Monday, December 31, 2007

The last NP pic of '07

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(Photo by Bruce Weber - Teen Vogue 12/07)

Organizational changes

I have reorganized the right-hand column of this blog. The "creative crush" picture is now on top, followed by visitors and the archive (in a hope you'll browse through older posts, though I really should do a better job with post titles). I have ditched the "What I'm reading/hearing/seeing" list in favor of lists of the movies/music/books etc. I consume in the year to come, so that next December I won't have to scratch my head and try to remember. I hope this helps, and Happy New Year!

I couldn't resist...

...this political item. From Slate, the 10 dumbest legal arguments of the Bush Administration.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

...and he used to date Fiona Apple!

Paul Thomas Anderson explained, with relevant YouTube clips. (Slate)

The gushers of oil in his new film, There Will Be Blood, are an apt visualization of how all his films function: They're designed to erupt and spill over. The larger the canvas, the grander the theme, the higher the volume, the wilder the emotion, the more inspired the filmmaking.

Sunday Music: Wilco



For the last Sunday Music of the year, my favorite song from my top CD of '07. An "official" clip of Wilco performing "What Light."

Have you seen this?

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Here's a Top 10 list from Andrew O' Hehir of Salon that demonstrates why I don't make such lists (but instead enjoy reading other people's). O'Hehir doesn't find much to cheer about in the films we're "supposed" to like - There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, etc. Indeed, the whole fall-centric system of releasing award-worthy movies strikes him as pedestrian:

OK, comparing a Coen brothers movie, especially one as bloody and fatalistic as this one, to the drive-through window at McDonald's is pretty harsh (even if Javier Bardem's hairdo is nearly as silly as Ronald's McFro). Stehlik's point was more that "No Country for Old Men," whether you find it terrific or sucky or in between, arrives in a familiar package, one that in its own way is just as well defined as the packaging for Hollywood's summer-sequel blockbusters. It's presented with a festival pedigree, rave reviews and tons of advertising as a "complete and satisfying" entertainment product aimed at upper-middlebrow adult viewers. Its aesthetic aims may be to thrill you and disturb you, to provoke pity and terror, perhaps even to spur a certain degree of thoughtfulness or introspection. (All of which are noble aims, by the way.) But it's not trying to uproot anybody's ideas about what movies are for, or how they should behave up there on the screen, or what watching them should feel like. It's not challenging the idea of moviegoing as a "consumer-driven experience."



There isn't exactly a lot of James Cameron-directed fare in the films getting award heat this year. If you happened to go to the restroom at the moment (spoiler!) Llewellyn gets killed in No Country For Old Men, upon your return the film might seem incomprehensible. (Not to mention that film's extraordinarily bleak view of human's control over their own lives) I haven't been fortunate enough to see There Will be Blood yet, but a film about the American nightmare of a megalomaniac that doesn't have any dialogue for the first 20 minutes won't break any box office records. I'd love to see most of the films on O'Hehir's list, but there's a willful snobbery to the list, an insistence that these films have to be seen at one of those funky old theatres in New York. I was there this summer, and those seats aren't comfortable.

National FIlm Registry

How was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance not in there already? This year's inductees into the National Film Registry. (Dave Kehr)

A toke(n) of our affection

Gregg Araki on Smiley Face and the charms of his leading lady Anna Faris. (Greencine)

She has such amazing gifts and her timing is so incredible that the producer, Alix Madigan and I used to talk after dailies and just say, "Thank God for Anna," because I don't think there's really anybody out there who could have really pulled off this performance in the way that she does. She kind of makes it looks deceptively easy. There were people at Sundance who said, "Oh, was she just stoned the whole time?" The performance is much more difficult and tricky than it looks. It's really a challenge to be able to pull of a movie like Smiley Face, where you're literally on-screen every frame of every scene.

Strike talk

Golden Globes broadcast in jeopardy....(NY Times)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Auteur Shmateur?

