Typically, at the end of each year, I produce a handful of top ten lists for my own personal amusement. This year is no different, though I have decided to combine them all into a single best of everything list. Keeps the whole thing more honest. And less work overall. Here it is, Top Ten of 2012:
1. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange This album will likely be on a number of lists this year if not all of them. And, I’m guessing the Grammys will come calling as well. When I first heard Channel Orange shortly before summer, I was simply stunned at how great it was. I hadn’t heard a reinvention of R&B this compelling since D’Angleo’s VooDoo. Channel Orange already felt like the the best album of the year in early spring and then it quickly became the obvious soundtrack of 2012’s summer as well—but I kind of wondered if the thrill would be gone by fall. Not so. Still great even now. A classic. The songs are confessional, cinematic, and layered—there’s just so much to discover. And the guest spots are perfect: Earl Sweatshirt rapping on Super Rich Kids is fantastic. André 3000 also adds the perfect chorus to Pink Matter. John Mayer. Charlie Hunter. All good stuff.
Pick up Frank’s earlier (free) album Nostalgia, Ultra why you’re at it (Songs For Women is still one of his best tracks.) I won’t say anymore about Channel Orange that hasn’t been said by every other critic around. And sure, it’s always strange to like something that everybody else likes too—but man, there’s never any shame in that. Frank is just that good. If you don’t like this album you may need to check yourself.
2. Louis C.K.The funniest standup comedian working today. Man he’s good. He also has one of the most original television shows around and he actually edits the show himself on a MacBook Pro. This is great. If you want to know why his show is so compelling, there’s your answer. He’s not playing by the rules. He’s editing the show himself. He also produced a video of a standup show earlier in the year and sold it on his own website for $5. I bought one immediately—so did a lot of other people. (He made millions). I love everything about this DIY attitude. He’s offering a direct channel to his work. This is the future of entertainment consumption. This is what will make piracy obsolete—not DRM. I also signed up for his mailing list when I bought the video. Several months later he sent out an email telling me (and a bunch of others) that he was doing a show in Seattle. I bought two tickets without blinking an eye for $40 each. Turns out, I had two front row seats a mere three feet from the stage. My pal Bill and I caught the show a few weeks ago and it was great! His best work since Chewed Up. Of course, none of this would matter if Louis wasn’t the funniest goddamned person around. But he is, so it all works out.
3. Die Antwoord I love this band. Against all better judgment I am smitten by Die Antwoord. There is a giant a pile of politically correct reasons to not like Die Antwoord, but in spite of them all, I can’t stop listening. Even more so, I can’t stop watching their videos. In fact, I first took note of them after watching an incredible video for a song called Baby’s On Fire. This was my introduction to Die Antwoord. It’s amazing stuff visually, but I still didn’t quite buy into the music right away and nearly dismissed it. But, for some reason I decided to watch it again a few days later and I was officially hooked. After that came Fatty Boom Boom. This video (and song) is an infectious hot mess. I couldn’t look away. It was phenomenal. Then, after watching every video of Die Antwoord I could find, I was still unsure if the music could be detached from the visuals. But sure enough, I ended up buying the entire music catalog and I play it often. I am a fan. From there I studied the band, their South African roots, Afrikaner slang, a certain style called Zef, even more videos with amazing collaborators like photographer Roger Ballen, and on and on. I even heard that David Lynch had them over for coffee. I haven’t found anything this original in a very long time. It’s a complete package—it might even be a carefully crafted work of performance art—but it doesn’t matter. I like everything about Die Antwoord. Also, Yolandi is super hot.
4. Building Stories I’ve been collecting Chris Ware’s comics since the early nineties and he’s one of my favorite artists. His latest book Building Stories is collection of stories built over time about a three story building and you can essentially build the narrative yourself. Building stories as you go. You begin by choosing where to start among fourteen discrete printed works in the form of books, pamphlets, broadsheets, tracts, and more—all stored in a giant box. It’s as epic as Ware is humble. I saw him speak at a Seattle Town Hall event earlier this year and that was pretty neat too. One thing that really stuck with me was that he confessed to never having a real solid idea of how a page would turn out before he started drawing. He just started in the top left corner and worked the panels down the page until it was full. He said something along the lines of: “Your brain is a pretty reliable thing…just let it work for you.” Great stuff.
5. Kumaré My dad and I saw this film together at the Northwest Film Forum earlier this summer and it exceeded my expectations. What could have easily turned into a mean-spirited mock fest became a surprisingly moving story about how people are easily deceived by themselves and the gurus they follow. What began as a documentary “stunt” about the nefarious nature of eastern philosophy peddlers, became a powerful learning experience for every single person involved in the film—both in front of and behind the camera. And ultimately, some pretty hilarious comedic moments. Kumaré is great stuff all around. Recommended.
