The 00s: Film (Fiction) – 15-11

15. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

The Wrestler, another true American chronicle, flows on nicely from Jesse James at #16 (though they’d make for a pretty dispiriting double bill).  Mickey Rourke’s Randy the Ram, one of the finest characterisations of the 00s, knows that away from the bright lights of the ring he’s nothing.  When he’s forced to give it up and work the punters from behind a supermarket deli counter, he finds the moves in real life aren’t choreographed to guarantee the right response; same goes for his varyingly unsuccessful attempts with women, including his own daughter.  Aronofsky’s technique pulls us in close – much of the film is spent looking over Randy’s shoulder – and forces us to care about this sad, washed-up beast who ultimately becomes a truly tragic figure hung out to dry by an American society that no longer had a use for his fame.
Classic moment: With the sounds of the ring still echoing, Randy marches to his new work arena through cardboard boxes and crates rather than yelling fans and steam machines.

14. Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)

Charlie Kaufman’s meta-screenplays made him the closest thing to a celebrity screenwriter in the 00s.  He will appear twice on this list and once on the Underrated list; first with Adaptation., a satisfying and surprisingly funny inversion of the writing/filmmaking process.  I was among the few that found Being John Malkovich more self-indulgent than brilliant, but while Adaptation. is even more firmly focused on its maker, it actually tells a good story and never stops striving to entertain… and yes, I know those specific elements are supposed to be ironic references to the very horrors of Hollywood excess I banged on about in part 1, but when you have two Nicolas Cages at the top their game and a still-fresh director using all his talents to get the most out of an already remarkable script, how can you not be engaged?
Classic moment: Robert McKee, the world famous screenwriting guru, teaches Charlie Kaufman, the world’s most famous screenwriter, a lesson in his art.

13. Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006)

The most mature movie regarding drug abuse in the 00s was Half Nelson, the story of an inner-city schoolteacher who understands exactly how his addiction limits him but, in a world he knows is going to the dogs, lacks the motivation to kick it.  Fleck and his partner Anna Boden hoped to wake a few people up from the apathy of modern life and, with Gosling’s fine performance, fashioned a unique and powerful voice in Dan Dunne, a schoolteacher who is already jaded in his mid twenties.  As is so often the case it is the innocence of a young girl that gives him pause, but instead of getting lost in life lessons and forced interactions, the whole thing stays real from first to last.  It’s sad that you can’t say that about too many recent films.  I guess it just makes them even more precious when they come along.
Classic moment: Dan meets up with his ex-junkie girlfriend and, too strung out and nervous to focus, turns it into yet another display of obsessive self-awareness.

12. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)

Before it became one of the more famous internet memes in history, Downfall was the film about the fall of Nazi Germany and the last days of Hitler.  It serves no great purpose to talk about its individual aspects, because all of them are so exceptional as to be unsuitable for holding up to scrutiny.  While Downfall lacks the innovation of other films on this list, and thus places lower than my words might suggest, it gets inside its subject to a rare degree and appears to reflect absolutely the reality of what happened, why it happened, how it felt.  It’s like nobody needs to make any more  movies about Hitler’s bunker ever again because that movie, in all its sad and powerful glory, has already been made.
Classic moment: While saying goodbye to his staff, Hitler pauses poignantly at his terrified secretary Traudl Junge and gives her a smile which could almost be viewed as hopeful.

11. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)

Hello, superstar director.  I remember when you made small-budget movies about the mind.  Now you make mega-budget movies about the mind, and your impressive track record keeps you firmly entrenched as one of the very few hopes for a smart Hollywood (even if The Dark Knight, um, wasn’t actually that good).  Still, I’d be very much surprised if you ever made anything that came close to this, a perfect triumph of ideas and thought through cheap sets, cheap locations and (then) cheap (though excellent) actors.  The lessons of Memento about wilfully distorting one’s own reality have remained with me since that first baffling, exhilirating viewing, and I imagine I will struggle with them for the rest of my days.  I’m sure that one of these days soon you’ll make a dud, a Christopher Nolan film that sucks, but it’s okay;  I expect that.  And all will be forgiven, as soon as I throw on the DVD and watch that Polaroid undevelop for the umpteenth time.
Classic moment: Leonard’s short-term memory loss causes him to forget why he’s running… at a particularly inopportune moment.

