Category Archives: Entertainment

40 Essential Albums: A List

I first published this in 2009, and decided it was time for an update!  The top ten are the same, but I’ve discovered some great new music since, and thought I would share!

I believe Elvis Costello said it best when he said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  It’s true that it’s impossible to capture the delicacy of music on paper, but I have many times been moved to explore new music based on what I read, and have been many times rewarded for my exploration.  It is only my hope that I might return the favor.  I’ve tried to abide by the general list rules, i.e. no greatest hits albums, etc.  I also accept that the best part about my list, and yours, is that they will be completely different.  So here they are, in loosely-ranked order.

40.  Yeasayer – Odd Blood

Difficult to categorize, Yeasayer occupies a unique place in the sonic landscape of my iPod.  Pulsing, psychedelic electronics drive the beat, with sometimes poppy, sometimes obtuse arrangements driving off-kilter lyrical musings, all showcasing nuanced, binary tenor vocalists.  A few tracks are impenetrable, but most are transcendent.  High points are the soaring “I Remember,” “ONE,” and the impossibly catchy “Ambling Alp.”  Watch the somewhat disturbing video accompanying “Madder Red” if you have a moment; it will stick with you.

39.  The The – Mind Bomb

The criticisms that might be levied at most of Matt Johnson’s offerings are present here: reliance on synths (despite some great guitar work from Johnny Marr) give it a slightly dated sound and it’s a bit uneven.  But few artists capture such naked emotion in both voice and lyric, and Mind Bomb stands atop his impressive body of work.  Whether he’s pointing the gun at religion, politics, failed love, or himself, his aim is unfaltering, and in this album’s finest moments the result is a tour-de-force of the human soul laid bare.

38.  Counting Crows – August and Everything After

Perhaps the last remnants of folk in pop music found life in this album, which in 1993 sounded unlike anything else I’d heard.  Though it is melancholy throughout, it’s never truly dark and even its most equivocal lyrics retain a sweet humanity very little pop music manages.  The best moments of the record never saw the radio, notably “Sullivan Street” and “Anna Begins” (the latter of which I count among the most touching songs I’ve ever heard), and there isn’t an ounce of filler here.  I think that had August remained obscure it would have been critically regarded as a masterpiece.

37.  The Shins – Wincing the Night Away

James Mercer is a genius with his pen; I place him in the same category with Roger Waters, John Lennon, and Paul Simon in his ability to turn a phrase.  In Wincing his pen finds its deepest well, to say nothing of the intricate song construction.  The opening track, “Sleeping Lessons” wafts in on a pillow of lazily trembling organ, building languidly into a punchy rock tune, with the lines: Eviscerate your fragile frame/And spill it out on ragged floor/A thousand different versions of yourself.  “Australia” is possibly their catchiest number to date with the lyrics: Never dreamt of such sterile hands/You keep them folded in your lap /Or raise them up to beg for scraps/You know he’s holding you down with the tips of his fingers just the same.  And perhaps my favorite from the dreamy “A Comet Appears”: Every post you can hitch your faith on, Is a pie in the sky/Chock full of lies/A tool we devise to make sinking stones fly.  With musical arrangements that equal the grace of its poetry, Wincing is an absolutely brilliant achievement.

36.  Tegan and Sara – The Con

You can’t hold it against Tegan and Sara that Taylor Swift likes them; these twins were rocking ten years before.  Rollicking, tense, pretty, harsh, uplifting, crushing…this record has it all, in 14 tracks tightly executed and delivered without a wasted beat.  Seldom does music this glossy have such an emotional core, with each track both dressed to the nines and nakedly honest.  It’s not surprising they crossed from Lilith Fair into the mainstream a few albums later, but this is their swan song, easily one of the best pop records in a decade.  “The Con” and “Are You Ten Years Ago” are among the best, though it’s hard to pick a favorite.

35.  Barenaked Ladies – Rock Spectacle

This is the first of a few live albums on my list, and while it’s a bit of a cheat given that such albums tend to be greatest hits compilations, in this case I feel it’s warranted.  BNL own the stage in live performance, and the emotion and potency captured in every track of Rock leave the studio versions sounding lackluster.  It’s not that their studio albums are weak or inferior; it’s that they are just that good live.  They cut loose and leave it all on stage, and as a result it’s hard to listen to original recordings of “What a Good Boy” or “Break Your Heart” after hearing these versions.  This goes for most of the tracks; it’s the next best thing to being there.

34.  XTC – Nonsuch

Due to a breakdown by lead singer Andy Partridge resulting in permanent stage fright, XTC never toured past 1982, ten years before this album was released, which is a shame as it is their most accessible work.  At times too smart for its own good, Nonsuch explores typically weighty fare (the assassination of JFK, war, evolution, the dark side of human nature, etc.) often with a wink and a smile and ties these to lilting and often catchy pop-infused melodies.  The result is a highly-listenable collection of very intelligent songs full of clever metaphor and musical styling that offer hidden treasure, listen after listen.  Highlights include “My Bird Performs” and “World Wrapped in Grey.”

33.  Deep Sea Diver – History Speaks

This is one slick record.  Laden with pretty piano chops and mixed to perfection, this freshman offering from Jessica Dobson, who’s worked with The Shins, Connor Oberst, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah, is at times wistful, but mostly shot full of adrenaline.   In between the occasional longing piece displaying the full power of Dobson’s sultry crooning, most of this album is anthemic, with danceable rhythms, infectious hooks, and groovy melodies.  This album is cool as hell.  If there’s a complaint, it’s that it always seems over too soon.  Check out “Ships” and “You Go Running.”

32. Def Leppard – Hysteria

While it’s possible that no other genre of music was as bloated and full of itself as hair-metal, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of fun to be had in that Aqua-Netted mess.  Def Leppard wins the place-holder spot for their peers: Bon Jovi, Poison, Warrant, etc. all get a slice of #32, but Hysteria narrowly edges out Slippery When Wet for the crown. This isn’t to say Lep was superior to Bon Jovi, but Hysteria may have been the quintessential album of the era, and that era has a special, if funny-looking, place in my heart.  It’s mega-overproduced, juvenile, damn-near reprehensible arena rock aimed at the basest hormones of its audience…and I love it.

