Happy B-day, Bagginses!

Today is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, without whom we would all be speaking Mordor-ese. And, of course, it’s the anniversary of Bilbo’s famous “eleventy-first” birthday party, in which he spoke the immortal words, “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” By which he meant, “I’m drunk.”

Let’s use this occasion to dwell on everything that J.R.R. Tolkien’s works have meant to us. That character and heart are stronger than the beefiest hatemonger. That destiny can’t be ignored. That playing god is the worst of sins. That you can actually tell a fantasy story that doesn’t involve vampires.

And yes, dear readers, I am married. To a real girl. Who actually got me to read Tolkien in the first place many moons ago. So let’s also spend today dwelling on how I hit the nerd jackpot.

The Top 10 Beatles Songs, by Franz List

Hello world. My name is Franz List. I shove opinions at you in list form. Ah, my lists. My lists my lists my lists. My lovely lady lists.

My maiden list for this blog is supremely ridiculous – listing the 10 greatest Beatles songs of all time, in order of greatestness. Got a problem with that? Well, so did your mom.

10.”When I’m Sixty-Four” (1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Paul McCartney has been known to get a little schmaltzy at times. But he remains the king of homespun romantic pop, with this being the finest example. Celebrating the joys of spending your life with one person, from reassuring routines to seaside vacations and time with the grandkids, “When I’m Sixty-Four” is a sweet slice of domestic bliss, a splash of bouncing piano and sprightly woodwinds amongst the clamor and ambition of The Beatles’ most celebrated album. Making it not only timeless, but brave.

9. “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” (1964, Beatles For Sale)
Of all the early Beatles songs in which they pretend to be shy, doe-eyed doormats, this one’s the most fun. As the light rockabilly beat saunters underneath, John Lennon sings with conviction about a girl who’s made him sad. He’s gotta leave the party he’s at for the sake of the other party-goers – they’d get sick of his mopey ass right quick. Then comes the chorus. The acoustic guitar chords ring full and true, and Lennon revels in the power of his puppy love – “I still love her!”

8. “Here Comes the Sun” (1969, Abbey Road)
I’m sure George Harrison’s crowning moment as a Beatle was like, all metaphorical and stuff, but it’s magical when you take it literally. Everybody who has lived through a winter knows how it feels when spring rushes in. It’s easier to wake up in the morning; you feel part of the world again; a new life force swells up inside you; you start humming for no reason – and it’s probably this song’s simple, hopeful melody. A shout out to the majesty of all new beginnings, and a weather forecast for the soul, “Here Comes the Sun’s” gorgeously picked guitar licks and “it’s all right” refrain are more therapeutic than any collection of nature sounds.

7. It’s Only Love (1965, Help!)
This ode to the ache of young love gone wrong finds Lennon exploring the poetry of passed notes (“When you sigh, my insides just fly”), peeking into the ensuing relationship’s demise, and delivering a chorus that brilliantly depicts a man trying to pass off his feelings as so much rubbish – all over the course of a handful of brief stanzas. The lead guitar and vocal melodies are precursors to the grand “In My Life,” making this song’s earnest simplicity all the sweeter.

6. I Should Have Known Better (1964, A Hard Day’s Night)
As earth-shattering as the band’s later experiments could be, they were bereft of the pure joy and rambunctious innocence of its early days. And this track is the supreme distillation of that magic, two minutes and 44 seconds of ingratiating chord changes, raw rock vocals, fluttering harmonicas and 2+2=4 lyrics about falling in love unexpectedly. Running through it all is the Beatles’ irrepressible energy, that intangible quality that made the quartet truly fab.

5. Mother Nature’s Son (1968, The Beatles [White Album])
Among countless other hyperbolic statements made about the Beatles include comparisons to Beethoven and Mozart. And while that’s pretty silly, the band’s ability to evoke moods, tensions and releases does deserve such lofty talk. McCartney’s obsession with English rusticity resulted in this White Album cut, and its mix of tenderly picked acoustic guitars, tastefully arranged brass and down-home bass drum smacking elicits as strong a visual of the rolling countryside as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Catchy, organic and optimistic, this is the Cute One at the top of his game.

4. For No One (1966, Revolver)
Has Paul McCartney ever been dumped? This song would make you think so. As much for its self-absorbed melancholy as for its stunning instrumental flourishes, “For No One” is unforgettable. The lyrics cut to the quick of why rejection sucks – she no longer needs the narrator; there’s “no sign of love” in her countenance. Couple that with descending piano chords, McCartney’s sentimental vocal and a lovely French horn solo, and you have what might be the prettiest relationship death knell ever laid to tape.

3. Because (1969, Abbey Road)
If the Beatles ever wrote a hymn, this is it. Driven by a basic lyrical construction from Lennon, “Because” celebrates the mysteries of the natural world, and the overwhelming effect they have on the mind, body and soul. Adding to this solemn, spiritual vibe is the most astounding vocal showcase the band had ever mustered – layering the voices of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison in triplicate, delivering every note in glorious nine-part harmony. It’s the kind of sound that makes you want to believe in something more.