<< #20-16 || #10-#6 >>

The 00s: Film (Fiction) – Intro & 20-16

Let’s face it, movies are getting worse all the time.  Louder, dumber, more willing to dispense technology or other fakery in place of humanity – and I don’t only mean Hollywood.  Amid the neverending glut of big-budget sequels, unnecessary remakes and too-smart-for-you indies, adequate images and the valuation of ideas are more desperately needed than ever.  I’ve begun to feel like the film industry is on an inexorable slide into perfectly clean banality, in which every film fits a predefined set of requirements and caters to a specifically identified market.

The 00s were beset with numerous travesties, many that aspired to greatness, some that were still widely praised despite their ineptitude or hollowness.  I fear the 10s will be decidedly worse, though the surprisingly enjoyable Avatar heralds the potential of a new dawn.  Come on, who doesn’t love an enormous, outrageously expensive movie about our need to have love for one another?  I’m serious.  I wish more directors afforded astronomical budgets would have the stones to make something with true heart.

Still, good directors always seem to find a way to make good films, and sometimes great ones.  I saw hundreds of films in the 00s; a good number stood out.  Here are the ones that affected me most.  Like the music list, I’m going by the one director – one movie rule, and I could mention several that I wish could occupy a place on the list.  They would include: Good Night, and Good Luck., Spirited Away, Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko, Amores Perros, Traffic, Children of Men, Once, High Fidelity, Syriana, Mulholland Dr. and 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days.  The 20 that follow managed to somehow reach a level slightly above these just mentioned and, to my mind, anything else released in the 00s.

20. In My Father’s Den (Brad McGann, 2004)

Like the music list, my top 20 begins with a New Zealand success.  Lest you think I’m showing undue favour to my homeland, In My Father’s Den could have come out of Nicaragua and it would still figure here.  With Matthew Macfadyen’s 00s-defining performance as a base, McGann – making what sadly proved to be his only feature – crafts an intricate, smart and powerful story which implies plenty about small towns not just in Nu Zild, but everywhere.  Up there in the pantheon of NZ’s best contributions to cinema.
Classic moment: “Is that why you push people away?”  Celia’s innocent question provokes an alarming response from Paul, until he factors in her naïveté.

19. My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2004)

For some reason, Pawlikowski has not directed again since this meditative stunner, and more’s the pity.  My Summer of Love represented a firm expression of his accumulated filmmaking ideals over a decade of documentary production and his previous Last Resort.  What starts out as a dreamy, intimate portrait of holiday romance – crossing the class divide, naturally, but with the twist of being between two teenage girls – grows ever more claustrophobic and questioning of its characters’ often murky motivations.  Nathalie Press and (now mega-famous) Emily Blunt made for one of the best couples of the 00s, and Paddy Considine – the Best Actor of his Generation – is his usual brilliant self.  Pawlikowski remains the star, though, marrying a freeform visual aesthetic and a great soundtrack to a deeper-than-you-might-think story whose power lies in its realistic telling.
Classic moment: Phil (Considine), having given all he has to try and stay on God’s path, finally ‘goes dark’.

18. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)

In the staggering – yet somehow deserved – hype that surrounded WALL-E and Up towards the end of the 00s, Pixar’s most satisfying creation yet seems to have been forgotten somewhat.  That’s the curse of quality, though, with Pixar churning out classic after classic to become the exceptional production house of modern cinema.  Where do they get their ideas?  And how did they charm me with a story that sounds so stupid on paper?  Quite simply, through a love of film and a scarcely believable attention to detail.  I remember, on my first viewing of Ratatouille, forgetting that it was an animation and paying more attention to the marvellous composition of each shot.  Nothing less than a miracle, the only thing keeping it from marching up the list is its lack of lasting impact, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I ranked it higher and higher as each year passes.
Classic moment: With one bite, Anton Ego hurtles back in time to his mother’s dinner table and the tastes and memories of his childhood.

