My 2009 music picks.

As I said, I'll be doing this a bit differently this year. Last time around I heralded my list as the best music of 2008, and as I've been making a new list I realized, how could I ever think I would have heard so much music as to have a handle on the best? I'm sure there are tons of artists I've never heard of, with albums sublime, who deserve to be called the best.

So, I'm just going to offer up a list of the music I personally enjoyed the most this year. There are several artists from AI on the list, so please go into this knowing that though you may not watch the show or agree with it's methodology, some great singers have come from it and deserve a chance.

1. "Wonderful," Gary Go

This up-and-coming British singer does remind one of Coldplay, whom you all know I hate, and so I like to say that he does Coldplay better than they do. This song has a seriously killer hook, and is bolstered by a solid backing piano and an awesome beat that propels every verse and chorus with ridiculously infectious momentum. There's also a positive vibe in the song's message that isn't a new sentiment but I love the way it's stated: "The person that you were has died/you've lost the sparkle in your eyes/You fell for life into its cracks/now you want to bridge the gap..." So what do you do? You gotta look yourself in the eye and say I am...wonderful.

2. "Fireflies," Owl City

This is another song I told you guys about as soon as I heard it. Remember, cartoon clouds? Since then it of course exploded onto the scene and into people's iPods and I heralded myself as a great seer. While I'm not a huge fan of his West Coast accent, I do like the happy-go-lucky vibe and its contrasting undercurrents; I always think that this song is so upbeat but I never imagine the singer himself being at all naive. Plus, it's just good electronica, something with a real melody and creative beats and that tinkling opening that will make your mother say, 'Hmm, that's nice.'

3. "Gimme What You Got," Amanda Blank

I don't like rap and I make no bones about it. But, when this lady rapper was featured briefly on iTunes I checked her out just for novelty's sake (she's white) and ended up liking what I heard. This is one of the most fun songs I have heard in years. Yeah, it's explicit. The chorus is just her saying "Hottest mothaf**** on the whole damn block" over and over. But it's just so feisty and shameless and the beats are insane. There is, of course, a guest rapper, which she doesn't even need. She's got the flow, the swagger, the talent. And she makes me like rap for 2:46.

4. "Number With No Name," Ben Harper

When you talk about a musician being prolific, you talk about Ben Harper. He has like eighty-six albums. Seriously, at least one a year. With White Lies For Dark Times he got back to that funky, cigarettes-and-liquor 70s sound that I love, and this song is one of those gritty sonic experiences that makes you wish you were making out with some shaggy-haired guy in bell-bottoms in someone's basement while the Stones (or this song) spins on a record console from Sears.

5. "Pray," Amanda Overmyer

I already did a whole post about the greatness of this song, so I'll keep it brief. It's deceptively simple and as beautiful as a sunrise in the heartland. The contrast, almost the anachronicity, of Amanda's smoky voice over the Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two bass line lulls you into thinking you've just been listening to a song, when actually, it's your soul you're hearing.

6. "Let It Rain," Kris Allen

One of those songs that gets better every time. Just a solid track from a solid album, but one that sounds familiar in a strange way, as if perhaps it's a cover from an obscure song I once heard in childhood. Or maybe all music is from the same big pot of joy and Kris just knows that better than the rest of us.

7. "If I Had You," Adam Lambert

I'm not a huge fan of the guy, but I am a huge fan of music so that fortunately lets me listen to whatever I want. For those who were for some reason expecting an album of Smokey Robinson and Rat Pack covers, the out-and-out glam-disco-electronica-80s audacity of For Your Entertainment strains their puzzler. Not I. I just like to wallow in all the pink and yellow of this song, the club beat, the heavenly Giorgio Moroder harmonies, and pretty snappy lyrics like "There's a thin line/'tween a wild time/and a flat line..." Honestly, I don't know how Katy Perry didn't write this song. Sing it, girl!

