Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Merry Christmas, Baby: Favorite Christmas albums and songs

Here's a strange thing: I loathe the blues. Not in getting and wallowing in the blues. Not in a certain famous painter's awesome blue period. Not the color blue (cobalt and midnight, two particular favorites) or even Levi's blue jeans (brand loyalty - I'm big on that). No, I hate blues music. This from a former music critic. Let's not get into that. I've tried. I like some of it. But it's not my thing. And yet - and yet! - I love Charles Brown. Classy blues, someone once called that sound. Uptown blues. But I don't care about the classification. All I know is that my favorite Christmas song is "Merry Christmas Baby." It can't be Christmas in my house until I hear it. In fact, "Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues" is one of the all-time great Christmas albums. (As an aside, I love how really great Christmas albums always find a way, usually on the last song, to give a nod to the pending New Year.)

I have a lot of Christmas music. Too much, maybe. But I don't let it linger with my other CDs. It's a seasonal thing. Can't stand to look at it any other time. But then I play it incessantly right about December 1, which is pretty much the day I buy my Christmas tree. I am listening to Christmas music as I write this. I'm even feeling that too many nights have passed without an adequate number of red wine fueled eves sitting by the tree, illuminated only by the tiny white lights, getting deep into the mood. I've still got, what, a week? No problem. Time to soak in it.

For me, it all starts with "Merry Christmas Baby." It's like pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training. But from there, all hell breaks loose. All kinds of moods are lit and left littered about by all kinds of random songs. I'm open to interpretations. I love the classics. I love new stuff. In the right frame of mind, I'll go for cheese. (Is "Santa Baby" cheese? Say what you will, but you've gotta hear Eartha Kitt at some point before the big day.) I don't really want to hear that Santa got run over. I want to hear about chestnuts and having merry little Christmases. I just don't want it to be all Bing Crosby, even if the David Bowie duet of "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" is the Christmas equivalent of hitting one into McCovey Cove. I don't know how many times I've heard that, but every time I do, I stop and think: "Bowie and Bing. Wow."

With all due respect to Charles Brown, I'm going to tell you my three favorite Christmas albums - in order! - right now (you have to do it in order or you're just a gigantic wuss). And he's not in the trifecta. (How can that be, you say, if "Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues" is such a classic? Uh, because it's my opinion. Make your own list.)

1. "One More Drifter In the Snow," Aimee Mann. Now, this only came out in 2006, so you'll probably say it's the thrill of the new. But honestly, I've thought a lot about it, and "One More Drifter In the Snow" has all the elements of a truly great Christmas album - and then some. First, you've gotta cover some classics. Then you need to make them your own. You have to have fun but not be embarrassed to be doing a Christmas album or, alternatively, too earnest about doing a Christmas album. You should include an original so people see you're invested (hers is "Calling On Mary," and it's lovely - plus she includes a very great cover of husband Michael Penn's "Christmastime," a song they previously sang in duet.) But your selection process need be almost as precise as your renditions. And for God's sake, the woman opens up with Jimmy Webb's "Whatever Happened to Christmas." That's gold, people. That nestles up right next to "Merry Christmas Baby" in the Goodman household. There's so much to love on this album, from the beauty of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" to the bouncy hipness of "You're A Mean One Mr. Grinch," complete with Grant Lee Phillips' wonderful and nutty narration. Now, the only thing missing on this album is her "I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas," but I guess she didn't want to send everyone to the bottle (or worse).

