40 Haydn Symphonies

I used the top 40 entries in this ranking of all 104 Haydn symphonies, from ClassicFM. Oddly, the one that’s likely my very favorite, No. 45 (“the Farewell”) wasn’t on this list at all.

40. Symphony No. 91
Vivacious–alternately pastoral and balletic; middle movements reminded me of Beethoven’s symphony 6–not very similar, but in the same genre. Ebulliently positive! Grade: B (7/16)

39. Symphony No. 27
Even more energetic than the last one, this little symphony is downright assertive–an in-your-face slice of life adventure that clearly, cleanly illustrates the basic narrative pattern, including a sweet daydream center and a rousing, victorious finale. Simple, but not insubstantial. Grade: B- (7/16)

38. Symphony No. 86
I enjoyed the sprightly, peppy final movement, but even that felt…uninspired. A good listen, but nothing special. Grade: C+ (7/17)

37. Symphony No. 100 (‘Military’)
The ClassicFM reviewer said, “If you played the ‘Military’ as you were going into battle, you’d be more likely to ponder the true meaning of combat, the myriad social and emotional implications for those who partake, the poetry you might write as a result.” Way wrong. The 2nd movement especially is thoroughly martial in spirit, and the whole work is aggressive (but, being Haydn, never quite violent). A solid and rousing piece! Grade: B (7/17)

36. Symphony No. 53 (‘L’imepriale’)
The ClassicFM reviewer called this Haydn’s “most overtly stately symphony. You can pretty much march around the room in a wig to this one for the duration.” I think that’s too limited, too narrow. Only the very beginning and much of the central episodes sound like that to me. I also hear the same dreaming gestation at the core, as well as the bubbling triumph so typical of his final movements–this symphony, as usual, is a hearty slice of joie de vivre. Grade: B (7/17)

35. Symphony No. 14
My reaction here surely shows my illiterate ignorance of music. I didn’t identify the progressive genius in the final movement extolled by the ClassicFM reviewer as well as on the Wikipedia entry for this work. I found this whole piece simplistic, predictable…and often dull. Grade: D (7/17)

34. Symphony No. 99
What a huge difference going from early in his career with the last entry to late in his career with this one! THIS is a masculine symphony, full of controlled strength, and a joyous celebration of it. Great stuff! Grade: A (7/18)

33. Symphony No. 82 (‘The Bear’)
The reviewer’s comments about the manliness of this piece are spot on. I listened to the “Composers by Numbers” version on YouTube at first, and found it pretty blah, but then I tried the live one linked above, and liked it much better. I love watching an orchestra play. The orchestra is one of history’s greatest inventions. Grade: B+ (7/21)

32. Symphony No. 61
The reviewers called this one “bracing,” and I think that’s a good fit, if too stuffy. It’s more like “vivacious.” This is another one full of joie de vivre, bookended by movements so sharp they almost sting. Grade: B+ (7/30)

31. Symphony No. 79
There must be more going on here than my untrained ear picked up on. This one seemed decent and fine–bland, backhanded compliments. The general tone came across as pastoral, and I always enjoy that. Still, nothing here was especially surprising or pleasing. I liked it, but didn’t love it. Maybe if I got to know it better… Grade: B (7/30)

30. Symphony No. 90
Now THIS is a masterpiece! I can’t believe it’s only #30 on the reviewer’s list. I love how perfectly in thematic harmony the slow movements are with the faster ones. And the series of false “Return of the King” endings are a bold joke. Finally, the music itself is simply so superior here–this is quite a dazzling feast of audio excellence. Grade: A+ (7/30) Continue reading

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40 Blues Albums

Seven of these 40 are actually films in Martin Scorsese’s Blues series from 2003, which I’ve wanted to see since then, but never made time for until now. Most of them were excellent. Of the 33 actual records I listened to, most were also really great, and six got a perfect score from me.

