After a month of false starts and extreme procrastination, long after everyone else has already posted their "Looking Forward To" lists (and then some), I'm finally going to take my annual look backwards and sum up 2008 through the narrow lens of Fong Songs. Since this blog more or less serves as a diary of sorts, assembling the inevitable year-end post was an amusing exercise in sifting through the past year's posts to see where I was and what I was doing at any particular time:
2008 started with a bang as my first post of the year Pinball Number Count Revisited was (and is) the most popular post I've ever had. Then it was all downhill from there... just kidding. Like any year, there were big ups and big downs. 2008 was strange in that the ups were way high and the downs were way down. Last April, I was fortunate to be invited as a guest panelist on Coverville to talk shop with other cover bloggers. It was a fun experience, though it's very obvious why I stick to blogging over podcasting. 2008 marked my first travels to Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Chapel Hill, the latter of which was part of an epic continent-crossing venture to see the reunited Ben Folds Five. There was a sad though not completely unexpected death in the family that I won't go into here, but needless to say it was a heavy-hearted experience. On the flipside, in September I flew to Toronto and met my 11-month old cousin for the first time, the first Fong boy in the family since me. While there, I got my first taste of the Toronto Film Fest and literally got to watch a film alongside Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge. I made another appearance on the internet airwaves on the BreakThru Radio show Anatomy of a Blogger in November, blathering self-consciously about Fong Songs in between music picks ostensibly chosen by me (not entirely true).
Fourth quarter '08 was marred by a blogosphere wide crackdown on MP3 blogs, the ripples of which still continue to this day, leading many to abandon blogspot for hopefully safer waters or outright pack it in. I haven't gone either route yet, but the number of posts I've written since this whole thing came down has diminished dramatically and part of it is a mental block, knowing that hours of writing can be flushed away by an online robocop. The file-host situation has also been nagging on my brain, but for now I'll be forsaking the bonus traffic of Hype Machine and Elbo.ws and going back to using Mediafire which (for me) has a fairly convenient interface and unlimited bandwidth (a feature lacking in other sites). In fact, throughout this post you'll find selected tracks only available via streaming, hopefully to prevent future headaches.
Top Covers/Cover Albums:
My favourite cover of 2008 was OK Go and Bonerama's cover of David Bowie's Rock 'n' Roll Suicide, from the digital EP You're Not Alone, which may also be one of the year's great underrated releases. Joining forces with New Orleans brass funk group Bonerama (look them up for many other awesome cover songs), OK Go recorded five songs for the EP benefitting New Orleans musicians displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Among those displaced was New Orleans legend Al "Carnival Time" Johnson, who also appears on the EP contributing lead vocals on another great cover of Bob Dylan's I Shall Be Released. The other three tracks are OK Go songs with Bonerama adding some brass oopmh to the proceedings. The EP is only $3.49 from iTunes with full sales going to Sweet Home New Orleans and to building a new house for Al "Carnival Time" Johnson. Definitely add it to your iTunes cart if you haven't bought it already.
OK Go & Bonerama - Rock 'N' Roll Suicide [originally by David Bowie]
The cover follows the same slow build progression of the original, gradually adding elements one by one. The original acoustic guitar intro is replaced by twinkling piano, Bonerama takes the barely-there horns of the original to bombastic new heights, and OK Go singer Damien Kulash does a phenomenal job expressively building up to the show-stopping howl of "YOU'RE NOT ALONE!" The vocals remind me a little of Paul McCartney's go-for-broke vocals on Oh! Darling, one of my fave Beatles songs that wikipedia surprisingly mentions was influenced by New Orleans rhythm and blues... coincidence?
missFlag - Still Alive [originally by Jonathan Coulton & GLaDOS]
At first this cover didn't make much of an impression on me, but what struck me upon repeat listens is that there's not really any winking or elbow nudging by the band. They simply perform the cover naturally as if it's the latest pop rock radio single, albeit from the POV of a vindictive AI being.
The Polka Floyd Show - Hey You [originally by Pink Floyd]
The Polka Floyd Show's self-titled debut of polka Pink Floyd covers sounds like a conceptual joke, but it's not. Clearly the band is having fun with the tunes, but it never really devolves into novelty. They strike a perfect balance of paying tribute and making the songs their own, at least insofar as that's possible when one's entire repertoire is another band's songs.
