They Might Be Giants Albums, Worst to First

TMBG Albums, Worst to First

Time for another pointless list, this time the best They Might Be Giants albums of all time. Couple of rules here: I’m only listing the ones I own. I haven’t bought much of their new stuff (such as “Why” and “Phone Power”, nor do I own the kids album “Here Come the 123s”) and I don’t have many of the collections. I’m lumping all the EPs into one entry because 20 is a nice round number. Also, I want to say this review seems to slag on Flansburgh a lot, and what I want everyone to take away instead is that I *REALLY* like John Linnell’s songwriting. Anyway, here we go!

  1. Here Come the ABCs (2005) – I’m not going to pretend to be the biggest fan of TMBG’s kids albums, but a few of them have some merit. This is one I feel best encapsulates why I tend to not like “new” TMBG stuff. Basically everything after Factory Showroom seems to be them experimenting with voices and silly sounds. Many of the songs on this album are downright annoying, and this is coming from a parent who listens to tons of crap my kids like.

Songs to Listen to: Alphabet of Nations; Go for G!

  1. Venue Songs (2004)A “collection” album of songs they wrote (probably the day of a concert) for various venues they played at. While their dial-a-song service was great, I felt it was better for satiating die-hard fans rather than calling what they produce in a week a ‘finished product’. Add to that I’m not generally a fan of live albums, and you see why this falls where it does.

Songs to Listen to: The Stony Pony (Asbury Park); Anaheim House of Blues (Anaheim); First Avenue Stage (Minneapolis)

  1. Glean (2015) – So this is the real reason I’m writing this list. My love for TMBG has sorta waned in recent years. I felt the band was concentrating too hard on silly sounding instrumentation and I’ve come to almost dislike Flansburgh’s songwriting. 2013’s Nanobots changed my opinion and made me look forward to a new album. What I got instead is this one. Sure it isn’t ingrained in my brain like older albums are, but still, there isn’t much to this album I’d call memorable. Of note, however, is that this is the first album of their in many where I *do* actually like some of Flansy’s songs. That might say more to how unimpressed I am with it, though.

Songs to Listen to: Unpronounceable (I really like this song); Answer; Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel

  1. EPs (various) – I’m cheating here by lumping all their EPs into one category. Truth be told, some of the EPs contain really good songs, but in general, it’s no surprise that many of these tracks missed the album’s final cut. I’m specifically addressing the following EPs (as I don’t have all of them): Why Does the Sun Shine?; Back to Skull; They Might Be Giants… in Holidayland; Bed, Bed, Bed; Indestructible Object; The Spine Surfs Alone. (Also, if Holidayland didn’t exist, this ‘album’ might be higher, but man those are some lousy songs.

Songs to Listen to: Mrs. Train (from Skull); Ant (from Object)

  1. Severe Tire Damage (1998) – Another live album, though the inclusion of Dr. Worm and the Theme from Severe Tire Damage are welcome additions. The live versions of these songs aren’t overwhelmingly different than the studio albums, though I like their slower version of She’s an Angel and a really good version of She’s Actual Size. I also just like “she’s” songs, apparently. This loses MANY points for the inclusion of the “Apes” songs, which are just bad songs recorded poorly.

Songs to Listen to: She’s Actual Size; She’s an Angel; Dr. Worm

  1. No! (2002) – TMBG had not developed an identity as a kids band at this time, and I think that actually helped this album. Sure it lacks focus, but there are some pretty fun songs on it. What helps is they didn’t try to teach anything with this album, they just tried to entertain. That it does, even if some of the songs fall flat.

Songs to Listen to: Violin; Four of Two; I Am Not Your Broom

  1. Long Tall Weekend (1998)/ They Got Lost (2002) – These two compilation albums aren’t technically the same, but there is plenty of overlap, so I’m including them both. The first was available ONLY via MP3 download (back before anyone knew what that was) but I was lucky enough to be at a concert where they hucked a CD copy right at me. There are some real gems on here, but I could certainly do without hearing On Earth My Nina ever again.

Songs to Listen to: Certain People I Could Name; Reprehensible; Older; Lullaby to Nightmares

  1. The Else (2007) – I gotta be honest, this album probably would have done more poorly if it didn’t come with the “B” side album, Cast Your Pod to the Wind. The latter contains two of my favorite TMBG songs of all time. As for the main album, it is, unlike the title track, unimpressive.

Songs to Listen to: Brain Problem Situation; We Live in a Dump; Bird of the Bee of the Moth; The Mesopotamians

  1. Miscellaneous T (1991) – The fanboy in me probably ranks this “B” side collection better than it should, but man, this was my youth here. Some of the songs truly are among TMBGs greats, though in all fairness some of the others probably shouldn’t have made it onto any purchasable album.

Songs to Listen to: Hey Mr. DJ…; I’ll Sink Manhattan; It’s Not My Birthday; The Famous Polka

  1. Factory Showroom (1996) – This album marked the first time I was disappointed with a TMBG album. I bought it the day it came out and saw a measly 13 tracks. Worse yet, many of them didn’t hit at first. Sure, I grew to love the album in time and most of the tracks, but it was a really slow burn. I also stopped seeing them live soon after this as their shows became less band-having-fun and more Flans-yelling-a-lot.

Songs to Listen to: Till My Head Falls Off; Exquisite Dead Guy; Spiraling Shape; I Can Hear You

  1. Here Comes Science (2009)Every rule has an exception. I said before I don’t love the kids CDs (though I’d still rather hear TMBG kids stuff verses 95% of “other” kids’ music). This album is different. The topic has much to do with it, as I and my family all love science. But the songs here are clever, fun, and educational. These songs have replayability, too, something many of their kids CDs don’t.

Songs to Listen to: Meet the Elements; My Brother the Ape; How Many Planets?; Solid Liquid Gas

  1. Join Us (2011) – Really, #s 9-7 are all interchangeable, and they’re adult studio albums #8, 9, and 11 (The Else, which was just above this, was #10). These aren’t bad albums, per se, they’re just sort of… there. It was also at this time that the rift between the songs written by Linnell and those written by Flansburgh really became noticeable.

Songs to Listen to: Canajoharie; When Will You Die; Spoiler Alert

  1. Mink Car (2001) – See #9.

Songs to Listen to: Man, It’s So Loud in Here; Yeh Yeh; Drink

  1. The Spine (2004) – See # 9, but with this addition: this was, in all actuality, the last time I actively sought out new TMBG releases and started buying them whenever I saw them on sale.

Songs to Listen to: Experimental Film; Museum of Idiots; Stalk of Wheat; I Can’t Hide From My Mind

  1. They Might Be Giants (the Pink Album) (1986) – Back where it all started. This wasn’t the first TMBG album I owned (like almost everyone else, it was Flood), but this was a totally ambitious first album for any band. No drums, no bass, all programming, and songs that defied all types of musical convention. There was an accordion throughout. The lyrics were usually very dark but sung incredibly happily. It’s a pretty special album.

Songs to Listen to: Everything Right is Wrong Again; Don’t Let’s Start; Nothing’s Gonna Change My Clothes; (She Was a) Hotel Detective; She’s An Angel; Chess Piece Face

  1. Nanobots (2013) – This album made me a fan again. Basically every album they release, fans on Amazon say “It’s nothing like their old stuff!” or “This is the first album since XXX to capture their old magic.” I don’t buy that anymore. They’ve evolved, and I’m okay with that. But really, the later albums are missing two things: quirky, witty lyrics and catchy melodies. This one brought them both back in force. Sure, there are some duds on here, and I still can’t get into most Flansburgh songs, but there is so much to like about this album. Totally caught me by surprise.

Songs to Listen to: You’re on Fire; Call You Mom; Sleep; 9 Secret Steps; Decision Makers; Icky

  1. Flood (1990) – I have a theory that, for most bands that people actively like, the first album they buy/listen to will always be their favorite. This was my first, and for a long time it was my favorite. (Guilty admission: I didn’t care for it for about a year, then I randomly put it on one day and fell in love with it.) Scott Fourre got me into them by playing “Whistling in the Dark” for me, which was my ultimate hook. And the rest is history. It’s still a fantastic album, and to this day when people refer to the one quintessential album by ANY band, they’ll sometimes refer to it as that band’s “Flood” (“Fashion Nugget” is Cake’s “Flood”).

Songs to Listen to: Birdhouse in Your Soul; Dead; Particle Man; We Want a Rock; Minimum Wage; Letterbox; Whistling in the Dark

  1. John Henry (1994) – I distinctly remember when this album came out, They Might Be Giants “purists” were aghast. How could they ditch the drum machine? A full band? What the crap of what?!?! I held judgement. Part of me wanted to join the crowd, but I couldn’t because the album was Just. So. Good. My first concerts were around this album so I didn’t really get the true “John and John” experience, though they later replicated it during some shows. But the songs are just so awesome on this album. Really, if you’ve never heard them before, listening to any of the top 6 albums are solid choices, but #s 1-3 in particular.

Songs to Listen to: Subliminal; AKA Driver; No One Knows My Plan; Destination Moon; A Self Called Nowhere; Meet James Ensor; Window; The End of the Tour

  1. Lincoln (1988) – The top three albums are also interchangeable in my mind; they’re all fantastic albums. Their replayability is off the charts, their lyrics are excellent, their melodies and chords are super catchy. Picking between them is like picking between your children. Lincoln is many TMBG fans’ favorite album, and for good reason: there really isn’t a dud on it. Well, except Santa’s Beard. It also blazed the way with the first few true “hits” the band had before their Flood explosion. It holds up well to this day.

Songs to Listen to: Ana Ng; Cowtown; Lie Still Little Bottle; Purple Toupee; Where Your Eyes Don’t Go; Pencil Rain; The World’s Address; Shoehorn with Teeth

  1. Apollo 18 (1992) – Most people remember this album because it has Fingertips, the mashup of tiny songs. TMBG even tried something similar on Nanobots, but I don’t know of anything like it before or after in music. That being said, the album is so much more than Fingertips (and it still annoys me that they split up all the tracks on a CD so it can play on random!) Another album with nary a weak track, and essentially no difference in the caliber of writing between of the Johns.

Songs to Listen to: Dig My Grave; I Palindrome I; She’s Actual Size; Spider; The Guitar; Dinner Bell; Which Describes How You’re Feeling; See the Constellation; Turn Around; Fingertips

 

Interestingly, or not really if you’ve read any of this, of the 90+ songs I listed in the “Songs to Listen to” sections, only about 25 of them were written by Flansburgh. But since I feel like I’ve spent this whole blog bashing him, I want to say that if I were to have a top 10 TMBG songs list, he’d had more than 20% representation. She’s Actual Size is easily in my top 3 (maybe #1?), and also Lie Still Little Bottle, Hotel Detective, We Live in a Dump, and See the Constellation would all be in the running. AND Go for G is easily the best song on the lackluster ABCs album. So sorry John F., since I’m sure you’re going to read this and be piiiiiiiissed.

My favorite blog posts

I am in the process of composing a couple of longer blog posts (an update about my jaw and a longer, introspective blog post about me – I’m sure everyone is having trouble containing themselves), but while I wait, I wanted to just round up some of my favorite blog posts in one place. In essence, this is the perfect blog post for anyone trapped at work on Thursday and looking for something with no real pictures to dig into.

My Arduous Path to Feminism – 1/20/2016 – The title is pretty self-explanatory. This one is by far my most popular blog post, and while I can’t in truth say it’s gone viral, it’s been shared around quite a bit. It’s a look at how I turned from someone who was pretty angry towards women (and totally denying that at the time) to someone who considers himself an ambassador for women’s rights and equality. This one HAS pictures – ooh!

My Coming-Out Post (about Atheism) – 8/2/2012 – Although I now readily and easily consider myself an atheist, I didn’t always. It was another slow and arduous path to get there. This one goes back a ways – all the way to my childhood. One of my most commented-on posts.

Gender Roles (specifically in respect to one of my sons) – 8/5/2013 – Of all my posts, this is the one that probably deserves a follow-up, yet it’s becoming more about some personality issues that a growing boy now has, so I’m likely just going to keep it offline. However, this was another powerful transformative time for me, when I realized that “boys will be boys” is a stupid and damaging phrase.

Tribute to Gavman – 7/6/2012 – From my son to another’s, I wrote this blog after coming home from the funeral of my good friends’ 1-year-old. Sure, the trip (and all its problems) was a learning opportunity for me, but when I got home I wanted nothing more than to remember the little boy who touched more people in his year+ than most people do in a lifetime.

Why Do I Write – 2/23/2016 – This is the first of two old blogs that will actually have something to do with the upcoming introspective blog I’m working on. It’s also pretty self-explanatory by the title.

On Not Being the Best – 9/18/2014 – And this is the other.

Mountain Goats Lyrics – 5/19/2011 – I bet you’ll never guess what this blog was about.

My Life in Summary: 1998-2012 – 8/10/2012 – Reconnecting with an old friend, I decided to catch her up on my life from when we lost contact after high school to present. With an absurd, self-imposed word count. I might just update this one. (I did recently get to have lunch with her, my first time seeing her since we went to prom together in 1997 – ahhh, the wonders of the internet).

FBA: Looking Busy at Work – 5/20/2010 – Not *technically* a blog post, this is one of my favorite Fats’ Bad Advice columns. Which reminds me, I should write more of those. Anyone have a question? Submit it here!

Top 50 Songs

In looking over my older blogs, I stumbled on something I don’t ever recall writing – Derek’s Top 113 Songs. It was ambitious and, quite frankly, probably pointless since I was getting 2 or 3 hits on my blog per day around then. I guess I just loved making lists.

