Friday, December 28, 2007

Music picks of 2007

I've noticed that, as I've gotten older, I've lost touch with what the kids like in the music arena. When I was their age (high school age, whatever that amounts to these days), what I listened to was hip and cool. Now what I listen to seems aged and refined.

But hey, at least it's not pop-punk.

This year a lot of that aged music was released. It happens that, every other year or so, a crop of great music comes out - leaving me with choices to make, like opting not to buy the new Smashing Pumpkins album that was released over the summer. My heart forever belongs in the "Siames Dream" era of Billy Corgan's band, and anything past "Mellon Collie" strikes me as unofficial Pumpkins material. Hell, Zwan came closer to a Pumpkins album than "Machina."

Last year, my good bro Driver ran a list of recommended albums that came out over the year. So this year I'm dedicating my list to artists who I like, and who release material regularly, but who haven't had a hit with the kids in ages. And also some new stuff I discovered along the way.

Breaking tradition, we'll call it a Top Ten List. No one ever does those.

In no particular order (except the last one):

"Tohuvabohu" by KMFDM
KMFDM has entered a steady groove, with a consistent slate of band members (something new in their long history) that leaves for little variety among their post-"ATTAK" albums. "Tohuvabohu" also breaks tradition, with 2005's "Hau Ruck," by not using the usual five-letter album title (like "Nihil," "Angst," and "WWIII"). Other than that, this is the usual stuff from my favorite politcal satirists. It's taken a long time for KMFDM to write a song as fabulous and fun as "Superpower" - a return to their epic, self-referential mid-'90s sound that I've missed so much. The rest of the album? Standard stuff, though Lucia gets a lot more air time, and uses it pretty well.

"Mission California" by Cross Canadian Ragweed
This was a new one for me. I read a review of a CCR album in the Detroit Free Press a few years ago, and always meant to try them out. After I saw "Mission California" was out, I took a dive - and I'm glad I did. I had heard that CCR was a roots-rock outfit, but they have a bit more twang than I was expecting. But it's a good twang - like Lynyrd Skynyrd twang. "Record Executive" starts out the album with a thumb in the eye, while songs like "In Oklahoma" and "Smoke Another" keep the tempo upbeat. But there's a few slower numbers here, and they're done well. I hear CCR's live show is a memorable one, so I've got my eyes open for their tour schedule in this part of the country.

"Echoes, Silence, Patience, & Grace" by Foo Fighters
Foo Fighters seem to be the "it" band these days, what with a Grammy nomination and all. "Echoes" do them justice; it's a steady, consistently good album, ranging from straight-up rockers like "The Pretender" to bluesy, ultra-listenable numbers like "Summer's End." I was glad to see them experimenting with country/bluegrass on "Echoes," too. Not quite the magnum opus "In Your Honor" was, but still one of the year's best.

"Sky Blue Sky" by Wilco
I actually haven't purchased this one yet, but I will. And since it was released this year, it gets put on the list. I hear it's it's an easier-going ride, like a walk down a shady path, and Driver's enthusiasm for Tweedy's group is contagious. Each of their album grows on me the more I listen to them. I've got the middle stuff ("Summerteeth," "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot") and the "Mermaid Avenue" album. Now I'll grab the bookends, and see what all the fuss is about.

"In Our Bedroom After the War" by Stars
I heard about this Canadian indie outfit in Rolling Stone, I think, and heard "The Night Starts Here" thanks to's daily download - and it was enough. Dual singers, a roller coaster of highs and lows, and just enough quiet and heartbreak to keep it in steady rotation. Not to mention a weird, instrumental opening that sucks me in every time. Something new, and something worth trying.

"Year Zero" by Nine Inch Nails
It's risky to say Trent Reznor is lightening up in his old age. Maybe it's just that he's gotten over the self-loathing and found bigger, more interesting, issues to tackle - like the state of our country in these weird times. "Year Zero" is a dystopian view of what America could become, but it becomes something else entirely by producing an amazingly well-thought-out story line. For all his brooding, Reznor found enough light in his tunnel to write a piece of great fiction, and establish an entire participatory experiment while doing so. There's plenty of news out there about the album's interactive elements - secret web pages, thumb drives left in concert hall bathrooms, blackshirts unloading armbands out of mysterious vans - but, in the end, the album really could stand on its own. "The Good Soldier" offers the best NIN song since "The Downward Spiral," while singles like "Survivalism" and "Capital G" point to a police state America that didn't seem so fictional a few years back. The man is talented, no doubt about it, but "Year Zero" takes Reznor's talent to another level.

