Tag Archives: Music

On the Town: Live Performances I’ve Attended

Although most of the lists on Make Lists, Not War are meta-lists, some are more personal in nature. Most recently I published a list of every place I’ve lived. Other personal lists include: Where Have I Been? (all the states and countries I’ve visited), The Birds (all the birds I’ve ever seen), My Backyard Menagerie (all the creatures I’ve seen near our house), Native Plants I Have Grown and Loved (Part I and Part II) and Concert Log (all the music and comedy performances I’ve been to). I recently revised the Concert Log to add plays and other theatrical performances, so that all the live performances are together in one list. (Note: I’ve omitted performances in which I participated in some way.)  There are significant gaps here – I know there are other plays, concerts and performances I’ve seen that I can’t recall right now, but I think I’ve covered the most significant ones. Here is the revised list: Live Performance Log.

I guess the real question is, why would anyone but me be interested in this list?  I don’t know the answer.  Some people like to look at other people’s experiences because it provides the vicarious pleasure of seeing through another’s eyes (“Oh, I would love to have seen Led Zeppelin live!”).  Others may use it as inspiration to dig into their own pasts (“I’m going to make my own list!”). For others, reading this list would be a complete waste of time.  No problem.  Read it or not, here I come!

The Joy of Shuffling (Music) and the End of Sameness

Imaginary Interviewer: So, is there any kind of music you don’t like?
Me: Yes.  I don’t like the same music.
Imaginary Interviewer: The same as what?
Me: The same as the music that was just on.

There was a time in my life when I listened to albums (and, later, CDs) from beginning to end. Many albums in the 1960s and 1970s were composed, not of a few singles and a bunch of filler, which had been the standard formula since the LP arrived in the mid-1950s, but of a through-composed artwork, in which songs were arranged in a particular order for an artistic reason. The artist meant the listener to hear Side A, Track 3 right after Side A, Track 2 and right before Side A, Track 4 – to hear the songs out of the context of the album was to miss part of the experience.  But that phase did not last.  Whether it was the times that were a-changin’, or whether it was me, as I reached my mid-20s in the 1980s, I found that listening to an entire recording of a single artist was something I did less and less.

It may have started with the technology.  I didn’t bring a turntable to college – just a tape player. This meant I had to record albums onto tapes to bring with me.  I found that I had room at the ends of the tapes after taping an album, so I would throw on a few songs from another album. When I only wanted to hear a few songs from certain albums, I would combine them onto one tape.  Then during college, I began putting together tapes for events – background music for the breaks during a concert, or a dance tape for a party.  I recalled the mixes of music that my favorite bands would play over the PA system before a concert.  But more than anything, I remembered the joy of radio.

Some of my best childhood memories are of sitting in my parents’ station wagon in the 60s and 70s, driving to some relative’s house, and listening to the music on the radio.  When I was growing up, my parents listened to WNEW-AM, a New York station that played adult popular music – I remember hearing lots of Frank Sinatra (referred to reverently as “The Chairman of the Board”), Dionne Warwick singing Bacharach tunes, country crossover hits like Ode to Billie Joe and I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, and even Spike Jones’ Gunga Din parody.  What I loved about listening to DJs like Jonathan Schwartz and William B. Williams was that I never knew what was coming next.  Sure, I suppose occasionally they would try that DJ trick – “Coming up, [Insert Name of Hit Song Here]”, then cut to commercial – but most of the time, one song would follow another, and I was surprised.  Once I had my own radio, I switched over to the FM rock stations, first WPLJ and then the more eclectic and intellectual WNEW-FM, where I also got to hear Jonathan Schwartz, along with Vin Scelsa, Allison Steele and others.  There was something magical about finding a radio station that shared my tastes in music, where the DJs picked out the songs in a way that made absolute sense but was completely unexpected. Except for those rare occasions when WNEW-FM DJs would play an entire album, or album side, the measuring unit was not the album but the song.

