In Defense of Ziggy


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Detroit Lions fans are understandably quite weary of the team’s most recent draft pick: Ziggy Ansah (DE, BYU), the 5th overall pick in the 2013 Draft. Well call me the contrarian, because I think Ansah will be a great player for the Lions. Pollyanish? Actually, I think that if you take a closer look at his background, and his combination of size, speed, and athleticism you just might come away from this a bit more optimistic. But before I go on fawning over the guy, it’s important to understand context here: the nature of the NFL Draft.

Take a look at where the most elite players in the NFL were drafted and you’ll see that no one can predict with any real precision, how great a player will turn out. For every Peyton Manning there’s a Tom Brady; for every Jason Witten, there’s a Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski; for every….well, you get the point. Often times, it can be tough to project how well a player’s skills will translate to the next level; especially in a year when many consider the top-level talent to be thin.

Compounding the issue of top-level depth was the issue of need. With the top 3 offensive tackles going first, second and 4th, respectively, the Lions missed out on addressing their most glaring need- offensive tackle. Thus, they were only left with the choice of either trading down for more picks, or drafting most likely LSU DE Barkevius Mingo, Alabama corner Dee Milliner, or Ansah. While I would have equally endorsed the Milliner pick, given his speed, size and pedigree, I don’t think I would have chosen Mingo over Ansah. At 6’4”, 248 lbs., he wouldn’t have been a great fit for the Lions 4-3 wide 9 scheme. Sure he’s played against superior competition, but the metrics here just don’t work as well. And anyway, Ansah has a higher ceiling. Maybe trading down would have helped, but then who would they have taken, at which pick, in exchange for what? Given those choices, I like Ansah as the pick the most. If anything, the kid has the sort of attributes that make great players, just look at his background.

Ansah came to the US from Ghana on an academic scholarship hoping to walk on to the basketball team. As a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, he chose to do so at BYU. Having failed to make the basketball team, Ansah was encouraged to move over to football where he finally flourished in his 3rd season. Ansah knew very little about football before he came here. Yet he was able to walk on to the football team (and track team where he ran a 10.91 in the 100m).

As a senior, he played every position on the defensive line, including nose tackle, registering 4.5 sacks and 62 tackles. Is that enough to merit first round consideration in the draft? Well, no. For one, 4.5 sacks isn’t all that impressive. But keep in mind, he played 5 different positions at BYU. He wasn’t merely a rush end so his numbers are a bit skewed. What was impressive however was how Ansah managed to dominate at the Senior Bowl. Under the guidance of the Lions coaching staff, Ansah led the South defense with seven tackles (3.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble, raising the eyebrows of NFL brass everywhere. From there, he went on and ran a 4.6 at the NFL combine; for a 6’5” 271 lbs end that’s pretty impressive.

As a Lion, he will play for a head coach in Jim Schwartz that has coached his share of great defensive players in the NFL (Haynesworth, Suh, Vanden Bosch), and he will again be able to have an impact in different ways. The Lions will likely move the newly acquired Jason Jones around on the defensive line, as they have done with Ndamukong Suh. Down the road, they could use Ansah in a similar capacity.

Nevertheless, Ansah’s success will likely turn on his character, and this is where I think the Lions may benefit the most. This is a kid that is living a real-life fantasy. A few years ago he emigrated here from Ghana in pursuit of a dream to play basketball. Today he’s an NFL player and a millionaire. He’s worked hard to learn the game.  He’s smart, and he seems humble. Considering Ansah’s journey, he might realize, more so than his fellow players, that playing in the NFL is a privilege. Just one more reason why I think Ansah will be an excellent addition to the Lions.

The Best Albums of 2012: The Complete List

Cloud_Nothings_Attack_on_Memory_album_cover#20 Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory [Carpark]

Release Date: January 24, 2012

What began as one slow, sad, slog of an album ended as one of the year’s best. Attack on Memory is a raw, rag tag of a rock album, but it’s good. Engineered by legendary producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies), the album is distinctively stripped down with lead singer Dylan Baldi’s vocals front and center. Outside of the opening track, the distinctively dark and moody “No Future/No Past,” the rest is pretty upbeat, offering up hints of  punk, and late-eighties rock. It’s fun, it’s dark, angry and even a little trippy; but most of all it’s short, clocking in at just a hair over 30 minutes.

Select Cuts: Fall In, Stay Useless, Cut You

Beach_House_-_Bloom#19 Beach House:Bloom [Sub Pop]

Release Date: May 15, 2012

Positioning Bloom at #19 is probably a bit unfair. Standing on its own, Bloom is a magnificent piece of work. Grandiose, majestic, and composed of great songwriting, Bloom is the ideal go-to for the melancholically (is that a word?) inclined. Lead singer Victoria Legrand is once again in full command of her rich, husky tenor voice, and guitarist Alex Scally’s chord voicings shimmer. Through it all, it’s like one long dream sequence. So then what gives; why so low? The ranking is a reflection of the fact that Legrand and Scally offer nothing new here. Their breakthrough album Teen Dream offered up, what has become their signature dreamy, shimmering sound. What I had hoped for with their follow-up was a fresh take on the formula that worked for them before. Unfortunately that didn’t really happen, so Bloom gets taken down a few notches. But don’t let that stop you from giving it a listen; it’s a wonderful album.

Select Cuts: Myth, Lazuli, Other People

Norah_Jones_-_...Little_Broken_Hearts_cover#18 Norah Jones: Little Broken Hearts [Blue Note]

Release Date: April 25, 2012

Payback’s a bitch…..so the saying goes. Nowhere is that more evident than on “Little Broken Hearts,” Norah Jones’ fifth full length release that was inspired by a recent breakup. The album is a collection of tracks that were put together with producer Brian Burton a.k.a Danger Mouse (Broken Bells, Gnarls Barkley), before and during the period in which the two also collaborated on 2011’s Rome. One listen to Little Broken Hearts is all it will take to notice Jones’ emotions. The album is often times dark, and yes, Jones is pissed. But it is her anger that gives the album a degree of depth previously unseen by the chanteuse. In the video for the first single from the album “Happy Pills”, Jones is seen as the jilted lover, plotting the death of her partner. On the song “Miriam,” perhaps the album’s best, Jones almost relishes the thought of bringing an end to “the other woman.”  The music tracks the grand orchestral vision of Burton’s Rome, which mostly works. While there are a few lulls in the middle, “Little Broken Hearts” is a welcome addition to the Jones canon.

Select Cuts: Little Broken Hearts, Happy Pills, Miriam

Vets_large#17 Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music [Williams StreetGrand HustleAdult Swim]

Release Date: May 15, 2012

I stopped keeping close tabs on the rap game a long time ago. I’m not sure if this change coincided at all with my discovery of Hendrix or Zeppelin. Or, if the change coincided with the demise of Yo’ MTV Raps (particularly Fab Five Freddie’s involvement; Ed Lover & Dr. Dre bugged the hell out of me, “Who’s the Man” notwithstanding). Nevertheless, I still listen to a lot of rap music, just not as much as I should, so it was a pleasant surprise when my friend Dave Jeromin recommended both R.A.P. Music and El-P’s Cancer for Cure. Originally I preferred the latter. Then I saw the video for the single “Big Beast,” (heavily inspired by the movie Drive) and I was sold. Initially it was the video that hooked me (hookers, zombies, a car chase, you name it), but then the song sunk in and it was all I needed. It’s loud, bombastic, features a coterie of characters (Bun B., T.I., and Trouble), and it is a lyrical tour de force that represents the very best of southern rap. At its core, R.A.P. Music is hard-core southern rap that paints on a pretty wide canvass. Killer Mike addresses everything from the dope game, to politics in the age of Reagan, and then turns the album into a southern rap revival; somehow it all works. El-P works wonders as the producer, as the album draws from both Killer Mike’s southern influences, as well as the sounds that represent El-P’s east coast background.

Select Cuts: Big Beast, Southern Fried, R.A.P. Music

Bat_for_Lashes_-_The_Haunted_Man_cover#16 Bat for Lashes: The Haunted Man [Parlorphone]

Release Date: October 11, 2012

Bat for Lashes’ (Natasha Khan) The Haunted Man was an album that came courtesy of my good friend, and co-host of the “Bring Tha Noize” podcast, Scott Hoyer. Unfamiliar with any of her work, I was eager to give this one a try, and I was not disappointed. On this, Khan’s third studio album, we find what many have described as a more muted sound; less on the electronic beats and rhythms, thus providing a sparer production. There is a haunting, yet orchestral feel to the album,  but it’s not overdone. Vocally, Khan evokes memories of art-rock singer Kate Bush, which just adds to the lushness of the sound. But don’t take The Haunted Man to be entirely awash in melancholy, there’s a few up-tempo tracks that recall some of Khan’s earlier work, sprinkled in just enough to make this one of the year’s best.

