Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Top Ten Songs of 2012

As always, this year's song list is made up of tracks  that didn't appear on any of my favorite albums, so check out the best tracks recommendations from that list to find a number of other song highlights from the year. Below, my favorite songs of 2012:

10) Killer Mike - "Reagan"
My favorite track from Killer Mike's excellent album R.A.P. Music, "Reagan" is about conspiracy theories and political distrust, all told over a magnetic beat.

9) M.I.A - "Bad Girls"
MIA returns with one of her best songs in years, full of the swagger and aggression that made her a star in the first place.

8) Jesca Hoop - "Born To"
Part alt-folk song, part pop jangle, "Born To" is a song about loss that brims with life.

7) First Aid Kit - "Emmylou"
Leave it to two Swedish sisters to pen a fitting tribute to Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, and June Carter with their beautiful harmonies and delicate melody. 

6) Tanlines  - "All of Me"
This Brooklyn duo made a few electronic pop earworms in 2012. "All of Me" was the best of them.

5) Chairlift - "I Belong in Your Arms"
The most romantic song of the year, "I Belong in Your Arms" is a perfect slice of 80s synth-pop. 

4) Titus Andronicus - "In a Big City"
Jersey's Titus Andronicus make big punk sounds with big emotions. It's tough not to get swept up in their passion.

3) Heartless Bastards - "Parted Ways"
Heartless Bastards would likely have come in 11th on my top albums list, but I figured I could use the omission there to highlight one of my favorite songs of the year, a rollicking ditty that takes full advantage of Erika Wennerstrom's uniquely powerful voice.

2) Hospitality - "Friends of Friends"
Brooklyn indie trio Hospitality write indie pop songs about their lives as 20 somethings in New York, none better than this song about an ending romance and the desire to mask hurt feelings.

1) Chiddy Bang - "Handclaps & Guitars"
My favorite song of the year, this hip-hop party anthem from Philly band Chiddy Bang has an irresistible hook and an infectious beat. Like the refrain says, it's the perfect song for those who "just came to party."

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Top Ten Albums of 2012

To be honest, this was one of the more disappointing music years since I've started doing these lists, though I'll readily admit some of that may have to do with my failure to listen to as many albums as I have in years past. For that reason, I've limited my list to 10 instead  of my usual 25. Here were my favorite albums of 2012:

10) Lord Huron -- Lonesome Dreams
Of the many Mumford & Sons copycats to hit the scene this year, Lord Huron was my favorite with his beautiful harmonies and his elegaic vocals.
Best tracks: "Time to Run", "Lonesome Dreams"

9) The Shins -- Port of Morrow
I had stopped paying attention to The Shins a while ago, so it was news to me that the lone remaining member of the band is frontman James Mercer. Turns out he doesn't really need anyone else, as the latest Shins album is their best in nearly a decade, filled with the trademark jangly melodies Mercer writes best.
Best tracks: "Simple Song", "It's Only Life"

8) Cloud Nothings -- Attack on Memory
Cleveland-based Cloud Nothings find the right balance between punk noise and pulsing melody, producing music that feels both aggressive and welcoming at the same time. Their third album is their best yet.
Best tracks: "Stay Useless", "Fall In"

7) Grimes -- Vision
Grimes' incredibly catchy synth-pop is all the more remarkable for the fact it originates from a young canadian woman producing songs on her computer. However it was made, Vision features some of the most irresistible music to come out this year.
Best tracks: "Oblivion", "Genesis"

6) Frank Ocean -- Channel Orange
Frank Ocean rocked the hip-hop world this year when he came out of the closet, but he would have made a mark regardless; Channel Orange is a shockingly assured debut from a young artist who sounds like he's lived multiple lifetimes. 
Best tracks: "Bad Religion", "Thinkin Bout You"

5) Beach House -- Bloom
Beach House songs have such an ephemeral, hazy quality it's easy to think they all sound the same, but that fails to appreciate how much the Baltimore duo have continued to refine and evolve their dream pop sound. Bloom is their most lush and expansive album to date.
Best tracks: "Myth", "The Hours"

