Monthly Archives: December 2005

The Rest of the 2005 Favorites

I listened to a lot of music (by my standards) this year, but mostly neglected other media categories. So the rest of the end-of-year list is drawing from a smaller set of works. I’m sure I overlooked lots of worthy books, movies, and games this year, so please point them out in the comments.
Favorite movie: Sin City
This was definitely the most visually interesting film of the year, a film that really looked like its graphic novel source material. This was coupled with a series of storylines running at top speed, each depicting some act of heroism rising up from the dark heart of the city. The movie was grotesquely violent, but I think this was an important part of the experience (I addressed this point in more detail in my longer-than-usual review back in April).
Honorable mention: The 40-Year Old Virgin surpassed expectations by being completely hilarious while being sympathetic to the shyness afflicting the title character. The dialogue and characters were very authentic, even when the situations got a bit ridiculous.
Favorite book: Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Murakami manages to find pockets of magic and portals to alternate worlds hidden around Japan, and then teases us with short glimpses of the wonder he’s found. This was my favorite of his since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and was more accessible as well. The basic story sounds pretty straightforward: a 15-year-old runaway goes on a journey, falls in love, faces his inner demons. However, as with everything Murakami, there’s a lot more beneath the surface.
Favorite video game: Well, Xenosaga II was probably the best game I played this year, but that list is very short. I can’t really close this category until I’ve played Dragon Quest VIII, for one thing… What else should I be playing, as long as this category is open?

Favorite Albums of 2005

I’d better finish up my end-of-year lists before the year actually ends. I decided arbitrarily on a top 5 list of albums; this probably captures about 10% of full-length records I listened to this year. The top two are not going to be surprising to the regular readers; however, the fifth one was a tough decision.
5. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
When I first heard this I couldn’t figure out what all the buzz was about. The first song was bizarre and annoying, and I couldn’t decide whether the singing was weird, or just bad. But once I got used to the singer and started skipping Track 1, I realized I really liked this record.
4. Architecture in Helsinki, In Case We Die
Brilliant, frenetic indie pop, with a childlike sense of fun.
3. The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema
This band quickly became one of my favorites when I started listening to them late last year. This release didn’t surpass their previous album, but was still one of the best of the year. A couple of the songs are simply amazing, and the rest are just plain excellent.
2. Ladytron, Witching Hour
Previous Ladytron albums appropriated mundane objects of modern society as metaphors: hence songs about credit card numbers, digital watches, black plastic, alarm clocks. Witching Hour focuses on the people in this technological landscape, and brings an immediacy and energy to the experience. This record does surpass Ladytron’s previous work: rather than a handful of great songs surrounded by filler, this one is awesome from beginning to end.
1. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday
Here we have an album in which the lead singer rants arrhythmically while the band plays power chords in the background. And yet… they do it so well. Part of the fun is following the twists and turns of the storyline across the different songs; part is listening to Craig Finn’s snarling monologue, and the rest is the way the band just rocks. I can’t quite recommend them for everyone—some fraction of the population just finds them weird—but this was far and away my favorite and most-played CD of the year.
I’m also going to steal one of Lemming’s categories from the comments to my favorite songs post and list the:
Best Albums I Should Have Bought in 2004:
3. Snow Patrol, Final Straw
2. The Delgados, Universal Audio
1. The Arcade Fire, Funeral

Classics of SNES Literature

One of my Christmas gifts was the GBA edition of one of the best console RPGs ever, Final Fantasy IV. Among the enhancements to the new version is the third official translation of this script into English. The original was infamous for excessive kowtowing to Nintendo’s censorship regime, resulting in pretty bland dialogue. The latest one, on the other hand, asserts its freshness by referencing Real Ultimate Power. (Seriously.)
However, the translation is not completely new. Yes: When Tellah attacks Edward, he still shouts, “You spoony bard!”
It’s nice to see that someone at Square/Enix still remembers.

Trackback disabled

I’ve turned Trackback off by default, since 99% of Trackback use seems to be spam. I’ll probably add Technorati links as a replacement in the near future. (There are some spam blogs that show up there, too, but it’s not as bad.)

The UC and national labs

The University of California, in partnership with Bechtel, has held on to the contract for management of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
My thoughts:
1. I’m surprised the UC won the contract, given the recent political attacks on their management of LANL. However, I didn’t know about the Bechtel partnership, which was undoubtedly a deciding factor. I don’t know much about Bechtel, except that they’re one of those huge corporations that always seems vaguely sinister.
2. Would the UC have been better off without managing LANL? Certainly there’s some prestige that goes with it, but lately it seems more trouble than it’s worth, with the UC having to fend off mostly trumped-up charges of financial irregularities and security breaches. Meanwhile, paranoia over these things is making life more annoying for those of us connected with other UC managed labs. (And I only have to deal with LBL, which is an unclassified lab—I’m sure it’s even worse at Livermore or LANL itself.)

