Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ryan's Favourite Video Games of 2014

With the addition of a little one to my family there hasn’t been much time for gaming this year, so I barely eked out five new games in 2014. Also, of the list I’d say that I’ve only really finished two of them. I have played an extensive amount of each title, however, so I feel justified in the list. It’s about quality over quantity, right?

5. Mighty Gunvolt (Nintendo 3DS)

This one is a bit of a cheat, but it is a video game and I did play it in 2014. So there.

Mighty Gunvolt started out essentially as an “early adopter” bonus for buying Azure Striker Gunvolt on the Nintendo 3DS eShop. There will be more information on Azure Striker Gunvolt in a moment. If you bought ASG on, or around, its release you would receive a download code for Mighty Gunvolt. Both this title and ASG were developed by Inti Creates, a company best known for developing the Mega Man Zero series on the Gameboy Advance.

It plays like an old school Mega Man game and features Gunvolt - the titular character of Azure Striker Gunvolt - who can perform a double-jump and a charged attack, Ekoro from Gal*Gun - an Inti Creates developed series only released in Japan - who can float in the air and “charm” enemies to fight for her, and Beck - the hero of the yet-to-be-released Mighty No. 9, a joint project from Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune’s new company, Comcept, and Inti Creates - who has the ability to slide and perform a tackle attack. Get it “Mighty Gunvolt”?

The initial game was really short and could easily be beaten by each of the three characters in just a few short hours. It contains four stages with bosses that are found in each of the three games. It has been expanded since its release and can now by purchased on the Nintendo 3DS eShop along with DLC, which adds four more stages and four more bosses.

It’s a fun little title that won’t take you long to finish, but was very enjoyable. I’m not sure it’s worth the current price of $3.99 USD, though.

4. Azure Striker Gunvolt (Nintendo 3DS)

Azure Striker Gunvolt was the first independent project by Inti Creates announced at around the same time that Comcept first started their Kickstarter campaign to fund Mighty No. 9; the spiritual successor to the Mega Man series. It was an apt time to launch ASG, as well, because Inti Creates title is most definitely a spiritual successor to their Mega Man Zero and Mega Man ZX series, made popular on the GBA and Nintendo DS.

If you’ve played a Mega Man game then you’d be familiar with the gameplay of ASG, as it is a side-scrolling, action platformer. You play as Gunvolt or “GV”, a young boy who is an Adept; an individual who can command “septimal” or psychic powers. In GV’s case he can manipulate electricity in what is called a “Flashfield”.

The main concepts of a Mega Man title are in place: you choose an enemy from a list and whittle them away in whatever order you like. The differences are in the gameplay. In ASG you don’t “shoot” enemies in the typical sense. Instead, you mark them with your gun and then use the Flashfield of electricity to destroy them. Any enemy marked on the screen will be affected by the Flashfield. At first you can only mark two enemies at a time, but as you progress you can upgrade GV, and receive new guns, so that you can mark several enemies on screen.

The gameplay in ASG is very fast-paced, but I personally find it difficult to get out of the mindset of simply shooting the enemies. I don’t usually have such a learning curve with a video game, but Azure Striker Gunvolt definitely had me upside-down and backwards. When you eventually get used to it, it is a very fun and rewarding experience and one I would definitely suggest you try if you are a fan of Inti Creates Mega Man titles.

3. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

If you’ve played video games at any point in the last 20 years or so then you’re probably familiar with the Mario Kart series, as it has become a flagship title for any Nintendo console since the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. There probably isn’t much I can tell you about how Mario Kart 8 plays, so I’ll stick with my experience of the title, thus far.

From the moment it was announced at E3 2013 I was shocked by how great the game looks. It is so colourful and vibrant. Nintendo set up booths at different Best Buy locations around the US and Canada where you could check out demos of some of the games they’d revealed at that E3. I managed to find my way to a Best Buy not long after and checked out a few of the demos. Seeing Mario Kart 8 running at a smooth 60 frames per second just blew me away. It really is a stunning game to look at.

And – most importantly – it plays well! The game handles incredibly on whichever controller scheme you choose. You can play on the Wii U Gamepad, the Wii U Pro Controller, the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, and several other input methods as well. I ended up finding that I preferred the Wii Remote and Nunchuk combination, because it reminded me most of playing on the Nintendo 64 controller. Mario Kart 64 is my jam.