  1. Lead Belly, Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Lead Belly Legacy, Volume 1. What an easy album to listen to! Nearly every track is a toe tapper. The stories are deep–like much great art, it’s deceptively simple. The guitar is always sweet and smooth–also deceptively simple, but the more I listened, the more skillful the playing obviously was. Some really fundamentally amazing tracks here. Grade: A (6/1)
  2. Robert Jonson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volume 1. Easy to see why this is a classic! Not only does it have the smooth, easy power of blues in general, but these blues are…really blue. Like, black and blue. These songs are pretty violent. Check out the lyrics to “32-30 Blues,” which is all about threats of violence against women. Other songs on the album are similar. So, a pretty honest slice of poor Southern life nearly a century ago. His voice is a weird and wild miracle of tones–who else sings like this? Grade: A- (6/1)
  3. Elmore James, Blues Master Works. I’m really impressed by just how contemporary most of this sounds in some ways, and how early it sounds in others, but even then it’s clear how deeply James influenced early rock and roll–the 50’s sound we think of in that first generation of rock was heavily indebted to this man’s work. Still, it has even stronger staying power than much of that decade’s mainstream stuff. I want to throw a party now just so I can put this on for everybody–these are some solidly sweet jams right here. Bet it’d make a good road trip record, too. Grade: A (6/4)
  4. Howlin’ Wolf, Moanin’ in the Moonlight. If Elmore James inspired Buddy Holly and such, then Howlin’ Wolf’s far grittier, grungier sound inspired later Southern rock like CCR and the Black Crowes. Lots of harmonica here, and plenty of drawling to go along with it. Grade: A (6/4)
  5. Muddy Waters, At Newport 1960. No wonder this was recorded at a jazz festival–it’s a very jazzy album! In fact, Waters uses jazz flexibility to cover a pretty wide range of genres–this is a blues album that includes snippets of a lot of styles, so there’s no monochromatic tone here. A fun little ride! Grade: A+ (6/6)
  6. B.B. King, Live At the Regal. What a great sound each of these tracks has! King’s narrative quips between songs are almost as good as his golden singing, and the way Lucille wails…there are a lot of shades of blue in here, and some of them are pretty bright. The first one of these albums that I listened to twice in a row! Grade: A+ (6/7)
  7. John Mayall, Blues Breakers. This is solid and enjoyable, but already by this point in my listening, some of this relatively later work seems derivative, even generic. Loved the drum solo on their cover of “What’d I Say.” Grade: B (6/11)
  8. Albert King, Born Under a Bad Sign. I must be in a blues funk or something, because I thought this album was just meh. I liked it, but nothing–not one song–jumped out and grabbed me. And I listened to it twice to be sure! Grade: C (6/12)
  9. KoKo Taylor, KoKo Taylor. I know this is a classic, but it just didn’t do anything for me at all. It’s not bad–there’s nothing wrong with it–but this jazzy electric funk version of late blues just struck me as proto-disco more than what I wanted. Grade: C (6/13)
  10. The Blues: Feel Like Going Home. I watched this first film in the seven part Martin Scorsese documentary series that I’ve been wanting to see for 15 years…and why did I wait so long?! It was incredible. As much as I loved the interviews and performances (and Scorsese’s style of quick, smooth transitions that aren’t strictly connected but still make thematic and tonal sense), the best part was the final act, in Africa. So much great music was shared there. It makes me want to find some more old Putumayo collections and dig deeper into this aspect of music. What a joy! I can’t wait to see the other six entries in the series. Grade: A+ (6/18)      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TfIIhkFUzo
  11. The Blues: The Soul of a Man. Great storytelling structure, mostly about three great musicians: Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, JB Lenoir. All worth a further look! Grade: A (6/21)
  12. Keb Mo, Keb Mo. Wow, what a great sound! I can’t believe this came out when I was in high school and I’ve never heard of it until now. Most of this is a folksy kind of blues, often with a soulfully positive twist. Can’t wait to hear his other albums. Grade: A (6/21)
  13. Skip James, Devil Got My Woman. I was surprised that this was also such a folksy-sounding album–way more mellow than I would have expected. I loved this sound! Grade: A+ (6/23)
  14. Son House, The Original Delta Blues. Powerful–whether he’s sad or glad, he goes all in. The masterful guitar work–picking, pounding, and sliding–are matched by his vocal range–whispering and wailing, growling and crying, often in the same line. “John the Revelator” is haunting! Grade: A+ (6/25)
  15. Blind Willie Johnson, Dark Was the Night. Prototypical early blues sound. Not always my cup of tea, but these tracks are earthy, elemental, and ethereal all at once–maybe the pervasive gospel theme helps there–and it works more often than not. His original version of the track I just praised from Son House, “John the Revelator,” seems busy and fussy compared to the more sparse Son House cover, but the album’s title track takes the “haunting” title here. Still, this album’s frequent use of female backing vocals is rare in early blues, and I enjoyed it here. Grade: A (6/25)
