Monday, December 6, 2010

Top 25 Albums #19. The Beatles - The Beatles

Ah, here we are. The first album on my list to be written and recorded by those mop-headed Britons everyone goes on and on about. And this one is a doozy. Released in 1968, The Beatles (or The White Album, as it's more commonly referred to for obvious reasons) had to confront a daunting question: how the hell do you follow up Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? The answer is a sprawling, eclectic, dizzyingly diverse double album in which The Greatest Band That Ever Was crammed in as many songs (in as many styles) as they wanted. Where Sgt. Pepper was a lean and unified concept album (of sorts) with the most lavish and detailed cover art of all time, The Beatles is an erratic hodgepodge, even a mess by the group's standards, with one of the simplest and most (at least seemingly) effortless covers ever: a solid expanse of white blemished only by "The BEATLES" and a serial number. In the spring of 1968, The Beatles took a trip to India to meditate and "get away from it all" under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Although it was meant to be a vacation from song-making, Lennon and McCartney ended up writing quite a few songs-to-be, and the whole thing eventually ended on a sour note: Lennon was led to believe that Maharishi had made sexual advances toward Mia Farrow's sister Prudence (herself immortalized on the album's own "Dear Prudence"); in response, Lennon wrote what would become "Sexy Sadie." The original lyrics included the line "Maharishi, you little twat." So, the India thing didn't go too smoothly, and the bad vibes ended up at Abbey Road for the duration of The White Album's recording process and beyond. The tension and strife present in the 1968 sessions is downright legendary, and contributed largely to the final record's composition and sequencing. This context is important to understanding the music, but I think it's time to start talking about the music itself. With 30 tracks and four talents at each other's throats, The Beatles was bound to be one of the group's more uneven efforts. Nevertheless, this is the fucking Beatles we're talking about, so even if the overall thing is a little inconsistent, the music is still godly. Where to begin? The bouncy bassline in "Dear Prudence"? The fourth wall-breaking, self-referential lyrics of "Glass Onion"? The joyful sing-along of "Ob-La Di, Ob-La Da"? The "why the hell is this even here?" weirdness of "Wild Honey Pie"? Eric Clapton's weeping guitar? "When I hold you in my arms, and I feel my finger on yooouurrr trigger, I know nobody can do me no harm"? John Lennon's utterly believable fatigue in "I'm So Tired"? The orchestral flourish that closes out "Piggies"? Jack Fallon's bluegrass fiddle on "Don't Pass Me By"? Paul's scorching vocals on "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?"? "Julia"(that would be Lennon's mother)'s "seashell eyes"? The stomping "Yer Blues," in which Lennon claims to "wanna die"? The grimy heavy metal of "Helter Skelter" and it's classic closing exclamation: "I got blisters on my fingers!!"? The headache-inducing musique concrete of "Revolution 9"? The oversize lullaby of "Good Night"? ... Well, would you look at that? It seems I've pretty much covered the whole shebang. The Beatles is definitely a desert island kind of deal, and, helter skelter as it may be, one hell of an album.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Top 25 Albums #20. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band - John Lennon

People make music for various reasons, but whether they're playing synth-pop, Delta blues, heavy metal, or polka, there's a good chance that those musicians are engaging in some form of catharsis. That release of feeling through music is an amazing thing; it can start parties and lift spirits or, alternatively, it can stomp listeners down into the earth and instill great loads of sadness. John Lennon's solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, succeeds at the latter. I believe that there are different stages of understanding John Lennon. First, you may simply see him as one of the four Beatles, the world's greatest rock band. Next, you start to appreciate him as an individual, maybe adopting "Imagine" as a personal favorite, unaware of its weary irony and strong socialist posturing. You think he's a genius, a demigod, a champion of peace, a "dreamer", an expander of minds, a veritable saint. Then, as more facts are revealed to you, you're view is soured; he was an asshole, he was a hypocrite, he broke up the Beatles. Finally, you understand him as well as you, a stranger to a dead man, can. He was a realist, not an idealist. He was anti-bullshit but he sometimes partook in bullshit (like most of us). He was anti-class. He wasn't entirely peaceful, but rather quite angry and anxious. He was also a brilliant singer, songwriter, and musician. He was funny and very clever, and he loved his wife vehemently, and he was an utterly interesting guy. The real John Lennon--not the hippie icon, not the heartless prick, not the saint-- is this album. The devastated, painfully sober ex-Beatle begins the album with "Mother", which introduces us to the record's minimal instrumentation and sees Lennon confronting the dark side of his childhood, particularly the death of his, you guessed it, mother. In a stroke of genius, Lennon included primal screaming at the song's close, which he had practiced after the breakup of the Beatles as a form of therapy. The following track is "Hold On", my favorite on the album. Perfect, dreamlike, bittersweet guitar parallels the vocal melody, in which the singer rhymes "Hold on" with the third-person "John", later asking the world to do the same. He also rasps, "COOKIE", which is hilarious. In "Working Class Hero", Lennon pisses all over England's crushing class and educational systems, saying, "They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool" and later, "you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see." This was some bold shit 40 years ago. Really it's the singing and the lyrics that pack the emotional punch on this record, but I wouldn't overlook the melancholic piano on "Isolation" or Klaus Voorman's fantastic bass playing during "Remember"'s "Don't feel sooooorry" line. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band isn't all screaming and cursing and wallowing; "Love", in as simple a lyric as possible, quietly celebrates man's greatest gift and most powerful emotion. The album's penultimate track, "God", is its greatest (although my personal favorite remains "Hold On"). It is a man stripping away deities, falsities, nations, ideologies, superstitions, saviors, and even what was for a long time his own religion--rock & roll ("I don't believe in Elvis. I don't believe in Zimmerman. I don't believe in Beatles..."), until all that's left is a man and his wife, standing stark naked, hand in hand. "I was the Walrus, but now I'm John" is one of the saddest fucking things I've ever heard. The record ends with the aching "My Mummy's Dead", just to make sure there's no chance of you coming away from it all without at least a couple pints of blood pouring out of your heart. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is a landmark in confessional singing and songwriting, and one of the most brutally sincere tear-jerkers ever put to wax.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Top 25 Albums #21. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea - Neutral Milk Hotel

