Top 5 Albums of 2013

I’ve given it a lot of thought. OK, I’ve given it some thought. OK, I’m actually just making it up as I go. Whatever the case, here are my picks for the best, or at least my favorite, albums of 2013.

5. Phoenix — Bankrupt!
I really got into Phoenix right after Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix came out in 2009 and had thoroughly explored their back catalog while eagerly waiting… And waiting… And waaaaaaaaiiiiiting for the follow-up. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I wouldn’t say the album is a masterpiece; it leaves me wanting something. But it’s still fantastic, with some truly amazing musical moments and some compelling lyrics that reflect on the band’s struggles with its newfound fame… you know, when they got so big that even people like me knew about them.

4. Midlake — Antiphon
Remember what I said about a band being big enough that even I known about them? That probably goes double for Midlake, a band I just learned about last weekend, when the title track of this album played on The Current as I was driving to IKEA to buy a couch. (I wish I were making this up.) Two things immediately drew me in about Midlake: the incessantly burbling drums, and the amazing harmonic detours in the second half of the song.

As soon as I parked the car I went on iTunes on my phone and bought the whole album, which I then listened to twice through while assembling the couch. It’s all great, with several sections (especially those with acoustic guitar and flute) reminding me of Trespass-era Genesis. Except without the preposterous lyrics about anthropomorphized wolves. I’d probably rate this album higher, but I haven’t known it long enough to see how well it holds up.

3. Lusine — The Waiting Room
If the ranking criteria on this list were solely based on how many times I’ve listened to an album, this would undoubtedly take the top spot. I’ve had it on heavy rotation while I work over the past few months, because its low-key grooves are just right to keep me going without being too distracting. Which is not to say it’s background music. I’d describe it as a more listenable (i.e. less weird) Boards of Canada.

2. The Darcys — Warring
There’s only been one album this year that I’ve anticipated more than Phoenix’s Bankrupt! and that’s Warring by The Darcys. The Darcys are one of the few bands that I’ve ever heard that I think might make it big that I’ve known about and gotten into before that happened. I hope it happens for them, in the right way, because they’re really great.

Or to put it another way, they’re my second favorite Canadian band of all time.

I first learned about The Darcys because their second album, last year’s AJA, was something that could have come off as a cheesy stunt. Does that name sound familiar? That’s because it’s also the title of what is arguably Steely Dan’s best album, from 1977. The stunt? This is Steely Dan’s 1977 album, reinterpreted in its entirety in Darcys style. Which is to say, much darker. There is a bleak beauty in The Darcys’ vision that in some ways better suits the desperation in the album’s lyrics than Steely Dan’s original too-smooth-for-its-own-good style. (And I say that as a huge, unabashed Steely Dan fan.)

Anyway… The Darcys released both their self-titled debut and AJA for free on their website, which definitely helped build their audience and the anticipation for Warring, which is all original material, and is utterly fantastic. Unlike Midlake’s album, it didn’t blow me away on first listen, but it only took two or three repeats before the brilliance of the album unfolded and revealed itself. You really need to hear the album in its entirety, but if you only have the patience to check out one song, I’d recommend “Horses Fell.”

1. Nine Inch Nails — Hesitation Marks
There was some criticism for Trent Reznor’s decision to work with a major label for Hesitation Marks and even more for his blunt response to anyone who might complain about it. But that can’t change the fact that it’s a pretty brilliant album.

I was never much of a Nine Inch Nails fan in the earlier, noisier days. There was just too much adolescent angst in the lyrics, and, well, just too much noise. But that all changed for me when Year Zero was released, and I have since been absolutely blown away by the genius soundtrack work Reznor and Atticus Ross did for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, enough so that I actually pre-ordered this album on CD as soon as I knew it was coming.

I saw Nine Inch Nails in concert for the first time this fall on the opening night of their current tour. It was definitely the most intense concert I have ever experienced, and quite possibly the best. The music translated amazingly well to a live setting, and the light show and energy in the performance were like nothing I could even have imagined.

