Saturday, December 27, 2008

Top 5 Telly Of The Year!!!

I want to preface this by saying this year I could easily have filled a Top 10 list with shows I absolutely love, it's been that good. So if there's omissions, they were not easy to leave out. And here we... go!

The new brainchild of J.J Abrams, this brilliant sci-crime drama picks up where The X-Files left off, but has the sense to base itself not in the world of the paranormal, but rather the "almost possible" field of fringe science. Olivia Dunham is a disillusioned DHS detective assigned to investigate cases slightly outside the norm, and the only man that can help is Walter Bishop, a former government scientist who worked on top secret experiments. He's brilliant but also slightly insane after spending 20 years in an asylum. What sets this show apart is the violent, creepy cases (ever wanted to see a man cut to death by razor-winged butterflies?) and the outstanding casting. John Noble, in particular as the gentle but deranged Walter Bishop is a revelation.

After a first season that went from fun to addictive viewing, season 2 has been nothing short of compulsory. Lovable is a word bandied about a lot when it comes to this show about an unwilling spy and his two protectors, and the creators never seem to forget that it's meant to be fun. As before, the action is deftly staged, and the characters have been more fleshed out, but it's the interaction between the cast that really make this shine. These are actually people you like, and root for on a weekly basis, and in Zachary Levi the producers have definitely found a charming, funny leading man for years to come.


Now, this was a real find for telly. An original series from Alan Ball (he who wrote 'American Beauty' and 'Six Feet Under') set in the American deep south, True Blood takes place in a modern world where Vampires are part of society. Having "come out of the coffin" they live with us, work with us, refusing to feed on humans, choosing instead to drink 'True Blood', a synthetic substitute. It's here when Sooki Stackhouse, a young waitress who can hear people's thoughts, falls in love with 200 year old vampire Bill Compton and the problems it causes throughout the community. And of course there's some old-fashioned Vamps that believe in the old ways too. Being an HBO show there's sex, violence and F-bombs dropped throughout a gripping story filled with a fantastic cast. Ryan Kwanten especially, as Sookie's screw-up, meat headed brother is just astounding.

The telly that refuses to stop being amazing. Weeds' fourth season completely shook up it's whole world, burning down the entire neighbourhood that pot-selling Widow Nancy Botwin and family resided in, forcing them to relocate to the Mexican border. Albert Brooks was introduced as Nancy's father-in-law, who can't stand her, and stole every episode. Celia Hodes was back to her acid-spitting bitch best, and the stakes were raised higher as Nancy unwittingly became involved in a drug cartel. Son Silas was made part of the family pot business, and younger brother Shane finally stopped talking to the ghost of his dead dad. As always, Mary-Louise Parker was phenomenal every week as Nancy, making her the strongest, most sympathetic, yet sometimes completely selfish widow every portrayed on telly.

Bittersweet, this one. Coming off the back of a stunning, if cut short by the writer's strike, first season, this new season has been everything I loved about it but so much more. The stories have been better, the characters put into equal jeopardy and hilarity, and thrilling through-arcs laced into the big picture. And yet, thankfully, it's lost none of it's magic, the key factor that set this telly apart in the first place. If anything, the magic of the show is even more luminous than before, mixing beautiful and grotesque scenarios with killing one-liners and it's trademark 40's-style spitfire dialogue. The cast is better than ever too. Ned and Chuck continue their ill-fated romance with new obstacles, Emerson Cod is given more to do than simple droll put-downs, and we even get a companion for Digby the dog - Pigby the pig! Kristin Chenoweth steals the whole show though, a constant, hilarious, heartbreaking standout. The sad news is that after falling ratings (which every show has had thanks to the strike) ABC has not ordered a full second season of this wonderful telly, so this will be our lot unfortunately. But hell, when it's this good I'm glad for anything I can get. You'll be missed, Pie Hole!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Albums Of The Year: Numero Uno!!!

