Morning cup o’ links

Perhaps it would have been better to make a sausage analogy for these links, rather than a coffee-and-sausage one. But since one of the links is to a post written by Marco Arment, coffee seems appropriate. (Then again, a Google search reveals that I am far from the first person to use the phrase “morning cup o’ links” so maybe I should spend less time worrying about it being a non sequitir and instead worry that I am horribly unoriginal.)

Each morning I start the day by perusing the latest on Twitter and my RSS feeds, and I almost always find something interesting to read. But today was more interesting than most, and simply retweeting the links didn’t seem adequate. Also, some of these links may become topics for discussion on this week’s episode of The Undisciplined Room, so this is your homework.

First up, we have a post on The Verge discussing homeless hotspots at SXSW. This is a topic I’ve been reading about for the past few days, but this post was the first that made me think beyond my gut reaction that this was shameless exploitation.

Next, with a HT to Daring Fireball, and via Marco Arment, we have a look at Curator’s Code and why it’s a bad idea. The evidence has been mounting for me that Maria Popova’s 15 minutes of (borrowed) fame are almost over (especially when I’m reminded of her love of Ayn Rand and Malcolm Gladwell), and Marco helps solidify that thought.

Then we have type designer Mark Simonson (who designed the Proxima Nova font that I use in the Room 34 logo and branding materials) discussing font anachronisms in The Artist. As much as I enjoyed The Artist, issues with the fonts it used (especially straight quotes, and the fact that it used fonts in a lot of places where hand lettering would have been more appropriate) even distracted me, so I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone like Mark Simonson or Chank Diesel. (Full disclosure: I did development work on Chank’s mobile website.)

And finally… Chicago musician and multi-talent Joshua Wentz has just announced the release of the Side 2 EP by Absinthe and the Dirty Floors, one of the many musical projects with which he’s involved. He’s also made a video for each song on the EP, like this:

#rpm12 Reflections, part one: Wherefore the challenge?

Now that I’m “done” (probably) making music for the 2012 RPM Challenge, it’s time for a few posts reflecting on the experience. First up, the prime question: why do I do this? Or, in a more Shakespearean tone, wherefore the challenge?

Last night on Tumblr, my Internet friend and a musician I greatly admire (and whom I met through my first RPM in 2008), Joshua Wentz, posted:

In Februarys past I took part in the RPM Challenge, but it isn’t for me any longer. I outgrew it, which is a shame, because there was a tipping point for that project where it could easily have become the biggest thing in music. Alas, it is not to be.

The idea that he had “outgrown” RPM stuck with me after reading that. On one hand, it stung just a bit, because here I am participating in RPM while he and several other musicians I met through RPM that year have all seemingly moved on. But on the other hand, it was a sentiment I completely understood, and have felt myself since 2010, the first time I (effectively) skipped RPM. I was so inspired and motivated by my intended album concept that year that I went ahead and recorded it in January (in two weeks), thus disqualifying it for RPM. (Then I did end up submitting an album for RPM, but it was entirely improvised and recorded in one afternoon, on February 22.)

The RPM Challenge has never really been a challenge for me; I typically complete my album in two weeks or less. Finishing in a week this year is exceptional even by my standards, but I never come down to the wire. It’s just not how I operate.

Granted, a big factor in how quickly I produce music is my style, and my approach. My music is almost entirely instrumental and fairly improvisatory, and I use MIDI a lot. I think a huge time-suck for most musicians is lyric writing and carefully crafting a perfect song structure, as well as tweaking mic setups. I have none of that in my process. Plus, it’s just me. If there were more people involved, we’d also have to negotiate schedules and the inevitable conflicts. (I am not without internal conflict, of course.)

Let’s refine the question: Why do I still participate in RPM? I don’t need the external pressure of the challenge to get an album done; I am, if anything, excessively motivated when I start making music. And each year I am less and less involved in the “community” surrounding the challenge, so the timing becomes almost irrelevant.

I guess you could say I’ve outgrown RPM too, but that’s not quite an accurate, or at least complete, description of the situation. It’s also that RPM has failed to grow with me. The challenge got a lot of publicity in late 2007, which is when I learned about it. It was featured on several prominent websites and even on NPR. But its organizers haven’t done anything with it. I guess they’re satisfied to keep it where it is. Unfortunately, “where it is” is a horribly designed Joomla! (yes there’s an exclamation point in the name *shudder*) website with a terrible interface, one that has only had minor surface updates in the 5 years I’ve been looking at it.

But an ugly, unusable website only scratches the surface of what’s disheartening to a serial RPM participant like myself. It’s that apparent lack of desire by its founders to let RPM itself grow that makes it feel so easily outgrown, which is ironic since the entire purpose of the challenge is to spur its participants into growth as musicians by successfully completing an album project.

So, if it’s not the community and the collective experience that compels me, why do I do it? Looking back on my past few RPM albums, I’ve started to notice a pattern: RPM becomes the catalyst to get me to try something new and crank out a bunch of music, which then ends up informing the musical work I do for the rest of the year. I can already feel that coming with this particular challenge.

Pocket Symphonies, built around the idea of using an iPhone as the sole instrument, has been a success, but it’s been an experiment. The music that resulted is like something out of an R&D lab. It’s a prototype. I’ve learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work when trying to make music on an iPhone (which will be the topic of a follow-up post in a few days), and I probably only would have done that with these arbitrary parameters, partly set up by the RPM Challenge and partly by my own vision for what I wanted to do.

I’ve been playing around with iPhone music apps for years, but it was only when I committed to recording an entire album using them that I forced myself to really see what they could do, and even now I feel like I’ve merely scratched the surface. But now I feel like I know how I can integrate the iPhone (and iPad) into my “regular” music-making activities in creative ways.

Beyond production techniques, this album was a chance for me to explore some musical styles I’ve been interested in working with. In particular, I’ve become increasingly interested in the chillwave style of electronic music, especially since falling in love with the theme music from Portlandia, which I have since leared is a song called “Feel It All Around” by Washed Out. I recorded a couple of tracks that I think put my own typically idiosyncratic spin on this style, and I am looking forward to pursuing more of that in the coming year.

Reflecting on all of this, I guess the RPM Challenge is, like life, what you make of it. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that the organization behind the “official” challenge is ever going to develop it into the kind of thing I once wanted it to become, but that doesn’t really matter. And whether or not I only record during the month of February, whether or not I even bother to submit the CD to RPM HQ on March 1, also doesn’t really matter. What matters is finding that source of inspiration that allows a person to channel their creative energies into something tangible. And RPM, whatever it is, still does that for me.

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.

It’s good to be “Downcast”

One really cool thing about participating in the RPM Challenge, beside forcing myself to record a new album and get it out there in just a month’s time, was getting to discover so much great talent out there amongst my fellow home-recorders. One of the most interesting people I’ve been introduced to through this process is a Chicago-based artist and musician named Joshua Wentz. And Josh was kind enough to invite me to be featured on his B-Sides podcast. Check it out!

While you’re there, be sure to check out all of Josh’s great graphic design work, not to mention his own music. I especially recommend the latest in his series of improvised tracks known as the Winchester Sessions.