Select Cuts: Lilies, All Your Gold, A Wall

Catpowersun#15 Cat Power: Sun [Matador]

Release Date: August 29, 2012

After nearly twenty years as a recording artist and 9 full-length albums to date, Cat Power (Chan Marshall) has established herself as one of the industry’s most talented but enigmatic performers. Throughout her tumultuous career, she has found herself embroiled in all of the trappings of success: drugs, depression, eccentricity and disappointment. Yet Sun– Marshall’s first album of entirely original material since 2006’s The Greatest- is that album that comes along every so often for the talented and fortunate artist, at the right time. It’s that album that signifies somewhat of a rebirth. Needless to say, this was done purposefully, as the title “Sun” represents light, and a certain freshness that permeates throughout the album.  Self-produced, the album stands apart from Marshall’s previous offerings. Looking for a more dynamic feel, Marshall introduces all sorts of drum beats, loops, synthesizers and other unique sounds to bring about this new direction. Both lyrically and tonally the album seems to deliver the message that Marshall is back, ever more bold, and- as she and pal Iggy Pop make clear- she’s got “Nothin’ but Time” to finish what she started.

Select Cuts: Cherokee; 3, 6, 9; Peace and Love

Fearfunfatherjohnmisty#14 Father John Misty: Fear Fun [Sub Pop]

Release Date: April 30, 2012

Joshua Tillman’s (Father John Misty is Tillman’s nom de guerre) 2012 release Fear Fun, is a throwback album of sorts. Incorporating the sounds of classic 70’s rock n’ roll, Fear Fun recalls the best moments of artists like Fleetwood Mac and Elton John; heck, I even hear a little of Lennon’s solo work here. Yet somehow the album doesn’t sound dated; probably a result of modern production. Or maybe, it’s just that Tillman wanted to make an album rooted in great storytelling, and filled with rich layers of sound that marry the old 70’s nostalgia with modern folk influences like Wilco and even the Fleet Foxes (the band with whom Tillman once toured). Regardless of intent, Fear Fun succeeds as an enjoyable listen.

Select Cuts: Fun Times in Babylon, Nancy from Now On, This is Sally Hatchet

KendrickGKMC#13 Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d. city [Interscope, Aftermath, Top Dawg]

Release Date: October 22, 2012

It’s not every day that a hip-hop artist releases something like good kid m.A.A.d. city (“GKMC”), yet somehow Compton’ California’s latest export, Kendrick Lamar, manages to do just that……..on his first try.* Showing wisdom, and a bit of musical genius well beyond his years, Lamar’s major label debut lives up to all the hype, as Lamar skillfully explores the themes that often accompany West-Coast rap: drugs, violence, misogyny, and poverty, just to name a few. But what is unique about GKMC, is how Lamar delivers these themes: in the form of a concept album that follows Lamar, as a teenage kid, as he travels throughout his world.

Lamar has been compared to a wide variety of artists such as Tupac (his idol), Dr. Dre, and Outkast. Personally, I think he sounds like a cross between Andre 3000 and Kanye, but I’m certainly no expert. What I do know is that GKMC stands alone as one of 2012’s most refreshing releases- rap or otherwise.

Select Cuts: Sherane, Swimming Pools (Drank), Compton, The Recipe

*His first album on a major label

homepage_large.2ac068b1#12 Frankie Rose: Interstellar [Slumberland]

Release Date: February 2012

Frankie Rose’s unmistakably titled debut Interstellar is yet another entry into the catalog of records that have comprised the 80’s nostalgia movement of the last 5-10 years. Yet describing Interstellar as nothing more than an 80’s rehash record would be misleading; there’s more here than meets the eye.  Rather than dousing the songs with shimmery guitars and heavy synth, the approach here is often sparse. Sure, Rose’s vocals are washed over with delays, a heavy dose of reverb, and then doubled just for safe measure. But the sounds that invade Interstellar give Rose’s vocal melodies room to breathe, most notably on tracks like “Had We Had It” and “Moon on my Mind.” But the real beauty of Interstellar comes in the way of the more grandiose tracks like “Pair of Wings” that literally embody the ambition of Instellar; an album that not only attempts but also succeeds in taking the listener along on a journey across various musical soundscapes.

Select Cuts: Pair of Wings, Apples for the Sun, The Fall

FP1273_Walkmen_Heaven_Cover-31#11 The Walkmen: Heaven [Fat Possum, Bella Union]

Release Date: May 29, 2012

Emerging out of the ashes of the post-punk revival of the early aughts, The Walkmen have since managed to forge a path as indie-rock mainstays. With Heaven– their 7th full-length album- the New York outfit head off into a slightly new direction with an Americana-styled record. Heaven probably won’t make anyone forget about Wilco’s Being There, but it is some of the most jangly music they’ve put together, perhaps ever. The spirit of the album is best embodied with songs like the opener “We Can’t Be Beat” that offer up a straight-forward rock n’ roll approach, with both acoustic and electric guitars played side by side. There are still some of their post-punk sensibilities at work here, especially on songs like “Love is Luck,” but otherwise Heaven is mostly an album full of new flavors.

Select Cuts: Love is Luck, Line by Line, Heaven

Tame_Impala_Lonerism_Cover#10 Tame Impala: Lonerism [Modular Recordings]

Release Date: October 5, 2012

No one is making music like Tame Impala right now.* From the outset, Lonerism– rife with buzzing noises, quirks, and all sorts of psychedelic sounds- asserts itself as the bold, dynamic statement of a record that it was intended to be. Taken in its entirety, Lonerism harkens back to the halcyon days of rock n’ roll, when psychedelic rock was all the rage. Kevin Parker (the genius behind Tame Impala) uses the psychedelic template and turns it on its head, by incorporating elements of pop and all sorts of different rock varieties (even glam) in order to produce one of the most refreshing albums to emerge from the land “down under” (or anywhere for that matter) in quite some time.

*See #2 on the list

Select Cuts: Apocalypse Dreams, Music to Walk Home By, Mind Mischief

GrizzlyBearShields#9 Grizzly Bear: Shields [Warp]

Release Date: September 18, 2012

I have to admit I never really cared for Grizzly Bear. Heck, the  only song I ever seemed to think much of was “Two Weeks” from Veckatimest. So it was with trepidation  even cynicism- that I gave Shields, (their 3rd full-length album) a shot; boy was a I surprised. Not surprised that it was good, because there are plenty of albums out there that are good, but unappealing (to me). No, I was shocked at how much I liked what I heard. I’m sure some folks might think of Grizzly Bear as highfalutin hipster drivel, but the music here is rich and full of all sorts of influences. These young lads, hailing from the Capital of Hipsterville (NYC) have created something grand here: catchy (see “A Simple Answer”), but experimental, psychedelic rock, with little sprinkles of contemporary electronic music (see “Speak in Rounds”). Perhaps what I like most about Shields is that underneath all the sounds (electronic or analog) there’s a touch of soul in the vocals that gives the music yet another dimension.

Select Cuts: A Simple Answer, Yet Again, Speak in Rounds

twinshadow confess#8 Twin Shadow: Confess [4AD]

Release Date: July 10, 2012

If you can imagine what Duran Duran might sound like if they released an album produced by Prince, then you have an idea of what Confess is all about. Twin Shadow (the nom de guerre of George W. Lewis) turns it up a notch here, building on the 80’s inspired pop/funk template of his debut Forget, by opting for a bigger, brighter, and yes happier sound. Lewis, who is also a very capable guitar player, spends some of his time shredding (“You Call Me On” and “Patient”), and some of it bouncing along (“The One”). At all times though, Lewis is singing about a longing for love, which is a theme that permeates throughout this sonically rich album.

Select Cuts: You Call Me On, Run My Heart, Be Mine Tonight, Beg for the Night

doc#7 Dr. John: Locked Down [Nonesuch]

Release Date: April 3, 2012

Dr. John (or Mac Rebennack if you prefer) is as synonymous with New Orleans as beignets or Mardi Gras. With a career spanning over 50 years and 20+ albums, Dr. John has achieved legendary status as a singer, songwriter, and pianist, playing music rooted in zydeco, R&B, jazz, soul and funk. His achievements were finally memorialized with his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. So it was only natural that I immediately delved into Locked Down, especially after discovering that Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach would be producing the album. Fortunately my eagerness was rewarded. Locked Down is fun, frolicking, boastful, introspective, and well crafted. Dr. John has writing credit on all of the songs, which is unsurprising as they draw from his diverse interests with hints of Afrobeat, soul, funk, rock and jazz. The brilliance of Locked Down is that Auerbach’s production gives it a nice gritty garage rock veneer, unseen in previous offerings.  

