Top 5 Albums of 2012

Here it is… my long awaited (?) top 5 albums of 2012 list. Contain yourself. Here we go.

5. Rush — Clockwork Angels

It may not have made the biggest splash in the musical world, but for Rush fans this album was a long time coming… the band’s first true full concept album (no, really), their best music in decades (we really mean it this time), and it was followed by a tour featuring an 8-piece string ensemble (!) and their long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (!!). It also features what is arguably the most genuinely beautiful piece of music in the band’s career, the closing track “The Garden.”

In many ways, the concept of Clockwork Angels is a steampunk-inspired, 21st century reinterpretation of their 1976 classic 2112 (note the time on the clock on the album cover), with less Ayn Rand and more first-hand wisdom. It’s also a clever retrospective and reflection on the band’s career itself. I don’t know if Rush will ever record any more albums, but I think this would be a good place to stop.

4. Aimee Mann — Charmer

Charmer is full of infectious melodies and perfectly crafted pop, but much like the best work of Steely Dan, beneath this sonic veneer lies a dark core. These songs explore, with… not quite cynicism, but perhaps a tired resignation, the more deplorable aspects of human nature. Which doesn’t make the songs any less catchy.

I have to confess that up until now I haven’t been a huge Aimee Mann fan. It’s not that I had anything against her music; I just never really gave her much of a chance. I also have to confess that the main reason I changed my attitude about her was her outstanding deadpan performance on an episode of Portlandia where she, being a struggling musician, was found working as Fred and Carrie’s housekeeper. There wasn’t much of her music in the show, but she was so natural in her performance that it really got my attention. I’m glad it did, because her music is fantastic.

3. The Darcys — Aja

Speaking of Steely Dan, how would you like a dark, noisy, post-rock reinterpretation of their entire 1977 classic Aja? Toronto-based indie band The Darcys have achieved something amazing with their stark, haunting, brooding take on the yacht rock classic (and one of my favorite albums of all time). At turns ethereal and icy, then erupting with white-hot rage, this album manages to do with Steely Dan’s music what they could never do themselves — match the darkness of their lyrical content.

At first I found this album hard to listen to, but as I allowed it to unfold and reveal itself, it became one of my favorites of the year… and I may now even like it more than the original.

2. Air — Le voyage dans la lune

Hugo was my favorite movie of 2011. With its focus on the legendary, and nearly lost, works of silent filmmaker Georges Méliès, specifically Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), it was also a perfect set-up for this year’s release of Air’s new score for the 1902 film.

The album came with a video of the restored, hand-painted color version of the film with Air’s musical accompaniment. It was a great way to see the full film for the first time, and I think despite over a century’s distance, and playing in styles (and with instruments!) that wouldn’t yet be invented for decades when the film was made, it works perfectly. The album also stands well on its own apart from the film.

1. Com Truise — In Decay

It’s funky, it’s weird, it’s overflowing with ’80s synths and drum machines. In short, it’s pretty much exactly the album I wish I had recorded myself in 2012.

This is definitely not an album for everyone, but I find it manages to perfectly balance my own penchant for weird noises and unpredictable song structures with an approachability that doesn’t make me embarrassed to be caught listening to it. (Yes, this is a serious concern for me a lot of the time.) It’s not as “out there” as Boards of Canada, but it’s got a fair amount of that IDM vibe (if we must put such a pretentious label on it). It never lets experimentation get in the way of a good groove however, and — despite being entirely instrumental — captures a lot of the nostalgic ’80s synth pop sound people of my generation just can’t quite seem to let go of.

Would I say Com Truise (great name, by the way) has recorded “objectively” the best album of 2012? Despite the fact that there’s no objectivity in art, I would still probably say “no.” But it’s the one album of the year that I just couldn’t stop listening to. Besides my own, anyway.

Top 50 albums of the decade

It seems that everyone has been compiling not just year-in-review but decade-in-review lists lately, and I’ve never seen a bandwagon I didn’t eagerly jump on. So, without further ado (after all, why spend any time in careful reflection upon a full ten years of life?), here we go.

The challenge: sum up, in my opinion, the past decade in (semi-)popular music, in 50 albums, 5 per year. The result: the following list, presented in alphabetical order (since ranking them seemed even more arbitrary and superfluous than listing them in the first place). Enjoy.

