Watch my Garden Grow

In a post not-too-long ago, my brother compiled a song-list for gardening. I think a lot of us have such informal sound tracks—sometimes we make them on purpose with iTunes playlists, or, in the old days, a mix-tape. Music is so elemental and visceral that it easily cleaves to our daily lives; in addition, our steady modern diet of television and movies all set to finely selected soundtracks conditions us to hear musical accompaniment for everything.

Or something like that.

The reason my brother’s post is worth going back to (other than the fact that it is fascinating and his list is pretty great) is also connected to what music does for us and to us: it makes us remember. But the kind of memory my brother talked about doesn’t come from music alone, it comes from working the land where my father put his hands, from turning the soil my father toiled over, and from tending the plants my father left behind him.

See, my post is about how my brother’s relationship to the land my father left us is a metaphor for his grief and the way he is honoring my father’s memory. My gardening music and my abandonment of the land is equally metaphorical. We have both been set adrift by our grief; our reactions have trapped us in turn. I’ll have a list of gardening music too.

Song 1: Rogue Wave: “Publish My Love”—a song I could not get enough of when I first got my own property. I can still recall pulling weeds in the rain with my headphones tucked under a hooded sweatshirt.

Let’s start with something unnerving. A few months before my father died, he gave a group of books to his only grandchild at the time, my daughter. Among them was a book entitled The Farmer, perhaps selected in remembrance of a book I loved when I was a toddler called Farmer Jones. Inside the book, my father wrote “You come from farmers. And always remember—you sow what you reap. Sow what you reap.”

What my father wrote

I didn’t find this epigraph until my father was a year gone. And when I did, I immediately started weeping. Never mind that we have long been crap farmers or that my father mysteriously  (or mistakenly) reversed the phrase “reap what you sow”. All I could think of was what he was thinking when he wrote that less than two months before he died. Did he have regrets? Did he know more than we did?

Song 2: Feist, “Mushaboom”—another song that I brought with me from NYC. I always loved the simple life evoked by the singer, the small house, children, the quiet. My wife and I bought and gutted a foreclosed house and did everything we could together from painting, to tile, to refinishing cabinets. The outside was mine alone.

My father and mother bought several acres of mixed woods—white pine, some scotch pine, birches in the front, a sprinkling of old apple trees, lilac bushes and some poplars near the road—and spent years taming it and creating a lawn. While he left most of the trees, my father was tireless in clearing scrub and fashioning gardens at my mother’s whims. His creations weren’t perfect, but they absorbed his sweat, his energy, his life.

When I was young, my father and mother grew vegetables in the back yard of our old house.  I still remember picking green beans from the garden and shelling peas. To this day I cannot snap into a fresh green bean without remembering the walk up the hill, the smell of the old Irish setter, and the cold, dark colors of my family’s first home.

Song 3: John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song”. I think I learned this song from my mother; I know I sang it in kindergarten and I am pretty sure my father knew the words. I often sing the first few lines for my children now. My eyes never fail to water.

I live in one of those ridiculous suburbs that have green lawn rules and where the local HOA can fine you if your yard is not up to community standards. The threat of fines wasn’t what made me want to make my yard look good, however.  Every time I looked at my lawn, I could hear my father telling me to take pride in what I owned. I knew how to plant, water, weed, prune, build stone walls, care for trees, prepare garden beds from scratch—I knew all these things because I had done them with my father.

Even during the summer my daughter was born, I was out in triple-digit temperatures mowing, edging, weeding and watering my lawn because I knew when my father came to visit he’d tell me where I needed to re-seed, where I needed to aerate, because he’d tell me to take pride in what I own. Now, let me be clear, even if I had let it all go to weeds, my father would merely make a joke of it. But he took yardwork so seriously that I couldn’t imagine not doing so.

Song 4: Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”—in my last year of serious yardwork, I fell in love with this song. It’s haunting falsetto vocals, and distancing, alienating feel, almost made me feel cool under the hot sun.

The summer after my father died was the driest in generations. It cost more to water the lawn than it did to pay HOA fines. But this is not why I stopped working on the yard. I couldn’t handle it. When the lawnmower wouldn’t work, I fixed it the way my father would; when the soil needed aeration, I tried to do it myself and failed, unlike my father. Every time I put on the gardening shoes and looked at the dry dirt edged with green and browns that only comes from long afternoons in the garden, I thought of those afternoons I spent as a child watching my father in the yard and then, later, helping him.

And I couldn’t handle it. I selfishly thought of all the hours he spent in the yard and not with his children. Then, I thought of all the energy he expelled for something that suddenly seemed to superficial and silly. I told my wife that I had too much work to do; I told my neighbors that it was unethical to water in a drought; I told myself I had to spend more time with my daughter before a new child arrived.

But the truth was, I think I only worked on my yard because I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And now? My brother lightly (and not so lightly) mocks me because I have hired someone to do it for me. We live in a different house in another community with an evil HOA and I refuse even to buy a lawnmower. Unlike my father, I don’t get any pleasure from working this land.It is dry, it is barren, and the work seems a performance for others, not a search for a deeper understanding of self. Even though I own it, I feel like a temporary visitor. I know I will sell this property; I will never leave it to my children.

This place, and this world, I am just passing through. I cannot bear to garden here, because every plant that dies and every one that blooms reminds me of what is coming and what has gone. I cannot garden anymore, for now, because my father’s voice still echoes.

Sow what you reap?

Song 5: Micah P. Hinson “Yard of Blonde Girls”—imagine if people grew like flowers? This song has one of the best ‘builds’ of any song I have heard in a while. Hinson knows his crescendo.

My brother tends the land my father works and it is both a statement of his love for my parents and a metaphor for how we tend the memory of those we lose. He tries to keep everything my father planted, but time changes it—what he can, he makes better; what he cannot improve, he casts aside.

I ignore the land I own because my father never touched it. I tend his memories elsewhere, trying like my brother to cast aside what is of no use, and to bring to health whatever my father planted—my brother, myself, my sister, my children.

Inch by inch, row by row. My father made his garden grow.

Springtime? Nope. Winter is Coming: Game of Thrones is Back, A Song List

TyrionLast year around this time I confessed (ok, reiterated) my own geekiness when I was hyperbolically excited about the fact that Night Riots has a song named “Berelain” after a character from Robert Jordan’s recently (and posthumously) completed Wheel of Time series. I must add, however, that my geek credentials are the real-thing: I get paid to teach about mythology and to write about ancient poetry.

(Well, the credentials are spotty. I mentioned earlier that I actually played a bard to the 21st or 22nd level in a role-playing game. At one point, I actually tried to write music for the fictional character to perform. I am so ever grateful that I don’t remember it and that the internet did really exist to record my follies back then.)

This week? I have been eagerly awaiting the return of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Now, as readers of this blog know, my brother and I occasionally get excited about television, but not too often. We both used to like The Walking Dead. We both really loved Breaking Bad. He gets into things like Doomsday Preppers while I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which he will not watch). But Game of Thrones is something that we share. And there is an important reason.

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Luck of the Irish…Music?

 

I realize I’m several days past St Patrick’s day but I really wasn’t inspired to write this post until this past weekend. On Friday evening, my husband and I bought a pizza for our daughter and her babysitter, drove 45 minutes to our state capital and attended a concert given by the Irish Rovers.

Earlier this month I heard on our local NPR station that they’d be stopping in our small New England state during the “farewell to rovin” tour. I decided I would buy tickets for us to attend the show as my husband grew up listening to their music and he has been singing the same songs to our little one since she joined us in this world nearly 2 years ago. Prior to the concert, to fully embrace our first date night in months, we went to a bar that I hadn’t been to since my days in law school. We had a couple beers, smoked some cigarettes (gasp!) and met several people who were also attending the show. (Most of whom were decades older than us.).It was fun to talk to other folks as excited about the show as we were.

The concert was wonderful, the group played for about 2 hours. The band formed in the early 1960s and has changed over the years and replaced members who have moved on to greener pastures or to the great pub in the sky, but the current accordion player is one of the original rovers. They played new songs and old songs, well known hits and less known drogues. People of all ages enjoyed the show, multiple generations were in attendance.

When it was all over, the band sat in the lobby to do a meet and greet. We were lucky to speak to all of the members of the group and we bought a compilation of their greatest hits and they all signed the CD cover. (What’s worth noting here is that neither my husband nor myself could remember the last time we bought an actual CD!!!!) My husband told the lead singer how much it meant to him that he saw them play, as their music had come full circle in his life with his father singing their songs to him and he now sings them to our child. The lead singer seemed very flattered and moved by this comment and took a few minutes to chat with us which really was nice.
It was great to hear some live Irish music again. I have had the opportunity to travel to been to Ireland a couple of times as a good friend of mine from college pursued her PhD in Dublin so I had a free place to stay and an insider to show me the city. On each of my trips we frequented many pubs and I got to hear a lot of real authentic Irish music which was a real treat. So anyway, on our drive home from the Irish Rovers show that evening (around 11pm–the latest we’d been out in years!!!) I got to thinking about bands from Ireland and wanted to write a post about them. Groups like U2 and the Cranberries came to mind (those are the obvious ones), but I did a little bit of research as to other Irish bands. I’ll use the most well known songs of the Irish groups I chose just to make the list more familiar and thus maybe more enjoyable. Let’s get started.

U2: “Where the Streets Have no Name”

So clearly we can’t discuss bands from Ireland without mentioning the powerhouse of U2. The Joshua Tree is in my top 3 favorite albums ever and would be one of the CDs I bring to the desert island should I ever become stranded! This is one of U2’s most famous songs and is the first track on The Joshua Tree. The song was released in 1987 and has been used frequently in sports, including on a commercial for the 2010 World Cup and as the entrance song for the Baltimore Ravens football team and the Vancouver Canucks hockey team. I have never been lucky enough to see U2 in concert, but apparently the band still plays this song during nearly every performance.
Snow Patrol: “Chasing Cars”


This song was very popular during my first year of law school. It is on Snow Patrol’s 4th album and to be honest, I never even heard of Snow Patrol until I heard this song. I actually purchased the album, “Eyes Open” but wasn’t too impressed with the rest of the tracks. Other popular songs by Snow Patrol include “Signal Fire” (featured on the Spider-man 3 sound track) and “Run” (from their 3rd album).

The Cranberries: “Linger”

The Cranberries have also been around forever and are one of the better known groups from Ireland. I remember them most well from the early 90s, when their album Everyone Else is Doing It so Why Not me? was released. They reigned the alternative music world for several years and in 2003 decided to separate and pursue individual careers. The band reunited in 2009. I picked “Linger” as the song to feature here because it was one of the first songs released in the United States and it’s the one I like best.
VAN Morrison: “Brown-eyed Girl”

Here’s a really well-known song by an Irishman! Van Morrison wrote this song in 1967 but he started his career in the late 1950s. This song has been covered by countless groups, including the elderJ’s high school band, whose version of course is my all-time favorite. Great fact about Van Morrison: He’s known as “the Belfast Cowboy.”
The Irish Rovers: “Drunken Sailor”


This is an old favorite of mine. My parents also used to sing it often. This song has been performed by several artists in addition to the Irish Rovers, including Pete Seeger. The Rovers play this song as their encore song in their shows and it calls for some pretty fun audience participation. We heard this song at the show last Friday, participated when they asked and sang along with the group. It was a lot of fun and the audience was lively and excited!
Seeing the Irish Rovers was a great experience and I am happy that I felt inspired to write this after thinking about Irish music and artists on our drive home that evening. Brothers, friends and random readers, feel free to add your thoughts or songs to this list!

Running (Back) Songs: The Patriots Run to the AFC Championship

As I have written before, I have been a bit of a fan of the Patriots for some time although my love affair with their QB waxed and waned this season (or, rather, waned and waxed, because, hey, he figured it out!). One of the fascinating yet frustrating things about the Patriots over the past decade is that as their passing game has developed, the running game has faltered. Now, while the team’s points per game average has skyrocketed, the win/loss outcome in the playoffs has been, well, disappointing.

(Two losses to Eli? ELI!)

Blount’s most famous day before last weekend.

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New Music VII: Gifts That Keep On Giving

It’s been awhile, but I’m bringing back some new music (and maybe a little sexy, who knows…) to share with everybody (the music at least). For a few of my other posts I noticed that some of the bands I showcased didn’t exactly have a extensive body of work. So for my first post of 2014 I will provide bands that have at least some sort of album out there for purchase, or torrent, or that fun legal grey-zone of ripping audio mp3 from YouTube. Blue-balling you guys with singles from underground movements from southern Idaho can wait until next time. This is also a pretty “rock-centric” group, which is of course right in my wheelhouse.

Band: Smallpools
Song: Dreaming

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Northward: 10 Songs for Chicago

This weekend, while my native state digs itself out of a terrible snowstorm in obscenely cold temperatures, I fly to Chicago for a whirlwind trip to a conference. Yes, for 36 hours I will be separated from wife and kids and surrounded only by the pasty-cold denizens of my field at one of those professional conferences where people nervously check your name tag to see if you’re someone to talk to or not.

I’ve only been to Chicago once before and then I was barely into first grade. My primary memory is that the trip involved my first ever visit to Toys R’ Us. And it blew my little mind. (Maine didn’t have the emporium for another three or four years).

So, in the spirit of my trip, here are 10 songs that have something to do with the Windy City.

“Chicago”, Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens is odd. His music is quirky. But he (and his music) are damn good. The fact that I haven’t mentioned him before only underscores what a hack music-writer I am.

 

“Chicago, We Can Change the World”, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

When we grew up we had a family friend who played old protest and folk songs on his piano and Ovation Celebrity (though, not simultaneously—that would have been too cool). Although we each individually had fall-outs with this man, his musical taste and passion certainly made a tremendous impact on our lives.

This song was one of his standards. I still cannot hear the word Chicago without thinking of this song. The song reacts to the highly political and counter-cultural events of the late 60s when all went to hell at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The raw emotion and timeliness of the song always struck me, even as our friend sucked down Gennessee Cream Ales and chain-smoked in-between renditions of this and favorites by John Prine, Billy Joel and James Taylor.

“Jesus Just Left Chicago,” ZZ Top

No, this isn’t about Kanye.

How could I resist a song by this band with this name?

I have to confess that I really do wish I could grow I beard. I am not saying I could or would grow one to match one of these guys but I suspect that it would protect me against the vicious cold I’ll face this weekend.

“Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago”, Soul Coughing

My strongest memory of this song—by one of my favorite bands—is of the percussionist in my college band discovering that the lyrics developed from some type of drug-fueled existentialist fugue during which Mike Doughty contemplated the nature of what was and was not Chicago.

(And don’t think it is silly. What exactly is a city?)

Fueled ourselves by gin and tonics, there may have been imitative pointing and declaring that, yes indeed, this was not Chicago.

“In the Ghetto”, Elvis Presley (written by Mac Davis)

Yes, this is about Chicago.

True story: I was just in a sandwich place called Dave’s Cosmic subs and in the bathroom there was a fantasy painting of Elvis Presley crooning as Michael Jackson listened reclining on the hood of a car. It was all very creepy.

This ballad is so tortured and corny that it is transcendent. Less transcendent, of course, is the fact that Chicago leads the nation in murders and helps to round out some of our worst income inequality.

“Southside,” Common ft. Kanye West

Like all major US cities, I am sure that the class segregation will keep my conference and all of its attendees comfortably safe from the ghetto and from the working class neighborhoods. It is safe to say that the conference is not on the Southside of the city.

(Have I dared to mentioned that my respect for Kanye grows with each crazy thing he does? He is a performance artist.)

“If You Leave Me Now”, Chicago

One cannot have a list of songs about Chicago without including one by the band Chicago. Seriously, I am sure there is a law about this somewhere.

Chicago is one of those big-sounding, schmaltzy bands that I could care less about—the very over-produced and maudlin character that makes me avoid many bands from the time period. I hope I don’t feel the same way about the city.

“Chicago at Night,” Spoon

I haven’t talked much about Spoon on this blog, but it is a band that has great rhythms and writes some great songs. This album (poorly named Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga) wasn’t great, but it was still pretty damn good. I don’t remember spending any time in Chicago at night…but then again, I was barely reading the last time I was there.

 

“Tonight, Tonight,” Smashing Pumpkins

This song was written in Chicago and recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I had the double album (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness) but it was not oft used and I think my brother took it from me. Smashing Pumpkins are one of those alt-Chameleon bands that could have done almost anything.

At night in Chicago, I will probably be drinking too much. But I won’t be melancholy (or hanging out with dogs). This video, by the way, is fucked up.

 

“Train to Chicago,” Mike Doughty Cover

My brother has written about how much he loves this song. It is a beautiful song and a great cover by Doughty. If I had endless stretches of time, I might take the train North to Chicago. There is something old-world and peaceful about a good train ride. If anything, it doesn’t have the frantic pace and madness of air travel.

So, my brother, while I fly north and endure the actual and metaphorical cold, perhaps you can let me know which songs I have missed.

(Oh, and wish our sister a Happy Birthday).

My Best Songs of 2O13

2013 was a pretty good year. I got a new job; my band is continuing to improve; my garden is growing larger; my car still runs after breaking a few times; my social circle continues to grow; I got to see my family for Thanksgiving; and this blog still exists even if I don’t post as much as I should which makes my brother hate me. I need to use this momentum and keep on pushing to improve every where I can. I am far happier now then when I was 18 and I sure hope I am twice as happy as I am now when I’m 38. Forget that law of diminishing returns shit.

I have made a list of my favorite songs of the year and not with a mathematical formula as our newest guest poster did two days ago. I went back through my posts and tried to pick the songs that were a soundtrack to my life as well as being relevent to the music of now. Many of these songs are contemporary but some are not. All had an influence on me this year and I hope you like them as well. Use this time of reflection not to beat yourself up, but instead to count your blessings and how you will work on being a better you.

Let’s kick it.

1. Lorde

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Lorde was probably the break out star of the year and her song “Royals” matched the hype. It’s got cool beats that lend to the EDM craze of the kids these days and lyrics that actually address the obsession the world has with money and status. As much as I’ve had a good year, this 16-year-old girl from New Zealand has had the best year of her life and I don’t think it will let up soon as I’ve continually heard her new jam on the radio. “Royals” makes me think of the last days of landscaping and how few good songs were popular on the radio. Now if we can just get some guitar solos and funky bass lines out of her.

2. Tame Impala

It just occurred to me that this next band is also from a land down under and is equally important to my year of ill music. They are relatively new, releasing their second album Lonerism this year.  I discovered Tame Impala from a an episode of the hit HBO show Girls  and then before I knew it, it was all over the radio. It’s one of those situations, like Lorde,  where the hype equals the quality of the music and I look forward to seeing what this band has in store next. Their mixture of electronic music with 60’s and 70’s psychedelia really piques my interest and I’ve enjoyed every song I’ve heard. It sounds like it’s mostly one guy, Kevin Parker of Australia, who creates the albums at home then tours with various musicians. So long-term, it can’t really break up and I’m excited to see what the future brings.

3. Queens of the Stone Age

[youtubehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpj1OXT6o2E]

The Queens released a new album this year called Like Clockwork and everything I’ve heard from it thus far is awesome. For the first time in a long time, I may actually go out and buy this on CD.  This particular song has this really cool slide groove in it that is so Josh Homme, the lead singer/songwriter, which is an indicator to me that he has matured to the creative force he has always been working towards. I guess he got seriously ill and was in bed for months, contemplating never making music again. Instead, he wrote this album which is my favorite by them as of right now. This performance shows the awesomeness they are as a live band. There is a very good chance you will be reading an album review in the near future on this new album, hopefully before they start winning Grammys which is what looks like will happen. Rock on Queens of the Stone Age.

4. A Tribe Called Quest

I slipped onto a documentary on this group a few months back on the Palladia channel and stuck around because this song was playing on the beginning credits. The hook of “Walk on the Wild Side” is what drew me in but the sick drum beats and lyrics is what kept me. I know I made a resolution last year to write about hip-hop more and I did in the form of various pieces, but how have I missed Tribe for so long? I knew who Q-Tip was because of Chapelle’ s Show,however, knew nothing about the band that made him.  These dudes are so good! I guess they are on a hiatus now so I probably won’t be able to catch them live, but I’ve been working back through their stuff and I’m continually amazed. You will definitely be hearing more on Tribe this year.

5. Rest in Peace Lou Reed

Naturally, I had to make a quick statement on one of the big losses of rock and roll this year, the incredibly influential Lou Reed. It was a big blow and the one positive thing about it is that it forced my brother and I to examine the work of a legend in the music business. We already released pieces on this subject so I don’t want to harp on a subject and will keep it short. His music was amazing, his life was gritty and fantastic, and he inspired more people to play music than anyone else I can think of besides Jimi Hendrix. Lou, you will be missed.

6. J. Roddy Walston and the Business

I included this song and “Caroline”, which is my current favorite J Roddy song, on my busted muffler post last week.  The latter song has been listened to by me at least three times a day every day for a while and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. I love their vintage unique sound, I love their vocal harmonies, I love their energy, I just love this band. They are not a new band, having toured for over a decade and put the work in as road band and their latest album definitely has that feel.  J. Roddy will not play keyboards and lugs around a three hundred pound Yamaha piano to nearly every gig. This dedication is bad-ass  and I will be keeping this band on my radar.

7. Waylon Speed

I wrote a longer post about Waylon Speed last March right after I saw them and I still listen to “Silver and Gold” a lot. They actually read my piece and re-posted the link on their Facebook page which is one of the cooler things that has happened with this blog. I vaguely know the lead singer in that some college friends and I were half the crowd at their first few shows back in 2007 or 08 and we chatted a few times. My friend’s bluegrass band has done some shows with Speed’s lead singer and hopes are high that they will work more together in the future. This band rocks, sounds like metal mixed with country, and I can’t wait to see them again on tour this year. Support independent music!

8. ELO “Telephone Line”

I would call this song the sleeper hit of 2013 for me. I didn’t know much about Jeff Lynne until I saw this documentary called Mr. Blue Sky that I highly recommend. Then one night after a shower, we took some people back to my practice space and our 57-year-old drummer George Harrison put this song on the PA and it’s stuck on me ever since. Like so much I have to warn the woman I share an office with when I’m going to listen to it so she can put in her headphones. This version is my favorite because it’s just one man’s amazing voice with an acoustic guitar and piano. In the days of a hundred plus digital track recording and electronic music permeating everything, it’s refreshing to see a guy from the seventies who worked with the Beatles still going so strong.  I need to see ELO and asap.

I could go on forever but I want people to actually read all of this so here is where I will end. I love writing this blog and need to write more because it makes me happy and keeps me closer to my brother who lives on the other side of the country. I’ve shared what I liked this last year which shows what I’m getting into this coming year. Have a safe and productive 2014 dear readers and keep on rocking!

Ok, one more J. Roddy tune.

Best Albums of 2013 (According to Math)

Note: On this first day of the new year, we bring you a post from yet Another J, my college roommate, economist extraordinaire, and runner supreme. Not only has he been kind enough to provide musical hints that have turned into blog posts, but he has also been patient enough to tolerate his stories being fictionalized and told in other posts. Here, he tries to bring some rigor to the squishy practice of annual rankings. Read it. Love it. Debate it. Or something like that.

After three years of reading this blog and seeing my adventures, superior musical taste, and mediocre musical talent alluded to many times, I have finally taken the plunge and decided to contribute in a public way. The ElderJ has asked me to contribute many times and I have started many posts in my head but the topics seemed either too small or obscure to use to introduce myself to the thousands (millions? hopefully double digits?) of readers of this blog. So I decided to start with something more interesting: a music rating algorithm to rate the top albums of 2013.

I wanted to be like all the cool kids and create a list of my favorite albums of 2013. However, that is much harder than it seems, especially this year. It seemed like there were many good to great albums released in 2013, but very few truly stood out. My top few albums were obvious, but what about albums 4 through 100? I needed a way to quantify the merits of each album to accurately rank them.

The algorithm, a fancy term for math used to impress people, came to me driving to work on a random snowy day. The idea is simple: the best albums ever made consist of the best songs, the worst albums are made of the worst songs, and all of the rest fall in between. Between the best and worst albums ever exist albums that have one transcendent song and 12 other tracks of garbage, but also solid albums that do not have one “great” song but 12 “very good” songs. The algorithm provides a way to quantify that so that I could see the relative strength of each album.

To rate albums, the Music Ranking Algorithm factors in the percentage of the album that is good (i.e. the artist’s peak of the album) and how great that peak is as well as how much of an album is filler (or at a lower level than the best stuff) and how good that is. I also included a subjective “critical adjustment” to factor in how well the album met (from my perspective) expectations/hype, the introduction of new styles or elements, and how the album fits along the artist’s growth path. Sometimes releasing the “same” album twice is just what I want, but other times I expect something more or different, so I wanted to be able to account for that. When written out, the algorithm looks like this::

Rating = ((% Peak x Peak Rating)+(% Filler x Filler Rating)) x Critical Adjustment

The Peak and Filler Ratings each use a scale of 0 to 10, where:

0 = I could not finish the song because I was running to the bathroom to puke

1-2 = Will never listen to this again

3-4 = Might keep it in my iPod, but will likely skip it if it comes on.