Some records are great, plain and simple. Some aren't just great, but haunted. Possessed. Deeply moved by The Diary of a Young Girl, singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum and his scruffy troupe of maverick musicians put together a collection of musings, rants, riddles, and love letters, the ghost of Anne Frank hovering just above all the while (If you aren't convinced, may I point you to "Ghost"?). An indie classic, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea's bold, brassy composition has inspired countless college radio bands in the years since its 1998 release. Seeking (in both its famous cover art and its music) to capture an old-timey, almost carnival-like World War aesthetic, the raw trumpets, horns, and accordion on "The Fool" resemble those of a funeral marching band. The album begins with "King of Carrot Flowers Part 1," a wistful introduction to "that secret place where no one dares to go," the land of magic and regret which holds In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in its bosom. The song ends with one of my favorite lines: "And dad would dream of all the different ways to die, each one a little more than he could dare to try." It may sound morbid, and I suppose it is, but Mangum sings the lyric with so much joy that a smile can't help but form on my face. The title track is a standout, spilling over with melancholic ruminations on the brevity of youth and life. "Two-Headed Boy" and "Holland, 1945" imagine Anne Frank reincarnated as, well, a two-headed boy, "playing pianos filled with flames." It's surreal almost to the point of being nonsensical, but somehow it works, as poetry (something nearly every lyricist since Dylan has chased but which few have truly captured). Another beautiful line is found in "Holland, 1945" (my favorite track on the album): "And it's so sad to see the world agree that they'd rather see their faces filled with flies, oh, when I'd want to keep white roses in their eyes." The lyrics may be mournful, but the music is unquestionably, furiously alive. The closer, "Two-Headed Boy Part 2", begins by dragging us into a wintry wilderness of discordant flutes, and ends with the heartbreaking final line, "But don't hate her when she gets up to leave." Afterwards, Jeff Mangum can be heard rising from his chair, putting down his guitar, and walking out of the room. His voice is wiry and weird, oftentimes too loud for the microphone he was using to properly handle. His band is raw and scraggly. His world is strange and sometimes frightening. Nevertheless, Neutral Milk Hotel have produced something lovely, poetic, sad, and bursting at the seams with ferocious vivacity.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Top 25 Albums #22. Kid A - Radiohead

Radiohead may just be the greatest rock band of our time. 1997's OK Computer just about confirmed that. But wait... does that make Kid A rock music? It certainly sounds little like Chuck Berry or Led Zeppelin's call-and-response riffing. Here, in Kid A's cold and frightening post-Y2K world, the guitar is replaced with the Ondes Martenot, the drum kit with the drum machine, the string with the synth, the vocal with the vocoder. There are admittedly some similarities to 70's art rock and Brian Eno, and it's not like a rock band has never "gone electric" before or otherwise reinvented themselves. Rarely, however, have the fruits of experimentation been so rich as on Kid A, the weirdest Billboard #1 album of all time. Intended partly as a reflection of the music Radiohead had been listening to at the time, Kid A amalgamates an eclectic variety of influences, from jazz to electronica, and its success spurred many listeners to seek out underground music much in the same way Nevermind did a decade earlier. Simply put, this album is a masterpiece and possibly the decade's greatest achievement in popular music. "Everything In Its Right Place" starts the affair on a chilling note, with Thom Yorke's severely chopped-up voice spewing non-sequiturs like "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon" over soulless keyboards. Next comes the title track, my favorite on the album, which begins with a UFO landing and ends with a newborn baby's cry. This creepy sci-fi enigma segues into "The National Anthem," a barrage of twisted jazz and funk. "How To Disappear Completely"'s acoustic guitar strumming might have offered respite were it not for the eerie string section that hangs uncomfortably above. After an exhausting sonic nightmare of millennial dread, the album closes with a beautiful explosion of harps, followed by silence and then the final strains of electronic abstraction. Some find Kid A to be impenetrable, but I would venture that it's the band's most accessible album, simply because it's their best. This is some of the most immersive (and impressive) music ever made.