Beck: Sea Change (2002)
One-sentence review: Beck gets serious.
Beck: Guero (2005)
One-sentence review: Beck proves he’s still Beck.
Benoît Charest: The Triplets of Belleville (2004)
One-sentence review: It’s as charming, brilliant and unexpected as the film it accompanies.
The Bird and the Bee: The Bird and the Bee (2007)
One-sentence review: The ’60s meet the ’00s at a lounge in the ’70s.
The Bird and the Bee: Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future (2009)
One-sentence review: It offers more sweet lounge-electronica delights, this time with more David Lee Roth references.
Coldplay: X&Y (2005)
One-sentence review: The Coldplay album that takes the longest to grow on you also leaves the most lasting impression.
Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs (2008)
One-sentence review: I finally realized I should have been listening to that band with the stupid name for the entire past decade.
The Decemberists: Castaways and Cutouts (2003)
One-sentence review: I dreamt I was an architect.
The Decemberists: The Crane Wife (2006)
One-sentence review: Victorian prog meets indie rock.
The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love (2009)
One-sentence review: Victorian prog consumes indie rock.
Field Music: Field Music (2006)
One-sentence review: Here’s what Gentle Giant would sound like in the indie rock era.
The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)
One-sentence review: Perhaps it’s the album of the decade; definitely the era’s answer to both Pet Sounds and Dark Side of the Moon.
Flight of the Conchords: I Told You I Was Freaky (2009)
One-sentence review: I got hurt feelings.
Fujiya & Miyagi: Lightbulbs (2008)
One-sentence review: Knickerbocker glory is an ice cream sundae.
Peter Gabriel: Up (2002)
One-sentence review: If this proves to be his last album, it’s a brilliant farewell.
Green Day: American Idiot (2004)
One-sentence review: I never knew they had it in ’em, but I’m glad they did.
Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest (2009)
One-sentence review: As inscrutible as its title, it’s worth trying to figure out.
Keane: Under the Iron Sea (2006)
One-sentence review: Who knew another band would write a song called “Crystal Ball” that I would inexplicably love?
King Crimson: The ConstruKction of Light (2000)
One-sentence review: It’s the album that should have been a brilliant farewell.
Kraftwerk: Tour de France Soundtracks (2003)
One-sentence review: It’s like Electric Cafe and The Mix never happened.
M83: Saturdays = Youth (2008)
One-sentence review: M83 = brilliant.
The Mars Volta: Frances the Mute (2005)
One-sentence review: Excessive noodling is offset by brilliant prog riffing.
John Mayer: Heavier Things (2003)
One-sentence review: It’s probably all you need to hear from John Mayer, except…
John Mayer Trio: Try! (2005)
One-sentence review: This.
Minus the Bear: Planet of Ice (2007)
One-sentence review: I’d like this band more if it weren’t for the stalled adolescence of some of their lyrics (and their name).
The Most Serene Republic: Population (2007)
One-sentence review: There’s nothing serene about this republic. (And that’s how you write a one-line review. Rolling Stone, I await your job offer.)
My Morning Jacket: Z (2005)
One-sentence review: You won’t be catching any Z’s with this one. (Attn. Rolling Stone: Still waiting.)
My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges (2008)
One-sentence review: Though many site Z as the band’s masterpiece, this is the one that speaks to me most.
Phoenix: United (2003)
One-sentence review: Any band that can release a nearly 10-minute track called “Funky Squaredance,” and it’s good… is worth your attention.
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009)
One-sentence review: Bigger than Mozart.
Porcupine Tree: In Absentia (2002)
One-sentence review: The venerable prog band’s almost-breakthrough.
Radiohead: Kid A (2000)
One-sentence review: Radiohead managed, in a single album, to encapsulate the entire decade… before it happened.
Radiohead: Amnesiac (2001)
One-sentence review: In case you forgot, Radiohead defined the music of the decade. (Come on, RS.)
Radiohead: Hail to the Thief (2003)
One-sentence review: A minor success in Radiohead’s catalog is a crowning achievement for almost any other band.
Radiohead: In Rainbows (2007)
One-sentence review: The band of the decade delivers its best work yet.
Red Hot Chili Peppers: Stadium Arcadium (2006)
One-sentence review: Not only do RHCP have some life left in them, they still might have their best left in them.
Steely Dan: Two Against Nature (2000)
One-sentence review: The Grammy was an apology, but it’s still a pretty damn good album.
Tenacious D: Tenacious D (2001)
One-sentence review: Though this album shouldn’t be tenacious, plenty of its lyrics have become household staples around here.
Tool: Lateralus (2001)
One-sentence review: It’s the masterpiece of latter-day metal.
Tortoise: Standards (2001)
One-sentence review: If you only buy (or hear) one post-rock album, this is it.
TV on the Radio: Dear Science (2008)
One-sentence review: Consider this the “most slighted album” in my previous years’ top 5 lists.
U2: All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)
One-sentence review: One of the all-time greats by one of the all-time greats.
Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
One-sentence review: A strange introduction (for me) to this band, it’s still one of their best.
Wilco: A Ghost Is Born (2004)
One-sentence review: Though more straightforward than its predecessor, it’s a mellow masterpiece.
Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (2007)
One-sentence review: Even more back to basics, it’s their best yet, and near the top of my list for the decade.
Brian Wilson: SMiLe (2004)
One-sentence review: Better 33 years late than never.
Wolfmother: Wolfmother (2006)
One-sentence review: A brilliant, visceral throwback to classic hard rock.
XTC: Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (2000)
One-sentence review: If Skylarking is XTC’s Aja, this is their Two Against Nature, though comparing XTC and Steely Dan may be somewhat oblique.
Zero 7: Simple Things (2001)
One-sentence review: Simply brilliant.
Zero 7: When It Falls (2004)
One-sentence review: If I could produce an album like this, I would happily retire from music therafter.