How far do we stretch the "auteur" theory? Director William Richert - best known for playing the Falstaff figure in My Own Private Idaho - makes a case for the film that became A Night In The Life of Jimmy Reardon. (Chicago Reader)

Friday, December 28, 2007

Oscar

Terry Teachout remembers the late jazz pianist Oscar Peterson....(About Last Night)

Oscar Peterson, who died on Sunday, was one of a handful of jazz musicians to have cultivated a virtuoso technique comparable to that of the greatest classical instrumentalists. In part for this reason, he never got along well with jazz critics, most of whom were (and are) too musically ignorant to appreciate the near-unique nature of his achievement. Peterson's peers knew better. He was very, very popular--every great virtuoso is--but it was his fellow artists who gauged his worth most accurately. Like Buddy Rich, he left a trail of collegial awe behind him wherever he went.

What does he want for a retirement gift?

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum announces his retirement. (Time Out Chicago)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

I Am Behind

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A few notes:

  • If I Am Legend hadn't starred Will Smith and had a whole December release week to itself I probably wouldn't have seen it. Sci-fi and apocalyptic horror aren't usually my thing. But I thought much of the film was pleasantly tense, especially the sequence in the dark building when Smith is looking for his dog. I'd agree with those who say the introduction of the vampires is a bit of a letdown, and others have pointed out that not enough is made of the fact that the vampires are capable of learning. Two questions: why was Smith's character more capable than anyone else of stopping the virus, and wouldn't the military have ordered him out of Manhattan so he could work? (The Emma Thompson cameo was a welcome surprise)

  • DVDs: If there's a director whose work needs the Criterion treatment it's Terrence Malick. One down, three to go Criterion. If you know Malick's work then you know that at its best the marriage of sound, image, and voice-over narration is sublime. "How did he think of that?" is the obvious question. So it's refreshing to hear on the commentary track (by the editor, production designer, costume designer, and casting director) of the new Days of Heaven that the process of wedding the tough street-kid narration of Linda Manz to the images involved plenty of trial and error. A story about the apocalypse that Manz's character relates early in the film was apparently the her version of a Bible story told to her by someone she met on the film's Canadian set. Manz repeated it to Malick, who recorded it and found a place in the film for it. Part of the reason for the years spent editing the film was the difficulty in deciding what narration went with what scene. It's inspiring to think of Malick (no American director gives less of a damn about the audience) making choices, having them not work, and trying something else.

  • Is there a lovelier face in American movies than that of Elizabeth Reaser (see left hand column), star of the indie Sweet Land? Ali Selim's drama of a German immigrant's (Reaser) arranged marriage to a Norwegian (Tim Guinee) in
    post-WWI Minnesota. Sweet Land avoids period-piece nostalgia by having a double framing device involving an older version of Reaser's character (Lois Smith) relate her history to her grandson and then an older version of that grandson decide whether to sell his grandmother's home. Most people know Reaser as the disfigured amnesiac on Grey's Anatomy, she has also appeared in The Family Stone, the bisexual romantic comedy Puccini for Beginners, and an episode of The Sopranos.
  • Sunday, December 23, 2007

    Go for it!

    Matt Zoller Seitz of House Next Door (an encourager of this blog) reviews the new National Treasure movie and calls it like he sees it. Link to full review here. (Hat tip: Vulture, American Scene)

    Sunday Music: Christmas edition

    Videos like this are the reason You Tube exists. The King Singers serenade Julie Andrews with a German version of a tune I think you'll recognize. The Spanish subtitles really add something.

    Friday, December 21, 2007

    Who's in and out...

    ...of the Screen Actors Guild Award nominations? Lots of love for Into the Wild, No Country For Old Men, and Cate Blanchett. Juno underachieves. (Carpetbagger)

    Thursday, December 20, 2007

    Where did it go?

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    Remember Premiere magazine? It seems odd not to see it on the newsstand and there's far too much competition online for its site to stand out. Of course, the magazine's orientation was thoroughly mainstream but it also filled a void that is still out there, giving its readers a 101 course in film history with its "oral history" articles on classic films, DVD reviews, and director interviews. I miss it, and the cover photos like the one above from 2002. I read Film Comment regularly, but the other mags out there are firmly centered in the indie niche.

