For the past 20 years around New Year’s Eve, I’ve published a “Best of the Year” summation of my favorite albums released that year in my weekly Pop Stops column. Last year was the first time that list didn’t appear in print in The Star Newspapers and/or the Illinois Entertainer magazine… This year will probably be the first time I don’t list 25 releases. Not because there weren’t 25 great albums this year but… after The Star Newspapers died last November (thus eliminating the print outlet for Pop Stops), I stopped writing regular CD reviews and thus didn’t listen to nearly as much new music! My original intent when The Star disappeared and Pop Stops was left homeless was to keep posting the column online, just with a little less frequency. I intended to go from weekly to monthly posting… but… it’s now been 8 months since my last Pop Stops review!
I’m afraid that my writing focus completely switched this year from music reviewing to working on my novels. I finished my third horror novel, THE 13TH over the summer, and then spent the fall on a promotional bookstore tour for my first novel, COVENANT, which was released in paperback by Leisure Books at the end of August.
Over the past year, I’ve still listened to lots of music. I’ve written numerous CD reviews in my head… but never quite got to the keyboard with most of them.
One of my favorite songs of the year actually is the title song to an indie movie — “Zombie Love” — and thus there’s no soundtrack to put on my best of list (but go to the website and you can hear a bit of this hysterical production from a campy short film)
But while I’ve really enjoyed singles from Madonna, Pink, Britney Spears and others this year… I’ve not had a chance to hear those full albums (so they’re not represented in the list below). Without the pressure of turning in a weekly column, I’ve been listening to a lot of my older favorites instead of the dozens of new discs each week. So my list is certainly not as well-informed as most of my previous end-of-the-year summations, but that said, I did discover some great new artists this year. Here’s what stuck in my CD player in 2008:
* * * TOP 15 ALBUMS OF 2008 * * *
1) Katy Perry – One of the Boys (Capitol): Katy Perry’s bubblegum pop debut is more than the best album of the year – it’s probably the best pop release of the past five years. Her big hit “I Kissed A Girl” is just one of a dozen gems on this amazing, fun, smart and sassy CD. My personal favorite track is “Hot and Cold.”
2) Counting Crows – Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (DGC): The Crows continue to craft vibrant, literate guitar pop, and their latest is no exception. From the playful word dodge of the single “You Can’t Count on Me” to a love song to “Los Angeles” (“it’s a really great place to get a taco”), Adam Duritz and the Crows are in fine upbeat form on this one.
3) Kerli – Love Is Dead (Island): Cool alternative pop-rock for the goth set, Estonian singer-songwriter Kerli crafts an exotic flavor of pop on her debut, which cleverly mixes girlish vocals with a more powerful Evanescence style delivery on a well-layered production of rock guitars, strings and keyboards. Kerli ranges from a twisted Alice in Wonderland style when she sings of “a little creepy house in a little creepy place” to heartwrenching belting vocals on rite of passage stuff as she bemoans “Love is dead, love is gone, love don’t live here anymore.”
4) M83 – Saturdays=Youth (Mute): This was the “dreampop” album of the year. Lush with synthesizer washes and angelic background vocals, and featuring the catchy single “Graveyard Girl,” this is the perfect late night chill disc. My favorite Internet radio station, Auralgasms.com, played the heck out of this CD this year.
5) Robyn – Robyn (Interscope): I was prepared to hate this disc when I first put it in, since I’m no big fan of R&B. But Robyn is a blast. From the over-the-top rap intro extolling her brilliance to the electropop goofball rap of “Konichiwa Bitches” (“wanna thrilla in my nilla you’ll be killa bee stung/wanna taste the vannilla? better watch your tongue”). She sing-speaks her way through the first few songs before delving into more Madonna pop territory and then some retro-techno funk. This is a disc just dying to be played start to finish on the dance floor.
6) Charlotte Sometimes - Waves & The Both of Us (Geffen): Rounding out my “girls of summer” is Charlotte, who has the kind of instantly memorable, quirky delivery as Regina Spektor, but pairs that with a dozen songs that are pure sugar – catchy, sing-song stuff that belies the often dark flavor of her lyrics.
