Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best Albums of 2012

If you cannot tell, I really struggled with this one this year. Time was the primary factor. As evidenced by my complete inability to hit double digits on blog posts this year. And this particular entry writes itself in good years.

And that's factor 2 - This was not 2009 when the world was bursting with amazing music. Nor was it even last year, which wasn't the be-all-end-all of groundbreaking music, but there were some albums that were really just on the floor amazing.

That's not to say there wasn't some good stuff out there this year. I'm just not sure there was anything transcendent. Also, I'm going to skip the honorable mentions entirely as, on reflection, they weren't really in the running for my top 10 (Apologies to The Ting Tings, who came the closest).

Also, as always, this list is subject to what I managed to hear. I seek out a lot of new music, but then end-of-year lists come out and I see I missed some things. Japandroids and Kendrick Lamar for instance. Last year, I missed M83 and shame on me for that. I listened to Hurry Up We're Dreaming nonstop since I caught up. Also, as always, I link to a second opinion because, as LeVar Burton might say, you don't have to take my word for it.

10) Green Day - ¡Uno!/¡Dos!/¡TrĂ©!
Second Opinion: The Associated Press

Right, so... this is actually three albums. But do you, right now, really consider Use Your Illusion I/II to be two albums these days? If so, you might be taking this all too seriously. If anything, Green Day was probably trying to give you digestible chunks rather than nearly three hours of music in one sitting. And each does have its distinct sound. Right now, my favorite is ¡Dos! with the kind of rancor that Green Day makes effortlessly these days. What's remarkable here, to me, is that these albums, on the surface (or if considered separately) would seem like an old band going through the motions. Instead... good lord it's three damned albums! And due to being recorded at the same time, they show off tremendously diverse ability despite not making the latest rock opera. I also cannot think of any band that was putting out music before my freshman year of high school that could do this right now. So... three solid albums, together, by these guys, this year... that's something.

9) The Dandy Warhols - This Machine
Second Opinion: Allmusic

I don't know why people don't like The Dandy Warhols. They've been frighteningly consistent for years and, unlike Green Day's version of not-going-through-the-motions, the Dandys are still experimenting around. This album showcased the many layers of sound they always bring. The loudest lullaby in the world "Rest Your Head" was the track that first got me, but then it was the bit of fun self-reflection in "Enjoy Yourself." Finally, it was the album closing tandem of "Don't Shoot She Cried" and "Slide." And I didn't even name the singles on the album, which are good. Maybe it's that the Dandys actually prefer you to listen to their albums, rather than just go for the cheap "this shit rocks!" appeal. You get back more than what you put into The Dandy Warhols and this album is no different. Would that more critics would try.

8) Dan Deacon - America
Second Opinion: A/V Club

And then there's this guy. A classical musician in a techno disguise. Or just completely making music on a different plane. This is challenging music that requires multiple listens, but, again, the reward is so, so high. Deacon paints the country through sound and embraces its beauty while thrashing at his issues with our more perfect union or whatever we have right now. And it's gorgeous. In "USA III: Rail" he, of course captures the train, but he captures the scene with it. "Crash Jam" would fit nicely on 2009's Bromst, which remains a modern classic as far as I'm concerned. A bold, loud album that I wish we could have every year.

7) Purity Ring - Shrines
Second Opinion: NME

How can a band do so much with, seemingly, so little? It would be easy to toss Purity Ring in with the xx or some other band like that, but it seems like there's even more going on here. Megan James' voice is reminiscent of Splashdown's Melissa Kaplan (which, incidentally, is a band you need to go and get all of their catalog from the late 1990s, love it all and hope we can form a grassroots movement to get that band back together. They deserve the shot that was stolen from them.) The sonic aura here is also Splashdown-esque with some twists. Lyrics discussing the twisting and ripping of body parts (not in a metal way, silly) capture the drama of the emotions songs discuss and leave us wanting more. This band could be the next Portishead for all I know. And by that, I mean making music that is complex, a wee bit dark and has no era to tie it down creatively.