Select Cuts: Locked Down, Revolution, Ice Age, Eleggua

Boys&Girls#6 Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls [ATO]

Release Date: April 9, 2012

The worst thing you can say about Boys & Girls, the debut album from the Alabama Shakes, is that it’s a rehash of  the classic 60’s southern soul that originated in places like Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Memphis Tennessee. But that’s hardly surprising given the proximity of the band’s hometown (Athens, Alabama) to both Muscle Shoals (approx. 46 miles) and Memphis (approx. 200 miles) where Stax Records originated. Indeed, “Boys & Girls” is a concise collection of wonderfully crafted songs that reflect the band’s gritty but soulful influences.

Manning the vocals is the uniquely talented Brittany Howard. Armed with a big voice to match her stout frame, Howard’s voice is unique. Husky, throaty, if not androgynous, her voice has a timbre that is hers and hers alone. It is a style that is always passionate, as Howard draws upon her emotions in a way that most vocalists are unable to do. She’s aided by guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson, who together, make up a sound that reflects a maturity beyond their years as musicians.

Ultimately, Boys & Girls is heavy on the classic soul. But characterizing it as a soul album alone is misleading; these kids still manage to rock it out (check out “Hang Loose” and “On Your Way”). In fact, the first time I heard the album, it made me wonder what the Black Keys might sound like with a female vocalist. Now I know why: the Black Keys recorded their last album Brothers at the Muscle Shoals studio.

Select Cuts: Rise to the Sun, I Found You, I Ain’t the Same, Be Mine, Heartbreaker, On Your Way

Shearwater_-_Animal_Joy#5 Shearwater: Animal Joy [Sub Pop]

Release Date: February 28, 2012

Unbeknownst to me, Shearwater (a side project for members Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff, apart from their work with Okkervil River) has been making music for years. Indeed, Animal Joy is their seventh, and likely best effort to date. It’s a grand affair, dynamic in feel, with both slow brooding pieces and excitable up-tempo rockers.

Select Cuts: Animal Life, You as you Were, Insolence, Immaculate

cover#4 The Jezabels: Prisoner [Mom & Pop Music]

Release Date: April 3, 2012

It doesn’t take long to figure out what Australian indie-pop outfit The Jezabels are trying to do on their debut album Prisoner. Behind the sultry voice of lead singer Hayley Mary, The Jezabels have staked their ground as a group seeking to do big things. Indeed, Prisoner is rich in texture, offering a big sound, anthemic choruses, and a wall of guitars. It’s as if Tori Amos decided to collaborate with U2, and they brought in Phil Spector to run the boards. At times you’ll hear echoes of the 90s, and at others, hints of 80s new-wave (a la’ M83). But, if I have one complaint, it’s that the album lacks focus. Clocking in at just under an hour, Prisoner is a little long in the tooth. What’s more, the shimmery guitars alongside Mary’s vocals are front and center on every song, thus making the album sound less dynamic. Still, the highs greatly outweigh the lows, making Prisoner one of the year’s best thus far.

Select Cuts: Endless Summer, Trycolour, Rosebud, Horsehead

Celebration_Rock#3 Japandroids: Celebration Rock [Polyvinyl]

Release Date: June 5, 2012

For most of 2012, Celebration Rock was #1 on my list; and for good reason. It is the best expression of the energy and angst that defined a sound made famous by alternative rock (formerly college rock) progenitors like Husker Du, The Minutemen, Pixies and The Replacements (among others). Consisting of Brian King (guitar, vocals) and David Prowse (drums, vocals), this duo managed to unleash power and energy through hooky melodies and a guitar-driven sound, accompanied solely by drums; much like Local H and the White Stripes. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, Celebration Rock is loud, jarring, and abrupt. It starts out with a bang (well actually fireworks) and ends the same way. Sandwiched in-between are 8 well-written songs, without any low points.

Select Cuts: Fire’s Highway, Evil’s Sway, Adrenaline Nightshift, Continuous Thunder

melodys-echo-chamber#2 Melody’s Echo Chamber: Melody’s Echo Chamber [Fat Possum]

Release Date: May 11, 2012

Melody’s Echo Chamber is the eponymous debut of French twee-pop singer Melody Prochet, who collaborated with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker to create this magnificent album. Parker’s fingerprints are all over this one, with psychedelic influence front and center, as noted by songs such as “Crystallized.” But the album isn’t merely a Tame Impala record with Prochet on vocals. Rather, it flourishes with Prochet’s dreamy, echo-laden vocals, along with all of the sensibilities that come with the vocalist’s French influence. Together, they’ve made an album that is painted on a canvass filled with all manner of colors. I don’t know, maybe it’s my guilty affection for Serge Gainsbourg, but I just loved this one, instantly. Check it out, it’s a great listen.

Select Cuts: I Follow You, Crystallized, Some Time Alone, Alone, Bisou Magique

Channel_ORANGE#1 Frank Ocean: Channel Orange [Def Jam]

Release Date: July 10, 2012

“Why see the world, when you’ve got the beach”? – Frank Ocean; “Sweet Life”

As much as I loved some of the other albums on this list, I could not deny the brilliance of Channel Orange. Last year Ocean acknowledged that he once had feelings for a man. This deeply personal admission sent waves throughout the world of music; particularly within the community of Hip-Hop and R&B. Even Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons took note, going as far as to say that Ocean’s admission was “a big day for hip-hop.” Against this back drop comes Ocean’s highly anticipated debut-album; thankfully it did not disappoint. Conceptually, Channel Orange is quite abstract. While themes of love, life, regret, struggle, and privilege permeate throughout, they all coalesce around Ocean and his view of the world (particularly in his adopted home of California). As a singer, Ocean’s style alternates between falsetto, spoken word and a normal tenor; shifting between all three deftly. The production is first-rate with Ocean working alongside a mix of other producers such as Pharrell Williams.  In its entirety, Channel Orange succeeds because it’s an album that sounds modern in its approach, while all the while drawing from traditional pop, R&B and soul influences. Should I feel like a sap for going along with the masses? Perhaps, but it’s hard to deny brilliance when you see it.

Select Cuts: Sweet Life, Pilot Jones, Super Rich Kids

The Best Albums of 2012: #19

Beach_House_-_BloomBeach House: Bloom [Sub Pop]

Release Date: May 15, 2012

Positioning Bloom at #19 is probably a bit unfair. Standing on its own, Bloom is a magnificent piece of work. Grandiose, majestic, and composed of great songwriting, Bloom is the ideal go-to for the melancholically (is that a word?) inclined. Lead singer Victoria Legrand is once again in full command of her rich, husky tenor voice, and guitarist Alex Scally’s chord voicings shimmer. Through it all, it’s like one long dream sequence. So then what gives; why so low? The ranking is a reflection of the fact that Legrand and Scally offer nothing new here. Their breakthrough album Teen Dream offered up some of the best music I had heard in quite some time. What I had hoped for with their follow-up was a fresh take on the formula that worked for them before. Unfortunately that didn’t really happen, so Bloom gets taken down a few notches. But don’t let that stop you from giving it a listen; it’s a wonderful album.

Select Cuts: Myth, Lazuli, Other People

The Best Albums of 2012: #20

Cloud_Nothings_Attack_on_Memory_album_coverCloud Nothings: Attack on Memory [Carpark]

Release Date: January 24, 2012

What began as one slow, sad, slog of an album ended as one of the year’s best. Attack on Memory is as raw a rock album as you’ll find of recent vintage. Engineered by legendary producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies), the album is distinctively stripped down with lead singer Dylan Baldi’s vocals front and center. Outside of the opening track, the distinctively dark and moody “No Future/No Past,” the rest is pretty upbeat, offering up hints of  punk, and late-eighties rock. It’s fun, it’s dark, angry and even a little trippy; but most of all it’s short, clocking in at just a hair over 30 minutes.

Select Cuts: Fall In, Stay Useless, Cut You

Tales from the Deuce: My 2012 Michigan Preview

Head Coach: Brady Hoke; 58-52 (11-2 at Michigan)

2011 Record: 11-2 (6-2 conference)

Returning Starters: 15 (6 offense, 7 defense, P, K)

Overview: What a difference a year makes. Just think about it. This time last year, many Michigan fans wondered whether then-newly installed head football coach Brady Hoke would be up to the task of returning the Wolverines to prominence. On the one hand, Hoke had built a reputation as a program builder with stops at Ball State and San Diego State, respectively. However, this was Michigan; a bigger stage with brighter lights. Could Hoke really do it? Or was he destined to suffer the same fate as his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez? Thankfully things turned out well for the Wolverines in 2011. And it started the day Hoke was named head coach.  After all, he looked like the head football coach at Michigan; heck he even talked like the head football coach at Michigan, saying all the right things. The next 11 months or so proved to be no different.

