January 10, 2007

Essential '80s Albums

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:31 PM

Last year I embarked on a project to fill out my collection of '90s music, with the help of your recommendations. This was quite successful, and I will post my list of favorites eventually. But recently I have posted a lot of top music lists, and am a bit burned out, so I'm going to put it off. Instead, I will move on to this year's project, which is to fill out my collection of '80s music.

So: what are the essential albums of 1980-1989? Essential either as a consensus classic or a personal favorite; all genres are open. Here are a few I hear mentioned a lot, just to get things started (inclusion in this list does not constitute endorsement):

  • Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982)
  • Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (1982)
  • New Order, Power, Corruption, & Lies (1983)
  • The Police, Syncronicity (1983)
  • Prince & The Revolution, Purple Rain (1984)
  • Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense (1984)
  • The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead (1986)
  • Guns N' Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987)
  • R.E.M., Document (1987)
  • U2, The Joshua Tree (1987)
  • Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation (1988)
  • The Cure, Disintegration (1989)
  • Pixies, Doolittle (1989)

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music

December 31, 2006

Favorite Albums of 2006

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:07 AM

My final year-end list: my favorite five albums of 2006. As with last year, the number 1 choice was easiest and the number 5 choice was hardest. Somewhat unsurprisingly, these albums contributed the top five songs from my previous list (in a slightly different order). The criteria here are a little different though: a good average song quality is necessary, but I also weight coherent themes and the ability to enjoy playing the record all the way through, as opposed to just adding the best few songs to my iTunes playlist. This knocked Pretty Girls Make Graves' Élan Vital out of the top five, since it had a lot of great songs but didn't hang together as well as the others.

5. Asobi Seksu, Citrus
This was the year I fell in love with noise pop and shoegazing music, as I looked at classic albums from the '90s, and I was delighted to find that Asobi Seksu is keeping the genre alive, and putting their own stamp on it. I picked "New Years" for the top songs list as the best example of their fuzzy, dreamlike songs, but all the songs on the album have these textures without sounding alike. The best tracks, "Goodbye" and "Miso Asobi" along with "New Years", bring a warm and happy feeling out of the noise and distortion, but everything in between is interesting in its own way. It's one of the most seamless albums of the year.

4. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
This is a highly acclaimed album among rock critics, but unlike Justin Timberlake's, it's for a good reason: it's original, inventive, and excellent. It's hard to come up with something to compare it to, since the sound is so unique—it doesn't even really sound like TV on the Radio's earlier work and represents a major step forward for the band. Perhaps a good metaphor could be drawn from one of the best songs on the album: this record is a dirty whirlwind of music. The maelstrom approaches ominously with "Hours", reaches peak speed at "Wolf Like Me", slows to a calm center for "Method", and then picks up again. Not all the tracks are as good as "Wolf Like Me", but nothing is filler.

3. The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls In America
The Hold Steady topped last year's list with Separation Sunday, and so it is not a surprise to see them on the list again this year. Their latest album is more song and less story than its predecessor, presenting short vignettes instead of an overall arc and with lead singer Craig Finn taking a more melodic approach. This was initially a little disappointing, but I warmed up to it since the songs are very good indeed. Their Springsteen-esque hard rock rocks harder than just about anything else from this year, and with "Citrus" they showed they could do acoustic ballads too. Even though it's not the equal of Separation Sunday, it's still one of the best albums of the year.

2. Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
This will also be an unsurprising choice, since regular readers know that I hold Belle & Sebastian in high regard. However, this is a standout album even in their catalog, the best since their 1996 release If You're Feeling Sinister. After several albums that felt like poor copies of Sinister, they've tried some new directions starting with Dear Catastrophe Waitress and now, with great success, in The Life Pursuit. The new songs are bright, polished, and sunny (sometimes literally), as well as catchy and infectious. While the pervasive melancholy of their early albums has been left behind, Belle & Sebastian can still write songs that are heartbreaking ("Dress Up In You") or wistful ("Funny Little Frog"). But the best songs here are simply fun, like "The White Collar Boy" and "The Blues Are Still Blue".

