Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Top 10 Albums of 2006

I've finished my list for my favorite albums of 2006. Chris beat me to the punch yesterday; if you haven't had a look yet, go here. There's a lot of overlap, admittedly, but that's no surprise after about a dozen years of shared appreciation for similar music. Usually I produce a large list of my favorite 100 songs in addition to my ten favorite albums of the year, but this time I made the effort to describe each of my album choices, so I will be delayed in creating a song list (if at all).

A disclaimer: before reading further, you should know that the tone in some of my reviews is a little too critic-like. That's intentional. It's hard to write about ten albums without at some point stretching to come up with some abstract analogies  to describe them. Know that I don't for a second pretend to have the skills nor the time to have the ridiculous breadth of knowledge actual critics have (especially those hypercritical nuts at Pitchfork) and most of my writing is largely a play on that fact. I just like making lists.

I encourage all of you to make a similar retrospective tome for the year, whatever your respective area of interest.

Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

10. The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
I really didn’t feel like giving this album much credit for the extremely superficial reason that The Decemberists are too often praised as some sort of indie-rock messiah. As such, the collective eulogizing that The Crane Wife got, I thought, was somewhat unmerited. Still, there are a handful of extremely melodic, varying, and inventive songs on this album. The three parts (divided into two songs, strangely) of the Japanese folk tale for which the album gets its name are the highlights, but the album closer “Sons and Daughters” lives up to a margin of the hype for this release.

9. Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras from the Illinois Album
I loved 2005’s Come On, Feel The Illinoise! so much that an album made up of its ugly step-children and packaged a year later still made for one of my favorites of 2006. There are several songs that really should have made it on the original, including the title track, “No Man’s Land” (with its rockin’ hand claps), and “The Mistress Witch from McClure” (a great song about childhood, with a verse about snooping with his sister, only to find his father committing adultery, presumably…“Oh my God, you see it on the floor, the woman on the bed, the ankle brace she wore!!”). It’s hard not to like Sufjan, I’m convinced, if you can appreciate the tremendous musicality and the talent required of his songs. Plus, you know, he’s pretty prolific.

8. Electric President – Electric President
The Postal Service landed themselves in car commercials, heaps of praise, and a solidified fan base for Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard's other projects with their combined effort of Give Up, so I’m a little bit confused as to why Electric President didn’t get anywhere near the attention with their self-titled album released early in 2006. The style on Electric President is not a derivative of Give Up, but a lot of the same elements are at work here; particularly those elements that made Postal Service popular back in 2003. As a duo (two Florida artists named Ben Cooper and Alex Kane) that relies on heavy production, an emphasis on keyboard loops, and some inescapable, poppy choruses – the similarities seem pretty obvious to me. “Good Morning Hypocrite,” “Insomnia,” and “Metal Fingers” could all just as easily be appearing in some Volkswagen commercial next year. Although that sort of popularity produces a knee-jerk backlash in many people, it’d be okay in my book. They deserve a little attention.

7. Bonnie "Prince" Billy – The Letting Go
I’m way late on the bandwagon on this guy. I’m so late, I still don’t yet understand the transformation of his earlier works, done under previous monikers Palace, then Will Oldham, and on to Bonnie “Prince” Billy. I tried to catch up, but, I still feel a little lost. I think I might even be missing a few of his bands. Nevermind that. He seems to have momentarily stuck with the BPB label and that is where I finally was able to pick him up. On The Letting Go, his really gentle folk doesn’t offer anything mindblowing; just some soulful crooning and inventive narratives. It’s music meant for a rainy day or deep introspection. Though there’s an abundance of that kind of gloom in a lot of modern music, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s folksy brand is refreshing.

6. Figurines – Skeleton
I was standing in some hipster clothing store (in a bout of self-loathing, perhaps) in June when I heard the best song on Skeleton, “Rivalry,” and sort of recognized it as something I had heard before (I eventually remembered Chris bought the album at Reckless Records and played it). The “wah...wah-wah...wah...wah” Muppet-esque chorus at the end of the song stuck with me. By the time we were driving up to a Wisconsin cabin in August and stopping at a Culver's, I was forcing my roommate to listen to the whole album. “Back In The Day” is equally, and as immediately accessible, but there are a lot of other great songs on Skeleton.