There are a plethora of characters to choose from in this installment. The core characters of the game remain in the Super Mario Universe, but with the addition of DLC packages that were released a few months ago, now Link from The Legend of Zelda can join in on that Mario Kart fun!

This is one of those games that you never just beat and put away, but you play now and again and savour. No matter if you’ve achieved everything the game has to offer you can always find a challenge and with the addition of DLC – something Nintendo is just starting to get used to – more life could be breathed into this wonderful title in the future.

2. Shovel Knight (Wii U, PC)

Shovel Knight is the freshmen release of Yacht Club Games, which is a company started by Sean Velasco in 2011 after he left Wayforward. Wayforward is responsible for all sorts of games, but are mostly known for their Shantae series on Nintendo’s handhelds, as well as several movie tie-in games, and recently an HD remake of DuckTales, from the Nintendo Entertainment System, on modern consoles.

Yacht Club Games first effort is an odd little title; a game where you play as a renowned knight in a far-off fantasy land, whose weapon of choice is, just as the name suggests, a shovel.

The game is a wonderful throwback to retro classics on the NES. It is a perfect union of the elements of Mega Man, Castlevania, Super Mario Bros. 3, and even the aforementioned DuckTales. The style of the game is in a pseudo 8-bit. Everything is created in sprite work that harkens back to the NES era, but at the same time would be far too technical to ever play on Nintendo’s oldest home console.

Shovel Knight is taking on the Order of No Quarter, a group of evil knights that are up to no good! You traverse the world in a map akin to that in SMB3, and you can take on the Order of No Quarter in any sequence you choose, much like Mega Man. In each stage you can find a relic, which if you purchase it, can help you defeat the boss for that area. Coupled with Shovel Knight’s shovel attacks, including one that is just like ol’ Scrooge McDuck’s pogo stick cane from DuckTales, he is a formidable hero!

Playing this game was a wonderful experience from beginning to end. It has a hilarious script, is perfectly paced, doesn’t take forever to finish, and it also balances its difficulty quite well, although being a little on the easy side. The music is full of beautifully crafted chiptune songs, which may make a future list, so keep your eyes peeled.

Shovel Knight is currently available on the Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, PC (via Steam) and has future releases planned for PS3, PS4, and PS Vita, so if you have the means to play it, you should definitely do so.

1. Bravely Default (Nintendo 3DS) 

Bravely Default is a new Square Enix-published JRPG developed by Silicon Studio, known mostly for creating game development software, but also for their only other release, 3D Dot Game Heroes. The game is in many ways a spiritual successor to Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light, which was released in 2010 for the DS and developed by Matrix Software.

Much like 4 Heroes of Light, the game uses an iteration of the famous Final Fantasy Job System - made popular in games like Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy V, and Final Fantasy Tactics - in which players use “asterisks” to give their characters new jobs and abilities.

This game is an odd duck, because it is a completely new title and series from Square Enix, but is in every way a Final Fantasy game. The story line starts off like so many FF titles before it, in which a young man from a small village is thrust into the role of hero to save the world.

Although that sounds really played out, you have to trust me on this: Bravely Default is a breath of fresh air in the world of the RPG. It plays on your nostalgia, giving you the same experience you came to love from the FF titles of yesteryear, but with a new refreshing story, great characters, incredible music, and – most importantly – a new battle system. Bravely Default is not just the same old Final Fantasy game you might be expecting.

Although the game features turn-based combat you won’t get very far if you simply let everyone take their turn. Enter: the Brave/Default system. What an inventive name!

This system allows the characters to pass on taking their turn, instead stockpiling it, which is known as Default. In the Default state your character goes into a defensive stance, which greatly protects you from enemy damage. You can do this up to four times at which point you can take advantage of using Brave. Brave allows you to attack up to four times. If you’ve stored enough moves thanks to Default, you can do so and then still perform another command on your next turn. If you haven’t, however, you’ll have to sit there and let your enemy unleash upon you while you wait for your turn count to replenish.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of nostalgia junkie and this sort of thing is immediately going to be up my alley, but I assure you there is something special about Bravely Default that makes it worth the playthrough.

I can’t give this recommendation without a serious warning, though: The second half of Bravely Default does something that is pretty stupid. I can admit that. In fact, for many people, it’s enough that they won’t finish the game, nor recommend it to anyone, and I can see where they are coming from.

