Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top Ten: Best Hit Songs of 2014

As they say, the night is darkest before the dawn.  And such is the case on this very blog, where I do my bottom-ten list of the year's hit songs before tackling the top-ten.  With the former out of the way, the latter's time is nigh.  And yet, I found 2014 a very... meh year for music, even more so than last year.  Over the past few years, there were certain albums that generated critical acclaim, strong revenues, and boatloads of awesome singles; for example, 21, The Heist, and Random Access Memories.  But I can't think of a single such source of joy from 2014.  But it's not all bad; instead of one awesome moment, the music scene of 2014 had a lot of little worthwhile moments, so it wasn't a total washout.  After all, if that weren't the case, I wouldn't be able to bring you the list you are about to read!  Also, without wishing to spoil, you can expect 2014's top-ten list to be my most personal yet.

10) "Timber"
by Pitbull & Ke$ha
from Meltdown [EP]
Year-end position: #11

Dear Kevin of 2011: You’ll never believe this, but one of Pitbull’s songs has shown up in my best-of lists.  Maybe it’s time, or outside forces, which have softened me.  You remember Pitbull for rapping about nothing but his success and his propensity for partying, and that has not exactly changed, but he’s starting to endear himself to me for just those reasons, since there’s something innocent about it -- at least, innocent compared to other rappers.  He just wants to have fun, and he manages to do so.  Even the beat does so, keeping the momentum up throughout the song’s short-but-sweet 3-minute-24-second runtime, which has been a problem of pop and dance songs as of late, including Pitbull's own works such as "Feel This Moment".  However, it turns out that “Timber” and “Feel This Moment” have entirely different stables of producers and writers (with the exception of Pitbull himself, to whatever degree he contributed), so I won’t exactly label “Timber” as a positive trend in someone perfecting their craft.  But it worked, dangit!

9) "Problem"
by Ariana Grande & Iggy Azalea
from My Everything
Year-end position: #9

Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea are both new talents which I want so desperately to include in one of my top-ten lists.  Ariana sings like the re-incarnation of Mariah Carey, vocal gymnastics and all, and Iggy Azalea is one of the most exciting rappers to come out in a long time, white female or otherwise.  But for some reason, none of their songs ever clicked for me; they either had serious problems countering their strengths, or were just “meh”.  So I might as well give props to the one song which combines their forces.  The beat's rather funky, using a saxophone riff which is not only better than the one from "Thrift Shop" (and yet, my only complaint about that song), but is used just enough to stay not annoying.  As a breakup song, it's also kind of forceful, especially the title line, "I've got one less problem without you".  Nothing's more important in this equation than your mental health, so you might as well be upfront in that regard.  And, what’s this?  A rap verse which actually ties into the theme of the song?  Now there’s something you don’t see everyday!

8) "Sing" / "Don't"
by Ed Sheeran
from X
Year-end position: #56 / #52

Somehow I have a greater tolerance than most people for the "white guy with acoustic guitar" sub-genre than certain other critics, so I was mildly intrigued by Ed Sheeran, whose 2012 hit "The A Team" married this mellow sound to some dark lyrics.  But this sort of thing doesn't have a long shelf life, so I'm glad he decided to switch up his style for these two singles.  Both appear to take influence from certain white-male-led, semi-rapped pop songs from 2002 or so, namely the stuff Justin Timberlake or John Mayer was doing at the time.  Although I shouldn't be surprised, given that the songs were produced by Pharell Williams ("Blurred Lines") and Rick Rubin ("Baby Got Back", "99 Problems") respectively.  And it is by fusing all these influences that Ed Sheeran and company create pure audio fun.  Oh yeah, and both songs do that thing again, where they pretend to censor a bad word but there's no uncensored version of the track.  Now, I like my music clean, but what's the point of pulling a stunt like that?

7) "The Man"
by Aloe Blacc
from Lift Your Spirit
Year-end position: #48

Last year, Katy Perry gave us "Roar", a self-esteem anthem which a lot of people liked and I didn't.  And now, Aloe Blacc (the guy who sang on Avicii's "Wake Me Up") has a song with exactly the same message.  In both songs, the main character has been fed up with being so submissive in the past, being taken advantage of by just about everyone, but no longer!  It's time for the singer to live up to his name and face FULL LIFE CONSEQUENCES!  (lol.)  But whereas "Roar" floundered about with cliches and a weak beat, "The Man" just gets it.  The horn and drum tracks provide a soulful swagger, and if you're going to repeat something for the chorus, it might as well be an assertive statement like "Go ahead and tell everybody / I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the man".  Apart from "Roar", the song this reminds me of most is "The World's Greatest" by R. Kelly, albeit with much more confidence, both in the music and the singer's performance.  If "Eye of the Tiger" just isn't working for you anymore, and by its overuse in popular culture it shouldn't by now, give this a try.

6) "Something Bad"
by Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood
from Platinum
Year-end position: #99

What little country music I can claim to have, in the loosest sense of the word, liked, is the frequently-female-led adult-contemporary style of country, courtesy of such artists as Carrie Underwood, the Dixie Chicks, Lady Antebellum, and Taylor Swift, at least before she went full-pop on us.  So for the sake of completion and a willingness to come to terms with the genre, in more or less the eleventh hour I checked out "Something Bad" -- that's the name of the song, not an indicator of its quality -- by Miranda Lambert, and I was pleasantly surprised. "Something Bad" is, in a word, "bada**".  I find it almost cute that Miranda Lambert's idea of breaking the rules is skipping church, but maybe that's just a cultural disconnect.  More serving the topic of the song, the beat's got this deep chug to it that I haven't seen since the heyday of hair-metal.  Perhaps there's more to country music than I've given it credit for, since it's more like traditional rock-and-roll than anything else on the charts these days.  So thank you, "Something Bad", for teaching me to love again.

5) "Habits (Stay High)"
by Tove Lo
from Truth Serum [EP] / Queen of the Clouds
Year-end position: #32

You know what I’ve noticed about today’s music?  No one writes songs about drugs anymore.  Well, that changed this year with “Habits (Stay High)”, by the Swedish singer Ebba “Tove Lo” Nilsson.  In the song, she engages in all manner of self-destructive behaviours, because they let her forget about a messy breakup.  And I have to say, this song speaks to me on a personal level.  You see, I’ve dealt with my fair share of disappointments over the past couple of years.  And being unable to fix these things directly, my options are as follows: either obsess over, or ignore, them.  Following the logic that ignoring the problem will not fix it, I ended up keeping them in my mind ever since.  Which not only does not solve them, but keeps my mood in a depression.  A depression which is for all intents and purposes never-ending, as the factors which initiated my troubles and could, if willing, end them are beyond my control.  So I guess just forgetting about them sounds like the more appealing course of action.  Not that I’m going to resort to such drastic actions as Tove Lo or anything, but I’ll find some way to cope.  I mean, who wants to eat gruel in Zion when one could have steak in the Matrix?

4) "The Monster"
by Eminem & Rihanna
from The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Year-end position: #16

It’s funny.  The last time Eminem and Rihanna teamed up, it was for 2010’s “Love The Way You Lie”, a song about an abusive love-hate relationship.  Not the smartest decision when one of the parties concerned is the victim of a literal, physical assault.  But now they’re back with “The Monster”, and this time, for whatever reason, it works.  If Rihanna has developed any personality over the past couple of years, it's at the darker end of the pop-princess spectrum, so her singing that she's friends with the monster in her head or whatever plays to her strengths.  And then there's Eminem himself, whose rapping is the most intense he's managed in years.  He talks about the stresses of fame and whether or not he's stuck to the same goals he had when he first set out on his career, but despite all the doubt, if he's made a connection with even one listener, it will all have been worth it.  And wouldn't you know it, I've felt the exact same way about my own projects, including the SDP.

3) "Rather Be"
by Clean Bandit feat. Jess Glynne
from New Eyes
Year-end position: #41

Pop-song production these days tends to fall into one of two unfortunate categories: either lay on so much synth noise so as to render all its musical elements indistinguishable from one another, or the increasingly popular option of stripping it down so much as to come across as unfinished.  But there is a third way: incorporate a fair variety of instruments, but keep them distinct.  Sounds crazy, right?  Well, that's the way dance-pop newcomers Clean Bandit roll.  It may just be a "mushy love song", as one critic put it, but it certainly does make a suitable soundtrack for falling in love.

