Friday, January 29, 2010

Forgotten Books: Batman: R.I.P. by Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel

(My latest entry to Patti Abbott's Friday Forgotten Books. For the complete list, head on over to her blog.)

How does one sum up, in words, a comic story arc that blows the top of your head off and creates lots of new wrinkles on your gray matter? Needless to say, it's difficult. But, then, "Batman, R.I.P." (RIP) is no ordinary comic book. It’s penned by Grant Morrison, something of an avant-guard writer. More and more, the word "visionary" is linked with Morrison's writing and I'm beginning to think that's just code for mind-blowing. You read some of his work and you be the judge.

The trade paperback version of RIP collects Batman #676-683 but adds (I think as I've not read the actual monthly titles) a prelude. Batman and Joker, in Arkham Asylum, with Joker laying out cards. It's a clue yet I didn't see it.

The main story picks up following the events of The Black Glove arc (my review). The new group of baddies, The Black Glove, is led by a man named Doctor Hurt. He's out to get Batman where other bad guys have yet to penetrate: his mind. And he has the weapons to do it. You see, Batman can't find anyone who (a) knows about the mysterious Black Glove criminal organization or (b) believes him when he says it exists. They all point to an old film noir with the same name. Even Bruce Wayne's new flame, Jezebel Jet, doesn't believe him and she knows the truth about Wayne's alter ego. Without warning, Bruce lurches into some sort of coma while puzzling over the evidence. Members of the Black Glove (which look like cast-offs from "Who Wants to Be in Batman's Rogue's Gallery") invade the Batcave and take out Alfred while Robin escapes.

Oh, and that's just by the second issue. Things really get weird from here on out. Bat-Mite even shows up and his presence is explained as well. One of the parts of the story is Batman's black casebook. It includes all wild and far-out cases of Batman's career. In reality, Morrison has taken some of the weird elements from the 1950s Batman stories and ret-conned them back into the mainstream Batman story line. Thus, from a 1950s story of Batman in a multi-colored costume--The Batman of Zur-En-Arrh (don't ask)--comes a modern-day coping mechanism Bruce uses to battle Doctor Hurt. It's a brilliant stroke of imagination on Morrison's part. The narrative of RIP shows why Batman is, arguably, the most compelling superhero on the market. Batman is always called the hero with no superpowers. He has one: his mind. It's on a level like no other hero and it's in the mind where much of this story takes place. The epilogue of RIP, a two-issue story that peruses much of Bat-History, ties in directly with the larger story that was then being published by DC Comics, "Final Crisis" (currently reading it now).

The biggest complaint I have about Morrison's style is the quick cuts without any warning. You get a two-page spread of one storyline and then the next page is something different. It's difficult to build up steam and get all the facts correct. I can't imagine reading this over a series of months. You really do need the compressed nature of a trade.

A companion to this story is a trade paperback entitled "The Black Casebook." Here DC reprints the original 1950s stories that inspired Morrison. He gives an introduction to each story and explains why it helped him create RIP.

Tony Daniel is the artist for RIP and his work is spectacularly detailed. Looking over the book again, there are visual clues that foreshadow the ending twists. His version of the Joker is scary: a tall, thin, and gaunt, usually only sporting his trademark purple pin-striped pants and suspenders, his skeletal body weirdly strong. But it's Joker's eyes that haunt your dreams.

By the end of this story, coupled with the big event in "Final Crisis," you have another, giant mystery. I really can't name it here for it gives away the ending of RIP. Rest assured, however: the events of the DC Universe in 2010 will provide you the answer.

Batman, R.I.P. is a phantasmagorical romp in the grandest sense and is essential reading for any fan of The Dark Knight.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Story Number One

I have a simple writing resolution this year: write and submit at least 12 stories. That's one a month. Should be doable. Frankly, should be exceedable. I enjoy Michael Bracken's ongoing tally of his story output. With a hat tip to him, I'd like to follow suit.

I have written and submitted my first story of the year. It's a 6,425-word yarn that I've sent to the editors of an anthology. It's the second adventure of my railroad detective, Calvin Carter and I got a big kick out of writing it. (If you're curious, the link to the first is there to the right.) I started the story sometime in December (I'll be sure to mark the start date next time) but I wrote most of it during the first week of January. I finished it a week ago and have been making edits (and having it read) ever since. Time for submission. I'll let everyone know if it gets accepted.

