friday five

Downton Abbey Returns

One of the most pleasant pop culture surprises of 2011 was Downton Abbey, a came-out-of-nowhere British miniseries from writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) that made Masterpiece Theatre and Edwardian England exciting again. Pulling from a wide array of influences including Jane Austen, Upstairs Downstairs and your choice of Victorian novel marriage plots, the 7-hour run laid out a sneakily engrossing tapestry of servants’ quarter intrigue, family squabble and romantic scandal. (For all you slackers, season one is streaming on Netflix) And reader, it is back. The season two kickoff on PBS this Sunday begins two years from the end of season one and finds the Abbey’s characters thrust into the thick of World War I. And I have no doubt that our beloved aristocrats and servants will more than rise to the dramatic occasions that event is sure to provide. Lady Mary + Matthew 4Eva.

 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Now that the holidays are dunzo, you can get back to the really important things – like catching up on all the movies you’ll need to see by Oscar night. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy isn’t necessarily high on that list – it has some minor buzz for Gary Oldman and a possible nomination in its adapted screenplay – but I do not plan on missing out on this. It’s got a crackerjack cast in Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones and Tom Hardy and a crackerjack director in Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In). And the big prize in all these crackerjacks is the story material – John le Carre’s 1974 spy novel of the same name. And I could use a dense, cool and sleek spy thriller, couldn’t you?

 

Entertainment Weekly Tablet App

We here at CulturePoppe love our EW. I mean we love our EW. The only thing I can think of that’s better than a brand new issue in my mailbox is a brand new interactive issue downloaded to my iPad in seconds.  If you’re a print subscriber, the digital subscription is free. If you’re not a subscriber, it’s worth it just to get this digital version, complete with story and review links to watch trailers, buy television episodes, look up movie showtimes, download movies and music and more – all from your digital EW issue. Annnnd you can keep your old issues in your digital library. No more threats to be nominated for Hoarders because of your precious stack of old EWs. Find it on your iPad, Nook Color, Nook Tablet, Kindle Fire, or whatever doomaflatchie you may have. This week’s issue – the annual “The Oscar Race is On” issue – will help you plan out your awards timetable for the next two months.

 

In Contention

Speaking of the Oscars (sorry, Oscar fever is running high at CulturePoppe), if you’re looking to finally win your office pool this year, you could do a lot worse for insider insight than the Oscar Talk podcast from In Contention, an awards blog that provides some great essay and commentary reading during Oscar season. The podcast is hosted by In Contention’s Kris Tapley and Thompson on Hollywood’s Anne Thompson. The two have lots of great debate on the movies and the season. You can subscribe on iTunes.

 

Midnight in Paris

I should have just called this Friday Five: Oscar Edition. One of my favorite films of 2011 and one that is right in the thick of the Oscar race is Woody Allen’s love letter to Paris and the arts in the 1920s. Midnight in Paris was one of the most beloved movies – by both critics and audiences – last year, became Woody Allen’s most successful film at the box office, and is still in theaters six months later. Even better, it just came out on Blu-ray and DVD so I can watch it anytime I damn well please. And that will probably be often. Paris is one of the most watchable and repeatable films I’ve seen in some time. The writing and acting sparkle, the locations and costumes are delicious, the whole vibe is pure magic.

JT’s 25 Albums of Christmas No. 9 (and 10)

Merry Christmas, Mariah Carey

Don’t even try to front.  I don’t care what you think of Mariah Carey from January through November, but even regular haters and take-her-or-leave-hers wave the white flag during the holidays.

Merry Christmas, originally released in 1994, is easily one of the most iconic holiday albums – chiefly because of one “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” I defy you to find a modern Christmas song that is more beloved, more well known and yes, more overplayed, than this.  Over its 17-year history (we are old, y’all), “All I Want for Christmas Is You” – the greatest song of the 60’s not recorded or written in the 60’s –  has become a standard of the season and the most important and culturally significant Christmas song of the last 30 or so years – easily. You can put that sucker on an album, jammed right next to chestnuts roasting, Jack Frost nipping and wintry seductions set to the apparently impassable snow gathering outside and you won’t even blink an eye. It’s an official Christmas classic, and one actually worthy of that position. It’s simply impossible to resist the joy that is bursting from that song. Decades from now, when we have loved and forgotten many a “new” Christmas song, we will still be cranking this one up to 11.

