Sunday, January 09, 2011

Best Tracks of 2010

Rounding off my best of the year lists for another 12 months, it's the ten most perfectly crafted pop confections of 2010. To be eligible, tracks must have been released as a single (whatever than means these days) in the last calendar year, so no hidden album gems. You can listen to all ten via this Spotify playlist.

Excuses - The Morning Benders

A serendipitous discovery via the Aweditorium iPad app, Excuses couples shimmering Californian harmonies with the unforgettable line "I taped my tongue to the southern tip of your body". The soundtrack to a perfect summer day.

Young Forever - Jay-Z feat. Mr Hudson

Ok, so Alphaville did most of the heavy lifting by penning the anthemic 1984 original, but Jay-Z's rapping adds some shade to the light of Mr Hudson's vocal and the whole thing just works.

Fuck You - Cee Lo Green

Admittedly not the most nuanced lyrical sentiment, but with a tune more catchy than swine flu, it doesn't much matter. Solving the Ferrari rhyming conundrum with the line "I guess he's an Xbox and I'm more Atari" also earns Mr Green bonus points.

Roll Away Your Stone - Mumford & Sons

I first heard this as part of their barnstorming 2010 Glastonbury set and its irrepressible energy hooked me on first listen. If you've not heard it, I challenge you to listen to all 4 minutes and not tap your foot.

Heaven Can Wait - Charlotte Gainsbourg

The production genius and trademark lyrical ellipticism of Beck, coupled with the captivating voice of Charlotte Gainsbourg and a gloriously surreal music video. What's not to like?

Pack Up - Eliza Doolittle

I'm not sure if I only love this because it reminds me of Jonathan Whitehead's brilliant theme to BBC Two Comedy Rev, but love it I do.

Runaway - Kanye West feat. Pusha T

Pared down piano and a disarmingly self-deprecating lyric, this is Kanye without the swagger and it really works (although the nine minute album version maybe slightly over-eggs the pudding).

I Like - The Divine Comedy

Neil Hannon cutting loose with a veritable meringue of a song which offers nothing more than three and a half minutes of well crafted pop frippery. I like.

Dancing On My Own - Robyn

Poignant disco. Not a phrase you hear everyday, but Robyn hits the mark with a classic not-getting-the-guy lyric and a cracking tune. Guaranteed to make you even more depressed if you are dancing tout seul.

Satellite - Lena

Showing us Brits how it should be done, this German Eurovision winner is a perfect example of disposable pop, with an irresistible hook performed by an untrained 19 year old with curiously endearing mockney pronunciation.

Related posts:
My Top Albums of 2010
Top 20 Best Tracks of 2008

Monday, January 03, 2011

My Top Albums of 2010

The end of year list-making continues. Next up: the new albums which most tickled my musical fancy over the past 12 months.

Let me know what I should have been listening to using the comments link below.

Come Around Sundown
Kings of Leon

Standout track: Mary
The Suburbs
Arcade Fire

Standout track: Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
High Violet
The National

Standout track: Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
Tomorrow Morning

Standout track: This Is Where It Gets Good
Charlotte Gainsbourg

Standout track: Heaven Can Wait
Broken Bells
Broken Bells

Standout track: Vaporize
Bang Goes The Knighthood
The Divine Comedy

Standout track: I Like
Big Echo
The Morning Benders

Standout track: Excuses
End Times

Standout track: Paradise Blues
Vampire Weekend

Standout track: White Sky
Teen Dream
Beach House

Standout track: Zebra
Lonely Avenue
Ben Folds & Nick Hornby

Standout track: From Above
Eliza Doolittle
Eliza Doolittle

Standout track: Pack Up
Body Talk

Standout track: Dancing On My Own
The Black Keys

Standout track: Everlasting Light

Related posts:
My Top Albums of 2009
Best Albums of 2008
My Top 20 Albums of 2007
My Top 25 Albums of 2006
My Top 25 Albums of 2005

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Best iPad Games of 2010

It's amazing to think the iPad is only 9 months old, during which time it's really started to mature as a credible gaming platform. Admittedly many of its strongest games are ports from other platforms, although compelling iPad originals are starting to emerge.

Below are the top ten iPad games which most rocked my accelerometer in 2010. I've tried to only include games which really take advantage of the iPad's form factor (hence no Drop7, Plants vs. Zombies or Cut the Rope which play just as well on the iPhone imho).

Let me know which gems I'm currently missing out on.

#1 Angry Birds HD (£2.99)

Yes, it's available on the iPhone, but the additional space afforded by the iPad's larger screen makes it that much more enjoyable to play. If you haven't played it yet, be prepared to be addicted; Angry Birds is the iPad equivalent of crack. Its surreal battle between bird and pig has even inspired a live action YouTube tribute.

Like This? Try Plants vs. Zombies HD

#2 Monkey Island Tales 1 HD (£3.99)

Telltale Games' update to the classic LucasArts adventure game franchise really comes to life on the iPad, with sumptuous visuals, great voice acting, intuitive controls and the witty dialogue and fiendish puzzling you come to expect from the series.