  16. Magic Sam, West Side Soul. Odd that this came out in 1967, because it sounds mostly like basic 1950’s rock to me–lots of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly riffs and whatnot. A safe, pleasant, and pretty unremarkable album. That being said, I actually liked his cover of “Sweet Home Chicago” even more than Robert Johnson’s original! Grade: C (6/25)
  17. Junior Wells, Hoodoo Man Blues. Great guitar work here, but fairly narrow–nowhere did I hear the variety evident on most of these records. That’s a major flaw for a record so often given to instrumentals over lyrics. Speaking of lyrics, one track is called “Hound Dog,” and even though it’s not a cover of the Elvis track, I couldn’t help comparing two songs with the same name. Junior Wells came in second. Still, the writing and singing is strong overall. I enjoyed it. Grade: B- (6/27)
  18. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, The Peacock Recordings 1949-1959. A little more original than some of the other 50’s blues albums I’ve heard, but still derivative. The best thing here is the lyrics, especially on “My Time Is Expensive.” At first I though the line “You are a married woman and I have a family too” would be a paean to fidelity, but the follow up showed a more pragmatic concern: “We can’t waste no time darlin, I got other things to do.” That plus an earlier line–“So you’ve been bound to get together–we better do it fast”–reveal the singer to want the affair to be quick, so he could get back to his other commitments. Pretty darn funny. Some truly sad tracks are enriched by great writing, also, especially “Sad Hour” and “Dirty Work at the Crossroad.” Grade: B (6/27)
  19. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. This guy knew his stuff! A few of these recent albums have been heavier on instrumental tracks. Excellent cowbell! Grade: B+ (6/27)
  20. Albert Collins, Ice Pickin’. This guy knows how to have fun! The chatty breaks in songs, the voices–he loves what he does. Some of the most impressive variety of any album so far. I’d heard “Master Charge” before and enjoyed it, and it’s a good fit for the album. Very strong–if I listen again, this one might go even higher. Grade: B+ (6/27)
  21. Slim Harpo, Best of Slim Harpo. I liked the nasal twang in his voice–he gets billed as swamp blues, but along with that harmonica, some of these songs could have come out of Nashville. I also like the bits where he talks in the middle of songs–other guys above have done that, too. A cool blues thing. Not quite as great as I hoped, since I really love “Raining in My Heart,” but solid. Grade: B (6/28)
  22. Muddy Waters, Folk Singer. Not sure what I expected from the title, but not this. It starts out the way you’d expect from a classic blues legend–one can imagine the smoky club–but you soon notice how intense it is; this is a moody, emo, pseudo-goth kind of blues. The stripped down nature, especially compared to most of these records I’ve heard now, makes the existing elements pop out more–the bass and drums resonate deeper. Still, some tracks get ponderously pretentious, they’re trying so hard to be deep (I’m looking at you, “Cold Weather Blues”). Some of this album is The Cure on Disintegration, but much of it is just The Cure on Seventeen Seconds. A handful of bonus tracks on a recent edition add much needed life to this often dour effort. (I thought “I rub my John the Conqueror root” was a dirty joke, but nope.) Grade: B- (6/28)
  23. J.B. Lenoir, Down in Mississippi. An album full of blunt 60’s protest songs (like “Vietnam Blues,” “Born Dead,” “Tax Payin’ Blues”) but which ends with an upbeat party track (“Feelin’ Good”). And it works! As with the best albums on this list, lots of variety is united by solid quality from end to end. Grade: A- (6/29)
  24. The Blues: The Road to Memphis. I noticed the very different directing style right from the start–this is much more of a traditional documentary…and it’s often boring. The personalities and stories are great–I loved learning about Beale Street and WDIA radio–but the transition segments are too slow and there wasn’t as much variety and depth in the musical choices as the first two films. Grade: C (6/29)
  25. The Blues: Warming By the Devil’s Fire. Yes! The series comes roaring back with this awesome entry! A nostalgic coming-of-age story about director Charles Burnett’s own childhood, the historical recreation is interspersed with actual performance and interview footage (one bit of Son House was also used in episode 2). Fantastic stuff–every artist was wonderful. I either learned new stuff or gained a deeper appreciation for the ones I knew. Some great female artists here, too. Grade: A+ (6/30)
  26. Mississippi John Hurt, The Best of Mississippi John Hurt. I love the simple, acoustic guitar sound, and his voice, and the songs are just magical. This is old, grassroots, gospel folk blues, just what I like. Grade: A+ (7/2)
  27. Rosco Gordon, The Original Sun Recordings. I was looking forward to this one, but it was only so-so for me. Another pop-heavy 50’s sounding record, it’s good at what it does, but this sound just doesn’t do much for me. Oh well. Grade: B- (7/2)