Top 25 Albums #23. Pinkerton - Weezer

After the surprising critical and commercial success that was Weezer's debut, singer-songwriter Rivers Cuomo became disillusioned with the rock lifestyle and, after an operation intended to lengthen one of his legs, decided to take a break and study at Harvard. There, under the influence of painkillers and surrounded by cute young lasses, Rivers penned a good deal of his band's sophomore album. Based loosely on Madama Butterfly and named after the character of B.F. Pinkerton, the album (including its cover artwork) embraces a similar fascination with Japan, treating it as a place of fragile, delicate beauty. Pinkerton was originally derided for its abrasive sound, which was seen as an unwanted departure from the debut's clean power-pop. Rivers himself compared it unfavorably to a drunkard spilling his guts in public; the catharsis feels good at first, but embarrassment soon follows. Everyone would later retract what they said, with Rolling Stone awarding the album five stars in a retrospective review, two more than it had initially been granted. Yes, Pinkerton is a little harsher-sounding than The Blue Album, but it's just as full of glorious fist-pumping pop hooks and choruses, from "Why Bother?" to "The Good Life" to "El Scorcho". On top of its sing-alongability lies a metric ton of delicious heartache, detailing the hollow truth of groupie frolicking in opener "Tired of Sex" and the disappointment of loving a lesbian in "Pink Triangle". The real standout here, Weezer's very best song, is "Across The Sea," which relays the tale of Cuomo's obsession with and yearning for an anonymous Japanese girl, whose only connection to him was a fan letter innocent enough to ask what his favorite food is. It's emotional stuff, and the very pinnacle of Emo, the otherwise awful rock genre which was seemingly named after the contents of this specific album.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Top 25 Albums #24. The Soft Bulletin - The Flaming Lips

Here's a funny conceit for an album: songs about bugs, bug bites, scratches, gashes, and bleeding as ruminations on mortality, love, humanity, and possibly heroin. Somehow, these aging Oklahoman psych-rockers were able to pull it off... with aplomb. The uniquely gorgeous production doesn't hurt; overdriven drums sound large and raw while strings and horns add almost regal lushness. On songs like "The Spark That Bled", a sad-sounding drum machine gives way to the joyous fury of a real kit while an introspective guitar bursts into pop ecstasy. That pop edge really makes this album special. Any gaggle of hipsters can go off on relatively fruitless experiments, but it takes a mastery of the form to make music like this.

Top 25 Albums #25. The Moon & Antarctica - Modest Mouse

Some albums build an entire world around you as you hover, weightless, with your headphones feeling as if they've been on your ears since birth. Many high-concept progressive epics have tried to do this. Many have failed. Modest Mouse, on their most critically acclaimed album, have managed to project the fleeting sights of an ethereal universe and dress on some of singer-songwriter-guitarist Isaac Brock's abstract philosophy without sounding like a bunch of pretentious wankers. From the origin myth of "Third Planet" to the psychedelic beauty of "Gravity Rides Everything" to the highly creative creepiness of "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes", The Moon & Antarctica is overflowing with mind-bending ideas and sounds.

My Favorite Albums of All Time*

Right, so, music. Lots of people like it, and for good reason! Some believe it is the medium which most clearly communicates the human soul, as if it were some sort of divine stomach acid and to pluck a string or hammer a chord would conjure it up in a burp. The album format is a 20th century invention, but in its comparably brief existence it has become home to a staggeringly robust collection of artwork, a collection which music-lovers (read: nearly everyone) would despair to do without. Here, then, is my list of personal favorites, excluding greatest hits, soundtracks, and the like. Keep in mind that this doesn't at all represent the breadth of my musical tastes, especially in its absence of Motown recordings. The asterisk should be self-explanatory.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Favorite Video Game Box Art

After finishing my list of favorite album covers, I wondered whether there are any diamonds in the rough when it comes to video game covers, which have over the years achieved a certain level of (admittedly deserved) notoriety. I did a bit of research and looked through my own pile for some traces of good graphic design. Lo and behold, I came upon enough quality covers to substantiate another of my beloved lists. Yay!

15. Shadow of the Colossus
It may be a product of "design by subtraction," but Shadow of the Colossus is pretty epic nonetheless. The majestic, looming presence of Colossus #1 on the game's cover conveys that pretty well.

14. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda is the world's greatest video game series. That's why they have the gold boxes. They deserve them.

13. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Woah! Composition good enough for a real Star Wars movie poster! And I don't even like Star Wars!

12. Half-Life 2
With his orange HEV suit, goatee, Weezer glasses, and trusty crowbar, how could Gordon Freeman not be seated in the pantheon of iconic video game protagonists? A close-up of the elusive theoretical physicist graces the cover of Half-Life 2's PC release, standing before a bloom-lit block of City 17.

11. Silent Hill 3
This close-up features freckles, which makes it better than Gordon's. Of course, the look of abject horror and exhaustion on Heather Mason's face, set against Silent Hill's rusty industrial nightmare world, certainly helps sell it to me.

10. Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill 2 is the scariest and most heartbreaking game I've ever played, so it only makes sense that its box art should instill similarly unpleasant emotions. A sideways shot of Angela's haunted face is filtered through sick green light and white noise, serving as a warning for the dark contents housed within.

9. Final Fantasy VII
There's probably a sizable deal of bias here, but Final Fantasy VII's box art puts me in a trance. Cloud Strife confronting the Shinra headquarters, Buster Sword in hand, is an image that may be forever imprinted in my brain.

8. Resident Evil 4 (PAL)
In what will soon become a theme of this list, North America consistently gets screwed over when it comes to video game box art. The American cover for Resident Evil 4, with floppy-haired Leon striking an embarrassing pose against an inexplicable purple sky, is quite simply lame. The PAL version, on the other hand, with its striking, stark design and blood-red monochromatic color scheme, actually manages to be legitimately creepy, in an attractive way.