For starters, Hoke made arguably, the best coaching hire in all of college football last year by luring Greg Mattison away from the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League. He then proceeded to assemble the 7th ranked recruiting class (according to Rivals.com) in the nation. Then, to top things off, he led Michigan to an 11-win season, culminating with Michigan’s first BCS bowl win in over a decade. So what then, does Hoke have in store for an encore? Good question. The schedule is brutal and they lose key players on the defensive front. Still, the offense should be better, so let’s start there.

Offense: Michigan’s offense will once again be led by senior quarterback Denard Robinson. Although Robinson isn’t the most polished passer to ever wear the maize & blue, he is certainly one of the most electrifying. Indeed, Robinson’s accomplishments have been the stuff of legend. As the Wolverines’ starting quarterback, Robinson has shattered nearly every team, conference or NCAA rushing record for quarterbacks. In addition, observers and coaches alike have remarked that Robinson has continued to improve his skills as a passer, which should improve the efficiency of the offense. He will have help from an experienced offensive line led by junior left tackle Taylor Lewan. Also, expect Michael Schofield to make an impact up front as he moves to a more natural position at the other tackle spot. Tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint returns as Michigan’s leading rusher from 2011, but he may have to sit out a game due to disciplinary reasons. In his stead will be sophomore Thomas Rawls, who- if you believe everything running back coach Fred Jackson says- is the second coming of Tshimanga Biakabutuka.

Where Michigan will struggle is at receiver. Junior Jeremy Gallon, and senior Roy Roundtree return as starters, but neither have the big-play capability that the departed Junior Hemingway brought to the offense. One possible solution to this problem may be the much-ballyhooed conversion of quarterback Devin Gardner to wide receiver. While the internets have been abuzz with Gardner’s progress, it is still an open question as to whether Gardner can provide the deep threat the offense will need in order to punch their ticket to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Title game. Grade: B+

Defense: The coaching change in Ann Arbor had no greater impact on the team than on defense. It is hardly news that Michigan’s defenses under the previous regime were historically dreadful. Thankfully Greg Mattison’s return to Ann Arbor resulted in the Wolverines jumping from 101st to 8th nationally in scoring defense. This year, sophomore linebackers Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan return, as does sophomore cornerback Blake Countess. Rounding out the back seven are seniors Kenny Demens (ILB) Jordan Kovacs (S), who were 1st and 2nd, respectively, on the team in tackling.

Quite honestly, the only thing stopping the Wolverines from having one of the best defenses in the country is the lack of depth on the defensive line. Without question, the absence of tackles Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen will prove to be problematic all season long. Left to fill the void will be senior defensive linemen Will Campbell and Quinton Washington. Combined, these two players have started one game, and they will be replacing two guys that started over 50; not what I would call a recipe for success. Grade: B

Special Teams: This area just might prove to be a strength for the Wolverines. Gone are the days of going for it on 4th & 5 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line due to a well-placed fear that our kicker couldn’t make a 30+yard field goal. Brendan Gibbons made sure of that when he hit a 37-yard field goal to win the Sugar Bowl last January. While Gibbons won’t ever be confused with Ali Haji-Sheikh, he has proved to be reliable. The punting situation is a bit murkier with Hoke recently announcing an open competition between junior Will Hagerup and sophomore Matt Wile. However, Hoke has recently stated that Hagerup will handle punting, so that is a positive. Receiver Gallon will handle punt returns, while sophomore Josh Furman (S) is listed as the kick returner. Expect speedy true freshman Dennis Norfleet to push them both. Grade: B

Final Analysis: It is quite possible that the Wolverines will have a better overall team this year and still have a worse record. For the first time since the Carr era, the Wolverines will field a team with talent, senior leadership at key positions, and continuity in the coaching staff. Unfortunately the schedule is brutal. Last year, the Wolverines’ first five games were at home. This year the Wolverines will begin the season in Dallas against the reigning national champion, Alabama Crimson Tide. And it doesn’t get any easier with road games against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. Nevertheless, success for the Wolverines will turn on three things:

  1. Whether Denard Robinson can take the next step as a passer.
  2. Whether the back 7 can compensate for the severe lack of depth and experience on the defensive line.
  3. Whether Devin Gardner can provide some game-breaking ability at wideout.

Prediction: 9-3 (6-2 conference; 2nd place in the legends division) with losses against Alabama, Nebraska and Ohio State.

Album Review: Alabama Shakes [Boys & Girls]

Rating: B+

Label: ATO (U.S.), Rough Trade (UK)

Release Date: April 9, 2012

The worst thing you can say about Boys & Girls, the debut album from the Alabama Shakes, is that it’s a rehash of  the classic 60’s southern soul that originated in places like Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Memphis Tennessee. But that’s hardly surprising given the proximity of the band’s hometown (Athens, Alabama) to both Muscle Shoals (approx. 46 miles) and Memphis (approx. 200 miles) where Stax Records originated. Indeed, “Boys & Girls” is a concise collection of wonderfully crafted songs that reflect the band’s gritty but soulful influences.

Manning the vocals is the uniquely talented Brittany Howard. Armed with a big voice to match her stout frame, Howard’s voice is unique. Husky, throaty, if not androgynous, her voice has a timbre that is hers and hers alone. It is a style that is always passionate, as Howard draws upon her emotions in a way that most vocalists are unable to do. She’s aided by guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson, who together, make up a sound that reflects a maturity beyond their years as musicians.

Ultimately, Boys & Girls is heavy on the classic soul. But characterizing it as a soul album alone is misleading; these kids still manage to rock it out (check out “Hang Loose” and “On Your Way”). In fact, the first time I heard the album, it made me wonder what the Black Keys might sound like with a female vocalist. Now I know why: the Black Keys recorded their last album Brothers at the Muscle Shoals studio.

Select Cuts: Rise to the Sun, I Found You, I Ain’t the Same, Be Mine, Heartbreaker, On Your Way

Michigan Spring Game: Hoke Springs Eternal [Part II]

Ah yes. It’s that time of the year. That time when endless speculation concerning the fate our beloved Wolverines reaches its zenith. Indeed, the annual Michigan Football Spring Game was yesterday, and the second for head coach Brady Hoke. The Wolverines are coming off of an impressive season that saw the team win 11 games including a win in the Sugar Bowl. Appropriately, anticipation is high.

While the Wolverines return 15 starters from last year (6 offense, 7 defense, K/P), they need to fill some big holes on the offensive and defensive lines. Nevertheless, the Wolverines are right to expect much out of this year. They still boast one of the nation’s most dangerous offenses with quarterback Denard Robinson under center. There’s also reason for optimism in the running game as Fitzgerald Toussaint returns as the starting tailback, and probably Michigan’s best since the days of Mike Hart. Defensively, the losses of Mike Hart and Ryan Van Bergen will be significant, but the back 7 is almost entirely intact.

As the endless speculation continues, here are some of my observations from yesterday’s game.*

  1. Toussaint looks poised to build upon his success last year. He runs with great anticipation and without hesitancy.
  2. Quarterback Russell Bellomy looked pretty comfortable in the pocket. They didn’t run anything complicated through or at him. But he’s certainly better than the Nick Sheridan or David Cones of the world
  3. I was ready to call Thomas Rawls the latest beneficiary of running back coach Fred Jackson’s hyperbolic tendencies, but then he broke a long one. He’s got great size, runs downhill, and appears to have good vision, which is key for a tailback.
  4. Devin Gardner = meh. Looked great running with the rock, but I really only saw one good throw, and it was probably a better catch by Jeremy Gallon
  5. I liked what I saw out of the O-Line (both 1st and 2nd units).
  6. Having said that, it may just be that our D-lines weren’t all that impressive.
  7. With Junior Hemingway gone and Daryl Stonum off the team, there isn’t a whole lot to be excited about in the passing game. But Jeremy Gallon made a great adjustment in the air to catch a Gardner Pass. He and opposite receiver Roy Roundtree will be leaned on heavily to make plays given how thin the Wolverines are at the position.
  8. It was nice to see cornerback Blake Countess picking up right where he left off from last year. Granted it wasn’t the greatest pass from Gardner, but Countess showed off some skills with the pick.
  9. Thank god I didn’t block out an afternoon to watch this game in person. It was easily the most boring, vanilla spring game I’ve seen in a long time.
  10. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s a sign of stability for the Wolverines. After all, this is the first time since the Carr era that we’ve had the same quarterback and offensive/defensive coordinators in back-to-back years.

*I fully comprehend that the Spring Game is merely exhibition. While the game features live contact, the quarterbacks are coddled and neither coordinator shows a whole lot, so caveats abound.