Stories Written in 2010: 1
Stories Left to Write in 2010: 11

Extra! Extra! Crimefactory now live!

Crawled out from under a rock today and discovered Crimefactory, the new noir/hard-boiled e-zine is live today. And lo and behold, two of my Do Some Damage buddies, Steve Weddle and Dave White, have stories in the debut issue. I've already downloaded the PDF. When's the lunch hour?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Forgotten Music: Apparat Organ Quartet

(For other forgotten albums and books, head on over to Patti Abbott's blog.)

Eight years ago, I caught an episode of PBS’ “Frontline” where they focused on the music of Iceland. I don’t know about you but that seemed intriguing. At that time, Bjork constituted all I knew about Iceland and their indigenous music scene. That one program not only opened my eyes to the stark beauty that is the topography of Iceland but it also opened my ears to a whole new amalgam of music.

The “Frontline” story mentioned a few of the bigger names in Icelandic music: Gusgus, Mum, Trabant. Two acts stuck with me to the point that I sought out and acquired their music. Sigur Ros was one. However, the band that really struck a chord with me was the Apparat Organ Quartet (AOQ). The AOQ, to date, have only one CD, a self-titled number from 2002. Led by Johann Johannsson, a record producer and composer, AOQ enlists four organist/keyboardist and one drummer. In the spirit of invention, Johannsson brought his group together and improvised in the studio. Here’s where things get interesting and unique. Except for the drummer, no member plays modern instruments. Instead, they salvage vintage synthesizers, vocoders, keyboards, and other organ-type instruments to make their unique sound.

The sound. Describing music with words is, arguably, mostly futile. Yet, we try. Remember the scene in Star Trek: First Contact where the android, Data, has just had his emotion microchip activated. When his friend, LaForge, tries to describe emotions, he always uses a different type of emotion to describe a particular feeling. When Data asks LaForge to describe an emotion without another emotion as context, LaForge can’t do it. That’s the issue with the AOQ.

The soundscape AOQ creates is at once completely unique and blatantly fusionistic. The fact that the only melodic instruments are keyboard immediately bring to mind everything from Kraftwork to Thomas Dolby, Tony Banks (Genesis) to Moby, with little dash of Vangelis, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Howard Jones thrown in for good measure. As the reporter in the “Frontline” piece mentions, the landscape and seasonal variances works its way into the music of Iceland. Some of the slower tracks, like “Softu Litla Vel,” could be used for meditation. They build a space, an openness, in your mind where the oppressive months-long night of Icelandic winters can dwell. There’s something very winter-like with these slow songs. “The Anguish of Space-Time” channels the inner Twilight Zone, that part of a person that might envision himself floating alone in outer space. The little twinkly flourishes feel like a beacon echoing in the emptiness of space, calling us home but we don’t know which way to go.

Lest you think AOQ is all new-age goo, they don’t forget a basic precept: they are a pop band. “Stereo Rock and Roll” has a quirky, inventive flavor to it. It’s a song with a beat you could see cheerleaders dancing to at halftime of a basketball game. It’s keyboard melody brings to mind some of Tony Banks’ later efforts in Genesis. The experimentation of the studio can be heard in “Global Capital.” The same beat continues throughout the song but AOQ create two different melodic lines, an insistent A melody and a beautiful, counter B melody. And these guys rock harder than you’d think four organists could. “Cruise Control” packs in a driving beat and a hard-edged, distortion sound that you’d swear was electric guitar.

As a whole, the debut CD by the Apparat Organ Quartet is probably not for everyone. But there is enough of a pop music vocabulary here that you will likely find a track or two to your liking. I’m not the only one who equates music with the seasons. Certain music just belongs in certain seasons. AOQ is, to me, largely a winter CD. There has not been a winter since I got this music many years ago that I didn’t regularly listen to it. Their Myspace page has a few of the main tracks. See if there’s something you enjoy.