  28. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gospel Train. Dang, I really wanted to like this one. I enjoyed the clips in the 4th film in Scorsese’s Blues series, but the pervasive organ sounded intrusive, and her singing didn’t connect with me, either. Grade: C (7/2)
  29. Keb Mo and Taj Mahal, Tajmo. Not sure what I expected, but this was a lot of easy fun! If this is contemporary blues, then today’s blues is an upbeat fusion of everything from old fashioned slide guitar to bluegrass and rockabilly. Each song was a radio-friendly package of adult contemporary sweets, and that’s not faint praise–I liked relaxing and being energized at the same time. The cover songs are really decent, too. Grade: B (7/9)
  30. John Lee Hooker, The Real Blues: Live in Houston 1979. Lots of fun at the outset turns to brooding melancholy later in, but the intensity works here much better than on Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer album. His voice is the perfect blend of gravel and gravity. I was mesmerized the whole way through! Grade: A (7/11)
  31. John Lee Hooker, The Healer. This album from the 80’s has a lot of collabs on it, and it mostly works. I enjoyed it, but it lacked the immediacy and intensity of the live album I heard right before it. Still, a strong, polished, fun ride. Grade: A- (7/11)
  32. The Blues: Godfathers and Sons. Structurally, this one is lot like The Road to Memphis, following a protagonist and a growing crew as they work towards a big new musical gig meant as a reunion/Renaissance. This film works a bit better than that previous one, though the music itself often seems to get short shrift. Still, the infectious energy–and pure, rapturous joy–of the music in the final act would be impossible to miss! The song the created at the end was a really cool bit of fusion, though–always cool. [note for future viewings: major language warning] Grade: B (7/11)
  33. Skip James, Complete Early Recordings. There’s some great stuff on here, including a few tracks that he would re-record later, and good thing, because the sound quality here is pretty awful. It gets in the way. Other than that, the things I loved on Devil Got My Woman are all in evidence here: the guitar, the lyrics, the vocals…all amazing. “I’m So Glad” is an especially special treat. Grade: B (7/12)
  34. The Blues: Red, White and Blues. Meh. This format was the opposite of other episodes–instead of following a main character’s story, this was a rambling collection of interviews–more like sound bites, really, as most segments are just a few seconds long–creating a scattershot mess of ideas. Little substantial information is delivered–most of this is just British musicians acknowledging the influence of Americans. Some good music here, sure, but not all of it, and it’s always in the background. This entry doesn’t really add much at all. A final segment asks the subjects–including frequent figure Eric Clapton–if British blues makes a difference in blues overall. No, and the fact that the question is asked at all shows how peripheral this is. *yawn* Grade: D (7/12)
  35. The Blues: Piano Blues. The frame here is a meld of some earlier entries: mostly interviews, but longer than the previous entry’s “scattershot mess,” and they’re between director Clint Eastwood and a host of historical worthies (mostly Ray Charles–and bonus, apparently Eastwood plays the piano!). Light on history and info per se, most of the joy from this one is watching old guys hammer on the keys like the legendary masters they are, interspersed with largely black and white footage of them (and their deceased mentors) absolutely shredding it on the piano. Seriously, I never got tired of watching those fingers fly–it was something special to behold. Grade: B+ (7/13)
  36. T-Bone Walker, T-Bone Blues. Here’s a solid classic! I haven’t really liked most of the 50’s-era stuff here, but this was better. Having just watched Piano Blues, I paid a lot of attention to that instrument here, and how it worked with the other instruments. Walker’s droning whine was a sweet compliment to the other components, and I enjoyed the deep richness in variety here–the sub-genres present on many tracks, and even within the songs themselves. This is a great bridge between first generation and more contemporary blues. Grade: A+ (7/13)
  37. Blind Lemon Jefferson, King of the Country Blues. Like the old Skip James record a few entries above, the constant static from the age of this one was an almost impossible distraction, but behind that was a fairly solid roots blues album. Many of the tracks here seem pretty monochromatic, though–too much of the same. Grade: B- (7/14)
  38. R.L. Burnside, Too Bad Jim. A solid, more recent album, it still doesn’t really distinguish itself. Fun to listen to, though, undeniably. Grade: B (7/14)
  39. Guitar Slim, Sufferin’ Mind. Another blues album of 50’s-era proto-rock. This sound doesn’t do much for me, but this album does it better than most. Worth listening to. Grade: C+ (7/14)
  40. B.B. King, Singin’ the Blues. I wanted to end this project on a high note, and this album seemed like a good bet. I’ve been underwhelmed by a lot of 50’s-era blues on this list, but this album was far and away the very best one of those. I didn’t quite love everything, but it was a terrific record, and on every track I could appreciate the massive quality of guitar, piano, and vocals. Definitely a solid end to this blues adventure for now! Grade: A (7/16)

