Sunday, September 23, 2012

Save Us, Mr. Kraft

Last year, when the NFL underwent a lockout that threatened to close down the season, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, even while dealing with his wife's terminal illness, stepped in and engineered an agreement.  So, here we have the NFL in 2012, and the referees cannot come to an agreement with the league, which has gone out and hired the worst group of replacement referees imaginable, from Division 2 and 3 college programs.

They don't know the rules, they are heavily influenced by the coaches and the crowds, and they blow about 50% of the calls--that is no exaggeration.  Either that or they make no calls, allowing the games to more resemble hockey than football, with repeated fights breaking out.

We're three weeks into the season, and I've watched too many of these games.  It is painful...I'd rather they stopped playing altogether than continue with this farce.  I'm begging you, Mr. Kraft, to work your magic again and get the NFL refs back to work.  Otherwise, I will stop watching, as will millions of other viewers who feel ripped off by a sport which the league is allowing to fall apart.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Message for a Post-9/11 World

For the past 10 years, I've included a message in our Passover seders about 9/11, and I figured that today is a good day to post a version of it on my blog, so here it is:

September 11th.  The image of large planes crashing into giant buildings leaps into our collective visual memory.

That a few lost lunatics could have such a dour impact on the world is almost unfathomable.  It sickens us, it scares us, and it makes us wonder what kind of hold a belief can have on people’s minds to cause them to have so little regard for the lives of themselves and others.

We have no answers.  We don’t even know what question to ask.  Because by asking the question, we admit that it’s possi­ble for humankind to be so wrong.  Maybe we thought it ended with the Ice Age or the Dark Ages.  Perhaps we assumed it had been killed with Hitler in the bunker.  But the dominant feature is its resiliency.  Evil waits for its moment.

That’s why it's important to remember where we came from and understand each other.  The true message of any religion is the impor­tance of spirituality in our lives.  Without it, we are little more than soulless mammals on the cool wet surface of a massive ball of molten lava.  With it, we can all be angels, basking in the glow of tolerance and peace.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Letter to the Boy Scouts

David Steakley and his family have been like our extended family for the past 26 years, since shortly after we moved to Framingham.  We have watched Dave grow up, and we attended his Eagle Scout ceremony, as well as several other events, including his wedding last year.

Recently, Dave wrote an amazing letter to the Boy Scouts of America, and he gave me permission to post it on this blog.  I hope it impresses you as much as it does me.  Feel free to share it with your friends, because it carries a message that we should not ignore.

July 24, 2012

Boy Scouts of America
1325 Walnut Hill Lane
P.O. Box 152079
Irving, TX 75015-2079

To Bob Mazzuca, Wayne Brock and the Board of Directors of the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America,

My name is David Steakley and I am writing to implore that you to reconsider your recent decision to continue to ban the participation of gay youth and adult leaders from Scouting.

I earned the rank of Eagle Scout in 2003 with Troop 78 in Framingham, Massachusetts and the Knox Trail Council. I was a member of the Order of the Arrow, worked as a counselor for numerous summers at my council’s summer camp, and was a very active scout for a number of years. Scouting still occupies a cherished space in my life and I hope someday to participate in scouting with my own children.

I am not gay, but I am deeply troubled that an organization that acts as a force for good in the lives of so many young men can actively choose to continue a punitive and discriminatory policy. My experiences as a scout were some of the most important moments in my life. These experiences helped to mold me into the confident, productive adult and citizen of the community, the nation and the world that I am today. Above all, I learned that hard work and difficult tasks in service of others is a noble goal, and that boys and men must lead by example to make their communities a better place for everyone.

For these reasons, I cannot understand BSA’s decision to deny these opportunities to boys and families solely based on their sexual orientation. The BSA promotes diversity and makes space for everyone in all other areas; why not this one? Every merit badge book inclusively pictures boys of every race. It would be laughable to exclude boys or their families based on race or religion. It is similarly absurd to exclude them based on whom they love.

The BSA prides itself on fostering the ethic of service for the good of the community. What better example could the adult men in charge of the BSA demonstrate then by making the hard choice of helping these boys and their families find acceptance in the same way as everyone else? Certain members of the community will not be comfortable with this policy change, but change and personal growth are often uncomfortable. The results, however, are worth it. The Scout Oath says, “On my honor I will do my best …to help other people at all times”. Scouting should act as a leader encouraging its participants to become better people and to grow, not allow them to hide behind an institutional policy that discriminates against its own members to escape that growth. If this policy were to change tomorrow a new generation of boys would grow up to learn that gay men and women are no different than their peers. The BSA could again be a driver of meaningful social change in America.

In taking a pragmatic approach, I pose these questions: Will the BSA find itself on the right side of history with this choice? How will you reflect on this policy in 15 or 20 years? Will you be proud that you stood in the way of social progress and made the lives of these boys and their families more difficult than they already were? It is obvious that with time the public will rightly come to accept that gay people deserve to be treated with equity. Rather than standing in the way of this change why not embrace it and be on the morally just side of history and known as an organization that can be counted on for true social leadership. The real morally straight position on this issue is to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, regardless of sexual orientation.

Please do the right thing and reevaluate this policy as scouts, adults, and leaders of boys.

With hope for change,
David Steakley

Friday, June 22, 2012

No Compromise

Throughout our nation’s history, there have been rancorous divides between political parties, with one party using filibusters, parliamentary tactics, media pronouncements, and even impeachment as tools in its attempts to thwart the efforts of another.  But when it comes down to it, common sense usually prevails, and aside from the Civil War, politicians have been willing to reach some form of consensus for the good of the country.  After all, despite their political pandering, most people in public office want to do what is right…at least that’s what I have always believed.

Now, I’m not so sure, because there are movements afoot to quash any candidate or office-holder who is willing to compromise with his or her political opponents.  Recently, members of the Tea Party succeeded in convincing a fickle electorate to defeat Senator Richard Lugar, primarily because of his propensity to compromise.  They almost defeated Orrin Hatch for the same reason.  As a backlash, there is a movement brewing in Democratic circles to tell President Obama to adopt a policy of “no compromise with the Tea Party.”

If the old maxim is true that “an eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth would lead to a world of the blind and toothless,” then it only seems reasonable that continued pronouncements of “no compromise” will eventually lead to no communication at all.  When the famous Senator Henry Clay was referred to as the “great compromiser” in the early 1800s, the term “great” was not being used sarcastically.  In fact, many believe that without Clay, the nation would have fallen apart way before the Civil War, and may not have been able to recover.  It’s not coincidental that he died eight years before that war began.

As a more recent example, it seems clear that were it not for the efforts of Senators like Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch working their respective sides of the aisle, many of the successes of the past 50 years might not have occurred.  Now those senators, and others like them, are either dead, defeated, or aging, and those coming behind them seem to offer a different take on the nature of consensus.

I am currently torn as to whether or not to vote for Scott Brown, if for no other reason than he seems willing to compromise.  But if his election will provide more power to other Republicans more strident in their beliefs, he may have to be a casualty.  I’m waiting for the Massachusetts Senate debates to learn if Elizabeth Warren will be open to hearing all sides of an issue before making a decision.  While I agree with her on many issues, I will not vote for her if I believe her election will lead to greater divisiveness.

So what I am proposing is that reasonable people make this their litmus test: if a candidate is willing to compromise, even slightly, for the good of the country, and he or she demonstrates that willingness in action, that candidate should be worthy of consideration at the ballot box.  If not, we may be headed down a path from which there is little redemption.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

New Songs for a Passover Seder

I was thinking about our modern seder, and I realized that all of the songs are either original Hewbrew songs or silly ditties based on very old melodies. So, I thought I'd take a hand at crafting some Passover songs that delved a little deeper into the meaning of Passover and the characters who populate its story.

I wrote the lyrics for the seven songs below, basing them on popular songs from the 60s through last year. Feel free to use them in your seder, but keep in mind that these original melodies have been copyrighted, and so it is illegal to record them or to sell them.

Also, the songs on which they are based are fairly complex melodies with lots of changes, so everyone may not be able to sing along with them. If you use them, I recommend at least one person rehearsing with them in advance, so he or she can become familiar and lead them. My cousin Karen, the lyrics maven, thinks they are pretty good, so here they are:

Let the Seder Start(Sung to the tune of “Let the River Run”—Lyrics
by Reid Fishman)

Let the Seder start.
It’s time to gather at the table,
and tell the tale of Passover.

Family and friends,
recall a story that’s familiar,
referred to as the Exodus.

It’s all about our freedom
from oppression,
under the Egyptians.

It matters more today
than it ever did,
because of all the bad stuff
that gets hidden…

From the media,
so for tonight we’ll be at one with
people all around the world.

What we say tonight,
we say for all who are downtrodden.
May you live in freedom and peace.
May you live in freedom and peace.

That’s Why We Do the Seder Plate(Sung to the tune of “The Way
You Do the Things You Do” —Lyrics by Reid Fishman)

Let’s start off with Karpas.
Greens represent the birth of Israel.
And then there’s some Maror,
Bitterness shows that slavery was real.

And then there’s Haroset,
looks like the bricks we made when slaving.
And Matzah was the bread,
baked on our backs as we were leaving.

Oh, these are the things that we use to commemorate
our time in Egypt.
That’s why we do the Seder plate.

There’s also Zeroa,
The roasted shankbone of an animal.
It signifies sacrifice,
Within the need for our survival.

And finally there’s Baytzah,
a hard-boiled egg that has been roasted,
a symbol of rebirth,
in all the Seders that we’ve hosted.

Oh, these are the things that we use to commemorate
our time in Egypt.
That’s why we do the Seder plate.