7. Katamari Damacy
Oh, Japan. What would we do without you? Aside from Katamari Damacy's inherent, inescapable quirkiness, its cover art is really quite good; both an accurate representation of the weirdness within and an appealing image on its own.

6. The Legend of Zelda
I can only imagine how cool it must have been to be a kid in 1987, staring lovingly at the original Legend of Zelda's awesome gold cover before tearing into the contents and finding the "invaluable" map and playing manual. This is packaging done right.

5. Pikmin 2

4. Final Fantasy VI (Japan)
I guess it sort of almost makes sense that America would get a different cover for Final Fantasy VI, seeing as how it was called Final Fantasy III over here, but did it have to be so damn inferior? Yoshitaka Amano's distinctive art style is on full display in the beautiful image that adorns FFVI's Super Famicom release. Man have we been deprived.

3. Secret of Mana
Presenting a real sense of place and scale, the gorgeous cover art for Square's SNES action-RPG features a high-quality title logo, stunning detail, and the eternally successful color harmony of red and green. Plus, those birds are really cool. I really like those birds.

2. Dune II: Battle for Arrakis
This is how all cover art should be. Economical. Respectable. Intriguing. Classy. Honestly, it's hard to believe this was designed exclusively for a video game case. The barren sands lead to a technologically advanced settlement (as the twin spires of black smoke would indicate) way over yonder, all under a cloudless blue sky. The letterbox look gives Dune II's box art a distinctly cinematic flair, adding to its already delicious graphic design.

1. Ico (PAL/Japan)
It's uncanny how much Fumito Ueda's tastes agree with my own. The Italian metaphysical and early surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico may be my favorite painter of all time, and it's as if Ueda knows this. Ico's breathtaking European/Japanese cover is based on de Chirico's The Nostalgia of the Infinite, with its empty grounds, long shadows, and simple vertical structures. The cover we lowly Americans received was a shameful, dated CG embarrassment. I would love more than anything to slap some sense into the marketing idiot who deemed it a good idea to stray from Ueda's hand-painted masterpiece of a cover illustration. While Ico's box art uses no in-game assets, it is clearly representative of the whole experience: quiet, desolate, and lovely, with a sense of scale and space that makes the player feel like an ant scurrying about the confines of a fortress at the edge of the world. A+

Monday, September 27, 2010

Favorite Album Covers

Seeing as how I've finished my video game list and am currently working on my list of favorite albums, I thought this would be a nice bridge between the two. In the evolution of rock & roll, album covers have come to help define its mythology and represent its artistic heights. I thought I'd let the elite few who visit this site take a look at the album art that makes me HNNNG the most.

20. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan
A defining image of the early 60's Greenwich folk scene and the young singer-songwriter who first represented, then transcended it, Freewheelin', which depicts Bob and then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo walking down a wintery MacDougal Street, captures a certain innocent spontaneity and romance that wouldn't survive the 60's.
19. Horses - Patti Smith
This is just a cool photograph. Presaging the punk revolution in its androgynous attitude, the cover of Patti Smith's debut album is one of the most subtly striking images in rock.

18. Led Zeppelin IV - Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin have always been keen to a certain aesthetic, mixing raw American blues with folky British mysticism. On the cover of their greatest album, the hard-rockers perfectly capture the style they'd been chasing for years in their music, in the homely but timeless image of an old man with a bundle of sticks on his back.

17. Kid A - Radiohead
On its own, the cover art to Radiohead's Kid A isn't terribly impressive. However, when put in the context of the album's chilling themes of millennial dread, those cold, flat, digital mountains set against a red sky gain a new level of frightening specter.

16. Is This It - The Strokes
At once classy and highly suggestive, the black & white cover of The Strokes' energetic debut embodies all the youth, anxiousness, style, and sex that Julian Casablancas distortedly croons about on the album proper.

15. Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
I've always liked this image. For all of its irritating pretentiousness and suffocatingly sterile sound, you can always count on prog to have some sweet album art. The two men shaking hands, one of whom is on fire, is the absolute pinnacle of that tradition.

14. In The Wee Small Hours - Frank Sinatra
A pensive, fedora-wearing Frank, cigarette in hand, leans against a brick building on a dimly lit nighttime street: the heartbreaking isolation is palpable.

13. Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones are known for being raunchy. To that end, Sticky Fingers is their masterpiece.

12. Closer - Joy Division
The second and final Joy Division album, released posthumously only months after lead singer Ian Curtis' suicide, Closer was destined to be a downer. Accordingly, its cover is just as dark, dreary, and full of mourning as the gloomy post-punk music itself.

11. There's A Riot Goin' On - Sly & The Family Stone
Where Stand! was all cheery, anthemic 60's optimism, Riot is abyssal 70's pessimism straight from the ghetto. Something about that American flag doesn't sit right, radiating a sick sense of foreboding that would come to prophesy the entire decade's dark times.

10. Plastic Ono Band - John Lennon
On Lennon's first and (by far) greatest solo album, the disillusioned ex-Beatle sings about loneliness, love, faith, and nostalgia. The image of two lovers sitting underneath an oak tree might seem dull on one of today's whispery indie releases, but coupled with the gut-punching emotion present on Lennon's cathartic recording, this docile scene becomes something truly affecting.

9. Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan
At first glance, there's nothing particularly special about the cover to Dylan's 1965 LP. Look closer though, and you might see traces of a fiery, rebellious, superior rage in Bob's face indicative of the "angry young man" phase he was in during the recording of the album. It's a simple photograph, sure, but it resonates with enough subtle badassery to represent the unspeakably cool music within.

8. Beggars Banquet / Let It Bleed - The Rolling Stones
Yeah, it's a tie. Yeah, I'm probably "cheating", but how could I separate these two? Beggars Banquet, with its grimy, graffiti-covered bathroom, is a heartwarming visualization of the band's eternal mindset. Let It Bleed's photograph, featuring a dadaist tower of pancakes, paper clocks, tires, and cake, is just as amusing. Both covers faithfully embody the clever wordplay, potty humor, and outlaw personality of their respective albums.

7. Abbey Road - The Beatles

Possibly the image most immediately associated with the Fab Four, Abbey Road's uncomplicated photograph is as iconic and unforgettable as they come. There's really not much else to say.

6. The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground
Leave it to Andy Warhol to come up with a graphic that suits Lou Reed's taboo, hedonistic lyrics. In case you didn't know, a small space on the original cover reads "Peel slowly and see". The banana skin could of course be peeled back to reveal a fleshy surface underneath. Classy.

5. London Calling - The Clash
The choice in lettering was not an accident: Elvis Presley's Elvis Presley decades earlier had featured the same typeface, layout, and color scheme. In the 50's, that hip-gyrating white boy took black music and used it to scare the wits out of good old Christian folk. 20 years later, the punk movement, with its lethal hairstyles and snot-nosed rebelliousness, began worrying the parents who had grown to accept the Beatles. London Calling's cover signifies the bold new direction rebel music was heading in, with its lettering as an homage to the past, and its energetic black & white photograph (of Paul Simonon recklessly laying waste to his bass guitar) as a wordless mission statement for the future.

4. Revolver - The Beatles
The Beatles (that would be drummer Ringo Starr, lead guitarist George Harrison, rhythm guitarist John Lennon, and bassist Paul McCartney in case you've never heard of them), emerging from the folk-rock of Rubber Soul into their early psychedelic days, commissioned their buddy in Germany, Klaus Voorman, to craft the cover to 1966's Revolver. Kudos to Mr. Voorman; Revolver has some of the most memorable and well-composed album art of any LP, with its goofy black & white photo collage and eerily drawn depictions of the Fab Four.

3. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles
I really don't think I need to explain anything here.

2. Daydream Nation - Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth used German painter Gerhard Richter's photorealistic Kerze ("Candle") as the cover to their greatest work, Daydream Nation. The minimalist yet highly lifelike design is eye-catching without relying on gimmickry, intense colors, or extraordinary subject matter. It also fits perfectly alongside the album's evocative title. Hell, there's even a track on the album called "Candle." Album art just doesn't get any better. Well, except for...

1. Unknown Pleasures - Joy Division
A black background and a picture from a science textbook. That's all it takes for brilliant graphic design. The jagged white lines, seeming to form an alien mountain range, are actually the radiation readings of the first discovered pulsar. Pasted in the middle of a dark abyss, the resulting image captures (all too well) the dark pit of depression that Ian Curtis could not climb out of: the 23-year-old singer-songwriter killed himself less than a year after this brooding post-punk debut. If one of art's chief purposes is to generate empathy, then the unsettling image that graces the cover of Unknown Pleasures is some bona fide art. I feel like shit just looking at it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Top 50 Games - 1. Final Fantasy VII

