Thursday, December 18, 2008

My Top 30 Albums of 2008

I am such a fan of "favorite things of this year" lists, especially albums. It's so fun to compare notes with other people, groups, organizations and see what was notable to whom for what reasons. Sometimes it's validation (or not) of my view of songs/albums, and other times it becomes a way for me to find out about records that may have avoided my radar. Last year, I added a youtube video of a song from albums, and it felt like the post took forever to load. Needless to say, I will forgo that this year. Like I said on the "favorite songs" post, if you're interested in learning more, search the internet, youtube, google, myspace, Hype Machine, etc.

30. The Dodos – Visiter
While this album is kind of hit or miss for me, the hits definitely outweigh the misses. Pitchfork has compared them to a more unplugged version of Animal Collective, and to some extent, I can see that. It’s stripped down music, but there’s a lot of heart to it, from the energetic drumming to the driving acoustic guitars to the occasional supplemental shout. Strengths include “Red and Purple,” “Fools,” and “Jody,” and while I can live without some other tracks, their unconventional quirkiness isn’t enough to take away from the album’s successes.

29. The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me
This album is a soothing, yet odd little collection. It occasionally goes off-kilter (complete with Radiohead from Kid A-style percussion), but it comes back with a soft landing. You then realize that you’re better for the journey. There’s still a smoothness and subtlety to the execution here that’s heartwarming. The occasional gentle strum of the acoustic guitar with the soft but driving rhythm section give their music warm undertones that make it an enjoyable listen. Favorites include “Good Lies,” “The Devil, You + Me,” and album closer “Gone Gone Gone,” which sounds like a song you could hear playing during the credits of either The Office or an indie film. It provides an appropriate anticlimactic end to either a short story or an album built on subtlety.

28. Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Another very enjoyable record for Death Cab for Cutie, although it’s clear that they are taking some chances with this record. Its more unconventional song structures mix with the band’s knack for solid pop songs for a record that is a pleasant listen. Songs like “Cath…” and “No Sunlight” are really catchy, and despite the lyrics, they bring out a sense of optimism that is infectious. I do wonder, however, what’s up with the 4 minute intro to “I Will Possess Your Heart.” Overall, though, Death Cab has another catchy, smart record that grows well with a few listens.

27. Earlimart – Hymn and Her
If you were ever in the mood for some more Elliot Smith-esque pop, may I introduce Earlimart to you. In songs like “God Loves You the Best” and “Cigarettes and Kerosene” I swear the male singer Aaron Espinoza sounds just like Elliot. Other times you get some pretty good moody pop music. They have a great combination of instruments, and the songs from female vocalist Ariana Murray (“Time for Yourself,” “Before It Gets Better”) bring a nice balance to the record. It’s got a good range to it.

26. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
The softness and intimacy of this album is quite striking. This album has gotten a good bit of attention around the blogosphere for good reason. With little more than a guitar and the occasional percussion, Bon Iver have managed to capture emotional connection and vulnerability in a way unlike any other. I can appreciate the sentiment, even if the songs don’t stick in my mind as long as others on the list. My favorites are “Skinny Love,” “Flume,” and “Blindsided.”

25. Los Campesinos! – Hold On Now, Youngster/ We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
I am a late comer to Welsh band Los Campesinos!, so with some more time, it’s possible that these two albums (they released both albums this year) could have moved higher with some more time in my sights. In my few short listens, however, I have been very impressed with the combination of energy and pop crafting that has gone into both albums. The guy/girl lead singer trade-off makes for a good dynamic, and their playfulness only adds to the fun in hearing them. I couldn’t decide between the albums, so both are listed here. “Hold On…” has more energy and rawness, while “We Are Beautiful…” is a little (just a little) more subdued and focused. They don’t just follow the pop formula, though. They add something to it. Case in point: “I cherish with fondness the day (before) I met you.” The addition changes the sentiment and opens it up to new perspectives. Other strong points include “You! Me! Dancing!” “Ways To Make It Through The Wall,” Miserablia,” and “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks.”

24. Grand Archives – Grand Archives
The demise of Seattle favorite Carissa’s Wierd led to the creation of Band of Horses, who have put out two solid albums. After their first album (the better one, IMHO), guitarist Mat Brooke (who had also been in Carissa’s Wierd) left the band to start Grand Archives. The result is a pretty good album of familiar melodies that are just done well. It doesn’t stand out as a heartbreaking, mind-blowing experience, but that’s part of the appeal for me. It’s just a nice, straightforward album with the occasional whistle, harmonica, and well executed melody. High points for me are “Torn Blue Foam Couch,” “Sleepdriving,” and “A Setting Sun.” It’s a good Sunday afternoon, relax with a good book album.

23. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
With an album title like “Do You Like Rock Music?” one would expect the new British Sea Power album to be a broad, sweeping rock n’ roll opus that wears its ambition on its sleeve. While the band doesn’t exactly meet those expectations, they do put together a collection of tunes that manages some atmospheric finesse. It stumbles in a few places, most notably the end song “We Close Our Eyes,” which is just a reprise of the opener “All In It.” The problem, though is that the reprise is almost 4 times longer than the opener and just repeats the ideas in the first. High points, though, kick through with driving melodies and leave such low points in the dust. Recommended tracks include “Down On the Ground,” “Waving Flags,” and “Atom.” The middle half of the album is definitely worth it.

22. Longwave – Secrets are Sinister
This album made an impression on me in its unyielding catchyness. It’s good indie pop that ranges from the crunching guitars and keyboards to quasi-ballad with clean guitars and pretty melodies. All in all, it’s worth a few listens. Sure, the song structure is fairly predictable, and the band kinda blends the styles of bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Paloalto, and Death Cab for Cutie, but that’s not really a bad thing, right? Sometimes, the way you can combine these influences is a benefit in and of itself. “Sirens in the Deep Sea,” “Satellites,” and the album closing title track inject a little sunny optimism, but not too much.

21. Glasvegas – Glasvegas
I have a special place in my heart for Scottish bands whose lead singers don’t lose their accent when they sing. Glasvegas join the Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit in that category. I feel like the accent adds a sense of emotional rawness and vulnerability that gives the music an extra quality. Add in Glasvegas’ anthemic, crunching guitars, and you have a winning combination. They happen to have one of the best tracks of the year in my opinion: “Geraldine.” The song is from the perspective of a social worker trying to keep poor, drug addicts from going off the deep end, and you don’t realize it until about halfway through the song. The turn of phrase just gets you. It’s so memorable and emotional that it alone makes 2008 in music a good year. It’s not the only solid track, though, to be sure. Opener “Flowers and Football Tops,” “Lonesome Swan,” and “S.A.D. Light” are also great songs in their own right. It’s not their fault that they are overshadowed by such an achingly beautiful song.

20. Mates of State – Re-arrange Us
Another soft spot goes to married couples who form a band together. Part of it’s the hopeless romantic in me, and part of it has to do with the fact that many of them make solid music. Along with the Submarines and Viva Voce, we can add Mates of State. While this album isn’t as strong as their previous effort, Get It Back, it’s certainly a very pleasant listen in its own right. On this record, Kori Gardner mostly trades in her Yamaha Electone organ for a piano. The result is a little loss of the edge earlier albums had, but in exchange we get a more sustained focus on crafting good, memorable pop songs. “Get Better” is one of their prettiest songs, and “My Only Offer” doesn’t trail that far behind. All in all, this is a well executed pop record. The only thing I find lacking is some of the umph that was so visible on Get It Back and All Day EP. With a little more intensity, this is a record that could have easily cracked the top ten, but obviously it’s still good enough to make the list.

19. The Week That Was – The Week That Was
Peter Brewis of Field Music took a hiatus from his main project to craft a side project, The Week That Was. Their debut album boasts an expansive reach (with 9 members working together seamlessly) while still retaining a focus that makes the album so darn enjoyable. They pack a lot into only 8 songs (32 minutes), so I don’t feel like I’m being shortchanged. Plus, it’s so easy to listen to this album 3 or 4 times without realizing it. It works in familiar elements with new twists, and the carefully crafted smoothness of songs like “It’s All Gone Quiet” and “The Airport Line” work so well in contrast with the pounding percussion of “Learn to Learn” and the album’s strongest song, “Scratch the Surface.” This is certainly one of those albums that might have been even higher if I had been able to listen to it since April or May. This one needs room to breathe; trust me, it’s worth it.

18. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
That’s right. The blog darlings of 2008 made it here. The album is just so darn catchy, and they even have a song with my name in it (“One (Blake’s Got A New Face)”). The first couple of listens were the most unsure, but once the tracks sink in, they’re pretty much there for good. My top 3 favorites on the record are “Oxford Comma,” “A-Punk,” and “M79.” There’s just something so fun and laid back about their music. I think senses of escapism and playfulness in both the lyrics and the song structure really help this record grow on you quickly. Plus it benefits from The Week That Was’ knack of crafting a short, good album so that you can put on repeat a few times without getting sick of it. As the songs mature, they add some depth, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. To me that quality is a rare thing. If only more groups could capture some playfulness in their music.

17. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
Another blogosphere recommended group. This duo has had a great year, including getting the cover of SPIN magazine (November). Their record suggests that they’ve earned it. It’s dramatic psych-rock that somehow manages to sound both retro and futuristic at the same time. Either way, from the opening keyboard riff on first track “Time to Pretend,” you realize that you are somewhere (or when) else. They use a broad range of instruments and sounds, and that keeps the record from falling into a rut or feeling too repetitive. They give off sounds that remind me of Yeasayer’s debut album and even Animal Collective (especially on “Pieces of What”). For me, though, the star of this album is the dynamic keyboard that provides some of the driving melodies that make the record shine. Other favorites for me include “Electric Feel” and “Kids,” a close second for favorite track on the album behind “Time to Pretend.”

16. Tokyo Police Club – Elephant Shell
After such a journey into the unfamiliar, it becomes time to move into more comfortable territory, and for that I turn to Tokyo Police Club. They’re a pretty good indie rock, post-punk-y band whose latest album Elephant Shell delivers that comfort in droves. With almost every song clocking in at under 3 minutes, they deliver the energy and emotional outpouring you expect from the genre without overdoing it or wearing themselves too thin. I don’t have much more to say about this album, mostly because there’s not much new with it. They just do what they do well enough to make for quite satisfying repeat listens. I’m a fan of “Juno,” “Your English is Good,” and “Tessellate” (my favorite).

15. Sigur Ros - með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Sigur Ros has been all about making some excellent ambient music for years now. I’ve enjoyed their music since Ágætis Byrjun, but I was unsure if they would be able to branch out without losing the core of their sound. I was even more unsure when Takk… came out because, even though I liked the album, it felt like it was too much of a departure from what they had done before. This record, though, pretty much puts to rest all those fears. It’s beautiful, but it brings in more pounding, driving percussion from Takk… in a way that doesn’t feel too overpowering. There’s an intensity to this record that I hadn’t gotten from previous records. The beauty of the record overflows, and this becomes one of those albums that can accompany both mellow and content moods. It’s hard to pick favorites for this record, but I really like “Festival,” “Við spilum endalaust,” and closer “All Alright,” which is the first song Jonsi sings in English.

14. The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead
This record has enough good indie pop sensibility to draw you in closer with every listen. Starting with “Lately,” a song whose narrator is trying to convince himself that he’s over his ex, you begin to understand where singer/guitarist Brandon Summers is coming from. I think it has something to do with a subtle Dylan-esque quality to his vocals. It’s very nice music, but you get the sense of melancholy pervading every note. There’s a sense that the hammer of harsh “reality” is always just beyond our peripheral vision waiting to invade and take out our slowly tarnishing “idealism” (whatever the words in quotation marks even mean). “Can’t Say No” bombards you with the despair of contemporary American lifestyle that compels you to join in even as you want to retreat. It’s a great expression of the cognitive dissonance I’ve been feeling for years every time I go into a mall or Walmart. Other solid tracks include “Shed Your Love,” “You Can Come To Me,” and “Broken Afternoon.”

13. Hello Saferide – More Modern Short Stories from Hello Saferide
This is just a beautiful record. Swedish band Hello Saferide have crafted one solid pop album, no question. Music journalist turned lead singer Annika Norlin has a solid singing voice, and the crafting of songs is just wonderful. She’s able to capture longing and lack so well without being depressing; her wit is something to marvel. There are points in which she tries too hard, and those become noticeable for sure. Overall, though, they don’t really take away from the album’s splendor as much as they serve as a temporary distraction from sentiments you can feel running from start to finish. My favorites are “Lund,” “Middle Class,” and very favorite “Anna,” a hypothetical about a child that the narrator and partner would have had if the partner had not left. The unique perspective Norlin takes throughout this album is both heartbreaking and refreshing at the same time.

12. Ra Ra Riot – The Rhumb Line
The melody of this album is just spellbinding. I guess that’s what happens when you have both a violin and a cello in your band, but still, they manage to use each instrument so well that the music has real heart to it. You can feel it in every note of this record. From album opener “Ghost Under Rocks” to “Dying is Fine” and even in the low point of the album, their cover of Kate Bush’s “Suspended in Gaffa,” you know that the band is 100% committed to the sonic output. This is an indie pop band that wears its heart on its sleeve, and that genuine outpouring only makes the beauty of the album’s well-crafted songs even stronger and more palpable. Lead singer Wes Miles is both a good singer and someone with the knack of giving all he’s got to a song. This album is worth a significant investment of your time, and I would expect this band only to get better in the next few years.

11. Okkervil River – The Stand Ins
The Stand Ins is a sequel (I think) to their excellent previous album The State Names (which made it to #10 last year). Again, this one deals with headaches and pressures of trying to make it in acting as well as the relationship between the star and the audience. While I’m still a slightly bigger fan of The Stage Names, I am quite impressed with the follow-up. They build on the crafting of the previous records (BTW, Black Sheep Boy is also incredible), and Will Sheff’s storytelling is still quite strong. Plus, he’s quite a good singer, the kind you have to hear live. As an aside, I saw Okkervil River and the New Pornographers this past May, and I became convinced that Will Sheff and Neko Case both have voices that must be heard live. In person, they each blow away their respective album performances. This record stands up on its own as it extends on lyrical themes and carves out its own musical niche.

10. The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
I got turned onto John Darnielle’s project a couple years ago, but I have since been stunned at his knack for using details to sketch out wonderfully intricate stories, complete with characters’ thoughts and realizations (“This Year,” “Dance Music,” “Woke Up New,” and “No Children” are the top 4 must download tracks from The Mountain Goats). He is an amazing lyricist, able to express emotions better than just about any songwriter I’ve heard. His new album, Heretic Pride, doesn’t have an overarching theme like his last 2 or 3 records have. Each song is its own separate story, but they all still work so well. “Sax Rohmer #1” is probably the high point on the album, but other enjoyable songs include “Autoclave,” “So Desparate,” and “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature.” This album has the benefit of working together as a complete package without a song or two going just far enough astray to make you want to skip it (probably the only shortcoming of his previous records for me).

9. Headlights – Some Racing, Some Stopping
Yay for twee pop! This is one of the best indie pop albums I’ve heard in a while. From the very twee-tastic “Cherry Tulips” to the Camera Obscura-like sounds of “On April 2,” this album delivers unabashedly straightforward gushy pop that is just a joy to listen to. It’s all about soft sounds and ambient guitar and keyboard melodies. The guy/girl lead singer switch-off is also part of the formula for success. The attention to melody and harmony are so enticing that it’s easy to get lost in the album, even though it clocks in at just above 30 minutes. Other standouts for me include “Get Your Head Around It,” and “Market Girl.”

8. M83 – Saturdays = Youth
As a child of the 80s, I can say that this album touches that soft spot of nostalgia that I have for my childhood. It most definitely has the 80s sound, but in a way, it’s also very not 80s. The synthesizers and soft, new wave sounding vocals are definitely a throwback to the decade of the rubik’s cube and Back to the Future, but there’s also something very now about the songs on this album. In other words, I don’t think that the 80s would have been ready for this music. There’s some over the top instrumentation and percussion, but it is always complimented with a sense of calm that I don’t recall from Simple Minds or Modern English. High points are “Graveyard Girl,” “Kim & Jessie,” and “We Own the Sky.” The journey back in time is both awe-inspiring and comforting, especially with the 10-minute wind down “Midnight Souls Still Remain” to close out the record.

7. Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont
I enjoyed Deerhunter’s previous album, Cryptograms, even though I thought there were times when it wandered around in ambient noise for too long. Their latest release is a double album of sorts. Microcastle is the main album, but along with it comes Weird Era Cont, this bonus disc with as many songs as the primary recording. Since they work so well together, I’m keeping them together for the purposes of this ranking. I’ve listened to Microcastle more, but both records hold up well to repeated listens. On both records, Deerhunter stray back into the world of pop music with more discernable melodies and instrument arrangements that make it less work to get acquainted with the songs. Standouts from Microcastle include “Agoraphobia,” “Saved by Old Times,” and one of my favorite songs of the year, “Nothing Ever Happened.” If you hear no other Deerhunter song ever in your life, download this one. It’s the truth, especially the back half of the song where the instruments just take over and finish out the song. “Nothing Ever Happened” becomes the heart of the album, as well as its peak. The rest of the record basically revolves around this high, but there isn’t a disappointing track between 25 songs.

6. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes/Sun Giant EP
Fleet Foxes have had a wonderful year! They’ve gotten tons of recognition, played on practically every late show on television, and put out a debut EP and LP, both of which are wonderful. The harmonies on the record are heavenly, and the band isn’t stingy with them. You have no shortage of lyrics are about the mountains, or open fields, or woodland creatures in the snow. There’s nice imagery, and the music is so wonderfully crafted that it’s difficult not to enjoy both records from start to finish. Sun Giant EP opens the door with songs like “Drops in the River” and “English House” giving you a taste of what to expect on the full length LP. The eponymous album picks up where the EP leaves off and just goes farther out into the wilderness with confidence. High points on the LP include “White Winter Hymnal,” “Ragged Wood,” “He Doesn’t Know Why,” and closer “Oliver James.” Congratulations for Robin Pecknold and the rest of Fleet Foxes on two solid recordings in one great year.

5. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colors
I have been a fan of this album since April, and I mentioned back in May that it was one of my favorites. Things haven’t really changed much since then. I’ve given the record some breathing space, and it keeps coming back to me with enough life and energy to be its own battery. I never cease to be amazed at how Cut Copy can weave their way through various musical genres with relative ease. You start out with indie pop, move to 80s new wave, go to progressive rock, stop off at dance, and back without realizing just where you were going until you’ve gone through it all. The song construction is tight, and the variety blends so seamlessly that it’s really quite a feat that they’ve managed to retain credibility as they put all the songs into one collection. They don’t lose musical integrity as a band no mater where they take you. I still think that “Feel the Love” is one of the best Track 1’s of the year. It’s just bright and shiny without trying too hard to get your attention. Other solid standouts include “Lights and Music,” “So Haunted,” “Hearts on Fire,” and “Strangers in the Wind.” This is one of those albums I put on when I’m in a rut writing and need something to help me get my second wind, and it hasn’t failed me yet.

4. Santogold – Santogold
Oddly enough, I’m even surprised at myself with how high this record is on my list. Maybe sometime later, I’ll rethink things and decide that this wasn’t very bright, but for now, it’s #4. Santi White (aka Santogold) takes the genre-hopping that I just mentioned with Cut Copy and goes about it in a completely different way. Rather than weaving seamlessly from one genre to another, she blatantly jumps from clever indie rock/pop (“L.E.S. Artistes” and my favorite on the record, “Lights Out”) to M.I.A.-style underground dance/R&B (“Creator” and “Unstoppable”) and everywhere in between. The transition is abrupt, but on this record, that seems to be part of the point. Each song has such strength of voice and character that there’s no need for her to justify the broad range of music on this album. Her voice is unique, and it’s actually quite refreshing to see her refuse to be bound by traditional musical genres, incorporating whatever she thinks will give her work something fresh and unique. It’s also amazing how Santogold can put out so many songs that are ridiculously catchy yet still credible enough to avoid being corny. Some of my other favorites include “Say Aha” and “I’m a Lady.”

3. Portishead – Third
Ok, first off, I was not trying to be funny by having Third be my #3 album of the year. It’s a coincidence. I am, though, so excited that Portishead is finally back with another record. As I mentioned in my May post, the hiatus was way too long. It’s so fascinating to see how the 10 year break has influenced Portishead’s song construction. I mean, think about it. The last time Portishead released a new album, Bill Clinton was President. For one, they still have retained the basic sound and somewhat gloomy outlook that became a trademark for their first two records. The shift, however, comes in some bold new innovations. There’s the pulsating Hammond B-3 organ on “We Carry On” that feels like an irregular heartbeat, the ukulele olde timey quasi-song “Deep Water,” and of course, the pounding drums that drive the album’s strongest track (and possibly one of the best songs Portishead has ever done), “Machine Gun.” Beth Gibbons’ voice is as fragile and intimate as ever. They rely less on samples and more on the raw combination of instruments, and somehow that move feels right. After listening to the record a few times, it becomes clear to me that this record could not have been made or released in 2000, 2002, or even 2004. This feels like the right time for Portishead to come out of hiding and make their mark. I hope it doesn’t take another decade for a follow up, but if that’s what it takes for another masterpiece like Third, I would be willing to wait if it came to that.

2. TV on the Radio – Dear Science
TV on the Radio is definitely one of the most innovative and edgy bands out there right now. Their previous record, Return to Cookie Mountain, is probably one of the most difficult albums I own. I got it a couple years ago after it started showing up on so many year-end lists, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure the record out. I have played it numerous times, let it sit for a while and come back to it, and still I am puzzled by some of it. Part of it for me is that the innovativeness is inseparable from a raw abrasiveness that I can’t quite put my finger on. Well, that trepidation weighed heavily as I listened to Dear Science, and I was both puzzled and blown away at the same time. In one sense, I wondered if this was the same band that gave us such off the wall tracks as “I Was a Lover”? At the same time, though, I knew that this was the same people, but something is very different here. The album has lost that abrasiveness without giving up innovation. It’s much more palatable. The unfamiliar is still engageable in a way that I still haven’t found with Cookie Mountain. This is a much smoother and accessible record than the previous work was, and I am convinced that both the band and I are better for it. The chaos has settled, but it’s not gone. It’s something that feels less scary and presents itself as pure possibility. Of course, some of the songs are about the current political climate and the hope that things will stop sucking soon (“Golden Age”), but they do so without a sense that all is lost. There is a hopefulness and focused energy on this record that makes it so freaking astounding to listen to over and over, even as it ventures into new territory. As with many albums on this list, this one should get a few listens with the headphones so that the music can connect directly with the music and you don’t have to worry about the atmospherics of the room interfering with the subtleties.

1. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight
To be completely honest, I’m very surprised that this album hasn’t surfaced on more year-end lists than it has. When it has shown up, it’s been more toward the bottom of the list. I do not know what is up with many of the music mainstay organizations. This album not only got good reviews, but it is one of those albums that breaks in nicely. In May, I said that this was my early favorite for album of the year, and while there was a while when I wasn’t sure that would hold up, I can’t deny that this has been my favorite record to listen to all year. I’ll echo the comments I made on Glasvegas’ debut about how I totally heart Scottish bands whose lead singers keep the accent when they sing. Scott Hutchinson has a unique ability to sound both strong and fragile as he sings. There’s also a really great connection between body and state of mind with songs like “The Modern Leper,” “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms,” “Head Rolls Off,” and another one of those pivotal ballads, “Keep Yourself Warm.” Hutchinson’s strength as a songwriter comes in this understanding that emotional and physical connections are inseparable (the central line in “Keep Yourself Warm” is either genius or hackneyed depending on who you ask, “It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm”…I’m less concerned with whether it’s clever and more interested in how it informs the album’s perspective). In fact, the relationship between biological processes/embodied experiences and perceptions/memories/ideas becomes one of the central themes of the album that surfaces in new ways with each song. It touches on the overflowing emotional journey that comes with life, relationships, and human interaction that becomes filtered through an existence in a body that is fragile, vulnerable, and always already limited. All in all, this record is very human. It has ups and downs, surprises and disappointments, successes and frustrations. The Hutchinson brothers are able to articulate parts of that complexity through the complex relationship between music and words, and the listener is better for the engagement. At first, the realization of how vulnerable we really are as a people can be disconcerting to say the least, but the more I got into this album, I started to understand that this vulnerability doesn’t have to be a weakness. It can be strength because once you understand its parameters and learn to live your vulnerability, you don’t have to give in to despair. The determination in “Floating in the Forth” with the line “I think I’ll save suicide for another year” (probably the best line of the album) gives me a reason to look forward, not with hope that things will get better, but rather with the understanding that the uncertainty of tomorrow or next year can be as inspiring as it is debilitating. Ultimately, it’s worth it to see what the unknown could bring.