When Patti Abbott (via another blogger, Chris, I think) suggested a forgotten music week, I jumped at the idea. And I’d like to continue it. I’ve contacted Patti about making this Forgotten Music idea ongoing. Starting next month, I will host a monthly Forgotten Music feature. It’s just like Patti’s weekly Forgotten Books or Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club. To make it manageable, I’d like to have Forgotten Music be the last Thursday of each month. The first one is 25 February. For anyone who is interested, just e-mail me ahead of time and I’ll collect the names and links and we can all learn some new music we may not know. I think I’ve got a year’s worth of material already.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Atari 2600, Video Games, and Real Life

I hope this doesn't come across as the ramblings of an old person but here it goes.

Over at Lou Anders' blog, he links to a YouTube video of the Superman game for the Atari 2600. It's three minutes of game playing footage. A quick trip to Wikipedia reveals that the object of the game is to repair the bridge Lex Luthor destroyed, avoid kryptonite, change back into Clark Kent, and kiss Lois Lane in the shortest time possible. Yeah, that really is all to the original game.

Anders notes that, at the time (1979), it was revolutionary. And it was. I never had this version (I got the 5200 later) but I distinctly remember the cover art for all these games being gorgeous and very cool. Then, when you popped the cartridge in, the graphics didn't match the cover art. I never thought much of it because, hey!, I was playing a video game. How friggin' cool was that?

Looking back on it now, however, it's laughable. How the heck is that stick man supposed to be Supes? Dunno. So many of those old 2600 games (and Colecovision, Nintendo, Intellivision) tried to emulate real life (or arcade versions of games) to lesser effect. Again, it really didn't matter because we kids knew the games weren't real.

Nowadays, with advanced video and computer capability, we have games that are all but real life. The graphics are so phenomenal that they come across as breathtaking. The sports games are sometimes better than TV. The first person shooters can generate a real sense of dread and exhilaration, especially when the aliens are approaching. It's very cool.

But do people now realize where modern video games stop and real life starts? Is the effort to "entertain" taking over perceptions of real life?

Forgotten Books: Batman - The Black Glove

(My latest entry in Patti Abbott's Friday Forgotten Books. For the complete list, head on over to her blog.)

Most of these forgotten books are rare gems out of the public eye that bloggers want other readers to remember. I mean, really, why would a blogger spend the time to post a “Keep Away” sign for a book best left forgotten? The good folks over at DC Comics probably have some hopes that various titles throughout it’s long publishing history remain forever forgotten. You wouldn’t think Batman would be on that list and he isn’t...assuming you overlook the 1950s output. This is the era where Batman fought aliens, met various Batmen of other countries, and had a bunch of silly adventures that don’t fall in line with the darker tone most prominent in the 1940s and from the 1970s onward.

Grant Morrison didn’t overlook the 1950s. In fact, he took a most novel approach: reincorporate some of the more outlandish elements of the 1950s Batman stories and put them back in the larger canon. Batman: The Black Glove is one of the story arcs that does precisely that.

In Part I of The Black Glove, Batman and Robin (Tim Drake) travel to an isolated Caribbean island to meet up with other crime fighters from across the world. These guys (and one gal) are The International Club of Heroes, AKA “The Batmen of Other Nations” story from the 1950s. You have the Indian Batman, a dude called Wingman, a swashbuckling swordsman, a guy from England. (Hey! This was the 1950s, remember?) Once the Dynamic Duo arrive on the island, a sort of “Ten Little Indians” scenario starts where certain characters start being killed and it’s up to Bats, Robin, and the other Club members (who don’t necessarily trust Batman) to solve the problem before they all perish.

Part II of the story arc involves a Gotham City Police Department initiative to train certain policemen to be Batman in case the real hero dies. Bat-mite shows up in this one as Bruce/Batman has a heart attack and is captured. Here, Bruce remembers forgotten events (i.e., the original 1950s Batman stories) as he attempts to defeat his kidnapper. The end result sets up a couple of things. One, the giant “R.I.P.” story line, and two, the presence of a dark, criminal group known as The Black Glove whose sole purpose is a years-long undermining and destruction of Batman himself.

It’s a good story, although I think the first part is more fun. The second is deeper with a decided psychological bent to it. Morrison delves into the elephant in the room when it comes to the Dark Knight: that, technically, Bruce Wayne is mentally disturbed to do what he does. A new lady friend of Bruce, Jezebel Jet, calls him on it and puts a name to it. And, just like any good monthly comic, the last panel is one of the biggest cliffhangers I’ve seen in a long time.

