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.

Web standards: a Win-Win-Win situation

Today is the fourth annual “Blue Beanie Day,” a tradition established by the father of web standards, Jeffrey Zeldman.

What are web standards? Simply put, they’re awesome. But seriously… the goal of web standards is to establish a set of best practices for web designers and developers, and a set of open, shared languages and tools for building websites and displaying them in a consistent manner.

At the heart of the modern web standards movement are a set of three core languages: HTML5, for organizing and structuring content; CSS3, for designing the presentation of that content; and JavaScript, for providing rich interaction with that content.

HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript are all open standards. The specifications are published for anyone to see; they’re open and evolving, for anyone to contribute to; and they’re freely available for anyone to build an application for rendering content delivered via these languages (in common parlance, a web browser, but we’re starting to see “web” content appearing in all sorts of applications for computers and mobile devices these days).

But why are these three web standards so great? Because they create a win-win-win situation:

A win for web designers/developers. By establishing a common set of tools that are open and free to anyone, web designers and developers can get started with no barriers to entry. Plus, by standardizing these tools, the same skills can be applied anywhere a website is being built. And as web browser makers adopt these standards, the last 15 years’ worth of browser-to-browser inconsistency will fade. Our job is made easier, we can get more done in less time, and, with powerful frameworks like jQuery built on top of these standards, this power to do more with less will grow exponentially.

A win for site owners. If you’re paying to build a website, you want to know you’re spending your money wisely. You want your investment to last, and you want to make sure everyone who wants to access your site, can. Web standards are the key to an accessible, reliable, “future-proof” website. Some Internet technologies may come and go; jumping on the latest trend may make your site seem “with it” today, but tomorrow it will be painfully dated… if it even works at all. But these three core web technologies will always be at the heart of the web. Plus, a site built with web standards will automatically be structured well for search engine listings, without the need for expensive and questionable SEO tactics.

A win for Internet users. Web content that is built and delivered with a diligent adherence to web standards will work reliably with any device, any software, that is used to access the Internet. Plus, no well-formed, standards-compliant HTML page ever crashed a web browser.

Web standards: Win-Win-Win.

Nintendo DSi vs. iPhone/iPod touch as a portable gaming platform

iPhone vs. Nintendo DSiThis is a topic that’s been on my mind for a while, but only now (as of last Friday) that I own a Nintendo DSi, in addition to my iPhone 3GS, do I feel I’m in a place to write an informed piece about it. The iPhone (and, to a lesser extent, its phone-less cousin, the iPod touch) has been the focus of much techie attention for the past couple of years, but most of the time (other than on game review sites) its capabilities as a portable game system are only peripheral to the discussion.

I owned a Nintendo DS Lite for a couple of years before I got my first iPhone in March 2008, but even though I knew both were, amongst their other (limited or not) features, portable game devices, I never really thought of them as being in the same league. This was mainly due to two factors: 1) their control schemes and 2) their methods of game distribution.

The DS Lite was an “old school” gaming handheld. Sure, it had limited WiFi features, could be made to run a rudimentary web browser, and offered plenty of titles that were not typical video game fare, but essentially it was the latest descendant of the venerable Game Boy, and in many ways even reminiscent of the much earlier and technologically primitive Nintendo Game & Watch systems of the early 1980s.

The iPhone on the other hand was, at least on the most superficial marketing level, a cellphone. A smartphone, to be sure, and one that would reinvent the category and an entire industry. But it was not, foremost, a gaming system. It didn’t have a D-pad or a cluster of buttons, and it didn’t accept cartridges, discs, SD cards, or any of the other, increasingly minuscule physical media upon which games are typically delivered via retail outlets for prices usually ranging between $20 and $40. Instead, Apple brought us the radically different App Store, an entirely online (and even entirely wireless) means of selling and delivering software, at such low prices that $10 is not only the high end, but is often decried as “ridiculously expensive” by customer-reviewers in the App Store.

So, pardon the lame pun, but the DS vs. iPhone was an apples-to-oranges comparison. That is, until Nintendo recognized the potential of the iPhone and iPod touch to eat its portable lunch, and delivered the more iPhone-competitive DSi, a revamped DS Lite that loses the Game Boy cartridge slot (and, sadly, backwards compatibility with a huge and highly appealing game catalog) in favor of slightly larger (but same-resolution) screens, a pair of low-resolution digital cameras, and an enhanced OS with the ability to access an “app store” of its own, the DSi Shop. And with this salvo, Nintendo suddenly made the inclination of gamers to compare these two systems head-to-head much more apt. But are they keeping themselves relevant, or shooting themselves in the foot? That’s what I aim to determine here.

Industrial Design

I haven’t lined up the Nintendo DSi next to a DS Lite to compare their sizes (though others have), but from my tactile memory of my old DS Lite (now property of my 6-year-old son), I sense that the DSi is ever-so-slightly larger. It still manages to fit, not necessarily comfortably, in a jeans pocket — at least while standing — but it’s not really the kind of device you’d carry around loose in your pocket. The iPhone and iPod touch, on the other hand, are expressly designed to be carried in this fashion. Any cellphone that can’t fit in your pocket these days would be pretty worthless, and I find that the iPhone’s form — its dimensions, rounded corners, and smooth surfaces — slides easily into a pocket and is quickly and comfortably forgotten.

A significant market has grown up around both devices for accessories like carrying cases, although ideally both should do well in a pocket without one. I’ve found my iPhone 3GS is actually less prone to scratches without a case than with one, and both devices work better in a pocket without the extra bulk that even the slimmest of cases adds. But the DSi, at least the “metallic blue” model I own, is made of the kind of matte, metalized plastic that collects and shows every fingerprint, smudge, or slightest of scratches. Why anyone would design a device, largely targeted at pre-teens, out of this material is beyond my comprehension.

Winner: iPhone, by a wide margin.

Technical Capabilities

That both Sony’s PSP and the iPhone have far more processing and graphics horsepower than the Nintendo DS has been well covered, but as with the Wii, Nintendo has proven it’s not waging a war of raw tech specs. Nintendo’s angle in this generation of systems is to provide unique gameplay experiences via unconventional control mechanisms, be they the Wii’s motion-sensing controller or the DS’s dual screens (one of which is touch-sensitive) and innovative ways of incorporating its microphone and, now, camera(s) into gameplay. Sometimes these new schemes seem more like gimmicks than innovations, especially with the DS.

The iPhone changes the game (sorry) here, though, because not only does it have more impressive raw technical specs than the iPhone, but it incorporates technologies that allow for the innovative control schemes of both of Nintendo’s systems. So even if you take Nintendo’s side in the argument that it’s not about specs, Apple pretty much has this one covered.

Winner: iPhone, slightly.

Interface

This is the aspect of the DSi that most compelled me to write a review comparing the two systems. It’s obvious, when comparing the original DS interface to that of the DSi, that Nintendo took lessons from both the iPhone interface and its own Wii in designing this new DS user experience. The new DSi interface is pretty slick, but cheesy-looking icons and bad text anti-aliasing only serve to highlight the DS screen’s low resolution (even lower on the DSi than on the DS Lite, because the screens are larger without adding any pixels, meaning the overall perceived resolution is worse than before). The DSi’s interface looks not just second-rate, but last-century compared to the iPhone.

Winner: iPhone, by a mile. Make that a light-year.

Gameplay Experience

Here’s where Nintendo shows its strength. For all of the “innovative” control schemes possible with the DSi, the thing I like most about it is its adherence to the old school D-pad-and-buttons controls. Take a look at the number of iPhone games with on-screen “virtual D-pads” and buttons as control mechanisms, and you realize just how important this is. And unfortunately, no matter how well iPhone developers implement these virtual controls — and they’ve gotten much better at it over time — there is simply no way that the iPhone will ever be able to replicate one critical aspect of the DSi’s controls: the tactile sensation of the buttons under your fingers. You never have to look at the controls to know your fingers are in the right places on a DSi. Not only is this lack of tactile feedback an inherent problem with the iPhone’s controls, but the ergonomics of holding the smaller iPhone’s form and pressing these on-screen “buttons” are a recipe for wrist strain.

The thing is, there’s no reason you’d have to use a D-pad for controls on the iPhone, and I’ve found that most of the D-pad based iPhone games I’ve tried, assuming I’d love them because they’re like the DS games I enjoy, have just left me frustrated and disappointed. Some of my favorite DS games include venerable franchises like Castlevania and The Legend of Zelda. Translating these kinds of games to a virtual D-pad just doesn’t work. But there’s no real reason why these types of exploration/action games need you to move your player around with a D-pad. Dungeon Hunter is a great example of an iPhone game that takes a new approach — you can simply tap on the screen where you want your character to move. It works much better than the D-pad, but it affirms the one aspect of touch-based controls on the iPhone that Apple will never be able to work around — you have to obscure your view of part of the screen in order to control the game.

