Tuesday, December 26, 2006

2006 Music

I love end of year lists. Around February every year I become sad that I have read all of the “Top Ten” type lists and have to wait for almost a year for more. Most of the CDs mentioned, I reviewed earlier this year. Use the search feature to track them down, if you are interested.

Best Overall Albums or Albums that I Keep Listening to Like Crazy

I am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass by Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo returns from some mellower albums with the coolest named album of the year. Though less playful than some of their albums, the trio covers all of the bases here. Some of the tunes are long, soaring, artistic pieces, while others are quiet introspective folk songs. They do a little bit of everything on this album and do it all well. This is one of the best from YLT in years and that is saying something from such a consistent band.

Eyes Open by Snow Patrol

The incredible lyrics and sweeping choruses have not grown old after numerous listens. Gary Lightbody’s superb lyrics are what keep the album fresh. The simple rock song structures and harmonies are solid but belie the overall strength of Snow Patrol as a band that is much, much more than a U2 or Coldplay wannabe.

Nightcrawler by Pete Yorn

It took a while to grow on me, but the combination of modern folk-rock and buzzy modern rock songs makes for a great album. It is not easy to make quality albums when your first disc will probably be your masterpiece, but Yorn rebounds well on his third album. Lyrically, Yorn takes on nightlife and is not as quite as introspective as in the past, though it is a completely successful undertaking. The fact that Yorn is just as comfortable with rocking out as he is with storytelling, shows just how talented he is.

Best Albums that Grew on Me Throughout 2006

Year of Meteors by Laura Veirs

This album is absolutely charming. Yes, it is a bit over produced and she needs to learn to take more risks, but this is a quality outing by Veirs. Her writing is quite deep and highlights the inherit challenges of relationships. I’m glad I kept listening to this one.

It’s Never Been Like That by Phoenix

Danceable rock by a French band...very cool.

Biggest Disappointment of 2006

Sam’s Town by The Killers

I did not review this because it was so horrible. Their debut was full of synth laden pop, while their sophomore effort is pure schlock. Pretending like you are Meatloaf or a bad version of U2 is not a good way to keep an audience. And for that matter, neither is writing horribly pretentious stereotypical songs about America.

Biggest Surprise of 2006

The Eraser by Thom Yorke

I wanted to dislike this album for several reasons. 1. Pretending this is a solo disc and not a Radiohead CD is silly. This is a Radiohead album. 2. The music press wants everyone to like this album in a big way and Yorke was in every music magazine for weeks. 3. While I like a bunch of their music, the overall philosophy of Radiohead as a band that creates postmodern pessimistic landscapes somehow bothers me. The Eraser, though, is great. Yorke’s writing is superb. He writes intensely introspective and hopeful songs that are consistently good and interesting throughout the CD. This is another of my most listened to discs of the year.

Best Comeback Album of 2006

The Garden by Zero 7

In 2004, Zero 7 followed their wonderful debut, Simple Things, with a lackluster disc in When It Falls. Luckily, the duo created a great third album in The Garden. They make the move from the mellow and mostly boring songs on their sophomore disc to lush, interesting pop songs on The Garden.

Monday, December 18, 2006

What I'm Reading -- Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Nick, written by Levithan, and Norah, written by Cohn, meet one night after Nick’s band plays in a New York City club. And by “meet” I mean they started making out, because Nick needed a pretend girlfriend for five minutes to help him avoid his ex, Tris. Things are not that simple of course. Norah realizes she sort of knows Nick since she is friends with Tris and listened to the mix tapes that Nick made for her. Thus begins a night where Nick and Norah deal with various issues of the past so they can begin a relationship with each other in the present. Things begin a bit rocky, but the authors invite readers to root for the nice guy and the snarky, but well meaning girl.

The writing, however, overshadows any plot devices. Nick and Norah’s dialog is quick and smart. Cursing is an art form and if I could curse as well as they do, I’d do it a lot more. Cohn and Levithan clearly paint the backdrop of the city that the young hipsters use to spend their night.

There was something about this book that bugged me, though it was hard to figure out what it was. The authors give the novel an appreciated edge, but I seemed to catch an elitist and almost condescending bent to the novel. At times the book also seems to drag a little, since the conclusion is obvious from the beginning. Nevertheless, the authors have put together a good read that should appeal to both guys and girls.

What I'm Reading -- Clay by David Almond

Award winning author David Almond’s latest novel is a horror story called Clay. Clay is actually a Frankenstein-type monster created by 13-year old Davie and the creepy new kid in town, Stephen. Clay takes place in England following Davie and his friend, who are both altar boys. The lads are then led to befriend Stephen, who has a mysterious and possibly demonic past, but who might be able to help them handle the equally scary neighborhood bully. This is an incredibly creepy novel and basically becomes a psychological thriller since Almond leaves Davie confused about what is really happening for most of the book. Davie and the reader are never certain who has powers and what actions are actually affecting the world around them. This is quite scary, but fun and well written. More mature readers of Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak series will appreciate this.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Music Review -- Yellow House by Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear has created a bit of buzz for themselves over the last couple of years, though Yellow House is my first time listening to them. Grizzly Bear’s mellow neo-folk is both experimental and accessible, which is quite a feat. The soft acoustic feel is combined with some soaring choruses, amazing harmonies and sonic touches. Banjo and woodwind instruments give the album its clean sound, while Grizzly Bear mixes that up every once in a while with some murkier sounds. This is an incredibly creative album that creates an amazing soundscape. This is one of the best albums of the year and is for fans of Iron and Wine, Yo La Tengo and Sigur Ros.