17. 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)

It all started with a sparsely attended Sex Pistols concert in ’76, heading on through a contract written in blood, on-stage faints, suicide to Stroszek, attempted murder, innumerable ego clashes and a £30,000 table… but how much of it is true?  The story of Tony Wilson and Factory Records as told in 24 Hour Party People is a postmodern treat and one of the funniest films I’ve seen, a monument at least to good storytelling, ensemble acting and taking measured directorial risks – if not a monument to transparent fact.  Still, as Coogan’s Wilson quotes in the film, “if it’s a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend.”
Classic moment: The soon-to-be-important figures are introduced at the Sex Pistols gig, with a glorious slow-motion close-up of John the Postman, one of the lesser lights.

16. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

If there’s one film of the 00s that I suspect will grow and grow in stature over the coming decades as it is reconsidered outside the context of its initial release, it’s this one.  Coming just in advance of two hotly anticipated, superficially similar films – the somewhat overrated No Country for Old Men and worthy There Will Be Blood – most folks weren’t prepared for a slow-burning, philosophical Western in which ideas took precedence over gunplay.  Jesse James never really stood a chance.  But what ideas!  It is a meditation on both celebrity and criminality, a sharp and serious criticism of American idol worship that shows it to be a far-from-modern phenomenon.  This dedication to thought and atmosphere will distinguish the film as a work of art and set it apart as time passes.  Indeed, had I myself seen it more than once, I wouldn’t have been all surprised to see it occupy a much higher place on this list.
Classic moment: Jesse James’ emotion gets the better of him as he attempts to confront his growing paranoia.

For #15-11, click here.

The 00s: Music – 1

Well, you knew it was coming.

1. RadioheadKid A (Parlophone/Capitol)

You can read reams upon reams elsewhere about the qualitative aspects of Kid A and what exactly makes it the best album of the 00s, not to mention one of the most widely acclaimed works of music history, so I’m going to cut all that out and just tell my own story about it.

When I was 15, I spent a week of my August school holidays staying with my brother Ed.  While he and girlfriend Rach were at work, I whiled away solitary hours on the couch watching the Sydney Olympics, playing Driver on PlayStation and listening to the former student, newly commercial radio station uFM.  (And, yes, getting up at 11 in the morning if I was lucky. If you can’t be a horrible layabout when you’re 15, when can you?)  uFM had gotten their hands on a promo copy of Kid A and played about five or six tracks from it each day of the week.   Now, I couldn’t say it was love at first listen, but I was intrigued.   I knew it was a new kind of music for me; there was something intrinsic about it that reached out to the listener, but through the limited scope of commercial radio, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

A few months later I put Kid A at the top of my birthday list, not really expecting it to change my life, but definitely wanting to experience it again.  Naturally, Ed bought it for me.  For the following month the disc shuttled back and forth between my home CD player and my Discman, the sounds living in my head whenever I wasn’t listening to it.  ‘Idioteque’ stuck out as an early favourite, but the more ambient tracks – ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, ‘Treefingers, ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ – moved me in a way I still couldn’t articulate.  In any case, I swiftly decided as only a teenager can that this was the Best Album Of All Time and I would never, ever get sick of it.

Over the following couple of years, particularly after a wonderful New Year with my brothers and their spouses at Lake Ohakuri, I took it everywhere with me.   I’m not just saying that.  I really did.   I even made a point to listen to it on every car or bus journey leaving or returning to Auckland, where I lived, and every time it offered up some grand realisation or small detail that I hadn’t understood or noticed before.  Those ambient tracks now emerged and revealed themselves fully along with the rest of the album, and over time I felt like I could see, feel and accept ideas about our world that had never even remotely occurred to me before.

I left home, to go to university and then to work.  Kid A came with me in its now tattered case.  I discovered and embraced other Great Albums but always held Kid A above them all, the album that really got me into music, the album that I loved the most.  Every phase of doubt about it – ‘maybe it isn’t actually that amazing after all’ – was struck down as soon as I listened to it again.  With each passing year it became ever more a part of my soul and my being on this Earth, and so it remains today.

