Sunday, February 24, 2008

2007 Oscar picks

Here it is, just in time: my fourth annual Oscar picks blog. This year has probably been the hardest for me to pick since I have not had time to pay as much attention to movies in the past few months, and because this year is the first time in a while that many of the nominees actually represent the best possibilities (unlike 2004 and 2006, for example). I hope to beat last year's 5/9 performance, and to finally (!) correctly predict Best Picture. We'll see what happens tonight!

Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, friend-o.

Best Supporting Actress: I'm going against the conventional wisdom, and I'm going to go with Saoirse Ronan in Atonement. I wouldn't be surprised at Blanchett, but this category is ripe for an upset.

Best Animated Film: I will be shocked if Ratatouille does not win.

Best Adapted Screenplay: P.T. Anderson should not leave empty-handed. I expect that There Will Be Blood will win here.

Best Original Screenplay: Although this could be where Michael Clayton gets an Oscar, I think it's going to be Diablo Cody for Juno.

Best Actress: After waffling between two nominees, I'm betting on Ellen Page in Juno. But Julie Christie still wouldn't surprise me.

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood No questions. Viggo's performance was impressive, but Day-Lewis is far and away the best performance of the year, if not the decade.

Best Director: I think Joel Coen and Ethan Coen will get recognition for No Country for Old Men, but that it will be as much an award for their entire film history (especially Fargo.

Best Picture: I have agonized over whether it will be There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men. My conclusion is that more people will have seen the Coens' work, and that it is more accessible, and thus I choose No Country for Old Men as my prediction for Best Picture.

So there they are...my picks for 2007. Let's see what happens tonight!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

2007: The Year in Music!

Here it is, about a week overdue: my picks for the top tunes of 2007. (In case you're wondering, I decided last year that I would do much better in my picks if I waited until Chinese New Year to publish them. That was a week ago.) But here are my thoughts on the last year of music. 2007 turned out to be a good year not because of the quality of material, but because of the quantity - there were a lot of "good" albums, but not many that were far above the rest. I have had far more difficulty choosing my top 10 albums than in any previous year, but not because of the overwhelmingly high quality (as in 2004). Not only have I listened to far more music during this year (and I know some of you are wondering if that was possible), but there were far fewer standout albums this year. I normally have no problem picking the top six or seven albums, and then there is a battle for the bottom three or four spots; I think I had only two or three "easy" picks this year. With that in mind, here are my observations on the music I listened to in 2007. Remember that I have given enough listens to each of these albums to have an opinion (my average is four to five full times through), so I have considered these rankings carefully. Also, anything that I would give fewer than three stars does not get full attention, which is why this chart starts at 3.0 stars (out of 5.0). (NOTE: an asterisk indicates an album I own.) Enjoy!

3 to 3.5 stars:
These are the kind of albums that I might buy at a discount. This part of the list consists mainly of disappointing albums from bands I have at one point enjoyed. There are usually a few good songs, but the albums are mostly blah.

*Chevelle – Vena Sera
Collective Soul – Afterwords
*Finger Eleven – Them vs. You vs. Me
Future of Forestry - Twilight
*Ill Harmonics – Modern Heart Exhibit
*Jimmy Eat World – Chase This Light
Lifehouse – Who We Are
Still Remains – The Serpent
Travis – The Boy With No Name
*Tree63 – Sunday!

3.5 - 4.0 stars:
Somedays I love these albums; somedays they're just okay. They're the kind of albums that just do not always catch on, but they still linger in the back of my consciousness. In short, I could mostly live without these albums, but they would probably rank higher on my list if I bought them and really invested in them.

