Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Best Albums of 2017

Lord. This is the only post I've made to the blog all year, which has a lot more to do with availability of time (and how free time is spent) than a lack of things to say. Several times, I've put fingers to keys only to back off... it's been a year of listening more than ranting, though, here's a one-line political blog for you, dear reader:

There seem to be a lot more people interested in telling/trolling than listening.

Anyway. The music. Weird flipping year. I've had about 18 hours with the new N.E.R.D. and Charli XCX albums/mixtapes/whatever-the-hell-we-call-40-minutes-of-music-in-one-place-anymores. One album below came out last year, because if you put something out on Christmas Day, it's not going on that year's list. Taylor Swift somehow managed to be simultaneously the most and least relevant musician of the year. Beck put out the perfect album for the summer of 2015, which, perhaps, makes it a candidate for one of this year's most disappointing releases. Fleet Foxes put out an album only a Pitchfork reviewer could love. Basically, music in 2017 was the mess that 2017 deserved, but there were some high points.

First off, new category around here: Song of the Year. And it absolutely has to be "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee (and not the one featuring Justin Bieber.) First off, it's a filthy song, which, in the current climate, it's nice to have a good ol' danceable filthy song for warm weather. Secondly, it managed to piss off just about everyone at some point this year, while still being an earworm that people liked, so that's amazing. Also, as of this writing, a big chunk of Puerto Rico doesn't even have the electricity it needs to listen to this song and we seem to have forgotten that, so when you're dancing to this on New Year's, perhaps think of them. Their 2017 was worse than yours and 2017 wasn't great for a lot of you.

Anyway, on to the list. I'm ditching the "second opinions" this year because 1) time and 2) the Internet is already full people linking to the one opinion that backs up their own one opinion. The same disclaimer applies: I can't listen to everything, these are the ones that got me, you might have some other ideas and, instead of telling me I'm wrong, you could suggest I listen to something you really liked and maybe I'll like it, too. Off we go...

10) Tove Lo - Blue Lips
My favorite saucy Swede can't help put keep turning out creative not-safe-for-work pop that is brutally honest. We won't be quoting the lyrics to "bitches" (all songs are lowercase, so...) on this family blog, but suffice to say that "Habits (Stay High)" did not come close to nailing down Ms. Nilsson's tendencies. "Stranger" might be her best overall vocal performance to date and, hey that guitar! More on this further down the list, but it's also worth noting how prolific Tove Lo has been. Two great albums in consecutive years on the heels of a debut not long before... this volume of creativity in that short a time span? Like I said, we'll come back to that...

9) Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Who Built the Moon?
The rich-voiced half of Oasis went and put out a damned banger of a rock album. One of the most out-of-the-box great albums of the year, it manages to not make a listener yearn for the big Oasis albums of the past and, improbably, hope to see what this band can do next. Big guitars, big hooks, right off the bat from "Holy Mountain." This album flies by in the way a good rock album should, making 65 MPH on the highway feel just a bit faster when it's on. Was not expecting this and, what's more, wasn't expecting to keep pressing play on it since it came out.

8) Wolf Alice - Visions of a Life
One of my most-anticipated albums of the year, it managed to come through. The music is still great, though through a different tact than the pure grunge-pop debut. The hooks are a bit more subtle, but the payoffs even bigger. The constant build of "Don't Delete the Kisses," going from light little ditty to every-instrument-is loud-by-the-end is a move they didn't use on My Love is Cool, but shows a band not content with the same old tricks. The magic is in Ellie Roswell's lyrics, especially on the thrashing, three-movement title track, singing "I heard that journeys end in lovers meeting/ but my journey ends when my heart stops beating/ I'm leaving." In a year of valuing every moment, there's something to be said for that outlook. Maybe we'll find out on the next album how accountable she'll be for whatever choices she's referring to? Either way, exciting to have a young rock band turning out good stuff.

