Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best in Music 2014

The following are my favorite songs and albums of 2014, another great year in music. For songs, I kept it to one song per artist to feature the most talent, and overall, it makes for one hell of a mixed CD if anyone's looking for some great tunes. I do tend to gravitate toward female singers, but there are some guys in there to mix it up. Enjoy!

10 Best Albums of 2014

 
1. Gypsy Heart by Colbie Caillat - Colbie Caillat's latest album has a down-to-earth, Bohemian style with a lot of pared-back sounds, but she uses unique sounds in smart ways to enhance songs with just a touch of something fun, like in my favorite song off of the album, If You Love Me Let Me Go.  You can tell that Colbie has fun writing and singing these songs, and it feels like it really comes from an honest place.  The sounds are great and melodic, the lyrics are heartfelt, and this solid CD deserves the title of Best Album this year.

Key Tracks: If You Love Me Let Me Go, Try, Never Gonna Let You Down


2. Fire Within by Birdy - Birdy has a lot of epic, sweeping songs with strings and piano accompaniment on her latest album.  She knows how to put a song together for maximum impact, pulling on listeners' heartstrings with swelling refrains.  She sings a mean power ballad too, with her strong voice.  There's a vulnerability to Birdy that makes her songs feel authentic, and I love what she's produced here.

Key Tracks: Wings, Words As Weapons (US Version), People Help the People


3. The Private World of Paradise by Wake Owl - This album is chalk-full of great sounds, sometimes haunting, sometimes fun and quirky, but it all adds up to create an album that feels fresh - folksy, yet modern.  A very atmospheric album.  This is one of the most exciting bands out there right now, and one to definitely keep an eye on.

Key Tracks: Madness of Others, Desert Flowers, Innocence


4. Walk Through Walls by Katie Herzig - I feel like you don't just listen to a Katie Herzig song - you experience it.  She is a master craftsman, blending her beautiful lyrics with interesting sounds and producing wholly unique music.  Every song tells a story that you feel, not just through what she's saying, but how she says it, as the music strings you along (she can even make her screams sound like beautiful music, as is evident by the song Forgiveness).  Katie Herzig is one of the most talented singer-songwriters out there.

Key Tracks: Drug, Thick As Thieves, Forgiveness


5. Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey - I won't lie - I wasn't a fan of this CD when I first listened to it.  I was disappointed that it didn't have the energy of her first two albums.  But Lana Del Rey is my favorite singer, so I kept my mind open.  It took a few times to really get into it, and then I fell in love with the dreamlike quality of the CD, like walking through a haze.  Lana's moody crooning, coupled with her dark lyrics, make this a worthy addition to her body of work.

Key Tracks: Ultraviolence, Brooklyn Baby, Pretty When You Cry


6. 1989 by Taylor Swift - Say what you will about Taylor Swift's personal life, but this girl can sing, and she knows how to craft a perfect pop album.  1989 is full of songs that are catchy as hell and will appeal to a wide audience, which is what every pop singer strives for.  It's little wonder that she is such a powerhouse when she consistently churns out quality music like this.

Key Tracks: Style, Out of the Woods, Shake It Off


7. Love Me EP by Barcelona - It's not too often that you come across a male vocalist who can show such emotion and vulnerability, yet still remain so masculine and sexy.  These songs are very honest and kind of intense, even though the music sounds so playful.

Key Tracks: Background, Diamond and Silver, Strange Way


8. Call Me ARay by Ashley Ray - Country albums are rarely this innovative.  Ashley Ray manages to create an album with a sound that is a throwback to old school country, yet is really progressive with interesting new sounds mixed in.  The lyrics are really, really clever, and often harbor a real darkness to them.  Ashley also has a voice that stands out from the competition, and serves to prove that nobody else could have made a CD quite like this.

Key Tracks: Get Gone, Holywater, Signs of Weakness


9. Young Heart by Blondfire - This duo (a brother and sister) packs their new album with great, hip songs with a pop sensibility.  The songs are infectious, and often hard to get out of your head, with a cool electronic edge to them.

Key Tracks: Waves, Dear In Your Headlights, Kites


10. Bonds EP by Deluka - More reserved than her debut You Are the Night, Deluka's sound has matured, but she still rocks out in songs like American Skies, and peppers interesting sounds throughout.  These are solid songs that show that Deluka is a versatile talent.

