Friday, December 31, 2010

How Great Movies Made My Year Greater (and which ones were the very best)

I just finished watching Days of Wine and Roses, a 1962 film starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick and directed by Blake Edwards, who passed away earlier this month.

It is a movie about alcoholism, and while it started out a bit slow, it wound up riveting and absolutely worthwhile.

It was, barring any errors in my recordkeeping, the 281st movie I watched in 2010. And presumably the last, unless the friends I will be visiting tonight have a video on the agenda. So I guess some might say that I am a movieholic.

But while denial is usually part of the proof, I don't think watching so many movies has been detrimental in any way. In fact, I think it has been an invigorating, uplifting and enriching exercise during a year in which, like far too many Americans, I've been "stuck on the sofa" in terms of my career.

I won't argue with anyone who suggests that the hours I devoted to watching movies might have been better spent; maybe so. And in fact, in 2011, I'm hoping to cut back a bit in the name of writing a movie of my own and doing a good bit more reading. But not only did I also devote a tremendous amount of time and effort to seeking new employment--including applying to jobs, putting together resumes, cover letters & promo pieces and attending networking events and the occasional interview--I also did a number of other fulfilling things throughout the year.

I attended over 100 live events, including concerts, plays, musicals, operas and ballgames. Including this piece, I wrote 195 blog articles here (plus 26 for another blog), and have seen traffic escalate from under 100 visits per month to averaging over 1,300. I went to a number of museums, read 11 books--hence one of my resolutions--and saw every episode of at least 10 TV shows. And at a time when friendships are becoming increasingly virtual, I am proud that I got together specifically (and/or had at least one 1-hour phone conversation) with over 40 different friends, including some new ones.

So I defy anyone, including myself, who thinks all I did was "watch movies."

And far beyond all that I've gained and learned from the movies themselves, including a greater sense of culture, artistry, commentary and worldwide perspective--as I elaborated on here and here, my eyes were opened by more than 100 films from foreign lands, as well as those from a vast array of eras, genres and directors--my affinity for movies introduced me to several new friends, prompted dozens of great conversations and even brought more readers to this blog. (My piece about Citizen Kane vs. Casablanca, was the most read of all my articles, with over 1,200 unique pageviews.)

Anyway, I don't know why this needed to be a rant, or a defense of sorts, but I really feel tremendously gratified to have seen so many films of so many different types in 2010. Over the last few days, I've been posting my picks for the Best Movies of 2010, including Documentaries, Foreign Films and English-language Feature Films. Below is simply a list of my picks for the Best Movies I Saw, of any era, vintage, country of origin, etc.

I realize the silliness of this, as it feels weird to compare such vastly different movies, especially as it's quite likely I underappreciated some of the "better ones" from days of yore or more adventurous directors. Also, as this list may seem like a "Best Movies Ever" sort of thing, the fact that pictures like The Godfather (and II), On the Waterfront, Gone With the Wind and others are excluded, simply because I didn't watch them in the past 365 days, feels a bit arbitrary.

But as I always say, "take it for what it's worth," and these and almost all the other movies I watched in 2010--and the residual benefits--were worth a whole lot to me.

The 25 Best Movies I Saw in 2010 (of any ilk, age, genre, etc.)

1. Citizen Kane
2. La Dolce Vita
3. Casablanca
4. The Seven Samurai 
5. Once Upon A Time in the West
6. Paths of Glory
7. The Maltese Falcon
8. 12 Angry Men
9. Sunset Blvd.
10. Pulp Fiction
11. The Burmese Harp
12. Dr. Strangelove
13. Breathless
14. Short Cuts
15. Once Upon a Time in America
16. Memento
17. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
18. Ballad of A Soldier
19. A Hard Day's Night
20. Rififi
21. Pan's Labryrinth
22. It's A Wonderful Life
23. The Son (Le Fils)
24. Sin Nombre
25. Yesterday

50 More Great Ones (also see my 2010 lists)

Bridge on the River Kwai
Chop Shop
Goodbye Solo
The Hurt Locker
The Big Sleep
Fight Club
The Host
The Music Man
Reservoir Dogs
The Seventh Seal
The Diving Bell & the Butterfly
The Damned United
Splendor in the Grass
The Kite Runner
To Live
The Lady From Shanghai
La Strada
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Out of the Past
The Killers (1946)
A Clockwork Orange
Children of Heaven
Requiem for a Dream
Song for Sparrows
The Counterfeiters
The 400 Blows
Y Tu Mama Tambien
Throne of Blood
Days of Wine and Roses
Wendy & Lucy
The Third Man
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeousie
Born Yesterday
Mean Streets
Shoot the Piano Player
The Asphalt Jungle
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Maria Full of Grace
Central Station
The Blues Brothers
Young @ Heart

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Best Movies of 2010 (English-language Feature Films)

Having separately ranked my choices for 2010's Best Documentaries and Best Foreign Language Films, today I offer my picks for the best English-language feature films of 2010.

Like all my lists, this should be taken simply as a judging of the movies I enjoyed most, without any pretense that "best" references technical merit, depth of meaning or other specific criteria.

To date, my pool for purposes of this list is 36 movies released in 2010 (27 seen in theaters; 9 at home). There are a number more I hope to see soon that I've heard or read good things about, and will cite some of these below my list. But in looking at my 2009 list, there are relatively few changes I would now make  with the additional films seen after my blog post.

I was originally going to post my Top 10 plus honorable mentions, but then decided to rank the Top 25 like I did last year. But in considering all the movies that I gave at least @@@@ out of 5 (or 8 of 10 on IMDB; you can see my Vote History here, though it's not quite comprehensive), I got stuck at just 22 films. So I'll leave 3 slots unaccounted for and hope that some of the movies not yet seen will deserve berths.

The Best English-language Feature Films of 2010

1. The Social Network

2. Inception

3. The Fighter

4. The Town

5. It’s Kind of a Funny Story

6. Fair Game

7. Unstoppable

8. Mao’s Last Dancer

9. The King’s Speech

10. Salt 

11. Easy A

12. 127 Hours

13. Nowhere Boy

14. Four Lions

15. True Grit 

16. Toy Story 3 

17. Greenberg

18. Winter’s Bone

19. The Kids Are All Right

20. Green Zone

21. Made in Dagenham

22. The Book of Eli

Notable Among Those Not Yet Seen
The Ghost Writer
Rabbit Hole
Animal Kingdom
Blue Valentine
Another Year
Please Give
Barney's Version
The Company Men
All Good Things

Others Loved These But I Didn't
Black Swan
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Shutter Island

Outstanding Performances
Jesse Eisenberg & Justin Timberlake, The Social Network; Christian Bale & Amy Adams, The Fighter; Naomi Watts, Fair Game; Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe & Cillian Murphy, Inception; Natalie Portman, Black Swan; James Franco, 127 Hours; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone; Emma Stone, Easy A; Colin Firth & Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech; Kerr Gilchrist, It's Kind of a Funny Story

Although this might seem to do it for "Best Of" movie rankings for 2010, I will soon post a list of the Best Films I Watched in 2010 (of any Vintage, Language, Country of Origin, etc.). I also hope to share the differing opinions of a friend or two on the list above.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Best Musicals I Saw On Stage in 2010

Over the course of 2010, I saw 23 musicals live on stage (plus one I saw twice). This seems pretty robust, even to me, but is a bit less than I've seen in several recent years. And as I mentioned in my Best Plays of 2010 piece, I saw more plays than musicals, which is really an anomaly.