6) The Shins - Port of Morrow
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

One of the year's most immediately listenable albums, The Shins, can clearly carry on through any lineup changes you throw at them. Hell, they might even thrive on them. From the get-go, this is solid stuff. Honestly, "The Rifle's Sprial" is the kind of standout song that deserves more credit in our non-radio-dependent world. The album does lose some steam, I think, by the time we get to "40 Mark Strasse." And that's not to say the ride isn't going well when you get there and beyond. This is a disc that kept jumping back on to my playlist all year long and with good reason.

5) The Avett Brothers - The Carpenter
Second Opinion: American Songwriter

Mumford & Sons get all the press. Meanwhile, the boys from Concord, NC just keep making honest music that, at least to me, is much more genuine than the band with the publicity and platinum plaques. "Down with the Shine" gets right at it. This is the sound. This is what you wanted when you bought some other band that sounds like these guys, but you didn't go to the source. Good enough. This album could be faulted for lacking the pop hooks that Mumford parlays into adoration. The Avetts may not need that when they have albums upon albums of great songs. This one is no different and I'll take Seth Avett's folksy-but-rich vocals any day.

4) Palomar - Sense & Antisense
Second opinion: I can't find one. Which sucks. Because more people should hear this.

I know, I know. Palomar has become that indie band that I caught on to at the right age (early 20s) in the right place (New York) and have followed dutifully ever since. That said, I did the same with Matt Pond PA and would honestly tell you that I haven't loved everything they have put out. Or I could say the same about Tangiers. The reason Palomar, and not some other bands, keep popping up here is because the music is flipping great. When I ranked All Things Forests on a blog of mine that doesn't exist anymore (it was called MySpace), I wondered if this band would hit such lofty heights again. They come awfully close here. "Wouldn't Release You" captures everything the ladies (and man, on drums) have done so well for many years, down to the mournful guitar theme. Then... they just rock it all out starting on "Infinite Variation," a song that would be right at home on any early 2000 indie album but with a heavy dose of maturity. If "All Things Forests" contained themes of a band that had flirted with getting big and maybe just missing, this one has the sound of a band comfortable with where its landed and focusing on, well, the challenges of being grown ups. "But tell me, will we look back and wish we were still free?" asks lead singer Rachel Warren in "Infinite Variation," noting that "we got here, we can get back." Yeah, relationships, they're work. Apparently, too much in "Hooray for Tuesday," a gorgeous song that I hope no one ever writes about me. But, it's moments like "Park Lights" that underscore everything good about this band: good hooks, good music and good lyrics.

3) Grace Potter & The Nocturnals - The Lion, The Beast, The Beat
Second Opinion: The New York Times

So many people told me I had to listen to this. So I did. If you were one of the many pushing this on to my playlist, thank you. Apparently, none of those people are music critics, which, with a handful of exceptions, seem to have gone out of their way to have something bad to say about this album. I cannot figure it out. Some people love the lyrics, others hate them. Some love how the band is rocking out under the tutelage of Dan Auerbach, Others find it cloying. How about that this album just does what I want a freaking rock record to do. The title track might be one of the songs of the year. But, from there, the disc is straightforward rock that we don't often get these days and, honestly, this could be the gateway drug for even more ambitious tunes from the group. And it sports the year's best album cover, hands down. After listening to this over and over, my main thought is let's get these guys away from half of The Black Keys... and get them with the action half of The White Stripes. I'm not sure my body is ready to handle that collaboration. Speaking of...

2) Jack White - Blunderbuss
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone

Any album with Jack White on it is like a Tarantino movie: it can only be so bad. The worst it can be is probably better than what most ever do. The title track here is just... no one can do this song, right? Also like Tarantino? Jack White makes music like a guy who enjoys music. The man has his demons, to be sure, and he tackles some of them on songs like "Love/Interruption." But then there's "Weep Themselves to Sleep," a classic Jack White blues piano jam that rocks harder than almost any guitar song you could muster. Except maybe "Sixteen Saltines," which does lend hope that when The White Stripes get back together (they have to, right?) there is plenty of material waiting. Until then, I can take solace in songs like "Hypocritical Kiss" that prove over and over again that Jack White is a rare talent. I'm already waiting for what he does next, but with Blunderbuss, I have something to keep me sated until it hits shelves.