31. The Chameleons – Strange Times

While the U.S. was doing lines of coke off Culture Club records in Regan-era prosperity, the UK was singing a more somber tune in the early to mid ’80s as unemployment shook the economy, and from the blue-collar town of Manchester The Chameleons emerged among the best post-punk acts of the time.  While groups such as Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen choose a more sparse and jagged approach, The Chameleons wove intricate drum work and simple but potent guitar riffs into their more melodic, if still occasionally bleak sound.  Though a feeling of isolation and emotional turmoil permeates much of Strange Times, there is a thinly veiled optimism peeking through the cracks, both lyrically and musically, that give the album a depth that’s worth exploring.  More mature than their previous offerings, and less vitriolic, this remains their best effort.  “Swamp Thing,” “Time” and “Caution” are high points.

30.  Weezer – Weezer

Given their later offerings I often wonder if this album was half an accident, but if so it was a perfect one.  Weezer brought cool to the quasi-intellectual outsider in a record full of no-frills, straightforward rock songs which adroitly explored many of the seldom-avoided social pratfalls of being young.  In the musical landscape of contrived, grungy teen angst, songs such as “The World has Turned and Left Me Here” and “Only in Dreams” were refreshingly honest and authentic.  There really isn’t a weak track on the record: even the ostensibly silly “Buddy Holly” is a rollicking shove-back at being bullied.  Fifteen years after its release, Weezer remains timelessly original and real from beginning to end.

29.  For Against – Coalesced

I can’t remember how I came across this band, but I’ve never met another soul who’s heard of them.  Regardless, this is one of the most elegantly written and crafted albums I’ve ever heard.  Simple, atmospheric guitar arpeggios provide a dream-like backdrop for Jeffrey Running’s earnestly passionate vocals and lyrics in song after song, each reveling in its own beauty, building and deepening into shimmering bliss.  This is the kind of album you can sink into and let take you away.  There just isn’t enough music like this, and I find this album a good friend every time I return.

28.  Death Cab for Cutie – Plans

I’d never heard of this (oddly named) band until “Soul Meets Body” hit the radio a few years ago, to a cacophony of “sellout!” cries from heartbroken hipsters.  Since, I’ve listened to much of their catalog, and I think this is their finest hour, though I cannot see any notable difference between this and their other work.  I still vividly remember driving in Clearwater for work years ago, spinning this over and over; I think sometimes an album hits you at the right time.  I have weird memories, like picturing the opening to “Different Names” as, rather than played near a crackling fire, as played instead upon a slowly burning piano.  “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” is one of the prettiest sad songs ever written.

27.  Kenna – Make Sure They See My Face

It’s hard to fathom how the Ethiopian-born Kenna isn’t a staple of nearly every radio station in the country.  Apparently critics can’t seem to properly categorize him, which may be one of the most tragic results of our compulsive human need to place everything in a box.  A sort of hip-hop/rock hybrid with influences from Stevie Wonder to Depeche Mode, his rhythms are challenging, his lyrics thoughtful, and his voice sublime.  If you can’t enjoy “Baptized in Blacklight,” you’re listening with the wrong ears.

26. Shiny Toy Guns – We Are Pilots

Thinking this was a Shins album (mis-filed and I clearly wasn’t paying much attention), We Are Pilots became my best accidental/random purchase ever.  Falling sonically somewhere between The Thompson Twins and The Knife, Shiny Toy Guns merge catchy techno beats with throwback synths to a borderline transcendent result.  “Le Disko” grabbed some attention as the album’s single and stands as it’s most modern work.  Tracks such as “Rainy Monday” and “You are the One,” however, party like it’s 1989.  While some of the album is semi-vapid lyrically, the title track and “When they Came for Us” round out the record as its most sincere material.  I have yet to tire of any song on this album, after a ridiculous number of listens.

25. Ra Ra Riot – The Rhumb Line

Ra Ra Riot isn’t the only rock band that relies on strings rather than guitars to drive its sound, but they may be the best.  Before cellist Alexandra Lawn departed as they moved to a more synthesized sound, they produced two matchless records, the strength of which will likely keep them selling out small venues for years to come.  The Rhumb Line was the debut, and it overflows with an unrestrained energy and earnestness that most modern music cannot touch.  “Ghost Under Rocks” perhaps showcases everything the band is capable of; “Winter ’05” is the Beatles had George and Paul swapped their axes for strings, and “Suspended in Gaffa” has to be the best ever Kate Bush cover with a male lead singer.

24.  Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Toward Ecstasy

Though she broke out with her next album Surfacing, which was aimed closer to the pop-sensibilities of the day, Fumbling Toward Ecstasy finds Sarah unrestrained and fearless.  Her angel voice is complimented with the addition of more musically and rhythmically bold arrangements, sometimes sparse, sometimes exultant, with a songwriting depth that all but evaporated in her later work.  From the smoldering longing of “Elsewhere” to the obsessive pulse of “Possession,” she reaches her most intimate and stripped moments here.

23.  Mark Lenover – The Wreckage

Still relatively unknown, I recently discovered Mark’s work in an independent film and became instantly enthralled.  Sonically falling somewhere between Neil Young and Pink Floyd, with modern synths and electronic rhythms, and lyrically comparable to Leonard Cohen, this is compelling and unique art.  On his site, Mark indicates that he wrote this, his eighth album, in coping with a recent diagnosis of schizophrenia, and knowing that, its moments of pain and sadness become that much more poignant.  But unlike other similarly burdened artists like Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston, whose work clearly reveals the fracturing psyche below, Mark’s grip remains stronger than his demons; we only know of his struggle because he lets us in.  And it’s not an easy place to visit: “Always Take Your Medicine” is a harrowing treatise on the fallout from chemical treatment; “Malice” is frighteningly beautiful and dark, a view of its victim through the eyes of mental illness.  But despite its oppressive source material, Mark lines the atmosphere with silver; the emotional residue of listening to his music is always positive, even when I’m mired mentally in its hopelessly weighty themes.

22.  The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

If Bruce Springsteen had been born in 1980, I’m pretty certain he’d sound a lot like the Gaslight Anthem.  Hailing from New Jersey, the Boss’ influence on lead singer Brian Fallon is hard to miss, but this material is anything but derivative.  The Gaslight Anthem is one of the last vestiges of pure rock’n’roll left in modern music, and though my wife and I continue our gridlock over their best album (she insists The ’59 Sound is superior), I have to give the nod to Slang.  I agree that ’59 has a grit that Slang’s polish misses, but with a string of highlights in “Diamond Church Street Choir,” “Stay Lucky,” “Queen of Lower Chelsea,” and the title track, Slang stands a hairsbreadth above.  This is old cars, broken hearts, battered guitars, cracked leather jackets, and empty whisky bottles.  This is rock.