Due to fiscal constraints, I did not take any trips to New York or London, nor did I even splurge on any shows at Marriott Lincolnshire, which does great work but rarely shows up on HotTix.

But I still saw several very enjoyable musicals--plus some operas and cabaret-type shows, which I'll also mention underneath--almost all of which were either included in my quite economical Broadway in Chicago "Balcony Club" Subscription or discounted through HotTix or Goldstar. Virtually all the musicals I saw cost less than $30 per ticket, with the majority under $20, so I encourage others to partake in this great art form, which doesn't have to be all that pricey.

As I saw rather few World Premieres or relatively new musicals, the ranking below is as much about production quality as the musicals themselves, although the two aspects can't help but overlap. (For those who care, this is my more content-based ranking of My Favorite Musicals of the 00s, two of which show up here.) As the pool for my 2010 Best Of list covers all performance levels and venue sizes, I tried to be fair to smaller budget shows, but am mainly just ranking my enjoyment, regardless of what I paid, Equity vs. non-union casts, etc.

Every show included below was seen in Chicago or its suburbs, unless otherwise noted. I didn't see recent returning tours of The Lion King or Wicked, but based on my past affinity and current reviews, I'd imagine they would have ranked high among my choices of:

The Best Musicals of 2010

1. Billy Elliot - Broadway in Chicago, Ford Center/Oriental Theatre (my review)
I saw 'Billy' twice in its Chicago run after having loved it in London. 

2. Carousel - Light Opera Works, Cahn Auditorium (my review)
A sublime production of an excellent musical I hadn't previously seen.

3. Ragtime - Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)
DRO has stepped up its game in recent years and does work on par with Marriott Lincolnshire, typically for a bit lower admission price. 

4. Avenue Q - Broadway in Chicago, Bank of America Theatre (my review)
A touring, non-Equity production of one of my favorite musicals that held up quite well. 

5. Aftermath - Signal Theatre Ensemble (my review)
Much more a play with live music (Rolling Stones songs from the mid-60s) than a narrative musical like the others here, but it was outstanding. 

6. Daddy Long Legs - Northlight Theatre (my review)
A delightful 2-person musical which prompted me to write my favorite review of the year. 

7. Dreamgirls - Broadway in Chicago, Cadillac Palace (my review)
An outstanding touring production that came to town in January. 

8. Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, Theatre Wit (my review)
I was tremendously impressed with Roger Miller's 1985 Tony Award winning musical--which would have been even more unique when written--and the Bohemian cast members who played their own instruments.

9. Beauty and the Beast - Broadway in Chicago, Cadillac Palace (my review)
The production values were a little lesser on the 2010 tour than when I saw it in 2001, but this Disney show aimed at families holds up as a first-rate stage musical for all ages.

10a. Hello, Dolly - Light Opera Works, Cahn Auditorium (my review)
I just saw it and suggest you catch it. 
10b. Annie Get Your Gun - Ravinia Festival (my review)
Patti LuPone was typically great even if the musical itself isn't quite as good as its legacy. 

Honorable Mention

The Wedding Singer - Circle Theatre, The Performance Center of Oak Park (my review) 

Rock of Ages - Broadway in Chicago, Bank of America Theatre (my review)

The Addams Family - Broadway in Chicago, Ford Center/Oriental Theatre (my review)
I saw this in January for a second time in its pre-Broadway run; still wasn't fantastic, but much better than in November 2009. 

The Who's Tommy - Northwestern University, Josephine Louis Theater (my review)

Little House on the Prairie - Touring Production, Overture Center, Madison, WI (my review)

Shrek The Musical - Broadway in Chicago, Cadillac Palace (my review)

Related Shows

Opera - I saw four productions I very much enjoyed (relatively speaking; I'm still far from an opera aficionado) at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. In order of preference--as best I can recall/discern--with links to my reviews: Macbeth, The Marriage of Figaro, Tosca and The Merry Widow. 

Cabaret, etc. - Although A Conversation With Stephen Sondheim was just what it sounded like, with no music performed, it was actually more fully rewarding than Ravinia's Sondheim 80th Birthday Celebration (which was sublime but ridiculously brief) or Patti LuPone & Mandy Patinkin in concert together doing a number of his songs and others'. The very best cabaret-style performance I saw in 2010 was An Evening with Sutton Foster, in which the Broadway star showcased tremendous range and charm.

Circus - Broadway in Chicago included two modern circus-type shows in my subscription packages this year, Fuerza Bruta and Traces. I really didn't care too much for either--despite a number of impressive acts--but will give a slight nod to Traces.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Light Opera Works' 'Dolly' Had Me At "Hello," But... -- Theater Review: Hello, Dolly

Theater Review

Hello, Dolly
Music & Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Light Opera Works
at Cahn Auditorium, Evanston
Thru January 2, 2011

For a long time, Hello, Dolly has probably been the most popular, famous and best musical that I had never seen on stage.

So back in August, when I saw a phenomenal production of Carousel by Light Opera Works and heard that they would be doing Hello, Dolly at year's end, I instantly marked it on my calendar.

I didn't actually buy a ticket until last week when it showed up on HotTix, but was avid enough to get one for the opening Sunday matinee, meaning I would miss half of what turned out to be a damn good Bears game.

So my expectations were quite high and while this production of Hello, Dolly didn't quite exceed them, the worst I can say is that it was excellent.

As usual, Light Opera Works had tremendous production values, all the more notable since 'Dolly' was a typically-limited 8 show run at Northwestern's Cahn Auditorium, not a venue that LOW owns. Still, the frequently-changing scenery was impressive enough as it accompanied a 30-person cast and 22-member orchestra.

Mary Robin Roth was very good as Dolly Gallagher Levi and Peter Verdico made for a suitably ornery Horace Vandergelder, although to me they felt a bit too much like 'close but not quite' duplications of Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau from the 1969 film version.

Jerry Herman's score (he also wrote the lyrics) has many great songs that translated into exuberant production numbers, often with superlative choreography (by Rudy Hogenmiller, who also directed), including "It Takes A Woman," "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," "Dancing," "Before The Parade Passes Me By," "Elegance," "Hello, Dolly" and "It Only Takes A Moment."

Photos from
With all these highlights, in sum the show couldn't help but be deliciously enjoyable, but the many peaks made some of the songs & scenes in between seem rather dull.