I don’t want to say any more than that and ruin the storyline, but there is a section of the game that can be a bit of slog to get through. In my personal opinion the game is good enough to play through the second half, even if it is rough. I would also add that a good portion of this “bad section” of the game is not mandatory and can be skipped, so if you hate it you can do the minimum amount necessary and get through it relatively quickly.

Regardless of the general reception of the second half of the game, Bravely Default did incredibly well in Japan and North America, and a sequel is in the works from Silicon Studio entitled Bravely Second: End Layer. I for one can’t wait for more!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Shane's Favourite Movies of 2014

I prefer to post these annual movie lists before the end of January, but time keeps slipping through my fingers like dog shit down a storm drain. Sometimes you have to go with the flow. Let's get to it.

5) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The only thing better than apes riding horseback while firing machine guns are apes that you care about riding horseback while firing machine guns. I was really impressed by how entertaining and fresh the 2011 franchise reboot was with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but Dawn was damn near perfect. It had impressive visual effects, a compelling story, and excellent action set pieces.

The harmony we're seeing now with motion capture performances combined with skilled digital animation is kind of stunning. Look at the dramatic performances of Caesar and Koba and try not to be drawn into the story. They conveyed far more emotion than some live action human performances last year (Example: All the humans characters in the new Godzilla movie were played by bags of potatoes). This time around I'm actively sympathizing with the apes and rooting for the demise of those deceitful HOO-mans. You go, Koba! Get in that armoured vehicle and fuck shit up.

I'll always have a place in my heart for the oddball campy goodness of the original series (well maybe not for Beneath the Planet of the Apes), but this updated take on the story is really fun and handled so well that I'm 100% on board for the next entry in the series ... even if they continue their confusing titles and call the next one Emergence of the Origin of the Planet of the Apes: Beginnings.

4) Whiplash

Who would have though that a movie about drumming would keep me on the edge of my seat? They should have called this Full Metal Jazz Kit with all the vicious verbal and physical abuse being unleashed on Miles Teller's character, Andrew. He's a student with a passion for drumming who attends a competitive music conservatory and is soon being pushed to the limit of his abilities. Dishing out the abuse is Fletcher, a strict and ultra-demanding music instructor who will stop at nothing to realize Andrew's potential, or destroy him in the process.

J. K. Simmons is perfectly cast here as Fletcher. It's the asshole he was born to play.  For the entire film you keep bouncing between hating his guts and then discovering he actually has compassion. Then despising him, and then seeing a glimmer of a soul. Where the coin toss lands, I'm not even certain.

The music was delightful and upbeat, which worked well in contrast to the constant anxiety I felt throughout the film. It all builds to an astounding "all or nothing" confrontation between Andrew and Fletcher that I wont soon forget.

3) Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler asks the question, what would a monster do in a monstrous profession? And the answer is, succeed. Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the finest performances of the year as Lou Bloom, an unsettling character of the highest order. Gyllenhaal lost weight for the role to give his character the appearance of a hungry coyote prowling the night, and it works. Bloom is a gaunt, unblinking creep who discovers the world of crime journalism and he stops at nothing to achieve success against the competition. Everything about him is eerie, grotesque, and unethical. Even his empty, corporate buzzword vocabulary can make your skin crawl.

The film is very dark, literally and figuratively, and mostly takes place on the streets of L.A in the dead of night. Bloom's mad ambitions are perfect for this ruthless world of camera crews hunting down car accidents and crime scenes. The movie is fascinating, and while the subject matter is often upsetting, it's hard to look away.

2) Snowpiercer

This movie is crazy. It's full blown banana sandwiches and it just doesn't care.  Based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer takes place on a train carrying the remnants of society through a post-apocalyptic frozen wasteland. The train traverses the globe in an annual loop; it's upper class passengers enjoy a posh life at the front of the train, while an enslaved lower class are stuck to wallow in the rear cars. The film follows a rebel uprising from the back of the train as they fight their way to the front. I think - wait ... yes ... I believe there is some metaphor at play here.

The premise aside, I don't even know where to start here. Do I talk about the pitch-black tunnel axe war, the gun fight in the school car, the sniper showdown around the curve, the brutal battle in the sauna. What about the amazing lineup of actors here? John Hurt, Ed Harris, Chris Evans, and Tilda Swinton stealing the show at every opportunity. My favourite Korean actor, Song Kang-ho, plays a drug addicted security expert helping the rebellion move from car to car. Although the film takes place on a single train, the array of different settings our characters pass through is brilliant.

