Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Jake's five favorite albums of 2013

5. Partycrasher - A Wilhelm Scream

This album is comfort food for me. A Wilhelm Scream is a melodic hardcore band I've been listening to since high school, and Partycrasher is their first album in six years. A bit slower than previous records, as many artists do by the time they've reached their sixth full-length album. But it's still got all the rockin' guitar and fun singalong vocals you want from A Wilhelm Scream. Partycrasher is melodic hardcore with enough emphasis on the "hardcore" that it has an edge, but "melodic" enough that it's accessible to people who aren't big fans of hardcore punk. The best of both worlds!

4. Yeezus - Kanye West

Everyone loves to hate Kanye West. I can't say it's totally unwarranted. But at the end of the day, he makes some groundbreaking music. While his much more widely respected counterpart Jay-Z released the most flaccid, predictable album you'd expect from a successful middle-aged rapper this year with Magna Carta Holy Grail (Brought to You By Samsung), Kanye came out with a fast, angry ten-track CD that didn't even have album art. It's awesome.

It may not reach the ambitious heights of its predecessor My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but Yeezus isn't trying to be its predecessor. In fact, it's Twisted Fantasy's antithesis. Even if it's not your favorite Kanye album, you have to respect him for constantly trying new things.

3. Wishbone - Oh Land

Inventive indie pop from Denmark. Oh Land's music probably has the broadest appeal of anything on this list, but she still maintains a creative edge. And of course, Oh Land incorporates Scandinavian design into her approach to music. Makes me nostalgic for my time living in Copenhagen.

Wishbone provides all the hooks of mainstream pop music, with the singer-songwriter independence of alternative music and a female-empowerment message.

2. The Electric Lady - Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe is blowing up right now, at least here in her hometown Kansas City. Her Sun Ra/George Clinton/Octavia Butler-inspired Afrofuturist brand of R&B/soul is a breath of fresh air in pop music. She keeps the Metropolis-esque Electric Lady motif through all her music and videos, along with her iconic pompadour and tuxedo. The Electric Lady is Monáe's most ambitious album to date.

1. Wolf - Tyler, the Creator

I feel old. For the first time in my life, my favorite album of the year was made by someone younger than me. Tyler, the Creator is 22 and it shows. A lot of his work is immature and stupid. But with his newest album, I couldn't stop paying attention. Tyler is vulgar 100% of the time and he seems to say a lot of things just for shock value. But it's performance art. And beneath all that, there's a biting honesty. He's clearly got a vision for everything he does, mixing violent imagery with a boyhood wonder. Wolf is by far his most mature album. And if he's making records like this at 22, I can't wait to see what he makes a decade from now.

Tyler reminds me of Kanye in that he always says what he wants to say, warts and all. And much like Kanye, he always uses strange non-traditional samples and beats for his songs. Tyler's not as refined as Kanye, but he's much more edgy and weird. Not held down by trying to maintain radio popularity. And he's got that gravelly deep voice. Wolf is the best album of 2013.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Jake's five favorite comics of 2013

5. Prophet

Brandon Graham's Prophet is impenetrable at first. A reboot of a subpar '90s sci-fi series by Testosteronest Artist Ever Rob Liefeld, it's really hard to say what the story is even about. But Graham's take on the series is so surreal and ambitious that it takes you along for the ride even if you're not quite sure what's going on.

There's very little dialogue, since most of the story involves a guy walking around alien planets alone. The art, drawn by a revolving team of all-star pencillers including Graham himself, provides a grimy, melancholic vision of space.

4. Daredevil

Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's run on Daredevil continues to be by far the best traditional superhero comic in production today. I was worried when Paolo Rivera stopped drawing the series, but Chris Samnee continues Rivera's bright, '70s-style approach to the art. It really pops among a superhero comic book landscape covered in grim 3D-ish "realism."

Waid's writing hits a perfect balance of not taking itself too seriously while still presenting a real superhero storyline. For any casual readers who want a gateway into the superhero comix landscape, Waid and Samnee's Daredevil is the perfect entry point.

3. Saga

Daredevil may be a good entry point for superhero comics, but for comics in general, Saga will appeal to just about anyone. It's a humorous, romantic space opera about parenting, but don't let that dissuade you. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples are crafting a story so thoroughly enjoyable that it's hard to believe the rights to a TV show or movie adaptation haven't been sold yet.

Admirably, Vaughan and Staples are adamant that Saga is meant to be a comic book above all, and it will remain that way. If you want to get into comics and you think you're too high-minded for superheroes, try Saga... Volume 1 is only $7.99 on Amazon.

2. Hawkeye

Matt Fraction took the Avenger No One Cares About and turned it into the single best publication by either Marvel or DC Comics today. Hawkeye is a deconstruction of the superhero genre, a superhero series without the superhero. Hawkeye (or Hawkguy, as most prefer) doesn't have superpowers or wealth. He's just a guy.