2) "Pompeii"
by Bastille
from Bad Blood
Year-end position: #12

Before I begin, I’d like to tell you the tale of another indie band’s single which started out interesting but just got killed by overexposure.  Back in 2011, there was Of Monsters and Men, this folky band from Iceland, whose song "Little Talks" got big on my local alt-rock radio station.  And it was, in a good way, quirky.  It’s a little hard to describe, but let’s just say adding the sound effect of creaking wood, as on a ship, really set a unique tone for the song.  So anyway, I listened to this station -- a lot -- as they played this song -- a lot -- and I grew bored of it really quickly.  Such was my lack of regard for "Little Talks" that by the time it had a chance to bubble up to the mainstream level and make it on Billboard’s year-end chart of 2013, I completely forgot about it when compiling my top-ten list for that year.

I will not make that same mistake again.  "Pompeii" may have grown boring over the course of its many spins on the radio, but this time around, I have the good impression it left on me the first time around fresh in my mind.  Musically, it has an epic production style suitable for its namesake, with echoing chants in the background and one of the greatest drum fills since "In The Air Tonight" -- an honour I do not bestow lightly.  And lyrically, it seems to juxtapose a personal disaster against the context of something more literal, namely the eruption of Mount Vesuvius over two thousand years ago.  The metaphor does flail around a bit, so it's hard to have a grasp on how literal to take this song.  But hey -- I like a song that’s open to interpretation.

1) "Let It Go"
by Idina Menzel
from Frozen [OST]
Year-end position: #21

Well, this is awkward.  A song from a Disney musical got some real chart success.  I’ve got to say, this isn’t exactly within my comfort zone, but there is honestly a lot working in favour of “Let It Go”.  Now, I’ve sat through a lot of self-esteem anthems over the past couple of years, and I approve of most of them -- it’s not exactly the worst subject to write a song about.  But does “Let It Go” stand apart from the rest of them?  Well... yes.  For some reason, the version that got more popular was not the “pop” version by Demi Lovato, but the original recording by the actress who sang it in the movie itself.  And the difference is clear -- miss Idina Menzel’s performance sells this song.  On a lyrical level, this song has a clear point -- the protagonist has kept some aspect of herself hidden from others thus far in her life, but is now willing to throw her self-imposed restraints to the wind.  This setup, certainly, could apply to many real-life scenarios for many people.  Heck, it could even apply to me, with all the emotional baggage I've admitted to a few paragraphs ago.  However, a good chunk of the lyrics are a little too specific to the song’s scene in the movie, so its utility as a personal anthem for those going through the same struggles as Elsa does in the movie suffers a bit.

So with all that said, could I still find it in my heart to award my top honours of the year to a Disney song, specifically, this one?

Well… no.

I’m still bitter about Frozen eating all the money in the world and snubbing The Wind Rises back at the Oscars.  It’s been my primary source of depression pretty much throughout the whole year.  But every so often, when my head is clear enough, I remind myself: it’s not Frozen’s fault for what happened.  It’s society’s fault for focusing its attention on one thing instead of another.  It’s like if one were to blame the Jews for World War II.  The problem wasn’t that they existed, but that somebody reacted poorly to their presence.  But touchy metaphors aside, as a sign of protest, I have decided to ban “Let It Go” from my top-ten list for 2014.  See that “1)” in front of its title?  That is a lie.  Instead, it shall occupy the Wildcard slot in this countdown.  Again, this has nothing to do with the movie in and of itself.  Sorry Frozen, it’s not you, it’s the Academy.

And now for my real #1 song of 2014:

1) "Am I Wrong"
by Nico & Vinz
from Black Star Elephant
Year-end position: #14

Congratulations to Nico & Vinz for being the first act from Norway to have an international hit since a-Ha in the ‘80s.  (In case you think I’ve forgotten Ylvis of “The Fox” fame, I haven’t; I’ve mentally quarantined my memories of that song to halt the risk of infection.  Also, thanks a lot, you enabling klutz.)  Their breakthrough hit, “Am I Wrong”, reminds me of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”, which I gave high honours back in 2012.  There are many distinct musical elements going on here.  Unlike the stripped-down Gotye song, “Am I Wrong” ventures closer to EDM territory, giving it some more pop appeal, but stays just far enough away to be different from everything else on the radio.  And given the duo's African ethnicity, they also laid on some tribal drums and chanting which are kind of subdued.  It's probably not enough for the listener to make the connection that this is "world music", but again, it's not like anyone else in the top 40 did this sort of thing.  Am I wrong for giving my top spot to this song instead of "Let It Go"?  Well tough.  That's just how I feel.

I shall close out this article by listing a bunch of songs I discovered this year which didn't make the Billboard list, but I nonetheless still liked and/or thought were good.

Arctic Monkeys -- "Do I Wanna Know?"
Capital Cities -- "Stayin' Alive"
Childish Gambino -- "3005"
CHVRCHES -- "The Mother We Share"
Coldplay -- "Magic"
Disclosure -- "White Noise"
Foo Fighters -- "Something From Nothing"
Foster the People -- "Coming of Age"
Hozier -- "Take Me to Church"
Kate Boy -- "The Way We Are"
Kiesza -- "Hideaway"
Lorde -- "Tennis Court"
Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars -- "Uptown Funk"
MisterWives -- "Reflections"
Mr. Probz -- "Waves"
Neon Trees -- "Sleeping With a Friend"
Steve Aoki & Kid Ink -- "Delirious (Boneless)"
U2 -- "The Miracle of Joey Ramone"
Vance Joy -- "Riptide"
Walk the Moon -- "Shut Up and Dance"
"Weird Al" Yankovic -- "Word Crimes"
The 1975 -- "Chocolate"

I'd have done the same for my bottom-ten list, but it would've all been DJ Mustard productions, so it would have been otherwise pointless.  So, thank you all and have a happy 2015!!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top Ten: Worst Hit Songs of 2014

I’ve had a lot on my mind this past year, namely in the area of anime and its perceived lack of penetration into American pop culture. Specifically the Academy Awards. But enough about that. With my mind being clouded up so much, I’ve actually been looking forward to doing my traditional top-ten and bottom-ten lists of the year’s hit music. The bottom-ten because these songs are easy and fun to make fun of, and the top-ten because I get to promote the kinds of songs I like. You know the rules by now: only songs that placed in Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 chart are eligible for either of my lists, songs that already made the chart in years before are disqualified, and multiple songs by the same artist may occupy the same spot. So, ladies and gentlemen, let the mental rehabilitation begin!

10) "Animals"
by Martin Garrix
from Gold Skies [EP]
Year-end position: #71

As longtime readers of this blog, specifically my previous year-end music lists, may recall, I have a thing for electronic dance music (EDM).  But now that it's gone mainstream, there seem to be an awful lot of people contributing (to use that word sarcastically) to the genre who just don't get it.  For example, Martin Garrix, a newcomer Dutch DJ who had a minor hit this year with "Animals".  To give my honest opinion, it starts out alright enough; it's dark and tense enough for an instrumental techno song.  That is, for the first minute and a half, for after then, the repetition starts to set in.  See, this song's got three movements -- a soft part, a buildup, and a hard part -- which do not change throughout the song.  And considering that the full version runs over five minutes long, that's a heck of a lot of repetition.  Even "Turn Down For What", despite making a maddeningly worse first impression, gets this right.  It has the decency to switch up its beats for each "verse", and even within the "verses" themselves.  "Animals", not so much.

9) "23"
by Miley Cyrus, Wiz Khalifa, & Juicy J
non-album single
Year-end position: #90

Technically, producer Mike Will Made-It took top billing for "23", but screw that, I say.  You may remember him from some of last year's duds like Miley's "We Can't Stop" and Lil' Wayne's "Love Me" (no), and while he wasn't the deciding factor that made me hate those songs, his slow, dingy beats did not improve their standing.  "23" is no exception.  This song is named after Michael Jordan, presumably because of a line from the chorus which goes "J's on my feet", which I assume refers to Air Jordan shoes.  Oh great, product placement right off the bat.  And it only gets worse from there.  I'd like to say I'm through with being shocked by Miley Cyrus, but in this song, she raps.  And not well, either.  Both she and Juicy J (Wiz Khalifa gets a pass, at least) suffer from a stuttering delivery which got annoying real fast.