A Passover Seder (The Four Questions)(Sung to the tune of “The End of the
World” —Lyrics by Reid Fishman)

Why is this night so different
from every other night?
Don’t you know? It’s a Passover Seder.
We’re here to celebrate it right.

Why do we eat only matzah
instead of all other bread?
Don’t you know? They grabbed all of the bread dough,
And threw it in their bags when they fled.

I’ll wake tomorrow morning and I’ll wonder
why I can’t make some waffles today.
And then I will remember, that it still is Passover,
and that’s just not the kosher way.

Why do we eat bitter herbs?
Why do we dip karpas twice?
Don’t you know, it’s a Passover Seder,
these customs will be made to suffice.

I’ll wake tomorrow morning and I’ll wonder
why I can’t have some Cheerios today.
And then I will remember, that it still is Passover,
and that’s just not the kosher way.

Why sit reclined at the table,
dropping our food on our chairs?
Don’t you know? It’s a Passover Seder.
It ends when we have finished the prayers.

I Hope That Pharaoh Doesn’t Mind(Sung to the tune of “New York State of
Mind” —Lyrics by Reid Fishman)

(The Pharaoh’s daughter sings)

Sometimes, I just take a walk,
take a quiet stroll here along the Nile.
I watch the blue water flow along,
and it makes me smile.
But today there’s a basket, and a baby I did find.
I hope that Pharaoh doesn’t mind.

Surely it is a little boy
that was set adrift by a Jewish slave.
He’s so young and so innocent,
someone that I saved.
I would sure like to keep him;
have him with me all the time.
I hope that Pharaoh doesn’t mind.

It’s been so boring living day by day,
there’s not much for me to do.
But now I have a purpose that is all my own.
I’ll raise this boy…this little Jew.

Should I go ask the Pharaoh now,
what he thinks of this new idea I’ve had?
I'm not sure I should tell him,
but he is my dad.
I’ll name the baby Moses, and with him I’ll be so kind.
I hope that Pharaoh doesn’t mind.
I hope that Pharaoh doesn’t mind.

The Leader(Sung to the tune of “The Boxer” —Lyrics by Reid Fishman)

(Moses sings)

I was raised Egyptian though I always felt it strange
that no one could say exactly where I came from other than a floating bassinet.
All lies I say, but there was no explanation to describe why
I was here,
so I wondered if I’d ever find my way.

As I grew a little older, I began to realize, that I was so
very different
from the Pharaoh and all his lowly followers.
But the Jews, they just seemed to make more sense to me in
what they say and do,
and I knew that I was one of them, it’s true.

Lie-la-la-la. Lie-la-lie.
Lie-la-la-la. Lie-la-lie.

So I realized that I’m a Jew and must defend the slaves from
the tyranny around them,
and that I’m the one to lead them to the promised land.
I went to bat, for my people to leave Egypt,
but the Pharaoh made it clear that what I believe is just not where he’s at.

Lie-la-la-la. Lie-la-lie.
Lie-la-la-la. Lie-la-lie.

But God saw the
situation and he hastened to our aide.
He unleashed the plagues on Egypt, culminating in the killing of the first-born
The Pharaoh cried as he said he would release us, so we
grabbed our things and left,
and we ran away before he changed his mind.

Lie-la-la-la. Lie-la-lie.
Lie-la-la-la. Lie-la-lie.

Now they see me as the leader, and I don’t know what to do.
I can tell they are not ready to go right to the promised land.
So I guess we’re doomed to wander, and I will be the guy,
I will lead them through the desert, until the day I die.

Die-da-die. Die-da-da-da.
Die-da-da-da. Die-da-die.

Freeing the Jews
(Sung to the tune of “Someone Like You” —Lyrics
by Reid Fishman)

(Pharaoh sings)

First the water became blood red,
Frogs and lice and flies, soon the cows were dead.
We got boils, hail and locusts flew.
It got so dark that we didn’t know what to do.
But far worse is my son had to die.
He was my first born, and I could only cry.

I sent a summons out to my old friend Moses
and I asked why he did it, why he chose us.
I had hoped he’d tell me that it’s just how it goes,
but what he said is let us go now.

So I find myself freeing the Jews.
I can’t believe it’s all I can do.
I’m conflicted, I know.
Should I just let them go,
or should I send my troops to kill them instead?
So, I sent the troops to kill them, I did.

The Jews got stuck at the Red Sea shore.
My troops found them there and prepared for war.
Moses raised his staff and the waters split,
and they walked right through, crossing all of it.

I sent my troops down into the Red Sea to get them.
They were going to escape, I couldn’t let them,
but the water returned, I can’t forget the way they screamed.
My troops all drowned there.

So I found myself freeing the Jews.
I can’t believe it’s all I could do.
‘Though conflicted, I know,
I should have just let them go,
but I sent the troops to kill them instead.
Now I know just why the Red Sea is red.

So I found myself freeing the Jews.
I can’t believe it’s all I could do.
‘Though conflicted, I know,
I should have just let them go,
but I sent the troops to kill them instead.
Now I know just why the Red Sea is red.

Now the Seder Ends
(Sung to the tune of “Let the River Run”
—Lyrics by Reid Fishman)

Now the Seder ends.
We’ve told a story for the ages,
on this night of Passover.

Don’t forget this tale,
and all the messages behind it,
of liberty and freedom for all.

Help others to remain strong,
under oppression,
wherever it may happen.

Remembering what
the Seder taught
may make it better for
your sons and daughters.

So as we conclude
all the components of the Seder,
Passover has meaning for all.

And we like to say,
that maybe we can be together,
next year in Jerusalem.
Next year in Jerusalem.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Republican Policies

Maybe it's genetic; after all, my grandmother was a Communist, and my parents were progressive Democrats. Or maybe it's environmental; I live in Massachusetts--a place that evokes disdain in several regions of the country. Whatever the reason, I have always espoused what many would consider a liberal (another of those disdain-laden words), Democratic philosophy, but having turned 58 earlier this year (an age by which my beliefs were supposed to have become more conservative), I find myself desperately trying to understand the philosophy of the Republican party.

I no longer think that big business is bad (as I did when I was young). That would be somewhat hypocritical, given that most of my clients throughout my career have been very large companies. I also now understand the value of the CIA and the Defense Department, although I feel that their efforts have sometimes been misguided. I now read several newspapers and magazines with moderate perspectives (as opposed to Mother Jones, to which I subscribed in my younger years), and I watch CNN as opposed to MSNBC, to get a more balanced perspective (although I still can't force myself to listen to the vitriol offered on Fox News).

Having said all that, I still have several issues with Republicans and their views of government:
  • Republicans have always believed that big business is good for America. They are the party that has favored "trickle down" economics and tax cuts for the wealthy and the large corporations. It was, after all, George W. Bush who initiated the bank bailout of 2008-09, without which most economists agreed that the world would have plunged into a second Great Depression. That may have been the last thing anyone has done that had substantial, bipartisan support, so why do the Republicans seem to vilify Obama for that bailout, and the subsequent stimulus packages that poured billions more into the economy? On the day that Obama was inaugurated, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell below 8,000; last week, it exceeded 13,000. Can anyone tell me how that is bad for big business or the economy?

  • Along those same lines, the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, has decried the government bailout of the US auto industry, which was initiated by Bush and continued by Obama. However, that industry has rebounded faster and stronger than anyone anticipated, and the "big three" have already paid back most of what was lent them. So, how is this bad for America?

  • Switching to social issues, the latest attack has come because Obama favors full contraception insurance coverage for female employees at religiously affiliated institutions. Republicans claim that this policy abridges the first amendment, which begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." To me, the connection between these two concepts is highly questionable, but forgetting that, let's consider the following realities: most Catholic hospitals exist in inner-city settings or near Hispanic communities, where the employees are likely to be less affluent than their counterparts at the larger, secular, teaching hospitals. If they can't afford contraception and abortion is taboo (another misguided Republican principle), then the only option is to have more unwanted babies born into families with limited means to support and care for them. How, exactly, is this good for America? Obama placated the Republicans by backing off on this issue, but they still rally around it.

  • Along those same lines, I don't understand why the Republicans are so opposed to the health care plan they deride as "Obamacare." Prior to 2008, a huge majority of Americans clamored for health care that would prohibit insurers from: (A) imposing lifetime dollar limits on essential benefits, (B) excluding pre-existing medical conditions, (C) charging co-payments or deductibles for preventive care, and (D) establishing annual spending caps. The new health plan prohibits all of those actions while insuring 32 million previously uninsured Americans. In addition, it is administered by insurance companies and not the government, a provision upon which Republicans insisted. A very similar, even stronger plan already exists in Massachusetts (as introduced by Romney), and it works; costs have not risen significantly and health care has improved. So why do the Republicans, including Romney, vow to repeal the national health plan?

  • I still don't understand how a party can claim that life is too sacred to allow abortions, while favoring the death penalty and opposing restrictions on handguns and assault rifles. The gun lobby consistently cites the second amendment, which reads, "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." They cling to the second part of that amendment while completely neglecting the phrase, "well regulated," instead claiming that any effort to regulate gun ownership is unconstitutional. Let's put aside the constitution for a minute and focus on common sense...a line must be drawn somewhere, or we would allow normal citizens to own bazookas, grenade launchers, military vehicles, fighter jets, or nuclear weapons. Clearly, we don't allow that, so why can't we limit handguns and assault rifles? I don't know anyone who uses them on hunting expeditions. However, despite Republican protestations that Democrats are out to take away their guns, Obama has been silent on this issue.