Key Tracks: Home, American Skies, The Only Ones

30 Best Songs of 2014



1. Lost (Noah Hyde Remix) by Scavenger Hunt - Appropriately titled, you can get lost in this song easily.  A strong dance vibe that fits snugly with the vocals make this a solid song.  It has the feeling of walking the dark streets after a night of clubbing.

2. Monument by Royksopp & Robyn - Dark and moody, with a great overall sound.

3. Words As Weapons (US Version) by Birdy - Birdy sings this song with a vulnerability that's refreshing.  You can almost feel her grow more confident by the end.  A beautiful song that packs a bit of punch.

4. If You Love Me Let Me Go by Colbie Cailatt - Has you drumming your fingers and tapping your feet in time to the beat.

5. Shake It Off by Taylor Swift - Infectious as hell.

6. Say Something by A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera - A great power ballad with an indie feel to it.  I was shocked that the female vocals belonged to Christina Aguilera, as she isn't often so subtle.

7. Northern Lights by Kate Boy - I love the unique sounds in this song - it really makes it stand out.

8. Innocence by Wake Owl - This song has a really cool vibe to it that's infectious.  And I like that's it kind of a short song - it's succinct and impactful as is - any longer and it may have robbed it of some of its power.

9. Just Ask by Lake Street Dive - Bluesy and dreamlike, this is a breezy song set to commanding vocals.

10. So So LaLa by Strange Talk - Sweeps you along in pure pop goodness.

11. Fortify by Kate Miller - I love the lyrics, the refrain, the sound - this is just a perfectly-constructed song.

12. Iuka by The Secret Sisters - This country song has some dark lyrics, and coupled with the old country vibe makes for a haunting song.

13. Hurricane by Halsey - Atmospheric with dark lyrics.

14. Breaking Your Heart by Jessie James Decker - Decker is really convincing as she conveys regret and loss in this country song with a breezy chorus that echoes with heartache.

15. Bind Your Love by Cher Lloyd - The chorus is great and catchy.

16. Break the Fall by Laura Welsh - Fierce and a little rough around the edges.

17. The Brink by The Jezabels - There's an urgency to this song that you can really feel when you experience this song.  It kind of just pulls you along.

18. Circular Road by Heathers - Fast and furious, this song rushes headlong into a chorus that's demanding.

19. Borderline by Tove Styrke - This song is funky and it's just fun - you can tell the artist had a great time singing and putting this together.

20. Time Machine by Ingrid Michaelson - Calls to mind her excellent rendition of "Parachute," with playful lyrics.

21. All About That Bass by Meghan Trainor - This was all over this year, but that was for a reason - it's catchy as hell with a fun 60's vibe.

22. The Heart Wants What It Wants by Selena Gomez - A great pop ballad.

23. Heartstrings by Leighton Meester - A sweet song with a great refrain.

24. Holywater by Ashley Ray - I love the unique sound of this song - old-fashioned country, but with some modern sounds mixed into it, and clever lyrics.

25. Goldrush by Paper Aeroplanes - Haunting and melodic.

26. No One Needs To Know by HAERTS - There's a real momentum to the chorus of this song that I really like.  The great vocals really elevate it.

27. Same Side by The Casket Girls - The ingredients come together really well in this song - the background, with the pace of the lyrics, the humming, the chorus - it all forms a really great final product.

28. Love by NONONO - This whole song is great - I may even like the non-chorus part of the song better than the chorus.  It's just interesting how the words are sung.

29. Chains (Just a Gent Remix) by Nick Jonas - Obviously channeling Justin Timberlake, Jonas oozes sex in this song with his crooning.

30. Tightrope by Tiffany Alvord - This is a solid pop song with a great chorus.

Honorable Mentions
Banshee by Onyay Pheori
Battlefield by Lea Michele
Clip Your Wings by Nina Persson
Dear In Your Headlights by Blondfire
Happy Pop by Elizabeth & The Catapult

Friday, February 28, 2014

Top 20 Comics of 2013

These are my favorite comics of 2013, including manga, superheroes, graphic novels, reprints, etc. I try to be as true to how I feel about a book as possible when ranking them, which is why it may seem odd for some to see a superhero title hardly anyone read rank over an acclaimed graphic novel. If I enjoyed my experience of reading it more, it was placed higher on my list. Anyways, these are my favorite twenty comics of the year. I hope you enjoy my list, and hopefully check out some books that may have eluded you.