As I grew older and my musical interests and collection began to grow, I could no longer find a radio station that reflected my musical tastes.  But my love for the radio format (without the ads, of course) meant I rarely had the patience to listen to multiple songs by the same artist.  For one thing, I didn’t have the time.  For another, I found that there were certain artists and types of music that I appreciated more as one element in a patchwork quilt than a monoculture.  As much as I love old blues artists like Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Memphis Minnie, after a song or two, I am ready to move on to other sounds.  The same goes for many of the artists in the catch-all genre known as world music.  As I began to teach myself about classical, jazz, blues, country, hip hop, world and other unfamiliar genres, I found that I often appreciated the songs more when they were placed in unfamiliar surroundings.  Listening to 18 Charlie Parker tracks in succession may be a mind-blowing experience, but if the individual tracks stand out at all, it is as part of the whole.  Listening to a Charlie Parker track after a Modest Mouse track, a James Brown track or a Philip Glass track, on the other hand, places the bebop in high relief – the contrast adds to the experience.  The surprise of the unexpected sound, the act of recognizing it for what it is, and then listening closely, are all part of the experience I treasure.

My devotion to mix and match began in the era of CDs and tapes – I would select songs from various CDs – pulling favorite tracks from all my Elvis Costello CDs to make a personal greatest hits, or mixing various artists to create an alternative country mix, or a mix of sad, slow songs. Then, to up the ante, I began experimenting with aleatory techniques, inspired by John Cage – I would select every 7th CD from my shelves and record the 7th track, for example. Or I would select a song title beginning with the letter A, then B, etc.  I was fascinated and often amused by the juxtapositions such methods created.  Unintended thematic continuities would crop up from time to time.  At other times, it became a random tour through my music collection.  The problem, of course, was that, after a few listens, even a randomly-organized CD eventually became predictable – I knew that after the Astor Piazzolla tango came the Andrew Bird, then the Fats Waller, etc.

When the digital revolution arrived, I transferred my methods to the computer.  After uploading over 2000 CDs into my iTunes library, I began to make mixed CDs on various themes, including a fair number of random mixes.  Smart Playlist allowed me to create mixes that eliminated certain genres, so I created many mix CDS under the headings of “No Classical”, “No Classical, No Jazz” and “No Classical, No Jazz, No Blues.”  iTunes introduced the “Shuffle” function, which randomized my music collection without any tricky aleatory techniques (although I sometimes question the algorithm when two songs of the same artist or genre play after one another).

The introduction of the iPod made the shuffle function portable.  Now I could listen to my entire music collection on a random search – I never knew what song was coming next, but I knew it would be something I would appreciate because it was part of the music collection I had created.  This lasted for a few years until my music collection inevitably expanded beyond the iPod’s capacity – of the 25,000+ songs currently in my iTunes library, fewer than 16,000 fit on my 80 gigabyte iPod, requiring me to trim most of the classical and jazz from the mobile collection.  If I want a truly random shuffle of my collection, I have to listen to it at my desktop at home.  Still, the 15,964 songs on my iPod provide me with an enormous number of surprises.  On those rare occasions when I take the car to work, I hook up my iPod and the traffic jams vanish as I listen to my perfect radio station – it has no commercials, it has my music collection, and I never know what’s coming next.

To give you a glimpse at the soundtracks for my commutes, here are the results of my last few iPod shuffles:
O’ Sailor – Fiona Apple
Turtles – Flying Lotus
Do What You Have to Do – Sarah McLachlan
Fio Maravilha – Jorge Ben & Toquinho
Last Call – Kanye West
Elks Parade – Bobby Sherwood
Upswing – Dave Holland Big Band
Come As You Are (live) – Nirvana
Diamond Dogs – David Bowie
Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg) – Sonic Youth
The Streets of Laredo – Johnny Cash
Submission – Sex Pistols
I’ve Been Working – Van Morrison
Forever Yours – Carl Perkins
Say Hello to Angels – Interpol
Race for the Prize – The Flaming Lips
Slippin’ Around with You – Dan Penn
Paperback Writer – The Beatles
The Circle Game – Joni Mitchell
We Live Again – Beck
I Think I’m Down – The Harbinger Complex
Change Is Now – The Byrds
A Million Days – Prince
Young Love – Sonny James
Vaya Nina – Machito & His Afro-Cubans
What’s the Buzz/Strange Thing Mystifying – Jesus Christ Superstar Soundtrack
Man Called Uncle – Elvis Costello
Yellow Sun – The Raconteurs
All I See – Linda Thompson
Cottonbelt – Lone Justice
Eddie’s Ragga – Spoon
Slipped – The National
Thin Man – Suzanne Vega
Little Sisters of Beijing – These Are Powers
Lots of Drops of Brandy – The Chieftains
Lifted by Love – k.d. lang
Julia Brightly – Caribou
Soma – The Strokes
Rhythm of the Pouring Rain – Vince Gill
Turn on Your Love Light – Bobby “Blue” Bland
I’m Not Talking – The Yardbirds
When Will We Be Married? – The Waterboys
You Still Believe in Me – The Beach Boys
Grow Slowly – Sibling Rivalry
(I Know) I’m Losing You – Rod Stewart
Blue Bayou – Roy Orbison
In Love with You – Erykah Badu
Complications – Steve Forbert
Agent Orange – Tori Amos
Rip This Joint – The Rolling Stones
String Quartet No. 5: Fifth Movement – Emerson String Quartet (Béla Bartók)
The Hardest Part – Coldplay
Foire Internationale – Orchestra Baobab
Bows + Arrows – The Walkmen
Tenderness – Deb Talan
Wasted – Letters to Cleo
The Voyage – The Moody Blues
Alabama – Neil Young
Don’t Get Excited – Graham Parker & the Rumour
If You Call – Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
The World is Waiting for the Sunrise – Coleman Hawkins

