Top 5 Albums of 2014

This year’s list requires an asterisk. Or two. I have not yet listened to the Gone Girl soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. If past experience with their soundtrack work is any indication, I’m likely to consider it the best album of 2014.

I’m not sure why I haven’t listened to it yet. I haven’t seen the movie (or read the book). But that didn’t stop me in the past. I only managed to sit through half of The Social Network and I never saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo either. And yet, I bought and thoroughly enjoyed both of those soundtracks.

Beyond that omission, the list this year also suffers from my general lack of enthusiasm for the music that came out this year. I bought far fewer albums than I have in most years over the past 15 years (ever since Kid A awakened me from the disinterest in what was happening in contemporary music that plagued me throughout the ’90s).

Nevertheless, here’s the list.

5. “Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
I was a huge “Weird Al” fan as a kid. I owned several of his parodies on 45, and had the full Dare to Be Stupid album on vinyl as well. But as an adult, I stopped paying attention except when songs like “All About the Pentiums” or “White and Nerdy” would blip into the collective geek consciousness. Al’s genius with this album was to release a video a day for 8 days around the release of the album. It really got my attention, and got his songs into my brain enough that I had to buy it. Songs like “Foil” and “Word Crimes” are pure “Weird Al” genius, but don’t write off his clever style parodies like the epic “Jackson Park Express.” I still feel a little weird putting Al on the list, but this album really was one of the best I heard this year.

4. Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
This is a solid Foo Fighters album. I wasn’t really into them for their first 3 albums or so, but from In Your Honor onward, they’ve been my favorite rock band doing new music. In fact I sometimes think they’re the only commercially successful band still producing new, good music I would unambiguously assign to that genre. The band made a huge deal out of Sonic Highways, but to be honest… I think it’s probably their weakest album since I really got into listening to them. I do like it, but I’ll take Wasting Light over this any day.

3. Aphex Twin — Syro
I really dig the music Richard D. James produces. But I have to confess I haven’t gotten into much of it because I find most of his cover art so off-putting. Superficial and silly, but there it is. Syro features a simple green cover with his logo symbol though, so it doesn’t bother me… probably because I have never figured out what it’s supposed to represent.

2. Tycho — Awake
I’ve been a big Tycho fan since I first heard their previous album. I regret missing the chance to see them at First Avenue this year. I actually had tickets to the show but I wasn’t feeling well that night and blew it off. A big regret, to be sure, but it’s tempered by having this great album to listen to. Definitely my favorite of the year. At least, other than…

1. Room 34 — 5mi
Yeah, that’s me. It’s unbelievably conceited to rank my own album at the top of the list, but to be honest, this is just about the only album that I’ve really found compelling all year, and it’s the one I’m most proud of to date. I’ve probably listened to it hundreds of times by now.

The inspiration came in early July, when I was running in a 5-mile race. I had never run any significant distance without listening to music, but somehow I had arrived at the race that day without my earbuds, forcing me to listen to nothing but the sound of my own breathing and footsteps (and, to a lesser extent, those of the runners around me, but it was a small race, so I was alone for most of it).

The rhythmic counterpoint of my steps and breathing became embedded in my brain, and a couple of days later I sat down to compose a piece of music based on it, played at a tempo equal to my running pace, and built on a 1000-measure structure. At just over 43 minutes, the piece came out almost precisely as long as the time it took me to complete the race.

5mi is a single, uninterrupted piece of music consisting of 11 distinct musical sections. It was composed and recorded in its entirety in a single 4-hour session. The 11 track names are inspired by locations near the 5-mile race route, in my hometown of Austin, Minnesota.

The album is available on iTunes, Spotify, and other streaming/download services.

Side note: After the 5-mile race, I actually started to embrace the idea of running without headphones. At the end of October, I ran in my first ever half marathon. Just under 2 hours of running, with no music. I might even have to credit the lack of music with my good time. I found the chatter of the 9:10/mile pace runner so annoying that I sped up to get out of earshot from him, knocking my time down to a 9:06 pace and finishing the race in 1:59:05.

Dishonorable Mention: Yes — Heaven and Earth
This album most certainly is not in my top 5 for the year. But I still feel compelled to mention it here simply because it is so absolutely terrible. I have been a Yes fan for most of my life (ever since I first heard “Owner of a Lonely Heart” as a 9-year-old). Some of their music is my favorite music ever. I would put at least four of their albums in my “desert island selection” (The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Relayer). But they also have several mediocre albums (Tormato, Big Generator, Talk) and a few truly awful ones (Union, Open Your Eyes, Magnification).

The last album Yes produced that I thought was genuinely decent (if not actually good) was 1999’s The Ladder. In the past few years, the band has become a parody of itself, more Spinal Tap than Spinal Tap could ever have dreamed of being.

None of that prepared me for how awful Heaven and Earth is.

It took me months, and several attempts, before I could force myself to listen to the entire album, or even an entire song. Then I did it once and promptly deleted the album from my iTunes library. It is so bad, I want to forget that it even exists. I have never, ever found an album by any artist so absolutely appalling as this album. Although I have had only tepid enthusiasm for the albums I liked this year, Heaven and Earth definitely left the strongest impression on me. That’s worth noting in its own twisted way.

