Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Top 70 Albums of 2011: What Do You Think?

I've mistakenly thought, for the past few months, that 2011 may have been a stinker for music. But then I started to compile my list of favorite albums, and there was actually a lot I loved this year.

To make this list, an album needed to capture my imagination all the way through. Which means that a record with only a couple of great songs (like those of Paul Simon, Jeff Bridges, Britney Spears, or Lady Gaga, for a few examples) would have a very difficult time making my list.

What's impressive about this year is that at least the top 20 (from Girls to a supposed Amy Winehouse posthumous throwaway) are potential classics. The list goes deep with tons of promising new bands appearing as well.

Listen to my "Top 20 Albums of 2011" playlist for free at my Spotify account. And if you haven't discovered the Spotify streaming-music phenomenon, I recommend you dig in. It's my favorite online music system and has just about everything. I subscribe to the $10 monthly option, which gives me Spotify on all my laptops, desktops, and devices. But there are also free and $5 monthly option.

For my favorite 20, plus my other favorite 50 behind that, here you go:

70 - Cage the Elephant - Thank You Happy Birthday
69 - Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
68 - Brian Wilson - In the Key of Disney
67 - R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
66 - Daryl Hall - Laughing Down Crying
65 - Ben Lee - Deeper Into Dream
64 - Boston Spaceships - Let It Beard
63 - Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
62 - Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
61 - Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes
60 - Iron and Wine - Kissing Each Other Clean
59 - Garfunkel and Oates - All Over Your Face
58 - A.A. Bondy - Believers
57 - Jay-Z and Kanye West - Watch the Throne
56 - British Sea Power - Valhalla Dance Hall
55 - Robert Pollard - Space City Kicks
54 - Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
53 - F*cked Up - David Comes to Life
52 - St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
51 - Wild Flag - Wild Flag
50 - J. Mascis - Several Shades of Why
49 - Bright Eyes - The People's Key
48 - Widowspeak - Widowspeak (Shoegazer)
47 - Sonny and the Sunsets - Hit After Hit
46 - Jason Isbell and the 400 Units - How We Rest
45 - The Elected - Bury Me in My Ring
44 - Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes
43 - Ash - The Best of Ash
42 - Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts
41 - The Streets - Computers and Blues
40 - Veronica Falls - Veronica Falls (Power Pop)
39 - Let's Wrestle - Nursing Home
38 - Admiral Fallow - Boots Met My Face
37 - Young the Giant - Young the Giant (Power Pop)
36 - Those Darlins - Screws Get Loose
35 - Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
34 - The Kooks - Junk of the Heart
33 - Foster the People - Torches
32 - CSS - La Liberacion
31 - Charles Bradley - No Time for Dreaming
30 - Comet Gain - Howl of the Lonely Crowd  ?
29 - Meat Puppets - Lollipop
28 - Urge Overkill - Rock and Roll Submarine (Power Pop)
27 - Big Talk - Big Talk
26 - Beirut - The Rip Tide
25 - Glen Campbell - Ghost on a Canvas
24 - The Cars - Move Like This
23 - Givers - In Light
22 - Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde
21 - Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers - Rare Bird Alert
20 - Amy Winehouse - Lioness: Hidden Treasures
19 - My Morning Jacket - Circuital
18 - Arctic Monkeys - Suck It and See
17 - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong
16 - Buffalo Tom - Skins
15 - I'm From Barcelona - Forever Today
14 - Big Sean - Finally Famous
13 - Destroyer - Kaputt
12 - Deer Tick - Divine Providence
11 - Jonny - Jonny
10 - Tommy Stinson - One Man Mutiny
09 - Telekinesis! - 12 Desperate Straight Lines
08 - The Decemberists - The King is Dead
07 - Megafaun - Megafaun
06 - Architecture in Helsinki - Moment Bends
05 - Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic
04 - Wilco - The Whole Love
03 - Mazes - A Thousand Heys
02 - Yuck - Yuck
01 - Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Tell me what you think. What did I miss? What was your favorite album(s) of the year?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Classic Reads: Of Mice and Men's Raw and Failed American Dream

Find the other parts of this ongoing series of "Classic Reads" in the Books section.