8) "This is How We Roll"
by Florida Georgia Line & Luke Bryan
from Here's to the Good Times
Year-end position: #49

Huh, I've never put any country songs on one of my bottom-ten lists before.  I guess it's just ignorance on my part.  I don't really listen to the genre, but at the very least I've treated it with a live-and-let-live attitude.  But these days... hoo boy.  These days, country music has been cross-breeding with mainstream rap.  Pretty much like most glam-rap these days, albeit filtered through the lens of a different sub-culture.  Although I have a poor track record of predicting popular trends, I'd like to think we've reached critical mass in this regard.  How do I know?  It's not just the frequent references to alcohol, girls, and Hank Williams and Drake sharing space on one's playlist, because that's become the new normal.  No, the red flag for me was that on "This Is How We Roll", one of the guys raps.  Yeah, the two men who call themselves Florida Georgia Line are already un-dignified enough, but as if the drawling lustfulness of their last hit "Cruise" did not make that evidently clear, they had to pull a stunt like that on us.  If you like hearing white-trach country boys using outdated hip-hop slang, holla at ya boy!  (No seriously, he says that last part at one point.)  It almost makes me thankful for Luke Bryan's guest verse later on.  I have no idea who this guy is, but I appreciate any change in the texture of this song.  Also, there's a remix version which replaces Luke Bryan with Jason Derulo, of all people.  That version didn't make the Billboard year-end list and thus doesn't qualify for my own, but don't worry, I'll get to him later.

7) "Drunk In Love"
by Beyonce & Jay-Z
from Beyonce
Year-end position: #35

What a fitting title we have on our hands -- "Drunk In Love" is the perfect musical interpretation of an inebriated state.  The momentum is all over the place.  There are so many repeated lines and awkward pauses that every moment, every line in this song, feels like the singer’s stalling for time.  I'm getting mental whiplash here, is what I'm trying to say.  There is a consensus, if not evidence, that indicates that much of the song was ad-libbed by both Beyonce and Jay-Z, which would explain my previous arguments and other bizarre moments such as when Beyonce abruptly stops her verse at the word "surfboard", and repeats it a bit, thus bringing awkward attention to the word, a word not typically encountered in pop music lyrics.  And yet the sad part is, it's pretty much the only interesting thing about this song.

6) "Black Widow"
by Iggy Azalea & Rita Ora
from The New Classic
Year-end position: #26

I actually respect Iggy Azalea as a rapper and a performer, but her songs just don't do it for me.  Maybe it's not her fault that she keeps getting saddled with lazy beats and generic lyrics, but if a song sucks, it sucks.  And "Black Widow" may be the worst case of this for some time to come.  The chorus builds up a tense atmosphere, to its credit, thanks to its subject matter of Iggy and/or Rita Ora taking revenge for a hypothetical relationship gone wrong.  But then... the momentum built up by the chorus is discarded immediately upon the start of each new verse, in lieu of a barely-there music-box tinkle.  I suppose it could work as being creepy, but it bores me more than anything else.  And no amount of hyper-syllabicity on Iggy's part can rescue that.  What this song needs is a drum-and-bass or jungle-techno beat.  Heck, I'd settle for DJ Snake!

5) "Show Me"
by Kid Ink & Chris Brown
from My Own Lane
Year-end position: #43

I would be remiss in discussing 2014’s stinkier musical moments without mention of DJ Mustard, or as he goes by in his audio watermark, “Motha’ on that E!”. (NB: I have been informed that he is, in fact saying “Mustard on that beat”. But seriously, you try digging through his thick, slurry ebonics to get to those words.) Hoo boy, Heaven help ya if you ever turned on an urban-format radio station this past year, because his works were everywhere. All his works sound the same: the same tempo, the same gang-vocals half-heartedly shouting “hey!” in the background from time to time, he’s really annoyed me, I tell you what.

This entry, in spirit, represents all of DJ Mustard's production works, but because of its lyrical qualities, “Show Me” is in a different class of bad.  You know you're in for a trip when the first line in the song, sung by Chris Brown, no less, is "Let me put your panties to the side".  May I ask you, reader, does this sound like a smooth gentleman who will treat the ladies with respect?  If so, then you may need to be quarantined in the off-chance that stupidity is contagious.  And then the hook of the song is as follows:
You remind me of something
I don't know what it is
You remind me of something
Girl, you gotta show me
Making up a sleazy pick-up line is one thing, but you can't even manage to finish your own comparison?  Now that's an epic fail right there.  Not that Kid Ink, the lead artist of this song, manages to save it either.  Let me sum it up for you: "Blah-blah-blah, I'm gonna get you drunk at a party, blah-blah-blah, let's start a three way.  Also watch out for my other girlfriend."  ...Boy, that escalated quickly.

4) "Summer"
by Calvin Harris
from Motion
Year-end position: #33

Again, although I consider myself an EDM aficionado, the more mainstream stuff like David Guetta and our current subject, Calvin Harris, just doesn’t do it for me. While his stuff has clicked every once in a while, “Summer” is no such exception to the rule. It’s got one riff for the verses, and one for the instrumental chorus, both of them hardly ever changing, making for a repetitive listening experience. Also, unlike many other songs of its kind, the DJ du jour sings the song himself instead of hiring a random guest. I appreciate Calvin Harris trying to earn his featuring credit for once, but in the end it wasn’t worth the effort. He is just too dull of a singer to save this track. The same was true of his last self-fronted single, 2012’s “Feel So Close”, which apparently was so bland that I forgot about it when the time came to write that year’s bottom-ten list, so I might as well rectify that matter in spirit.

3) "Lifestyle"
by Rich Gang feat. Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan
from Rich Gang 2
Year-end position: #71

"Lifestyle" is technically credited to the collective Rich Gang, or as I like to call it, "Young Money 2.0", but the dominant force is Young Thug, and... he sucks.  Young Thug chops and slurs his words... nay, syllables so badly that, combined with his voice drenched in Auto-tune, he is virtually incomprehensible.  For example, near the beginning of the first verse (At 0:47, if you were foolish enough to play the song from that Spotify widget above), he's got a line that goes, "Hundred bands still look like the [adjective] ???".  I blanked that last word out because the way he pronounced it, it could be anything.  So far I've got "tires", "times", "titans", "TARDIS", or "tards" as in retards.  Heh, might as well be that last one.  (Actually, my money's on "Titans", since right afterwards there's a little voice in the background going "Football player!")

But even in the hands of a rapper who didn't just stick marbles in his mouth, this song is still... stillborn.  So he "did a lot of [noun] just to live this here lifestyle", in his words.  Does he ever describe what this lot of [noun] entails?  Of course not.  He started from the bottom, and now, he's here.  Literally now, as if there were no time in between.  But what he lyrics he does choose to ooze out of his mouth cross the line into awkwardly funny.  For example:
I won't do nothing with the [noun], she can't even get me hard
I mean, what else is there to say about a guy who can't get it up for one of his many groupies?  Or a guy who brags about rocking Chanel products, despite nearly all of said products being designed for women?  Young Thug can best be described as a clown.  Laugh at him if you wish.  But it would be better for the whole world if we just ignored him.  As I should have done in the first place.  ...[verb].

2) "Talk Dirty" and "Wiggle"
by Jason Derulo & 2Chainz / Jason Derulo & Snoop Dogg
from Tattoos [EP] / Talk Dirty
Year-end position: #6 / #40

So, we meet again, Jason Derulo. Somehow you’ve managed to ruin every year of the Obama administration -- if only in terms of music -- and with 2014 you’ve presented your worst batch of singles since your unforgivable debut “Whatcha Say”. First off is “Talk Dirty”. One of the things that first hit me about “Talk Dirty” was its horn-led bridge. ...That was, until I discovered it was, in fact, a sample. This part comes from a song called “Hermetica” by the eclectic Israeli-American band Balkan Beat Box, and for “Talk Dirty” was remade by its producer Ricky Reed. So, over time, “Talk Dirty” managed to grow on me a little, and perhaps knowing about where that sample came from had something to do with it.

