Monday, January 31, 2011

Top Five Albums of 2010 - Ryan Star, 11:59

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

#5 – Ryan Star 11:59
I’ll admit, I wasn’t crazy about this album at first. Perhaps it’s because I was introduced to Ryan Star at a live show in 2009, and bought Songs from the Eye of an Elephant, which captured a lot of that year for me. That album had a dark and twisty singer-songwriter vibe, so when I first heard 11:59, I wasn’t a big fan of the shift to a more pop-radio style. I’ve outed myself as a lover of depressing music on many occasions, so after thinking about it, it’s no surprise that my first reaction was “What happened to the dark & twisty!?” The neat thing about this album is that it’s still there – Star’s voice has a smoky intensity that keeps the songs serious and anchored. The imagery is consistent, building a cohesive vacillation between the past and the future with a reminder to live in the present. The production additions alter the songs to be more radio friendly and actually make the overall album more hopeful – narratives about love, loss, relationships, memory, and time aren’t new to music, but they are certainly themes that can get depressing. I appreciate the approach to nostalgia the album embodies as it reminds us that we are a sum of our experiences – that every experience with love and loss is a chance to find what we’re looking for and become the person we’re meant to be.

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. "Let the life that you live be all that you need."
  2. "I’m throwing rocks at your window, you’re tying bedsheets together. They say we’re dreaming too big, I say this town’s too small."
  3. "Lying on the grass now, dancing for the stars, maybe one will look on down and tell us who we are."
Favorite Tracks:
  1. Start a Fire (I seriously can't get enough of this song)
  2. Losing Your Memory
  3. 11:59

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Top Five Albums of 2010 - Honorable Mentions (part two)

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

Continuing from yesterday, a couple more for the honorable mentions list.

HM#1 – Punch Brothers Antifogmatic
A friend of mine recommended this album, and I wasn’t quite sure if it would be my speed. It was described to me as a “bluegrass” album, which is fun once in a while, but certainly not my normal musical landscape. But Antifogmatic isn’t so much bluegrass as classically inspired. Fantastic arrangements with solid instrumental touches throughout the tracks. Lyrically, it’s interesting with clever turns of phrase on the theme of the things that keep our brains in a fog – love, lust, alcohol, work, life, etc. It skips around with strong variance of style between tracks, which makes for a bit of a disjointed listening experience. Other than that, it’s musically fascinating.

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. "Keep your feet wet, and your eyes dry, ‘cause you’re only as good as your last goodbye."
  2. "Forming a ring round a bonfire built on a line in the sand between me and us."
  3. "But it seems that whoever has thrown her away has forgotten the trash under the sink, or was it a joke meant to buy her some time?"
Favorite Tracks:
  1. You Are
  2. Rye Whiskey
  3. Don’t Need No

HM#2 – The Young VeinsTake a Vacation!
I was a big, big fan of Panic at the Disco! – even when their second album took a bit of a trippy Sargent Pepper turn. It wasn’t much of a surprise then when two Panic members (Ryan Ross and Jon Walker) left the band to form the Young Veins and embarked on a 60’s throwback album. This was probably my favorite bubble-gum beach album this summer, probably because the songs are reminiscent of The Beach Boys or early Beatles pop. The songs are short and to the point with simple hooks (and even simpler guitar work). For that reason I like it and tire of it at the same time – the songs don’t have much staying power and start to sound the same after repeated listening. It’s pretty accurate for the time period they’re going for, so if you like that style, you’d enjoy the album. As a fan of the story approach to songwriting, I’d prefer there be a more consistent narrative theme throughout the album which is why it appears here in the honorables.

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. "A wedding ring is just a thing that weighs you down and occupies your finger."
  2. "Euphoria is a risk on the floor."
  3. "I swear this like a sailor – love is not a favor, I find it's just a concept that we live inside."
Favorite Tracks:
  1. Take a Vacation!
  2. Change
  3. Lie to the Truth

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Top Five Albums of 2010 - Honorable Mentions (part one)

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

As I said in the opening post, this year has been an embarrassment of riches for me in the music department. So many good albums, so little time to listen to them! Given the rules/parameters of this task that I self-impose every year, there are several albums I want to give a shout-out to that didn’t make the list. Each of these has been on constant rotation this year, but the album cohesiveness, production, narrative just isn’t as solid as the top five list.