 

 

The Moombahcore Problem, or Have We Gone Category-Mad?

Humans have an innate need to put things in boxes. My guess is that the first two categories were: (1) Things that are Me and (2) Things that are Not Me. It may have progressed to (1) People; (2) Animals; (3) Plants and (4) Inanimate Objects. Then we probably began subdividing. People became: (1) People from My Cave and (2) People from Other Caves. Animals became: (1) Animals I Eat and (2) Animals that Eat Me. Plants subdivided into: (1) Plants that Taste Good and (2) Plants That Make Me Sick. This categorization habit, which appears to be hard-wired into our brains by evolution, has served us well. It allows us to make decisions quickly by simplifying complex sets of facts. On the other hand, it is probably the source of much violence, cruelty and prejudice, because sometimes when you oversimplify, you miss the point.

At some point, the first art critics and theorists began to separate the various works of human creativity into categories. At first, I imagine, they distinguished among works of architecture, decorative art, literature, performance (including dance and theater), sculpture, painting and music. Over time, the critics and academics developed categories for styles, which could cross boundaries. A medieval mosaic could be made in the Carolingian style, as could a statue, a church or an illuminated manuscript. The term ‘post-modern’ could apply to a skyscraper, a novel, a piece of performance art or a piece of music. New styles developed for many reasons: changes in geography, economics, technology, government or religious belief, for example. Sometimes artists sought to distinguish themselves from what came before by doing something entirely new; sometimes they sought to reinterpret some beloved past time. Some artists sought to be different for difference’s sake; others felt that there was nothing new under the sun and the only legitimate option was to pastiche prior styles. All the while, the audience – particularly the critics and theorists – were putting names to the new styles, creating ever-more categories, to the point where now the proliferation of categories is overwhelming.

To better understand the categorization of the arts, an analogy from the biological sciences may be useful. Taxonomists in biology – those scientists who determine the nature of living species and the organization of those species and their relationship to each other – are generally categorized themselves into lumpers and splitters. Since every species contains variation within it, one of the jobs of the science of systematics is to decide when the variation is merely intra-species and when it is significant and meaningful enough to designate a separate species. (We won’t even discuss subspecies, varieties, etc.) A lumper is someone who sees two species that are very similar and decides that they really constitute just one species. A splitter sees one species with significant variation and decides it really should be divided into two (or more) species. Over the years, the lumpers have won some, and the splitters have won some.

From what I can tell, most (if not all) art critics and theorists are splitters. They are never happy with one category when they can have two (or twenty-two). The proliferation of categories seems to have reached a point of overload in the case of music. When I first made my music lists for Make Lists, Not War, I chose five categories: (1) Classical; (2) Jazz; (3) Blues; (4) World; and (5) Everything Else (pop, rock, country, hip hop/rap, folk, electronica, rhythm & blues, soul, funk, etc.). Naively, I thought that was enough. (I realize the World Music category is suspect – I am willing to listen to any reasonable alternatives.) But I have had some complaints from readers about the lack of this or that music category, so I decided to figure out whether to add any more. The problem is not where to begin, but how to stop. Take electronic music, for example. The Wikipedia page “List of Electronic Music Genres” contains approximately 180 different styles of electronic music, some of which are also considered classical music. There is a style called ‘trance music’ that has 11 sub-styles (one of these sub-styles, Psychedelic Trance, has its own sub-style, Suomisaundi). Of the 29 sub-styles of “House Music”, one of them – “Electro House” – has five sub-sub-styles, one of which is Moombahton, which has a sub-sub-sub-style called “Moombahcore.” The website musicgenreslist.com lists 41 “top genres”: Alternative, Anime, Blues, Children’s Music, Classical, Comedy, Commercial, Country, Dance, Disney, Easy Listening, Electronic, Enka, French Pop, German Folk, German Pop, Fitness & Workout, Hip-Hop/Rap, Holiday, Indie Pop, Industrial, Inspirational – Christian & Gospel, Instrumental, J-Pop, Jazz, K-Pop, Karaoke, Kayokyoku, Latin, New Age, Opera, Pop, R&B/Soul, Reggae, Rock, Singer/Songwriter, Soundtrack, Spoken Word, Tex-Mex / Tejano, Vocal, World.  Each top genre has a number of sub-genres.