  • Let me move on to the issues related to "family values"...specifically gay marriage and a woman's reproductive rights. With regard to gay marriage, it wasn't so long ago that many states banned interracial marriage, but now the president is a product of such a marriage. It all falls under the "if-you're-not-like-me-then-you-must-be-wrong" approach that many Americans seem to favor. It's silly to tell someone whom they can't love, and Republicans should stop grandstanding to people's basest instincts and take the high road. With regard to women's reproductive rights, it amazes me that the same party that derides government regulation, so strongly favors regulating what a woman does with her body. The fact is that Republicans preach family values while allowing a snake like Newt Gingrich to run for president...a well-documented philanderer who divorced his wife when it was revealed she had cancer so he could marry the woman with whom he'd been cheating. I will say that Romney and Santorum both appear to be dedicated husbands and fathers, but no more so than Obama and several gay couples I know.

  • So that leaves foreign policy. Obama promised that in his first term, he would end the war in Iraq and take steps to do the same in Afghanistan. He has followed through on those promises while ensuring continuity by initially retaining Bush's defense secretary and joint chiefs of staff. In the meantime, he ordered the killing of Bin Laden and many of Al Quaeda's top operatives. The main difference between Obama and Republican contenders is his realization that the era of American economic dominance is coming to an end and that we are already heavily indebted to China, which has four times our population. Consequently, he has shifted our global approach away from the jingoistic bluster of the 20th century to a softer stance of partnership and collaboration.

In addition, it's interesting to note that while the Republican party claims to be better suited to address the economy, history doesn't support that claim. Indeed, every major recession or depression of the 20th century occurred during a Republican administration while every recovery was overseen by a Democrat. Furthermore, while Republicans claim to be best suited to balance the budget, the last three Republican administrations (Reagan, Bush, and Bush) have all substantially increased the national deficit. To the contrary, Carter reduced it, and Clinton eliminated the debt and actually created a surplus. It's true that the Obama administration has ballooned the national deficit, but he had inherited the worst economy in 80 years, and only now can he start to reduce spending.

So there you have it. I should point out that I voted for Mitt Romney for governor. Back then, he was a socially progressive Republican, but now he is, in his own words, "severely conservative." It's almost like a contest to see which candidate can placate the extreme right wing of a party that already has limited prospects for 2012. I keep envisioning children arguing about who is most conservative ("Well I'm mega ultra severely conservative"). I should also refer you to the several discussions I've had with liberals who believe that Obama has turned his back on them, and how there is no difference between the two major parties.

I don't believe that any more than I believe that all Republican ideas are bad. It's just that somewhere in the last 30 years, the party took a wrong turn, ignoring what's best for America and focusing instead on what's good for me (whoever "me" might be). I dream of an America in which Santorum might say, "Mitt, that's a great idea," or Romney might admit that his foreign policy isn't much different from Obama's. Effective negotiation starts by recognizing areas of common ground, so why can't that principle be applied to politics? Of course, that goes both ways, and Democrats have to stop sniping as well. But in order for that to happen, Republicans have to adopt more realistic policies that are acceptable to most Americans, not just those who are "severely conservative."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Whitney and Alex

This past Saturday, at the end of intermission of the concert that Joni and I were attending in Arlington, the performer, Rebecca Parris, returned to the stage to announce that Whitney Houston had died. It was particularly disheartening news because she was so young (48) and our family had a minor connection to this amazingly talented singer.

It dated back to 1985, when my parents were close friends with Whitney's financial manager and his wife. Alex was born on May 20, the day that Whitney's album went double platinum (1 million sold). My mother was with her friend, who received a call from Whitney with the news, and she told Whitney that her friend's grandson had just been born. Whitney replied, "I must meet this child." A few months later, on a visit to Boston, Whitney Houston met us at a hotel and held Alex for a while. It was a brief, tender moment with the 22-year-old superstar whose gigantic success and enormous troubles were still ahead of her.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Perfect Records

There are some records that are simply perfect...those that combine a great song, an amazing performance, outstanding musicianship, and superb, complementary production techniques. Of course, someone might be able to digitally enhance one of these records to bring their sound up to modern standards, but otherwise, a perfect record can stand on its own through repeated listenings.

So, as I got to thinking about it, I came up with a list of what I consider to be perfect records. It has taken me months to finish, so I hope you enjoy it. Some are more "classic" and/or well-known than others, and some were originally recommended to me by Alex. Because they are "perfect" and cannot be ranked, I will list them alphabetically:
  • All For You: Written and performed by Sister Hazel from the album "...Somewhere More Familiar." Produced by Paul Ebersold, 1994.
    Although not purely a one-hit wonder, Sister Hazel has never duplicated the artistic or commercial success it had with this album or this song. However, from the first acoustic guitar strums to the final note, this is an eminently listenable and singable record. Combining toe-tapping music with excellent vocal harmony, it represents the best of pop music.

  • At Last: Performed by Etta James from the album "At Last!" Written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren and produced by Phil and Leonard Chess, 1960.
    Although the song has since been performed at countless weddings, what made this record so outstanding is the pain and irony expressed by Etta James, who died recently and whose life was marked by tragedy and drug addiction. The record begins with sad, haunting violins from which James's voice slides into her signature phrase. But indeed, her loneliness was not over, and her life was like a very sad song. What makes this record so appealing is the dichotomy between the happy lyrics and the sadness with which they are sung.

  • At Seventeen: Written and performed by Janis Ian from the album "Between the Lines." Produced by Brooks Arthur, 1975.
    Wow! If you are not affected by this song, you must have been a real jerk in high school. No lyrics have ever better conveyed the pain and angst of teenage unpopularity, and Ian's understated performance demonstrated the resolution which so often underlies these feelings. "To those of us who knew the pain of valentines that never came and those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball," I offer this masterpiece.

  • Avenging Annie: Written and performed by Andy Pratt from the album "Andy Pratt." Produced by John Nagy, 1973.
    A native of Cambridge, MA, Pratt has been recording since 1969, but this was the only record that could even slightly be considered a hit. He sung the song in falsetto as a female, Western outlaw, but what makes this record so outstanding is that it is one of the best piano-rock songs ever, and one that builds from a quiet beginning to a raucous conclusion.

  • Baba O'Reilly: Performed by The Who from the album "Who's Next." Written by Pete Townshend and produced by The Who and Glyn Johns, 1971.
    From Townshend's synthesized opening to the drum/violin ending, this record is often mistakenly called "Teenage Wasteland," because of the importance of that phrase in the song. Originally devised for a rock opera that was to follow "Tommy," this record combines everything that made The Who such a great band, including flawless production and Roger Daltrey's soaring vocals.

  • Bat Out of Hell: Performed by Meat Loaf from the album "Bat Out of Hell." Written by Jim Steinman and produced by Todd Rundgren, 1977.
    The opening song to one of the most inventive and ground-breaking albums ever, this record starts with an instrumental assault that features Roy Bittan on keyboards and Todd Rundgren on guitar, and continues for almost two minutes until Meat Loaf chimes in with "The sirens are screaming and the fires are howling way down in the valley tonight." While "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" is played more often, this is a more musically complex and involving record, and it highlights the amazing collaboration of Steinman, Rundgren, and Meat Loaf.

  • Bridge Over Troubled Water: Performed by Simon and Garfunkel from the album "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Written by Paul Simon, and produced by Roy Halee, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel, 1970.
    Although Paul Simon was the creative genius, this song featured the amazing vocals of Art Garfunkel and, to this day, is the best thing he's ever done. The lyrics are a perfect ode to friendship, and I still get shivers every time I hear Garfunkel sing the final, "Like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind." Also, the decision to use a full orchestra instead of their usual acoustic guitars added a certain haunting tension to the song that foreshadowed the duo's impending breakup.

  • Bring Me To Life: Performed by Evanescence from the album "Fallen." Written by Amy Lee, Ben Moody, and David Hodges and produced by Dave Fortman, 2003.
    Already a modern rock standard by a group that's experienced its share of turmoil, this record starts with a tender piano solo followed by Amy Lee's beautiful voice, a bass undertone, and a driving beat before eventually erupting into a full-blown goth-rock opus. If you were to separate Lee's singing track from the instrumentation, it would almost sound like a ballad, but when laid over heavy metal guitars and death-metal backing vocals, it creates a richness rarely matched in hard rock recordings.

  • Carey: Written, performed, and produced by Joni Mitchell from the album "Blue," 1971.
    There are very few better or more influential albums than Joni Mitchell's "Blue," and this song, about a chef she met in Crete, simultaneously shows off her playful and serious sides. From the opening strums of an Appalachian dulcimer and featuring Mitchell's fluttery singing style, this record includes backing performances by Stephen Stills and Russ Kunkel, Throughout the song, Mitchell's descriptive lyrics make you feel like you're right there, wandering through the streets of Matala with her.

  • Celluloid Heroes: Performed by The Kinks from the album "Everybody's in Show-Biz." Written and produced by Ray Davies, 1972.
    Very few records take their time, gently creating their magic as well as the 6½-minute classic, "Celluloid Heroes." Starting with a fade-in acoustic guitar solo followed by Ray Davies's melodic voice, it tells the tale of walking along Hollywood Boulevard and stepping over various stars, each with his or her own story--"people who lived and suffered and struggled for fame." As the record progresses and builds in both volume and tempo, we learn about Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino, Bela Lugosi, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, George Sanders, and Mickey Rooney. Then it slows to a lovely ending, reminding us that "celluloid heroes never really die." Being a fan of both music and movies, I love this record.

  • Chimes of Freedom: Written and performed by Bob Dylan from the album, "Another Side of Bob Dylan." Produced by Tom Wilson, 1964.
    Long before Dylan discovered electric guitars or The Band, there was a brilliant, folk songsmith with a solo acoustic guitar and a harmonica. That's the Bob Dylan showcased in this record, which combines the yearning vocals of a lonely troubadour with timeless, important lyrics. "Tolling for the deaf and blind, tolling for the mute, for the mistreated mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute, or the misdemeanored outlaw chained and cheated by pursuit, and we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing."