As I shook my head about the actual undertaking, it made me realize a few things: 1) That was TEN YEARS AGO. Man, that’s humbling. 2) My musical tastes have changed – not drastically – but they’ve moved away from some things. 3) I still really like making lists.

So I decided to once again try this experiment. I wanted to whittle it down to less than 113, so first I looked at my iTunes ratings. I had just over 900 “5-star” songs, so that wasn’t the way to go. Culling through that list, I was able to pare it down to about 140 songs (using the “look quick and mark it if I really like it” method). Doing that method one more time, I was able to get it down to a workable list of 50.

I was pretty startled to see that, of my top twenty songs in 2006, only 6 would even make it in the final 50 today. And of my current top 10, I probably hadn’t heard 6 of the songs in 2006. Which is, of course, part of the problem with ever coming up with a list of favorite songs. If I use the criteria “songs I never get sick of”, a tune I’ve only liked for 3 years has a huge advantage over something I’ve known since I was in middle school. However, imperfect as it may be, here is the list, with links to the top 25:

50. Metronomic Underground – Stereolab – 2006 Ranking: N/A – Apparently monotony does not bother me.

49. The Gate – The Bobs – 2006 Ranking: N/A – I’m a sucker for beautiful songs about cult suicide.

48. Exhibit 13 – Blue Man Group – 2006 Ranking: N/A – The perfect zone-out instrumental.

47. Timeless Winter – Into Eternity – 2006 Ranking: N/A – The metal-ist song on the list by far.

46. Mother – Pink Floyd – 2006 Place: 51+ – Preferably the version from the movie, but the album version is good too.

45. You Remind Me – David Matheson – 2006 Ranking: N/A – You’re going to find lots of slower, sweet songs on here.

44. I’ll Fly Away – Erik Darling/Kossoy Sisters – 2006 Ranking: N/A – Traditional song, the best version is this one from O Brother (but inexplicably not on the soundtrack!)

43. Ride On – AC/DC – 2006 Ranking: N/A – The bluesiest song they ever recorded.

42. Use Your Brain – The Dirty Dozen Brass Brand – 2006 Ranking: N/A – The highest-rated instrumental on my top 50.

41. Nightswimming – R.E.M. – 2006 Ranking: 9 – Despite the ranking plummet, still a gorgeous song.

40. Dr. Wanna Do – Caro Emerald – 2006 Ranking: N/A – I dare you not to tap your toe to this jazzy tune.

39. What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong – 2006 Ranking: N/A – Truly a timeless classic.

38. I’m Downright Amazed at What I Can Destroy With Just a Hammer – Atom and His Package – 2006 Ranking: 5 – Incredibly fun, it dropped only due to oversaturation.

37. Your New Boy – You Were Spiraling – 2006 Ranking: N/A – Fun song by a local NJ artist.

36. Stay Alive – Tripod – 2006 Ranking: N/A – How is there only 1 Tripod song in my top 50? That’s a shame.

35. Everyday Lover – Saucy Monkey – 2006 Ranking: N/A – Easily the best song from a CD that I got for free.

34. Lucas With the Lid Off – Lucas – 2006 Ranking: 35 – Up one place, and this song has earned it.

33. Arkansas – John Linnell – 2006 Ranking: N/A – Not Linnell’s best song ever, but probably the one I find myself humming the most.

32. Free Your Head – Bucho! – 2006 Ranking: N/A – Slow jazzy ditty from a local Sacramento band.

31. Heretic Pride – The Mountain Goats – 2006 Ranking: N/A – A song of pride and revolution. Get used to seeing The Mountain Goats on this list.

30. Black Betty – Spiderbait – 2006 Ranking: N/A – An excellent cover of a great original, there are only three better covers on this list.

29. One True God – Austin Lounge Lizards – 2006 Ranking: N/A – A song lambasting religion? And I heard them play it in a church? Priceless.

28. What About Me – Lake Street Dive – 2006 Ranking: N/A – Another band that should have far more entries on this list. If only 50 was a slightly bigger number.

27. Word Crimes – Weird Al Yankovic – 2006 Ranking: N/A – A very clever parody of a very crappy song.

26. She’s Actual Size – They Might Be Giants – 2006 Ranking: 7 – One of the sad victims of my musical maturation is TMBG, but this is still the best of the oldies.

25. White and Nerdy – Weird Al Yankovic – 2006 Ranking: N/A – Al took what worked in Pentiums (2006 Ranking: 20th) and improved on it.

24. International – Jim’s Big Ego – 2006 Ranking: N/A – The only song I know that uses the words “inter-dependence” and “acquiescence”.

23. Gumbo Pants – Paul & Storm – 2006 Ranking: N/A – A song about making gumbo. In your pants. The 2nd shortest song on the list.

22. Icky – They Might Be Giants – 2006 Ranking: N/A – Linnell at the top of his game lyrically. Poor guy lent out a pair of slacks and only got one slack back.

21. Never Quite Free – The Mountain Goats – 2006 Ranking: N/A – An uplifting song until the last line, just like the final scene in every horror movie that is planning a sequel.

20. Rhode Island is Famous For You – Lascivious Biddies – 2006 Ranking: N/A – If you look up “jaunty ditty” in the dictionary, you should see this song.

19. Schism – Tool – 2006 Ranking: 21 – If you look up “jaunty ditty” in the dictionary, you will definitely not see this song.

18. My Daddy Taught Me Good (The Backin’ Up Song) – The Gregory Brothers feat. Diana – 2006 Ranking: N/A – There’s no way a viral novelty mashup of a crazy interview should be in my top 20, but I’m trying to be honest with myself here: this song brings me extreme joy.

17. The Book of Love – Peter Gabriel – 2006 Ranking:N/A – Best cover of a song I don’t like, beating out Lake Street Dive’s cover of I Want You Back. Maybe the most beautiful song I own. Also used in the Scrubs finale.

16. Malcolm – The Arrogant Worms – 2006 Ranking: 27 – You got problems you can’t solve? Malcolm can. Still not the shortest song on this list.

15. Ghost Love Score – Nightwish – 2006 Ranking: N/A – At 10 minutes, this isn’t the longest song in Nightwish’s catalog, but it’s the longest one in the top 50. Great gothic metal.

14. Stress – Jim’s Big Ego – 2006 Ranking: 30 – I love both versions, but I prefer the Dr. Demento collection version to the album version only slightly.

13. Nobody Loves You Like Me – Jonathan Coulton – 2006 Ranking: N/A – This is the 3rd musician who should have far more entries on this list, as he’s one of my favorites. Muy pretty song.

12. Momma Don’t Allow – Austin Lounge Lizards – 2006 Ranking: 51st+ – At less than a minute, and only utilizing 3 sentence (two of which are the same), I challenge anyone to write a funnier song under these criteria.

11. Gulf War Song – Moxy Fruvous – 2006 Ranking: 3 – Nothing about this song isn’t amazing. Dropped slightly only because I’ve put it on 1000 mix CDs and tapes.

10. Maybe You’re Right – Barenaked Ladies – 2006 Ranking: N/A – As fun as their goofy songs are (and they are), I prefer BNLs more serious stuff.

9. No Children – The Mountain Goats – 2006 Ranking: 2 – If ever there was a Mountain Goat “hit”, it’s this song. And it’s incredible. But there are still two songs by Darnielle alone that beat it.

8. Cat’s in the Cradle – Ugly Kid Joe – 2006 Ranking: N/A – I wasn’t a dad in 2006, hence this not even cracking the top 113. With all due respect to the Chapin original (which is awesome), I prefer this heavier version.

7. Start Wearing Purple – The Gogol Bordello – 2006 Ranking: N/A – If you had asked me in 2006 if a gypsy punk song would make my top 10, I would have asked who you were and why you were talking to me.

6. Insanity – Oingo Boingo – 2006 Ranking: 1 – Another case of overplay having hurt this one, it’s still an aural wonder to behold. So. Many. Instruments. Note, the video is for a lamer, pared-down version of the song. The full version can be heard here.

5. Brain Problem Situation – They Might Be Giants – 2006 Ranking: N/A – The song I traditionally put on at track 5 in every mix I make finds itself as #5, and it’s just a song about being drunk. Damn damn catchy.

4. The Future – The Limousines – 2006 Ranking: N/A – For a band by whom I only own one song, they wrote a fantastic one and filmed a powerful and disturbing accompanying video (that’s got an F bomb so watch at work with caution).

3. The Impresario (Opera Sequence) – Jake Kaufman & Tommy Pedrini – 2006 Ranking: N/A – The fact that they were able to turn this original into a Bohemian Rhapsody-inspired power ballad is reason alone for these two guys to be sainted.

2. Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod – The Mountain Goats – 2006 Ranking: 11 – I can’t add to what I said then. It’s an extremely gripping song about overcoming adversity. Who could possibly unseat it?

  1. Woke Up New – The Mountain Goats – 2006 Ranking: N/A – Beaten by himself, of course. This is a song I’ve always liked, ever since I saw the video before the album came out. It’s grown on me immensely, and while I consider it possibly the saddest song ever written, its combination of emotion and imagery, set to a very memorable melody, put it on top.

There you have it. 50 songs, only 11 of which appeared in my top 50 a decade ago. Now’s the time when I would say “did I leave anything out”, but it’s my list, not yours. I invite everyone to write their own blog about their lists. It’s harder than it seems.

2013 in Music

I bought dozens of CDs in 2013, very few of which were actually released in 2013 – I’m not exactly “hip” with current music, as is evident by my use of the word ‘hip’. But here are some of the very best and very worst of what I purchased and the years they were actually released.

 

THE WORST

6. Tori Amos – Under the Pink (1994)Tori Amos was one of those artists that all my high school friends listened to ad nauseam back then (see also Billy Joel) so I grew an aversion to their music. However, now older and more refined, I figured I could take a stab at one of their albums each. I bought her Under the Pink and his Stormfront and, you know what? It turns out I don’t really like them all that much still. I had higher hopes for Amos, though, which is why she lands on this list.

5. The Corrs – Talk on Corners (1998) – Okay, it’s official, I’m no longer buying Corrs CDs just hoping that they’ll be what I *want* them to be and not what they actually are. Fool me three times…

4. Tom Murray – Cole Porter Mood (2006) – I love Cole Porter and was looking forward to getting a good version of Anything Goes. If that’s your goal as well, don’t rely on this album. His treatments of the songs seem to be unusual just for the sake of it, and his voice doesn’t do the songs justice at all. Maybe I’ll specifically have to be on the lookout for a big-band version of his stuff.

T1. Octant – Car Alarms & Crickets (2000) – For the first time, there’s a three way tie for worst album. I’m listing them in the order I bought them because, as I listened to each one, I swore it would take home the coveted #1, but that’s mainly because, after one listening, I didn’t listen to them again and the memories of their “music” had faded from my memory. Car Alarms & Crickets is probably the most aptly named CD I’ve ever bought, because that’s what it sounds like – a sound effects CD that accidentally has some music in the background. Ugh.

T1. Tons of Fun University – The Them They’re Talking About (2005) – This is a poetry album, and no that’s not why it’s rated as the worst. Silly me if I looked at the liner notes which listed instrumentalists and I assumed that it would be a music CD. It’s a poetry slam with some tracks having incidental music on them. No, why it’s on this list is because the poems are not fun AT ALL. If you are going to call yourself “Tons of Fun University” no matter what genre you are tackling, you had better be TONS of FUN!

T1. Council of the Fallen – Deciphering the Soul (2004) – RRRHRHOOOOAAAGGHAHAH HAHAEAHAOOGGGA SCHOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAARRRRRRRRR!!!!! It’s loud screamy death metal (speed metal?) but without any of the charm of having your eardrums electrocuted directly.

 

THE BEST

6. Austin Lounge Lizards – Home & Deranged (2013) – Even though this is on my best-of list, I can’t help but be a little disappointed. It’s no secret that this is my favorite band, despite me being young enough to be one of their kids. And it’s not just a case of “All their new stuff is crap!” because their last album still stands as my favorite of theirs. It’s just that the songs seem to lack some of the cutting edge wit that their older stuff has. That being said, it’s still better than almost anything else I bought in 2013, especially with such songs as “Too Big to Fail”, “Thank You for Touching Me There”, and “Got a Big Stupid On”. I suppose part of the problem is that I have just heard better versions of some of their ideas before – “I Lied” is a poor man’s “I Was Only Kidding” (Weird Al), and “Dumb Dumb Dumb” was a poor man’s “Life is Hard but Life is Hardest When You’re Dumb” (by themselves!) This sounds like the most negative positive review ever – yikes – this album is definitely good, but if you don’t have any of their older stuff, I’d start there first.

5. Ben Folds – Songs for Silverman (2005) – I wish I liked Ben Folds singing better, because I like his music so much. This album surprised me as I hadn’t bought any of his solo stuff before, but there are a number of really great songs on this album, at least musically (I won’t pretend that I’ve listened all that hard to his lyrics, as I’ve never really listened to BF5 for that reason). Standout tracks are “Landed”, “Sentimental Guy”, and particularly “Trusted”.

4. Lascivious Biddies – Biddi-Luxe! (2002) – I was one of the few who did NOT hear about this band when they appeared on Cash Cab, but this was a FREE CD I got and I’m very glad I did. It’s a band of four ladies who play what could be construed as lounge-nerd-pop? I don’t know, I’m horrible at genre-ing music. But they do write some great songs, particularly their self-titled anthem, “Headed South”, “I’d Rather”, and the phenomically (phenomenal and comical) “Rhode Island is Famous for You”

3. Saucy Monky – Turbulence (2004) – Another CD I got the same day I got #4, this was another FREE CD that I had no knowledge of before getting from Grassroots Books. On it is the obligatory cover of a lousy song whose cover is pretty good in “I Touch Myself”, but that’s not even in the better half of songs. I prefer the title track, whose chord progressions still boggle my mind, as well as “Change My Mind” and the super swanky “Everyday Lover” which I definitely can’t seem to get enough of.