21.  Kate Bush – The Hounds of Love

Some of this record is experimental to the point of difficulty, but its peaks: the title track, “Running Up That Hill,” and “Cloudbusting” encapsulate the best the British siren has to offer.  Discovered at the age of 16 by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Kate, with her achingly beautiful and haunted voice, remains the touchstone for all female vocalists I encounter.  While some of her later work is more straightforward, Hounds plays whimsically in the maelstrom, showcasing her rapturous disregard for convention at the time of her creative apex.

20.  Better than Ezra – Closer

Better than Ezra achieves that most elusive of musical elements, that in my opinion is the hallmark of a master of the craft: mood.  To me, mood is the place the music takes you every time you hear it, its own unique square of real estate in the mind, or the heart, or the soul.  It can be as simple as a sun drenched meadow or as convoluted as the topography of a broken heart, but a great band has the ability to take you exactly where they want you to go, and Better than Ezra has always been one of my favorite magic carpet rides.  Closer is an upbeat album, and while there are heavy moments, fun is never far from most of these tracks.  While it’s true that happy songs tend to fade long before their sad and darker counterparts, BTE genuinely captures that life-is-good moment better than anyone, and there’s always room in my playlist for that feeling when it’s as real as it is here.  My favorite track on this record is “Rolling.”  Like so much of what BTE can do, “Rolling” isn’t about driving nowhere on a Sunday afternoon – it is driving nowhere on a Sunday afternoon.

19.  Imogen Heap – Speak for Yourself

This album ambushed me.  My wife had it on repeat for a few nights while we were gaming, and while this isn’t my usual fare, after it sank in, it never let go.  While Imogen did interesting work before and after (Frou Frou was great), this album is simply her best.  There’s hardly a weak moment on the record, a synth-pop masterpiece from an exceptionally talented songwriter and producer.  “Goodnight and Go” is the best stalker song yet (sorry Sting), and despite its unfortunate treatment by remixers, her original “Hide and Seek, a beautifully layered a cappella elegy to a crumbling relationship, is one of the few pieces of real genius in modern music.  Oily marks appear on walls/where pleasure moments hung before./The takeover, the sweeping insensitivity of this still life.

18.  Toad the Wet Sprocket – Bread and Circus

I think that Toad is among the most misunderstood, or at least overlooked bands in recent history.  Lead singer/songwriter Glen Phillips was 14 when he joined the older members of the group, and was 17 when this first album was completed in 1989.  Done for the cost of $600 and as a result mostly laid down live in the studio, when this underground tape caught the attention of the large labels the band insisted it be cut “as is” with no re-recording, and so it remained in its original format: rough edged and alive with the raw energy that so often gets washed out in heavy production.  The maturity of Glen’s songwriting for such a young balladeer is shocking, often reflecting the insight and self-awareness of a man twice or three times his age.  Nevertheless there’s a youthful angst that drives some of the writing that had all but vanished by the time they reached commercial audiences two albums later.  The combination of these elements make for an album without peer.

17.  White Lies – To Lose My Life…

The consequences of digital music sometimes create problems with differentiating albums; I bought Ritual and To Lose My Life… at the same time, and they sort of run together for me: I can’t tell you what’s on which without looking at the track listings.  But the point is, these British lads, with their throwback 80’s post-punk sound, are one of the best new acts touring.  Led by Harry McVeigh, whose baritone is a velvet-wrapped claymore, their synthy, brooding anthems are stadium-ready, but thoughtful enough to reveal nuance after repeated listens.  Life gets the nod for tracks such as “From the Stars” and “The Price of Love,” which tell vivid stories in sharp detail, as well as the incomparable “Death,” which is one of their most essential tracks.

16.  Mark Lenover – The Girl in the Window

Having heard the title track as the credits ran on an indie film, I purchased this album in full and haven’t stopped spinning it since.  Where The Wreckage is more inward-facing, this album is populated with otherworldly denizens and edifices, wrapped in metaphor and cloaked in twilight, begging to be explored.  We see the world through the hazy vision of Mark’s constructs…a tortured mother, a boy with his music box, a hypochondriac…or are they?  We see only a glimpse of each through a keyhole, and unlocking their mysteries isn’t likely in the first few listens.  Even more veiled are tracks like “The Girl in the Window,” which is equal parts eerie and rapturous; in fact most of the album could be described that way.  It is both the darkness, and the candle that pushes it back.

15.  Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials

How did she get popular in the mire of vapid modern music?  I don’t know and I don’t care; her rise restored my faith in humanity.  This album is so lyrically dense and layered, that I am guessing that its secrets are arcane to all but few; those that truly listen are rewarded with so much more than just incredible vocals and sweeping arrangements.  With twelve tracks and not an ounce of fluff, from the soulful (“Lover to Lover”) to the enchanted (“Only If for a Night”) and the bombastic (“Heartlines”), this is a journey worth taking over and over.  The only sad thing about this record is that it’s so damn good that I can’t imagine them reaching these heights again.

14.  Fleetwood Mac – The Dance

Few bands are as talented as Fleetwood Mac and I’d been a fan for years, but the live The Dance brought them closer to me than ever before.  There’s more new material here than on the usual live album, and “Bleed to Love Her” is a favorite, but it’s the older stand-bys that shine.  “Everywhere” sparkles live in a way the studio could never match, and “Dreams” is so rich and full it dazzles.  Stevie Nicks brings such a sadness with her in “Landslide” it’s hard not to feel her loneliness.  “Silver Springs,” a song which didn’t make Rumors during a time when Stevie and Lindsay Buckingham were splitting up, is delicate and mournful as it begins but ultimately crescendos into a crashing wave; the live performance sees Lindsay and Stevie’s gazes locked as it crests and rolls back, that old ember between them glowing red for a brief moment.

13.  Better than Ezra – Deluxe

There’s a good deal of nostalgia attached to this selection, as I think it was the first time I felt like I had “discovered” something no one else had.  BTE had reached some commercial success with “Good,” a simple but catchy rock tune that was heavy on hook and light on substance.  But I was floored the first time I listened to Deluxe all the way through; expecting standard alt-rock fluff I instead found a spectrum of musical stylings, from the country lilt of “Coyote,” the gentle cadence of the gorgeous “Porcelain,” to the folky twang of “This Time of Year.”  Along with an impressive bag of musical variety, the songwriting is mature and self-aware, clearly personal but very accessible at the same time.  Everyone knew “Good,” but I knew what they were really about.  Better than Ezra is still one of my favorite groups, and this album still sounds incredible.