I know what you're thinking. You're either balking in disgust, muttering "God help me, not another fan of that overrated garbage," or feeling a wave of fuzzy nostalgic warmth come rushing up into your chest. Final Fantasy VII is a polarizing game. A highly praised industry milestone whose brilliance has recently come into question, Final Fantasy VII is a decisive divider between two generations of gamers. Like many popular works, Final Fantasy VII is overrated, over-hated, and mostly misperceived. It is by no means perfect and by no means trash. Rather, it is an ambitious, remarkable, dated, flawed, somewhat misguided, and entirely soulful piece of entertainment whose novelties are given too much credit and whose true value is often ignored. If someone asks me what my favorite game is, I bashfully mumble "Final Fantasy VII..." If this person asks me why, I am most likely to answer with two unimpressive reasons: the music and the insignificant details. It's okay if my previous entries resembled little more than dopey-eyed reminiscing, but (while there'll be plenty of that here, too) my review of Final Fantasy VII must be an argument. No longer shall I be ashamed of my undying love for this game. Through this essay, I hope to confirm FFVII's place as one of the greatest games of all time (though certainly not the greatest) and as a more-than-worthy #1 on my personal list. Enough dilly-dallying; let's do this.
Final Fantasy VII maintains a special place in the history of video games. Originally intended as another 2D game for the SNES, after finishing Chrono Trigger, Square soon realized that it needed to bring the series into the 3D craze to ensure its continued survival. Upon learning of Nintendo's plan to stick with cartridges for the Ultra 64 (as the N64 was called early on), Square ended their long and fruitful partnership as the new Final Fantasy's data was too much for the limited memory of a cartridge to handle. In early 1996, the renowned RPG developer turned to Sony, whose first console, the Playstation, used higher capacity CDs. With stunning graphics and a large promotional campaign in the months leading up to its release, Final Fantasy VII was the game that sold the Playstation and erased the niche status of JRPGs in markets outside Japan. Sony's position in the industry and that of the role-playing game owe a great debt to Square's first 3D entry in their flagship franchise. Furthermore, FFVII's computer-generated cutscenes (much like Metal Gear Solid's in-engine cutscenes) established the notion of the cinematic video game and, for better or worse, Hollywood aspirations spread throughout the industry, driving the development of countless games for years. These indulgent CG mini-movies represent the main bone of contention certain gamers have with Final Fantasy VII; they see it as a misguided, maybe even pathetic attempt to rip off Hollywood glitz in the form of a video game. That view is reasonable; over the years I've grown out of cutscenes and have started to wish that games could tell their stories in a more elegant, hopefully interactive fashion. Looking to film for inspiration may also serve to dilute the developing identity of the modern video game, and sometimes I do wonder what the last decade's gaming landscape would have been like without Final Fantasy VII. Then again, as I said on this list's penultimate piece: in 1997, video games needed spectacle. There's a reason FFVII marks the spot where the first generation of gamer ends and the second begins; the old guard didn't need flashy FMVs to get absorbed, but it certainly helped draw in a new audience. Final Fantasy VII brought a lot to the table. Hell, it catalyzed a complete paradigm shift. For this it deserves respect, regardless of one's opinion, but it is obviously not why its fans are so hopelessly in love with it. Sometimes I feel that FVII's detractors think that it's nothing but "OMG graffix!!!1", even though its visuals are no longer outstanding, and forget why it is still one of the most beloved games of all time. To start, let's look at this seventh entry's place in the Final Fantasy series as a whole.
Snobby old-schoolers would have you believe that FFVI is the greatest RPG that's ever been. They're probably right. What they often misunderstand, however, is how VII compares to its immediate predecessor as well as to its successors. I can try to boil my thoughts down to a simple statement for the haters to digest: Final Fantasy VII is not Final Fantasy XIII. Some of you may be thinking, "Oh really? I couldn't tell from the roman numerals," but hear me out. I strongly dislike Final Fantasy XIII (if that makes me myself a hater, then so be it), and this is coming from someone who placed FFVIII (which was certainly more bold and unorthodox than VII) at #37 and just barely nudged Kingdom Hearts II out his top ten. As hard as I try, I cannot find a drop of soul, charm, or humor in FFXIII. It's all flashy graphics, whiny teenagers, and melodramatic bullshit. Unfortunately, this is what some people believe Final Fantasy VII is nothing but. Frankly, they are wrong. VI and VII are much more similar than most fans and non-fans would think. The big internal change-ups at Square happened between V and VI, with the role of director moving from Hironobu Sakaguchi to Yoshinori Kitase and Hiroyuki Ito. What differentiates VII in terms of development is merely that Tetsuya Nomura took over the art and character design from Yoshitaka Amano and the team was working on a foreign system in a foreign dimension. In the middle of the FFVI - FFVII Venn diagram is the ATB (Active Time Battle) system, the mix of magic and technology, the villain with a god complex, the world map and varied means of traveling it, Nobuo Uematsu's beautiful MIDI compositions, the summon spells, the unforgettable moments (the opera house in VI, Aeris' death in VII), etc. Final Fantasy VII has more existential angst, a more difficult plot, and fancy 3D graphics (although really, the characters outside of battle look like polygonal versions of the old sprite designs), but it can be just as light-hearted and charming. At its core, FFVII isn't much removed from FFVI, and if there are alterations to the formula that distance it from the "perfection" of VI, they are matched by evolutionary steps forward in presentation. VII is not VIII or XIII or Advent Children or Dirge of Cerberus or Crisis Core or the much-rumored (and personally dreaded) PS3 remake. VII is VII. Again, the roman numerals should help you figure that out.