Radiohead have released other albums, and I have doubted them and been schooled each time.  But my teenage self turned out to be right: nothing will ever beat Kid A.   It is to me what I understand The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is to my dad – though he will surely expand on that – and Ziggy Stardust is to my mum: a unique relationship with a musical work that impacts you so strongly during your formative years that it never leaves you, or more accurately, you never leave it.  What’s yours?
Most representative track: ‘Optimistic’
My favourite: ‘Everything In Its Right Place’

The 00s: Music – 5-2

5. TV on the RadioReturn to Cookie Mountain (4AD/Interscope)

Indie as a genre ceased in the 00s to mean simply ‘independent’, and took on more of a ‘wet, hipster douches trying to sound plaintive and postmodern to mask the vapidity of their music’ connotation.  Thankfully, TV on the Radio were present to reclaim some of the ground lost by actually using their indieness to push the musical envelope as far as they could.  After one outstanding EP and one inspiring debut album, they delivered Return to Cookie Mountain, one of the more ambitious records ever released by a band that’s just about to make it.  It starts with ‘I Was A Lover’, a disorienting cluster of broken horn and guitar samples over a synth beat, and continues to challenge the listener’s expectations in basically every track on the album.  Through it all, twin frontmen Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone are electrifying, their distinctive and pushed-to-the-limit voices giving extra power to their deep and artful lyrics.  This was an album that was brilliant in ways I never expected it to be, seemingly designed to be hard to pick up.  I think the message TV on the Radio sent in the 00s, on this and their similarly essential other two albums, was that the music world needed a shake-up and that they were the ones who would do it.  Their attitude as thinkers/innovators who don’t mind the odd ‘fuck you’ to the establishment suggests that they might never make a weak album.  They shook me all right, quickly working their way into my thoughts and memories, and I’ll never be the same again.
Most representative track: ‘Wolf Like Me’
My favourite: ‘I Was A Lover’

4. Junior BoysSo This Is Goodbye (Domino)

I came to love So This Is Goodbye when I was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life.  It was the beginning of 2007, and I’d just secured a job in Japan and scored a goal from the halfway line in futsal.  The resulting elation and exhaustion brought on a 40°C fever, which rendered me stricken by hallucinations and unable to focus on a screen or page long enough to browse the net, watch movies or read a book.  Fortunately, I’d just discovered this emotional and precise Junior Boys album, downbeat enough to keep me grounded but with the requisite mechanics and care in arrangement to help maintain a pulse.  There wasn’t a single dud, so I could chuck it on repeat and let it run for the day, discovering new intricacies and rediscovering favourite moments from my stupor.  I suspect everyone who loves this album remembers in detail the time and circumstances during which they first experienced it, infused as it is with such wistfulness, nostalgia and clarity.  It’s a breakup album, so many of them will link it one of their own failed relationships; I can’t tell you about that, though I would love to hear from them.  From the subtle, hinting lyrics of ‘Double Shadow’ to the haunting sparseness of ‘FM’, this album is meticulously dealt and exceedingly tight despite its fragile appearance.
Most representative track: ‘The Equalizer’
My favourite: ‘FM’

3. Girl TalkFeed The Animals (Illegal Art)

Is Girl Talk the music of the 00s?  Night Ripper was the moment at which everyone stood up and took notice of mashups as a viable contender for becoming a consistent presence on the airwaves, but for me, Feed The Animals represented a refinement and deepening of Gregg Gillis’ aesthetic and the apex of his output thus far.  I read in an interview that people at his shows are no longer getting excited at hearing Lil Wayne rap ‘Lollipop’ over ‘Under the Bridge’, instead jumping higher and whooping louder for the fact that it’s one of ‘his’ songs – that is, the audience know his work and are more energised by it than the artists he samples.  I couldn’t imagine a clearer statement of acceptance.  What Gillis does is more than just playing around with sounds that connect in a cool-sounding way, though; a lot of the connections are inspired pieces of pop culture commentary, like opening with a link between The Spencer Davis Group’s ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ and UGK’s ‘International Player’s Anthem’.  That’s getting pretty nerdy, though, and for me, after the balls-out wow factor of Night Ripper, the Girl Talk sound developed such a stronger emotional core with Feed The Animals, extracting every drop of feeling out of hundreds of songs that seem corny and passé when listened to on their own.  He’s said he won’t be doing any more album-length megamixes like this, instead focusing on creating discrete tracks, and as far as I’m concerned, he can do whatever he wants – I’ll still be first in line on release day.
Most representative track: ‘Shut the Club Down’
My favourite: ‘Give Me A Beat’