"Afterwords" by Collective Soul
Look up "reliable" in the dictionary, and Collective Soul's Ed Rowland and gang are right there in the examples. "Youth" - too slow in parts to really capture the imagination. But "Afterwords," released only in Target stores, is a return to a formula that was perfected when Hootie and his Blowfish ruled the world. This is a fun album made by a band so comfortable with itself that album rankings and the monolithic teen love fail to hold sway. Although "Hollywood" helped put Collective Soul back in the "American Idol"-loving consciousness, songs like the amazing "I Don't Need Anymore Friends" and the sweet "Georgia Girl" make "Afterwords" a good listen from front to back. I hesitated even buying this album, knowing exactly what I would get from the band. But that's what I bought it, too: I knew what I was getting, and - in my old age - there's comfort in rocking to a band that I've grown up with.

"Under the Blacklight" by Rilo Kiley
About once a year, Michigan State's college station, Impact 89 FM, turns me on to some random band who I can't seem to escape (Mates of State, Interpol, Snow Patrol, many others), and Rilo Kiley gets added to that list this year. It was an easy experiment. Jenny Lewis's solo album was a hoot. But it was "Breakin' Up" that did it: a song so infectious that I whistle it in the shower during my NPR listens. "Under the Blacklight" also offers the divine "Dreamworld" and the dreamy "Silver Lining," and enough of Jenny Lewis's personality to make me recognize, when I first heard "Breakin' Up," what was going on. Plenty of variety, and plenty of good songcraft, so that now I want to check out Rilo's back catalog to see what else I can find.

"Our Love to Admire" by Interpol
I keep hoping I'll like "Our Love to Admire" as much as I adore "Antics," but - even after repeated listens - it just isn't happening. Oh well. It's still a pretty good album. Even if there was only one song, and it was "Pace is the Trick," I would pay $10 or whatever on this latest Interpol album. I guess I'll never forget the winter I got turned on to these NYC-loving, suit-wearing, spooky-singing throwbacks, and "Pace is the Trick" takes me right back to that time. It's got the right combination of soaring and hypnotizing bends that the song, combined with "Rest My Chemistry" and opening track "Pioneer to the Falls," made "Our Love to Admire" rise above a disappointment. Other than that, the brilliance of "Untitled" or "Hands Away" (off "Turn on the Bright Lights") or "Slow Hands" and "Length of Love" (off "Antics") is nowhere near as evident. The rest of the tracks seem too rushed and thrown together. Maybe it's because Paul Banks is a methodical bastard, and this album seems out of character. Whatever. It's still Interpol, and I still love driving to work with it blaring in my ears.

"Dead Again" by Type O Negative
My pick for the best album of the year. Don and I got to see Type O live in the spring (and I didn't get my tires slashed at Harpo's like last time), which really highlighted the genius of the epic songs "These Three Things" and "Profit of Doom." Like "Life Is Killing Me" before it, "Dead Again" took a few listens to appreciate. But now it's there, and it's fucking amazing. Like Tool, Type O comes out with an album - if we're lucky - every four or five years, and a lot happens in the meantime that bleeds into the music. Peter Steele converting back to Catholicism, getting arrested, and OD'ing on cocaine lend plenty of lyrical material, but the band puts their admirable musical talent to work here, producing 80+ minutes of sonic doom and gloom. Type O never takes themselves seriously, and I appreciate bands (like KMFDM) that poke fun with wit and intelligence. This is not a sunny album, and it's not one you should play for your grandmother. "Hail and Farewell to Britain" and "September Sun" highlight Steele's recent obsession with good melodies melded with Soviet-style May Day Marches. All in good fun. And it all adds up to my most-listened-to album of the year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The day my hero died.

It's a grim anniversary, and it's hard to believe I was only 15 when it happened, but today - in 1996 - Carl Sagan died. was nice enough to remind me, but I remember when Driver sent me a similar memorial a few years back.

My grandma wondered last night why, now that all that's in the news is global warming stuff, more people didn't listen to Dr. Sagan and his greenhouse theory. All we had to do was look at Venus to see our future, he said, if we don't start behaving.

Grandma and I finished his landmark "Cosmos" series a few weeks ago - a Christmas present I got her a few years back.

He's what got me into astronomy and world events and humanism and scientific skepticism. He's probably my biggest non-political hero.

Well, was. But he still is, because he lives on whenever I pull out one of his great books and devour it.

We still miss you, Dr. Sagan.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more "Guitar Hero"

I learned a long time ago that knowing how to play guitar doesn't mean you're qualified to play "Guitar Hero."

The last time I tried, right about this time last year, I walked up to the Best Buy try-it-out booth. And failed, miserably.

But this year, something clicked. "Guitar Hero III" just came out, and Pearl Jam's "Even Flow" was blasting from the Best Buy display during a recent visit.

"Goddammit," I said. "I can do this."

So I strapped on the cheap plastic Les Paul knock-off, selected "Even Flow" on "easy," and scored a decent 93% by the end of the song.

I finally go it.

And that's when something transferred from the Xbox 360, through the cable, into the guitar, and up my fingertips. "Guitar Hero" got to me, and it's all I can do to stop myself from returning to Best Buy and try it out again. Or buy a copy for myself.

