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
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.

Top 5 Albums of 2011

And now the moment you’ve all possibly been waiting for… my top 5 albums of 2011! (*crickets*)

It’s been tough for me to narrow down my 8 nominees to a final list of 5, much less to rank them, especially when I’ve found myself listening more lately to albums that didn’t make the original 8, such as Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys, not to mention the late entry by last year’s winners, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, in the form of another amazing soundtrack album, this time for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

So, what are the top 5, then? Here you go.

5. Foo Fighters: Wasting Light
I’ve gotten flak for saying this before, but I’ll stand by it, at least as an opinion (not an objective fact): I think Foo Fighters are way better than Nirvana. Sheer instrumental skill aside, I prefer Dave Grohl’s worldview over that of his late Nirvana bandmate, Kurt Kobain.

Foo Fighters have become the torchbearers for straightforward hard rock. They’re pretty much the only popular band left playing this style who still seem to have something new to say. Great riffs, clever lyrics, an overarching theme and amazing (purely analog) production make this album a strong contender for best album of the year. And without a doubt, “Rope” is my favorite new song of the year.

4. Adele: 21
I’d like to rank this album higher than I have, because when it’s good it’s great. The problem is its inconsistency. For every infectious, instrumentally inventive track like the hits “Rolling in the Deep” or “Rumour Has It,” there’s a corresponding dull, plodding, derivative track like “Don’t You Remember” or “Take It All,” a tired and predictable ballad made almost unlistenable by strident vocals. Overall, the energy flags in the middle of the album, despite a few high points like “I’ll Be Waiting” and my personal favorite track, “He Won’t Go.”

The album is almost destroyed for me by the annoying (and annoyingly ubiquitous) ballad “Someone Like You,” co-written by Minneapolis native Dan Wilson, who has already befouled the world’s eardrums with the worst song written in the past 20 years, “Closing Time.” Ultimately, we’re left with a half-great, half-mediocre album, but it’s still strong enough overall to make my top 5.

3. M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.
I don’t think I liked the music of the ’80s while I was living through the decade nearly as much as I like the way it’s reimagined by Anthony Gonzalez, a.k.a. M83. I became a fan with M83’s previous album, Saturdays = Youth, but this year’s sprawling double album is even better. It’s a perfect blend of synths, big drums and atmosphere to create a sweet nostalgia for my childhood that’s even better than the real thing.

2. Joshua Wentz: Look/Look
Speaking of synths and atmosphere (though not big drums, so much), one of the best albums of the year is one you probably haven’t heard, by the Chicago-based independent musician Joshua Wentz. I befriended Josh a few years back after participating in the RPM Challenge, and his work just keeps getting better and better.

Even though I’m an “independent musician” myself, I often find it easy to look at unsigned artists as somehow inferior to major label acts. These days, however, with computers and gear that allow home studios and small budgets to produce work that sounds just as good as something that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and pro studio time, and the Internet eliminating the need for traditional distribution and marketing, there’s no reason not to take someone like Josh just as seriously as the other artists on this list, because his music is every bit as good.

Look/Look presents a sprawling soundscape, mixing digital synths and acoustic instruments with delicate vocals and introspective lyrics. Much of the music is instrumental, and would probably be labeled “electronica,” but Joshua Wentz rejects genres and labels, and the diversity of sounds and moods on the album reflects that attitude.

And the winner is…

1. Steven Wilson: Grace for Drowning
I’ve been a huge fan of Porcupine Tree since 1999’s Stupid Dream. This is Steven Wilson’s second “official” solo album (most of the early PT recordings were, in fact, Steven Wilson alone), and it builds on both the Porcupine Tree sound and the jazzy tangents of King Crimson’s 1970 album Lizard, inspired by Wilson’s recent work remixing Lizard for 5.1 surround sound. A number of prog rock legends and ace jazz musicians contribute instrumental parts to this album which can probably best be described as “overwhelming.”

It’s a huge double album, featuring a 23-minute epic, along with four other tracks that clock in over 7 minutes and a handful of shorter songs. As with Porcupine Tree, the album could be labeled “progressive rock,” but the sound is much more diverse than what could be found on the last several PT albums. There’s plenty of heavy guitar riffing, but also extended sections with a mellower, freer, jazzy feel. As is typical for most Steven Wilson projects, the album’s lyrical content primarily explores the dark corners of the human psyche. Steven Wilson’s music is rarely light listening. And yet throughout there is enough of a glimmer of hope to keep the listener from drowning… or, at least, to make that drowning graceful.

Top 5 Albums of 2011: The Nominees

Here’s a follow-up to my recent post introducing (in cover art form) the albums under consideration for my upcoming “Top 5 Albums of 2011” post.

I realized after I wrote that post that although I’ve purchased about 25 new albums this year, I haven’t really listened to most of them very much. This is mostly because I’ve spent a large part of the year working on and listening to my own music, and much of the rest of it listening to 5by5‘s tech podcasts.

In the wake of the “contenders” post, I created an iTunes playlist that consists just of those 25 albums and have committed myself to listening only to the music on these albums. I’m listening to it mostly on shuffle, which of course shines more light on the merits of individual songs than on albums as a cohesive statement, but I figured this was the fairest way to ensure that I actually hear all of the artists.