1. Islands, Return to the Sea
I'm not seeing this album on very many other year-end lists, but it was definitely my favorite of the year. Maybe their quirky blend of indie-rock and tropical music has limited appeal (ok, probably), but I love it. The first couple of songs are epic: "Swans (Life After Death)" is a metaphorical account of how the band was formed after the dissolution of the Unicorns, something I only discovered after I bought the Unicorns' last album and could decode the references. "Humans" is more straightforward, telling the story of refugees fleeing an (alien?) invasion. After this they move to shorter songs, but no less variety in topics: anorexia, the diamond trade, environmental disaster, and with "Jogging Gorgeous Summer", a simple and beautiful love song. All these disparate themes are tied together with island and ocean metaphors, which tie in perfectly with the musical style. I never got tired of listening to this album and felt like I noticed something new and interesting in the music every time.

Actually, I do have one more music list to post: at the beginning of the year I made a resolution to fill out my collection of '90s albums, and promised to post my favorites a year later. So that list will appear next week.

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music

December 29, 2006

Year-end Miscellany 2006

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:56 PM

I usually name a favorite book, movie, and game of the year. This year none of the books I read were recent enough to qualify, so I'll just do the other two:

2006 Movie of the Year: Brick
There wasn't a standout film in this category, but I think Brick was my favorite of what I saw this year. (There are many reportedly excellent movies that I haven't seen yet as well, such as The Departed.) Brick puts a classic detective noir in a high school setting, and does an excellent job of blending the two genres, much as Buffy did with horror. (The movie is definitely influenced by Buffy and works in a subtle but unmistakeable reference.) All the elements of the classic noir movies are present, from the convoluted plot to the familiar character archetypes to the eerie soundtrack. The juxtaposition with high school students is sometimes funny, sometimes striking, but never cheesy or over-the-top.

2006 Game of the Year: Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria
I didn't play a large number of video games this year, but there was a clear winner, the sequel to one of my all-time favorite games. The original Valkryrie Profile was a great dungeon crawler with beautiful visuals and complex and interesting characters. It only suffered from somewhat repetitive combat, which was completely reworked in the sequel to one of the most interesting and engaging systems I've ever seen in an RPG. The signature side-scrolling dungeons (hence "Profile") were preserved with a couple new twists—the ability to switch places with monsters, and sealstones that alter the mechanics—that gave the puzzles more depth. Overall I found the gameplay addictive in a way that I hadn't seen in years, and the only flaws I found are by comparison to the original Valkyrie Profile (mainly in the aesthetics and the character development).

Later this weekend, I'll post my favorite albums of the year.
Permalink | Tags: Games, Lists, Movies

December 14, 2006

Favorite Songs of 2006: Year of the Wolf

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:47 PM

Today is mix CD release day, so here's my ranking of my favorite 20 songs of 2006 (which, in a different order, comprise the tracklist of the CD). The CD is entitled Year of the Wolf, copies of which are available upon request. (If I see you during the holidays I'm going to hand you a copy even if you don't request one.) This naming scheme (following last year's Year of the Phoenix) may or may not continue in the future, but since it worked again this year I went with it.

The rules: Only music released in 2006 (or December 2005) qualifies, and no more than one track is selected from a single album. Generally records which were released earlier in other countries (typically the UK) before a 2006 US release are disqualified, but I have been inconsistent in applying this rule.

Special congratulations to the Decemberists and The Hold Steady, who are returning from last year's favorite songs list.

20. "Help Us Out" by the Futureheads (from News and Tributes [US release])

This was a bonus track on the US release (and a B-side to one of the British singles), and the runner-up for Best Bonus Track of 2006. (The Art Brut bonus track named there was disqualified from this list due to an earlier British release.) Maybe it's the way it captures the energy of the Futureheads' superior debut album, but I liked this track more than any of the non-bonus tracks on the record. A wonderfully frenetic song that races through its two-and-a-half minutes.

19. "I Bet You Looked Good On The Dance Floor" by Arctic Monkeys (from Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not)
The Arctic Monkeys were one of the most hyped bands of the year, but this, their key single, lives up to its reputation. A gem of Britrock in the line of the Libertines or Pulp, with clever lyrics and terrific guitar riffs.

18. "I Feel Space" by Lindstrøm (from It's A Feedelity Affair)
The title is an apt description of the song, gorgeous spacey electronica suitable for some retro-futuristic disco.

17. "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken" by Camera Obscura (from Let's Get Out Of This Country)
This bright-sounding pop-song was a striking opening track for Camera Obscura's album, so striking that I kept it as the opener for my mix CD.

