Best Albums of 2011

16 Jan

I should think this whole affair pretty self-explanatory.  One new release (the first) rekindled my audiophilia.  This year has made me music-obsessive, and to celebrate I give you a top 30 list.  2011 has been among the all-time best years for independent hip hop.  We’ve had late-career resurgences (Shabazz Palaces, Beastie Boys, Pharoahe Monch), young crews/mobs/gangs/associations/etc (Black Hippy, Green Ova Undergrounds, Bruiser Brigade), youngins that materialized from bedrooms full of chronic smoke (Main Attrakionz, A$AP Rocky and all their producers) and active veterans just putting out some of their best work (CunninLynguists, Doomtree, Curren$y).  These artists took up the majority of my listening this past year.  That and some exceptional concept albums spanning all genres.  Without further adieu, here is my list (which is WAY too close to the Gorilla vs. Bear and Coke Machine Glow lists).  Please leave any questions or recommendations in the comment section.  Please refrain from mentioning Odd Future.

01 Black Up by Shabazz Palaces – The best album since 2007.  Maybe best hip hop album I’ve ever heard.  In time, I might declare it the best album I’ve ever heard.  Sonically, it incorporates avant-jazz, african traditional, ambient and dubstep/techno styles into a hip hop album.  Thematically, it touches on loss of identity, freedom, truth and just about everything worth thinking about.  Live it.  Love it. Own it.

02 936 by Peaking Lights – Dub music, but weirder.  Indra Dunis chants lyrics that sound like a joyous Lou Reed (as if she was listening to Sunday Morning on a loop).  Aaron Coyes’ droning basslines provide the meat of the music

03 Oneirology by CunninLynguists – Dreams and everything they entail.

04 No Kings by Doomtree – Doomtree is now what Def Jux’s and Anticon’s rosters used to be in their Golden Ages.  Their take on the genre is made up of allegory and theses, vivid yet impressionistic images that conflate space and time.  They are Robin Hood.  They are Spartacus.  More generally, they are outsiders who never fit in, refuse to fit in and will make sure the world gives in to them whether the like it or not.

05 808s and Dark Grapes II by Main Attrakionz – The stream-of-consciousness ramblings and deliberate contradictions of a pair of social misfit twenty-somethings.  Unlike Doomtree, Mondre and Squadda would sooner make a mockery out of the norm than wage war.

06 D by White Denim – My favourite rock band since XTC was young.

07 The Tape Hiss Hooligan by .L.W.H. – It’s a single producer’s show and the best since J Dilla’s Donuts.  Of all people to show up on a hip hop mixtape, Max von Sydow (greatest actor ever) via samples from Lars Von Trier’s Europa acts as a guide to lead us by hand through the unhinged cinephilia-induced stupor of L.W. Hodge’s consciousness.  On this Total Recall-like journey/hallucination, we come across Western Tink’s Bogartian anti-hero cool, Shady Blaze’s pill-addled promptness and the goonish weirdness of Main Attrakionz members MondreM.A.N. and Squadda B.  Like the Von Trier film, Hooligan‘s characters and general DMT-meets-X-box-haze contradicticts it’s noirish tendencies.  It’s The Big Sleep as done by Dario Argento.

08 Tomboy by Panda Bear – Person Pitch is one of my top ten favourite albums of all time.  This one’s much more a collection of songs than Person Pitch, but Noah Lennox still makes sounds without precedent that underscore vocal harmonies (with himself?) that Gorilla vs. Bear insightfully called hymn-like.

09 Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleurs Libres by Matana Roberts – Robert’s saxophone and spoken word based saga of a young girl enslaved, raped and freed who suffers to make home for herself and her family makes music novelistic the way Raekwon made it cinematic.  With it’s narrative of anguish, survival and the never-ending stride toward justice, it’s one of the year’s best hip hop records disguised as a jazz/poetry concept album.