If you actually made it this far, thank you very much for reading and Happy Holidays!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Frightened Rabbit have put out a live album where they basically play The Midnight Organ Fight in order. It's called Liver! Lung! FR! It's cool to hear how the songs translate in a live, but intimate setting.

My top albums of 2008: Honorable Mention Edition

I'm currently working through my list of top albums for the year of our Lord 2008. As, I do that, though, I did want to list some albums that I liked but didn't break into the top 30 (that's how many I was willing to go with this year) somehow. This list won't really have commentary between each album like I will have for the official list. Suffice it to say, though, that there are various reasons for these albums just falling below the list. They could been either late in coming out or in getting enough listens for me to feel comfortable ranking them. They could have been missing a certain something that I had found in the top albums. They could have had some good songs and some flat out awful ones, so I wouldn't feel comfortable giving the entire album high bidding. I would still recommend these albums, but they just don't get the same level or type of praise that my top 30 will get. They're also not really in any order, so they're not numbers 31-whatever. They're albums that, for me, are good but just under the cut off.

Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer
Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
Kaki King – Dreaming of Revenge
The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
Death Vessel – Nothing is Precious Enough For Us
Hercules and Love Affair – Hercules and Love Affair
Now, Now Every Children – Cars
Loquat – Secrets of the Sea
Hot Chip – Made in the Dark
The Ravonettes – Lust Lust Lust
R.E.M. - Accellerate
School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms
Sera Cahoone - Only As the Day is Long
The Tallest Man on Earth - Shallow Grave
Tilly and the Wall - o
The Whigs - Mission Control
No Age - Nouns
Lykke Li - Youth Novels
Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords
El Perro del Mar - From the Valley to the Stars
The Cool Kids - The Bake Sale
Beach House - Devotion
Blitzen Trapper - Furr

I know it's a lot...Apparently, I've been able to listen to a lot more albums this year than last year. Thank you Ruckus and Spiralfrog.

On an unrelated note, I do want to highly recommend an album that came out last year that I didn't get the chance to hear until this year. The band is called Fields, and their album Everything Last Winter is amazing. I feel certain that if I'd found this album last year, it might have made the top 5. There's just such luscious musical arrangement and harmony. I don't know why more people didn't put this one on their year-end lists or how I didn't hear about it until just a few months ago. It's one of those special albums where the more it grows on you, the more you realize that it fits you perfectly.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My top songs of 2008

So, now that comps is finally over and done with, it's time for me to point out some of my favorites in the music of 2008. I was a little surprised to see all the "best of" lists come out starting last month, especially since Kanye West had a new album out right when some people were saying what their favorite albums of the year were. Now, I know that 808s and Heartbreak is a stylistic departure for Mr. West and has both its supporters and critics, but chances are some people would have included it if it came out in June (it didn't make my list, but part of that could be due to lack of time to let it ruminate). Then I found a comment from John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (who are on my best of list this year) that makes a lot of sense, "Labels who wait 'til November to unleash your heavy hitters: November is too late for a great record to really be able to assert itself, so get that stuff out by September. You may not have noticed but it's a new world." So, I guess I'm saying 1) I agree with Darnielle that labels should put albums they think might be best of the year out sooner and 2) people should at least wait until December to put out their best of lists. I understand that print publications are under pressure to deliver on antiquated deadlines that don't work well with the fast pace of the internet, but I think there's a chance of passing over some possible jewels.

I'm pretty much finalizing my best albums list, but in the meantime, I did want to put out a list of songs that I liked a lot this year. I don't really feel like ordering them, and my knack for posting mp3's leaves a lot to be desired. I'll just list the songs, and if you are interested in hearing them, you can search The Hype Machine or something. It's also possible that some songs were left off b/c another song from the same artists was already on the list. I didn't want to overload with 3 or 4 songs from an album that I just might be raving about in the "albums of the year" post. So...without further ado, and in no particular order.

Glasvegas, “Geraldine”
Deerhunter, “Nothing Ever Happened”
Tilly and the Wall, “Tall Tall Grass”
Santogold, “Lights Out”
The Mae Shi, “Run To Your Grave”
Portishead, “Machine Gun”
The Mountain Goats, “Sax Rohmer #1”
The Mountain Goats with Kaki King, “Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle”
Frightened Rabbit, “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms”
Cut Copy, “Feel the Love”
Death Cab for Cutie, “Cath…”
Coldplay, “Viva La Vida”
Chairlift, “Bruises”
The Week That Was, “Scratch the Surface”
TV on the Radio, “Dancing Choose”
Ra Ra Riot, “Ghost Under Rocks”
R.E.M., “Living Well is the Best Revenge”
Okkervil River, “Lost Coastlines”
One Day as a Lion, “Wild International”
MGMT, “Time To Pretend”
M83, “Graveyard Girl”
Mates of State, “Get Better”
Hello Saferide, “Anna”
Goldfrapp, “A&E”
Grand Archives, “Sleepdriving”
Fleet Foxes, “White Winter Hymnal”
Vampire Weekend, “A-Punk”

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

What's missing at the RNC?

Ya know, Republicans do a great job repeating that John McCain is ready to be President, but the two words that you don't hear from them are "temperament" and "judgment." Obama and the Democrats made a big deal about this being a key test for being President, and the GOP is dropping this vital argument.

PS...if you thought "change" was a glittering generality, the GOP has the Dems beat big time.

UPDATE: ok, can we stop indirectly calling the black Presidential candidate uppity?

UPDATE #2: it really burns my biscuits that the GOP is trying to sound like NOW.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

McCain, Palin, etc.

John McCain isn't a maverick. He caved to the extreme right wing of the Republican party by picking Palin. A real maverick move would have been to pick Lieberman or Ridge and call the base's bluff. The choice shows 2 things: 1) that he makes stupid gut decisions (a trait I don't want in a President) and 2) he's still beholden to the most extreme elements of the right wing (compare that to Obama who, rather than feeling the need to cave in to the far left is acting more like the standard bearer for the party that he is).

It's clear that the McCain/Palin ticket is going to try to run on the "we're better change than Obama" slogan, rather than the "ready on day one" tagline. There are a couple problems with this. First, they are always a step behind Obama on the question of change. Obama has already spent months laying out how change works and what it means both as a set of beliefs and as a group of policies. McCain's stuck on the "reform" message, which is just change-lite. In fact, I would urge Obama supporters to refer to McCain's current schtick as change-lite. It has a good sound to it, and it puts the message in perspective. Second, the only thing I have ever learned from what little I've seen of America's Next Top Model is if you copy someone else's idea, you'd better make sure that you do it better than the person you're copying or else you look like a poseur. McCain is not far from looking like a poseur. How can he expect to match Obama's message of change with "reform"?

McCain's "reform" is too small to gain any significant advantage over Obama. Go back to Obama's speech (I have the link to the video in a post below) and note what he talks about when he mentions "change." He goes beyond the narrow-minded focus on pork spending that McCain is making the hallmark of his campaign. Notice that this is the only thing that McCain has been able to reference when he talks about the need to "shake up Washington" (well, that and standing up to your own party, but who does he think he's kidding?...see my first note above). Obama talks broader about a more fundamental question of the role of government in people's lives. Government isn't there to hold your hand through life or to control everything you see/do. It is there to help you out in times of need. It should help people have access to the American dream. All McCain has is "government is wasteful and spends money on useless crap...I'll stop that." Keep in mind, though, that Obama doesn't take lobbyist or PAC money, while McCain does. Obama even got the DNC to shun PAC and lobbyist money. McCain has just raked in that cash. The fresh perspective that Obama has gives him a leg up on "shaking up Washington" primarily because it involves wrestling it away from the hands of an incompotent Republican who's been steering it for the last 8 years.

Palin was either not vetted properly, which means that McCain made a stupid gamble, or was thoroughly vetted, meaning that McCain was perfectly OK with everything that has come out in the last 5 days or so. Neither of these says anything good about his judgment now, does it?