5. Peter Bjorn and John – Writer’s Block
Is it wrong of me to take credit for Schneider’s mention of this in his recent interview with Radio Free Chicago as what he’s currently listening to? No? Then I also take credit for pushing a full listen on Chris (I’m the unsourced “friend” I believe, in his blurb for this album). That said, I myself had a little trouble getting very far in this album because it keeps changing styles and doesn’t really lend itself to one mood. I kept repeating “Objects of My Affection” over and over when I wanted something upbeat, but then some quirky Belle and Sebastian riffs would kick in during the next track (“Young Folks”), and I’d have trouble keeping interest. They are Swedish, after all. But once I was able to just deal with the foibles of the album, I really began liking it.

4. The Frames – The CostHey, The Frames made my list. Not a surprise to those of you who regularly make fun of my admitted enthusiasm for this band. It’s another likeable output from them, assuming you liked their other stuff. Perhaps The Cost should be further down on the list, one might argue, because it really doesn’t show the band as evolving as they perhaps could or should be by this point, but that’s okay. Because they were a good thing to begin with, and they’re still a good thing this time around and I'm not yet tired of their sound, found in spades on this album. And so, they keep pressing on in much the same vein as 2004’s Burn The Maps. “Rise,” “People Get Ready,” and “True” all portray that kind of inescapable gravitas that makes me love this band. At the very least, their failsafe sound is a unique and lively one.

3. Josh Ritter – The Animal Years“Girl in the War” and “Thin Blue Flame” are two of the best songs I heard this year. Both songs found their way into my heart for the honesty of Ritter’s emotions – you can’t fake the sincerity and confusion in his voice and as a result, the songs' impact seem that much more legitimate. I’m still not done interpreting “Girl in the War,” but “Thin Blue Flame” I’ve sort of been able to peg down as both a song of spiritual protest and religious struggle. The lyrics subscribe to an agnostic cynicism, but you can tell it’s more about the ugliness he sees around the world and perhaps in the organized practice of religion than in the concept of a diety. It’s a really, really fascinating thing to listen to, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a genuine lyricist. “Heaven’s just a thin blue line, If God’s up there he’s in a cold dark room, The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons, He bent down and made the world in seven days, And ever since he’s been a’walking away, Mixing with nitrogen in lonely holes, Where neither seraphim or raindrops go, I see an old man wandering the halls alone, Only a full house gonna make a home.” If you don’t feel like absorbing this album, just try out these two and brace yourself for Ritter's enormous aspirations.

2. Calexico – Garden Ruin
A few weeks ago, after I said I really enjoyed Calexico’s Garden Ruin, Will called my taste in music, “a little vanilla.” That may be the case, overall, but I think this album is as far from vanilla as anything released this year. It hits a lot of highs and lows, segues in some coy Latin grooves without being heavy-handed about the whole display, and changes pace enough to require repeated listening to really get this album. Sure, I could point to the closer, “All Systems Red,” and its monumental crescendo as reason enough stick this one out, but there are some great songs spread evenly on this somewhat shorter album. “Letter to Bowie Knife” treads on that latin-guitar vibe I was talking about. “Smash” offers a lull toward the end, when you begin to think things are going to calm down, and then all of sudden, bam, dark piano galore, as if villains took over the studio for a bit. This album grew on me over the late summer and fall, and it’s got a change-of-season spirit that makes sense to me now as to why I liked it so much then, and still keep on playing it this late in the year.

1. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
There’s been much praise for this album, with many critics hailing it one of the best of 2006. Well, they’re right. It’s rare that a lone female voice can get my attention, but Neko Case’s clean, twangy vocals ring out like the Sirens call. Fox Confessor is loaded with transfixing, beautiful songs (and I don’t tend to like the twangier style of the folk-rock that I’d put this one in), all of which Case pulls off seamlessly. In fact, the first time I listened to it all the way through, on a road trip returning from Oklahoma, I didn't like it at all. But at some point, its recurring, thematic authenticity wins you over. My favorites are “Star Witness,” (about witnessing a murder in Chicago, I've read), “Maybe Sparrow,” and one of the best lead-off tracks I’ve heard in a long time “Margaret vs. Pauline.” Case delivers the line, “Two girls walk down the same street, one left a sweater sittin’ on the train and the other lost three fingers at the cannery…” in total nonchalance, before hitting a chorus that really makes you feel bad for poor Margaret, whoever she is. Overall, that’s what makes this album so likeable. You begin thinking about the people behind all the short little one-liners found throughout and somehow empathize with whoever served as Case’s inspiration for this fantastic album.