Winner: DSi, for keeping it real, old school.

Software

Nintendo’s DS platform had a three-year lead on the iPhone, and in that time a lot of fun, engaging games have appeared, making the DS the world’s top handheld game system in the latter half of this decade. But the iPhone App Store has exploded like nothing before it. The fact that most iPhone games sell for 99 cents, and $9.99 is considered an absolute top end for premier titles like Madden 10, has made the prices of DS games — where even closeouts on shovelware typically run at least $14.99 — seem absurd. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to find iPhone games with the depth and polish of the best DS games, such as the aforementioned Castlevania and Zelda series, to say nothing of Mario and Pokémon.

But those top-tier franchises are just a small part of the DS picture. The most successful games on the DS platform, “casual,” puzzle-type games, are equally, if not better, represented on the iPhone platform as well, usually at a small fraction of the price. The good is overwhelmingly outnumbered by the bad on both systems, but the best of the iPhone is catching up fast to the quality of the best of the DS, and price is not a factor to be overlooked. (In fact, the somewhat higher price of the iPhone/iPod touch hardware is quickly offset by the relative costs of building up game libraries for both systems.)

Winner: toss up, but leaning more towards the iPhone every day.

Online Stores

No comparison. Apple’s iPhone App Store is revolutionary, and huge, and despite its increasing notoriety for the abusive way Apple treats developers, a rousing success. It’s well-established that there are over 100,000 apps for the iPhone, and even though most of those are buried beneath a poorly-conceived interface, they’re still there. Granted, games are only a part of that 100,000, but my anecdotal observations suggest that games are possibly as much as 40% of the total. But let’s be conservative and cut that in half. 20,000 games available on the App Store.

How many games are available for download to the DSi, via the DSi Shop? I decided to check for myself, and the number I came up with is 75. Not 75,000. 75. And that includes some non-games, like a web browser and quasi-productivity apps.

Winner: Are you kidding me?

Conclusion

When I first got my iPhone, I was a somewhat avid DS player. I own a few dozen DS games, and have logged hundreds of hours playing them. Initially, the weak selection of slapdash, shallow, awkward games on the iPhone kept me committed to the DS platform. But over time, as was to be expected, iPhone developers have learned how to take best advantage of the unique properties of the platform, not to mention the fact that additional time and the promise of serious profits have brought tremendous commitment on the part of some “big guns” mobile developers (such as EA and Gameloft). As the iPhone has become a lot more competitive as a gaming platform, Nintendo has responded with the somewhat ill-conceived and tepidly-received revamps of the DSi.

The DS Lite is still on the market, for $40 less than the DSi. After a few days putting it through its paces, not only do I think the additions to the DSi are not worth the extra money, but the loss of backwards compatibility with Game Boy Advance games makes the system a lateral move if not an outright downgrade. Meanwhile, the iPhone/iPod touch just keeps moving on up.

Winner: iPhone.

Excuse me while I vomit

I just got an XBOX 360, and the first game I bought for it, as I had planned for at least a year (believing I would, eventually, get the console) was The Orange Box, a set of 5 games, including one of the most intriguing game concepts I’ve ever seen: Portal.

It’s as cool as I expected.

But… it’s set up like a first-person shooter. And as is often the case with first-person shooters, I’ve discovered to my chagrin that it makes me nauseous. Damn it! Maybe in the future I should remember not to play it at 7 AM, but right now I am just trying to settle my stomach.

This proves my theory!

Further knocking Apple down from its pedestal (not that I’m not still a rabid fanboy as mentioned in the previous post), we have this further proof of my theory that although Steve Jobs usually has impeccable instincts, once he gets something stuck in his craw, no matter how outlandish it is, Apple simply must go through with it.

I’ve been thinking this a lot in regards to the grand trilogy of Leopard GUI design decisions that have been widely criticized by the world of Mac users (including myself): the translucent menu bar, the 3-D Dock, and the Stacks icons. But now here’s some proof that this really does go on (if you accept it as proof, which I do in this case), from the hardware side. The left side, to be specific, of the current MacBook line. I happen to be sitting in front of one right now, and I can vouch for this. The left side is “squishy,” right where those two screws are. They’re clearly not attached to anything! Therefore, they must be purely cosmetic.

Which is pretty ridiculous, when you think about it.