Between the Trees – The Story and the Song
*Blindside – The Black Rose EP
*Demon Hunter – Storm The Gates Of Hell
Lovedrug – Everything Starts Where It Ends
Melee – Devils and Angels
Neon Horse – Neon Horse
*Neverending White Lights – Act II: The Blood + The Life Eternal
Rocket Summer – Do You Feel
Sigur Ros – Hvarf-Heim
*The Bravery – The Sun and the Moon

4.0 - 4.5 stars:
These albums are very solid. On some days, any one of them could jump into a top 10 spot. This is where I start getting into "I really should own this album" territory. Of this group, Icky Thump was the hardest to cut out of the top 10.

*Anberlin – Lost Songs
Bloc Party – A Weekend In The City
Eddie Vedder - Into The Wild
*Emery – I'm Only A Man
Mae – Singularity
*Means – Sending You Strength
*John Reuben – Word of Mouth
*Relient K – Five Score and Seven Years Ago
*Thrice – Alchemy Index I + II
White Stripes – Icky Thump

4.5 - 5.0 stars:
Here we go - the top 10. These are my absolute top albums of the year; the albums that will be part of my playlist for many years to come.


*Anberlin – Cities - This is the album I was waiting for Anberlin to make. It drives when it should, and it reflects when it should. This album really shows Stephen Christian's songwriting abilities, and their production has never been better.
*As Cities Burn – Come Now Sleep - I was pleasantly surprised by this sophomore album, since the band changed from an intense hardcore outfit to a meditative moody alternative rock band. The intensity remained, as did the sense of flow, and this album presents one of the most meaningful meditations on the purpose of life I can remember.
*David Crowder Band – Remedy - This album still has not fully hit me, but it's in the top 10 because I know that I have just not yet realized its greatness. It is not as outwardly revolutionary as A Collision was, but I think the long-term effects of this album as modern worship will be felt for a long time.
*Deas Vail – All The Houses Look The Same - I thought that this album was pretty typical at first, since it sounded like a copy of the now-standard alt-emo-atmospheric band template that has cropped up anywhere. But by Track 11 I realized that there was a lot more going on, and this very mellow disc has drawn me in deeper each time I have heard it.
*Dustin Kensrue – Please Come Home - The lead singer of Thrice does his best imitation of Johnny Cash on this 8-song EP. What Kensrue lacks in quantity he makes up for in quality. His voice is perfectly suited to the Tennessee two-step, and his lyrics show his faith journey clearly. I can only hope that the upcoming Earth EP from Thrice features this kind of lyrical and vocal clarity (which, from "Come All You Weary", it appears to). (And so I have again included one country album...go figure.)
Feist – The Reminder - Call this my mellow pop entry for the year. This album is eclectic, but it never loses focus of the unifying element - Leslie Feist's smooth vocal delivery. She croons, she grooves, she sings, she glides.
Foo Fighters – Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace - This is the album that Dave Grohl was meant to make, and the album that made me realize that I really am a fan of the Foo. I'm surprised that they're still making music after a decade - nevertheless the best music of their career. "Come Alive" might just be their best song, period.
*Mika – Life In Cartoon Motion - I was intrigued by this album by its title several months before "Grace Kelly" hit radio, and I was hooked the first time I heard it. It's pure bubblegum pop ecstasy, and I do not feel guilty about it at all. This is my top disc of the year.
*Project 86 – Rival Factions - And now for something completely different from the now three-piece SoCal rock group. Factions is a move away from hardcore into more of a rock sound, but this album features their tightest songwriting and production. This is as close to a "mainstream" album as P86 will likely ever release. It's not their best (3rd or 4th in the P86 canon), but Andrew is as intense as he always is. My only complaint is that it was too short.
*The Nightwatchman – One Man Revolution - Tom Morello from Rage and Audioslave finally released a compilation of his folk protest songs, and I am glad they have been collected. Morello captures a long-forgotten spirit of music as a meaningful entry into political and cultural dialogue, and although he occasionally wanders into cliche territory ("Union Song"), this album serves as a soundtrack for social change. And there is something about Morello's unrefined gravelly tone that is strangely attractive when compared with the overproduced vocalization of many pop stars. Morello is a one man revolution.