Lest we forget, Final Fantasy VII is a game. It's a Japanese RPG with systems and mechanical contrivances. The nitty gritty nuts and bolts do not speak for the game's magic nor for my love of it. They do, however, lay the foundation for an experience that is deep and enjoyable. Then again, they can also bug the hell out of me. For now though, I'll detail what I like about FFVII's gameplay and leave my gripes for another paragraph. The game's battle system is turn-based, but it also takes place in exciting real-time, where enemies can wail on your party while you consider your next move. Most of the time, fights are brisk and breezy, which are nice traits to have when dealing with random encounters (again, more on my grievances later). During boss battles, however, FFVII's combat becomes strategic and carefully paced; major encounters were imposing challenges requiring deep concentration and micromanagement (at least they were when I was younger). Further augmenting the length of battles are Limit Breaks and summon spells. A retooling of FFVI's Desperation Attacks, Limit Breaks are powerful character-specific skills usable only when a party member has filled his or her respective Limit bar through receiving damage. Especially at 9 years old, these abilities and their elaborate animations were pretty nifty: Tifa's melee combos, Cait Sith's slot machine, Vincent's macabre transformations, Cloud's decimating Omnislash. The prospect of earning a new Limit Break made the grind a whole lot more bearable. Even more visually impressive than the Limit Breaks, and second only to the CG cutscenes graphically, were the summon spells. Whether it was Shiva's icy Diamond Dust attack or Knights of the Round's unbeatable Ultimate End, every summon animation, though sometimes unnecessarily lengthy, was an absolute stunner. Greatest of the innovations in Final Fantasy VII's gameplay is the introduction of Materia. A bit similar to VI's Magicite, Materia (which also plays a large part in the story) is the main resource used to develop your party. Unlike convoluted nightmares such as FFVIII's Junctioning, Materia is simple and relatively logical. If you place Earth Materia in one of the slots on Cloud's Buster sword (which can actually been seen as two holes punched through it), Cloud will be able to cast the Quake spell. If that Earth Materia is added to Cloud's armor, however, it will serve to defend him from Earth-based attacks. Equipping Materia affects other statuses, so deciding who will have what Materia in which slot can lead to some varied party configurations, and is fun to pay attention to. All of these attractive features, combined with an RPG's innately addictive nature and a multi-continent world full of explorative possibilities, make Final Fantasy VII one of the more enjoyable role-playing games I've played. Of course, I do have some complaints...
It's funny. Final Fantasy VII is without a doubt my favorite game, but there are more things that I hate in it than in some games that didn't even crack my top 50. I despise random battles. Or more precisely, I despise too-frequent random battles that pull me out of the field view and into a separate battle screen. Upon disposing of the pesky vermin, I'm returned to the field screen, where my few seconds of transitional disorientation lead me into another unwanted fight. A big reason why I would get stuck on boss battles so often was because I fled from the majority of these random and tedious encounters, thereby making my party under-leveled and under-prepared for the mandatory challenges they would face. I also dislike overwrought melodrama. You don't need the fate of the planet to be at stake to get your audience to care about the story. I find it hard to believe that I've become attached to spiky-haired amnesiac teenagers with oversized swords and big, bright anime eyes. The sound effects are awful. Most of all though, Square's approach to designing Final Fantasy VII does not jive with my own ideas as to what makes a great game. Although effort was made to include some mechanical elements such as Materia into the narrative, there's still a lot of unexplained abstraction in the gameplay. Furthermore, I believe that story and gameplay should be one and the same. Final Fantasy VII, however (and many games that I was raised on) dangle story in front of you as a reward for trudging through the gameplay. This story is also presented either through dialogue in text boxes with poor translation, or in CG cutscenes. While I don't hate the way FFVII tells its story the same way I hate random battles, I feel as though it oftentimes ignores the powerful storytelling methods unique to video games.
Regarding the story itself, I'm not sure what to say. On one hand, it's a cliched tale about a band of heroic companions preventing the apocalypse with some environmentalist messages and love triangles thrown in for good measure. On the other hand, it's probably the most captivating story I've ever experienced in a video game. It starts on a small, though (literally) explosive scale, with AVALANCHE, a ragtag group of rebels, successfully blowing up one of Shinra's Mako reactors. Shinra is an oppressive corporation/government seated in the center of a technologically advanced city called Midgar. Shinra has sinister intentions involving a monopoly on Mako, the planet's life juice. With the introduction of a certain silver-maned ex-SOLDIER, things get a lot hairier, leading Cloud and his friends on an epic adventure around the world. Especially with the burden of a rushed translation, Final Fantasy VII's plot is not the clearest and most sensical out there. It's a head-scratcher, but I appreciate its thematic depth and attempted maturity. When Sephiroth tells Cloud that he's just a puppet, when Red XIII saves his home of Cosmo Canyon from the Gi, when the Turks steal Aeris away in a helicopter... To me, there are no real lulls in the story, even when the tension has dissipated. To me, everything is special. Most magnificent of all may be the moments just after leaving Midgar for the first time. Upon reaching the town of Kalm and resting at an inn, Cloud tells his story to an audience of fellow fugitives in a long flashback. Starting in his hometown of Nibelheim, Cloud is joined for a bit by his two best friends, Tifa and Sephiroth. It is in this scenario that gameplay as story feels the most present. If the player leads Cloud to a location he's not supposed to go to, the iconic protagonist will narrate, "No, that's not what happened..." and turn around. What follows is intensely emotional and highly expository in a way that never gets boring. It is also in this section that we first witness the defining image of Sephiroth standing among the flames of a burning Nibelheim. Now that we're at it, why not talk about that stab-happy bastard?