For posterity, here are my lists from previous years:
2005 2004 2003

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Undercover Brother

For anyone with a Mac, check this out. I'm not too worried that my laptop would ever be stolen (I mean, come on, we've got a deadbolt and I keep a tennis racket under my bed), but for 50 bucks split among a few people (5 logins), it's not a bad idea to install something that could perform the following, should it ever be necessary:

Like most other theft-recovery software, Undercover will transmit network information of the stolen Mac. This information includes both internal and external IP addresses and the router address, enabling our recovery center to accurately trace the Mac's physical location.

Undercover is the world's first theft-recovery software that will send screenshots of your stolen Mac at regular intervals. These screenshots will sooner or later reveal the thief's identity (e.g. when chatting, reading and writing emails, etc.) making it much easier to work with law enforcement in order to recover your Mac.

Undercover introduces another world first: if your Mac has a built-in or external iSight, Undercover will transmit pictures of the thief and his surroundings every 6 minutes, making it even easier to identify the current user. It's like having a private detective working for you.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Smarter Than the Average Bear

My dad and uncle are out at Yellowstone National Park on vacation this week. It's a bit of an annual tradition for them.

This morning, they were out in front of a webcam of Old Faithful run by the National Park Service that gets refreshed every 30 seconds.

He gave me a call on his cell phone to find them; not a very difficult task, ay Boo Boo?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Super Is An Apt Description

The weekend was great -- on Friday we went on a double date with Schneider and Laurel at an Italian tapas place and saw "The Science of Sleep" directed by Michael Gondry (of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and White Stripes videos fame), which I definitely recommend, though the film jumps around in three languages and requires either deep concentration or the reckless abandon of thought. I'm not sure which. On Saturday, some chumps came over for pizza, beer, and the Iowa-OSU game. Last night, I went to my cousin's wedding near the Lincoln Park Zoo. Also, Chris was in town for a half marathon (regrettably I didn't get to the finish line to cheer him on), the weather was glorious, and both the Illini and Bears won in the same weekend. When was the last time that happened?

The weekend before that was James' and Mary's birthdays. We went out for sushi at Ringo and later to the side room at Pint. James got a nice bullet dicer from his family, which I already put to use while experimenting with my own recipe for Spaghetti and Meatballs. Mary's car got smashed (not a very nice birthday gift) while it was parked out front of my place by some jerk who didn't leave a note, but that was an otherwise fun weekend.

So there's plenty of content in those recapping paragraphs to complete my self-induced word requirement for one post, but I can't help but turn this post into a biking one. Blogging about biking is all the rage these days. (check out all these sweeet links, folks.) Asking thrifty city folk to talk about their bikes is like shooting fish in a barrel.

So I'll bite. My bike is above (or at least a near facsimile of it). Mine's got a nice seat, new tires and handlebars, and is brown. It's a Raleigh Super Course from 1976 (or possibly an earlier model) and was handed down to me by my dad. The best part about it is that there's still a sticker on it from Richard's Cycle Shop in Chicago from its original purchase. A search reveals the place is still around, but it's moved to Palos Heights. At least I think it's the same place. If it's not, that's not as cool, but I like to think it is. And that makes for a nice little story in my head as I'm trekking over Chicago's only hills (the ramps over 90-94).

Anywho, the Raleigh is my most trusted form of transportation, especially for getting to work. I certainly should have chosen it last week when I found myself stuck for several hours on the Metra and the Brown line on Wednesday and Thursday during two tragic, separate incidents. On Thursday I was actually delayed moreso by the L ahead of us losing power -- I've never been on a train that actually had to reverse backwards to the previous stop, but that's exactly what happened to me and about a thousand other angry commuters. After an hour of standing still. On a day I was supposed to get to work early.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Don't Let Your Roommate Navigate Unsupervised With A Shared Netflix Queue

Or else he'll throw something on there that will be funny when first reading it on a dreary Tuesday morning. But then he'll put it dangerously close to the top, you'll forget about it, and the next thing you know it'll arrive and you'll find yourself watching 94 minutes of frollicking kittens set to soothing music.

"Looking adorable, of course."

This girl can relate. You gotta be vigilant with the queue in times of such cinematic uncertainty and roomie slapdashery.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

New iTunes

I highly recommend installing the new iTunes (v. 7.0). They finally integrated Cover Flow (link may take a second to load), which was a program James showed me a few months ago. It finds all your album covers and displays them as if they were in their physical form. (See a screen grab of my library at left.) It used to be an external program that worked independently of iTunes, so I rarely bothered to open it, even as aesthetically pleasing as it is.