Instead of keeping a smile on my face from beginning to end, the truly toes-a-tapping parts of Hello, Dolly were a bit too intermittent. This itself isn't the fault of Light Opera Works, but while many of the actors and their voices were quite good, very few were transcendent and a couple even lagged.

So while both the source material and this production of Hello, Dolly are excellent, well worth your time and--especially via HotTix--your money, I wasn't quite as enthralled as I was hoping nor dazzled the way I was by Carousel. So though I mean it as a laudatory recommendation, I almost feel sheepish giving it just @@@@.

Still, it's nice to have Dolly back where she belongs. And all-in-all, looking swell.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Best Foreign Films of 2010 (from the small world of those Seth Seeith)

As I wrote about at length back in September, 2010 has been a watershed year in terms of my exploration and enjoyment of world cinema.

While I have long appreciated films made in other lands and languages, this year--stimulated and supported by a variety of factors and 'Facets,' including the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup group, Netflix and the Skokie Public Library,--I developed not only a passion for foreign films, but a vociferous appetite.

With a few days still remaining in 2010, I have watched over 100 films made in 28 countries outside the U.S., including approximately 25 "new ones" (films, not countries; more on this in a moment).

Although I have a great fondness for the unique, non-Hollywood sensibility of many films made in England, Ireland, Australia and Canada, for list-making purposes, any movie without subtitles will be lumped in with my still-to-come "Best Movies of 2010" list, which will focus on English-language feature films from any country of origin.

Also beyond those listed below, I saw two excellent and one good foreign language documentaries; those were cited in my Best Documentaries of 2010 piece. (My favorite foreign language doc, Budrus, from Israel, will play a return engagement at Facets in Chicago this coming week; the other "excellent" one is Last Train Home, from China.)

Finally, while such minutia might not matter to the few people kind enough to read this, I tried to keep "eligibility" to those movies that were first released (to theaters and/or DVD) in the United States in 2010. This isn't an exact science, as I saw two films at the Chicago International Film Festival and considered them eligible even though they might not get wider (or Netflix) release here until next year. Hence, some of my picks were already Oscar-nominees for Best Foreign Language Film while others might be next year.

So in addition to my official list below, I'll also mention these five 2009-eligible films that I watched in 2010 and found to be excellent, in order of preference (with links to IMDB): Sin Nombre (Mexico), The Stoning of Soraya M. (U.S.-made but in Persian), Broken Embraces (Spain), Lorna's Silence (Belgium), Summer Hours (France).

But now, if we've got all the disclaimers and preambles straight, here are my picks for:

The Best Foreign Language Films of 2010

1. The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina; IMDB) - This won the Oscar and may be the best newly released film of any origin I saw in 2010.

2. Mother (South Korea; IMDB) - An amazing piece of filmmaking from Joon-ho Bong, who also directed The Host.

3. The Matchmaker (Israel; IMDB) - A beautiful coming-of-age story enhanced by remarkable secondary characters, including a family of dwarfs who run a cinema.

4. Lebanon (Israel; IMDB) - Follows Israeli soldiers exclusively within a single tank without ever being less-than-compelling.

5. Welcome (France; IMDB) - About an Iraqi teenager who wants to meet up with his girlfriend in England, but must learn to swim the English Channel to avoid deportation back from France.

6. A Prophet (France; IMDB) - Along with Animal Kingdom and Mesrine (parts I & II), one of three new French gangster films that my cinephile friends Dave and Al highly recommend; I haven't seen the other two yet.

7. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Sweden; IMDB) - The first of the trilogy; I'm curious to see how David Fincher Americanizes it. The Girl Who Played With Fire was also an excellent adaptation; haven't seen #3.

8. The Concert (France; IMDB) - Combining French & Russian characters, this one gets a bit ragged but redeems itself; Melanie Laurent (from Inglorious Basterds) is transfixing.

9. Peepli Live (India; IMDB) - Avoids over-the-top Bollywood staples in telling a universal story about the media age.

10. Erratum (Poland; IMDB) - A man heads to his hometown for an errand and gets stuck there for multiple reasons.

Others Seen

All of these were worthwhile, but other than The Girl Who Played With Fire, I can't really bestow "Honorable Mention" on any. After being lukewarm about the much-lauded The White Ribbon the first-time I saw it, I watched it again last night and didn't like it any better. A fine piece of moviemaking, I guess, but it bored me. Ajami also didn't quite meet expectations.

35 Shots of Rum (France; IMDB)
Sandcastle (Singapore; IMDB)
Guzaarish (India; IMDB)
Ajami (Israel; IMDB)
Jaffa (Israel; IMDB)
The Girl Who Played With Fire (Sweden; IMDB)
The White Ribbon (Germany/Austria; IMDB)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

'White Christmas' Flaky Fun, But Not Worth Dreaming Of -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Irving Berlin's White Christmas: The Musical
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 2, 2011

I have great affinity for many old movie musicals, including Singin' In the Rain, On The Town, An American In Paris, Funny Face, Gigi and Meet Me In St. Louis (and many others that came from stage musicals, like Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Brigadoon and West Side Story).

But I have never seen 1954's White Christmas, and except for the title song--actually written by Irving Berlin and made famous by Bing Crosby years before the movie--and "Happy Holiday," I haven't knowingly heard any of the songs that were contained within the film.

So unlike a good portion of the full house at Tuesday night's performance of a Broadway-level production of the stage musical initially hatched in 2004, I didn't enter the Bank of America Theatre with any sense of nostalgia nor inherent affection. Although I couldn't help but have "dreaming of a White Christmas" rolling around my brain, truthfully I wasn't.

I was simply there to see a show that was being presented as part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series. And I enjoyed it, but cannot say I loved it nor recommend it to anyone similarly uninitiated.

There was nothing tremendously wrong with 'White Christmas,' and much notably good. I don't know if it was a full Equity cast, but all of the leads had Broadway credits and throughout the ensemble, the singing and dancing was first-rate. Amy Bodnar as Betty Haynes and Ruth Williamson as Martha Watson were particularly fine and John Scherer handled the Bing Crosby role (Bob Wallace) with strong vocal chops.

Photo credit: Tanner Photography
Irving Berlin doesn't stand as one of history's most revered songsmiths for nothing; his handling of a tune like "Snow,"--in which passengers on a train rhapsodize about the weather--show why he was a master. I suspect if I had familiarized myself with the songs beforehand, many of them would have come off more resonant than simply sweet.

But at the end of any musical--or even in the midst--there are some that you sense are exceptional or close to it, a few you know are terrible and then others that are, well, just the others. 

Though I can see where 'White Christmas' might have great appeal for many--and it was nice to see so many families at the show--with its saccharin story, '50s dialogue that was too silly to qualify as adorably quaint and nice songs that seemed largely inconsequential, for me, it was--as I define a @@@ rating--good but not great.

Even if, to twist another Berlin lyric, "There's snow business like show business."

Happy Holidays to all.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Best Concerts I Saw in 2010 (of a rock and related ilk)

On casual recall, 2010 didn't seem like a year where I saw that many rock concerts or remember too many as being truly exceptional.