The good news is that the rest of the album has held up remarkably well. The decision to take the album into primarily a 60’s-inspired and gospel-influenced creative direction was a smart one that cements its classic status. “Silent Night” kicks things off on a very reserved and elegant but soulful note before careening into the rollicking force of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The church-drenched “O Holy Night” is still one of the best performances of that song on record, and the Darlene Love classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is a great companion to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The idea of doing Bruce Springsteen’s take on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was pure genius and comes right before the gorgeous mashup of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The latter mashup, with its vocals stacked to infinity to create a giant wall of gospel sound, is one of those instances that really shows – no matter how crazy she can come across outside of the recording studio – how supremely talented the woman is inside the studio. She really doesn’t get enough credit for all the arranging and producing work she does on her albums.

The only things that don’t really hold up as well are the ballad “Miss You Most (At Christmastime)” – very pretty but a bit on the treacly side – and the dance rave-up “Joy to the World,” which is mashed up with Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” – another inspired pairing which actually saves the song. Still, if you’re listening to the album, there’s no need to skip these two. Just listen and remember what it was like back in the halcyon days of the 90s.

Last year, Mariah released a sequel, Merry Christmas II You, and there’s some really great, great stuff on it, including a stunning mashup of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the Hallelujah chorus, a live recording of “O Holy Night,” a short rendition of the Peanuts classic “Christmastime is Here” and the “All I Want” cousin “Oh Santa!” She even includes an “Extra Festive” version of “All I Want,” but it’s really unnecessary because I don’t know how much more festive a song can get than the original version.

But 1994’s Merry Christmas still reigns supreme and untouchable. Even if Mariah had only written “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and that was the extent of her career, it would still ensure her place in the pop pantheon. If you’re one of the three people who don’t own a copy of this album, you can listen here.  And check out the sequel here.

JT’s 25 Albums of Christmas: Nos. 6-8

When My Heart Finds Christmas, Harry for the Holidays, What a Night! A Christmas Album, Harry Connick, Jr.

We need to play a little catch up today, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather catch up with more than Mr. Harry Connick, Jr. Harry always sounds good no matter what he’s singing, but the man really shines when it comes to the holidays. And in the generous spirit of said holidays, he has seen fit to bequeath unto us no less than three Christmas albums: 1993’s When My Heart Finds Christmas, 2003’s Harry for the Holidays and 2008’s What a Night! A Christmas Album. And, yes. You need all three.

 

Harry’s first – and still my personal favorite – When My Heart Finds Christmas is a modern classic and a firmly entrenched staple in holiday music stable. While the album features great versions of classics like “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Ave Maria,” “O Holy Night” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” what makes the album a real knockout for me are the album’s brilliant Connick-penned originals like the wistful title song, the rollicking “(It Must’ve Been Ol’) Santa Claus,” the gospel-soaked “I Pray On Christmas” and the stunning “The Blessed Dawn of Christmas Day.” A classic through and through.

It was 10 years before Connick released a Christmas follow-up, but Harry for the Holidays was well worth the wait. Harry serves up great mid-century classics like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Waltz” and “Blue Christmas” alongside more stellar originals like the reverent “I Come with Love.” He even throws in the left-field “Nature Boy” – not a Christmas song per se, but considering the lyrical content, it’s an unexpectedly good fit for the season and an inspired seasonal choice.

What a Night! A Christmas Album closes out Connick’s “holy trinity” of Christmas albums with another top-notch selection of songs and arrangements. Connick really knows how to arrange a song, and there’s evidence all over the place here to prove it, especially on a rollicking piano-based New Orleans-take on “Deck the Halls.” Connick also covers seasonal greats like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Please Come Home for Christmas,” “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” and “Winter Wonderland,” pairs up the popular “Let There Be Peace on Earth” with his own “Song for the Hopeful,” and offers up another batch of fun originals like “Santariffic” and “Christmas Day.”