Republicans have tried to defend themselves from the fact that McCain's choice of Palin completely obliterates their "Obama ain't experienced" argument, mostly by trying to split hairs over what counts as experience. I've been working through this for a while, and I've come to several conclusions:
1) If Palin is more experienced than either Biden or Obama because her experience is "executive" in nature, then it must follow that Palin is more qualified to be President of the United States than John McCain, since he has no executive experience either. I dare any McCain supporter to defend the argument that because of her "executive experience" Palin is more qualified to be President than John McCain. If you concede that she isn't, then you have to concede that this means that a) executive experience really isn't all it's cracked up to be and b) that federal level experience has to count for something (definitely more than executive experience in a state with fewer people than the state of Delaware).
2) Executive experience should not be limited to government. What I mean by this is that you could say that Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman have executive experience because they were CEO's of major multinational corporations. These positions involve significant management skills, meaning that if you run, say, a presidential campaign for 19 months (almost as long as Palin has run the state of Alaska...hmm), successfully attract 2,000,000 individual donors to give money to your campaign, average over $50,000,000 a month in campaign contributions, and defeat one of the most well-oiled political machines in the business (Hillary Clinton's campaign) in the primaries, wouldn't it seem fair to say that Barack Obama has at least some level of executive experience that we could compare to the exaggerated accounts of Sarah Palin's executive experience?
3) Republicans are trying to have their cake and eat it too with regards to the inexperience factor. They seem like they're not willing to let it go just yet, although, I think they do this at their own peril. In response to the argument that Palin isn't qualified to be VP or Prez, they're trying to argue that Palin is not from Washington DC, which is good because she's in a unique position to shake things up. Obama, on the other hand, the argument goes, is not experienced enough to be ready for prime time. If it's true that Palin's lack of time in DC is a plus, then it would follow that Obama's dearth of DC tenure makes him an equally viable candidate for changing the way that things are done in Washington. Either they're both fresh Washington outsiders, which means they both have a claim to being effective agents of change, or neither is fit for the office of the Presidency. I don't think that Republicans have thought this far into the argument. If Palin can shake things up, then logically it means that Obama can as well. In fact, if I were an Obama surrogate on TV, I would argue that Obama's limited time in Washington gives him the perfect mix of being the shake-'em-up outsider and an experienced politician who knows how to deliver the right kind of change for the country. Unlike McCain, he's not wed to Washington or the Bush legacy, and unlike Palin, he at least has some idea of how things work in DC.

McCain's choice of Palin undermines two of McCain's strongest arguments of the campaign so far: 1) the experience issue (which has been discussed ad nauseum) and 2) the importance of national security as the top issue in the campaign. At first I thought that #1 was the more damning concession, but I've started to think that maybe #2 is really the more dangerous one for McCain. This not only prevents McCain from using ideas from Hillary's "3am" ad and others to say that President Obama = country at great risk for big terror boom but also allows Obama to refocus the campaign onto the primary issue of his choice. In other words, now Obama can claim both that the economy is where people should determine their votes, not national security and that if McCain wants this election to be about national security then he's the dangerous one b/c he selected an unknown lightweight to be a heartbeat away from Leader of the Free World in a time of great peril.

Whew!...and I thought this was gonna be a short post...

BTW, did anyone notice that Fred Thompson admitted that being a POW doesn't = qualification to be prez? That's interesting. He says that it shows character, but both candidates have a claim to character. It's telling that a Republican is allowed to say what got Wesley Clark into so much trouble.

Friday, August 29, 2008

...and the hits just keep coming

Ok, so last thought about McCain's choice of Sarah Palin in the veepstakes. She just had a child with Down Syndrome 4 months ago! This is significant for a number of reasons. First, yes it does provide the GOP with that strong "family values" symbolism that they are known for, but there's a significant drawback here. The McCain campaign has asked her to join the ticket where she needs to travel nationally and actively work to get her new boss elected for the next two months or so. This puts demands on her time that will likely affect her ability to care for the infant (much more than being governor of Alaska would). That will hurt her mostly because this delicate balance will probably cut into the amount of time she would need to get up to speed on the plethora of major domestic and foreign policy issues that she needs to be able to process and speak about coherently. Second, this seems at odds with the Republicans' "family values" motif in the sense that they are kinda requiring that Mrs. Palin spend so much time away from the family and children (especially the youngest one who still needs to be nursed, burped, etc. with a mother's care in their view). Finally, my bright fiance pointed out to me that the materiality of a new mother's body can complicate matters even further. Giving birth has effects on a body, and that should be taken into account.

Let me be clear, though. None of this means that she can't do it or shouldn't take the job. It's just surprising that there appears to be little to no consideration for the amount of time and energy she would need to devote to raising her infant son and how that could trade off with the excessive demands that come with being McCain's running mate.

On Obama's speech and Palin

First, Obama's speech was amazing. He hit every point. He talked about the broader direction for the country, tapped into the higher calling he sees for the next 4-8 years, added in some specifics so people understand what "change" means, and popped McCain numerous times with easily the best lines of the campaign. It was wonderful. The game is ON now! The gloves are off, and Obama showed that he's ready for a fight. Sweet!! He made the best case possible, and left Republicans speechless. Their response was awful, and that leaves the Democrats with the advantage coming out of the convention, which leads me to...

Second, it seems that John McCain has tapped Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. This is a bold, yet stupid choice for McCain. It's obvious that they are going with 2 things here: 1) shore up the conservative base (she's quite conservative, used to support Pat Buchanan...shudder) and 2) try to appeal to the Hillary holdouts by choosing a womyn. On the first, he's successful, but it comes at a cost of undermining support from independents. They have to hope that the GOP base will be larger than the Dem base + new first-time Obama supporters. On the second, I think this is a terrible idea. Basically, they're saying, "Pick McCain: his running mate has a vagina!" Her position on social issues that were terribly important to Hillary (that she talks about in her DNC speech) is at odds with the very womyn they're trying to sway. I think former Hillary voters will see through this pandering and will find insulting the idea that just picking a womyn, regardless of her positions on the issues, would be enough to sway them...Then again, Rachel Maddow seems to think that some of them are "post-rational." Any womyn that this would reach were already gonna vote for McCain before he made his pick. I doubt very seriously that choosing Palin will bring in new votes.

This choice comes with way too many risks. First, she's only been governor of Alaska (a state on the other side of Canada) for a year and a half. This means, of course, that she's got NO foreign policy experience, which is a huge negative for someone who would be a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Second, she's under investigation in her state for using her influence to fire an ex-brother-in-law, which will be difficult for the McCain campaign's attempts to brand her properly. Third, there is not enough time for the GOP to brand her before opponents and media will brand her. Finally, she is younger and less experienced than Obama, which undercuts McCain's argument that Obama isn't ready to lead (the only argument, by the way, that was gaining any traction). This dovetails nicely with Bill Clinton's argument that Obama's selection of Joe Biden shows good judgment.

We'll have to see how the rollout goes, but once the newness wears off, I think the McCain campaign will find out quickly that choosing her has only short term benefits and no long-term ones, particularly in terms of governance.

Update: Andrew Sullivan has been talking about this a bit, and he concludes that this isn't really a serious pick, particularly compared to Biden. He includes a couple comments he's received. My favorite is this one: "McCain's penchant for beauty queens is, um, subtle." (Get it? She was a former beauty queen! She finished second in the Miss Alaska beauty pageant, according to Wikipedia.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

DNC day 3: quick thoughts

Awesome speech by Bill Clinton. He made a wonderful case! (Oratorical Animal is "liveblogging" the evening's speech, and his insight is excellent)

Now Kerry's up, and he is pissed! FINALLY!!!! Oh, this warms my heart so. His best distinction is Senator McCain vs. Candidate McCain. This is a good way to frame the McCain campaign from now until the election.

The gloves are OFF!

ps...the first two nights were great too, but they were lacking the umph and the punch that we're finally starting to see tonight. We've turned the corner. It's time to fight back!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Just a thought...

Isn't it interesting that Obama's $22 million May fundraising is his worst month so far and McCain's $21 million is his best month? I mean, McCain could only do that well 2 months after clinching the nomination and with basically nothing draining his resources, Obama was in the midst of his primary battle with Hillary Clinton (diverting his campaign away from fundraising), and they raised about the same amount of money? Wow. McCain should enjoy this closeness while he can because I have a feeling that it's the best piece of fundraising news he's going to get during this election.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Why Obama shouldn't fear a backlash about public financing

I’m getting a little tired of all the hay being made of Obama’s decision to opt out of public financing. There has been a lot of hand-wringing by Republicans and some claims of the media that Obama’s decision constitutes a grand shift. While I am personally an advocate for fully publicly financed campaigns for public office, I fully support Obama’s decision. Let’s look at a couple of the issues surrounding the move.