But upon flipping through my ticket stubs (my affection for which I expressed here), a database I keep of all the shows I see and a glance at the reviews I posted here, it turns out my year in live music has been surprisingly and sufficiently fertile.

I attended 22 "rock" concerts--including those in blues, country, folk and classical piano (Christopher O'Riley, who plays Radiohead & Elliott Smith songs) veins. This is down from 28 in 2009 and didn't include as many huge shows, obvious favorites, travels beyond Milwaukee or multiple dates--last year, I saw Bruce Springsteen five times, Pearl Jam and U2 twice, Paul McCartney, Elton John/Billy Joel and Green Day--but covered a nice breadth of performers and venues, including several shows by longtime personal favorites in rather intimate settings.

Although a few shows I saw were relatively disappointing--Muse's visual feast outweighed the depth of their material (review); an atrocious sound system at the shed in Tinley Park ruined any enjoyment of Aerosmith (review)--there were none I completely didn't like or wasn't glad I attended.

As with all my "Best Of 2010" lists, this one is obviously limited by what I saw versus the hundreds of concerts I didn't. So I've asked an even more avid concertgoing friend to weigh in with his picks, which hopefully he or I will share in the comments in the coming days. But for what it's worth, these are my choices for:

The Best Concerts of 2010 

1. AC/DC - April 15 - Bradley Center, Milwaukee (my review)
Sure, they're dinosaurs who have been playing the same three chords for 35 years. But nobody does low-brow arena rock on a higher plane than AC/DC.

2. Rush - July 3 - Marcus Amphitheatre, Milwaukee (my review)
I've loved Rush from way back but have often been somewhat lukewarm about their live shows. But this year's Time Machine Tour, featuring a full play-through of the Moving Pictures album, was outstanding. 

3. Buddy Guy - January 28 - Buddy Guy's Legends, Chicago (my review)
The Chicago blues legend was better than I'd ever seen him when I caught him during his January residency at his own club (which has now moved down the street).

4. Stone Temple Pilots - March 27 - Riviera, Chicago (my review)
Relatively speaking, STP doesn't have that many songs that I love, but they played nearly all of them at a rip-roaring concert at the Riv, making the paint peel even more.  

5. Ray Davies - March 13 - Riviera, Chicago (my review)
On the flip side, the former head Kink could play for 5 hours without running out of songs I'd want to hear. His mostly acoustic show in March offered a great smattering of Kinks Klassics.

6. Jason & the Scorchers - October 13 - Double Door, Chicago (my review)
Returning to the road after many years off, Jason et al. showed no rust in showcasing their unique mix of hard rock and country twang. Extra points for their playing one of my favorite songs (When The Angels Cry) at my request.

7. LCD Soundsystem - October 26 - Riviera, Chicago (my review)
Sound and Vision. The rock/dance/electronica blend masterminded by James Murphy was even better live than on their three meticulously excellent studio albums.

8. The Ike Reilly Assassination - November 27 - Fitzgerald's, Berwyn, IL (my review)
I was largely unfamiliar with Reilly and his material, but it didn't matter. A tremendously hard-driving rock show in a venue perfect for it.

9. John Prine - March 6 - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago (my review)
I was also far less familiar than I should have been with this longtime Chicago folk legend, but even with a voice ravaged by time and cancer, Prine's exquisite songwriting made me a fan.

10. Graham Parker - April 17 - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago (my review)
Similar to my above two comments, Parker's fine show won me over with obvious quality despite a lack of familiarity with much the material he played.

Honorable Mention

Roger Waters - September 20 - United Center, Chicago (my review)
Playing The Wall album in its entirety on its 30th anniversary, Waters' show featured exhilarating visuals to accompany much tremendous music. But it felt a bit too much like theater, a bit short on spontaneity and emotional heft. 

Alejandro Escovedo - October 12 - Lincoln Hall, Chicago (my review)
A typically fine show by the outstanding Austin-based singer/songwriter supporting his great new album, Street Songs of Love.

Teenage Fanclub - October 6 - Lincoln Hall, Chicago (my review)
The veteran Scottish band were exceptionally amicable in a club show combining their fine new album Shadows with chestnuts from throughout their career.

Cheap Trick and Squeeze - July 10 - Ravinia, Highland Park, IL (my review)
A wonderfully comfortable evening out on the lawn featuring many hits from two great long running pop-rock bands.

Bon Jovi - July 30 - Soldier Field, Chicago (my review)
The Jersey boys have never been among my absolute favorites, but with tempered expectations, I couldn't deny their stadium show--with Kid Rock opening--made for a highly enjoyable evening. 

Special Mention

American English - August 1 - Proesel Park, Lincolnwood (my review) and August 29 in Skokie
The best Beatles cover band I've ever seen kept a smile on my face for two entire shows within a month's time.

ADDENDUM - Another Fan's Take 

As I referenced above, my friend Paolo--who saw more concerts in more locations than I did--put together his list of Top Concerts of 2010. Tonight he's heading to see his longtime #1 favorite Elvis Costello, so I hope I hear tomorrow that he has a revision to the rankings below. (And indeed he did, so his Top 10 now "goes to 11.")

1.   Elvis Costello @ The Chicago Theater – Of the 30+ shows I’ve seen Elvis play—and I’ve seen him play acoustically at least a half dozen times—this show stands out as the 2nd best ever (only bested by the 1998 ‘Painted from Memories’ tour with Burt Bacharach). It is rare to see any artist stripped down and vulnerable; and these days there aren’t many artists willing to risk their ‘talent’ by showing their musicianship—in the age of the auto-tune and digitized music.  Elvis is the best singer/songwriter of his generation. A singular poet and musician, he played a valentine to his legion of Chicago fans.  Concert of the year!
2.    Green Day @ Lollapalloza – Simply the most energetic show—by both band and crowd—of the year. I don’t care what Greg Kot said. Wanker!
3.    U2 @Stade de France, Paris – Notable because I had seen the 360 Tour in Chicago in the fall of 2009, and the show—post Bono’s back surgery—had been completely revamped including new material not yet recorded.  For a serious fan, it was an eye-opening experience, even though they dropped my favorite song ‘Unforgettable Fire’ from the set list.
4.    Ben Folds @ The Riviera – One of four Ben shows I saw this year. He played 3 nights in a row at the Riv, and I cannot pick one night from that residency as the best; they were all superb.
5.    The New Pornographers @ The Metro – A completely underappreciated band, that highlights Neko Case’s singing. Totally genius live…
6.    Dr. Dog @ The Metro – One of my favorite indie bands, slowly playing to bigger and bigger houses, and developing a rabid following. Think Beatles meets XTC.
7.    Stone Temple Pilots @ The Riviera – Probably my favorite college-era band. With Weiland momentarily quasi-sober, they can kick rock-and-roll ass with the best of them. And, boy did they!
8.    Hole @ the Riviera – Let’s be honest. Courtney Love is a hot-mess…and as a broken rock-goddess idol it somehow works. Haven’t seen a more earnest show all year. Also, I happened to take the best concert picture all year at the gig.
9.    Mumford and Sons @ The Riviera – Most times the hype for a rookie band does not live up to the live show…in this case it did and then some. Toughest ticket to score all year, and well worth it.
10.    Supertramp @ Roman Amphitheater in Verona, Italy – A life-long fan, I had never seen them play (they haven’t toured the States in 20+ years). So when this show went on sale, I booked my tickets. Did not disappoint, even though it poured throughout most of the show. It was their 40th Anniversary tour.
11.   DeadMaus @ O2 Arena, London, England – I know, I know, he’s a DJ. But, it is such an event, such a crazy jamming, dancing, throbbing…oh well , you get the idea. Good times.