16. "Roka" by Calexico (from Garden Ruin)
A strong runner-up in the Best Bilingual Song category, Calexico mixes some Spanish vocals into their Southwestern-country style to great effect.

15. "Way Out" by Ellen Allien and Apparat (from Orchestra of Bubbles)
This European electronica collaboration produced some great tracks, none better than the ethereal "Way Out", which feels like exploring an alien landscape.

14. "Conventional Wisdom" by Built To Spill (from You In Reverse)
Trading off between a spectacular guitar riff and catchy vocals, the first two minutes of the song are rock perfection. So we'll forgive them the next four minutes of aimless jamming.

13. "Summersong" by the Decemberists (from The Crane Wife)
The Decemberists forgo their usual narrative-heavy songwriting to evoke a bittersweet summer's day, and the result is the best song on the album.

12. "Set The Fire To The Third Bar" by Snow Patrol (from Eyes Open)
Gary Lightbody makes several attempts on the latest album to recapture the anthematic glory of Final Straw; this duet with Martha Wainwright is the one that best succeeds.

11. "Love & Communication" by Cat Power (from The Greatest)
A simply beautiful song which achieves a nice synthesis between Chan Marshall's voice and the accompanying Memphis Rhythm Band.

10. "Glasgow Mega-Snake" by Mogwai (from Mr Beast)
If the title conjures an image of a gigantic snake eating Glasgow, it's an appropriate one. Heavier than usual for Mogwai, a direction they should perhaps go more often.

9. "Pictures of a Night Scene" by Pretty Girls Make Graves (from Élan Vital)
PGMG members shuffle instruments among themselves and trade their usual aggressiveness for a tense and haunted atmosphere.

8. "Marble House" by The Knife (from Silent Shout)
Nearly eveything from The Knife's eerie record was good, with this track edging out "We Share Our Mother's Health" as my favorite.

7. "Black Flowers" by Yo La Tengo (from I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass)
A perfectly calm and comforting song that always leaves me feeling peaceful.

6. "Revolver" by Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan (from Ballad of the Broken Seas)
Mark Lanegan's songwriting contribution to this album is the best Americana song of the year, a dark contemplation of life and death.

5. "New Years" by Asobi Seksu (from Citrus)
Somewhere between shoegazing and J-pop lies Asobi Seksu, and this is the best of their fuzzy, blissful pop. I don't understand the (mostly Japanese) lyrics, but the song does somehow feel like New Year's Eve.

4. "Hot Soft Light" by The Hold Steady (from Boys and Girls in America)
It was tough choosing just one song from this album, but this is the one I found the catchiest. Craig Finn takes the persona of a guy being questioned by the police, his story backed by the band's most formidable rock.

3. "The Blues Are Still Blue" by Belle & Sebastian (from The Life Pursuit)
My most-played song of 2006 (it helps that it came out in February), it's one of those perfect Belle & Sebastian pop songs that I can't get enough of.

2. "Rough Gem" by Islands (from Return to the Sea)
Originally I thought this song a notch below some of the others on this amazing album, but after multiple plays it kept growing on me. Mixes commentary on the diamond trade with plays on the singer's name and some thoroughly impenetrable lyrics, on top of Islands' irresistible calypso-tinged pop, here at its most vibrant and coherent.

1. "Wolf Like Me" by TV on the Radio (from Return to Cookie Mountain)
This one astonishing song towers over everything else on an already excellent album. Filled with passion, energy, and primal desire, given powerful expression by Tunde Adebimpe's vocals, it's the best song about werewolves since Warren Zevon.

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music

December 8, 2006

Friday Non-Random 10: Miscellaneous Song Awards, 2006

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:37 PM

It's December and therefore time for lots of meaningless best-of-year lists. I've started putting together the CD with my favorite songs of the year, and will probably post that list at the end of next week. (Really great songs that are released this month will be included in next year's list.) Meanwhile, I want to acknowledge some songs that may not make it onto the CD, but deserve special recognition in a particular category. Some of these categories will likely return next year, but some will be one-shots. I've added links to songs that the artists have made available online.

Pirate Song of the Year, awarded back in September to the best song about pirates:
"Selling the Wind" by Pretty Girls Make Graves

Best Romantic Song, for the song that turns me into a hopeless romantic for three minutes:
"Jogging Gorgeous Summer" by Islands

Best Breakup Song, to balance out the Best Romantic Song:
"Tears for Affairs" by Camera Obscura

Best Bilingual Song, for the ultimate in impenetrable lyrics:
"New Years" by Asobi Seksu (English and Japanese) [mp3 download]
[Dishonorable mention to Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan for "Deus Ibi Est", in which they employ Latin but pronounce it like French.]