2. "Christmas Songs," Diana Krall (featuring the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra). Yeah, I know what you're thinking: That I picked this because she's married to my musical hero or, thinking less of me, that she's a babe who sings and is an awesome musician (a weakness, to be sure). But no. This album came out in 2005 and, for me, struck the perfect balance of classics and redefinition. Listen, the entire album is worth the price just to hear her say, off the cuff, "I'm just crazy about horses" at the end of "Jingle Bells," the first track. That slays me every time. But there's something about the classics - and this album is all about familiarity - given over to jazz improvisation that just seems utterly perfect. I know some people take issue with Krall's vocal tonality but - odd to say - it's damned effective and near perfect on this album. Two things - other than, "I'm just crazy about horses" - sealed it for me on this album: I love her version of "Christmas Time Is Here" (don't get me started about my sentimentality for Vince Guaraldi and Charlie Brown); and she makes the room you're in feel warm. Now, a lot of people may overlook, snicker at or just plain not get that last point. But if you put this album on when you're decorating the tree, it'll come to you. And you'll appreciate it. Not only that, but there is an everlasting appeal to falling asleep by the tree (at least for me). And the one non-Christmas-specific song on the album, Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sleep" is the perfect theme song for that.

3. "The Best Christmas Ever." (Various artists). You've gotta have an anthology on your list. I mean, I could have put "Christmas Songs by Sinatra" on here and got some props, but finding an album that pulls in 10 or 12 variations on the theme - and in case you forgot, the theme is Christmas - by a disparate bunch of singers is a real labor of love. Did you think I was going to put "A Very Special Christmas" on there (all three - or were there more - compilations?). Anyway, I think "The Best Christmas Ever" is tough to beat. And here's one very good reason: A stickler for the classics could say, "Any Christmas collection must have, no matter how painful, a version of "Twelve Days of Christmas."' Now, I hate that song. It's worse than the blues. But the Harry Belafonte version is pretty stellar. Not only that, but the album includes "Merry Christmas Baby" from Charles Brown, has Nat King Cole belting out "O Holy Night," not one but two songs from Hadda Brooks (a positive spin on "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and a strangely depressing, drink-em-up version of "White Christmas" - seriously, it's a shiv in your spine that dredges up all kinds of woebegone family Christmases; you'll never hear it again in the same way); an absolutely fall-on-the-ground killer version of "Silent Night Story" from Solomon Burke; ("Let's sing it again, for the world"), Aaron Neville completely owning the rights to "O Little Town of Bethlehem" - if you're going to include the song, it had better be from him - and the live version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton ("give it up, give it up, give it up"), though it cuts off. It's not a perfect album and here's why - too much blues for me. I could lose Pete Fountain's "Blue Christmas" and B.B. King's "Christmas Celebration," but that's just me. Still, if you're going to outshine this compilation, you REALLY have to bring it.

So, what else? How about some songs? Let's not kid ourselves. Putting an "album" together is tough work. Throwing a bunch of singles together is easy. I've got a lot of random shit in my collection. I've heard exactly one good version of "Frosty the Snowman" and it comes from, of all people, the Cocteau Twins. Honestly, name a better version.

I also love "Father Christmas" from "The Kinks." ("Father Christmas, give us some money. We've got no time for your silly toys.") That's a classic in my book. It got tossed onto one of the weirdest collections I have, the Rhino Records Christmas Sampler from 1996. (Where else are you going to find The Waitresses right before Buck Owens?). Not an album I'd actually push, but I'd definitely cull some songs from it. Like "Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)" from the Ramones, the original "Christmas Time Is Here" from the Vince Guaraldi Trio and the definitive version of "Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)" from Jackie Wilson - it is both joyful and triumphant and, need I say it - come and behold him, indeed. All told, it's a completely bizarre sampler, with LOTS of misses, but I've always loved the symmetry of "Father Christmas" as the first song, "Christmas Time Is Here" right in the middle and "Thanks For Christmas" from The Three Wise Men (aka XTC) closing things out. That's a great song.

Mrs. CrankyPants can't celebrate the season - or the day - unless she hears "2000 Miles" from the Pretenders, which is lovely and evocative. I have a soft spot for "Fairytale Of New York" from the Pogues. For my money, it's one of the most brilliant original Christmas songs ever recorded. If you want to debate that, you'd better put the 8 oz. gloves on. (Look, I'll cry at a cheesy commercial, so getting welled up over Christmas songs is nothing novel, but man that song just does it. Must be the Irish in me.)