2. Lake Street Dive – Lake Street Dive / Fun Machine (2010/2012) – I had to lump these together because I bought both the same day and listen to them interchangeably. These guys are MUSICIANS. Their musicianship and singing are unbelievable. They could play lousy cover songs all day (and Fun Machine IS basically an EP of covers) and they’d make them rock. Case in point, “I Want You Back” (the original) is a song I’d rather punch myself in the face than listen to voluntarily. But their cover is one of my all-time favorite songs. Other highlights include the very fun “Elijah” and both versions of “Neighbor Songs” (though I give a narrow edge to the original non-hidden track version).

1. They Might be Giants – Nanobots (2013) – I remember kinda giving up on TMBG after The Else, which I felt was their worst album ever and far inferior to the bonus CD of extra crap they threw in with it. Then I read reviews of Join Us and they heralded it as the rebirth of their OLD-STYLE of songwriting. As I said in 2011, I thought it fell quite short of that honor. Nanobots really harkens back to their old style much more, but this album is more than that. It’s a Jeckyl and Hyde album. Half of it (mostly the first half) is definitely their modern style, with almost all of Linnell’s songs being hits (You’re On Fire, Nanobots, Call You Mom, Sleep). Flansburgh, well, okay I don’t really know what’s going on with him, because I’m liking fewer and fewer of his songs on each album. Anyway, the 2nd half of the album is definitely much more in the vein of their older stuff, and I don’t mean that because of their homage to Fingertips (which was their homage to best-of CD collection commercials). The 2nd half features a few great hits as well, again mostly by Linnell, such as “Great”  and one of my all-time favorites “Icky”). The only bad spot (other than Flans’ mediocrity) is that this CD contains Linnell’s worst song since “Somebody Keeps Moving My Chair” in “Stuff is Way”. Actually, this one is probably worse. Anyway, fantastic CD and gave me a little hope for their ‘adult’ CDs moving forward!

2013 in Books

Only one month late, here are my reviews of things I read and listened to in 2013. Unlike years past, I will not break down my books post into a best of and a worst of – I frankly didn’t read enough books to do so. Rather, here are my reviews of a handful of great and lousy books that I did devour in one way or another:

THE WORST

4. Foundation – Isaac Aasimov – This surprised me, as this series has been universally considered the best sci-fi series of all time (and it won an award somewhere confirming this). But when I read it, I found myself not caring about the characters because we simply don’t get to be around them long enough for them to impact us; suddenly the next ‘mini-story’ kicks in and we’re transported 50 years in the future with a new set of characters. I have already bought the first 3 books of the series, so I sorta hope it evens out.

3. Blackbirds – Chuck Wendig – This was read on suggestion by a friend of a friend on Facebook, and I found it cheap so I thought I’d give it a whirl. It just was too grotesque for my liking – at a certain point I got numb to reading about piss and blood and bile. It seemed like he was going to set a mood for the piece, but it became overwhelming. Add to that the ending was a letdown (and from what I recall – I read it over a year ago now – it seemed to have a big incongruous hole in it plot-wise) and this was a book I just didn’t enjoy. Not enough to give it up, but enough dissatisfaction to make the list.

2. Hyperspace – Michio Kaku – Oh, it pains me to put something by Michio Kaku on this list, especially since last year his book Physics of the Impossible made it to #3 on my great book list! It might just be that I don’t have the brain for this kind of science, which is also a shame because of how much I enjoy science. Here’s the thing – the first few chapters introduced some amazing concepts that bent my brain in all sorts of awesome ways. Sometimes I’d have to reread something a few times to actually let it sink in. But you know when a book STARTS at the upper level of your brain’s capacity for comprehension, it’s not going to go well. And then at a certain point I just no longer understood what was going on – he completely lost me on subjects and proofs and mathematical concepts I simply couldn’t grasp. I wanted to love this book, but I got little out of it after the first 50 pages.

1. A Spot of Bother – Mark Haddon – I usually don’t include books I didn’t finish, but I have to do so here. I bought this book simply because of how much I enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon’s most famous book. In it, he told the entire story through the lens of a very nuanced, particular, eccentric character (in that case a child with pretty severe autism). In A Spot of Bother, what I hated about it was that he told the entire story through the lens of a very nuanced, particular, eccentric character. The difference was I simply hated the narrator. I tried 3x to get into this book, finally asking my wife to read some of the pages randomly throughout and see if the style changes at all. Having been assured it didn’t, I had to give up on the book. Here’s what the book sounded like to me.

The wallpaper was yellow, dusty, and peeling. I thought to myself that I should prepare a sandwich. Sally walked into the room and asked, “Is Ted home?” I looked up at her and thought of that summer when we almost drowned in that dinghy. I wore that hat that I lost in Berlin. “I bet it snows tonight,” I said to the teacups. After I threatened to cut her hair, we both tried in vain to get the truck to start.

 

THE BEST

5. The Case for Mars – Robert Zubrin – I actually liked what he had to say about his proposal to eventually colonize Mars, not only the detail with which he goes into how it could be done, but also demonstrating the need for such a project to start. The main reason that this wasn’t ranked higher was simply that Robert Zubrin wrote it, and this read more like a sales pitch than a truly informational book. While he does purport to give competing theories and projects, he immediately follows up with why rival suggestions wouldn’t work and why his plan was really the only acceptable plan. Had this been written by an impartial third party, I’d have been much more satisfied.

T2. The First Men in the Moon – H.G. Wells – It completely boggles my mind to read sci fi from almost 100 years ago, when the idea that someone could go to the moon was still incomprehensible. I love the simplicity of the “rocket” that was used, and didn’t mind that nearly everything in the novel is, by modern standards, total hogwash. I simply pretended that “the moon” in the story was another planet altogether and enjoyed a lighthearted (for Wells) sci fi romp. Quaint fun.

T2. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – Bill Bryson – There is very little about Bill Bryson’s life that warranted him writing a memoir. It is by all tokens just a series of memories without any major life change, no pinnacle reached, no catharsis. But why this ranks so high is that, gosh darn, Bryson is just so innately readable. I’ve yet to find a book of his that I didn’t enjoy, and that’s considering some of his travel books about places I have zero interest in ever traveling to.

T2. Anonymous Rex – Eric Garcia – Bought on a whim at the superawesomecheap bookstore, this seemed like good lighthearted fare in the Christopher Moore style, and I’d say that’s basically what it was. Perhaps not as polished as Moore (in the only book I’ve read of his), this was a thoroughly enjoyable read with enough surprises to keep me interested and enough silliness to keep me enjoying myself. While none of these three books tied for second would probably make a Top 20 all-time list for me, they were all fun reads.

1. Storm of Swords – George R. R. Martin – There’s a reason that most people consider this the best book of the Fire and Ice series – it’s because it’s the one where all the stuff happens. Obviously, the first book has what I’d call one major plot twist and a few minor ones, but Storm of Swords seems to have one every few pages. What flummoxes me is that he basically needed 2000+ pages of exposition (the first two books) to establish the world and characters thoroughly enough for us to be as struck by the events in the third book, but he did. And that did make all the difference. I’m holding out hope that book 4 was so sloggingly expositional that it’s just setting up for a killer book 6 (or with any luck, book 5).

Best of 2012 – Books

At last, I’m finally finishing my four-part series. As I said before, I read a whole lot of books (though a handful were rereads and not eligible for this list. I will also state here that I’m sorta of cheating – a few of my stories will actually be lumped together because they were part of a series and I didn’t prefer one over another.

I do have to get into a pet peeve of mine. This list actually has more non-fiction on it than fiction, which is pretty surprising, including several memoirs/biographies. But what I really really really really really can’t stand is everyone’s insistence when writing their own memoir (or even a biography) is for the first chapter to be some pivotal moment in that person’s life, then chapter two starts at the beginning and the rest of the story is getting to that moment and its aftermath. Is there a handbook for memoir writing that mandates that you must write like that? I mean, seriously. It’s so tired.

That out of the way, let’s get it on, I’m sure I have much to say about these books.

7. 127 Hours (Between a Rock and a Hard Place) – Aron Ralston: The basis for the movie 127 Hours (which I’ve still not seen), this is a very good retelling of a horrifying and unbelievable story. It is said without too much pomp and, without knowing the author at all, I felt like he was being level about everything. He told the story in a even-keeled way (not putting blame on other things when it didn’t belong, not having a no-fear attitude more than he would have in that situation). A good read, almost a nail-biter (though the problem with auto-biographies about near-death experiences is you know that they don’t actually die or they wouldn’t have been able to write about it).

6. Heart of the Game: Life, Death & Mercy in Minor League America – S.L. Price: See, this is a biography about death. It had very good reviews and I found it very cheap at the bookstore, so I picked it up. I think there’s a pre-requisite that you need to be a baseball fan to truly enjoy this book, but if you are (even casually), this is a great underdog story, and ultimately a very touching retelling of the life of Mike Coolbaugh. Not much else to say, just a great read which tugs at just the right heartstrings.

5. Lucky Man/Always Looking Up – Michael J. Fox: These are two books, one basically leading up to his Parkinson’s diagnosis (and just a bit of aftermath) and the second book was almost entirely about his PD efforts. Most reviewers tend to talk about Fox’s amiable tone and his golly-gee ability to make you fall in love with him, but more than that I was taken aback by how good a writer he was. These were not ghost-written and I’m glad for that. He speaks about his life with optimism that I wish people in “everyday” life would have, myself included.

4. A Game of Thrones/A Clash of Kings – George R. R. Martin: Here, I’m totally cheating. I read both and they were equally as enjoyable, but it does seem like cheating to have almost 2000 pages in one entry. A few of my friends are die-hard fans who basically swore that my life would change by reading them. Well, sadly it didn’t. In fact, I’ve had these read for over 8 months and I haven’t started on the third book (which is universally considered the best) because I am not DYING to. That being said, they are thoroughly enjoyable epic novels with some fantastic characters and plot twists that you don’t really see coming. Death in these books is for plot, but no one seemingly is immune. My only real beef with the books is the needless description in them. I swear, if he simply did not describe what people were wearing and eating, he’d shave 200 pages off these books combined. Definitely worth a read if you have PLENTY of time.

3. Physics of the Impossible – Michio Kaku: I like physics. I like space. I like learning things. What’s more, I like reading about things that haven’t happened yet, but PROBABLY WILL. This was a very enlightening (and almost entirely accessible to most people) read that tells about various scientific breakthroughs and not IF, but WHEN these crazy things will happen. It struck me as amazing that things I thought were totally impossible (teleportation, invisibility, and even time travel) are not only possible, but could happen in the next few centuries (not time travel, that is WAY down the line). Some of the writeups got a bit heavy-handed in the science jargon for me, but in general, it was a good read to have around as both entertainment and a reference.

2. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal – Christopher Moore: I had heard that this was a very very funny book (as all of Christopher Moore’s books are), but not having read anything by him, I didn’t know what to expect. Many of the “funny” authors I’ve been referred to in the past end up being quite juvenile or, worse, not good writers. He surprised me on both counts. His writing had depth, the humor not in your face or egregious or slapstick (the subtlety of a young Jesus putting dead frogs into his mouth to heal them was awesome). His writing was also much better than I’d thought, partially because many times the authorship craft gets buried beneath the attempts at humor. With Moore, he always treads a fine line between storyteller and joketeller. In fact, I was almost shocked when I got the ending and it got all heavy. I mean, I guess I should have expected it (spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for Joshua), but the emotion he brought out there didn’t seem to contradict the earlier lighthearted style (though I’d argue he worked himself into a hole from the onset by trying to write a funny book that ended with the most famous death in history).

1. A Fire Upon the Deep – Verner Vinge: I gave this book up after the first 100 pages. It’s not that I didn’t like it, per se, but that I didn’t understand it. He puts you in a reality with different types of creatures and in fact a different understanding of technology, and he doesn’t hand-hold you along the way. Things are givens and poorly-described, either to let your imagination work, or to describe them with limited exposition at a more appropriate time. See, here’s a secret about me: I’m a smart cookie, but I have notably terrible critical reading skills. (In elementary school, I’d consistently be in the top 95% in math, top 80% in writing/language/vocab, but in the 50-60% in critical reading.) When I later picked up the book again (after Ash had read it and I could bounce ideas off her), I got to where I left off, and the VERY NEXT CHAPTER explained something very important that would have helped. What this book ended up becoming was a phenomenal science fiction book that deals with technology, alien species, betrayal, and of course a “ticking bomb”. It’s a fantastic book. It’s a three book series, and the 2nd book (a prequel – A Deepness in the Sky) is also good and worth a read. It probably would have made #8 on this list. The third book (a sequel to this one) is in my queue to read soon. As much as I like Ender’s Game, this is really the bar against which true science fiction should be judged. It challenges the mind and the imagination as you read (I believe Ash described it a couple times as a brain f**k).

Worst of 2012 – Books

I read an eye-popping 32 books this year, with only six of them being rereads (5 of those were so I could read the 6th in a series I hadn’t read in a while). That is the most I’ve ever read in a year, particularly when you consider that 5 of the books alone were a combined ~4000 pages and I have two kids. It was a very divided year literarily with some very good books and a few clunkers. So let’s start with the bad. And some of these were pretty bad. Bear in mind, these are books that I have FINISHED. So let’s start with #0, a book I disliked so much I finally gave up and gave it back to the bookstore.