7) Arcade Fire - Everything Now
At first, I thought this was Arcade Fire putting out a caricature of an Arcade Fire album. The thing was: I couldn't get it out of my head. And stepping back, you realize there's no band putting out what Arcade Fire does. Yes, there's a message and, no, it's not subtle, but that doesn't mean 1) the message isn't worth considering and 2) that the music it comes packaged in isn't rare stuff. I'd go as far as to say this is also the most danceable rock album of the year, and that is no small thing. The winning track, though, and the one that isn't ready for the dance floor, is "We Don't Deserve Love," which makes an appraisal of a broken relationship and all the blame to go around for it sound so damned beautiful, it can tear you apart, which is probably the point. Side note: this was the concert of the year for me, too. They absolutely killed with nine flipping people on stage in a rotating boxing ring setup and they are as chill in person as they are serious on their albums and you should absolutely go see this band if you have the chance.

6) Odesza - A Moment Apart
The year's ultimate escapism album. This is the one that can make the world go away in a year when the world keeps finding ways to impose itself on you. The Seattle-based group gets plenty of help from vocalists throughout to create an electro-pop gem. The spoken intro sets the tone, telling of a cosmonaut who decides the only way to endure an annoyance is to fall in love with it. From there, the album takes on a life of it's own from EDM anthems to the R&B sway of "Across the Room," where Leon Bridges steals the show. "Divide" is the song Washed Out wishes it had on its "meh" album this year. The whole thing just flows and, should the world still be there after a listen, the play button is there to console you yet again.

5) The xx - I See You
The best album of the first part of 2017, I See You begs the question of what this band could do if they really really really decided to not go minimalist. They add the sparest of parts to their repertoire and the result is explosive. Songs bubble with anticipation like "Say Something Loving," which has you ready for a drop like no song they've put out before. The opener, "Dangerous," hits us with horns right off the bat to announce this isn't The xx you're used to. And they keep it lean, 10 songs of no filler, all emotion and you're left to mop up what they've left in your mind.

So, every year, there's a line somewhere on this list where the albums on one side aren't just best of the year, but would hold up anywhere. Consider this the line.

4) Lana del Rey - Lust for Life
What if Lana del Rey is the best artist of the decade? Hang out a sec. Born to Die came out in January of 2012. Since then, she put out the Paradise edition of that album, which was almost a whole new album on top of it (especially if you count one-off song "Burning Desire" in that cycle.) Then Ultraviolence, then Honeymoon and now, five years on, Lust for Life. Find me another artist that has put out four (five?) albums of that quality in a five year time frame ever. Radiohead has not (they've certainly put out more than five amazing albums, but not in that short a time). Kanye West comes close, but misses the five year cut-off. Just think about it: Lana del Rey is, arguably, the single most prolific producer of top-notch music of most of our lifetimes using the quality-versus-time setup. Lust for Life is possibly the least strong of her catalog and it is still far and away amazing stuff.

It is music for the moment, going right at the state of the world. Rich white girls dancing in floral crowns at Coachella against a backdrop of airstrikes abroad, capturing both the ignorance of the incident and the shameless necessity of finding such escape? It's on here ("Coachella - Woodstock on My Mind"). Lush orchestration about finding your own space to be yourself away from whatever need to put on a face for whoever in person/online? It's on here ("13 Beaches"). Much has been made of this being Lana, herself, stepping away from the persona she's created for herself and, sure, she discusses how she feels herself changing. But then there's "White Mustang" which one hopes she never changes, capturing the feeling of of dangerous infatuation. There's "Summer Bummer," which lets A$AP Rocky and Playboy Carti make a compelling case for summer dalliance if such a thing can be compelling. Much is being made of "Heroin" in critical circles about if this is Lana saying she is done once and for all with projecting a certain face forward ("I'd be lyin' if I said I wasn't sick of it," she sings), but she has to know she's also the only one who can pull off this song. She may continue to branch out, but, when there's something you're the best at - and can do it seemingly endlessly and always make ti sound fresh - you can only be so tired of it.Here's to more.

3) Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels III
This is the one that came out on Christmas Day 2016 and, for all intents and purposes, that makes it a 2017 album. I listened to it on my flight home from Christmas and, upon landing, texted a friend that 1) he needed to listen to it and 2) it was clear that RTJ is not ready for America to be "great again" or whatever that means. Take "Talk to Me", where Killer Mike opens over a menacing hook:
We return from the depths of the badlandWith a gun and a knife in our waistbandWent to war with the Devil and ShaytanHe wore a bad toupee and a spray tan
Wonder who he's talking about, you guys?? This is music for war, and RTJ is here to fight it and they absolutely want - even need - you to come along. Yes, there are straight up boasting songs ("Panther Like a Panther"), but the call to arms is summed up best on the raging album closer "A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters," a vicious takedown of all the ugliest parts of our system and leaves us all nervous for what might be next. Rage Against the Machine put out three albums that never came close to the dissent and questions asked in this one track alone. El-P steals the show on "Oh Mama," too. Listen and you'll see.

This is an album for this moment, capturing raw feelings and presenting them in a way that, if you ignore, it means you didn't want to hear it in the first place.

2) Lorde - Melodrama
I was not ready for "Green Light." Not sure any of us were, judging by the Internet reaction. It's an amazing song, that shows the incredible versatility of Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connor (can't get why she chose a stage name...). But I also wasn't ready for "Sober," the track that immediately follows this on Melodrama, showing that Lorde is up for all the bad decisions we make/made in our youth and then having to sort out the consequences and accountability. "What will we do when we're sober?" she asks. If you've lived, you've been there.

That might be what makes this album so compelling: whereas Tove Lo turns to questionable sex and probably-even-more-questionable drugs to sort out life, Lorde looks more inward, trying to make sense of navigating growing up at this moment in time: the expectations ("I do my makeup in someone else's car), the disappointment ("I bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark"), the joy ("King and queen of the weekend, ain't a pill that that can touch our rush"), the anticipation ("The rush at the beginning, I get caught up, just for a minute") and the heartbreak ("But when I reach for you, there's just a supercut.")

All of it culminates with "Perfect Places," a song that sounds like you might expect Lorde to sound... except it's the deepest shit on here and, honestly, in what is starting to be a catalog of great songs, her best. "All the nights spent off our faces, trying to find these perfect places... what the fuck are perfect places, anyway?" is the album's sign off and, girl, you nailed it. Your job might be great, but it's not everything you want. Your relationship is everything you could hope for, yet there are still times it's not enough in some way. Your friends are amazing, except when they suck. Your city, your country, is so good except when it's so bad. So yeah. What the fuck is a perfect place, anyway?

1) Kendrick Lamar - Damn.
Years from now, after the wars and the epidemic we're overdue for wanes (and since the CDC can't even talk about science anymore in budget requests, that epidemic is coming, y'all...) and we're living some Station Eleven-style life (read. that. book.), someone will ask what 2017 was like and I'll fire up whatever jury-rigged generator we've found to play this album.

In a year where minorities have, in various ways, been asked to please sit down (actually, to stand up) or to chill out, Kendrick puts out an album that refuses to not be heard and, again, if you didn't hear it, you didn't want to listen.

Let's discuss the creativity aspect of this first. In an interview, Kendrick discussed how the album itself was designed to work as it was issued... and also in reverse order. Think about that. Then try this album and see how you feel finishing with the sound of a gunshot vs. the "So, I was takin' a walk the other day..." line. Kendrick is on a whole other creative plane.

The songs are absolute fire. "DNA" may have forced some other rappers into retirement and, yeah, don't let the sample of "Fox News" commentary go unnoticed (like it could?). Kendrick balances the troubles of the whole with his own individual feelings like a master, not afraid to look inward. On a album that doesn't stop giving you things to ponder, "LUST," drives the point home like nothing else. After a-day-in-the-life list of activities from video games to sex, a punchline of sorts hits:

"We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news,
lookin' for confirmation, hopin' election wasn't true,
All of us worried, all of us buried and our feelings deep,
None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap,
Steeled and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbor 'bout it,
Bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly,
Time passin', things change,
Revertin' back to our daily programs
Stuck in our ways."
It speaks for itself. In normal order, this track is followed by "LOVE," where Kendrick trades verses with Zacari as they each plea "Just love me." With music like this, it's easy.

With a message like this, it should be, too.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Best Albums of 2016

To put it mildly, this has been a weird year. That'll be for another blog post. The music year, though, has followed suit. There were some good things to be sure, but, unlike last year when great music was falling form the sky, 2016 was pretty uneven. And we'll get into some of that. Let's go...

