Saturday, December 26, 2015

Dr. Spin's Top Ten Albums for 2015

As much as I was looking forward to Christmas this year, I have to confess that most of my anticipation was centered on getting to see The Force Awakens. Christmas comes every year, but there are only so many times in your life that you will see a Star Wars film for the first time.

 It did not disappoint. The Force Awakens will undoubtedly push the franchise along for the foreseeable future. To make a long story short and relatively spoiler-free, there was quite a bit of amazingly framed nostalgia alongside some great new characters. Most importantly, it felt like a Star Wars movie – the kind that I remember from my youth. Much more so than the prequels, which stretched my ability to suspend disbelief to its very limits.

Although I see some revisiting of the Star Wars soundtracks coming up soon, this annual post is a look back rather than a look forward. The first half of the top 20 was posted about a month ago. I had a pretty decent lock on the top 10 even at that point, but I have struggled really hard this year with the specific order of the top 5. Each of those albums have, at one time or another, decisively held that number one position. It might be easier to consider it a five-way tie for number one, but that is most certainly cheating. Undoubtedly, though, if any reader were to wonder what albums were my favorite for 2015, I would suggest them without hesitation.

10. AnekdotenUntil All the Ghosts Have Gone: Many years ago, I became a devoted fan of From Within, but sadly never delved any further into Anekdoten’s catalog. This year, just as I was considering taking the plunge, Until All the Ghosts Have Gone was announced and, thankfully, seemed to pick up right where From Within left off.

9. Sloan Double Cross: Navy Blues burned brightly for me a couple of decades ago, but ultimately fizzled out in the long term.  Double Cross, however, became the go-to Uber record for me this year, and has the unusual distinction of succeeding at being both a cohesive album and a collection of quality standalone tracks.

8. YesTime and a Word: The passing of Chris Squire caused me to consider both Yes’ back catalog and identity quite a bit this year. Time and a Word was lurking in the dark corners of my collection and emerged as a surprise favorite just as his illness was announced, but it also represents a whole lot of Yes that went through the player, not the least of which was reconnecting with 90125, one of my all-time favorite albums.

7. Low Ones and Sixes: This was a surprise that came out of nowhere, purchased only with the coercion of a single positive review and the incorrect assumption that they were a different band. It was an immediate sell, however, and has emerged as a very strong favorite in the past few months.

6. My Brightest DiamondThis is My Hand: If we were going by total number of times played, This is My Hand would probably be number one. This was a big, big hit with not just me, but the whole family.

5. Steve Reich Music for 18 Musicians:  Although it doesn’t work well when left on repeat, Music for 18 Musicians is an extremely satisfying listen that I keep returning to. As I have stated elsewhere, it works on multiple levels, and as such has served as the soundtrack to several long family drives in which I am the only one awake.

4. Anathema – Distant SatellitesThe rules state that an album's year of release is not a stipulation, but this fantastic album was at the top of a lot of 2015 lists, so it seemed redundant to make it the album of 2015.  Even so, it has been the album to beat all year, and it was still in consideration until the very last minute.

3. Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajastan ExpressJunun: This was a very late entry, but in terms of its concept, musicality, and cultural relevance, Junun has every right to be album of the year. In fact, the only thing that knocked it down from consideration was its relatively late release date.

2. Steven WilsonHand. Cannot. Erase.: Steven Wilson is a long-time favorite of mine, and early on, I really wanted to put this one in the top slot. I think that in some ways, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is more distinctive than its predecessor (which was #2 in 2013), but the overall originality of the "album of the year" winner gave them a slight edge.

1. Beauty PillDescribes Things as They Are: This album has everything – quirky songs, outstanding playing, and an overall novel approach to a unique style of art rock. It’s also accessible enough to appeal to my whole family, despite a few instances of slightly off-color language that the Little One has thankfully not quite caught onto yet.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hyphenated Identities: Netflix's Iron Fist and UZU

Marvel’s collaboration with Netflix has been a game changer for superhero cinema. The mini-series format gave both Daredevil and Jessica Jones the kind of deep backstory and character development that fans appreciate, but that is difficult to develop in the limited screen time available in the movies. I, for one, am really looking to the next installments in this project, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and the eventual crossover into the Defenders. Of all the series, the one I am looking forward to the most is the one we have heard the least about – Iron Fist.

