Sunday, January 15, 2012

Top 25 Songs of 2011

2011 saw some interesting developments in popular and independent music that I could enumerate or comment on... but I won't. Instead, I'll just offer my 100% Objective List of 25 Absolute Greatest Songs of 2011, plus a couple honorable mentions. And no, "Video Games" didn't do anything for me.

Honorable Mentions:

Burial - Street Halo
It's Burial. I can't not put this on here.

St. Vincent - Surgeon
On "Surgeon," the verses' woozy synths stream into and dance about the come-on chorus: "Best find a surgeon/Come cut me open," the sheer sexiness of which is its own reward.

25. The Field - Then It's White
This patient piano-led electronic soother reminds me of Tomas Dvorak's brilliant Machinarium soundtrack. What a great game.

24. Destroyer - Kaputt
A witty, wispy incantation of prime 80's cheese, recasting long-hated signatures of commercial soft-rock--clean, chorus-y guitars, saxophone--into something engaging and sharp.

23. Girls - Vomit
I'm a Girls fan. I loved their debut, Album: "Lust for Life," "Hellhole Ratrace," and "Headache" were real keepers. Unfortunately, their follow-up, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, while smelling pleasantly of classic-rock evergreen, didn't strike me with the same sense of supple talent and vulnerability. "Vomit," the record's centerpiece, brings some of those feelings back, though. It's a desperate plea for love that swells from hunched whisper to full-blown gospel choir and organ, singer-songwriter Chris Owens chanting, "Come into my heart." Sure thing.

22. Bill Callahan - Riding for the Feeling
This one's all about the voice. That tasteful toasty baritone immediately asserts its hard-won wisdom. You know, from the first "It's never easy to say goodbye," that this guy's bullshit-free. Which makes the seemingly contradictory "In conclusion, leaving is easy" perfectly acceptable.

21. James Blake - To Care (Like You)
I thought Blake's 2010 EP's were interesting, if not always robust. I think his 2011 self-titled LP is pretty decent. He may play the heartthrob well, but in terms of dubstep, he's no Burial. This underrated album cut, though, carves something delicious and emotive from his pared-down post-dubstep ice.

20. Beyonce - Countdown
By now we all know that Beyonce is one of the few pop radio divas with real class and staying power. 2003's "Crazy in Love" is just about canonical, and she proved as far back as Destiny's Child that she has a God-given voice. "Countdown," her ode to domestic bliss, ironically can't sit still; it explodes with fun and creative fire. Like a Beach Boys song circa '66, this is three and a half constantly morphing minutes of lavish pop production, with Beyonce steering the mighty vessel of her voice through seas of schizophrenic drums, plinking keys, obligatory horn bursts and more to arrive in a land of pure nuptial ecstasy.

19. Iceage - You're Blessed
Those chords. Those first fist-clenching, heart-swelling chords. What follows is fairly straightforward punk, propelled by a relentless ride cymbal and fur-chested toms. But it's those ringing guitar chords which open "You're Blessed" and close New Brigade that truly lend the song its invigorating, nay, inspiring spirit.

18. Eleanor Friedberger - My Mistakes
Friedberger's smiling, sunny-but-not-too-sugary vocal delivery lends itself well to the microscopic Brooklyn stories crammed into "My Mistakes." She sounds almost reverent of the tiny human peculiarities she recalls, but there's some regret too. "Why keep time travelling if it doesn't get better on the second time around?" she sings (twice), followed by the self-interrogating chorus. Diary-level detail, emotional complexity, and a sweet-ass sax solo to boot. No mistakes here.

17. Sepalcure - Pencil Pimp
In a year obsessed with all things dubstep, Sepalcure constructed a beautiful dance track absent of wobbly sub-bass menace, buzzing synths, or skittery swing. "Pencil Pimp" is Chicago keyboards, a colorful mix of vocal samples--some chant-y, some Antony-y--reliable hi-hats, and even a few acoustic guitar strums. It's simply some gosh-dang enjoyable (though not at all saccharine) modern EDM.

16. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Ffunny Ffrends
A crispy, nonchalant disco drumbeat and a hard-to-forget, easy-to-savor riff. The low fidelity and awkward (if warm) singing seems inappropriately underconfident when paired with such an effortlessly strong foundation. That is, until you get halfway through and hear the high-register vocal flourishes flying over that gladly repeated figure. At that point, you know they know how good this thing is.

15. Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
It was hard picking one representative for OPN's gloomy, sample-heavy Replica LP. Should it be "Sleep Dealer," which could probably be called the album's catchiest moment? Or "Explain," the redemptive closer? Finally, I settled on the title track: a dynamic but dreary piano-driven ode to obsolescence, haunted by synths that buzz and chirp and whistle with plaintive resignation. I can't neglect to recommend the video for this track: the juxtaposition of such depressing electronic music with footage from an old Russian cartoon produces a very weird effect.

14. Jacques Greene - Another Girl
Electronic music is often good at isolating the remarkable elements of older songs and recontextualizing them, allowing them to be savored and elaborated on. G-funk does so with 70's black music, breakbeat does so with, well, dusty soul breakbeats, trip-hop does so with obscure spoken word, dubstep does so with turn-of-the-millennium R&B singers, etc. Here, Jacques Greene takes a couple utterances from a Ciara song and reworks them into a hypnotic, carefully structured thumper aimed right at the dance music pleasure center.

13. Yuck - Rubber
90's blah blah retro blah blah Dinosaur Jr. blah blah Sonic Youth blah blah barely out of their diapers blah blah almost too faithful blah blah blah. Now, about "Rubber," my favorite song on Yuck's self-titled debut. It's good! That deliciously overdriven, incessant electric guitar growl, those charmingly distorted vocals, the... wait... that other guitar figure that pops in at just the right times... the acoustic strumming underneath it all... the slow but sure orgasmic build, chanting "Should I give in?" and then "Yes I'll give in." Hey, this thing is actually a little sophisticated! Well I'll be damned. Not only have these lads done their homework, but they've (with "Rubber" at least) out-performed some of their  essential alt-rock forbears.

12. Holy Ghost! - Jam for Jerry
When it comes to music, I usually prefer my sadness to be dressed in ebullience. Holy Ghost!'s sparkling dance-rock requiem for drummer Jerry Fuchs combines disco-house thump-thump-thump with  a catchy chorus: "I get the feeling I've done something half wrong/It surrounds me and drowns me in it/If I could change it all I would, if only I could/You can quote me and hold me to it." Grief and guilt have always gone best with major-key hooks and danceable drums. You can quote me and hold me to that.

11. Tim Hecker - The Piano Drop
Tim Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972 is a barrage of digitally manipulated organ recordings expertly balancing beauty and terror, each enhancing the other. The tracks aren't super-distinct, and my pick for this list mostly serves to represent the album it opens. However, the choice was deliberate: I feel "The Piano Drop" best illustrates Ravedeath's flattening apocalyptic rhetoric. It's all crumbling skyscrapers, rusting hard drives, botched civilizations imploding all around you as you curl among the rubble, utterly helpless.

10. St. Vincent - Cruel
"Cruel" is a deft and confident blend of alternative and pop sensibilities. Neurotic organ stutters and hiccups under the verses (propelled along by an almost house-like kick drum), occasionally interrupted by disconcerting string swells and insincere falsetto, before the song bursts into a breathless one-word chorus. And then, right at its most radio-friendly, there's this screwy guitar solo that mucks everything up. But the song's weirdo tendencies only serve to heighten the thrill, the ecstatic release, when Annie Clark lets out that indelible refrain: "Crooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooel!"

9. AraabMuzik - Streetz Tonight
Producer AraabMuzik took Adam K & Soha's remix of trance artist Kaskade's calm, afterglow-y "4 AM," concentrated it, and beefed it up with a satisfying hip-hop beat. That weightless, misty vocal gains a real sense of yearning when dropped into AraabMuzik's bombastic, purposeful remix. A powerful dynamic is introduced, with half of the song swaying along to unhurried keys and hi-hats, and the other half speeding along the city's sleeping streets on an urgent kick drum. Trance-hop? It's better than it sounds.

8. The Caretaker - Libet's Delay
The Caretaker's An Empty Bliss Beyond This World sounds interesting on paper: a sequence of instrumental prewar slow-dance 78's, played back with the century of dust that has become their baggage, and then slowly messed with: looped, stripped-down, digitally manipulated. The idea comes from the fact that many Alzheimer's patients are able to recall old songs better than other memories. And so The Caretaker, the alias of one James Kirby, decided to get about as retro as it gets.

Again, at first it sounded like an intriguing experiment and a rather clever exploration of memory. But when I actually listened to the thing, I was devastated. You can just see an old man in a chair in a dim room, sifting through broken shards of his past, deteriorating, wishing more than anything to be young again, to dance to those songs again. It doesn't really help that the numbers themselves are gut-wrenchingly innocent and leisurely, especially on opener "All you are going to want to do is get back there" and my arduously-arrived-at pick for this list, "Libet's delay" (named after Benjamin Libet, a pioneer in the study of consciousness).