12.  The Mary Onettes – Islands

Scandinavia seems to be divided sharply between musical poles of the delicately gossamer and the violently assaultive.  Sweden’s The Mary Onettes (like, Marionettes) falls in the first camp; this is an enveloping cloud of ethereal pop, with just enough emotional heft to keep it tethered to the earth.  I am completely smitten with this band and like every single one of their songs; for me, they simply can do no wrong, and I have to force myself not to over-listen.  Islands gets the nod as their best for the inclusion of “Puzzles” and “Disappearance of My Youth,” the latter of which is probably my favorite song of the last decade.  For gauzy, atmospheric guitar/synth pop, it doesn’t get better than this.

11.  Toad the Wet Sprocket – Dulcinea

Toad hit their peak here, their fourth and most dynamic album.  Glen’s songwriting and the band’s chemistry had reached a level that each song became its own entity, a complete act musically and lyrically.  Navigating thematically deep waters, the empathy of the songs is perhaps what stands out the most.  “Crowing” is in intimate glimpse into a woman’s loneliness, and Glen can bring you close enough to feel the silent tears.  “Fly From Heaven” brings you into the struggle of a man challenging faith and its consequences, while “Windmills” breezily floats after the elusive peace that comes from letting go.  There’s a place that only Glen and company can find, and Dulcinea is the best version of that place.

10.  New Order – Substance

This selection is just short of flat out cheating, because this is essentially a collection of singles…BUT…many of the tracks are re-recordings and remixes which represent some of my favorite versions, especially “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith,” which means I can kind of break the rules here.  New Order remains in a category by themselves in terms of electronica; there’s an organic feel to the music, especially in the simple but powerful guitar leads, that so much techno loses in digital space.  Here New Order offers dance-ready, extended mixes of many of their classics, yet even given this treatment the songs maintain their flesh-and-blood gravitas.  Substance has plenty of it.

9.  Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

In the pantheon of great bands and albums in the genre of what we call “rock” or “pop” in the last 50 years, Pink Floyd has no superior.  Whatever “druggy” stigma that clung to them based on founder Syd Barrett’s weird, psychedelic whimsy is largely unwarranted, though it kept me away from them for years.  It’s not that this music can’t take you somewhere if you listen to it in a darkened room, because it can; but by the time they evolved to the sound that defined them in their 6th LP Meddle, their command of the craft was inimitable.  Roger Water’s vision and razor-blade pen balanced with David Gilmour’s unmistakable, crystalline guitar work and Rick Wright’s jazz-influenced keys, arranged with the aplomb of a classical composer, culminated in albums that were astounding in scope, both thematically and sonically.  Wish You Were Here, a missive to erstwhile front-man Barrett, is among their finest work, the title track being a favorite acoustic Floyd number, a multifaceted musing on losing touch. The two-part, bookending “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is the soul of the record, this the 26-minute epic dedicated to Syd’s gradual loss of self.  Hauntingly gentle and melancholy in prelude then erupting to the exultant, this is one of the best Floyd experiences, including a roaring sax interlude by Dick Parry, who’s touch adds great dimension to their soundscape.  A truly sublime piece of music.

8.  Depeche Mode – 101

The masters of dark electronica recorded their 101st concert as a double-live album, and as I recall the second disk, marooned from its partner, was the first used CD I ever bought.  This was my first real step into Mode’s shrouded universe.  The collection of songs reads like a greatest hits list of their early work, but the reason this appears here is the energy and lifeforce the live performance infused into the music.  The heartbeat of the masses brings this to a rapturous pitch and adds that living pulse that studio-generated techno often lacks.  Some favorite versions of songs exist here as well, especially the layered building of “People are People,” and “Everything Counts,” which finds it’s lushest arrangement here, the crowd ultimately pushing this concert-closer into Mode-ecstasy.  In fact, the crowd is a tangible force on this album more than any other that comes to mind.

7.  Simon & Garfunkel – The Concert In Central Park

One of the world’s most golden voices performing with one of America’s finest songwriters for their hometown, this is a magical album.  The experience of listening to them is transcendent: no other group has the power of mood that Simon and Garfunkel manifest to take you to exactly where they want you to be.  The beauty of their harmony is unmatched in anything else I’ve heard, and the melodic verse in pieces like “Scarborough Fair” “Sound of Silence” and “The Boxer” are so gorgeous they’d to lift you to the heavens if the words weren’t so earthy and so very human.  There is something ethereal about their music that is beyond words.

6.  Morphine – Cure for Pain

Dirty sax, swervy bass, and Mark Sandman’s syrupy baritone vocals – this ride is swanky and sexy as hell.  One of the few acts to eschew guitar as a lead instrument, Morphine pirates rather uncharted waters.  Sax player Dana Colley has the chops to play both a Tenor and Baritone at the same time, and his scorching growl is the dusky soul of their sound.  Cure finds them at their pain-killing finest; from the opening slide-bass riff of “Buena” Mark beckons you into his cloudy night…take that step and you’re spellbound as his thrall.  In their smoky haze there’s much to explore, from the sleepy sway of “Candy,” to the snarling, jazzy “Head with Wings,” and my favorite, the title track – a laid back groove with a ripping sax solo.  This stuff feels so good, everyone should try it once.

5.  Depeche Mode – Violator

“Enjoy the Silence” was the first Depeche Mode song I ever heard, and I remember it being the first time I acknowledged techno as a legitimate musical format.  Violator is beyond legitimate…it’s mesmerizing.  Previous records were amazing, but a gutsy swagger bloomed in Mode with that red album-cover rose that thrust them to the next strata.  With songs like “Personal Jesus” and “World in My Eyes” the lusty undercurrents that had ever run deep tore through the surface and Mode was reborn.  With this metamorphosis none of their mystique was lost; the understated “Waiting for the Night” is chillingly pretty and dark, while “Halo” revels in it’s own sweet destruction.  Very seldom does an outfit hit its mark so perfectly as Depeche Mode did here.  In its sphere, Violator has no rival.

4.  The National – Boxer

It’s hard to find the words to explain the secrets this album has to offer if you’re willing to surrender to it.  Musically, there’s nothing extraordinary about any single facet of The National, and yet they achieve a sound that is absolutely their own and like nothing else.  Matt Berninger’s deep baritone is the weighty centerpiece of the arrangements, which are simple and mellow and gorgeously pristine.  The creative use of rhythm gives a heartbeat to these preponderant hymns, reaching such an endearingly personal and intimate place that most musicians can only dream of.  “Fake Empire” was the first to captivate me, its modest piano lead softly backdrops the golden vocals, then gradually builds into a explosion of horns as the song peaks.  “Slow Show”‘ is another personal favorite; as close and charming as the first movement is, it’s the quietly passionate closing that melts: You know I dreamed about you/for twenty-nine years/before I saw you/and I missed you for twenty nine years.