If Harry isn’t the modern Mr. Christmas, I’m not sure who is. See for yourself here, here and here.

JT’s 25 Albums of Christmas No. 5

Christmas with Peggy Lee
 

If songs were like gumdrops, Christmas with Peggy Lee would pretty much be a candy dish full of them. That’s really the best way I can think of to describe this sparkling collection of standards and lesser-known gems.

Seriously, this album is a treasure trove of unheralded Christmas tunes that you’ve probably never heard – some quirky, like “Don’t Forget to Feed the Reindeer and “Christmas Carousel” (Much of the album is a repackaging of Lee’s 1960s Christmas Carousel album – she’s much more than the singer of “Fever”), and some beautiful like “The Christmas Spell” and “The Star Carol.” In fact, “The Star Carol” just might be the prettiest Christmas song you’ve never heard. The album is also peppered with great takes on classics like “The Christmas Waltz,” “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas,” and “Happy Holiday.” There’s even a couple of New Year’s songs – “Song at Midnight” and the haunting “My Dear Aquaintance (A Happy New Year),” which was recently covered by Regina Spektor.

And each song is imbued with Lee’s delicate jazz vocal stylings – all sugar and spice and everything nice. Just like a gumdrop. Check it out here.

JT’s 25 Albums of Christmas No. 4

Christmas, Michael Buble

Every year, when the holidays roll around, this internal dialogue pops up:

Me: Gee, it sure would be amazing if Michael Buble recorded a Christmas album. His voice is made for the holidays.

Me: I wonder why he hasn’t recorded one? I mean, yes, he has that Let it Snow EP from years ago, but it’s just five or six songs, and I’m sure it was rushed together to capitalize on his burgeoning popularity back in the day.

Me: You’re also greedy.

Me: True. It’s a gorgeous EP, but I want a full album that he would be able to have a lot of creative control over. You know how good he would sound singing the songs of the season.

At this point you’re either nodding your head in vigorous agreement or researching good area psychiatrists for me. Either way, this year, that dialogue wasn’t necessary because The Man with the Golden Pipes has looked on our Christmas music-starved selves with great love and blessed us with an instantly classic holiday album. Christmas is everything you could want from a holiday album – a carefully curated mix of ballads, traditional carols, original music and holiday quirkiness, all wrapped up in fantastic arrangements and delivered with a voice that is all things velvet and caramel.

It’s hard to pick highlights on an album this well done, but there’s the heartmeltingly lush intro on the album opener – “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” the hushed and elegant “Silent Night” and his inventive balladic take on “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to begin. The latter just further proves that Mariah Carey’s perennial chestnut is the greatest modern Christmas song of the last three or four decades and one of the greatest Christmas songs ever written. When you can take a song and wildly change the arrangement and setting, and it can maintain its integrity and intent? That’s a truly great song.

Don’t miss the deluxe edition because you’d be missing a great a cappella rendition of Silver Bells if you did.

And wouldn’t you know? The Michael Buble Christmas Special airs on NBC tonight at 8/7c. That man is a giver.

Listen to the full album here.

JT’s 25 Albums of Christmas: No. 3

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Apple pie. Baseball. A Charlie Brown Christmas. All iconic, all American. Since its CBS debut in 1965 and through each annual re-airing, this first animated Peanuts special has become – along with Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas – the most revered and classic of holiday TV specials. Its simple story, familiar and lovable characters, and most importantly, its heart have endeared it to multiple generations. From Charlie Brown’s failed attempts to direct the Christmas pageant and tap into the mystery of the season to Lucy’s quest to become Christmas queen to that poor, sweet little Christmas tree that Charlie Brown champions, the show has an appealing underdog spirit and a sentimentality that remains refreshingly uncloying. And Linus’s recitation of Luke 2 is still poignant and moving in its sheer unadorned simplicity.