7) Pussycat Dolls – Doll Domination (Interscope): OK, this is probably the frothiest bit of throwaway pop on my “best of” list, but damn it… it’s cheesecake fun! From the thumping beat and little girl wishes of “When I Grow Up” (when I grow up I wanna be famous, I wanna be a star, I wanna be in movies/ when I grow up I wanna see the world, drive nice cars, I wanna have boobies”) to the show stealing guest appearances by Snoop Dogg and Missy Elliott, this was definitely the radio album of the year after Katy Perry – who Missy Elliott actually references in “Whatcha Think About That.”
8) The Cure – 4:13 Dream (Geffen): Robert Smith and the boys intro-ed their latest album by releasing a single on the 13th of each month all through the spring and summer, so fans knew half the album by the time it came out! Featuring more of a guitar than a keyboard focus, 4:13 Dream shows off all of the band’s various styles from the Disintegration-esque buildup of the bell-drenched opener “Underneath the Stars” to the “Friday I’m In Love” style pop of “The Only One.”
9) Switches – Lay Down Law (Interscope): With pounding beats, punky guitars and lots of background “oh-oh-oh” vocals, Switches slips back and forth from power pop to punk pop with a Brit twang that’s just simple arena rockin’ fun.
10) Keane – Perfect Symmetry (Interscope): Keane no doubt disenfranchised some fans in love with the piano-powered dreamy pop of their first couple albums with the release of Perfect Symmetry. Instead, the band expanded its artistic attack on their latest disc, opening with a synthesizer bleep and a revival of the ’80s electronic sound (you can hear Bowie and Icehouse in these hooks). Perfect Symmetry is the evidence of a band not inclined to sit still. They take listeners on a joyful ride.
11) Dana & Susan Robinson – Round My Door (Threshold): Breezy folky pop with some Cat Stevens vocal flavor.
12) Deborah Bonham – Duchess (Atco): The sister of the late John Bonham (of Led Zeppelin), this Bonham will bring to mind Alannah Myles with her blend of bluesy, ’70s-style bar rock. Organic, shot-and-a-beer jamming here.
13) The Fratellis – Here We Stand (Interscope): Great three-chord, struttin’, Beatle-y Brit power pop.
14) Jill Tracy and the Malcontent Orchestra - The Bittersweet Constrain (125 Records): Pianist and ringleading singer Tracy puts together a cabaret melange of darkly eerie, cinematic musical dreams on her latest independent release. This time around, she sings of being “haunted by the thought of you” while adding in odd instruments to her piano-drums-bass core band like the sarod, harmonium, and Chapman Stick.
15) Mobius Band – Heaven (MISRA): Strangely earthy techno pop with shades of Kenna in the vocals.
I seem to be a little behind this Christmas.
Last night, in the middle of a snowstorm, me and the Mustang slalomed around on the roads (which had six inches of rutted snow) and got temporarily stuck in a couple parking lots because I still had to finish my holiday shopping. Which, considering I only had to buy for three people this year, is kinda pathetic. But by 7:30 p.m. last night, I was home and having dinner… and looking forward to a nice 10 day stretch off work!
At the end of the year, I always seem to find myself cleaning up my office and weeding out long un-dealt with email. I did that last night, and in the process of catching up on email, finally joined a Chicago-area horror movie “meetup” group that my wife had sent me the link for weeks ago. She figured since she doesn’t like horror movies, I might as well go hang out with some people who do! So hopefully I’ll meet some fellow horror afficionados in the area over the next few months. It seems like everyone I know who is into horror is in another state, because I’ve met them on message boards.
Firmly in the spirit of horror movies after setting up my horror movie meetup profile, I finally caught up on another thing — I watched the cult classic SLEEPAWAY CAMP, loaned to me by my friend Lon at my signing last weekend. Unfortunately, I fell asleep during the last half hour, only to wake up right at the final shocking scene. Talk about killing the build up! I rewound and watched the leadup anyway. So… I’m 20+ years late to SLEEPAWAY CAMP, but at least I can now say I’ve seen it. I’ll probably watch a couple of the sequels this week.
