Top 10 records of the year

By: Luke McCormick

As of today, this is my top 10 records of the year. It seems to change quite consistently but after much deliberation these albums are the ones which have really clicked in 2008. All of them are great pieces of work and are worth the time to track down.

1. The Gaslight Anthem- “The ’59 Sound”

The best record of the year is also the simplest, sonically, on the list. The Gaslight Anthem is not out to re-invent the wheel.  They have produced a record steeped in punk and Americana ethos which many artists have visited before.

The result is a wonderfully honest record full of heartache and redemption.

2. The Hold Steady- “Stay Positive”

The best rock band in operation. On its fourth record in five years, the band’s hooks are still as killer as they were from day one and Craig Finn’s lyrics are just as introspective as ever.

The band stepped up its ballad game on this year’s release, crafting gems like “Lord I’m Discouraged” to go along with fist pumping jams like album opener “Constructive Summer.”

3. Kanye West- “808’s & Heartbreak”

A cold, calculating turn of events from one of pop music’s greatest artists. Basically stripping his sound of everything which made him the star he is today, Kanye has turned out an ambitious record full of icy synths and pounding drums.  His decision to abandon rapping for the most part and sing through an autotuner only magnifies the record’s pitiful, inward looking agenda.

4. TV on the Radio- “Dear Science,”

The most accessible record the band has produced is also a layered, sonically thick listening experience.  Grasping the dance, funk aesthetic the band has hinted at over past releases has made their newest one of the most engaging records of the year.  The band might be laying on the Bowie and Talking Heads influences a bit thick, but doing it with enough originality and musicianship to remain fresh as ever.

5. Blitzen Trapper- “Furr”

On the band’s sophomore effort, it has fell face first into the Americana landscape. Borrowing heavily from folk, Southern rock and psychedelia from previous decades, the band has put together the exact opposite of a sophomore slump.

6. David Byrne & Brian Eno- “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today”

Those expecting a record full of Eno ambience and Byrne spitting nonsense over frustrating soundscapes need to check themselves.This is a pop record through and through. The hooks are sticky sweet and choruses sore over the two men’s amazing penchant for crafting near-perfect pop gems. A rare, unexpected treat.

7. Bon Iver- “For Emma, Forever Ago”

Recorded in a secluded cabin in the bare, bleakness of a Wisconsin winter, “For Emma, Forever Ago” is a heartfelt, tear stained masterpiece. Guitars are sparse and when percussion and strings pop up from time to time the instruments are welcome additions to each song’s torment. Justin Vernon’s aching falsetto only adds to the record’s turmoil. A great record for the winter months.

8. The Tallest Man On Earth- “Shallow Graves”

The Tallest Man On Earth is in actuality Scandinavian folk singer Kristian Matsson. His debut record has been tagged “Dylan-esque” by nearly every publication who has taken the time to give the record the publicity it deserves. The tag has been applied rightfully so. Each year an artist or two gets slapped with the tag but for few does it actually resonate. Matsson’s plucking guitar and banjo and seamlessly engaging voice are the makings of a rich, elegant folk record which should not be missed.

9. Young Jeezy- “The Recession”

In the past, tough economic and political times fostered great music. I cannot and will not compare Jeezy’s latest to Dylan or “Born in the U.S.A.” or Public Enemy but it has its moments. The rapper shows his flow is more than just adlibs and and tough talk by discussing the perils of hood life and the importance of our new President elect.

10. Jason Anderson- “The Hopeful and the Unafraid”

Anderson’s 2008 release is a great exercise in fun, anthemic rock ‘n’ roll. Grabbing from The Replacements, Springsteen and contemporaries The Hold Steady, this throaty, barroom stomping rocker is full of jams which are locks to be stuck in heads for days.

Advertisements

“808’s” adds up

By: Luke McCormick

provided photo

provided photo

Kanye West

“808’s & Heartbreak”

Release Date: 11/24

Record Label: Roc-A-Fella Records

4 out of 5

It is the fall of 2003. Two high school kids from Central Illinois, one a sophomore (it’s me!) the other a junior, ride around in a Volkswagen Jetta. The stereo plays a mix of early ’00s hip-hop from Styles P to Mr. Lucci. The next track pops up with a chipmunk soul beat and a mushmouthed rapper the sophomore has never heard before.

As heads bob, the sophomore asks, “Whoa, who is this?”

To which the junior replies, “Some new Roc-A-Fella guy, Kenya West I think?”

Well friends, it was Kanye West, not Kenya and that sophomore was hooked since then. Every time any news of new Kanye material hit the Internet he was right there, downloading away, just jacked for what the super producer/rapper was going to do next. On each release date of a new record he was there, grabbing that new release.