It was a pleasure to reread one of my first favorite classics from young childhood, Of Mice and Men. Everyone knows this one, so there's not much to say about its legendary status.

The story takes place over three days during the Depression in Salinas Valley, California, where simple-minded giant Lenny Small walks down a dusty path with his friend and protector George Milton. They are headed towards a ranch to become barley bucks, which should be an easy job to land, as long as George does all the talking for his buddy who got "kicked in the head by a horse when he was a kid. He's alright. Just ain't bright."

Curley, the rancher's son and a former boxer who likes to intimidate the hired help, chooses the wrong person in Lenny to pick on. Lenny pummels him, breaking every bone in Curley's hand.

Next, Lenny accidently kills a little puppy who he loves too much and accidently mauls. He then accidentally does the same to Curley's wife, breaking her neck in the barn while a game of horseshoes goes on outside.

Lenny runs away and a manhunt ensues. Luckily, George finds him before anyone else does. Knowing he has no other choice, George, for one last time, recounts the story of how they would work hard and someday own a farm together, before he points a gun at Lenny's head and kills him, knowing they would never escape Curley's hatred.

This short novel is so classic because it epitomizes the everyday heroes of the time, many of whom had nowhere to go but tragically downward as they pursued the raw and elusive promise of America.

***** out of ***** stars

John Jeremiah Sullivan and the Surprising Humanity Behind the Lives of Christian Rock Fans

A recent article in The New Yorker turned me on to John Jeremiah Sullivan's hilarious takes on the pop-culture landscape. I purchased his collection called Pulphead: Essays and just finished the first story, called "Upon This Rock," which is no letdown.

Sullivan decides to document the Cross-Over Festival in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri -- three days of "top Christian bands at some isolated Midwestern fairground." He decides he'll post an invitation for fair-goers to hitch a ride with him as he makes his way there from the East Coast. What he doesn't expect is that the youth experience he's hoping to document is not a bunch of twenty-somethings, but rather mostly prepubescent tweens, who soon attack him online as being some sort of pervert on a "questy missiony thing."

Soon enough, he decides to change plans and instead hit an even bigger Christian rock festival called Creation Fest in rural Pennsylvania, which happens to begin the next day.

Sullivan does a great job in this essay of not prejudging the characters he would soon meet, which would be all too easy to do, especially with this subject matter. He finds the 100,000 people in attendance, in general, "exceptionally kind" and different from the guys at sporting events who generally seem to have a dark machismo and appear to be just waiting for something bad to happen.

He meets a group of West Virginia dudes with whom, surprisingly, he becomes enamored. "They were passionate to make me see what kinds of guys they were." They were hardened by their violent lives and had given all their anger to God. But other than that, they were entirely likable and not much different from non-God-y guys.

Sullivan's take on Christian rock is funny too. He says a Christian band is one that simply has Christians in it and can be quite good, like U2. But a Christian rock band is one that has no desire to be artistic or original because it simply needs to play something "proven to please ... while praising Jesus Christ." It is fail-proof to these audiences because it automatically carries a message that they will approve of. Sullivan speaks almost not at all of the music because it doesn't matter. Either it's fine because you agree with it or "if you think it profoundly sucks, that's because your priorities are not its priorities."

This is the most thoughtful take on an extremely weird and foreign subject matter to me. I can't wait to dig into the rest of the essays in Pulphead, including ones on Axl Rose, reality TV, his brother's near-death electrocution, and more.

**** out of ***** stars

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Meet Anoop Singh, Our Favorite Cab Driver in Durban

I referred to him in the last blog, as the guy who took us to our safari three hours northeast of Durban, South Africa and even accompanied us on two of our three treks into the bush. But his own story is deserving in its own right.