  • The Christians And The Pagans: Written and performed by Dar Williams from the album "Mortal City." Produced by Steven Miller, 1996.
    This song tells the story of two people who celebrate Solstice and are visiting with Christian relatives who don't understand their Pagan beliefs. Such a topic might create a very stressful situation, but Dar Williams tweaks out the playfulness that rightfully comes when family bonds trump any religious differences, and the characters end up "finding peace and common ground the best that they are able." The underlying acoustic guitar does not interfere with the story or the message, which comprise the beauty of this record.

  • Copernicus: Performed by Basia from the album "London Warsaw New York." Written and produced by Basia Trzetrzelewska and Danny White, 1989.
    In the late 80s, Polish singer Basia had two albums that combined jazz and pop in a way that most of us had rarely heard. But "Copernicus" was unlike anything she (or most others) had ever done. With an extremely uptempo beat that made the lyrics sound condensed, she and her recording partner, Danny White, used a variety of instruments to create a completely enveloping record that gets better with subsequent listenings.

  • Crazy: Performed by Seal from the album "Seal." Written by Seal and Guy Sigsworth and produced by Trevor Horn, 1990.
    Long before Seal was a household name and before his much-publicized marriage to and breakup from Heidi Klum, he was an unknown British singer of Nigerian and Brazilian background who released this record featuring synthesized drumbeats and swirls to simulate flying, thus supporting the lyric, "In a world full of people, only some want to fly...isn't that crazy?" One of the things I love about this song is its relentless builds and falls that enhance the lyrical images.

  • Crying: Performed by Roy Orbison and originally released as a single. Written by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson with no production credit, 1961.
    Although the sound on this record is noticeably low-fi, it builds from a solemn beginning to Roy Orbison's amazing, multi-octave ending. Throughout the song, you can hear Orbison almost wailing into the microphone as he tells the story of a painful breakup that left him "standing all alone and crying." In the history of musical recordings, there have been very few more effective and affecting vocal performances.

  • A Day In The Life: Performed by The Beatles from the album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and produced by George Martin, 1967.
    This is one of the few records that owes as much to its producer as it does to the artists who recorded it. Different parts of the song were written by Lennon and McCartney, but it was George Martin who weaved them together into the sonic masterpiece we all know and love. Starting with an acoustic guitar and piano before the famous Lennon lyric, "I read the news today, oh boy," and concluding with the seemingly endless chord, we are treated to what may have been the pinnacle of The Beatles' career--the final song from their best album.

  • Galileo: Performed by Indigo Girls from the album "Rites of Passage." Written by Emily Saliers and produced by Peter Collins, 1992.
    Many have considered the Indigio Girls as the modern, female Simon and Garfunkel because of their incisive lyrics and outstanding vocal harmonies. After 14 studio albums, they have certainly established themselves among the best folk-rock acts. But "Galileo" is something special, starting with its distinctive bongo riff and the lyrics, "Galileo's head was on the block; the crime was looking up the truth." From there, the song turns into an examination of reincarnation, with the plaintive question, "how long 'til my soul gets it right?"

  • God Only Knows: Performed by The Beach Boys from the album "Pet Sounds." Written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher and produced by Brian Wilson, 1966.
    "Pet Sounds" was The Beach Boys album that changed recorded music, and was the impetus for The Beatles recording "Sgt. Pepper," as well as hundreds of other artist recording thousands of other albums. Brian Wilson's harmonies and production techniques forever changed how songwriters and producers viewed their albums, and at the heart of it was a perfect recording of one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Anyone who's ever experienced true, long-term love can identify with the lyrics, "God only knows what I'd be without you"--a phrase that is repeated and overlayed as this spectacular record concludes.

  • The Grand Illusion: Performed by Styx from the album "The Grand Illusion." Written by Dennis DeYoung and produced by Styx, 1977.
    While "Come Sail Away" is the song from this album that is most-often played, this title song is the more complex and musically interesting record, combining hooks, changes, builds, guitar solos, and insightful lyrics. "But don't be fooled by the radio, the TV or the magazines that show you photographs of how your life should be, but that's just someone else's fantasies."

  • Hallelujah: Performed by Jeff Buckley from the album "Grace." Written by Leonard Cohen and produced by Jeff Buckley and Andy Wallace, 1994.
    In 1984, Leonard Cohen wrote and released a beautiful song that began with the memorable lyrics, "I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the lord, but you don't really care for music, do ya?" Nobody much noticed the song, even after John Cale also recorded it, so it sat around until 1994 when Tim Buckley's son, Jeff recorded an amazing album appropriately called, "Grace," featuring a hauntingly beautiful rendition of "Hallelujah." Since that time, hundreds of artists have issued their versions, but this cover is still the gold standard. Unfortunately, three years after recording it, Jeff Buckley drowned in a freak swimming accident. His work lives on.

  • Holding Out For A Hero: Written and performed by Joss Stone from the album "Mind Body & Soul." Produced by Mike Mangini, Steve Greenberg, and Betty Wright, 2004.
    Not to be confused with the popular song from "Footloose," this is an intensely personal song that Joss Stone wrote about her brother. Performed alone by Stone at the piano, it is one of the most moving and heartfelt records I've ever heard, by one of the best young singers alive.

  • Hotel California: Performed by The Eagles from the album, "Hotel California." Written by Don Felder, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley, and produced by Bill Szymczyk, 1977.
    The Eagles were always a good band, but the addition of premier guitarist Joe Walsh made them a really good band, and this record will always be remembered as their rock anthem. The production is very effective, and the lyrics are interesting, but what will always be revered about this record is the electric guitar interplay between Joe Walsh and Don Felder.

  • I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever): Written, performed, and produced by Stevie Wonder from the album "Talking Book." Co-writing credits go to Yvonne Wright, 1972.
    There has never been a better combination of writer, producer, and performer than Stevie Wonder. A generation of artists have grown up in his shadow, trying to emulate one or more of his talents. From that perspective, it is safe to say he's the most influential recording artist of all time. This is the record that best exemplifies the combined talents that have made Stevie Wonder such an icon. From a writing perspective, it lyrically and melodically conveyed a beautiful story of how love can bring us out of darkness and despair. From a performance perspective, it demonstrated the height of Stevie's vocal and musical prowess. From a production standard, it made us believe that eight tracks can sound like a chorus. As with most Stevie tunes, it is best heard with the lights out, so we're not distracted by our vision.

  • I Don't Like Mondays: Performed by the Boomtown Rats from the album "The Fine Art of Surfacing." Written by Bob Geldof and produced by Phil Wainman, 1979.
    Bob Geldof may have been knighted for his work with famine relief, but musically, this was his masterpiece. It tells the true story of Brenda Ann Spencer, a 16-year-old who fired a rifle at a school playground in San Diego, killing two people; when asked why, she replied, "I don't like Mondays." The record starts with several piano runs leading to a strong base chord, and the first lyrics are "The silicon chip inside her head gets switched to overload." In many ways, this record helped usher in the era of terrorism and random violence, and it remains one of the eeriest rock songs ever recorded.

  • I Will Always Love You: Performed by Whitney Houston from the album, "The Bodyguard." Written by Dolly Parton and produced by David Foster, 1992.
    This song was first written and recorded in a country vein by Dolly Parton. It was later performed by Whitney Houston in the film, "The Bodyguard," in which Houston starred with Kevin Costner, and released on the movie's soundtrack album. It starts with Houston singing a capella with an echo-chamber effect, pronouncing each syllable as if it were her last. What follows is one of the best vocal performances ever recorded, with every note perfect and held in flawless timing, until the final segment, which jumps a half-octave and concludes with the word "you" being spread over three distinct notes. It clearly established Whitney Houston as her generation's best vocalist, and it is the record by which she'll always be remembered.

  • Jesus of Suburbia: Written, performed, and produced by Green Day from the album “American Idiot.” Additional production credits go to Rob Cavallo, 2005.
    A nine-minute song with five movements, this is among the most complete rock songs ever recorded. It combines a complex musical structure, excellent musicianship, committed vocals, and compelling lyrics like, "Dearly beloved are you listening? I can't remember a word that you were saying. Are we demented or am I disturbed? The space that's in between insane and insecure."

  • Like a Rolling Stone: Written and performed by Bob Dylan from the album "Highway 61 Revisited." Produced by Tom Wilson, 1965.
    In 1965, Bob Dylan went electric, with the release of "Highway 61 Revisited," an exceptional album that featured this record that combines complex musicianship and chord structure with stunningly vitriolic lyrics, culminating in the phrase, "How does it feel?" It starts with Al Kooper's organ riff, which forms the backbone of the record, and combines Dylan's singing, harmonica, and electric guitar to make a record that everyone hopes is not about them.

  • Memory: Performed by Betty Buckley & Cynthia Onrubia from the Original Broaway Cast album of "Cats." Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn. Additional writing credits go to Tim Rice and Don Black. Produced by Trevor Nunn, 1982.
    "Memory" is probably the most covered song in the history of show tunes. The original Broadway cast recording benefits from a soaringly elegant performance by Betty Buckley, who first performed the role of Grizabella on Broadway. It starts with almost a whisper and a quiet piano and culminates in the goosebump-inspiring crescendo when Buckley sings "Touch me. It's so easy to leave me all alone with the memory of my days in the sun."

  • On the Radio: Performed by Donna Summer from the soundtrack album of the movie, "Foxes." Written by Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder, and produced by Giorgio Moroder, 1979.
    For my money, this is the best disco record ever made. It starts slowly with a gentle piano, quiet percussion, and Donna Summer's luscious voice singing, "Someone found a letter you wrote me, on the radio, and they told the world just how you felt." What follows is a song about a breakup and reconciliation to a disco beat, featuring Summer's stylings and Giorgio Moroder's outstanding production.