6. British Television Two of my favorite television shows this year were Luther and Sherlock, both from the BBC. Luther is an atypical cop story played by the fantastic Idris Elba who you may remember as Stringer Bell from The Wire. Sherlock is an excellent reimagining of the classic Sherlock Holmes character set in modern times staring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. This version of Sherlock Holmes is much better than the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey mess you see on the big screen. While I love both Downey’s character and Ritchie’s art direction—their version of Holmes comes off as having nearly supernatural powers and the ability to see the future—it doesn’t feel like true science to me. Sherlock, on the other hand, only has his real-world wits about him—enhanced by a troubling case of something close to Asperger Syndrome. Good writing and acting by all.
7. Skyfall Speaking of Brits, Skyfall makes my list this year as one of the very few films I actually saw in the theater. And while I still think Casino Royale is the better Bond film, I’m adding this here because I really appreciate what Daniel Craig and Co. have brought to the franchise. My dad took me to my first Bond film in 1977, The Spy Who Loved Me, and I’ve been hooked ever since. But recently, before Craig came along, it seemed like the Bond films were becoming fairly ridiculous—and potentially irrelevant. The worst example of this was Pierce Brosnan’s final go at it in Die Another Day. In the film, Brosnan’s clownish Bond drives an invisible car and kite-surfs an ice tidal wave. (!?!) In contrast, Daniel Craig’s tension-filled portrayal of Bond at the poker table in Casino Royale will always be more exciting than trendy stunts and the constant running from explosions. Character driven, smaller scenes, less campy, Skyfall delivers—and Javier Bardem is a great villain. Craig has two more films to go and I’m looking forward to them both. (Editor’s note: This list exists in an alternate universe in which Quantum of Solace was never made.)
8. Reggie Watts - Live at The Neptune I was a big fan of Reggie Watt’s Seattle music career in the mid nineties and I saw him perform at numerous bars and clubs in various incarnations, with my favorite stuff being Maktub—they were such a great live band. So, it was really fun to catch him again at The Neptune doing his now famous comedy/music non-sequitur masterpiece of a standup routine that you may have seen on Conan or Comedy Central. The stuff he’s doing now is genius. Pure comedy genius. Nothing like it. Must be seen to be understood. Start here.
9. Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again Great new artist and one of my favorite albums of the year. Old school 70s style soul meets folk. Think Bill Withers, Al Green, maybe even a little Marvin. This Englishman is smooth. Just get the album. Good video here.
10. Back To Work & Roderick On The Line #supertrain I’ve been tuning in to Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann’s Back To Work podcast since the first episode and it has been a great weekly listen that offers good laughs and quality insight. Part mindfulness for business and part reality check for information workers, this podcast is essential listening—especially if you are running a business or wondering if you should quit your job to start one. But mostly it’s just a couple of smart guys bantering about.
This year, Merlin fired up another podcast with local Seattle musician and writer John Roderick* who you may know from The Long Winters. Roderick On The Line is also a couple of guys bantering about and it’s pretty hilarious. Topics include German history, fun facts about locomotives, scimitar business culture and a whole lot more. Roderick’s humor is pretty fantastic and his ability construct off-the-cuff similes like: “It sounded like a swarm of honey bees raping a ham radio” is exactly what keeps me coming back. The highlight of this year’s shenanigans is when Merlin & John teamed up with John Hodgman, Scott Simpson and Jonathan Coulton for a live variety show at the Showbox in Seattle that I got a chance to see. Sweet comedy! (See also: You Look Nice Today)
*Little known fact: In the olden times, I used to buy magazines and American Spirit cigarettes from John Roderick when he worked at Steve’s Broadway News in Seattle.
Bonus Round I listened and liked a lot more music this year than my list will accommodate, and here are some additional favorites in no particular order: The album Barcords from Bahamas is good—especially the track Lost In The Light. Ben Howard’s Every Kingdom is good too, I really like the song Promise at the end. Bobby Womack teaming up with Lana Del Ray for Day Glo Reflection was great as was Lianne La Havas working with Willy Mason on No Room For Doubt. Grizzly Bear’s Gun Shy, Yokee Playboy’s Collagen, DJ Cam’s Swim, Grace Woodroofe’s I’ve Handled Myself Wrong, and Kiran Ahluwalia’s Saffar were all excellent. Meshell Ndegeocello channels Nina Samone nicely on Pour Une Âme Souveraine. I liked M. Ward’s new album but it didn’t really do it for me like Hold Time did. Same with Cat Power. The thing that has me most musically excited currently is a single that Nick Cave put out recently called We No Who ‘U’ ‘R from a forthcoming album called Push The Sky Away. This sounds really great. Check out the song and an amazing video of Nick and the Seeds in the studio recording tracks. Nick’s still got it, making compelling music all these years later. Man, The Birthday Party seems like a lifetime away. I’m predicting Cave’s album will make next year’s list. Happy 2013!