Honorable Mention 

Lady Gaga @ Lollapalooza – Too weird a show--both uneven and wonderful--not to list. And absolutely the WILDEST crowd at a concert I’ve seen in many a moon. Like the guy next to me in head-to-toe silver body paint and butterfly wings (and little else) crying the entire show.
Devo @ Lollapalloza – I’m a spud. Enough said.
Cypress Hill @ Lollapalooza – When Snoop walked on stage the crowd went insane. These guys are much more than insane in the membrane.
The Cult @ House of Blues – Ian Astbury still kicks serious ass, and “She Sells Sanctuary” is one of the all-time rock anthems.
Super Diamond @ House of Blues – Make my list every year. Actually now, way BETTER than real Neil.
B-52s @ House of Blues – Still awesome live…somehow not surprisingly so.
Psychedelic Furs @ The Riviera -  Completely on-point. They sound better than their recorded music.
Widespread Panic @ Chicago Theater -  I went for the very first time to see them wearing a suit (didn’t have time to change after work). After an initial stare-down by neo-hippie crowd, we bonded over ‘brownies’ and set lists. I get an invite a week to go see a show somewhere in the US from the people I met at the show…cool cool band, and even cooler people who go to their shows.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Best Documentaries of 2010 (of those I saw)

I've seen hundreds of movies this year, of myriad types, from all eras, across numerous countries of origin. As such, my pontificating on The Best Movies of 2010 will be split between posts on Best Feature Films, Best Foreign Films and Best Documentaries, with perhaps also a ranking of the Best Films of any type and time period that I watched over the past 12 months.

The great Roger Ebert takes a similar approach with his "Best Of" lists, but whereas he began today with The Best Feature Films of 2010, since that's the category in which I most expect to still see some good ones before year-end, I'll start with what I felt were the Best Documentaries that came out (or became available for viewing in the U.S.) in 2010.

Or more accurately, these are the best new documentaries I got a chance to see. Overall, I watched 23 documentaries, including 15 new ones eligible for this list. So my scope isn't all that great, but I found 13 docs to be no less than excellent and the other 2 to be worthwhile.

You may wish to refer to this article for the 15 documentaries that have been shortlisted for Oscar consideration; I have seen five of those selected and a few others that it and similar articles suggest were overlooked.

I tried my best to base my ranking below primarily on artistic merit, but it's hard not to intertwine, even if subconsciously, appreciation based on the importance of a documentary's subject, my own affinity for such and/or how much I might agree with the message being conveyed. So like all my opinions, take it for what it's worth--and what you're paying to read it. Most of the movies should be or will be available through Netflix, you can learn more through the links to and in some cases, I had written a review or related article that you may also wish to see.

The Best Documentaries of 2010

1. Inside Job - directed by Charles Ferguson. (IMDB) (my article)
Regardless of political stripe or station in life, this is a movie all Americans should see to better understand why our economy is in the shape it's in, and that it goes far beyond bad fortune.

2. The Tillman Story - directed by Amir Bar-Lev (IMDB) (my review)
A moving, even-keeled look at how the U.S. military stonewalled the family of Pat Tillman in trying to learn the truth (and reasons behind the initial cover-up) of his death by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

3. Budrus - directed by Julia Bacha; made in Israel (IMDB
Israel's government and military built a wall separating its land from the Palestinean-controlled West Bank. Objecting to the contours of the wall through the small village of Budrus, Palestineans--and activist Jewish Israelis--peacefully protested, and Bacha makes a poignant point without preaching.

4. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage - directed by Sam Dunn & Scot McFadyen  (IMDB)
Not everyone may enjoy the erstwhile Canadian power trio as much as I do--they should be in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame--but this documentary on them is outstanding.

5. Waiting For Superman - directed by Davis Guggenheim (IMDB)
Davis Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth, paints a distressing picture about the U.S. educational system while showing seemingly sensible ways to help fix it.

6. Restrepo - directed by Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger (IMDB)
Filmed on-site with a platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan, Restrepo--the surname of a fallen serviceman and an outpost named in his honor--provides an vivid vantage point into war, somewhat like a real "Hurt Locker." Certainly worth anyone's while, but the storytelling isn't quite as compelling as the subject itself.

7. Casino Jack and the United States of Money - directed by Alex Gibney (IMDB)
An exquisitely composed film--devoid of Michael Moore-ish sarcastic rancor--that shows how the U.S. Congress often serves its members' self-interests (and those pushed by lobbyists like Jack Abramoff, who is the main focus) far more than that of the populace.

8. Last Train Home - directed by Lixin Fan; made in China (IMDB)
A Mandarin-language film personalizing the mass migration from (and once-per-year, back to) small Chinese villages to large cities made by hundreds of millions of workers who often sacrifice family unity in the name of better wages.

9. Exit Through the Gift Shop - directed by Banksy (IMDB)
A movie about street artists and a videographer who follows them; engaging throughout, it ultimately takes a rather interesting turn.

10. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child - directed by Tamra Davis (IMDB) (my review)
A very well-made biography of a young painter who rose to fame in NYC art circles--and beyond--in the 1980s before his untimely death at age 27.

Honorable Mention 

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work - directed by Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg (IMDB)
A great documentary should reveal rather than fawn, but how Joan herself comes off made the film less enjoyable for me. 

Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) - directed by John Scheinfeld (IMDB)
I've never known a whole lot about Nilsson, his music or his life. Without going too far beyond what one can learn through Wikipedia, this documentary serves as a good introductory overview.

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town - directed by Thom Zimny (IMDB) (my related article) A must-see for Springsteen fanatics like me, but probably not that crucial or interesting to everyone else.

Also Worth Mentioning

Do It Again - directed by Robert Patton-Spruill (IMDB) (my review)
An extremely worthwhile premise about one man's quest to reunite The Kinks, with more than its share of great moments, but its primary appeal is probably for existing fans of the grossly underappreciated British Invasion band.

Only When I Dance - directed by Beadie Finzi; made in Brazil (IMDB)
The story of aspiring young ballet dancers rising above struggles in Rio de Janeiro wasn't bad, but felt a bit too contrived. You'd be better off exploring the 2010 reality-based feature film Mao's Last Dancer for a look into the world of big-time ballet; I found it superior to the fictional Black Swan.

