Sunday, December 23, 2012

Oh, Hello Cruel World: 2012 In Review.

"In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty."
-Phil Ochs

     The quote above is one I've been going back to a lot lately. Wayne Kramer has some variation of it, too. Lately, life has just seemingly gotten grim enough to warrant repeat visits to this up-lifting, inspirational quote. This one is on a homemade poster in my mind, scribbled in Sharpie over a cat hanging from a branch by his last, singular claw. Like I said, grim.

     So when a couple of wackadoos* decide to arm themselves with high-caliber firearms and take out their scramble-brained frustrations on moviegoers, mall shoppers and school children, it's enough to make you want to throw up your hands and give up on humanity completely. This is the dismal and violent world some people seems to want for our country, I suppose. Maybe a butterfly will land on a shell casing or someone will draw wings on a chalk outline at the next hideous mass gun death event (it's coming--sorry, but this is yet another sad, soul obliterating "new normal" to get used to). Some kind of beautiful protest among the aftermath, maybe. I don't know.

     Given the recent mass murders which took place recently in Connecticut, you can possibly forgive me for not giving much a shit to devoting 110% to my end-of-the-year list (and by "you" I mean "me", since I'm beginning to get the feeling that I'm the only one who actually reads this blog anyway--woe is me...)

     So here's a list of a bunch of stuff I liked in 2012. Not that it really matters in light of current events. It is what it is. And sorry if this post is a downer. If you're looking for lighter, sunny, happy reading fare, may I suggest one of those blogs dedicated to a talentless reality show assholes/assholettes. Those are usually blissfully oblivious distractions, right?

    Anyway, here's the Rocket Science Alliance Year End List of my favorite stuff which occupied my time when not watching Rome burn at home. And remember: these are lists of my personal favorites, not "best of" lists (all best-of anything lists being arbitrary and highly disagreeable bullshit, anyway, in my not-so-humble opinion). Enjoy regardless, I guess...

 Top 10 Favorite Records of 2012

1. Grizzly Bear Shields (Warp) - To paraphrase Edward G. Robinson in the great film noir, Double Indemnity: Every element on Grizzly Bear's Shields-from the songwriting, production, track listing, and even the album artwork-fits together like a watch.  "Yet Again" and "Sleeping Ute" may be the stand-out tracks here, but they are framed so perfectly between the other eight songs on this album as to remind you exactly why the long player format is still vital in this digitally-dim single-song age. Shields is an album so absolutely flawless, I'm hard-pressed to even think of a single thing that's wrong with it.

2. Anna Calvi Anna Calvi (Domino) - On her debut, self-titled album, Anna Calvi cooks-up desert noir as if she eats it regularly for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Calvi's breathy vocals float like cigarette smoke trails while her song craft leans towards the moody, atmospheric and heavily reverb-drenched; she strangles her guitar as if it owes her money, rending only the most blissfully tortured and contorted notes from it. This is the underrated album of the year that you should be bragging/boring to your friends and colleagues about.

3.Ty Segall Band Slaughterhouse (In the Red) - Trying Guided By Voices for the most amount of album released this year, Ty Segall unleashed a seemingly relentless barrage of skull-rattling bare-bones garage rawk, thrice fold. Of those three albums, Slaughterhouse hammers the hardest, delivering 11 rollicking, rambunctious ditties, each better than the last. "Fuck yeah!"

4. Lotus Plaza Spooky Action At A Distance (Kranky) - Infusing shoegaze with 80's jangly new wave guitar chimes (al a' New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs, etc.) and droning vocals a Gregorian monk would envy, Lotus Plaza manage the neat trick of making those ingredients not sound trite or tired. On the contrary; Spooky Action At A Distance is probably one of the most hypnotic, blissed-out and rewarding repeating listening experiences of the year.

5. Violens True (Slumberland) - There's this drink called the "buttery nipple." It's thick, creamy, butterscotch-tasting, and absolutely fuckin' delicious (if not embarrassing to order: "One buttery nipple, please!" "Your finest butter nipple, toot sweet!") Violens' debut album, True, sounds like this drink tastes: a golden, gooey, gauze-y masterwork that slides down slowly and agreeably. Also, that dude on the cover is totally doorbell-ing this chick's nipple, so there's your loosely-based buttery nipple allusion right there, I guess.