If anything, the website’s list shows the difficulty involved in categorization. Anime seems like more of a visual arts style than a music style, while Comedy and Spoken Word are not music at all. Folk is not included except as a sub-genre under Singer/Songwriter, which seems strange since so much of true folk music consists of ballads and public domain songs that have been sung for generations. Why is Opera a separate “top genre” and not a sub-genre of Classical? Why aren’t various kinds of “Pop” music (Indie Pop, French and German Pop, J-Pop, K-Pop) listed under “Pop.”? Or, why not include the German, French, Japanese and Korean music under World? Why not put Tex-Mex/Tejano under Latin? (Or Latin under World, for that matter?) Is Alternative really a genre? Alternative what? Shouldn’t there be a noun with that adjective?  I could go on, but I won’t.  I’m actually impressed that the folks at Music Genres List took on the project, and I don’t want to discourage them.

All this talk about categories brings me to my latest music lists. I have decided to take the plunge and create some “Best of” lists for additional music genres, specifically Hip-Hop/Rap and Country. I don’t know how far I’ll go with this, but I can guarantee I won’t be doing a “Best of Moombahcore” list anytime soon.  The links are below:

Best Country Songs of All Time
Best Country Music Albums of All Time

Best Hip-Hop and Rap Songs of All Time
Best Hip-Hop and Rap Albums of All Time

The Best of 2014: Your Meta-Lists Have Arrived

When historians look back on 2014, they will probably remember it for one event: Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea.  Putin’s action hearkened back to a long line of precedent of unilateral annexation by such power-mongers and empire builders as Cyrus the Great of Persia, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Tughril Beg, Ivan the Terrible, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and so many more. But for those who follow pop culture, the highlights of the year involved names like: FKA Twigs, Taylor Swift, Perfume Genius, Flying Lotus, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Anthony Doerr, Leslie Jamison and Marilynne Robinson.

Here are the meta-lists of the best movies, music and books of 2014, as determined by a critical consensus.

Best Films of 2014
Best Books of 2014
Best Music of 2014

 

Kill Da Wabbit: Introducing the Opera Lists

Without realizing it, we listen to opera all the time – snippets of opera music are found in movie soundtracks, television advertisements and in the background of Web pages.  My first introduction to opera came via Chuck Jones, Elmer Fudd and Buggs Bunny, whose archly clever spoofs of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and The Barber of Seville got funnier as I got older. But Bugs Bunny didn’t invent opera.  Opera was born in Florence, Italy at the very end of the 16th Century.  Throughout the Renaissance, courts in the various city states of Italy put on plays and festivals for royal weddings and other events.  In keeping with the era’s fondness for all things classical, the plays were often Greek and Roman.  But by the mid-1500s, the princes had begun to commission musical interludes to spice up the Latin and Greek poetry.  A group of Florentine composers and musicians, having seen these interludes, decided they needed to go further and create a new art form in which the words and music were linked together, similar to what they believed the Ancient Greeks had done.  The first composer to attempt such a work (in Italian, oper), was Jacopo Peri, whose all-singing Daphne debuted in 1597 at a court event in Florence.  The first true masterpiece of opera came ten years later, when Claudio Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo for the Mantua court in 1607.  Audience members at this and other early operas received a little book (in Italian, libretto) with all the words so they could follow along. Like other early operas, L’Orfeo used a specialized type of singing, called recitative, that was less dramatic than full-throated singing but more melodic than speech.  Monteverdi’s operas also explored the use of full singing for certain musical sections, called arias and arioso.