But as I tolerated the song’s musical qualities, I started paying more attention to its lyrics -- which only made me even more disgusted. See, at its core, this song is about how Mr. Derulo gets love from girls all over the world. And I’m like, if you want to make a song about that, then do it! I’ve got no problem with that concept in and of itself. But whomever wrote this song did it all wrong. He does name-check the odd destination once in a blue moon, but he doesn’t spend any breath on what he likes about those places, much less the foreign honey to be found within. Such lyrical space is instead wasted on his own ego, in lines like:
Our conversations ain’t long
But you know what is
And then there’s the refrain, at least, the part that precedes that unholy sax riff:
Been around the world, don’t speak the language
But your booty don’t need explaining
All I really need to understand is
When you talk dirty to me
So, we can add “knowledge of foreign languages” to the long, long list of skills which Jason Derulo does not possess. And hold on -- he can’t understand what the girl du jour is saying, but he’s apparently turned on by naughty pillow-talk? How does he know she isn’t just talking smack about his sex technique or something? Man, I can barely imagine the quantity of egg to be delivered to his face. Oh yeah, and 2Chainz is on this track as well. Might as well not be.  His part's nothing offensive, unless this new wave of glam rappers offends you by their mere presence.  Which does to me.

And then, there’s “Wiggle”.  Yet another stuffy old song about the buttocks, and egging girls on to shake theirs.  And he can't even do that with any grounding in reality or common sense.  I mean, when he says "your booty [is] like two planets", one would get the impression that he means it literally.  Furthermore, despite the beat not having been produced by DJ Mustard, it may be worse than his output, crazy as that may sound, because the standard barely-there drum track is accented by naught but some lame whistling.  Snoop Dogg’s guest verse is, at least, my favourite part of "Wiggle", much in the way that Luke Bryan was my favourite part of "This Is How We Roll". It doesn’t rescue the song, by any means, but I’d be willing to replace the Jason Derulo in my musical diet with anything, at any chance I get.

1) "Loyal"
by Chris Brown, Lil’ Wayne, and Tyga
from X
Year-end position: #30

And yet somehow, the combined force of not one, but two songs by Jason Fricking Derulo was not enough to clinch the top spot.  For that, we have to return to some repeat offenders: Chris Brown and Lil' Wayne.  Okay, so maybe Lil' Wayne does have a couple of clever lines in his verse...
But she ain't got her ringer nor her ring on last night
Why give a [noun] an inch when she'd rather have nine?
...and his degree of misogyny isn't worse than his usual fare, unlike what I had to deal with last year.  So "Loyal"'s pole position is due to, once again, Chris Brown.  "Loyal" happens to be a song about women who unfaithful in relationships, if only in theory.  A strong concept, I must say; in fact, some of my favourite songs deal with the subject.  But "Loyal" just doesn't work for me.  First, the message of the song is, in practise, all over the place.
Come on, come on, now why you fronting?
Baby show me something
You just spent your bread on her
And it's all for nothing
Second, Chris Brown and company, I would be more inclined to trust your character if you didn't constantly refer to men and women as n****s and b****es respectively.  Third, I would also be more inclined to trust your character if if you at least acknowledge the presence of women who aren't just in it to take the money and run.  And finally, I would be more inclined to trust your character if you didn't strike your real-life girlfriend all the way to the hospital YOU STUPID DOUCHEBAG SON OF A--

...Sorry, that got weird on me.  It's been almost six years after the Rihanna assault, so you think I should've forgotten it by now.  Oh well, some people just never learn, both him and me.  I guess the best thing to do now would be to end on a so-bad-it's-good note, and that's where the Wildcard slot comes in.  For your lol-ing and trolling pleasure, I have picked out some prime cheese that didn't Billboard year-end list and therefore didn't qualify for mine.  Ladies and gentlemen... "Selfie."

Wildcard) "#SELFIE"
by The Chainsmokers
non-album single

Oh wait, I meant "hashtag-selfie", because how better to annoy me personally than with an arbitrary hashtag?  Well, by making an annoying song, that's how.  This is bad even among the lower-class EDM acts, especially since its bass drop (apparently, there's now a technical term for what I used to call a "dirty bit" moment) seems like a weak clone of the one from "Gentleman" (PSY's failed follow-up to "Gangnam Style").  But "hashtag-selfie" sets itself apart by having this young lady club-goer blabbing over the "verses".  She's narcissistic, judgmental, stupid in several places, and not someone I, personally, would wish to associate myself with.  Then again, I suppose she could be of worse character *coughchrisbrowncough*, because crimes of annoyance are victimless in the long run.  No, I guess the real reason this landed on my hate-list is because what fame it managed to garner was not truly viral in nature.  It was promoted by celebrities behind the scenes thanks to a marketing company called theAudience.  "Harlem Shake", I forgive you.  For all your weirdness, at least your rise to fame was natural.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Anime Review: Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion
  • Studio: Gainax 
  • Licensor: ADV (1997-2008), Section23 Films (2009-) (USA) 
  • Network: TV Tokyo (JP) 
  • Air Dates: 4 October 1995 - 27 March 1996 (JP) 
  • Episodes: 26 
  • Director: Hideaki Anno 
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, an anime series created in 1990 by director Hideaki Anno. Five years and one (surprisingly important) bout of depression later, he produced his most famous work yet: the giant-robot saga Neon Genesis Evangelion. Evangelion is a singularity among anime. How can the same show attract so much praise and simultaneously so much scorn? How can it explore so many deep topics about the human psyche, and at the same time get merchandised up the wazoo? (If you're seriously asking that last question, then let me remind you, this is a Japanese property. They pull this kind of stunt all the time.) As for everything else, I would more than likely end up in over my head if I attempted to answer all that myself, so I suppose I should start, and hopefully finish, my knowledge quest by reviewing Neon Genesis Evangelion in the context of my own impressions of it.

The story is as follows: In the year 2000, a cataclysmic explosion in Antarctica wiped out an entire half of the world's population, an event known as Second Impact. Fifteen years later, the creatures responsible for Second Impact -- varied, mysterious beings known as Angels -- are coming to Earth once more, because... reasons. But in the intervening time, mankind, specifically the organization NERV, has developed a weapon to combat the Angels. Such weapons are giant humanoid robots known as Evangelions, or Evas for short. As the Angels advance one by one on NERV's base in Tokyo-3, it's up to the Evas and their juvenile pilots to protect the base and the secrets held therein. Failure to do so could trigger a disaster even worse than Second Impact. So, no pressure, really.

The main protagonist is a 14-year-old lad, Shinji Ikari (EN: Spike Spencer, JP: Megumi Obata). (Yeah, apparently Eva pilots need to have been born after Second Impact, because... reasons.) As the son of none other than NERV's commander Gendo Ikari (EN: Tristan McAvery, JP:Fumihiko Tachiki), Shinji is often reluctant to shoulder his responsibilities as an Eva pilot, so much so that he even attempts to run away from home. More than once. That alone is all well and good, as connoisseurs of giant-robot anime may have at one point wondered how all those teenage robot pilots would have reacted to their situation in real life. But the problem is, that's Shinji's only character trait -- well, that, and coming through in a pinch. If Shinji's too scared to pilot the Eva, then what would he rather be doing with his life? Questions like these are never answered, at least not in the canon of the original series.

Rather, Shinji's character is defined with how he reacts to the situations thrust upon him by other characters. For example, there is Rei Ayanami (EN: Amanda Winn Lee*, JP: Megumi Hayashibara). A pale, blue-haired, and very shy girl, she was Tokyo-3's designated defender just before the show starts. But when she gets introduced to us viewers, she is beaten and bandaged, wheeled out on a gurney in front of Shinji, in order to convince him to pilot the Eva in her stead. And it indeed gives him a reason to fight; whether that reason is chivalry, guilt, or a straight-up boner, I approve this moment for the sole purpose of giving Shinji at least a bit of character. Once Rei recuperates, the two become fast friends, inasmuch as Shinji is able to make friends. And while her status as an ace pilot is, at first, naught but an informed attribute, once the show picks up momentum, she more than holds her own in some rather awesome Angel fights.
The Eva/Angel fights are impressively written and animated,
especially given their intricate character designs.
Call me crazy, but my favourite parts of Neon Genesis Evangelion are what, in any other show, would be its "filler arc" -- the "monster of the day" episodes, wherein a new Angel rears its ugly head (assuming it even has a head), and our heroes at NERV must concoct and carry out some new plan of stopping it. What I love about these episodes is that they all bring something new to the table. One of these Angels splits into two halves that must be vanquished simultaneously. One of them is a giant Blue Water crystal that can only be killed by a long-range sniper shot.  One of them is a larva that must be extracted from out of a volcano. One of them is a computer virus that must be hacked out of commission. One of them takes place at sea -- and the Evas can't swim, so they must jump around on aircraft carriers. And through it all, you might even learn something about one of the characters.