10 W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) by Pharoahe Monch – My favourite rapper of all time.  He’s back.  W.A.R. is his weakest lyrical work, but his most sonically diverse.  One this release, he zeros in on what could reductively be called “everything that’s wrong with the world today” i.e. oppression, racism, lies, authority, and radical-chic posers discrediting the serious polemicists.  By no mistake was it released in the midst of the Arab Spring whether or not Monch intended it to.  The soundtrack to the revolution.

11 LiveLoveA$AP by A$AP Rocky – On a lighter note comes A$AP Rocky.  His lyrics are indefensibly shallow, but the way he charismatically bounces syllables and words around are mesmerizing when matched to the equally mesmerizing production.  His best asset is his taste, calling in producers like Clams Casino, Beautiful Lou and SpaceGhostPurrp and features like Main Attrakionz and Schoolboy Q.  LiveLoveA$AP does help to establish a national idea (check artwork) of hip hop, not post-regional, but syn-regional, a conglomeration of elements from around the states.  It’s an accidental masterpiece, if anything, but it’s also the year most compulsively listenable full-length.

12 In Love With Oblivion by Crystal Stilts – A terrifying abstract horror record in shades of ’60s psych.  Feels not unlike the fourth or fifth hour into a Twilight Zone marathon.

13 Setbacks by ScHoolboy Q – If you read my top MCs list, You probably know how I feel about this.  It’s a little front-heavy and it devolves into shallow weed rap toward the middle section, but Q’s raw talent, aesthetic understanding and impeccable taste in beats makes it what it is.

14 Native Speaker by Braids

15 New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges by Colin Stetson

16 Mina Tindle by Mina Tindle – The year’s most promising debut.  Very few can pull the whole solo-singer-songwriter thing whilst maintaining aural complexity (PJ Harvey), but somehow this young française did it.  Anticipate a full-length.

17 I Am Very Far by Okkervil River

18 Weekend at Burnie’s by Curren$y – Curren$y turns weed rap into outsider art.  He feels about the plant the way Ingmar Bergman felt about faith; it won’t heal all wounds, but it’s a way to get by.

19 XXX by Danny Brown – I’ll always take Brown’s self-loathing over Childish Gambino’s self-pity.  While Glover whines about pre-Kanye problems, Brown finds everything a human being can possibly dislike about itself and turned it all into a coal-black-comic hip hop confessional.  XXX glues him to his top-tier MC pedestal for his pure unrestrained ability to fucking spit.  And with that, I deem XXX the most mature album ever made about an artist’s own immaturity.

20 Days by Real Estate

21 Mrs. Jones Cookies by The Sandwitches

22 Hot Sauce Committee Part Two by Beastie Boys

23 Deerhoof vs. Evil by Deerhoof

24 Street Halo EP by Burial

25 Freaking Out by Toro y Moi

26 Kaputt by Destroyer

27 Badlands by Dirty Beaches – I haven’t listened to the new album by The Caretaker yet, and until I do, I have this as a grimy Lynchian take on ’50 noir and rock ‘n roll.

28 Exmilitary by Death Grips – Will it be the hip hop gateway drug for a legion of metal kids? Will it be to them what Kid A was to introducing young rockers to electronic styles?  Probably not, but it’s an interesting anomaly that fuses the two genres scorned most by suburban white parents.

29 House of Balloons by The Weeknd – Portrait of the artist as a pathetic dude at a party.

30 Too Young to Be in Love by Hunx and His Punx – It’s not perfect, but I can’t resist the ‘fuck you’ to heteronormativism and sarcastic queer-inflected sensationalism applied to Leslie Gore-esque tunes.

My Favourite MCs

15 Jan

When I’m not digging through my notebooks for volumes that elucidate my chronic depression, I like listening to hip hop.  Yesterday’s new Schoolboy Q release ‘Habits & Contradictions’ confirmed a sneaking suspicion I had after hearing ‘Setbacks’ last year.  I have failed to include MCs from groups like De La Soul and CunninLynguists because there are no stars on their albums.  All stars shine equal.  Vast Aire and Vordul Megalluh of Cannibal Ox would appear too if they had ever followed up The Cold Vein with anything listenable.  I considered the rappers’ verbal dexterity, thematic complexity, intelligence, aesthetics and cohesion with production in making this list.  And with all my provisos in order, I hereby present my top 25 favourite MCs.  The list is completely subjective, unthinkably reductive, quite sacrilegious.  All haters welcome.

