Monthly Archives: January 2007

‘Babel’ (2006) (C) – A Debate

IMDb / Bradshaw / Lumenick
Written by Guillermo Arriaga
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

What follows is Oscar Yesenin’s take on the film, followed by my response. Something like a debate. This is Oscar’s annual bit of film writing for the site (last year’s being this), unless he decides to do this more often. I enjoy his expletive-laden style, though I do wish he were more focused and comprehensible in his rage. Anyway, I’ll leave it up to you from here.

OY

Babel (Selfish God’s act of giving a people a linguistic handicap. God, you are such a prick)

Ok, what the fuck is happening to the Cannes Film Festival? How could they give this film the Best Director Award for 2006? I am highly disappointed in the quality of the decision made by the judges. Who is the head of judges of 2006 Cannes? It’s fucking Wong Kar Wai! Jesus fucking Christ! Check the name of the other members of the jury: Monica Bellucci, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth!!! They should know what good films are; 2006 must have been the shit year of films, if Babel could come up this high. Or, Cannes is just turning into another Academy Award kind of shit-fest. Trying to exploit the profit for US, money grabbing assholes. No morals, more cash.

I’ll just give you a quick review of this film because there is not much to talk about. Babel is plus average film, because it’s really weak in overall quality, especially in character development, while some of the cinematography in the film has something worth looking at. Thing is, at the end of the film you’ll feel like, “So what?” Because there is really no meaning in the film. You don’t feel you learnt something or had your way of thinking challenged. Every issue raised in the film is so shallow, not deeply engaged as a part of the film. It scratches the surface of the problems, like just reading the newspaper headline, but ignoring the content of the article. It is not open-ended or ambiguous; it is just a lump of issues dumped in the film. Examples: drug issues, stereotypes (Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism), human ego, physical handicaps, border politics and many others. Just like, ‘here is the topic’ – that’s it, nothing else. This is not being ambiguous or open-ended; it is just being an undecisive motherfucker. The director doesn’t even give us his thoughts about the topic, it’s just being used within the film for no real good reason or to argue any case.

Take, for example, the use of Moroccan hash in part of the plot of the film to get a patient relaxed (by the way lots of the hashish in Holland is imported from Morocco, apparently it’s good shit), ‘so what?’ What are you trying to tell us? Weed is good in some uses? Anyway, it’s used very badly in the film, since patient was having a sort of panic attack before taking the grass – in reality if you take hash in that kind of condition, it could really give you a very bad trip and cannot be recommended. Sure, it can be used as a painkiller, but does more harm than good mentally. There’s other shit like this all the way across the film, this is just one example; you just don’t understand what the director wants to say with his film. Does the director try to incorporate Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism for stereotyping (‘Middle East = Terrorist country’ or ‘Arab = terrorist’) within Western cultures in the film to give an example to the audience? There are lot of ways to talk about film theory in any films, but if the director does not make a strong point within the film, either by using filmic language or plot, it just becomes a lump of shit.

The film shows us a series of characters making critical mistakes. (Fuck-ups beyond common sense, which fucks me off. In a way the film did provoke me, but it’s fucking pointless. They do this, they do that, here’s the outcome, The End.) As the film progresses their mistakes just get worse and worse. The film highlights the shadows of human behaviour, however it does not get into detail. It becomes like a shopping list of the fuck-ups you can do in critical situations. A few parts in the film tried to put themselves into an Italian Neo-Realism form of plot, to try to highlight the realism in the film and to be open ended, but it just does not work. They needed to choose either Art film or Art House film, you can’t be both ways because they contrast each other. That is why they’ve been differentiated into different categories. Anyway, the plot is very dramatic, so there is no way that this film could be manipulated into Neo-Realism form. The film failed to incorporate the details in filmic language within the mise-en-scene. It talked about light and dark, but it is very grey. Cannot say it a good film or a bad film, just a disappointment.