For the concert experience, as much as the music itself, I have to give this album my top ranking for the year. It’s definitely left the biggest impression on me of anything I’ve encountered in the past twelve months.

And while we’re at it…

Although I would never elect any of it to my top 5 list, I actually recorded a ridiculous amount of original music this year, beginning with the January release of 8-Bit Time Machine, my semi-autobiographical sci-fi rock opera. (Yes, seriously.) That one was actually recorded in late 2012, but I followed it up with The Picture of Dorian Mode, composed and recorded entirely on my iPad over a single weekend in February. Then in April, when winter refused to go away, I recorded an EP called Soundtrack for an Endless Winter. In July I finally upgraded to Logic Pro and learned the ropes by recording another EP, cleverly (or maybe not) titled Amateur Logic. I followed that with the year’s biggest project, Falling, in September. For three weeks I sketched out at least one new song idea every day, and when I had nearly two dozen sketches, I refined the best of them into what I think may be my best work to date. (And this doesn’t even touch on the monthly “Figures” EPs I cranked out for the first half of the year.)

Top 5 Albums of 2013: The Contenders

Yeah, I’m still doing this. So let’s go!

Here are the new albums I’ve added to my collection in 2013, and are therefore contenders for this year’s list…

another cultural landslide — last days last days
Atoms for Peace — Amok
Boards of Canada — Tomorrow’s Harvest
Caroline Smith — Half About Being a Woman
The Darcys — Warring
David Bowie — The Next Day
Disappears — Era
Joe Satriani — Unstoppable Momentum
Justin Timberlake — The 20/20 Experience (1 and 2)
Lusine — The Waiting Room
MGMT — MGMT
Midlake — Antiphon
Nine Inch Nails — Hesitation Marks
Nitemoves — Themes
Phoenix — Bankrupt!
Steven Wilson — The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)
Toro y Moi — Anything in Return
Washed Out — Paracosm

Honestly… I’ve heard some really great new music this year, although my range of styles has narrowed in considerably on “chillwave” electronic music and surrounding genres. And while not completely homogenous, almost all of the artists are men, and almost all of them are white. I regret this, but it is what it is. And what it is, is, the music I listened to a lot this year, which is a reflection of me.

My heart isn’t quite in this whole process as much as it has been in years past. (Also, I just don’t have time.) So let’s cut to the chase. My top 5 albums are in bold above. But in what order? That will come in the next post.

How to install Windows 8 on a MacBook Air

No longwinded backstory in this post. I’m just posting this here so I can remember it if I ever have to install again, since I seem to keep forgetting.

If you’re trying to install Windows 8 (or Windows 7) on a MacBook Air, and you boot to the Windows CD (from a SuperDrive, of course), you may find that when you try to select the BOOTCAMP partition, you get an error stating that Windows can’t be installed on this drive, because it’s in GPT format, and you need to have an NTFS partition.

Well, it doesn’t matter if you have that partition formatted as NTFS or not. The error is happening because of the way you booted up!

Quit the installer, and restart, holding down the Option key. Then when the disk selection comes up, don’t select the Windows installer, select EFI Boot instead. That’s it!

WordPress tip: A simple way to search all post types

I love WordPress, but its huge designer/developer community and extensible structure have made it possible to over-engineer a solution to just about every problem. And then under-document that solution.

Case in point: today I needed to add the ability to search across custom post types, along with pages. But by default search only searches posts. (That is, the “post” post type. Are you with me?)

This isn’t a new problem, even to me, although very few of the sites I build have (or need) internal search. It’s just not that useful on a site that doesn’t have hundreds of pages or posts, and most of the sites I build don’t.

In the few times in the past when I needed to be able to search across other post types, or other content like taxonomy data, I’ve relied on the Search Everything plugin. And judging by the fact that (as of today) it’s been downloaded 555,309 times, clearly I am not alone.