HM#3 The WeepiesBe My Thrill
I’m a long time Weepies fan (Hideaway probably falling in my top ten albums EVER), so I was saddened that this album was a bit of a let down. It’s over-produced in places and seems to vacillate between emotions in a way that doesn’t quite gel together. The lyrical construction is elementary at best, with few of the poetic turns of phrase I’ve come to love so much about their first three albums. The songs that do jump out have melody and rhythm that carry them, several I tend to skip through when listening. Regardless, in terms of sheer playing time, it’s definitely a favorite of 2010 – and their concert for the album was great (several of the songs were stripped of the production additions, which made it more consistent to what I enjoy about their sound in the first place, but the lyrical simplicity was then even more evident).

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. "To never regret means you have to forget and I don't think that I could."
  2. "Where we live men are women, women are teenage boys, and everyone wants to look like them, but be like men."
  3. "Found a book you gave me when we were first in bloom, when I thought that you might save me from the dark side of the moon."
Favorite Tracks:
  1. Hard To Please
  2. I Was Made For Sunny Days
  3. Add My Effort


HM#4 Sam Tsui The Covers
For those of you who haven’t yet gotten on board with Sam Tsui, you should. His multi-part cover of Don’t Stop Believin’ made him a viral sensation, which I talked about last year. He’s an amazingly talented vocalist, and his re-imagination of pop music is refreshing. Of course, since this album is a collection of covers, it doesn’t really have the power/narrative/theme that it would if it were original music. Still, it’s worth putting these tracks in your library:
  1. Lady Gaga Medley
  2. Fireflies
  3. Down

Top Five Albums of 2010 - Intro

I’m a little late getting to my yearly review of music, mostly because I’ve been debating the finalized list. This year has been an embarrassment of riches in the music department for me, and narrowing this list to five is all but impossible. BUT - the Grammys are soon approaching, and I wanted to get this out before all that goes down. For those of you looking for Grammy noms on this list, you'll be woefully disappointed. Justin Bieber - sorry, dude. You don't make the cut. The nominees this year just don't have the quality they did 30 years ago (seriously, check this list of noms out).

In general, for me to consider an album one of my best of the year, it must meet some criteria: A) it has to be released in the year I’m reviewing and B) I have to like the WHOLE thing – appreciate the story the artist is trying to tell and fall in love with it. I’m an album purist. You might have a track or two that isn't the greatest, but if it works with the story okay, none of this cutting out singles with crappy lyrics that don't make sense together (I’m looking at you Sarah McLachlan  – how could you be so disappointing?). Or situations where there is clearly a single or two that makes no sense with the tone or style of the rest of the album but is marketable enough to sell your album (Sara Barellis, you are the quintessential example of this in your sophomore effort this year).

After working on it for a week, it’s way too long for a single blog post, so I’m breaking it up over a series of posts. Here we go!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Oh Crap! I'm a Virgo! (or My Thoughts on the Zodiac Panic)

Apparently, there’s a bit of a viral panic going on over the Zodiac. I’m highly amused by this. For those who haven’t see the story, a few links to get up to speed – basically, an astronomer pointed out that if you’re tracking where the Sun is at any given point in time, there are 13 constellations through which it travels, including the 12 traditional Zodiac constellations and Ophiuchus. Taking that observation to an astrological conclusion – viral panic dictated there should be 13 signs instead of 12.

What’s interesting to me about this story is, like most viral panics, it is oddly misinformed. First, it’s being presented as this “new” thing. Anyone who follows astronomy and astrology knows that the debate’s been around for quite some time. It’s basic science – yes, the Earth is a moving body and it’s path and pattern changes. But astrology is not science, it’s more a study of human nature. Empirical vs. humanistic if you will. Modern zodiac signs are merely generalizations about groups of people based on relative proxemic place in a system – and like most generalizations, there’s something to them, though they can’t be taken as hard and fast rules. Saying “people born in Pieces are generally quiet people” is the same as “people from New Jersey are loud and rude” – a generalized statement based on a group of people around a particular claim. Are there exceptions to both claims? Yes, of course. But grouping people for any purpose will never be entirely accurate (unless of course you want to parse out the empirical data, and even then, it’s limited by the number of people you’re able to sample which then limits your ability to generalize).