Oh – the film also used the same piece of music used in The Insider called ‘Iguazu’ by Gustavo Santaolalla. Iñárritu somehow decided to use this music in a similar way to how it was used in The Insider. It is not creative at all and I don’t think it’s a homage to Michael Mann either; it’s just a rip-off. Also I don’t get the significance of the title… Babel: ‘Sound of many voices talking at one time, especially when more than one language is being spoken’, yeah many other films are like that too. It’s just ironic that this film needs more filmic language though. It’s lazy, couldn’t be fucked thinking of a good title. What happened to those days with long-ass, thoughtful and original titles? Now film titles are so simple and most of the time meaningless.

Fuck it, I’m going to sleep.

BHM

Thanks for that explosion of innards, Oscar. I can’t say understand all of it, but I get the gist, and while I have similarly low opinion of the film to what you do, it’s largely for different reasons. You see, Oscar is a film academic, so he views things differently to an amateur like me; still that doesn’t make him right.

First of all, there is meaning in the film. It’s a clear attempt to make viewers see the similarities between our many disparate cultures, despite the obvious differences on the surface (the most influential being language). He called it Babel after the Tower of Babel, collective humanity’s Biblical attempt to build a tower to the heavens which God swiftly smote and, to drive home the point, messed up our common language so that we spoke in all different tongues. Iñárritu wants to show us that our distrust of each other – especially those from different cultures – is keeping us from reaching common ground. The whole movie is summed up in the look on Brad Pitt’s face as he looks at his long-suffering guide and translator, just before he gets into the helicopter. It’s a look that shows a connection has developed between them, but knows he worked against making that happen, and… oh, a whole lot of other things besides. It’s only a couple of seconds, but it is perfectly acted, and if the whole movie had been that clearly focused it would’ve been the masterpiece it ought to have been.

Second, what’s all this shit about categories of film? This is why I am so distrustful of academic writing on film: the need to categorize everything devalues the entire art. What’s the point of arguing whether the film is an ‘art’ or an ‘art house’ film? What’s the fucking difference? Do me a favour, man – it’s a ‘film’, that’s all, and should be discussed on its own terms. Of course it’s reasonable and helpful to look back at films that cover similar filmic or thematic ground, but dumping on it by saying the filmed it in the wrong category seems incredibly foolish to me. Of course, this has nothing to do with the film itself, only with your reading of it. Maybe I’m wrong, who knows? As it is, I disagree strongly with you.

One place I agree is in your disbelief at the character motivations, or lack thereof. Seriously, this is the movie where endlessly ridiculous actions are taken and you just stare at the screen, mouth agape, wondering why the bloody hell did they do THAT? Gael Garcia Bernal’s character is the major anomaly, a walking plot device so obvious he may as well be in the theatre, tapping each patron on the shoulder and explaining to them what’s going to happen next. A shopping list of fuckups? Great line, and 100% the truth. I was also kind of pissed when ‘Iguazu’ came on the soundtrack, because all it did was remind of how good The Insider was, and how shitty Babel had become.

What Oscar failed to directly mention is how much of a mess the script is, especially in the managing of different storylines. It’s all balanced out, with each plot strand taking up about the same amount of time, but each one would’ve been much better as its own film. This is from Guillermo Arriaga, who had proven himself one of the most deft storytellers in the current scriptwriting ranks with previous works, but now must be questioned as to his versatility. Babel is more or less a crash between Amores Perros, 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, without the dramatic resonance of any of them. If you short-change your characters in a film like this, then you lose control of the movie, and it ends up a gelatinous mess.