0) Red Prophet – Orson Scott Card: I had tried twice to slog through this book and only got a few chapters in each time. It’s the second in a series, and the first, The Seventh Son, wasn’t amazing but decent enough to warrant moving on in the series. The problems I had in this book were only two, but they were big. 1) It’s racist. Racism is part of the story, in fact, but the descriptions of Indians are downright upsetting. It’s like he couldn’t go a single passage without mentioning they were lazy or drunk. Now, I can get by racism, particularly if it’s integral to the story (which I’m inclined to think here it wasn’t), but 2) the book was skull-crushingly boring. I got maybe 50 pages in and I was waiting for anything to happen. Sequels shouldn’t be boring as much of the exposition is already established. Anyway, good riddance to this one. Now onto the list proper.

6. First Meetings in Ender’s World – Orson Scott Card: Ouch, the 2nd OSC to appear on my bad list. This one isn’t truly that bad, and really I only got it to have the original short story version of Ender’s Game. It was pretty cool to see how that had evolved (and more surprisingly how little changed). But the other three stories were pretty meh. In fact, one thing that bothered me about it was how hard OSC tried to make every single decision have significance. The story about Ender’s parents meeting was WAY too prophetic for me to swallow it for even a second.

5. Why We Suck – Denis Leary: If the entire book were written like the first chapter I’d probably like it more (random snippets of thought about various topics, something at which Leary excels). But then the rest of the book takes a meandering look at various things, lodging itself somewhere between an autobiography, a comedy book, and a vanity piece. It certainly had its chuckle moments, but not enough to support it.

4. Airframe – Michael Chrichton: One of my all-time favorite Dash definitions was Corey’s definition for “skimmington”: a talking stuffed bear that never made it on the market due to the fact that young British children couldn’t give two shits about yard work. It’s a great concept. Unfortunately, I feel the same way about this “thriller” Airframe. It’s not a bad story, per se, and there’s a charming whodunnit appeal to it, but really, I just find myself not giving a shit about airplane building and maintenance. It’s like he wrote this for a convention of plane mechanics or something.

3. The Motley Fool Investment Guide – David & Tom Gardner: I will start by saying that I bought this right as I was starting to do research about retirement and stocks. It was very cheap (it was an old edition, maybe from the mid-90s?). After finishing it, I was all revved up to follow their suggestions – it was a good sales pitch. However, I did something smart – I went online to see how their recommendations did historically. Well, lousy – worse than market average. What’s more, their “genius secret plan” was debunked shortly after writing this and they quickly stopped preaching what was written in these pages. So this is factually a bust, but I only ranked it 3rd because I found out quite early that it was all bollocks.

2. And Another Thing – Eoin Colfer: I wanted to like this story. I really really did. Hell, I wanted to go against the mainstream opinion that this book was borderline blasphemous. I didn’t care that he was a ‘young adult’ author – if you read HHGTTG again with a critical eye, you’d find out that it isn’t at a much higher level than young adult. But man, it just isn’t a good book. The best parallel I could say is this – let’s say The Simpsons hired a guest writer to write a season. And that guy was Seth McFarlane (Family Guy). Family Guy took a few ELEMENTS of The Simpsons and catered the show around that. That’s what Colfer did. He took things Adams did (the random guide entries that were only tangentially related) and the silly names and expanded just them – what resulted was so non-sequitur and disjointed as to be unenjoyable reading (the 260 pages took me longer than several of the 500+ pages). There were other negatives: a) it was no longer Arthur’s story, b) he totally copped out in terms of plot just SO he could get “the old gang” back together, c) the Guide entries were distracting and often unfunny, and WAY too frequent and d) some of the characters behaved/spoke in ways that I thought were completely uncharacteristic of them. Highly disappointing.

1. Killing Yourself to Live – Chuck Klosterman: I’ll say it now, I don’t like Chuck Klosterman, and I wish I had realized that after the 1st book I read of his. He’s pretentious, he’s not at all charming, and I want to just smack him in the face. He loves putting words like “paradigm” in each chapter when it really doesn’t belong (even if it is *technically* the correct word). He begins with an interesting idea – touring famous hotspots for rock stars’ deaths and trying to find tying elements between death and music – and turns it into this bitchy, self-centered diatribe about himself and the couple of girls he hasn’t manage to repel with his conceited personality. This book did have one fortunate bonus – it taught me not to buy any more Chuck Klosterman.

 

Best of 2012 – Music

And now, the moment few have waited for, the BEST CDs of 2012. Reminder, these didn’t necessarily COME OUT in 2012, I just bought them in 2012. In fact, I think only one of the CDs I got this last year actually came out then. I’m not exactly “with it” in terms of anything nowadays.

It was a disappointing year for music, which was okay since the year for books was so very good. Very little was outstanding. Hell, I bought a Mountain Goats CD and a Paul and Storm CD. Neither cracked the top 5, and the latter was close to making my bad list for being so disappointing. If it weren’t for the title track, which really is 45 seconds of awesome, it might have landed there. Anyway, onto the list.

5. Richard Cheese – Lounge Against the Machine: This is a very silly album, and it’s a one-note joke. It’s lounge versions of heavy metal and rock songs. The guy is pretty famous for his campy campy covers. I found it for $1. That being said, a few of the tracks had me genuinely laughing out loud, particularly “Rape Me” and “Come Out and Play”

4. Days of the New – Days of the New II: Another $.29 Grassroots purchase (don’t worry, after this one all the CDs on my list were purchased online) that I knew nothing of the band. Listening to them, I have much trouble classifying what type of music they are, though online everyone seems to just lump them with Alice in Chains. I disagree. It sounds maybe like acoustic post-grunge, but I think they are a very different breed. The singer isn’t amazing, but the songwriting is very interesting. I was quite pleased with this purchase.

3. Afro Celt Sound System – Volume 5: Anatomic: It’s hard for Afro-Celt Sound System to do something I don’t like (other than their ill-fated attempt at changing their name to The AfroCelts). This album is not their strongest effort (the first three are), but it stands maybe a slight bit over Vol. 4. The real problem they face is that they slowed down their style so that their music became more ambiance than cool tunes. Don’t let this criticism fool you, though, this is still a really good album, especially if you’re a fan of world music at all.

2. The Wailin’ Jennys – Firecracker: I had only heard the 30 second Amazon.com snippet of one of their songs “Long Time Traveler” and I put this on my wish list and got it for my birthday. It’s a three-woman folk band, so know right away that if that doesn’t sound appealing to you, chances are it won’t be. However, it’s very craftily arranged folk, and the harmonies are among the tightest I’ve heard since Eddie From Ohio stopped putting out new material. The biggest criticism I have is that two of their songs, Long Time Traveler & Avila are clearly ripped off versions of inspired by Down to the River to Pray & The Gambler (respectively), so much so that it does diminish my enjoyment of their songwriting to some degree. However, it is undeniably enjoyable folk.

1. Nighwish – Imaginaerum: In a strong musical year this would have still vied for the top stop. When Nightwish got rid of the opera singer Tarja, I (like most) wondered if the band would survive. When they put out their first CD with Anette Olzon (Dark Passion Play), I was happy with it and thought it was a pretty good effort. It wasn’t until Imaginaerum came out that I realized how wrong I was. DPP is a decent album, but the major problem with it is that Nightwish didn’t adapt their style at all to the new singer. Rather the songs on it are simply songs that Tarja would have done better. So it’s a GOOD album (particularly the opening track) but something is off. With Imaginaerum they catered the style to the singer. And the results are pretty amazing. It’s not all just banging goth rock, either. There’s a slow sultry tune (Slow Love Slow) which, as much as I love Tarja, she would not have done justice to. There’s some Danny Elfman-inspired songs (Scaretale and Arabesque) and of course a few more traditional sounds (I Want My Tears back). But here Anette doesn’t sound like she’s trying to replicate the past. They are modifying their sound in pretty brilliant ways. If I were to recommend any single goth album, I’d have trouble deciding between Once (Nightwish’s best Tarja album) and this one. A must buy.

 

And I just realized how diverse these 5 CDs are. 1 comedy lounge, 1 alt-grunge, 1 african/celtic CD, 1 folk, 1 goth metal. Such is my tastes.

Worst of 2012 – Music

So it’s that time of year again, for my Best-of and Worst-of entertainment (books and music).  To see last year’s entries, click here:

Worst of 2011 – Music

Best of 2011 – Music

Worst of 2011 – Books

Best of 2011 – Books

Like last year, I’m stretching this into a four-part series.  I’ll start with the Worst CDs.  In all, I’ve obtained around new 50 CDs last year, not counting random online downloads from Amazon (free!).  For this list, a few notes: these CDs didn’t all come out in 2012, they were just obtained this year.  I’ve included release date years.  Also, I’m not including gifts on here, which I usually rip before giving away. Let us begin.

Runners Up: Paul & Storm: Gumbo Pants (more disappointing than bad); The Black Keys: El Camino (nothing stands out except the radio track, which I hadn’t even heard until I won this CD)

7. Wilco – A Ghost is Born (2004): This album made me coin a term. To “Wilco” a song is to take a perfectly good song and then let a tone-deaf one-armed chimpanzee have a guitar solo in the middle of it. Half the songs on this album would be perfectly fine if they didn’t have annoying guitar noise interrupt them halfway through. But alas, almost all of them do. Not as good as Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, which isn’t as good as many of the other albums I own.

6. The Corrs – In Blue (2000): This was a random whim. I had a song of them playing with the Chieftains and that song rocks. So I picked this one up for $.29. Well, it’s bland pop from start to finish. One of the songs is even famous (who knew? I certainly didn’t when I purchased the album). If it weren’t for the surprisingly good instrumental track at the end (which sounds more like what I HOPED this album would sound like), this album would not have fared so well.

5. Rockapella – Don’t Tell Me You Do (1999): Rockapella with Sean Altman fronting the band? Pretty awesome. Rockapella without Sean Altman? Not so much. Another CD with only one decent track.

4. Various Artists – People Make the World Go Round (1996): So far each of these CDs was bought at Grassroots for $1 or less, so that explains why I didn’t properly vet them. In fact, all the worst-of CDs this year were from Grassroots. However, I’ve typically done well with world/jazz/atypical music. So this “Jazz” CD seemed pretty cool, especially with some of artists on there (Herb Alpert, Lionel Hampton, Herbie Hancock…) Turns out this CD is just lame R&B, one of my two least favorite styles of music.

3. From Autumn to Ashes – Too Bad You’re Beautiful (2005): To be fair, this CD isn’t bad for what it is. They aren’t an untalented band. The problem is the style of music is one I absolutely abhor (and clearly didn’t glean based on the liner notes when I blindly purchased it). It’s thrash metal – not particularly good, but not particularly bad – but the style is just so not me that I couldn’t bring myself to find a single track I liked.

2. Ben Harper – Fight For Your Mind (1995): I remember a time where a few of my friends were going to see Ben Harper and Keller Williams in concert together and they were oohing and aahing over it. I had never heard much by either artist. But when I saw this Harper album for $.29, I figured, why not? I’ll tell you why not. This CD bores the ever-loving stuffing out of me. This whole album is just monotony incarnate. Don’t purchase this unless you are having trouble sleeping or if you want to study how to make your songwriting less interesting.

1. Ophelia’s Sweet Demise – Dark Ensemble (1998): You’d think with a harsh review like #2 that it couldn’t be beat. Well, it did, and in spades. Unlike #3, which had some talent if just not at all my style, or #2 which had at least okay musicianship, this CD has nothing. I bought it because it seemed like goth metal that I like (Nightwish, Epica…etc). Turns out it’s just three people (maybe more?) with little idea how to play their instruments, sing, or write music. I can overlook bad singing if I like the music (Ben Folds Five, Mountain Goats). I can overlook bad composition if it’s well-played or orchestrated (Vanessa Carlton), but this is neither. The composition is bland at best, the musicians aren’t particularly good. Hell, the instruments themselves are out of key in a couple of the tracks. I haven’t yet deleted it because I keep hoping one day, while coming up on random, a single track will leap out and at least let me see a glimmer as to why I should enjoy this music. So far, I’ve had no luck. This is in the running for one of the worst CDs I’ve ever bought for myself (it’s a tight race between this and 2010’s winner).

Best of 2011 – Books

Alas, the final episode of my 4-part Series.  See here for Worst Music, Best Music, and Worst Books.  Let’s finish this strong!

7. Earth: The Book – The Daily Show Staff:  Quite frankly, this was an improvement over America: The Book, which I felt was funny in parts but too juvenile, even for me.  The science jokes were very intelligent and definitely chuckle-worthy if you got the references.  This one was funny almost the whole way through.

6. The Pluto Files – Neil deGrasse Tyson:  A history of Pluto, including (and focusing on) Pluto’s “fall from grace,” the only reason this isn’t higher is the caliber of the books I read this year.  I had wanted to read this since I saw the inimitable Mr. deGrasse Tyson appear on The Daily Show a few years ago, advertising it.  What I never quite realized was how much NdGT had to do directly with Pluto’s seeming demotion.  I, for one, agree, but then again, that man is so likeable he could lobby to eat a penguin alive and I’d probably agree.  A very fascinating read.

5. Timeline – Michael Chrichton: I’ve read an awful lot of Chrichton since moving to Reno (thank you Grassroots Books!) and this was one of his best.  Time travel stories always capture my fancy, and this one being so far in the past gave me a little something different. Again, his research that goes into his books never ceases to amaze me.  I think the major detractor of this book was simply how many times the protagonists were in “well, we’re done now” situations only to be saved at the last possible moment.  I had just wanted them to be killed just for difference sake.  But really, this was a fun romp from start to finish.

4. Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie: I liked this book far more than I thought I would.  I had seen the movie version of it back in middle school or grade school, but remembered nothing about it.  When I saw it for $1, I figured, why not?  And it was just an enjoyable old-school caper.  It’s actually a shame that this is the only pre-1940 book that made my best-of-list, but I imagine if this had been a Top 10 list instead, it might include Jules Verne’s “The Chase for the Golden Meteor” and H.G. Wells’ “Island of Dr. Moreau.”  I’m just glad I didn’t try to figure it out on my own, because I would have been hopelessly wrong.

3. Bad Astronomy – Phil Plait: For the most part, I really like Phil Plait (and his Bad Astronomy blog), even if he didn’t respond to my repeated question I’ve emailed him about the Big Bang Theory.  My only real gripes are that his skepticism shows a bit of favoritism.  And while I agree with him about things like the anti-vax movement, he tends to be much less skeptical when a scientist or astronomer makes some new untested discovery than when something he doesn’t believe in makes a proclamation.  Anyway, that aside, this book is great.  It debunks common misconceptions about astronomy, a few of which I (an avid astronomy fan) even fell prey to.  For instance, did you know you can stand eggs on their end any day of the year?  Yup.  I did it.  Crazy.  Anyway, read this book if you’re not knowledgeable about astronomy, or even if you think you might be.  It might open up your eyes a bit.

2. Sphere – Michael Crichton:  MC’s second entry this year, Sphere was one of the few books that genuinely creeped me out.  I’ve read thrillers that are supposed to be scary, but really just leave me thinking, “If this were a movie, it’d probably be scary.”  But [spoiler alert] when the crazy jellyfish start doing boring through the one scientist, and nobody had any real clue why, it really just sent a shiver through me.  The movie does a decent job of relating to the book, but the book is definitely better (as just about every book is, except for Apollo 13 – just watch the movie.)  This is my favorite MC book, though The Lost World would come close.

1. Shades of Grey – Jasper Fforde: I’m going to be honest here: I have no real idea why this book is #1 on my list.  I spent most of the book not having a clue what was going on.  Fforde is great at setting up worlds that are similar to, but drastically different from, our own.  And he states these differences up front to some degree.  In the Thursday Next books, he lets you know that it’s a world where literature is next to godliness.  In “Shades of Grey”, he puts you in a world of some crazy color heirarchy but never once explains any of it, except anecdotally throughout the book.  He doesn’t explain why swans are so dangerous.  He makes reference to things that seem commonplace, but without context (and he doesn’t give you any), you have no real understanding of how any of it ties together.  Yet I found myself really digging what happens to the main characters, and really excited for the 2nd installment (it will be a 3-part series if the back cover is to be believed).  So yeah, this is an excellent book, I am just not sure who I can recommend it to.

 

Worst of 2011 – Books

So I read 26 books in 2011, which is pretty good for me.  5 of the books were re-reads, so I’ll only be worrying about the other 21 (if I didn’t Ella Minnow Pea would be on the top of my good list every year).  Like the CDs from this year, there wasn’t a whole lot of bad this year, though a few were disappointing for the reasons below.  I hope to have the best books up before 2012, but we’ll see.  Oddly enough, a surprising amount of the books – about 20% – were books written before 1950.

5.  The Davinci Code – Dan Brown: It is perhaps unfair that this appears on my “bad books” list.  The truth is that it was a pretty fun read – a little sleuth romp.  At worst, when I finished it, I felt rather ambivalent about it.  So why does it make the list?  My biggest problem with the book was the short bit he put at the beginning, where he tries to validate all the things in the book by saying “But all this stuff is based on real facts!”  To me, it’s these few paragraphs that have polarized everyone’s opinions of the book.  If it were just a work of fiction, nobody pays much attention to it.  Instead, readers who don’t know that he’s based much of his work on theories walk away having their faith shaken to the core.  They’re really silly, that lot.

4.  The Age Altertron – Mark Dunn: I think I have myself to blame.  As soon as I’d heard that Mark Dunn (author of the revolutionary Ella Minnow Pea and Ibid) had a new book coming out, I ordered it immediately.  Had I done the research to discover this was a young adult book, I might not have been so disappointed by it.  However, I can look past it being a book geared for kids.  It seemed to be dumbed down too much – Dunn’s a smart guy and a clever author, and I think he underestimates kids by writing this book as basically as he did.

3.  Baby Signs – Linda Acredolo & Susan Goodwyn: Bought as part of a Grassroots Bag sale, this book probably only cost me a quarter.  I was interested in learning the “official” method for using signs to communicate with a baby.  I have two major problems with this book.   First, the book seems like a billboard for the book.  Seriously, every other page is just reinforcing that no matter what you do, continue to do everything in the book.  Second, and here’s my real beef: there already exists a system to communicate with your hands – it’s called sign language.  Yet they invent a whole bunch of signs to communicate, several of which are far more difficult for klunky fingers to attempt than their ASL counterparts.  I walked away from that book thinking, “Forget this, I’m going to get out my ASL book and just work on these.”

2.  Ender in Exile – Orson Scott: There’s a very important reason that Orson Scott Card had skipped a large portion of time in Ender’s life – from the end of Ender’s Game to the beginning of Speaker for the Dead.  That reason is because that period in his life is mind-numbingly boring.  Simply put, this book did not need to be written.  I’m okay with the large gap in Ender’s life, especially because it is touched upon a bit in the subsequent series.  It’s be like finding the missing years of Jesus’ life’s manuscripts, only to realize he spent nearly all of it watching “Cribs”.  Also, it seems like OSC forgot to put any sort of dramatic tension in the book, which he crams into the last few chapters.  An uneven, uninteresting read, probably only for true Ender fanatics, and even then a weak link.

1.  Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society – edited by Bill Bryson: This is probably the book I was most disappointed by.  Ash got it for me last Christmas, and at the time I didn’t even know it existed.  I was super excited.  Not only was it [edited] by Bill Bryson, but it was about a subject I didn’t know a whole lot about.  Turns out this isn’t a history of the Royal Society.  It is a collection so essays about science that are each, in one way or another, somehow related to the Royal Society – often times tangentially.  It would be like calling a book “The History of Baseball”, then having Ch. 1 be about ERA, Ch. 2 be about Pete Rose’s gambling problems, Ch. 3 be about home run records, Ch. 4 being about grass vs. astroturf… etc.  Add to that that some of the chapters were downright uninteresting (I’m looking at you, several chapters about meta-physics).  It wasn’t all bad; a few of the chapters were interesting reads, like Margaret Atwood’s chapter about mad scientists, and most of the ones about astronomy.  But all in all, unless you want to read a collection of unrelated essays written in MLA format, this book probably isn’t for you.  And that’s really a shame.

Best of 2011 – Music

All right, time for the best music I bought in 2011.  Same rules apply to the Worst of, which can be found HERE.

7.  Ken Burns Jazz – Louis Armstrong (2000) – It’s no surprise that I like big band music.  But I have very little Louis Armstrong for a guy who likes it so much.  When I saw this one, I had to pick it up.  It’s a great collection, from his early Dixieland-esque work with several groups, to his later more familiar style.  It’s just a great selection of songs.  That Ken Burns knows an awful lot about many things.

6.  The Rhythm of the Saints – Paul Simon (1990) – Here is an admission – I think this CD is on the list because I WANT to like it so very badly.  The truth is I do like it, and although Simon gets a bit too much credit for his inclusion of “world musicians” (read: pretty much strictly African), you can’t deny that the music on this album is pretty great.  Noteworthy tracks include “Can’t Run But”, “The Coast”, “Thelma”, and of course the famous(ish) “The Obvious Child”.

5.  Undercard – The Extra Lens (2010) – I was pretty stoked to hear that John Darnielle’s side-project The Extra Lens (formerly Extra Glenns) was coming out with a new release.  For a while, this album was my favorite thing that Darnielle had released since Sunset Tree.  However, after repeated listenings, it is very good, but perhaps not on quite the pedestal it once was.  First off, it’s only 12 songs, and one is an oldie he’s done for years, and another is a cover.  However, two of the songs on here are probably among the best in his entire massive catalog: “How I Left the Ministry” and “Some Other Way”.  In fact, the only real dud on the album is the version of “Rockin’ Rockin’ Twilight of the Gods”, which is particularly not-rocking.  They should have just given it the frenzied energy they give it live.  Definitely worth a listen, especially if you are a Mountain Goats fan.

4.  All Eternals Deck – The Mountain Goats (2011) – Speaking of Mountain Goats, Darnielle somehow sneaks onto my list twice this year.  That seems unfair.  This is his 7th release with his full band, and like the last few, it seems to have few stand-out blow-your-socks-off songs, but conversely no duds.  That’s right, not one song that’s worse than 3 out of 5 stars on my iTunes.  I will say this – unlike the last few, he did at least play with the sounds of the songs a bit.  I found that, before this album, their songs tended to start to sound much too much alike, and on this one, using instrumentation and composition, he varied up the sounds, particularly on “Age of Kings”.  Oh, and for the record, “Never Quite Free” might be the best song of 2011.

3.  Jurassic Park Sountrack – John Williams (1993) – I always assumed Danny Elfman’s soundtracks would comprise pretty much all of my top 10 lists.  But I think as much as I love the man, and as much as his soundtracks are the BEST accompaniment for the film they belong to, you can’t deny that Williams is probably the best theme-writer out there.  It showcases here, as Jurassic Park may have finally vaulted over Edward Scissorhands and Braveheart as my favorite score of all time.  Epic.

2.  Mighty Wind Soundtrack – Various (2003) – I’d seen this movie first probably a year or two after it came out, thought it was charming with a few chuckles, and was happy to have seen it.  Then, many years later, I was still haunted by the song “Kiss at the End of the Rainbow”.  When the came on television recently and I watched it again, I was just captured by the music in it.  Sure, it was written by Michael McKean and not an actual folk artist, per se, but man does he do the genre justice.  I always felt all the styles that the Christopher Guest movies parody are less about parody and more about homage.  That is most true here, where they write genuine folk music that’s tongue-in-cheek, and not trying to be super funny.  I rated about half this album as 4-star songs, including all the songs that are featured in the movie and “Fare Away”, “Blood on the Coal”, and the harmony-solid “When You’re Next to Me.”  This is a great buy for anyone even remotely tolerant of folk music.

1.  Artificial Heart – Jonathan Coulton (2011) – I was nervous that Jonathan Coulton was going mainstream.  He made his calling as an internet darling, doing the Thing a Day series, and that was great.  He was the lovable nerd.  Now that he was under the tutelage of John Flansburg of TMBG (who was once a loveable nerd, but has become too mainstream for my liking), I feared that the album would fall into some of the same traps as TMBG’s recent efforts.  How wrong I was.  Sure, the first 10 seconds of the album sound exactly like a TMBG album, but after that, it is pure Coulton from start to finish.  At 17 tracks, I get the impression he put most of what he recorded on it, and there are a few ones that I pass over (I’m looking at you “Je Suis Rick Springfield”), but the album showcases what Coulton does best: has you cracking up one minute, and quietly reflecting the next.  There’s few artists who can achieve this: Moxy Fruvous and Eddie From Ohio are pretty much the only other two I can think of.  What I appreciate most about the album is that it is a return to melody.  I swear, music today has completely unforgettable melodies, and Coulton deftly carves out a dozen of them on this album alone.  The first half of the album is great, but it is the second half, tracks 10-16 specifically, where it takes off.  Aside from “Good Morning Tucson”, that clump of songs is possibly the strongest string of songs on any album I own, reaching its apex in the trilogy “Down Today”, “Dissolve” and the simple-but-amazing “Nobody Loves You Like Me”.  I heartily recommend this to anyone you know.

 

Worst of 2011 – Music

So it’s that time of year again, for my Best-of and Worst-of entertainment (books and music).  To see last year’s entries, click here:

BEST/WORST OF BOOKS

BEST/WORST OF MUSIC

This year, I’m stretching this into a four-part series.  I’ll start with the Worst CDs.  In all, I’ve obtained nearly 70 new CDs last year, not counting random online downloads from Amazon (free!).  For this list, a few notes: these CDs didn’t all come out in 2011, they were just obtained this year.  I’ve included release date years.  Also, I will NOT be including any kids CDs that we had, nor any music I bought specifically for Ash (because some of that country and the Black Eyed Peas would probably appear on the list).  One other note, the music from this year was not nearly as big a failure as last year, so this is probably the hardest list to come up with.

4.  Join Us – They Might Be Giants (2011): The reviews I’d read on this album were across the board.  Many say it was a nice throwback to their old shorter-song style, some said it was the same miserable stuff they’d poured out of their last few albums.  I was skeptical, but I bought it.  I have to say I lean toward the second.  It’s not the actual songs that are bad; in fact I feel there are a few pretty good songs on the album (When Will You Die, Spoiler Alert, and Three Might Be Duende), but it’s the fact that they’re no longer a band playing songs they wrote.  They are constantly experimenting with different annoying sounds, silly voices, and in my opinion trying to be weird in an attempt to recreate their olden days, rather than writing and performing songs like they used to.  Disappointing.

3.  Weezer – Green Album (2001): I know nobody says to buy this CD as the best example of Weezer, but given the catchy hooks of the Blue Album and songs like Beverly Hills, I expected more from this than album.  This is some of the blandest music for a band with theoretically as much personality as Weezer.   I’ve had the CD for 4 months and I couldn’t sing you a single lyric from it.