Anoop Singh (pictured on our boat safari of the St. Lucia Estuary, with my colleague Matt Barrett) was driving some passengers in his minivan about 10 years ago when he was shot in the shoulder and robbed. He lost so much blood that he should have died. He suffered extensive nerve damage, went on morphine for three months, and still has limited use of his disfigured left arm and hand.

He says a preacher healed him and he was able to stop taking the morphine. Although he never drank or smoked, he became born again and cleansed himself of any vices, including gambling. Two days after he was born again, he says his assailant was shot dead.

On another occasion, Anoop suffered a rare eye disease and went blind for 10 days. At least that’s what his doctor said, but he thought it was from straining his eyes from driving too much.

With Singh, the stories kept coming. He claims his first ancestor to immigrate to South Africa, in 1860, had two wives and worked in the sugar fields. After five years of working, the family was given the option of going back to India or getting a piece of the land they had worked on. They chose the latter. He said his family in South Africa now consists of 930 people, and many of them work in the transport sector.

The only one I was really wary of was his claim of being related to Ghandi. Isn’t it a myth that every Indian says he's related to Ghandi, or something like that? Nevertheless, he said Ghandi’s granddaughter, Ela Ghandi, was married to his “granny’s brother," which at least seems pretty feasible.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Some “Cabbie Facts” About Durban, South Africa

Since my previous travel posts, there has been a lot more I've learned about the fascinating city of Durban, most of it courtesy of our driver for our safari, Anoop Singh.

A fifth-generation Durbanite himself, Singh said the first Indians arrived in 1860 at about the same time the English were building the city outwards, so as not to “cram too many people in.” I reported in a previous blog that the city’s population is 6 million, but Singh said it is between 4.8 and 5.2 million. He was encyclopedic, so I’ll take his work for it.

Some other interesting tidbits courtesy of Singh:

He said the government spends a lot of money on roads, and you can tell. Most U.S. cities could learn quite a bit from the South Africans.

And because of the port, one of the busiest in the world, Durban is located in the most densely populated province of the country.

South Africa is the second-largest exporter of sugarcane behind Brazil – some 550,000 tons each year.

Durban has a beautiful promenade (see photo of me on the promenade with a rented bicycle, and that white building in the background is my highly recommended hotel, the Southern Sun North Beach) that stretches for miles down the beach. The rare times I got some exercise during the climate conference, I took full advantage of it. It was completed in May 2010 in time for the World Cup.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Playin' Those Mind Games with Black Swan and Horrible Bosses

Shows you just how busy I've been at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa for the past two weeks: I haven't even reviewed the two movies I watched on the international red-eye over here.

One was excellent, and the other was a bit of a comedic let-down. First, the excellent.

Black Swan had been on my list for a while. Certainly not because of the ballerina plot line, but rather because two of my favorite actresses (Winona Ryder and Mila Kunis) star in it. And they don't disappoint, with Ryder as a washed-up superstar and Kunis as this generation's Winona Ryder (cute-and-dirty in the same package).

The psychological thriller watches the also-excellent and Academy Award-winner Natalie Portman fall into a tailspin as she tries to play both the white swan and the black swan in the upcoming production. The black part gives her fits, and her forceful director (the perfectly-cast Vincent Cassel) is just the tip of the iceberg of her problems.

Portman and Kunis trained hard to do a lot of their own ballet moves in the film, despite a controversy that flaired up from one of their body doubles saying they didn't do as many of the moves as the actresses said they did. Nevertheless, this is a film on par with some of Alfred Hitchcock's best. And Hitchcock being my favorite director, that's saying quite a lot.

The second movie I watched on the plane also involved mind games, albeit of much-less-dramatic sort. The comedy Horrible Bosses doesn't always work, but it generally supplies a good time, and the cast is hard to beat.

Jason Bateman is tormented by his satanic corporate boss Kevin Spacey, who is at his ruthless best. Charlie Day plays nearly the same role he plays in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is fine, since that role is so hilarious. He is trying to keep his mind on his fiancee, but an over-the-top seductress boss by the name of Jennifer Anniston does her best to spoil his efforts. And Jason Sudeikis, who has never stood out for me on Saturday Night Live, is very solid as the good guy at a company with an uncaring, coke-snorting sleazeball of a boss.