'Hold On Now, Youngster'
This time last year I'd never heard of Los Campesinos! at all. Then in January, an ear-arousing, stomach-jumping little single called 'Death To Los Campesinos!' started being played on the radio. A jangly, shouty pop anthem the likes of which I'd not heard in years. It was musically complex with everything from glockenspiels, guitars and violins to old-school Casio keyboards. The lyrics were dexterous and far too original for upstarts as young as these, and the call-and-response vocals betwixt boy and girl (she luminous and posh-sounding, he chavvy and loud) shouldn't have worked but did beautifully. Even the title was brilliant; not only having the audacity to put your own band name in the title of your first single, but to do it in such a cheeky, self-knowing way instantly grabbed me.

Who be these fellows of the Campesinos, thought I. Further investigation was needed. The album must be obtained. Said album, 'Hold On Now, Youngster', is the sound of the most exciting new band I've heard in years. Lo-fi enough in production to capture the spirit of a garage band, but with accomplished and commercial songwriting to make it unashamedly pop. It sounds messy on the surface, but has razor-sharp arrangement that belies a band their age. Above all, and this really is the clincher, it's so much fun!

The wordsmithery of this combo is equally inventive and impressive. It's impossible to know who wrote what (they don't use last names, it's simply Gareth Campesinos, Alex Campesinos, etc), but the imagery they bring with song titles and lyrics is staggering. 'My Year In Lists' begins with the lament of "You said send me stationary to make me horny, So I only write you letters in multi-colours" before uttering "Nothing says I love you like carving poetry in your door with a stanley knife".

Song title of the year goes to 'This Is How You Spell HAHAHA, We Destroyed The Hopes And Dreams Of A Generation Of Faux-Romantics'. Lyric of the year goes to the song 'We Are All Accelerated Readers', in which boy singer Gareth states "There were conversations about which Breakfast Club character you'd be, I'd be the one that dies". Upon being informed by girl singer Alex that no one dies in The Breakfast Club, Gareth quietly moans "Well then what's the point?". Later on we learn from Gareth "You said you look less like The Venus De Milo and more like your mother in a straight jacket". If that isn't genius enough, he ends the song with one final gem; "I'm not Bonnie Tyler, And I'm not Toni Braxton, And this song is not going to save your relationship / And if this sentimental movie marathon has taught us one thing, It's that the opposite of true love is as follows: Reality!".

Single of the year by miles is the knee-bending, intestine-curling 'You! Me! Dancing!'. A glorious pop masterpiece, an epic 2-minute guitar crescendo leads into the most fun song in years. Having seen Los Campesinos! play live twice this year, I can tell you that as soon as this song is played everyone goes into a euphoria of dancing/jumping/mania heaven (you really NEED to see this band live). Thanks to The Jonster and myself there is now even an official dance to this song that the band themselves seem to approve of!

I really want to mention the storming 'Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks' but this is already far too long. Just know it starts with the line "When the bigger picture's the same as the smaller picture you know that you're fucked" and proceeds into the second-best dancing tune of the year.

There you have it. The best band, album, single and gig(s) of 2008. And they only went and put out a brand new 10-track E.P last month.

Hold on now, youngster? No, hurry up! More please!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Albums Of The Year: Number 2!

'The Seldom Seen Kid'
Since it's initial release, this album was my number one. No question, and it even overtook the long-running favourite. However, a recent live gig has made me have to switch them... again.

That doesn't detract from a record that is, in every sense, a masterpiece. I talked on the Number 3 entry about hyperbole, and I'm not joking when I say that Elbow have made a will-be-remembered-in-20-years classic. And it's nothing to do with them winning the Mercury Music Prize, although that award is fully deserved.

Elbow always seem to be on the cusp, a band that critics and their fans love, a band that put out inspiring and innovative records, a band that should be bigger than they are. And yet somehow that jump from respected artists to Radiohead-esque sales figures has always eluded them. And while it's unfair, given their obvious talent, I kind of like that. But not in an elitist "once they get popular I won't like them anymore" way. People know of them, people like them, but there's no expectations on their shoulders to create another million-selling monster. That keeps them innovative.