In 1637, opera moved from the royal court to the public arena when the first public opera house opened in Venice, Italy.  For the next 300 years, opera would be one of the most popular art forms in Europe, as it spread out of Italy, first to France, England and Germany, and then to all of Western Civilization.  Baroque opera, while it could be sublime in the hands of someone like Purcell (Dido and Aeneas), Handel (Julius Caesar in Egypt) or Rameau (Castor and Pollux), quickly developed some troublesome affectations.  Female parts were usually sung by castrati, men who had been castrated before puberty to keep their voices high, and the operas became showcases for their voices.  These superstar singers (Farinelli was the most famous) would stop the show by singing every aria twice (a practice known as da capo) and they would improvise on the written music in order to dazzle the crowd with their technique.  As a result, the dramatic content of the opera became overshadowed by vocal acrobatics.

Enter a German composer named Christoph Wilibald Gluck.  Gluck took on the task of reforming opera so the music and words once again carried fairly equal weight, eschewing excess and frilly overkill.  He achieved this lofty goal with his first reform opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, from 1762.  Also around this time, it became much more common for women to sing opera roles, much to the relief of the young castrati-to-be.  When Mozart produced a series of masterpieces between 1781 and 1791 in every major type of opera then existing (e.g., opera seria, opera buffa, singspiel), he put the crowning touch on Gluck’s reforms (e.g., The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute).

The major development in the first half of the 19th Century was the bel canto (beautiful songs) style promoted by Italians Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti in The Barber of Seville, Norma and Lucia di Lammermore.  In some ways, bel canto was a return to some of the best aspects of Baroque opera singing.  The next step was the magnificent productions of grand opera, promoted by Gounod (Faust) and Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots) in France and Giuseppe Verdi (Don Carlos, Aida) in Italy.  The Germans (e.g., von Weber’s Der Freischütz), meanwhile, practiced romanticism, which reached its culmination in the work of Richard Wagner.  Wagner sought to create Gesamtkunstwerk – the total work of art, a journey that would culminate in the four operas making up Der Ring des Nibelungen. His operas were longer and more serious, with few arias, but elaborate sets, costumes and complex and challenging orchestration.  Wagner was the first to insist that the audience quietly watch and listen, and so, for the first time in opera history, the house lights were turned down. Later in the 19th Century, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni and others in the verismo movement sought to bring the real world to opera audiences with true-to-life characters, instead of stories from fantasy and mythology (e.g., Madama Butterfly, Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana).

While opera was still centered on Italy, Germany and France, by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century, national opera movements had arisen in Russia (Glinka – Ruslan and Lyudmila, Mussorgsky – Boris Godunov, Borodin – Prince Igor, Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin, Rimsky-Korsakov – The Golden Cockerel) and what is now the Czech Republic (Janáček – Jenůfa, Dvořák – Rusalka, Smetana – The Bartered Bride).  Later on in the 20th Century, important operas came out of Hungary (Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle, Kodály –
Háry János)
and Poland (Szymanowski – King Roger).

In 1905, German Richard Strauss took Wagner’s experiments with complex tonal structures and applied them to a daring and scandalous retelling of the story of Salome and John the Baptist.  Four years later, he did it again with Elektra.  But then Strauss backed away from controversy with a delightful comedy, Der Rosenkavalier.  Twenty years after Salome, Alban Berg applied the new atonal approach to the story of a murderous protagonist in Wozzeck.  At the same time, Benjamin Britten revived English opera with his masterwork Peter Grimes, which managed to be wholly modern without abandoning tonality.  For one thing, Britten had all but abandoned the recitative/aria dichotomy, a path most modern opera composers would follow.

While most of opera’s development has occurred in Europe, in 1935, George Gershwin penned the first all-American opera, Porgy and Bess, although its portrayal of black Americans offended some.  The Americans came into their own later in the century, when minimalist composers Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach) and John Adams (Nixon in China) created critically-acclaimed operas.  At the same time, Judith Weir of the UK composed A Night at the Chinese Opera, making her one of, if not the first woman opera composer of the modern era.

