Top Rock Albums of 2009

I started reading High Fidelity by Nick Hornby a few days ago. It’s a clever British novel about a guy named Rob who owns a record shop and has an awful history with girls. One of the characters, Barry, is big on making top-five lists. In that spirit, I present my top five albums of 2009.

I make the disclaimer that I don’t like every genre and haven’t heard every album that came out this year. It’s quite possible you like five or more other albums more than my picks. These are just my fave five, and I highly recommend you give them a listen.

  1. Glasvegas – Glasvegas

    The debut LP for this great Scottish band has stayed on my iPod pretty much all year, and considering my Nano only holds 2GB, that’s saying something. This band convinced me that combining distorted guitars with a retro ’50s sound and nursery rhymes is a really good idea.
    (Video: “Geraldine”)

  2. Pete Yorn – Back & Fourth
  3. I always liked Pete’s music, but it wasn’t until Back & Fourth that he really became one of my favorite musicians. This somewhat obviously named fourth album ironically contains his strongest and most clever lyrics yet. It’s also his most focused, clocking in a tight 42 minutes. For more of my thoughts on this one, see this blog post from July.

    (Video: “Don’t Wanna Cry”)

  4. Peter Doherty – Grace/Wastelands
  5. The tabloids make him seem like a total waster, but listen to Pete Doherty’s music and you realize the guy’s got some serious talent. This excellent solo album teams the ex-Libertine with Blur’s Graham Coxon and producer Stephen Street.

    (Video: “Last of the English Roses”)

  6. Malajube – Labyrinthes
  7. Probably my most obscure pick for the top 5, this Québécois band plays apocalyptic…no, maybe post-apocalyptic…oh whatever, they’re good. They sing in French, but their music will hold you even if you don’t know what they’re saying.

    (Video: Porté Disparu)

  8. Brookville – Broken Lights
  9. Opening bands often disappoint, but when I saw Brookville open for the Trashcan Sinatras, my ears perked up like Mr. Spock (sorry, just watched Star Trek). The band’s latest is a mellow but constantly compelling album filled with equal helpings of rock and soul. Plus, how can you not like enigmatic break-up lines like “If you really love me, then you’ll let me make the great mistake of leaving you.”

    (Video: “Great Mistake”)

Top Video Game of 2009

At the risk of being predictable, I thought late December seemed like a good time to list some of my favorite things of 2009. First up is my favorite video game of the year: Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Available for Xbox 360, PS3 & PC; $50
For Xbox 360, PS3 & PC; $50

Before you spring off your computer chair in outrage, please keep in mind that I am a mere mortal who can’t afford (and doesn’t have time) to play every single great game that comes out. Another disclaimer: I’m a long-time Batman fan.

Then again, maybe my fervor for all things Dark Knight improves my credibility. You have no idea how long I’ve waited to play an actually good Batman game. I’ve played a lot of them, and this is probably the best one since the SNES game based on the animated series. And even that wasn’t really a classic.

So what makes Arkham Asylum different? The production value, for one thing. The story has a great comic book feel, including a plethora of Gotham’s supporting characters and dastardly villains, all while keeping the dark, brooding mood of the recent Chris Nolan movies. In addition, developer Rocksteady tapped the voice cast from the classic ’90s cartoon, including Mark Hamill as the Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman.  Add in some brooding music and a creepy atmosphere best described as BioShock Lite (in a good way), and you’ve got one heck of an engrossing game.

My biggest fear going into Arkham Asylum was the setting.  An entire game in a prison? I expected to be bored with my surroundings in an hour. However, Rocksteady proved me wrong, stretching the seemingly one-note setting to include monster vines and fear-toxin fantasies. I should also note that the Alcatraz-like prison is massive, rewarding exploration with Riddler trophies hidden throughout the island.

Of course, I was also worried about the gameplay itself.  Previous Batman games have failed mostly due to an overemphasis on hand-to-hand combat and clunky, button-mashing controls. But for Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady opted to go all Prince of Persia / Splinter Cell on us, providing Batman with an arsenal of moves and gadgets to take out criminals with stealth and style.  Oh, and by the way, they got the beat ’em up stuff right too, with an excellent combo system that really captured the smooth, no-nonsense fighting tactics of the caped crusader.