5-6 = Will probably keep it in my iPod and may listen to it if it comes on.

7-8 = This will be in my rotation this month. Will listen or skip depending on mood.

8-9 = This will be in my rotation this year. May sometimes skip the track.

10 = This will still be in my rotation several years from now. Will almost never skip the track.

This one got a 10.

The Critical Adjustment Rating is based on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is low, 7 is high, and 4 is neutral, and the rest is…subjective. A score of 1 creates a critical adjustment factor of 0.97 (or -3%) and a score of 7 adds 3%, with the other possible scores falling in between. This allows a subjective tweak to the rating, but doesn’t change the overall score substantially.

With all of that out of the way, below are the top 17 albums I have listened to in 2013, fed through the algorithm. (This list consists of the albums that I have listened to more than a few times, so that I feel like I can give a solid review.)

1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

2. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse

3. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

This song obviously isn’t on the Electric Lady, but is just an example of how fun Janelle Monae is live.

4. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium

5. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety

6. Mike Doughty – Circles…

7. The Head and the Heart – Let’s Be Still

8. Kopecky Family Band – Kids Raising Kids

9. The Mowgli’s – Waiting for the Dawn

10. Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends

I really like this song, but the video is very creepy.

11. Little Green Cars – Absolute Zero

12. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

13. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

14. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

15. HAIM – Days Are Gone

16. The Dodos – Carrier

17. Phoenix – Bankrupt!

Looking at the list, it seems like the algorithm did a pretty good job. The albums fall into an order that fits my appraisal of them and there are only a few surprises. I loved the Vampire Weekend album and thought it was one of the best I’ve heard in years. As the Elder J has mentioned, the latest Frightened Rabbit cd is not their best, but is very good. I really like Janelle Monae’s album and keep finding new favorite parts. Autre Ne Veut has some very strong songs but is scattered, so I’m really looking forward to his next album. Mike Doughty recreated some of his best Soul Coughing songs with mixed success. The Head and the Heart and Kopecky Family Band were both pleasant finds for me this year and both have a similar boy/girl vocal mix. The Mowgli’s, Portugal. The Man, and Little Green Cars are all fun and have some strong songs good for listening to with your windows down. Pearl Jam’s latest was solid, as usual. I was disappointed in the latest output from both the National and Arcade Fire. The former didn’t take enough risks, the latter took too many. I have enjoyed most of Phoenix’s work in the past, but Bankrupt was pretty terrible.

I was most surprised with the rankings of HAIM and the Dodos. HAIM’s songs are just pure sugar coated rock, but some of their songs are really really good and really really catchy. The Dodos’ latest album was one of their strongest, but apparently lacked enough truly great moments for the robot to rank it higher.

I’m looking forward to putting new albums through this test to see where they rank and to fine tune the process. Any ideas?

Thanks to the J’s for letting me share their platform. I already have some topics for future posts that should be slightly more exciting than a “best of” list. Until then, Happy New Year!

Top Songs of (my) Year 2013

FatherTimeSomehow, another year has turned (as the Greeks would put it) and I find myself already contemplating writing retrospective and best of the year reviews. My sense of awe and disbelief derives not from actual disbelief since I can distinctly remember my life last year and where I was when I wrote the restrospectives of a year ago. No, my surprise comes from how fast it has all gone .

The alacrity of our passing years is in part perspective (the more you do something the fast it seems to go; objectively speaking, time itself has not been altered). And yet, in addition, the rapid transit of time is still accelerated more by our myriad modern distractions (I’m talking to you, 24 news cycle, twitter, social networks, etc.) and the busyness of my time of life—early career, young children, somewhat lame blog…

Is the enjoyment of life necessarily limited by speed and quantity? My suspicion is that the answer is yes. But the fact is that I don’t really want to contemplate the answer, because the only solution is to give stuff up. And I wouldn’t know where to begin. The fullness of my life is a blessing more than a curse.

Today isn’t about the busyness or the blog. I want to celebrate the fact that I still take time to enjoy music and that another year has brought me another group of songs I will always love. So, here are the ten songs I will most associate this year with in no particular order.

“New Distributor Cap”, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities

Some how I missed this alt-folk band years back. When I discovered it when I was writing a review of the Breeders’ Last Splash, I fell into one of those “wish I had been a different person reveries”. This song is sweet, and true. The central conceit—that the singer will fix the car for the girl he likes—is just so simple and universal as to be adorable. The fact that the music and recording is low-fi only brings into relief the greatness of the song even more.

(And this made me promise myself that I’d finally get around to writing about Small Rock. Just next year)

 “Best of Friends,” Palma Violets

I wrote about this song earlier. I listened to it every day for two weeks. Hell, I’m listening to it now. It is one of those songs that makes the rest of the album pale in comparison. It made me rethink Rancid. (And I’ll write about that next year.) It would be higher on the list if I had convinced my wife and children to like it.

“Dreams of Cannibalism”, Typhoon

When The Only D called me out on Typhoon and predicted I would like it, I was skeptical, but that crazy guy knows me too well. I love the album White Lighter. I love this song because it is so characteristic of how creative, dynamic and just damn musical this artist is. His songs are heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

I have shed a tear listening to this music while running in the wee hours of the mourning. Thankfully, it was always in the dark.