2. BurialUntrue (Hyperdub)

The moulded and beaten vocal samples of Burial’s music suggest a voice crying out from the darkness, leaving echoes of moments in time – maybe in the past, maybe in the future.  The words are usually imperceptible, but occasionally there’s a moment of clarity – such as during ‘Shell of Light’, on which “I wasn’t sure if we could be friends” loops over and over.  Your own optimistic or pessimistic nature may inform what you take from that, and what you hear in the fainter samples, but taken at face value these vocals sum up Burial’s uncertain aesthetic.  Even when cutting together an album as consistent and musically grounded as Untrue, he never quite seems at ease.  It’s like he’s constantly switching from looking over his shoulder to see what he’s left behind (or maybe what’s chasing him), and casting his eye as far in front of him as possible, willing something tangible out of the haze.  That said, if that’s the case, he acts as a powerful and skilled creator.  New elements seem plucked from the earth’s soil as he conjures each track and allowed to develop organically into something that just… works.  I mentioned texture(s) when writing about Dan Deacon and Four Tet earlier, and if that word is synonymous with the sounds produced by the most forward-thinking musicians of the day, Burial sits squarely at the top of the pile.  Untrue, only his second album, is his groundwork for a new generation of innovators.
Most representative track: ‘Archangel’
My favourite: ‘Raver’

For the big #1, click here.

The 00s: Music – 10-6

10. Kanye WestLate Registration (Roc-A-Fella, Island Def Jam)

When it comes to Kanye West’s second album, it’s really not worth keeping in mind that Kanye is an arrogant, hubristic, selfish egomaniac who crashes music video award shows and writes ludicrous blogs about his creativity.  Admittedly, Late Registration does look from every angle like a representation of its creator’s psyche: 21 tracks across 70 minutes encompassing overarching themes of the Black Man’s Struggle and selected pivotal events from his own life, all tied together with as much bombast and daring as he can cram in.  However, he wastes no time planting his foot down on ‘Heard ‘Em Say’ and setting off a musical odyssey that never feels bloated or wasteful.  The man will inevitably eat himself before he ever gets truly comfortable – indeed, he might only be comfortable when he is Lord and Master of the Universe, as well as Most Appreciated and Recognised Hip Hop Artiste – but Late Registration, along with two other very good albums, shows that he is at the forefront of popular music trends for a reason and cannot be ignored by anyone.  There is one fact that definitely is worth keeping in mind: this album is as much Jon Brion’s masterwork as it is Kanye’s, their partnership one of the more surprising and successful collaborations of the 00s.
Most representative track: ‘Heard ‘Em Say’
My favourite: ‘Gone’

9. Dan DeaconBromst (Carpark)

If some music is described as being a ‘wall of sound’, Dan Deacon brings to mind a hose of sound spraying with gleeful abandon. With Bromst he naturalised his sound from Spiderman of the Rings with real drums and guitars, but rather than just being an improvement in production values, this led to the hinted-at emotional core of his first major release being elucidated more clearly and openly. It takes a few listens to get past the shock value of having so many layers seemingly trying to out-do one another, but once you do, Bromst reveals several potential levels of appreciation: the story of a ghost wandering away from home, a collection of richly textured compositions, elements of shoegaze/techno/ambient, and some of the most pure enjoyment and fun you can have listening to a record. The chord progressions and song formulas may not be that variable, but the heady mixture of maths and chaos wins out. Not for everyone, but those who like it will love it.
Most representative track: ‘Woof Woof’… or maybe ‘Snookered’
My favourite: ‘Get Older’