6. Lilys/Big Troubles split 7" (Speakertree) - Lilys are my favorite band of all time. One song is good enough. A new album would have been better, but honestly, I'll take what I can get. (See my earlier review here.)

7. Guided By Voices Class Clown Spots A UFO (GBV Inc.) - Of the three (!) albums released by these original, reunited Dayton, Ohio vets (on the group's own label, no less), Class Clown Spots A UFO gets the gold (Let's Go Eat the Factory and Bears for Lunch tie for silver). With songs such as "Keep It In Motion," "Billy Wire" and "No Transmission," Class Clown... finds Bob Pollard and co. successfully diving back into the lo-fi garage pop that made Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes such seminal albums. The Tobin Sprout-fronted "Starfire" is quite simply beautiful. Beer me, Bob!

8. Mac DeMarco 2 (Captured Tracks) - On 2 (his second album of the year, natch!), Mac DeMarco sounds like a Canadian who just lets his freak flag fly unfettered. And good on him, since this maple-leafed weirdo really knows how to write superbly off-kilter and highly infectious pop music (as evidenced by "Freaking Out the Neighborhood" and "Sherill"). "My Kind of Woman" and "Ode to Viceroy," however, display soulful slink beyond any odd-novelty perception. This is just a songwriter making great music on his own terms. Thank gawd for that!

9. Cat Power Sun (Matador) - Oh, Chan Marshall! You insanely whip-smart and batshit crazy baroness; you're catnip to man-children like me. Your new album, Sun, is brutally fuckin' brilliant. But of course you must know that by now (hell, you probably thought so when you were making the damned thing, right?) "Cherokee" "Ruin," and "Manhattan" are freeze-ray fractured slices of fried gold, and this record of yours has become an repeat-play turntable addiction, pretty much.

10. King Tuff King Tuff (Sub Pop) - Unlike most over-celebrated albums released this year (Grimes, Sleigh Bells and Flying Lotus come to mind), only the most truly hard-headed contrarian asshat could claim that they dislike King Tuff's hyper-kinetic slab-o-wax. Shit, what's not to like about this record? It rocks? It sounds like fun in a bottle? It's the best soundtrack to a game of beer pong, like, ever? Yeah, everyone loves this album. Know why? It's really fuckin' good. That's why!

Top 5 Favorite Album Covers

1. Chromatics Kill For Love (Italians Do It Better) - Warm hues depicting a hollow body guitar being strummed rockingly askew. Follows the first rule of graphic design simply and perfectly by giving you an album cover you want to look at over and over again.

2. Bat For Lashes The Haunted Man (The Echo Label, Ltd.) - An album cover as confident, fearless and bad-ass as the singer-songwriter gracing it. Thus proves that Natasha Khan has chutzpah to spare.

3. Parquet Courts Light Up Gold (Dull Tools) - Off-the-cuff, cut-n-paste album art as messy and brilliant as the music it houses. I only wish I made mixtape collage covers this effective and effortlessly.

4. OFF! OFF! (Vice Music) - Any time Raymond Pettibon puts his artwork on an album cover is cause for celebration.

5. Howler America Give Up (Rough Trade) - It looks like a pack of cigarettes you could only get in craft culture cities. You can never go wrong with the Portland color palette.

Favorite Song of 2012

Blur "Under the Westway" (EMI)

     Have you noticed how blah things seem lately? That feeling of utter misery lurking just below the paper-thin veneer of our collective consciousnesses? Well, it's not just you. Ever since the turn of the century, things have just seemed, well, glum. Terrorism, gun violence, political strife, online trolls, economic uncertainty, Adam Sandler movies; life in the 21 Century seems to have a glut of never ending travails. No song summed-up this feeling of bleakness better than Blur's title track from the single of the same name: "Under the Westway." Hidden within this dour piano ballad, Damon Albarn sings of his grey-skied city sinking at a greater pace, familiar "old school" conventions being lost to time and obsolescence, jet fuel falling from the heavens as sirens wail away in the distance. It's a dismal affair, until Albarn injects a dash of humanity into the drudgery, proclaiming his love for (and projecting his hope into) someone who manages to pull his heart from modern life's rubbish. "Paradise not lost/It's in you" he pleads at the song's swell. Times may be dreary now, but the human spirit still preservers, and better things are on the horizon. They have to be.

