Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: It's mystifying how this band led by a former member of the Drive-By Truckers doesn't have a top-tier spot on next weekend's Stagecoach festival. With a sharp ear for rustic melodies and poetic lyrical details, Isbell's latest album "Here We Rest" would redefine country music in 2011 if ours was a more just and civilized world. And even though it came out in 2007, Isbell's poignant "Dress Blues" is the best Iraq war song ever written.

Peter Dinklage in 'Game of Thrones': Though it's still early, HBO's highly touted fantasy series opened more in line with Showtime's sex-soaked "The Tudors" than its "Lord of the Rings" meets "The Sopranos" hype. But there's no comparison for what Dinklage brings to the table as the Imp, shining with a likeable, world-weary ease that transcends all the bodice-ripping and overblown accents. Even if the show never lives up to its promise, Dinklage still rules.


Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: There's a lot to like on this L.A. band's 2010 album "Before Today," a hazy trip down a psychedelic rabbit-hole offering alternately dark and shimmering takes on vintage synth pop. But with last week's Coachella meltdown marking another in a long line of erratic performances, it's probably time to put Pink in timeout for a while. There's a very short list of artists who can get away with not delivering live, and this band isn't on it yet.

Inexplicable sequels: It's almost summer (as far as the studios are concerned), so Hollywood's ongoing recycling effort is heating up. But was anyone really demanding a return to the nondescript animated satire of "Hoodwinked Too: Hood vs. Evil" or "Fast Five," the improbable fifth chapter in Vin Diesel's over-caffeinated street-racing franchise "The Fast & the Furious"? Sequels may be safe box-office bets, but aren't they even safer if the audience wants one?

Chris Barton

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