Friday, January 1, 2016

Greg's Favorites of 2015

 

Welcome to 2016.  Let's once again resurrect this dead format so I can document my favorite things from 2015.

Music

Another weak year for me music-wise.  Part of that is my own fault because I found most of my listening time is now dedicated to podcasts rather than music.  So without dedicating much time for listening to music, my hunt for new albums and bands has ebbed a bit.  That being said, there were a few good things that I found this year.

I'll start with myself again.  I didn't do mush musically this year, though I continue to keep song ideas brewing in the back of my mind.  I'm sure more will be coming soon.  In the meantime, I did do another Christmas instrumental arrangement this year for "We Three Kings."  This one is done in an upbeat, Mannheim Steamroller-style mixed with a swashbuckling-adventure feel.


Michael Sherwood & Christian Nesmith - Groovy Lemon Pie
By far the best album I found this year was this amazing pop-rock album that sounds like Peter Gabriel joined up with XTC and his old Genesis bandmates.  It honestly sounds like the spiritual successor to Peter Gabriel's "So."  Similar to how Gotye sounded just like Sting a few years ago.  I found and brought this album with us on our giant summer trip this year of over 3000 car miles.  We listened to it almost exclusively through the amazing scenery of Yellowstone National Park, and it was the perfect soundtrack to that beautiful background.  The album is available on Bandcamp where you can listen to the album in its entirety.  If you are limited in time, skip the first couple tracks and listen to tracks 3-6.  Each of those is amazing and sound like a long lost Genesis album.  Track 11 "Two Words" and Track 15 "This Day" sound the most like Peter Gabriel solo.



Muse - Drones
I really enjoyed the new Muse album this year.  I had to edit a couple tracks (particularly Psycho) to make them listenable, but overall I enjoyed the overblown dramatic rock that Muse always brings.

FFS - FFS
This was a collaboration piece between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks.  Two bands I would never specifically put together in my head, but somehow the album works as both a new Sparks album and its own thing.

The December People - A Classic Rock Christmas
Thanks to my brother who let me know about this album that came out just in time for Christmas.  I really enjoy the mashup of classic Christmas songs with classic rock bands that these guys do.  This time they do Eagles, Toto, Van Halen, and Dire Straits, among others.  It works in nicely with their previous albums.

Darkness - Last of Our Kind
I enjoyed this new Darkness album, and most of the songs are good, but it never quite dug into me enough to make a long lasting impression.

Hoosiers - The Secret Service
See the paragraph above but replace Darkness with Hoosiers.

Special Mention: Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds (1978)
The first track from this album was playing during an episode of Fargo Season 2, and I was vaguely familiar with it, but had never looked into it before.  I found it was from this album which is a musical retelling of the War of the Worlds.  It's really quite an amazing and fun work which sounds like a cross between ELO and Moody Blues.  While there are songs, or occasional singing throughout, I would say it's a good mix of instrumental and singing, with some bits of narration and dramatic acting to carry the story along.  Justin Hayward, the lead singer from Moody Blues sings a few times and it fits right in with other Moody Blues songs from the late 70s.

A few other albums of note this year that I listened to: A new Toto album (XIV) that had a few good songs, a new Ben Folds album (So There) that was mostly to show off his orchestral stuff that I didn't really care for, and an album from the guy behind the YouTube Bret Domino Trio, Rob J Madin which I supported via IndieGogo, but sadly didn't really get into.  And Chateau Marmont, who put out my favorite album a few years ago, put out a new one that was headache-inducingly terrible.  I never could listen all the way through.

Movies

In looking towards 2015, people were expecting a legendary year, and I think they got it.  The biggest opening weekend ever happened several times this year, and at this moment three movies from this year are in the top 10 of all time.  And of course, Star Wars nearly took over Christmas this year along with everything else it got near.  At this moment Star Wars is just 1 million behind Jurassic World which it will obviously pass today, and 7 million behind Titanic which it will also likely pass today, or this weekend for sure.  It's still 110 behind Avatar, so it's unsure whether it will overtake that juggernaut.  Surprisingly, it was not my favorite of the year.  Another weird thing about this year: there was an abundance of spy movies, and who would have guessed they all would have been better than James Bond's SPECTRE.  Skyfall was one of the best Bonds, but this new one was just okay.  Interestingly, at the beginning of the year the movies I was most looking forward to were Avengers and Tomorrowland, neither of which were as good as I'd hoped.