 

40 Episodes of The Twilight Zone

I was surprised to see how many season 5 episodes I’d never seen–the first 33 listed here are the ones I hadn’t watched yet from that year. The rest are other episodes that had gotten under my radar until now. Overall, great stuff, and I’m really glad I set aside time to do this–I really love The Twilight Zone! (The full series, except for season 4, is on Netflix.)

  1. In Praise of Pip” A heartwarming, sentimental episode, this made me choke up a bit as a father. A pean to priorities. Like “Willoughby,” one where we have to wonder if it was all in his head, but either way, he’s better off for it. Grade: B
  2. Steel” Well made and well played, but in retrospect a bit obvious. So much more could have been done here–a remake is called for. Grade: C
  3. A Kind of a Stopwatch” Very similar to “Time Enough At Last.” Still, it looks good, is edited well for the needed effect, and has fun with the concept. This nebbish little dweeb got old and played Leonard on Community! Grade: B
  4. The Last Night of a Jockey” Pretty bold–the ultimate bottle episode–one room *and* only one character. He carries it well. A simple idea, executed quite well. Grade: B
  5. The Old Man in the Cave” Now here’s some solid science fiction! Excellent fable about faith’s relationship to society, and how human nature relates to both. Grade: A+
  6. Uncle Simon” A dark morality tale, with solid work all around. Reminds me of the episode “The Masks,” which came later in the season, but which I’ve already seen. Grade: B
  7. Probe 7, Over and Out” Meh. An obvious story full of simplistic tropes. You see everything coming from a mile away, and none of it really has much to say. Grade: C
  8. The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms” Some creepiness works here, but it’s still full of holes. Decent enough; nothing special. Grade: B-
  9. A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain” Another simple morality tale. Predictable. Yawn. Grade: C
  10. Ninety Years Without Slumbering” The delightful Ed Wynn makes this worthwhile, and it even subverts your expectations, delivering a rousingly fresh take on the theme. Excellent! Grade: A
  11. Ring-a-Ding Girl” A serviceable ghost story with decent misdirection. Grade: B
  12. You Drive” Straightforward morality tale; done well, but nothing too ambitious here. Grade: C
  13. The Long Morrow” A sci-fi tragedy a la “The Gift of the Magi,” in a way. Not bad at all, but hardly a big deal. Takes place in the far off future year of 1988! Grade: B
  14. The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” Above average quality here, in how this story plays itself out, with panache and irony. Grade: B
  15. Number 12 Looks Just Like You” Yes! How had I never seen this one before? A dark social commentary masterpiece! Grade: A+
  16. Black Leather Jackets” An OK tragedy about an alien invasion, that stacks the deck pretty high in its own favor. Nothing special. Grade: C
  17. Night Call” Another episode whose slow build up leads to an unnecessary tragedy. Well made, atmospheric, fairly effective ending. Grade: B
  18. From Agnes—With Love” An obvious, comedic episode that hasn’t aged well at all, not in any way. The protagonist is played well; that’s about it. Grade: D
  19. Spur of the Moment” The twist in this one actually surprised me–here’s something of a cautionary tale about youthful abandon and the futility of regret. Grade: B
  20. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Visually gorgeous and, as an international product imported into the series, stylistically different enough to add much needed variety to the severely limited closed-and-empty sets typical of The Twilight Zone. The lack of dialogue is almost always a refreshing challenge, but the music in its place here is dates and ineffective–it hurries nowhere, like much of the action. Like soccer. Great ending, though! Unlike soccer. Grade: B
  21. Queen of the Nile” Decent. Cool idea, executed well, especially in its final scenes, though the best part is the old lady’s chilling declaration, “I’m not her mother. I’m her daughter!” Grade: B
  22. What’s in the Box” Another morality tale, like “You Drive,” earlier in the season. Better than that one, though, with a dark, jaundiced timeline that presages the great X-Files episode “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” Grade: B
  23. I Am the Night—Color Me Black” Wow! Social commentary is often simplistic, as it is here, but the imagery and atmosphere are undeniably awesome. Some of Serling’s best dialogue is here–I took screenshots of some scenes with subtitles near the end. Grade: A
  24. Sounds and Silences” Ugh, what a lazy episode this is–the cheapest template for a Twilight Zone episode. If you start one with a growling, insulting protagonist who hates One Thing–let’s say silence–then we already know what his supernatural, ironic punishment will be at the end. Couple that with the fact that the sound effects are often unintentionally hilarious here, and you have one lame episode. Grade: D
  25. Caesar and Me” A fairly pedestrian episode, but made truly enjoyable by great performances by both the hero and the villain. I thought the little girl must have been a young Karen Allen at first, but nope. Grade: B
  26. The Jeopardy Room” A nice change of pace here–something of an action-y, cloak and dagger sort of story. The set up in the first half is too slow, and even though the plot holes in the second half are too big, it still manages to impress. No surprise that young-ish Martin Landau is pretty intense. Grade: B
  27. Stopover in a Quiet Town” Hey! I remember seeing this episode when I was a young kid! The couple was much older in my memory, though–now, they’re much younger than I am. Alas. Anyway, this one consistently creates a solid atmosphere of creeping dread, in broad daylight, and the acting is immensely convincing. A great and terrifying ending, too! Everything here fires on all cylinders. Grade: A+
  28. The Encounter” Great try, but deeply flawed. Psychological bottle episodes can be wonderful, but nobody talks the way the script has these two poor men speaking–way too much happens too fast in under half an hour. Their heart was in the right place, but despite the solid acting and directing, the idea doesn’t quite come off the way they intended. Grade: B-
  29. Mr. Garrity and the Graves” I always enjoy a good dark satire on human nature, and this is ruefully clever, weird, and completely effective. The twist ending here was unnecessary and actually watered down an already solid conclusion, though. Grade: A-
  30. The Brain Center at Whipple’s” Decent but forgettable story about corporate greed, with some nice thoughts about humanity’s value. Rod Serling meets Frank Capra. Grade: B-
  31. Come Wander with Me” Meh. Smarmy city boy makes a Wrong Turn and ends up befuddled and then terrorized by creepy hillbillies. Yawn. Only the interesting song angle takes this from a D to a C. Grade: C
  32. The Fear” Clever and mostly effective (though, oddly, *also* about a smarmy city type who ends up trapped in a hostile country environment). Grade: B
  33. The Bewitchin’ Pool” What a meh episode to end the series on! The girl who famously played Scout here plays…Sport. Still, nice to see a portrayal of how much divorce sucks for kids. Grade: C
  34. The Arrival” More of a mystery episode than usual, and it mostly works. Intense middle act, and the lead acting is solid enough to bring us along the protagonist’s path, like in Shutter Island. Grade: B
  35. The Mirror” Worse than meh! This is a paean to the paranoia of the powerful, a cautionary tale with zero surprises. Later episodes were actually more clever with the template than this one was. Ugh. Grade: D
  36. The Dummy” The first half is largely wasted as random, slow build-up, but the final act is shot amazingly well, and the big twist at the end is nothing short of perfect. Watching this, I mostly thought the later episode “Living Doll” was much better, but the end of this one is much, much better than that episode’s ending. If I had seen this as a kid, it would have terrified me. Grade: B+
  37. Long Distance Call” Supremely creepy and well made–a realistic and heartbreaking nightmare. Grade: A
  38. Little Girl Lost” Wow! Exact same comment as the last episode, but even more so! Grade: A+
  39. The Lateness of the Hour” A decent story, but not especially surprising. Great ending, though. Grade: B
  40. The Last Flight” What a great episode to end this project on! A brilliant bit of time travel redemption, played out flawlessly in narrative and production. Lots of solid little details come together perfectly here. This is exactly what makes The Twilight Zone great. Grade: A+