Album Review: The Jezabels [Prisoner]

Rating: 8.6

Label: Mom & Pop Music

Release Date: April 3, 2012

It doesn’t take long to figure out what Australian indie-pop outfit The Jezabels are trying to do on their debut album Prisoner. Behind the sultry voice of lead singer Hayley Mary, The Jezabels have staked their ground as a group seeking to do big things. Indeed, Prisoner is rich in texture, offering a big sound, anthemic choruses, and a wall of guitars. It’s as if Tori Amos decided to collaborate with U2, and they brought in Phil Spector to run the boards. At times you’ll hear echoes of the 90s, and at others, hints of 80s new-wave (a la’ M83). But, if I have one complaint, it’s that the album lacks focus. Clocking in at just under an hour, Prisoner is a little long in the tooth. What’s more, the shimmery guitars alongside Mary’s vocals are front and center on every song, thus making the album sound less dynamic. Still, the highs greatly outweigh the lows, making Prisoner one of the year’s best thus far.

Select Cuts: Endless Summer, Trycolour, Rosebud, Horsehead

The Best Movies of the 2000s

When I originally made this list it was presented in a way that made it difficult to read from beginning to end, so here are reviews of the 30 best movies of the 2000s, followed by the top 50 in list form; enjoy!

#30. Frozen River (2008) 

One of the many virtues of movies is that they also act as vehicles for social commentary; Frozen River does just that. Turning in an Oscar-nominated performance, Melissa Leo stars as Ray Eddy. A single working mother struggling to support her two children. Ray works as a clerk at a local convenience store, barely making ends meet. Life becomes even more difficult when her car is stolen. When she finally tracks it down, she encounters Lila (Misty Upham) who defends steeling Ray’s car by claiming that she found the car abandoned with the keys in it. What ensues is an uneasy alliance between Ray and Lila as they address their individual financial woes by smuggling illegal aliens across the U.S./Canada border. Written and directed by Courtney Hunt, Frozen River is as much a story about the illicit smuggling of human beings as is it is a story of clashing cultures between whites in a rural upstate New York town and the residents of a nearby Native American reservation. As a winner of the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic), the film succeeds on the strength of the relationship between Ray and Eddy. In addition to struggling financially, Lila has her own family problems as she struggles to prove that she is responsible enough to take custody of her young daughter. In the end, Frozen River is a unfriendly reminder of how much two people from different cities and cultural backgrounds may have in common as it relates to life’s struggles.

#29.  Once[2007]: 

As a musician, I’m always intrigued by other musicians, the lives they lead, and the music that defines them.  Unfortunately,  movies about musicians don’t always work.   For every Almost Famous, there’s a Rock Star (all due respect to Jennifer Aniston and Mark Wahlberg).  As a result, I’m always leery of that genre of film.   So it was a pleasant surprise when I had occasion to watch Once. Although I had read all of the accolades, it wasn’t until my good friend Jenny Green demanded that I watch the movie that I actually did so.

The story centers around a struggling musician played by Glen Hansard who befriends fellow musician/pianist Marketa Irglova (referred to simply as “Girl”) while playing on the streets of Dublin for loose change.  The two strike up a conversation that leads to both a personal and musical relationship.  Although the romantic chemistry between the two is palpable, the movie focuses more on their relationship as musical collaborators.  In one scene Hansard and Irglova step into a music store that she often frequents where she is allowed to play the piano.  Hansard plays one of his original tunes (the Oscar-award winning song “Falling Slowly”) for Irglova and the two proceed to play it together.  In that one moment, there is more musical authenticity and emotion exhibited between the two than any other film you’re likely to see about musicians or the practice of making music, short of a documentary.  This is in part why the movie works.  Its simple, its short, and its real.

#28.  The Squid and the Whale [2005]: 

Noah Baumbach wrote and directed this quirky “dramedy” that revolves around the struggles of a family torn apart by divorce.  As the son of film critics, The Squid and the Whale, is also semi-autobiographical in that it closely parallels events in his own life.  His parents were writers/film critics that divorced during his teen years.  Appropriately, the movie is set in the 80s and the parents here- played brilliantly by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney- are writers.

Normally a family drama about divorce would simply be just that.  Yet the humor here is undeniable.  It’s almost as if Wes Anderson did a remake of Kramer vs. Kramer (not coincidentally, the film was produced by Anderson).  There are so many random nuggets of humor interwoven with the drama.  First, there’s the 12-year old son Frank’s (played by Owen Kline) random episodes of acting out; there’s the mini tryst that unfolds when one of Daniels’ students (Ana Paquin) moves in…..oh and then there’s the other son (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who has his own exploits.  But the icing on the cake is William Baldwin who plays a quasi-intellectual hippie tennis instructor who has replaced Daniels as Linney’s new love interest.

At times the movie is almost too painful to watch, as the uncomfortable scenes are numerous.  In the end, Baumbach delivers a great movie by striking the right balance between the pain and comedy that defines the movie.  The acting is also wonderful.  Most notably Daniels, who does an excellent job as the failing father and ex-husband.

Despite being unbearable at times, The Squid and the Whale does not disappoint.

#27.  Munich [2005]: 

As one of America’s greatest storytellers, Steven Spielberg has often exercised his ability by using lesser-known stories as vehicles to explore some of the great tragedies throughout history (see Amistad and Schindler’s List).   With Munich Spielberg explores the history and nature of the middle east conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.  To do this, he chronicles how a covert group of Israelis retaliated against the “Black September” terrorists; the individuals  responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Instantly, Speilberg’s deft touch comes through as he weaves actual news coverage of the massacre within the events as they unfold in the movie.  All in all, the movie is filled with suspense as the group embarks on a bloody journey to avenge the deaths of those athletes who lost their lives.  Eric Bana gives a brilliant performance as Avner, the de facto leader of the group and the protagonist.  Throughout, the internal struggle that takes place within Avner becomes more clear with the killing of each target.

Ultimately Munich conveys a message.  Indeed, Spielberg spares no expense in illustrating the difficulties of engaging in a back-and-forth war with no end, during which the purpose of the conflict gets lost.  Although it gets a little long in the tooth towards the end, the movie still deserves to stand alongside Spielberg’s other great works.

#26.  The 25th Hour [2002]:

Director Spike Lee entered into our national conscience with 1989’s Do the Right Thing.  As a movie about race-relations in the highly polarized Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, it remains quite possibly the most significant movie on race in at least my lifetime.  What followed were a series of gems (Malcolm X, He Got Game), and a few serious missteps.  Fortunately for Lee and everyone else that has come to enjoy his movies, he followed 2000’s woeful Bamboozled with The 25th Hour.  While Lee made his bones exploring racial issues, he steers away from the subject here.

The movie centers around Montgomery “Monty” Brogan, played by Edward Norton.  Monty has recently been sentenced to prison for 7 years and is preparing to head upstate to serve his time.  The title refers to the focus of the movie, which is Monty’s last day as a free man.  With the aid of flashbacks, the movie follows Monty’s past as well as his last day as a free man, as he spends it with his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), and his two best friends Jacob and Frank; played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper, respectively.

Shot in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers, The 25th Hour is as much a postcard to New York City as anything else.  But what really makes the movie work is Norton and his vulnerabilities as he slowly comes to terms with the realization that his life will soon drastically change.  In addition to Norton, there are strong performances here by Hoffman, and Ana Paquin who plays a high school student of Hoffman’s.  Playing that role in a way that only Paquin can, she creates real tension with Hoffman.

If, like me you are a fan of Lee’s work, you will be pleasantly surprised to see that his directing chops are still in tact.  You might also be disappointed that you haven’t seen more from him, as he is still one of America’s best and most important filmmakers.

#25.  Crash [2004]: 

Paul Haggis’ brilliantly filmed drama about race relations in post-911 Los Angeles was as much a slap in the face, as it was a breath of fresh air.  With strong performances by a coterie of fresh and established faces, the film did a wonderful job of questioning notions of a post-racial society.

Shot from several different perspectives, the movie examines the lives of several main characters portrayed by Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, Brendan Fraser, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillippe and rapper turned actor Christopher “Ludacris” Bridges.   The film chronicles each character as inevitably their paths cross, ultimately crashing into one another.  Complexity ensues as each interaction reveals a different racial bias.

Indeed, Haggis uses a sledgehammer to get his point across.  At times the story seems far-fetched.  Yet it is effective in getting across the point that all of us, regardless of ethnicity hold preconceived notions about others based upon their cultural backgrounds.  Critics complained that the movie was an unrealistic portrayal of race relations in this country.  Although this criticism has some merit, it misses the point.  Crash is a movie that forces us to re-think the cultural lenses through which we view our fellow citizens as well as the society at large.   In conveying the message in a compelling way it strikes just the right tone.

#24.  Half Nelson [2006]:

I’ve slowly come to realize that Ryan Gosling is indeed one of the best actors in Hollywood.  Although it may seem obvious to some, it was not always clear to me.  Prior to Half Nelson, my only familiarity with Gosling was as the male lead in 2005’s touching, but drab The Notebook.  Here, Gosling establishes himself as one of the best actors of his generation.

Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a young, hip, but unorthodox high school teacher working in a tough Brooklyn school.  During the day he’s a breath of fresh hair to his young pupils as he puts forth a dynamic style of teaching, bent on real-world application.  After school he brings passion to his other job as the coach of the girl’s basketball team.   What his students and teaching peers do not know is that this is a facade.  Dan is also addicted to crack.  Clearly tormented by demons that Dan is unable to dispose of, he continues to live this double life.  Dan’s double life is exposed when one of his players, Drey (played by Shareeka Epps) catches him in the act of drug use.  What follows is a relationship that develops between the precocious Drey and Dan as they deal with unpleasant realities.

Gosling and Epps are both excellent as two people that form a unique bond over the unlikeliest of circumstance.  Gosling’s Academy Award nominated performance alone is enough reason to see this movie.  But the manner in which the story is told is quite effective.  Half Nelson draws you in, keeping you there as you try to figure out when its all going to come to a head.

#23.  Waltz with Bashir [2008]:

In many ways, Waltz with Bashir is the most unique movie I’ve seen in quite some time.  At the very least its one of the most unique movie on my list.  At first glance, it may simply appear as an animated feature but its actually a documentary.  Written and directed by Ari Folman, the film chronicles Folman’s experiences serving in the Israeli army during Israel’s war with Lebanon in 1982.

As an animated feature, the film is one to marvel.  Visually, the feel of the movie is stylish, yet provacative.  The animation style looks similar to  interpolated rotoscoping (see A Scanner Darkly) in which animation is transposed over live footage.  Filled with music from various Israeli recording artists, the score does an excellent job of underscoring each scene.

On the whole, Waltz with Bashir is a brilliant movie.  Folman uses the film quite ably as a mechanism to work through  what was obviously a trying time in his life.  Although it is an animated documentary, the closing scene in the film truly brings home the realism of Folman’s experience.

#22.  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [2007]: 

Before I begin, I must start off by saying that this is a very long movie; as in nearly three (2:40) hours long.  That said, its a pitch perfect portrayal of one of America’s most notorious criminals, and the man that murdered him.  One more thing, my assessment of this movie may be a bit skewed.  I’m biased towards anything with Mary Louise Parker in it and I love Westerns so these two aspects give the movie an implicit bump in ratings.

Nevertheless, here we find Brad Pitt playing what many believe to be one of the most accurate portrayals of James.  One of the things I love the most about the film is that it goes to great lengths to explore the cult of personality that was Jesse James.  After all, there were no movie stars in those days.  Train robbers were about as close as you got to celebrity status.  And of course (like Britney Spears today) James had his own obsessed fans; enter in Robert Ford.  Casey Affleck — who we can all agree is a much better actor than his brother Ben — plays the role of a lifetime as the star-struck Ford.  Hell bent on becoming a member of James’ gang, he forges a friendship with James that ultimately turns sour.

What really stands out though is the cinematography.  Set during the time of reconstruction, the camera follows James as he wanders through the heartland of America depicting beautiful landscapes, dark nights, and amber waves of grain that go on as far as the eye can see.  If you don’t mind the length and you’re partial to Westerns this is a must see.

#21.  In the Bedroom [2001]: 

As I move further down my list, I still find myself being saddled with great ambivalence over where certain movies are ranked.  After all, these are all great movies (at least in my estimation), so choosing one over the other can be quite difficult, if not tedious.  I say all of this now because I’m realizing as I write this that In the Bedroom is a force as a movie.  It has all the characteristics of a great film: great writing, a great story, strong acting, and a few surprises.

In the Bedroom is a story of tragedy and subsequent grief.  Set in a small town in Maine, Matt and Ruth Fowler are a married couple, troubled by their young son Frank’s (Nick Stahl) relationship with the older Natalie (Marisa Tomei).  [Spoiler Alert] Consternation turns into something far worse when Frank is suddenly killed by Natalie’s jealous estranged husband in a bout of lover’s rage.  As this happens early on, the movie turns to the emotions that consume both Matt and Ruth (played by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, respectively).  Both Spacek and Wilkinson are at their usual best as they struggle to deal with the rage behind the death of their son.  With this loss, Matt and Ruth are forced to look inward at each other and their relationship to find answers.

In the end, there’s a little bit of everything in this movie.  Directed wonderfully by Todd Field, In the Bedroom offers real emotion, suspense, and the type of acting you don’t get very often in a movie; a definite must see.

#20.  Gladiator [2000]: 

Fresh off of 1999’s hugely successful “The Insider,” Hollywood resident “bad boy” Russel Crowe returned with Gladiator.  By the time Gladiator was released,  Crowe had already established himself as one of the preeminent actors in Hollywood, but it was here that he became a household name.  Directed by Ridley Scott, Gladiator was both a commercial and critical success garnering a vast number of accolades, including Academy Awards for Best PictureBest Actor (Crowe).

Set during the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ rule, Gladiator tells the story Maximus (Crowe), a general in Marcus Aurelius’ army who is chosen by Aurelius to be his successor as Emperor of Rome.  Commodus (played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix), as the son of Aurelius learns the news and needless to say, does not take it well.  In a jealous rage he murders his father, becomes Emperor of Rome and sets out to establish his power by murdering Maximus and his family.  Maximus escapes only to be captured by a slave owner.  As fate would have it, Maximus finds himself back in Rome, but as a slave-turned-hero, fighting for his life in the Colosseum as a gladiator.

In many ways, Gladiator is a modern interpretation of some of the great movies of the 1960s such as Spartacus.  Although it is loosely based on historical events, its not meant to be a history lesson.  Rather, its a story about a hero, portrayed quite ably by Crowe.  The cinematography is top notch and the casting is excellent, particularly with Phoenix playing foil to Crowe the hero.  As one of my favorite movies of any decade its a definite must-see; action movie buffs and Crowe fans alike will enjoy.

#19.  The Lord of the RingsReturn of the King [2003]: 

Any of the three parts of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy could (and probably should) have been included on the list.  As such, this is in some ways a reference to the trilogy as a whole.  I mention Return of the King as the third and final installment in the trilogy because it is- at least in my estimation- the best of the three.  The film is the most action-packed and its the easiest to understand.

Return of the King finds Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) as they make their way to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring that “controls them all.”  The trilogy as a whole is aided by strong performances from Viggo Mortensen who plays the King Aragorn, Ian McKellen, and Cate Blanchett.  The story line does not disappoint either as it stays largely true to J.R.R. Tolkien’s brilliant novel.

Overall, the trilogy is quite an advancement in film making.  Jackson’s use of special effects set a new standard for science fiction films.  Particularly, the use of computer generated imagery (“CGI”) to create characters such as  the sympathetic but villainous Gollum.

As far as science fiction films go, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is about an 11 on the geek scale.  Yet, it ranks up there (not quite, but close) with the Star Wars trilogy in terms of scope and ambition.

#18.  The Pianist [2002]: 

The great (and exiled) Roman Polanski directed this brilliant film, based upon  Wladyslaw Szpilman’s autobiography.  The film tells the story of how Szpilman evaded capture by the SS during Hitler’s seizure of Poland.  Adrien Brody turns in the performance of a lifetime as Szpilman.  As is the case with several movies on my list, its a historical piece so it gets an extra bump in the rankings.  Moreover, I have a particular fondness for the movie as its based on events that took place during WWII.

No doubt there have been many films based upon the plight of those that suffered during Hitler’s reign of terror.  So its not exactly easy to direct a film that takes a unique perspective on this sad part of our history.  Yet Polanski succeeds in part because it is a personal venture.  Polanski lost a mother during the holocaust and managed to flee to the countryside, thus avoiding capture as did Szpilman.  The terror that gripped Szpilman is portrayed quite ably by Brody; he even lost 29 lbs. during production of the film.  In turn, he became the youngest man ever to win an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Some may fine The Pianist a bit dull, but the desolation and despair that characterized Szpilman’s life as he hid and ran from the SS is quite palpable; for that I think its deserving of a spot on my list.

#17.  Children of Men [2006]: 

Great sci-fi films often pose novel questions about the future.  Children of Men, follows this path by asking, what would happen if the human race suddenly became infertile? Set in the United Kingdom in 2027, the film is about the discovery of the first woman to become pregnant in 18 years.  Directed and co-written by the great Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), the film deals with how the citizens of the world become increasingly paranoid and xenophobic as the future existence of the race comes into question.  Clive Owen plays the lead role as “Theo,” the man charged with transporting the pregnant woman (Kee) to the “Human Project,” a group of scientists committed to curing the infertility epidemic.  The film is haunting, brilliantly shot, and quite suspenseful as it follows Theo and Kee as they seek safe passage.