    Mingus Rules!

    The best jazz albums of '07. (Slate)

    I'm thinking of...

    ...topics both large and small I might like to blog about in '08. I'd also like to know what you regular readers would like to see more or less of, and I'll probably post a list next week and invite your comments. More movie reviews? Less Natalie Portman? (No way) Let me know...

    The envelope please

    There Will Be Blood wins the IndieWire Critics' Poll....

    You've gotta have faith...

    The Namesake, too faithful to its source....(The Man From Porlock)

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007

    Wednesday Music: Okkervil River



    Okkervil River performs "Unless It's Kicks" from their Stage Names CD. Harp Magazine named it the best CD of '07.

    From the director of...

    A trailer for David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell and out in March...

    Awards...

    ..from Toronto (No Country For Old Men) and Austin (There Will Be Blood). (Movie City News)

    Mr. White, part deux

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    I'm not sure that a review of a film based on a Stephen Sondheim musical absolutely needs to include the phrase "....too analogous to Abu Ghraib," but judge for yourself. (New York Press)

    "You look at Noah Baumbach's work, and you see he's an asshole."

    A three-part conversation with critic Armond White here, here, and here. The interviewer's naivete at the financial considerations behind moviemaking is a little shocking, but then in the third part White's own biases bleed through. A fun read. (Big Media Vandalism)

    A banter-free Oscars?

    How the Writers Guild strike could affect the awards shows. (NY Times)

    The Writers Guild of America West said late on Monday that it had turned down requests that would have allowed the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to use guild writers on its Golden Globes show next month, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to include historical film clips on its Academy Awards broadcast.

    Tuesday, December 18, 2007

    So...

    ...my Christmas job required some early hours this week, cutting into my blogging energy. I shall return, and this week brings a wave of new movies....

    Friday, December 14, 2007

    Crowded field

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    I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with the Golden Globes nominating seven films for Best Drama. Of the nominees that I've seen to date, all are to one degree or another worthy of the wider recognition that the nominations bring. I would have loved to see Into the Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James..., or Once (in the musical/comedy category) make the cut; but isn't some measure of disappointment a winter ritual for the discerning moviegoer? And I'm hardly the first blogger to note that this lineup of films will ensure a star-studded ceremony, with A-listers (Clooney, Jolie) and hot newcomers (Ellen Page) much in evidence.

    But on the other hand, doesn't nominating this many films devalue the awards? Again, I've yet to see all the nominees - and The Great Debaters looks like pretty formulaic stuff, if well-made. It's an old saw to decry the conservatism of the Oscars, but I think the Academy is actually (in some years) much smarter about what's good than the audiences. We flock to the films we're supposed to go see, and I'm including the good ones liked Knocked Up. But to regard box-office success as a measure of quality when determining awards is clearly ridiculous. Those who complain that the Oscars ignore films that people actually see should watch Seth Rogen's performance in Knocked Up alongside, say, Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men. It's the difference between hamburgers and vitamins folks. The Oscars are not only a media pageant but a celebration of professional excellence. That's why predictions about who's going to win usually aren't very interesting. Blogs will go crazy trying to forecast the winners, but I'd seriously question the credibility of anyone who claims to understand how an Academy member decides to cast his vote.

    But I started writing this post because the acclaim and nomination for American Gangster really bothers me. The film is a self-conscious attempt to make an "important" picture, to say something grand about how many ways there are to achieve a measure of respectability and importance in America. I think it was David Denby who framed what is also my central issue with American Gangster. The question of whether or not an intelligent and driven African-American man can do something illegal better than the Mafia simply isn't compelling. I'd add that the fact that the real Frank Lucas flipped and revealed massive corruption in the NYPD doesn't balance things out. I'm sure that the climatic scene between Washington and Crowe is to some extent fact-based, but it merely plays like an aria of rationalization. I can see why the film would appeal to the Hollywood Foreign Press; it's got stars, a name director, a hip soundtrack, and a period setting. But it's with American Gangster that the HFPA gets the most starry-eyed this year. Seven nominations for Best Drama will make for a sexier ceremony, but I hope the choices won't be the films someone wanted us to see all along.

    Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    I'm hoping...

    ...that I Know Who Killed Me gets shut out. A Golden Globe wish list. (Carpetbagger)

    Cruz Noir

    Almodovar's next film.....(Variety)

    Paging a Director

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    I just read one of those Entertainment Weekly "Can This Career Be Saved" pieces on the stars of the movie Awake. I didn't see Awake, the story of a wealthy man (Hayden Christensen) who wakes up during his surgery, but I was initially surprised to see Oscar nominee Terrence Howard listed alongside Christensen and Jessica Alba as needing some career advice.

    I don't know what's going to happen to Christensen; Alba is charming enough to skate by, especially when she's opposite low-wattage guys like him or Dane Cook. Howard's nominated turn in Hustle & Flow heralded the arrival of the next great African-American leading man. What has happened? This year Howard has appeared in half a dozen movies, and in only one (Pride) did he play the lead. He has played the world's worst NYPD detective in The Brave One and barely registered in August Rush. His bizarre role as "Bah Humbug" in The Perfect Holiday, in which he and Queen Latifah literally sit around and watch a Christmas romance unfold, is almost too much to take. Who is this guy's agent? What happened to the actor who played the self-loathing ladies' man in The Best Man not to mention the racially insecure TV producer in Crash?

    Howard is 38 according to IMDB, the age at which Denzel Washington starred in Malcolm X. So where is Howard's Spike Lee? Will Smith has got the blockbuster arena locked up and for the moment Jamie Foxx's Oscar has got directors fooled into thinking he has more range than I think his career reveals. Are you listening Spike? Mike Nichols, Jonathan Demme, Paul Thomas Anderson, anyone? The next great American actor is waiting for you....

    Camera Obscura

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    Zemeckis, Beowulf, and "special" effects...(David Bordwell)

    Friday, December 07, 2007

    From the vault

    Philo Farnsworth - the subject of Aaron Sorkin's new play - on TV in the 1950's. (About Last Night)

    What's the problem with....

    ...the American essay? (Truthdig)

    “The essayist is at his most profound when his intentions are most modest,” declares Joseph Epstein, the editor of “The Norton Book of Personal Essays” and the author of nearly two dozen books of autobiographical essays. The essay is a “miniaturist” genre, intones another anthologist; it is “in love with littleness.” Sound ingratiating? Sweet? Self-deprecating? It is. But it is also—as anyone who has spent time with these volumes knows—eye-crossingly dull.

    To a lady's defense...

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    (...and a gratuitous excuse to post a picture). How Britney's "Piece of Me" turns it all back on us. (Jane Dark)

    The Wire is coming....

    ...back for its fifth and final season in January. One can argue about whether its the best show ever, but it's definitely one you need to see. (Matthew Yglesias)

    Thursday, December 06, 2007

    Elizabeth Hardwick

    You can link to the NY Times obit of New York Review of Books co-founder Elizabeth Hardwick here. I've been a NYRB reader since college - can you imnagine how great my social life must have been then? I own a copy of Robert Lowell's collected letters and will post something interesting about EH when I find it. (One Letter At A Time)

    You Will Dare

    Jim Walsh, author of the new Replacements history, gives a reading. (Angry John Sellers)

    Prizes

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    No Country for Old Men has won Best Picture from the National Board of Review. The biggest surprise for me is the naming of George Clooney as Best Actor for Michael Clayton; I liked Clooney's work but he's not going anywhere that Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah) and Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) don't go. (IFC)

    Pantheon

    South Dakota Dark begins its roll call of TV's 100 best shows. Follow it. I'm rooting for Homicide, Once and Again, My So-Called Life, and Arrested Development.

    Wednesday, December 05, 2007

    "Fill It Up" - Life, episode 1.11

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    "Fill It Up" cuts away the first layer of Life's central mystery. Why exactly did Charlie Crews wind up in prison 12 years ago for the murder of his friend and business partner Tom and his family? The actual killer is a man named Kyle Hollis (Titus Welliver, a Deadwood alum and longtime member of the Steven Bocho repertory company), who before undergoing a religious conversion had been an informant and muscle for the very, very dirty cop Jack Reese. Tom was laundering money for Reese through the bar he owned with Crews; the murder was an attempt to "straighten Tom out" gone awry.