2.  Past, Present & Future – Rick Wakeman (2010): I was so excited when Ash bought me this 3-CD collection of new piano music.  Almost anything that Rick touches is gold.  However, I think there should be a disclaimer that this isn’t a collection of 40 well-composed songs.  It sound more like him just improvising and recording it.  I mean, if you listen to the bass hand in each song, it sounds identical in different key signatures.  Sure they’re pretty, and if they pop up randomly on my player, chances are I’ll like the song a great deal, but you simply can’t listen to these CDs in order, it is simply too non-descript.

1.  Monkey – UNLV Orchestra (1999): Okay, yeah, I bought this one because of the name.  It’s basically a collection of orchestra pieces from a college orchestra.  And the playing is fine.  But man, they picked an assortment of really lousy songs.  There’s a number of them I skip outright, and few others that I make it a ways through before thinking, “Wow, this is a lousy song.”  The band sounds fine, at least.

 

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Least-Funny Famous People

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, and while watching Colin Quinn suffer on Conan last night, grabbing at straws to attempt to get laughs, I decided the time was right.   It’s pretty self-explanatory: people who are supposed to be funny who just aren’t.  What do you think of the list?  Agree?  Someone I left off?

10.  Jason Schwartzman – He might only be on this list because I haven’t ever liked any of the movies he’s been in.  That’s got to be partially his fault, though.

9.  Cheri Oteri – She was almost exempt from this list because I feared she wasn’t relevant enough anymore to include on the list.  But her exceptionally forced characters and “I’M LOUD SO I’M FUNNY” shtick was glaring enough to stick her on the list, even if not as high as she might have been 5 years ago.

8.  Ben Stiller – More than probably any other actor, he bothers me.  He’s fashioned a career out of either being a) a douchebag or b) the character who everyone is a douchebag to.  That sort of awkward insult/humiliation humor is tired and never funny.  He’s only not higher on the list because of Tropic Thunder, and even that was almost entirely because of Robert Downey Jr.

7.  Seth Rogan – Not to be confused with Joe Rogan, who occasionally scrapes a laugh out of me, Seth is an overexposed actor who, in small doses, might have enough charm to escape the list.  However, with 23498065 movies where he plays the exact same character, who might be funny to people already high, but not at all funny to people with intact senses of humor.

6.  Jerry Seinfeld – Some of you may be surprised that he’s not higher on this list, due largely to my abhorrence of the TV show.  Well, that’ll put into perspective how unfunny I think the last five people are.  Anyone who made their career out of pointing to something banal and saying “What is up with that?” should never have made it further than a curtain-jerker at Topeka’s second-rate comedy clubs.

5.  Jay Leno – His show has a slew of funny writers on it, yet he can ruin each and every joke he gets with his patented delivery, which seems to hinge largely on using awkward inflection to ruin jokes.  He might not have cracked the Top 10 a few years ago, but after he or NBC (or both) decided he was better than Conan, he gets bitch-slapped down here.

4.  Colin Quinn – I am having trouble remembering anything that he has ever said that made me laugh.  Ever.  This guy makes Mencia seem witty.

3.  Daniel Tosh – The only thing unfunnier than his stand-up show is his desperate attempts to garner laughs with Tosh.0.  I mean, seriously, when Chris Hardwick, who does the same thing on G4’s “Web Soup”, seem downright perfect with his comedy, you know something is wrong.  Then again, I happen to think Chris Hardwick was funny even in Singled Out.  And especially his cameo here.

2.  Jimmy Fallon – He wasn’t funny in Saturday Night Live, when he spent the majority of his time breaking character and giggling.  Heck, he wasn’t funny when he wasn’t spoiling scenes.  He wasn’t funny hosting the Emmys.  He isn’t funny in those credit card commercials.  And he isn’t funny in his TV show.  The worst part is he seems to think he is.  I daresay he’s probably his biggest fan.

1.  Jonah Hill – Please please please please please please please please please please please please stop putting him in movies.

 

honorable mentions: Ashton Kutcher, Will Farrell, The Rock, Lisa Lampanelli (really most of the “comedians” on the Comedy Central roasts), Norm McDonald, any minority comedian who spends 90% of their set making jokes about being black/Hispanic, Jewish/gay/fat…

Best of 2010 – Music

I didn’t buy many albums that came out in 2010, but that didn’t mean I didn’t get 40+ new CDs in 2010.  Here are my best of and worst of lists.  Listen to my suggestions, they’re awesome.

BEST ALBUMS

7.  The Dirty Dozen Brass Band – Open Up: Whatcha Gonna Do for the Rest of Your Life: This was a random purchase for $.50 at Grassroots.  It’s some good Louisiana blues arranged and played by local musicians (as far as I can tell.)  I holds up better if you hear a few songs on random than if you just plug through the whole album, but it’s got some really interesting tunes.

6.  Various Artists – Bluegrass Roots: I purchased this album online because it was the only inexpensive way I could find to purchase the version of “I’ll Fly Away” that’s actually featured in O Brother Where Art Thou? (as opposed to the one that comes on the soundtrack.)  The inclusion of other Kossoy Sisters songs is what makes this album so good – many of the other tracks seem like instrumental fillers, but it’s worth the purchase if it can be found cheap.

5.  Jellyfish – Spilt Milk: This band has apparently been labelled power pop, but I don’t know that I agree with it.  In the first track, it harkens to Imogen Heap, the second to Queen, and the third to Beach Boys, though it’s from ~1993.  The band didn’t last long, having only put out one other album, but this one is fun enough to get you by.  Good upbeat melodies, fun harmonies, and songs that won’t make you think too hard.

4. Glenn Miller Orchestra – In the Christmas Mood, Vol. 1: Every year, I try to get more Christmas music so that we have an alternative to stores which only seem to have 7 different Christmas songs.  Combining it with my love of big band music and this album is a no-brainer.  The worst song on the album is probably the “original” song, In the Christmas Mood.  Some of their renditions of classics are themselves classics.

3.  The Nevada Bachelors – Hello Jupiter: I found this band by accident in 2009 and found several of their melodies and chord progressions to be quite revolutionary.  I purchased this, their other album, and it is much of the same.  For anyone who likes music that you can’t predict the melody on each track, pick it up.

2.  Joe Henry – Scar:  It’s hard to quantify what type of music Joe Henry plays.  He’s listed as country in a few places, and his earlier stuff have some country roots.  But by the time Scar came out, at least, he had moved over to a very swanky, jazzy, bluesy sound.  His voice isn’t the greatest, but I listen to him for the vibe that I get from listening to his music.  It seems like I need to sit in a room with a few candles lit and just stare at something.  And not in a bad way.

1.  Tripod – Entire collection: Okay, I’m cheating.  I managed to grab basically all of this Australian comedy trios music this year, mainly because I found a place that actually offered it all.  Being from Australia, their music is hard to come by.  I like alot of comedy music, but much of it finds a funny concept then writes a song about it.  What sets Tripod apart (particularly live) is that often it IS the composition of the song itself that makes it funny.  After all, this is the same band that has written dozens of songs as challenges in an hour.  Definitely worth a buy if you can find them.

WORST ALBUMS

5.  Various Artists – Timeless Christmas Classics: I suppose I can’t fault this album for it’s title, or at least the descriptor ‘timeless’.  That’s because nearly every version of these famous Christmas songs is either much too fast or much too slow.  Believe me, I like Silent Night done slowly as much as the next guy, but I also like it to finish the first verse before I have to shave again.

4.  Various Artists – Guitar Heroes: Ash had seen this as a special at Best Buy and we hopped right on it, figuring it was songs from the video game.  It wasn’t.  That was a strike against it.  But then I saw that it was labelled as new versions of classics recorded by the original artists.  Okay, that should be a decent substitute.  Problem is they are nearly all live recordings, and many of them not of high quality.  We both feel bamboozled by this cheap ploy to make money.  (edit: I just noticed that one of the songs they included, Sentimental Avenue by Night Ranger, has no guitar – in fact, no other instruments besides piano and voice – awesome.)

3.  John Cale – Walking on Locusts: I had had a Cale song or two on my computer from various compilations, and thought they were decent, so when I found this one for $1, I picked it up.  It is not decent.  It is pretty personalityless.  Maybe it’s all in the lyrics, but the music (and to a lesser extent his voice) won’t permit me to listen to the album long enough to find out.

2.  Grateful Dead – Infrared Roses: I think I am more mad at myself for this album and not the Dead, per se.   I vaguely remember hearing that my brothers didn’t like this album, but seeing it for $.50, I couldn’t pass up to get a Dead album I didn’t have.  I forgot (and didn’t bother to read) that this wasn’t an album of tunes, but the “best of” their live jams Drums & Space.  Saying these are the best is sorta like being the tallest midget, no?

1.  The Phylum Chordata – A Sequential Proportion of Line and Mass Intended Mostly for My Muse: If you’re like me, you’d look at this album and think it is something nerdy and pretty cool.  You, like me, would have been very wrong.  This makes last year’s worst album, The Flaming Lips Embryonic, sound like Vivaldi.  These “songs” are more experiments with synthesizes and voice modulators.  It’s not often that I delete an album from my computer, but this will be one of the first to go.

Best of 2010 – Books

Just like last year, I’ll give you my picks for music (and books) that I have bought/listened to/read this year.  These weren’t necessarily RELEASED in 2010, but I got them this year.  Let’s start with books.  I’ll do CDs in another post.

BOOKS

It was pretty surprising to realize I read around 20 new books this year (as well as rereading some old ones), and have another 10 or so in the queue.  Not that I don’t like reading, I just usually don’t set aside the time to do it.  Finding Grassroots Books, the best used bookstore EVER, has helped, as most of the books I bought didn’t cost me more than $3.  More surprising is that only two (three?) of the best books I read this year were fiction.  I’m getting old.  So here we go.

BEST BOOKS I READ THIS YEAR

6.  A Lion’s Tale – Chris Jericho: This is a wrestling book about one of the most entertaining figures in the business.  Even though there is a ghost writer, this feels like Mick Foley’s books in that it seems like it is Jericho himself writing.  The stories are a amusing, and he sets himself up for a second book (which is due to come out next year.)  Light enjoyable read.  (paid $3 at Grassroots for it)

5.  A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin: This book was the inspiration for the HBO miniseries, From Earth to the Moon. The book version is very very long and can get a bit repetitious, but it was extremely informative.  Outside of Apollo 11 and 13, I didn’t know an awful lot about the missions.  This tells you all you’d want to know, and more.  You need to be interested in space travel/astronomy to get through it.  (got for free from Grassroots)

4.  Bringing Down the House – Ben Mezrich: This was the inspiration for the movie 21 with Kevin Spacey, but don’t watch the movie – it’s a overglorified adaptation.  I read the book in a few hours one night, and it really is quite a story.  The fact that it was true is even more mind-boggling.  And unlike the movie, they don’t make unnecessary conflict – the story stands on its own merit. (paid $2 at Grassroots for it)

3.  The Peace War/Marooned in Realtime – Verner Vinge – 2010 marked my return to loving sci-fi.  I was recommended these books from the owner of Grassroots, and I tried them.  They’re very intelligent sci-fi, and both books have a distinctly different feel for being sequels.  There really is an awful lot of great ideas packed into these two books.  Read if you have time.  (TPW for ~$14 from Grassroots, MIR for ~$8 from Amazon used)

2.  The Foreclosure of America – Adam Michaelson: Who know I would like topical non-fiction?  This is the story of Countrywide and the burst of the housing bubble from a higher-up at Countrywide.  While I feel he too often paints himself as a saint within a corrupt company, this is a tell-all look at the problem that has been way too politicized since 2007.  If you think only one side was at fault, either side, I encourage you to read this.  ($1 at Grassroots warehouse sale)

1.  Contact – Carl Sagan: Sagan’s a smart guy, I always knew that.  And I had seen the end of the Jodie Foster adaptation of this book, but still had wanted to read it.  What he does exceptionally well is compliment fascinating sci-fi with elements of religious contemplation, gender roles, and probably a little Freudian psychology.  This book kinda jump-started my sci-fi/astronomy train I’m on which accounted for nearly half of the books I bought this year.  ($1 at Grassroots)

WORST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

(note, I didn’t really read anything terrible this year, but here’s my best effort)

6.  Dumbheart – Darb Conley: It pains me to put any Get Fuzzy book on this list, but this strip isn’t the consistently laugh-inducing strip it was 5 years ago.  I’d say ever third day has a good chuckle in it, but when you compared it to the days when each BOX had a laugh in it, it’s a letdown.  (~$6 from Amazon used)

5.  Sputnik: the Shock of the Century – Paul Dickson: This book would probably have been higher, but the final chapter or two about the lingering affects of Sputnik were so insightful that it nearly redeemed it.  However, it seemed like the book was written 20 years too early, as it still seemed like there was some info that was not being told (or not known yet.)  ($2 from Grassroots)

4.  Naked Pictures of Famous People  – Jon Stewart: I’ve been a fan of Stewart since You Wrote it You Watch it and his ill-fated late night talk show on Channel 9.  However, I think I’ve been changed by his current run with the Daily Show and his current sense of humor/sensibilities that I was disappointed by this “older” book.  I also hadn’t realized it would be a series of short skits.  It wasn’t bad, just not what I had expected.  ($2 from Grassroots)

3.  Dave Barry’s History of the Millennium – Dave Barry: In high school, the Dave Barry column I would look forward more than any other would be his end-of-the-year recap.  Now, reading this compilation (which only goes from 2000-2004, and he didn’t do one in 2001) seems like a shabby cash cow for a publisher.  Plus, I don’t find him as funny as I used to.  That makes me sad.  ($3 from Grassroots)

2.  39 Years of Short Term Memory Loss – Tom Davis: I’m still actually in the middle of this book, but have put it away.  Even though I’m not a SNL fan by any means (even of the early days), this book interested me because those early years were pretty momentous for TV.  I figured the stories would be great, and maybe they will be, but his writing style is so all-over-the-place it’s nearly unreadable.  In a single paragraph he’ll leap through three stories and cover two years, then go back to something that happened before that paragraph.  Maybe it gets better.  We’ll see.  ($1 at Grassroots warehouse sale)

1.  Builders of the Ancient World – National Geographic: Yeah, I bought a National Geographic book all about the architectural feats throughout time.  I’m not even through the introduction and I’ve put it to the back of my queue.  The writer seems to mention himself as much as the buildings, and there is no rhyme or reason to the chronology he uses to discuss the architecture.  In one page he’ll talk about The Great Pyramids (for maybe 3 paragraphs) then move to his time in the Mayan ruins, then we’re up to North America where he talks uninterestingly about something else.  If I manage to drain my queue before buying more books, I’ll try to finish this and get to the chapters where he properly organizes things.  ($1 from Grassroots warehouse sale)

Best and Worst Christmas Songs

In light of a recent article I read about the composer of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” calling it the worst song ever written, period, I have given some thought to my favorite and least favorite Christmas songs.  And without giving it too much thought, here’s what I came up with.