So the show has its fun for a while, but then along comes Episode 18, which I dare say is a masterpiece in a dramatic sense. Without wishing to spoil, it opens up the discussion on topics such as the use of child soldiers. And I'm like, that would have been a great thing to base a series on. But as the series gets progressively darker in these penultimate episodes, its attention span gets a little flighty. As the series wraps up, the Angels arrive in more and more insidious forms, quite a number of plot twists rear their ugly heads, and the psyches of Shinji, Rei, and Asuka get stretched to the breaking point and back again. But because they waited until this far into the series, none of these plot points get the chance to truly stick. So it turns out that Rei was one of many clones created by Gendo from his late wife, you say? That's great and all, but how does that affect the overall story? Not at all, as far as the series proper is concerned.

But it all has to lead up to something, right? I mean, sooner or later, you're gonna wonder where the Angels came from and what beef they have with us Earthlings, no? Well, ask into one hand, spit into the other, and see which fills up first. It turns out that the final two episodes eschew any sort of action, at least into the format we've grown used to, and instead focus on the internal monologue of its characters, as they contemplate their worth as humans and soldiers in the front lines against the Angels. For a total of fifty minutes. Now, if you want to give your characters their moments of introspection, that's all well and good; it shows a fair bit of smarts on your part. But this sort of scene should be a couple minutes long, not the entire runtime of your series finale! They even did this before, in Episode 20! There is a clever bit in one of these episodes where the show is temporarily re-imagined as a slice-of-life school drama, and the "congratulations" scene where Shinji finally makes a breakthrough on the causes of his mental maladies is just as rewarding for the viewer -- but only because we've wasted fifty minutes of our lives that we'll never get back.

Get used to "animation" like this throughout the final two episodes.
Before any commenters pounce upon me with a precision nerd strike, I wish to state two things for the record. One, I am at least aware of Evangelion's expanded universe, which covers not only the original TV series, but the follow-up movie End of Evangelion (which effectively serves as a replacement for the final two episodes), the reboot film series Rebuild of Evangelion, and multiple manga series, each with their own interpretations of the Eva universe. Perhaps some of the questions I asked a couple of paragraphs ago are answered in End of Evangelion, but I have not seen it as of this posting. And besides, if your show is dependent on an auxiliary movie to tie up any loose plot threads, then that's just the mark of lazy storytelling. I mean, when even the lead actor talks smack about your ending, then you have failed.

And two, I am well aware of this show's lack of budget. Despite the impressive action sequences when we get to watch an actual Eva/Angel fight, the animators managed to cut corners in every other way manageable. That's not to say the show doesn't "look" good. The designs of the sets and characters is unique, especially for the Angels and Evas, providing the show with its own cool aesthetic, and many scenes are "shot" with clever composition. But on the other hand, if you're willing to trash your liver, you could make a drinking game out of spotting how many times characters speak with their mouths conspicuously covered, or the "camera" is zoomed out so far away as to make animating lip-flaps not worth the effort. Heck, some scenes even linger on one shot with no motion taking place whatsoever, such as a rather infamous moment from one of the final episodes, which is two minutes of nothing but Shinji's Eva holding some guy in its mighty, oversized hand. And in the interest of saving you two boob-less minutes, here are some spoilers: said guy is Kaworu Nagisa, an Angel in a human's body, and the only one who's ever showed Shinji any form of unconditional appreciation throughout the series, and he gets crushed at the end of it, merely by "virtue" of being an Angel.

Speaking of budget cuts, one area of anime production which typically operates under such lack of resources would be foreign-language dubbing, and for some reason lack of money usually translates into lack of caring. But chronologically speaking, the English dub of Neon Genesis Evangelion (produced by ADV Films in 1997-98) may be the first truly great example of its kind. How can I make this broad claim? Let's take the case of Asuka Langley Soryu (EN: Tiffany Grant, JP: Yuko Miyamura), a hot-headed, half-German Eva pilot who first shows up a couple of episodes in. When her Japanese actress speaks German, it sounds a bit forced, like a Japanese person speaking German. But when her English actress does so, she sounds like an actual German speaking normally. (And I should know; I've taken five years of that language in high school.) That should be all I need to say in regards to how seriously ADV took their jobs, but apart from that, I can honestly say that for the most part, the performances in both the English and Japanese tracks suitably develop the personalities of their respective characters. There are a couple of side characters whose voices get under my nerves more so in English than Japanese, but they're few and far between enough that I can live with that.

If I were to compare Neon Genesis Evangelion to any other franchise, it would be the Metal Gear games -- specifically, Metal Gear Solid 2. See, when they do what they set out to do at the start, they're really good at it. It's when they let their auxiliary message take precedence over the original plot that they start to lose favour in my eyes. (Face it, you took some level of offence when you realised Raiden was nought but a surrogate for the player.) I'm not saying writers shouldn't try to incorporate more in-depth themes into their works, far from it. I'd just prefer there to be a balance between them and the plots set up within the story's own universe. For an example of this done correctly, I point you to Anno-sama's other claim to fame, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. From time to time, the heroine's words and actions reflect upon the value of life, and it's hard for the viewer's mind to stay out of the mental discussion. But that series never forgets that there's an antagonist who needs to be put down, and a protagonist who needs to do so. A little more focus have made Neon Genesis Evangelion the end-all-be-all of giant-robot anime. As it is, it's a series of worthwhile thoughts and moments that doesn't amount to much in the end. And the way it treats its loyal fans by the end of it all, building up so much suspense and shattering it with an unsatisfying ending, is certainly infuriating. But if I may counter its amateur philosophising with a life-view of my own, I still think Neon Genesis Evangelion was worth putting onto this Earth. As long as it leaves us even with nothing but those thoughts and moments, it's certainly a worthwhile product, no?

*Cast listings refer to the original series. Certain characters have been re-cast for different adaptations, such as the Rebuild movies.

+ The Eva/Angel fight scenes are beautifully animated.
+ Brilliant artistic design and scene direction.
+ The voice acting, both in Japanese and English, is some of the best to have been recorded before the new millennium.
+ It makes an effort to explore the mindsets of its characters.

- The non-action scenes suffer a severe shortfall in terms of the animation budget.
- The final two episodes take all the plot the show has built up to that point, and throw it out the window.

Acting (English): 5 Angels out of 5
Acting (Japanese): 4 Angels out of 5
Writing: 3 Angels out of 5
Animation: 3 Angels out of 5
Visual Design: 5 Angels out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Game Review: Dance Dance Revolution (PSone)

Previously on the SDP, it's been four long years, but my "Dance Dance Retrospective" mini-series has finally come to its bittersweet end. I guess there's nothing left to do now... but to do it all over again! This time, however, I'm going to review the different DDR games as I would any other work on this blog.

Dance Dance Revolution
  • Publisher: Konami
  • Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
  • Release: PlayStation, 2001
  • Genre: Music, 1-2 players
  • Save: Memory Card, 1 Block
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$5-15
Dance Dance Revolution is a game series that has been around for over fifteen years, and each new game to come along has brought along new content, whether in the form of new songs and/or new modes, to make each successive entry better than the last. Well, in quantifiable terms, anyway. But it had to start somewhere. For American gamers, those first impressions may have been forged in the arcades, or it may have been the first Dance Dance Revolution home game we got for the PlayStation, back in 2001. Does it still hold up today? Let's take it back to simpler times, before all the speed mods, Shock Arrows, and Justin Bieber licences, and find out!

Dance Dance Revolution, and indeed all of the series' home games, are fully playable with a regular controller, but to stay true to the arcade experience, are designed with a special floor-mat controller in mind. What's always bugged me about their official controllers is that there are no Square or Triangle buttons, however the American games all use Triangle to back out of menus. This was fine for the Japanese games, which instead used Circle to advance and X to back out, but apparently something got lost in translation. And it's not like there aren't PlayStation games sold abroad which use that setup; heck, even Konami's own Metal Gear Solid games do so! Fortunately, the Select button is also used to back out, but it feels weird using that button, tucked away in that upper-left corner. I am, however, thankful for a particular option unintuitively called "Dance Mode", which toggles the ability to use the four face buttons as well as the D-Pad to hit arrows.