01 Pharoahe Monch

02 Ishmael Butler aka Butterfly, Palaceer Lazaro

03 GZA the Genius

04 Kool Keith aka Dr. Octagon

05 Schoolboy Q

06 El-P

07 MF Doom

08 Black Thought

09 Brother Ali

10 Masta Ace

11 LL Cool J

12 Nas

13 Jean Grae

14 Big L

15 Mos Def

16 Sims

17 Danny Brown

19 Ladybug Mecca

10 Gift of Gab

20 Chali 2na

21 Aesop Rock

22 Curren$y

23 Ghostface Killah

24 Jeru the Damaja

25 The Notorious B.I.G.


The Battered Inamorata

23 Nov
I’m trying something new today.  I’m publishing a poem.

The Battered Inamorata

I, a snarling creature full of wrath, scream “FUCK YOU” through sandpaper lungs.

Quashed by truncheons tasting of rotten flesh, I stand back up and scream again

And then I fall apart like a zombified hollow.

This desert’s on fire; ancient furies raging, pulling us to shreds.

And I wake up in a pool of my saliva, boots against my neck.

I’m broken in pieces, I’m a thrown-away puppet.

Authoritative fountain pens write swiftly to forget my whispers

The same ones burn in flames throughout a wall of faces.

I hope so.  I want to see it with me when I go.

The Collector (1965)

23 Nov

William Wyler is always an elusive filmmaker.  Not an out-of-his-mind crazed visionary like Maya Deren, he’s so difficult to understand because of how undoubtedly hollywood he is.  He made Ben-Hur, an early classic of desire, fallen aristocracy and Jesus as queer cinema with The Children’s Hour, one of the most condescending and trite polemics issue-filmmaking has ever unleashed.

In 1965 he made The Collector with Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, two of England’s most lusciously decadent subjects.  Stamp plays Freddie, a lottery-winner/ex-banker who, with his millions bought a countryside mansion and decided to kidnap Miranda (Eggar), a Londonian art student.

His kidnapping expresses desire to transcend class.  We see him as oppressed by his co-workers and his superiors in a flashback to the time when he was poor.  Miranda represents both the same and the other side of that, the Swinging London daughter of a country doctor with a scholarship to art school.  Her scholarship is her way to break from her economic class.  Meanwhile, when we see the two debate Salinger and Picasso, she has an intellectual capacity that threatens and overwhelms Freddie.  For thousands of years before Carnegie, education has been a symbol of luxury and of wealth.  She can discuss art, while Freddie can’t see past Holden Caulfield’s exterior, making her symbolically wealthy.  Freddie may have literal money, but that’s not enough.  Since he cannot rise any higher, he has to debase her, but he can’t because she’s not really rich,  she’s just pretending. He is too.  But really, aren’t we all?

I Saw the Devil (2010)

4 Sep

It may be my fondness for extremity, but I Saw the Devil is perhaps the best South Korean film I’ve seen up to this point.  They’re all very well done and very entertaining but then again they’re all the same: pick either revenge film, serial killer film or epic of grievance + dark humour.

This time we have a serial killer film, where the husband Soo-hyun (Lee Byun-hun) of a victim takes revenge on the killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) in order to grieve (oh God no) and it’s serial killer film with a twist (kill me, please kill me), but hold on – the twist is well, twisted.

Rather than just find  and kill Kyung-chul, Soo-hyun finds him, force-feeds him a tracker and lets him go.  The he finds him, beats him near death and lets him go again.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  Director Kim Ji-woon turns this gimmicky excuse for set pieces and marketing into something truly mythic.  Soo-hyun’s decision not to kill Kyung-chul is a condemnation to a Promethean punishment, but in doing so, he traps himself in a Sisyphean one.  Kyung-chul will be beaten within an inch of his life day-after-day.  Soo-hyun will have to do the beating day-after-day.  These become the meanings of their lives.  The film is a conflation of these two myths played against each other – it’s a noirish horror Once Upon a Time in the West.