The piano on this track kills me. The chords are just perfect. And the lightly strummed guitar... the wistful trumpet melody... the vinyl crackle... the spaciousness... the solipsistic loneliness... Sigh. There are some themes that just don't resonate with me and some that just do. I guess I'm a sucker when it comes to old age, nostalgia, and the passage of time. Which makes listening to "Libet's delay" an exquisitely unbearable exercise.

7. Fleet Foxes - Grown Ocean
Fleet Foxes was my favorite record of 2008. Helplessness Blues is my favorite record of 2011. And it's better than their debut: more personal, more sophisticated, more resonant. There may be nothing as hummable as "White Winter Hymnal," but these baroque-Americana fauxkies (as singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold puts it) have with their sophomore LP delivered something that I believe can stand up to the great rock albums: angelical harmonies, enveloping instrumentation, and lyrics that embark on a stirring quest of self-discovery.

The album kicks off with Pecknold singing--much more intricately than ever before--"So now I am older/Than my mother and father/When they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?" Where their debut was pastoral and emotionally abstract, Helplessness Blues directly asks the big questions: Will I find everlasting love? Why do we die? What's my purpose here?

The title track may be the album's centerpiece, and "The Shrine/An Argument" may see Pecknold's voice heat into an almost-scream ("Sunlight over me NO MATTER WHAT I DO") that reveals just how goddamn talented a singer he is, but it's the finale, "Grown Ocean" that really seals the deal. Josh Tillman counts down on the sticks, cutting into the drone left over from "Blue Spotted Tail", before the full band blossoms into the track, Sky Skjelset's beatific guitar lead playing counterpoint to Pecknold's voice. Giddy acoustic guitar strums out the rhythm underneath, impeccable harmonies soar overhead, cymbals spray like waves breaking on ancient rocks, and flutes twirl about like doves.

And then, right at the height of its swell, everything falls out but a wind chime and two harmonized voices: "Wide-eyed walker, don't betray me/I will wake one day, don't delay me/Wide-eyed leaver, always going..." This last falsetto note doesn't resolve. It hangs up in the air, away, not finished, not settling, still searching.

6. i3i3 - Midnight Radio
I first heard this track in a post-dubstep themed mix by my DJ friend Nav. Later, I asked him about "that one with the guitar in it." He told me it was called "Midnight Radio," by i3i3. We'd already listened to this thing during so many late night car rides in the middle of his (very well-crafted) mix that when I ended up listening to it on my own, on its own, I couldn't possibly divorce those jittery hats and woodblock strikes from my memories of moonlight, mist, and the chilled delirium of a wound-down Friday.

It's a solid tune, too. There's a swaying, languid beat, faint horns that rise and fall like hilly back roads, resounding hiccups, smoky vocals, and the touch of genius: that indelible echoing guitar. Musically, this thing was a big part of my 2011, and the year was that much better for it.

5. Rustie - All Nite
I feel kind of bad about putting this above something as belabored and soul-baring as Fleet Foxes' "Grown Ocean." I mean, one asks, "What's the meaning of life?" and the other asks, "You feel like dancing yet?" But what can I do? Fun is fun. And "All Nite," the penultimate track on UK producer Rustie's debut Glass Swords, is really, really fun.

Rustie doesn't hail from the minimalist school of post-dubstep: this ain't no "Wilhelm Scream." "All Nite" is not walking under a streetlight, hands in hoodie, cigarette lit, thinking about some old flame. It's jumping on a trampoline made of cotton candy while fireworks boom overhead. It's swimming in a ball pit the size of Lake Ontario as a WWI-era zeppelin flies by with a banner reading, "YOU DA MAN." It's got brostep's brainless buzzing bass synths and chipmunk vocals incessantly shouting "All night!", but it also happens to be good. Every diabetes-inducing synth blitz, snare roll, and orgasm-"oh" is fit with such care and precision that it feels positively effortless, which is of course the mark of true craftsmanship.

So no, it doesn't grapple with existential themes. Yes, it is kind of stupid. But you know what? I love stupid if it's done well. There's a rich tradition of dumb, incredible pop music, and it's some of my favorite shit in the world. Welcome to the legacy, Rustie.

4. Kurt Vile - Runner Ups
I don't know how else to start talking about this song except to quote it: "If it ain't working, take a whiz on the world/An entire nation drinking from a dirty cup/My best friend's long gone, but I got/Runner ups, yeah/When I'm walking, my head is practically dragging/Yeah and all I ever see is/Just a whole lot of dirt/My whole life's been one long running gag..."