The current state of opera is mixed.  Even though new operas are composed and staged every year, the operas most often staged for public consumption consist of a fairly narrow range of older masterpieces.  Surveys reveal that the most produced operas in recent years have been: La traviata (Verdi, 1853), La bohème (Puccini, 1896), Tosca (Puccini, 1900), Madama Butterfly (Puccini, 1904), The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart, 1786), Don Giovanni (Mozart, 1787), The Barber of Seville (Rossini, 1816), Carmen (Bizet, 1875), The Magic Flute (Mozart, 1791), Così fan tutte (Mozart, 1790) and Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti, 1835). On the other hand, farther down the list are more challenging and more recent works, indicating that there is still a place in the repertoire for operas of all sorts.

All this history forms the preface for my latest lists, which, as you might have guessed, have to do with opera.  I hope you enjoy them:

The Best Operas of All Time – The Critics’ Picks
The Best Operas of All Time – Chronological
The Best Operas of All Time – By Composer

 

It’s the Most Wonderful Time – For Listers

The month of December is high season for listers and those who love lists.  Because December is the time that arts critics in every newspaper, magazine, website, blog, TV or radio station look back over the past year and make lists (usually Top Ten lists, but not always) of the best accomplishments from the past 12 months.  I’ve been collecting these lists – specifically for films, music and books – since 2002, and collating them to find out which items are on the most lists, and then making my own meta-lists.  Why do I do this?  One (somewhat inexplicable) reason is that I enjoy the process.  But a better reason is that I believe it exposes me to the best of these three arts.  Each list becomes a set of recommendations that I trust and that pushes me beyond my comfort zone.  I know that some folks don’t trust critics and reviewers to guide their choices of what to see, what to read and what to listen to, but to me the critics’ lists are the best option available, given that you can’t read/watch/listen to everything and must make choices.

What  are the other options for choosing what movies to see, books to read, music to listen to: (1) recommendations of friends and family; (2) following one particular expert, critic or reviewer; (3) critics’ reviews in newspapers, magazines and websites, or on radio or TV; (4) recommendations of people who sell movies or CDs or books, like Amazon; (5) trailers or other types of ads; (6) crowd-sourced websites like Goodreads or reviews on Amazon or other sites by ‘regular people’; or (7) meta-data sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes that collect critics’ reviews and assign ratings.  I have tried most of these methods myself, and I find that – except for (7), which is very similar to what I do – they all leave me disappointed.  I end up feeling like I have either adopted someone else’s tastes; sold out to The Man; ended up in a solipsistic spiral of stuff I know already, or that I’m just being exposed to the winners of various popularity contests judged by people completely unlike me who can’t spell and seem to base their opinions on completely irrational criteria.  So instead I rely on the critics and reviewers – people who analyze works of art for a living and may know more than I do about their subject.  While I may not agree with the tastes and judgment of each one, there is a pretty good chance that if several of them (or 10, 20 or 30 of them!) agree that a book is worth reading, a film is worth seeing, or an album is worth listening to, they are right.  Plus, when you pool the lists of many critics, you get a much wider variety than under most of the other available methods.  Taking this approach has led me to find masterpieces of artistic expression – from low to highbrow – that I would never have found had I just listened to what my friends’ recommended.  And while the critics’ top ten isn’t always my top ten, I have never regretted a choice I’ve made based on these lists.  (Even in the rare case that I don’t ‘like’ a highly rated book, recording or movie, I can appreciate the artistic qualities that led to its high rating and thus I benefit from it.  I just won’t be watching/reading/listening to it again any time soon.)

Here are the 2013 lists and Happy New Year:

Best Films of 2013
Best Books of 2013
Best Music of 2013

 

Too Big to Fail: The Best of 2008

A global financial crisis in the middle of a U.S. presidential election toppled financial institutions and triggered government bail-outs.  In the midst of it all, Americans elected their first African-American President, Barack Obama.  In other news, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan and the Olympics were held in Beijing.  Take a trip back to 2008 – the year that was too big to fail.  I’ve compiled lists of the best films, music and books of 2008, according to the critics and bloggers who make those “Best of the Year” lists every December.

Best Films of 2008
Best Books of 2008
Best Music of 2008

Songs and Stories

I’d like to announce my latest lists.  Like many of my lists, these are meta-lists, in that I have combined numerous “best of” lists I found in books and on the Internet.  One is the best short stories of all time and the second is the best songs of all time (see links below).  I tried my best to make both lists diverse, but as usual, the resources out there in English are biased toward English-language stories and songs (especially songs!)  Nevertheless, I think the lists are interesting and provide some ideas about what to read and listen to.

