Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Favorite Albums of 2009

I listened to a lot of music in 2009, but little of it was "new". I heard most of the releases that will show up on everyone else's list. I didn't really care for most of them. Here's what I did like:

Album of the Year: David Sylvian - "Manafon"

David Sylvian worked with some top-notch musicians known for their improvisation work. He recorded some sessions of them playing, selected sections he liked, and them improvised vocals over the top. Record finished.

He packaged it as digital downloads, a compact disc, or a deluxe hardback book. Built a lovely website, too.

The music is beautiful, sad, and thought-provoking, and the execution is masterful. It's also all completely in line with where I think interesting musical art should be going. Hands-down winner this year.

If you liked Talk Talk's records "Spirit of Eden" and "Laughing Stock", you'll probably like this.

Best New Album by Old Band: (Tie)
Nitzer Ebb - "Industrial Complex"

Nitzer Ebb has long been a favorite of mine, but they hadn't released any new material since "Big Hit" in 1995.

They returned this year with a vengeance. "Industrial Complex" doesn't break any new ground for the band, but it produces a re-cap of their unique take on EBM and industrial. Few bands are both so catchy and so abrasive. The album is solid all the way through with plenty of references to all of the great things about all of their records. I could even hear some pop tart making "Hit You Back" a Top 10 single. Only available as downloads for now. Skip iTunes' AAC format for some good ol' MP3s from

If you like Nitzer Ebb, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, or dancing to synthesizer music, check it out.

The Church - "Untitled #23"
The Church has managed to make my lists almost every year they've released an album. They really earned it in 2009 with "Untitled #23", which made a number of other people's best-of lists as well.

A solid, mysterious album with songs that reminded me of my own "Overcast" in places. They stretch a bit here, too, with Steve Kilbey marking the outer edges of his vocal range and style, including one of his more aggressive vocal takes on "Anchorage".

Masterful work from veteran musicians. Obviously great if you are a fan of The Church (or a newcomer). Also great if you like Television, or other post-punk guitar bands.

Best Reissue: Kraftwerk's "The Catalogue"
There was a lot of competition for this slot, with the runner-up being the nicely-packaged and chock-full of rarities re-issue of Duran Duran's "Rio". But Kraftwerk absolutely dominated with "The Catalogue".

Unfortunately delayed several times, and then released in the USA with a "well, this is what you have to buy if you want the good albums" approach, The Catalogue shames most other reissues.

The packaging is top-notch. A 12"-record sized proper box. Tiny reproductions of the albums, using proper 3-dimensional boxes with spines and slide-out envelopes. And then massive, gorgeous booklets with full art and liner notes as the band always intended.

The sound quality is also incredible, to the point where you can hear obvious flaws in the original recordings or sound programming. Well worth the price, and a fitting tribute to a band as influential on the pop music of this century as The Beatles were on the music of the last century.

Essential listening for any music fan. These guys are part of the modern cultural canon. Also essential for packaging designers.

Best Björk Album (Not by Björk): Fever Ray - "Fever Ray"
Or perhaps it's the best album by The Knife. The Fever Ray album made a bunch of folks' top lists this year. It's...good.

In particular, its strengths lie in its production, packaging, and total impact. In many ways it's the Björk record of the year. "Quirky" vocals by a non-native English speaker delivered with a charming accent, a unique vocal style, and funny/mysterious/borderline nonsense lyrics.

Nice synth/electronic production, but overall bearing a very strong resemblance to her other band, The Knife. Not surprising, but I sort of expected more. The record skates by a lot on style. The songs have moods, but don't really go anywhere or lodge deeply in the mind. Lots of reliance on 5ths, weird sounds, and the same sort of vocal processing and effects that made The Knife sound so fresh.

For fans of Bjork, The Knife, film soundtracks, and "headphone music". Not so good for parties.

Fever Ray also gets points for actually making the single "When I Grow Up" available for free download. Try BetterPropaganda, where I find a lot of music.

Video for "If I Had A Heart":

Doubtless part of Fever Ray's success lies in her willingness to use the Internet for promotion.