It's grubby, grumbly stuff, sung in an almost punk-like sneer, but the fragility of Vile's voice and finger-picked guitar betrays loads of tenderness, and that drawled "yeah!" which follows the barely self-consoling refrain belies a tangible pain. There may be the Dylanesque dismissal of "You shoulda been an actress, you're so domineering/Take two white-gold earrings for your troubles, now," but the next line goes, "When it's looking dark, punch the future in the face," a kind of inspirational anti-platitude utterly alien to Zimmerman.

Still, "Runner Ups" does what the best Dylan songs do: come off at first like they're distant and vaguely damning, but ultimately reveal themselves to be barbed little tangles of hurt and self-deprecation.

3. Jamie xx - Far Nearer
Jamie Smith has been pretty busy. Not only is he the percussionist for acclaimed indie rock outfit The xx, but he's a pretty hot producer/remix artist in his own right. While his Gil Scott-Heron remix album We're New Here, released just months before the influential musician's passing, was a clever and imaginative production, his solo act single released later this year is, in my mind, his masterpiece.

It's clear that Smith is a great re-interpreter. Here, he takes the current obsession in popular music--dubstep (or rather post-dubstep)--and re-imagines it as something saturated and sunny. Gone is the concrete, the introspection, the wobbly paranoia. The difference between "Far Nearer," with its citrus-y steel drums, upward-gliding major key harmonics, and ocean breeze echoes of "You! Me!", and other dubstep is like the difference between Matisse's two Dance canvases: one is inviting, communal, joyous, the other menacing and brutal. Even the pitch-shifted vocals on this track sound happy. Maybe it's because they're not saying, "We could be friends/Away from my heart," but rather, "I feel better when I/You feel better when I/My heart feels better when I/Have you near me" (or something like that...).

"Far Nearer," as its name would imply, is about closeness, fullness (it's miles away from, say, Blake's minimalism), and, well, feeling better. And that's what happens when you listen to it: you just feel better.

2. Cass McCombs - County Line
An instant classic. Full of feeling but inscrutably ambiguous, slow and subtle but more intense by the minute, sung with tenderness but also a strange sense of dread and regret. The narrator's returning to a place he's been away from for a while, and he isn't necessarily loving the idea of going back.

From the first, the place itself is given human qualities: "On my way to you, old county/Hoping nothing's changed/That your pain is never ending/That is, it's still the same." It's a bit unsettling, especially when McCombs mentions being able to "smell the columbine." And then the county becomes a past lover, as McCombs dips into a stinging falsetto: "You never even tried to love me." The half-nostalgic electric piano and gentle hat taps expertly conjure the "passing road signs" on this cross-county trip of mixed feelings.

Actually, I need to talk about these drums. They're perfect. They never explode into catharsis, but their tactful restraint and crisp, foregrounded texture benefits the song the same way B.J. Wilson's drudgy percussion benefits "A Whiter Shade of Pale." There are many other details in the song's instrumentation that are just so judicious and correct: the prickly organ whine, the polite, meticulous electric guitar.

It's McCombs' delivery, though, that steals the show, especially at the track's three-quarter mark, when he sings the title in a stunning nasally twang and then drops down to a soft, round-edged, "Woah, woah, woah, woah." Woah, indeed.

1. M83 - Midnight City
WOO! YEAH! DOO-DOOO-DO-DO! DOO-DOOO-DO-DO! Oh man, this song is too good. An ode to all the possibilities of those strange few hours when the sun is on the other side of the Earth--whether they be found in the imagination or the backseat of a car--"Midnight City" is pure nocturnal dynamite.

M83's Anthony Gonzalez digitally manipulated his own voice to create the electrifying hook on this, the lead single from his ambitious new double-LP, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. Then he added stadium-obliterating drums, scintillating synths, and tension-building verses. Then he added the most bombastic, life-affirming sax solo to be found in this galaxy. It's the perfect exclamation point to a work that already screams with excitement.

"Midnight City" may draw heavily from the 80's, but its HD grandeur is completely here and now. This isn't a throwback. It's decade-making material.

Monday, August 22, 2011

I'm Tellin' Y'all It's Sabotage

What timing! Little did I know when I wrote my treatise defending Silent Hill 2's voice acting that days later, a sampling of the HD remaster's new voice work would be delivered for the gaming public to scrutinize. Here I was expecting to hold my head in my hand, frown, and begrudgingly admit that the new actors actually sound like professionals, despite the fact that they could never reclaim the soul of the original cast. Of course, reality often trumps imagination when it comes to weirdness.