First, Obama never said that he would take public financing. What he said was that he would discuss it with McCain’s campaign. They discussed it, and Obama’s campaign says that McCain wasn’t interested in reigning in outside groups or 527 organizations that don’t adhere to campaign finance restrictions. Obama has started to do that because we hear today that will cease its 527 activity, which is a pretty big deal. is (at least perceptually) one of the larger and better noticed groups out there, so their move to back off really helps Obama perceptually more than any ads they would have put out could have done. The only “shift” for Obama is not meeting with McCain when he said that he would to figure something out. While the two might not have met personally, the campaigns do appear to have had some contact. They could have put forward more of a good faith effort if they were looking to appease the McCain campaign, but I’m not sure they need the McCain campaign’s approval. Sure, McCain will say it’s a breach of trust, but it’s difficult for them to translate this technical maneuver into a longstanding pattern of lying or breaking promises.

Second, while I support the decision, I am a little flabbergasted at the Obama campaign's fairly milquetoast defense of the move. Apart from some bloggers (Kos in particular), most of the people defending Obama have just recited his mild argument that the system is broken. It has fairly simple counterarguments, and it comes across as at least somewhat disingenuous. I don’t know why Obama isn’t just stepping up and saying, “Look, these objections would make sense if we got most of our money the old fashioned way (with lobbyists and PACs), but we don’t. Our campaign is directly people-powered. We are functionally a publicly financed campaign. The point of campaign finance laws is to prevent the use of money to influence a candidate’s positions. People give our campaign money because they believe in me. It would be wrong for me to return the investment of these great people just so we get caught in this rigged system (one that McCain is scamming).” Obama and some of his people have been making a similar argument kinda half-heartedly, but they can and should be much stronger in saying that this is a different kind of campaign. The direct nature of the funding for this campaign makes everyone’s complaints moot. Just. Say. THAT!

I like the decision, and I think ultimately the objections will dissipate in time (only Republicans will continue to whine about it after a few days). I just wish that the Obama people would more vigorously defend the decision and stop giving the opposition’s complaints as much credit as they have.

UPDATE: David Corn over at Mother Jones has a similar defense of Obama, but he tries to come across as more even-handed.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Desert Island Discs: Dummy

My favorite kinds of albums (regardless of genre) are the ones that you listen to a few times when you first get them, put them away or don't really listen to for a few months or even years. Then, you come back to them and re-engage them with a different perspective than the one you had when you first heard the music. Somehow, the latter listens feel deeper, richer, and more robust than the first time, even though it's been a while. I can do that with a few, special albums more than once. If you haven't done something like that, I would recommend it. It's really a nice experience. The trick, of course, is remembering to come back to the album in a few months.

I mention this little side story because it applies to my desert island disc of the day: Portishead's masterful debut record Dummy. It's an album that you cannot listen to just once. It begs for repeated engagement, on both musical and lyrical fronts. The more you listen, the further in you go into the emotional journey that Beth Gibbons and company weave with so much complexity that sometimes you can forget where you are or have been. That's ok, though, because the journey itself is more important than figuring out a destination. The opening arppegiated chords of the album's first track "Mysterons," with that echo, set the mood: dark and mysterious, yet welcoming. The album's primary single was "Sour Times" with the chorus "Nobody loves me, it's true/ not like you do" that translates dispair well, although in some ways this song sticks out from the rest of the album. I tend to find more comfort in the warmth of songs like "It Could Be Sweet," "Wandering Star," and "Roads." Also, let's not forget the spectacular closer "Glory Box." This song still keeps the dark moodiness, but it ends things on a slightly optimistic note that seems to take charge. Gibbons demands "Give me a reason to love you/ give me a reason to be a woman." Such a commanding stance feels like a source of power. It's not just that I feel a need to love others; I want to know that investment of my time and energy is worth something to them. Overall the songs come together well, and they have complemented various moments in my life, some good and others bad.

Also, let's talk about genre for this record. There are elements of jazz, soul, alternative rock, and yes...most certainly the genre the album is most known for: trip hop. They essentially inspired trip hop with this CD, and it makes sense why. At the time there really wasn't much like this record out there, so it felt so new and creative. Even to this day I think it's a very creative record, and it's part of why I'm so into their long-awaited Third album (it's one of my favorites of the year so far...I have a mini-review of it a few posts ago).

What this album does for me more than anything else, though, is just exist as a companion. It recognizes that life has problems. The waters are turbulent, yet I feel ok with the turbulence when I listen to this record. We don't need to have all the answers to questions or problems. It's enough that we have a relationship with the world around us. That relationship is changing, and it invites participation. It begs for us to engage with it. Dummy gives me the strength and perspective to do so without feeling like I'm giving too much of myself in the process. I get as much as I give. For me, the record's strength isn't so much that I feel like Beth Gibbons understands me (or anything like that) as much as it is that I feel a connection in the kinds of feelings she conveys independent of specific experiences or perspectives. Isn't that enough, though? Even if I have no idea what someone else is going through and can't relate through sharing similar life experiences, isn't it enough sometimes to share an emotion, or more basically, an affect? I think so, and that's why I heart Dummy.

Previous Desert Island Discs
Radiohead - OK Computer

Friday, May 23, 2008

Underrated or Appreciated Albums: Regretfully Yours

I thought that the Desert Island Discs post was so much fun (I'll certainly have more in the coming weeks) that I came up with other specially-themed posts to do. This one, Underrated or Appreciated, deals with albums that I like a lot but am surprised and a little disappointed that they didn't get more attention/praise. I've found this trend happening often enough that it deserves its own kind of post. Basically, I'm going to do two things in this kind of post: 1) praise the album I like, and 2) complain that more people don't see things my way.

First up in this set of posts is one that I think is one of the most underrated albums of the 90s: Superdrag's debut album Regretfully Yours. This album came out in 1996 at the height of the alterna-craze of the 90s. "Sucked Out" was the main buzzworthy song, and MTV played the video for a little while. The rest of the CD, however, was overlooked for some reason. I mean, I like "Sucked Out" for sure (who can't appreciate screaming along with John Davis, "Who sucked out the FFFEEEEEEAALLLLIIINNNNGGGG?!?"), but most of the album has a really nice energy. Also, despite its occasionally depressing lyrics, the songs sound upbeat and so catchy. It's a fun album that combines the youth of innocence with the angst of adolescence. Maybe that's why I got into the record so much during college.

You have such a strong start with "Slot Machine," the driving one chord that moves into lines about unrequited love and trying for friendship. The song bleeds into another smooth rocker, "Phaser," that makes you want to dance and jump around. Another strong point is "Destination Ursa Major," a song that builds up enough energy to propel it to the stars. The second half of the album is great, although it is more hit or miss than the first half. "Whitey's Theme" has a playful feel, particularly since it includes a guitar solo that sounds like like a taunting song that everybody sang on the playground in elementary school. "N.A. Kicker" has such a sweet guitar line that it practically demands a head bob. The album's closer, "Rocket," finishes off the record with another bouncy, driving melody that promises you it won't go away. The only bothersome tracks on the record are "Truest Love" and "Nothing Good is Real." Both are worth skipping, but even if you take them away, you have eleven songs that make a nice, cohesive album that can meet you with as much optimism or pessimism as you are willing to bring. Either way, Regretfully Yours packs a punch and gets you to enjoy the ride.

Unfortunately, Superdrag were never really able to recapture the same amount of magic that they achieved on their first album. Subsequent records have good songs here and there, but they couldn't make an album that worked as well as a cohesive unit like Regretfully Yours. I'm really surprised that they didn't receive more attention or praise for this album, mostly because I think there were enough strong songs that they could have certainly been appreciated by a broader audience. "Sucked Out" was their biggest hit, but it didn't really create the lasting attention for them that carried over to other songs, sadly enough. They're certainly worth listening to, particularly if you have an affinity for 90s alternative.

Superdrag - Sucked Out
Superdrag - Destination Ursa Major

Friday, May 16, 2008

A new way to get music

I've been searching off and on for a way to get music cheaply or free for a while. I like supporting local, indie music stores when I can, partially because they're a dying breed and partially because there are a couple great ones in Athens within walking distance of UGA's campus. The problem, however, is that being a starving grad student means I don't have enough disposable income to spend on a slew of albums that I might be interested in hearing. I have to pick and choose. The only other alternative is getting them from torrent sites, and I think the RIAA's narrative and heavy handed tactics are enough to make me feel guilty whenever I even visit one of those sites, regardless of my ambivalence regarding intellectual property and copyright laws.