1) Dum Dum Girls - End of Daze EP
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

I really wrestled with this. And then, I said "screw it." Because who cares if the best thing I heard all year was only 18 minutes long? Give me an amazing 18 minutes (spanning five songs) any day. Say all you want of Phil Spector-style and whatnot. I'm going to go out on a limb here and, if I'm wrong, I'm wrong. Sometimes, a band puts something out that's a harbinger. The Beatles had Revolver. Radiohead had The Bends. I'm going to be stunned if whatever The Dum Dum Girls do next is not jaw-dropping in an epic kind of way. Let's go through this EP. "Mine Tonight" starts off simply enough and explodes into layers of sound that... is that bliss I'm feeling? In a song about dreaming of death? This is followed up by "I Got Nothing," which is another strong contender for song of the year - a poppy rock song with just enough psychedelia to make things even sweeter. This is followed by a standout cover of Strawberry Switchblade's "Trees and Flowers" that stuns at both its most minimal and its most complex. This is simple music made complex but still accessible to nearly any set of ears. And then, they blow you away. "Lord Knows" is the kind of song that, if on, say, a Jack White album, is the stuff of legend. And there's no reason it shouldn't be here, because, at least in this moment, it's in equally capable hands. "Lord Knows" is a tale of hurting those we love the most and everything about the song captures everything about doing just that. The pain, but the... complete realize that we just are the folks we are and, for some of us, that means hurting the ones we love. The closer, "Season in Hell," almost feels like a pick-me-up, asking "Doesn't dawn look divine?" If this is the dawn of amazing things to come, let the sun shine in, even if it helps us see all that needs repair.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sounds of the Season 2012

I have been awful at blogging this year, a side effect of a lot of travel and a busy life at home. I'm sure all six of you readers have been suffering in absence of material. :-)

Some posts write themselves, though. This is one.

In 2007, weary of the same holiday music being played every-freaking-where, I tossed together a few songs that made the holiday season a bit more listenable. With a nod to the irreverent, I strung together songs from The Dandy Warhols, Save Ferris, Blink-182 and more. Really, it was just a fun thing to have and share with a few friends. Since then, it's become something of an annual rite, though, I have to admit, there is a finite number of Christmas and Hanukkah songs by indie-type bands and a smaller number yet that I think people might want to hear more than once.

Still, that number included 11 for this year. I don't think this year's mix hits the lofty heights of last year's mix, but it's still a good set. As always, the songs listed below are all mostly all available from your digital music purveyor of choice.

1) Crocodiles & The Dum Dum Girls - "Merry Christmas, Baby (Please Don't Die)" - As far as I'm concerned, the Dum Dum Girls can do no wrong this year (a topic for the upcoming Best Albums of 2012 post). Everything I like about them is on display here with a nice bit of guitar fuzz and, let's face it, a simple request to a loved one: it'd be best if you were all alive and stuff this holiday.

2) Fountains of Wayne - "I Want an Alien for Christmas" - This is not a new song, but I had somehow never found it before this year. And the mix has never had a song asking Santa for an alien under the tree.

3) The Killers - "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball" - I love The Killers if only for putting out a Christmas song every year like this. It's no "Don't Shoot Me Santa," but this is still a pretty solid entry, discussing a holiday get-together in North Nevada where the Truckee's waters flow. My kind of party, maybe?

4) The LeeVees - "Gelt Melts" - The fact that I love Guster and Adam Gardner's rich voice is secondary to the fact that this band has an entire album of Hanukkah songs that are worth listening to, singlehandedly making sure the annual holiday mix is equal opportunity. This song discusses the milk chocolate that does melt in your hand.