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Sounds of the Season 2016 - Indie Christmas & Holiday Songs You Can Live WIth

In 2007, I had just about had enough. North Carolina (which still fancied itself as the progressive spot of the South before it went and got crazy and Nashville and Austin were all "about that..." BUT I DIGRESS... where was I? Oh yes, North Carolina) local radio had stations switching to all-day Christmas music on November 1. Also, it was a year or two before that that awful flipping "Christmas Shoes" song was big. I wanted something better. Maybe something irreverent.

And I succeeded!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Post mortem

Focus is coming in spurts this morning. I'm finding myself typing, then suddenly just staring, overwhelmed by thoughts. I've been something of a fatalist the past few years and have been bolstered by the occasional affirmations that, at their core, most people are good.

I don't have that feeling this morning. If I leave my west coast and/or social media bubbles, what I read and hear is anger... and a desire to punish. That punishment ranges from (in a "best" case, if it can be called that) enacting policies that one side sees as retribution for policies they've felt imposed upon them to (at worst) smearing entire demographic groups.

This rightward swing is a global trend and, I'm not going to lecture about how the rise of nationalism has never ended in anything good. It's all in the history books.

I can only look at how the results affect me. Primarily, I now have to worry about what it will mean to have any federal funding stripped away from my wife's place of employment. With Republicans holding congressional majorities and a president who won't be vetoing their legislation, that's more of a "when it happens" discussion than an "if." The ship has sailed.

I'm fortunate in that I don't have the exposure to stock and housing markets others do, nor do I have children that must be cared for. Oddly, my cynicism has positioned my household reasonably well to endure whatever storm comes.

The same cannot be said for a lot of friends and family. It has been heartbreaking to read and hear the feelings from gay friends. From friends of any other ethnicity. Even from traditionally-conservative friends who didn't love the candidates in this election, but strongly believed in the goodness of people to reject the tacit and overt racism, sexism and xenophobia... and who are, this morning wondering how so many - fellow humans - could not share those views.

We'll have to sort that out with ourselves and those we hold close. It's very pretty and lovely of me to call myself an "ally" to each of them and to stand up for what I believe is right. I fear it does little to truly help people who openly talking about how they're not sure they have a place in this country right now. I have no idea what it must be like to feel that way and how it affects the way they will make decisions in coming months. My life must look easy to them... and I would probably do well to remember that before I start trying to talk about all this in some sort of macro "what this means about America" way.

At some point, I may find some solace, but with so many shoes yet to drop, it's not happening now. I can look at my home state and see the seeds of where we could be: a measure to restrict gun sales to certain people at risk of violence was passed with strong bipartisan support in Washington. A measure to increase the state minimum wage to over $13 has also received that support. A major transit levy appears to be on its way to reality. I have to hope the federal government stays out of my state's lucrative marijuana business. I shudder to think about LGBTQ and women's rights under a new Supreme Court. At the least, I can strive to try and show how the progressive community and state I live in can be a model for others. After all: if we can pass a common sense gun law and minimum wage law together, maybe there is hope.

I haven't seen times like these... these nationalistic, xenophobic times. I've studied enough history to know you don't treat these times like business as usual, though. We all may be living moment-to-moment for a time. The best I can do is be there in those moments to listen and support what I believe to be right.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

That Tuesday in September

I'm not as good as I used to be at keeping this blog up. Part of that is social media. Some of my rants don't even warrant the full 140-character allotment Twitter affords us. Perhaps it's because of the microblog tools like Twitter, or the picture/caption ability of (my personal favorite channel) Instagram, that I tend to only use the blog for longer bits.

It's interesting, though: over the course of the past 10 years, our online lives have shifted. Some people are basically live-tweeting their lives. Others use social channels purely to troll, getting a rise out of getting a rise in others.

None of the social media channels we use regularly even existed on 9/11. I'm not even sure I had a texting plan on 9/11. Imagine that. That said, it also means while there is a large media archive of events from the day, we lack a passive archive of individual accounts of the day. If something happens today, there's a hashtag to search and you're suddenly at ground level of any event, anywhere in the world. Even the eventual raid on bin Laden's Abbotabad compound was live-tweeted.