Favorite Music Video of 2012

The Intelligence "(They Found Me In) The Back of the Galaxy"  (from Everybody's Got It Easy But Me, In The Red)

     In keeping with The Intelligence's devil-may-give-a-fuck ethos, the video for "(They Found Me In The Back Of) The Galaxy" (filmed at Seatlle's famed The Pony) is just as lo-fi, clang-y and brilliant as the song; a perfect chocolate-n-peanut butter collision of sight n' sound. Also, the grrrl in the green eyeshadow is very homina, homina, homina. So there's that.

Favorite Live Show of 2012

The Helio Sequence, The Townhouse, Sacramento, CA

     Admittedly, I didn't get out to very many shows this year. Like, at all, really. Simply too broke or busy with other things, I suppose. This show however took place down the street from where I lived, so I had no excuse not to go. And I'm glad I did, since these fella's put on a fairly solid and welcome mid-week show.  I've been a fan of this Beaverton, Oregon duo's music since they debuted back in the early Aughts, drawn to their densely layered mix of shoegaze and proto-pop. In keeping with most shows that take place in Sacramento, the crowd was subdued, bobbing their heads in time with the music and politely clapping after the band finished each of their songs (which mostly consisted of tracks from their new album, Negotiations, augmented with selected sonic "classics" such as "Keep Your Eyes Ahead," and "Hallelujah"). I'm glad I got to finally see this band play live, if for no other reason than to have at least one live show to write about.

Top 5 Favorite Films of 2012

"According to this map, Bumbershoot should be going on right around here."
1. Moonlight Kingdom - It makes sense that director Wes Andersen's first period piece would harken back to the late 1960's. It's as if all of the well-placed tchotchkes in his previous six films led-up to this. Moonrise Kingdom serves to remind you of a more innocent period in time when young love was simple, sweet and screwy, running away from home was the apex of rebellion, and wandering alone in the woods wouldn't land you in a clandestine marijuana grow site or a shallow grave. As per usual in Andersen's films, it's those adults in impeccably twee uniforms who have mucked-up their interpersonal skills, and, by film's end, get their shit together enough to realize they really need to get their shit together. The heart of this film, of course, belongs to the young, emotionally charged star-crossed lovers at its center. Their story is timeless, serving to wistfully remind even the most emotionally jaded, jilted, scarred, and weather-beaten heart what those first youthful pangs of uncomplicated love truly felt like. Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson's most masterful film to date.

2. Skyfall - The ONLY film in the world that has earned the right to murder a classic Aston-Martin DB8 (hear that original The Italian Job?!?) Oh yeah, this film is everything you want in a Bond film: action, sex, gadgets, sex gadgets, a horribly disfigured baddie played by Javier Bardem, etc, etc.

3. Take This Waltz -  Writer and Director Sarah Polley's slow burn examination of a young woman (played by the brilliantly transcendent Michelle Williams) who, unfulfilled by her listless yet love-filled marriage, finds herself slowly tempted into pursuing an extramarital romance with an attractive and attentive neighbor.

4. Looper - Starring Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis, and written and directed Rian Johnson (Brick), Looper brilliantly twists time travel tropes with a caustic cocktail mix of loose morals, questionable ethics, double crosses, and the follies of a generation reared in single parent households. Shit's deep.

5. The Dark Knight Rises - "Batman! Thank god you're back in town! Where were you for the entire middle of this story? Oh, painting a giant bat symbol on a bridge with gasoline, huh? Okay... Well we need you to go and defeat the super villian with a respirator who basically handed your ass to you earlier, alright? Great!"

Favorite Book of 2012

The Enlightened Cyclist by BikeSnobNYC (aka Eben Weiss) - Chronicle Books.

     Known primarily for his scathingly hilarious bike-oriented blog, bikesnobnyc, said Snob (Eben Weiss) follows-up his witty and biting debut novelette, Bike Snob, with The Enlightened Cyclist; a book full of not-so-surprising depth and reverence for the bicycling culture near and dear to his heart. I say "not surprisingly" because Weiss is not only a witty and intelligent writer, but a thoughtful and impassioned one, as well. For all of Weiss's snide (and perfectly adroit) observations on the ridiculousness of certain aspects of bicycling culture, he still holds-fast to a level of reverence that sees the act of simply getting in the saddle and letting the bicycle transform you (in mood, health, philosophy, et al.) as Manna from Bicycle Heaven for the rider's soul. When Weiss talks about bicycle culture butting heads with car culture, he introduces constructive avenues of thought rather than pandering to confrontation warriors who favor hard-headed obstanance by participate in Critical Mass-type protests rides. Sure, "One Less Care" is a great fender sticker, but, as Weiss recommends, why do battle with a form of vehicular commuting that isn't disappearing anytime soon when you can convey to these drivers that your bicycle riding is "One Less Car" in traffic or "One Less Car" in line at the gas station? In doing so, perhaps they'll be more careful when driving around us as we ride. Insights such as this make The Enlightened Cyclist a must-read not only for those of us who enjoy riding our bikes, but for those who have yet to understand why we do. Who knows? Perhaps this informative, idea-inducing and highly entertaining book may (hopefully) help bridge the gap.