Anyway, here it is, lunchtime on Christmas Eve, and there’s one more item I’m behind on – I haven’t posted my annual Christmas greeting to my friends, readers and family! So… if anyone’s still at the computer (or will be tonight or tomorrow), I offer “Christmas, the Hard Way” for your holiday reading by the yule fire of the monitor. I wrote this short fantasy tale about magic and Christmas more than a decade ago as a gift for friends and family and I’ve now posted it on my website. I hope some of my friends and new readers will enjoy it for the first time this year.
Another tradition for me is to post one of my holiday songs. I used to write and record a new original Christmas song every year… it’s been a few years since I played with bells in the studio, but for those who’d like a rockin’ Christmas Carol to go with their reading, I’ve added “Show Me Christmas” , one of my favorite songs that I’ve written, to my MySpace profile. Just click on the profile to listen!
I hope all of my friends, readers, fellow writers and meandering ghosts have a great holiday tonight and tomorrow. Merry Christmas!
Last week, I did a book signing at a Borders in Highland, IN, and received an unexpected surprise.
Joe, an old high school friend, turned up to say hi, catch up, and… give me a human skull.
Now… it’s not every day that someone drops by to hand you a human skull, delicately wrapped in plastic bubbles and consigned to a cardboard box. But there ya go. Even in high school, I knew how to pick ‘em. We put it on my signing table at the bookstore while we talked, and it definitely attracted some interest.
Turns out said skull had been found in the back of a wrecked car (my friend’s family owns an auto junkyard) and when it was found, Joe said “hey, I know just the person who needs this.”
So yeah. I now have a real human skull in my home office. It’s definitely a bit creepier than the handful of fake skulls I’ve got sitting around here. I mean… this sucker once had human flesh on it. It probably talked. It had a name.
The sad part is, I don’t even know if it was male or female. I do know that it was subject to a worse fate previously than hanging out amid my creepy collection of knicknacks — it has a bunch of small screws in it, and the top of its skull was sawed off. So for at least some time, this was apparently a science exhibit.
I haven’t named it yet. It feels bad to give it a “wrong” name, but it feels worse to not name it at all. Maybe it will just come to me.
Or… maybe I’ll hold a contest. That way, if someone else gives it the wrong name, its ghostly retribution won’t be levied against me. Of course, as I sit here, it’s staring at me from across the room, so it knows everything I’m writing.
Maybe I’ll have to think about this some more…
I thought things were going to slow down after the end of the main leg of the Covenant bookstore tour… but life hasn’t crept to a halt by any means. Over the past month I haven’t blogged because… well… I still haven’t been home!
Shortly after my Oct. 24 signing in Racine, I spent more than a week helping to man my dayjob’s annual convention, and a few days after returning from that, I hopped on a plane with my wife and son to spend five days in Orlando at Disney World. (And yes, that is an undoctored version of Cinderella’s castle lit in purple. I HAD to get a picture of that!)
That trip made me vow afterwards never to fly United again — our plane was delayed for mechanical repairs a couple hours on the way out, and our flight was cancelled just before we got to the airport on the way home!
We had a great time at Disney – Shaun is just about three and a half, and he went wild over the Magic Kingdom and all the characters. I think we spent as much time in line to get pictures with characters as we did for rides. We took him to Epcot on the third day and Hollywood Studios on the fourth, where he got to go to a “Playhouse Disney” show and I got to ride the Tower of Terror We also had dinner there at the Sci-Fi Dine In, a theme restaurant styled as a drive in — all the tables were actually inside old cars, and you watched the previews for cheesy old ’50s sci-fi movies while you ate. Truly inspired!
The boys were happy.
Here are a few pix from that trip (click to see larger versions):
A couple days after returning from Disney, I headed up to Flint, MI for XCapeCon2, a comic/sci-fi/horror con where I was an invited guest.
Tom Sullivan was there with his Evil Dead museum of props, and there were two rooms filled with comic book dealers and artists.
I basically just hung out at a table there on Saturday and Sunday with lots of books and chatted with people — and I had a great time!
Here is a picture of my table neighbor who had a great cauldron setup on her table, to help in her magic wand sales… I’m not sure her wands magic-ed away the effects of a dour economy, but I know I sent home a few people with books, and hopefully helped them dream a little darkly for a little while.