David Sylvian finally put "Small Metal Gods" up on YouTube, but he's got no free download. Neither The Church nor Nitzer Ebb put up free downloads, and neither of them have "official" videos on YouTube yet. In their case, it may be they simply don't have the budget or interest in such things. To The Church's credit, they haven't pulled down any of the fan-made videos for their new album.

Artists, remember: In the 21st century, you should worry about getting people to pay attention to your music, and less about getting them to pay for your music. The former is becoming more difficult but remains a pre-requisite for the latter.

I look forward to more great music in 2010!

2009's Greatest Hits

Here's my 12 greatest hits of 2009.
  1. January - My 2009 started with a trip back to Dartmouth for a music symposium and celebration of composer Jon Appleton. An incredible time, and I wish there was going to be another one in 2010!
  2. February - I created "Overcast" for the RPM challenge. I'm still quite happy with it.
  3. March - Saw my brother play a great loud rock show with Farflung at Bottom Of The Hill.
  4. April - Spent a week relaxing in Hawaii with my lovely wife.
  5. May - Was flattered when Dave Allen featured a cover of Shriekback's "Faded Flowers" on his music blog. Dave's been a key part of two bands that were major influences on my musical development.
  6. June - Attended the SFMusicTech conference and got to know some great new friends.
  7. July - I turned 40 and had an incredible birthday party.
  8. August - I got laid off from Rhapsody shortly after completing their iPhone app.
  9. September - Took a bit of time off, smelled the roses, slept in, worked out. Realized "Lost" is awesome.
  10. October - Fielded many, many interesting job offers and interviews while starting some consulting work.
  11. November - Worked extensively on 2 interesting new jobs.
  12. December - Had a great Christmas day get-together with friends and family and spent a fun New Year's Eve at Smuggler's Cove.
I have many resolutions for 2010 and look forward to the next decade, which my friends have christened "The Ten".

Monday, December 21, 2009

Re: Issues about Reissues

I've written about reissues of albums before, but it seems there's always more to say.

The Clash's essential album "London Calling" is receiving a 30th anniversary reissue. This is notable for several reasons. It comes 5 years after their 25th anniversary reissue. I'm not faulting their impeccable mathematics or sense of marketing, but the justification seems a little flimsy. One should remember the 25th anniversary was itself released just a few years after the initial remaster/reissue.

The 30th anniversary of London Calling is also less substantial than the 25th anniversary version. I'm pretty sure the label isn't going to keep multiple SKUs for this record in circulation. This leads one to the inevitable conclusion that there will be yet another version - the "definitive" 40th or 50th anniversary that collects all the material smeared across the various versions so far.

We've seen this before, with things like the Blade Runner film releases. In the 21st century, it seems some works no longer have a single, definitive, canonical version of a work, just endless permutations.

Things have been heading in this direction for a while, whether you're talking about the US versus UK releases of albums by The Beatles, The Clash, The Chameleons, or other bands; or even compact discs with "bonus tracks" versus albums without them. Which album is "definitive"? Even fans will argue about it. The real answer: the one you heard first and most.

The CD itself was marketed as an "upgrade" over vinyl LPs. The music business thrived as fans bought all their old records again, just for a technological improvement - and one whose merits have been debated ever since. And of course, now the record business isn't even trying to sell a new format - they're just trying to get you to buy a new CD. And we're doing it.

They've even tried to come up with ways to get people to buy digital files with poorer sound.

The record industry knows they missed the boat for delivering a new physical format for music. Movies have at least one more round left in them. They've gone from videotapes to DVDs and now to Blu-Ray (after managing to nip a format war in the bud). While some newer movies clearly benefit from being seen in high-def glory, the benefits for older films are debatable. And that's assuming you can figure out how to properly connect all your gear to get the best picture - many home users can't.

Re-issue fever has even hit the videogame industry. Lucas Arts recently "re-issued" a version of Secret of Monkey Island. This new version featured "high definition" art, improved controls, an in-game hint system, and voice-overs. It didn't make the game substantially different or better in terms of experience, story, or content. Perhaps it made it more palatable to a new generation of gamers.