Favorite "Thing" of 2012

The North Face "Vince" Trench Coat (

    As I was going to "print" with this blog I wasn't really sure what doodad to put in this section. I just purchased a vintage Raleigh "Sports" 3-speed bicycle that I'm planning on using as my daily commuter to Portland State, but somehow that didn't seem flashy enough to warrant mentioning here for some reason. As I was heading out the door on a particularly rainy evening to retrieve some take-out, I grabbed my recently purchased "Vince" rainproof trench coat from The North Face. The kinda douche-y name aside, this rain-deflecting coat is pretty badass, featuring a two-way zipper front with augmented button snaps (perfect for when you're, say, riding a bike), a removable hood, hidden pockets galore, and a length that's more "car coat" than actual trench which covers your bum and junk from getting doused by the rain. The one element about this coat that I really like (unlike other products from this company which feature their large garish logos in white) are the subtle front and back shoulder North Face logos in black silk thread which matches the coat's black color. The only drawbacks of this rainproof coat that I can detect so far is that the hood does not feature pull strings to cinch it around your face when the wind blows. Oh, and the price is pretty spendy at $180.00. But then again this is a jacket by The North Face, so what do you expect?

And finally...

All 23 James Bond Films Rated Worst To Best

"Where the bloody hell do you chaps suppose David Niven is with those damned martini's?"
Since everyone and their grandmother has seemingly made a list rating all 23 of the James Bond films from best-to-worst upon Skyfall's release last fall, I thought I'd finish out my Year In Review list with my own rating of the most successful film franchise in cinema history. As an avid and devoted fan of 007, here is how I rate Her Majesty's most loyal MI6 agent.

23. Die Another Day (2002)
An invisible Aston-Martin, horrid CGI, Haley Berry's all-one-liner dialogue, the kitchen sink plot (space lasers again?!?), a monotone Madonna in a "cameo", etc, etc. C'mon!

22. Moonraker (1979)
In space, no one can hear you groan ...or recycle the plot of The Spy Who Loved Me.

21. Quantum of Solace (2008)
The world already has a Jason Bourne, Mr. Bond, and he's loosely based off of you!

20. A View To A Kill (1985)
You know you're a spy in trouble when the best thing about your film is a title song by an 80's new wave band.

19. License To Kill (1989)
As Gene Siskel noted in his At the Movies review upon this film's release, License To Kill just looks and feels drab.

18. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Even with its muddled plot, it sure was good to see Sean Connery back in the tuxedo again.

17. Live and Let Die (1973)
Roger Moore's first outing finds Bond smack dab in the middle of the 1970's blacksploitation genre and voodoo witch doctors. Um, yeah...

16. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
An intriguing entry that suffers from giving the world a brand new Bond when it didn't want one, marrying him off and then killing his wife (in what also has to be the most downer ending of any Bond film in the canon).

15. The World Is Not Enough (1999)
With a plot that features a pretty nifty twist as to who the movie's actual arch villain really is, even the most die-hard Bond fan couldn't accept Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist.

14. The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
A serviceable plot involving Bond being lured into confronting master assassin Francisco Scaramanga at his psychedelic fun house/shooting range. "The plane! "The plane!"

13. The Living Daylights (1987)
Timothy Dalton tried, but the world just wasn't yet ready for a self-serious super spy willing to perform the most breathtaking and harrowing stunts in the franchise's history.

12. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Gets the merit badge alone for featuring a gleefully vainglorious baddie that's an absurd hybrid of Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates and The Emperor from Star Wars. Also, the chase scene involving a remote control BMW sedan was an inspired touch.