8. The StreetsA Grand Don’t Come For Free (Vice/Atlantic)

In-between a glorious debut and a disappointing announcement of redundancy, Mike Skinner mined pure gold.  On those first two albums, I see him as the Ray Davies of the 00s: a quintessentially British-sounding recording artist who, in narrowing his lyrical scope to focus on exactly what he knows, spoke to the hearts of fans worldwide.  A Grand Don’t Come For Free isn’t as simple as a guy churning out a set of quality down-home rhymes, though.  The sharp focus of Original Pirate Material is refined further into a complete story spanning the album, a conceit that often feels beyond the range – or limited by the ego – of the musician in question, but Skinner stays true to his art and to the listener.  From those opening horns, you’re hooked.  Each song works perfectly well on its own and as part of the story, so you can dip in if you must (though it’s hard not to listen from start to finish).  And let’s not forget how vivid his lyrics are, wall-to-wall empty cans taking on a sort of timeless quality.  I lost interest after the grievous disappointment of The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, but for this opus The Streets will always be a part of my life.
Most representative track: ‘It Was Supposed To Be So Easy’
My favourite: ‘Empty Cans’

7. GorillazDemon Days (Parlophone/Virgin)

This was my favourite of 2005, and nearly five years on, few other albums of the 00s are as versatile – you can throw it on for a dinner party, a party party, if you’re working or even if you’re having a ‘big talk’ with your significant other.  It’s comfortable but deep, danceable but mellow.  It gives you space but seethes with agitation.  It is of course the brainchild of Damon Albarn, his most successful and probably lasting creation, with help from producer genius Danger Mouse (The Grey Album, Gnarls Barkley).  I still remember how surprised I was on about the fourth of fifth listen after getting it, because Albarn’s debut of this ‘group’ four years earlier was interesting enough but hardly earth-shattering.  I liked this even less at first, too, then Albarn’s lyrics and Danger Mouse’s little touches in production started to worm their way into my brain, and I started listening to it several times in a row every day.  Though the music drifts along without ever pushing you to take notice of it (you will, eventually) Albarn seems incapable of making a record without Saying Something Important, and while having a gospel choir sing “These demon days are so cold inside, it’s so hard for a good soul to survive” might seem pretty hokey and cheesily earnest – ok, it totally is – it’s hard not to love the fact that Albarn desperately wants the listener just to stop coasting for a minute and think.  We cannot have too many artists taking life seriously in these uncertain times.
Most representative track: ‘Feel Good Inc.’
My favourite: ‘Demon Days’

6. M.I.A. – Kala (XL)

M.I.A.’s first album Arular took a couple of goes round for me to take to it, but with Kala, I felt like the kind of music I’d imagined for years in my head had finally synched up with music that actually existed.  It drives and pounds, all hips and fire, with her worldly and socially conscious lyrics scattered loosely over the top.  In fact, where a good number of the other albums on this list – particularly those I’ve put up here in the top end – are meticulously crafted with hardly a drumbeat out of place, Kala is freeform and sometimes barely seems to hold together.  I still remember when I saw her perform in Japan, where her haphazard button smashing on the DJ panel put about 50 extra gunshots in ‘Paper Planes’.  What does keep Kala from imploding under its own pressure, then?  Well, M.I.A. is such a committed artist that it’s the force of her personality as much as anything.  Read any interview: you’ll see that she puts up with absolutely no bullshit and has no problem badmouthing anyone she sees failing to keep it real, or anything that she perceives to be a danger to society (naturally, she’s on pretty much every flying alerts anti-terror list).  I in turn see her as a powerful force for global good, the spokesperson for the growing legions of folks who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  A third album will drop in a few months, and the movement will continue.
Most representative track: ‘Paper Planes’ (please, PLEASE ignore the Slumdog connection)
My favourite: ‘Bamboo Banga’

For the next part, click here.

The 00s: Music – 15-11

15. Quinn WalkerLaughter’s An Asshole/Lion Land (Voodoo-Eros)

I’ve only heard 8 of the 29 tracks on Quinn Walker’s double-disc opus, but they’re so good I can’t imagine any album that features them failing to crack my top 20 for the 00s.  Walker is very much the wild card in this list, a prolific independent one-man band whose music embraces experimentation and humour, but never at the expense of depth.  The drum kit crashes, square synths wail and the guitars solos spin you right round, and above it all, Walker’s often falsetto voice weaves hilarious and unforgettable poetry.  All of these songs I know are to be savoured, but it’s ‘Save Your Love For Me’ that appears to be the quintessential Walker song – brilliantly unhinged, poetic and unforgettable.
Most representative track, and my favourite: ‘Save Your Love For Me’