Also new for this year: several local theaters were refitted with Luxury Recliners and started reserved seating.  It is so nice to have room and be able to put your feet up while watching a movie.  This trend makes me happy. 

Here's what I watched and liked this year in movies:

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
I did not think lightning could strike three times with this movie series, since every movie has been directed by a totally different team.  But this was just as enjoyable as the last two from JJ Abrams and Brad Bird.  Oddly this had the same story as SPECTRE, but was far superior.

The Martian
I had no expectations for this film.  I certainly didn't need to see another movie with people rescuing Matt Damon.  But on its release there was so much buzz, I had to go see, and found one of the most enjoyable, smart, moving films of the year.

Mad Max Fury Road
Like the Martian, I had no specific interest in this film until it came out and people started throwing hyperbole all over the film.  It was definitely an intense ride, and unlike anything else I've seen in a long time.  I just wish the last act/ending were a bit more satisfying, but otherwise definitely an amazing film.

Inside Out
Finally Pixar puts out a new film that can rank right alongside their previous great films.  What I find most amazing about this film is it introduces a whole new vocabulary to talk to kids about their feelings and trying to understand their behavior.  Sadly, my son had to leave twice throughout the film for potty breaks, so I missed a few key moments from the film that I had to wait several months to finally get the whole experience.

Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
These were three biggest movies of the year, all sequels to huge franchises, and I enjoyed all of them. However, each of them was disappointing in some way.  Jurassic World and Star Wars were essentially telling their earlier stories all over again.  Avengers' issue was that they set up a villain that never really paid off and ended up being like pretty much every other comic book bad guy.

Ant-Man
I really enjoyed Ant-Man, even though it was essentially a retelling of Iron Man.  I was really scared when Edgar Wright left the project, but the finished film turned out fun, albeit a bit light.

Kingsmen, Man from UNCLE, Spy, SPECTRE
Along with Mission Impossible, there are the other spy movies that I saw this year in order of how I enjoyed them.  Kingsmen was just crazy, and UNCLE had a great sense of style and humor.  Spy was mostly just silly, but it made more sense than SPECTRE.  The opening to SPECTRE was pretty great, but the overall story just didn't make enough sense to carry the action scenes.

The Visit, The Walk, The Martian, The Gift
These are four films I saw in a row, completely coincidentally, that were all good, but had completely generic and similar names.  All of these movies would be improved with better titles.  For example, Eric D Snider suggested changing "The Visit" to "Something's Wrong With Nana and Pop-Pop."  I'd go see that movie!

It Follows, Krampus, Crimson Peak
These are the best horror movies I saw this year.  "It Follows" had the best premise of any horror movie.  Krampus was a great throw back to Gremlins-style 80s films.  And Crimson Peak had an amazing style.  Sadly I didn't feel like any of them managed a satisfactory ending.

Creed
Another movie I was not looking forward to, but saw after reviews started coming in.  Like several other movies listed above, this was essentially a retelling of the original film (Rocky), but somehow I got caught up in it.  The single-take fight in the middle of the film was amazing.

Hunger Games 4
I'm not going to bother looking up the correct title to this movie.  It was a nice completion to the series.  I enjoyed it better than the last book. 

Special mentions:

This year after the death of Wes Craven, people started talking about his movies.  I'd seen the Scream series and first Nightmare on Elm Street, but nothing else.  In searching for a guide to some of his movies, I found a podcast called "Now Playing" (more down below) that stepped movie by movie through various movie franchises.  So I figured I'd watch the Nightmare on Elm Street series (all 9 films.)  When I finished that, I decided to watch the Friday the 13th series (12 movies--one of the which was the Elm Street crossover Freddy vs. Jason.)  Finishing that, I figured I'd complete the trifecta and watched the Halloween series (10 films.)  And for good measure I watched the Texas Chainsaw films (7), Children of the Corn (9), Blair Witch (2), and Silent Night Deadly Night (6).  Needless to say, that turned into a very busy Halloween season.