Okay, look. The movie is far from perfect. It somehow manages to get sloppier in the third act with some laughable dialogue and depressing twists, but I can overlook all that because I've never seen anything quite like it. It feels like a film that should have only worked as a bleak and brutal anime from the Akira-era of Japanese animation. It's bold and inventive, and (no surprise here) always moving forward to new and unexpected places. If you've been hungry for some sci-fi action ... all aboard! *gunshot*

1) Gone Girl

Gone Girl feels like the best directed TV movie you've ever seen, and I pity any couple who chose it as their first date. It may be a long film, but it doesn't feel long. It keeps its momentum with plenty of intrigue and twists with each act, and while you may be able to guess the general elements of the plot, it's doubtful you'd be able to successfully predict where the story will lead. It's nice to feel surprised, and this movie is a perfect modern day thriller.

Some have complained about the ending of the movie; how it leaves some things unresolved and differs from the ending of the book. That's fine with me since I haven't read the book and I don't need all my movies to have conclusions where justice is served. Gone Girl could be summed up with "men be pigs and women be crazy", but it explores the utmost limits of being trapped in, and escaping a relationship.

David Fincher is on point here as always. The cinematography is sharp and natural. The cast is solid all around, though I'm especially smitten by Rosamund Pike's performance. Judge me as you will. Maybe the greatest praise I can give is that I wanted more Tyler Perry. I can't believe I just typed that. There's a ton to appreciate and it's worth repeated viewings because it's dense with details. All in all, the movie executes its insane storyline with finesse and I wouldn't change a thing.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Best Female Vocalists: Favourite Voice Edition

In the world of music I think my tastes can be pretty varied. I like lots of bands and solo artists from lots of different genres. While I'm not nearly as eclectic in this as, say, Shane, I still think it's a fair statement. That said, if you were to take gender and suddenly make it a relevant detail within the musical spectrum, then suddenly my tastes don't appear all that varied at all, particularly with regards to singers. My favourite singers, an overwhelming amount of them in fact, are male.

Now I don't believe there are any deep-seated meanings to be found behind that fact. If you do, feel free to continue believing it, but I have no plans to delve into or dwell on it. Instead I thought something I could do here is celebrate those female vocalists whom I truly do adore. I can assure you that despite my earlier comment, the five on this list represent only a few of the female singers I'm a fan of. I decided to strip things down and make them as simple as possible for the criteria: I'd select those women whose voices I like the most. While it's true a prerequisite for this was also producing music I actually like, it's still less important than the first issue.

And with THAT SAID, I'll also point out that in this life so far I believe I have encountered two perfect human voices, one for each sex. These voices are pleasing to me when raised in song but also when simply engaged in normal everyday speaking as well. For the record, those two are David Usher and Mandy Moore, both of whom I would be content to listen to reading the phone book. But since Moore hasn't really produced a body of work that I like so much, she won't make this list even though I've already deemed her voice as "perfect". Maybe that's weird, I don't know, but it's how I've decided to proceed.

5. Holly McNarland
I think it took seeing McNarland live to really drive home to me just what an incredible voice she has. Some of the details of that experience can be found on this list from several years ago. And as I mentioned in that list, it was her set's opening song, "Water", that was the real vocal showcase. I still can't get over how powerful she is. She may be no taller than 5'2 but she has one big voice.

But she sounds great when performing less bombastic material as well. For songs like "Elmo", in the verses anyway, she has a delivery that reminds me a lot of Ani Difranco. Quick and biting. When her lyrics are dark and/or sarcastic, you can really feel that. I don't think there are a lot of singers who can pull that off. For something more heartfelt and emotional, check out "Beautiful Blue".

McNarland has a voice that reminds me of an elastic band with the way it stretches and bends. But never breaks.

4. Amy Milan
This list is dominated by Canadians which you might take as a sign that I just don't look very hard for material and I'm simply presenting what I know best. Not so, I can assure you. It's not laziness or nationalism or any lack of experience. It just is what it is.