3.  Billy Joel – The Stranger

If it’s matter of the heart, no one tells it better than the streetlife serenader.  Billy’s nakedly honest, blue-collar-rugged songwriting set to his virtuoso touch on the ivories is all the magic New York can weave.  Whether the storyteller, with the three-part masterpiece “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” the Romeo in his leave-it-all-behind anthem “Only the Good Die Young,” or the sage, in the sweet, piercing deconstruction of “She’s Always a Woman,” there’s only one Piano Man.  The Stranger is all the yearning, joy, bitterness, and vitality Billy has to give captured in one absolutely incomparable record.

2.  Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

What Pink Floyd achieved with Dark Side will likely never be matched.  The album breaks only once, as the record had to be turned over; the rest is a seamless, staggeringly intuitive tour of the darker aspects of the human experience.  Roger Water’s vision of a concept work covering the weight of time, the lure of insanity, the sorrow of war, the perils of wealth, and the final journey of death was realized in such grand fashion that it became a cultural icon almost immediately.  Beyond the peerless songwriting, the album was years ahead of its time musically and technically, every sound, every phrase envisioned and executed flawlessly in a time long before automation or digital recording.  And for all the precision and unrivaled musical crafting, it is rather the unclothed humanity flowing through its veins that makes the album so irresistibly potent and vital.  “Time,” with its ticking, inevitable introduction, rapier poetry, and slow-scorching guitar lead remains my favorite individual piece yet, while Claire Torre’s primal, wordless vocals over Rick’s subtle keyboard work in “Great Gig in the Sky” stands as one of the most powerful pieces of music ever recorded.  One of the most consummately perfect albums of all time, Dark Side of the Moon is pure genius.

1.  The Cure – Disintegration

My love affair with this album dates back almost half my life, and the years have done nothing but deepen my devotion.  From the opening, shimmering moments of “Plainsong” its lush, hypnotic whisper carries you into it’s delicate embrace and doesn’t let go until the final, wistful moments of the album slip away.  Though the songs themselves are unconnected, the spirit of Disintegration flows, creeps, dances, and shines throughout each, as they revel in extended prelude, swirl in reams of entrancing sound and lyric, and fade like vanishing fog.  Darkly alluring, these vast sonic landscapes blend the simple elements of echoing guitars, pulsing keyboards, and slithering bass into a kaleidoscope-tapestry interlaced with the precious, restrained tremble of Robert Smith’s voice weaving bittersweet melancholy into each thread.  Timeless and achingly beautiful, Disintegration is like nothing else on this earth.  Its heart beats somewhere beyond the boundaries of any other music.


Prague

I’ve never really traveled, though I have an acute case of wanderlust; I didn’t have the time, or money, or any other excuse that has kept my sojourns limited to the States and a few brushes with the Bahamas.  When I decided it was finally time, I consulted Vance Berisford, a friend with a passport so stamped he had to add new pages.  I listened to the stories of countless excursions, saw the dozens of pins in his wall map, and asked what he thought of returning to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic.  He agreed at once; of all the cities and countries he’d seen, it remained near the top of his list of those to revisit.  We recruited others to join, but they fell away one by one, so the two of us booked our flights for mid-September and I began counting the days.

The flight from Atlanta was nearly nine hours, and though it departed at 8:30 pm, the time change extended virtual transit into over half a day, dropping us in Paris the following noon and finally to Prague after 2:00 pm.  We found an ATM and grabbed a few thousand Czech Koruna, valued at around 18 to a US Dollar, and hopped a shuttle to the city.

Prague, or Praha to its people, is a city both modern and ancient.  The Dancing House, a curvy seven-story glass building shaped to suggest Astaire and Rogers in step, is as daring a modern piece of architecture as you’ll find anywhere, even bolder given its historic surroundings.  Travel north half a mile to New Town, with its skyscrapers and upscale shops, and you’ll feel the mark of the new millennium as in the most fledgling metropolis.  But to walk a few blocks northeast from there, to Old Town, is to step 300 years back in time or more.  Buildings from as far back as the 11th century still remain, and architecture survives from the Romanesque to the Gothic to the Renaissance.   Of all the cities in Europe to endure the scorch of World War II, it is said that Prague was least scarred.

The map we’d procured was designed for tourists, and as we reached the Astronomical Clock tower in Old Town Square, the swell of bodies gathered to witness its hourly spectacle made it clear that we were among the many.  Still carrying our bags we looked the part, and a young Australian woman approached with a flyer for an English-speaking pub-crawl that left every evening from the square.  Maybe tomorrow night, we agreed.  Vance as the navigator, we trekked through the winding cobblestone streets, doubling back once and again, until we arrived at the small apartment we’d rented for the long weekend, enticed by the aromas from an Indian restaurant two doors down.

We settled in and I learned a valuable travel lesson quickly: varying countries have different electrical sockets.  Phones and laptops would be dead soon.  We were also without razors, due to travel restrictions, so we located a supermarket and met another quandary: markets don’t sell personal items.  But they do sell Absinthe. Illegal in the US, Absinthe is a highly potent, bitter liquor hinting of herbs and anise, and the supposed cause of Van Gogh’s madness.  It’s greenish hue and devilish reputation have given it the nickname “The Green Fairy”, and as I had actually concocted a batch of my own years before, I picked out a bottle for sampling.

That evening we dined on the decadent Indian masalas of the neighboring Tikka Tikka, then set out for the Charles Bridge.  Completed at the turn of the 15th Century, it is one of the most prominent structures of the city.  Guarded by three monumental gothic towers and adorned with a host of baroque statues, it offers a breathtaking evening view of the resplendent Prague Castle, a sentinel overlooking the city and glowing with a thousand lights.  I stood still on the bridge and silently marveled; nothing I’d seen could compare to the quiet majesty of the luminous fortress, its spires reaching heavenward as it cast its radiance across the calm surface of the river below.  I turned my gaze to the rest of the city and for the first time fathomed its almost overwhelming beauty.  There cannot be another place like this on earth, I was sure.