Agree? Disagree? Got recommendations of others I should see? Feel free to share your comments, but if in the Chicago area, consider coming to the Film Discussion Brunch Meetup this Sunday where we will be discussing our favorite films (of all types) of 2010. One of my Meetup compatriots has hailed Boxing Gym, a documentary by Frederick Wiseman, as one of his favorite movies of the last year and I look forward to seeing it once it hits Netflix.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Role of a Lifetime: Heading Back to Africa, Chicago Actress Britni Tozzi Proves Activism is No Act

It's ironic that the letter "I" is so prevalent in Britni Tozzi's name, for she has no real desire--in fact, nearly an aversion--to draw attention to herself.

This despite being an actress who has starred in national commercials and an activist who who will soon be embarking, solo, on her second self-funded humanitarian mission to central Africa.

Heck, even though she graciously agreed to meet me for an interview after an online inquiry about her altruistic pursuits--as cited in a theater program bio--she spent the first hour of our conversation asking about me.

So I imagine it will make her blush (and/or cringe) for me to say that I've rarely spent time in the company of anyone so beautiful, and I'm not even referencing her dazzling good looks.

But as someone who devotes an inordinate amount of time, effort and her own money to those in need--while being exhaustively deferential to those relative few who give even more--Britni Tozzi warrants plenty of admiration and appreciation, even if she's endearingly demure about meriting the spotlight.

Thus, although despite her reticence Britni quite eloquently expounds on her impressive undertakings via her own, through which those inclined can contribute to her relief organization, Global Empathy Now; initial funding will help feed children at a school she worked at in Arusha, Tanzania--it is my pleasure to introduce you to this remarkable young woman.

Serendipitously, I had discovered Britni when I saw a stage musical version of The Wedding Singer by Circle Theater in Oak Park, where she played Linda, a shallow, superficial minx who is basically her antithesis. While I certainly found her attractive, and well-sung, I took particular note of this line in her program bio: "Offstage, Britni is an active volunteer for schools in Africa. Visit for more!"

So I visited her website, which mainly bespeaks her acting resume but links to her blog, which is almost exclusively about her humanitarian work. Impressed, I reached out to see if perhaps I could learn more and write about her here, and upon doing so, I'm exponentially more impressed.

"I always knew I wanted to 'do something.' My parents instilled me with a deep sense of gratitude and helping people who are facing great challenges makes me even more grateful."

So revealed Britni when I asked why, at just 24 and already juggling a full-time job and a developing acting career, she is so devout in seeing far beyond her own self and taking action to improve lives halfway around the world.

"I've long been intrigued by Africa, so instead of just thinking and talking about it, late last year I decided to go there," she explained. "I did some research, pooled some of my savings with generous support from family & friends and within a matter of weeks coordinated my own mission to Tanzania."

There Britni connected with an organization called the International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) and spent the bulk of her time teaching a variety of subjects to children at the CHETI school (an acronym formed by Children Health Education Team Inspiration). 

According to Britni, who in earning a Theater degree at Chicago's Columbia College was class valedictorian, her acting skills--honed under the esteemed tutelage of David Cromer, Sheldon Patinkin, Barbara Robertson and Sean Graney, among others--came in quite handy in teaching English to her young Swahili-speaking pupils.

"Sometimes I had to pantomime objects--like a ball or a book--to help the kids better grasp translations from their native tongue."

Using funds she had raised and contributed to, Britni was able to facilitate the construction of 20 new desks for the school and the purchase of numerous supplies, including books, notebooks, pencils and rulers. You can read her account here, which also conveys how she took it upon herself to develop a Porridge Program to feed kids at the school, many of whom she had found to be malnourished. The smiles on the faces in the photo at right express the significance of this far better than I can, and the program continues to this day (and again, anything you may wish to donate would be extraordinarily appreciated).

As Britni wrote about here, she also befriended a man named Kaka, who was the security guard at the home where she and other volunteers stayed. In being invited to his home, she was astonished to learn that Kaka lived with his wife and four children in a single small room, as seen at left.

So she subsequently solicited additional funds from 18 generous donors, with which Kaka's family was able to buy land to eventually build a new home.

As one might imagine, Britni's initial excursion was not without trepidations and tribulations, including a case of shingles discovered upon her return home (as she recapped here). But steadfast that the considerable challenges are "entirely worth it," after Christmas with her family in Cleveland, she will once again be heading to Africa on December 26.

"In weighing various ways to provide assistance, I decided I wanted to get involved with HIV/AIDS treatment, education and prevention programs in Kenya."

This is how a girl who lists National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation among her favorite movies will be spending the three weeks following the holiday. (To be fair, she also lists Hotel Rwanda, Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist & Schindler's List and shared with me how looking at Holocaust photos as a child deeply affected her.)

After a day's worth of flights (from Cleveland to Chicago to Amsterdam to Nairobi), she will arrive in Kenya and be met--assuming all goes smoothly--by individuals from Sub Saharan Volunteers & Adventures. Through this organization, she will work with HIV-infected children in an orphanage and also plans to venture into the slums of Nairobi to speak with Kenyans about preventative care.

Similar to her first expedition, Britni will spend approximately three weeks in Africa and she is extremely grateful to the Chicago law firm where she works (as a Legal Assistant) for allowing her the flexibility to pursue both her acting and activist passions. (She is also effusive in her gratitude to the many family and friends who support and encourage her often daunting efforts.) 

Even more than she was able to on her last trip, when she is in Kenya and Tanzania Britni hopes "to learn more about the women. They're fascinating to me."

As, with apologies for gushing, she is to me. And I just met her. Certainly, and admiringly, I already have several friends with big hearts who are doing great things to improve lives and better the world. But in one conversation Britni espoused a worldview I champion as well as anyone I've ever encountered.

"Appreciate more, need less." 

As we head into the holidays, hopefully grateful for what we have even amidst the ravages of the economy, I can't think of a more beautifully selfless sentiment.

So even if Britni earnestly stresses, "I'm no Mother Teresa," not only does she devote a bit of each day to her relief efforts--including working toward the launch of a website and marketing program for Global Empathy Now--but I can't help but have a little more faith in a future in which she plans "to do this for the rest of my life."

Besides, as far as I know, Mother Teresa couldn't sing, dance and act. And she sure didn't look like a movie star.

(All photos from and

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Best Plays I Saw in 2010

Dramatically speaking, 2010 was a good year. Although I generally prefer musicals to plays and have often found myself disappointed and/or confused by many dramatic works I've seen over the years, throughout the past 12 months I saw more plays--31--than musicals and the majority of them were excellent.

Recollecting what I saw as best I can, below is my ranking of the plays--all presented in Chicago across a variety of levels and venues--and productions I thought were most superlative, with some credence given to resonance months down the road (hence, the ratings in my reviews may not precisely correspond to the order here).