Best Protest Song, in a year with plenty to protest:
"Parade" by Pretty Girls Make Graves [MySpace stream]

Best Religious Song, because religion sometimes does inspire greatness:
"Act of the Apostle Part I" by Belle & Sebastian

Best Irreligious Song, because blasphemy is usually more fun:
"Here's Your Future" by the Thermals [mp3 download]

Best Apocalyptic Song, for when it feels like the end of the world:
"Volcanoes" by Islands [MySpace stream]

Best Bonus Track, where too many are just lame filler:
"Really Bad Weekend" by Art Brut

Arrested Development Memorial Award for Multilayered and Allusive Lyrics, for when I need to listen to your previous band's catalog to understand the song:
"Swans (Life After Death)" by Islands

Tune in next week for the best songs of the year! In the meantime, dispute my choices above or create your own categories in the comments.

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music

November 29, 2006

Unusual deaths

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:57 PM

While poking around on Wikipedia I found their interesting and macabre list of unusual deaths. Apparently ironic deaths were big in the 20th century, whereas the 19th century is characterized by deaths from trivial accidents. The latest trend seems to be getting killed by bears, which suggests that Stephen Colbert may be on to something. Alexander Litvinenko is the most recent entry.

Permalink | Tags: History, Lists

July 16, 2006

What's missing from Guitar Hero?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:32 PM

Stylus offers a list of songs overlooked for inclusion in Guitar Hero. Despite one selection that is clearly crazy and a fixation on hair, it's a respectable list. But the real reason to post this is to start a thread on the subject. What else should have been on the Guitar Hero setlist? I'd like to see some of the dueling guitars of Pretty Girls Make Graves ("Something Bigger, Something Brighter" would be good) or Sleater-Kinney ("I'm the Drama You've Been Craving"?) for the two-player game. Or anything by Built To Spill.

Permalink | Tags: Games, Lists, Music

June 21, 2006

But where's "November Rain"?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:09 PM

Pitchfork hits YouTube and comes back with 100 Awesome Music Videos. Well, some of them are awesome and some are "awesome" (David Hasselhoff covering "Hooked on a Feeling", for example). I watched "To Here Knows When" (My Bloody Valentine) and "Sugarcube" (Yo La Tengo) immediately, those being two of my favorite songs—the former looks like the song for a nice synaesthetic effect, and the latter is just hilarious. Also, the Decemberists' "16 Military Wives" video is worthwhile (I saw it a while ago). Later on I'm going to go through and watch a bunch more of these.

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music, Music Videos

June 20, 2006

Vaporware watch: The Duke Nukem Forever list

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:09 PM

If you read Kotaku this is last week's news, but someone has compiled an amusing list of things that have happened since Duke Nukem Forever was announced. (For the non-gamers in the audience, this is a PC game that was announced nine years ago and is still in development.) They start with video games (75 Mega Man games, I assume that counts remakes) and proceed to more general categories, e.g.:

Movies that were filmed, released in theatres, and have made it to DVD:

Also note the occasional liberal bias. ("The national minimum wage has remained $5.15.")
Permalink | Tags: Games, Lists, Politics

June 3, 2006

Band names: good, bad, and ugly

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:04 PM

I keep forgetting to link this: The Onion A.V. Club list of Worst Band Names, and an accompanying list of band names that are so-bad-they're-awesome. These are actual bands and not an Onion parody. I recognize at least one local band (The Fucking Ocean), but my favorite name on the second list is "Mariospeedwagon" (who also appear to be a Bay Area band).

I have always thought that El Diablo Robotico (a phrase that appeared in an episode of Angel) would be a great name for a band.

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music

May 31, 2006

Media Links Roundup: Rotten Edition

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:56 PM

I skipped the open thread this week, but you can consider this a general media thread. Some links, none of which are complimentary of the subject material:

I haven't seen The Da Vinci Code or X3; I may end up seeing the latter.

