Archive for December, 2013

Best Albums of 2013

In 2013, I reviewed 57 albums, 34 of which were released this year. Here are my picks for albums of the year, with the usual caveats: I know my experience was far from complete, but I think I do a good job of picking out the things I’ll be interested in. If the list seems weird, it probably has more to do with my taste than with the number of albums I bought. I pick my top 5, with confidence that even if I heard all the popular releases this year, these ones would still likely fit in my top 10. And if I discover the ones I missed later, I’ll include them in my list of the best “old discoveries” of the year.

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The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (Movie Review)

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

The Desolation of Smaug is the second movie in the Hobbit trilogy. I found it to be fun and very polished, though a little disappointing. In short, Peter Jackson succeeded at making the light fantasy action movie that he wanted, but it felt like there was a lot of wasted potential.

For the most part, the movie was most enjoyable when it added scenes to Tolkien’s original. Gandalf’s investigations into the evil of Dol Guldur feel like generic fantasy, but they tie in to the Lord of the Rings movies very well. A new subplot about elves hunting orcs is as slick and emotionless as a video game, but Peter Jackson excels at these bubblegum action scenes. And even the flashback where Gandalf first meets Thorin is a nice way to round out the plot.

But the scenes that were originally in he book are flattened out, since the humor, characters and subtleties were apparently getting in the way of extra orc battles. Bilbo’s taunting and outwitting of the giant spiders? Replaced with a huge fight, even though actor Martin Freeman could have made that very fun. Stumbling on an Elven feast? Nah, it’s more efficient just to have the Elves appear out of nowhere and capture everyone. Conversations with Beorn, or developing his interesting character? Gone completely. In fact, Beorn is the most confusing change, since he offered a lot of opportunity for visual effects and badass fights. Instead, his appearance is so brief and irrelevant that people who have read the book will feel cheated and people who haven’t will wonder what the point was of including him at all.

But the most disappointing changes were to Smaug. The dragon looks incredible, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s CGI performance feels suitably inhuman. Expect some well-deserved Oscar victories for this creation. But in the story, it’s less impressive. For the first few minutes, the dragon feels enormous, unpredictable, and scary. But he gets what feels like an hour of screentime with a series of new chase scenes. No characters ever get caught by him, and by the end his apparent threat level has dropped from “could beat up Godzilla” to “the Looney Tunes coyote”.

As I said in last year’s Hobbit review, Peter Jackson needed to make changes to the book. I’m comfortable with the thematic tie-ins to Lord of the Rings and even to the dumb-but-fun orc attacks that keep happening. (One battle, fought as the Dwarves float downriver on barrels, is laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly creative.) But I wish it hadn’t also dumbed down the source material. It’s fun, and funny, in ways beyond shooting orcs with arrows. Desolation of Smaug brings us breathtaking sets and special effects, frenetic action, and Manly Fantasy Brooding™. That’s not enough to sustain it, especially since the movie runs for almost three hours and it sometimes compares poorly to the kids’ book it’s based on. It is sufficient, but just barely, to make this worth watching, though I don’t feel as forgiving as I did a year ago.

Grade: B-

 

Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones – Foreverly (Music Review)

Foreverly cover

Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones – Foreverly

I’ve seen some other reviews of Foreverly, and it seems that they all follow the same pattern. First of all, they point out the unlikeliness of the concept. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong is joined by Norah Jones to make a faithful track-by-track adaptation of an obscure Everly Brothers album. Then the review says that surprisingly, they do a good job of it: The unlikely duo harmonizes nicely, and the songs are good.

I think that this is maybe letting the performers off easily. These are wildly successful music stars, and “they don’t sound bad” is pretty faint praise. The Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us was itself a collection of traditional country songs, and not necessarily an inspired list of choices. They beat you over the head with the emotional manipulation that was a country cliché a few generations back: There’s the song about a little boy’s dying wishes, the song about the little boy traveling to visit his dying mother, the song about the dying mother hoping to find her son before she goes, and so on. If The Everly Brothers had recorded this album thirty years later, it would’ve been all “my woman left me and my dog died” songs, and today it would be truckin’ and country checklists. We’re looking back at this album a half century later, so it’s a little more palatable than the modern clichés, but it’s still too much.