It recalls Leone not just in it’s classicism, but also in it’s visual language.  Both Kim and Leone have an unparalleled sense of scope, making every moment quintessential – genre at apocalypse.  They understand faces – battered broken beaten ones and classically gorgeous one.  Most of all, they understand dying – awesome, yet disturbing Munch-ian expressions of harsh topaz and neon blues swirling into liquid blacks.  Death scenes near the ends of both I Saw the Devil and Once Upon a Time in the West both trap people into Rube-Goldbergs of death triggered by the victim’s loved ones.

Shockingly, Kyung-chul breaks the chain of torture, but in doing so he brings about his own end and takes away Soo-hyun’s purpose.  Kyung-chul escapes his punishment in death, but Soo-hyun’s only gives way for a new curse – meaninglessness and wandering.  He has no more family, no more friends, no more safety.  His final walk towards Kim’s retreating camera through a glacial country road fades to black, but never really ends.

Film socialisme (2010)

3 Sep

Jean-Luc Godard’s first film, A bout de souffle, ended with Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) saying vaguely “life’s a bitch” which a policeman translates into “you’re a bitch”.  This game of telephone acts as a prologue for JLG’s filmography.  Film socialisme, the greatest film by the greatest director who ever lived isthe apotheosis and the epilogue of his entire career, taking the ideas he introduced in his debut scraping chunks out of all of the films along the way.  Well, it’s not so much a culmination as it is an elaboration on his ideas.  A lot has been made of the film’s eccentric method of subtitling.  It’s spoken in … however many languages not because Godard is an elitist and is making films for polylinguists only, but because it aims to reveal what language really is.  Speaking is, as Joe Rogan would say “making noises with my mouth and you’re reading my fucking mind.”  Godard practically screams this same point when a young woman looks longingly at a picture of a cat and enunciates her mannered meows.  Noises only have meaning because we have assigned them semantic value as a way to reach out, to communicate precisely with others, but they only carry their values to those in the know.

That’s where the “socialisme” comes in.  Werner Herzog once said that cinema is the art of the illiterates.  He’s correct even when we have to watch with subtitles.

According to John Borg only 7% of what we communicate is derived from words themselves.  Therefore, we should understand 93 % of his subjects’ points, not that they matter.

What does matter is the need for creatures to communicate.  Whether it be to a foreigner, a cat or an audience.  This is his masterpiece.  Worlds explode and reform inside swarms of fish.  A green ray of light slices through the river like a rapture.  Mechanized shovels scrape and push gold coins across a machine like waves crashing.  Key moments of cinematized revolution are edited next to the same locations shot in contemporary serenity.

It’s a film about contradictions: it’s about microcosms and macrocosms, about people and animals, about humans and crowds, about land and water, about art and truth, about the past and the future.  In a word, It’s about cinema.

Paris When it Sizzles (1964)

18 Aug

I love Audrey Hepburn.  I hate Audrey Hepburn films.  I either get offended as an Asian-American (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), as a feminist (Charade) or a bisexual (The Children’s Hour).  So,I was sweating as I reached into my aunt’s Vietnamese bootleg Audrey Hepburn DVD collection.  Not wanting to see her, the quintessence of pan-European aristocracy conquer the American West or romance a tattered bearded Sean Connery in his awkward period between his Bond-era dashingness and his distinguished elderly charm, I pulled out the dvd of Paris When it Sizzles and clicked play.

It was relevatory.  She was in a movie and it was perfect as typist Gabrielle Simpson hired to aid hack screenwriter and American Expatriate in Paris Richard Benson played by William Holden.  A screenplay is due in two days and Benson hasn’t even started.  When they begin writing, a visualized screenplay starring their alter egos (Rick and Gaby) begins to form.

