Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 10 Albums of 2012

2012 was a great year for music.

 The era of the truly independent band is here and the days of payola radio submissive to massive corporate rock is dying. In other words, you have to THINK to like music these days and you have to actively seek it out as well.

Music isn't sold to you via commercials and hype on the radio anymore, instead you tend to learn about it on social media and via apps that detect your listening preferences and then make new recommendations. It's much more grass roots than ever before and the power has shifted from mega-studios and million dollar producers, back to the garage and the computer.

You can argue it makes music less "professional", but it also makes it more diverse and inclusive. In short: if you can't find music in 2012 you like, you're not looking hard enough. More likely, you are so content with what you already know, you aren't really interested in anything new.

 I make a top ten list every year and this year, in honor of the evolving music industry, I thought I'd apply technology to my list. Most years, I just list ten records I enjoyed. This year, I am going straight to a data source and actually finding which albums in 2012 I listened to most. I made some adjustments, here and there, (usually to compensate for the release date of the record, since those released later in the year had less time for me to indulge in repeat listens).

The adjustments were minor. Here are my top ten records of the year:

  1. Black Moth Super Rainbow - Cobra Juicy
This came out as my top record of the year according to listening stats. It's utterly appropriate too, because it matches what I was talking about above.

This album was ENTIRELY financed by the fans of the band. It was completely paid for by kickstarter and then largely distributed independently by the band itself. It's a great record too.

Now Pitchfork and other dying media sites, will tell you it was "more of the same" from Black Moth Super Rainbow. The band found a niche, producing weird, often violent songs with heavy VOX recording and electronic distortion. But that's the point, the fans of that niche (myself included) wanted more of that and we paid for it and got it.

It's a beautiful business model and the result was an eclectic record with a deeply cynical and whimsical take on the 21st century. I love it, and it is my top record of the year. SAMPLE:

2. Tame Impala - Lonerism
You'll see this record on a lot of top ten lists I am sure and deservedly so.

Although you can argue it is very derivative and retro, I don't think either of those attributes should discount its quality. In fact, I think you can make an argument that all art is derivative, all art reflects things that have been seen and heard before.

 Lonerism is Tame Impala's second major record. They are a psychedelic band that is trying to reshape guitar-based psychedelic music in new and interesting directions. They borrow heavily from early Black Sabbath and the Beatles' White Album and even borrow a bit from Syd Barret.

All of this "borrowing" however provides excellent music and a truly wonderful live show. These guys are great musicians, who like all good bands, LOVE the music they create. The passion behind what they play is obvious and is a large selling point. In fact, that's really one of the secrets to being a great band: love your own music. Love playing it and love listening to it, because if you do, it comes through in your performance. 

This is a great record, truly a real gem that will stand the test of time:

3. The Bilinda Butchers - goodbyes
Many of you might see the title of the band and think this is a solo project of one of the great architects of My Bloody Valentine. In fact, this band just took her name in homage and started to do their own thing.

Sure, there's all kind of flavoring and style that is reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine, but this band is firmly independent and creating their own unique sound. This band is like a Will-O-Wisp, lighting up the dark forest, luring you in, but eventually not leading you anywhere specific, but it's a magical journey none the less.

I love this duo. I also love how I discovered them. I "found" them, by sharing tracks on the truly wonderful, where a trusted music lover, introduced them to me and shared out some of their best tracks. I bought their entire collection, including this 2012 independently produced and distributed album. Take a listen, but prepare to daydream with your head in the clouds:

4. Jason Lytle - Dept. of Disappearance
Jason Lytle is the "brains" behind Grandaddy, which I like to claim is the most underrated band to come out of the 90's college circuit (and the 90's might be the most undervalued decade in music, but I digress).

 Jason Lytle is providing more of what he does best here, beautiful melody, ironic lyrics and observations, all delivered with solid professionalism and attention to craft.

 Jason is a meek, even apologetic force on stage, like one of those musicians who seems embarrassed to share his art. Some say that act is a little disingenuous, I don't know. All I do know is the final product is a joy to listen to and I look forward to more.

Jason Lytle is a master of catchy, lovable melody. Yes, he's an old force in music, but old doesn't necessarily mean "bad" and don't pay attention to reviews who seem hung up on the fact Lytle's brand of music is no longer "hip". Good music is always hip, no matter the time or place:

5. Cat Power - Sun
I'll be honest, I was surprised to see how high my listening stats were on this record, but facts are facts and data is data and there it was in black and white.