    I can't recall an episode of a TV series this side of HBO that allowed its protagonist to behave as unsympathetically as Crews does here. All of the "interview" segments cut into the main story were really asking the same question. Yes, Charlie is innocent, but how did prison affect him? The answer appears to be: not for the best. Picking up where the last episode left off, Charlie reaches out to Rawls, a convict we met in the pilot (Michael Cudlitz) for information on where to find Hollis. Learning he's now a minister in a rural community, Charlie bails on Dani Reese at a crime scene to find the man he believes has all the answers.

    Damian Lewis has been terrific throughout the season, and in "Fill It Up" he shows he's more than capable of going deeper as Charlie discovers the truth about his setup. Lewis shows more range than usual this week. With Rawls he's hard, a fellow con. But when he arrives at the Hollis place and discovers his daughter wounded, he's a comforting presence as he waits for the ambulance to arrive. Things quickly take a turn, as the woman realizes her father has more than one set of pursuers. She blames Charlie for wounding her, forcing him to flee from the fast-arriving cops. Hollis makes contact by phone, wanting money and protection from Crews in exchange for information. (Everyone seems to know everyone's cell number in this episode). Charlie has no intention of paying Hollis off; the extended sequence during which Hollis is a captor in the trunk of Crews' car is the point at which Crews must decide whether or not to give in to his anger. Events take a turn when a couple of gun-toting goons ram Charlie's car in pursuit of Hollis. Charlie manages to shoot them while being suspended upside down in the wreckage of his car; if he had any doubt that his setup goes beyond the murders he certainly doesn't now.

    The squadroom ovation that Charlie receives at the end of "Fill It Up" would seem to indicate he's back in the full good graces of his colleagues. Most importantly, he has the trust of Dani and his ex-uniform partner Stark. The two bond at a crime scene in search of a gun-eating giant snake (I'm not going to take time to explain), and Stark's blames his not backing up Charlie at his murder trial on Internal Affairs pressure. When Charlie asks for their help once he's gotten Hollis's confession, both are ready to back up their partner.

    Jack Reese remains elusive. We know who killed Tom and his family, but who set Charlie up and why? Who were the men Charlie shot working for? Reese refuses Charlie's invitation to turn himself in and drops one final bombshell: the wounded girl Charlie found is actually Rachel, Tom's daughter and the survivor of the murders. (She's vanished from the hospital) While I thought "Dig A Hole" was bloated and choppy, the lean and tense "Fill It Up" bodes well for the future of this show and one of TV's most unusual leading men. The episode's most significant scenes? An angry Charlie tosses his Zen tape out the window, but later returns and (improbably) finds it by the roadside. He keeps it but doesn't put it back in the player. Life returns in 2008. Stay tuned....

    No Pirates 4...

    ...for Keira Knightley. (Cinematical)

    Tuesday, December 04, 2007

    A good explanation

    ...of what Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books (the basis for The Golden Compass) are and aren't. (Parabasis)

    Monday, December 03, 2007

    "Dig A Hole" - Life, episode 1.10

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    After the season-long incremental release of information about the 12-year old murder that wrongly sent Charlie Crews to prison, the last two episodes of Life have felt like a rush to revelation. Ever since the arrival of Jack Reese (Victor Rivers), ex-cop and father of Charlie's partner Dani, it has felt like the show was in a hurry to get the who-set-Charlie-up storyline out of the way. Last week I wrote that Jack was awfully big with his threats for a man with something to hide. Jack also appears to know something about the missing money from that Bank of L.A. shootout we've heard so much about. Wouldn't it make more sense for him to play it cool?

    Halfway through tonight's episode Charlie learns from his lawyer-turned-D.A. Constance that he's no longer a suspect in the killing of Ames, the cop who put him away 12 years ago. Jack is immediately in the office of Lt. Davis, demanding to know why Charlie is no longer the focus of the investigation. I had been bracing for a revelation that Davis had some old skeleton that would affect her judgment in matters regarding Charlie, but from the way Robin Weigert played this scene I think that Davis is beginning to realize Jack is wrong.