We lingered awhile on the bridge before returning to the heart of Old Town.  In all the mystique of the beguiling city, there is mischief ever in the air.  We explored the local taverns and were introduced to the preferred Absinthe ritual: a spoon of sugar doused in the volatile spirit and lit aflame, burned to a deep caramel, then spun into the drink.  Bitter, sweet, intoxicating.  As Oscar Wilde mused, “A glass of absinthe is as poetic as anything in the world; what difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”

Our first destination Friday morning was the castle, not yet beset by the multitudes that would invade come the weekend.  On the winding road to the gate a masterful violinist played, accepting tips in his open case, and we stopped for a moment to take in an incredible vista of the city.  Nestled intimately together are seas of rust-red Spanish roofed villas, interspersed with jagged gothic towers and intricate baroque edifices crowned with domes of jade.  In the distance, beyond the ancient bridges, the tall modern buildings rise, the sole reminder that time didn’t halt here centuries before.

Prague Castle, its gleaming stone faces off-white and splendid, is the largest castle compound in Europe, and was the seat of Czech royalty from the 12th century.  In the aegis of its walls stands Lobkowicz  Palace, the St. Georges Basilica, the St. Vitus Cathedral, and the Golden Lane, a famed street of quaint houses once home to Prague’s cherished son, Franz Kafka.  The brutal statues guarding the castle gates would intimidate the most steadfast dignitary, and the changing of the guard is still a revered ceremony, held on the hour.

At the heart of the compound stands the gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the largest and most storied church in Prague.  Construction began in 1344 by Charles IV but it wasn’t officially consecrated until 1929.  The span of its construction is reflected in romantic and neo-gothic influences, and the intricate detail adorning each spire and steeple suggest centuries of craftsmanship.  The interior of the cathedral is equally impressive; opulent carvings and statues of gold and silver populate the sanctuary, and  impossibly tall stained glass windows of unparalleled beauty scatter kaleidoscopes of color across its monolithic pillars.

The interior of the enormous castle compound suggests similar affluence, boasting finely carved statues and stonework, elegant frescoes splashed across the vaulted ceilings, and no end to priceless art and artifacts off-limits to cameras.  Our attempted visit to the Golden Lane, where legend has it alchemists once endeavored to conjure gold from lead, was blocked by construction.  Perhaps on my next visit.

Much of the midday spent, we wandered back to the apartment to plan our evening.  The small domicile proved a perfect staging point for our trip, more homey and rustic than a hotel.  We managed to capture a wi-fi signal and did some research on the Prague pub tours, found the best reviewed.  If nothing else, we figured we’d get a taste of the local night life.  We did.  We met fellow travelers from Greece, Australia, Ireland, and Scotland, and after laughing and carousing through the evening streets 25 strong, we ended our night at Karlovy Lázně, a five story nightclub, the largest in central Europe.

Saturday was the last day of our trip, so we spent the time exploring parts of the city we’d yet to see.  Unlike US cities, most of Prague can be explored on foot, its design catering more to the walker than the driver.  It made exploration that much more gratifying, as there is time to take in the beautiful parks, the myriad bridges, the rich design of every structure.  The Dancing Building, which I’d only seen at a distance, was remarkable up close, resembling a pair in tango fronting seven levels which seem to swim away from them in waves.  When we reached New Town, I was floored by its cosmopolitan facade so closely juxtaposed to the antiquity of much of the city, though the statue and the National Museum in Wenceslas Square are quick reminders of its bohemian roots.

As the dinner hour neared, we decided it was time to partake of an authentic Czech meal, and located a restaurant specializing in the native cuisine.  The favored dishes include an emphasis on simple meats and potatoes, sausages, cabbage, and dumplings, and while this style doesn’t necessarily arouse my palate, one cannot eschew the local fare when traveling.  Vance decided on a vegetarian rice plate, pleasing to the eye, and I ordered svíčková, a traditional sirloin dish.  The cut was topped with cranberry compote and whipped cream, surrounded by a savory carrot-celery cream sauce and served with bread slices as dense as cake.  It was certainly the first time I’d seen whipped cream anywhere near steak, though to my surprise the flavors blended well and I found myself enjoying every bite.  Apparently there isn’t much you can’t garnish with whipped cream.

Night had fallen by the time we finished, and as we set out for our last evening on the town, we happened across the Absinthe Museum tucked away in a narrow alley.  Dimly lit with late 19th century decor, it was a shrine to the infamous drink, its drinkers and its customs, and of course we allowed the proprietor to serve us his favorite varietal.  The forbidden is always the sweetest, even if ostensibly bitter and vitriolic.  And of course, when in Prague…

The morning and our early departure time came too soon, though it was a pleasure to walk the deserted streets of Prague in the early light of a sleepy Sunday morning.  Her statues and buildings have stood for almost a thousand years, and the fates willing they’ll stand a thousand more.  The sense of history and age is the strongest feature of the city’s aura, the feeling that every structure you pass is amongst the oldest you will ever see, and yet so many remain almost pristine in facade.  Prague is an easy city to fall in love with, and though I have many other destinations in mind, I hope to return someday, sooner than later.  If I don’t, I’ll never forget the enchanting city and all her history, charm, and splendor.


A Karate Kid

The original Karate Kid (1984) is a timeless story of friendship, coming of age, youthful romance, and overcoming adversary.  Its characters are part of modern mythology, from Daniel, the gangly, Jersey-tough  boy-hero with the heart of gold, to the sage Mr. Miyagi with his charming idiosyncrasies and zen-like wisdom, and even a classic villain in the misguided miscreant Johnny.  Paced and scored perfectly and crafted with artisan care for detail and nuance, it remains (with a few moments of smirky cheese) a classic tale that made an indelible mark on many a childhood.

It did not need to be remade.

Such was my attitude upon hearing of the Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan update.  There’s a sanctuary in the heart that guards the innocent relics of childhood which has received double-guard duty of late necessitated by the lumbering abominations of reboots by Michael Bay, George Lucas and their ilk.  I’ll admit to a little ossification in my stance on money-grubbing studios stealing my boyhood heroes.  I was fairly certain that this retelling would leave the tapestry of a cherished memory in ribbons.

I was wrong.

Most are familiar with the story, which is faithfully retold (sometimes shot for shot) with the right amount of reverence and humor with regards to the source material.  Instead of Daniel-san’s Jersey to LA transplant, Dre (Smith) must endure an uprooting from Detriot to China, an even more alienating cultural upheaval.  At the younger age of twelve, Dre must play stranger in a strange land with even less experience to draw upon, and Smith evokes an impressive empathy in the role.

After a grin-inducing scene in which we learn he can’t play basketball, Dre encounters trouble when he approaches Meiying, a young violinist in the park.  Their shared moment leads to a run-in with a group of  her over-protective peers which chastise Meiying for neglecting her practice.  Dre’s attempt at chivalrous intervention leads to a kung-fu style beat-down by the gang’s leader Cheng which makes what Johnny did to Daniel look like a kiss on the cheek.  It’s quickly evident that this is a wilder and even more violent world than what we’re used to.