Second, and perhaps more importantly, what is getting lost in this fury is the notion that your Sun sign is the be all end all. People who actually follow astronomy know that your astrological sign is made up of a complicated series of placements of the planets based on the year, date and time of day you were born. While our modern Zodiac follows the Sun sign as our “primary guide,” your “true” astrological reading is a combination of the placement of all the planets at the time you were born. You can get a chart of this activity from this website. Here’s mine:

As you can see, I’m pretty solidly in Libra – Sun, Moon, Mercury, Pluto AND my antecedent node, all Libra. An important aspect of my chart is the placement of Venus (the planet ruling relationships), which is in Virgo. As a result, this placement implies that my relationships tend to enact patterns more associated with Virgo than Libra. I also have masculine planets of Mars and Jupiter in Cancer, which can be read as an attraction to the highly introverted, loyal types of men. And my antecedent is in Sagittarius, which can indicate the best type of friend to balance my energies. So the charting function of the Zodiac is not merely based on your Sun sign. As most viral news goes, it’s been boiled down to one talking point.

Now, whether or not you “believe” in the Zodiac is an entirely different story. I think it’s fun to see what’s going on up there in the skies - and generalizations about personality from those observations are also fun. Can people create self-fulfilling prophesies for themselves from the Zodiac? Sure. You have to take it with a grain of salt. People are complicated amalgamations of influences throughout their lives, and the Zodiac isn’t going to “predict” someone to a T. At the same time, I don’t think that everything is coincidence in some cases. There are things in this world that science is not able to explain. If there’s anything I do believe with absolute certainty, it’s that there will always be more to know and discover about our universe and ourselves.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Killing Time (and My Patience)

I’m alive! Long hiatus, I know. Basically summer distracted me, and then my fall was probably the busiest of my life so far. I’m surprised I got any sleep at all. Now that the weather has cooled off and there are less things to do outside the house, I’m getting back to my little project here at Popademic. In the next few days, keep an eye out for Film Roulette of 2010 and of course, my very important (yet slightly behind schedule) Top Five Albums of 2010.

To kick off my return, I’d like to offer some comments on Dexter. I’m very behind since the show is headed into its sixth season – but I wasn’t all that interested in Dexter as a series. First, it’s about a serial killer. Second, it’s about a serial killer that the audience is supposed to empathize with. Third, other than Michael C. Hall, the acting is generally atrocious and fourth, I have a thing with gore/blood/creep-factor stuff. It’s just not my thing. But, as any good TV critic does, I did keep tabs on the first season, and while I liked the dramatic turns, I also tired of the above four issues. And at some level, I feel like when you (as the audience, most of whom I assume are NOT serial killers) start to think, “wow, that wasn’t very smart – why didn’t he do it this way?” there’s only a short line from there to interrogating your own mental sanity. I question my mental sanity on a daily basis enough. I don’t need a TV show helping me along.

Enter the winter dilemma: I have a fondness for romantic comedy (which, admittedly, is generally terrible) and subject my partner to many a terrible film/TV show as a result of this fondness. Sailor happens to be fond of gore, so I agreed to indulge curiosity and hop back into the series. We’ve now watched through the end of season four and decided that after that, we need a break. I’ve had trouble sleeping since the end of that run (trying not to spoil the shocker for people, though I’m sure you can find out on the internet if you want). Lithgow was amazingly creepy and I can certainly see why he deserved the accolades he received.

So – my thoughts on Dexter: besides the issues mentioned above, which are all still quite prominent (seriously, the acting gets worse by most of the supporting characters as they move on, though Deb has a couple episodes in season four where she pulls out a solid performance), I simply can’t stand the narrative incongruity. Sailor is always complaining about this when we watch Glee. It’s just as bad in Dexter. From one episode to the next, they introduce threads and drop them. Between seasons, they leave a lot to the audience’s imagination. And from the rate at which Dexter continues to make terrible choices about his “dark passenger,” I’m appalled that he's been getting away with killing people this long. How frustratingly ineffective can police detective work be on homicide cases? And why do all these serial killers show up in Miami? It’s like they never really address the fact that apparently Florida is attracting them like flies. I know it’s TV, so there is supposed to be some suspension of disbelief or whatever, but if you base the narrative on a serial killer (and one who is represented as a methodical control freak), I expect you to at least be logical with your narrative to a degree that it makes sense with the pathology. But then again, I've come to realize I care much more about narrative consistency than most people.

Signing off for now - but good to be back in the game.