elevated the show, and love him or hate him, Sacha Baron Cohen has all the mannerisms of the stars of silent cinema in his bones, and nowhere has this daring been put to better use.  Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory are better still.  They're situated right at the emotional crux of the only film this year to bring tears to my eyes (three times, but who's counting?) and they breath such humanity into Georges and Jeanne, but also sadness, fear, and eventually wonder.

Technically, Hugo is no less an achievement.  Scorsese's use of 3D is never flashy, and if not absolutely crucial to the viewing experience, here marks one of the few instances where I've found it add to, as opposed to cheapen, the overall impact.  Thelma Schoonmaker's editing reaches new heights in the artfully constructed flashback sequences, Robert Richardson's photography thrives from being ever curious of its surroundings, and Howard Shore's score may even top his exceptional work in A Dangerous Method

But my superlatives are starting to sound silly.  It's abundantly clear by now that I love movies that love movies, and that Hugo is practically my new gold standard.  But while I'm here telling, Scorsese is out there doing a bang up job of showing, and you really won't find a better argument for why movies can mean so much to people than this film here.  And so that's what brings me back to this site, hopefully with a little more frequency, but certainly with a reignited passion for the medium I'm writing about.