Like This? Try Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: LeChuck’s Revenge

#3 World of Goo (£5.99)

World of Goo was born to be played on the iPad. A beautifully crafted game, which enchanted on the PC and Mac and on the Wii, its even more intuitive and enjoyable to play when you can manipulate the balls of goo with your fingertips. Pure class.

Like This? Try Moonlights

#4 Dominion HD (£2.99)

Superior to EA's official iPad version of Risk (which itself is excellent), this world domination board game captures all the magic of the original, but ratchets up the pace and tension and throws in some small but welcome additional features, including an online multiplayer mode.

Like This? Try RISK: The Official Game for iPad

#5 Let’s Golf! 2 (£0.59)

A playful and addictive golf sim which employs the trusty three-click swing action rather than attempting to more closely mimic a real golf swing (which almost always ends badly). Works best as a social experience, whether pass and play or via one of the multiplayer options (Online, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are all supported).

Like This? Try Real Golf 2011 HD

#6 Ragdoll Blaster 2 HD (£2.99)

A similar game mechanic to Angry Birds, with a canon rather than a catapult and a ragdoll rather than assorted birds. What sets RB2 apart, however, is its endlessly inventive level design introducing an Incredible Machine style physics dimension to the gameplay with predictably addictive consequences.

Like This? Try Angry Birds HD

#7 Puzzle Agent HD (£0.59)

Another Telltale Games production, Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent (to give it it's full title) is a puzzle / adventure game hybrid with a distinctive visual style provided by cartoonist Graham Annable. Whilst the fidelity of the illustrations is quite variable, the overall effect is charming and the puzzles and narrative progression dovetail much more seamlessly than I expected.

Like This? Try Babylonion Twins HD Premium

#8 Broken Sword: Director's Cut HD (Free)

Another elegant port of a classic adventure game. Fourteen years on since it's original release and Charles Cecil's narrative stands up well, aided by gorgeous visuals, cinematic sound and an intuitive interface. Makes me wonder whether the iPad might stimulate a wider renaissance in the point and click (tap?) adventure game genre.

Like This? Try Sam & Max Episode 1: The Penal Zone for iPad

#9 Osmos for iPad (£2.99)

A simple but surprisingly difficult game in which you must propel a single-celled organism towards other, smaller motes in order to absorb them. Hit a bigger one and you get absorbed. It has a nice aesthetic / calming ambient soundtrack and would be very relaxing were it not so damn stressful...

Like This? Try Cut the Rope HD

#10 Mirror's Edge for iPad (£2.99)

A successful re-imagining of the first-person console title of the same name as a side-scroller, making smart use of the limited inputs of swiping and tapping to produce one of the most nerve-wracking games currently available for the iPad.

Like This? Try Canabalt

Prices correct at time of writing.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

My Top 20 Films of 2010

Following on from my Top 10 TV Programmes of 2010, below are the full-length feature films which I've rated most highly over the past 12 months. As usual, films must have had a UK theatrical release within the calendar year to be eligible (so The King's Speech, True Grit and Black Swan must all wait till next year's list).

In terms of trends, the faux-documentary appears to be a form very much in the ascendancy (see Catfish, Exit Through The Gift Shop and I'm Still Here). Dark themes also seem to be a discernible trend - even the wholesome Toy Story has swung a bit to the dark side for it's third outing.

As for on-screen talent, Nic Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio, Casey Affleck and Anna Kendrick appear to be this year's magic ingredients, all appearing in more than one film on the list.

Anyhoo, enough chit-chat; here's the list:

#1 The Secret In Their Eyes

Deserving winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Oscars, this Argentinian thriller's 2 hours plus running time whizzes by thanks to a gripping narrative, delightful period production detail and compelling central performances.

#2 Winter's Bone

I was lucky enough to catch this at the Edinburgh Film Festival, with both Director and Lead in attendance and was blown away, both by the incredibly evocative cinematography and by the power of Jennifer Lawrence's performance. Not cheery, but an extraordinary piece of filmmaking that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

#3 Another Year

Mike Leigh at his most gentle but still hugely affecting. Great performances all round although for my money it's Lesley Manville's heartbreaking portrayal of Mary which most deserves the recognition of the Academy judges come February.

#4 Inception

As a piece of pure cinematic spectacle, it's hard to beat Christopher Nolan's brain-melting dreams-as-Russian-dolls thriller, which left the other summer blockbusters dead in the water thanks to a bold blend of CGI and live action stunt work.

#5 Catfish

2010's 'other Facebook film' served up far more food for thought on the profound implications of social networking for society at large than it's blockbuster cousin. Whilst many (re)viewers got hung up on the veracity of the footage and the knock-on implications for the integrity of the filmmakers, I allowed myself to be swept along by a genuinely compelling human drama.

#6 The Social Network

Less about Facebook and more about one man's drive for success and the collateral damage when that drive is matched by good fortune and timing. As you'd expect, Sorkin and Fincher ensure the dialogue and direction are a notch above most Hollywood fare and Jesse Eisenberg is hugely believable as Zuckerberg. Hell, even Justin Timberlake is good.

