tracks of the year, #2

December 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s the second part of my list (in no particular order!) of my favourite tracks of 2010. The posting of these might slow up for a while, since I’m off to Gloucestershire for a week on Thursday (if the trains are working) and probably won’t pack my laptop, but I’ll try my best to get as many of these done before the new year rings in as I can, anyway. Leave a comment if you agree/disagree/want to share anything with me!

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Janelle Monae – Oh Maker (buy album here, or the track here)

I could easily have picked other songs from The ArchAndroid to write about, but there’s already been a lot of attention paid to Tightrope and Cold War (especially its video, which I love), and this is my other favourite, although it’s more understated than the others – at first, anyway.

At the start, Monae sings over an acoustic guitar, and it feels almost out of place on her album, like she’s suddenly made a retreat to something safer, less interesting. But what starts off quiet and slightly droning – like the rainy day that it describes – suddenly becomes loud, showier than it was at first, and the images that she uses are unexpected and expansive without being jarring or pointless. She asks if the addressee knew that ‘this love would burn so yellow / becoming orange and in its time / explode from grey to black then bloody wine’. The lyrics don’t show off – but they also avoid sounding like anything staid, like any other pop songs.

I know that The ArchAndroid is meant to be part of a wider science fiction narrative that Monae has constructed, and it’s often been referred to as a concept album, but this track, and the other great songs on here, stands alone; the story of love and destruction that it tells unfolds, restrained and sad, amid quietly changing styles of production and instrumentation.

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Metric/The Clash at Demonhead – Black Sheep (buy Scott Pilgrim soundtrack here, although it’s got the Metric version on. As far as I can tell, you can’t buy the version with Brie Larson singing anywhere. Boo!)

I prefer the version of this that’s used in the Scott Pilgrim film (which is where the video clip above is taken from, although it’s an extended version of the scene), with Brie Larson singing, over the version that’s just done by Metric, although both are good – it’s slightly less produced (although obviously it still doesn’t sound much like a live performance), and I possibly prefer Larson’s voice. I’m not even sure when Metric put this out, but the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack came out this summer, so I feel justified including it here. Every time I listen to it, I just think, how could I not?

It’s got such a great opening – in the film it works really well having Envy start it with “hello again, friend of a friend”, considering what you’re about find out about Ramona and Todd on bass’s relationship – but, just thinking about the song by itself, I love the way that the vocals sound kind of staccato, almost spoken. It sounds like a challenge. Not sure quite what the lyrics mean, if I’m honest (and neither do the people over at songmeanings.net, but then they never do), but when I hear her sing, it’s clearer. It is a challenge.

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The Hold Steady – We Can Get Together (buy album here, or buy the song here)

Surely the year’s most surprising namecheck has to be in this song, when Craig Finn sings about 90s indiepop heroes Heavenly. But it doesn’t feel like he’s just referencing them for the sake of it – part of their story gets woven into the song, and they become a way of remembering somebody else, somewhere else, something that they are a reminder of.

I don’t think this is thought of as one of The Hold Steady’s best albums – I certainly haven’t got through it much – but I keep returning to this song. I think it’s the opening – there’s something about the repetition of ‘heaven’ in it that tugs at me. Most pop songs seem to rhyme, and so does this one – but when words, or parts of words, are deftly repeated, it helps something paint itself inside my head. These are the two lines that open the song:

She played “Heaven Isn’t Happening”, she played “Heaven Is a Truck”
She said Heavenly was cool, I think they were from Oxford…

It shows a kind of sideways thought process, a way of remembering different things that ‘she’ liked through word-association, rather than by thinking about all of the songs by one band that she liked, or the music that she used to listen to the most. It doesn’t feel like wordplay, but the repetition still helps it become memorable, still works like internal rhyme. The backing vocals (on the studio version) that go ‘baa-baa-baa’ are beautiful, and fade out at the end after the rest of the song has finished – they’re never overpowering or too insistent, which makes a lot of difference in a song, like this, that is not a big dumb pop anthem; it’s too clever for that. Not that there’s anything wrong with those songs; but this one talks about other bands and their myths of origin, about growing up and old, about imagining what you can’t really remember. It’s about listening to music, without being self-congratulatory, nostalgic without being shit.

I listened to it so many times this summer that I’ve created a whole kind of internal life around it; when I hear it I just imagine being in Oxford, sitting on Headington Hill, listening to it on repeat, even though that never even happened.

films of the year, pt.2

December 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s the second part of the list of my favourite films of 2010, with the best two that I saw. It’s gone midnight here in the UK, so if you celebrate it, I hope you’re having a good one. Anyway, onto the films. As before, there are probably spoilers here, if you care about that.

