[Image by Martin Smith, used with absolutely no permission whatsoever.]

I’ve had this theory for a while that the essence of being a nerd, the thing that ties all the different kinds of nerd species together, is the urge to make lists. I’m not really a compulsive cataloguer (I don’t think). When I hear or watch something that affects me, I don’t instantly need to rate it to show my love for it. But I sometimes get the urge to make lists at the end of the year and I feel some nerd guilt over this. So I’ve never done it before. But I’ve been co-“publishing” this music blog this year which makes me moderately official and I feel like I owe it to Daddy to treat myself to temptation. Don't hate.

So, word. These are the 20 best tracks I heard this year [that were officially released in ‘05]. The order’s not important, but every single one in the top 10 was a song I would say “moved me.”

1. Only This Moment – Royksopp. This was our song. And by our I mean me. My secondary self looks down on my primary self and mocks him for liking this song. There is something Euro-cheesy about the new Royksopp record. But I’ve come to love it for its subtle subversion and I’m done apologizing for it. I think you’re supposed to dance to this but there’s no real beat – just the sound of some idiot estatically tapping a microphone to the groove and that’s the coolest thing I heard all year.

2. Friend of Mine – The National. Really slinky track by a great new band that is dealing with its frat past, trying to be less like Pete Yorn and more like nothing else… I never get sick of this song.

3. And Then So Clear – Brian Eno. I played this song on loop for about two weeks while I came to terms with love. Some people never go out of style.

4. Utopia – Jackson and His Computer Band. Whirling shards of a blown up diva vocal over a thumping glitch of overcompressed mice claps. Tastes like rotted birthday cake.

5. Mary Jane (demo) – Toshack Highway. Adam Franklin’s new disc of four-track demos. My hero. Here, he wastes no time. He can put all the emotional places a song will go to in the first line with a simple self contradiction. “Mary Jane, you never broke my heart. Mary Jane, you never found a way to mend it.”

6. Now That I Know – Devendra Banhart. A serious song from a silly man. Sounds like a child worrying adult worries.

7. You Are My Sister – Antony and the Johnsons (feat. Boy George). I would immediately buy a record by Boy George singing in this hoarse soul voice. That's him on the chorus and bringing down the house at the end. Mmmm! Makes me feel ugly.

8. The Broads – Minotaur Shock. This is a Fall weather song, but with optimism. As if everything weren’t really dying. Or as if everything dying were a good thing because death meant being dipped in a big vat of frosting and being reincarnated as sugar cereal.

9. Someone Like Me – Royksopp. When you’re numb from hours of Midwestern highway and the Chicago skyline finally looms before you like a giant Fischer Price battery-powered monolith, or when you’re at your school locker the first morning after holiday break, feel a tap on your shoulder, turn around and don’t have time to stop yourself from smiling so much… these synths have that kind of love in them.

10. I'm Ready – Billy Corgan. Like the rush of someone who has dug to China with his hands and come peaking out the other side covered in maggots, mud, and magma. Clearly ready.

11. Merchants of Soul – Spoon. I don’t know why this isn’t the single. Spoon take tambourine playing and clapping to new levels of hot shit. And here, ask, “Why NOT distort a cello?”

12. Great Day – Madvillain (Four Tet remix). I think of a big lumbering soulsinging hobo covered in sequins, hot pink paper clips and strung with pop cans rustling down the street in slo mo, rapping about a dream he has of molting out of all that heavy skin.

13. Almost Forgot Myself – Doves. Like MoTown at half the tempo, claymated by Tim Burton, but shimmering and English.

14. A Little Bit More – Jamie Lidell. I wish Lidell would cut the retro shit and admit he’s a freak from my future. But this song will do – a polite version of his self-sampling one-man live show where he creates split personalities on the spot and they all sound like Al Green’s head in a blender.

15. Stop Bothering Michael Jackson – Mu. Word. Mu are the aural equivalent of violent anime. She still sounds like the Korean grocer’s angry wife, only this time her mouth is dirtier. “SUCK MY DICK”. Word. “LEAVE MICHAEL JACKSON ALONE YOU STUPID BITCH." Sure. This is the hulking, mecha-symphony equivalent of their 2004 masterpiece My Name is Tommi – amazing programmed brushwork, hard-swinging, picked bass under angry bladerunner punk that devolves before reevolving into the 8-bit version of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way. I never remember how he gets there. It’s like being taken to a secret place blindfolded.

16. St. Petersberg – Supergrass. He sings of leaving Russia in three days as if he’s Jesus in the tomb. After The Beatles’ Back in the U.S.S.R., and now this sad sack song, I’m never, ever going to Russia.

17. Juicebox – The Strokes. I know what cheese looks like. I know what it smells like. And now, thanks to The Strokes, I know what it sounds like. Juicebox begins with an unforgivabley stinky homage to The Offspring, then wastes some more time aping the Talking Heads, or something equally geeky, before the shame is too much to bear and they make a desperate gesture to get their cool back. I think they pulled it off. It’s up for debate.