 The new voice acting sounds leagues less professional than the original's, and feels like almost deliberately heretical sabotage. There were quite a few people who were saying, "Well, the original actors weren't the best, so I'll wait to hear the new guys." These people are now nearly as disgusted as I am. It's ridiculous, and honestly I think I'm glad it actually turned out so atrociously. I was planning on buying and playing through the remaster to appreciate the shiny audiovisual upgrade and see what I thought of the new performances; now I'm just going to ignore this suicidal turd, as are, I think, many people.

Oh, and they're also making a co-op Silent Hill action game. PCP, man. Konami's on the dust.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mucking with Masterpieces

It may be old news now, but Konami's recasting of voice talent in the Silent Hill HD Collection (which I alluded to in my Portal 2 review) has me more outraged than I've probably ever been when it comes to video games.

What's funny is that the voice acting in Silent Hill 2 and 3 is often (legitimately) considered amateurish, and for some it's an ugly seam in an otherwise well-woven pair of horror stories. Adding more professional voice work to an HD remaster makes just as much sense as bumping up the resolution. For some people. For me, however, this is not a matter of technical fidelity. It's not a new coat of paint. It's taking a hammer to Michelangelo's David and having enough warped assurance to claim that lopping off his genitals makes the work more palatable. Rape and destruction of this caliber is beyond even the powers of the infamous Pyramid Head. Congratulations, Konami. You've out-evil'd your own monster.

Perhaps I should explain why, without the aid of nostalgia, Silent Hill 2's awkward performances have established themselves as my favorite in any video game. Of course it helps that they're backed by a ludicrously great script, but the actors who breathe life into those words deserve to have their art investigated and celebrated. Let's begin with Monica Horgan's reading of Mary's posthumous letter to James, the motivation for his wandering through the foggy and memory-tortured streets of Silent Hill:
"In my restless dreams, I see that town: Silent Hill. You promised you'd take me there again someday... but you never did. Well, I'm alone there now, in our special place, waiting for you..."
The word "promised" jumps ironically on a guilt-inducing hiccup of wistful half-laughter, and the ellipses that trail "someday" conjure an image of Mary smiling into space, reminiscing. Which makes the latter half of the sentence, with its squinting, sighing sadness, ambiguous as to whether it's forgiving or condemning, all the more acheful. The next sentence's kick-off "well" has Horgan exhaling right into the microphone, providing an as yet unrivaled sensation of intimacy. Her pronunciation of "special place" uses a strong "s" sound to heighten its seductive mystery, and her lifted-eyebrows whisper of "waiting for you" creates in James and the player a simultaneous feeling of hopeful arousal and stomach-churning apprehension. Such is the emotional nuance of this game's voice work.

Of course, the real star of Silent Hill 2 (save Pyramid Head) is its mild-mannered sad sack of a protagonist, James Sunderland, voiced with charm and pathos by the irreplaceable Guy Cihi. His delivery is often understated, sedate, somewhat absent, with deflated vowels and ringing consonants, a slight rumbling in the throat, clearly audible mouth movements, and a whistling quality that accentuate's the character's meekness and confusion. This makes James' more passionate outbursts all the more authentic and bloody, such as his desperate cry of "Leave her alone! Leave us both the hell alone!" which could have dipped into bathos were it not for his previous restraint. Cihi becomes James, taking on all his insecurity, pain, dorkiness, and spiritual destitution, and the result is a truly unique performance.

While Cihi may shine brightest, the whole production features stellar, thoughtful casting. For example, Angela Orosco, a 19-year-old girl, was played by Donna Burke, a middle-aged woman; the choice reflects the unnatural aging Angela suffered due to her father's abuse. Her manner is highly confused and disconcerting, bouncing between depression, fear, anger, and apology, all the while disposed towards a disgusting fatalism and self-blame. She also gets to deliver my all-time favorite video game quote: "You see it too? For me, it's always like this." For her ultimate line, Burke puts aside the strange pronunciations and not-quite-right pauses, announcing her character's tragic condition with chilling sobriety and resigned conviction. It's a fucking gut-punch.

As enigmatic temptress Maria, Monica Horgan asks sexually charged questions no game in the last decade has had the balls to echo. She puts James in the uncomfortable position of being her alpha male knight, yelling at him to protect her, teasing him about his lack of strength (that ring in the refrigerator scene has to be one of the most sly and mature in the medium), and almost explicitly requesting his sexual attention. Horgan not only had to manage Maria's balancing act of sympathy, sex, fear, promise, and manipulative evil, but she also had to play Mary, James' deceased wife. Her attacks are cringe-worthy, her resentment is palpable, and finally, in a brave reading of Mary's last letter, her loving forgiveness is at once divine and unbearably human.