14. The AvalanchesSince I Left You (Modular Recordings)

I’ll speak more about mashups later, but the great innovators in this field at the start of the 00s were Australian duo The Avalanches.  Since I Left You remains one of the most purely enjoyable records of the decade, one which just about anyone can throw on and enjoy however they wish – as a soundtrack for work, as a party or dancefloor staple, as a vehicle for reminiscing, whatever.  Chater once said the album was about “the idea of a guy following a girl around the world and always being one port behind”, and that wistfulness is tangible even amid the shining joy.
Most representative track: ‘Since I Left You’
My favourite: ‘Electricity’

13. Sufjan StevensIllinois (Asthmatic Kitty)

To appreciate Sufjan Stevens, you have to get over how much of a pompous ass he appears to be.  Consider the title of track 14, a 20-second ambient hum: ‘A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze’.  There are literally dozens of tracks on Illinois with titles like that (though that’s the worst); luckily, the man is an incredibly gifted musician and songwriter, and not even the most hopelessly puffed-up designation can obscure the talent evident in every one of Illinois’ 22 tracks.  I find myself wondering why he didn’t become super-mega-ultra famous, given that this album would fit pretty comfortably on commercial radio as well as in the dens of indie hipsters.  Maybe he did, but I missed it because I live in India; maybe he just burned out.  That seems more likely after such a feat as creating this record, whose scope extends well beyond the borders of the state in the title and into the hearts and stories of people all over the world.
Most representative track: ‘Chicago’
My favourite: ‘Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’

12. Arcade FireFuneral (Merge/Rough Trade)

Coming on the scene in 2004/2005 with Funeral, Arcade Fire wound up defining the kind of sound that leads people to make YouTube comments like ‘If you don’t cry watching this, you are dead inside’.  I myself have made fun of their heart-on-sleeve approach, but damn it, they’re so sincere and such good performers that they stay just the right side of ridiculous, like Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting of the 00s.  I can’t fault them for seeing problems with the world and wanting to state, in no uncertain terms, how troubled they are by them; such emotional honesty should be celebrated.
Most representative track: ‘Wake Up’
My favourite: ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’

11. Four TetRounds (Domino)

There are great album openers, and then there is ‘Hands’, pulsing into life with a beating heart before layering in textures that slowly reveal themselves, surrounding you, the listener, and sweeping you along in a wave that almost seems to be physically raising you up.  Most of Kieran Hebden’s output is concerned more with texture than melody, with enough rhythm to keep your feet tapping, and Rounds is the apex of his career thus far (though There Is Love In You comes close and will surely be on the 10s list).  His other albums are frustratingly inconsistent, comprised generally of stunners and fillers only, but Rounds keeps its game up after an astonishing opening.  Indeed, the opening quartet of tracks seem to me so good that they might perhaps always have existed somewhere, an undercurrent of energy that Hebden harnessed and converted into a sonic form.  As much as any musician I know, he does things that make me stop dead in my tracks and say, “I could never do that.”
Most representative track: ‘My Angel Rocks Back And Forth’
My favourite: ‘Hands’

For the next part, click here.

The 00s: Music – Intro & 20-16

I’ll level with you.  I’m no Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes or whoever you actually read for your music tips.  I can’t compete with 200 albums of the decade, given that I have never listened to (or heard of) the vast majority of whatever is included on their lists.  I can honestly say, however, that I love music, and that there has been music during the 00s that I have particularly loved.  Some of it has been a soundtrack to certain times in my life; other albums have wormed their way into my consciousness to become an ongoing part of who I am.  This is that music.

I’ll have to limit myself to 20, but acknowledge that several of these artists would have occupied places on an expanded list if I weren’t keeping it to one album per artist.  Radiohead would have been on here at least twice (Hail to the Thief, in case you’re wondering).  I also had to omit quite a few albums that were hard to leave out, for example Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album and Battles’ Mirrored, but for whatever reason these were the 20 that made it.

I must also acknowledge, again, that I’m sure a lot of incredible stuff was released that I missed for whatever reason.  I’m only just getting to listen to Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, and it is extremely good and might have been on here if I’d gotten to it a couple of months earlier…  but anyway, that’s what the comments are for – tell me how much of a philistine I am, and what I need to do to catch up.

