Friday, December 22, 2006
The best of the year

'Tis the time of year when every Tom, Dick and Harry -- and every Time, Slate and VH1 -- announces lists of the year's best. CNN's entertainment staff has spun a few CDs and cracked a few bindings as well, and offers its own nominees in music and books. (For movies, stay tuned for CNN.com movie critic Tom Charity's picks next week.)

Music

  • "Showbiz Tonight" Executive Producer Dave Levine picks Keane's "Under the Iron Sea" as one of the year's top albums, singling out the song "Hamburg" as particularly noteworthy. "If there is one cut on this CD that will give you goosebumps it is 'Hamburg,' with lyrics of longing of what could be, with the person you could give unrequited love to," he says.
  • CNN Entertainment News reporter Brooke Anderson loves Mary J. Blige's "The Breakthrough." "It's an open, honest comeback statement for a singer who has overcome tremendous obstacles," she observes.
  • For staffer Brittany Kaplan, "Corinne Bailey Rae," Christina Aguilera's "Back to Basics" and John Mayer's song "Waiting for the World to Change" are standouts. "With [its] lyrics, who can argue," she says of the latter.
  • And producer Matt West offers a handful, including Silversun Pickups' "Carnavas," the Roots' "Game Theory" and Gnarls Barkley's "St. Elsewhere."

Books

  • West's favorites are Brian K. Vaughn's "Pride of Baghdad," Darwyn Cooke's "New Frontier: Absolute Edition" and Brad Meltzer's "The Book of Fate." "Baghdad" is "an amazing graphic novel based on true events about the 2003 Iraq invasion from the perspective of a family of lions," he says.
  • CNN producers Matt Carey and David Daniel are both fans of Ken Jennings' "Brainiac." "Jennings could have just cranked out a quick autobio. ... Instead, he chose to let his amazing ['Jeopardy!'] run serve as a backdrop for a history of trivia," Daniel says.
  • Another of Daniel's toppers is Jon Meacham's "American Gospel": "A meticulous and very readable explanation that no, [the U.S.] wasn't founded as a Christian nation, nor as an atheistic one. ... Must reading in these fractious times."

And me? As always, I didn't read nearly as much as I would have liked, but the three books I liked best from this year were Philip Roth's "Everyman," Cormac McCarthy's grim but gripping "The Road" and Neal Gabler's "Walt Disney." (The two best books I read all year were from years past -- Susanna Clarke's incredible 2004 novel "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" and a collection of George Orwell's essays, which are also must reading in these fractious -- and spin-filled -- times.)

Musically, I was partial to Bob Dylan's "Modern Times," James Hunter's "People Gonna Talk," The Hold Steady's "Boys and Girls in America" and "St. Elsewhere." The latter is uneven, to be sure, but when it works ("Crazy," "Who Cares") it's top-notch.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite album title of the year: Yo La Tengo's "I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass," which Rolling Stone picked as the worst title of the year. At least RS acknowledged it was a very good record.

How about you? What were some of your favorites?

And of course, when it comes to bests, there's one that matters most: As we head into Christmas weekend, from all of us to all of you, all our best. Have a wonderful holiday.

Thursday, December 21, 2006
Britney takes the prize

Hollywood, 2006. The year that made it seem like "celebrity" was a synonym for "controversial."

The over-the-top antics of the likes of Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, Tom Cruise, Anna Nicole Smith, Naomi Campbell, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Madonna, Star Jones and Britney Spears provided non-stop fun and follies on which we feasted. But in the end, after much thought, "Showbiz Tonight" on CNN Headline News has named Britney Spears the "Most Controversial Celebrity of 2006."

Why Britney? Why not Mel Gibson, whose anti-Semitic, drunken rant shook us to our senses and reminded us once again that hate can live in the heart (I'm not one of those who believes it was the liquor doing the talking for Mel)?

And why not Michael Richards, whose n-word explosion on a comedy stage ignited great debate about the proper and improper use of the n-word, as if there really is a proper use that should be considered acceptable?

"Showbiz Tonight" set four specific criteria that a celebrity had to meet before deciding who was the most controversial of the year:

  • Does the mention of their very name spark a visceral reaction?
  • Which celebrity provoked the most continuous shock and outrage from their antics over the course of the entire year?
  • Which celebrity generated the most continued interest through the year?
  • And, finally, did their actions leave any lasting impact?

More than any other celebrity, Britney scored off the charts.

Spears' first big controversy of the year came in February when she was photographed driving her SUV in Malibu with her infant son, Sean Preston, in her lap, instead of a car seat. Even the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, expressed outrage, saying “while Ms. Spears has acknowledged her mistake, her actions still send the wrong message to millions of her fans."

In April, Spears again generated headlines when social services officials in Los Angeles investigated a report that Sean Preston was injured after falling from his high chair.

In June, a frazzled-looking Spears was interviewed on "Dateline NBC" to discuss everything from her emotional state to rumors her marriage to Kevin Federline was in trouble.

In August, jaws dropped again when a pregnant Spears posed nude for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. And soon after giving birth to her second child with Federline in September, Spears announced she was divorcing her husband. Her announcement on Election Day, November 7, generated headlines so big that in some newspapers it battled the news that the election had led to a change in Congress' balance of power!

Spears finished off the year with her headline-making partying with the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, being photographed repeatedly without panties, and becoming the most searched-for person on the Internet (according to Yahoo). Her actions have people talking about everything from proper parenting to concern over the influence and sway she still holds over millions of impressionable young fans.

Britney Spears is like an ongoing mini-series with no end. I've already set my TiVo for 2007.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006
The most controversial celebrity of 2006
Who do you think was the most controversial celebrity of 2006? Mel Gibson? Tom Cruise? Britney Spears?

The list of possibilities is long. Very long. So long you have to wonder whether someone slipped something into the water in Hollywood this year.

"Showbiz Tonight" on CNN Headline News has chosen the "Most Controversial Celebrity of 2006" and will announce the winner of this dubious honor Wednesday night at 11 p.m. ET.

As the Executive Producer of "Showbiz Tonight," I can tell you we thought long and hard about this, and picking just one celebrity was not easy.

After all, 2006 was the year of Mel "Mad Max" Gibson becoming unhinged and letting loose with an anti-Semitic tirade following his arrest for driving while drunk. It was a year that saw Michael "Kramer" Richards acting like a possessed Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" during a standup comedy routine, spewing the n-word and igniting a national debate over its use.

And even Tom Cruise, the man who was perhaps America's most beloved movie star (certainly the most bankable) -- who once became intoxicated with his professed love for Katie Holmes to the point of coming apart at the seams on Oprah's couch -- saw his star fall somewhat when "Mission: Impossible III" did less then stellar business. Later, he was fired by his own movie studio.

And in the end, all three -- Gibson, Richards and Cruise -- would apologize for their actions in one way or another.

Even Britney Spears offered at least one apology, for driving with her infant son in her lap. But that was just one of countless controversies that enveloped her in 2006, from posing nude while pregnant for a Harpers Bazaar cover to prancing panty-less, post K-Fed, while paparazzi snapped away. She's a primary source of the fuel that energizes the celebrity blog beast, an engine that roars mightily every day.

The list of controversies involving celebrities in 2006 actually seems to go from here to eternity. It also includes Anna Nicole Smith, Madonna, Star Jones, Kanye West, Naomi Campbell, Danny DeVito, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton and so on and so on.

But only one can be the most controversial -- and "Showbiz Tonight" believes we have a winner! So watch at 11 p.m. ET Wednesday and please let us know your thoughts!
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