I don’t mind saying the Japan-set stuff is actually pretty strong, and if it had been a 90-minute stand-alone film I probably would have liked it a lot. As 40 minutes in a 140 minute film, however, it is underdone, offering only glimpses of what it could have been. That’s the story of the whole movie, though. For every great facial expression from Pitt, there’s Bernal’s decision to step on the gas. For that amazing club sequence, there’s Barraza wailing around the desert having inexplicably left the kids by themselves. Yeah, what an incredible disappointment. Babel doesn’t allow itself to be hated because there are so many strong elements, but I can’t get behind a film that knows what it wants to say but doesn’t know how to say it. Most of the positive reviews out there were written, I suspect, by people who filled in the vast gaps for themselves. Me, I’m happy to think about that stuff, but I’m not going to give the film any credit for what I come up with.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

2006: Good Movies (10-1)

At this point I must mention what films I didn’t get to in 2006 that I would like to have. This is in accordance with Andy Horbal’s much-referenced best-of lists critique (embraced by Jim Emerson among others). My writing isn’t yet strong enough to get behind everything he says, so my list is more description than discussion; next year I’ll no doubt be more adventurous and confident.

So: A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation were two new films by Richard Linklater, one of my favourite directors. His failures are more interesting than most directors’ successes, and when he gets it right, his work is like nothing else (see Before Sunset).

Likewise, I missed Michel Gondry’s two releases, The Science of Sleep and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, which I chastise myself over because Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was so good. How would he do without the safety net of Charlie Kaufman’s great screenwriting? I’ll have to find out later.

49 UP and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple were the documentaries I most regretted missing. As you can see from my list (and last year’s), I consider documentary cinema to be on equal footing with fiction, and as Hollywood’s outlook seems to change for the worse every year, the growing popularity of documentaries is a wonderful side effect.

Finally, I probably ought to have seen Casino Royale, Flags of our Fathers and The Squid and the Whale. And there’s probably a hundred other films that were good that I didn’t really know anything about. Instead, I saw a few twice (#2, #3, #5, #10). But with that out of the way…

10. Children of Men – Alfonso Cuarón
The Mexican director/cinematographer pair of Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki turned my world upside down with this, the most groundbreaking film of the year. I’ve never seen anything like it; I would liken it more to the computer game Half-Life 2 than anything seen before in cinema. And that’s a huge compliment – it is a very good game, but my point is that this film is arguably the most immersive ever made. A script that is excellent in places and incredibly weak in others is totally overshadowed by some of the most incredible long takes and set pieces we’ll see for a while, and they all contribute to a sense of being part of the action. It’s also set in a childless future where anarchy mostly reigns, and it features fine acting from Clive Owen and Michael Caine among others. The film that surprised me most this year, but don’t I wish it could have ended differently.

9. Munich – Steven Spielberg
Bursting through almost unprecedented media attention (no small thing given Spielberg’s often controversial and extremely well-examined career), this film showed itself to be nothing like the defamatory, politically driven piece of work that was written about by so many. Perhaps because of this, it seemed to be somewhat overlooked by many, where in fact it may be the best film of Spielberg’s illustrious and varied oeuvre. A long, expansive film, it was Spielberg at his best in all facets of the craft: visually superb, great use of music, perfectly paced, and a great example of narrowing a wide focus down to one simple thing – the effects of the events in question on one man. Many questions were asked of us, many challenges laid down, and one could not help but leave the cinema in deep thought.

8. Waves – Li Tao
Certainly the least seen film on this list, Waves deserves as wide an audience as possible. It is very much a New Zealand story, but its scope is truly global. Boundaries are breaking down, and in her chronicle of four Chinese high school students being educated in New Zealand, Tao gets inside their experiences so intimately that we feel as if we know them personally afterwards. They are all very different people, and we understand why they live their lives as they do. Never ‘messagey’, never forced, this film will strike a chord with all who see it, because it offers a way of seeing that acknowledges cultural differences and shows how we are all similar. A vital, thought-provoking work.

7. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room – Alex Gibney
I saw this right at the end of the year on DVD, and I just thought, wow – documentary perfection. The subject matter is fascinating, the talking heads insightful and passionate, the music expertly chosen, and the archive footage perfectly edited into place. It all adds up to a masterful blow-by-blow account of just what made the Enron debacle one of the most incredible events in Wall Street history. It’s a parade of scum, low human beings who knew they were fucking over millions and just laughed about it, even as they kept the public outlook positive. It would make a fine double bill with #6 – two films that expose the hubris and sheer audacity of some of our most powerful members of society.