Honorable Mentions
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Andrew Chambliss, Georges Jeanty, Jane Espenson & Various)
Courtney Crumrin (Ted Naifeh)
Gold Pollen and Other Stories (Seiichi Hayashi)
Marble Season (Gilbert Hernandez)
Soulless (Gail Carriger & REM)

20. Mouse Guard: The Black Axe (David Petersen) - Petersen takes us back in history to tell the tale of the mouse who wields the black axe, and his confrontation with the sinister weasels.  The fantasy feel and cute designs of the mice make this title irresistible, but it's really Petersen's consistently amazing pencils that make this series such a stunning read.

19. Wonder Woman (Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang & Tony Akins) - Wonder Woman is the only DC Comic that remotely stands out from the others currently.  Azzarello has breathed new life into the title with his unique pantheon of gods, and Wonder Woman's place among them.  Meanwhile, the art is top-notch and not the cookie cutter 90's art that seems to plague DC's other 51 titles, keeping this title fresh and relevant, while the rest of DC flags.

18. All New X-Men (Brian Michael Bendis & Stuart Immonen) - Time travel has been a staple to the X-Men titles for a long time now, so when Bendis decided to bring the original five X-Men into the current timeline, it seemed like a no-brainer, but it made for a really interesting dynamic.  I love the interactions between the originals and the new X-Men, particularly when it comes to a young Scott Summers and the long-dead Jean Grey.  It will be interesting to see where this title goes now, with the X-Men so fractured, but it seems that Bendis' creativity knows no bounds, so I'm not worried in the least.

17. Young Miss Holmes (Kaoru Shintani) - The final volume of Shintani's fun manga following Sherlock's smart and proper niece, and the mysteries that she helps him solve, ends the series with a bang, tying in to her family and raising the stakes substantially.  Mysteries abound in this thrilling book, illustrated beautifully, and packed full of action and intrigue.

16. Attack On Titan (Hajime Isayama) - The twists keep coming in this post-apocalyptic story about the remnants of humanity surviving behind walls that keep out man-eating giants.  This series is bloody and action-packed, and utterly nail-biting as things really go awry.  There is plenty of mystery in this series to keep readers coming back for more, between some pretty amazing action sequences.

15. Smurfs (Peyo) - The Smurfs continue to get into mischief in these ridiculously cheap Papercutz editions of Peyo's Smurfs stories.  With Christmas specials and new smurfs coming into the mix, the stories continue to feel fresh, while the all-ages tales keep consistently entertaining.

14. The Strange Tale of Panorama Island (Suehiro Maruo) - This story is a little odd, but I like that.  Hitomi is a misunderstood novelist who fakes his death to take the place of an heir who recently died.  Using the heir's fortune, he makes his wildest dreams come to life on a pleasure island, where people can take strolls under the sea, frolic with beautiful women, and enjoy some breathtaking scenery.  A lot of this book is just a tour through the island at the end, but there's quite a bit of tension leading up to that as well, and frankly, Maruo's art is the major draw here, as it is phenomenal.  Very realistic and lush.

13. Vinland Saga (Makoto Yukimura) - This truly is a saga, featuring castles being stormed by waves of Viking warriors, ambushed ships at sea, and challenges of one-on-one combat.  Vinland Saga tells the story of Vikings as they wage war and make merry, but also a look at their everyday lives, and tragic, bloody history.  Yukimura's artwork is clear and well-suited for this historical action story, moving the events along cinematically, and sweeping readers up in its grandeur.

12. Gunnerkrigg Court (Volume 4): Materia (Thomas Siddell) - While this is the weakest entry in the Gunnerkrigg Court series of all-ages fantasy comics, it's still an imaginative, entertaining read.  Thomas Siddell's pencils continues to grow as do his characters, who seem much more mature than when we started out with them.  Siddell continues to build on the mythology he's created in a  spectacular series with characters that are hard to forget.

11. East of West (Jonathan Hickman & Nick Dragotta) - This is the four horsemen as you've never seen them before.  Hickman creates a wild, steampunk world full of unique characters with conflicting agendas, making for great action scenes that Dragotta draws the hell out of.

10. Love & Rockets: New Stories #6 (Jaime Hernandez & Gilbert Hernandez) - While Gilbert continues to offer a fascinating look into characters from his Palomar universe (and a weird short about a big-breasted furry monster and some magic boots), Jaime takes a look at a family dealing with a husband-killing mother, and flushes out some characters that usually don't get much of the spotlight.  Terrific art, great character studies.

9. Hawkeye (Matt Fraction, David Aja & Various) - This smart, street level superhero comic has a great cast of characters in what have come to be witty, thrilling stories.  David Aja offers amazing artwork on this title, often with clever panel arrangements, while Fraction breathes life into Hawkeye and his fascinating supporting cast.