#16.  The Dark Knight [2008]: 

Christopher Nolan’s supremely crafted superhero crime thriller earns a “distinction” on my list by the mere virtue that it is the greatest movie ever made about a comic book character.  Yes you read that correctly. The original Superman movie broke serious ground, and Tim Burton’s Batman raised the bar pretty high, shattering the misconception that a movie based upon a superhero couldn’t also be  great film.  What followed were a series of superhero themed movies (SpidermanIron Man) that were well directed, fun, and entertaining.

Still, The Dark Knight is a game changer.  Its well shot, suspenseful, and the cinematography is excellent.  Christian Bale returns as the caped crusader playing the role in such a way that Michael Keaton’s performances two-decades prior are but a distant memory; weird voice notwithstanding.  But what makes the movie shine is Heath Ledger as the Joker.  Much like Jack Nicholson did in Burton’s version, Ledger stands out as one of the great acting performances of the last decade.  Where Nicholson’s role was more comical, Ledger does the same, but is much more dark.  So much in fact that its hard to imagine how Ledger could have gone from his role in Brokeback Mountain to playing the Joker.  Anyway, comic book hero or not, The Dark Knight is top notch.

#15.  The Aviator [2004]: 

Martin Scorsese brought to life the curious but tragic story of Howard Hughes in this wonderful film.  The film follows Hughes’ life as he weaves in and out of various pursuits such as producing successful films, dating some of Hollywood’s most prominent leading ladies, and waging a war against Pan Am Airlines.  In yet another Oscar-worthy performance, Leonardo DiCaprio is brilliant if not haunting in the lead role as Hughes.  Despite Hughes’ major triumphs, he was also plagued by an obsessive-compulsive disorder.  As this disorder plays an increasingly larger role in his life through time, DiCaprio portrays Hughes’ darker days with great skill.  A coterie of other fine actors complement this film.  Most notably Cate Blanchett [as Katherine Hepburn] who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

#14.  Mystic River [2003]: 

I could have easily placed at least three of Clint Eastwood’s movies from the past decade on my list. Indeed, Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby are both brilliant films. But neither stacks up evenly against Mystic River, which is the best movie Eastwood has directed since 1992’s Unforgiven.  Like Eastwood’s other gems, Mystic River is harrowing, suspenseful, well acted, and well written.  The story focuses on three friends, one of whom (Dave played by Tim Robbins) is molested as a young boy.  How this experience affects Dave and his two other friends looms large on the rest of the movie.  The story then shifts to the three boys as men and how they are each affected by the murder of Jimmy’s (Sean Penn) young daughter.  Circumstances lead Jimmy to suspect that Dave may have had a role in the murder.  Sean’s role is that (Kevin Bacon) he is police detective charged with investigating the crime.  It is classic Eastwood as the movie heads toward an ending that can only be characterized as inevitable.

As a testament to the strong acting performances, both Penn and Robbins were awarded with Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.

#13.  The Lives of Others [2006]: 

Winner of the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Lives of Others is a gripping drama about an agent of the East German secret police (Stasi) that is charged with monitoring the daily activities of a German playwright and his lover.  The film is set in 1984 at a time when East Germany was a socialist state occupied by the Soviets.  Considering the period in which the film is based, the undercurrent of communism and the fear that it brought, is quite prominent.  Yet the movie focuses more on the transformation of the agent, Captain Gerd Wiesler and how he becomes disillusioned with his role in the government.  As a lover of politics and history, I’m naturally a sucker for movies like this.  If you can appreciate how far that part of the world has come, then you’ll appreciate The Lives of Others.

#12.  Wedding Crashers [2005]: 

Of all the great comedies of the last decade, this is the one that holds up the best.  As its probably one of the most widely viewed movies of that same period, I’ll spare you on all the details.  If you haven’t seen this movie (first off shame on you), the film is about John (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) who play full-time mediators and seasonal wedding crashers.  Although it gets a bit long-winded towards the end (Will Ferrell cameo notwithstanding) it is one of the few movies that I will watch if its on t.v. regardless of how many times I’ve seen it.  Never before has crashing a party seemed like so much fun.  Vince Vaughn is at his absolute best – especially in the beginning of the movie as he goes on his diatribe about dating – and he and Wilson work brilliantly together.  Throw in a sprinkle of Christopher Walken and what you have is a surefire classic.

#11.  The Savages [2007]: 

This is probably the best movie you’ve never heard of.  In all honesty, I have a natural inclination to all movies staring Laura Linney so my grade may be a bit skewed but really, I don’t think so.  Linney and the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman play a brother and sister that are forced to set aside the awkwardness of their relationship in order to deal with their dying father.  The movie begins with the sister, Wendy (Linney) being given the news that their father has been tossed out of his retirement community digs.  As she is living under dubious circumstances herself she calls on the brother Jon (Hoffman) to help her with the father who is also suffering from dementia.  Both brother and sister have been estranged from their father.  As a result, what they’re being asked to do places a strain on both of their lives.  The reality of these familial relationships is powerful.  As their father basically ran out on them, both Wendy and Jon are saddled with the responsibility of financially and emotionally supporting a father that did neither for them.  This is a funny, quirky, awkward and sometimes difficult movie to watch but its very enjoyable, check it out.

#10.  Sideways [2004]: 

Alexander Payne’s quirky and sometimes painful “dramedy” was my favorite movie of 2004.  In addition to directing the movie, Payne won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay along with Jim Taylor.  The film stars Paul Giamatti (Miles) and Thomas Haden Church (Jack) as two old friends that decide to head up to the wine country of Santa Barbara for a bachelor party.  Although Miles and Jack appear to be close friends, their lives are clearly headed in opposite directions.  While Jack is a semi-successful actor soon to be married, Miles is a teacher and failed writer that has just went through a divorce.  Despite the fact that their get-together is supposed to be a bachelor party, Miles can’t seem to shake the fact that his life is in shambles.  Giamatti, no doubt a great actor, plays the role almost too well.  In fact,  there are a few scenes where his eternally dour disposition is unbearable to watch.  Fortunately, Church is there to be the yin to Giamatti’s yang., as Church pretty much owns every scene he’s in.

Aside from great performances by Church and Giamatti, Sideways is further aided by Sandra Oh, who gets involved with Church’s character, not knowing he is soon to be married, and Virginia Madsen who plays Miles’ love interest in the movie.  Aside from an Oscar win for screenplay, Church and Madsen were nominated for supporting actor/actresses awards.

#9.  There Will Be Blood [2007]: 

I continue my top ten with Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliantly crafted drama about a duplicitous oil prospector.  Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil,” There Will Be Blood stars Daniel Day-Lewis in yet another powerful performance as the lead character Daniel.  Driven by the endless pursuit of building wealth, Daniel goes to great lengths to build his empire.  In his pursuit, he is forced to deal with Eli, an unscrupulous preacher whose family sits atop a piece of valuable land.

Lewis is maniacal in his performance.  Naturally, he secures a second Academy Award for his performance here.  Anderson is in full command here, as the film is shot quite skillfully.  The tragedy of Anderson’s masterpiece is that it was somewhat overshadowed by the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, which was released in the same year.

#8.  The Departed [2006]:

Amazing performances shape this great crime drama.  The film is a crime drama that centers around an Irish crime boss (Jack Nicholson), his protege (Matt Damon), and Leonardo DiCaprio whose character sets out to infiltrate the crime family.  Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film is a remake of the 1992 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs.  Despite an accomplished career as a filmmaker, The Departed earned Scorsese his first Oscar award.  Its an expertly crafted tale of crime and suspense, and the acting is first-rate.  Aside from the three most prominent characters, the film is aided by strong performances from Marin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Vera Farmiga.

#7.  High Fidelity [2000]: 

For those of you that know me well, I’m sure you’ve heard me say once or twice that High Fidelity is one of my all-time favorite movies.  If you haven’t then there it is.  Which begs the question of why its not #1 on my list.  I guess my answer to that would be that I think a list of favorite movies is different from a list of great movies.  If they were, my all time favorites list would include movies like Real Genius and The Blues Brothers.  Having said all of that, High Fidelity is a great movie.  The story centers on John Cusack who plays Rob Gordon (“THE Rob Gordon”), a record store owner who falls on hard times when his main squeeze moves out.  Its your classic boy-loses girl-wants-girl-back John Cusack movie, except this time the story holds up much better and the complimentary parts are much stronger.  Most notably Jack Black who plays one of Cusack’s record store employees.  Black makes the movie and owns every scene in which he appears.  The soundtrack is great, its dynamic and the classic Stevie Wonder song “I Believe (When I Fall in Love it will Be Forever) plays over the closing credits, signifying the musical credibility of the film.  Throw in your random Lisa Bonet cameo and you have one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made.