Just as famous and revered and woven into the tapestry of the holiday season is the special’s score – composed by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi and performed by the Vince Guaraldi trio – introduced us to “Linus and Lucy” (the classic Peanuts theme song) and the now standard “Christmas Time is Here,” among a scattering of original compositions and jazzy takes on carols that have been an integral part of the season’s musical fabric for decades. If there is such as a thing as Christmas comfort music, it is A Charlie Brown Christmas.

And wouldn’t you know? You’re in luck. ABC airs the first of two screenings of the television special tonight at 8/7c. Get yourself prepped and in the mood with the soundtrack. You can listen at the Spotify link here.

JT’s 25 Albums of Christmas: No.1 & 2

We here at CulturePoppe are in love with the holidays and we don’t care who knows it!  And what are the holidays without music?  I’ve taken it upon myself to introduce you to and marinate on a Christmas album a day up to and including the big 12-2-5. Think of it as your own little musical advent calendar.  The albums I’ll be sharing cover a fairly wide sweep of the musical and time spectrum. But they are all spectacular. Trust me. I know Christmas music (I think the 15 versions of “Silent Night” in my iTunes library speak for themselves). So without further ado, let’s get started, shall we?  Oh and by the way, these are in no particular order, so don’t be getting any idea into your pretty little head that this is some sort of countdown to the best. Ranking these would be nigh impossible .  Choosing Ella over Frank or Nat instead of Andy falls squarely in the do-not-try-this-at-home category.

No.1

The Andy Williams Christmas Album

There’s no better way to kick this off than with Mr. Christmas himself, Andy Williams. It’s pretty providential that this guy was born in December. Since releasing this, his first Christmas album, in 1963, Williams’ voice has become synonymous with the sound of the holidays. His voice is nothing short of hot buttered rum, invading the darkest crevices of your cold and calculating heart with cozy warmth and goodwill and other Christmasy things of that nature. This album is most well known for introducing the now-classic standard “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” But don’t stop there. It’s a solid album, from top to bottom. “A Song and a Christmas Tree (The Twelve Days of Christmas)” manages to breathe fresh life into what is usually a quickly annoying song, and “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells” is the single most fun and invigorating arrangement of that old chestnut. Williams handles traditional carols like “The First Noel” and “Away in a Manger” with stately grace. And his “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” is a gorgeous version. Give a listen to the album in the Spotify playlist here.

 

No. 2

Merry Christmas, Andy Williams

The Andy Williams Christmas Album would have been more than enough to regard Williams as a god among Christmas music men, but wouldn’t you know he went and released a sequel in 1965. Whereas it’s predecessor focused on seasonal favorites and traditional carols, Merry Christmas takes risks with less-familiar but still glorious material. Among tried and true favorites like “Winter Wonderland” and “Silver Bells,” Williams excels at more obscure Christmas songs like “Some Children See Him,” which for my money is one of the most underrated and most overlooked songs of the season. It’s simply beautiful and Williams more than does it justice. He also tackles a haunting and convicting “Little Altar Boy” and soars on “Mary’s Little Boy Child” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” And he was one of the first to recognize the holiday potential in “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. The album is more adventurous in it’s repertoire, but that only makes it a perfect companion to Williams’ first. You simply cannot live with one and not the other. And that’s why you’ll find a Spotify playlist for Merry Christmas as well.  You’re welcome.

Tune in on Friday for No. 3 in the 25 Albums of Christmas.

JT

Friday Five

Thanksgiving with Friends

The Thanksgiving episode is a rite of passage for any American sitcom. New Girl – which we here at CulturePoppe just j’adore more and more – hit gold with their first Hanksgiving Dudesgiving Thanksgiving episode (“It’s like a Prince video!”) this week, and the annals of TV history are littered with other fine examples. But no sitcom did Thanksgiving better than Friends. For each one of the landmark show’s 10 seasons, Monica, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe and Joey never failed to deliver a laugh-filled Gobble Day. Some of the show’s finest, funniest and most memorable happenings occurred on Thanksgiving – including that “One with All the Thanksgivings.” But for me, the very best, the funniest Thanksgiving episode – and one of the best episodes of the show period – was season 6’s “The One Where Ross Got High.”

One of the marks of any great sitcom is the ability of the writers to craft stories that allow each cast member to shine – and to have a cast that can rise to the occasion. Friends was firing on both cylinders with this classic involving the Gellars finding out about Chandler and Monica, Joey and Ross trying to speed up Thanksgiving to teach the “hot dancer girls about the new world,” Phoebe’s obsession with legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and Rachel’s feeble attempts at baking Thanksgiving dessert. And it all came to a breathtakingly funny climax, which you can see in this clip. I mean, who doesn’t need a little Friends in their life this week?
Take Care, Drake

I really dig Drake. His proper album debut Thank Me Later was a collection of atmospheric and brooding rap tailor-made for cold, rainy days and warm, breezy nights. He’s continued in much the same vein – albeit improved even – with Take Care. Yes, he probably spends a bit too much time navel-gazing over how “tough” it is to be a star, but he also tackles heartache and pain in a way that few other hip-hop artists do. The washes of synthesizers, bleak airy space and sparse production combine with his ever-improving flow to create a pleasantly languid mood that’s periodically interspersed with more ambitious tracks like “Lord Knows,” backed by a gospel choir no less. The title track – a tender ode to love, featuring Rihanna – is a standout.

We All Need Community

I have been an evangelist for Community since season 1. It boasts one of the most talented comedic casts working today – every single player (except for Ken Jeong’s tired caricature of a character) is a comedy MVP – and it’s the most forward thinking and consistently brilliant sitcom on television right now. The ragtag group of Greendale college students – led by that guy up there – consistently bring the smart and smart aleck funny week after week. In fact, the show has really been on a roll this season – constantly topping itself. Yet NBC – in another move of infinite non-wisdom – has pulled it from the schedule for mid-season. It’s not canceled – yet – but when a show is pulled like that, it’s not a good sign. It’s time to rally behind this gem and show NBC what a grave mistake they are making. The fact that a brilliant show like this is on the bubble, while the universally and justifiably maligned Whitney sits pretty is beyond acceptable. It’s time to #SaveCommunity. #sixseasonsandamovie.

http://www.nbc.com/community/

Muppetmania

The Muppets are back! And I couldn’t be a happier camper. After a couple of misfires – I’m looking at you, Muppets in Space – Kermit, Miss Piggy and the whole gang are back to claim our hearts and funny bones again, thanks to the dedication and fandom of Jason Segel.  The Muppets opens November 23, and you can believe that I will be there front and center. Here’s hoping a new generation falls in love with this crazy group as much as mine did. My favorite Muppet endeavor, you ask? The Muppets Take Manhattan. No question.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
This mesmerizing 2005 novel from Jonathan Safran Foer is about a boy on a quest through New York City to find the lock that matches a key left in his father’s closet after his father dies in one of the Twin Towers on 9/11. It’s about much more, too – including a love story that will rip your heart in two. It’s a heartbreaking but uplifting story told with boundless creativity and it will move you. The film adaptation, directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) and starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, hits theaters at Christmas. Check out the trailer here.

Mid-Monday Pick Me Up: Pentatonix

If you’re not tuning into NBC’s The Sing Off on Monday nights, you’re really missing out. Two hours of drama-free, straightforward, blow-your-socks-off musical talent is just what the doctor ordered after the hellaciousness that regular calendars call “Monday.” If you can get past the host stylings of Nick Lachey – basically the equivalent of baked brie – what you’re left with are some of the best a cappella groups in the country singing their butts off to win cash and a record contract, and the best panel of judges of all of the talent shows. Ben Folds, Sara Bareilles and Shawn Stockman (he of Boyz II Men fame) know more about singing and musicianship than some other talent show judges I could name but won’t Paula Abdul.

All these groups are mega-talented, but the one that stands out for me, that I’ve come to look forward to every week, is Pentatonix. These guys do with five voices what other groups can’t do with 25. They are briliant, and will blow your mind. Check out their last couple performances – “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “Love Lockdown” – below. That breakdown on “Video”? Come ON. And “Love Lockdown” is a freaking masterpiece of vocal stylings. Tune in tonight on NBC at 8/7 central to see what these guys come up with next.