This album is pure pop really, from a musician who has lived a fiercely independent and at times, tempestuous music career. The woman behind Cat Power is messed up, I think she'd even admit that. She has struggled with drugs and mental health issues. But there's no doubt about it, when the muse strikes her, she produces beautiful music:

6. Electric Guest - Mondo
Some records are effortless to listen to. They never grate or annoy, they offer beautiful melody, nice obvious, simple hooks and charm you from the very first listen. You go back and visit whenever you need something "easy" to listen to.

 That for me, sums up why I love this record. These guys are producing that brand of indie-pop that is too often and too easily dismissed by snobs and critics.

But really, just listen, this is as pleasant as it gets. While the observations the music makes are simple, they are also fair and honest. Will this music inspire you to build the next Taj Mahal? No, but you'll come away from listening to this record happier than when you were before and that to me, can be just as valuable:

7. Frankie Rose - Interstellar
Sometimes pedigree matters and Frankie Rose's resume illustrates just how rich her pedigree is.

She's been part of the Dum Dum Girls, Crystal Stilts and Vivian Girls. Here's she's on her own and not afraid to show off her deep love of the Cocteau Twins and other bands of that great 80's electro-pop hey day.

 The entire album is like the sample track I am about to link to. It's really simple, short and sweet throughout the entire record. Much like the Electric Guest album I posted above, this record is really "easy" to listen to. And it requires a great deal of cynicism and disconnection to the heart and mind to hate it...

  8. Ty Segall - Twins
This is an uneven record, but also a really great one.

Ty Segall is the "poster child" these days for garage music. It's cranked out with a lot of irreverent wit and sometimes comes out sideways, but benefits from the off-delivery anyway.

 Ty Segall fans may wince when I say this, but Ty Segall reminds me of Ween (a band I greatly admire). He's weird, clever and happy to steal ideas and riffs and make a parody of them, or create something new with them. He's like the artist who walks through a junkyard and walks away with all the ingredients to forge a weird and wonderful sculpture. I am cheating with this sample, it's not from the 2012 album, but the video is so clever and so indicative of Ty Segall's genius I could not help but link to it:

9. A Place To Bury Strangers - Worship
This should probably be higher in the list. One reason it isn't is A Place to Bury Strangers released both an EP and a full-length LP this year, so my listening stats were split. It probably belongs in my top 5 easily and if I count the entire catalog, I listened to this band just about more than any other this year.

 This is a band that Pitchfork hates, which means, they are probably doing something right! What this band is doing right, by the way, is producing kick-ass rock-n-roll with a nod to bands like Jesus and Mary Chain and Joy Division.

 It's distorted, it's fast, it's angry and it is absolutely spectacular live. If you insist that rock no longer has any "balls", go see this band. Your eardrums will shatter, but your heart will be thrilled and you'll go home happy, like you lived to see the messiah in all his sonic, shattering glory...

  10. The Raveonettes - Observator
Those who know me well, should not be surprised that I included the Raveonettes. I include them every year they make a record. I love this duo!

The Raveonettes are fabulous live, they produce wonderful, haunting rock, that I can only describe as the "undead go surfing".

 I love the Raveonettes. They are dismissed now by music snobs, merely for having the audacity for being around for more than a decade. But while the band is old, they are still great. Give it a listen and I'm sure you'll agree:

And one more from the Raveonettes, just because:

Honorable Mention:

Grimes - Visions
Bear in Heaven - I Love You, It's Cool
Frank Ocean - channel Orange
Japandroids - Celebration Rock
Tamaryn - Tender New Signs

 All five of the Honorable Mentions are great records in their own right! Fantastic work.


 Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
The XX - Coexist
David Byrne and St. Vincent - Love This Giant

All three of these records were highly praised, all three appear frequently on other top ten lists, all three were dreadfully dull. I can handle just about any form of music, but never boring and three of these were really uninspiring.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Riddle of Manhattan

When you think about how utterly vast and random the universe is, it is pretty remarkable that a place like Manhattan exists.

Manhattan is a wondrous place, full of good food, great theater and a wide variety of culture and art. It features some of the world's greatest museums, architecture and music. It is vibrant, colorful and exciting. It is also cruel, because it persists with such infinite vigor and energy and alas, we do not.

I recently returned from Manhattan on a fabulous vacation. 5 nights at the center of Time Square, with the world's oyster at my beck and call. A cab could be hailed within a minute and from there my heart's desire was accessible, be it jazz, Broadway, punk rock or pizza baked in coal-fired ovens.

I reveled in my time there, surrounded myself with theater, music, dance and good food and drink. I shared it all with those I love most.

There are two incidents however that stick with me most post-vacation.