Even in Double Mode, the game is just as playable with a controller as it is with a dance pad.
This particular DDR game runs on the same "engine" as DDR 3rdMIX. For those who neglected to take notes when reading its entry for Dance Dance Retrospective, that means all three difficulty levels (the easy "Standard", medium "Difficult", and hard "Expert") are available at any time from the start, without hiding behind any button codes. Likewise, all the songs in the game are selectable at any point during a game, as opposed to the first version in Japan which added or removed certain songs depending on whether it was your first round, second round, or otherwise. It also includes extra modes such as the Nonstop courses, sets of 4 songs each played back-to-back, the Workout mode, which records Calories burned as you play, and the multiplayer-exclusive Unison mode.

DDR's songlist is composed entirely of 26 selections from the first three Japanese games. Just shy of half of those are licenced songs, although there's nothing the average American listener would recognise, unless he or she were familiar with the DDR franchise already. The artists featured herein are all various flavours of European dance-music acts who had essentially no presence in the States until this game. If you're lucky, you'll here a familiar sample or cover version here or there -- the immortal riff from Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" is one such sample -- but that's it. And I'm not saying these are bad songs, either, but they have their own share of '90s Europop cheese. By my money, the standout tracks are the original songs made by Konami's own artists, which explore different musical genres, and generally provide a higher range of challenge in their charts.

Your choice of character doesn't matter in gameplay terms.
Upon starting a game, you have a choice of characters who will dance in the background during your game. There are quite a few of them -- 16 in all -- however, you can only select the male or female characters (8 of each) depending on whether your controller is plugged into port 1 or 2 of your PlayStation console. And even then, they don't alter the gameplay itself in any manner. Do they let you trigger different abilities to make your experience easier or more challenging? No, they're just another layer of background animation to distract you from the arrows you're supposed to be focusing on.

DDR has all the basic elements that make a Dance Dance Revolution game good, but not much on top of them. There's a certain simple charm in booting up a game and having all its content available to you at the start without even needing a Memory Card to save to, but that statement is a tad misleading because there is no content to unlock. The replay value in this game is limited to setting high scores for all the charts on all the songs, doing the same for all the nonstop courses, and perhaps starting a regular exercise program in Workout mode. While it may be a bad Dance Dance Revolution game, if only in terms of content, this introductory entry is not a bad video game.

And finally, in honour of Rerez, a YouTube gaming channel I discovered recently, I shall close out this review, and all other reviews going forward, with a list of the positive and negative qualities which stood out to me whilst playing, watching, reading, or listening to the work in question. (It's also a handy way of planning out my reviews before I start writing them.) As always, this shall be promptly followed up by the category grades and the final call. The more things change, the more they stay the same. So:

+ One of the first great examples of "exergaming" in a long time.
+ No need to unlock anything.
+ The inclusion of Beginner, Unison, Nonstop, and Workout modes.
+ Some of the step-charts have become unforgettably fun.

- A relatively small music selection, with nothing to unlock.
- Not many of the songs will be familiar to non-fans.
- Some of the music is cheesy -- "Let Them Move" especially.

Control: 5 Perfect!s out of 5
Design: 3 Perfects!s out of 5
Graphics: 3 Perfects!s out of 5
Sound: 4 Perfect!s out of 5
Value: 3 Perfect!s out of 5
The Call: 70% (C+)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Top 10: Dumbest James Bond Moments

James Bond is one of my biggest fandoms. I'm saying that here in case you couldn't infer it from the year-long mini-series I did on this very blog, reviewing all its movies. But part of being a good, sane fan is admitting any sins the subject of your adoration may have committed. And James Bond is certainly no saint in that regard. (Except for Roger Moore, who played on a TV show called The Saint.) Yet at the same time, I don't think these movies ever get so bad to the point they become unberarable to watch. On the contrary, their occasional bouts of stupidity only serve to make them more fun to watch. To a point, anyway. That's why I'm going to count down the top ten dumbest moments of the James Bond movies, and see if and when we cross that line. I've selected and listed these entries based on the following criteria: 1) How embarrassing is it to watch the scene? 2) Does the scene work in context? And 3) Is there anything good about the scene to balance it out? So break out your favourite Q-gadgets and order your shaken-not-stirred martinis, because Here. We. Go.

10) "Lie Back and Think of England"
from For Your Eyes Only (1981)

In this scene, James Bond has finished his mission and is now about to shack up with the leading lady. But who should phone in and interrupt them but the Prime Minister of his own country? And not just any Prime Minister, but Margaret Thatcher (played here by an impersonator)? I take it the election of Mrs. Thatcher, the first female PM in Britain's history, must have been a big deal, and good on the real Thatcher for making it that far. But did EON Productions really have to rub it in our faces? I wouldn't mind so much, except she gets answered by a parrot while Bond and friend make a break for it! As you could imagine, this is embarrassing for everybody involved. And that includes YOU.

9) "James of the Jungle"
from Octopussy (1983)

In this scene, James Bond has escaped from the villain's palace in India and is being chased through a nearby jungle. The resulting action sequence is... uneven, to say the least. Sure, there are clever moments to be found, such as when Bond hides underneath a henchman's elephant and unfastens his saddle. But as for me, I'll remember this scene instead for two parts -- one, he encounters a tiger, and before it can pounce upon him, he sternly calls to it, "Sit!", and it does. And two, he swings on a series of vines, with a stock Tarzan yell playing in the background. Because... funny?

8) "Surfin' USSR"
from A View to a Kill (1985)

The cold-open of A View to a Kill takes place in, appropriately enough, a cold place: Siberia. In this scene, James Bond shows up here to investigate the body of a fallen 00 agent, retrieving a microchip from his person. Then some Soviet patrols shows up, and he proceeds to high-tail it out of there. At one point, he knocks a guy off a snowmobile, pulls off its hood, and uses it as a makeshift snowboard. Oh, and I forgot to mention -- Roger Moore had turned 57 at some point during production of this movie, the oldest a James Bond actor's ever been to date, and he did not age well in my opinion, so the mere sight of him snowboarding at his age should be enough to warrant a rank on this list. But as if that alone were not enough, we also have the choice of music to deal with. As snowboarding culture had not yet fully formed by 1985, the music director went with a surfing song -- a cover of "California Girls" by the Beach Boys! Guys, when I think of the Beach Boys, I do not associate them with icy, snowbound Siberia! Or a 57-year-old snowboarder.

7) "Spoiler Alert: Bambi Lives"
from Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

In this scene, James Bond is searching the home of a one Willard Whyte. Suddenly, he comes across two lounging ladies named Bambi and Thumper. They tell him where Mr. Whyte may be found, but before letting 007 go, they rough him up a bit, in what is perhaps one of the series' worst-choreographed fight scenes. Bambi and Thumper tend to take turns throwing hits or getting in position, including some impressive gymnastic moves. I ain't complaining about that in concept, especially since one of them's in a bikini, but more often then not their moves serve no practical purpose in terms of fighting! It's like they just want to show off!

6) "Flipping the Bird... Literally"
from Moonraker (1979)

In this scene, James Bond has just disposed of some assassins who tried to get him along the canals of Venice. So, naturally, he did so from a gondola -- a motorboat gondola, of course. Now, that chase scene is perfectly fine; there's a knife thrower hidden in a casket, so of course Bond keeps him in there -- permanently. But the problem comes afterwards. With no more threats to take care of, he flips a switch to turn his gondola into a hovercraft, and drives onto the pier. This peculiar sight is met with all manner of astonished reaction shots from the locals, including -- get this -- a bird which does a double-take. As in, the editor repeated and reversed a bit of footage to make it seem as though the bird had the brain capacity to recognise a peculiar sight when it saw one, and react accordingly. Throw in a sprightly Strauss composition on the soundtrack, and you've got one surreal scene.

5) "Blow My Whistle, Baby"
from The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)

In this scene, James Bond (with, unfortunately, Sheriff J.W. Pepper) is in the middle of a car chase across Bangkok, when he notices his target on the opposite side of a river. With the nearest bridge miles behind him, he improvises: he finds a set of ramps and does a perfect corkscrew-jump between them. Sounds like an awesome moment, doesn't it? Well, it is, except for one thing: this stunt is accompanied by a slide-whistle sound effect. I've read numerous accounts claiming this moments as one of the series' worst, and it's hard for me to disagree with those opinions. But no matter how stupid that sound effect was, it's still just one piece of a scene with some other, better components, which is why this entry isn't higher on my list. Besides, how cool can you make a stunt like that when it's preceded by the one-liner, "Ever heard of Evel Kneivel?" Because... the Seventies?