  • One: Performed by U2 from the album "Achtung Baby." Written by Bono and U2 and produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, 1992.
    Among the best albums of the 90s, "Achtung Baby" established U2 as one of the world's most critically and commercially successful bands. It also featured this amazing record, the lyrics of which describe an unhealthy relationship in which "We're one but we're not the same. We hurt each other, then we do it again." The production by Lanois and Eno is revolutionary, and Bono's voice has never been better, as he sings, "We've got to carry each other."

  • Only in Dreams: Performed by Weezer from the album "Weezer." Written by Rivers Cuomo and produced by Ric Ocasek, 1994.
    Weezer is one of America's best bands, but this record far exceeds anything else they've done. Maybe it's the outstanding production of former Cars leader Ric Ocasek, or maybe it's Rivers Cuomo's singing of his beautiful lyrics, or maybe it's the transformational instrumental interludes, but this record takes you on a passionate, eight-minute journey about a perfect relationship that occurs only in dreams.

  • Ordinary People: Performed by John Legend from the album "Get Lifted." Written and produced by John Legend and, 2004.
    In 2004, a young, relatively unknown singer sat down at the piano and recorded this masterpiece. With that, John Roger Stephens started to live up to his stage name, John Legend. The song describes the early stages of a relationship and the ups and downs it encounters. It hits home so effectively because we've all been through it, "Because we're ordinary people, maybe we should take it slow."

  • Owner Of A Lonely Heart: Performed by Yes from the album "90125." Written by Trevor Rabin and produced by Trevor Horn, 1983.
    There are better songs performed by the progressive rock band Yes, but no better records. What I mean by that is the way that this record takes a good song, combines it with great performance, and then runs it through a production technique that draws on sound collages and digital sampler technology to produce an entire piece that's greater than the sum of its parts. At about two and a half minutes in, the song does a remarkable turn, swinging into a 30-second jazz-influenced riff before returning to its basic melody. It was among the first records to use production techniques that are common today, and it's still one of the best.

  • Paranoid Android: Performed by Radiohead from the album "OK Computer." Written by Thom Yorke and produced by Nigel Goodrich, 1997.
    Alex introduced me to this song, and it took me a while to warm up to it, because it is so different from most rock songs, but that's its beauty. It contains four distinct sections, and the vaguely anti-yuppie lyrics are secondary to the record's elegant construction. It is meant to be played loud and rewards the listener for his or her focus. As usual, Radiohead's musicianship is outstanding, and this record demands repeated listenings.

  • Perfect Day: Written and performed by Lou Reed from the album "Transformer." Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, 1972.
    One of the best albums to come out when I was in college was "Transformer," Lou Reed's second album after the demise of the Velvet Underground. It featured songs like "Vicious," "Walk on the Wild Side," and "Satellite of Love," but of all of them, the song I keep coming back to was this sad story about spending a wonderful day with someone you adore who may not feel so strongly about you. Reed's voice has never been more eerily expressive as he sings, "You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else, someone good." The record leaves you wondering what its lead character will do next, as it fades out to the repeated line, "You're going to reap just what you sow."

  • Rainbow In Your Eyes: Performed by Leon and Mary Russell from the album "Wedding Album. Written by Leon Russell and produced by Leon and Mary Russell and Bobby Womack, 1976.
    What a shame to tell the story of the "Wedding Album." It celebrated the marriage of Leon and Mary Russell with such beautiful songs as "Like a Dream Come True," "Satisfy You," "Lavender Blue," and this record, the opening track. The songs were among the best that Russell has written in his illustrious career. Unfortunately, the marriage didn't last very long and ended with so much financial acrimony that the album was unavailable for purchase or air play for nearly 20 years, leaving an entire generation of listeners unaware of this perfect celebration of love. It starts with a choir of chants before breaking into a joyous romp and a chorus that begins, "And we climbed the highest mountain and sailed the seven seas, and nobody was with us at the top of the world, in love and running free."

  • Rolling In the Deep: Performed by Adele from the album "21." Written by Adele and Paul Epworth and produced by Paul Epworth, 2011.
    There may be some listeners who feel there are better songs on this remarkable album by the British songstress who has become a worldwide phenomenon, but this Grammy winner is the best record. It takes a brilliant song, adds Adele's signature vocals and backs it up with a rhythmic guitar strum, pounding drums, and gospel-style backup singers to make a complete, sonic gem.

  • Scenes From An Italian Restaurant: Written and performed by Billy Joel from the album "The Stranger." Produced by Phil Ramone, 1977.
    It's funny that Billy Joel is so often identified with "Piano Man," which he considers among his weakest songs, instead of this 7½ minute gem, which is about two friends meeting in a restaurant, sharing news and recounting stories of old acquaintances, specifically a couple named Brenda and Eddie. Musically, it is among Joel's most complex pieces, and lyrically, it is just plain fun.

  • Seems So Long: Written, performed, and produced by Stevie Wonder from the album "Music of My Mind, 1972.
    In 1972, a 21-year-old Stevie Wonder was already one of R&B's best-selling artists, but he had not yet released an album that bore his signature from start to least not until "Music of My Mind," for which he wrote or co-wrote and produced or co-produced every song. It was a breathtaking piece of work, recorded with synthesizers that enhanced the very personal and occasionally eerie feel of the album. One song was completely Stevie--no co-writers, co-producers, or other singers or musicians--"Seems So Long." It told the story of a love that was lost and why it may be OK to start loving someone again. It captured Stevie's outstanding musicianship and his pure, perfect vocals.

  • Short Skirt/Long Jacket: Performed by Cake from the album "Comfort Eagle." Written by John McCrea and produced by Cake, 2001.
    Even if you haven't heard of Cake (and if you haven't, you should have), you doubtless have heard the background track to this record on TV shows or is that memorable. It is also that good, especially when combined with lyrics like, "I want a girl who gets up early. I want a girl who stays up late. I want a girl with uninterrupted prosperity, who uses a machete to cut through red tape. With fingernails that shine like justice and a voice that is dark like tinted glass, she is fast and thorough, and sharp as a tack. She is touring the facilities and picking up slack." What also sets Cake apart is the use of trumpets and percussion to create a delightful display of alternative rock.

  • Smooth: Performed by Santana and Rob Thomas from the album "Supernatural." Written by Rob Thomas and Itaal Shur and produced by Matt Serletic, 1999.
    From the opening drumbeat through Carlos Santana's magical solos and Rob Thomas's effective singing, this is one of the most contageously envigorating records ever produced. Everything about it jells to produce a rock masterpiece and the only #1 hit of Santana's illustrious career.

  • A Song For You: Performed by Ray Charles from the album "My World." Written by Leon Russell and produced by Richard Perry, 1993.
    You might ask why, out of the hundreds of songs Ray Charles recorded, I picked this cover of a Leon Russell classic to be on this list, and my response would be that at 63, Ray Charles did a perfect job of interpreting Leon Russell's perfect love song. It opens with a lengthy and memorable piano riff that slows down just before Charles sings, "Ive been so many places in my life and time. I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes. I've acted out my life in stages, with 10,000 people watching, but we're along and I'm just singing a song for you." Those lyrics weren't written for Ray Charles, but they fit him perfectly, and his pacing and stylings are what made this record so outstanding.

  • Theme From New York, New York: Performed by Frank Sinatra from the album "Trilogy: Past Present and Future." Written by Fred Ebb and John Kander and produced by Sonny Burke, 1980.
    In 1980, Sinatra released his last, great album, which included revised arrangements of classic hits and new songs. One of the records on that album was a remake of the song that Kander & Ebb had written for Liza Minelli to perform in Martin Scorsese's film, "New York, New York." While Minelli's version is very good, Sinatra's version is amazing, especially for the 65-year-old singer whose velvetty voice had hoarsened with age. In addition, Don Costa's bombastic arrangement only heightened the effect of Sinatra belting out, "These little town blues are melting away, I'm gonna make a brand new start of it in old New York." If you're not singing along by the end of this record, well...that's your problem.

  • Thunder Road: Written and performed by Bruce Springsteen from the album "Born to Run." Produced by Bruce Springsteen and Jon Landau, 1975.
    I was already a huge Springsteen fan when I bought Born to Run and put it on my turntable to hear the album open with Bruce's harmonica, Roy Bittan's piano, and the poetic lyrics, "The screen door slams; Mary's dress waves. Like a vision, she dances across the porch as the radio plays, Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. Hey, that's me, and I want you only. Don't turn me home again; I just can't face myself alone again." Wow! I immediately used my new cassette recorder to tape it, popped it in my BMW 2002, and blasted it as I rode down the highway. After all, few rock records have ever told a story better or provided a more effective road song than this one. Thunder Road is a true rock poem, perfomed exquisitely.

  • Time Is Running Out: Written and performed by Muse from the album "Absolution." Produced by Rich Costey and Muse, 2003.
    In the 1960s, Phil Spector introduced the "Wall of Sound" approach to producing records in a way that completely envelops the listener within the music. That technique has been used by many bands since, but none more effectively than the British band, Muse. On this record, they combine their signature rock-fusion sound with insightfully disturbing lyrics like, "I wanted freedom. Bound and restricted, I tried to give you up, but I'm addicted. Now that you know I'm trapped, sense of elation. You'd never dream of breaking this fixaton." It's everything a rock record should be, and much more.

  • Toxicity: Written and performed by System of a Down from the album "Toxicity." Produced by Rick Rubin, Daron Malakian, and Serj Tankian, 2001.
    Combine the heavy metal guitar and drums of this outstanding band with the amazing vocal prowess of lead singer Serj Tankian and the work of legendary producer Rick Rubin, and what you get is an instant rock classic. There are a great many metal bands around, but none other has a lead singer with as much depth and range as Tankian possesses. When he erupts into "No, what do you own the world? How do you own disorder?" it almost blows you out of your seat.