8. The Heart of Thomas (Mato Hagio) - We saw a collection of work released from Shojo master Mato Hagio a few years ago in Drunken Dreams and Other Stories, thanks to Fantagraphics, and now they've released perhaps her best known works.  The Heart of Thomas is a mystery that takes place at a boys' board school in Germany, beginning with a suicide, and the beautiful boy who looks uncannily like the deceased.  It's a haunting story, brimming with emotion and complex relationships between the boys, but it's Hagio's delicate breathtaking beautiful line work that really brings this story to another level altogether.

7. Pompeii (Frank Santoro) - Santoro can draw the hell out of a comic when he wants, but he seems more interested in experimenting with art and setting atmosphere and mood, something that makes Pompeii resonate so much.  Revolving around the lives of an artist and his apprentice leading up to the catastrophic volcanic eruption that destroys a lively city, Pompeii paints a picture of very real characters caught up in their own lives before nature crushes them, and leaves quite an impression in its wake.

6. Benny Breakiron (Peyo) - From the creator of Smurfs comes the story of a boy with superpowers, if anyone would believe him!  Thwarting thieves, and helping those in need, Benny Breakiron is a mischievous kid who is a magnet for trouble, so it's a good things that he's strong and fast (except when he has a cold, that is).  This is a funny all-ages title with captivating stories that anyone can fall in love with.

5. Hilda and the Bird Parade (Luke Pearson) - The blue-haired Hilda moves to the city with her mother and finds herself depressed, given that she's used to the nature spirits and magical creatures of the countryside.  But Hilda finds her own magic in the city in the latest graphic novel from Luke Pearson, whose all-ages comic is drawn beautifully, with great designs and lush backgrounds and panels.

4. Wolverine & the X-Men (Jason Aaron, Nick Bradshaw, Chris Bachalo & Various) - This wacky series featuring Wolverine's school for mutants is a highlight for me every time it comes out.  I never know what to expect, aside from quality.  I love the vast cast of characters, particularly the students created especially for this series.  It really is one of the most unique superhero comics to come along in awhile, and it's going to be sad to see Jason Aaron leave the title next year.

3. Angel & Faith (Christos Gage & Rebekah Isaacs) - Overshadowing the main book in the Buffy, the Vampire Slayer: Season Nine universe, this shockingly high quality title features great art from Isaacs, who make the characters we know and love her own, and stories that flush out the best of the characters, delving into the pasts of these conflicted, layered characters, on their path to redemption.

2. The Twin Knights (Osamu Tezuka) - This sequel to Tezuka's groundbreaking Princess Knight offers readers a sweeping epic story of love, betrayal and another princess pretending to be a prince for the sake of her kingdom!  Magic and assassins conspire to keep Princess Violetta from her twin brother, and threaten to destroy her family, in this romantic, action-packed story.

1. Kitaro (Shigeru Mizuki) - Shieru Mizuki is known for specializing in stories about yokai, and this collection really showcases his strength in that area.  A Japanese pop culture figure, Kataro is a one-eyed monster boy with special powers, and a knack for dealing with pesky yokai.  Mizuki weaves wonderful stories here, full of monsters and demons, some genuinely creepy with images that will stay with you, and others more light-hearted and funny.  This impressive omnibus edition that Drawn & Quarterly has released is the perfect introduction to this rambunctious character and the crazy life he leads, earning the title of my favorite comic of the year.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Best Manga of 2013

2013 saw a lot of great manga, from beautifully packaged products featuring classic manga masters, to excellent volumes of new ongoing titles.  It's always hard to narrow down my favorites to just ten books, but I've done just that in the following list.  The top books on this list will also be featured in my forthcoming overall best comics of 2013 list. 

So, in my opinion, these are the best manga that the year had to offer...

1.  Kitaro (Shigeru Mizuki) - Shieru Mizuki is known for specializing in stories about yokai, and this collection really showcases his strength in that area.  A Japanese pop culture figure, Kataro is a one-eyed monster boy with special powers, and a knack for dealing with pesky yokai.  Mizuki weaves wonderful stories here, full of monsters and demons, some genuinely creepy with images that will stay with you, and others more light-hearted and funny.  This impressive omnibus edition that Drawn & Quarterly has released is the perfect introduction to this rambunctious character and the crazy life he leads, and easily fits the bill for best manga of the year.