4) "Surfin' CGI"
from Die Another Day (2002)

In this scene, James Bond is in a rocket-sled, being chased across the Icelandic ice fields by a satellite laser beam. The chase leads over a cliff, with Bond saving himself by deploying the craft's anchor. Rather than use the laser to fry him directly, of course, our villain instead cuts off a chunk of the icy cliff, with intent to drop him into the ocean. But with a bout of improbable MacGyvering, Bond fashions a makeshift surfboard and parachute, and rides away on the ensuing wave. And then... he para-surfs along the ensuing wave. This sounds outlandishly extreme enough, but this scene was accomplished by such stilted, flawed CG animation that whatever sense of danger we get from other such stunts in the Bond series just cannot be matched here. And another thing, if the wave caused by the ice chunk travelled away from the cliff, how could Bond have turned around to lift himself up over the cliff?

3) "Your Head Asplode"

from Live and Let Die (1973)

In this scene, James Bond and Solitaire are in the clutches of our villain, Dr. Kananga. He has the couple tied up over a shark tank, and cuts 007's arm with a knife to draw blood. Never mind that he could've killed them more directly with that knife of his. So Bond frees himself and Solitare using a buzz-saw in his wristwatch -- a function that was never so much as foreshadowed -- and proceeds to fight Kananga. The fight ends with Bond forcing a compressed-air bullet into Kananga's mouth. As the gas expands inside his body, he lifts out of the water and blows up like a balloon. Literally. As in, the special effect for this scene involved a Kananga-shaped balloon. Now, I normally wouldn't mind any opportunity to avert excessive blood and gore, but the way they chose to go about it is so unreal, it could never be taken seriously in a million years! Couldn't they have chosen some other way for him to die, something that could be feasibly re-created and still keep a PG rating? I mean, they've got a perfectly good shark tank to use, and corporal inflation was the best they could come up with?

2) "I Know Kung Fu... Not"

from The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)

In this scene, James Bond has been knocked out and captured, and wakes up in a Thai martial-arts school. He spars with a couple of opponents and then makes a break for it, wherein he catches up with his ally, Lieutenant Hip and his nieces. Who promptly go to town on the pursuing gang of bads, Street Fighter style. In fact, Hip and co. have things so well-in-hand that Bond is left with nothing to do throughout this brawl. His only contribution is pushing down some guy who was already disabled. And then Hip and co. drive off in his car... without Bond! What's the matter dude, I thought you were on his side! This missed ride leads to Bond leading a tepid motorboat chase, punctuated only by its own awful moments: a downright terrible one-liner ("What you might call a Mexican screw-off, gentlemen!" Seriously, dude, no one says that.), Bond taking advantage of a beggar child, and of course, Sherrif J.W. Pepper.

1) "Goodnight, Sweet Princess"
from The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)

Yeah, I've used this movie three times in this list. I regret nothing. In this scene, James Bond is dueling with Scaramanga on the latter's private island, while Bond-girl Mary Goodnight is being watched over by a maintenance man. Proving her capability, she knocks him out -- only for his body to fall into a liquid-nitrogen vat, setting off a slow-burning chain reaction which will eventually destroy the island. But that's not the worst of it. Right afterwards, she accompanies Bond as he tries to remove some solar-energy unit from a laser chamber, when she leans back on a console and her bum pushes the switch to turn on the solar collector -- with Bond inside it. And she has no idea how to turn it off -- ya think she could've felt the switch pushing against her skin and tried flipping the same one back!? Madam Goodnight was nothing if not a liability in 007's mission. Lucky we viewers also had Maud Adams's character to keep us company.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Wildcard slot. This entry takes the Wildcard slot for not actually having been featured in the final cut of its movie, existing as a deleted scene which has since resurfaced on DVD. But oh boy, what a scene to get through...

Wildcard) "I Can Show You the World"
from The Living Daylights (1987)

In this scene, Bond is being chased across the rooftops of Tangier by the local police. At one point, he picks up a platform covered in a rug, places it on top of a set of electrical wires, and slides down them. In other words, a makeshift magic carpet. As if that weren't goofy enough, a pack of middle-aged men smoking a water pipe see him and say, "I told you this stuff was good". Gah, why not just bring back the wine-drinking guy from the Roger Moore films? At least he didn't have any lines! I suppose my exasperation comes both from the silliness of this scene and from the seriousness of the rest of the film. Believe me, if I had included this entry in the countdown proper, it would have been number one with a bullet. I'm one of the few people willing to stand up for Timothy Dalton's Bond career, and now I suppose that has something to do with the editor's decision to leave this bit on the cutting-room floor.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dance Dance Retrospective: The Mobile Games

At last we have reached the final installment of Dance Dance Retrospective, and with this momentous occasion upon us, please allow me to say... This series was a mistake. A mistake I made whilst blinded by fandom. Pretty much all I did in those articles was describe the changes each game made from one installment to another, no how irrelevant they would be to readers without my level of interest in the franchise. I even planned a video series at one point, but never finished even the first episode once I realised I was wasting all my time on so much minutiae. Oh well, I suppose I let some critical observations slip in from time to time, so it can't have been a total waste. Spoiler alert: I'm going to be doing just that for this article as well.

Okay, so I've covered all of Dance Dance Revolution's arcade games, all the home console games, so what's next...? The mobile market, of course! With pocket-sized touchscreen devices proving their feasibility as gaming platforms ever since the invention of the iPhone, Konami eventually saw fit to introduce their venerable DDR property into the market. Their first foray was DanceDanceRevolution S, which first appeared on the iTunes Store on 25 February 2009. (Ports were later made for Android and Windows Phone platforms, but they were only sold in Japan.) As you might imagine, this game was played by tapping the arrows on a virtual dancepad on the bottom of the screen. As with most mobile games that use virtual-gamepad inputs on a touchscreen, there was always the problem of missing the buttons and not getting any feedback that you did so, but I suppose that could be less of a problem for some gamers. There was also the "Shake Mode", where you shook the iPhone unit in four directions instead of tapping the notes. It was only available for Basic and Difficult charts and, as with any kind of motion control, the lack of physical feedback makes your timing even more imprecise, but as an added bonus, I guess it was fun for a little while. There were 25 songs packed into DDR S, mainly revivals from the Hottest Party games.

Gameplay in DDR S, using a virtual dance-pad at the bottom.
In my opinion, DDR S didn't have the most engaging setlist, but they rectified that issue, in a sense, with DanceDanceRevolution S+ (iOS, 5 October 2009). This game had a price of just ninety-nine cents, but only packed three songs within. That is, unless you count the DDR Store. There were a total of 219 songs released, across 67 song packs, as DLC for S+, spanning more-or-less the entire franchise, including tracks from (the real) DDR X2. There was even an option to purchase a "Starter Pack" of 150 songs for US$65. This was a pretty strong showing, considering that the 2010 DDR games only got a couple of DLC song-packs. And with so much content available, you could pick and choose your favourites to create your own custom Mix. But, I'll say the same thing I said about DDR 2010: if you have to pay extra to get the best content, then the game's just not worth it. Besides, that all-songs pack is a monster case of sticker-shock, you know?

And finally, there was DanceDanceRevolution Dance Wars (iOS, 14 February 2013). Dance Wars followed the example of all those free-to-play games that sprouted up over the past few years. First, a "stamina" system limited how many songs you could play in the main Battle Mode within a certain time frame. (A free-play mode was also available which doesn't include the stamina limit, but you could not unlock new songs this way.) And second, you could invite other players to your "Dance Crew" to unlock content faster. A total of 47 songs were available in-game, mostly revivals from all across the franchise, although only 4 were available without unlocking.

However, I've been using the past tense to describe all these games, because they have all suffered some degree of unavailability. DDR S was taken down from the iTunes Store at some point, perhaps because of S+, which is still available to this day, but recently I've had trouble getting the game's online store to open. And Dance Wars was not only taken down from the store as well, but the online service was shut down on 31 August 2013, barely six months after the game's debut. And with Dance Wars being one of those always-online games, this shutdown rendered the game literally unplayable. I never even got the chance to play it myself due to it not being compatible with my outdated iPod Touch model.