Permalink | Tags: Books, Culture, Lists, Movies, Music

May 10, 2006

Yet Another Music List

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:29 PM

Via Matt Yglesias, Blender magazine has a list of "The 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born", for those of us who were born around 1980. You may recall that this publication previously did a list of the worst songs ever, correctly selecting "We Built This City" for the top slot. (I was pretty sure I blogged that list, but can't find any evidence of it.)

A list this long will inevitably contain some really good and some really bad choices, but should at least name one song by My Bloody Valentine. I had to scroll down to #290 before I discovered that they couldn't decide between "Only Shallow" (Loveless) and "Swallow" (Tremolo), and so named the nonexistent song "Only Swallow". However, the correct answer is "Soon" (and "To Here Knows When" should also have been on the list).

The second thing I did (after looking for the MBV song) was look for the most inexcusable song on the list, which I found more quickly: Nelly, "Hot in Herre" at #80. Another contender appears twice: "Where's Your Head At" by Basement Jaxx. There's also a strong preference for cheesy 80's ballads, but I will chalk this up to nostalgia.

It's harder to argue for the biggest omission: I can always find some obscure song that I really like but wouldn't appear on such a list. However, several of my favorite songs by the better-known indie bands are in fact present (usually around the 400s). Given what does appear, it's a little surprising they didn't include a song by the New Pornographers, either "Letter from an Occupant" or "The Laws Have Changed". In another type of omission, they included three New Order songs but none of them are "Bizarre Love Triangle" or "Blue Monday".

I'll have to wait until after next year's survey of '80s music to compile my own version of this list, but in the meantime the rest of you can point out other omissions.

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music

April 28, 2006

Friday Non-random 18

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:46 AM

In conjunction with my weekend plans, and the long drive required to get there, I have made a mix CD using bands that will be appearing at Coachella. I prioritized recent music since this is most likely to be played; as a result none of the songs here are older than 2004. I also tried to avoid songs that have appeared on some previous mix CDs. A couple tracks are unrepresentative: Devendra Banhart sings in English most of the time, and TV on the Radio normally use instruments. A few of these have been posted here with recent music reviews. Here's the tracklist:

High Noon Sun (Coachella 2006)

  1. The Go! Team, "Junior Kickstart"
  2. Sleater-Kinney, "Wilderness"
  3. My Morning Jacket, "Off The Record"
  4. Mylo, "Zenophile"
  5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Cheated Hearts"
  6. Bloc Party, "Banquet"
  7. Wolf Parade, "You Are A Runner And I Am My Father's Son"
  8. Devendra Banhart, "Quedateluna"
  9. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, "In This Home On Ice"
  10. Franz Ferdinand, "L. Wells"
  11. Cat Power, "Love & Communication"
  12. Mogwai, "Glasgow Mega-Snake"
  13. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, "Me And Mia"
  14. TV On The Radio, "Ambulance"
  15. Sigur Rós, "Gong"
  16. Dungen, "Panda"
  17. Ladytron, "Beauty*2"
  18. Animal Collective, "Turn Into Something"

Copies available on request. (Those of you who are going to Coachella with me are likely to be handed copies whether you want them or not.)

As Lemming has already noticed, Sleater-Kinney and Bloc Party are playing at the same time. Originally I was simply planning to decide between them, but then I realized that I have a quantum mechanical solution available to me. I just have to stop by the lab before I leave...

Permalink | Tags: Coachella, Concerts, Lists, Music, Travel

March 17, 2006

By Popular Demand: The '90s Movies Thread

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:33 AM

A few weeks ago there was a request for a thread on the subject of essential '90s movies, along the lines of the music thread that ran in January. These threads are nicely self-sustaining so I decided to save it for the next time I was away from the blog for a few days. That time was five days ago, but I had assumed I would be able to turn my computer on. So instead I'm posting it now, since it's a good Friday thread and I'll be on a plane for much of the day.

Rules: Suggest movies from 1990-1999 that are essential in the sense of classic, influential, or just generally awesome. Obscure and idiosyncratic choices are encouraged. Also, pick the best overall movie from that decade, and we'll see if there's a concensus.

Here are some of my favorites to get you started (with my top pick in bold):

I'm probably forgetting a few since I don't have my DVD collection in front of me (should have entered it into listal),

Here are the 10 "Best Picture" Oscar winners from the 90's:

Permalink | Tags: Culture, Lists, Movies

March 3, 2006

Musical exhibitionism

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:56 PM

If you've ever wanted to look through my CD collection, now you can without even coming to Berkeley. They're sorted by rating, but for some reason the page doesn't display what the rating is. Look at only the unrated albums (via the drop menu) to see what I've picked up recently. I may fill in the other sections of this site later, but music was the easiest to do. (I also don't have my classical music CDs on there.)