The source of Dre’s continued troubles lies in the innocent romance that unfolds between him and Meiying, and if there’s an element to this film that surpasses its predecessor it’s in this dynamic.  Cultural differences beset the two as they exchange pinky-swears together, and the poignant journey of their star-crossed ships is authentically touching.  Dre manages to aggravate six of her unwanted retinue in a prank that corners him into a vicious whooping and the introduction of Mr. Han, who like Mr. Myagi rescues Dre and reluctantly takes the mantle as mentor for the besieged boy.

It’s in this relationship between teacher and student, so integral to the soul of the original, where the greatest risk of derailment lie in wait.  Wisely, the tellers did not try to mimic Mr. Miyagi in Mr. Han.  The younger and slightly more flawed Mr. Han (Chan) imparts practical training (in this case, jacket-on, jacket-off) in kung-fu as well as the deeper lessons the discipline has to offer a young man.  As Mr. Han confronts his own demons, the friendship between the two grows into something special, reminiscent of the bond that made the original film so heartwarming.

Many of the film’s scenes and lessons are familiar, and some are new.  But what the makers succeeded in most was holding true to the original’s theme.  The original Karate Kid wasn’t really about karate.  It was about the sometimes painful struggle of growing up and doing what’s right.  It was about getting back up when you’ve been beaten.  It was about the bond of friendship, the importance of integrity, and love.  A story about being human.

This new Karate Kid is also that story.  A Karate Kid for a younger generation.

A-


House of Leaves

I’ll never forget a piece of dialogue between the book store owner and Sebastian in the children’s classic film “The Neverending Story”.  The book-keep asks the boy if he’s ever been trapped below the sea with Captain Nemo, attacked by the giant squid and afraid he couldn’t get out.

“But it’s only a story,” Sebastian answers.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” he answers.   “The one’s you read are safe.”

“And this one isn’t?”

It’s this magical curiosity and danger that makes Bastian steal the book.  That promise of the unknown, some voyage into uncharted waters that every reader craves, but seldom finds.  The book pulls him in, makes him a part of it, and it becomes his story.

I always cherished the idea, but never thought it was possible.  Until I read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

Just a simple glance through the tome reveals that it’s something different, a novel riddled with footnotes and strange sequences of texts, with multiple appendices including pictures and poems.  It’s beyond convention, and for all its nuance it manages to take the novel as an art form to someplace it’s never been; this is truly an experimental work, and it achieves all it aims at and more.  Corrupted text formats heighten tension, asterisks paint ever brighter textures of the kaleidoscope narrative, and post-script notes on the work broaden these characters into frightening reality.

As the story unfolds, it soon becomes clear that there are not one but three storylines dancing through the pages: the struggle of the narrator piecing together the work of a dead writer, the idiosyncratic musings of said author, and the lives of the fictional characters within that work.  To call this story epic in scope is an understatement; Rand or Tolkien would be impressed with the depth Danielewski mines into the psyche and heart of his creations.

As Johnny Truant (the narrator) begins to explore a written documentary on “The Navidson Record”, a film that seems to have never existed, his own life begins to melt into the deconstruction of the characters in the story as a harrowing series of events in their house tests each to their core.  As he encounters a number of women who were acquainted with the enigmatic Zampano, the phantom film’s archivist, he begins a descent down his own spiral staircase . . . be careful you don’t go down with him.

The “Record” itself offers its own rich cast of characters: Navidson, the brilliant photographer with a soul heavy with awareness and self-imposed guilt.  His nearly estranged wife Karen, beautiful and cold, strong but searching for solace she cannot find alone.  Navidson’s doting and loyal brother Tom, stubbornly optimistic while facing his own demons as he tries to find levity in the slow-building horror that is looming in the house.

Through dark passages of the soul, this book will take you to the outer reaches, to the depth, and to the brink of human emotion.  It is at once a love story, a chilling and dark fantasy, a journey to the marrow of very real and captivating avatars of both the bright and black sides of humanity, and a tour de force for the reader who cannot help but step willingly into the shadowy hallways of the house of leaves.

This is fiction at its finest, a book to redefine how we look at ourselves as characters in the stories we read.

Your books are safe.

This one isn’t.


District 9

Recent hype surrounding District 9, directed by newcomer Neill Blomkamp on Peter Jackson’s letterhead, had me ready to have my mind blown.

This was something more like a mind kiss-on-the-cheek.

Having sampled this summer’s other action fare – the bloated Transformers 2 and the mostly silly GI Joe – it’s not surprising that content-starved critics would wolf down District 9 like a prawn gulps cat food (spoiler alert – the aliens are nicknamed “prawns”, and they cannot get enough kitty chow).  But it seems to me that this type of sci-fi/action should be standard fare, not something to write home about.

In truth, I don’t believe the writers thought they were penning anything transcendent here.  As I understand it the plug on a Halo film shorted out and Peter and company were left bored with aliens and guns on their minds.  District 9 is exactly that – it’s a movie about aliens and guns, crafted by some very talented filmmakers.  It seems that periodical and web-based critics somehow found something far weightier here; given what I’d read I was expecting the next Alien.  So maybe my expectations were a little too high.

From the opening sequence we are introduced, documentary style, to the state of things in District 9, an internment camp for an alien race seemingly left without resources or leadership and marooned on a lifeless mothership parked over Johannesburg, South Africa.  Twenty years have passed since the ship lost power, and now District 9 on the surface houses 1.8 million of these prawn-like scavengers in what is essentially a slum.  The government exploits them externally, the gangs exploit them internally.  It’s not a pretty picture, and they aren’t happy.

In steps MNU, a private company in charge of relocating this refugee camp, with Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a nebbish pencil-pusher, helming the mission.  Things go awry in the rather brutal uprooting process, and Wikus quickly finds himself on the wrong side of the xenological dividing line.

From here, the film loses a little speed.  Or gains an endless amount, depending on your viewpoint.  As the lines between the good guys and the bad guys blur, we begin what amounts to an hour-long, frenetic chase scene that lasts until the end of the film.  We’re certainly spoon-fed enough barbaric discrimination to be sympathetic to the plight of the prawns, but the nature of the beast(s) here causes the film to fall short in the way of a full-on indictment of the human condition and our tendencies toward apartheid.  We’re given so little background or insight into the nature of these creatures (i.e. what were their intentions initially? why are some almost animal-like and some very intelligent? and should we care?) that while we can pull for the one or two prawns we’re given an intimate glance of, establishing any broad emotional connection is difficult.