Best Short Stories of All Time
Best Short Stories of All Time – Chronological

Best Songs of All Time
Best Songs of All Time – Chronological

Authors and Auteurs: The Individual As Creative Force

There appears to be a human impulse to attribute a work of art to a single creator.  Maybe this is a consequence of the monotheistic religions that so many humans embrace (or perhaps monotheism is a result of the same human impulse).  We honor and celebrate the skill and imagination, the creative power of book authors, playwrights, poets, painters, sculptors, songwriters, musicians, and film directors.  The underlying theory, I suppose, is that it takes the creative vision of a single mind to produce a fully-realized work of art.  The most controversial application of this theory is the auteur theory developed by French film critics in the 1950s and championed in the U.S. by Andrew Sarris.  According to the theory, a film’s director is its author, in the same way that the single person who writes a book is its author.  The trouble with the theory is that movies are also a collaborative art – an enterprise involving the coordinated artistic and technical skills of many individuals in addition to the director, such as the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the editor, the sound crew, the set designer, costumers, as well as the actors.  The auteur critics used their theory to champion lesser-known directors like Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk by showing how they used the relative obscurity of genre and “B” movies to put forth a personal artistic vision.  But the theory works less well for many of the films produced by the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s and 1940s, when the director may have been just another cog in the machine.  Gone With the Wind seems more a product of its producer, David O. Selznick’s vision, than than of its director, Victor Fleming.

Music can also be a collaborative art, especially in the ensembles of rock and jazz, where songwriting and performing are often spread among a number of talented individuals, working together but also taking opportunities to “solo” and improvise, temporarily elevating the individual above the ensemble.  Even classical music, in which the composer’s manuscript is usually sacred, conductors and musicians “interpret” the piece, bringing something of their own style and personality to the final performance.

Painting and sculpture, which are now seen as extremely individualistic, were not always so (and, for massive public art projects, are not so even now).  A painter or sculptor in the Renaissance, for example, had many assistants, who often executed some of the work. Painters were even known to charge higher rates depending on the percentage of the work they did themselves.  Furthermore, those clients commissioning paintings and sculptures often had very specific requirements about the content of the work.  The notion of a painter sitting down to a blank canvas and painting whatever he or she pleased is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Are book authors (and poets and playwrights), then, the only true auteurs?  In many cases, the author sits down, writes his or her book alone and then sees it published in substantially the same form.  But in other cases, this image ignores the reality of publishers and editors who influence not just the subject of books but the style.  (Thomas Wolfe is one famous example of a writer who delivered a mass of disorganized writing to his editor, who then whipped it into shape.  Yet the editor is not considered a co-author.)  There are also ‘authors’, like Homer and those to whom many ancient manuscripts are attributed, who are merely symbols for the centuries of oral tradition that led to the Iliad, the Odyssey and other works handed down over time.  And all artists are influenced by other artists – some steal directly, others unconsciously.  Some are rebels; some are reformers, and some wish to return to times gone by.  They are influenced by the market – what will sell, what will not.  The political climate affects them as well as their personal circumstances.

I have raised all these complications as a preface to introducing a number of new lists.  Actually, they are mostly reworkings of older lists (although a few of them dig deeper than the lists I’ve already published).  These new lists all have one thing in common: they are organized by artist (as in performer, author, director).  Some are alphabetical; some are chronological.  The main idea is to see the lists in a different way: through the lens of the individual creator and their body of work.  They are particularly useful in answering the question: “Which one should I try first?” (E.g., Which David Bowie  or Charles Mingus album?  Which Titian painting?  Which Dickens book?  Which Godard film?)  Or, for those who have dabbled already, “Which should I try next?”

Rock, pop, R&B, etc.:  Musicians and Their Best Albums
JazzJazz Artists and their Best Recordings
BooksGreat Authors and their Masterworks, Part 1: 850 BCE – 1870
BooksGreat Authors and their Masterworks, Part 2: 1871-Present
FilmFilm Directors and their Best Films
Visual Arts: Great Artists and Their Masterpieces 

The Best of 2009 & 2010

I have put links for all my meta-lists for the best of 2009 and 2010 in this post – each one is a compilation of numerous best film, best music and best books lists for each year.  Have a look:

BEST BOOKS OF 2009                      BEST BOOKS OF 2010
BEST FILMS OF 2009                        BEST FILMS OF 2010
BEST MUSIC OF 2009                       BEST MUSIC OF 2010