As I catch up on the Bat-stories I’ve missed these past few years, I started here. It leads into the “R.I.P.” story arc, followed by “What Ever Happened to the Caped Crusader” and “Final Crisis.” I enjoyed the books and the fresh take on an era most people dismiss out of hand. The artwork by Tony S. Daniel is vivid, colorful, evocative, and fluid. There’s a great number of visual homages to earlier stories that I enjoyed discovering and his use of various shapes and panels to tell the story was terrific.

DC Comics may have forgotten the stories from the 1950s but Grant Morrison didn’t. Now you can revisit a forgotten time in Batman’s history and see where it leads him. My review of Batman: R.I.P. will be next in this series.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"The Dark Knight Returns" Movie -- Why?

Over at The Tainted Archive, there's a story about how the famous Frank Miller graphic novel that ushered in the darker Batman might be made into a movie. It would stand apart from the new continuity established by Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale. Clint Eastwood's been mentioned as taking on the role with Zach Snyder directing.

As much as I love Batman (see my forgotten book review tomorrow), I have but one question: WHY? Didn't Snyder and company learn anything from Watchmen? It's not a slam against the well-made movie version of Watchmen, it's just that the source material--art included--is so good and vivid that we really didn't need the film version. Do we really need a film version of The Dark Knight Returns?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

CSI: Miami - "Show Stopper" - Review

Only a day late, I have submitted my review of Monday's CSI: Miami episode. You can read it at BSC Review.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book Giveaway

Author and fellow blogger Linda Weaver Clarke has a book giveaway via Suko's Notebook. The book being awarded is an autographed copy of Miranda and the Wild West. Suko reviews Clarke's latest novel, David and the Bear Lake Monster. Head on over and leave a comment. You'll get your name in the running. There are bonus ways to get your name in as well. You have until 24 January.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Book Review Club: The Trial of Sherlock Holmes by Leah Moore and John Mark Reppion

(This is the January 2010 contribution to Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list of other participating authors, click the link at the end of this review.)

If anyone disliked the new Sherlock Holmes movie for its modernization of the character (I didn't), the new comic book story “The Trial of Sherlock Holmes” will go a long way to making things right for them. In this tale from Dynamite Comics, authors Leah Moore and John Mark Reppion have scripted a gripping story that is not unlike another famous Holmes story by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the opening panels, a huge explosion near the river rips its way through the East End district. The next morning, Dr. Watson makes his entrance into 221B Baker Street. In a nice change from the stories, when Holmes makes his characteristic deductions about Watson’s activities, the good doctor takes it all in stride and moves forward (rather than the astonishment he usually exudes in the stories). These events take place in 1895, some eight years after the two men first met. It’s nice to see Watson is used to Holmes’ “magical” deductions.

According to a letter Holmes has received, the explosion is not some random act. Sir Samuel Henry, former assistant police commissioner, writes to Holmes that he, Henry, is to be murdered at his house precisely at 7pm the next day. If Henry makes plans not to be at his house at the appointed hour, additional explosions will tear London apart. Naturally, Holmes and Watson, together with Inspector Lestrade and a cadre of London’s finest, all guard Henry and his estate. While waiting, Lestrade informs Holmes of another, separate, typed letter. It seems some loyal Britons don’t want the Germanic Baron Lothair to set foot upon English soil, something the nobleman is about to do on a tour of London’s great monuments.

As the gentlemen are discussing these developments, Sir Henry’s many clocks chime a quarter until seven. A few minutes later, a request is delivered by one of the policemen: Sir Henry wishes Holmes to come into his bedroom, alone. This Holmes does. At precisely seven o’clock, a single shot rings out. Lestrade, Watson, Detective Inspector Davis (of special branch), and all the policemen race upstairs. Seeing the door to Sir Henry’s bedroom locked from the inside, they break it down. What they find astonishes them: Holmes, standing over the dead body of Sir Henry, a smoking revolver in his hand, his face containing a look of utter surprise.