2. I’ll Be Back (1964, A Hard Day’s Night)
The final track on A Hard Day’s Night was a beacon. Starkly different from the boisterous covers that closed out the first two Beatles records, “I’ll Be Back” was a dark, Latin-tinged Lennon original. Shifting from major to minor keys in a bold, haunting way, and without a chorus to speak of, the song marked an evolution from the fun mop-toppery of yore to the mesmerizing experiments to come. And no matter the context, the melody is enchanting, John’s seemingly effortless, subdued vocal the work of a master hypnotist.

1. I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (1969, Abbey Road)
The Beatles have been called many things, but “sexy” usually isn’t one of them. Which makes the wild, slithering opus “I Want You” all the more irresistible. Here you’ll find everything that makes this band timeless – a deep appreciation for early rock and R&B; a deeper desire to break the rules of those genres; utter mastery of recording techniques; the ability to take the simplest of statements and turn it into transcendent poetry – dished out with a primality they’d never before explored. Full of sensuous soul grooves, screaming B3 solos, a lustful mantra and a cacophonous, extended outro that cuts out like the plug’s been pulled, the seven-plus minute track is rooted both in the simplicity of the past and the anything-goes mentality of the time it was recorded. It’s the ingenious, aphrodisiac-ridden cousin of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and the band’s finest moment.

See It/Flee It: Emmy Edition

For some reason, I viewed a significant amount of the 2010 Emmys on Sunday evening. Few of the winners deserved their hardware, of course, but host Jimmy Fallon was the least deserving of the spotlight. His Gen-X Billy Crystal schtick – changing the lyrics of pop songs to make them about the nominees – was only slightly less appalling than a half-assed Silence of the Lambs showtune. And his attempts at off-the-rails zaniness might have succeeded if he wasn’t so cripplingly uncomfortable on camera. Introducing presenter Tom Selleck as “my dad” and running over to hug him, saying “I knew you were real”? Funny on paper. But when Fallon delivered it with his trademark “Look, I’m jokin’ around” mannerisms, it bombed. But enough of that. Here’s an Emmy-nominated show that’s good, and an Emmy-nominated movie that’s bad.

See It: Dexter (Season Four)

Poke holes in this popular Showtime series if you want – its heroic serial killer concept certainly gives you lots of room to do so – but four years in, it’s more absorbing than anything on the tube, and most offerings at the multiplex. After an underwhelming third season, which was anchored on the ho-hum relationship between Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) and his unlikely apprentice, hotshot D.A. Miguel Prado (the redwood of wooden actors, Jimmy Smits), season four gets back to what made the show irresistible in the first place – Dexter, himself a sociopath, hunting a supremely creepy, heretofore untraceable serial killer, intrigued by what they have in common and determined to destroy him nonetheless. The psycho in question is the Trinity Killer, a man who has killed in cycles of three, in the same meticulous fashion, for decades. And what might sound like James Patterson tripe on paper is brought to life with hair-raising efficiency by John Lithgow, whose Emmy-winning guest turn is a masterfully controlled depiction of insanity. The actor rarely uses more than the posture of his massive frame and his wildly expressive eyes to let you know he’s more monster than middle-aged man – when he does fly off the handle, it’s almost a relief. Lithgow’s performance is also good enough to smooth over the clichéd moments, including some hackneyed jokes about baby-induced sleep deprivation (Dexter and his wife Rita got married and had a kid to close out season three, if you care). After seeing the heart-stopping, bloody finale and thinking back on the season, Trinity’s helpless, horrifying face overshadowed all.

Flee It: Temple Grandin

This HBO original movie was one of the biggest winners on Sunday, proof that American viewers remain suckers for feel-good, “me against the world” true stories, even if they fail at making you feel more than just good. What’s especially frustrating about Temple Grandin is what it could’ve been. All the raw materials of a memorable, out-of-the-box bio-pic are here – the title character is thoroughly enthralling, a resilient, brilliant, autistic woman who revolutionized the slaughterhouse industry with her cattle-sensitive designs. This is prime territory for a bold visual approach, to show audiences what life was like through Grandin’s eyes, resulting in the kind of dramatic tension you don’t see every day. Instead, director Mick Jackson’s movie is such a formulaic heartstring yanker, it makes you wonder if HBO bought the script from Lifetime. A lot of lip service is given to the fact that autism is misunderstood, whether it’s a motivational speech from her mentor/high school science teacher (David Strathairn) or a weepy flashback from her mother (Julia Ormond). And as Grandin, Claire Danes puts her all into the vocal impersonation and various emotional breakdowns (the stuff that wins Emmys, which she ended up doing), but never quite goes beyond cartoonish mimicry. By the end, you understand that Grandin is a remarkable person indeed. You don’t understand much else about autism, but man, do you feel warm and fuzzy.