Here we have indie rock darling, Amy Milan. A sometimes solo artist but probably known best for her work in bands Broken Social Scene and Stars. It's mostly for her Stars content that I'm putting her here. Her voice has an almost ethereal quality to it that makes me feel extremely peaceful.  No matter the content of the song, there's just something about her vocal delivery that makes me feel a little less pessimistic (to say "a little more optimistic" would be going too far). It also possesses an innocence that helps make certain lyrics come across much better. I don't know how many singers, female or male, could sing lines like "After I am caught, touch turns into fisticuffs" ("Fixed") and not sound silly.

My heart always breaks a little every time I hear her croon: "I dreamed I was dying as I so often do, and when I awoke I was sure it was true" ("Calendar Girl"), not because it sounds sad to me but because it makes me wonder if this is the female version of myself that never was, somehow loosed upon this world in comic book parallel universe fashion, reaching out to me.

3. Plumb (Tiffany Arbuckle Lee)
Well before Amy Lee of Evanescence fame was crowned the goth princess of alternate rock, there was Plumb. Which is something Amy Lee herself is well aware of. The fact is Plumb was someone she looked up to and wanted to emulate. Well, mission accomplished. I'm not saying Lee is just some poor imitation - I even like some of the music she's produced and she's certainly a very talented vocalist - just pointing out Plumb did it first and, in my opinion, does it better.

How highly do I think of Plumb's voice? Highly enough to not even mind the Christian themes and messages found in many of her lyrics. At the very least they're not preachy and exclusive. There's nothing about saying there's a God that loves us all that's offensive to me and that's pretty much all that's really expressed in her songs that are more religious in tone. And lots of songs don't contain any such lyrics at all. Anyway, I realize that by saying that stuff isn't a big deal, I kind of have inadvertently made it into one so let's talk about her voice.

It is a little tricky sometimes to describe such things as singing voices in words but if I had to pick just one to sum up Plumb, it would be "warmth". As this list will reveal, one kind of female vocalist I really can't stand is the kind that seems to just try to imitate males. I know that's kind of an iffy statement and I don't mean to come across as sexist. But I just prefer female singers who embrace their femininity and channel it into their vocals. I'm not saying a female singer can't be edgy or raunchy or whatever in her vocal delivery, I'm not saying things like hard rock and metal vocals should be left to men. All I'm saying is Plumb knows her vocal capabilities and strengths and employs them in her music wholesale. As with Milan, I would apply the term "ethereal" to Plumb's voice. I guess it's pretty clear that's the kind of thing I like. But there's also a versatility there that allows for some very powerful songs ("Better" comes to mind).

Probably my favourite vocal moments can be found in the electronica-esque "Damaged", which, incidentally, is the first Plumb song I've ever heard.  Her delivery there is so spellbinding to me that it's almost hypnotic. One of the very few songs that can put me in a sort of trance.

2. Lights (Valerie Anne Poxietner)
Speaking of "electronica-esque", here's the artist who is entirely responsible for me discovering the genre of "electropop" to actually be to my liking. In some cases anyway. She's also partially responsible for giving me some faith that there are indeed some artists out there producing music that can be heard on Much Music as well as many radio stations that aren't completely fucking terrible.

Several years ago after another sleepless night, sometime between I think seven-thirty and eighty-thirty am, I turned on my tv because I guess I was completely out of other options at that point. I turned to Much because the guide actually said a word that had all but disappeared from programming in recent years: "videoflow". So I decided to see what videos were current. After watching about three (and WAY too many commercials), what looked at first like just another pop video started, with an absolutely gorgeous girl playing around with paint. I'll admit that at first, that was all that grabbed my attention. To call Lights stunning is probably an understatement by most aesthetic standards.

The video was for a song called "Second Go", and yes, it was hot. But...I found I really liked the song too. And that voice - it sounded...almost like the way I WANTED  female vocalists to sound but had never actually heard until that moment. Is that going a bit too far? Probably. But still, it was a pretty big "wow moment" for me and I wanted to get that across. Soon after I would do a little research through youtube and such and the more I learned, the more I liked.

Conversely, I can completely understand where people who hate Lights's voice and vocal style are coming from. They might call it "whiny" or "squeaky" or something and accuse me of only liking female singers who sound like "little girls" rather than "real women". I can understand it but beyond that, I don't really care.

Lights doesn't just sound good with electronic instruments either. Many songs rely heavily on simple acoustic guitars or traditional piano. I actually prefer the scaled down, piano version of "Pretend" to the original. Not sure how to end here so I'll just ask: How catchy is "Up We Go"?