Early this year I heard about a music service for college students (yes, I still technically count, even though I'm not in undergrad) that provides free music. It's called Ruckus, and it's a fairly good way to access most of the music that you might want. It obviously doesn't have everything, but the selection is pretty good. I mean, most of the albums that I listed in my "Favorite Albums of 2007 (latecomer edition)" and "Favorites so far of 2008" posts I got through Ruckus. The upside is the pretty good selection and ease of getting stuff (once you get the hang of the website/player). The downsides are the following:
1) you have to download the Ruckus player, so that becomes another player that you have to deal with. The Ruckus player itself doesn't have many bells or whistles. It also doesn't link up with other programs very well like iTunes, Winamp, or Windows Media Player. There is a slight way around this, however. The files are all in .wma format, so they can be played in Windows Media Player with no trouble. In fact, I rarely listen to the songs through the Ruckus player anymore; I use Windows Media Player.
2) in order to download anything, you have to have both the player and the website up at the same time. It doesn't all work through just one or the other. This isn't really that big of a deal, but it can be a hassle compared to sites like iTunes and other similar programs.
3) DRM: this isn't specific to Ruckus. iTunes has DRM, and most websites that sell their music (or have it for free) have some form of encryption on their music files. The point, obviously, is to limit what you can do with the music file. Ruckus, however, goes farther than iTunes. With iTunes, you can at least burn the files to a CD even if you can't convert them to mp3 or a more usable file. Ruckus doesn't allow burning, converting, or transferring the files to another device. You can't load the files onto iTunes, because iTunes would need to convert the files away from .wma, and you can't convert them. DRM gets in the way of transferring the files onto a portable mp3 player. If you plan on listening to a lot of music at your computer, then it's ok, but you can't take the music with you as is.

All in all, I'm glad to have Ruckus because at the very least, I can listen to new stuff and get a sense of whether I like it enough to buy either online or in CD form at a local store. If you're a university student, you can sign up for free and download music for free. It's a great, free, legal way to learn about many new artists, and if the album is available from Ruckus, you can get it the day it comes out. For example, I've been listening to the new Death Cab for Cutie album off and on this week. I might review it a little later...Who knows?

Desert Island Discs: OK Computer

A while ago, a friend of mine, Bethany, began a frequent blog post idea in response to an idea from her father: desert island discs. It's kind of a popular thought experiment. If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have a handful of albums (assuming a way to listen to them) with you, what would you take and why? Typically, the goal is to point out some of your favorite albums of all time, albums that have made a big impact on one's life. I like the idea so much that I'm starting the series here. First up, I have to go with the top one on the list, a soundtrack to technological dystopia.

In 1998, critically acclaimed alternative band Radiohead went from "pretty good" to "this generation's Beatles" with their third album: OK Computer. This album has been noted by Spin Magazine as the top album from 1985-2005. It has the originality, songwriting, melody, and lyrical complexity that you only get in rare albums when things go just right. Of course, the album's popularity on its own isn't the only reason I have it here. I bought the album not too long after it came out. It has both the pessimism and the ambiance that has followed me for the 10 years since its release. It has grown with me, and the sounds have only deepened with repeated listens. I've also seen Radiohead play most of the album live, and they achieve a fullness that even eclipses the album in a concert setting.

The first guitar line of the opening song, "Airbag," begins the album with a sense of disorientation. The song discusses the feeling of a car accident and the feeling of empowerment that comes with surviving a potentially tragic event. Next came the album's first single, "Paranoid Android," which both delves into the fear of totalitarian control and the desire for that same sense of control that overruns you. Consider the lyrics, "when I am king you will be first against the wall/ with your opinion which is of no consequence at all." The song goes over 6 minutes, and winds through both heavily distorted guitars on both sides of a beautiful, melodic breakdown. This song is so complex that it took me a few listens to appreciate it fully. From there, we have one of the softer numbers about alien abduction "Subterranean Homesick Alien." Next comes the song written for the end credits of Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet," "Exit Music (For A Film)." It is the second eeriest song on the album, yet the hushed intimacy builds to the dramatic climax with the line "we hope that you choke." "Let Down" comes next, a song that beautifully spells out pessimism. Ending the first half of the album is the most popular song on the record, "Karma Police." This somber ode to comeuppance imagines a scenario in which you are able to enact just revenge on those who annoy you. The song ends with what sounds like machinery breaking down as it fades into the most unique track on the record. The second half of the album begins with "fitter happier," a repetition of popular, feel good platitudes spoken by a computer voice. The effect is to disconnect the words from emotion, making them feel empty and cynical. "Electioneering" follows, the loudest song on the record and a direct critique of status quo politics. We move from the loudest song to the creepiest song, "Climbing Up The Walls." Thom Yorke finds ways both with notes and with lyrics to scare the ever-loving crap out of you. Then we transition to the lullaby, "No Surprises." This one is such an interesting sleeper because includes lyrics about fading out ("a handshake of carbon monoxide") as well as political messages ("bring down the government/ they don't, they don't speak for us"). This song typifies Radiohead's complexity on the album because of the musical beauty combined with such varied lyrical expressions. Next comes "Lucky," another eerie song that is also confident and complex. With such a somber, yet brave tone, Yorke belts out "it's gonna be a glorious day/ I feel my luck could change." The album ends with "The Tourist," another lullaby, but it expresses both the sadness and frustration of going too fast without slowing down to pay attention to the world around you.

This album has helped me comprehend my emotional state in some more depressing moments as well as helped me cope with what I often see as a horrific political/cultural environment. Though my outlook on some things has changed, I can safely say that I wouldn't be who I am without this album. It may sound cliche, but in some important ways, I found out who I was because of OK Computer.

ADDENDUM: After looking back through this entry, I realized that my review of the album feels kinda weak. I don't think I did the album real justice by just talking about every song and saying the album means a lot to me. I want to add a little more. For me, the sheer beauty of this album comes in the incredible mixture of lyrical content and musical diversity that still maintains an overarching theme. It's like a concept album without really being a concept album per se. OK Computer expresses fear and revulsion at a world gone terribly wrong, and this was in 1998. Think about it: Clinton was in office, things were going fairly well economically, we weren't fighting wars, and the biggest scandal was Bill's zipper problem. Yorke was able to see that something was amiss years before the rest of us could, and I think that's part of what has made this album stand the test of time more than any other in recent memory. His perspectives and turns of phrase have only become more relevant as the years went on. The album was truly ahead of its time, and it's taken many of us years to figure out how much the band's commentary on where we have been going in the past decade makes sense! It has given me the perspective to notice that the world we live in has serious problems, yet at the same time, despite the music's sense of despair, there's just a glimmer of hope in knowing that the ability to diagnose some of the problems with the world around you means that you are doing the right thing. Ultimately, that's what the album's about: understanding your relationship with a messed up world around you. That's what has given this album such meaning to me for the last decade. I have been able to use it when I was personally depressed about random things and when I needed to cope with some critically negative developments in the world at large. I think that's why so many have found this album near the top of their favorites lists.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

My open letter to Al Gore

Dear Mr. Vice President,

Let me start off by saying that you are beyond a doubt one of my few heroes in politics. You have been nothing short of a dedicated public servant despite the terrible hand that you have been dealt throughout your career. I cannot imagine that anyone else, after actually winning the presidency only to have it stolen from them in broad daylight, would handle the situation with more dignity and sophistication than you did. Not only that, you have worked since then to make the world a better place through your tireless work on so many fronts, most noticed of course being your work with global warming. I love An Inconvenient Truth, and I have been thoroughly amazed at the amount of time and energy that you have personally put into your attempts to find viable and significant solutions to the serious crisis we face in global warming.

On a personal note, I heard that you recently hired a friend of mine, Brad Hall, to work with you on research for upcoming work. You could not have made a better decision. He is a brilliant and hard working guy, and I know that whatever you have in mind will only be enhanced with him at your side.

A couple days ago, I came across a brief article that stuck out in my mind. In it, you are quoted as saying that, no matter who becomes president, you will not accept a cabinet level position if the next president were to offer it to you. I am writing to you, sir, to ask that you reconsider that position.