#6.  4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days [2007]: 

Remember how I said that The Savages was the best movie you’ve never heard of?  Scratch that, this one is.  4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a film that is set during the late eighties during a period of communist rule in Romania.  The story follows  a female college student who becomes pregnant then decides to have an abortion.  As abortion was illegal in Romania at that time, she seeks help from her roommate in arranging an abortion through what turns out to be rather dubious means.  Needless to say, an unregulated, illegal market for abortions can no doubt lead to complications and these women face many.   The film is a foreign language film, so if you don’t mind the subtitles, I implore you to watch this powerful film.

#5.  Pan’s Labyrinth [2006]: 

Fresh off the success of Hellboy, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro returned with this haunting fairytale.  In some ways a modern day Alice in the Wonderland, the story centers on Ofelia, a young girl who meets a faun in a nearby labyrinth.  The faun (“Pan in Spanish) tells Ofelia that she must complete a series of tasks in order to bring peace to the soul of a fallen princess.  At first blush, the movie seems like a simple fairy tale but its much more complex than that.  There is a political subtext to the movie as its set in the wake of the Spanish civil war and the repressive regime that ruled.  Aside from an intriguing story, the movie is visually stunning, filled with vivid imagery, and at times its just downright scary (wait till you see the guy with no eyes).  If you’re willing to let your mind wander a bit, check out Pan’s Labyrinth.

#4.  Almost Famous [2000]:

I’ve long since been a huge fan of Cameron Crowe’s films for a variety of reasons.  Crowe’s films are typically well-written, well-acted, quirky and they all feature excellent music.  Without question, Almost Famous is the best of his illustrious career.  Almost Famous is a semi-biographical movie about fictional teenage writer William Miller who gets the ear of Rolling Stone magazine.  Impressed with his work and mistaking Miller for someone much older, the magazine hires him to do a story on the fictional band “Stillwater.”  Despite being underage, Miller embarks on a trip around the country, riding along with the band and its groupies.  Among those groupies is the lovely Penny Lane (played quite well by Kate Hudson),  with whom Miller promptly falls in love.  Miller’s adventures mirror those of Crowe, who as a teenager traveled the country writing for Rolling Stone.  Along the way Crowe interviewed some of the most influential bands of the 70s such as Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, and the Allman Brothers.  Like several other movies by Crowe, his wife and Heart lead guitarist Nancy Wilson provides a wonderful score.  The soundtrack is filled with some of the greatest songs of the last 30 years.  In sum its a great movie, tells a great story, and is just downright fun from the beginning to the end.

#3.  No Country for Old Men [2007]: 

Not since Hannibal Lecter have we seen a villain as treacherous and deadly as the sociopathic Anton Chigurh.  As the most celebrated movie in the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) canon, No Country for Old Men, is a thriller that revolves around a mysterious suitcase full of money, the lowly guy that found it, and the small town Texas sheriff, who sets out to find them both.  Javier Bardem plays Chigurh, Josh Brolin stars as Llewelyn Moss, the guy that finds the suitcase, and Tommie Lee Jones is the sheriff.  Based upon a novel written by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is generally dark in tone, which is a departure from many of the Coen brothers’ other movies.  Although there are some similarities (excellent dialogue), the movie has a element of terror that is unseen in their other films.  Visually, the film brilliantly captures a vast desolation rarely seen in movies.  Tommie Lee Jones is great as the wise old sage, on his way out of the game.  Brolin turns in a strong performance of his own, establishing a relevance among other Hollywood actors previously unseen, and Bardem is simply brilliant.  As the villain, Bardem captivates, going from charismatic to terrifying in one fell swoop.  As an enormous fan of the The Big Lebowski, its hard to imagine the Coen brothers making anything better, but this one comes damn close.

#2.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2004]: 

I really struggled with this one.  For several weeks I had this one as #1.  Yeah, its hard to imagine, given how many great movies I’ve chronicled, but this is truly a great movie.  From beginning to end its brilliant in all aspects.  Technically its well shot.  In particular, the dream sequences are visually striking.  The acting is top notch, as the chemistry between Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet is strong.  But what really sets the movie apart is the story.  Written by Charlie Kaufman, the Director Michel Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth, the movie is about Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (Winslet) who date each other, break up, and then decide (separately) to get the memories of the relationship erased from their collective minds.  Without spoiling the rest, I’ll simply say that they way in which the two meet and then date probably says more about relationships than perhaps any other movie I’ve ever seen.  Although they both use a method to forget each other that is clearly impossible, seeing the lengths to which both are willing to go to mitigate the emotional pain says a lot about the power of human emotion that comes from relationships.  The movie takes you on quite a ride but its funny, painful, and captivating the whole way through.

#1.  Kill Bill, Parts 1 & 2 [2003-2004]: 

As a child, I spent many afternoons beside my two brothers, glued to the television watching Kung-Fu theater.  Naturally, my appreciation for martial arts movies was cemented quite early in life.  So it was with much anticipation that I awaited the release of both installments of Kill Bill. After all, Quentin Tarantino is the greatest filmmaker of our time, so it would only make sense that Kill Bill was a masterpiece.  Well, Tarantino’s project did not disappoint.  Uma Thurman stars as the protagonist – Beatrix Kiddo, or “Black Mamba” – who embarks on a mission to settle scores with her former cohorts who together operated as a group of world class assassins.  The late David Carradine  stars as “Bill,” and is the leader of this group.  At its core, Kill Bill is a movie about revenge, but there is much more to this movie than just revenge.

What I like most about Kill Bill is that it is an homage to so many genres of film.  Most importantly, the old kung fu films of the 70s and 80s that I grew to love.  But Tarantino takes the many influences that shaped him as a filmmaker and then blends them with his own brand of filmmaking.

As is customary of Tarantino films, the story telling is out of sequence.  But what makes it all the more compelling is the scope of the characters.  Considering the lengths that Tarantino goes to develop the various characters, its no surprise that it took two movies to tell the story.  Aside from the storytelling, the dialogue is, not surprisingly, top-notch, and the action sequences are amazing.  Tarantino weaves in vivid animation sequences to give the movie even more life.  Set to a a great score by the incomparable Rza of Wu Tang fame, Tarantino goes to great lengths to tell his story.

Over time, I may grow to like this movie even more.  As it currently stands, I’d say Kill Bill is a close second to Pulp Fiction as Tarantino’s magnum opus.

And again, here is the top 50 in list order.

1. Kill Bill (2003-2004)
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
3. No Country For Old Men (2007)
4. Almost Famous (2000)
5. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
6. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007)
7. High Fidelity (2000)
8. The Departed (2006)
9. There Will Be Blood (2007)
10. Sideways (2004)
11. The Savages (2007)
12. Wedding Crashers (2005)
13. The Lives of Others (2006)
14. Mystic River (2003)
15. The Aviator (2004)
16. The Dark Knight (2008)
17. Children of Men (2006)
18. The Pianist (2002)
19. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
20. Gladiator (2000)
21. In the Bedroom (2001)
22. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
23. Waltz with Bashir (2008)
24. Half Nelson (2006)
25. Crash (2004)
26. The 25th Hour (2002)
27. Munich (2005)
28. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
29. Once (2007)
30. Frozen River (2008)
31. Zodiac (2007)
32. Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
33. L’ Enfant (2005)
34. Collateral (2004)
35. You Can Count on Me (2000)
36. Apocalypto (2006)
37. Amores Perros (2000)
38. Volver (2006)
39. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
40. Minority Report (2002)
41.  Notes on a Scandal (2006)
42.  A History of Violence (2005)
43.  21 Grams (2003
44.  The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
45.  Garden State (2004)
46.  United 93 (2006)
47.  Memento (2000)
48.  Old School (2003)
49.  The Hangover (2009)
50.  Donnie Darko (2001)

The Best Albums of 2011: The Complete List

So here it is; my favorite albums of 2011. I hope some of you take the time to check some of them out. Detailed descriptions can be found by clicking on each album title.

While a lot of the music here won’t show up on the Billboard Top 100 list, there’s still plenty here for most of you to like; you just have to give it a try! As always, thanks for reading. Happy New Year!

1. Bon Iver: Bon Iver

2. Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What

3. Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’

4. The Twilight Singers: Dynamite Steps

5. The Joy Formidable: The Big Roar

6. The Antlers: Burst Apart

7. M83: Hurry Up We’re Dreaming

8. My Morning Jacket: Circuital

9. Elbow: Build a Rocket Boys

10. Rival Schools: Pedals

11. tUne-yarDs: W H O K I L L

12. TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light

13. Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean

14. Foo Fighters: Wasting Light

15. The Weeknd: House of Balloons

16. Cut Copy: Zonoscope

17. The Decemberists: The King is Dead

18. Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne

19. Yuck: Yuck

20. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong

The Rest of the Best

21. Foster the People: Torches

22. Seryn: This is Where We Are

23. Adele: 21

24. Manchester Orchestra: Simple Math

25. The Roots: Undun

26. Wild Beasts: Smother

27. Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part II

28. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues

29. The Strokes: Angles

30. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake