Saturday, January 28, 2017

My 40 favorite albums of an impressive 2016, plus odds and sods

Pity Sex
Updated April 18.

If this list doesn't prove what a typically exceptional year it was for music, then I don't know what could. That staple greats like Band of Horses, Wilco, and Parquet Courts got reduced several spots down in the top 10 by upstarts ought to be exhibit A.

Best Compilation: Whether you like The Grateful Dead or not, this expansive collection called Day of the Dead has something for everyone. Also, Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliot Smith, with likes of J Mascis and Juliana Hatfield, offers hard-to-compete great renditions.

Best Soundtrack: Sing Street is way deeper and funnier  that La La Land, and its songs blow them away. That's saying a lot too, because La La Land was pretty good.

Favorite Vinyl Purchase: Pure McCartney is great because I now have four albums worth of great post-Beatles tunes in one semi-quirky boxset.

Best Extras Release: R.E.M.'s 25th anniversary release of Out of Time has tons of great alternate versions of many of the band's most excellent songs.

Best Remaster: The Turtles are a criminally under-appreciated 1960s band, from their Monkees-like hits such as "Happy Together" to their weirdo tendencies fitting for a band that often backed Frank Zappa; "All the Singles" is a loving collection of great songs.

Most Unnecessary Release: The Rolling Stones are back with their first release, "Blue & Lonesome," in eons. And while it's not particularly bad, it is a huge bore and not nearly as good as the great blues records the Stones are trying to emulate.

Best EP: Snail Mail, which I know nothing about, released Habit, which is lo-fi but completely catchy and among the best overall releases of the year.

40. Dr. Dog: The Psychedelic Swamp (these jalopy rockers keep getting more expansive and interesting)
39. Iggy Pop: Post Pop Depression (not a huge Iggy fan, admittedly, but this weirdo collection is very compelling)
38. The Gotobeds: Blood // Sugar // Secs // Traffic (definitely the best album title of the year, and some pretty raucous Pittsburgh pop-punk to boot. Good recommendation from the Sound Opinions podcast)
Car Seat Headrest
37. Beach Slang: A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings (it's like the 80s college wave and 90s Archers of Loaf meet in this collage of soaring guitars)
36. The Strokes: Future Present Past (nothing as classic as the early Strokes, but it's still nice to have a little more in the collection from them, and they're still mighty NYC cool)
35. Drive-By Truckers: American Band (the new Lynyrd Skynyrd puts out another great collection, this one on the mellower side)
34. The Pooches: Heart Attack (the most pleasant chill-out pop EP of the year)
33. Lucius: Good Grief (a blend of songs you could have sworn you've already heard for years on the dance Top 40 radio stations, but this album is filled with earworms that are all brand new)
32. Lisa Prank: Adult Teen (Tacocat buddy Lisa Prank plays the kind of lo-fi tunes that fit right into a year when playing it low key sometimes is just that much more refreshing)
31. Santigold: 99 Cents (which features my favorite song of the year "Can't Get Enough of Myself")
30. Various: The Hamilton Mixtape (this is one musical whose songs I can't get enough of)
29. Lydia Loveless: Real (not as classic as her last release, but she's still making the best alt-country happening these days)
28. De La Soul: and the Anonymous Nobody ... (this is all over the place, kind of like the classic De La albums of old, and makes for fun repeated and deep listenings)
27. Sturgill Simpson: A Sailer's Guide to Earth (I wasn't really onboard the earlier craze, but this album is about a good as country pop gets right now)
26. Hudson Bell: Yerba Buena (indie rockers wait no more, go get this)
25. Ladyhawke: Wild Things (this is like the second disc if Tegan and Sara's album were a double album; can't get enough of this kind of not-dumb dance pop)
24. Drugdealer: The End of Comedy (this is a little like a lost George Harrison album if he had spent more time in Laurel Canyon in the 1970s)
23. The Jayhawks: Paging Mr. Proust (didn't think these Minneapolis 90s alt-country warriors could still have it in them, but this is great)
22. The Goon Sax: Up to Anything (falling somewhere between the mellow pleasures of Belle and Sebastian and the off-kilter Daniel Johnston, and what a name!)
21. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here (not much needs to be said, other than this was too long in waiting)
20. The Sandwich Police: Love Yourself (not quite sure where this obscure Evan Dando-involved EP came from, but it sure makes me happy)
19. Frankie Lee: American Dreamer (don't know much about this guy, but his album is officially the best country release of the year)
18. Twin Peaks: Down in Heaven (garage-rock Stones-like band that has been floating around awhile, they pull it all together with this release)
17. Alejandro Escovedo: Burn Something Beautiful (the Austin troubadour has always been really good on album and supposedly great in concert. He's great on this album)
16. The Lemon Twigs: On Hollywood (a weird little grower by some awkward kids who I somehow discovered on a network morning show, proving the concept of "popular sensation" makes no sense)
15. Childish Gambino: "Awaken, My Love!" (this is the best Funkadelic-like album since the 1970s and a major improvement from actor Donald Glover's earlier musical efforts)
14. ESP Ohio: Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean + various EP releases (not even hardcore Guided By Voices fans necessarily even know these were released, but there are some early-2000s-like gems scattered throughout)
13. Teenage Fanclub: Here (has this band ever put out a bad song? Timeless power pop)
12. Parquet Courts: Human Performance (quickly becoming consistently my favorite contemporary band)
11. The Avalanches: Wildflower (this psychedelic mash-up of tons of popular tunes is insane and extremely catchy throughout, and a real surprise for the year)
10. Band of Horses: Why Are You OK (much like Parquet Courts, this band is just so consistently great, in a very gorgeous way with this one)
09. Ages and Ages: Something to Ruin (this may be the most upbeat thing I loved this year; as if Pavement merged with the Polyphonic Spree to create ridiculously happy slacker rock)
08. Free Cakes for Every Creature: Talking Quietly of Anything With You (this is almost painfully twee, but if you love their tune, "All You Gotta Be When You're 23," then you'll want all this album)
07. Wilco: Schmilco (mellow and gorgeous, it's almost unfair to everyone else who has to compare in the years that Wilco releases an album)
06. Tegan and Sara: Love You to Death (my kids' everyday addiction to "Boyfriend" may have destroyed that song forever, but there's no denying how perfect this album is)
05. Dinosaur Jr.: Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not (J Mascis just keeps doing his thing, and if you love his thing, this release was hard for much anything else to beat this year)
04: Against Me!: Shape Shift With Me (heavy metal hasn't much been my thing since I had a major crush in high school, but this is so amazingly catchy that I'll still be listening to it in my 80s)
03. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial (we've waited a long time for someone to do Guided By Voices as well as GBV, and this young dude may finally be the rocking, rollicking answer)
02. Pity Sex: White Hot Moon (this band made this ultra-hooky shoegazey and rocky ode to the 90s and then promptly broke up)
01. Scott & Charlene's Wedding: Mid Thirties Single Scene (these tales of Australian Outback-ness might have been the best thing of the year if it had been released in 1986)

Honorable Mentions: 
  • Dream Wife: EP01
  • Supermoon: Playland
  • The Growlers: City Club
  • Plastic Ants: Imperial Phase
  • Kings of Leon: Walls
  • Charles Bradley: Changes
  • Animal Collective: Painting With
  • Empire of the Sun: Two Vines
  • The Jazz Butcher: Last of the Gentleman Adventurers
  • Oscar: Cut and Paste
  • SWMRS: Drive North
  • Beverly: The Blue Swell
  • Close Lobsters: Design and Signs
  • Rogue Wave: Delusions of Grand Fur
  • Adam Olenius: Looking Forward to the New Me
  • Winterpills: Love Songs
  • Crying: Beyond the Fleeting Gales
  • Honeyblood: Babes Never Die
  • Field Mouse: Episodic
  • Lunch Duchess: My Mom Says I Have Rich Inner Life
  • Metallica: Hardwired ... To Self-Destruct
  • M.I.A.: AIM
  • Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
  • The Monkees: Good Times!
  • Pinegrove: Cardinal
  • Beach Slang: A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
  • Frankie Cosmos: Next Thing
  • The Monochrome Set: Cosmonaut
  • Pete Yorn: Arranging Time
  • JEFF the Brotherhood: Zone
  • Weezer: White Album

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Biking with Ivanka Trump and Barrack Obama on a cold D.C. morning

I'm working at a Transportation Techies event tonight, so I took the opportunity for a rare casual, roundabout bike ride to work in frigid 20-degree weather this morning.

My usual route never takes me to Washington D.C.'s Kalorama neighborhood. And, in fact, not many routes to work of mere commoners goes through Kalorama by design. It's a neighborhood of mansions and embassies nestled between Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown. But none of the streets are all that easy to pass through. So despite being practically smack-dab in the center of D.C.'s action, it has very little traffic.

That might change a little bit soon, as two new neighbors are sure to bring gawkers like me. Barrack Obama and family will soon move in to this lovely red-brick home overlooking Rock Creek Park at 2446 Belmont Road NW. Lots of workers were there getting it ready, as were a few people taking photos like me.

And just a block-and-a-half away, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are moving into this more fortress-like abode at 2449 Tracy Place NW. I imagine the gold-plated interior walls will soon be installed. For now, there was an on-camera interview of some kind happening on the street in front of the house (and just above my thumb's-down sign).

Monday, January 2, 2017

We demonize Muslims because we never got a chance to understand them from the beginning

Strange how so many in the U.S. demonize Muslims and Islam. Then again, it's not surprising that we don't much understand that approach to the world, since we are taught very little beyond Western Civilization in school.

That's precisely why it's so important that we all read Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Academic Eyes

In the book, as noted in past reviews, he tells "the rich story of world history as the Islamic world saw it, from the time of Mohammed to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and beyond. He clarifies why our civilizations grew up oblivious to each other, what happened when they intersected, and how the Islamic world was affected by its slow recognition that Europe - a place it long perceived as primitive and disorganized - had somehow hijacked destiny."

Ansary himself says the book is "like what I’d tell you if we met in a coffeehouse and you said, 'What’s all this about a parallel world history?'"

I'm going to buy this to keep reading, but some snippets from early in the book that show why I love the way Ansary explains things so well include:
  • One key geographical feature sets Mesopotamia apart from some of the other early hotbeds of culture. Its two defining rivers flow through flat, habitable plains and can be approached from any direction.
  • Settled farmers would build irrigation systems supporting prosperous villages and towns. Eventually some tough guy, some well-organized priest, or some alliance of the two would bring a number of these urban centers under the rule of a single power, thereby forging a larger political unit - a confederation, a kingdom, an empire. Then a tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer the monarch of the moment, seize all his holdings, and in the process expand their empire. Eventually the hardy nomads would become soft, luxury-loving city dwellers, exactly the sort of people they had conquered, at which point another tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer them, and take over their empire.
  • Later, the Persian Empire stands out for several reasons. First, the Persians were the counter-Assyrians. They developed a completely opposite idea of how to rule a vast realm. Instead of uprooting whole nations, they resettled them. They set the Hebrews free from captivity and helped them get back to Canaan. The Persian emperors pursued a multicultural, many-people-under-one-big-tent strategy. They controlled their enormous realm by letting all the different constituent people live their own lives according to their own folkways and mores, under the rule of their own leaders, provided they paid their taxes. The Muslims later picked up on this idea, and it persisted through Ottoman times.