1. Utada Hikaru
Proof that to appreciate a singing voice, always understanding the language it performs in isn't necessary abounds. My own personal proof is Utada Hikaru, J-Pop idol supreme.

Maybe it's because I've reached the end of the list and haven't completed any in awhile that I really don't feel like being articulate anymore. So let's try this: 2002. Kingdom Hearts. Internet. Always heard similar stuff in anime. Absolutely gorgeous. A sprinkling of English language covers. Writes a lot of her own material. Can actually play several instruments. Voice of an angel. Complete infatuation. Fin.

Give "Sakura Nagashi" a listen and tell me I'm wrong.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Must Listen K-Pop Songs of 2014

Today's list serves two purposes: to introduce you to songs you would never have listened to otherwise, and to acknowledge one of my guiltiest pleasures ... K-Pop music. Even though I lived in Seoul for over three years, it wasn't until I returned to Canada that this unexpected obsession began to form. I became drawn to the hypnotic and polished music videos, the vibrant enthusiasm of the performances, and all the absurd details that add charm.

Let it be known that this list is not strictly for the pop genre. While some of my choices here lean more into R&B, hip-hop, and so on, I'm using K-Pop as a blanket term for any popular songs from Korea, regardless of genre. So, open your mind and ears, grab some headphones, and let's get to it.

5. Hi Suhyun - "I'm Different"

Our first song is collaboration between Lee Hi and Lee SuHyun, two talented young singers with unique vocal styles that turned out to be a perfect match. There is a music video for the single, but I decided to post the song alone because the video was made almost as an afterthought when the song became popular, and I feel like its presentation will distract from the song.

The song has a sweet groove to it and there is an uncanny 60's sound to this catchy beat. It doesn't feel overproduced, and the vocals really shine. If you enjoy the vintage sound, you may soon find this on a loop in your playlist.

4. Dynamic Duo - "Summer Time"

Comprised of Choiza and Gaeko, this hip-hop duo has been making sick music for over a decade. When I stumbled upon Dynamic Duo it was a goldmine of incredible songs and collaborations with a wide array of talented artists. "Summer Time" is a good example of their often playful style.

I love the neon hues of the music video and that it looks like some cartoonish detective show where the two members are playing every character. I couldn't say what story they're trying to tell or why it appears to be an endorsement of Dunkin Donuts besides the fact that they share initials. The song is compelling nonetheless. If you find yourself rocking to this beat, you should immediately check out tracks like "Hot Wings" and "Baaam" from their album last year titled Lucky Numbers.

3. SISTAR - "Touch My Body"

Speaking of summer, in July this excellent 4 member girl group released an infectious single that became an instant hit, dominating the #1 spot on all music charts in Korea. I love everything about this song and video, from the inexplicable sax playing Korean Elvis, to the unusual trying-to-remove-underwear-wedged-in-ass-crack-without-using-hands dance move. More than any other K-Pop song I listened to this year, "Touch My Body" sounds catchy and mainstream enough to be a hit on the American music charts. It sounds like pure unfiltered joy, and let's be honest these girls are easy on the eyes.

SISTAR has been around since 2010 and are known for their signature sexy style, but here they are presenting themselves in a more playful, flirty manner. It's just a goofy summer party that had me grinning from ear to ear. After the second listen I welcomed this earworm to lay eggs in my brain, and if this song doesn't win you over I'll gladly eat my watermelon shorts.

2. Seo In Young - "Thinking of You (feat Zion T.)"

Not only is this a relaxing and sweet song, it's easily one of the most beautiful music videos of the year. Seo In Young - aka "Elly" - is a former member of the longest running Korean girl group, Jewelry, and she sounds amazing paired with the soulful voice of newcomer, Zion T. I'm secure enough in my masculinity to say that I often swoon over his songs.

"Thinking of You" is a mellow, yet emotional song about different perspectives of a breakup. You may not understand the lyrics, but the feelings are apparent, and the vibe bittersweet. Combined with the psychedelic and sexy visuals this song captures the perfect mood, and it feels refreshing. I could jam to this all day.

1. Mamamoo - "Piano Man"

I honestly can't get enough of this song or this group. Mamamoo debuted at the beginning of 2014 and I've adored everything they've put out and collaborated on this year. The group is a vocal powerhouse with a wonderful old school but modern style. And yes, a weird name.