The idea of selling designer guitar straps and faceplates for a video game still seems ridiculous to me, but I can see why the game is so popular. It's fun, challenging, and offers a level of interactivity that I've never experienced before.

Then along comes "Rock Band," and ups the ante. I gave that one a try for the first time last night, and let me tell you - I know want to be a drummer.

"Rock Band" lets you play the full ensemble: guitar, bass, singer, and percussion. The demo at Best Buy also gives you more songs to play. Scrolling through the list on the drum pad, I saw Nirvana's "In Bloom," and my heart leapt. I've always wanted to play that song on drums, in all its bombastic simplicity. I finally got my chance, and it was just as fun as I dreamed it would be.

"Rock Band" seems to give each instrument its own focus for each song. When I tried out Faith No More's "Epic" on guitar, there was a lot of downtime because the guitar doesn't have a lot to do in the song. It's a drummer's song.

But throw together a group of friends with some music experience, and you've got a helluva evening planned. Toss in booze, and watch out organized sporting events: your sun has pretty much set.

I've been thinking about Nintendo's Wii, especially after "Super Mario Galaxy" came out, and thought what a great addition it could be to Don's and my living room. After finally playing "Galaxy" last night (it was a Best Buy kind of evening), I realized what a powerful combination the Wii's controls together with games like "Guitar Hero" could be. Having grown up with video games, you can only play so many control-based games without growing out of them.

Drums? Guitars? Flicking a nunchuck to make Mario perform a spiral attack?

It's like I was 13 all over again.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Michigan Primary: giving politics the underhand.

I may end up voting in the Michigan's Republican primary come January 15, but only because the party I usually support has taken any choice away from me. But I don't blame the party. I blame Michigan.

Perhaps you know that the modest states of New Hampshire and Iowa (who's combined population only equals half of Michigan's) always get first dibs on selecting presidential candidates. It's been that way since early last century, starting with Oregon in 1910, and now candidates face off in the coldest months in blustery states each presidential election season.

The problem some people have is the states chosen to go first. What's so special about New Hampshire and Iowa? Why do their primary and caucas hold so much weight?

Part of it is history. Since Truman got his butt kicked in New Hampshire's 1952 primary, that state has held the title of potential president-maker. Granite State primaries used to be held in March (featuring a lot more sane timetable, if you ask me), but they move it back each year to be first. Now it's held in January.

But Montana and New Jersey are last, and by then everything is pretty much decided. So now Nevada, South Carolina, and our own Great Lakes State has challenged Iowa and New Hampshire for primacy - tackling the same issue that Super Tuesday voters wrestled with as of 1988. Why leave it to mostly rural, mostly white states to pick a party's contender?

Michigan voted to have its primary moved up to January 15, thereby sprinting past Iowa and New Hampshire to be the first in the nation. And because of that, most of the Democratic nominees dropped out of the race. Their names won't even appear on the ballots - and only Hillary Clinton is offering her name for the primary. The Republicans? They're hanging with us. Mitt Romney is heavily canvassing his home state just to try the whole thing out.

So, as a registered Democrat, my own state's move into first on the calendar punishes me. And now it's not even first in nation; New Hampshire moved theirs to January 8. We could be voting on candidates in December next time around, which is madness.

I'm in favor of tradition when it comes to politics, and I had no problems with Iowa and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation status. It's been that way since I was a kid, and yes there are problems with it (as well as alternatives), but it's something to look forward to each election season.

The Electoral College? NOw THAT'S an issue to tackle. But for now, the primary system works for me.

Which is why I plan on voting in the Republican Primary this time around. Much like our primary two years ago for Representative, the Republican side is just more interesting. And if offers me more choices than my own party. My vote could help swing a Republican victory for a candidate I can stomach.

That means Rudy and Mitt won't be getting my vote. But McCain or Paul? Count on it.

This is actually how John McCain beat Bush in 2000: more Democrats switched sides for a candidate they felt comfortable with. Because I don't feel comfortable with Guiliani, I plan on voting for someone else. It's my own state's fault. Blame not the voter.

And besides, the national Democrats might strip Michigan of its electoral votes, leaving our state worthless in country-wide politics. Michigan's bold move ended up solidifying New Hampshire and Iowa's supremacy.

Meanwhile, I'll wait for Mitt and John and Mike to campaign for my vote - because me and others like me may end up swinging the entire GOP race on a cold day in January.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The ol' Mac vs. PC debate - in a nutshell

From John Gruber @ Daring Fireball:

Microsoft looked at the PC market and asked, “How can we make the most money?” Their answer was to sell software to the business market, because that’s where the money is. Pure pragmatism: corporations are conservative, change slowly, and hold compatibility (and low prices) in high regard.

Apple looked at the PC market and asked, “How can we make something better than everything out there?” Their answer was the Macintosh. Pure idealism.

He goes on to say that Apple couldn't have had compatibility AND "insane greatness" at the same time. And it kind of goes along with the story that the Apple folks were a bunch of crazy hippies working on changing the world.

> via Daring Fireball