  • Under Pressure: Written, performed, and produced by Queen and David Bowie from the album "Hot Space," 1981.
    When it was first announced that Queen and David Bowie were collaborating on a record, the music world wondered how it would turn out, but beginning with John Beacon's now famous bass line and the snapping fingers that repeat throughout the song, any doubt was put to rest. These were two heavyweight artists operating at the top of their craft to produce an instant rock classic about living in today's pressurized world. It's hard to go wrong with Freddie Mercury and David Bowie singing lyrics like, "It's the terror of knowing what this world is about. Watching some good friends screaming 'let me out.' Pray tomorrow gets me higher--pressure on people; people on streets."

  • Welcome To The Black Parade: Written and performed by My Chemical Romance from the album "The Black Parade." Produced by Rob Cavallo and My Chemical Romance, 2006.
    "The Black Parade," a concept album about uncomfortable topics like cancer and death, is a real contender for the best album of the last decade, and this is the signature song from that album. It features Gerard Way's sharp tenor voice, a driving rock rhythm, and outstanding lyrics like, "A world that sends you reeling from decimated dreams, your misery and hate will kill us all. So paint it black and take it back, lets shout it loud and clear. Defiant to the end, we hear the call, to carry on. We'll carry on. And though you're dead and gone believe me, your memory will carry on."

  • When Doves Cry: Written, performed, and produced by Prince from the album "Purple Rain," 1984.
    This is Prince's best work, and it's all Prince. He wrote the song, produced it, and played all of the instruments on it. Rather than using a bass line, he backed the record with a pounding, synthesized drumbeat. The lyrics tell the tale of an unconventional romance (would Prince have any other kind?) and the production conveys a kind of hollowness that match perfectly with the lyrics.

  • Wish You Were Here: Performed and produced by Pink Floyd from the album "Wish You Were Here." Written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters, 1975.
    Why is it that so many great songs are about alientation and loss, as is this Pink Floyd classic? It begins with the sounds of someone tuning a radio to several stations before settling on a distant sounding guitar which eventually cedes to a more up-front acoustic guitar before the opening line, "So you think you can tell heaven from hell, blue skies from pain. Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell?" The alienation in the song springs from Roger Waters general sense of despair that he later explored to greater depths in "The Wall." The loss relates to former band member Syd Barrett and his battles with mental illness. The record explores both with a clarity and elegance that is rare in rock music.

  • You And I Both: Written and performed by Jason Mraz from the album "Waiting for My Rocket to Come." Produced by John Alagia, 2004.
    Pop music sometimes gets a bad rap, and Jason Mraz has been the rare pop musician who combines incisightful, inventive lyrics with hummable pop tunes. Indeed, Mraz plays with lyrics more than any other current performer, as is evidenced by lines like, "See I'm all about them words; over numbers, unencumbered numbered words; Hundreds of pages, pages, pages, forewords; More words then I had ever heard and I feel so alive." When combined with his soaring tenor voice and catchy hooks, this is a consistently listenable record.

  • You Can Call Me Al: Written, performed, and produced by Paul Simon from the album "Graceland," 1986.
    In Paul Simon's long and illustrious career with Art Garfunkel and afterward, his best album was Graceland, which combined African instruments and beats with Simon's famously perceptive lyrics. "You Can Call Me Al" did all of that to perfection, complete with a now-famous horn riff and lyrics like, "A man walks down the street; it's a street in a strange world. Maybe it's the Third World; maybe it's his first time around. He doesn't speak the language; he holds no currency. He is a foreign man; he is surrounded by the sound--the sound. Cattle in the marketplace; scatterlings and orphanages. He looks around, around; he sees angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity. He says Amen! and Hallelujah!" I say Amen! and Hallelujah! when I hear this record.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Super Bowl Reflections

It's the morning after, and my Super Bowl prediction/hope did not come true. From a football perspective, it was a less-than-outstanding game, and from the Patriots' first play (a safety), it seemed like they were never completely in synch. Near the end, I believe that Bill Belichick made a tactical mistake by not merely allowing the Giants to score a touchdown once they were within the red zone, rather than waiting until there was only a minute left on the clock. The additional minute-plus might have given Brady enough time. However, the Giants played a good, clean game of football--hitting hard but not trying to injure--so I give them immense credit.

Joni and I went to breakfast yesterday morning, prior to the game; almost every person in the restaurant had some form of Patriots garb, and the talk was all about the team and the game. It was an honor and a joy that we take for granted around here, but many others have never experienced. My friend Ron pointed out that Cleveland has never even had a team in the Super Bowl, and if you look it up, you'll find that San Diego, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Milwaukee--all cities with multiple major league sports teams--have not won a championship in the four major men's team sports in more than 40 years.

So, to put a different spin on an old saying, it's better to have played and lost than never to have played at all. We got to see our team compete until literally the last second of the football postseason. Throughout the season and postseason, and until that moment, we cheered for Brady, marveled at Welker, Wilfork, and Gronkowski, and empathized with Kraft. The Bruins and Celtics are both playing well, and baseball spring training starts very hopes, dreams, cheering, and T-shirts.

In the end, I have some control over many things, including what I eat, drink, buy, watch on TV, and do for a living, as well as with whom I choose to spend time. But I have no control over what a group of athletes does on a given field, court, or rink. It's not life, it's just entertainment, and the Patriots have entertained me very well this year.

One more thing: to my friends from New York. Today (and maybe for a week or two more), you own us.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

AFC Championship Reflections

Having just watched my hometown Patriots defeat the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, I would like to share the following reflections:
  • The Ravens outplayed the Patriots and should have won the game several times, but the ghost of Myra Kraft pulled it out for the home team.
  • Several of the Ravens are dirty players who bring discredit to the NFL, rolling over offensive players after tackling them and starting fights regularly. The worst is Bernard Pollard who, having seriously injured the knees of Tom Brady and Wes Welker in past seasons with other teams, tried today to injure Rob Gronkowsky by twisting his knee after a tackle. Someone should break Pollard's knees.
  • Everyone bashed the Patriots defense throughout the season, but they have played well enough to get to the Super Bowl.
  • I'm really glad we have Vince Wilfork. Not only does he play brilliantly as he did today, but he is a terrific human being who is very active in a number of charities.
  • Bellichick made a bonehead call by going for the bomb to Slater with seven minutes left instead of marching down the field and using up the clock. But, given the fact that he's gotten the team to five Super Bowls, I guess we should cut him some slack.
  • On the other side of the field, Ravens Coach John Harbaugh was on camera shoving his Offensive Coordinator, Cam Cameron, because Harbaugh didn't like Cameron's play call. You can see where the team gets its nastiness.

Whatever happens in the Super Bowl in two weeks, I'm glad the Patriots got there, and not the Ravens. Thank you Myra Kraft!

The Flawed Nomination Process

The United States, a country that prides itself as the bastion of democracy, is operating with a broken process for determining its presidential nominees. To better understand what I mean, let me spend two paragraphs describing the history behind this process:
  • Until 1968, presidential primaries in the United States were, for the most part, statewide opinion polls with no binding effect on the national nomination process. It was the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the malaise surrounding it that forced the Democratic Party to found the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which recommended new rules related to a system of binding primaries. George McGovern who co-headed that commission, knew the rules better than anyone, which enabled him to use the new system to his advantage to win the 1972 Democratic nomination. The Republicans soon adopted a similar system.
  • At around the same time, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, requiring candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions and expenditures. It was amended in 1974 to include limiting individual donations to $1,000 and donations by political action committees (PACs) to $5,000. The McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 doubled the individual donation limit to $2,000. Two, recent, judicial decisions allowed for “independent-expenditure only committees,” otherwise known as “super PACs,” which can raise unlimited sums from individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups. These funds are often used to fuel negative, single-issue media splurges.
The two major parties have, for the most part, allowed the states to set their own primary dates. On several occasions, certain states have tried to gain political leverage by moving their primaries earlier, often ahead of New Hampshire, which has combated this effort by repeatedly moving its primary before the others. The parties have tried to limit this activity by penalizing states that move their primaries earlier, taking away or decertifying convention delegates. Because Iowa has a caucus instead of a primary, it was allowed to place its caucus first.

Here is what is wrong with this system:
  1. Only about 15% of voters even bother to vote in primaries, and fewer than 10% in caucuses. Those who vote tend to be more zealous and further to the fringes than the average voter.
  2. Many states allow registered Independents to vote in either primary. Once again, those people tend to vote more on the basis of one or two issues than for the overall good of the parties whose ballots they select.
  3. The news media report the process like a football game, with clear-cut winners and losers. For example, in Iowa, it was first reported that Romney won the Republican Caucus, even though it was by a handful of votes, which statistically tied him with Santorum. Just before the South Carolina Primary, it was reported that a recount showed that Santorum won in Iowa, once again by a statistically insignificant number of votes. If we look at the first three contests in 2012, the news media now reports that they were won by Santorum, Romney, and Gingrich. However, if you look at overall votes (which is not as news-sexy), Romney is considerably ahead.
  4. The process is such that the first four nominating contests are in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, and the nominee is often designated by the end of the Florida primary. Taken together, these states are in no way representative of the country as a whole, in that they ignore the large Northeast and Midwestern cities as well as everything West of the Mississippi. They also tend to vote more conservatively than the general electorate.

The Republicans could very well end up with Newt Gingrich as their nominee because Evangelical Christians and Tea Party loyalists in these few states don’t like Romney. Do they really think Gingrich will get the necessary cross-over votes or the corporate votes to be elected president? I know plenty of Republican businessmen who would rather see Obama than Gingrich in that office. The truth is that the primary process, as it now stands, has polarized the electorate and produced a string of mediocre presidents who would probably not have been nominated without such a non-representative, poorly reported system.