Via Lifehacker, who really shouldn't be finding more ways for me to waste time.

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music

February 19, 2006

Battle of the [Energy] Bands

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:51 PM

Oops, I meant to blog this a little bit earlier, but fortunately it's not too late: Chad Orzel is polling on the Greatest Physics Experiment from a set of eleven nominees (which have been described in some detail in earlier posts at Uncertain Principles). So go over there and vote! My endorsement is for Cavendish. (Also, I regret not nominating Onnes for the discovery of superconductivity.) Preliminary results are here.

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Physics, Science

February 18, 2006

Results of the 90's music survey

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:45 PM

Last month I asked for recommendations of essential 90's albums, and received an enthusiastic and comprehensive response. I've collected the results of that comment thread into a wonderfully eclectic list of 115 albums, which I've posted below the fold.

Some commenters went beyond the scope of the original question, either more broadly (by recommending artists without a specific album) or more narrowly (by citing individual songs). I've put these in their own lists. Finally, there were a few albums mentioned outside of the 1990-1999 range, which are also listed separately.

And of course, late additions to these lists are also welcomed!

Continue reading "Results of the 90's music survey"
Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music

January 6, 2006

Essential 90's Albums/New Year's Resolution

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:54 PM

I'm sure we're all suffering from best-of fatigue by now, and there was certainly no shortage of end-of-year music threads on this blog. Nevertheless, here's a start-of-year music thread related to a New Year's resolution of mine. I recently sorted my iTunes library by year and discovered that there's a serious shortage of music before about 2000. This is unsurprising, since outside of a few specialized genres I only very recently started seriously collecting music. So, I'd like to fill in some of the earlier eras. Rather than taking on all of the music written in the twentieth century (I'm in pretty good shape for music from before 1900) I decided to go by decades, starting with the most recent. Hence, a New Year's resolution: Collect more music that was originally released in 1990-1999. You know, the stuff I would have been listening to in high school, had I been paying attention. The trouble is, I wasn't, so I'll need some recommendations.

So what were the essential albums of the 90's? By "essential" I don't just mean classic or influential, but also personal favorites and obscure gems. To get things started, here are some of the albums I still hear people talking about:

That list is heavy on indie-rock, since that's what I'm most familiar with, but all genres are open! Punk! Metal! Rap! Country! Ok, maybe not country. But if it was good and released in the 90's, please tell me about it.

If this effort is successful, (a) I'll do a post on my favorites at the end of the year—yes! Another best-of list!—and (b) I'll do the 80's next year. (Sorry to make you wait, Mason.)

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music

December 31, 2005

The Rest of the 2005 Favorites

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:23 AM

I listened to a lot of music (by my standards) this year, but mostly neglected other media categories. So the rest of the end-of-year list is drawing from a smaller set of works. I'm sure I overlooked lots of worthy books, movies, and games this year, so please point them out in the comments.

Favorite movie: Sin City
This was definitely the most visually interesting film of the year, a film that really looked like its graphic novel source material. This was coupled with a series of storylines running at top speed, each depicting some act of heroism rising up from the dark heart of the city. The movie was grotesquely violent, but I think this was an important part of the experience (I addressed this point in more detail in my longer-than-usual review back in April).

Honorable mention: The 40-Year Old Virgin surpassed expectations by being completely hilarious while being sympathetic to the shyness afflicting the title character. The dialogue and characters were very authentic, even when the situations got a bit ridiculous.

Favorite book: Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Murakami manages to find pockets of magic and portals to alternate worlds hidden around Japan, and then teases us with short glimpses of the wonder he's found. This was my favorite of his since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and was more accessible as well. The basic story sounds pretty straightforward: a 15-year-old runaway goes on a journey, falls in love, faces his inner demons. However, as with everything Murakami, there's a lot more beneath the surface.

Favorite video game: Well, Xenosaga II was probably the best game I played this year, but that list is very short. I can't really close this category until I've played Dragon Quest VIII, for one thing... What else should I be playing, as long as this category is open?