Now, if you happened to purchase the first issue at your local comic store last year, this is where issue #1/chapter one ends. Yeah, I couldn’t wait for the next issue either. The second chapter begins in a bad way—Holmes is arrested and thrown in prison—and goes downhill from there. Literally to say any more about what happens in chapter two (and how it ends) would ruin the enjoyment of a fulfilling and complicated story, full of surprises, none more so than the one revealed on the last page.

One aspect that happily surprised me is the relationship between Watson and Lestrade. If you’ve read the stories, you know Holmes has all but disdain for the metropolitan police, Lestrade being merely one slightly more capable than the rest. Lestrade here holds his own and shows him to be as loyal to Holmes as Watson. Even Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, makes an appearance.

I’ve gone this far and not mentioned the most crucial aspect of “The Trial of Sherlock Holmes”: the artwork. Aaron Campbell’s drawings capture Victorian England in all its little nuances and detail. There’s a sepia quality to some of the panels and his use of shadow and light is superb. Campbell draws Holmes in a traditional way, much like Sidney Paget did in the original Strand illustrations. Watson gains a little weight and is a bit more jowly but it suits him. Again, Lestrade is best served here. Unlike the often spindly way he appears in older illustrations, in “The Trial,” he is a striking presence. Firm jawed, handsome, his hair short and well kept, his mustache neatly trimmed, Lestrade is a modern man here, visibly a police man but one that can win the heart of a fair maiden after hours. Truth be told, I could read an entire series featuring Lestrade as long as Campbell draws him. When I read that “The Trial” is Campbell’s first comic sale, I was glad to be present at the beginning of a great career.

“The Trial of Sherlock Holmes” is now available in hardcover. The book comes with some great extras. There is an afterward by noted Sherlockian Leslie Klinger as well as Moore and Reppion. Also included is the script the authors gave Campbell to direct his art complete with references to special effects and dialogue boxes. I loved flipping from the text description to the glorious pictures Campbell created. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the workings of a comic book. Lastly, Campbell illustrates a few pictures for the reprinted original Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” from His Last Bow.

Holmes pastiches are often fun and provide authors other than Conan Doyle a chance to play with Holmes and Watson. Rest assured: “The Trial of Sherlock Holmes” can stand with the best of them. I can think of no better way to spend Holmes' birthday (today) than to head on out to your local book or comic store and pick up a copy. After reading this story, I had the same thought I did when I finished watching the new movie: I’m looking forward to the sequel.

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Favorite Songs of the 2000s

Here, for fun, are my 25 favorite songs of the decade, in chronological order.

If You’re Gone - Matchbox 20 - How Chicago could sound if they tried harder

Yellow - Coldplay - First song I ever heard; still one of their best

Always Crashing in the Same Car - David Bowie - Classic reinterpreted for the better

The Middle - Jimmy Eat World - When’s the last time you had this much fun listening to a rock song?

The Rising - Bruce Springsteen - Redemption in a rock song

Steve McQueen - Sheryl Crow - Kick-ass summer song

Everyone Says Hi - David Bowie - Bowie as the crooner doing Phil Spector pop

It’s a Groove This Life - Robert Lamm - A delicate pop song about the meaning of life

Hey Ya! - Outkast - Not since “The Middle” have I danced to a more fun song

Heaven - Los Lonely Boys - Great guitar work from a trio of Texas boys

1985 - Bowling for Soup - My high school years summed up in three minutes

Mother India - Caedmon’s Call - Transcends religions to a common, hopeful purpose

Crazy - Gnarls Barkley - Just about the best song I heard all decade

Come to Me, Do - Chicago - Pure fun and pop by a band that hadn’t had fun since 1993

The Island - The Decemberists - Indie/prog rock in a 12-minute opus, incredible

Long Walk Home - Bruce Springsteen - The state of American circa 2007

Sister Lost Soul - Alejandro Escovedo - A song of longing by a fantastic artist

Why So Serious? - The Dark Knight soundtrack by Hans Zimmer - AKA, Joker's Theme - Never has one note sounded so ominous

I’m Alive - Tom Jones - Jones’s mission statement kicks off a wonderful CD

Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa - Vampire Weekend - New sound by a unique band

Oh No - Andrew Bird - Dang can this guy whistle; be sure to have a dictionary nearby

Ms. Garvey Ms. Garvey - Roy Hargrove - Splendid bari sax solo

City Noir - John Adams - The sound of modern classical music

Christmas at Sea - Sting - Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem set to a multitude of musical influences

Mrs. Cold - Kings of Convenience - Never has two men and guitars sounded so good

Friday, January 1, 2010

Favorite Albums of the 2000s

I’m a little late in posting all my favorites of the decade so I’ll start the new one looking back on the old one. I’m not calling these CDs “Best” because there are other, more important CDs that were released these separate years. These are my favorites of each year of the first decade of the 21st Century.