This arguably started with Castle Wolfenstein - an old Apple ][ game which was most famously re-imagined by a fledgling iD software as the first fast-paced 3D first-person shooter (Wolfenstein 3D), and which was then in turn re-imagined as a fancier first-person shooter (Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory) and then again as a rather poorly received 3D first-person shooter (Wolfenstein). Clearly, there is a point of diminishing returns, and Wolfenstein is clearly leaning on "brand" more than depth of story, characters, or quality. There's little to connect any of the games other than their name.

Quoting or drawing inspiration from previous works is a common artistic practice - it's too bad nobody can collect royalties on Shakespeare. But the phenomenon of refurbishing, remastering, or reissuing an existing work with updated technology is a relatively new phenomenon.

It's generally considered less risky. It's like consumer products: Toy Story, New and Improved, now with 3D! Harry Potter, with all the stuff originally edited out restored! Switched-On Bach with Ocean Rain fresh scent! Adding a little something new to something proven and familiar all but guarantees sales from the ardent fan base and collectors, and may get enough of a PR push to pull in a few new fans.

Regardless, it works for me, at least sometimes. There are several CD reissues teed up for release in 2010. Top of my list right now is the Duran Duran side project Arcadia - this re-issue will feature nearly impossible-to-find rarities and great packaging. Hooray!

Friday, December 11, 2009

We're all on Family Feud: The abuse of opinion polls

Back when I was in the single digits and living in Virginia, there wasn't much on TV. No cable yet. You end up watching whatever you can. I remember seeing Richard Dawson (a guy who got his start in a sitcom about a concentration camp) smooching away in his inimitable style.

Family Feud was an awful, awful show. The best/worst part was how the game worked. You were asked questions and were supposed to guess what "average polled Americans" said about things. The famous line "The survey SAYS...", followed by the answer flipping down from the giant Whitman's sampler chocolate box display. Teams lived or died not by their knowledge, but by their ability to guess what other people thought. This has been famously parodied before, because it's a pretty silly and fatuous game idea.

The Internet has given us many great things. Lots of entertainment. Video and music on demand, sometimes even legally. It has heightened communication between individuals and communities. It has also provided many new ways for people to provide feedback and opinion, frequently anonymously.

Naturally, that ability to comment at any time, on any subject, regardless of whether we know what we're talking about or not, has some downsides.

One is the rise of a culture where everyone thinks their opinion matters and deserves to be heard. This is followed by Big News feeding that for sensationalistic purposes.

Yesterday I happened to be out to lunch with a friend and out of the corner of my eye I caught CNN's coverage of the health care reform bill. They had one of their instant polls up about "Whether you thought the bill was going to increase the federal deficit" [emphasis mine].

Of course, the numbers were shocking. Unsurprisingly, something like 75% of the respondents said they thought the bill was going to increase the deficit. Were one passively watching and not paying careful attention, one would get a strong impression the deficit would increase under the bill. Much of this had to do with the typically clipped and simplified presentation of the polling data, which downplayed the "we asked a bunch of dopes on the street" aspect.

This is not what the poll was saying or proving. Nor was it what the poll was for.

Fundamentally, the idea of collecting and presenting this information is just silly. This is largely inessential data for everyone except a small number politicos watching the polls. Even then, what they should do with this data is figure out how to better educate people about the issue, or perhaps understand whether people are actually educated about the situation. Instead, these herd mentality numbers are used as if they are some sort of important facts in the "ongoing debate". As if what people think about the bill and its possible impacts are more important than the actual bill and its impact

This really irks me. It's dangerous, lazy thinking. The bill itself isn't even "finished" yet, with many key provisions controlling cost - things like "who gets covered?" and "how long do they get covered?" and "what are they covered for?" - not yet locked down.