They’re good songs. Not one is wrong for a mix like this, but including them all is a little much. I would have much rather seen Armstrong and Jones put together their own collection of country standards, including just a few of these. Their performance is heartfelt and pleasant, and it does do justice to the sensibilities of past generations. It also strikes a nice balance between the washed-out production of 1958 and the loud production of 2013. I’d be happy to see what else they could do in this vein, but the only justification for this particular choice of songs is reverence for an album that wasn’t even notable at the time.

I know I’m probably being a little harsh on Foreverly, maybe in response to the uncritical praise. It’s an improvement on Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, it successfully brings two music stars into a new genre, and it will introduce a new audience to some deserving songs. But compared to the many versions of these songs already available, there is nothing outstanding here, and it doesn’t make a good case for why this genre still deserves attention. It’s pleasant, I listened to it several times, and I like the way this team works together. I hope they make something more inspired in the future.

Grade: C+

 

Android: Netrunner Genesis Cycle (Game Review)

The first three Genesis Cycle packs

The first three Genesis Cycle packs

It’s been a year since I reviewed Android: Netrunner, so it’s past time for me to check in again. There has been a lot of new material for it, so the only reason for my lateness is that I lost interest. I found the base set to be a tense, varied game on its own with a lot of promise for the future. I’m just not the right person for collectable card games, though, even using the curated LCG model. I couldn’t keep up with it, and wonder whether Fantasy Flight’s expansions really kept improving the game.

So, the base game game out late last year. The first small expansion (“data pack”) was also released by the end of 2012. 2013 saw eight additional small expansions and one large one, with no sign of slowing down next year! I bought the first three packs in “the Genesis Cycle“, so this is nominally a review of those. But it probably applies to the many cards I haven’t seen, and to my take on LCGs in general.

Netrunner: Genesis Cycle CardsFirst of all, I question the cost. The point of a Living Card Game is that you have a known cost up front, because you buy sets with all the cards instead of buying random booster sets. But that doesn’t make it cheap by any means. These data packs retail for $15 each, and they provide three copies each of twenty different cards. That’s almost $1 for every new card type, and you’re not likely to use all the cards anyway.

The triplicate cards are understandable, since a deck is allowed to contain up to three of each one. It was annoying that the base set didn’t have three copies of each one. On the other hand, each data set also includes a new faction card in triplicate, even though no game would ever use more than one! If you’re already wondering whether the expansion is worth the cost, it’s frustrating to get a couple cards that are impossible to ever use.

As far as the gameplay goes, they definitely add some new things. Corps now have Agendas that can be advanced beyond the minimum requirement for bonuses, and one Agenda changes the flow of the game by giving the player an extra action every turn. The new faction cards (“identities” of existing factions) feel balanced with new special powers that will change your considerations when building a deck. It’s not bad.

It’s not great, either, though. The three data packs I bought cost almost as much as the base game, and I certainly didn’t feel like they changed the game very much. The strongest new cards and combos are difficult to get, and I appreciate that Fantasy Flight does not seem to be ramping up the power to make expansions must haves. But the main change in the game’s feeling for me was a disappointing one: I’d appreciated how the base set made you work with a very limited selection of cards and factions with known weaknesses. Since Netrunner is fundamentally a bluffing game, this knowledge was part of the tension. Even with the limited data packs that I bought, the biggest holes have been filled (every Runner faction has icebreakers of each major type), and there are too many threats for you to feel like you’re able to guess at what your opponent might still have hidden.

I am used to expansions shaking up a game more, because I usually play board games. With those, it’s understood that an expansion will add new rules or make other significant changes. Since a collectable card game needs to stay consistent over the years, even if a player misses a couple sets, it doesn’t have the freedom to change the game as drastically. This added to the impression that I wasn’t getting a lot for the price of the new cards.