All 19 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films Ranked

Here’s my list. Fight me.

19. Thor: The Dark World. The only MCU film I haven’t even finished. I got bored halfway through and turned it off–it was predictable, irrelevant, and trying too hard to be something it didn’t have to be. By far the weakest Marvel movie.

18. The Incredible Hulk. There’s a reason Hulk never got another stand alone movie after the first year of the MCU. Not awful, but also predictable and pedestrian. Also, Edward Norton.

17. Iron Man 2. The MCU’s flagship character returned with a pretty meh sequel where the internal and external conflicts are both so forgettable that they’ve literally never been mentioned again. 

16. Thor. A fun little movie that hits all the standard beats, Thor’s strongest suit is Kenneth Brannagh’s underrated directing, which helped cement Marvel’s colorfully glossy look more than people acknowledge. Also, Tom Hiddleston.

15. Iron Man 3. By this point, the ongoing soap opera arc of the MCU was well under way, and this entry provided a nice small-scale opportunity for Tony Stark to get some of the lasting character growth that Iron Man 2 oddly only played around at creating. Super derivative, though.

14. Ant Man. We’re in the realm of really good movies now, and this one captures the fun of the MCU as well as anything else. Another standard template is at work here–not all that different from Iron Man–but Paul Rudd is a joy to watch, and where this movie is “fill in the blanks” in its structure, it gets creative with the details, allowing itself to never take itself too seriously. 

13. Doctor Strange. Yet another movie where the details are creative–the gorgeous visuals alone make this movie worth it, and they’re even organic and solidly integrated–but the narrative is generic. Strange’s hero’s journey is forced, but everything about him is forced, like at beginning when we see that he has a complete mastery of obscure pop music trivia, which never gets mentioned again. It’s like the screenwriters said, “OK, he needs some random quirk in Act I, then we can move on…”

12. Captain America: The First Avenger. The skill of the MCU is to take their formula (and by now I hope we see that Marvel is a very formulaic outfit) and just use it with as much pop energy as possible. This genuinely rousing movie is the zenith of that art, with all the wholesome “gee whiz!” spectacle of the Superman movies of the 80’s. Also, Hugo Weaving.

11. Avengers: Age of Ultron. I remember one review of this one saying that it was a miracle it was any good at all, what with all the pressure and competing agendas at work here, and while that may be true, the consistent success of the Russo brothers in making movies even better than this one proves that it’s possible. Joss Whedon is a genius, but even genius can be overrated. Still, this Avengers outing was a solid follow up and immensely enjoyable. Also, James Spader.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy. Even more fun and even funnier than Ant Man, this is the movie that proved that Marvel could make a great popcorn movie out of anything.  Continue reading

What Avengers: Infinity War Is Really About [SPOILERS]

Warning: this is a very spoiler-heavy analysis. Do not read this unless you’ve seen the movie. (I’ve already seen it twice!)

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Consider these key details from the film:

  • Vision tells Wanda to run when they’re attacked and he’s badly hurt, but she refuses, joking that in a romantic moment before the fight started, he had asked her to stay.
  • Vision later says that the stone in his head must be destroyed, even if it kills him, so that he can ensure the safety of others. Steve Rogers declines that plan, saying that “We don’t trade lives.” Later, when Steve tells Vision to run so he can save him from death, Vision stays and kills the attacker, saving Steve instead. Vision then tells Steve, “We don’t trade lives.”
  • In a twist on this theme, Gamora asks Quill to kill her if she’s taken by Thanos, so he won’t be able to use her to hurt anyone else.
  • In fact, both Quill and Wanda are forced by people they love to kill them in order to save others. In each case, they hesitate and only do so with extreme pain to themselves evident on their faces.

All of these are examples of self-sacrifice, motivated by love and honor, but there’s a third instance of someone killing a loved one in the film.

Thanos, of course, kills Gamora, but not to save others, and not at her request. Where all the acts listed above were voluntary and selfless, Thanos acts against the will of others, for his own selfish wants.