And lest you think that I am completely finished, here are the albums to which I am still listening (and about which I am thus still forming judgement):
As I Lay Dying – An Ocean Between Us
Band of Horses – Cease To Begin
Bright Eyes - Cassadaga
The National - Boxer
Needtobreathe – The Heat
Radiohead - In Rainbows

And so, in my top ten, I have included examples of folk, modern rock, country, hardcore/rock, bubblegum pop, jazz-pop, alternative rock, mainstream rock, ambient alternative, and progressive worship. No one can accuse me of listening to only one genre. Of those ten, my top three are Mika, Anberlin, and Foo Fighters - one new artist and two artists toward whom my typical reaction has been "they could do better". 2007 was a strange year for music, indeed. Until the next revision!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A concert history

Thrice blew me away. I was in awe of their innovation, their drive, and their mastery of their material (including the soon-to-be-released "Broken Lungs" and "Come All You Weary"). It was a truly amazing concert, and one of the best I can remember. That got me thinking about all the concerts I have attended, and the bands I have seen - as well as those I have yet to see - and that I should really make a log of my concert-going life. And in all honesty, I am somewhat ashamed at how few shows I have attended; then again, I did most of these for free or on student loans, so I suppose it's understandable. But I digress. With band, location, date, context, and some description, here is my concert history.

Edgefest '98 (Saskatoon) - Weak performance by Foo Fighters. Creed rocked the second stage before they were big. Green Day entertained me. But Tea Party absolutely blew me away.

Collective Soul (Saskatoon Centennial Auditorium, Feb. 1999) - On this stop on the Dosage tour, they opened with "Tremble for my Beloved" and closed with "Shine", and I loved everything in between.

Jesus ManiFest '99 (Dauphin Manitoba, July 1999) - I went with Snow Creek Ministries, and we watched some semi-entertaining acts while we were there. Mainly, I remember that weekend as one of the first times I bought my own groceries.

All Star United and The W's (Caronport - Youth Quake, Feb. 2000) - how do you get high school students excited for pop-rock and ska acts, respectively, that were still going years after those kinds of music were irrelevant? Well, that show was pretty forgettable, so I guess they didn't do it for me.

Tea Party (Regina, August 2000) - I was working a booth at Buffalo Days, and Tea Party played on the last night of the festivities. I basically skipped out of two hours of work to see the show, so I was essentially paid to watch The Tea Party. I do not think I would do it again, but was I ever glad I did.

P.O.D. (Caronport - YQ, Feb. 2001) - The loudest concert I have ever been to, and one of the most powerful. P.O.D. at their best.

Superchick and Skillet (Caronport - YQ, Feb. 2002) - Silly girl-driven power-pop and Skillet rocking out on their Alien Youth tour. What a great night.

Wide Mouth Mason (Regina, The State, Oct. 2002) - I remember two things about this concert - there was a lot of marijuana, and Ariann looked really good. Those two items are not related.

Juliana Theory (and Hopesfall) (Regina, Multipurpose Room, Feb. 2003) - My one and only chance to see Juliana Theory was amazing. They played only six or seven songs, mainly from the Love album, but what a great show.

Switchfoot and TFK (Caronport - YQ, Feb. 2003) - Back before TFK exposed their faults, they were a fun party rock band. But Switchfoot was breathtaking the next night. They played almost all of the songs from the just-about-to-be-released Beautiful Letdown, along with songs dating back to "Chem 6A". Jon Foreman was on top of his game that weekend.

(There is a year and a half gap here, and I honestly do not remember going to any concerts in this time. Granted, I did move to Saskatoon, get engaged, and spend a summer in school, so I did not have a lot of money.)

Harvest Moon 2004 (Edmonton, September 2004) - Project 86, Blindside, Emery, Roper, Brave Saint Saturn, Pigeon John. Project 86 played a half-hour set of pure hardcore fury. Roper made me laugh in their first show ever. Brave Saint Saturn put on a great closing set. But it's Blindside's performance of "Shekina" from that weekend still gives me shivers.