#7 Toy Story 3

It must suck to be Dreamworks, because when it comes to CG animation, nobody does it better than Pixar. Everything about this third outing from Buzz, Woody and the gang is note perfect, with the right blend of old and new characters and a cracking script ensuring it's equally enjoyable for adults and kids.

#8 Exit Through The Gift Shop

As with Catfish, you could easily fixate on the authenticity and authorship of the various elements of this somewhat elaborate narrative tapestry. Or... you could just sit back and enjoy another gripping human drama delivered via the documentary form and doff your cap in Banksy's general direction. I opted for the latter :)

#9 Precious

The story of a overweight, illiterate, Harlem teenager, pregnant with her father's second child as a result of rape, the scope for getting this wrong was huge. But a combination of a deft adaptation of the original novel and knock-out performances from Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique and (I never thought I'd write this) Mariah Carey, keep this the right side of good throughout.

#10 Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Wow. Nic Cage really is like the little girl with the curl. When he's bad (as he seems to be more often that not these days), he's terrible. But when the planets align, as they have done here, he's just incredible. Herzog allows Cage the freedom to really push the envelope and make the role his own, negating any need for comparisons with Harvey Keitel's Bad Lieutenant. Simply jaw-dropping.

#11 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Ahead of seeing Scott Pilgrim I couldn't help wondering whether it was going to suffer coming so soon after Kick Ass, another hyper-stylised, CGI-enhanced helping of comic book violence. I needed have worried however; Edgar Wright really turned the dials up to eleven for this one, out kick-assing Kick-Ass on the video-gamifciation (sorry!) of fight sequences and dowsing the whole thing liberally with pop-culture references.

#12 The Town

One of the best thrillers of the year came from the rather unexpected direction of Ben Affleck, who co-wrote, directed and starred in this Boston-set crime drama. Strong central performances from Jeremy Renner (of Hurt Locker fame), John Hamm (Mad Men) and Rebecca Hall (one to watch) helped distinguish this further. I'm now rather hoping he makes another one.

#13 Shutter Island

A Scorsese/DiCaprio billing's a tough one to call these day after the brilliance of The Departed (my number one film of 2006) and the overindulgent bilge of The Aviator (which got a dishonourable mention in my 2004 round-up). Mercifully, it's nearer to the former than the latter on the Scorsese/DiCaprio sliding scale, although it never quite tips the balance from engaging thriller to modern classic.

#14 The Killer Inside Me

Not an easy watch this one, with a wholly unsympathetic central character and some very convincing scenes of extreme domestic violence. It's a credit to Casey Affleck's portrayal then that this isn't an unbearable 109 minutes. Indeed, it's his charisma coupled with the character's psychopathic tendencies that brings to mind Michael Madsen's turn in Reservoir Dogs and leaves one with the same uneasy feeling of having been seduced (much like his victims), by the charm of a smooth talking psycho-killer.

#15 I'm Still Here

Unlike Catfish and Exit Via The Gift Shop, I'm Still Here does insist that you actively engage with the question of it's veracity rather than just sitting back and enjoying the ride. Unfortunately, this frequently threatens to destabilise the narrative and the viewer's emotional engagement with it. That said, there comes a point where you're left in little doubt that the whole thing's a hoax, that you can just sit back and marvel at the audacity and tenacity of Affleck and Phoenix's giant ruse.

#16 Kick-Ass

Coming, as it did, ahead of Scott Pilgrim, Kick-Ass was a much needed shot in the arm for comic book adaptations, successfully translating the kinetic energy of the original from page to screen with genuine verve and freshness. Nic Cage is once again in no-holds-barred scenery-chewing mode, although it's Chloe Moretz's Hit Girl who really steals the show.

#17 Four Lions

A comedy about a group of British jihadists from the creator of Brass Eye and The Day Today... I really wasn't sure what to expect from Four Lions going into the cinema and in particular, whether I was likely to come out laughing. Well, somehow Morris pulls it off, creating a film which is by turns laugh out loud funny and hugely emotionally affecting, with characters which are broadly comedic but never lose their humanity. Definitely has to be seen to be believed.

#18 Up In The Air

Fresh from the success of 2007 Oscar-winner Juno, Jason Reitman has scored another hit by peppering what could have been a wholly mainstream adaptation with just enough indie juice to make it stand out from the crowd. An eminently watchable Clooney spars with both Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick to good effect and there's a decent quotient of chuckles to be had along the way.

#19 Dogtooth

A thoroughly disquieting watch, Dogtooth is a taboo-busting Greek allegory addressing childhood, family and human conditioning which lingers on in the memory long after the final ambiguous frame fades to black. Not for the feint-hearted.

#20 The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

It's tough to translate books as well loved as the Millennium trilogy to screen, but the Danish writing and directing team do an admirable job with the first (and best) of the three novels, aided by some smart casting and good decisions re. how best to compress the action to an acceptable running time (it's still 2 and a half hours). Crucially, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist manage to convince as Lisbeth and Mikael, to the extent that they've now supplanted my own mental images of the characters, forged whilst reading the books.

Related posts:
My Top 20 Films of 2009
Best Films of 2008
My Top 25 Films of 2007
My Top 30 Films of 2006
My Top 25 Films of 2005
My Top 20 Films of 2004