8. "Halo," Beyonce

Hard to believe there was actually a time when I thought there was no such thing as too much Ryan Tedder. The man behind Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love," Kelly Clarkson's "Already Gone," and Jordin Sparks' "Battlefield" lent his heavy percussion and repetitive choruses to a song that's actually from a 2008 album, but didn't become a single till this year. "Halo" really is addictive, and while the operatic aspirations of Mrs. Jay-Z are a little jarring at first, you gotta love her for sticking to a theme.

9. "Street Lights," Kanye West

From another 2008 album, but it's my list so I can do what I want. I did a whole post on this song also, about its postmodern greatness, so I've got nothing new to offer except to say that it reinforces what I said earlier, that the best music isn't always the most-heard, the most popular, the most rewarded. Such is life.

10. "Paparazzi," Lady GaGa

What I like about her is that though her music is for the club, it is still inherently melodic. A lot of music isn't, a lot of it is completely uninspired in terms of aesthetics (cough*U2*cough). So I am able to enjoy a song like "Paparazzi" because it, very simply, has a pretty melody and good harmonies (technically, I really like the harmonic progression but all that talk will get us nowhere). Same for "Pokerface." And this is a good thing; aspiring wannabes take note.

Honorable mentions: "Let It Rain," Jordin Sparks; "Manhattan," Kings of Leon; "I Do Not Hook Up," Kelly Clarkson


So this is Christmas.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth

Long lay the world in sin and error, pining
Till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!...

My favorite Christmas song. It wasn't until just a few years ago that I for once really listened to the words, and was surprised at how there is such meaning in them, and how profound it is.


I may have done this last year, but here are the lyrics to one of the loveliest and saddest songs ever, found in of all things Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. As a musical cartoon, Belle sings this to Ebenezer.

Winter was warm
Summer soft that year
The winter was warm

Without a sign of frost
Like winter lost
Its way that year

It seems as I recall
No blossoms fell that fall
May didn't leave at all

Or did love paint an illusion?

Now trees with a sigh
Stand and shiver
While their dreams fall and die

And all my dreams are there
Wrapped up somewhere
In summer leaves

Oh, what I'd give to be
To be in love again

This year the winter is cold
Will it ever be warm
As it was then?


Top 10 movies of the decade.

1. Children of Men, 2006

(Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, directed by Alfonso Cuaron)

The number one movie of the decade. It's so good I haven't been able to watch it a second time. Because I'm scared.

The movie is set in the year 2027. All of humanity has been infertile for nearly two decades, and we are introduced to a world (immediate setting: the UK) overrun with despair, anger, and violence. Immigration is a gigantic issue, as floods of people try to find sanctuary in Britain but are summarily rounded up and kept in cages and suffer desperate situations. Theo Faron (Owen) is forced into helping the Fishes, an underground group that is transporting, of all things, a young, pregnant African woman.

It is an unbelievably bleak two-plus hours, enhanced by extended single-shot scenes that dramatically heighten their suspense. What is most frightening, and life-changing, about Children of Men is that it looks and feels almost just like present day. There are a few futuristic touches--advanced video games, ugly postmodern rock, holographic screens on the job--but largely the movie arrests you and forces you to understand that many of the terrible things in the movie are happening right now, today. The broken lives of immigrants can be no different than those suffering in the Sudan or Rwanda; the dirty, bullet-ridden showdown only mirrors war-torn areas around the world.

A must-see for anyone who cares to truly open their eyes to the reality of a world outside their own. Even if you can barely stand to watch it again.

2. Finding Nemo, 2003

(Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich)

Of all the Disney and Pixar animated movies to come out this decade, this one tops them all, which is saying a lot. Where do I begin, truly? With Dory's (DeGeneres) short-term memory loss, an absolutely brilliant stroke of genius? With the perfect-from-beginning-to-end sea turtle scene (and that adorable little Squirt!)? With the insane notion of fish-tank dwellers and pelicans knowing dental terminology forward and backward? Or with the stunning scene inside of the whale, when Marlin (Brooks) asks Dory how she knows they'll be okay, and she answers simply, "I don't!"