A lot of this is my own opinion, of course, and it’s coming from someone who has never stuck with a collectable game. I know that Netrunner is still a big hit in certain crowds. My perspective should be familiar to a lot of board gamers, though, and I do think that the flaws I see are legitimate. The expansions are detailed and maintain the game’s high quality (although I did think the flavor text was lacking, and the alleged theme running through each data pack felt weak). Overall, if you’re still playing this game a lot, buying these will be an easy decision. For me, though, I felt trapped between a good base game that wasn’t designed for long-term replayability on its own, and an expanded system that cost a lot of money without adding real changes.

Grade: C

 

Obits – Beds & Bugs

Beds & Bugs cover

Obits – Beds & Bugs

The tricky thing about reviewing Obits’ Beds & Bugs is that it’s difficult to avoid repeating my review of Moody, Standard and Poor. They have a solid, blues-based garage rock sound that blew me away the first time I heard it, but every album since then has felt like a faint echo of their debut, I Blame You. I want to like it: The Obits are the current band of Hot Snakes’ Rick Froberg, and after three consistent albums it seems like they’re in this for the long haul, but it also seems like it’s maybe a little too consistent.

The music is melodic, but with a mild distortion that makes the vocals difficult to focus on. This is a good balance between accessibility and comforting obscurity. More importantly, it puts the focus on the music rather than the lyrics. The band sings about things like making sure your pets will be cared for in your will (“Pet Trust”) or a detailed explanation of a birth gone wrong (“Malpractice”). These topics are presented in such a straightforward way that it’s difficult to tell whether they are intended to be an absurdist comment on modern culture, a Dadaist parody of songwriting, or true-life topics that actually resonate with the songwriter. This isn’t a major problem since the music is the important thing here. But while it was easy to enjoy mildly amusing topics like “Two-Headed Coin” in their first album, this is less hook-filled and doesn’t offer too much that’s new.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a reason that these songs don’t grab me. Some of it is probably familiarity from the last albums. The only real difference I hear between their best songs and the other ones is that I Blame You really seemed driven by the drums. Drummer Alex Fleisig has left the band since this album was released, so I’m not sure if there’s a story there. Either way, the drumming here is good but feels like it’s mainly following the guitar. The music retains its distinctiveness, and it’s always a little interesting, but it’s never vital.

The Obits are a good band, and this album doesn’t change that. Beds & Bugs does suffer from the standard they set in the past, though, and with none of the songs being worth hearing for the lyrics, it’s too easy to make these unflattering comparisons.

Grade: C+

 

JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers – Wild Moon (Music Review)

Wild Moon cover

JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers – Wild Moon

The Dirt Daubers released Wild Moon under the name JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers, but this album may have deserved a more drastic name change. People only familiar with Wilkes from his other Dirt Daubers albums are in for a surprise: The raw roots country and stripped-down sound have been replaced by raw roots blues and a full rock sound. The change does feel more understandable if you’re familiar with Wilkes’ old band, The Legendary Shack-Shakers, as this basically provides a lot of what the Dirt Daubers’ previous albums had dropped from the Shack-Shakers. At the point, it appears that Wilkes doesn’t intend to stray that far from his old band. The defining aspects of the Dirt Daubers now appear to be that Wilkes has discarded his jester image for a slightly more serious one, and of course that half of the songs are fronted by Jessica Wilkes.

Jessica’s confident, brassy voice makes a good fit for these proto-jazz (white person blues?) songs. She still doesn’t have quite the range to carry an album on her own, but it’s hardly noticeable for her half. However, this means she is best suited for songs that showcase the Wilkes family’s quirky personality. Her “Apples and Oranges” is the album’s highlight, a swinging, rebellious song structured around an old nursery rhyme and playful lyrics. Otherwise, the songs she leads sound like blues standards about love and loss. They’re perfectly fine, but something that you could generally find in other bands’ catalogs.