Speaking of marathons, I also watched all the Bond films leading up to SPECTRE (26 films, including 2 unofficial films), all the Star Wars movies (7 including Clone Wars movie), the first four Rocky films, and nearly all the Die Hard films (we couldn't get through 5.  It's just awful. And looking at the films I've watched in the paragraph above, I've watched some truly bad films this year.)

One last mention, I watched "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" in full this year.  I had seen bits in the past, but this was the first time watching the whole movie, and I think it's one of my new favorite comedy horror films.

TV

There seems to be a trend toward amazing short series but not so much regular long-lasting shows.  There was very little on the regular networks that I watched this year, and almost nothing that I wasn't watching already.  Here are my favorite shows I watched this year:

Wizard Wars/Penn & Teller Fool Us
I really enjoy seeing good magic on TV.  The pseudo-improvised style of Wizard Wars with the occasional mistake, and the live stage-style presentation on Fool Us shows off impressive magic without camera tricks and without the overblown style that other magicians have used.  

Face Off
I continue to really enjoy seeing the creature creations come to life in this show.  Even though I really only watch to see the last 10 minutes of the episode.

Simpsons/Brooklyn 99
Yup, I still watch the Simpsons, and Brooklyn 99 is the only live sitcom that we regularly enjoy as a family.

Last Week Tonight
After seeing a few segments of this show, I got hooked and watched regularly.  John Oliver has a way of taking an issue that you never cared about (like FIFA) and suddenly make you care while being highly entertained at the same time.  I just wish this weren't an HBO show, since I don't think the casual adult language improves anything.

The Jinx/Making a Murderer
Speaking of getting caught up in issues.  Both of these mini-series got me hooked portraying two opposite crime stories.  The first, about a rich guy who gets away with everything, and the second about a poor guy who absolutely doesn't.  I watched a couple episodes of Making a Murderer just a few days ago and then found I couldn't stop.  I was debating hard when I was getting near the end and it was past midnight whether to push through or get some sleep.  I think in this case I should have pushed through since I was too agitated to sleep anyway though I tried.

Broadchurch
Another murder mystery, but this time a fictional one.  This was the second series of the UK show, and though I figured catching the murderer was all that needed to be said in the first series, the second series gave plenty of reasons to justify coming back one more time.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Wet Hot American Summer
These two Netflix comedy shows were two of my favorites for the year.  The first has made it impossible to say the word "Unbreakable" or anything that sounds similar ("Unmistakable," "Unshakable," "Incapable," etc) without breaking into that ear-worm theme song.  The other show was great in recapturing that strange off-the-wall style of the original film.

Ash vs. Evil Dead
This series wraps up tonight, I believe, so I haven't finished it, but it's been a strange trip.  I loved Army of Darkness, and really liked Evil Dead 2. The pilot, by Sam Raimi, started things off pretty promising, but then it's been hit or miss along the way.  Still, it's pretty crazy seeing Ash back on the screen--especially when you compare him to the chubby Bruce Campbell of Burn Notice.

America's Got Talent/Britain's Got Talent
This is still the place to occasionally see something you've never seen before.  This year the American finalists included several magicians and a regurgitator.

Inside No. 9
A British dark-humored anthology show.  You never know if you're gonna get a farce, a murder mystery, or a pull-at-your-heart-strings drama.  It's somewhat hit or miss, but I appreciate the effort and the fact that you never know what you're going to get.

Muppets
As a huge Muppet fan, I would have assumed this would be at the top of my list going into last year.  It's what I've been wanting from the Muppets for years.  The Office-style pseudo-documentary behind-the-scenes style seemed perfectly matched for putting on the Muppet Show.  And it probably was in 2008.  In 2015, it didn't work, and I quickly got bored.  I'm not even sure what the last episode was that I watched because it didn't hold my attention strongly enough to remember.  This makes me sad. 

