The Musical Treasure Trove

So, I have been thinking a bit about re-reruns (prompted, I must admit by a This American Life episode about re-runs). This thinking has dove-tailed with some of my thoughts about the repeatability of the cover song and the tension between one ‘performance’ and another. Part of this thinking is a tortured attempt to try to justify what I am about to do today: repeat one of our posts. What happens when you repeat a repetition?

Like my brother, I have found that the busyness of normal life (whatever that means) has gotten to be a bit overwhelming. The end of the semester has brought me a pile of grading, a CV-length of promised articles, and two children who are growing faster than I can imagine. This has kept me (guiltily) from having the time to write a quality post while also making me wonder whether or not this blog is doing what it should.

See, it has been suggested that the posts are too long and too discursive–and, as readership has ebbed and flowed, I have wondered what the worth is. This contemplation lasts a few minutes because, when it comes down to it, I enjoy writing this blog even if the act is entirely masturbatory.

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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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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!

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.

 

Fall Recent Acquisitions, Part 2

Last week, I posted about my recent music acquisitions. I felt compelled to split the post in two because I have gone on a few irresponsible binges. Part of this is my obsessive character. But a lot of this has to do with one of the reasons we started this blog–to learn more about music and to learn about new music. So, we’ve had The Only D gracing us with lists of new artists and I have tried to follow some of the more prolific new music promoters like Backseat Mafia and 2BitMonkey.

The combination of these efforts has forced to exceed my music allowance almost monthly. Only occasionally do I regret it.

PhoenixBankrupt

Lately I have been listening to “Lisztomania” a lot because my toddler 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 below). I find this album annoying. I can’t say much more than that. Ok, I can. The songs aren’t catchy: they’re like the earworms in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.

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.

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 soon. 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.

Arcade FireReflektor

I had a conversation on twitter with my good friend and college roommate about this album. It was brief but essential.

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.

Okkervil River, Silver Gymnasium


The conversation on twitter also covered this album. The fact is, that it is because of @jake_turbo that I bought this album.

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.

Just Lions, Paper Cage


I learned about Just Lions from Backseat Mafia and really liked the first song I heard. I find EPs really frustrating because I keep thinking there’s more. Four songs just isn’t enough! (Or, conversely, it turns out to be just enough to confuse you.) I don’t yer know if I will be buying the album when it comes out. But I probably will.

Beast Make BombSourpuss


2BitMonkey taught me about this band. Some female rockers. The EP is half good. That’s bad news. (The song “Party Monster” is really kind of lame)

Palma Violets, 180

Ok, some more twitter:

So, EPs can be dangerously deceptive. Albums can be too. 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 win my attention for the week.

New Music, Again

So, here’s a third installment of The Only D’s musical suggestions. Whether or not he wants me to tell you this, he has some time on his hands to search for new music because he’s one of a majority of a generation screwed by our financial system.

This means he doesn’t have a job. He should. (And his Mexican-American mother might have a breakdown if he doesn’t get one soon.) Yet, I benefit because, when he is not trolling Reddit for pictures of whatever the hell the ‘frontpage of the internet’ is obsessed with, he’s wading through music to mess with me.

(He’s also, apparently, the go-to guy for suggestions for ‘adult’ web-portals among his friends. Honor takes different forms in different cultures, I guess.)

If you notice, from his comments, he has stereotyped me as interested only in one type of music. What’s with this obsession with folk-pop? Am I so one-dimensional? He’s probably right: my tastes can be predictable. But not always.

Here we go:

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Youtube Covers 2

I have already talked more than most want to hear about cover songs, about my theories about different kinds of cover songs. I am a bit obsessed, I admit, in an amateurish kind of way, with what I might call the ‘ontological’ status of the cover song. What about a song remains sufficiently the same when it is translated from one performance to another that we can call it the same song? What is of the essence in a song’s repeatability?