5) CeeLo Green - "What Christmas Means to Me" - Again, thank you to good artists who are keeping my annual mix alive by putting out new material. Honestly, CeeLo could put out anything holiday-themed and it would make it. But this soulful song is the perfect kick in the middle of this year's mix.

6) Ludacris - "Ludacrismas" - I was giddy as a five-year-old child when I heard this song existed. It's no "Christmas in Harlem" and it would be better if Luda didn't feel the need to drop "Fred Claus" in between verses (this song came on that film's soundtrack). That said... "All I want for Christmas is two gold front teeth!" And it goes from there. Oh it does.

7) Erran Baron Cohen - "My Hanukkah (Keep the Fire Alive)" - We need more Jewish rappers. That is not a wish. It is an order. At least if this song is any indication. This song puts the swagger back in the Festival of Lights. Who knew a klezmer clarinet could show up in a rap song?

8) The Shins - "Wonderful Christmastime" - Made it seven songs before a cover. Not bad. And The Shins are solid. Nothing too fancy here, but a solid entry.

9) Daryl Hall & John Oates - "Jingle Bell Rock" - This song is really a shout out to my wife who has suddenly grown an affinity for H&O. Amazingly, this version of the song is actually pretty good.

10) Norah Jones - "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" - Kinda cool because this is really the perfect song for her and it showcases just about everything that she's good at. Though, after last year's Danger Mouse collab with Jack White, is it too much to ask Ms. Jones to record a Christmas Song with Jack White?

11) Barenaked Ladies - "Do the Know it's Christmas?" - An easy mix closer of a song we all know. I don't have their full holiday album, but shouldn't there be a Boxing Day song from these Canadians? That would be fairly automatic for the mix.

Happy listening and happy holidays, no matter how you celebrate!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Accountability in our sights?

When I get in my car, I am doing (statistically) the most dangerous thing I will do all day. Most Americans have a car. Even if freeways are clear, it's rare to take a drive without seeing someone drive in a dangerous way. And when mistakes happen at 70 MPH, they can happen with grisly results.

Perhaps, because of just how much we drive as a country, we have become numb to horrific accidents. A fiery pileup on the interstate is fodder for traffic reports and the local news chopper. We hear about the wreck, we change our driving route and go about our days.

We don't dwell on it. We accept that if we want to drive, there are risks. There are drunk drivers. There are conditions we cannot control. We accept the dangers of driving as a necessary evil and we accept some regulation and enforcement of safe driving practices. In other words: we are accountable. There are dangers, we know them, we may try to prevent them, but we know the consequences of the car culture we have created and deal with the accordingly.

We have not done so with guns.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Bus

More than a few things have been afoot in the three months since this blog was updated. Shame on me, I suppose. The sad part: it hasn't been from lack of topics. From rants to travel to travel rants and whatnot, I'm often hit with ideas. I should make a note to write them down (which, incidentally, jotting such a reminder would require I have some sort of habit of writing these sorts of things down anyhow).

All I've been up to is working like crazy, traveling a bunch (including to Prague) and moving from a downtown apartment to a lovely craftsman-style house in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood.

One thing this has changed is my commute. No longer do I walk out the front door, hang two rights and, voila, end up at work. Instead, I am among the masses riding the bus into town.

I will always love the time I got to walk to work. But I forgot how much I enjoy mass transit.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Why we need a "niche" sports channel

I have a lot of opinions on ratings-dependent 24-hour news channels. It's an election year and you'll be able to read any number of blog posts about how one network or another is biased toward the left or right.

This post isn't one of them.

At least there are several 24-hour news channels. In sports, it took the launch of NBC Sports Network (the converted Vs.) in January to provide the latest alternative to ESPN. I say alternative here because it really wouldn't be accurate to say "competitor." ESPN is not a cable network anymore. It is a brand name (it licenses lord knows how many products, a smart business move that probably rakes in millions every fiscal quarter). It's branding was so strong it was enough to eliminate ABC Sports in favor of ESPN on ABC. The Sportscenter theme is probably more recognizable to the population than any Bon Iver song. You cannot compete with ESPN.