 Please be aware that unlike the "Best of" list published yesterday by the Tribune's fine theater critic, Chris Jones, my list does not combine plays with musicals--I'll rank those separately--or other theatrical presentations (such as the modern circus, Traces, which won't be making any list of mine). Also, Chris obviously has seen many more productions than I, so omissions below may be a matter of what I didn't see rather than what I didn't like. Finally, as most of the works below were not brand new, my judgments and rankings are as much about the productions as the plays themselves.

The Best Plays I Saw in 2010 (all in the Chicago area)

1. The Pillowman - Redtwist Theatre (my review)
written by Martin McDonagh; directed by Kimberly Senior

2. Trust - Lookingglass Theatre (my review)
A new work written by David Schwimmer & Andy Bellin; directed by David Schwimmer & Heidi Stillman

3. Frost/Nixon - Timeline Theatre (my review)
written by Peter Morgan; directed by Louis Contey

4. Speed-the-Plow - American Theater Company (my review)
written by David Mamet; directed by Rick Snyder

5. American Buffalo - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by David Mamet; directed by Amy Morton

6. August: Osage County - Touring production at Cadillac Palace Theatre (my review)
written by Tracy Letts; directed by Anna Shapiro

7. Harper Regan - Steep Theatre (my review)
written by Simon Stephens; directed by Robin Witt

8. The Long Red Road - Goodman Theatre (my review)
a new work written by Brett C. Leonard; directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman

9. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Raven Theatre (my review; show still running)
written by Tennessee Williams; directed by Michael Menendian

10. Detroit - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
a new work written by Lisa D'Amour; directed by Austin Pendleton

Honorable Mention

Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps - Touring production at Bank of America Theatre (my review)
written by Patrick Barlow; directed by Maria Aitken

After the Fall - Eclipse Theatre Co. (my review)
written by Arthur Miller; directed by Steve Scott

Awake and Sing - Northlight Theatre (my review)
written by Clifford Odets; directed by Amy Morton

Killer Joe - Profiles Theatre (my review)
written by Tracy Letts; directed by Rick Snyder

The Lonesome West - Gift Theatre (my review)
written by Martin McDonagh; directed by Sheldon Patinkin

Savage in Limbo - Village Players of Oak Park (my review)
written by John Patrick Shanley; directed by Jacque Lueken

Suicide, Incorporated - Gift Theatre (my review)
written by Andrew Hinderaker; directed by Jonathan Berry

Sweet Bird of Youth - The Artistic Home (my review, show still running)
written by Tennessee Williams; directed by Dale Calandra

War With the Newts: Mr. Povondra's Dream - Next Theatre (my review)
written by Jason Loewith & Justin D.M. Palmer; directed by Jason Loewith

One more I'd like to mention is Return to Haifa at Next Theatre. I enjoyed this work and would cite it among my Honorable Mentions, but its production led to charges of plagiarism and other improprieties that cost Next's Artistic Director his job (story here). Thus, it doesn't seem right to call it "Honorable" but the play that was presented was very good and any creators, crew and cast that didn't do anything wrong are deserving of kudos.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

'Brick'-Solid Rendition of 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' Is Well-Worth Raven About -- Theater Review

Photo from
Theater Review

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
a play by Tennessee Williams
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 15, 2011

Whenever I see, and subsequently review, almost any type of show--play, musical, rock concert, opera, classical or jazz concert, even movies--whether consciously or inherently I am really evaluating two components concurrently: the material and the performance.

In seeing Tennessee Williams' classic play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on stage for the first time, last night at Chicago's Raven Theatre, I feel I saw an excellent rendition of an absolutely phenomenal play. According to my "Reviews Key" on the sidebar at right, I think this means I should give it @@@@.

But just a few weeks ago, upon seeing Williams' play Sweet Bird of Youth at Chicago's Artistic Home theater, I gave it @@@@, for it was an excellent version of an excellent play. But 'Cat' is a considerably better play than 'Bird'--I think this is a pretty common opinion, even just based on their historical stature. So although the performances given by the fine actors in each company were probably about equal, and the production values--scenery, lighting, etc.--were first-rate at both, in terms of my rating as a recommendation, I have to give 'Cat' @@@@1/2.

Both Williams plays are worth your while and running locally through mid-January, with tickets typically available for under $20 through HotTix, so take 'em both in if you can. But if you've never seen either, except for the movies--both starring Paul Newman--go with 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' at the Raven.

Though I can imagine the interpretation being a bit more forceful with a top-tier Broadway cast--star power seems to lend itself well to Williams' scenarios, including A Streetcar Named Desire--the cast at Raven did a typically fine job. I loved Raven's take on Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' last year and Jason Huysman, who played Biff there, plays Brick here and does a great job. He's not quite Paul Newman, but then who is?

And while Liz Fletcher likewise doesn't quite exude Liz Taylor's movie magnetism as Maggie, she too is excellent, as she was when I saw her in 'Streetcar' at the same venue some years back.

Jon Steinhagen and Joann Montemurro also do very stellar work as Big Daddy and Big Mama.

But truly the star--with due respect to the cast & crew--is Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning script. Unlike the movie version, which had to veil any references of homosexuality between Brick and an unseen friend named Skipper (if you know the play or movie, you know why Skipper is unseen), the play doesn't hold back. It's easy to imagine how daring, perhaps even scandalous 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' must have seemed back in 1955 and Act 2 (of 3), in which Brick opens up to Big Daddy, is one of the most riveting I've ever seen.

Perhaps one day I might see an even better production of this iconic American work, but the Raven's rendition served as an excellent introduction and, especially for the price, is hard to beat. Even by another superb presentation of an excellent Tennessee Williams play.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010 (or at least my favorites)

Around this time of year, it's hard to find a website, newspaper or magazine that isn't presenting "Best of 2010" lists about this topic or that.

So while devoid of any delusions of novelty, far be it from me to abstain, especially after the feedback I received on "My Favorite ____ of the '00s" series last December prompted me to continue blogging as much as I did throughout 2010.

In the days and weeks ahead, I will present my "Best of 2010" selections regarding movies (including feature films, foreign films and documentaries), theater (including plays and musicals produced in Chicago), music and more.

I start today with "The Best Albums of 2010" (or more accurately, my favorites), especially since, unlike with movies, I don't expect many more albums of note to be released in the remaining 3 weeks of this year.

Although throughout the year and particularly within the last few weeks, I have acquired a nice selection of albums and sampled many more that were recommended by friends or in the press, my range of musical awareness is far from exhaustive. While I'm happy with my tastes, there isn't too much overlap between my top picks and those on undoubtedly wider-reaching lists by Rolling Stone, Amazon, Paste Magazine or the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot.