Special mention:

With "Friends" streaming on Netflix, we watched the entire series all over again.  We'd bought the series on DVD a long time ago, but then sold or gave it away.  It was fun re-watching it as a historical piece on the late 90s and seeing which guest stars are now huge or have gone on to other things while many of the Friends themselves have started to disappear.

I watched a couple other online series including "Other Space" and "Community."  I was sadly very disappointed with "Community."  With a reduced cast list from the original show, it never seemed to reach the heights of the earlier series.

Online:
Not counting Netflix, since I included that with the regular shows above, some of the other things that I enjoyed watching online were:
  • RedLetterMedia (Half in the Bag, Best of the Worst, Wheel of the Worst)
  • Screen Junkies (Honest Trailers, Movie Fights)
  •  Bored Shorts
  • TomSka (asdf, skits)

Podcasts

As I mentioned in the music section, I listen almost exclusively to podcasts these days.  My favorites this year were:
  • "Now Playing Podcast" -- as I mentioned in movies, this show goes movie by movie through nearly every franchise out there from horror to comic book to action. If there's a sequel they've either reviewed it or will get to it eventually.  I've had a lot of fun with discovering this podcast with around 6 years of back log to catch up on.  It's encouraged me to watch and/or re-watch quite a few movies this year to play along.
  • "Movie Fights" -- This one hasn't been going very long, and when I got into it early this year, I binged through the episodes I missed to catch up.  At first I thought the point was establish things like "Who was the best Batman" or "Which Avenger would win in the Hunger Games" with a definitive answer.  But once I realized it was purely about the debate, not the answer, then I softened to it and really got into it.  We even got a card game called "Superfight" which works similar to this show in pairing up fighters and then debating who would win.
  • "Movie BS" -- I provided another new theme song for this show, my favorite movie review podcast.
  • "Empire"/"Slashfilm" -- These are my two other favorite movie news/review podcasts.
  • "Smegheads"/"James Bonding" -- These two podcasts step through each Red Dwarf show/James Bond movie and review them in a very entertaining way.

Games

I played a lot of games this year.  As usual.  We added a PS3 to our game library, now that the system is last generation and cheap, and we could find lots of games for a good price.  My boys have taken to PC gaming and we've got a lot more games through Steam than through consoles this year.  Here are the games that I enjoyed the most:

-Trials Frontier/Simpsons Tapped Out (iOS) -  These were my top two last year and I continued to play them throughout this year.  I almost got fed up with Trials and deleted it off my phone for a week, only to discover a massive update that fixed all the things I was upset with and added a ton of new content.  Both of these are Freemium games, but I do put a few dollars in here and there mainly to express appreciation for the many hours I've spent on them.  With Trials, I have regularly been ranked in the top 100 in the world for most of the year.

-Her Story (iOS) - This was one of the most unique and fascinating games this year.  The premise is that you are watching clips of a series of interviews on a police computer for an old crime.  You are given no information and can only access the clips by typing in words from the interview transcript -- which you don't have.  So you start by typing in words like "crime" or "murder" and see what comes up.  Bit by bit, you piece together the story that you learn in a completely random order.  It's also unique in that it's mostly video with real people--or, actually, one actor.  I strongly recommend finding this.  I think it's available on several different platforms.

Hyrule Warrios (WiiU) - I didn't  understand this Zelda-themed game when I first tried it.  You are on a big battlefield surrounded by hundreds of monsters and you just jump in and start killing everyone.  Slowly I found that mass murdering people was very addicting and could be done while watching a movie or doing other things at the same time.

Splatoon (WiiU) - This was a really clever and very unique multiplayer game on the Wii.  The premise makes no sense, but the gameplay is really fun. You are a person who has ink-based weapons like brushes or paint sprays, and you try to spread your color of ink over the playing field while stopping the other team from spreading their ink.  And you can turn into a squid to swim through your color of ink.  Weird, but fun.