And, since it just seems necessary, here are my top 5 albums of the decade, hastily and subjectively compiled, and subject to rapid and frequent change:

5. Tortoise: Standards
4. Tool: Lateralus
3. Radiohead: Kid A
2. The Decemberists: The Crane Wife
1. The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

SimCity for iPhone: ASOD (Advisor Screen of Death)

I was ecstatic when I discovered SimCity for iPhone. It is, without a doubt, the best “deep” game for the iPhone that I’ve encountered. (Stuff like Bejeweled is great too, but they’re in a completely different league.)

I have long been a fan of the SimCity series. I haven’t really played SimCity 4 much, mainly because it seems that with each new version, Maxis EA gives the Mac version less and less attention. Or, more accurately, they give MacKiev even less time and a stingier budget to do the port from the PC version. So, it’s bloated and sluggish and slow. But for me, SimCity 3000 was great, and that is the edition that was the basis for the iPhone version.

I love it. It is unbelievable that they could pull off something like this on the iPhone, but they did it. Mostly. It’s great, but it’s buggy.

The worst bug I’ve encountered, twice now, happens occasionally when clicking one of the advisor links in the news ticker at the bottom of the screen. What you get is… ugh… this:

Sim City Advisor Screen of Death (ASOD)

In the spirit of the classic Windows 95 BSOD, I’m calling this bug the ASOD: Advisor Screen of Death. I have no experience with iPhone programming, but I suspect that the text you see is the variable names or some kind of parsed placeholder text where the actual advisor message is supposed to appear. Unfortunately, not only is the text not being properly loaded, the actions for the buttons aren’t, either, meaning that once this appears, there’s no way to make it go away… at least, no way other than clicking the iPhone’s Home button, which does a fine job of returning you to the home screen… but it quits SimCity in the process, and if you hadn’t saved in, say, the entire amount of time you had just been playing the game, it can be incredibly frustrating.

So… if you like SimCity and you own an iPhone or iPod Touch, by all means, buy this game. You will enjoy it immensely. Just remember two things:

1. Save. Often.
2. Think twice. Skip advice. (Or at least approach your advisors through the “…” menu instead of the ticker.)

Update: A few other bugs, or at least flaws, I’ve noticed: the city’s population seems to fluctuate wildly from month to month, with no logical explanation; demand for the different zones seems to bear no relation whatsoever to the tax rates for those zones, but almost seems to just follow an arbitrary pattern of ebb and flow; and the budget numbers do not adjust month-to-month, making it really hard to track current revenue levels. Maybe this last one is the same in the computer version too, but the budget seems to require a lot more close attention on the iPhone.

