Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Top 6 in '06

Happy New Year 007! To commemorate the passing of aught-six here is my annual list of favorite books, movies and albums of the past year.

  • 6: Konono No. 1, Congotronics
  • 5: Vienna Teng, Dreaming Through the Noise -- As a long-time fan I have to confess I was a little perplexed by this album at first listen. It seemed a little too ... tasteful? Restrained? Light-jazzy? But never fear: the beautiful vocal melodies and piano hooks we've come to expect from Vienna are still here, now wrapped in a sophisticated new production. A personal fave: "City Hall" is a sweet country-soul ode to San Francisco's gay marriage ceremonies.
  • 4: The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America -- Craig Finn has done a lot of drugs (and seemingly can't write songs about much else), but at least he has given us some awesome music as a result. This album is cynical and sad about love and self-destruction, but it's also true and damn funny. Plus, the band rocks like an angry Bruce Springsteen.
  • 3: Soundtrack to the movie Velvet Goldmine -- A terrific fake soundtrack for Todd Haynes' terrific fake David Bowie biopic. Since they couldn't get Bowie himself onboard or use his name or any of his music, the producers lined up a few friends (Thom Yorke, Sonic Youth, etc.) to cover some old 70's glam rock tunes and drafted some modern bands (Pulp, Shudder To Think, Grant Lee Buffalo) to write originals that channel the decadent spirit of the era. Somehow this mash-up works a million times better than almost any other movie soundtrack you can think of.
  • 2: Common, Be -- When I moved to Chicago in 2000 everyone was lamenting the fact that the "capital of Black America" had yet to produce a bona fide hip-hop star. Six years later we have a least two, Kanye West and Common, and they've teamed up for this highly enjoyable album. Not as groundbreaking as Like Water For Chocolate, but Common's positive lyrics and Kanye's soulful productions make a powerful combination.
  • 1: Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood -- Neko's first few albums showcased her gorgeous voice and her skillful, if traditionalist, country song-writing. Her last few outings have taken a darker turn, chaneling Patsy Cline and Nick Cave in equal proportion. For Fox Confessor it all comes together as something original: Case sings murder ballads and love songs, gospel rockers and midnight confessions. The shimmery music draws you close and her lyrics twist the knife.
Other stuff I've been spinning: the White Stripes, Gillian Welch, The Smiths, Uncle Tupelo, Kanye West, Blur, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Gorillaz

[Top 6 Books and Movies can be found on the full post page. Click below.]

  • 6: To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis -- Time-travelling Sci-Fi would seem to be a dry well by this point, but this book manages to find a clever new twist on the old hyperspace continuum. In this case the quantum physics and chaos theorizing come via a charming sojourn in Victorian-era Oxford. What what?
  • 5: Field Notes From A Catastrophe, by Elizabeth Kolbert -- Real Climate named this the year's best popular science book on climate change. While I can't say I've read enough books to make that claim, this is definitely a quality introduction to the issue. Kolbert apparently gets the science right and she's an undeniably superb writer.
  • 4: Trinity, by Leon Uris -- Ripping good historical fiction about the early days of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and their revolt against British occupation. Admittedly, Uris isn't the fanciest writer of the century -- his love scenes are pretty dorky, his female characters are entirely superfluous and he has a hard time writing anyone who's not a villain or hero. But there's something genuinely exciting about the hero Uris does create -- Conor Larkin, the peasant farmer who rises to become a leader and martyr for Irish independence.
  • 3: Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, by Jeff Chang -- OK, so I'm only halfway through this one, but it would be higher on the list if I'd finished already. This is the history of hip-hop neither as dry musicology nor uncritical fan adoration, instead Chang makes a passionate case for the political and cultural importance of hip-hop. His thumbnail histories of the rise and fall of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Jamaican reggae, white flight, urban neglect, Third World liberation, gang warfare in the Bronx and the economics of throwing a kickin' party all come together to make the emergence of hip-hop in late 1970's NYC seem inevitable, important and liberating. Like any great history you come away amazed that you could not have known this stuff before.
  • 2: The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
  • 1: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson -- A book so good it's hard to say anything about it without sounding slightly over the top. The story of three generations of preachers in a small Iowa town takes the reader from the Civil War to the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. But rather than the sprawling epic such a narrative would seem to indicate, Gilead is a spare and focused tale about fathers and sons, with as much to say about facing death after a long life as it does about war and abolition.
Recommended Reading: Paladin of Souls, The Sandman, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff

  • 6: Serenity -- see here.
  • 5: 2046 -- In a movie-world full of literary adaptations and TV-show spinoffs, I'm always impressed by films that are somehow intrinsically cinematic -- films that live or die on the strength of the moving images they create and that couldn't conceivably exist as books or stage plays. This gorgeous, romantic film from Wong Kar-Wai fits this bill perfectly. It doesn't always make sense, and WKW certainly doesn't spell out what he means by anything (particularly the sci-fi subplot) but it's easy to lose yourself in the atmosphere. And coherence is over-rated anyway.
  • 4: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story -- Partly a clever film adaptation of the world's first post-modern novel, partly a documentary on the making of said film which manages to skewer both modern celebrity culture and high art, partly a long series of dick jokes. Take from that what you will.
  • 3: The Constant Gardener
  • 2: The Departed -- Damn. Scorcese comes through with the best gangster movie since, well, Goodfellas. The cat-and-mouse game between two dueling under-cover moles makes this one of the most exciting movies I've ever seen. The buildup of tension and the sudden release of violence gives the film an intensity that every single action director is shooting for. Hope they were taking notes. I still need to see the original, though.
  • 1: The Prestige -- Once again, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale team up for my favorite movie of the year. The movie is about dueling magicians and is structured like a magic trick with several 'surprise' twists. Of course, these days the audience is already expecting a big 'Sixth Sense moment' so the fact that Nolan pulls off the misdirection like a seasoned three-card monte dealer is already pretty cool. Bonus points are earned for casting a very amused David Bowie as Nikolai Tesla. But here's the high praise: I was still thinking about this movie a week later and having revelations about what it all means.
Honorable Mention: Cache, Munich, United 93, Tsotsi, Paradise Now, The New World, The Decalogue, V for Vendetta, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Miller's Crossing, the Squid and the Whale, Whisky Galore


Jackie said...

New posts! Way to hit the ground running in the new year. Anyway, I'm always so behind on arts and culture stuff that the only thing on any of your lists that I've watched, listened to, or read is Serenity. But Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is on my list of things to get from iTunes, once I'm done obsessively listening to Okkervil River.

t said...

Hi Jackie, yeah new posts - I've been mentally saving 'em up for when I had time to blog. Hope you enjoy Neko. What is this "Okkervil River" you speak of?

Jackie said...

Okkervil River is a folk/alt-country/rock band out of Austin. I'd never heard of them before December but have been relentlessly listening to their latest album, Black Sheep Boy, and its companion album, Black Sheep Boy Appendix, ever since -- it takes a while to sink in but then sticks with you (I gave Sarah a 'enh, pretty good' review a day or two after I first got the album). Maybe I'll try to blog about them. You can listen/download some of their songs from their website,, or their myspace page.