This is what acting is. It's giving oneself up to the emotions requested by the fiction; to be good at it, one must have true courage and be willing to follow his inhabited ego into unpleasant depths. This is what Silent Hill 2 is. It shows us our darkness, and, as a video game, allows us to share in the performance, to artificially exercise the demons of a sad, lost man. Playing Silent Hill 2 requires bravery; it's a pretty harrowing experience. Its (to quote Nich Maragos) "expertly crafted abyss" is in large part a product of the actors who animate it. To replace them and still call the thing Silent Hill 2 is dishonest and cruel. I won't go into why it's happening or what Guy Cihi has to say about it here (needless to say, it's a case of the producer fucking the artist over), but I don't like it. 

The same goes for Silent Hill 3 of course; I thought Heather Morris' turn as Heather Mason was very authentic and emotionally naked. Apparently Konami is redoing the voices for the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection as well. Which is just madness, as nobody ever even asked for better voice acting from those games; and what's worse is that the VO from Sons of Liberty is actually nostalgic for me. All in all, fuck you, Konami. Here I was, excited to play some of my favorite PS2 games in bumpin' HD, and you had to piss all over the whole affair. As Mr. Sunderland might say, "Leave us both the hell alone!"

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Portal 2 Review

I'm well aware of the tardiness of this review. Then again, I'm not a game reviewer and this isn't a traditional video game review: no effort to shy away from spoilers, no numerical score, no affirming or challenging of the game in question's value at $60. Not that I'm against scoring games with arbitrary abstracts as some people are, but for one, it's a bit too late for anybody to care what score I assign Portal 2, and also... Well, I'm rarely this uncertain about my own feelings toward a game.

Portal 2 is the sequel to 2007's captivating first-person puzzler, an inspiring success story in which a senior capstone project, Narbacular Drop, so impressed Half-Life developer Valve that the company hired the students to work on a small title to be released within their Orange Box compilation so as to minimize risk.

That game was Portal, and to everyone's surprise, it was a hit with 'hardcore' and 'casual' gamers alike. The concept is simple yet mind-expanding; players wield a gun that can fire two portals, one orange and one blue, on nearly any white surface. In the heel-springs of human lab rat Chell, players must use the portal device to navigate a series of increasingly sophisticated test chambers in the eerily desolate labs of Aperture Science, all the while being guided and taunted by a passive-aggressive computer AI named GLaDOS.

Portal 2 takes place hundreds of years after the events of its prequel, in an underground facility ravaged by nature and time. Early levels revisit the first Portal's test chambers, their enamel-white sterility now decayed and stained, choked with rugged flora and graffiti celebrating your earlier exploits; Valve have always been masters of telling a story through the environment, and now it seems they've mastered the nostalgia trip. Soon enough, however, the player is led to new environments that reveal the true depths of the facility and the boundless ambition of its eccentric founder, Cave Johnson (more on him later).

A sequel in the truest sense, Portal 2 expands on and refines the tenets of its predecessor rather than starting from scratch. While all of Portal's mechanics remain in place, Portal 2 wastes less time acclimating players to the basics, instead gently but efficiently easing them into the unique gameplay--a singular fusion of FPS and adventure game which requests sharp reflexes and sharper wits--before introducing a bevy of giddy new toys. From Aerial Faith Plates to laser Redirection Cubes to tractor beams of swirling asbestos, Portal 2 doesn't skimp on new elements and their thought-provoking, sometimes thrilling applications.

While chase sequences and slightly more organic exploration sections have been added to the mix, the meat of Portal 2 is still furthering the cause of science through a number of deliciously head-scratching test chambers. The new tools introduced in Portal 2 often make for a more dynamic and flavorful experience. I had a lot of fun with the Hard Light Bridges, especially during the first trial of Chapter 4, when I used a vertical Hard Light Bridge in conjunction with my portal gun as an impromptu mobile shield against turret fire. Laser redirection, while not as physically stimulating as momentum puzzles and the like, offers a return to the first Portal's oftentimes more ponderous, patient style. Excursion Funnels, Aerial Faith Plates, and Repulsion Gel lend the game a delightfully gravity-defying verticality.

What is Repulsion Gel, you ask? Why, only one-third of Portal 2's most impressive new gameplay feature: paint! Once again, the vigilant talent-harvesters at Valve absorbed a student team to work on the Portal series; this time it was the young wizards responsible for fellow first-person puzzler Tag: The Power of Paint, a game itself inspired by Portal in which players manipulate paints that affect the physical properties of the surfaces they are applied to. Their expertise produced Portal 2's Repulsion, Propulsion, and Conversion gels. Blue Repulsion Gel is for bouncing, orange Propulsion Gel for gaining speed, and white Conversion Gel for creating portals on previously inert surfaces. The Conversion gel puzzles are particularly gleeful, but nothing beats the intricate, kinetic harmony of those puzzles which task you with employing the three gels in concert.