"Piano Man" is their most recent single and it has a bit of everything. There are little hints of jazz, swing, ragtime, and big band throughout the song. The more I listen, the more I appreciate the instrumentation and cool piano licks that dance around the vocals. There's a sick rap break from Moonbyul and the harmonies of Solar, Hwasa, and Whee-in give me chills. The music video is packed with energy and it's the perfect example of why I'm finding so much enjoyment in K-Pop. It's lively, creative, and a flat-out wonderful performance.

More than any other Korean group or artist I'm excited to see where Mamamoo goes next. Considering that they're still a "rookie" group, they are truly killing it with each new single and live performance. "Piano Man" is a song that brings the heat and keeps impressing upon repeated listens.

Moving forward I hope to make this an annual list if the hits keep coming. While it's hard to find music that can appeal to a majority of people, I hope that you've found something in this list that put a smile on your face. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Weird Christmas Traditions Returns

Every time I decide to write one of these lists I’m shocked that I can dredge up even more tales of odd and wonderful Christmastime traditions, but here we are again and I’ve amassed five more of the weirdest Yuletide customs from around the globe.

5. Pictures with Santa… and High-Powered Firearms (USA)

In Scottsdale, Arizona hundreds of people from around the community flock to the Scottsdale Gun Club to get a wonderful, traditional photo with Santa. The big man in red isn’t so much the focus of the photos, though. No, it’s probably the $80,000 Garwood mini-gun that the club has setup in the background. This bad boy would make Arnie proud.

At $10 a pop, you and your family can be fitted with your choice of machine guns, pistols, rifles, and racks upon racks of belt ammunition. Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking, “But, what I really wanted was a picture of Santa with a grenade launcher. Christmas is ruined.” Fear not! Grenade launchers are also available at the club. You can even go classic and get a picture with a good ol’ AK-47.

Described by the club as “… fun from those who support the second amendment and those who don’t”, they state that, “Whether you’re a gun advocate or not, you should have a lot of fun with it.” And who wouldn’t!

I don’t think anything properly expresses the true holiday spirit like a rosy-cheeked child holding a high-powered boomstick, draped in ammo like Rambo.

4. Family Saunas (Estonia)

How many times have you been sitting in a nice steamy sauna, the woes of your day evaporating slowly from your muscles, and thought to yourself, “I really wish I had my family here to enjoy this with.” Well in Estonia, your dreams can be answered.

Estonia has an interesting dichotomy to their Christmas traditions. A blend of Pagan and Christian events are observed. There’s mysticism, spirituality, and Christian themes at play, but everything looks like a very traditional Christmas you’d see anywhere in North America.
The party starts on December 21st for Estonians with St. Thomas’ Day and runs right until the Epiphany on January 6th. In some areas it is stretched out one extra day, until St. Canute’s Day on the 7th. The Christmas Holidays, specifically, are celebrated from December 24th to the 27th.

Known as jõulud, the celebrations have as much to do with the Winter Solstice, and the impending cold and dark, as they do with the birth of Christ. On Christmas Eve many interesting traditions are kept, including fortune telling, but there was one in particular that caught my eye.

After preparing the traditional jõulud feast, and before church services are held, all the Estonian families will find a nice sauna to spend the afternoon together in. How does that all go down? Well first everyone gets naked, bathes, lathers themselves up in honey, and then wile away the afternoon, whipping one another with birch twigs to really massage and clear your skin.

I love spending time with my family around the holidays, I really do, but I don’t want to get naked with them and practice S&M right before church.

3. Danny and his Grandmother’s Cookies (South Africa)

You might think that from a geographical standpoint that South Africa wouldn’t really practice Christmas traditions, but being that it was mostly populated by European colonies, the customs found a home there. From what I can tell, in fact, Christmas is pretty traditional in South Africa. But, like good ol’ Krampus, there’s nothing like a story of absolute terror to keep those kiddies in line.

During the seemingly normal Christmas festivities, families will gather up all of their children on Christmas Eve, to tell the story of a young boy named Danny. You see Danny lived with his Grandmother and in preparing for Christmas and Santa, she had baked a batch of delicious cookies for the jolly old elf. Those cookies were so tempting that Danny couldn’t contain himself, and he ate the whole batch.

So what did Grandma do? Did she tell Santa and have Danny’s presents turned to coal? Nope. Did she scold him for what he’d done and make him bake a fresh batch for the Claus? Wrong again.