Much as I love many of the actors here, the true star is Jamie Foxx, in a bit part as the gang's hitman they hire to off their three horrible bosses. Every line that comes out of his mouth is brilliant, and he actually saves this movie from becoming an unexpected stinker.

It took the director six years to make this film because of all types of production issues, and word is there's a sequel in the works. That may be the worst part about this movie, because this one would've probably been a good one to just let rest.

Black Swann: ****1/2 out of ***** stars
Horrible Bosses: *** out of ***** stars

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sharks, Warrior Paint, and Pedal Power Over the Weekend in Durban

Durban continues to be an interesting city to be visiting for two weeks of work. After attending something called Forest Day, I had an hour or so to walk (and jog again) around the beach near my hotel.

So I snapped a few photos. The best one is of this baobab tree replica. That is my hotel in the background and the energy these fellows are generating from pedaling is lighting up the tree.

On Saturday night, my Nature Conservancy delegation celebrated the half-way point of the UN climate conference by going to Moyo, a fun touristy place on The Point a few miles down the beach from our hotel. Some of the more interesting items on the menu include sprinkbok, octopus tentacles, and snoek. That's some of their entertainment in the photo below. And there I am with my warrior paint on my face, courtesy of our waitress.

Moyo is at the end of a long outdoor shopping mall and it's next to Durban's allegedly world-famous aquarium, called uShaka Marine World. I'm hoping to get back there because I'm told the sharks swim above visitors while they walk through.

Another thing about sharks off the coast of Durban. Supposedly it is true that this city, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, sports the highest concentration of sharks in the world. The good thing is that there are nets offshore and they can't get to all the swimmers and surfers. Apparently there's only been one shark/human incident in the past several years, during a storm when a shark was able to get around the net.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Welcome to My World for 15 Days: Durban, South Africa

So this is my fourth night in Durban, South Africa to attend the annual UN climate conference and I have yet to post a single blog post. I've been working the usual 18 hours a day and there's just no time.

I stayed in tonight to find some down time, but it's now 1 a.m. and I've finally just stopped working long enought to write this. Not that I'm complaining. It's fun and challenging work. And Durban is really interesting. Here's a little of what I've learned so far.

Durban is the third largest city in South Africa. A guy named Raj, who I met while pedaling bicylces that power up the lights on an art installation in front of my hotel, said it has a population of 6 million.

Durban has the biggest population of Indians anywhere outside of India, which probably explains why most of my meals have been Indian. In fact, Raj called in my meal for me at the delicious Jewel of India restaurant.

The Southern Sun North Beach lobby staff is the friendliest I've ever encountered at a hotel. I didn't really want to use my iPhone so Robert and Robert (their actual names) found an old phone in the lost-and-found and gave it to me to keep until I check out.

The city purports to be the busiest port in the country, which is why it's amazing that the entire beach front as far as the eye can see from my 22nd floor hotel room is so beautiful. There are restored sand dunes, an amazing skate park, a "minature things" park, and a promenade that stretches for miles along the beach.

Here's something amazing. I've jogged twice down the promenade on the beach in front of my hotel. I hate jogging. But it's nice breaking it up in the middle with some peddling on the aforementioned solar bicycles along the area in front of my hotel, which is called "The Golden Mile."

The rooftop pool, as you can see in the photo, is pretty sweet too. I filmed some interviews of my colleagues for our Planet Change blog there and took a short dip in the water as well.

Some of the bad things about Durban. The rate of HIV/AIDS is 38 percent. The air is polluted, and is especially harsh on those jogs. I'm told that it can be a violent city, and that people don't get mugged, they get mugged and then punched in the face. Luckily, I've only been affected by one of these three so far. I can't seem to get the smog-induced frog out of my throat that's been in there since my arrival.