December 31 is considered the end of the year, but it is really just an arbitrary marker on a calendar created by human beings. Best-of lists are entirely subjective, based on individual tastes. So I'd rather close 2010 with a few of my favorites, things that I appreciated more than ever during this hectic and volatile year.
The King's Speech - There's a good chance I'd fall in love with Colin Firth starring in a dog food commercial. He's just that good. In this film, his fully realized, understated performance as George VI, the man who wasn't supposed to be king, is totally mesmerizing. Firth stars opposite the marvelous Geoffrey Rush as the man who helped the king find his voice, and Helena Bonham Carter as the radiant, loving, fiesty Queen Elizabeth (before the world knew her as the Queen Mum.) No car crashes or punch-outs needed for this film to be fully engaging. An absolute must-see.
"Tried & True," Clay Aiken - Despite the recent cash grabs by a couple of singers past their prime, singing the standards isn't played out. You just need someone with the voice and the artistry to do great songs justice. That someone would be Clay Aiken, who knows his way around smart pop, with traces of rock, soul, jazz and country, and the best of Broadway, as well. From the perfectly retro-styled album cover to every tune on the playlist, Clay brings his warm, clear tenor to some of the most popular songs of the mid-century, with the authority needed to demonstrate why another take on them is worth your time. His versions of "Misty" and "Mack the Knife" are especially strong, "Unchained Melody" features an eye-popping "what the hell was that?" vocal climax, and "Suspicious Minds" rocks, struts and snarls in a commanding nod to Elvis. Clay also duets with Broadway star Linda Eder for a stirring version of "Crying", and is supported by Vince Gill's brilliant guitar work on "Moon River" and David Sanborn's muscular saxophone on "What Kind of Fool Am I?" Gorgeous, top-flight orchestrations, arrangements, and musicianship highlight this first-class production that should have been rewarded with multiple Grammy nominations for traditional pop.
Also available is the DVD of "Clay Aiken: Tried & True - Live!", the recent PBS special featuring Clay's concert versions of these songs. It includes several can't-miss bonuses, especially a wonderful rendition of "What Kind of Fool Am I?" (Catch the PBS special for the touching "In My Life," which is not included in the DVD, perhaps due to licensing issues.)
Habitat for Humanity - There when storms strike, there when a family needs a new start, always there to serve humanity and help people help themselves. From Los Angeles to New Orleans to Haiti, Habitat responds during natural disasters and during the everyday economic emergencies that hold families in poor housing. By helping Habitat, you help families earn their way into a better life, through sweat equity and giving back. I've been a supporter for a long time, and Habitat has helped a lot of people find their way home, transforming every dollar given into a bright future for families, here and abroad.
"Genuine Negro Jig," Carolina Chocolate Drops - I was blown away when I saw this band on Tavis Smiley's PBS show earlier this year. The Drops, a trio of African American musicians whose training ranges from classical to rock, have produced a CD of infectiously engaging roots music. (Check out this article from Paste Magazine for more information.) The music isn't mainstream, it's just damned good. Fortunately, the Grammys noticed this one and gave it a nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album. Try a little something different and check out the sweet sounds of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) - Supporting safe school environments for all, GLSEN has worked to educate the public about the value of all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, created programs to ensure that school is a safe space for all, and worked to enact anti-bullying and other legislation to support safe learning environments. In a time of tragic headlines about harassment of LGBT youth, sometimes leading to suicide. GLSEN is here to make sure that no young lives go to waste.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart - Simply put, Jon Stewart provides the best political and social analysis available on any network, in the guise of a comedy show that started out as funny "fake news." Jon and the "news team" make me laugh, of course, but this show has grown into a real source of information, of strong, well-thought-out opinion, and as an occasional call to action, such as with Jon's coverage of the recent Republican stonewalling of a bill to support health funding for 9/11 first responders. I wouldn't miss an episode.
Just a few highlights from my arts and activist life.
And now: what are you doing New Year's Eve? Something better than writing a blog, I hope. Here's Clay Aiken at several stops on tour, performing the Frank Loesser classic.
Happy 2011, everybody.
Technorati tags: "The King's Speech", Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Clay Aiken, "Tried & True", Linda Eder, Vince Gill, David Sanborn, Habitat for Humanity, Carolina Chocolate Drops, "Genuine Negro Jig", GLSEN, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, Frank Loesser, New Year's Eve, 2011