Tree63 (YC Sask, Saskatoon, Nov. 2004) - They played "Pride (In the Name of Love)" twice, and it was a fun set. Good times.

Pigeon John (The Odeon, Saskatoon, January 2005) - My first true hip-hop show. Go Pigeon! Go Pigeon!

U2 (GM Place, Vancouver, April 2005) - I sold my car to get tickets to this stop on the Vertigo tour. And I'd do it again.

Collective Soul (Prairieland Park, Saskatoon, May 2005) - A rather forgettable concert, save for Ed's performance of "Needs". Bad sound, bad venue, and a cabaret too boot.

Underoath and Alexisonfire (Prairieland Park, Saskatoon, September 2005) - I went for Underoath, and I was not disappointed. I left when The Used (the headliners)started playing.

Collective Soul (Credit Union Centre, Saskatoon, September 2005) - A redemption of the disappointment from May, and just a fun rock show.

KJ-52 and Skillet (YC Sask, Saskatoon, Nov. 2005) - KJ was an unimpressive emcee, but the Skillet show was fun the next night, even if they were playing to a bunch of 15-year-olds that didn't really know their music.

MuteMath and John Reuben (Caronport - YQ, Feb. 2006) - Johnny Reubonic put on a good show, but it was MuteMath the night before that really blew everyone away. Wow.

Underoath, Moneen, He Is Legend (Prairieland, Saskatoon, September 2006) - Underoath headlined this show, and they did not disappoint. Their Define the Great Line album was every bit as impressive live as it was on disc.

Switchfoot and Copeland (Prairieland, Saskatoon, February 2007) - Opener Copeland was very good, but Jon Foreman was on again that night. "Faust, Midas, and Myself" was the best of the material from Oh! Gravity, but they played a great show.

Finger Eleven (Prairieland, Saskatoon, May 2007) - A friend gave me his extra ticket, so the concert was free. It was not a very good show, so it all equaled out.

MuteMath (The Distrikt, Regina, September 2007) - I introduced Ariann to the wonder of MuteMath live. It was a great experience.

Thrice (The Odeon, Saskatoon, February 2008) - Full of sound and fury, signifying everything. Wow.

The concerts I'm most choked that I missed:

Five Iron Frenzy and Third Day, YQ 1998 - FIF touring on Our Newest Album Ever! and Third Day on Conspiracy No. 5. Why didn't I go that year?
Further Seems Forever, Feb. 2006 - We were going to go from MuteMath at YQ to FSF in Calgary in the space of a weekend, but then some shenanigans at the border stopped FSF on their way. And now I'll never see them.
Taste of Chaos, April 2006 - Thrice, Deftones, As I Lay Dying, Thursday, and I was in a hospital room with fake appendicitis. Grr.
Anberlin and Jonezetta, April 2007 - I had a final the next day, plus I had to work, so I could not justify going to Regina for a concert that night. In retrospect, I should have gone. Stupid Educational Psychology.

And the bands I need to see (or see again) before I leave this mortal coil:
Anberlin, Blindside, Bloc Party, Coldplay, David Crowder Band, Demon Hunter, Emery, Evanescence, Keane, The Killers, Mae, mewithoutyou, Moby, Muse, Project 86, Relient K, and Showbread.

For the record, the top 5 non-U2 shows I have seen are: P.O.D. (Feb. 2001), Switchfoot (Feb. 2003), Blindside (Sept. 2004), MuteMath (Feb. 2006), and Underoath (Sept. 2006), with the Thrice concert right up there - and it still might inch its way in the top 5 with more reflection.