For me, a comedy isn't truly a comedy unless I laugh the entire way through (Friday, Ace Ventura, Clue, The Grinch), and Finding Nemo is killer in that regard. And while I'm laughing, I get to bask in the beautiful animation, an entire cast of ocean-dwelling creatures, and a perfectly-rendered plot that reminds me every single time that even those things which seem terrible may just be part of a path that leads me right to where I want to go.

3. Gladiator, 2000

(Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, directed by Ridley Scott)

The decade began with a triumph. Although Russell Crowe had been previously nominated for an Oscar, he did not become a household name until donning the toga and sandals of Maximus, the general-turned-slave-turned-gladiator. And don't forget would-be Caesar. This movie is an epic on all scales, from the locations to the costumes to the music to the inspired acting that catapulted Phoenix into the spotlight and won Crowe his first acting Oscar. "Big" movies are always a gamble in that if one portion of the filmmaking formula goes awry, it far diminishes the overall product. Gladiator suffers no such ill-effects. And in case you forgot, it did win a little something called Best Picture.

4. The New World, 2003

(Colin Ferrell, Q'orianka Kilcher, directed by Terrence Malick)

The beauty of this movie is how quiet it is, and how utterly organic. When Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) and his men land on native American soil in 1620, it is a paradise of tall grasses, fresh waters, endless skies, and a new people. And you not only see the grass—you hear the blades rubbing against each other in the wind. You not only see the water—you hear it lapping against the shore, splashing gently against rocks, again and again, until your senses are overwhelmed and the images and sounds become a part of you. This was a most brilliant feat for a moviemaker (Terrence Malick) attempting to bring the New World to the modern world. The romance between John Smith (Colin Ferrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), whose name is never mentioned, is breathtaking simply for the fact that, as the actress was underage, Ferrell could not kiss her or touch her in any suggestive way. And so their love is suggested, and played out in beautiful, innocent images that are far more powerful than anything overt.

The attention to detail in every aspect of the movie is stunning, from the gray, cold desperation of the English fort to the communal native village with their corn stalks, body paint, and prayerful dancing. It is a very long movie, and there is minimal dialogue, and if you can stand that, you will be part of an experience, and you will understand that not everything a society leaves behind should have been left behind.

5. The Prestige, 2006

(Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, directed by Christopher Nolan)

Forget that Jackman and Bale are superstars. Forget that Chris Nolan is the mastermind behind the Batman franchise reboot. The Prestige is a head-trip of a movie in its own right, bolstered by jumps through time and perspective that keep you engaged and guessing till the end, when a stunning twist of sizeable proportions is revealed.

Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) are competitive magicians in turn-of-the-century London, their rivalry bolstered by the accidental death of Angier's wife during a trick. As they constantly try to outdo each other, Angier enlists the help of none other than Nikola Tesla (played brilliantly by David Bowie) to stage the "Transported Man" trick that is garnering Borden attention. This is one movie where you simply cannot have the end spoiled for you, and once you do understand what has happened--you have to watch the movie all over again. That is a gift to a movie fan.

6. Dreamgirls, 2006

(Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx, directed by Bill Condon)

Believe it or not, there's more to this movie musical than just Jennifer Hudson's performance. Although she is spectacular and the best singer to come from American Idol. The film starts right away with a performance by the Dreamettes at an amateur talent competition in Detroit, and the momentum literally never lets up. They become backup singers for James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy) and with the help of manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Foxx) rise up to become The Dreams, and megastars in their own right. The lead singer Effie (Hudson) is replaced, however, by Deena (Knowles) in order to achieve this, and when Deena also steals Curtis away romantically, Effie is fired. And that's just the first act.

The musical is an excellent history of African-American music in the sixties and seventies, moving from soul to the famed Motown Sound to the infamous disco. The songs themselves are ridiculously catchy and always energetically performed, and on top of that, Eddie Murphy gives the dramatic performance of his career. (He. was. ROBBED. at the Oscars) If you haven't seen Dreamgirls and need a good movie to watch while you gorge yourself on Christmas cookies, then you know what you need to do.

7. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003

(Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, directed by Peter Jackson)

My mom and I went to see all three movies at the theater, but this is the only one for which I bought the DVD. The first two really only set the stage, anyway. I haven't read any of Tolkien's books and didn't know anything about The Lord of the Rings prior to watching the movies. And still, Return of the King affected me in much the same way as I'm sure it did the hardcore devoted.

What I love most about it is Frodo (Wood) and Sam's (Sean Astin) seemingly eternal struggle to get rid of the ring, and how all that is important in life became clear as they struggled up the side of Mount Doom. Struggle--human or hobbit--is universal, and these scenes served as a reminder (just as with Marlin and Dory in the mouth of the whale) that no matter how difficult the cirumstances, no matter how unsure the outcome, you still must try. Pair that bit of timeless wisdom with the obvious, triumphant effort of the filmmakers, the gorgeous landscapes, the epic music, and the perfect ending, and you've got yourself what many say is the best film of the decade.

8. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 2000

(Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, directed by Ron Howard)

Jim Carrey is a national treasure. I'll just get that out of the way right now. He made The Grinch as fabulous as it is. It is a crime to overlook his performance, which might as well be the dictionary definition of "comic gold," because the movie is kid-friendly or because there's such a heavy depiction of commercialism. (Which, I suspect, was kind of the point! The Who's had forgotten the real meaning of Christmas in favor of toys, toys, toys) Besides, the famous conversion scene was wonderfully done and should remind anyone that Carrey is perfectly capable of doing more than just telling a joke. (See: The Truman Show)

The Departed, 2006

(Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, directed by Martin Scorcese)

I don't watch many movies like this; in fact, I haven't seen one single Godfather. But anytime you have not one but two characters pretending to be someone they're not, and getting the plot jumbled up into all sorts of twists and turns, you just may have the formula for something riveting. Set in Boston, pretty much everyone is Irish, and the leader of the Irish Mafia, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), has Colin Sullivan (Damon) infiltrate the state police; he actually becomes a police officer. Also, the state police choose Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) to go undercover and infiltrate the Irish Mafia.

It's a tough movie, violent, lots of cursing. And at the same time it's genius. I really can't say a whole lot else about the plot without giving it away, so I'll just say that the whole thing is suspenseful and captivating right up to the very last second, literally; and the cast is phenomenal: DiCaprio, Damon, Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Mark Whalberg. This movie deserved to win Best Picture that year, and it did.

10. The Mothman Prophecies, 2002

(Richard Gere, Debra Messing, Laura Linney, directed by Mark Pellington)

Supernatural fiction done very, very right. (It is based on a true story, though) The somber tone and cold winter days are the perfect backdrop for John Klein (Gere) to investigate sightings of the so-called Mothman in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and figure out why he was mysteriously drawn to such a place after the death of his wife (Messing). This is the best X-Files movie that was never made, and in an era of increasingly un-scary movies (like The Haunting) due to seeing everything, this is perfectly calibrated; in fact, we never even see the actual Mothman. We simply feel its effect, time and again, pressing close to us, speaking of things it shouldn't know into our ear.

Runners-up: War of the Worlds (2005), Identity (2003), Walk the Line (2005), The Devil Wears Prada (2006)


Or, a box of chocolates.

Life is like a game of solitaire.

Skill will only get you so far. In the end, it's about the hand you're dealt. If it's a crappy hand, you'll lose. If it's not so crappy, you have a chance at winning. It's not your fault what hand you're dealt; it's purely chance. And you do with it what you can.

You can play as many hands of solitaire as you like, of course, quitting those crappy ones as soon as you run out of options.

In life, however, there are some pretty serious consequences if you choose to end the game.

So you sit, out of options, with your crappy hand, until, I guess, the battery runs out.