But, if you're a sports fan, at least one that doesn't focus on the sports ESPN covers, it can be tough going.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

A heightened sense of importance?

This week, I am heading to Vegas for the 5th Annual Social Media Conference put on by Ragan Communications. This will be my third trip to this event. I keep going because social media is evolving so quickly. There is always something new to learn. I also like this event because, on two previous trips, there were few pat-yourself-on-the-back presentations. Not a lot of "look how good we are at social media." Instead, it has tended to turn into a forum... lots of discussion that turns out to be constructive. A lot of people realizing that while many have established best practices, we all still have a lot to learn from one another.

Since last year's event, we've seen the launch of Google+. We've also seen Pintrest come out of nowhere and, seemingly, take all the buzz G+ hoped for. And this little thing called Timeline launched from Facebook.

While I am sure the discussion will hit on all of these, the topic I am hoping to bring up - either in a session when it's appropriate or in end-of-day networking - is whether or not we overestimate the power of the individual in a social media world.

Without a doubt, the world of customer service has changed with the emergence of social channels. JetBlue can tell you how to rebook your weather-delayed flight - or the best place to spend your layover at JFK - if you tweet at them. The recent uproar over Susan G. Komen for the Cure certainly showed how social media channels can gather the masses to rally around an issue.

What has been grinding my gears lately has been people attempting to turn their individual problems into national crusades against a brand. I've seen many examples of this, but the tipping point for me was a blogger whose relative had a problem changing to an earlier flight on American Airlines and had to suffer the injustice of waiting for an originally-scheduled flight. The flier didn't want to pay the fee to change to an earlier flight and the blogger used this as a call to arms.

Maybe I fly too much. But, despite the outrage folks have over checked bag fees and the like, there is a rather complicated business model behind airlines and they have their reasons (primarily, profitability, but I digress...) Still, I can understand the frustration. But, the blogger turned this into a crusade. He repeatedly tweeted the link to his blog to the masses (which appeared to have not been proofread) and imploring people to tell the world just how bad it is flying American Airlines.

I was tempted to note in a comment that, given that American is in Chapter 11, they have a boatload of other problems, but I am not one to troll.

The larger issue is how this is just one example of all of us feeling... over-empowered? I realize that word of mouth is the most powerful brand tool in the arsenal. Bad word of mouth has killed more than a few products.

But word-of-mouth is greater than the sum of its parts. I hate to say it, but everyone has had a bad time with at least one airline. You had a bad flight and didn't get your money back or whatever you demanded of the gate agent who somehow endures eight hours every day of being yelled at? Join. The. Club.

I guess what I am trying to say is that FedEx screwing up your shipment, United losing your bags or whatever individualized injustice you have suffered is not a reason to start a social media crusade. Why? Because in most of these cases, 99% of the other people doing what you did that day probably were OK with things. And if other recent events tell us anything, people will not rally around the 1%.

Yet, it seems we are deluded by the power of social media. That something could "go viral" and start a movement. And then we blog. We tweet. We start Facebook groups. We do anything and everything to try and rally people to our individual search for validation.

The thing is, at some point, people in a movement ask why they're fighting. Heaven help you if they're fighting only for your cause. Maybe we're just all looking for affirmation.

To me, though, the beauty of all of our social channels is how movements grow organically. Usually informed by champions who not only have a gripe... but a solution. One that aligns with the business or goals of their targets in a meaningful way. Something that gets the target to listen.

I think this is an issue we have to address. The customer service aspects of social media are amazing. But to assume this opens the door to clutter of every individuals' axes to grind, we run the risk of trivializing the power of the channel to truly address worthy causes.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Caffeinated

Wherever you live, you're likely used to the stereotypical questions that come from others upon hearing where you live. Live in Atlanta? "How about that heat?" Maine? "How's the lobstah?" Denver? "Do you ski?"