Now, there's something about Christmas that makes pretty much every music artists at one time or another try to record a song. This is often a major mistake. You'd be surprised how many of the greats couldn't lay down a Christmas track that's worth a damn. Johnny Cash? Can't think of one I like. I so wanted to get into Otis Redding singing "White Christmas" but there is such a thing as trying too hard, even if you're a god. We could go on about this as it concerns one James Brown, but I'll give you this: "Soulful Christmas" works for me even when he name checks himself and Maceo. Why? Well, the bass line. End of story. But you could add, "Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, I love you" and praise its simplicity even when the song devolves into Norman Maileresque self promotion.

I mention these as a warning if you're going to argue for a certain song by a certain artist. You need to make the case. This is dangerous and holy territory. Many times - in many ways - a really spectacular singer just vomits on a classic. I, for one, won't stand for it.

Nah, I'm just kidding. I've got great tunes playing in the background. I've gone soft. You want to like something as your Christmas chestnut that doesn't really pass muster - why not? If it makes you happy in the holidays, then put it on. And sing it like you mean it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Iowa Conspiracy; 10 new countries and some housekeeping.

Why is it that Indonesia is willing to check in at TGTV but Iowa is not? Is there a glitch in the system? We've got comment proof that people from Iowa have said "Hello!" But, uh, we're they actually in Iowa or merely from Iowa? I'm kind of loving this. The great state of Iowa holding out, not wanting to know about "Dexter" or "Extras" or the fact that I posted all the good TV Talk Machine podcasts on this here blog, for your convenience. Nope. Iowa says no. Iowa is busy. Election stuff. Snow. General disinterest in SF. Who knows. I will say that if you're actually in Iowa, not just from Iowa, and you're reading TGTV, then by all means let me know. It might be nice to tell Google that it did something wrong, that it has a glitch in the system.

Elsewhere, since I last posted about TGTV going international, another 10 countries have signed on, bringing the total to 49 (and yet, no Iowa....hmmm...). Anyway, the 10 newbies are:
1. Malaysia.
2. Haiti.
3. Czech Republic.
4. Singapore.
5. Taiwan. (Did you know Mrs. CrankyPants lived in Taiwan for six years, in two different stints?)
6. Jamaica.
7. South Korea.
8. India. (Well, you'd think the odds were in my favor. 1 person in, what, a billion?)
9. Russia. (Ditto, though lesser totals. And yet, the math is essentially the same.)
10. Indonesia.

Alrighty, then, onto the housekeeping stuff. I'm on vacation but still compiling my year-end lists and still likely to keep putting stuff up here. So keep checking back. I'm also working on my "best Christmas music" list, which should come pretty quickly because that's pretty much all that I'm listening to lately. We've got a great tree (had it since Dec. 1). I'm a sucker for Christmas. Can't get enough of it. Except that late shopping thing. I'm over that already.

Oh, lastly, you'll notice that I did tweak the minimalism of this blog by posting the links to the aforementioned podcasts. I only did the good ones. I hope you take a listen if you haven't already. And who knows, as the days go by, maybe I'll put up some pictures or something. You know, move in...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Dexter" finale: Delicious. "Extras" finale: Extraordinary.

It was a big Sunday, no doubt. I spent it Christmas shopping, but only because I had long ago watched the "Dexter" Season 2 finale and the "Extra Special Series Finale" for "Extras." I'll leave this post for fans of both to mix up the serial killer seriousness with the comedic brilliance of Ricky Gervais exploring the dark side of fame. I've said a lot about both shows, but I'll leave you with a few quick thoughts and, just in case you need the reminder, some SPOILERS:

1. I was worried that "Dexter" painted itself into a corner this season but ended up loving this one more than Season 1. Having a serial killer with doubts and moral quandaries was good. I hate to see Doakes go but a good series doesn't flinch to kill off one of its own.