Late March, Death March,” Frightened Rabbit

I am going to cheat on this one and add in two more songs. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, and “Twist”. Earlier in the year I wrote how it would be impossible for me to write about Frightened Rabbit. I haven’t changed my opinion, but I have grown to love this band even more. The group’s most recent release (Pedestrian Verse) isn’t their best, but it is still pretty damn good.  I have gone days with the line “like mother said, less heart more head” from this song bouncing around in my head. It is now nearly a mantra.

“It’s Time,” Imagine Dragons

Yeah, I wrote about this song. Then, my children fell in love with it. Then it exploded and Imagine Dragons turned up everywhere. (I still don’t believe that LeBron James listens to the band.) My kids call this the “clapping song”. When my daughter sings along with the last line “I’m never changing who I am”, it chokes me up. I won’t lie.

“Super Bon Bon.” Mike Doughty (from the release, Circles)

I never thought I would get so excited about Mike Doughty again, but I was really interested to listen to this release of Soul Coughing ‘covers’. When my children heard it, they loved it and were at first perplexed by the fact that there was another “Super Bon Bon” that sounded different. They named the original recording “Drum Super Bon Bon” and this one “Small Super Bon Bon.” I play whichever they ask for. So, Mike Doughty, you made the list.

“Closer,” Tegan and Sara

When Tegan and Sara released their new album I did my usual contrarian thing and reviewed what I hold to be their best album (The Con) instead. But this song has grown on me enoguh that I listen to it a few times a week. I love these artists. I will probably buy every recording they ever make.

“Let’s Go,” Matt and Kim

Matt and Kim have always been a bit of a curiosity for me. I think that they are maknig dance music but I really like to run to it. It is memorable but not always that deep. This song is a little more complex than some of their numbers. The real reason it made it to the list is that I have ehard the song 20 times in the past five days. My daughter fell in love with it and I cannot resist when she asks for a song.

“Some Nights”, Night Riot (Used to be PK)

I grew obsessed with the song “Berelain” which I discovered just around the time I finshed the final book of the Wheel of Time series. I actually like this song more. How did it end up as the penultimate song to this list? Every time I hear it, I think, hey, I like this song. And, every time, it seems like a new revelation. That’s a pretty neat thing in a time when repetition kills everything.

“Every Time she Turns Around it’s her Birthday”, Caribou

I have written about this song a few times. I love it. But that’s not enough. No, the progressive and somewhat unstructured music is not just entertaining but it is also transformative. I haven’t heard a song that makes me feel like my state is altered in a long time. This one makes me feel, well, different. Listen.

Happy new year. May next year be even better.

Albums of (My) year 2013

Last year I made a ranked list of the albums I bought during 2012. Since I enjoyed doing it and find pleasure now (and, as often, surprise) when I turn back to it, I am returning to this again. Though I distrust lists and the distorting aesthetic of list-making, I nevertheless find it to be useful to look back on the year to put it into perspective.

This year, I have decided to make things a little more interesting (or maybe just topical and snarky) by ordering the numbered list into roughly associated groups. Enjoy.

Group 1: I don’t know why I bought these albums

19. The Dunwells, Blind Sighted Faith

I believe now that I was experiencing some temporal rift or suffering some sort of mind/body crisis when I heard this song on the TV and liked it. In honesty, I think that the cooking fan was on, the kids were screaming, and I had a cold. I’ve said all that before. This song is overproduced. The album is not very good. I won’t be listening to it again.

18. City and Colour, Bring Me Your Love

I was in a similar state of distraction when I first heard this song at the gym. When I wrote about it, I really thought I liked it. And then I listened to it when I wasn’t oxygen deprived and trapped on a treadmill. I don’t like it. The album is slightly better than the last entry, but not great.

17. Biffy Clyro, The Vertigo of Bliss

This band was suggested to me by iTunes. I don’t know why I keep falling for that, but I actually think this crew has some potential. The sound is a little too polished–another indie band that’s a bit overproduced–but it does seem creative enough that I will actually listen to this album a few times. There is some Superdrag and Eels-lite aura to the sound that makes me think I may end up liking it.

 Group 2: Disappointing Albums by Bands I like

16. They Might Be Giants, Nanobots

Oh, TMBG, I can’t stop loving you. The songs on this album, when they don’t seem formulaic, are small and uninteresting. I think that the band needs a long break or some type of epiphany. Again, I will probably buy albums by this band every opportunity I get, always hoping that they’ll surprise me again. But, then again, maybe the problem is me. Maybe I have moved too far away. 

15. Arcade FireReflektor

I really liked Arcade Fire’s first album. Neon Bible was pretty good. The subsequent two albums are musically bloated and lyrically stale. I keep listening to the earlier ones. I have tried to see if this album would grow on me, but it really hasn’t. It just seems, well, unfocused and forced.