But this isn’t a generic theme of loving sacrifice here. Consider three other moments:

  • Loki, in a singularly unusual act, attempts to kill Thanos after noting his relationship to Odin in an aside to Thor, to stop Thanos from torturing Thor to get what he wants. Loki dies as a result. The only motivation the generally selfish Loki could have had for this is to save others, probably a result of character growth in Thor: Ragnarok.
  • In a parallel scene of saving a sibling from torture, Gamora gives up secret information to Thanos to stop him from torturing her sister Nebula, with whom she had reconciled in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
  • We first see Tony Stark in this movie as he enthusiastically tells Pepper about a dream where he would become a father. Though there’s no baby, Pepper says, Tony spends the rest of the movie becoming an ever closer mentor to Peter Parker, even holding the younger man as he dies in Tony’s arms, which devastates him. That’s why there’s no Uncle Ben in the MCU: Tony is Peter’s surrogate dad here. [This is another missed opportunity by DC, who created their current franchise with an aging, grizzled Batman and a young, inexperienced Superman. A lot could have been gained by having Bruce Wayne become a father figure to Clark Kent. Alas.]
  • Thor and Quill share some darkly humorous banter about the stresses of having family members kill other family members, obligating you to kill them in return. In fact, with Gamora’s situation as the focal point there, they bond over it.

All of these details emphasize family, especially the power of love in a family. Thanos is the villain here because he is the one character who perverts that power and twists it backward for his own good. Everyone else sacrifices for family love. Thanos abuses it for his own glory. In the moral universe of Infinity War, that’s what makes him evil. And sacrificing yourself out of love for family is what makes the heroes truly heroic.

Eleven More Old Albums

There are actually seven other albums between the last music post and this one, but I’ll cover those on Wednesday.

23. Pixies, Doolittle 

I really liked this as a kid, but found much of the B-side hard to get into. Not anymore. This is an enjoyably eccentric success from start to finish.

New verdict: A

 

24. Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses 

For a while I’ve felt that, of the bands I really liked as a teen, the one that still holds up the least has to be Depeche Mode, but I was only thinking that from memory, so I was worried about revisiting a few of their albums. Imagine my surprise at really liking this one still! Some tracks are weaker than others, but overall, I got back into this one pretty cleanly. Not awesome, but not bad at all.

New verdict: B

 

25. Depeche Mode, Violator 

The first album I heard by this band, when it was new, is still my favorite. I once read a disparaging remark about DM to the effect that their catalog is so simplistic that a truly talented musician like Leonard Cohen could have tapped it out on a keyboard while eating breakfast. That had a ring of truth, and maybe it’s why I devalued them in hindsight. But putting this influential album back on brought it all back, and even the minor tracks felt great, maybe even more so than the hits. Alas, nostalgia is like that, isn’t it?

 

New verdict: A

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8 More Old Albums

Picking up where the last entry left off…

 

8. The Cranberries, Everyone Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?

I listened to this after hearing of the passing of Dolores O’Riordan in January. The album more than holds up; though the singles still strike me as the most impressive tracks, little if anything here is filler. Most tracks pop out with a fiercely effervescent personality.

New verdict: B

 

9. The Sundays, Blind

As I listened to The Cranberries, the 1990 single “Here’s Where the Story Ends,” by The Sundays, came back to mind, so I returned to their biggest album, the one after the album that ave us that great single. Sadly, though I liked Blind, and I truly loved Harriet Wheeler’s singing (which sounds not unlike Dolores O’Riordan’s), many tracks felt a little flat, a bit incomplete. The last track on Blind, a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” may be the most surprisingly solid, but regardless, you should go back and enjoy “Here’s Where the Story Ends.”

New verdict: C

 

10. INXS, Welcome To Wherever You Are

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Some Recent Listenings

I listen to music a lot while working. One of my Spotify accounts is called “Grading Papers” because that’s when I listen to it. Lately, I’ve been listening to some long, mellow tracks as I slog away:

 

But then again, I’ve also really liked having this one on in the background, too!

I came across that one while listening to this on a loop:

RIP Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries

Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of The Cranberries, died today at the age of 46. This is a sad day for those who love Ireland and 90s music.

Just last month, I was thinking about their song “Dreams” again. At first blush it can come off as too light, too fluffy–it was featured in the movie You’ve Got Mail, after all–but the song’s pop catchiness is deceptive. It’s not a simple, formulaic pop song–far from it. The story presents a new infatuation as a chance for self discovery and reinvention, optimistically claiming that such growth is inevitable. The iconic guitar riff complemented that perfectly, and perfectly represented the early 90s with its bubbly electricity, part gritty grunge, part power pop.

But back to the words–not only did O’Riordan’s lyrics delve deeper than they seemed to, in ways that strayed outside the norm, but so did her vocal work itself. If the guitar in “Dreams” was prototypical early 90s, her voice was the exact opposite. It was the style for women at the time to try to sound as tormented and angry as their male counterparts, but she was happy to chirp out pretty melodies which were no less affecting for it. To be earnestly positive while still communicating a solid connection to elemental reality–that’s a tough balance to strike. Few try. Dolores did it. Witness “Linger” and “Ode To My Family.”

And yet, this is the woman who also wrote and sang “Zombie,” a passionate lament about actual political violence! This was a deep well of lyric and vocal artistry, friends.