It’s a pretty good plugin, as plugins go. But it can be overkill, especially if all you need is the ability to search other post types.

And that’s where we run into the real, multifaceted problem with WordPress for developers: 1) there’s a plugin (no, make that dozens of plugins) for just about every obscure task, and 2) there are also several ways to go about building your own custom solution, especially if you’re building your own theme, but 3) the documentation is all over the place, and none of it is comprehensive.

Granted, by offering a targeted solution to a very specific problem in this blog post, I’m contributing to that documentation fragmentation, but whaddayagonnado.

There’s a fourth (and probably even more important) facet as well: plugins are developed independently by countless individuals (of varying degrees of skill), and it’s impossible for anyone to test them all for interoperability. The more plugins you install — especially if they’re excessively complex for the problem you’re intending to solve — the greater the chance you’ll introduce an incompatibility that will break your site. So it’s in your best interest to try to keep things as simple as possible. (And to err on the side of installing fewer plugins.)

tl;dr

If I understand correctly, every parameter in WP_Query can be passed in the query string, which means you can add corresponding input fields into searchform.php in your theme to modify the search functionality.

OK, now that was too simple (and abstract). Give me an example I can work with.

Here’s a one-line solution to get WordPress to search all of your post types (even custom post types), not just “post”-type posts. Add this into the form in searchform.php:

<input type="hidden" name="post_type" value="any" />

Guess what… you can also specify multiple specific types of posts using PHP’s method of using square brackets in your input name to pass in data as an array, like this:

<input type="hidden" name="post_type[]" value="foo" />
<input type="hidden" name="post_type[]" value="bar" />
<input type="hidden" name="post_type[]" value="baz" />

A caveat: I tried the above with page as one of the values and it didn’t work; it showed my custom post types, but not “page”-type posts. I suspect it’s because that’s one of the predefined type parameters that make the query behave slightly differently. So this solution isn’t perfect, but using any as the value will work: it gets “post”, “page” and your custom post types.

My goal was to have a simple search form that would just search all post types, so I made this a hidden field, but you could make it radio buttons, checkboxes or a select menu if you wanted to let the user pick, and this just scratches the surface of what you can do to customize your search form to leverage the capabilities of WP_Query.

Nintendo: 2 Darn Stubborn?

Since the newly announced Nintendo 2DS (yes, you read that correctly) is obviously targeted at a young audience, I censored the title of this post. Kotaku already won the battle for best title anyway.

Source: NintendoMy first reaction, upon hearing the name “2DS” was “What the hell?” My second reaction, upon seeing a picture of it, was “No, seriously… what the hell?”

I have been a Nintendo defender for a long time. I love Nintendo. My kids and I waited in line outside the Richfield Best Buy last fall to get a Wii U at midnight when it was being released.

Now, a few fun games aside, all of us think the Wii U itself is kind of a P.O.S., but that’s not even the point. Except, it kind of is.

Nintendo used to be the king of the video game world. They dominated the late ’80s and early ’90s. After faltering a bit, they roared back in the mid-2000s with the original Wii. But then the world changed on them. The iPhone happened. And suddenly Nintendo was Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff. Except when they looked down, they didn’t suddenly realize the ground beneath them was gone. They just kept right on running… into a strange world where all known laws of physics no longer apply.

The Wii U is a bit of a muddled mess, but its main failing is the poor user experience of its horribly designed system software. But it was indicative of the larger problem Nintendo currently has… it has become dangerously (to its own future) out-of-touch with how people are using not just video games, but technology devices in general. The 2DS seems like perhaps they have crossed a point of no return.