4) Divine Fits -- A Thing Called Divine Fits
Three of my favorite bands of the last decade are Wolf Parade, Spoon, and the Handsome Furs, so it's no surprise I loved this album from the frontmen of those groups. Combining Dan Boechner's propulsive rock sound and Brit Daniel's staccato rhythms, Divine Fits don't always transcend the sum of its parts but when they do (which is most of the time), the sound is utterly original.
Best Tracks: "My Love is Real", "Would That Not Be Nice"

3) Alabama Shakes -- Boys and Girls
A pure slice of blues-rock Americana, The Alabama Shakes' debut album is loaded with  hook-filled melodies about love, death, and everything in between. Fronted by vocal dynamo Brittany Howard, The Shakes started out the year on a wave of buzz following their first EP, and Boys and Girls demonstrated that the hype was well deserved.
Best Tracks: "Hang Loose", "Hold On"

2) Fiona Apple -- The Idler Wheel...
Fiona Apple takes her sweet time making new albums -- her last one came out in 2005 -- but it's almost always  worth the wait. Her latest is a beautiful collection of intimate, inventive songs that once again demonstrate Apple's unique talent for creating music of delicate, raw emotion. 
Best Tracks: "Every Single Night", "Left Alone"

1) Japandroids -- Celebration Rock
Chock full of rock anthems, Celebration Rock is remarkable for the intensity and power it generates from just two men rocking out on just a guitar and drums. But Japandroids leave it all out there on each track, and the result is an energetic, inspiring collection of fist-pumping rock songs that add up to the best album of the year.
Best Tracks: "Continuous Thunder", "The House That Heaven Built"

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Top Ten Television Shows of 2012

I thought the past year was a pretty good one for television, though I was a little disappointed that some of my favorite new series of 2011 were less successful in their sophomore seasons (Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones being the prime examples of the sophomore slump). Fortunately, there were a couple new series that made impressive debuts in 2012, as well as some strong returns by past favorites. Below are my top ten favorite TV series of the year (please note this post contains spoilers):

10) Nashville (ABC)

ABC's new primetime soap about musicians in the capitol of country music is an addictive pleasure thanks largely to its sprawling ensemble cast and its surprisingly catchy soundtrack (produced by T-Bone Burnett). Connie Britton as the aging star competing with a rising upstart (Hayden Panettiere) and a controlling father grounds the show even during its more predictable soap opera turns.

9) New Girl (FOX)

In its debut season, New Girl struggled with how to highlight Zooey Deschanel's "adorkable" Jess while finding meaningful contributions for its talented male ensemble. The second season has seen the show find the right balance, recognizing that much of the show's humor comes from how the characters engage with one another, whether its Max Greenfield's hilariously douchey Schmidt or Jake Johnson's perpetually cranky Nick. The show is still trying to figure out how to use Lamorne Morris' Winston, but 3 out of 4 ain't bad.

8) Community (NBC)

Behind the scenes, this season of Community was a disaster -- Sony fired the show's creator, Dan Harmon, and Chevy Chase recently quit in the middle of shooting the upcoming season. But in front of the camera, Community's 2012 was even more inventive and wild than any of its previous seasons, featuring a multi-episode arc about a coup within the school and spoofing pop culture touchstones as varied as Law & Order to Ken Burns documentaries. The upcoming season -- NBC claims it will start in February -- is destined to be the show's last, though whether it will live up to the high points it achieved under Harmon remains to be seen. Fortunately, even if season 4 disappoints, it won't detract from the marvelous  seasons that came before it.

7) 30 Rock (NBC)

The basic premise of a 30 Rock show hasn't changed since it debuted -- the show is too dependent on satirical plots and one-liners to evolve too much -- but the level of its hilarity reached new heights in 2012 with stories about Liz Lemon's nuptials, Colleen Donaghy's death, and Jack's failed attempt at making couches. Now in its last season, Tina Fey and company appear ready to give Liz a happy ending as she's newly married an on the path to adoption, which will be a worthy exit for a great character and a great series.

6) Homeland (Showtime)

There is probably no more suspenseful, compellingly paced, and consistently surprising series on television than Homeland. But the second season of Homeland essentially confirmed for me what I feared at the end of the first -- Brody should have blown himself up. That would have at least made for a more logically consistent and believable narrative than what season 2 offered, as viewers were forced to take numerous narrative leaps of faith, from Brody's Gettysburg sojourn to move the tailor to Abu Nazir's eventual plot to blow up the CIA. That said, Homeland is on this list because I sat in front of my TV gripped by the machinations of Brody and his CIA counterparts from week to week, and because Claire Danes, Damien Lewis and Mandy Patinkin continued to give astounding performances that carefully balanced their characters' emotional extremes. Their work may not have always been in the service to the best storylines, but it was still damn entertaining.

5) Girls (HBO)

The best new show on television, Lena Dunham's brilliant series on HBO debuted with a crazy amount of hype which was soon followed by a harsh backlash. The show didn't really deserve either -- it hardly started out the gate as groundbreaking television given its focus on characters that were too entitled to be relatable, nor did it fall flat once it premiered. But over the series' first season, Dunham demonstrated that she's one of the most assured voices on television, someone fully aware that her characters were never meant to be easy to love, and that young adulthood has its share of frustration, disappointment, and experimentation no matter the setting or the economic background. Dunham made one of the best shows of the year by showcasing a personal voice that is fresh, honest, and unlike anything else on television. 

4) Louie (FX)

This season of Louie didn't wow me quite as much as last season's, as the show's short-film format lends itself to inconsistency. But this season once again demonstrated Louis CK's ability to test the limits of what it means to make a television program. The season's high points were some of the best episodes he's done yet, whether they involved a magnificent turn by Parker Posey as a manic, bewildering love interest, or the three episode arc about Louie's audition to replace David Letterman. Louie won't be returning in next year  -- CK has said he doesn't have enough material to put together a strong set of episodes until 2014 -- which is bittersweet news to fans like me who have worried that CK's prodigious output would lend itself to a decline in quality over time. Fortunately there's been no evidence of that yet. 

3) Breaking Bad (AMC)

By the end of season 4, Walter White (the always amazing Bryan Cranston) had seemingly vanquished the only men standing in his way to the top of the meth supply  business. Season 5 demonstrated how truly alone Walter really was at the top, having lost not just his enemies but also most of his allies and his wife as he struggled to maintain his hold on his burgeoning empire. I think this season suffered a bit from its shortened size -- the last two seasons are only 8 episodes -- but as always, Vince Gilligan and his crew put on a dazzling showcase of narrative suspense and kept viewers questioning when Walter would finally reach the end of his rope. It's sad to realize we only have one more season to find out.

2) Mad Men (AMC)

The latest season of Mad Men was its most ambitious yet, broaching subjects as far reaching from the civil rights movement to Peggy's departure from Sterling Cooper to Lane's suicide. Such ambition was not without its costs -- for the sake of symbolism, it sometimes felt like Matt Wiener and company were forcing their characters to make out of character decisions -- but it also produced some absolutely startling set-pieces, from "Zou Bisou Bisou"  to Roger Sterling's acid trip to the final episode image of the partners perched atop their new second floor. After a year and half away from the airwaves, it was nice to see Mad Men return yet again as one of the best dramas on television.

1) Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Parks and Rec has steadily been climbing its way up my top ten list over the years, and it's appropriate it reaches the top in the one year it featured Leslie's elevation from city bureaucrat to elected official. The city council election produced one of the best storylines the show has done yet, as it opened up the universe of Pawnee to include players from the city's varied interest groups and allowed for fantastic guest turns from Jessica Hahn and Paul Rudd. In its current season, the show has even gone to Washington and found ways to meld its patented earnestness and warmth with a setting known for cynicism. In an election year, it's fitting that the best program on television was the one that treated politics with emotion and genuine heart.

The Top Ten Movies of 2012

Going into the fall, I was worried that 2012 would be a disappointing year for movies but the abundance of good films that started hitting the theaters in the last few months led to an ultimately strong year for cinema. Below are my favorite movies of the year:

10) Perks of Being a Wallflower

Steven Chbosky's debut film, based on his young adult novel of the same name, tries to do too much -- it's filled to the brim with troubled characters, each haunted by past traumas -- but succeeds at capturing the high points of adolescence, especially the heightened kinship among teen friends, the power of music and books in shaping young minds, and the oversize importance of every small moment, from a first kiss to a last class. 

9) Looper

Rian Jonson's exhilarating time travel thriller starts off with all the convoluted twists and stylized sequences we've come to expect of time travel narratives before slowing things down and taking a turn towards the profound by asking questions about the origin of evil and the self-perpetuating nature of violence. As he demonstrated in his excellent noir film Brick, Johnson knows how to take a well-worn genre and transform it into something entirely new and exciting. 

8) Argo

As crackerjack political thrillers go it's tough to find a better one than Argo, Ben Affleck's third film. Based on the incredible true story of the rescue of American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis, Argo's weighty subject matter masks the fact that it's actually pretty shallow entertainment. But Affleck has become an expert director of suspense and he compellingly manages to wring a good deal of fun out of the Hollywood meets the CIA story.

7) Moonrise Kingdom

I keep expecting to get tired of Wes Anderson's twee aesthetic, but in each new film he matures just enough to keep the magic alive. In Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson tells a lovely story of pint-size love and creates a universe that, while filled with his trademark shoebox stagings and precious curlicues, still leaves room for well-rounded characters who exude heartfelt emotion.

6) Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell follows The Fighter with another perfectly observed, off-kilter domestic story about a bunch of obsessed characters struggling to make sense of their place in the world. As he demonstrated in Flirting With Disaster and I Heart Huckabees, Russell knows how to find off-key humor in the most unusual of settings, and here he finds wonderful romantic comedy in the relationship between Bradley Cooper's recently released mental patient and Jennifer Lawrence's confused, sex-addicted widower. It's an unconventional, passionate comedy that, unlike most recent romantic comedies, truly earns its happy ending. 

5) Beasts of the Southern Wild

The year's most original film and its most impressive debut, Benh Zeitlin's utterly unique Beasts of the Southern Wild is about the survivalist instincts of a group of residents in a forgotten part of the Louisiana bayou known as "the bathtub" soldiering on in the face of a Katrina-like storm. The film's politics are kind of nutty -- it essentially glorifies those who stubbornly reject outside assistance in favor of steadfastly living by their own laws and customs -- but that shouldn't detract from its achievement as a magical piece of storytelling with dazzling performances. Quvenzhane Wallis, as the young girl at the movie's heart, gives an enchanting performance that hopefully heralds greater things to come for both her and Zeitlin.  

4) The Master

Each new Paul Thomas Anderson film seems to be getting more impenetrable than the last, and The Master is not a particularly accessible piece of art. But pay close attention and you'll appreciate how Anderson once again indelibly creates a group of characters who expertly capture the American time in which they exist. Set in the post-war 40s and 50s, The Master showcases a captivating pas de deux between Joaquin Phoenix's Freddy, a volatile, traumatized veteran of unvarnished id, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, a polished pseudo-intellectual huckster who relishes the challenge of taming his wannabe disciple. Shot in beautiful 70mm, The Master is an exquisite character study of two men struggling to bend the other to their own, compromised wills. 

3) Amour

Michael Haneke's heartwrenching film about an elderly couple coping with illness and aging is the most touching and disturbing movie of the year. Set almost entirely in a Parisian apartment, Amour is unflinching in its depiction of physical deterioration and the consequences it has on those who must witness it. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, as the couple at the movie's center, give brave, compassionate performances that suggest the actors have aged with the kind of grace their characters are unfairly deprived. 

2) Lincoln

Of all the stories to be told about Abraham Lincoln, I wouldn't have expected such a stirring tale to be made about his efforts to pass the 13th amendment. But Steven Spielberg eschews (for the most part) his sentimental impulses and, working with an expert script by Tony Kushner, makes a masterful film about the dirty work of politics, the vote-trading, influence-peddling, and grand bargains that drive American democracy. Led by an incredible performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, Lincoln further mythologizes our greatest politician by bringing him down from the monuments and making him human.

1) Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal follow The Hurt Locker with another story about the obsessions of war, this time focusing on a CIA analyst's single-minded hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Once again, Bigelow shows that she is the best action director in the business -- the raid on Abbottabad is a masterpiece of clear-eyed direction -- and Boal's script is a remarkable feat of journalistic storytelling. Yes, the film features some brutal scenes that suggest torture helped in the capture of Bin Laden, but those scenes are of a piece with the film's desire to show all the methods, successful and unsuccessful, that were used to capture the world's most infamous terrorist. Bigelow's films demonstrate that war is messy, but as long as she and Boal are there to document both its triumphs and costs, we might yet be able to make sense of it.