A few thoughts on this whole Zune fiasco

In case you didn’t know (and why would you, since I’m sure you don’t own a Zune), there was a big problem on New Year’s Eve for 30 GB Zune owners (dubbed Z2K9), all of which apparently suffered a simultaneous failure on that day.

Apparently, a bug in a driver for that model caused it to choke on the 366th day of the year. In other words, the 30 GB Zune cannot comprehend the concept of a “leap year.”

According to Gizmodo, Microsoft’s official “fix” was simply to wait it out until January 1, 2009. Nice one. But this begs the question, glaringly omitted from the FAQ on Gizmodo, of what will happen to these Zunes on December 31, 2012, since there’s no mention of Microsoft actually attempting to eliminate the bug from the software. I have to assume Microsoft just expects all of these Zunes to have arrived at their eternal home in a landfill by then.

Another question omitted from the page: Who actually owns a Zune anyway?

Zune Tattoo

Oh… um… that is… what I meant to say was… uh… the Zune is… a… uh… a wonderful device and… um… I’m sure lots of people own them. (Can I go now?)

A former network reporter speaks out

Kudos to former NBC reporter John Hockenberry for sharing his observations about the woeful state of network news reporting in a Technology Review article entitled “You Don’t Understand Our Audience.” Modern “reporting” is worse than a bad joke: it’s an affront to critical thinking and a disgraceful shirking of an important responsibility to the public.

As much as I’m willing to rant against the “mainstream media” (and even worse, the bogus claims of “liberal bias” in said media by the partisan hackery of the likes of Fox News), my perspective carries far less impact than that of someone who’s been on the inside and managed to escape with his integrity and commitment to truth intact.

He even gets a bit theoretical at one point, and comes pretty close to my oft-rehearsed tirade against commercially-driven news programming:

Networks are built on the assumption that audience size is what matters most. Content is secondary; it exists to attract passive viewers who will sit still for advertisements. For a while, that assumption served the industry well. But the TV news business has been blind to the revolution that made the viewer blink: the digital organization of communities that are anything but passive. Traditional market-driven media always attempt to treat devices, audiences, and content as bulk commodities, while users instead view all three as ways of creating and maintaining smaller-scale communities. As users acquire the means of producing and distributing content, the authority and profit potential of large traditional networks are directly challenged.

But the real value of Hockenberry’s perspective comes from his insider experience — a look at the real Jack Donaghys of the world that I only wish was unbelievable:

I knew it was pretty much over for television news when I discovered in 2003 that the heads of NBC’s news division and entertainment division, the president of the network, and the chairman all owned TiVos, which enabled them to zap past the commercials that paid their salaries. “It’s such a great gadget. It changed my life,” one of them said at a corporate affair in the Saturday Night Live studio. It was neither the first nor the last time that a television executive mistook a fundamental technological change for a new gadget.

Yes, this person is an idiot. And he’s one of the people who are deciding what “news” the public receives.

Of course, the network heads cannot accept all of the blame for the current state of affairs, nor is the Internet the panacea of truth and intellectual freedom that it may, at first, seem to be. Consider this: the community-built Wikipedia article on Jack Donaghy is longer and more detailed than that of his real-life counterpart.

On a tangent (not that I wasn’t already on a tangent), I did a Google image search for “dunce executive” in vain hope of finding a copyright-free photo to use with this post, and I was led to a British blogger’s post about Minneapolis’s own James Lileks’s (yes, two in one sentence!) reassignment to beat reporting at the StarTribune. I was momentarily outraged, until I realized that this reassignment took place seven months ago; if I’m just now learning of it, it must not really be that big of a deal to me. Besides, this news pales in comparison to the same blog’s more recent announcement that China has banned reincarnation. So um, yeah… Internet… news… wow, I really feel informed now.

Meanwhile, the story has gotten even more grim at the Strib, where the “reader rep” (known in more perspicacious, if gender-biased, times as an ombudsman) whom Lileks somewhat desperately implored his fans to contact regarding his reassignment, was herself let go (without replacement) five months later. So much for journalistic accountability. And now I’ve somehow managed to come full circle.