Worst Christmas Songs (note: there are any number of comedy songs out there that are horrible – I’m excluding them and sticking to songs that were meant to be genuine)

5.  Good King Wenceslas – This probably wouldn’t have made the list except I found out there are like a billion verses.  That song isn’t good short, never mind exceptionally long.

4.  Little Saint Nick – I’m not a fan of the Beach Boys, and them doing their exact same shtick for winter?  Yeah, not any better.

3.  Do They Know It’s Christmas – No, no they don’t.  They often don’t know when their next meal will be.  Even for charity, this is a terrible song, but not the worst of all time (not even on of the worst two Christmas songs.)

2.  Wonderful Christmastime – Sir Paul McCartney, please please please stick to Hey Jude.  I’d rather hear the end of that song on an endless loop than this song.

1. What Made the Baby Cry – Nothing says the celebration of a baby quite like pointing out as frequently as possible that he will die.

Best Christmas Songs (traditional – doesn’t matter the version)

5.  O Come All Ye Faithful – Perhaps it’s the memory of the midnight mass I went to and their timpani player, but this one is still awesome when it’s in full blast mode.

4.  Once in Royal David’s City – A lesser known song, but the melody is soaring.

3.  Let it Snow – I’m not as big a fan of the jaunty songs like Jingle Bells, but this one is good no matter who sings it.

2.  Carol of the Bells – It doesn’t HAVE to be played by a bell choir, but that certainly doesn’t hurt.

1.  Oh Holy Night – This is really the only time I’d prefer a tenor singing a song over anyone else.  Like literally the only time.

Honorable Mentions: Feliz Navidad, Deck the Halls, Hallelujah Chorus, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Best Christmas Songs (specific version)

5.  Twelve Days of Christmas – Bob and Doug McKenzie – Most people know I don’t like the original of this song (because it’s long and repetitious), and I usually like their parodies less.  But this one is funny from start to finish.  Rick Moranis never ceases to amaze.

4.  Baby It’s Cold Outside – Zooey Dachanel & Leon Redbone – Many versions of this song are too fast and chose “whiter” harmonies.  This version is the right combination of swanky and sentimental.

3.  Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24) – Trans-Siberian Orchestra – It’s probably only due to oversaturation that this song isn’t higher.  But seeing one lone guy standing and headbanging to it in concert was a sight I’ll never forget.

2.  Santa Claus – Harry Connick Jr. – The best original Christmas song written in the last 40 years, probably longer.

1.  White Christmas – Bing Crosby – This song, more appropriately this version of this song, IS Christmas.  Much like the Macy’s Day Parade is supposed to usher in the season, my Christmas season doesn’t start until I’ve heard this song.

Honorable Mentions: You’re a Mean One (Mr Grinch) – Rockapella, Christmas Collage – Kathy Mattea, Little Drummer Boy – The Flaming Lips (it contains the lyric: “Baby Jesus, ba rum pa pum pum… is floating somewhere outside, ba rum pa pum pum.”)

Final Fantasy Rankings (Part III)

All right, this is it.  The authoritative list of the best Final Fantasy titles.  This one is bound to cause some discussion, especially among people who think VI is a good game.  I’ve looked at dozens of other people’s lists across the boards, and needless to say, my opinions are not popular.  But here they are: the best and worst of the main Final Fantasy Titles.  (I say main because, of course, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest would be #1 otherwise.)

12.  Final Fantasy III

FFIII

The problems with Final Fantasy III aren’t necessarily numerous, but they are certainly glaring.  The biggest problem I have is with the characters, or the fact that there aren’t any.  It’s the quest of four people nobody knows anything about and how they try to save the world.  The story for all the early Final Fantasies (basically up until 6) aren’t exactly very diverse.  It involves good guys trying to round up crystals to beat bad guys.  So when you already have a flimsy plotline, and no interesting characters to back it up, you’re going to have a game that simply isn’t enjoyable.  Add to that the music (even ignoring its very limited NES capabilities) is downright annoying.  While there are glimmers of interesting developments (the job system is introduced, even though it is fairly useless at this point, as well as summon magic), the game isn’t worth playing if you want an enjoyable experience.

11.  Final Fantasy II

FFII

Truthfully, this game is sorta interchangeable with FFIII in terms of likability.  It’s interesting to note – when US developers were deciding which FF title to bring to the states after FFI, they had two real options – go with the actual FFII or go with FFIV, which had just come out in Japan.  They picked IV, not because it was a better game, but just because it was more recent.  I think that was probably the best decision the franchise made in its history.  II is okay, but it has its share of issues as well.  It is telling that the method of leveling up – the more you do something, the stronger at it you become – was never used in subsequent games.  It’s a weak way to level up that requires lots of mindless battles.  Also, magic in this game is totally utterly useless.  The strongest spell in the game, Ultima 9, does about 1/4 of the damage of a normal attack.  The story isn’t developed enough to note improvements over FFI, although you do see seeds of some of the later titles and the stories (notably FFIV).  The one “improvement” of having to learn and recite key phrases could have been done away with.  Pretty forgettable overall.

10.  Final Fantasy X-2

FFX2

I might be unnecessarily harsh on FFX-2.  It is a pretty enjoyable game to play on face value.  The battle system, although animated in a way that makes it very difficult to follow, isn’t laborious and I found myself enjoying the fights.  The idea of oversouling is great.  The game even contains one of the most awesome, challenging locations in the entire series (The Via Infinito).  My problems with the game, though, are immense, mainly because I am not a young teenage bisexual girl, which I am firmly convinced is the demographic they were targeting.  They essentially eliminated all that was good about FFX (interesting diverse characters, a bad guy I could understand wanting to destroy, blitzball, the music) and substituted it with costumes and hand-holding.  It is markedly dumbed down, even more than American FFII.  There isn’t even anything fresh to enjoy, as the world and nearly all the characters are rehashed from FFX.  It strikes me as they had a couple of ideas that didn’t make it into FFX, and rather than let it go, they made an entirely new game out of it that simply does not stand on its own, and it follows X very poorly.  The best thing they did was getting rid of those abhorrent Cloister of Trials.

9.  Final Fantasy VI

FFVI

That’s right, the golden boy of the series, FFVI, sitting here just barely beating out FFX-2.  How did that happen? I’ll tell you.  First off, the entire game is just shrouded in a deep depression.  There is very little uplifting in the entire game, from the characters conflicts to the music to the towns.  Then there are the characters, which are way too many in number.  If they all served a use, then fine.  But a good 1/3 of them are useless and, aside from giving “options” to the player, they more or less sit in the background, unused.  The first half of the game is an endless series of my least-favorite-sequences of the series.  The actual events they have you go through are annoying and simply not fun.  Finally, I already made my opinions of Kefka known; many fans love him, but I don’t.  In wrestling terms, he’s like X-Pac: people jeer him not because he’s good at making people hate him, but because he’s so annoying and ludicrous that you just want him off your television screen.  The game is not totally bad, though.  This was the first real departure in storyline for the franchise, and it was, if nothing else, a noble effort.  The game’s scope is also very ambitious.  Having a truly shocking change halfway through the game (which literally changes the landscape for the rest of the game) is a great idea, and it breaks up the monotony of the storyline which many FF titles fall into.  When all is said and done, though, this is simply an overrated game that I don’t actually enjoy playing.

8.  Final Fantasy

FFI

It pains me just a little to rate this game only at 8th, since it was the one that started the entire ball rolling.  The story of the creation of the game is pretty fascinating, as the company was on its last legs, so this was the final game it was creating, and they wanted it to be a fantasy game (hence the name.)  That it became some widely successful is the sole reason Square even exists today.  Ultimately, though, this game is ranked so low because the ones that came after it were so good.  The game is rough, no doubt, but when you consider what came before it, it is revolutionary in so many ways.  Sure, there are issues with plot (fairly contrived), characters (there really aren’t any), and annoying glitches (the phantom enemy swipes).  They were ironing out the way the entire genre would work.  It is a classic to this day and still enjoyable to play, and featured themes that Uematsu would incorporate into many of his later masterpieces. 

7.  Final Fantasy VIII


FFVIII

Final Fantasy 8 is probably the most polarizing game in the series (with the exception of maybe XII).  While few would put it as the best in the series, most would put it as the very worst.  The flip side is the people who would argue that it is a superior game to VII.  For a very long time (up until this project), I was one of those people.  I’ve softened my tone slightly, but still say that FFVIII is a solid game.  The bad parts are, indeed, bad.  The junctioning system is very complex and a hassle, having to draw magic to increase in strength is tedious, and the main character, as you’ll remember, ranks as the worst character in any FF game.  That being said, there are a number of plusses.  The simplest ones to see are the advances in technology – VIII really became the benchmark for CGI videos and their ability to enhance a story.  Also, the fact that enemies level up with you is a very interesting take which I wouldn’t mind seeing make a comeback as it leads to interesting replay value.  The card minigame is among the best diversions in the series, and the ending is also among the best.  I think what ultimately hurt this game is there is no one standout positive feature, but I also think the negatives are not as bad as people make them out to be.

6.  Final Fantasy V

FFV

I was a little surprised to see this game did so well on the list.  Truthfully, it could probably swap with the next game on the list, and in fact it did at least once while I was trying to order them.  I always felt that V was the “middle child” of the series, never really getting the attention it should.  Among the games with class systems (III, V and X2), this one was clearly the best of the bunch.  Admittedly, some of the jobs are useless, but they’re all fun to at least try once or twice.  The storyline is nothing fantastic, and not even something we hadn’t seen in the prior game or two, but they seemed to trim the unnecessary parts (five people is a bit much to control at once, but they still retained the interesting characters and character progression.)  If my memory serves me, this was the first time they had a main character die, although some of that novelty was lost when an exact replica character took his place.  It’s a start, though.  The game does frankly take a while to get going, but by the end, it is really a fun game.  It’s major suffering would be that it was way too sylistically close to FFIV, and while I do love IV, there wasn’t much progress made between the two of them.

5.  Final Fantasy VII

FFVII

Many like FFVII best and I think it’s because, for the most part, it was their first exposure to the franchise, as it was the first one to come out on a system other than Nintendo.  I’ve long speculated the same thing with the Evil Dead franchise – whichever you watch first will likely be your favorite (Evil Dead II for me).  As a “purist” who had played the NES and SNES ones first, I had trouble rolling with the punches for this one.  Over time, I’ve come to appreciate it for what it is, though I still stand by my assertion that it is an overrated game.  However, it is incredibly ambitious, as not only were they designing for a new system with better capabilities, they also added countless extras and expanded the idea of an RPG tenfold with this game.  Also in hindsight, I realize how lame those “awesome” graphics were.  Even the movies seemed like cheap anime.  But, there were a number of good things about this game: the death of a major character is definitely one of the biggest shocks of all games, not just this series.  Sephiroth is everything that Kefka isn’t (read: actually interesting.)  While the story is confusing, what FF title doesn’t have a convoluted plotline?  7 certainly has replay value, though not perhaps as much as some later titles.

4.  Final Fantasy XII

FFXII

 

Another game that surprised me when I saw how well it did.  Since this game is freshest in my mind, I think I tend to remember the aggravating bits more than I should.  Also, it should be noted that I played the majority of the game with no walkthroughs (unlike every other title except IX), so there was an element of aggravation in having to do things twice or trying things that didn’t work.  The experiments they made with the game were largely successful: the new battle system, while I wouldn’t want it permanently, was quite nice.  The gambit system was definitely interesting (once you acquire good enough gambits, at least.)  I had no problem with the plot whatsoever, as far as two warring nations.  My major beef was the total lack of interesting characters and character development, but I don’t know that that was their main impulse.  They never even truly assigned a main character (Vaan, who is generally accepted as the main character, is probably only 4th or 5th most important in terms of plot.)  Their concentration seemed to be on the creation of the world and the battle systems.  But the joy of the game, aside from its amazing movies, was definitely its scope.  It’s enormous.  And very free.  You can go almost anywhere off the bat, you can clearly get in over your head doing so, and it’s a pleasure trying to see what secrets you can unlock on your own.  The hunt is a great idea, and the amount of optional stuff makes the replay value of this one very great (as long as you don’t particularly have anywhere important to go for a while.)