For those who want the quick hit, here's the list. I write in more detail following the list.

2000 - David Bowie, Bowie at the Beeb
2001 - Cousteau (self titled)
2002 - Bruce Springsteen, The Rising
2003 - Robert Lamm, Subtlety and Passion
2004 - Garden State
2005 - Caedmon’s Call, Share the Well
2006 - Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
2007 - Bruce Springsteen, Magic
2008 - Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal
2009 - Roy Hargrove, Emergence

Bowie at the Beeb - David Bowie

There were some great CDs this year (the debut of Coldplay, the Robert Lamm/Geoff Beckley/Brian Wilson “Like a Brother” project, my personal discovery of saxophonist James Carter) but Bowie’s 2000 concert was a gem. His characteristic trait of reexamining his own catalogue is on full display here. Not only do we get reinterpretations of hits like “Let’s Dance” and “The Man Who Sold the World,” but we get rare tracks (“This is Not America”) thrown in. As much as I love the piano poetry of Mike Garson on “Absolute Beginners,” it’s Bowie’s new take on 1976’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car” that keeps me coming back to this CD again and again.


The music that preceded the 9/11 attacks was good but there wasn’t a stand-out huge CD that I liked. Instead, the debut album by Cousteau captured my ears and attention. Lounge-inspired, film-noirish, with deep baritone vocals, Cousteau’s music belonged in the 1950s rather than 2001. But I loved it.

The other major CD in 2001 was Sting’s concert CD, “All This Time.” After two years touring behind 1999’s “Brand New Day,” Sting was to record a concert at his Italian villa on 9 September. The attacks of that day almost cancelled the show (as you can see in the DVD documentary of the rehearsals). The band forged onward albeit with a substantially altered setlist. Starting with a rearranged (see a trend in things I like?) version of “Fragile,” the musicians coped with the terrorist attacks through music. By the last song of the night, some semblance of normalcy had returned and, via the power of music, some order had been restored if for only a few hours.


This year saw a flood of music from some of my favorite artists. David Bowie’s “Heathen” is arguably the best thing he had released since 1976’s “Low.” Sheryl Crow’s “C’mon C’mon” is a tightly-written collection of songs that praise good times and summer. Peter Gabriel’s long-awaited CD “Up” finally landed. Coldplay’s sophomore CD, “A Rush of Blood to the Head” proved they were not a one-album wonder. Guitarist John Williams issued his CD recorded in Africa and “his Graceland” contains some of the best guitar music out there.

The 9/11 attacks produced some musical responses as well in 2002 and none was a substantial as Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” This was the first E Street Band album since 1988’s “Tunnel of Love” and it was, as is, phenomenal. The title track vaulted into my all-time favorite status, rivaling only “Born to Run” in my book. Redemption has always been a theme of the Boss and it’s here, too. But the songs directly dealing with the tragedy (“Into the Fire,” “Empty Sky,” among others) sear the heart and leave it altered.


While I counted Bowie’s “Reality” (to date, his last CD), Chris Botti’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” Stephen Delopoulos’s “Me Died Blue,” Jet’s “Get Born,” and Roy Hargrove’s “Hard Groove,” among my favorites, one album clearly stands tall in my book. The irony of my favorite CD of 2003 was that it was the greatest “Chicago” album since Chicago VII. Robert Lamm’s solo CD, “Subtlety and Passion,” was everything a Chicago fan could want and more. With all but two then-current fellow band members playing on the ten-track collection, Lamm basically writes Chicago 7-1/2. Half of the songs would have been major hits in the 1970s but the songs didn’t sound like they belonged in the 70s. A highlight is the use of a Terry Kath guitar solo, recorded before his death in 1978, for a new song in 2003. Lamm perfectly captured the essence of Chicago.