The real gem here is Copley- he does an excellent job in the lead role, his metamorphosis from geeky desk-jockey into something darker and more savage is executed with the aplomb of a seasoned thespian, and serves as the film’s finest accomplishment beyond its sublime visual effects and cinematography (we expect no less from Jackson’s Weta Workshop).

It’s easy to see why our standards have fallen; beaten into submission by Michael Bay and his ilk and subjected to sci-fi schlock like Land of the Lost, Independence Day, and Signs, the drop of ink in the glass of water that is the moral center of District 9 may color our perception into viewing this as earth-shattering stuff.

But at the end of the day it’s just a pretty good alien/gun movie.

Rating: B


40 Essential Albums: A list

Updated as of 1/20/2014.


I’ll Trek you later…

I am not a Trekkie.

That said, I do have a lifelong love affair with the original series cast, having been more or less raised on the films and television show, for which I have my father to thank.

It was not the space battles, or science, aliens, or even the philosophy of the original Star Trek that I most loved (although all are essential elements), but the humanity Gene Roddenberry filled his universe with.  Star Trek as a television show was years ahead of its time in the philosophical concepts it tackled amid an intrepid voyage into the known and unknown parts of the universe and the human psyche.  By the time the films were realized the Enterprise fit her crew like an old easy chair, and whether facing the no-win scenario, reminding us of our responsibility to our planet, battering racial stereotypes, or searching for God beyond the ends of the cosmos, we were glad to boldly go anywhere with a group that felt like old friends…to each other and to us.

So, maybe it wasn’t for everyone.

But thanks to J.J. Abrams and his thrilling reboot, now it is.

I’m not sure this is a good thing.

I was truly excited to see Kirk back in action, Spock being logical, and McCoy damning it all.  I went into the theatre with a child-like anticipation to see my old heroes reborn, and reborn they were.  The cast was incredible…I believed in the young crew, helming a new chapter in one of television and film’s oldest and richest tomes.  I was dazzled and awed and more or less satisfied when the credits ran.

And then it dawned on me…this was not really Star Trek.  I was almost fooled.

J.J. Abrams commented that after watching other Star Trek films, that they were too “talky”.  This begs the question, too talky for what?  Too talky for drama?  Certainly not.  Too talky for sci-fi?  Don’t think so.  Too talky for an action film?  Ahh, there it is.  Too talky for an action film.

According to the box office, he was right.  Cut: weighty conversation about the sociocultural consequences of the crew’s actions.  Add: dashing sword fight.  Cut: cutting edge scientific concepts taken to fiction brilliantly.  Add: additional space battle.  Cut:  character interaction and development.  Add:  boom boom boom.  Final product:  the highest grossing “Star Trek” film to date.  And the least intellectually stimulating.

J.J. was right to dumb it down, if the goal was to make the most possible money.  But I don’t think that was Gene Roddenberry’s vision, and I don’t think the franchise is improved.  And ironically this all might have something to do with rapidly advancing technology.

There is a point to all this, and it goes beyond Vulcans and Klingons.  Art imitates life, not the other way around.  If people craved film that challenged them intellectually, socially, and dared them to think beyond the bubble of their well insulated realities, J.J. Abrams wouldn’t feel the need to strip a franchise like Star Trek of its “talky-ness”.  But a dedication to such ideals now reaches an audience that can only be considered fringe.  If it’s not visceral to the point of gratuitous, we don’t seem to want it.  We’ve reduced what entertains us to the most simple and base elements of human emotion, and perhaps this is a result of our technology soaked daily lives.  Have the complexities of our jobs and daily routines left us with no concentration left for anything short of explosions, sex, expletive-riddled dialogue, and 8th-grade level storytelling?  Why can the average person be so readily counted on to reach for the middle or lower shelf when the top is just as freely available to him?

As a result or as a cause of this seemingly national dumbing down, communication is suffering with the arts.  It seems in the universal quest for simple we’ve allowed technology to loop back around on itself in terms of usefulness.   According to a study done by UCLA, 55% of communication effectiveness is non-verbal, 38% is in voice quality, and 7% is in word choice.   Left for years with nothing more than the 7% written letter or telegraph, we developed the telephone, giving us five times the value and the authenticity of a human voice behind it.  The telephone was a miracle – an invention that sped up communication in a way that could never before have been imagined.

And today it has been replaced by…..drum roll……texting.

J.J. knows his audience.  Talking is going out of style.  What once could have been accomplished in a 3 minute telephone call now takes 10 minutes of texting, with 20% of the possible effectiveness with regard to context, to say nothing of what’s happening to the integrity of the language.

Is this evolution?  Some say yes.  But it’s hard to imagine how willfully interjecting another degree of separation between two parties (who have enough trouble conveying exact ideas even with the full benefit of tone and gesture), is anything but an isolating de-evolution of our ability to express ourselves.  Our web of connectedness to the outside world has never been more vast, and yet our ability to communicate with it thins with each additional thread.  How has this happened?

We’ve lost something.

In the quest to simplify our lives, we’ve quite possibly turned a corner that leads us back the way we came.  We’ve automated almost every process that requires an ounce of effort, and with facebook, twitter and other social networking programs, we’ve nearly automated human interaction.  The small nuances that make us unique vanish in the game of print we ping-pong back and forth to each other.  Is there cold comfort in replacing the humanity of a voice with the ease and distance of a text?  Are we afraid to keep talking?  Are we replacing the part of us that is most human with 1’s and 0’s?

On a graph of the potency of our technology and the integrity of the arts, one finds a striking inverse relationship.  Reality television owns the tube.  Superheroes in tight pants rule our big-screens.  Dean Koontz sells more books than Carl Sagan.  Popular music is created by record labels and/or riddled with misogyny and intolerance, is almost entirely derivative, and often scarcely resembles music at all.

Our heroes were once statesmen and teachers, men and women of ability and achievement.  Or they were the thespians, musicians, poets and writers who moved our souls.  Now it’s Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, people who are famous and envied for doing absolutely nothing, or Perez Hilton who is famous for bringing more attention to these kinds of people.

Kirk and crew first went warp speed over 50 years ago; there is a thousand times more information available to the average person today, and yet Star Trek needs a lobotomy to reach audiences.  Communication reverts to slower and less effective mediums even while microchips get smaller and smaller.  What we demand in our entertainment becomes more vapid by the year, despite almost unlimited access to knowledge.

If art imitates life…what would an alien civilization think of us if they saw what we’re producing en masse?