In less than eight hours, 2007 becomes 2008. The self-indulgent nature of blogging requires something in the way of round-ups and lists. Such round-ups acknowledge how pop culture constructs us and elevate the "best stuff" to their rightful (lofty) places. We make these lists and will our judgments to a kind of public relevance. Things that matter to me become things that matter, period. Anyway, a requirement's a requirement, so here goes. No numbers this year.
Films that mattered...
->"Sweeney Todd" and "Once." Two superb musicals. I took more pleasure from "Sweeney Todd" than I did from any other movie this year. Checking out Sweeney at the theater was a classic "communal" experience. So many wonderful geek communities converged: Sondheim fans, Tim Burton fans, kids with crushes on Johnny Depp, goths, and so on. Everything about Sweeney was cool, especially Depp's glam rock-esque delivery. "Once," a romance about friendship, bucked so many expectations. The two protagonists allow themselves to fall so deeply into a hodgepodge of empathy and passion and agape that they can only express in the music they create together. What a toughing representation of collaboration and creativity.
->"Superbad" and "Knocked Up." Believe the hype. Judd Apatow and his creative team deserve all of their accolades. I hope the success of these two raunchy comedies leads kids to DVDs of Apatow's series "Freaks and Geeks," the always hilarious tv show that argued that a VERY thin line separates rebels and nerds. Much of the brilliance comes from how damn funny actors like Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Leslie Mann are in their respective roles. But the writing is the real star of the show. Somehow, both scripts capture pathos alongside raunch.
->"I'm Not There." Another musical, this one less accessible and probably less rewarding. I can see why some dismiss "I'm Not There" as a clever stunt, but the film left me feeling warm for some reason. Warm, perhaps, for the great body of music that Bob Dylan has given the world. Warm, perhaps, for Bob Dylan the artist who--the film seems to suggest--by this point in time is more an "artist" than a "person" even. No film, whether documentary of fiction, can know a person, so this film concerns itself more with letting our blurry understanding of Dylan be blurry. I can't explain how something so blurry could leave me warm and I guess that's the achievement of "I'm Not There."
->"Grindhouse." Like essentially all of the films I've listed so far, "Grindhouse" devotes itself to a vision and sticks to it until the bitter end. I can't believe the DVD splits up the two features that comprise the theatrical version of Grindhouse. The beauty was that Grindhouse created an entire experience: a double feature, fake previews, fake commercials, fake missing reels, fake flaws and imperfections. But nothing's fake about how cool the car chase is in "Death Proof," Quentin Tarantino's half of the double feature. Awesome stuff. If you missed at the theater, you're out of luck.
Music that mattered...
->M.I.A. "Kala." Man, what is this? Is it hip hop? Is it leftist propaganda? Is it post-colonial theory? Is it grime? Is it techno? Is it punk rock? Is it bubblegum? Is it dance pop? A little bit of this, a little of that. My favorite record of the year. M.I.A. samples or recreates lyrical flourishes and riffs from The Clash, The Pixies, and The Modern Lovers on "Kala," moving between so many genres you can't keep up. There's absolutely no coherence here. A chaotic, "punk" musical experience. M.I.A. is a young Sri Lankan woman who mixes radical politics with a pop sensibility. You get the sense that people will be talking about "Kala" more in twenty years than they did in 2007. Super, super cool.
-> The "I'm Not There" soundtrack. Like "Kala," this moves all over the place. Unlike "Kala" (and the film with which this record is a tie-in), it's a remarkably coherent experience. Mostly, this soundtrack features contemporary indie artists covering Dylan songs, some classic, some obscure. This is a recipe for disaster. Dylan's catalog is very familiar, frequently covered, hard to approach, and superior to virtually all artists who try to capture it. "Covers albums" tend to suck. What a surprise, then, that the majority of the tracks on "I'm Not There" have something to offer. The rockers work especially well: Sonic Youth doing the title track, Yo La Tengo doing "I Wanna Be Your Lover," Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs doing "Highway 61." I also really like the contributions from Stephen Malkmus of Pavement fame. Malkmus belts out a pretty faithful version of "Maggie' Farm" and does his slacker-Beefheartesque-drawl thing on "Can't Leave Her Behind" and "Ballad of a Thin Man." It's no Slanthed&Enchanted, but sweet nonetheless. Only a few missteps, like including a version of "All Along the Watchtower." Nobody needs another version of this song. I also don't get the appeal of Anthony and the Johnsons in general, so his rendition of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" earns the skip button in my book. Finally, Sufjan Stevens (another artist who seems boring to me) allows his "Ring Them Bells" (a song I really like) to adopt an annoying sideshow-calliope effect at the end. Only three missteps on two busy discs of great songs made fresh.
->Jay-Z. "Roc Boys." The "American Gangster" album was good, though slightly uneven, so I'll give the nod to my favorite track from the record. The great soul sample--Jay Z calls it "black superhero music"--creates a 70s vibe. One of the happiest, catchiest hip hop tracks in a long while. Clevel lyrics allow Jay Z's famed "flow" ability to shine, but it's really all about the horns in that sample. Repetition. If you haven't heard this song, find it on youtube and enjoy!
->The Muldoons. Live Shows around Detroit. The most fun you'll have at a rock show in Detroit. Two pre-teen boys playing punk guitar while their dad drums (oh yeah, and he used to play in bands with Jack White and knows just about everybody in the Detroit scene). These kids are what live music is all about: sweating, doing Stooges covers, and trying out moves you've seen your favorite rockstars do. On the latter, the two young lads do windmills, slides...if their allowances were more generous, you get the sense they'd smash their axes at the ends of shows. I've said it before and I'll say it again: one of the great things about the Muldoons in concert is that you needn't feel like you have to front. Sure, there are young hipster types in the crowd, but the frontman's aunts and uncles are there too. So just go be yourself and enjoy great Detroit rock and roll.