6. Good Night, and Good Luck. – George Clooney
No messing about from Clooney on this, his second feature, which heralds a very encouraging future behind the camera. Respect for the audience is paramount as this straightforward, free-flowing films moves quickly through the story it has to tell. And what a story, especially in these times of pandering and dishonest journalism – much of the dialogue is directly taken from what the real people said, but their words are clearly chosen to reflect our current climate. Shot in glorious black and white, and enlivened by great acting by all (especially David Strathairn’s amazing performance as Ed Murrow), this is a finely orchestrated, highly enjoyable film. If it had been a bit longer, I might have placed it higher.

5. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story – Michael Winterbottom
Not quite as flat-out enjoyable as the director’s earlier 24 Hour Party People, this was still one of the funniest movies of the year. More than that, though, it was one of the better films about films, a look at how absurd film sets really are. It is rambling and unfocused, like its predecessor, but the characters – from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon hilariously playing themselves, to Naomie Harris’ passionate PA, to Mark Williams’ enthusiastic battle expert, to Elizabeth Berrington’s fragile costume lady, ad infinitum – are so well-drawn that you just slip straight into their world. Almost like real life! It helps if you love movies, but their ought to be something for everyone here.

4. Syriana – Stephen Gaghan
The one film of the year that had my brain in a total storm afterwards, I really, really need to see this again – it’s been almost a year. Each time I look back on it, my admiration grows. I had no idea how to write about it then, and I still struggle to have any coherent thought to express. It drops you right in the characters’ world without any preparation – the opening bombing set piece is masterfully executed, and sets the tone for the whole film – and throughout you feel one step behind, just as the characters invariably do. It’s like nobody connected with oil knows exactly what’s going on; many can see one small part of the picture, but never the whole thing. Either that or the people that can see it all are exploiting for all it’s worth. Like I said, I’d have to watch it again to make any sound judgment on it, but such daring, urgent filmmaking as this has to be encouraged.

3. De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté – Jacques Audiard
More excellence from one of France’s strongest filmmakers currently working, The Beat My Heart Skipped was probably my favourite film of the year (though obviously not quite the best). Like with his earlier (and slightly superior) Sur mes lèvres, Audiard places us in the utterly subjective film universe of Romain Duris’ Tom, a nervy, tension-filled ‘real estate developer’ looking to go straight by getting back into classical piano. Brilliantly, it is shown that practising the piano is a far more infuriating and spirit-crushing enterprise than beating up thugs for collection money. Alexandre Desplat’s score is great as usual, especially alongside the Paris dance-pop that is almost always in Tom’s ears. The epilogue will alienate many, but I thought it put the perfect full stop on an exhilirating and fascinating film.

2. Caché – Michael Haneke
Haneke’s latest assault on his own class is a clinical, endlessly debatable work that, like everything else he’s done, is deliberately designed to provoke. He doesn’t care if you walk out pissed off, upset or suicidal, as long as you have a reaction. And you will. What were they saying in that final shot? Should we feel sympathetic towards or disapproving of Auteuil’s character? The questions didn’t stop for me; in fact, I saw it twice to see if I could ‘get it’ on a second viewing (I didn’t). Afterwards, I felt manipulated like a patron at a magic show, but I’m damned if I wasn’t awed. This guy is in total control, and his brand of unsettling cinema is something I will return to again and again.

1. United 93 – Paul Greengrass
In the ultimate year of challenging, questioning cinema, United 93 outstripped everything else with its raw intensity. Instead of asking questions, it just laid the events bare and let you question things yourself. I was incredibly distressed by it, particularly a final shot of such horror and audacity that I am wary of seeing it again. There are no hidden agendas; this film is about nothing more than the events that occurred on September 11, 2001. No room for proselytizing or polemic here, just cold, hard facts. Many saw this as signifying a lack of meaning, a kind of needlessness; me, I thought it showed how Greengrass nailed our feelings by cutting through the hype and emphasizing how purely bloody frightening the whole thing was. Imagine being in that plane! Now you don’t have to. A staggering achievement.