The last time we heard anything from DDR in the North American market was something called DanceDanceRevolution Pocket Edition, which is played on an Apple TV sling-box and an iPhone in your pocket as a motion-sensor, eschewing the physical dance-pad setup entirely. I don't have a lot of information on this edition; apparently it follows the S+ model of a free app with three songs, and about 300 more available as DLC. And it also appears to have been removed from the iTunes Store as of this writing.

And... that's all I've got.

So this is how it ends, huh? It looks like Dance Dance Revolution isn't coming back to the arcades or "traditional" home consoles anytime soon, especially now that we've got the new generation forcing its way onto the market. DDR has managed, of late, to gain a foothold in the mobile-platform market, and I'm just starting to come to grips with this reality. I mean, if other games like GTA: San Andreas and Bioshock can run on iOS or Android, what do I have to complain about? But Konami managed to screw that up too, what with them taking some of their games offline. And having read about Pocket Edition, I should be more supportive of that one, too. For one, they managed to solve the problem of wearing out countless dance pads by taking them out of the equation. And an Apple TV unit is bound to be cheaper than a PS4 or XBox One or what-not... Oh wait, I forgot the exorbitant cost of an iPhone or iPod -- one for each person who wishes to play -- so never mind.

But more so than anything else, my creeping sense of doom for the future of DDR franchise was brought on by the franchise itself. As you may have gathered by reading the past articles of Dance Dance Retrospective, the later games have somehow failed to capture my interest. Maybe it's my own tastes that are shifting towards other genres of gaming, maybe it's a case of running out of new ideas, or maybe they've gone so far from what I interpret as the essence of DDR that they've become irrelevant. And what I envision as the "essence of DDR" may vary from someone else's vision. Like, my vision involves a return to the musical styles of the first few games, with more modern conventions elsewhere, and to cap off a running gag from this series, how 'bout USB UNLOCKS FOR ONCE!! There's always the possibility of DDR making a major comeback, but with the gaming market shifting as it has these days, it may not be in the form we expect. But wherever there's good music, there will always be someone who wants to dance to it. Specifically, to Dance Dance to it.


Ah [verb] it, there's always StepMania.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Editorial: The Simpsons Guy

Television history was made on Sunday, 28 September 2014, when the animated universes of The Simpsons and Family Guy converged for a one-hour crossover episode. As a longtime Simpsons fan who only recently got back on the bandwagon (thanks largely to the recent "Every Simpsons Ever" marathon on the FXX channel) and a former Family Guy watcher who had personally boycotted said show at some point, I have to say I had been off-and-on excited for this event. And for the most part, my excitement was sated upon watching the thing. But seeing these two shows in such close contact with each other made me wonder: what problems exist with these shows, and what could they learn from each other to better themselves? Let's find out.

I've been a Simpsons fan since 2002, more or less, and given my relatively late introduction to the franchise, I've enjoyed many of the episodes from within the past couple of years before then, as they helped formed my first impressions of the show. But lately I haven't been able to drum up the interest in it anymore. There wasn't any one moment that killed my attachment forever, but my interest just sort of faded gradually. As first-day fans would've claimed took place by the time I got on board, for some reason or another, the newer episodes just haven't managed to bring the heat. Sure, these recent seasons can pack some pleasant surprises every few episodes, but for the most part, watching The Simpsons is like being a member of the MTV generation: I feel neither highs nor lows.

Now Family Guy, on the other hand... I started paying attention to Family Guy since about the time it got un-cancelled (in 2005), and I liked it at the time. I've never minded its reliance on cutaway gags, as they at least kept up a fluid pace, with few exceptions (I'll touch on that later on). But after a few years passed, I started noticing something: Family Guy is offensive. It's racist, misogynistic, homophobic, politically partisan, and all-around unpleasant. Season 7 (2008-2009) was the worst, hosting such episodes as "I Dream of Jesus", "Family Gay", "Fox-y Lady", "420", and perhaps worst of all, "Not All Dogs Go To Heaven". Family Guy's writers seem incapable of portraying minority demographics as anything but their stereotypical images, worst of all in the case of Jews (i.e. the pharmacist Mort Goldman, his son Neil, and the entire Jewish community of 1939 Warsaw) and homosexuals (i.e. Brian the dog's cousin Jasper, and Peter himself when he underwent medical experimentation to make him temporarily gay). And Brian has become nothing short of insufferable in his "holier"-than-thou attitude as an atheist and political liberal. Yeah, I might be a blue-stater myself, but his preachy, my-way-or-the-highway method of exposition regarding those subjects just goes above and beyond my standards, you know?
I don't see anything ugly
about this girl.  Do you?

But it was the repeated abuse of the character Meg Griffin which broke the proverbial camel's back for me. Even from season 1, many if not all of her plots involve struggling to fit in with her school comrades, or getting along with her family. And that alone isn't a problem if done right, as an estimated 100% of teenagers in American fiction have to deal with those kinds of things. The problem in Meg's case, however, is that these scenarios have been turned up to 11 in terms of the abuse she deals with. Peter, her own father, can be counted on with regularity to either ignore her well-being or outright assault her. Not even the other members of her family are likely to show her any sympathy, either. And her social life? Let's just say potential suitors would rather kill themselves -- literally, given the nature of this show -- than take her to the next prom. Why? Is it because she's hideously deformed? Going by how she's drawn typically, she looks like a perfectly cromulent young lady. And another thing, why does Meg, and to a lesser extent Lois, have to struggle to keep up with standards of beauty, whereas the men of the Griffin family are allowed to let themselves go physically?

So yeah, it didn't take long for the writers' intentions to completely backfire on me, for Meg to capture all my sympathy and Peter to turn into public enemy #1 as far as fictional characters are concerned. Moments like Quagmire's rant in "Jerome Is The New Black" and the entirety of episodes like "Dial Meg For Murder" show that the writers are at least self-aware of their faults, but as the next week's episode rolls around, we find that they have learned absolutely zip from their efforts. Oh, and that 3-minute Conway Twitty cutaway was unforgivable, if for other reasons.

Okay, enough ranting for the moment. I assume you read this article title and thought I was going to focus my attention on the titular crossover episode itself, so I suppose I should do so. It was... janusian. It had its good moments and one or two bad ones. This episode was strongest when it leaned on the fourth wall, with the characters of one show spouting criticisms of the other. For example, the way Homer and Peter argue over their Duff and Pawtucket Patriot beers echoes the arguments one could make regarding being the first vs. being the best. And I especially liked how Fred Flintsone played the judge in the ensuing court case, bringing that issue to a head.

With this episode's "hot" moments out of the way, what about the "not"s, or at least the "not-so-hot"s? Well, there's a sub-plot with Meg and Lisa Simpson, where Lisa tries to find something Meg could be good at, and as it turns out, they're both good at playing the Saxophone. This moment in and of itself was all well and good, as for one brief moment, it appeared that Meg would finally get over her P.S.I. (Poor Self Esteem). (And yes I do know "esteem" doesn't start with "I"; that's how they did it in the episode I linked to.) But as the Griffins pack up their car to leave Springfield and Meg clutches her new saxophone with hope in her eyes, Peter just throws it in the garbage like it was no big deal, since there was allegedly no more room in the car. I'm not ashamed to admit I threw an F-bomb in Peter's regard while watching this scene for the first time, because of how something I've so desperately wanted could be delicately built up only to be so abruptly dashed. (Wouldn't be the first time though.) But for the purposes of this blog, I'll just make do with this meme-pic:

I'll close up this editorial by bringing up one more scene from "The Simpsons Guy": the part where Bart and Stewie prank-call Moe's Tavern. Bart's part is your typical fare, tricking Moe into saying an embarrassing fake name, and it's just as funny as it's ever been. But for his turn, Stewie says only one line -- "Your sister's being raped" -- before abruptly hanging up. And that scene, more than anything, illustrates the differences between The Simpsons and Family Guy. The Simpsons sticks to its time-honoured routines that may or may not elicit laughs. And Family Guy aims for whatever shock value it can muster within the confines of a TV-14 rating (and not even that, if you're watching one of the uncensored DVD releases). There are pros and cons to each of these approaches, so I say the two shows could stand to learn something from one another: The Simpsons to punch up its comedic stylings, and Family Guy to learn some much-needed sensitivity.

Or Family Guy can manifest into some physical form, only to kill itself, for all I care.