The first was a simple experiment. In 1991, I took my first visit to Manhattan. I arrived after a long stint in the Bahamas as a DJ. It was a trip that was unlike my recent vacation. The circumstances were different. Far from the world's oyster at my beck and call, I was quite broke. I was at the mercy of people I had met while working in the Bahamas, (relying on them for shelter and expenditures). I had a great time though and I took this photo of myself in front of the Radio City Music Hall (see below).

20 years later, in 2011 I went to the same spot to take the same photograph, eager to see what 20 years had done to me. I even wore the same hat. It was a very eye-opening contrast. I have aged so much and have truly become "old". I was 25 in the original photo and I am 45 now. Here's the contrast of the two photos:

So many questions arise from the photos. Will I make it another 20 years I wonder? How many times will I visit New York again in those 20 years? I feel the city, and this photo, makes a superb backdrop to reflect on it all. If New York is anything, it is this mirror into your heart and desire. It is a dangerous reflection too, because New York is so vast, so unknowable in its entirety (people who live there for their whole lives are still "discovering it"), that you can often look into this mirror and feel your life has come up short.

Did I really achieve everything I aspired to? Did my dreams and my reality find a happy compromise? New York's answer is always "no". Always. It's entire purpose is to goad you, coax you and inspire you to reach for more. All of the great art from New York is about aspiration. While hopes and dreams are vital and necessary they are also as infinite, vast and cold as the universe itself. In other words, our aspirations are a catalyst but can never be a destination. We never "arrive" in life, we simply keep moving on and with each step, Manhattan takes another bite out of our vigor and vitality.

I look at these photos, at the center of the world's most energetic and inspiring city and find myself humbled. I am such an insignificant part of the universe, I have achieved so little when measured against this metropolis. My life can't be measured against the yard stick of Manhattan, I will always fall short. It must be measured with a different scale, or perhaps, more importantly, shouldn't be measured at all.

The other incident that stuck with me was a visit to CBGB. Long ago, CBGBs was the apex of modern music. It rose from the heroin and dark alleyways of the Bowery, a sleazy slum perched on top of Little Italy. It produced a brand of music that was malformed, but beautiful. It featured music that could be learned in a garage or broken bachelor apartment. It was music that was angry, energetic and full of aspiration (there's that word again). Some called it "punk", but truly it evolved beyond labels, to me, the music is better just labeled as "New York".

Time passed and now CBGBs is dead. Replaced by a designer store, run and managed by a man who seems to despise the legacy he's inherited. He designs "rock n roll" fashion. I choose such a banal description on purpose, because it fits. It is so derivative, that it gives the word derivative an even worse reputation. For example, you can find desert boots here, a reflection of that cool suede shoe from the early 60's. Except these aren't the original Clarks of that great era, they are just replicas, sewn and constructed and China and then branded with the designer's name and repackaged to you for a mere 700 dollars. The originals can still be bought on King's Road in London for 50, but here, in the place that once created some of the world's greatest music out of artists who survived on a few hundred dollars a month, the shoes now cost you 14 times their actual value.

But perhaps the epitome of the lunacy was a simple leather necklace. It was just a few strands of black leather, with some 1-inch skulls made out of silver-coated metal. The skulls were just tied into the knots of the leather. It celebrated death, turned it into a tacky commodity with a few shiny objects and material cut from a cow skin. It was the kind of necklace a street artist might sell to you for 200 dollars. Here, it was a mere 8000 dollars. A month's salary on a leather "punk" necklace. "Punk" rock had officially become haute couture, it had become so bourgeois, that it ceased to be a mockery and became truly "vicious". Punk was angrier now than ever before, because, like me it had become middle-aged, comfortable, bloated and a reflection of broken dreams and promises. It wanted money now, lots of it and would scalp anyone to get it. Filthy lucre indeed.

It was clear I was not welcome. I wanted the past and his store gladly sold a manufactured connection to it, but for a vicious price. This was nostalgia at a price only a Wall Street broker could afford. This was no longer the art of the garage, this was the art of car services, guest lists and expense accounts.

Like the photo on Time Square, time had changed the perspective. Look at what I had become as 20 years passed me by. Look at the what CBGB had become as 20 years passed by. I went from Sonic Youth to middle-aged malaise. CBGB had gone from Sonic Youth to tacky desperation at prices only Coco Chanel would dare to demand. Each of us had decayed, each had failed to truly conquer the impenetrable dream of Manhattan.