I am not too familiar with Janelle Monae or her album The ArchAndroid, which was the top pick by Kot and raved about elsewhere, and as I'm not too avid about rap or hip-hop, I haven't heard either Kanye West's much-lauded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy nor Eminem's Recovery. Although I am not as wild about Mumford & Sons' Sigh No More as some friends are, I consider it ineligible here anyway, as it was released in 2009 (at least in England). Solid albums getting some attention this year by Metric and The XX were also 2009 releases.

So take this for what it is; after all, the only Best Album list that really matters is yours. But following are, to my ears and awareness...

The Best Albums of 2010

1. The Len Price 3 - Pictures
The third album by the Len Price 3, which includes nobody named Len Price, came out in January, but I didn't learn about it until I heard Steve Van Zandt cite it in a mid-year interview. And though I was a bit skeptical, as the band is signed to Little Steven's record label--and not coincidentally played a bunch on his Underground Garage radio station on Sirius XM--I've been smitten since the first listen. With 13 songs clocking in at just 31 minutes, Pictures features a collections of pop-rock gems in the vein of early Kinks and Who. Nothing quite reaches the genius of those bands, but there was no album I enjoyed more in 2010 or expect to continue enjoying for years to come.

2. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
The Montreal collective received a lot of attention for its stellar 3rd album, which opened at #1 on the Billboard album charts and is showing up on most "Best Album of 2010" lists. Although I don't think The Suburbs ranks as an all-time classic on the level of, say, U2's The Joshua Tree, and I don't love listening to it quite as much as Pictures (above), it is an extremely impressive artistic accomplishment. Also, and this was an important criteria for me, it is an album that holds up well from beginning to end. Certainly some songs are better than others and there are a few I might occasionally skip, but for the most part The Suburbs is an album in the true sense. It is meant to be heard in full and should have substantive shelf life. (This was my full review and commentary in August.)

Before I get to the rest of the list, I will say that the top two albums are the only ones I consider truly remarkable. The next eight are very good, but in most cases, not even the best album to date by each artist. The above two are, and far beyond the rest, are the only albums that I can say really excited me this year.

3. Alejandro Escovedo - Street Songs of Love
Another in a string of superlative albums from the introspective Austin-based singer-songwriter. It could even rank as his very best, but I think I still slightly prefer 1996's With These Hands and 2008's Real Animal.

4. Paul Weller - Wake Up The Nation
Although I would still rather listen to any album by The Jam, Weller's original group--which I rank as the best ever of those overlooked in America--he has put together a damn impressive solo career over the last 20 years (following a stint with Style Council). While it takes a few listens for the brilliance of Wake Up The Nation to hook you, it ultimately reveals itself as yet another excellent work by an outstanding songwriter. 

5. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
LCD is the brainchild of James Murphy, who has blended rock, dance grooves and electronica for three excellent albums. This Is Happening probably isn't the best of the three, but is the one of the best of the year, and in October I was tremendously impressed with how LCD Soundsystem translated live. Murphy has threatened to pull the plug, but we'll see what happens.

6. Johnny Cash - American IV: Ain't No Grave
Yes, the Man in Black did die in 2003, but he and producer Rick Rubin had recorded a lot of music toward the end of Johnny's rich life. American V came out in 2006 and there was still enough material for this year's American IV: Ain't No Grave. While it might sound macabre to hear Cash ruminating on life, and particularly death, from beyond the grave, there's something oddly invigorating about it. A great collection of songs, with "Satisfied Mind" being one of my favorites.

7. Bruce Springsteen - The Promise
If there was an official arbiteur of this list, other than myself, The Promise might be ruled ineligible. For it is not an album of newly written and recorded material but rather a compilation of unreleased songs Springsteen and The E Street Band created in 1976-78 while working toward the album that became Darkness on the Edge of Town. Plus, some of the best stuff on The Promise are alternate versions of Darkness songs and/or songs that have long been known to Boss fans through cover and concert versions (e.g. Fire, Because The Night, Rendezvous). But even in judging just the stuff that was truly new to me, The Promise is one of the best releases of 2010. It's not as good as Born to Run or Darkness and doesn't rank among the very best of Bruce's estimable canon, but stellar supplemental Springsteen is still better than most else that I heard in 2010.

8. The New Pornographers - Together
The New Pornographers are a band I should have paid attention to a lot earlier. I'd heard of them for years and it seems they've been making strong albums since 2000, but I had never owned or heard any. But after my friend Paolo raved about their concert in October, I was able to borrow all five of their albums from my local library. I don't think 2010's Together is quite the best of the bunch, but it's the one I've listened to most so far, and I really like it.

9. Taylor Swift – Speak Now
It might be easy for old folks, like me, to think of Taylor Swift in a similar vein to Britney Spears some years ago. But while Britney and other teen-targeted stars had some fun pop gloss, Swift is considerably more substantive, not in the least because she writes all her own songs. I felt Speak Now deserved my attention when it was released--and sold over 1 million copies in its first week--but hypothesized in my positive review that it may not hold my attention for all that long. That may be true, but in giving it a couple more recent listens, there is a resonance to Swift's impeccable pop songwriting sensibilities.

10. Jason & The Scorchers – Halcyon Times
I have long loved this one-of-a-kind Nashville band that mixes rock and country without softening either, but they had been dormant for years before I saw they were coming to Chicago's Double Door in October. Not only did I get a ticket to see the show, which was excellent, but there I bought their latest album--which I hadn't known they'd released in April--and had it signed by band leader Jason Ringenberg. The best of it ranks with the very best work of their career and the rest of it ain't bad either. Except for the sheer fun of Len Price 3's Pictures, no album has made me happier this year.

Honorable Mention

Wavves - King of the Beach - There were several albums by bands I didn't previously know that I explored because of reviews I read. This is the one that stuck with me the most.

Hop On Pop – Chicken On A Bicycle
- In May, I did a short-term copywriting assignment on-site at an unnamed company. On my first day there, I heard an employee telling another of the temps about a new album he had released. Upon poking my nose in, I learned from Todd Leiter-Weintraub that Hop On Pop was his band (though mostly just him) and Chicken on a Bicycle was his second album. So I bought a copy he brought for me and my enjoyment of it has lasted far longer than the work stint. (

The National – High Violet - A lot of people seem to like The National and their new album a lot more than I do. I can see the quality but can't say I'm motivated to listen a whole lot.

Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs - My friend Dave, with whom I talk about music more than anyone, has been raving about this album--from the lead singer of the J. Geils Band--for most of the year. I only got it rather recently but can see why Dave is so high on it. The first several songs are wonderful, but then the consistency subsides a bit; otherwise it could have made my Top 10.

Honestly, I can't even cite a 5th fully deserving Honorable Mention but Teenage Fanclub - Shadows, Robert Plant - Band of Joy and Kid Rock - Born Free are albums I might continue to listen to on occasion.

@@@@@ Reissues

These three classic albums were newly remastered in 2010 and sound better than they ever have:

The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street
R.E.M. - Fables of the Reconstruction (my review)
Bruce Springsteen - Darkness on the Edge of Town
(currently only available as part of a box set)

So what's on your list?