Permalink | Tags: Books, Games, Lists, Movies

Favorite Albums of 2005

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:34 AM

I'd better finish up my end-of-year lists before the year actually ends. I decided arbitrarily on a top 5 list of albums; this probably captures about 10% of full-length records I listened to this year. The top two are not going to be surprising to the regular readers; however, the fifth one was a tough decision.

5. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
When I first heard this I couldn't figure out what all the buzz was about. The first song was bizarre and annoying, and I couldn't decide whether the singing was weird, or just bad. But once I got used to the singer and started skipping Track 1, I realized I really liked this record.

4. Architecture in Helsinki, In Case We Die
Brilliant, frenetic indie pop, with a childlike sense of fun.

3. The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema
This band quickly became one of my favorites when I started listening to them late last year. This release didn't surpass their previous album, but was still one of the best of the year. A couple of the songs are simply amazing, and the rest are just plain excellent.

2. Ladytron, Witching Hour
Previous Ladytron albums appropriated mundane objects of modern society as metaphors: hence songs about credit card numbers, digital watches, black plastic, alarm clocks. Witching Hour focuses on the people in this technological landscape, and brings an immediacy and energy to the experience. This record does surpass Ladytron's previous work: rather than a handful of great songs surrounded by filler, this one is awesome from beginning to end.

1. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday
Here we have an album in which the lead singer rants arrhythmically while the band plays power chords in the background. And yet... they do it so well. Part of the fun is following the twists and turns of the storyline across the different songs; part is listening to Craig Finn's snarling monologue, and the rest is the way the band just rocks. I can't quite recommend them for everyone—some fraction of the population just finds them weird—but this was far and away my favorite and most-played CD of the year.

I'm also going to steal one of Lemming's categories from the comments to my favorite songs post and list the:

Best Albums I Should Have Bought in 2004:
3. Snow Patrol, Final Straw
2. The Delgados, Universal Audio
1. The Arcade Fire, Funeral

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December 21, 2005

Favorite Songs of 2005

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:04 PM

Everyone's posting their end-of-year lists, and while I was planning to hold off until next week, I figured I'd start with one that I had ready: my favorite 18 songs of 2005. Why 18? Because these 18 songs will fill up a CD-R. (Normally my mix CDs run to 20 songs, but this list contains one 11-minute track.)

I limited myself to one song per album since otherwise a couple of albums would have walked away with half the list between them. (And naturally there'll be a favorite albums post forthcoming.)

18. Get Him Eat Him, "Mumble Mumble" (Geography Cones)
A song about shyness, the frustrating way it shuts down your verbal abilities when you most need them (especially if there's a lady involved). So you can see the appeal.

17. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth" (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah)
Once I got over how weird the singing was, I started to really like this song.

16. The Decemberists, "We Both Go Down Together" (Picaresque)
The heartwarming tale of a spoiled aristocrat committing suicide with his underclass lover. One gets the sense of an unreliable narrator, and hopes for Miranda to push the dude off the cliff and walk away.

15. Sleater-Kinney, "Let's Call It Love" (The Woods)
Sexy lyrics and a sexy 6-minute guitar solo. There are people who claim that women have less aptitude than men for rock music; these people are crazy.

14. Bloc Party, "Helicopter" (Silent Alarm)
I can never understand what these guys are saying through their British accents, so it was a while before I realized this was an anti-Bush song. Fortunately, the song is awesome with or without the political context.

13. Caribou, "Hello Hammerheads" (The Milk of Human Kindness)
It was a bit tough to pick a favorite song from this album, which is consistently good all the way through. "Hello Hammerheads" has the most appealing atmosphere, I think.

12. New Order, "Dracula's Castle" (Waiting for the Sirens' Call)
The actual relevance to Dracula's castle is questionable, but the song is in the grand tradition of excellent New Order songs.

11. The Rosebuds, "Leaves Do Fall" (Birds Make Good Neighbors)
A song that perfectly captures the urgent longing of a long-distance relationship. I love the lyric, "I'm a desperate man/and that terrifies me".

10. Franz Ferdinand, "The Fallen" (You Could Have It So Much Better)
I'm a sucker for songs about the devil, and this is an especially good one.

9. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, "Ain't No Easy Way" (Howl)
BRMC have been accused of opportunism for their sudden genre-switch to Americana, but if it leads to songs like this I'm all in favor.

8. Spoon, "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" (Gimme Fiction)
This song is just under three minutes long and I am always sort of outraged when it ends. I want to hear more about Monsieur Valentine, dammit!