14. PhoenixBankrupt

Lately I have been listening to “Lisztomania” a lot because my  son loves it and my wife just discovered Wolfgang Amadaeus Mozart was a great rock album. Bankrupt is part of a trend I have noticed in indie-rock bands, some sort of a strange rush to dance and synth-music (See Tegan and Sara’s Closer or Arcade Fire’s latest). I still find this album annoying after a few months. I wish they’d strap their guitars back on and make some recordings with a four-track. These guys have a good sense for music–it is just getting blotted out by all their toys.

Group 3: Good Albums by bands I like

13. Tegan and Sara’s The Heartthrob

Hearthrob, the title track from this album, has a rhythm but not always a beat. That’s an example of a sentence that sounds nice but is essentially meaningless. The title track is fun, but the collection as a whole doesn’t have the spit and vigor of the first few albums. I will not lie about my disappointment in this album. I know I keep announcing how much I love this band. The overlapping harmonies are still there, but the sisters’ voices just seem too small for the magnitude of the sounds thrown together on this album. Like Phoenix and Arcade Fire, I wish I could pay them to record an album with just a few instruments.

12. JunipJunip

So, Junip made a big splash lately when its song was used in promos for the Breaking Bad finaleI have loved the music of Jose Gonzalez for a long time. Junip is pretty good music–the extra production in comparison to Gonzalez’s seminal solo work is a little muddy and distracting; in addition, the composition of the songs is a bit unfocused as well. And, yet, this is a fine band with a fine sound. If you’re screaming because Phoenix’s new album is aurally victimizing you, listen to this as an antidote.

11. Why?Mumps, etc.

Why? is one of my favorite bands. If I can get my crap together, I will review the wonderful album Elephant Eyelash in the new year. No band I know of combines different genres and topics so honestly and inventively. This band is one of the top 10 most unique and interesting bands performing today. But, for some dumbass reason, I hadn’t bought this album. So I did. And I don’t regret it. It doesn’t get to be higher on the list because this is my damn list and I want to be arbitrary

Group 4: Albums that Deserve another Listen

10. Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero

I geeked out last year over the advanced single from this album, “The John Wayne”e. I loved it almost immediately. The full album fails to replicate the sound and success of that single, but I can’t quite agree that I am disappointed.

This is another album I think might grow on me if I give it the time. This song (“My Love took me down to the River”), for instance, makes me think of something gospel-influenced lodged between Rogue Wave and The Red House Painters. Not a bad place to be.

9. The Last Bison, Inheritance

“Inheritance”, the opening and title track is exciting and dynamic, but it only lasts a minute or so. This is another band I got really excited about when I first heard the EP from this band (from when they were just called Bison). This album has some forgettable songs. In fact, most of the memorable songs were on the EP.. Since the album was a bit of a rushed re-release of earlier work, I have hopes (perhaps unfounded) that the next album could be something special.

8. Okkervil River, Silver Gymnasium

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Okkervil river is musically interesting and lyrically almost too honest. I can’t say that I love this album, but I think I might. I bought their album The Stand Ins years back and listened to it twice. So, if prior performance is an indication of future performance, this is not a good sign. But my friend Another J keeps asking me about this, so I am going to give it the ol’ school try.

7. The Dodos, Visiter

What the hell is wrong with me? I know that this is a decent and interesting album, but I never listen to it. The lyrical and musical combination strikes me as something somewhere between the best stuff of Of Monsters and Men and the least emo Ben Gibbard solo material with some Grizzly and Bon Iver thrown in for good measure. There might even be some less-than-lyrical Belle and Sebastien stuff going on here.

Group 5: The Contenders

6. Macklemore, The Heist                

This is not the best album of the year. This is just an album we posted four times about and which I listened to way too many times. Macklemore’s style is, I think, quite forgettable and he’ll probably just be a footnote in later years. But I may be wrong about that. If you want to know far too much about what we think about Macklemore, read one of the multiple conversations.

 

5. Caribou, Up In Flames

I wrote about finding this music late on the radio when returning from the airport. This is great music to get lost to and there really isn’t that much else out there that is the same. Thank you, Caribou. Thank you. It doesn’t get to be higher on the list because It is too old and I can’t persuade anyone else to listen to it.

 

4. Jaimeo Brown, Transcendence

To be honest, I haven’t listened to this nearly as much as it deserves.  Whatever the case, I was really excited when I downloaded it. I recognize abstractly that it is a great album and musically impressive. I just don’t find it compelling. But it is good. Just not good enough.

 

3. Palma Violets, 180

This band made me think of Rancid and Fugazi with some more melodic and inventive rock thrown in there. I love the lead song from the album. And I think I listened to the full album three times in two days. Palma Violets won my attention for the whole week.Over the past week or so, my obsession has waned. So, for that reason the album rates a bit lower than the others.

2. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse

All year I have been listening to Frightened Rabbit. Any one on the albums could have served on this list. I use this one because it came out this year and I have really grown to love this album despite some initial reservations.

1. Typhoon, White Lighter

Typhoon’s White Lighter brilliant and manic. It is one of the better albums I have bought in a long time.The hard part is that it makes me want to die, Of course, I have listened to this record almost every day since I acquired it.

For the creativity, the gift of the few albums I have listened to by Typhoon, and the certainty that I will be listening to this album for a very, very long time, I am happy to say that this is my favorite album of the year.