Mirror Ball Associates - On the Road Again (Slow Ride) [originally by Willie Nelson]
I had never heard of Mirror Ball Associates when I stumbled upon their album Covers Volume I while cruising for covers on eMusic. Released last January, it turns out the Mirror Ball Associates are actually a side project of Paul Durham, frontman of Black Lab (whom I have also never heard of). There is a diverse range of songs including pop punk takes on Allan Sherman's Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh and If I Only Had a Brain from The Wizard of Oz, a phenomenal update on Jesus Jones' Right Here, Right Now (posted a while back), an unironic cover of Paula Abdul's Promise of a New Day, and a whole bunch more. I'm pretty sure it's not my imagination that this Willie Nelson cover is played in the style of Radiohead's Creep. The whole album is only available digitally on Amazon, iTunes, and eMusic. Let's hope Volume I is a promise of a Volume II.
Max Vernon - All That She Wants [originally by Ace of Base]
Major kudos are due to Max Vernon who came out of seemingly nowhere (actually New York) to permeate internet consciousness beginning with his cover of Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl this past summer. I was eager to jump aboard the Max Vernon bandwagon, championing his music over several posts (his When Your Body Breaks became one of my most played tracks of the year) and ultimately I was able to conduct a lengthy e-mail interview with Max that was posted in November. Definitely a major blog highlight last year. Max also stormed the 2008 Coverville Countdown, taking the 1st and 3rd overall spots, sandwiching Johnny Cash's Hurt. Congrats! Don't forget his I Kissed a Girl cover is available on the covers compilation album Guilt by Association, Volume 2 on iTunes and presumably on CD next month.
Speaking of Coverville, I was excited to find out that this year's Coverville Countdown included Danny Michel's cover of Young Americans, which I like to think I had something to do with. For the Coverville Roundtable, we were asked to bring along some of our favourite covers for "show & tell" and that was one of my picks. Even though I submitted my official cover nominations including Young Americans in early December, I'm horribly ashamed to say I forgot to vote myself. :( At least the rest of the Coverville listeners were out there to pick up the slack.
PoZitive Orchestra - Shine On You Crazy Diamond [originally by Pink Floyd]
No doubt, my cover find of the year was the PoZitive Orchestra's stash of brilliant bossa/string quartet re-interpretations of the likes of Zeppelin, Beatles, Elvis, and more. Practice your Russian here.
Favourite Songs/Albums of '08:
The Raconteurs - These Stones Will Shout
The Raconteurs surprised everyone announcing their sophomore release Consolers of the Lonely just a week before its release and a month later I got to see their tour kick-off in my (new) hometown of Vancouver. It didn't instantly blow me away upon first listen, but it eventually became my most listened to album of the year. From the pure rock anthems of Hold Up and Five on the Five to a Zeppelin-esque cover of Terry Reid's Rich Kid Blues to the sordid tale of Carolina Drama, everything just seemed to click on this album even if it took me a few listens to soak it all in. For me, Many Shades of Black was the first instant classic. The Switch and the Spur is wonderfully dorky even if it's not intentional. The one track that simmered to the top was These Stones Will Shout, which is just acoustic guitars and harmonized vocals for more than half the song before flipping to electric and building up to a great finale reminiscent of The Who. On the whole, it's a better record than Broken Boy Soldiers. Sounds like their having more fun on this one too. My dad (a huge Beatles/Eagles fan) rarely comments on music that I put on, though I'm always greatly amused when he asks, "Who is this? I like this." This has occurred multiple times whenever I play anything by The Ditty Bops and the other time was when we were in the car and I popped in Consolers of the Lonely. So there you go, it got the Papa Fong seal of approval.
From my favourite '08 albums, a handful of my top tracks:
- The Ditty Bops - The Weeds Are Winning [from Summer Rains]
- She & Him - This is Not a Test [from Volume 1]
- The Wrong Trousers - Had [from One and Counting...]