11. Octopussy (1983)
Action, intrigue, gadgets and a spectacular airial acrobatic opening sequence involving a mini jet and a heatseeking missle aside, this film is called Octopussy! Say it out loud: "That's my little Octopussy."

10. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
A leaner, more stripped-down adventure finds Bonds trying to retrieve a MacGuffin while romancing an emerald-eyed bow huntress out for revenge, and kicking a non-verbal killer off a cliff (Mercedes sedan and all).

9. From Russia With Love (1963)
You have to know, as an globetrotting spy with a Scottish accent, just how irresistible to women you when one sneaks into your bedroom wearing nothing but a velvet choker. Aye, "Old Boy?"

8. Dr. No (1962)
The film that started it all, made memorable when a bikini-clad Ursala Andress emerged from the sea to banter with our hero.

7. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Dated disco music aside, tell me you didn't feel a ping of pride when Bond, pursued by Russian agents, skis off a snow-covered cliff face and floats out into the great unknown for and agonizing 10 seconds before his parachute opens to reveal a giant Union Jack as the Bond theme thunders-in.

6. You Only Live Twice (1967)
Assassinated and brought back into the living as a ninja, Bond (with the aid of a heavily-armed mini-copter) sets out to put the kibosh on SPECTRE by destroying their Japanese base of operations: a massive, hollowed-out volcano spaceport.

5. Goldeneye (1995)
After the rather glum six-year hiatus that followed the Dalton years, Pierce Brosnan finally bungee jumped-in to claim the singular role he seemed destined to play. Right out of the gate, when he says "Bond. James Bond," you instantly know this is the line Brosnan was meant to proclaim. And that tank chase scene is pretty nifty.

4. Skyfall (2012)
When you really think about it, this is M's story, with Bond playing the dutiful protector and surrogate son. This may be the first Bond film where the action and adventure serves to heighten its emotional core, and that is a very good thing indeed. Let's just hope the next Bond film doesn't feel the need to keep "slyly" referencing Bond films of yore (as all three of the Craig-era outings have so far).

3. Thunderball (1965)
Even the name of this fourth Bond film reeks of action and adventure. From the opening jet pack getaway, to the underwater fight scenes, to SPECTRE villian Emilio Largo's yacht (with detachable hydrofoil, no less) are pitch perfect Bondian moments in a pitch-perfect Bond film (so much so, it was recycled in the 80's for a non-EON-Bond Connery comeback titled Never Say Never Again).

2. Casino Royale (2006)
As eager as James Bond was to prove himself worthy of his new rank in this reboot of the franchise, so too was Daniel Craig to prove himself to the world that he belonged in 007's bespoke tuxedo. Craig not only silenced his detractors, but went on to win-over die hard fans, brand new fans and industry accolades alike. Craig's Bond is brooding, brutal and deadly; the perfect "blunt instrument" for these ever-shifting and uncertain times. But it's his loyalty to Queen, country and M that are Bond's best attributes, and Craig makes it easy to root for the good guy, even when he stumbles to find his footing.

1. Goldfinger (1964)
This is the Bond film; the movie that established the template for all Bond movies to follow. Goldfinger gave the movie-watching world the megalomaniac Auric Goldfinger, whose love of gold superseded only that of elevating crime to the wondrous and spectacular heights of molecular science and space travel. It also introduced his henchmen: Odd Job, a mute tank-of-a-man whose blade-imbedded bowler hat could slice the head off a cement statue, and Pussy Galore, a tough-as-nails acrobatic pilot whose name would go on to inspire eye-roll-inducing appellations for Bond girls to come (Holly Goodhead, Christmas Jones, Strawberry Fields, etc.) Goldfinger even established indelible hallmarks for the franchise, from the spectacular pre-credits opening sequence, to Bond's gadget-filled Aston-Martin DB5, to the image of Bond's dead lover, Jill Masterson, asphyxiated and covered, head-to-toe, in gold paint. But it's Connery's Bond that steals the show here. Confident, cocky and resourceful, Bond breezes through one dangerous situation after the next, be it dispatching an assassin with nothing more than a bathtub and a plugged-in fan, or making witty bon mots while facing down a laser intended to slice him in two up the middle. Goldfinger is simply a fun, action packed film, made effortlessly so by that MI6 agent with a slick Scottish inflection, a way with the women and a license to thrill.

*My apologies to any Wackadoos I may have offended.