Top 5 Albums of 2014: The Finalists

Getting closer… I’ve eliminated a few albums that just don’t stand a chance *cough* *Heaven and Earth* *cough*. Here are the top 10 contenders for the final list. The final list finalists, if you will.

Aphex Twin — Syro
Beck — Morning Phase
Com Truise — Wave 1
Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
Lusine — Arterial [EP]
Room 34 — 5mi
Tycho — Awake
U2 — Songs of Innocence
“Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
Zero 7 — Simple Science [EP]

Top 5 Albums of 2014: The Contenders

For the first time in the at-least-a-decade since I started doing these top 5 lists, I almost completely forgot to do one this year. It wasn’t until I happened to be on my blog this morning and my “On This Day” widget reminded me that I realized it was time for the list again.

Maybe I’ve just been too busy. Maybe there hasn’t been much good music this year (at least, good to my jaded and picky ears). Maybe it’s because I turned 40 this year and I’m now officially too old for anyone to care about my opinion on anything. Whatever the case, this year’s list was almost an afterthought. Almost.

But now I’ve remembered to do it, and if time allows I might just give the final list the attention it deserves. For now, we start off as in every year, with the list of contenders: all of the new albums I’ve purchased in 2014. (As if you needed further evidence of how out of touch and irrelevant I am… I not only still care about albums… I still buy music.)

Since my list of full albums this year is so short, I’ve decided to include for consideration EPs — even one that’s a reissue of an EP from 1996 — and, for the first time, my own music.

Aphex Twin — Syro
Beck — Morning Phase
Boards of Canada — Hi Scores 2014 Edition [EP]
Com Truise — Wave 1
The Darcys — Hymn for a Missing Girl [EP]
Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
J. Law — The Phoenix
Jenny Lewis — The Voyager
Lusine — Arterial [EP]
Magma — Rïah Sahïltaahk
Pink Floyd — The Endless River
Room 34 — Thru
Room 34 — 5mi
Röyksopp & Robyn — Do It Again
Tycho — Awake
U2 — Songs of Innocence
Umphrey’s McGee — Similar Skin
“Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
Yes — Heaven and Earth
Zero 7 — Simple Science [EP]

Update (12 December 2014): I used a “smart playlist” in iTunes to find all of the music in my library that was released this year, but I discovered a couple of albums that I actually bought on CD (how quaint) were missing because Gracenote didn’t fill in the release year. And so we have the addition of Foo Fighters and Pink Floyd to the list. Wait, what year is it again? I also had to add in the new Yes album, which isn’t in my library anymore because it’s so awful I actually deleted it. (Spoiler: It’s not making the final list.)

Very useful WordPress tip for editing systemwide options

In the process of searching for a solution to a very specific WordPress problem (getting the “Add Media” overlay to default to “none” for the link — no one I know ever wants it to default to inserting a link), I came upon a very useful general tip for WordPress.

WordPress stores a ton of settings in the wp_options data table. But a lot of those settings are not directly accessible for editing in WordPress admin. Or so I thought.

Turns out, it’s not linked anywhere in the admin interface, but if you have the Administrator role, you can access an All Settings page that allows you to edit any record in that table (except serialized data) by going to this URL:

http://YOUR_URL/wp-admin/options.php

Watch out… you have the potential to really mess things up here, which is why it’s not easier to get to. But it’s a handy way to easily update an option, if you know what you’re doing, without having to log into the database directly.

Oh… and if you want to fix the specific problem I was trying to solve at the beginning of this post, look for image_default_link_type and set it to “none”.

A couple of quick steps to improve the Yosemite UI on non-Retina Macs

I’m guessing most Mac users running a Mac that can handle it have already updated to Yosemite, or will soon. I’m the kind of user who always runs OS updates whenever they’re available.

I’m not a huge fan of Apple’s decision to make Helvetica Neue the new system font in Yosemite. I like Helvetica, but I don’t love it. I prefer something with a little more personality, a little less ubiquity. That said, I do prefer geometric and Grotesque-type fonts over humanist fonts… and I was really sick of Lucida Grande, which I never really liked in the first place.

My first reaction when I tried the Yosemite beta was that it looked half-assed. The final version is a bit more polished, but it still feels poorly thought out. Or, at least, it did until last weekend when I was at an Apple Store and I saw Yosemite on a Retina MacBook Pro for the first time.

Wow.

Retina is clearly what this interface was designed for, and eventually that’s how we’ll all be experiencing it. But for now, and for a while to come, most of us will probably be stuck with non-Retina Macs and the inferior presentation of Yosemite’s refined UI that they deliver.

That said, there are a couple of things you can do to improve the experience. Part of why Yosemite doesn’t look great on a non-Retina Mac is that there’s too much subtle stuff going on that just kind of gets mucked up when you don’t have that precise definition on letters and icons. You can improve this aspect of the UI immensely by reducing its use of transparency. Open up System Preferences and switch to Accessibility. Check the box labeled Reduce transparency.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 12.11.23 PM

Another optional change you may wish to make is to darken the menu bar and Dock. This is more of a matter of taste, but personally I like the darker look. Switching this on essentially inverts the colors, so your menu bar has a nearly black background with white text, and the Dock becomes translucent dark gray, instead of translucent white.

Once again in System Preferences go to General and check Use dark menu bar and Dock.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 12.11.16 PM

Now enjoy your new OS!