- Amanda Palmer - Leeds United [from Who Killed Amanda Palmer]
- The Bicycles - Oh No, It's Love [ from Oh No, It's Love]
- Laura Barrett - Escape to the Sun Dome [from Victory Garden]
- Danny Michel - Sweet Things [from Feather, Fur & Fin]
Esau Mwamwaya & Radioclit - 'The Very Best' Mixtape
One of the best albums from last year was FREE and forecasts one of the best albums of 2009. How is that? This 15 song bootleg/mixtape called The Very Best was released by Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit for download on their myspace site (get it here). Esau Mwamwaya's journey from his home in Lilongwe, Malawi to your computer speakers is a curious tale. Less than 10 years ago, Mwamwaya moved to London and ran a second-hand furniture store, which happened to be on the same street as the studios of the producer duo known as Radioclit. Etienne Tron, half of the duo, bought a used bike from Mwamwaya and eventually invited him to a housewarming party. There he was introduced to Radioclit's other half Johan Karlberg and they got to talking music (Mwamwaya was formerly a drummer), eventually inviting him to their studios and discovering his inherent singing talents. The songs that make up the album can't really be called covers since Mwamwaya and Radioclit radically transform the samples into new songs that are familiar, yet refreshingly new. Vampire Weekend's hit Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa gets a makeover, as does M.I.A.'s Paper Planes in Tengazako. The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Ruby Suns, Sweet's Love is Like Oxygen, and more are magnificently recontextualized. A proper debut release is due sometime in '09.
2008 in concerts:
2008/01/24 The Watkins Family Hour The Largo, Los Angeles, CA
2008/02/29 Patton Oswalt Vogue Theatre, Vancouver, BC
2008/03/06 Harvey Danger's 10th Anniversary Public Spectacle Triple Door Seattle, WA
2008/03/07 Harvey Danger's 10th Anniversary Public Spectacle Triple Door Seattle, WA
2008/04/11 Tift Merritt with Sara Watkins The Plaza Club Vancouver, BC
2008/04/20 The Raconteurs with Birds of Avalon Commodore Ballroom Vancouver, BC
2008/04/21 The Raconteurs with Birds of Avalon Neumo's Seattle, WA
2008/04/30 Danny Michel The Railway Club Vancouver, BC
2008/05/01 Danny Michel The Railway Club Vancouver, BC
2008/05/13 Cake with Paper Lions Vogue Theatre Vancouver, BC
2008/09/18 Ben Folds Five with Hotel Lights Memorial Hall Chapel Hill, NC
2008/12/10 Amanda Palmer with Zoë Keating and The Builders & The Butchers Richard's on Richards Vancouver, BC
My concert-going for 2008 was down compared to previous years (a trend that looks to continue), but against all odds I was able to check off number one on the concert bucket list: Ben Folds Five. Reuniting for a one-off gig, I flew down to Chapel Hill, NC in September to see the band that has pretty much been tops in my books since I first heard Whatever and Ever Amen, which you can read all about here. My concert bucket list was narrowed further earlier in the year when I took a bus to Seattle to be a part of Harvey Danger's 10th anniversary shows. They've got a small, but devoted fanbase that soaked up every minute of it as they played through all three of their albums in their entirety and more over two nights. Fantastic stuff.
2008 in film:
In Bruges surprisingly turned out to be one of my favourite films of the year. The terrible trailers were reminiscent of the utterly forgettable Mark Wahlberg dud The Big Hit (i.e. ironic hitmen, casual chatting during shootouts) and even the recently released DVD describes it as an "edgy, action-packed comedy, filled with thrilling chases, spectacular shoot outs and an explosive ending you won't want to miss!" (note: 95% inaccurate). Fortunately, unexpected praise from several trustworthy film reviewers led me to check this one out and I was not disappointed, in fact I was a little blown away. It was odd to watch a movie with less than 15 others staggered around the theatre where all of us were chuckling out loud, but that's a testament to the dark, dark humour and spot-on performances. For what it's worth, Colin Farrell picked up a Golden Globe for his role in In Bruges reminding people that yes, he can act (probably his most natural performance since Tigerland). Co-star Brendan Gleeson was also nominated and probably more deserving. There's a wonderful scene with just Gleeson (and the voice of scene-stealing Ralph Fiennes over the phone) that shifts from amusing to heartbreaking with one spoken line. I hadn't heard of first time writer-director Martin McDonagh before (apparently his stage plays are brilliant), but he's definitely on my radar for future projects. Even though this was his first feature film, McDonagh won an Oscar for his short film Six Shooter also starring Brendan Gleeson, something I've gotta track down. The impetus for this film according to McDonagh was a trip to Bruges in which he was both awed and bored by the picturesque Belgian town, which honestly was a similar impression I got from my own brief visit to Bruges a couple years ago. The only thing I really remember after walking around Bruges for two hours was some baby ducks I encountered jumping off a foot bridge (so cute!). Full of history, yet somewhat mundane, which is what McDonagh incorporated into the opposing reactions of the two main characters. I loved how the story unfolded in a way that's unpredictable, yet somehow inevitable.