No, in a fit of rage she brutally murdered her grandson. Now, his ghost haunts South Africa during the Christmas holidays, reminding young children that they need to be good, practice patience, and not be greedy or their grandparents will take their lives away from them.

2. Las Parrandas de Remedios (Cuba)

Cuba has a pretty interesting history with Christmas. For 30 years it was outlawed by Castro after he declared the government atheist in 1969, and it was only in 1998, prompted by a visit to Havana from Pope Jean Paul II, that Cubans were allowed to practice the traditions of Christmas once again.

One of the more elaborate events in their Christmas celebrations is Parrandas, which is essentially a huge carnival. The most famous Parrandas celebrations happen in the city of Remedios, where Parrandas was first conceived.

The story goes that a priest, Father Francisco Vigil de Quiñones, wanted the townspeople of Remedios to come to midnight masses during the week leading up to Christmas. In order to keep people from going to sleep Father Francisco would send the altar boys from his parish out with pots and pans, which they would bang while singing at the top of their lungs. Eventually this turned into a kind of street party and that tradition has remained until this very day.

Today’s Parrandas is a far cry from the street parties of 200 years ago. There are several events that take place during the carnival, which begins at 10:00PM. The first is rumba dancing with fireworks known as palenques. These fireworks are meant to be completely soundless in their launch, but burst over the crowds of dancers, surprising and scaring them as they dance in the streets below.

In the second event, massive floats are pulled into the city’s plaza, each created and decorated by different cities surrounding Remedios. The floats are decorated in your usual lighting and colours, but also each float has actors who are meant to signify the theme for the year, and a story which is read aloud as their floats make their way to the plaza. There’s one caveat: the individuals on these floats are not allowed to move in any way as the float is moving some 40m. It is considered a “demerit” to the district if the actors move on their floats.

The final piece is a row of 20,000 rockets, which span up to 4 city blocks, and that are lit off and explode in the sky in a volley of fireworks. After the rockets, mortars are launched (for good measure), which are meant to be the exact opposite of the palenques set off at the beginning of the carnival; they are loud and canon-like to announce the end of the festivities.

1. A Christmas of Fear (Iceland)

For most of the the Americas Christmas is a time of warm hearths, music, family, and all those gumdrop dreamin’ kids, but I’ve also found another prevailing element to Christmas outside of North America: fear.

I’ve already visited the Krampus in my previous list, so you know this sort of thing exists, but Austrians have it easy compared to Icelanders, who have to deal with a broad menagerie of monsters trying to eat them at Christmastime.

First there’s the Yule Cat, or Jólakötturinn. A massive, man-eating beast, the Yule Cat is said to prowl on - get this - those who have not received new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. In what has to be one of the most direct examples of fear being used to drive the masses, wealthy farm owners used to give clothes to the workers who finished their Autumn wool preparations. In order to make sure they worked fast enough, they came up with the Yule Cat and the story that if they didn’t finish by Christmas Eve they’d be devoured by a monstrous beast.

Over time the Yule Cat was enveloped by Icelandic folklore and became the pet of the Giantess Grýla, a gruesome witch who lives in the mountains of Iceland. Once a year Grýla descends from her lofty perch and using her innate ability to detect misbehaving children, she captures bad kids all over Iceland, brings them back to her cave, and makes them into her favourite dish: a nice hot stew.

If that wasn’t enough, Grýla managed to entrap a few husbands along the way. With her third husband, Leppalúði, Grýla birthed a brood of child-eating troublemakers known as the Yule Lads, or Jólasveinarnir. The Icelandic version of Santa Claus, for all intents and purposes, the Yule Lads or usually portrayed as pranksters that cause all kinds of havoc in the countryside. There are thirteen Lads in total, and in many ways remind me of Snow White’s dwarves. Their names describe each of the Yule Lads’ specific traits; there’s Sheep-Cote Clod who likes to torment sheep and sheepherders, Bowl-Licker who, well… lick bowls, Sausage-Swiper who steals sausages, and Stubby… you get the idea.

Although there seems to be a lot of fear-laden tradition here, there is some good. The Yule Lads, for all their mischievery, also reward good children. If a child has been good all year and places their shoes outside their window-sills on the thirteen nights before Christmas Eve, they may receive a present from one of the Lads. If they were bad, though, they might receive a rotting potato! You know, if they don’t eat those children instead.