Rarely does my Tree of Music grow new branches but it did this year. Here’s what I mean. While I love all sorts of rock and roll, it all boils down for me to my first, favorite band, KISS. I’ve come to enjoy many artists more than KISS but they started it all. Ditto for classical music: I like a lot but my first taste of instrumental music was the Star Wars soundtrack.

Up until 2004, I rarely, if ever, listened to indie music. That changed with the soundtrack to the movie “Garden State.” These thirteen tracks could easily have been called “Indie Music 101.” I learned about The Shins, Remy Zero, Iron and Wine, Zero 7, Colin Hay, and others. This one CD created a huge new branch to my musical enjoyment, one that followed these past five years. If I define the Album of the Decade as one that changed me rather than one that merely contained my favorite songs, this would be it.


Interesting year, 2005. Springsteen returned to acoustic songs (“Devils and Dust”), Paul Anka showed that modern rock songs might just be timeless as jazz standards (“Rock Swings”), and Rob Thomas showed that he can create fun pop songs almost in his sleep (“Something to Be”). However, Caedmon’s Call trumps them all with their version of “Graceland.” The Christian band from Houston had traveled the world in 2004, primarily in India and Central America. What they saw there touched them and changed them. The subsequent album is like nothing in their catalogue. Where they were a folk/acoustic band, for this one time, they brought in musicians from the countries they visited. What emerged was an amalgam album, full of hope, joy, pain, and musical abandon.


With the release of Chicago’s 30th CD, you might expect me to pick it for favorite of the year. Not even close. As much as I looked forward to Chicago 30, the album didn’t live up my expectations. There were half a dozen albums I liked better. Springsteen’s “The Seeger Sessions,” the debuts of both Amy Winehouse and Rodrigo y Gabriela, Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible,” The Decemberists “The Crane Wife,” and two selections from Elvis Costello, “The River in Reverse” and “My Flame Burns Blue.” What I loved more than any other album was Gnarls Barkley’s “St. Elsewhere.” One could argue that it was the first true album of the decade, bringing together a multitude of styles and influences. The lead single, “Crazy,” just might be my favorite song of the decade. I never tire of hearing this album.


Another winner from Springsteen. “Magic” was Springsteen doing what he does best: looking around at the state of the world and reporting on it. While not as consequential as Walter Cronkite, Springsteen’s songs seemed something of a harbinger of what was to come in 2008. “Long Walk Home” summarized all of the Boss’s thoughts about modern America. But he was not averse to releasing a good, old-fashioned rock song with “Radio Nowhere.” And “Girls with the Summer Clothes” proved Springsteen could croon if he had the right song.

Other standouts: Brian Setzer’s “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out”; Springsteen’s “Live in Dublin” (the Seeger Sessions Band); The Shins “Wincing the Night Away”; California Transit Authority “Full Circle” (band created by Chicago’s original drummer, Danny Serephanie); Turtle Island String Quartet “The Legacy of John Coltrane”


A fun year for music. Bill Champlin’s “No Place Left to Fall” showed how consummate a musician he really is, Gnarls Barkley released their second CD, “The Odd Couple,” Tom Jones (yes THE Tom Jones) put out an album that was spectacular in its blend of old and new, Coldplay rebounded with “Viva la Vida” after the disappointing “X&Y,” and another odd couple, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, recorded a surprisingly fresh CD. Vampire Weekend debuted on the scene with their unique blend of indie and African rhythms (look for the follow-up later this month) and was the freshest thing on the block for awhile. But it was Springsteen that introduced me to my favorite CD of the year, Alejandro Escovedo’s “Real Animal.” The Boss brought out Escovedo for the encore of his April 2008 concert in Houston. Three months later, “Real Animal” was released. Fantastic CD. I’ve written about it twice (here and here) and can’t say anything better.


I’ve already written about the music of 2009 here. I made that list before my birthday. The only thing I have to add is a CD I received for my birthday. “Declaration Of Dependence” from Kings of Convenience is a quiet, introspective, yet ravishing CD. I’ve never heard of this band before December 6. Now, I’m out to acquire the rest of the catalog.

There you have it, in more detail than you probably wanted.