The previously mentioned chase sequences and organic exploration sections serve to break what could have been the monotony of a series of compact, precise, walled-in test chambers (keep in mind that Portal 2, at about 9 hours, is three times the length of the original). The forward-charging immediacy of the chase sequences counters the methodical experimenting done in the trials composed by GLaDOS and Cave Johnson, while the slower-paced moments outside the test chambers allow players to stare deep into the bowels of Aperture Science and provide some memorable set-pieces (flying through the giant Aperture sign at the beginning of the Cave Johnson section was a blast).

Of course, perhaps the most widely lauded ingredient of the Portal concoction is its writing and acting. You already know that Portal 2 has one of the best scripts and some of the best performances in video games. Stephen Merchant's bumbling, neurotic naturalism as the moronic personality core Wheatley, Ellen McClain's subtle humanizing of a malevolent AI bitch, and J.K. Simmons' turn as increasingly frustrated Howard Hughes-type American innovator Cave Johnson; these three characters offer Portal 2 more personality than most entertainment properties could ever hope to muster. My friends, we have us a true video game comedy here.

Now that we've gotten the basics out of the way, I can go into specifics on my overall thoughts and impressions (sans co-op) of what seems to be 2011's top candidate for Game of the Year. To start, I think Portal 2 is generally a superb game; Valve's almost freakish craftsmanship shines through in nearly every aspect of the production, from its smooth, propulsive energy to its satisfying, comfortable challenge to its appealing, almost Pixar-like presentation. In fact, Valve really does seem (to use one of those stupid "the ___ of ___" analogies) to be the Pixar of video games in many ways, and their latest effort all but confirms that. Their work is polished, charming, and just about peerless; everyone wants to work for them, but only the best get in.

Like I said though, it's not often that I find myself scratching my chin and pacing about the room trying to determine my own opinion of a game. You see, if Portal 2 has a problem, it's the original Portal. Prior to Portal 2's release, many, including myself, worried and wondered about how Valve could follow up a game as lean, novel, and just about perfect as Portal. If any game never needed a sequel, it was Portal. After reading Game Informer's cover story, my fears were assuaged; "Okay," I thought. "These guys know what they're doing. They're not reusing any jokes, it's a more robust production, and hey, it's Valve. They made Half-Life 2. I trust them." Upon release, critics were happy to claim that not only is Portal 2 a worthwhile sequel, but a better game in every respect; some even calling it, to quote Jim Sterling's Destructoid review, "one of the most fantastic experiences ever presented as a piece of software." High praise indeed, but it certainly helped get me excited to play Valve's latest offering. And now for the weird, surprising truth: I was disappointed.

I'd like to explore why that is, but to do so, Portal 2 must not be examined in a vacuum; it is crucial that we consider it alongside its predecessor. The original Portal was this faultless, crystalline short story packing a surprising comic punch; at four hours and with such limited assets, there was no flab, no flash, nothing but a singularly brilliant experience from start to finish, with all the charisma of a great debut. Furthermore, it is one of the few games, alongside the likes of Shadow of the Colossus, that is championed again and again as a work of art in which basically no "ludo-narrative dissonance" (meaning the clash and incompatibility of mechanics with story) occurs; nothing the player can do muddies or subtracts from the game's theme and narrative. Like many minimal artworks, the less is more approach allows what's there to be interpreted in a number of ways. The guiding non-player voice and the sterile, self-contained testing rooms could serve as commentary on the nature of linear game design; the 'game' half being at once malevolent and compelling, and the human player equated with a mute lab rat. Escaping the white rooms and ultimately killing GLaDOS, while still the only way to complete the game, satisfies the player's desire to break the rules and claim autonomy against the forces which would enslave him. There's the unreliable narrator trick ("This next test is impossible."), the thrill of peeking behind the curtain, the idea that the game is an allegory for breaking off a relationship with a manipulative, passive-aggressive girlfriend, and even a somewhat Freudian interpretation of the game as a satire of first-person shooters, with an all-female cast and a gun that shoots holes instead of projectiles.