I “get” the 2DS. It’s designed to address a few very specific problems, all revolving around the fact that Nintendo’s core audience, especially for handhelds, tends to be young… single-digit young. The 3DS, Nintendo’s current flagship handheld system, has three problems with that audience:

1. It’s fragile.
2. It’s (kind of) expensive.
3. Its 3D effects can be harmful to young eyes.

Little kids break things. The delicate plastic hinges on the traditional clamshell DS designs are a perfect example. Parents don’t want to spend $150-$200 on a device their young child will break easily. And for ocular health, Nintendo themselves discourage use of the 3D effect on the 3DS for those under 7 years old. Parents can disable the 3D effect entirely, but it’s a cumbersome process.

Enter the 2DS: No hinge. Comparatively cheap at $129. And no 3D. Problem(s) solved, right? Except… targeting those specific issues has led to this monstrosity. Something that could only be created by a combination of focus group feedback and head-in-the-sand corporate executives, deliberately ignoring everything that’s happening in the world around them, denying the true source of the rot eating away at their company’s business model.

Set aside the Playstation Vita for a minute (since everyone pretty much has, amirite?)… there is one primary competitor to the Nintendo DS family for young portable video game enthusiasts: the iPod touch. There are plenty of reasons a parent might choose to get their kid an iPod touch, besides the obvious fact that the kid really wants one. But perhaps the most compelling factor is that the parents themselves already own iPhones. The iPod touch, after all, is pretty much just an iPhone without the phone. (And GPS, and a few other features, but you get my point.)

iOS is already familiar to these parents, so they can relate to their child’s experience. And more importantly, these parents understand the App Store, which is really the single reason why I believe Nintendo as it currently functions is doomed.

Let’s look at three more potential problem factors for the Nintendo DS family:

1. Its games are expensive ($30-$40 each).
2. Its game media can get lost.
3. Its games can only be used on a single device at a time.

True, the iPod touch starts at $229, a full $100 more than the 2DS. But buy just three games for the 2DS and you’re up to the price of an iPod touch. Granted, Nintendo has created an equivalent to the App Store for the DS line, but its selection of games is pitifully small compared to the iOS App Store, and many of those games are iOS ports! Even the best, deepest, biggest-budget iOS games rarely break the $20 barrier, and most are priced somewhere between free and $3.

Every subsequent generation of Nintendo handheld has seen its game media shrink in size, from the fairly large cartridges of the original Game Boy to the tiny SD-like cards of the DS line. They’re more portable, but in some ways smaller is worse… as any parent whose kids bring their DS on car trips will tell you, the games are incredibly easy to misplace, and at up to $40 each that’s an expensive scenario. And, of course, a physical game can only be played on one device at a time. Even Nintendo’s eShop is built around a ridiculous model where you can’t transfer purchases between devices.

Contrast that with the iOS App Store. There are no physical media to keep track of, anyone on the same App Store account can download (and re- download) apps to their device without re-purchasing, and you’re not limited to the single device you originally bought the app on.

So while Apple (and Android) reinvented the world of mobile gaming, what did Nintendo do? They continued to drift into this strange territory of weird proprietary hardware, trying to create a unique experience by building devices, and games around them, that would be impossible anywhere else. That’s great, I guess… if any of it really made any sense. And never has it been clearer just how little sense it all makes than with the 2DS.

What is Nintendo’s greatest asset? Not its “unique” game hardware. It’s the intellectual property of great franchises like Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Pokémon. For decades now, Nintendo has sustained a (more or less) thriving business by making these must-have games and then selling the only hardware anyone can play them on.

But times have changed. The video game landscape is so different now, that I don’t think these legendary franchises are enough to carry Nintendo’s increasingly absurd hardware business any longer. I’ve been saying for years that Nintendo needs to do what Sega did… get out of the hardware business and start putting their games on other companies’ devices. This will mean a leaner, smaller Nintendo, but I bet they could wring just as much or more profit from selling their games on other systems as from building and selling their own.

Put Mario, Link, Samus or (God help me) Pikachu on my iPhone, and I will buy it in a second. But this crazy new hardware Nintendo keeps dreaming up? I’m not buying it anymore. And, for the first time, neither are my kids.