46 is far too young. Her work will be missed.

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7 Old Albums

One of my goals while I’m 40 is to listen to 40 albums that were important to teenage me. I’ve gone back and heard seven so far.

1. U2, The Unforgettable Fire

This one’s a bit of a cheat–I’ve listened to parts of this pretty consistently over the years, but I haven’t heard the whole album, start to finish, in who knows how long. My preferred tracks probably hurt this, though: the tracks I tend to avoid–“Fire” and “Indian Summer Sky”–sounded out of place now. Besides, they’re harsher than the soft, mellow, flowing tracks that attract me to this album: a lot of late work nights this last semester were capped off by a long drive home to the trio of “Promenade,” “4th of July,” and “Bad” on earphones (but of course I still love “Pride,” so go figure).

New Verdict: B+

2. The Cure, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

I remember this being a long, rambling, uneven album…and this re-listening confirmed that. The surprise here was that some of the highly visible singles from my childhood–like “Hot Hot Hot!!!” and “Why Can’t I Be You?”–are just annoying now, and some of the more obscure tracks from later on towards the end of the album–such as “The Perfect Girl,” “Like Cockatoos,” and “A Thousand Hours”–are more catchy and pleasant than I remembered.

Still a deeply uneven effort. Why make the album so overstuffed with discordant filler like “The Snakepit” and “Icing Sugar,” the later of which sounds like a ripoff of their own classic “The Hanging Garden?”

New Verdict: B-

3. The Cure, Disintegration

Holy crap, this is even more of a perfect classic than I thought it was! The themes are explored so deeply that the album has more variety than I recalled, but every detail is tightly in service of the overall effect. It’s genuinely moving. No surprise that the lesser tracks now strike me as just as powerful as the well-known ones: though not a popular single or anything, there’s a reason why the track below gave the album its title! Really, a total masterpiece from the first note to the last.

New Verdict: A+

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Haydn

So I’ve spent a lot of this year getting into Haydn. It’s odd–I’ve been courting a taste for classical music for most of my adult life, but I never really listened to Haydn until now. He slipped through the cracks somehow. I read something recently about how Haydn used to be regarded as highly as his younger contemporary Mozart, and was just as popular, until the last generation or so, when we decided Mozart was the be-all and end-all of music. (I enjoy this channel of animated classical music, which has hundreds of videos, but which I just found has zero pieces by Haydn.)

The two men’s styles are certainly similar, but in Haydn I see a man I find spiritually simpatico. His symphonies each sound simple, but developed deeply–each a paean to grace–like Mozart’s–but also direct in a clean, friendly way, as opposed to Mozart’s often overbearing showmanship. A balance of lofty and grounded.

I just watched a lecture by Robert Greenberg about Haydn, and learned that he was a child of the working class, and a late bloomer: another level at which I connect with him. It may be illustrative of pretension, but when I listen to Haydn, I feel the best of both my abilities and aspirations underscored–ambitions for productive contemplation, if you will. I’ve listened to the Sunrise quartet on some Sunday mornings, for example, and find it a perfect fit.

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Two Examples of Cultural Whitewashing In Recent Movies

hfNot long ago, I saw this essay pointing out a huge hole in the otherwise excellent Jackie Robinson biopic 42: the total absence of his faith, which was ubiquitous in his real life.

Such changes to how we tell stories about history say more about our time than they do about times in the past.

Two small examples I noticed in movies I’ve recently seen:

Hidden Figures was a fantastic movie. I loved everything about it. Except one tiny detail kept nagging at me.

Not a single person is ever seen smoking.

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Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!

 

Great Gravitas in Two Popcorn Flicks

We don’t exactly think of superheroes or science fiction when we think of Oscar bait, but two performances in mainstream pop movies of recent years have stuck with me. They both demonstrated a subdued gravitas which may have slipped past many people’s radar because the work was so naturally understated.

The first is Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. One of the complaints about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it has so many dead ends, and despite the continuous storyline, so many of its films still feel like stand alone fresh starts. That’s largely true.

An exception is RDJ’s work in Civil War. His portrayal of Tony Stark has been uneven, partly as he has explored the character himself, and partly as the varying quality of scripts has left him more or less to work with, but not only did the plot of Civil War bring to fruition all the character growth earned and lost over the course of several films, RDJ brought his A game to it, and gave an impressively nuanced performance.

We can really feel the weight of all that has happened in recent years in the MCU in this film. We can see this movie as a depiction of the age-old political struggle between collectivism and individualism, but Tony Stark is no bureaucratic stooge here: RDJ makes it clear that this man is finally just crumpling under the burdens that life has kept stacking on him. He needs escape. He needs rest. This is a man in turmoil.

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Ten Favorite Paintings

The top 10-themed culture conversation continues between two old friends and I. This last week the category was simple: ten favorite paintings. I got to go back over my posts here on that subject, and I came up with this list:

10. Durand, The Morning of Life

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9. Van Gogh, Cafe Terrace at Night

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8. Church, Country Home

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7. Bocklin, Isle of the Dead

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