    The audience gets a strong signal that Jack is dirty, and Charlie gets one too. There's a cute LAPD crime tech who has eyes for Crews, and in the closing musical montage she simply hands him Jack's confidential personnel file. Just hands it to him. A local news bulletin cut about 90 seconds off the episode for me that the rest of you saw, but unless it happened during that time we never even saw Charlie mention Jack around her. It doesn't take Charlie long to discover that Jack had a registered informant who bears a more than passing resemblance to the drawing done by Rachel (the daughter hiding in the house during the murders) of her family's murderer.

    The choppiness of tonight's episode may have something to do with the fact that (according to my onscreen guide) it's the first of two parts. Charlie is off to prison to visit Jack's informant; we'll see that Wednesday night. The murder case that Crews and Reese worked had a similar rushed feeling to it. A construction project unearths decade old remains. The victim was a Zen master found underneath what had once been his center. Thanks to the fact that records can be pulled from the Zen master's comically enormous dated cell phone, Crews and Reese have no trouble finding his students. This arc of the episode works in a martial arts expert, two dot com geeks, the Zen master's penchant for masochism, and a decadent L.A. party (fans of Sarah Shahi's L Word tenure will enjoy her girl-on-girl kiss) before a key piece of evidence turns up in plain sight. It all felt like an attempt to develop the interest in Zen Charlie used to get through prison. If that was the intent, it didn't pan out.

    Even though I've knocked past episodes for some improbable twists, this was the first episode that as a whole just didn't flow for me. There's also filler about Charlie's ex-wife, a horse, and conversations with the murder victim. Still, the show is going somewhere at such a speed that I think the writers have an idea for the next phase of Life. I can't wait.

    Look for me....

    ...the comments thread of this observant but overwritten post on "boredom." I'm into it up until the author starts talking about Pan's Labyrinth. (The Cine File)

    Politics, for a moment

    Who knew Robert Reich had a blog? He's concerned about the tone of Hillary's attacks on Obama. (link from Daily Dish)

    NP Talks!

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    The NY Times "T" magazine page has NP content here, here, and here (a 4 1/2 minute video). Enjoy. (Photo by Raymond Meier)

    Sure-Fire Awards Magnet

    Diablo Cody, ex-stripper and hot screenwriter (Juno) (NY Times)

    "...the best film ever to have been made from a Broadway musical."

    About Last Night likes Sweeney Todd.

    Monday Music: The New Pornographers



    The New Pornographers perform "Myriad Harbor" in Seattle this September.

    Sunday, December 02, 2007

    Thanks TCM!

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    My Sunday afternoon viewing: Barefoot in the Park with Fonda and Redford. Has there ever been a less convincing onscreen drunk than Redford?

    Bangers and...

    Sasha Frere-Jones hears mashups everywhere he goes....

    Kelly!

    I want to weigh in on this at greater length this week, but here's a good note on the brilliance of Kelly Macdonald's work in No Country For Old Men. (Humanizing the Vacuum)

    Busy Season

    This list of Spirit Award nominees reminds me that there are still good films out there in this overcrowded season. Any thoughts on the Angelina Jolie v. Ellen Page race for Best Actress? (IFC)

    Saturday, December 01, 2007

    The Late Greats

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    We're blessed to have a great radio station here in the Carolinas that plays a mix of roots, alternative, and other eclectic new music. At the WNCW website you can listen online and more importantly vote for your Top 10 CDs of the last year. Prizes are available. My Top 10 CDs of 2007:

    1. Wilco- Sky Blue Sky
    2. Ryan Adams- Easy Tiger
    3. Josh Ritter- The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
    4. New Pornographers- Challengers
    5. Spoon- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
    6. Feist- The Reminder
    7. Avett Brothers- Emotionalism
    8. Joe Henry- Civilians
    9. Rilo Kiley- Under the Blacklight
    10. Steve Earle- Washington Square Serenade