The Dark Knight pretty much speaks for itself and as a huge Batman fan in general, this was the bee's knees. Other than TDK, Slumdog Millionaire was the only other film I saw twice in theatres last year. Though the hipster backlash started pretty much as soon as it was released (as it also racks up award wins/nominations), without a doubt this was the crowdpleaser of the year, in spite of the fact that one of the most disturbing scenes in recent cinema is also contained within. I often withhold movie recommendations from friends/family because more often than not I can predict in advance they won't like the movie even if I loved it, but Slumdog Millionaire is the first movie in recent memory that I've gone out of my way to tell everyone I know to check it out. Wall-E was pretty awesome, though I think I need to see it again. The first time around, I was vaguely distracted by the let's-pretend-we're-not-talking-about-obesity subplot and the human element in general. Iron Man was surprisingly awesome considering I had no prior childhood stakes in the character, unlike many other comic-to-film adaptations. I'm liking the master plan of Marvel since they've become their own movie studio. I enjoyed Indy 4 at first purely out of nostalgia, but upon further reflection it was way off the mark (death to CGI!). Same goes for Quantum of Solace, which was enjoyable enough while in the theatre, but the more I think about it the less I liked it. Doubly disappointing after the return to form with Casino Royale.
I saw three pretty good movies last year that, as of this moment, are pretty hard to see outside of a film festival and DVD releases are a long ways off (or in one case, "never going to happen").
- Largo was a fly-on-the-wall documentary of a night at the semi-legendary club in LA (I say "semi-legendary" because I seem to always have to explain the Largo when I mention it to people). Featuring performances by Largo regulars (Fiona Apple, Jon Brion!, Jackson Browne, Patton Oswalt, Aimee Mann, Sarah Silverman, Colin Hay, and more), I have to admit that the alternating between stand-up comedy and intimate music performances was a little jarring (although it's the club's M.O.). An exhilarating performance of Andrew Bird "constructing" A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left with loop pedals is probably the highlight of the film and an eye (or ear) opener for any unfamiliar with his work, as seemed to be the case with the audience I saw it with. Co-director Andrew Van Baal was in attendance to field questions, though it was somewhat awkward since many people had left during the credits even though the theatre was only half-full to begin with, leaving a handful of us to provide obligatory questions. A DVD and soundtrack are hopefully forthcoming since a ton of footage was shot and cut out, not to mention the end credits play over a beautiful instrumental version of Zeppelin's Going to California presumably by Sean Watkins and John Paul Jones that demands release (several recordings exist on the Live Archive but this version was pristine).
- Even better than the real thing, Indy IV was eclipsed by three determined teenagers in Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation originally filmed in the 80s. I lucked out seeing this early last summer (review here) and heartily recommend you do you... that is, if you ever get the chance! It only played a handful of dates last year and nothing seems to be planned for 2009 so far. Like most movies there are "other" ways to see it, though nothing beats a packed theatre experience for this one. Otherwise, you may have to wait for the long-in-gestation big screen adaptation of the boys' story (similar to last year's Son of Rambow) as written by Daniel Clowes.
- I scored a major coup while on a family visit to Toronto, the rock documentary It Might Get Loud had its world premiere with the film's subjects Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge all in attendance and I was literally first in line to see it. Read my previously posted summary of the surreal experience.
Lastly, just a shout-out to two awesome websites that cropped up in the past year (or at least came to my attention):
- The Boston Globe's The Big Picture, an always awe-inspiring, thought-provoking collection of hi-res photos from the associated press. A simple, obvious concept executed perfectly.
- Sporcle.com was introduced to me via Ken Jennings' blog (yep, I read his blog) and it's a must for any trivia lover. In presentation and implementation, it's simply miles above any comparable site. Since its debut, all it does it get better. Their feedback link that not only gets read, but actually results in change! I'm tackling the Jeopardy online test tonight to see if Sporcle increased my knowledge of US presidents and state capitals.
I'm already digging Andrew Bird's latest Noble Beast, but otherwise a lot of my favourite artists seem to be keeping a low profile this year. After plenty of touring over the past couple years, Bird's old compadres the Squirrel Nut Zippers have an as-yet-unannounced studio album in the works, so I am hugely anticipating that. But I've perused some 2009 release lists and nothing else really jumps out. Perhaps someone will pull some Raconteurs-like tactics (i.e. announcing a new album just a week before it comes out).
Over and out.