3.50 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Listening to this sounds like the breeze is trying to tell you something again.

What I'm Reading -- Graphic Novels

The Squirrel Mother: Stories by Megan Kelso

The stories collected here are extremely varied. Kelso writes very personal stories and also includes some on American History. I could not get into her writing at all. The art and the books overall design is perfect down to the smallest details. It’s too bad that the writing was not up to the level of the art.

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K Vaughan

This is another amazing Graphic Novel from Runaways creator Brian K Vaughan. This is based on the real life story of a pride of lions that escaped from an Iraq zoo when the U.S. bombed the country in ’03. The animals of the zoo all had different thoughts about whether their life as captives was good or bad. When the bombs strike, however, they have no choice but to flee to the outside world. The four lions band together to cope with their new existence and survive. This is incredibly poignant and Vaughan somehow is able to include political overtones without being pretentious. Pride of Baghdad is a must read for anyone.

What I'm Reading -- Nailed by Patrick Jones

Nailed is the new raw creation of Patrick Jones. 16-year old Brett Hendricks is a talented actor who is also in a band. His biggest problems include his dad, who doesn’t act like he even likes Brett, his principal and the jocks at school. When his band kicks into gear and he hooks up with long-time crush Kaylee, things start going quite well for him. When things start to go wrong, however, he starts to spiral wildly out of control. Jones wrote this part extremely well and I was incredibly scared for Brett. The author does not hold back in describing Brett’s pain or the intolerance and hatred of those who want him to conform. When it is all said and done, some good adult role models do step up to help Brett. Unfortunately, there were some unrealistic elements and the ending just did not ring true. Jones does a great job profiling those that insist on conformity and the risk in being the nail that sticks out the farthest. This is a solid effort from Jones.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Music Review – The Last Kiss Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Zach Braff has produced the unofficial follow up to 2004’s Garden State Soundtrack. The Last Kiss is another moody, bittersweet ode to indie pop and adult alternative music. Here, Braff mixes the mainstream sounds of Coldplay and Fiona Apple with less known bands like Turin Brakes and Remy Zero. One of the quirkier additions was Athlete’s jaunty El Salvador. I actually like more of the songs here, though Garden State had some odd choices that worked great like tunes by Zero 7 and Frou Frou. The standouts here are Cary Brothers’ folky Ride, Turin Brakes’ retro Pain Killer and Remy Zero’s rocker Prophecy. Except that the Aimee Mann song seems a bit out of place to me, this is an awesome collection. The Last Kiss is a bit more predictable that Garden State, but Braff created another great collection for fans of thoughtful music.

3.25 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale

What I’m Reading -- Horns and Wrinkles by Joseph Helgerson

This is one of those books I chose just because of its cool cover. Horns and Wrinkles is by Joseph Helgerson with the artwork by Nicoletta Ceccoli. The story begins with 12-year old Claire being terrorized above a river by her cousin Duke. When Duke falls into the river, however, he begins to grow a horn every time he does something bad, which is quite often. Thus begins an adventure in which Claire tries to free her cousin from the grasp of three river trolls that he starts hanging out with as his nose continues to grow. The plot is quite complex as readers learn about a history of odd happenings around the river, or as Claire’s Grandpa says, “rivery things”. This is a good humorous fairy tale for readers for 4th to 7th graders. Helgerson goes a bit long in some areas, but provides some great vivid characters, especially in Claire’s family. Older readers may find it a bit juvenile, but this is a fun fantasy.

What I'm Reading -- An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Vin Swanson's Teen-Reading-O-Rama continues with the newest book by Looking for Alaska author John Green. An Abundance of Katherines is about Colin, a super intelligent high schooler who has only dated (and been dumped) by girls named Katherine. His best and only friend Hassan tries to get Colin away from moping about Katherine XIX and drags him on a road trip which ends in Gutshot, Tennessee. In Gutshot, they get jobs and meet some nice girls as Colin tries to create his legacy by producing a theorem that can map the ups and downs of any relationship from beginning to end. The author deftly gives us two characters that are at each end of the ambition spectrum. Colin is ultra ambitious and feels his life is getting away from him already and he is not even in college yet. Hassan is fine living off of his parents and avoiding college. The friends are amazingly funny and of course, find many ways to get in trouble on their vacation. I had an extremely rough time identifying with the characters and this could be a problem for other readers. It is, however, one of the funniest books I have ever read, so that did not dampen my enjoyment of this book very much. I don’t know if this is better than Looking for Alaska, but Green does a better job putting together a full and concise story in An Abundance of Katherines. This is book I would not hesitate to recommend to many readers of Teen Lit.