Seattle, comes with more than a few stereotypes. The first question after "So, you don't mind the rain?" is usually, "Gee, but you guys have some great coffee, huh?"

Stereotypes are rooted in truth. It cannot be disputed that it rains here with some frequency. But stereotypes are also oversimplifications, so it won't surprise you to hear that while it rains, you rarely need an umbrella.

Similarly, the coffee stereotype is something that amuses me to no end. I find it hard to believe Seattle is any more caffeine-addled than other U.S. cities. And while there may be a coffee shop on every corner, it's not so dissimilar to New York, Chicago or any other major city when it's usually a Starbucks on every block.

We do have our coffee fanatics. I have a coworker that can expound for hours on the virtues of vacuum coffee presses. While that isn't my cup of Joe, it illustrates that coffee is treated by many as something more like wine. People who enjoy subtle differences in flavors and so forth.

I don't think that's only a Seattle thing, though I think we have Seattle-based Starbucks to blame (and, if you like coffee, thank) for taking to the masses. It's  nearly impossible to imagine a nation where the only choice is to grab a can of Folgers and brew it up.

I am surprised, though, as more and more people have started to prefer "artisan" coffee that the bulk of the country seems to start and end with Starbucks as the go-to coffee of choice. I realize it may be a convenience since you cannot throw a rock without hitting at least one Starbucks.

I have noticed here in Seattle that many people have taken to the Third Wave for choosing their coffees. Essentially, this is an effort to appeal to sustainably farmed and traded high quality coffee that comes in smaller batches.

I realize that not everyone wants a "gourmet" cup of coffee and, to be honest, I'll be the first one to grab a cup of gas station coffee on a road trip. So please don't read this as snobbery as much as this: if you're willing to pay Starbucks prices, why not try some others that might surprise you. Some suggestions:

Stumptown Coffee Roasters - They do not, from what I can tell, have Internet retailing, but if you live in Seattle, Portland or (for real) New York City, you can get your hands on it. Honestly, if you're a Starbucks fan, this is the one to take the Pepsi Challenge with. The grocery store across the street from me carries most of their wares and I have yet to try any of their stuff and not enjoy it.

Middle Fork Roasters - While Stumptown is based in Portland, OR, Middle Fork is right here in Seattle. A smaller operation, but they do have online retail. I've been drinking the Middle Fork Blend pretty frequently. This is coffee for coffee's sake. They don't have a coffeehouse that I know of in town. No one selling you CDs or travel mugs. Just coffee to drink.

Blue Bottle Coffee - Based in Oakland, CA, this might be the best of all of these. If you're not in The San Francisco Bay Area or New York, you will not find a retail location, though they do have online ordering. I recommend the Chiapas blend, which doesn't seem to be on the site at the moment (the Oaxaca sounds like it's reasonably similar). My wife and I had a friend in from Dallas who is a coffee fan and she not only burned through our bag of Chiapas, she went home and ordered a bunch more.

Holualoa Kona Coffee Company - OK, this one is more expensive. The official growing area for Kona coffee is about 40 square miles. Most often you will see Kona blends which will be a small amount of coffee from Kona with mostly stuff from Latin America. But if you want a cup of American grown and roasted coffee, you need 100% Kona beans. Maui makes some coffee, too, but from what I can gather, Kona is the more sought-after stuff. It is incredibly smooth, but because of the small growing area, it is virtually impossible to produce in quantities large enough for major coffee roasters (e.g. Starbucks). That also makes it expensive. But hey... if you like coffee, you almost owe it to yourself to try. I toured this plantation and sampled their coffees. All were great and, the small operations of the plantation let you get close to the action. I'm sure other Kona roasters offer similar experiences, so check them out. And, like I said... you're supporting the good ol' USA when you buy.

Any suggestions you have? I love try new ones...