Mario Maker (WiiU) - We had a lot of fun designing Mario levels with this game.  It's laid out in a very ingenious way, while only giving you a few tools at a time and making you earn more by making levels and trying out the tools you have.  There's an amazing library of other levels that people have made and many of them are unbelievable.

Lego Jurassic Park (XBox 360) - Yup, another Lego game.  This one has dinosaurs.

Geometry Wars 3 (Xbox, iOS) - Geometry Wars 2 was my favorite Xbox 360 game.  I never expected a new game in the series, since I'd believed the company that made it went under.  So I was shocked a new one was released with new ideas that lived up quite well to its predecessor.  The only reason it doesn't overtake it is that there's almost too much to do, which takes away the intense, but simple focus of the previous one that only had a few different types of stages.

Unfinished Swan (PS3) - This was an older game that was exclusive to the PS3 so I was finally able to play it this year.  I'd seen a demo several years ago and was blown away by the concept.  You start out with a completely white screen and after hitting random buttons on the controller you discover one of them throws a ball of paint which lands in front of you splashing on the wall or ground.  As you throw paint, you can begin to distinguish your environment which you have to traverse by continuing to throw paint balls to find your way around.  There are other mechanics that come into play in this short game, but that first part is just amazing as an invisible world suddenly starts to take shape in front of your eyes.

A few other games that I played this year:
Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker, Rayman Wii U, Pocket Mine 2 (iOS), Shadowmatic (iOS), Talos Principle (PC), Shovel Knight (PC), Batman:Arkham Origins (XBox), The Sly Cooper Collection (PS3), Katamari Forever (PS3), You Must Build a Boat (iOS)

Books

 I made a goal to read more this year.  I only sort of succeeded, but there were a few things I made it through:

  • "As You Wish" - A behind the scenes book of "The Princess Bride" written by Wesley himself, Cary Elwes
  • "Vortex"/"Catalyst" - Books 2 and 3 of the terribly named "Insignia" series.  A series about a world where they put computers into the heads of potential child soldiers in a cross between "Ender's Game" and "Ready Player One."
  • "Armada" - Speaking of "Ready Player One," this was the new novel from Ernest Cline about an alien invasion on earth that was a cross between "Ender's Game" and "The Last Starfighter."  It was a fun read, but not quite the instant classic that his previous book became.
  • Book of Mormon - I spent a significant amount of time re-reading the Book of Mormon in a short span of time in the middle of the year, starting with 3rd Nephi and wrapping around back to the end of Helaman.
  • "The Da Vinci Code" - I re-read this book when we found a cheap copy of the illustrated version that contains images of all the paintings and places that were referred to in the book.  It was nice to have the reference material right there as you read it.
  • "The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries" - I just got this for Christmas so I'm only a few stories in, but I've enjoyed it so far.
  • "Goosebumps #1: Welcome To Dead House" - I had an idea to try and read some Goosebump books since there was a Goosebump movie coming out this year.  I only made it through this and halfway through the second.

And so 2016...

Now that we're done with 2015, here's what I'm looking forward to this next year.

I'm still looking forward to all the Marvel films.  This year is Captain America Civil War and Doctor Strange.  I'm looking forward to the next Star Wars movie, Rogue One and the next Star Trek as well.  I'm hesitant about Batman V Superman or Suicide Squad. And then there's Ghostbusters.  Could be amazing, could be like this year and be too close of a remake to the earlier film.  Who knows.  There's also a Harry Potter pseudo-prequel Fantastic Beasts... that could be really interesting.

On TV there's a new Sherlock special airing today.  Otherwise, who knows.

In music, I think the Feeling have new album coming out and  I'm willing to give them another shot.  Tears for Fears may have a new album if we're lucky.  Otherwise, I have nothing much that I'm anticipating for this year.  Maybe I'll finally start getting more of my own music down as I work toward my second album.  We'll see.

In games, we may learn about a new Nintendo platform this year, and maybe get a new Zelda game?

At the moment we have no big plans for 2016.  There are a few international trips for work that are coming up between now and early 2017 which I may get to go on.  Otherwise, we intend to just keep on as we've been doing.

See you all in 2017!

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