Most of the people actually voting on the bill haven't even read it, so they don't even know for sure. Each analysis of the bill's costs makes a number of different assumptions, so none of those can be definitive, either. The end result is the knowledgeable folks can provide a more informed opinion, but even they cannot definitively say what the bill's impact on the deficit will be.

The average polled person has nowhere near enough information to weigh in on this issue. News presenting these "opinion polls" as facts do everyone a disservice. This data could be used as a lead-in to a detailed discussion of what the bill actually proposes, to either bolster or refute the opinion polls. But that never happens.

By emphasizing and focusing on what uninformed people think or feel might happen, we further destroy our ability to have reasoned, proper debates and turn more towards charisma and force of personality and presentation. We turn away from "what is true" to "what people will believe". This encourages the kind of knee-jerk demagoguery where outright lies get traction because they "feel true".

Once it's OK to respect and discuss what people "feel is true", rather than what is actually true, you end up wasting time addressing and relentlessly debunking fringe positions already disproven: Vaccinations cause autism. Obama's not eligible to be president. Climate change isn't real. The list goes on.

And once there's enough of these topics circulating in the news, even more people start to pick up the thought virus. They figure "well, people are talking about it, where there's smoke there's fire, it must be true or something". And the cycle becomes ever-harder to break.

Stephen Colbert may be loving it. I'm not.

Put another way, only 40% of people in the USA say they believe in evolution. Think about that, and then ask yourself if you really want the carefully considered, highly informed opinions of everyone else driving the agenda for national debate on complex subjects like health care reform.

At this point, we're all contestants on Family Feud. What you know doesn't matter. How well you understand how little everyone else knows does.

The survey says? Bzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Holiday Music: Kraftkirk "Gloria"

Continuing a chain of thought from my last few blog entries, here's a holiday song I recorded as KRAFTKIRK. It's appropriate given the season and my recent purchase of the Kraftwerk "Catalog" boxed set (which is amazing).

It was intended as a faithful homage to Kraftwerk, including the weak/wobbly vocals. Definitely inspired by the Something Awful image shown here (created by darthphunk)

I created this in a single evening back in 2001 or 2002 for a Rhapsody easter egg album called "Merry Everything" (it's still in there). Sid Luscious did a track, too. Sid will post about that soon.


Winter Holiday Memories & Liam Clancy

It's the time of year when you leave work and it's pitch black outside. The chilly air abounds. You look forward to curling up at home with a mug of something. Sweaters. Fire. Christmas trees. Time with loved ones or family. Maybe both.

We did not have many traditions in my family growing up. Of the rare gems of pleasant memories from my childhood and the holidays, I've always savored one thing: The Clancy Brothers "Christmas" album.

The Clancy Brothers are musical legends. Look at those guys. They know how to enjoy life, hell, they look like they're enjoying it 24/7. Right NOW. While the photo is being taken.

You know hanging out with these guys for Christmas is going to leave you needing a follow-up vacation, and likely some sort of hangover cure. Maybe even a black eye. But it will be the best Christmas you ever had.

The music is incredible. These guys play Christmas songs with a fury and joy unmatched by most rock bands. The Pogues sound like Air Supply compared to the might of the Brothers Clancy. You'll hear hearty singing, whoops of joy, howls, and powerful folk strumming. I imagine this is what Nick Cave has been trying to emulate for years.

They have a tender side to be sure, but you'll likely remember the rocking tunes the most, the glee in their voices as they talk about drinking whiskey from tumblers, describing the feast, and remind us all to enjoy ourselves because "Christmas comes but once a year!"

The liner notes even include a recipe for plum pudding, complete with instructions for how much the chef should be drinking while preparing it. Of course, it's out of print and not available on digital services, but you may be able to find it somewhere.

But sadly, an era has ended. Liam Clancy passed away, the last of the surviving Clancy Brothers. I will raise a tumbler of the good stuff for him this holiday season, and when I fire up my prized copy of The Clancy Brothers Christmas, it will sound a little more bittersweet.

Oh, all the comrades e'er I had,
They're sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e'er I had,
They'd wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should go and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.

[Thanks to MetaFilter for the tip and the quote]