I stared at the necklace, I had failed. I had fallen short. I had stood before the giant of New York and was slain. Yet somehow, I felt superior to the bourgeois designer who had taken Manhattan's promise by the horn and wrestled the beast to its inevitable conclusion of greed and hypocrisy. Was I just a middle-aged man justifying his mediocre life and meager means? Perhaps, but if the evolution of punk rock was to sell hipsters an 8000 dollar leather necklace, then "evolving" into my middle-aged, middle-class malaise seemed rather genuine by comparison.

I was a failure, but maybe, just maybe I was a more honest failure than the 8000 dollar necklace?

The universe is a pretty vast, cold and unknowable thing. You can't conquer it. It will always conquer you. Always. Your dignity and to some extent, your limited happiness derives from confronting that reflection and smiling anyway. Once you do that, the tragedy of what CBGBs has become, (or what you have become), seems more amusing.

Time doesn't heal wounds, it inflicts them, the more you wear those scars with pride, the more you can laugh back at Manhattan's cruel reflection.

Of course, Manhattan will always laugh last. Those silver-coated skulls were just a warning. So were the photographs.

Manhattan will always win in the end.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Progress for Gay Right's Movement

Gay rights are important, fight for them.

If there is anything that disturbs me about today’s protests it is that this is exactly the kind of grassroots/viral campaign that would have defeated Proposition 8 to begin with. As I said before, the original campaign ads were an embarrassment.

One more thing, the gay rights movement has the right idea as it moves towards a louder, prouder and fiercer campaign about rights and equality. On the other hand, singling out Mormons and African-Americans as scapegoats, is not only hypocritical it can hinder the movement’s progress. Rather than blaming those who campaign against you, simply state your own case louder and with more determination than ever before. It worked for the civil rights movement of the sixties, it will work again.

Gay marriage provides legal equality with straights. Any other compromise, (civil unions for example) is a “three-fifths” solution, a second-class solution and therefore they are unacceptable to anyone that treasures civil rights.

Gays deserve the same rights as straights, no more, no less. Period.


Goodbye Nader, Goodbye Nader Supporters

It's not often I agree with wacKOS, but today they hit it out of the park when they ridiculed the hypocrisy of the Ralph Nader movement:

I doubt "history" gives a rats ass about the "Nader/Gonzalez initiative" (they used to be called "campaigns"), and after I hit submit "post" on this little piece, neither will I.
-- Markos

Then of course, the Nader-heads, in their usual zealous and over-bearing way descended upon him like screeching vultures they are:

It is for this reason that I will no longer read the Daily Kos. If the Kos were to issue a retraction or apology, I would quickly reconsider my decision, as the Kos is one of my favorite sites to visit.

And Markos in his usual "my britches are bigger than yours" way simply responded:

Fuck Ralph Nader, and fuck his supporters. If the past eight years hasn't smacked any sense into their addled brains, then nothing will. This site caters to the reality-based community. No one else need apply.
-- Markos

On this point, I could not agree more. Nader supporters need to wake up and smell the gin on Ralph's breath. The man is an aging embarassment to political progress, and his recent comment on the historic election of Barack Obama, a disgusting epilogue to his career.

This was the last election Ralph Nader will even be an option on the ballot. For those of us who have seen Nader hinder progress for the sake of his own ego; for those of us who watched him take as much money as he could along the way (and from any source willing to donate it), it is indeed good riddance.

And Ralph, get yourself to a 12-step program and fast...


A digital loop to "The Great Depression"

We have been hearing about this for at least a year: just a couple of months away from now it will be time for older televisions to be upgraded to digital. Those with regular old rabbit ear antennas on their Panasonic, Sharp, or even Zenith TVs - who have not stepped into the digital television realm, could be the very ones who may have the hardest time affording it in this economy. I'm just saying. People who haven't upgraded whether their reason be fear of change, because they are clinging to the past, no access to cable/digital service or affordability, face the loss of staying in touch with "the World" at some level.

Even though the digital set top box converter is a reasonable price, and the coming of this conversion has been widely promoted, I still believe there are at least a couple of things to take into consideration, the first being the procrastinators who live in this country. Most likely those who do not have a digital TV or converter will go without for a while and then realize they do not miss the majority of the trivial drivel they have been been exposed to (as referred to in previous posts seen below).

Others will just simply have to put their money elsewhere as there are many people losing their jobs and homes daily. It brings to mind the old days of The Depression when there was no TV; when families gathered around their radios to hear about current events. This may be an extreme comparison, though more and more families are being forced out of their homes, most likely having to move in with relatives. Our country could now begin to resemble the days of "way back when" that our grandparents have been telling us about for years.

Is this such a bad thing? That era was certainly not perfect (are any of them?), but we do have the ability to learn from those days, take what we like from them, add our accomplishments, and leave the rest.