JD is similarly restrained. I understand his seriousness about southern culture and his desire not to turn it into a joke, and that inclination is what always made his crazier songs so solid. Here we get Southern standards of the “creek-is-risin’-and-my-dead-baby’s-in-Heaven” variety (themes that appear multiple times), but his wit and fervor only make minor appearances. JD’s standout moments are the ones that recall the Shack Shakers: The out-of-nowhere proclamation that “it’s all a SNAFU, let’s go AWOL, you get FUGAZI and I’ll get FUBAR” in “Let It Fly”, or the electric acid-country of “Hidey-Hole”.

I feel bad saying that The Dirt Daubers sound best when they echo The Shack-Shakers, because in last year’s review I was very excited about the new life they breathed into traditional styles. But at least this time, the new band is definitely in the old one’s shadow. That’s not to say this isn’t good, and I like the energetic performances that bring a lot more fun than some of their genre contemporaries. I do hope that more of the personality from Wake Up Sinners shows up next time, though.

Grade: B-

Bora Bora (Game Review)

Bora Bora box

Bora Bora

Bora Bora is another complex game from Stefan Feld. If you’re familiar with Trajan and Castles of Burgundy, you have an idea what that means: A “point salad” game with more ways to score than any one person can handle. The different strategies are well balanced, and the winner will be the player who sees the best mix of opportunities based on the way the dice landed or cards came out. The central mechanic is some sort of creative action selection, and, of course, the theme has nothing to do with the gameplay.

Speaking as a huge fan of Feld, I think that this is his best game yet. It’s an especially tight version of his “too little time to do what you need” approach, with a lot more player interaction than most games that are this balanced and strategic. That interaction also helps the game to grow with your group as you get more experienced. In the early games, struggling to do your best is challenge enough. Once the basic strategies are under control, and players start looking around for opportunities to block each other, then the game grows new dimensions. And even the very first game is fairly accessible considering how much is going on. Everyone has their own “task tiles” and must complete one every round, so newbies have goals to direct them through the many choices they have to make.

Bora Bora play

The easiest way to describe this is “Trajan meets Macao with a new take on worker placement”. It’s like Trajan in that there are several actions to select, and they refer to areas of the board where you can score or gain resources in different ways. But the different areas here are more tightly interrelated than Trajan’s are. You’ll focus on one or two areas per game, but need to put some effort into all of them.

I’m reminded of Macao because that game has cards that keep piling up to be completed. Bora Bora’s task tiles are a more refined version of that, partly because they require you to accomplish things instead of just collecting resources. But also, you must “complete” one every round, possibly for zero points if you haven’t met the requirement. And the challenge scales well as you gain in strength throughout the game: Everyone starts with two standard tasks and one simple one. The simple one is like to be the only one possible to score in one round. You’ll start working towards the others right away, and choose new tasks that synergize with what you already have. By late in the game, that may finally start to get easy. But you’ll end the game with three tasks still in front of you, and you get one last chance to score all of them if possible! It’s a constant race to stay one step ahead of the game’s clock.

The new take on worker placement is very clever, and ages much better than Trajan’s central action. Your “workers” are dice that get rolled each round. Each action can be taken multiple times, but the die placed must have a lower value than any already on the action. High numbers can do more powerful actions, if you can get them out on time. Worker placement is typically about figuring out which actions need to be taken right away, and which are safe to leave until later. This is even more nerve-wracking, since playing an action isn’t always the same as blocking others. Also, you only have three dice per round in which to prepare for four end-of-round evaluations, including that task tile. There’s no way to to do it all.

The dice-based action selection and task tiles are both excellent mechanics, and the variety of things to do is among Feld’s best. I do think this has a little more randomness than his other complex games, since a couple sets of tiles are mixed up at the start of the game, and a few more (very important) sets are drawn before each round. But that still feels fair, and the game definitely rewards skill and planning. While I fully expect Feld to keep improving, Bora Bora currently stands as his masterpiece.

Grade: A