After a few days of listening, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve definitely been neglecting these albums. There’s some great music out this year, and I’ve liked almost every song that’s come up in the rotation.

But, of course, I favor some albums over others, and so here are the albums I am most strongly considering for the top 5:

Adele — 21
I am really sick of hearing “Someone Like You” everywhere. Much like “Losing My Religion” 20 years ago, it’s a song I never really cared for anyway, but its annoying ubiquitousness pushes me almost to the point of disregarding the artist entirely. Other than that, and a couple of weak songs in the middle, though, I think 21 is a truly outstanding piece of work, with great singing and inventive re-imagining of soul sounds from the ’60s and ’70s.

Foo Fighters — Wasting Light
As with most Foo Fighters albums, this is an easy one to like, if you like hard rock. In many ways I think Foo Fighters are the last remaining standard bearers for classic rock. And “Rope” is probably my favorite song of the year.

Foster the People — Torches
I really don’t want to like this album as much as I do. There’s something about Foster the People that reminds me in a weird way of Owl City, in that it feels like something I should (and, in the past, would have) just dismiss outright. And yet every time one of these infectious songs comes on, it just sucks me in.

Halloween, Alaska — All Night the Calls Came In
I pretty much love anything Minneapolis-based jazz drummer Dave King is involved with, but Halloween, Alaska sounds nothing like his other work, and that’s turned out to be a good thing! Relatively straightforward art pop, with a slight Canterbury prog rock twist.

Joshua Wentz — Look/Look
This is the only truly “indie” (as in, unsigned) album I’m considering this year, and probably is the only one I’ve ever considered. As much as I respect DIY music (and engage in it extensively myself), and as much as I hate the RIAA and the dinosaur major labels behind it, it’s hard to let go of the old hangup of not taking it as seriously as music released by a “real” record company. But I make an exception to that hear. I know Josh and have been following his musical endeavors for a few years now, and this album is as good as anything any major label has released this year, and far better than most.

M83 — Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.
I became enthralled with M83 with Saturdays = Youth a couple of years ago. This follow-up is a sprawling, atmospheric double album. I can’t avoid the analogy of Fleetwood Mac’s pair of late ’70s albums, Rumours and Tusk. As in that case, I don’t really think this is better than the album that preceded it, but it’s a fascinating journey nonetheless.

Mayer Hawthorne — How Do You Do
Mayer Hawthorne could be counted among a large number of white artists in recent years who have resurrected ’60s soul music. One could cite the long history of white musicians appropriating black artists’ styles and reaping commercial benefits that the original artists never attained, and I guess I just did. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is great music, and I’m glad the style is making a comeback, regardless of who’s performing it. Plus… I had no idea Snoop Dogg could sing!

Steven Wilson — Grace for Drowning
I’ve been a huge fan of Steven Wilson’s prog rock band Porcupine Tree for over a decade. The past few Porcupine Tree albums have been great but are starting to feel a bit too familiar. Taking a break from the band was apparently just what Wilson needed to reinvigorate his seemingly limitless creativity. Enlisting the help of a number of prog rock legends and comparatively unknown but highly talented jazz musicians, he’s created his most ambitious and varied work to date.

Top 5 Albums of 2011: The Contenders

It’s become an annual Underdog of Perfection tradition (even more of a tradition than calling this blog Underdog of Perfection). The annual “top 5 albums” post. Another tradition is this preliminary teaser post, wherein I announce “the contenders”: the albums I’ve purchased during the year that are under consideration for the top 5 list.

2011 has been an odd year for me, musically. I have been more prolific in my own musical endeavors than, perhaps, any year in the past — including three albums available on iTunes: my RPM project about Minneapolis, Scenes from the Busy Northern Metropolis, my running-inspired 40-minute electronic epic The Long Run, and the remastered/remixed compilation album Room 34 (Nokomis Beach). At the same time, I have found that many of my long-time favorite artists released disappointing, or worse, irrelevant albums this year, including but not limited to: The Beastie Boys, Cake, Coldplay, The Decemberists, Dream Theater, Fujiya & Miyagi, Radiohead, Wilco and Yes.

The year’s new music wasn’t all regrettable and forgettable, however, with bright spots from Adele, Foo Fighters and Halloween, Alaska, among others. But which albums will make the top 5? Check back in December to find out!

UoP’s Greatest Hits

In the spirit of “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” I will refrain from writing about last night’s midterm election results, except to say, “Don’t blame Minneapolis.” Also, to quote Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, “If you survive, please come again.” The next two years will either prove or disprove the merits of the Tea Party movement, and if we’re lucky we’ll still be around in two years to start cleaning up the mess.

OK, I knew I couldn’t avoid saying something snarky about it, but that’s it. No more. Let’s move on to something fun… ME! I’m taking a look back at the top 10 posts on Underdog of Perfection, based on the number of hits they’ve received according to WordPress stats. Without further ado… I present the all-time top 10 Underdog of Perfection posts to date.

OK, just a little further ado: here’s a chart of my hit count over the past month.