When he was conceived in the 70s, Iron Fist was a very deliberate attempt to tap into the martial arts movies that were prominent in pop culture. As Danny Rand, he was, predictably, a yellow-haired white guy who, after being orphaned as a child, discovered a mystic city and received martial arts training and powers. This did not seem too odd back when “everybody was kung fu fighting,” but by today’s standards of diversity and equity, Rand’s ethnic background has the scent of colonial appropriation. Of course, this did not matter to me, a nerdy white kid that loved comics and had a hankering for the martial arts. Iron Fist was a no-brainer, and one of my favorites.

These days, though, I see the necessity for diversity in the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe and, consequently, the need to sometimes reinvent characters.  Changing the gender or race of a given character shouldn’t matter, but when you are altering someone’s childhood memories, it should be handled with care. I usually support these changes, but in some cases they have felt forced.  To be convincing, these changes have to align with what is essential about the character and then maintain that essence across perceived boundaries of race.

I have seen some discussion about Iron Fist in this regard, with some fans speculating that he should be cast as Asian in his Netflix series. As a fan, I would be the first to say that the casting should stay true to the comic book.  I can, however, see the point in an Asian Iron Fist, especially since this particular ethnic group is sorely underrepresented in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. Part of the reason why this reinvention seems to make sense at first glance, however, is due to essentialized stereotypes about Asian people.  Although it might result in more a diverse Defenders roster, it would not help to dispel such prejudices. It would actually reinforce them.

There is, however, way to sidestep this issue, or at least address it in a way that might actually serve to deepen the character rather than flatten him, and that is to play Danny Rand as an Asian-American. By this I mean that Iron Fist's alter ego grew up America, perhaps as a second or third generation son of immigrants, and identifies himself as American. Asian-Americans deal with distinct and complex stereotypes that arise in the rift between identifying as American and being perceived as Asian.

Canadian band Yamantaka//Sonic Titan use similar tensions as inspiration. They examine their own authenticity by referring to traditions that they identify with, but have been pushed aside by modernity. Their debut album piqued my interest in a couple of years ago, and although their second album UZU did not crack last year’s top 20, it has been interesting enough to warrant revisiting on several occasions.  I admit that I am not always convinced by Yamantaka//Sonic Titan from a purely musical standpoint, but I do find their carefully constructed identity compelling enough to keep me coming back.

While most might watch Yamantaka//Sonic Titan and see a noisy new-wave reinterpretation of KISS makeup, a seasoned prog fan might also recall Peter Gabriel's costuming in his early Genesis days, especially his "Britannia" character (seen right).  The latter is probably a fairer comparison, as Gabriel intended to make a cultural reference, but Gabriel's cultural background and ethnicity is incontrovertibly  British.  Yamantaka//Sonic Titan juxtapose noh-inspired makeup and First People chanting across cultural boundaries in ways that are less satirical.  Collisions like these in their artwork and imagery subtly deepen the listening experience and paint an engaging picture of culturally hyphenated identities.

It would be similarly engaging to follow an Asian-American Danny Rand that experiences tension between how he feels he is perceived and his own self-image. Perhaps he might feel the weight of his heritage and, feeling out of touch with it, reconnects with it through his transformation into Iron Fist. Conversely, he might feel encircled by an ethnicity that he rejects, but finds that fate draws him though an experience that allows him find his own unique way to “be” both Asian and American. There are probably other scenarios that, not being Asian-American myself, I cannot imagine, which is exactly why they warrant nuanced investigation.  Iron Fist could then be made uniquely relevant in a way that broadens horizons while embellishing (not reinventing) an already established childhood icon of many.