3.  Final Fantasy IX

FFIX

I once played this game for an hour and vowed never to play it again.  I was so very wrong.  FFIX for a while was listed at #2 on this list, and only very recently got switched back to where it is.  I think having only played it once and not done “everything” bumped it up higher than it might have gotten otherwise, so I have moved it to the well-earned #3.  It is heralded as a return to the “old style” FF game, and it is that and more.  Characters that are very defined, not just in terms of personality, but ability (I got tired of anyone being able to do anything with the right equipment.)  Here, your mages were mages and your fighters were fighters.  Having a main character who was not an abomination helped.  This game is simply fun with very few minuses.  They got rid of the confusing junctioning system, didn’t try to throw a messy materia system, and nothing as complex as the later sphere grid.  You got a weapon that also assists other attributes, try it.  It seemed oddly strategy-based, especially considering it is the simplest method of leveling up in any game.  While I could have done without the “active time mode” which replaced the “meanwhile” cut scenes from earlier games, and seen a different mini-game other than the card game which was in no way an improvement over VIIIs card game, there isn’t much else I’d change.  Having one of the better endings of the games helped too.  Just a truly fun game.

2.  Final Fantasy X

FFX

Here was another difficult choice, between this one and Final Fantasy IX, and they are also primarily interchangeable.  The Cloisters of Trials, one of the worst things ever, almost single-handedly knocked this down a peg.  Aside from that, though, FFX offers almost everything else you could want.  A very deep world with plenty to do.  Characters that are vivid and diverse within the game.  A bad guy (Sin) who truly seems unbeatable, and a bad guy (Seymour) who is evil all on his own.  Hidden subquests.  An awesome, time-sucking minigame (Blitzball).  A very good score.  Excellent movies.  It’s hard not to like this game, though some say it’s too easy.  There’s always ways to make games harder (try to beat it with only one character alive, for instance.)  I do have a few issues with the game, which I touched on briefly in the worst-characters post (lookin’ at you, Tidus.)  Additionally, the voice acting was okay at best, and painful at other times.  It subsequently got better in newer games.  Also, the game was incredibly limiting, not being able to access most of the world until the last 10% of the game.  But these negatives don’t overcome the fun this game holds.  Clearly deserving of the top 3.

1.  Final Fantasy IV

FFIV

This should surprise nobody who knows me at all. Long listed as my favorite game of all time, Final Fantasy IV is truly an epic game.  On the SNES, we actually played this game so much that we wore out the memory capability of it.  When we called Square, they said they knew it could happen with FFI (whose NES system had a very limited capability for memory) but that they’d never heard of it happened on the SNES.  Why is it the best?  Well, its strength lies in its story and characters.  It’s got betrayal, it’s got moral dilemmas, it’s got a redemption story, it’s got tragic (yet meaningful) loss.  The characters as a whole are the most fleshed out of any game – while others in the series may have a good character or two, IV has an entire roster of very detailed characters with fitting backstories.  It is often overshadowed by VI for some reason, I’m guessing because there aren’t an awful lot of side-quests.  But when the story is so good, why bog it down?  The score is also, as already noted, the best of the series, with countless memorable melodies.  The main negatives are that I always felt Golbez should have been the final end guy, and the actual ending (although I appreciate how it actually gives updates on the characters) is a bit bubble-gum happy for me (the twins should have stayed dead at the very least.)

Now that I’ve completed this completely asinine quest, I might play FFIV one more time, for old time’s sake.  Or, you know, see my wife and kid.

Final Fantasy Rankings (Part II)

This will just be about my favorite and least favorite PLAYABLE characters – ones you can actually use in battle.  This is deliberately to avoid picking ten supporting characters from FFX-2.  I’ll even add some graphics to break up the monotony of the font for a moment.  As before, let me know what you think – agree or disagree.  I think this is pretty much aimed at about 4 people that I know have played most of these.

TOP 10 WORST CHARACTERS

10.  Cloud Strife (FFVII)

Cloud

While it technically started with FFVI, I always viewed Cloud as the start of the whiny emo main characters in the series.  There were times when I was hoping Sephiroth would just kill him already, because I was sick of him clutching at his head and emoting.  His name wasn’t a help either.  Cloud Strife?  Better than Humidity Angst, I suppose.


9.  Gau (FFVI)

Gau

The first of what promises to be many blue mages on my list, Gau is perhaps the least worst of them.  But in many ways, he is also more aggravating.  To achieve new skills, you have to go back to a certain area in the world and fight partially-random monsters, have him LEAP onto one of them, go missing for several fights, and then come back.  At that point, he will learn a skill that will pale in comparison to what your party is already doing.  Talk about doing a whole lot of work and getting very little in return.

8.  Cait Sith (FFVII)

Cait Sith

I’m hard pressed to think of a more annoying character in the series.  Ignoring the fact that he’s a cat riding on a robotic moogle, all being controlled by some member of Shinra, his point appears to be to show up and muck up your party a bit.  If any of this was an attempt at humor, I’d have to question it.  If it was an attempt at plot development, I’d have to question it more.  He’s a useless character whose attacks are paltry.  There’s no reason whatsoever to use him.

7. Tidus (FFX)

Tidus

I always thought of Tidus as Cloud Lite, which is saying something because Cloud himself was pretty light, if you get my drift.  Tidus spent most of the game alternating between whining about something or other and yelling that something else wasn’t right.  He made that kid on Youtube crying about Britney Spears seem pretty well adjusted.  Add to that the voice actor who portrayed him didn’t do the character any favors by doing his best slightly matured Dennis the Menace impression. 

6.  Paine (FFX-2)

Paine

In doing research about this, I read that Paine’s character was inspired by someone else who is still yet to come on my sucky character list.  Whoever thought that was a good idea ought to be dragged out into the street and then dragged around more in the street.  In my playthrough I described her as the lovechild of Auron and Lulu after having had all her personality surgically removed.  I think that’s fairly accurate.  She is as bland a character as they come.

5.  Onion Kids (FFIII)

Onion Kids

After compiling my list, I went online and found someone else did a top 10 list of worst characters.  Not only did 6 of ours overlap, I was surprised to see I wasn’t the only person to include these guys.  These are the “characters” of Final Fantasy III.  I put that in quotes because there’s no distinct personality traits, no quirks… no characters.  They didn’t even have names until they remade the game for the DS.  I’ve never not cared about a protagonist so much in my life. 

4.  Quina Quen (FFIX)

Quina

I wish I was at the meeting where this character was developed.  I could hear the pitch now.  “Let’s take the annoying aspects of Cait Sith, add the laborious uselessness of Gau, and mush them into one character.  Good.  Next, let’s not give them any distinct gender, because that’s a laugh riot.  All on board?  Great.  Finally, let’s give that character one joke – no more – for the duration of the very long game.  This character likes food.  Everything this character will do will be about food.  We can make this character optional too, but why wouldn’t anyone want to use them as much as possible?”  I’ll tell you why: Quina blows.

3. Edward Chris von Muir (FFIV)

Edward

I am unsure of who Square is trying to target when they continue to put effeminate characters and job classes into their games that are useless.  Edward the Bard is probably the prime example of such a character.  One of his actual moves – and I’m not making this up – is to hide so he doesn’t get hit.  That strikes me as pretty useless ability.  His other “attacks” involve singing songs that COULD POSSIBLY (but rarely do) inflict some type of status ailment.  He makes Zell from FFVIII seem straight.  Even Edward’s lute song sucks.

2.  Relm Arrowny (FFVI)

Relm

Utterly utterly useless.  During most playthroughs of FFVI, you could see at the end of the game that Relm had been used in exactly one battle – the one that I was obligated to use her to complete the storyline.  Her one ability, Draw, seems to work only on creatures that are so week a good cough would kill them anyway.  Against anything with any difficulty, her best ability is to get killed so I don’t have to worry about her anymore.  When I later found out that she was supposedly the daughter of Shadow, it bumped Shadow off my top-10 cool characters list simply by producing such a crappy daughter.

1. Squall Leonhart (FFVIII)

Squall

How much does Squall suck?  Let me count the ways.  1)  He is supposed to be a tortured mind.  He’s just whiny.  2)  I have no reason why anyone appoints him leader in the game – he is terrible at being a leader.  3)  What did Rinoa see in him?  Was it just a scar she liked?  There’s no way it could have been his “personality.”  4)  He was the inspiration for Paine.  5)  His name is Squall Leonhart.  I think Hailstorm Bunnybutt would have been a better name.  6)  I was rooting for Ultimecia to win. 

Honorable mentions: Bartz Klauser (FFV), Strago (FFVI), Zell Dincht (FFVIII), Adelbert Steiner (FFIX), Yuna (FFX-2)

TOP 10 BEST CHARACTERS

10.  Warrior (FFI)

Fighter

Okay, I know what you’re thinking.  How can I like the Fighter and hate on the Onion Kids?  Well, with FFI, they were breaking new ground.  It wasn’t about characters at this point, it was about storyline and gameplay, both of which were pretty revolutionary.  And even though I’ve always been a thief guy, I’ve more than anything fought fought fought through all the Final Fantasies.  As a model for all future fighters that I would use, this red-haired guy had to make the list.

9. Vivi Orunitia (FFIX)

Vivi

I have to be honest – I’m not the biggest Vivi fan in the world.  However, I have to concede that he is a very interesting character.  Constantly battling his own inner demons about his own existence and what it means to be alive vs. manufactured, as well as seeing people somehow related to him being manipulated for evil.  It’s pretty existential for these games.  He might have ranked higher if he didn’t spent the first two thirds of the game tripping over his own robes.

8.  Rydia of Mist (FFIV)

Rydia

The characters of FFIV have very deep emotional issues – more so than most games.  Cecil coming to grips with the evils he’s been forced to do in the past.  Edge overcoming the horrible disfigurement of his parents.  The Mysidian people having their inhabitants voluntarily turn themselves to stone.  But none (okay one) is more tragic than Rydia, whose mother is slain, her town is destroyed, and she is raised by summoned monsters underground.  Her having an actual transformative story arc is what puts her on the list – one of the first times in the series a character is shown overcoming a horrific past to propel her cause. 

7.  General Leo Christophe (FFVI)

General Leo

You know a game isn’t one of my favorites when the (2nd) best character in it is one who is, technically, an enemy and who dies pretty early on in the game.  But there is a reason everyone has stories of being able to revive him and use him in your party – because he’s pretty damn awesome.  One of those good guy in a bad situation stories. 

6.  Garnet til Alexandrios XVII (FFIX)

Garnet

Women don’t get a fair shake in many of the Final Fantasy games.  They are often very docile and tagalongs.  With the only exception before FFIX that I can think of being Tifa, really, the women are all just curative magic users.  Now, in battle, Garnet (also called Dagger) is very much the same.  But her actual character has her getting right in the gritty to solve the problems of her populace (she is a princess.)  Ashe would later do it in a more kick-ass, although infinitely more bland, way in FFXII.

5.  Balthier (FFXII)

Balthier

In a game where all the characters could have been plucked as small one-line bit parts of any Victorian drama, it isn’t hard to stand out.  Balthier does, and not in an anachronistic way like Vaan does.  Balthier is a cocky, smarmy sky pirate who was given the task of having discernible charisma.  It helps that he was given about 98% of all the good lines in the game.  And not in a corny comic-relief sort of way.  He was genuinely witty and made the drudgery quite a bit lighter. 

4.  Zidane Tribal (FFIX)

Zidane

Following Cloud and Squall, the producers of the game could have probably had the leading man been a jar of mayonnaise and it would have been a drastic improvement.  What they gave us instead was a very different protagonist – a lead character who was selfish, womanizing, and actually enjoyed what he was doing.  Sure, he ended up getting sucked into a whirlwind story of come-uppance and even a romance angle, but he did it all while stealing along the way.  He was sorta what Locke from FFVI was meant to be if he hadn’t got sucked into a sappy melodrama about a half-human who was all weepy about her powers. 

3.  Auron (FFX)

Auron

He is the bad-assest character in any game.  Everything, from his calm demeanor, to his Jedi-Master-like tutoring, to his just calmly saying “Farewell” before kicking the shit out of somebody… everything about him screamed awesome.  Points got taken away for him not actually being alive at any point. 

2.  Umaro (FFVI)

Umaro - Chocobo

Seen here riding on an imaginary chocobo, Umaro – better known as the YETI – is the most unique character in the series.  He is optional, but why anybody would pass him up is beyond me.  He has two specialized attacks besides swinging with an axe.  1)  He hurls himself at the enemies causing extensive damage. 2)  He picks up HIS OWN PARTY MEMBERS and THROWS THEM at the enemies for extensive damage.  He’s like a hairy suicide bomber with an acute sense of irony.  I just want to hug him. 

1.  Kain Highwind (FFIV)

Kain

Kain is a very complex character.  In addition to being a dragoon, a class of character that only begun getting any depth in this game, he is also the first (and best) example of treason.  He is a traitor and, though it is not of his own doing, he continually comes back into the scenario to cast doubt on his allegiance.  Looking at it from his perspective, it has to be a hell of a roller coaster ride, not knowing if, at any minute, you’re going to turn your lance on your best friend.  It always struck me as a very fitting ending to his story when he refused to go to his best friend’s wedding because he needed to atone for his past crimes.  It makes me wonder if this theme is explored more in his sub-chapter in Final Fantasy IV: The After Years.  Looks like I’ll have to get a Wii now.

Honorable Mentions: Cecil Harvey (FFIV), Shadow (FFVI), Yuffie Kisaragi (FFVII), Rikku (FFX, NOT FFX-2), Basch fon Rosenburg (FFXII)