Needless to say, Portal is cherished, and a $60 sequel of anything but the highest quality would likely have been met with venom. As good as Portal 2 is, though, it's not the endlessly stimulating, citation-worthy diamond that Portal is. It's certainly not as quotable, for better or worse. But as similar as the gameplay has remained between the two, I see them as very different games, and that's because of a key distinction: tone. The original Portal is at once creepy, hilarious, quiet, cold, and lovable. Allowing you but a brief glimpse into the red, graffiti-pockmarked guts of the facility, Portal suggests. Portal 2, constantly moving players through offices and catwalks and chasms, does not.

My favorite Portal 2 review comes from Eurogamer's Oli Welsh; every word rings true, but I'll try not to quote the whole thing. Welsh says, "You can't call Portal heartless, it's too funny a game for that, but it does have a heart of ice. It's so tight, so deliciously underplayed, that criticism passes through it like light refracted through a jewel. Very little of this is true of Portal 2. It would be impossible to expand that haiku of a game into a 10-hour blockbuster (with a separate co-operative campaign for two players) without muddying those crystal waters. Inevitably, it's more talkative, the humor is broader, it contains some ideas that don't work as reliably, and the fiction's delicate relationship with the Half-Life universe is disturbed." Portal 2, while less quotable, is certainly more talkative. There is no loneliness in this game. Wheatley, GLaDOS, and Cave Johnson are constantly blathering away, filling up the air with insecure mumbling, snide attacks on Chell's weight and adoption, and paranoid proclamations of impossible industriousness. But where Portal was a sparse short story with a stock of classic jokes, Portal 2 is a top-to-bottom bona fide comedy video game. It's not an escape tale with any video game-unique gags as playfully ingenious as incinerating the Companion Cube; it's just a humorous and at times touching story about power, corruption, science, and seeing two sides to people. As pointed out in the Eurogamer review, the difference in tone can be seen in each game's first room. Portal begins in a solemn glass box with a strange sci-fi bed, a toilet, and a radio. Portal 2's hilarious tutorial (the zoom function is taught by having you look at a painting on the wall in order to "feel mentally reinvigorated") takes place in a model of a tacky, not-so-swank hotel room.

Portal 2's comedy aesthetic does allow for some great moments, though. While GLaDOS's sarcasm in Chapters 3 and 4 felt weary and forced to me, she becomes much more enjoyable once trapped in the body of a potato battery, making her a bit more humble and sympathetic, not to mention funny. The malfunctioning turret who talks about Prometheus, the Cave Johnson "when life gives you lemons" speech, the turret-cube Frankensteins, and Wheatley's lazy test chamber are all great, but nothing beats the game's final interactive punchline: shooting a portal on the face of the moon. "Lunacy" is right. More than anything, though, Portal 2 makes me hopeful for the medium's future: here is a nonviolent, comedic first-person adventure game that is popular with critics and consumers alike. More things like this, please.

Going back to Eurogamer's fantastic review, I'd like to touch on their very interesting conclusion. They say, "Portal is perfect. Portal 2 is not. It's more than that. It's human: hot-blooded, silly, poignant, irreverent, base, ingenious, and loving. It's never less than a pure video game, but it's often more, and it will no doubt stand as one of the best entertainments in any medium at the end of the year. It's a masterpiece." Here's the thing: I'd take heart and soul over perfection any day of the week. I love Grand Theft Auto IV even though it is deeply, deeply flawed on a fundamental level, because I think it has soul. Final Fantasy VII is my favorite game, for chrissakes! And yet... I love Portal more than its sequel. Then again, I think both games have heart, from Portal's turret meekness to Portal 2's turret aria, "Still Alive" (soiled as it is) to Wheatley's strange apology. However, I think Portal has more soul, which is a bit harder to point out. I tend to think of "soul" as the little things, things like footsteps and ambient noise and color choices and little vocal phrasings and... I don't know, I guess the ambiguity of "soul" is what makes it so special. It's the subtle whistling tones, the audible mouth movements and notes that inflate and deflate, the inflections that balance quirky, half-intentional humor and devastating pathos, that make the performances in Silent Hill 2 my favorite ever (which are getting replaced in the HD collection fuckshitpissbitches!!). It's getting the call that Darko has arrived  in Liberty City while driving through Brooklyn in the rain as a man on the sidewalk says, "This cigarette is my lunch and dinner." It's the crackling of torches and crying of gulls in Ico. It's escorting Emma through the abandoned, twilit Big Shell after the personnel have boarded Arsenal Gear. I'm rambling, but do you see what I'm getting at? Portal 2 is too overeager, too loud and impatient to let the player savor those inconsequential details I look for.

Portal 2 is an undeniably great game, maybe even a modern classic, but to me, it's fascinating for other reasons. Comparing 2011's critical darling with its prequel is an extremely interesting exercise, and maybe in that context I can come to love it too.