I can understand your decision not to run for president in 2008. I mean, you got stung once by the dirtiest tricks that the Republicans could conjure up (openly stealing an election), and I think I could see why you would not want to put yourself through the rigor and pain of another long presidential campaign, particularly since, as you are quoted in the article, you are "looking for a way to bring about change in other ways." A campaign would mean a diversion of a lot of resources and time that you have focused on fighting global warming. I can also understand why you would not want to be someone's running mate. You did that job for 8 years, and it would not make sense for you to be asked to do it again.

I am, however, a little perplexed that less than 6 months away from the Presidential election in November and 8 months away from the Inauguration of a new President you would already close the door on another opportunity for public service. First, a lot could happen between now and then, and I feel like someone of your experience and high competence would be a Godsend for our government as we turn the corner away from the disaster called "The Bush Administration." Second, I am not sure I see a high-level position in the government as mutually exclusive with the other ways you are looking to bring about change. I'll admit that I don't know all of what you are doing to fight global warming, but I feel like a lot of it could overlap with at least some of the projects you have at the time. Third, working in the government means that you have a direct influence on policy, meaning that you can take bigger steps than most people can in the private sector. You wouldn't have to be Secretary of State or Attorney General. How about being head of the EPA? You would get cabinet rank even though the EPA technically isn't a cabinet agency. I think this would be a wonderful place for you not only because you could set government policy with regard to our environment (which would make the most sense because you're immanently qualified for the job!) but because placing someone of your stature at the top of the EPA would also bring respect to an agency that doesn't really get much respect in the eyes of the country. It would signal to the country and to the world that the US is committed to taking substantial action on global climate change now. Placing you as head of the EPA would be one of the biggest symbolic and material steps forward that the next President could take in our fight to reverse the effects of global warming.

All I ask, sir, is that you think about it. If after reconsidering the idea you decided that your first inclination is correct, I would still respect you as much as I have and do. I just think that it's a bit premature to say "no" to the potential of working in the government again if the opportunity arose for you to have a direct effect on this country's habits and tendencies.

Either way, good luck in all you do. Keep fighting the good fight. Lord knows we need more people like you.


Friday, May 09, 2008

I think I'll save suicide for another year

The semester is finally over, and now that I have some extra time, I thought I'd mention some of my favorite music so far a little over 4 months into 2008. I've divided up the list into three sections: recommended, highly recommended, and favorites so far. Albums in the last category are in the running for my favorite of the year (subject of course to new additions). With the exception of the final category, the albums are listed in no particular order. Also, with the exception of the last category, I'm not gonna take the time to add commentary on each album. I noticed that there are a lot of albums here, and I'm too lazy to talk about each one at length.

Grand Archives – Grand Archives
Throw Me The Statue – Moonbeams
DeVotchka – A Mad and Faithful Telling
Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
Hot Chip – Made In The Dark
Sera Cahoone – Only As The Day Is Long
R.E.M. – Accelerate (given where I live, it would be a crime to leave them off, but the album's nice without the geographical connection)
Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
The Kooks – Konk
The Fashion – The Fashion
Foals – Antidote

Highly recommended:
M83 – Saturdays = Youth
Fleet Foxes – Sun Giant EP
Dodos – Visiter
Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead
Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Headlights – Some Racing, Some Stopping
British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
The Whigs – Mission Control
Tokyo Police Club – Elephant Shell
Cloud Cult – Feel Good Ghosts

Favorites so far:
1) Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight: This is my favorite album of '08 at this point (despite the appearance of "Good Arms vs. Bad Arms" on Grey's Anatomy this week - it was the one at the end). It's like the potential that a band like Coldplay could reach if they just stopped trying too hard. The song construction and musicianship are just phenomenal, the melodies are infectious, and you can really relate to the ideas that the Hutchison brothers are trying to convey. It's so good that I can't even think of a weak track on the album. Standouts, though, are "The Twist," "Head Rolls Off," "Keep Yourself Warm," and "Good Arms vs. Bad Arms." I cannot recommend this record enough. Here's a video for "Head Rolls Off" to give you an idea of the greatness. Plus, kindergarteners seem to like it...

UPDATE: Charles over at Heartache With Hard Work has reviewed the album, and he agrees with me. He has one of my favorite mp3 blogs, and I often like his recommendations.

2) Cut Copy – In Ghost Colors: This is a close second for me, but the album is quite different than Frightened Rabbit. While they are more britpop-esque (whatever that term really means), Cut Copy is more of a genre traveler of sorts. They weave in and out of French pop, dance, New Wave (think Depeche Mode), and 90s Alternative so effortlessly that often you won't realize they are shifting genres until they've moved onto the next one! It's quite amazing to hear, actually. Plus, everything is just so darn catchy! I mean, all you have to hear is the opening song, "Feel the Love," and you'll be hooked. They have great melody, and it's just a great blend of elements. So many artists try to mix in new things and end up with such failure that it's refreshing to see a group get it right. "So Haunted" and "Lights & Music" are other standouts. Video for "Lights & Music" below.

3) Portishead - Third: How on earth did we get along for over a decade without a new Portishead record? I absolutely adore Dummy; it might qualify as a desert island disc (more on this in a future post). While their self-titled second album was a little bit of a let down, it was still very good. The burning question for all of us fans then was, "What is this album gonna sound like after an eleven year gap?" We all found out, and it is remarkable. They have moved beyond the confines of the trip hop box they helped to craft without losing signature sounds and arrangements. They also showed some new tricks up their sleeves to boot! This record is one I'm still digesting, and I am sure it will take some time for me to really process how I feel. My sense, though, is that the strength of this album comes in the way that all the disparate elements come together so well. I mean, you go directly from the short, ukulele driven, olde-timey sounding "Deep Water" to the pounding industrial sounds of "Machine Gun." As jarring as this transition can be, it works. Neither song feels out of place on the record. That alone is a significant accomplishment. Other standouts include "The Rip" and "We Carry On." Here's the video for "Machine Gun."

That's all I have for now. Thanks for reading. I feel like adding more as the summer progresses. I will probably discuss new music that I come across (I'm looking forward to the new Mates of State and My Morning Jacket for starters) as well as some more specifically themed posts. I may even throw in a political rant or two in...who knows? Until then, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the top shelf of cookies.

UPDATE: I just realized that I forgot a couple more highly recommended albums.
The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride
The Charlatans UK - You Cross My Path

Friday, April 18, 2008

Clinton, Obama, and Edwards on Colbert Report

If you didn't see the Colbert Report Thursday, watch the video clips below. The two Democratic candidates left in the primary and the candidate who could have been appeared and did their respective comedic interactions with Stephen Colbert. Am I the only one who thought that the best performance came from the one who isn't in the race anymore? I may be just a skosh biased (I still wish that Edwards was our nominee...I can't help but believe that the Democrats wouldn't be nearly as worried about the general election if he were), but I thought that Edwards was significantly funnier than either Clinton or Obama. I know, I know...they have writers for each of the performances, but Edwards delivered his lines better. He had a more animated demeanor, and was more entertaining than the other two for me. I mean, he didn't even need to interact with Colbert to be funny. He got to do the whole segment by himself, and he nailed it! The other two were good, and they made their points resonate with each's campaign theme, but I was left wishing that Edwards was our candidate... Oh well, either way all three of the cameos were funny and made one of the better episodes in a while.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Favorite Albums of 2007 part 2: Latecomer Edition

So remember how in the last post I mentioned that I like end of the year lists because they are good for recommendations? It's really a fun thing to do; I recommend it. I found out about The Hold Steady and Midlake a year ago the same way. Well, I have had some time to find, listen to, and process some of the albums that were on various people's end of the year lists, and I thought I'd list some of my favorites. I'm not going to re-do the list I made. At the time that was my list, and I won't change that. Think of this as an addendum, really. So here they are in no particular order.

Panda Bear - Person Pitch
Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
Sambassadeur - Migration
Yeasayer - Yeasayer
Cloud Cult - The Meaning of 8
Shout Out Louds - Our Ill Wills
Stars - In Our Bedroom After the War
Let's Go Sailing - The Chaos In Order
Palomar - All Things, Forests
Deerhunter - Cryptograms
Jay Z - American Gangster
Iron and Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
M.I.A. - Kala
Justice - †

Maybe soon if I have some time after schoolwork dies down I will post with a "favorites of 2008 so far" type post.