This is a strange film because it mixes two markedly different flavors: Hollywood Screwball comedy and film-within-a-film postmodernism.  Not to say that “the business” films don’t get made in Hollywood, two of the town’s most beloved auteurs, Billy Wilder and Robert Altman made films about “the business” that rank among their most popular, but surprisingly neither of them use age old film-within-the-film device to interact with the “reality” of the film.  The “reality” (which, like all cinema is really a lie) shows us the literal truth of the relationship between the two leads, but the screenplay shows the emotional truth.  Ergo, cinema = emotional truth.  At the end of PWIS, when Richard whisks Gabrielle away from her man the cinema bleeds into life and lies become truth.  Cinema has power over the characters in the film, as it does over us all.

The Tree of Life (2011)

18 Aug
Malick is far from a “religious director” as many have labeled him, but instead a corporeal one.  His films, at there best, celebrate the human body and the textures and surfaces of the natural world  Through editing short clips of improvisation suggests time moving through people and objects and marveling at how the ephemeral pass away and the liberation of that passing.  This marvel is culturally, erhh, pop-culturally associated with God, but that is merely nearsightedness.
Indeed, this may be his least religious film, as it at least states definitively its belief in evolution.  However, that does not mean it is exemplary in its portrayal of physical transcendence because it shows it rather than suggests it the way that Malick’s other films do.  So the moving fleetingness is lost because Malick shows the entire scope of terrestrial existence and has the pretense to show an end to all of it.  This scale forces the piece into a science fiction film in its syntactics, and like its precedents, it looses character and humanity in favor of awe and prediction.  This would be fine, if it did not heave Malick’s flesh-and-tree-bark semantics which suggest intimacy that clashes with the sci-fi scope, leaving it unsatisfying in both fields.
The most debated aspect of Malick’s films, his sometimes Heidegger-ian, sometimes Thoreau-esque, sometimes fantastically simplistic monologues have changed from poetically scoring the images as well as Das Rheingold to spelling out trite metaphors.  When we here the soft whispers “nature…grace” and then we meet the O’Brien parents, the father (nature) and the mother (grace) or if you prefer, the father (the Old Testament God) and the mother (the New Testament God), reducing them from the corporeal to the figurative and reducing Jack to a Malick/audience surrogate.
What everyone has always agreed upon about Malick is his aesthetic brilliance, which (aside from a few moments of brilliance) is also lost in this film.  At times it’s dingy.  At others, it’s over-exposed.  Although, not too bright for anyone to miss the camera floating around Jessica Chastain frozen in space, flying up through the trees, possibly the second worst scene I’ve seen in a cinematheque this year, only behind the ending La Dolce Vita-esque beach scene that ranks among the most laughable in recent years.
But if it’s not too late too give this film credit, THE TREE OF LIFE has one thing going for it, it is a Malick film.  For all the facile simplicity of his philosophy, it is a sincere one, and a sweet one which makes it watchable.

A Blog… An Introduction

4 Aug

Hi! I’m Chris. I am a cinephile originally from Manhattan. I currently live in Newton, MA, hometown of William A. Wellman. I was born on 14 March, 1995 and I share that birthday with Michael Caine, Albert Einstein, J. Hoberman and of course Sasha Grey.

I grew up going to art museums. I have seen VERTIGO more than any other movie. I am on a quest for the ultimate gesamtkunstwerk. I am hyper-sensitive to racism towards people of Asian descent (being half-Vietnamese).  For me, all cinema is a lie.  I like melodrama and horror.

My current Top Twenty (1 per director, subject to change):

01 Eros Plus Massacre (Yoshida)

02 Stalker (Tarkovsky)

03 Vertigo (Hitchcock)

04 Contempt (Godard)

05 The Story of Marie and Julien (Rivette)

06 Medium Cool (Wexler)

07 Ordet (Dreyer)

08 Inland Empire (Lynch)

09 In a Year of 13 Moons (Fassbinder)

10 Close-Up (Kiarostami)

11 Teorema (Pasolini)

12 The Face of Another (Teshigahara)

13 Deep Red (Argento)

14 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)

15 L’avventura (Antonioni)

16 Love Streams (Cassavetes)

17 Harakiri (Kobayashi)

18 The Conformist (Bertolucci)

19 Johnny Guitar (Ray)

20 Wings of Desire (Wenders)