Not the case with 9/11. Unfortunately, the email I sent to friends and family after finally making it home that day has been lost to the ether. It detailed my entire day and, if you;re reading this and you happen to have it tucked away in the bowels of your email, please do forward it to me (if I sent it to you, you most certainly have the ability to get in touch with me on a variety of social channels to get my email address).

Anyhow, I have written on this blog about my thoughts on the politics of the day and about the need to not memorialize quite the way we do. But, I've never written down the details of my day. And I probably should while I'm on the young side of 40. So, come back with me to the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Hiking/Backpacking the Meander Meadow-Dishpan Gap-Cady Ridge Loop

It looks and sounds perfect. For a novice-backpacker-yet-seasoned-hiker like me, it seemed like the perfect place to not only stretch my own abilities, but also take a first time backpacker who wanted to touch the Pacific Crest Trail.

Then, I started to read the trip reports: overgrown trails, a bad road in... all with the spectre of mountain thunderstorms. What was I getting into here?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Why the music still matters

In June 1994, my teenybopper self headed on down to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia to see Pink Floyd. It was a last-minute thing. The show was sold out, but a late cancellation meant three tickets ended up in the hands of a friend's mother who was a fan. Friend's mom obviously took her daughter and, as luck would have it, daughter called me to take ticket #3. I don't need to expound on the experience of seeing Pink Floyd live as any number of superlatives you could use apply.

What I will note is walking out of the stadium, when I overheard a few fans go "now, we just have to wait five years to see them again."

We're on year 22 now. From the sound of it, David Gilmour has plenty of money and no desire to cash in by doing some manner of abbreviated tour reuniting with Roger Waters.

The point is, I had the chance to go and I did. If I hadn't, plain and simple: Pink Floyd would be in the "wish I had seen" category. This fact seems particularly relevant as I got my old butt moving the past two nights to see shows by bands that people much younger than me champion. And then today, we had the news about Prince (never got to see him).

Music has been a part of my life since about age five and has been a top hobby of mine since about age 14. This week has reminded me so much of why this is the case:

  • Still discovering new music - I had heard Wolf Alice at some point on KEXP here in Seattle, but hadn't really listened to a lot of their stuff. It's impossible to hear every band out there. But, when I saw they were opening for Chvrches this week, I figured they were worth checking out. This was a good decision. One of the best opening acts I've ever seen. I was stoked to see their album is available on Amazon Prime Music. Couldn't download it fast enough. All these years later, hearing something fresh is still a great feeling. In fact, the two headliners I saw this week - Chvrches and Grimes - are hardly old hat. I don't care if I'm the oldest guy at the show (I wasn't); new music has something to offer all ages.
  • Seeing bands at their best - Chvrches and Grimes are in a moment right now. They're not the biggest bands in the world, but you could make an argument that they're each hitting their strides as musical acts. It's very hard to maintain exceptional levels of creativity for years on end. I mean, no one is going to say the Rolling Stones are a bad band, but is someone going to contend their albums since the 1990s are the best of their career? Radiohead is the most recent example of a band that just seems to keep delivering. Seeing Chvrches now, compared to two years ago, is a revelation (you can take someone else's word for it here). Grimes is in a similar spot, coming into her own as one of the top acts in music (she headlines Coachella, after all). I'm never going to get to see Prince, but the people I envy are the ones who saw him in the 1980s.
  • A retreat - Counting watching opening acts, there were 2.5 hours this week where reality just stopped. In a fractured society, suddenly, I was in a room with ~2,000 people who were all there for the same reason. You can talk to strangers and know you have something in common. The lights go down and you can dance your face off without worrying how someone thinks you look. The stress of work and life is forgotten. And when the lights come up and you head back into reality, it's almost always with a smile. I've never talked to someone who has felt that time with music has been time wasted.
Anyhow, this week has reinforced why music is and hopefully always will be central to my life. I'm lucky to live in a city (and to travel to places) that let me indulge in all sorts of sounds.

Seeing the reactions from folks about Prince's death drove it home for me: music isn't for the kids. Music isn't anyone's but your own. But music is something that does reward us for letting it physically occupy the space in our lives that many of us have for it sentimentally.

Hope to see you at a show soon. I'll be the oldest guy close to the front.