Just in time for the holiday season Kanye has dropped his coldest, most minimal record to date for the former high school sophomore. Gone are the samples and chipmunk soul beats he used to love so much. They have been replaced by 808 drums, icy synths and Kanye’s not-so-perfect singing voice sifted through an autotuner, but it actually comes together for a very effecting album.

The record is full of good ideas, sometimes they work and sometimes they fall flat. Tacking Young Jeezy onto the latter half of “Amazing” is a great switch-up from Kanye’s autotuned same pitch singing over the whole record. Ending the album with a freestyle from a show in Singapore, about the death of his mother, works with the heartbreak aspect of the record, but is a chore to sit through.

Over the past year Kanye’s mother died and he broke up with a fiance. His mother’s death and the overwhelming sadness and anger which accompanied it are what seem to fuel most of the record. It is a sad affair, but getting a peek under the slick, egotistical persona of Kanye is an interesting journey.

Sonically, the record is at first listen a glorious mess. At times minimal, something Kanye has never touched before and at other points bouncy synths will ride along with pounding 808 drums.

Influences can be found throughout the record whether it be Duran Duran synths, cheesy film-score strings or the Enya-esque atmospheric soundscape on “Say You Will,” but this is inherently a Kanye West production through and through. It sounds nothing like anything else on popular radio right now, which is just what he has been doing since the beginning of his career.

Kanye’s decision to ditch rapping (for the most part) and sing through the autotuner which T-Pain has run into the ground for the past few years, is a ballsy one, but ultimately plays. The cold, robotic affect it has on his voice and the fact that he is just an OK vocalist make his pain and anxiety that much more transparent.

The melancholy “808’s & Heartbreak” should not be championed because it is different. It should be lauded because of the fact Kanye was able to enter his dark and experimental phase and come out unscathed. With a dark, paranoid masterpiece to boot.

Luke McCormick can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 275 or lmccorm2@siu.edu

Visit this “Theater”

By: Luke McCormick

provided photo

provided photo

Ludacris

“Theater of the Mind”

Release Date: 11/24

Record Label: DTP/Def Jam Records

3 out of 5

On Thanksgiving Day, before the big meal, my family always has the snack table packed just right. The crowning achievement is always the homemade Chex mix. It can be salty, sweet, spicy, there is a slew of possibilities with this fine appetizer. My one beef with the mix is picking through the array of peanuts scattered throughout. All I really want is some cashews, but year after year is spent sifting through Brazilian nuts, almonds and nuts I’ve never even heard of before.

Ludacris albums are the same way. There is always some great, stand out tracks on his records, but more often than not tracks are skip worthy if not for a punch-line or two.

And there is no shortage of one liners on “Theater of the Mind.” Luda’s wit has always been his strong suit. Whether he is calling out detractors(“I got gangstas that’ll rearrange ya whole face, put ya casket on ice, now that’s a cold case,” he spits on “Southern Gangsta.”) or putting out the vibe for the ladies(“When she need her medicine I give her that Vitamin D” from “Nasty Girl”), he is always on point.

The guest list for the record is a who’s who of rap and R&B heavyweights, including T-Pain, Chris Brown, Jay-Z, Nas, Lil’ Wayne, Plies, Jamie Foxx (just go away) and Spike Lee(?). Yes, Mr. Lee has gone from being in with Public Enemy during their heyday to doing a quick intro on a phone in Luda album. Must have owed the rapper a favor.

With a bevy of guest rappers and singers, none really stand out. Lil’ Wayne actually raps (!) on “Last of a Dying Breed.” It is a treat when he ditches the autotuner and actually spits on a track, even if it is a bunch of incoherent gun talk. Nas and Jay-Z sound just as uninspired as they have for the past few years when guesting on tracks and Jamie Foxx pops up to croon the hook on “Contagious.” I thought the rap game was rid of this guy and he was just going to focus on acting in Oscar bait films.

There is a smattering of redeemable tracks on Luda’s newest and they come when he lets his enormous ego out. The man is at his best when he is having fun on the beat, stretching out syllables to emphasize his favorite lines or ending rhymes with a chuckle.

One just has to wonder, with his acting career booming, how much longer he can keep putting out the same album. As long as he keeps that same swagger and dropping serious punch-lines, at least half of a new Luda album will have a home on my iTunes.

So this is “Christmas” ?

Provided Photo

By: Wes Lawson

Daily Egyptian

“Four Christmases”

Rated PG-13

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau

Directed by Seth Gordon

Run time: 82 minutes

2.5 out of 5 stars

The only genre more littered with crap titles than horror movies must certainly be Christmas movies. For every “A Christmas Story,” there’s “Deck The Halls,” “Christmas With The Kranks,” and “Fred Claus.” In this decade, 2003 was a good year for Christmas films with the likes of “Elf” and “Bad Santa” but largely, no new Christmas classics have emerged.