So how do we fix it? The first step is to eliminate super PACs, which are responsible for most of the negative ads polluting our airways.

We can then focus on fixing the primary process, and there are many proposed systems including graduated, rotating regions, balanced primaries, and even a proposal for one, national primary. Each of these systems has its flaws, favoring one region or type of state ahead of others. So here is my proposal, which I call the Rotating Third System. Under this system:

  • The country would be divided into three sets of states—17, 17, and 16 states in each set.
  • Each third would be balanced by geography, population, and party registration, and it would be designated as A, B, or C.
  • In the first election year using this system, states in Set A would vote on the same date in February, those in Set B would vote in April, and states in Set C would vote in June.
  • Four years later, Set B would go first, voting in February, followed by Set C and Set A.
  • Four years after that, Set C would go first, and this rotation would continue changing every four years.

Under the Rotating Third System, candidates could decide which states in each set deserve their greatest commitments of time and money. Even if a nominee emerges after the first set of primaries (which would be unlikely), that nominee would have been chosen by a representative sampling of America, rather than a random few states. And because the sets rotate every four years, no particular set of states has a continual, undue influence on the process.

Whatever system is adopted, it is clear that the election process is broken and needs to be fixed in a way that provides the country with nominees that are not the “lesser of two evils.” By doing so, we will go a long way toward solidifying our claim as the world’s greatest Democracy.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

TV is the New Movies

Maybe it’s the lack of theater etiquette, or the rising cost of movie tickets, or the proliferation of widescreen HDTVs, or the addition of commercials before each film, or the aging of the Baby Boomers, or the huge lists of on-demand viewing options, or just the hassles related to going out. For whatever reasons, TV has become the medium of choice for most viewers and much of the Hollywood elite.

When I was younger, a top-notch movie director would never consider working in television. That is no longer the case, as well-known filmmakers have ventured into television production; they include J.J. Abrams (“Fringe,” “Lost,” “Person of Interest,” “Alcatraz”), Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights,” “Prime Suspect”), Jonathan Demme (“A Gifted Man”), Todd Haynes (“Mildred Pierce”), Martin Scorsese (“Boardwalk Empire”), Steven Spielberg (a number of shows including “Band of Brothers,” “Falling Skies,” and the upcoming “Smash”), Gus Van Sant (“Boss”), and the Scott brothers—Ridley and Tony (“Numb3rs,” “The Good Wife”).

In addition, it used to be that movie stars only made TV shows when their careers were fading, but look at the list of movie stars who are currently (or about to be) in TV shows. It includes (alphabetically): Kathy Bates, Bonnie Bedelia, Maria Bello, Steve Buscemi, Jim Cavieziel, Glenn Close, Joan Cusack, Claire Danes, Laura Dern, Laurence Fishburne, Dustin Hoffman, Angelica Huston, Ashton Kutcher, Jessica Lange, Laura Linney, William H. Macy, Dylan McDermott, Sam Neil, Craig T. Nelson, Anna Paquin, Oliver Platt, and Gary Sinise. That list is growing daily.

The truth is that there are more really good, scripted (as opposed to reality) TV shows nowadays than there are really good movies. The shows I record and try to watch include (alphabetically): “A Gifted Man,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Bored to Death,” “Boss,” “Californication,” “Covert Affairs,” “Episodes,” “Falling Skies,” “Game of Thrones,” “Harry’s Law,” “Homeland,” “House,” “In Plain Sight,” “Law & Order SVU,” “Leverage,” “Mad Men,” “Men of a Certain Age,” “Modern Family,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Pan Am,” “Parenthood,” “Person of Interest,” “Prime Suspect,” “Rizzoli & Isles,” “Royal Pains,” “Shameless,” “Supernatural,” “Terra Nova,” “The Good Wife,” “The Mentalist,” “True Blood,” and “Unforgettable.” I have little doubt that I will soon add “Smash” (the pilot is available on iTunes for free) and “Luck.” I realize that sounds like a lot, but these days, each season only lasts 10-12 shows, so there is limited overlap, and if I record them, I can zip past the commercials.

I’m sure you have favorites that are not on this list, but the fact that there could be so many TV shows worth watching is more evidence of my point. If you add in the ability to watch, on demand, any shows or series you may have missed, then it becomes increasingly obvious that TV is the new movies.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Best Movies of 2011

My biggest problem with the movie industry is that they allow a film to be shown in a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles for two weeks at the end of the year and consider the movie to have been released in that year. Many of those movies don’t arrive in the rest of the country until late January or February of the following year. Consequently, we are stuck watching awards being given to movies that we can’t even see. This year, the problem has been exacerbated by the fact that five or six of 2011’s top-rated movies are still not available as of mid-January, 2012.

In his 2001 book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins made a distinction between “good companies” and “great companies.” I’d like to make a similar distinction between good and great movies:
  • A good movie is one that has some obvious flaws but is otherwise enjoyable and/or interesting to watch.
  • A great movie is one in which everything comes together—the script, the direction, the acting, the cinematography, the score, etc.—to produce a truly exhilarating experience.
Of course, there are great movies that have gone on to become classics, like “Casablanca,” “The Godfather,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Citizen Kane,” “Some Like It Hot,” and maybe 100 other films that have been posted on countless lists, and we each have our own great movies that we like to watch over and over. For me, the two greatest movies of the last ten years are “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” and 2006 was the best year of the last decade, featuring very good movies like “Children of Men,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Volver,” and “United 93,” as well as the aforementioned “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

I’ve included this introduction as a way of saying that 2011 produced many good movies, perhaps more so than most years, but as of this writing, no great movies. Even the top few movies on this list have significant flaws, but they are nonetheless worth seeing. If some of the “2011” films that are released in January and February are outstanding, I will modify the list. As of now, what follows is my list of the Best Movies of 2011, in inverse order.

22. Real Steel: OK, so it’s a schmaltzy, cliché story about robot boxing. What it lacks in originality is made up for in genuine emotion and the sheer enjoyment of watching a father (played by Hugh Jackman) and his son (played by Dakota Goyo) coming together and learning from each other. Directed by Shawn Levy (who also directed “Date Night,” and “Night at the Museum”), the film features very good (and surprisingly un-cliché) performances by Evangeline Lilly and Hope Davis.

21. Point Blank: Unlike “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” which has been hailed by critics but is the year’s slowest and most ponderous “thriller,” this French film actually is a thriller. Written and directed by Fred Cavayé, it stars Gilles Lellouche as a nurse’s aide who inadvertently gets caught up in a web of corruption and intrigue and has to work with a criminal, played expertly by Roschdy Zem, to get himself out of it. Saying any more would give away the plot, but I recommend renting or streaming this movie.

20. Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Of course, we all loved the original “Planet of the Apes,” even if we were then subjected to several, awful sequels. This prequel takes a very different approach by offering a somewhat convoluted explanation of how it all may have come to pass. But what’s interesting about this movie is the character development of Caesar, the lead ape, portrayed in a brilliant, digitized performance by Andy Serkis (who has had a lot of practice with such performances from playing “King Kong” and Gollum in “Lord of the Rings”). Add in performances by James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, and direction by Rupert Wyatt, and you have a surprisingly affective motion picture.

19. We Bought a Zoo: Cameron Crowe has directed some excellent films (“Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous”) and some not-so-great ones (“Vanilla Sky,” “Elizabethtown”). This one falls somewhere in between, effectively telling a heartfelt story about a family (Matt Damon, Colin Ford, and Maggie Elizabeth Jones) dealing with the death of a wife and mother by escaping to a rural setting where they actually purchase a house that comes with its own zoo. While rescuing the zoo, they also rescue their family. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the zoo is staffed by several colorful characters played by Scarlett Johansson, Angus McFadyen, Patrick Fugit, and the consistently impressive Elle Fanning (Dakota’s younger sister). There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in other movies…it’s just done well.

18. Beginners: This is a small movie about big topics. In it, Ewan McGregor plays a straight, part-Jewish graphic designer whose mother has died and his 75-year-old father has come out of the closet before learning that he is dying of cancer. Partly because of his parents' unfulfilled, 42-year marriage, McGregor's character has trouble with relationships, even after meeting a wonderful but equally troubled French, Jewish woman, played by Melanie Laurent. Written and directed by Mike Mills, this is a well-scripted movie that deals with major themes such as gayness, Jewishness, and cancer, but does so in a quiet and sensitive manner.

17. The Lincoln Lawyer: The truth is that Matthew McConaughey is a decent actor when he keeps his clothes on. It also helps when he’s surrounded by some really good actors like Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, and Frances Fisher. Together, they tell a story, directed by Brad Furman, of a sleazeball attorney who works out of his car (a Lincoln Continental) and represents a detestable client (played by Ryan Phillippe) until the lawyer has a crisis of conscience. This is a successfully taut piece of filmmaking that keeps your interest throughout.

16. Footloose: Sometimes remakes work. Such is the case with “Footloose,” which doesn’t try to duplicate the original shot-for-shot. Instead, it updates the 80s dance classic, setting it in present day Georgia (instead of somewhere out west) and having the protagonist (played by Kenny Wormald in the role made famous by Kevin Bacon) come from Boston, rather than Chicago, which makes sense because Wormald grew up in the Boston area and has the accent down pat. Costarring Julianne Hough and directed by Craig Brewer (who directed “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan”), the film is edgier than the original, contains additional plot lines, and features a country-rock sound that will make you want to get up and dance.