As for trends, I think the list can speak for itself but am looking forward to things being noticed along the way as I post it.  We can address that in the comments too.  (In case you haven’t got it yet, I WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS.)

Note that thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can hear the music as you read about it by clicking the track links at the end of each album write-up – one for the track I feel is the most representative (i.e. the best introduction to the album), and one for my favourite track.  Here we go…

20. Breaks Co-OpThe Sound Inside (EMI/Astralwerks/Parlophone)

Kicking it off with some Kiwi sounds, the best ‘summer’ album of the 00s came from this skilled trio (though I’m told the live lineup of five adds plenty to the sound).  I of course bought it when it was bafflingly released in the middle of NZ’s winter and was promptly chewed out by my flatmate Nic, but it was such a great soundtrack to my student days that it stayed on high rotate through until the temperature started rising – and beyond.  Now I’m living in India where it’s always summer, and there’s a never a bad time to rediscover this record’s lazy, comfortable atmosphere lying with a beer in the hammock.
Most representative track, and my favourite, and the one everyone knows: ‘The Otherside’

19. David Bowie Heathen (ISO/Columbia)

Don’t get Heathen mixed up with the thrash metal band from California.  It is in fact Bowie’s emphatic return to form after a decade or two patching together albums out of patchy material.  Here, reunited with producer Tony Visconti, Bowie comes to terms as best he can with his own mortality; but as always, he’s never completely at ease.  Whether it’s the afterlife or the state of the world he expects – and perhaps wants – to leave behind, Bowie prefers to remain in the grey areas rather than committing to any one philosophy.  He doubts, questions, pleads and implores and it makes for a conflicted, thought-provoking masterpiece.
Most representative track: ‘Slow Burn’
My favourite: ‘I Would Be Your Slave’

18. Animal CollectiveMerriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)

The first three or four tracks of Merriweather Post Pavilion are un-be-lievable.  Opener ‘In the Flowers’ plants you firmly in an otherworldly trance with its slow but heady build, then explodes into life at the two-and-a-half-minute mark; ‘My Girls’ is the catchiest, prettiest bit of synth-pop in ages; ‘Also Frightened’ darkens the palette and opens up the record into more wide-reaching themes, while keeping the pace up; and ‘Summertime Clothes’ evokes a high-energy dash through the streets of your city with the one you love.  Pity the rest of the record couldn’t keep up to the same standard; though several of the subsequent tracks are very good (and one exceptional), they just feel underwhelming after the glory of those first 20 minutes.  Perhaps on another album, I’d love them all equally.  In any case, this is a heartfelt and singularly distinct work that heralds plenty more brilliance from Animal Collective to come.
Most representative track: ‘My Girls’
My favourite: ‘Lion in a Coma’

17. Daft PunkDiscovery (Virgin)

As a means of re-energizing and reclaiming the floundering dance music scene in 2001, Daft Punk, always concealed behind robot masks and suits, positioned themselves as interplanetary discoverers dredging our musical past for forgotten hooks and converting them into something they, and we, could embrace.  Even if it was a triumph of marketing and pop culture gimmicks over originality, Discovery was a sensation.  Its retro factor gives it a timelessness such that it continues, a decade later, to poke its head up on dancefloors and TV promos worldwide.
Most representative track: ‘One More Time’
My favourite: ‘Too Long’

16. The FieldFrom Here We Go Sublime (Kompakt)

For the most repetitive sounds of the 00s, look no further than The Field.  Some tracks contain only three or four alterations to the same looped sample.  Thankfully, the sound happens to as purely ecstatic as it is unvarying, and after enough listens, the patterns will be so etched in your mind that you’ll know exactly when the next loop is going to start and feel a kind of exhilarating release when it does.  The Pitchfork reviewer said that if From Here We Go Sublime ‘doesn’t hit at least some of your pleasure centers, well, forget your ears– your nerve endings might actually be dead’.  I concur, and it could endure for decades to come precisely because its aim is simple:  to make you feel good.
Most representative track: ‘Everday’
My favourite: ‘The Little Heart Beats So Fast’

For the next part, click here.

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.

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.

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.