My average seems to be about three major shows a year, and a pretty good success rate in quality and enjoyment. I'll add Family Force 5 to this list by the end of the month (which should be an interesting show) And considering that I have not really travelled for these shows or really had money to spend on tickets, I have done well for myself in the concert-going department. Although I did get to interview a lot of those bands, which should count for something - namely, some great conversations with the artists and a lot of money saved on tickets.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Follow the leader

After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: "Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Great Sea on the west. No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:1-9)

The Israelites were not happy; they had been wandering through the desert for forty years, and Moses, the leader they had been following (though not always willingly) since their exodus from Egypt had just died. It was not exactly the best situation for a new leader to enter, but Joshua, as Moses' aide, was the next leader of an angry, frustrated, tired nation. Although it seemed like his leadership would be destined to fail, Joshua led the Israelites from exile into the Promised Land, through improbable victories like defeating the city of Jericho; despite war, sin, greed, and fighting between his own people, Joshua became one of the most significant leaders in the history of God's people. The way in which Joshua led the Israelites serves as an example for us not only in showing us how to be leaders, but how to follow God - the true leader.
The first part of the process that Joshua realized was that he was not the ultimate leader - he heard a command from God to lead Israel into the Promised Land. Our first step in following is to open our ears and hear those commands that come from God. Our greatest commandment is to love God; the second is to love people (Matt. 22:38-40). But God is often more specific than that with us, and so we need to be open to hearing God's leading. Sometimes we get these commands through our consciences or the Holy Spirit; often we can read these commands directly in Scripture. But we need to be wise and make sure that these commands are truly from God.
The second part of the process that Joshua realized is to make sure that these commands are aligned with God's promises. One way that we can do that is by judging the "fruit" of these commands - what happens as a result, and do the results line up with the promises that God gives us? Joshua received several promises: territory; safety; the presence of God. We receive many of God’s promises through the Bible, and we can use Scripture to make sure that commands are from God by determining if the commands align with the promises. Read Ephesians 2:8-10, Jeremiah 29:11-13, and Romans 8:28 for some of God's amazing promises.
The third and final part of the process that Joshua realized was that there are more specific directions to following God. Once he had heard the command and made sure it lined up with God's promises, he began to wonder how to bring that command to life. God told him to be strong and courageous, to not be terrified and discouraged, and to always keep the Bible (the Book of the Law) as a guide for following God. Joshua did those things, and that is why God honoured His promises to Joshua and the Israelites. Sometimes God gives us very specific tasks to do, and we wonder how in the world we can accomplish those tasks; the example of Joshua shows us that God has given us all that we need to follow Him. One of the most effective passages for expressing this idea is found in II Peter 2:3-8:

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Joshua knew that to be a leader was to follow THE leader - God. We have examples of many men and women in the Bible to help us in our journey, but it comes down to following God and whether we are willing to listen to God’s commands, hear His promises, and follow His directions. If you are ever in doubt of any of those three things, just open the guidebook given to us by God - the Bible - and pray. As long as you are seeking God and following his leadership, "the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go." And that is truly what it means to FOLLOW THE LEADER.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Those moments...

There are some moments that get burned into your memories; moments that are history in the making. I remember watching MJ shatter Byron Russell's ankles to complete the three-peat in '98; Luis Gonzalez' bloop single that allowed the Arizona Diamondbacks to beat the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series; the Tennessee Titans receiver struggling to gain two extra yards to win the Super Bowl over the Rams...and coming up short; the Oilers beating the Stars for the first time in Game 7 on an amazing save by Cujo and a goal by Todd Marchant in 2OT; countless Game 7's, NCAA Tournament games, CFL games, and Super Bowls. And now I can add Eli Manning fighting off coverage, heaving up a prayer, and watching David Tyree pressing the ball to his helmet as he hit the ground with a completed catch, and an end to an undefeated season. New York 17, New England 14. Forget the controversies, the headlines, the advertisements, the salaries, the locker-room problems, the first three quarters of the game, the hype. This is why they play the game; this is why we watch the game. Raw athletic prowess, and the chance to see history being made. This is a day that I am glad that I watched.

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