2.  The Twin Knights (Osamu Tezuka) - A follow up to the classic Princess Knight, Tezuka once again forces a heroine into men's clothing as two twins are separated at birth and a kingdom is at stake.  Like Princess Knight, this story is epic, and takes readers on a magical journey through different landscapes, meeting all sorts of strange people, before culminating in a breath-taking climax.

3.  The Heart of Thomas (Mato Hagio) - We saw a collection of work released from Shojo master Mato Hagio a few years ago in Drunken Dreams and Other Stories, thanks to Fantagraphics, and now they've released perhaps her best known works.  The Heart of Thomas is a mystery that takes place at a boys' board school in Germany, beginning with a suicide, and the beautiful boy who looks uncannily like the deceased.  It's a haunting story, brimming with emotion and complex relationships between the boys, but it's Hagio's delicate breathtaking beautiful line work that really brings this story to another level altogether.

4.  Vinland Saga (Makoto Yukimura) - This truly is a saga, featuring castles being stormed by waves of Viking warriors, ambushed ships at sea, and challenges of one-on-one combat.  Vinland Saga tells the story of Vikings as they wage war and make merry, but also a look at their everyday lives, and tragic, bloody history.  Yukimura's artwork is clear and well-suited for this historical action story, moving the events along cinematically, and sweeping readers up in its grandeur.

5.  The Strange Tale of Panorama Island (Suehiro Maruo) - This story is a little odd, but I like that.  Hitomi is a misunderstood novelist who fakes his death to take the place of an heir who recently died.  Using the heir's fortune, he makes his wildest dreams come to life on a pleasure island, where people can take strolls under the sea, frolic with beautiful women, and enjoy some breathtaking scenery.  A lot of this book is just a tour through the island at the end, but there's quite a bit of tension leading up to that as well, and frankly, Maruo's art is the major draw here, as it is phenomenal.  Very realistic and lush.

6.  Attack On Titan (Hajime Isayama) - The twists keep coming in this post-apocalyptic story about the remnants of humanity surviving behind walls that keep out man-eating giants.  This series is bloody and action-packed, and utterly nail-biting as things really go awry.  There is plenty of mystery in this series to keep readers coming back for more, between some pretty amazing action sequences.

7.  Young Miss Holmes (Kaoru Shintani) - In Victorian London, Christie continues to help her uncle Sherlock Holmes crack some difficult cases, while balancing her hobby with becoming a real lady.  Often very witty, and illustrated beautifully, this is a great mystery series that features plenty of action and unforgettable characters.

8.  Gold Pollen and Other Stories (Seiichi Hayashi) - This release from PictureBox showcases some lovely work from alternative manga artist Seiichi Hayashi, whose work we've seen previously in Drawn & Quarterly's release, Red Colored Elegy.  There are four stories collected here, with Hayashi experimenting with his style for different experiences with each.  I love Hayashi's use of color, especially when it's used sparsely in the later stories, although my favorite of the four offerings is the one full-color story, "Dwelling in Flowers," examining a relationship between mother and son.  I didn't really care for "Yamanba Lullaby," but otherwise, even the short "Red Dragonfly" was a moving short work.  Hayashi is very subtle about things, which I like, and the stories feel more real because of it.

9.  Soulless (Gail Carriger & Rem) - Continuing the adaptation of Gail Carriger's novels, Rem illustrates the lush environments of Victorian England in this steampunk series, transporting readers to this world with stunning, detailed illustrations.  Alexia keeps getting into trouble with supernaturals in this book full of conspiracies and the politics of vampires and werewolves in a very proper society.

10. Atomcat (Osamu Tezuka) - This all-ages title from master Osamu Tezuka brings his most famous creation to the limelight again, in an unusual way.  Tsugio, who is bullied at school, takes refuge in the Astro Boy stories he reads with his father, and when he takes in a kitten with a slight resemblance to Astro Boy, circumstances lead to the cat's alteration into a super kitten, protecting Tsugio from bullies on all sorts of adventures.  This book is lots of fun.  Cute and heartfelt, and perfect for manga fans of any age.

Honorable Mentions
The Mysterious Underground Men (Osamu Tezuka)
Sunny (Taiyo Matsumoto)
Triton of the Sea (Osamu Tezuka)
Wandering Son (Shimura Takako)
Yotsuba&! (Kiyohiko Azuma)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Best Covers of 2013

I'm sure that I'm missing some great comic book covers, but these are some of the best that I recall seeing throughout the year.  Feel free to leave a comment if you know of any that I missed!