2. I'll put up something later in the week about expectations, since finales always - for some reason - tweak people's brains about what they want to see and how they want their characters portrayed at the end. I think the idea of the finale is way overblown in television. This is a continuing story. Why the last episode is expected to be ten times better than the penultimate episode - well, I've just never understood that. However, I can guess readily that "Dexter" fans may have something to say about this one. I loved it. I was fine with everything. But for the record, Mrs. CrankyPants thought it was too much closure, too pat to have Dexter go kill Lila abroad. She's probably right on that one. Why not let her slip back to Europe?

3. I can't say enough about the "Extras" finale. I think it hit on all cylinders. (OK, maybe the Smiths song and the drama of Maggie in the car was a little too much of a music video moment, but that's being extremely picky.) This was one of the all-time great finales to a series. Obviously Gervais had a lot to say. He constructed this series ender in a way where the laughs were plentiful, the drama and outrage were high, the painfully hilarious moments were spot-on, there was some surprising emotion. One of the best things I saw in all of 2007.

4. I'm on vacation and blogging. For me. And for you. Read into that what you will, but I feel pretty good about it.

5. There is no No. 5.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

From comedian to character: Ricky Gervais is the new Bill Murray.

Or Robin Williams. Or better?

I'm about to write my review of "Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale," which I've seen twice now (once prior to my podcast with Gervais, another time in a class I teach at CCA). It's a truly great conclusion to the series - perhaps shockingly great. At a full 80 minutes, it's a completely realized wrap-up of all the issues Gervais was poking at with "Extras," one of the most criminally ignored (despite his Emmy win) series on television. But what struck me about all the wonderful aspects of the finale was this: Gervais excels in the dramatic elements. Everybody knows he's brilliantly funny. But here he proves that he's capable of that next step. The finale, echoing the sentiments set forth in Season 2, is dark and bittersweet. The implosion of Andy Millman is thorough and sometimes even difficult to witness (luckily the blindingly funny parts offset it).

Anyway, I can't get over how good Gervais was. Is. And it got me thinking about his future. I hope his next project after his current movie shoot involves something complicated and dark. He can do it. The transition from clown to acclaimed character actor is very, very difficult, however. I'm not the biggest fan of Robin Williams but he made the leap and when he's good at his role, he's really good at his role. Bill Murray, however, might be the modern day standard bearer here. Has there been a better famous funnyman (or woman) who has made the leap to fully accepted dramatic actor? Sure, Murray often gets roles where the script plays to his oddball tendencies and it allows him to use archness or jadedness as a crutch. But not everything he does is so idiosyncratic. (It doesn't all work, either.) But outside of, say Jim Carrey - and his comic style is less acclaimed than either Gervais or Murray - no other comic may have pulled off the dramatic trick as well as Murray. Look, they're all good. Murray, Williams, Carrey. Given the right role, they light up and transform the screen. I'd go so far as to say that Murray's ability can make the most of mediocre material where the others can't. But it's a minor distinction.

The point is, I think Gervais is on the brink of joining that group. He'll need more work under his belt. And I'd like to see him make something dramatic out of other people's words. But he's on the verge. And the "Extras" finale is a real step up, an impressive coming out party for an emerging dramatic actor.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Can you Belize it? TGTV goes international - 39 countries and counting.

Well, this is going better and faster than I had originally planned. At this rate, I'll actually have to post something of value. In fact, I should probably tell you here that TGTV is going to ramp up the discourse soon, with bigger think pieces where I'll ask you to comment in depth if needed (or smart from the heart - that'll work, too).