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2. Dogtooth

something's about to go very wrong here

I’ve seen this film discussed a lot elsewhere, and it was number 1 in the (excellent) list over at Tiny Mix Tapes. I went in not knowing much about it, though – it wasn’t a particularly high-profile release – all I really knew was that it was meant to be about some parents who taught their children the wrong meanings of words. But it’s so much more than that – the film is about a family who exist in their house and garden, and only their father can ever leave. The three children are now grown up, but they still act like they’re pre-pubescent; the two girls have no idea what sex is (the parents get in a woman to have sex with the son, setting the events of the film in motion, as apparently his sexual urges are difficult to ignore), and they aren’t allowed to watch anything that hasn’t been taped by the family of themselves. Their world has been reduced to a tiny, enclosed area; they are told that outside their home there is only wasteland. The ocean is reduced to their sofa.

The film that results from this premise is beautifully shot – the scene towards the end where the two sisters dance is one of the most incredible and visually powerful parts of a film that I have ever seen. It’s disturbing, and upsetting, and although it seems to be often read as a kind of allegory or commentary on the world around us, it’s not reductive, and it’s not simplistic. It contains one awful, horrible, moment of blunt violence, and it contains Frank Sinatra songs that are played to the children, who believe it is their grandfather singing. When the father wants to have fish for dinner, he puts fish in the swimming pool. When planes fly overhead, the parents throw toy planes into the garden and pretend that they have fallen out of the sky. And when the older sister discovers something about the world outside – that the world outside exists – she tries her hardest to understand, and it doesn’t seem like she ever quite makes it. I can’t even begin to discuss here the extent of the problems and fragile moments that Dogtooth encompasses. It’s wonderful and horrible, and it doesn’t try to be beautiful all the way through. That’s why it works. Some people have described it as an offbeat comedy. Don’t believe them. There’s nothing comedic at the heart of this film; there’s nothing funny about the older sister’s despair and attempted escape, about the way that she and her siblings have been utterly ruined.

1. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

stacey pilgrim and her little brother

So, finally, this is my top film. It was probably the most visually exciting and individual of all the films I saw this year, except probably Toy Story 3 (Pixar are still the best at computer-generated animation, and it was stunning). Toronto in the snow looks kind of amazing, and the bright colours and wonderful sets were all perfect. Some reviewers seemed to find the film and its visual concerns irritating, as if they saw the video game tics and features that pop up throughout it as somehow separable from the rest of the story, or unnecessary. But video games are integral; the film works so well because it functions both as a film that tells the kind of story you can imagine a video game telling, and because it functions as a film about the ways in which video games make people think. The story can just be fantastical, and I find it the most enjoyable when I just think of it like this; but it is also about the reference points that an entire younger generation of people use when they think about what’s happening around them.

I saw Scott Pilgrim twice, unlike any other film on this list, and I’d like to see it again (why wasn’t it released on DVD in time for Christmas?!) – it depends so much on the small, intricate details, and it really rewards rewatching, deep engagement. It’s also just so funny, and it often caught me by total surprise. Kieran Culkin as Scott’s roommate Wallace totally steals every scene that he’s in – he has the best lines, and delivers them with a perfect mixture of self-awareness and surrender to the role. Ellen Wong is great, too, as Knives Chau – she goes from being a very young high school pupil, whose relationship with Scott is chaste but still weird, to being angry and powerful. There are so many great characters who only play smaller parts in the film – Anna Kendrick as Scott’s younger sister (although she still calls him little brother, because she is so much more grown up than him) is wonderful, as are Brandon Routh, Chris Evans, Alison Pill…

Scott Pilgrim’s funny because it’s not afraid to play around with various genre conventions, because it knows what people think about, what people care about, and shows how that affects them. But it’s a great film because it does not necessarily like its main character. Scott is not shown as particularly wonderful – he’s a dick to his girlfriends (he doesn’t even dump Knives Chau before he starts seeing Ramona, and Wallace has to practically force him into even bothering at all), he’s too caught up in his own projected ideas of what other people are like (he’s obsessed with Ramona before he even knows her, and he’s excited about dating Knives because she goes to high school, not because of who she is), and he doesn’t have a job or do much with his life at all. I believe that the film makes his personal, numbing fecklessness quite clear, and is critical of it. But it’s still fun, and exciting, and it shows in extensive detail exactly how great and weird and terrible all the people around him are and can be, too. It’s a film about being shit and living inside your own head, and about the problems that can cause. But the inside of your head can be great and fun. You just have to realise that it’s not always the best place to live.

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So, now that that’s done with, here’s a list of films that I didn’t see this year that I wanted to:

Youth in Revolt, Winter’s Bone, Tiny Furniture, Easy A, Life During Wartime, Made in Dagenham, Tamara Drewe. Never Let Me Go and Black Swan, too, but I don’t think they’ve had a UK release yet, so hopefully I’ll still get to catch them. Do leave a comment if you want to discuss anything I’ve said here, or if you want to disagree with my order/my reasoning. Next, I’m hoping to write something about my favourite songs of the year.

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