Leave a comment

Filed under 'Best Of' Lists, Film

2006: Good Movies (20-11)

Because I live in New Zealand, and better yet, in the South Island, I get to see most films between 3 months to a year after their original US/UK release. As a result, several films on this list appeared on many US critics’ 2005 lists, and the films appearing on their 2006 lists will have to wait until next (this) year for me.

Not that I’m complaining. I saw more movies last year than probably any other year in my life, and I enjoyed a great many of them. For the first time, I kept records of what I saw, which ended up tallying around 150; between 30 and 40 of these were at the movies. For me, there’s no better way to spend my disposable income than to go to the cinema, and I am totally unrepentant about that.

On with the list, anyway. I saw enough to have a top 20 instead of a top 10 this time, so I’m splitting in half to make it more digestible. Also, I’m counting down rather than up, because I find that reading someone’s top choice first renders the rest of their list less interesting. Part 2 will appear sometime in the next couple of days.

20. Manderlay – Lars von Trier
More straightforward and less challenging than its predecessor, the excellent Dogville, von Trier’s latest brash critique of human nature is still a difficult film to wrap one’s head around. Like all his films, it is designed to bring about a reaction in the viewer, be it positive or negative; he wrings this from us not with subtlety, but with tremendous insight. Many would consider this a pack of lies and a waste of time, but I think he got it right again: we are weak in more situations than we are strong, and racism, especially views of one’s own race, does not die out.

19. The Aristocrats – Paul Provenza
Dozens of comedians tell their own variations of the world’s filthiest joke, and in doing so provide us with a few of the mechanics of what makes something funny, and/or offensive. I expected a good laugh, and it gave me that (once I’d settled into the baseness of it all), but there was also a strong awareness that most of these people were very intelligent as well as highly amusing. They knew exactly where to insert beats, when to take it further, when to cut it off. A fascinating and hilarious film.

18. L’Enfant – Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Silly young Bruno deserved none of our sympathy, but the Dardennes forced it from us without resorting to any kind of cheap cinema trick. He’s just a kid, after all – a kid who went out into the world too soon, who had a child too soon. This Palme d’Or winner at Cannes in 2005 is an intimate, unsentimental account of one very naughty boy’s actions and desperate attempts to make amends, and I was moved by its simple truths.

17. The Queen – Stephen Frears
Frears has directed a great variety of good films over the years, from to My Beautiful Laundrette to High Fidelity to Dirty Pretty Things. He did it again here, but Helen Mirren was the reason for going with her pitch-perfect performance. All the sternness and unshakeability was there, but in the film’s best scenes, so was a vulnerability we couldn’t imagine HRH QEII displaying in public. In particular, the scenes involving the stag stood out in a film that did the basics right – a good (but not great) script, adequately directed, with fine acting across the board.

16. Darwin’s Nightmare – Hubert Sauper
Helplessness was the key word here in one of the most depressing, spirit-crushing films ever to be made. It is important that people see films like this to have their eyes opened to the horrors still going on in parts of the world – things we can’t imagine in our First World cocoon – but when it ended, I felt impotent. What could I do to help someone like Eliza, the prostitute servicing foreign fish-plane pilots (who are often violent) for a dollar a trick? What could I do to give the fish-frame sellers a better go at life? Sauper wisely doesn’t offer up any solutions, because no doubt he’s just as clueless; still, he’s getting the word out there.

15. An Inconvenient Truth – Davis Guggenheim
For the first time in nearly 40 years as a movie reviewer, Ebert told his readers “you owe it to yourself to see this film”. And he’s right. Half of it may be a vanity project for Al Gore, but the other half is so vital and surprising that if you do not see it, or are not aware of the things it discusses, then you are taking the future for granted when you should not be. The effects of global warming are real, and we have to start doing something about it, now. Gore is a good speaker, and his high-budget presentation is worth every penny if half the people that see it change their views.

14. Out of the Blue – Robert Sarkies
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I only got to two New Zealand films this year, skipping River Queen, No. 2, and Sione’s Wedding among others. This was the second, a vast improvement on Sarkies’ earlier Scarfies, and a solid entry in the Paul Greengrass-led documentary fiction genre. Through a few brilliant shots, Sarkies shows how much of a wake-up call the Aramoana massacre was, subtly embracing the bigger picture while carefully portraying the events in chilling fashion. Non-professional Lois Lawn gave one of the performances of the year as 73 year-old Helen Dickson, one of the heroes of the real event; Karl Urban was bloody good too, showing there’s life after Doom.

13. The Proposition – John Hillcoat
The best Western in years, driven by Nick Cave’s poetic screenplay and music, and by Guy Pearce’s typically excellent less-is-more performance. The film meanders aimlessly at times, but that is offset by the impressiveness of some scenes, and by the overall look and feel Hillcoat and his team achieve. Its stripped-back nature worked in its favour, keeping things unmuddied by unnecessary plot elements, but always retaining a sense of something extra going on (as indeed is revealed in the final scenes). Also, it represented the beginning of my fascination with Danny Huston, who seemed to pop up in every other film I saw last year.

12. Miami Vice – Michael Mann
If your name is Michael Mann, you don’t need a good script. Collateral had an okay script which Mann enlivened with his new-found love for digital video and general badass-edry; Miami Vice was a shitty, even awful script which he managed to fashion into one of the most intriguing and thrilling films of the year. Again using Dion Beebe’s incredible DV, he crafted a lengthy atmospheric piece that barely hung together plot- and character-wise, but when the atmosphere is that thick, I don’t care what’s going on. It was a true triumph of style over substance, like Kill Bill, or as I will discuss in part 2, Children of Men. In particular, it had the most artful violence of the year.

11. Brokeback Mountain – Ang Lee
A fine tragic love story, free of pretension or sentimentality (apart from an occasionally grating score). Heath Ledger’s performance won all the plaudits, and excellent though he is, I say don’t overlook Jake Gyllenhaal. Both commit themselves to their roles completely, and their scenes together (of which there are less than I expected) are by far the strongest in the film. Rodrigo Prieto provides his usual high standard of cinematography, but it’s very much Lee’s film with its careful compositions and thoughtful, meditative pace. You think you ain’t never goin’ to see a movie about no queers? Watch this, and be surprised at how much you care.

Leave a comment

Filed under 'Best Of' Lists, Film

2006: Music

Similar to last year, here are 13 new albums I listened to this year, in order of most appreciated to least appreciated. I am laughably inept at this sort of writing, but I’m putting it down in the hope that someone will listen to something new because of it. If you prefer, just scan down the list.

1. Night Ripper – Girl Talk
Mashups are becoming more and more popular, and Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) might just be the man to bring them into the mainstream. I heard that he’d made an album containing samples from hundreds of different songs from the 60s to the 00s, but I got it more as a curio than anything else. The mashups I’ve heard in the past have occasionally been worth repeat listens, usually drab (though clever) after you’ve played it once. Night Ripper is a lot more than clever, though. It flows seamlessly from one sample into the next for over 40 minutes, layering them on top of each other, slowing them down, chopping them up, and sometimes using two or three conjunction to create some sort of delicious irony. In my head, all the samples contained within will forever be associated with this record, even the ones that I knew and loved before hearing it for the first time. It’s fresh, it’s now, it’s great.
Favourite track: 03 – Hold Up. It isn’t right to play favourites with an album that continuously segues (and that I can only listen to all the way through), but if there’s one track that best demonstrates Gillis’ ability to throw seemingly disparate sounds together and make them sound like they should have been heard that way before, it’s this one.

2. Return to Cookie Mountain – TV on the Radio
Into my African-American section now, and first up are the Brooklyn rockers TV on the Radio. This is somewhat less experimental than their excellent debut Desperate Youth / Bloodthirsty Babes, but it is a better record because of its more focused sound. While there’s nothing as spectacular and unusual as that earlier album’s Staring at the Sun, there’s still plenty of messing around. There’s nobody else that sounds like these guys, truly; combine that with lyrics as poetic as anything creeping its way into the mainstream, and you’ve got pretty much my favourite musical group of the moment.
Favourite track: 02 – Hours. The shortest and most straight-ahead track on the album – I love it because it provides the best vehicle for Tunde Adebimpe’s incredible voice and songwriting ability.

3. St. Elsewhere – Gnarls Barkley
DJ Danger Mouse topped my list last year by producing Gorillaz’ Demon Days, and he came very close to doing the same again in 2006 with this effort. Another I have to listen to from start to finish, DM and Cee-Lo Green’s first collaboration doesn’t really sound like rap, or rock, or pop. Yeah, I like things that are different and defy categorization (which is mostly fruitless with music anyway). Crazy was the song of the year and possibly decade, something so odd yet soothing as to captivate me whenever and wherever I hear it. If anything’s wrong, the album is very short at just over 37 minutes.
Favourite track: 02 – Crazy. Definitive.

4. Food & Liquor – Lupe Fiasco
Setting aside the absurdly self-indulgent namedrop-fests that are Intro and Outro (‘outroduction’ isn’t in the dictionary anyway, rappers take note), Lupe Fiasco’s debut was what Kanye West fans such as myself turned to this year to provide them with their hip-hop brilliance. Every track is catchy and innovative from the first listen, and lyrically he’s almost as smart as West, rapping about subjects more of us can relate to – particularly on the Kick, Push tracks. There’s no clear theme that runs through it all, but pretty much every track from 02 to 15 has wizardry of some kind.
Favourite track: 15 – Kick, Push II. Came a long way from dirty ghetto kids, yeah.

5. The Warning – Hot Chip
NME named Over and Over as the track of the year, and I’ve to agree it’s not far off. I was enamoured with it immediately, being as it was the most catchy song I heard all year, but it took me a while to warm up to the rest of it; once I did, I discovered something I liked very much. They’re a pop/electro mixture that is unusual yet strangely relaxing to the ear – often seemingly unstructured, but always knowing where they’re going. I have since obtained their first album, 2005’s Coming On Strong, which is of similar (though less daring) quality.
Favourite track: 11 – No Fit State. The darkest and most introspective on the album, with a driving beat/synth mix that you can’t shake from your head, and lyrics that will either delight or frustrate (in my case, the former).

6. Peeping Tom – Peeping Tom
Whether or not you’re a fan of Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, numerous other projects) shouldn’t matter in this case. It’s pop music as he’d like it to be, and it has a dirty, grimy feel that appeals to me very much. Each track is a collaboration between Patton, with his unmistakeable glam metal voice and unique musical innovations, and a different well-known musician or group, ranging from Amon Tobin to Massive Attack to Norah Jones. Despite that, it’s consistent all the way through, and there’s no real dead weight.
Favourite track: 11 – We’re Not Alone (Remix) feat. Dub Trio). I love a good closer, and this is a very good one – it stands alone just fine, but gives extra coming at the end of all the other tracks.

7. Taiga – OOIOO
Definitely the oddest thing I branched out to this year, this is the fifth album from Yoshimi P-We (subject of The Flaming Lips’ most well-known album) and her fellow female experimental punk rockers. I gave it repeat listens solely on the strength of the opening track, UMA, which had the most kick-arse drumming of any song I heard this year; as I got to know the rest of it better, it began to resemble something more interesting than a rack of confused sound. I wouldn’t say I love it, but I certainly enjoy and admire it a lot more than I expected to.
Favourite track: 01 – UMA. More than anything else this year, I’d love to see this performed live.

8. Confessions on a Dance Floor – Madonna
Yeah, I can’t believe it either. Lyrically she’s worse than ever (“I don’t like cities, but I like New York / Other places make me feel like a dork”), but das Queen of Pop reinvents herself better than anyone else. I never thought she’d do anything better than 1998’s Ray of Light, but she topped it pretty comfortably with this no-mucking-about dancehall extravaganza. It flows better than anything else this year except Night Ripper, and whoever she’s got producing now really knows how to churn out a good synth hook.
Favourite track: 02 – Get Together. Chosen as the third single; I particularly love the way it segues out from Hung Up, into this, then into Sorry.

9. Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound
This was my introduction to Brazilian music, and it’s great. Os Mutantes, Gilberto Gil and Caetono Veloso are now names that will always prick up my ears when heard. I don’t think it’s cheating to put a compilation on here, especially when everything on it is good and quite alike-sounding.
Favourite track: 05 – Alfomega – Caetano Veloso. Supposedly the man is reviled by some in Brazil for his general pretentiousness, but he makes interesting music, so he gets a pass from me.

10. Scale – Herbert
Politically charged electronic music from the man who, from his lofty perch, looks down on anyone who uses non-original samples. He doesn’t fit well on a list that has Girl Talk sat at the top, but he’s always done pretty good stuff, and there are some very interesting tracks here. Unfortunately, there’s an equal amount of filler; he doesn’t seem imaginative enough to produce consistently intriguing music. Definitely worth a look for the standouts, though.
Favourite track: 01 – Something Isn’t Right. Extremely catchy, and vocally superior, anti-war / anti-Bush / anti-Blair / anti-establishment track – one of the best on any album on this list.

11. Black Holes & Revelations – Muse
Everybody’s favourite hilariously overblown rockers (or, as Ed would say, metallers in popular disguise) returned with another ‘more-is-more’ effort this year. I like Muse a lot, but I’m not getting behind any of the critical acclaim for this album, and certainly not for the much-vaunted second single Supermassive Black Hole. There are some very good tracks, as always, but as a whole it’s a pale imitation of Absolution or Origin of Symmetry, and a little way off the quality of their debut Showbiz. Matthew Bellamy remains, however, one of the most talented musicians working today – he is Muse.
Favourite track: 02 – Starlight. For a change, they toned their WORLD IS ENDING shtick down a bit here, and it worked wonderfully.

12. Half These Songs Are About You – Nizlopi
I listened to this on the back of the delightful JCB Song and its great video; the rest of the album is mostly not up to much, except for a couple of very good tracks. This is the sort of music I thought could be very, very successful, that inspired-by-Coldplay brand of wailing and gentle orchestration that everybody seems to love. Nizlopi haven’t hit it big yet, but they may yet do so; if they do, I will applaud respectfully, but with reservations. One thing the singer does extremely well is use swear words: sparingly, startlingly, in a way that makes you sit up and pay attention.
Favourite track: 08 – Freedom. A good song for feeling unhappy to; actually, just a good song.

13. The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living – The Streets
After two masterpiece albums about generally being an average yob, Mike Skinner turned to his now massive fame and fortune and tried to make it funny and interesting to us, his adoring listeners. Bzzt! No good, mate. It isn’t that his rhymes and flow have dried up; the stuff just isn’t nearly as inherently interesting, and it’s barely half as clever as what he’s put out before. On top of that, the hooks and beats are much more dull. File under ‘disappointment of the year’, apart from a couple of lights in the gloom. Hopefully he makes amends next time by returning to what he knows best.
Favourite track: 01 – Pranging Out. Falsely heralds the album as being as excellent as its predecessors, but the poorness of what follows shouldn’t distract from the fact that this is one fine track.

That’s it. Artists/groups that I discovered for the first time this year, but who did not release albums in the same year, included NoMeansNo, Modest Mouse, The Bravery, The Wrens, Benjamin Diamond, Masters of Reality, Hüsker Dü… and モーニング娘。Don’t laugh at me; I was once like you.

Leave a comment

Filed under 'Best Of' Lists, Music