In the meantime, I'm happy to report that 39 countries have checked out TGTV. Well, maybe 38. In one slot, Google Analytics reports from a country whose origin is "not set." Still, 10 visitors from there. Welcome good people of Not Set! The rest are:
1. The U.S. (Duh.)
2. Canada.
3. United Kingdom.
4. Australia.
5. France.
6. Japan.
7. Not set.
8. Brazil.
9. Germany.
10. Israel.
11. New Zealand.
12. Hungary.
13. Denmark.
14. Spain.
15. Netherlands.
16. Norway.
17. Italy.
18. Mexico.
19. Hong Kong.
20. Ireland. (Yo, those are my people! Let's see some more hits!)
21. Sweden.
22. Venezuela.
23. South Africa.
24. Thailand.
25. China.
26. Phillipines.
27. Switzerland.
28. Belgium.
29. Argentina.
30. Belize.
31. Kuwait.
32. Bulgaria.
33. Greece.
34. Luxembourg.
35. Finland.
36. Turkey.
37. Pakistan.
38. Poland.
39. Austria.

I'm humbled, thrilled and inspired. I guess I'll have to give you something to talk about or, barring that, something cool. By the way, mark your calendars: When I go "on vacation" (if you are in, Belize, let's say, just picture me at home, in my Adidas sweats, pretty much doing errands. Nothing cool. I'd trade places with you. House swap?) on Dec. 17th, through, "whenever," virtually all my blogging will be done on this site. It's like going out into the shed. In the New Year I'll be firing up The Bastard Machine as usual, but we'll do some intimate little notes from right here at TGTV until then.

Lastly, if you're from one of these countries, leave a comment! It's a small world. What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Also feel free to leave a comment if you're FROM one of these countries yet currently here in the States, exiled or not.

This just in - from the great state of Vermont!

Uh, thanks, to the person in Vermont who checked in with TGTV. Kisses.

Iowa, you're on the clock.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Uh, Iowa? Vermont? Hello? Anybody home?

So TGTV has been up and running for, what, seven days now? Well, six that anyone even knew about. And with the help of my Favorite New Friend - Google Analytics - I can find out pretty much what you're wearing when you click on the site. No, don't freak out, Oh Paranoid Ones. That's sooooo not true. I can't actually see your underwear. But it's like having a GPS on your sweet ass. I know every move you make. OK, kidding again. What Google Analytics allows me to do is find out what cities and countries are checking into TGTV. I'm going to make an international post pretty soon, because I couldn't be more giddy about all the countries checking out TGTV right now, but I first need to get up on my soap box about my own 'hood - the United States. That's right. You'd think that all 50 states would check in at some point, right? It's a big place. Look at a map. You'd think that maybe, just maybe, somebody was reading The Bastard Machine on sfgate.com and thinking, "Hmm, he's got a new site. I'll check it out." Well, yeah, 48 states. A certain someone in each of them - sometimes many someones in each of them - clicked on TGTV. But not Iowa. Not Vermont. They are the last two hold outs. Please, someone who knows someone in Iowa and Vermont, get them to visit for a look-see. If need be, send them to The Bastard Machine first, where all the cool toys are. Then have them click here. Now, I can kinda sorta get Iowa. I mean, in a totally disrespectful, knee-jerk pigeonholing, dead-wrong-in-public, stereotypical asshole kind of way, you could say, "Yeah, I get it. I'm from San Francisco. Not exactly Iowa-friendly. They won't like me." But that's probably not true. It could be that someone in Iowa is just asleep at the computer. But the whole state? Where's the love?

Now, Vermont I don't get at all. Vermont! For Christ's sake, Vermont is practically Berkeley. Do you know how far I live from Berkeley? Like one block. Seriously. I'm in Oakland, which is so much cooler than Berkeley, despite the rampant killings and stuff. I love Oakland. And that shouldn't scare off you Vermont folks. I should get your sympathy (have you ever seen "The Wire"? It's like living there.) But I should also get some PC cred for living so close - one block! - from Planet Berkeley. But nooooooo. Nobody from Vermont has ever once clicked on TGTV. Where's the love? I get most of my meat and vegetables fresh from the market! I eat gourmet cheeses! I used to drive a Volvo (and a Saab!). What's not to like? Iowa, sure, I can kinda get that (but not really). Vermont? We're like brothers. You ignoring TGTV makes me sad. It hurts. I hope someone in that great state will check in and give me a hug.

Aw, that sounded sappy.