“Four Christmases” is no classic, but it certainly isn’t an entirely terrible affair. It’s completely middle of the road Christmas entertainment, and it provides a few decent chuckles, though it certainly could have provided a heck of a lot more.

Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) are a rather new age couple who don’t want to get married, don’t want kids, and don’t really want anything to do with their divorced parents. Instead of spending Christmas with their families, they spend every year on a tropical vacation, telling their families that they are doing charity work in Africa or something like that. But this year, the San Francisco fog, cancels their flight, and they end up on TV complaining about how much they were inconvenienced. Of course, four different parents in four different houses see them on TV, so Brad and Kate must see all four families over the course of a single day, hence the title. Why these families couldn’t all convene in one place, seeing as they do later on the film, is beyond Brad and Kate’s mental aptitude, but OK.

Movies like “Four Christmases” are completely frustrating because they assemble all the elements for a good comedy and then don’t do anything with them- the film could have been completely fixed with a couple more rewrites. Consider the scene when Brad visits Kate’s mother and they go through a book that showed Kate as a fat girl and a quasi-lesbian when she was younger. We are expected to laugh merely at the fact that she was these things, but it’s not funny to just have personality traits that sit there and do nothing. On the other hand, Kate’s traumatic experience in an inflatable kid’s toy leads to a funny scene where she must confront her fears. The film veers wildly from scenes that are mildly amusing to scenes that just plain don’t work. The four families are all based on stereotypes and only Kate’s mother is really amusing, since her entire family wants to date Brad.

It also doesn’t help that Vaughn and Witherspoon are horribly miscast as a couple. Vaughn’s persona is based on wild improvised tangents, and he needs someone to play off of. Witherspoon is largely cute and funny in movies like this, but she sticks to the script. To watch Vaughn go off on his tangents while Witherspoon stands like a deer caught in the headlights is desperately unfunny, and though both of them get good lines, one or both of them needs a different partner. Vaughn and Elizabeth Banks would have been a home run.

The film takes place at Christmas, but there’s very little Christmas cheer. It’s only about 80 minutes long, so none of the characters are really developed, but aside from the Christmas setting and the family visits, there’s not much that makes this different from every other romantic comedy released in the last few years. Sure, there’s some humor along the way, but none of it has anything to do with the season, and that’s certainly a missed opportunity.

Seth Gordon, the director, previously made the superb documentary “The King of Kong,” and to watch him be saddled with such generic material is upsetting. Ultimately “Four Christmases” is a movie that was designed at a studio meeting where they thought all these elements could be funny, but didn’t bother to read the final product to see if anything actually turned out to provide more than half-hearted chuckles.

What a beautiful “Wedding”

Provided Photo

By: Wes Lawson

Daily Egyptian

‘Rachel Getting Married’

Rated R

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Run time: 114 minutes

5 out of 5 stars

There are very few movies that provide completely immersible experiences. For a film to be immersible, it has to envelop the audience in the story and make them feel as if they are part of the film itself. You forget you are in a theater and are completely emotionally involved with the film. “Rachel Getting Married” certainly falls into this category.

Essentially the chronicle of a wedding, “Rachel Getting Married” is also an examination of families, how they love each other, and how the wounds of the past influence the actions of the present. It is both heartbreaking and funny, and ultimately, a hopeful portrait of what family really.

Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is indeed getting married, but the real focus of the film is Kym (Hathaway). Kym has been in and out of rehab for about a decade, and she has been granted a pass to go to her sister’s wedding from her current rehab clinic, the first one that appears to be working for Kym. In a massive house somewhere in Connecticut where Kym’s father and stepmother live, Kym descends on the wedding party like a tidal wave. Her various drug problems have made her the center of attention for many years in the family, and Rachel is concerned that she will upstage the wedding. As the family makes preparations and the wedding approaches, the wounds that Kym has caused within the family begin to surface.

That seems like a relatively simple plot description, but this is not really a film about the plot. The key to the film lies in the technique employed by director Jonathan Demme and his cinematographer Declan Quinn. The film is shot largely with handheld cameras that navigate between the various wedding attendants, like a person who would be walking through the party. It lingers on certain dramatic moments, like when Kym and her family discuss the death of Kym and Rache’s brother, but for the most part, the camera is content to be an objective observer to the proceedings. This is what creates the immersive effect. We feel as if we are part of this wedding, as opposed to casual observers to what is happening.

Though it is about a wedding, the film is also about the interactions between the family and the everyday rhythm of life. Dialogue overlaps. A wedding toast sequence unfolds in real time, which becomes painful and sad when Kym stands up to deliver her toast. A sequence involving the loading of a dishwasher provides a beautiful moment of comedy. And when the wedding finally arrives, it is a full blown affair with singing, dancing, and merriment that glows off the screen.