And now the list…

10. Mechanically-separated chicken or soft serve ice cream? You be the judge.

January 17, 2009 — When the gross picture of mechanically-separated chicken exploded as a full-fledged meme last month, as part of a factually challenged story hyping the dangers of the stuff (come on… you don’t need to make up stuff like “bathed in ammonia”; the truth is bad enough), I immediately recognized the picture as one I had seen about a year before. As I recalled, I had seen it on next to a strawberry soft serve. I had forgotten that I had created that “totally looks like” image, which apparently is no longer available on that site, but is still on mine. Hence, traffic!

9. Best Google Doodle yet

June 6, 2009 — Ah, that would be the Tetris Google Doodle. But I suspect that every time there’s a new Google Doodle, someone googles “Best Google Doodle yet” and finds this post. Traffic!

8. Honda Fit iPod controls: when something is worse than nothing

August 23, 2009 — Rants are always good for some hits, especially when it’s something other people are annoyed by too. The fact is, the Honda Fit iPod controls suck, and Honda doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it, so I suspect as each model year is introduced, this post will generate more… traffic!

7. Migrating from CakePHP 1.2 to 1.3: My Story (Part One of… Possibly More than One)

May 16, 2010 — Writing about technical issues surrounding web development is one of the ostensible purposes of this blog, especially since I went freelance, so it’s gratifying to see my fellow developers relying on me for information, on those rare occasions when I actually have some to share. Thanks for the traffic! (I really didn’t set out to end each of these with the word “traffic” but it seems now that I am destined to do so. Um… traffic.)

6. This is what I wanted all along

October 27, 2010 — Being just a week old, this may be the fastest ascension of any post I’ve written to date. I suspect a lot of that has to do with the timeliness of the topic, but given the vague and keyword-free title (take that, SEO strategists!), the most logical explanation for its popularity is surely the conscious effort I made to promote it. Near the end of the post I make reference to the review of the MacBook Air by Jason Snell for Macworld. I also tweeted an announcement of the post, and stuck in an @jsnell, both in honest appreciation of his review, but also in the somewhat crass hope that he would retweet it. Which he (and several others, most notably Michael Gartenberg) did. Boom! Traffic!

5. Brooks Brothers: what’s up with the sheep?

July 25, 2007 — I’m glad some of these “random observation” posts are generating traffic. I believe I’ve spent a grand total of less than 5 minutes of my life inside Brooks Brothers stores, but I’ve pondered their bizarre logo for much longer, and the fact that others have too has brought my blog significant traffic.

4. Why does Safari 4 Beta take SOOOOO LOOOONG to start up? Am I the only one having this problem?

March 1, 2009 — I kind of wish some of these posts would stay buried. Three of the top four all-time posts on my blog are related to issues with Apple products, specifically, issues with early releases and/or beta software. People continue to visit these posts long after they’ve become irrelevant. Seriously, Safari 4 Beta? It’s currently up to version 5.0.2! Please, this post needs no more traffic!

3. Dog inequality in Walt Disney’s world

November 18, 2008 — And then there are posts like this one. Awesome. I love the fact that this has resonated with so many people. Goofy + Pluto = Traffic.

2. Solution for the iPhone Facebook problem

June 8, 2009 — Here’s another post pertaining to early software, and one that’s way past its sell-by date. Here, from an SEO perspective, we have an interesting case study: a keyword-laden but still generic title. What iPhone Facebook problem? The post was referring to the dilemma of iPhone users who were stuck with the then-crappy iPhone Facebook app or the then-crappy iPhone-optimized Facebook mobile site. The best option at the time, in my opinion, was the non-iPhone mobile site, but Facebook had a redirect built into that site that would automatically take iPhone users to the inferior iPhone mobile site. I found a way around that, and shared it in the post.

This is not really relevant anymore, but now any time there is any kind of problem with iPhones and Facebook, this post sees a surge in traffic.

1. Disabling the pinch-zoom feature on the new MacBook

March 9, 2009 — I’m always a bit annoyed when I look at my stats and see this post near (or at) the top. To me it’s a long-dead issue, but apparently not. I just showed this solution to SLP yesterday, so the problem still persists, and whenever I get a new Mac or reinstall my software, I have to remember to go in and deal with this again.

I don’t know whether or not I’m in the minority of Mac users here, though I suspect not, but I do not like the multitouch features of the MacBook trackpad. The only one I use is two-finger scrolling. That’s nice, but the rest are just an unwanted nuisance. I forget they even exist until I trigger them accidentally when I’m trying to do something else. Then I have to dig into System Preferences again and turn them off. Apple may love multitouch, and it’s great on iOS devices, but clearly there’s some distaste for it on the Mac, which for me means traffic.

P.S. You may notice a logical inconsistency here: the rankings in this list — specifically, the placement within the rankings of #10 and #6 — don’t jibe with the chart I showed at the top. That’s because most of the traffic driven to my site in the wake of the mechanically-separated chicken meme went to the home page, for whatever reason, not directly to the post. In which case those visitors would have completely missed the mark. In short, it’s a failure both for Google and WordPress Stats. Great job!