7. Iron & Wine/Calexico, "He Lays In The Reins" (In The Reins)
I have no idea why there is a dude singing opera in the middle of this song, but the song has one of the best intros I've ever heard and the rest doesn't disappoint either.

6. Architecture in Helsinki, "Wishbone" (In Case We Die)
A love song in a rapid-fire style reminiscent of REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It". It's like candy.

5. Iron & Wine, "Evening On The Ground (Lilith's Song)" (Woman King)
A bit darker and angrier than a typical Iron & Wine song. They should do more like this.

4. Ladytron, "Destroy Everything You Touch" (Witching Hour)
This is the song that's convincing all the hipsters that Ladytron is actually a good band. Of course, I knew this already, which means... Yes. I liked Ladytron before they were cool.

3. Mercury Rev, "Secret For A Song" (The Secret Migration)
I feel like I should be embarrassed of this pick, with its overly grand musical gestures and slightly fantasy-geekish lyrics. (Two suns?) But I can't get enough of it. Somehow, "I'll sell you my secret for a song" really resonates with me.

2. The New Pornographers, "Stacked Crooked" (Twin Cinema)
I have no idea what this song is about, but the way it builds to its anthemic climax is spectacular. The lyrics just sound good, even if they don't make any sense.

1. The Hold Steady, "How A Resurrection Really Feels" (Separation Sunday)
The title is a line spoken by a character in the song, and also the subject of the song, and finally a description of the song itself. It helps to have listened to the previous ten tracks on the album, to get the full emotional weight of Holly's spiritual resurrection, but it's not necessary. The triumphant guitars in the intro, the joy in the lyrics at an old friend coming back from the darkness, the angelic backing vocals in the fade-out... who needs religion when you've got The Hold Steady?

I really should start packing for my trip tomorrow, so I don't have time to track down links to all these songs, but they can probably all be found on iTunes. And, as I alluded earlier, I'm planning to make a mix CD of these 18 tracks, and will be handing out copies during my upcoming travels. So if you'd like a copy, it can probably be arranged.

And it goes without saying that I want to hear about your own favorites in the comment thread.

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August 30, 2005

In which I decline a meme, verbosely.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:58 PM

There's this meme going around where you go here, type the year of your high school graduation into the search box, and get the list of top 100 songs that year. Then you indicate the ones you liked and hated. Given music tastes of the other bloggers I read, this meme tends to devolve into a claim that the list in question is a milestone in unbelievably crappy music. My only participation here is to note that 1997 distinguishes itself with an especially bad top ten, and when #11 and #12 are included you pretty much have songs that are on heavy rotation in hell itself. After that the list is mostly just mediocre with some actual good songs mixed in.

Anyway, it seems like the three categories (liked/hated/don't care) in most implementations of this meme are insufficient. Were I to mark up the entire list (which I'm not, because I'm lazy busy! At work!), I would use the following four classifications:

  1. Songs I haven't heard, don't care about, or don't recognize from the title/artist.
  2. Songs I might have liked, except everyone was playing them my freshman year at college and I got really sick of them.
  3. Songs I dislike.
  4. Songs I hate with the intensity of a thousand burning suns. A single strikethrough line is insufficient for something like R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly;" I need something like a mushroom cloud I can superimpose on the list.

I can't argue that 1997 was the worst year, as Scott Lemieux's list from 1990 clearly trumps mine in awfulness. I did start to wonder if every year would, taken on its own, look especially bad, since we forget about all these mass-produced songs that are ubiquitous for a few months and then (thankfully) vanish forever. To prove this theory, I decided to look at a year from an era that supposedly produced a lot of great music: The Top 100 Songs of 1968.

Wow. Those... those are actually pretty good. Damn.

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August 12, 2005

Friday Random Political Rankings

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:35 PM

Via Kevin Drum, the Bay Area Center for Voting Research has ranked US cities from most liberal to most conservative. No one here will be surprised that this fine city of Berkeley comes in at #3 most liberal, although I'm a bit impressed we beat out Cambridge, MA. (Go team! Or something.) Pasadena is #52 on the liberal list, which was a surprise—I'd have thought they were a bit more conservative. (They're ahead of Eugene, OR!) Also surprising: Dallas more liberal than Austin, and Atlanta to the left of both cities. (Mason, you want to dispute that?)

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