18. Off the Record – My Morning Jacket. I’ve never really heard the Clash, but I always imagine them sounding kind of like this. I have a soft spot for white rock bands working anything close to a reggae beat. This guy John Leckie produced this. He also produced the Verve’s Storm in Heaven and Radiohead’s The Bends – my point being that pop and art are not mutually exclusive to him. He stands outside of fashion in a place he just calls “Good”.

19. Sci-Flyer9 (Demo) – Toshack Highway. Swevedriver won my 19-year old girly heart with their first, fast record of songs about deserts, drugs and Fear and Loathing in the American southwest. They were English, and only using their imaginations, so it came out overly idealized and more reservedly poetic. Their singer has been revisiting some of those old songs for his new “band” with an acoustic guitar and come-down tempos on his cassette four-track. It’s part of the same story, at a much later hour.

20. Slow This Bird Down – Boards of Canada. When I’m drunk and spinning, all music seems too fast. Except this track, which was cut at a super-secret, scientifically devised BPM that makes it always sound like it’s always slowing down.



I have mixed, but mostly good, feelings about this brutally powerful film by first-time director Stephen Gaghan. Like he did in Traffic (for which Gaghan won the Oscar for best screenplay) Syriana weaves what are initially unconnected narrative strands into a dense web of geopolitical polemic. Whereas Traffic was a pessimistic lecture on the futility of the drug war, Syriana's main character is oil itself, depicted near-mythically as a demonic, corrupting force seizing the will of the great powers of this earth. Picture the greedy, panicked eyes of the characters in The Lord of the Rings as they fall under the ring's spell. Syriana sees everyone as a potential Gollum, susceptible to a morally warping desire. There are other themes, such as the global ripple effect of even seemingly insignificant choices, and a more subtle insinuation that those who profit from oil, whether governments or businesses, actually prefer, and will in some cases even encourage, global instability – the conflict drives oil prices up.

I sensed that the creators were attempting to redresss an imbalance, rather than be taken as a measured picture of the way things are. Accordingly, I had the uncomfortable sense of being preached to that comes from anything mixing so much agenda in with its artistry. But it attacks the self-centered limits of the western worldview with gentle empathy, rather than bile, and I found the light touch affecting. What it does best is give someone like me, weaned in the comparatively prosperous west, only the slightest glimpse into the humiliation and frustration that an average person, suffering in one of the backwards places on the other side of the world, feels when a foreign power imposes itself in the name of commerce. The greatest achievement here, the thing that stayed with me long after, was its tender depiction of Pakistani teenage boys who are simply not like us. The differences were subtle – their jokes and pastimes had a sense of filtered westernization – but there was a humble otherness to it that rang true. Usually, when foreigners or minorities are portrayed for sympathetic reasons, it’s done in a way to make them seem more, not less, white. But these kids were believable in their simple, adolescent awkwardness. And that made their radicalization both convincing and heartbreaking to watch.

In fact, most of Syriana's major Arab and Middle Eastern characters – from Hezbollah leaders to Saudi royalty – are portrayed neutrally to positively. That is, above all, what makes the film unique, if overly romanticized. (Its other rhetorical storylines – a CIA agent sold out by his own, oil companies manipulating politicians, etc. – though engaging, lack newness.) It's also what makes it fishy as a thesis. Yes, it's bitterly cynical but to me it's not cynical enough. It's hard to accept this level of indignation at the covert sins of a country like the U.S. without a comparable or harsher reaction to the overt brutality, misogyny or chronic opression of the world's Iraqs and Saudi Arabias. In this sense, Syriana is a little too reactionary for me: events in a terrorist training camp are lit warmly, like an idyllic Eden; Hezbollah is portrayed as benevolent and gracious; while any western players, from lawyers, to financial advisors, to politicians, are varieties of thieving devils. It's as if the filmmakers had an over abundance of empathy; just not for anybody on this side of power divide.

Sadly, the confusing format of the movie –– not its politics –– is probably going to be the most divisive thing about Syriana, and will likely dampen the effect of its ideas. The film's unique construction –– watching it is like having your mind force fed a gushing stream of information faster than it could possibly swallow –– is both frustrating and admirable. Though told linearly, it's edited at a super-quick pace; scenes are usually truncated. The scope of this movie is humungous –– a perspective ranging from the highest seats of influence to the poorest and most powerless – yet the effect is of a statement needing a context. Yet it doesn’t come off as an arbitrary choice and it seems deliberate that it is impossible to completely comprehend on first viewing. The result is an overwhelming and, at times, maddening style that is awfully impressionistic for a work that is essentially NPR-turned-feature-film. And therein lies the conflict for me the viewer. On the one hand, it gives the sense of someone bluffing; alluding to more knowledge then they really have. On the other, it forced me to watch the film not as a series of expositions, but as a sequence of emotions. That's something fresh. The acting, direction and score are so exquisite that the tonal thrust of everything you see is always articulated. Just not in a cerebral way. I saw it as a parable about not getting so caught up in the enormous details of current events that we forget to see the human picture.

From the original score by Alexandre Desplat:

Driving in Geneva
Something Really Cool