Favorite Songs of 2005

Everyone’s posting their end-of-year lists, and while I was planning to hold off until next week, I figured I’d start with one that I had ready: my favorite 18 songs of 2005. Why 18? Because these 18 songs will fill up a CD-R. (Normally my mix CDs run to 20 songs, but this list contains one 11-minute track.)
I limited myself to one song per album since otherwise a couple of albums would have walked away with half the list between them. (And naturally there’ll be a favorite albums post forthcoming.)
18. Get Him Eat Him, “Mumble Mumble” (Geography Cones)
A song about shyness, the frustrating way it shuts down your verbal abilities when you most need them (especially if there’s a lady involved). So you can see the appeal.
17. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah)
Once I got over how weird the singing was, I started to really like this song.
16. The Decemberists, “We Both Go Down Together” (Picaresque)
The heartwarming tale of a spoiled aristocrat committing suicide with his underclass lover. One gets the sense of an unreliable narrator, and hopes for Miranda to push the dude off the cliff and walk away.
15. Sleater-Kinney, “Let’s Call It Love” (The Woods)
Sexy lyrics and a sexy 6-minute guitar solo. There are people who claim that women have less aptitude than men for rock music; these people are crazy.
14. Bloc Party, “Helicopter” (Silent Alarm)
I can never understand what these guys are saying through their British accents, so it was a while before I realized this was an anti-Bush song. Fortunately, the song is awesome with or without the political context.
13. Caribou, “Hello Hammerheads” (The Milk of Human Kindness)
It was a bit tough to pick a favorite song from this album, which is consistently good all the way through. “Hello Hammerheads” has the most appealing atmosphere, I think.
12. New Order, “Dracula’s Castle” (Waiting for the Sirens’ Call)
The actual relevance to Dracula’s castle is questionable, but the song is in the grand tradition of excellent New Order songs.
11. The Rosebuds, “Leaves Do Fall” (Birds Make Good Neighbors)
A song that perfectly captures the urgent longing of a long-distance relationship. I love the lyric, “I’m a desperate man/and that terrifies me“.
10. Franz Ferdinand, “The Fallen” (You Could Have It So Much Better)
I’m a sucker for songs about the devil, and this is an especially good one.
9. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, “Ain’t No Easy Way” (Howl)
BRMC have been accused of opportunism for their sudden genre-switch to Americana, but if it leads to songs like this I’m all in favor.
8. Spoon, “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine” (Gimme Fiction)
This song is just under three minutes long and I am always sort of outraged when it ends. I want to hear more about Monsieur Valentine, dammit!
7. Iron & Wine/Calexico, “He Lays In The Reins” (In The Reins)
I have no idea why there is a dude singing opera in the middle of this song, but the song has one of the best intros I’ve ever heard and the rest doesn’t disappoint either.
6. Architecture in Helsinki, “Wishbone” (In Case We Die)
A love song in a rapid-fire style reminiscent of REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”. It’s like candy.
5. Iron & Wine, “Evening On The Ground (Lilith’s Song)” (Woman King)
A bit darker and angrier than a typical Iron & Wine song. They should do more like this.
4. Ladytron, “Destroy Everything You Touch” (Witching Hour)
This is the song that’s convincing all the hipsters that Ladytron is actually a good band. Of course, I knew this already, which means… Yes. I liked Ladytron before they were cool.
3. Mercury Rev, “Secret For A Song” (The Secret Migration)
I feel like I should be embarrassed of this pick, with its overly grand musical gestures and slightly fantasy-geekish lyrics. (Two suns?) But I can’t get enough of it. Somehow, “I’ll sell you my secret for a song” really resonates with me.
2. The New Pornographers, “Stacked Crooked” (Twin Cinema)
I have no idea what this song is about, but the way it builds to its anthemic climax is spectacular. The lyrics just sound good, even if they don’t make any sense.
1. The Hold Steady, “How A Resurrection Really Feels” (Separation Sunday)
The title is a line spoken by a character in the song, and also the subject of the song, and finally a description of the song itself. It helps to have listened to the previous ten tracks on the album, to get the full emotional weight of Holly’s spiritual resurrection, but it’s not necessary. The triumphant guitars in the intro, the joy in the lyrics at an old friend coming back from the darkness, the angelic backing vocals in the fade-out… who needs religion when you’ve got The Hold Steady?
I really should start packing for my trip tomorrow, so I don’t have time to track down links to all these songs, but they can probably all be found on iTunes. And, as I alluded earlier, I’m planning to make a mix CD of these 18 tracks, and will be handing out copies during my upcoming travels. So if you’d like a copy, it can probably be arranged.
And it goes without saying that I want to hear about your own favorites in the comment thread.

SQUID Handbook sighting

This item is a bit dated, but apparently there’s a prize for “oddest book title” awarded every year:

Rick Pelicano and Lauren Tjaden’s extremely serious manual on how to Bombproof Your Horse is today hailed as runaway winner of the prize for the oddest book title of the past year.
It takes what the Bookseller magazine describes as a staggering 46% of the vote in a poll of publishers and booksellers.
Runners-up in a shortlisted international field of six are Detecting Foreign Bodies in Food, with 27%, followed by The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox, with 15%.
The British-based Diagram prize – a magnum of champagne awarded by the Bookseller since 1978 – reflects the book trade’s unceasing bafflement and delight at the highly specialised titles which some of its members in Britain and further afield produce.

Also on the 2004 shortlist were Applications of High Tech Squids (VCH Verlagsgesellschaft), Equids in Time and Space (Oxbow Books) and Sexual Health at Your Fingertips (Class Publishing).

(Emphasis mine.) Actually, that’s Applications of High Tech SQUIDs by one J. Clarke. Although it’s nice to see my advisor’s book getting publicity, I think the title is not so odd if the acronym is written properly.

Status: Underwater

This week’s excuse for not blogging: my apartment flooded due to heavy rain. (“Heavy” by Berkeley standards, anyway.)
I did, however, start A Feast for Crows. Sometimes predictability is nice: you know the poor sucker in the prologue of a George R. R. Martin novel is going to die before the first chapter, so you are free to hate this character and root for the bad guys. (Martin helps out by making the POVs in the prologues progressively more annoying.) Whereas once the novel gets going, it’s not wise to get too attached to any particular character, since you never know who is going to get killed off for no apparent reason.