The series feels like an indie comic that just happens to be published by a mainstream publisher. Artist David Aja employs a distinctive minimalist, stencil-style approach to much of the artwork. Oh, and there's the issue that's entirely from a dog's perspective.

But my comic book of the year has to be...

1. The Manhattan Projects

"Weird science" alternate history where the Manhattan Project used the development of the atomic bomb during World War II as a front for much stranger research? Alcoholic Einstein as a protagonist? Evil Freemason Harry Truman and FDR turned into an AI program? Sign me up. Writer Jonathan Hickman has his fingers in every pie these days, but The Manhattan Projects is unquestionably his crowning achievement. Hilarious, violent, and exceedingly weird.

Artist Nick Pitarra's creepy Where's Waldo-meets-Rugrats artwork features shaky lines and strangely proportioned humans... in a good way. And I don't think I ever fully appreciated colorists in comics until I came across Jordie Bellaire's work in Manhattan Projects. Turns out she's the colorist for about half of my favorite comics. It was a tough decision, but The Manhattan Projects is the best comic book series of 2013.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Jake's five favorite films of 2013

UPDATE 12/31: I probably should've put the documentary Blackfish on here. You should definitely watch it. It's currently streaming on Netflix.

5. Gravity

Most space films are about saving the galaxy, stopping xenocide, all sorts of epic sagas. Gravity manages to be a very intimate, small space movie. There's really only one main character and one supporting character, and that's it. No huge musical score either. I'm not a Sandra Bullock fan, but she does a great job here, reminding me of James Franco's "solitary character trying to save themselves for the entire film" performance in 127 Hours. Breathtaking cinematography and a strong female protagonist (something movies in general and sci-fi in particular can use more of) make Gravity one of my favorite films of 2013. A lot of sci-fi geeks preferred Europa Report this year, but Gravity is less ambitious in scale and more tightly written and heartfelt.

4. The World's End

Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost's Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are two of my favorite comedies of all time, and they complete the spiritual trilogy with The World's End. It doesn't quite stand toe-to-toe with them, but that might only be because I haven't watched it dozens of times yet like I've watched the other two. The film starts off slow as a story about old friends getting back together, but it quickly escalates into the trio's signature insanity. A commentary on suburbia and pub culture... with evil robots. This movie was in production for years, but seemed to get overlooked because of the similarly-titled and similarly-premised comedy This Is the End hitting theaters a month earlier. Hopefully The World's End stands the test of time and lives on as a cult classic like its predecessors.

3. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Everyone seemed to hate this movie. It was everything I wanted the followup to the first Hobbit film to be. While An Unexpected Journey had to spend tons of time introducing all the characters and storylines, The Desolation of Smaug gets to skip most of the exposition and head right into the story. If you want something deep and meaningful, go watch The Lord of the Rings. This movie is just pure movie fun. The barrel escape scene, my favorite scene from the book, is one of the best comedic action sequences I've seen in a mainstream film in years.

It's awkward to make The Hobbit AFTER making the chronologically-later and larger-in-scale Lord of the Rings, but Peter Jackson makes it work to the film's advantage here. When Bilbo loses his Ring and has to take it from a baby spider, he does so with the uncharacteristic fiendishness of a drug addict--some great foreshadowing of things to come with the Ring. And of course, Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as the dragon Smaug is a thing of beauty, somehow making a talking dragon not sound super cheesy.

2. I'm So Excited

Pedro Almodóvar wanted something a bit more lighthearted after working on The Skin I Live In in 2011. I'm So Excited (Los amantes pasajeros in Spanish) is a gay comedy about a doomed flight full of quirky passengers. The vast majority of the film takes place on the plane itself, with the eccentric flight attendants trying to figure out how to calm the passengers when they know their plane is going to crash. This is the kind of comedy American studios never make anymore, with the trademark Almodóvar flair and some nifty cameos by Almodóvar veterans Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas.

1. Escape from Tomorrow

This movie is not for everyone. The acting is inconsistent, the plot doesn't quite make sense, and it's all in black and white. But Escape from Tomorrow is my favorite film of the year by a landslide. It was filmed entirely on location at Disney World and Disneyland without permission. The film's official website has a clock counting the amount of time it's been released without getting sued by Disney.

How does this movie even exist?! Escape from Tomorrow was filmed undercover with the actors and crew pretending to be regular Disney World tourists taking pictures and video of their family vacation. The director flew all the way to South Korea to edit the movie in secret, and now that it's been released, Disney isn't suing because they know it would only give Escape from Tomorrow more publicity. It's a surrealist commentary on consumerism and the Male Gaze with trippy visuals and creative camera work. Even if it's not the most expertly crafted film, Escape from Tomorrow is the most daring, adventurous movie of 2013, and you need to see it. It's currently available for streaming on iTunes and Amazon Video.