Despite this recommendation, I know there will be those of you out there still defending your version of Windows Media Player from 1998 or WinAmp or whatever you're using to listen to music, refusing all advice to upgrade. If you've resisted Apple's allure thus far, fair play to you, sir. But now's the time to get on board.

Friday, August 04, 2006

We Connect With Morlocks

My cell phone provider is cooler than your cell phone provider. Not only can I now be totally obnoxious and make phone calls underground when I occasionally take the Blue Line, but other people on lesser providers can call 911 in the event that, say, another train derails.

Photo: From Flickr. And yes, I realize referencing an H.G. Wells species in the title makes me a huge nerd.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

For Three!

Last Wednesday, a handful of us played some pickup basketball in my back courtyard. At that time, it was agreed that we should play every Wednesday night. And so, a handful of us will again meet tonight to play at 7.

Unfortunately, the court can't hold more than a 3 on 3 game. But any and all are welcome to play, provided they're willing to sit out, round-robin style. If you're interested, let me know.

Word of warning, though, this was Hoffman last week:

Friday, July 14, 2006

To The Lighthouse (Doing Virginia Wolfe Proud)

I'm headed out to North Carolina on a sweet vacation. While there, I'm hoping to research the origins/fall from grace of the bumper sticker at left. Three letter oval pattern resurrectionists, unite!

In all honesty, I'm definitely looking forward to some time off, relaxing at the beach, and reading a book Will recommended, "Lanark".

Have a good week. And for those of you still in town this weekend, in my absence I leave you to your own L.A.T.E. Ride devices.

P.S. - While cleaning up the apartment, I watched an episode of "24" for the first time. Spoiler alert: This show sucks. It's like a Die Hard movie gone horribly awry. All that's missing are some Chechnyan separtists demanding that Jack Bauer recite pi to the 20th decimal, or else they'll ram their hijacked submarine into Alcatraz. And the big twist? The president is in on it!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Stranding Runners With Unparalleled Tenacity...

...Pictures from the Cubs-Sox game. The seats were awesome, the game less so.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Doing Darwin Proud

Most of you reading probably already know about Ruby and Brett's Gueverian blog from South America. But if you don't, check out their latest few posts from the Galapagos islands.

Be forewarned, the photos will inspire burning jealousy in even the most pious of ye readers.

They do, however, have the equal ability to soothe one's soul after receiving a $50 parking ticket, particularly one due to a tiny sign about street cleaning posted halfway down the block.

Photo taken by Brett/Ruby of a rather unfortunately named bird, the "blue footed boobie," according to them. This post was written without their consent or knowledge, and far too enthusiastically on my part, if I do say so.

Monday, May 29, 2006

We Interrupt This Hiatus

See if you can spot my dad in this cover story from Sunday's Tribune Magazine.

...Now back to the hiatus.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

On Hiatus

I've been thinking about taking a break for a while. And with the blog lull going around, the big 50k reached in readership, and a case of writer's malaise, now's the time to do it. Also, I was going through some of the archives and I found myself deleting or editing everything. Which leads me to believe it's either time to take a break or start over.

So I'm off for a bit. I'll be back when the motivation hits again or to start anew elsewhere.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

East Ukwickertownboldt Park

Ah, a favorite topic among real estate agents and anyone living in west of Ashland, south of Fullterton, and north of Chicago. What to call the neighborhood?

At least two newcomers to Chicago moved to Humboldt Park because apartments listed on craigslist.org said they were located in West Wicker Park or Wicker Park/Bucktown. Bartender Jared Dreyer said he didn't figure out the deception until he had already moved from Cincinnati. "After a while I realized it's Humboldt Park," said Dreyer, 27.

Reese Mitchell's listing said Wicker Park/Bucktown."It's right off Division and Kedzie," said Mitchell, 23, who moved there a month ago. "It's Humboldt Park..."

I can vouch for this phenomenon. I can also vouch for agents trying to convince us that an apple tree in one's backyard is a legitimate need. (That place has been on the market since October. C'mon people, "you KNOW you want to live there.")

Friday, February 17, 2006

Making Big (Illi)Noise

The DI fiasco has reached NY Times status:

Mr. Gorton said he still would have printed the images. "My first obligation is to the readers," he said. "This is news."