Final Fantasy as a whole is more character-focused than probably any other video game franchise. Each entry in the long-running JRPG series introduces fresh faces, and despite (or perhaps partly because of) this, many of the colorful personalities we've had to say goodbye to over the years have remained with us. No characters in any other video game are as unforgettable for me as those in Final Fantasy VII's well-rounded and eclectic cast. Even the optional recruits are full of style and personality, like fan-favorite Vincent Valentine, an aborted Shinra experiment who is first found sleeping in a coffin. Of course, even more popular among Final Fantasy devotees is the surly, spiky-blonde-haired Cloud Strife. Wielding the ridiculously proportioned Buster Sword along with his lethal hairdo, Cloud was an invigorating contrast to the cuddly gaming mascots of yore. One of the most appealing and intriguing sides of Final Fantasy VII's story is witnessing Cloud's transformation as a character firsthand, moving from one tragic revelation to the next right alongside the troubled hero. His companions are just as memorable. There's Barret Wallace, the token black guy with an arm cannon who swears like a sailor; Red XIII, an eloquent orange lion-thing kept as a specimen by the mad Shinra scientist Hojo; the chain-smoking, expletive-flinging rocket mechanic Cid, who dreams of going to the moon and happens to be the best "Cid" of the series, and more. No Final Fantasy would be complete without a little bit of romance, and to that end we have two prospects: Tifa Lockheart and Aeris Gainsborough (You can call her Aerith, I call her Aeris). I'm not going to lie; I've always preferred Tifa and always will. Most people assume that there are two obvious reasons for that. Sure, Tifa's sex appeal helped draw me in, but there's more to it than cup size. The backstory of Tifa as Cloud's childhood friend and one-time love interest, along with her unimposing and kindhearted personality, attracted me in a way that a revealing outfit never could have. There's a scene early in the game in which Cloud has the option of giving the flower he bought from Aeris to either Tifa or Barret's daughter Marlene. Suffice it to say, Marlene never gets that pretty little 1 gil flower. The real key to my love for Tifa, though, is her theme music; but more on that later. While I admit that I would have bawled uncontrollable had it been Tifa that felt Masamune's long blade puncture her stomach instead of Aeris, I still felt for the green-eyed flower girl. Yes, her healing abilities were useful, but as the last remaining member of an ancient race learning to live with her destiny, she was also a beautifully-developed character with a huge role in the story. And then there's Sephiroth, the asshole who killed her. What can be said about this guy? He's one of the saddest, scariest, coolest villains in any medium ever. He's got mommy problems, the Meteor Materia, impossibly badass theme music (again, more on that later), and an even bigger sword than Cloud's. A nearly constant presence lingering in the background and executing his evil designs, Sephiroth is as plot-critical and deservedly legendary as antagonists come.
If I'm naming the reasons why I adore Final Fantasy VII (which I obviously am), then I have to mention Midgar. I said earlier that aside from the music, what really cements FFVII as my favorite game are the details. Mind you, by details I don't mean gameplay or story nuances. I'm talking about the insignificant little touches of humor and life that were so lovingly fashioned into this game's world. Be they sidequests, graphical flourishes, sound bites, or looping animations on the screen's periphery, all of them have affected me. Many of these can be found in the opening 10 or 15 hours, in the city of Midgar. Designed on multiple layers called plates, with the slums on the bottom (most of the poor folk have never seen the sky), the Mako reactors at the edges, and the cushy Shinra offices at the top, Midgar is a large and highly polluted corporate kingdom that many colorful characters call home. Here's another one of my lists: collecting a wig, a tiara, and perfume for Cloud to dress up in drag with, choosing whether to fight your way into Shinra's fortress or to ascend a painfully long flight of stairs, using a pinball machine as an elevator to the basement of Tifa's bar 7th Heaven, which doubles as AVALANCHE's hideout, watching two lovers ecstatically embrace at a train platform, hanging out on a playground with Aeris, escaping from the Turks (an elite cadre of suit-and-tie-wearing covert badasses) on the roof of the abandoned church, driving a motorcycle out to the city limits while eliminating the Shinra goons that are hounding you with swipes of Cloud's Buster Sword, etc. And that's just Midgar. From Bugenhagen's planetary lecture at the Cosmo Canyon observatory to Barret's tragic confrontation with Dyne at North Corel prison, there's a standout moment everywhere you go. The world of Gaia, its inhabitants, and their stories make up a good chunk of Final Fantasy VII's heart, but probably not much more than half. What supplies the rest? Glad you asked.
FINAL FANTASY VII HAS MY FAVORITE SOUNDTRACK OF ALL TIME. Yes, in caps. That's how much Nobuo Uematsu's MIDI compositions mean to me. To date, Final Fantasy VII is the only game that has ever made me cry (and no, it wasn't over Aeris' untimely demise). I honestly don't remember where in the game it was, but without a doubt the music is to blame. These beautifully written tracks, from the happy ones to the sad ones, glow with a unique synth-y warmth and add loads of emotional weight to a game that could already claim to have more than enough. The use of leitmotif, as in Final Fantasy VI, exponentially increases each character's personality, causing me to fear Sephiroth (Final Fantasy fan or not, you must bow down to the glory that is One-Winged Angel), become good friends with Barret, and fall in love with Tifa, as her song may be my favorite in the entire game. Music tied not to individual characters but rather the journey itself, such as Anxious Heart and Ahead On Our Way, can punch me in the gut with emotion just as hard. FFVII's music is more effective as a storytelling tool than cutscenes ever could be. As much as I love basking in the light of this aural bliss, I cannot remain in such a perfect place for too long. You see, it's difficult for me to play Final Fantasy VII. I haven't touched it in years. The songs are too arrestingly nostalgic, and although I'm heavily biased, I doubt I'll ever hear better music in this medium that I love so dearly.
If you dislike Final Fantasy VII and I haven't yet convinced you to give it some slack, then there's not much else I can do. Nevertheless, I feel as though many gamers and non-gamers don't see what I see in FFVII. It's not about what's in the video game history books: the FMVs and the financial success and the heroine getting killed off halfway through the game. Sure, that stuff was great back in the day, but why do I still cling so tightly to these three scratched-up CDs? Why does my blood boil when negativity is thrown in the direction of this piece of software, even though I'm fully aware of its flaws? Why haven't the dated graphics or corny exchanges of dialogue or frustrating random battles or overcomplicated plot twists pulled me out of its spell? Soul. Final Fantasy VII has soul, more soul than any example of interactive entertainment I've come across. Argue with me if you want, there's no changing my mind.
Another game might come along and take Final Fantasy VII's place eventually; I don't know. I suppose it's possible, though I've played many worthy would-be-usurpers since. As it stands today, though, and as it has for nearly ten years, Final Fantasy VII is my favorite game of all time.