15. Warrior: This one didn't make my original list because it hardly appeared in theaters and only became noticed when they started talking about Nick Nolte as a potential Oscar nominee. Directed by Gavin O'Connor (who previously directed "Tumbleweeds" and "Pride and Glory"), it stars Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as two estranged brothers who are mixed martial arts fighters united only in their disdain for their alcoholic father (Nolte). If you're talking about dysfuntional families, this is one for the ages.

14. War Horse: I think of this film as “Saving Black Beauty” because it contains a story similar to that of the most famous, fictional horse while setting it in wartime (World War I) in battles similar to those that Spielberg (who directed this film) also filmed in “Saving Private Ryan.” Less effective as a character study (some characters are developed then killed in the next scene) than a general condemnation of war, this may be the year’s most complete film, in terms of cinematography (gorgeous), score, costume design, set decoration, and all those other things that earn Oscars. However, the story is as predictable as they come, which prevents it from being a great movie. Nevertheless, it is worth seeing, if for no other reason than the memorable scene with a British and a German soldier in “no man’s land.”

13. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol: This is definitely the year’s best action film, and the most enjoyable of Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible” movies. As with most of these movies, it is a bit hard to follow at times, but it moves along at a breakneck pace, as directed by Brad Bird (who has directed outstanding animated films including “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles”). It also doesn’t hurt that the supporting cast includes Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Paula Patton.

12. Young Adult: I’m not always a big fan of plot-light character studies, but this one is done with such quality and craftsmanship that it deserves to be seen. Written by Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “Jennifer’s Body”) and directed by Jason Reitman (“Up In the Air,” “Juno”), this is a well-told tale of an emotionally bereft woman (played expertly by Charlize Theron) who decides she wants to reclaim her high school boyfriend (played by Patrick Wilson), who is married with a new baby. Returning to her hometown, she reconnects with another former classmate (played brilliantly by Patton Oswalt) whose high school experience was hellish and left him crippled. After that, the plot is where the characters take it, and the script and direction are deft enough to let that happen.

11. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2: One of the most successful series in literary and film history, this one finishes with a bang. Directed by David Yates, it’s an action/adventure film bolstered by outstanding performances by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, John Hurt, Helena Bonham Carter, Julie Walters, and Ciarán Hinds (who seems to be competing with Michael Fassbender to see who can make the most movies in a year). This brings to a raucous close the story of modern literature’s most famous wizard, and it does so with style and class. Note: If you haven’t read the books or seen the previous movies, you might want to read a primer, and you should definitely first see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.”

10. Source Code: A mindbender along the lines of “Memento” and “Inception,” this movie is about a project that can put someone in another person's consciousness during the last 8 minutes of that person’s life. In this case, the main character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is repeatedly placed into the same consciousness on the same train with the goal of unraveling a mystery and saving millions of lives. Directed with taut pacing by Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son who also directed “Moon”), this film offers several plot twists and an edge-of-your-seat experience. It also benefits from outstanding supporting performances by Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright.

9. Friends with Benefits: The year’s best romantic comedy (there wasn’t much competition), this movie should not be confused with the lame “No Strings Attached,” although it is about a similar topic—having sex on a regular basis with the same person but without emotional baggage. This one deftly stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, but is differentiated from its film counterpart by an intelligent script (written by Keith Merryman and David A. Newman) and a truly wonderful supporting cast that includes Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Andy Samberg, and Richard Jenkins as a father with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Directed by Will Gluck (who made last year’s “Easy A”), this is a very enjoyable comedy about adult themes.

8. Moneyball: The semi-factual story of how Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane won a divisional title with a fraction of the budget that other teams had to spend, “Moneyball” is the basis for how the Boston Red Sox built a team that won two World Series championships, and its concepts have revolutionized professional sports. In the film, which was directed by Bennett Miller (who also directed “Capote”) and written by Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” “All The King’s Men”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “A Few Good Men”), Brad Pitt plays Beane and is supported by actors including Jonah Hill, Phlip Seymour Hoffman, and Robin Wright. What this movie lacks in emotion (not much connection to the characters) is made up for in intelligence and crisp writing/direction.

7. Bridesmaids: This movie takes outrageous humor, similar to that of “The Hangover” or “Knocked Up,” and applies it to the emotional issues faced by women when they get married or serve as bridesmaids/maids of honor. From the competitive rawness of the “dueling toasts” scene to the gross-out humor of the “salmonella fitting” scene, this movie goes where no chick flick has ever gone and as such, is the year’s funniest film. Directed by Paul Fieg (“Knocked Up,” “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”) and written by Kristen Wiig (who also stars in it) and Annie Mumolo, the movie benefits from no-holds-barred performances by Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jill Clayburgh (who died soon after making the film), and the inimitable Melissa McCarthy.

6. Sarah’s Key: What makes for an effective Holocaust-period film is that it focuses on people and how they dealt with the awfulness of their situations. Produced in 2010 but not released in the US until mid-2011, Sarah’s Key does exactly that. It tells the tale of a young French girl who hides her brother from the Nazis by locking him in a hidden closet, and of the journalist (played with her usual class by Kristin Scott Thomas) who inadvertently uncovers the story before becoming obsessed with it. Unusual for a Holocaust movie, it is set mostly in France and conveys one of that country’s worst attrocities. Co-written and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner from a book by Tatiana De Rosnay, this film is alternately interesting and gut-wrenching, but it commands your attention from start to finish.

5. Midnight in Paris: There was a time when Woody Allen was America’s best screenwriter-director, making truly great movies like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.” That was before his personal indiscretions became front-page news. Since that time, he has continued to churn out movies, about one per year, some better than others, usually with A-list stars, and often with Allen playing a major role. In my opinion, this is his best film in a long time, not because it approaches the greatness of his classic work, but because Allen seems to appreciate that it is not a major motion picture, but rather as a small and charming fable. In this fable, the lead character is a Hollywood screenwriter and budding novelist, played by Owen Wilson (clearly channeling Woody Allen), who is visiting Paris with his bourgeois American fiancée (played by Rachel McAdams) and her boorish parents. He goes for a stroll one night and is picked up at Midnight by a car that delivers him back in time to the 1920s, where he cavorts with the literary, musical, and artistic luminaries of the time. He meets a charming French woman (played by Marion Cotillard) and returns every night at midnight to find himself and, with the help of Gertrude Stein (played by Kathy Bates), his literary voice. In the end, this lovely story does what a good movie should…it leaves you wanting more.

4. The Descendants: This year, the film George Clooney directed (“Ides of March”) was not nearly so good as the film in which he starred (“The Descendants”). Co-written and directed expertly by Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “About Schmidt”), it tells the story of a Hawaiian man (Clooney) whose wife suffers a terrible water skiing accident that lands her in a coma. The man then has to reconnect with his two daughters (played phenomenally by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) while reconstructing the events that led up to the accident and examining his marriage. Add in a subplot about a high-profile land sale and the result is a superbly made, emotionally charged movie complemented by the quirky style that has become Payne’s trademark. It’s also nice to see excellent supporting performances by often-underutilized actors such as Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, and especially Judy Greer.

3. The Artist: Yes, I’m strongly recommending a black-and-white, mostly silent film that was shot in a pre-widescreen aspect ratio. Similar to the story told in the musical “Singin’ In the Rain” decades ago, this film focuses on the end of the silent film era and the demise of its stars. In this case, the star is a handsome, debonair, and generous actor (played by Jean Dujardin), who loves his dog more than his wife and who fails to recognize the inevitability of talking pictures. His life is juxtaposed with that of a rising young starlet (played by Bérénice Bejo) whom the actor befriends early in her career and whose stock continues to rise as the actor’s falls. While not a new story by any means, it is told with warmth, heart, and dignity, and the use of a silent film to tell the tale of a silent film star has a certain elegance. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, this is a beautiful and precious film-going experience that features supporting performances by American actors including John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller.

2. The Help: People were both excited and wary when it was announced that a movie was being made of Kathryn Stockett’s very successful novel about the difficult conditions faced by African American maids in 1960s Mississippi. While they looked forward to seeing this superb story brought to the screen, they also worried that it may be too Hollywood-ized. That anxiety was raised when it was announced that the writer/director would be Tate Taylor—a man (telling a woman’s story) who had only directed one full-length feature (the unheralded “Pretty Ugly People”). Then, Emma Stone, a very talented but relatively unknown actress, was hired to play the lead as the white writer who exposed and documented the maids’ situations. In the end, it all worked out quite well. “The Help” is a well-crafted movie, and what it lacks in grittiness, it makes up for in solid writing and excellent acting by Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, and Jessica Chastain. This is definitely a movie worth seeing.

1. Hugo: If you’ve ever studied film, you’ve probably seen the 14-minute French classic, “A Trip to the Moon” (Le Voyage dans la lune). Directed in 1902 by George Méliès, its most famous scene is of a spaceship hitting the eye of the man in the moon. Méliès was one of several directors who made hundreds of classic silent films, many of which were colored by hand, frame-by-frame. Martin Scorsese has been a leader in the effort to recover and save classic cinema, much of which has been destroyed or discarded. It is this love for early cinema that led Scorsese to direct “Hugo,” a film set in 1930s Paris, about a boy (Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield) whose father (played by Jude Law) teaches him to repair watches before he dies, and whose uncle leaves him in the Paris railway station to fend for himself while running the large, overhanging clock. There, he meets a bitter watchmaker (played by Ben Kingsley) and makes friends with the watchmaker’s ward (played by Chloe Moretz). Together, the two youngsters embark upon an adventure that eventually leads them to George Méliès and his story. Although slow at times, this is a beautiful tale of exploration and redemption. In making it, Scorsese demonstrated his love of early films both through the story and the filmmaking techniques, which draw on those films. It’s also interesting that he shot “Hugo” in 3D, but I suppose he did so because it’s what Méliès would have done had he had access to the technology. I intend to see this movie many times, and you may decide to do the same.