It can be mentioned what a delight it is that the marriage within the film is interracial and it is never made a big deal, which adds another layer of love and affection to the material. These are not people defined by their racial boundaries. These are people who love each other and who don’t care what other people think. Though the movie does not make all the characters happy, and we sense that Kym has a long way to go on the road to recovery, the ending offers a sense of hope, like one day these people could be happy and content with their lives.

It helps that the acting is uniformly excellent. The star turn here really belongs to Hathaway, who has finally established herself as an adult actress. Her performance is riveting and truthful, and she has big dramatic scenes that make us forget all about “The Princess diaries.” DeWitt does well as Rachel, and Debra Winger, as Kym and Rachel’s mother, is not in the film much but has a powerful presence when she is on the screen.

“Rachel Getting Married” is the best film so far this year. It is not a film for everyone, because it depicts life as messy, complicated, and tragic as it really is. But viewers who want to challenge themselves and have a unique motion picture experience shouldn’t miss out on it.

Wes Lawson can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 275 or w4027@siu.edu.

Everybody was kung-fu fighting …

By: Audra Ord

When I tell people I have a blue belt, they seldom believe me. For some reason, society finds it unacceptable and strange that a girl who has pigtails and likes the color pink would want to be able to take down an opponent.

My parents enrolled me in Tae Kwan Do classes when I was a young kid, maybe about seven years old. I was one of the few girls in the class, but I was able to hold my own against the little boys. I enjoyed learning the discipline, respect and control aspects that go along with practicing a martial art, and I loved the activity itself. I used to get nervous when it came time to test for a new belt level, and I would practice my kata diligently the week before, making sure I would be able to execute each punch, kick and block with precision. Eventually, I worked my way up to a blue belt; after that point, (about sixth grade) I got busy with other activities and had to walk away from martial arts for a while.

Fast forward to my freshman year of high school. My dad signed me and himself up for a ground fighting seminar through the dojo I had previously taken classes through. This time, I was the only female in the class. All the guys there (about 20 of them) treated me like porcelain and wouldn’t fight with me because they were afraid they would hurt me. I ended up being paired for sparring with my dad, who had about 70 pounds and five inches on me. To make a long story short, I kicked his butt (and no, he didn’t just let me do it), and he spend the next few days nursing some bruises, sore joints and a hurt ego.

A few months after this ground fighting seminar, I enrolled in a Kempo Jujitsu class. Again, I was the only girl in the class. I vividly remember one particular session, only a few weeks after I had started. I came to the class directly from cheerleading practice; I still had a bow in my hair. During the class, we were practicing a particular technique in which the “attacker” is holding the “victim” in a choke hold. We were supposed to be practicing a specific set of movements to escape from the hold. It was my turn to be the victim, so my opponent tenderly placed his large hands around my neck. As soon as our instructor gave the go-ahead to begin sparring, my opponent was on the ground, on his back, looking up at me  bewilderedly. He had greatly underestimated my strength and power; I was tired of being treated as a weak female, and I wanted to prove to the guys in my class that I belonged there as much as they did. Well, let’s just say they didn’t treat me like a China doll after they realized I could effectively defend myself.

I learned a lot through my experience in martial arts, not only about physical strength and ability, but about mental and spiritual strength, control and respect.

‘Fearless’ nothing to be afraid of

By: Luke McCormick

Taylor Swift

provided photo

provided photo

“Fearless”

Release Date: 11/11

Record Label: Big Machine Records

3.5 out of 5

Most 18-year-olds are worried about getting into the college they want to attend or jacked about a new friend request on Facebook or excited about not having to beg an older sibling to buy cigarettes for them anymore.

Taylor Swift just bides her time by writing insanely catchy pop (there isn’t much country to this record at all) tunes.

What makes this record so endearing is the fact that its tracks were penned by this blonde starlet and not a stable of Nashville session guys.

Swift has dominated the country music world since her debut dropped two years ago and looks to continue to keep its charts in a chokehold with the release of her sophomore effort. The guitars sore (and twang occasionally), the pianos jerk tears and the strings are arranged to ping hearts.

Swift is so adept to writing choruses that burrow their way into your brain that it must be infuriating to other country songstresses. Songs like “Fifteen” and “You Belong With Me” are so embarrassingly catch I almost don’t want to listen to them anymore, at chance I’ll get caught singing one in front of some male friends. Thanks Swift, I’m writing you an angry letter the first time I get chastised for singing “You be the prince and I’ll be the princess.”

Her penchant for writing these down to a T, near perfect pop gems is also one of the record’s faults. Each song is so cutesy, radio ready they are a bit difficult to take as 13 back-to-back tracks.

But screw it, last year Miranda Lambert’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” was my country guilty pleasure (still better than “Fearless”) and Swift is definitely this year’s front-runner.