Sunday, February 28, 2016

Ultimate Playlists 1: Modest Mouse

Have you ever been to a concert and wished the band had played certain songs? I know I have. The reality is, you'll never get exactly what you want. However, you are free to build any playlist you like. I have decided to write a series showcasing the Top 20 songs from some of my favorite bands. The obvious first choice for me is Modest Mouse because I have been almost unable to listen to anything else for the best part of two years.

For those of you who are old enough to remember cassette tapes, you'll know the terrible anguish of trying to fit the songs together. How annoying when the last song you picked was still playing as the tape ran out! Those days are over and it's now a simple task to throw together a playlist using your computer, iPod or a USB. I know that having USB capability has enhanced my driving pleasure because it's so easy to update a list of songs.

But there's also more to creating a playlist than simply deciding which songs to include. Like an actual concert, or even a single song, a good playlist features changes in mood and tempo. If a band opens with the three songs that the audience most wants to hear, the rest of the performance might fall flat. My own particular method of creating a playlist has a number of considerations:

  • Mix up the duration of the songs
  • Put space between songs from the same album, unless the two are better when played in sequence
  • Build to a natural high, slow it down again, and finish with a real flourish
  • Put in some newer songs close to the start, assuming there are newer songs worthy of inclusion
  • For bands with more than one vocalist, mix up the sequence depending on who is singing
  • Speed and style matters, so mix it up unless there is a good reason not to
  • Albums often have a great choice of opening and closing song that work best in that particular spot 
  • The final three or four songs might resemble an encore if it was a real concert
  • Leave the listener satisfied and wanting more

If you are familiar with my blog, you'll know that I have counted down the Top 100 Modest Mouse songs according to my rankings, so my main consideration for this opening installment is the sequence in which my Top 20 should be played. The reasons for the choice of songs is included in the Top 100 series already mentioned.

Without further ado, here is my ultimate Modest Mouse playlist. My YouTube playlist includes fan videos, live versions and extended versions of Cowboy Dan and Spitting Venom: 

3rd Planet
Heart Cooks Brain
The Whale Song
The Tortoise and the Tourist
Cowboy Dan
White Lies Yellow Teeth
Parting of the Sensory
Lounge (Closing Time)
Bury Me With It
Never Ending Math Equation
Steam Engenius
Trailer Trash
The Stars Are Projectors
Exit Does Not Exist
Fly Trapped In a Jar
Doin' the Cockroach
Dark Center of the Universe
Teeth Like God's Shoeshine
Spitting Venom

That's it. If you are a fan, I hope you give it a listen.

Next up, Sonic Youth. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Breaking Bad - Complete Series

In Praise of Breaking Bad

I don't watch a lot of TV shows. I prefer live sports to the hassle of waiting a week for the next episode of a show to air. However, once in a while, I do listen to my friends and check out a TV series. In the case of Breaking Bad, I tried it because it was recommended by one of my closest friends. This only happened in June 2015, so the entire series was already over before I saw the first episode.

After borrowing the first season from another friend, I raced through it in two days. I couldn't wait to borrow the second season so I picked up the entire series on used DVDs, before eventually upgrading to the glorious limited edition Blu-ray set shown above. I've now seen the entire series twice in eight months.

For more than 20 years, my favorite TV show has been Twin Peaks. Breaking Bad is the first series that has ever reached those heights and threatened to overtake Twin Peaks in my rankings. The fact that I am even arguing with myself over that ranking speaks volumes.

If you have somehow never seen an episode of Breaking Bad, let me give you an overview so that you can determine whether you might like it. It's essentially a character study of Walter White, who teaches chemistry in school. After learning that he has lung cancer, White realizes that he hasn't provided for his family should he no longer be around. It strikes me as odd that such a practical and intelligent man wouldn't have a decent life insurance policy, but there aren't many plot holes so I'll let it pass. White's brother-in-law, Hank, is a DEA agent and suggests White ride along with him on a potential drug bust. When he sees the money involved, White decides that he will put his chemistry expertise to use. He decides to cook meth and make enough money to ensure his family is taken care of before he dies.

That's all you need to know about the plot if you haven't seen the show. Here are a few more reasons why it is worth 44 hours of your time:

The writing is superb (and intelligent). Vince Gilligan penned 29 episodes of the X-Files and created Breaking Bad. He only wrote 13 of the 62 episodes, but all 62 are well-written. The overall story is coherent and compelling.

The characters are fully developed. I'm not just referring to the main characters either. None of these people are weak sketches. Every character thinks and feels and has motivations for what they do.

The amount of thought that went into the story is perhaps unsurpassed in television. For example, White has cancer. How would you react if you were suddenly told that you might not have long to live? How would your family react? Would you talk about it, avoid it, make plans, seek treatment, or enjoy what time you have left to the best of your ability? That's all covered in the opening season. One episode is about a fly. It sounds crazy, but it will all make sense when you see it.

Gus is one of the best villains ever created and Mike is just as interesting. Gilligan could make a show with either as the viewpoint character and it would be gripping.

If you were suddenly in White's position, would you tell your family what you were doing? Would you break the law even further to protect your business and the overall goal of providing for your family? How would you explain the money? How would you avoid arousing suspicion? Gilligan answers all of these questions and more.

Breaking Bad eventually shows us White's complete story arc from good guy to bad guy. It's thought-provoking in every episode. Who is the real Walter White? Did cancer change him, or was he always the person he eventually becomes? It makes us think about our own lives.

I'm tempted to break down the entire story, but I am not sure that there would be any point. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it from beginning to end on two separate occasions. I'm sure I'll revisit it every couple of years.

I should mention that there is a lot of violence, so that might make it something to avoid if you are sensitive about that subject. However, it's all there for a reason and makes the story more authentic.

The series has won 120 awards at the time of writing, including Golden Globes for Best TV Drama and Best Actor in a TV Series. Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk and Dean Norris all give superb performances. RJ Mitte, Anna Gunn and Betsy Brandt are also utterly convincing. There are dozens of other noteworthy performances from actors appearing in just a few episodes.

If you are missing Breaking Bad, I urge you to check out Better Call Saul. It's lighter in tone than Breaking Bad and takes place before any of those events. Season two has just started airing on AMC. Vince Gilligan is again involved and the series shows how Saul became the character we know from Breaking Bad. There's also further insight into Mike's character. Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks both reprise their roles.

Overall score 5/5

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