Get it? See! I'm totally into Vermont-safe jokes. I swear to God, if Iowa checks in first, there's gonna be a lot of shame in your tiny-ass state. Whoops. I didn't mean it like that. Don't make me send someone from Oaktown over there to put a cap in your ass.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Televisory: "Dexter" post this weekend for the finale and I'm now open to suggestions for my year end best-of lists.

Of course, when have you ever known me to swayed when my mind is made up? And yet, send them in. I've got my No. 1 already picked out. And no, it's not "The Sopranos." But then again, I may end up making several lists. I just put up a post at The Bastard Machine about the "Dexter" finale low-down, plus I reposted the Michael C. Hall podcast. Check it out. Check you later. I'm heading to the movies. (That almost never happens.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Christmas classics! Don't be a scrooge. Start watching. And making a list!

Well, we've already started watching Christmas stuff in the Goodman house. For a while now, actually. I've got pretty much every classic (and non-classic) Christmas show on DVD (can't stand the commercials, had to break down and buy the lot of them).

Anyway, every year I flip-flop on my top picks. (Same goes for Christmas music, but I'm gonna do a post on that later...)

For argument's sake, I'll give you my starting five (don't make me go longer, because I will) and you can kick-start the annual argument. I will say this, it's a pretty solid fivesome.

1. "It's A Wonderful Life." Sue me. I don't care. I love it. One of my favorite movies ever. Stop snickering, you bastards (lowercase "b").

2. "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

3. "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas."

4. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

5. "A Christmas Story."

Lastly, let me add that although I have a lot of love in my heart for the Heat Miser, you've got to edit somewhere. This is my list. I checked it twice. Now, what have you got?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Two days, two posts. And TGTV goes international!

So Amandapants has put my involvement with TGTV in cynical terms, placing the over-under at three days (or was it three posts?) but I'm feeling pretty motivated, RSI be damned. One of the cool things about slowly migrating people to my personal blog site - while still giving lots of love to The Bastard Machine - is that over here I have a better sense of numbers, locations, etc., thanks to the cool gizmo that is Google Analytics. Already TGTV has had visitors from Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands and all across the United States. A pretty good start to what would best be described as a "soft opening," as they say in the restaurant biz. I kind of like this idea that people immediately caught on to - that TGTV will have some bonus material, like those easter eggs we all love so much, and work as a kind of added value site to TBM. Given that, I'll post a couple of bits of "breaking news" right here, right now:

I'll be doing the deconstructions of "The Wire" here on TGTV. Look for that coming up. And for those who missed (or even those who attended) my interview thing at the JCC in SF awhile back, I'm going to do it again in September or October. And more appearances and whatnot will be announced here later. I'm still interested in the flash mob hootenanny to be held on College Ave. somewhere, perhaps in the coming weeks for some holiday wassailing. BYONT (bring your own name tags).

More later.

Monday, December 3, 2007

It's The Bastard Machine guest book. And an actual post!

Welcome to TGTV. Yes, it's a second blog. The primary one, of course, is The Bastard Machine. Welcome visiting Bastards. Please sign my guest book. Let me know you've found me. Yes, this blog is no-frills. I wanted it that way. I like minimalism. Besides, everything I wanted linked or added already exists on TBM. This is nothing more than added value blogging or, if you're a cynic, bet-hedging on my part or, if you're one of the many people who advise me what I'm doing wrong in life, then it's something I should have started/claimed a long time ago. I know what you're thinking. And you might be right, no matter what that thinking is. However - don't read too much into this. Basically, TGTV allows me some flexibility and gives you, once The Bastard Machine is humming along with regular posts, a kinda-sorta "bonus tracks" option. Or, since we're talking television instead of music, a director's commentary bonus feature on the extra-special DVD boxed set.

I have no idea how often I'll be updating this blog. But hey, I said the same thing about The Bastard Machine a long time ago and suddenly it became like a second job. And an addiction. So you may want to bookmark this just in case.