Really, my only complaint about Arkham is the camera system. It’s not terrible, and works most of the time, but it’s so closely zoomed in on Batman that the game world gets a little claustrophobic. I understand that, in most of the movies, Batman couldn’t turn his head without shifting his entire body, but come on! Here’s hoping they get it right in the just-announced sequel.

Even with its (minor) flaws, Arkham Asylum unleashed the fun more than any other video game I played this year. If you haven’t had a chance to visit Joker and his friends yet, I urge you to head up the river immediately.

Stay tuned for my top music picks of 2009.

Ash Album Under Construction

For a little while now, I’ve been meaning to gush in this blog about the awesomeness of one my all-time favorite bands, Ash. If you haven’t heard of this Irish outfit, it’s probably because you’re from the U.S. I only learned of their greatness because one of their albums (Free All Angels — still my favorite) was on display at a Borders back in the early 2000s. Since then, I don’t think they’ve had a single release in the U.S., except maybe a song about clones in a Star Wars videogame.

That’s all changing with their new project — The A-Z Series (a title that sounds cooler in the UK because they pronounce Z like “Zed”). Breaking from the traditional record publishing mold, Ash plans to digitally release 26 singles, one every two weeks, for the next year. A subscription costs $20, but the band so far is letting people sample all the songs in full before buying.

The group just released the C single, “Arcadia,” last week and it’s one heck of a catchy rocker. If they don’t break through with at least one of these 26 singles, I’m going to be very depressed with the record-buying public. So what are you waiting for? Head over to www.ash-official.com now!

Update: Also, check out this article about Ash from The Guardian!

Perspective & Cereal Prizes

Still working on getting my novel WE, THE WATCHED in the hands of literary agents. I’ve had two bites on my query letter so far. One of them asked me to physically mail the first 75 pages of my manuscript. It’s in their hands now, but I’m not expecting a reply for another few weeks. It’s kind of like mailing box tops to Kellogg’s cereal to get a prize — most agents take 6-8 weeks to get back to you.

The second bite, if you were wondering, didn’t work out. The agent asked to read the first two chapters, but a few weeks later e-mailed me to say he wasn’t enthusiastic about the first-person narrative. Even though it hurts to get a rejection, I was glad to get some constructive criticism. If you haven’t taken a look at it already, my book is written in first-person present tense. That’s not exactly the most traditional style, especially for a first novel. I liked how it turned out, and peers have told me they did as well, but I can see how it might be a bit polarizing at first.

As it turns out, I’m going with a more traditional third-person past tense in the new novel I’m working on. One of the things I want to do as an author is explore a variety of different narrative styles. I actually have quite a bit of fun figuring out how best to convey plot within different writing structures. While first-person present was a great way to explore what the protagonist was thinking, the third-person style has allowed me to incorporate other characters’ perspectives and jump around a little more in the story’s time line.

The Business of Writing

So I’ve decided to make a renewed effort at publishing my novel WE, THE WATCHED.

I bought the most recent edition of Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, and have compiled a list of about 62 literary agents (yes, 62) who I think might be right for my novel. I’ve already e-mailed query letters to about 10.  Since yesterday, six have replied and one asked me today to send the first couple chapters of my novel!

The fact that five agents said no in one day, after reading only a query letter, should give you a sense of how competitive the market is. Check out this response from one agent who I’ll leave anonymous:

I’ve begun receiving more than 30 submissions a day and, as a single agent with no assistants, I simply can not get to them all.

Given my present workload, I must wish you well with another agent.

30 submissions a day? That’s like 900 a month! Good luck with that, guy.

The usual process for submitting a novel, if you were wondering, is as follows.

  1. Send a one-page query letter including a short summary of the work, why people would pay for it, and a bio.
  2. Wait. Hope.
  3. If agent expresses interest, send a synopsis and part of the manuscript — usually the first 5-50 pages, depending on agent’s workload
  4. Wait. Hope.
  5. If they still like your novel, send the full manuscript
  6. Wait. Hope.

So far I’ve gotten to step 3 two times. The first time ended in rejection, the second…is currently pending. The important thing is to keep trying. And if it doesn’t work out, write something else and try again. That’s my plan, anyway.