Ok, that’s only part of the obsession. The rest, or perhaps the bulk, is about what we can understand from comparing different versions of the same song and what we learn about artists and ourselves when other people’s songs must be played.

(I learned that I was, at best, a mediocre musician.)

Everyone who learns to play the guitar experiments with playing other people’s songs. Some of us do only this; others of us spend as little time possible doing this before going on to try to write our own. But the end of the story is that pretty much everyone who plays the guitar plays cover songs.

Whether you play for 30,000 people in a sold-out arena or in your bathroom for the mirror and a cat, you perfect at least one of your favorite songs. You give it your own special twist just dreaming of the day that you can impress, move or at least wake up someone with your cover.

As I recently mentioned, for most wannabe and cub musicians, cover songs were something share with friends, something inflicted on strangers who wander into your proximity. Witnessing cover songs was something that happened by accident. But now, thanks to the interweb, cover songs can be packaged into short videos and shared with the world. We learn little of the context or personality of the performer, all we get is the performance of someone else’s songs.

I have been slightly obsessed with youtube covers, in part for the trainwreck effect—but I have also been amazed by the beauty and depth of some covers. I am not always impressed with the performance, but I am unmanned by the naked humanity on show for free online.

In my earlier post I mentioned a younger woman whose rendition of Mates of State’s “My Only Offer” was heart breaking in its simplicity and rawness. Another strange moment from the same girl: a cover of Bright Eye’s “First Day of My Life” starts with her asking her “best friend”, Janet the Cat, what song to sing:

Her vocals on this one are really nice (she hits a falsetto note that makes it seem like this song was written for a woman). The cover is still a bit fast, but I would buy it.

For the same song, this girl has a much jazzier voice (less heady, a little raspy) and many more fans (probably the eyes; she uses the camera better).

While she’s certainly good, I prefer the edgier, crazier cover, it seems less calculated. I don’t know if I want to know why she’s posting these videos.

From this same cover artist, however,  the cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” seems more raw and honest.

In the video she makes fewer doe eyes at the camera and seems to be really inhabiting the song. When she gets to the payoff “I told you to be patient” she gets more country than jazz and doesn’t hit the tortured hurt of the original, but it is still a worthwhile version

Back to Feist: this duoprovides a really nice and faithful cover of “I feel it All”.

They change up the vocals just enough to reveal their greater talent in that category—the effect is musically enjoyable (almost a young Indigo Girls in the 21st century) but their performance can remind us all of the joy of playing a song with someone else.

I was struck enough by their Feist cover to stick around for their version of Arcade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running”:

The vocals, at least initially, are less strong (there’s not as much to work with in the material…Arcade Fire is more about style of singing than tone and variation) but it gets stronger by the chorus when it gets quite pretty.

My favorite recent, can’t disappoint, discovery: Pete the beat box does “Where is my Mind” by the Pixies:

I don’t care why Pete is posting this. I don’t care what he wants from the world. I just want to thank him. Thank you, Pete. You made me (and my daughter) smile.

What do you think brother, why do people post these videos? Will you be posting one soon?

The Musical Treasure Trove

It’s just as simple as that.
Well, it’s just a simple fact.
When I want something,
I don’t want to pay for it.  
“Been Caught Stealing”, Jane’s Addiction

Earlier I wrote about the iPod—mainly its deadly allure and seductive nature. While failing to come down fully on one side or another, I also neglected to identify another unique and salient feature: the iPod’s portability. Now, it may seem too obvious to mention, but it is this one feature that essentially defines the iPod. For, if it were much larger, what would be the advantage of owning one?

Yet, portability—let’s think of it in terms of movable wealth—as easily a liability as an asset. That which may be moved may be stolen. And here’s where the iPod’s convenience (which also enslaves) most endangers. While successive versions of iTunes have warned us to back up our music regularly, many of us do not. Before we bought our music digitally, we had CDs, cassettes, and records (hard copies!) to carry around; the iPod liberated us from literal baggage.

(When will there be a device to lighten the load of our figurative burdens?)

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