Elbow are a close-knit bunch, who work together and respect each other enormously. They've all been in this from day one, and you can sense how much they enjoy creating as a band. However, it would be remiss not to cite singer Guy Garvey as a massive driving force in Elbow. His voice absolutely soars on this album, and his lyrics are the epitome of working class storytelling, just as Lennon and McCartney were. It's a strange, completely down to earth, beautiful poetry.

'The Seldom Seen Kid' is glorious from start to finish, but has some knockout punches. First single 'Grounds For Divorce' has a bastard of a beat and a riff to die for, but real venom in the lyrics. Opening line "I've been working on a cocktail called Grounds For Divorce" sets the tone early.

The beyond beautiful "One Day Like This" gets more hopeful, with the line "Kiss me like a final meal, Kiss me like we die tonight" being the most romantic line for impending doom I think I've heard. And that's before a choir chorus join in the song's ending mantra; "Throw those curtains wide, One day like this a year would see me right".

"Friends Of Ours" is the penultimate track, and the one that affected me most. A totally stripped down ballad of sorrow for a departed friend. The almost silent, cracking vocal of Garvey simply singing "Love you, mate" is as uplifting and heartbreaking as a eulogy could be.

A stunning piece of work.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Albums Of The Year: Number 3!

'For Emma, Forever Ago'

'Sublime' is a word used far too often. I'm completely guilty of this. And after hearing this album, I feel ashamed of myself for throwing this word around like that.

Being labelled a "break-up album" is normally a gimmick to give an album gravitas before it's even been heard. But in this case, it's true. Although when playing live Bon Iver is three blokes, it's really a man named Justin Vernon. This album came to be because, after a pretty devastating break-up, he holed himself away at a cabin in the woods and recorded this record alone. At points he had breakdowns as the album is only 9 tracks long, and he found himself not knowing if it was any good anymore. Eventually, he just turned it over to the record company and said "I'm done, put it out".

Normally, at this point, I'd talk about some tracks, mention some lyrics and put them into context. But this is not the record for that. I wouldn't do it justice. All I will say is, when 'The Wolves (Act I & II)' builds from a barely audible guitar strum to the crescendo of him singing repeatedly "what might have been lost"... well, spine-tingling doesn't come close. And 'Blindsided' is the best song I've ever heard about that moment you realise you've fallen in love.

This right here is someone's heart and soul poured into music. It's heartbreaking and beautiful.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Albums Of The Year: Number 4!

'Live At Massey Hall'

Does a live album count as an album of the year? Probably not. Is it a predictable choice for me? Maybe. Am I picking it simply because it's Matthew Good? Absolutely not.

Coming off the success of last year's 'Hospital Music', Matt Good completed two tours of Canada and America. The first was solo acoustic performances, with several songs omitted completely as they didn't work on a single guitar. The second tour was full band (a brand new band, to boot) with all his most famous anthems included and cranked up to 11. As Matt himself put it, "It's time to give some songs their balls back".

And blimey, didn't he just! A 2-disc, 20-song monster of classic and new material, it's a potent reminder of the sheer quality of Matt's back catalogue, plus gives the newer tracks a verve and energy even his stunning last studio album couldn't capture. Hearing the cheerleader chant before 'Giant' kicks in, the opening riff of 'Weapon', or the slow-burning inferno of 'Avalanche' played with breakneck conviction before a screaming audience takes the songs to a new level.

It also cements his status as one of the best songwriters working today; 'Born Losers' is so vibrant live it sounds like a bloody hoedown... then you remember it's about his divorce. And what's staggering is that when he's belting out 'Hello Time Bomb', a song that's 10 years old, his voice and passion singing it live now leaves the old album track in a very, very large wake.

This man is very close to the word 'legend'.