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january 2004

1.1.04
Hmmm...I just realized that I haven't posted any updates to the 1986 mixtape I started working on back when I launched this site in October. I promise I'll finish that up and start on 1987 before the end of the month.


1.2.04
Still getting used to my new iPod and spending a lot of time thinking about how I'm going to integrate it into my life (like what kind of accessories do I need so I can make sure that I can charge it up at home, in the car, and at work without having to bring a whole box of junk with me everywhere I go). There are a few little quirks with it, some little interface oddities that I wish functioned a little differently, but in general it's living up to my expectations, which were pretty high. I'll keep you updated as my relationship with this little device develops.


1.5.04

Mixtape: 1986

Track 16
"Angels"
Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams
BoDeans

If only the BoDeans had been able to languish in relative obscurity for two or three albums, they might have had time to solidify their indentity and become one of the best rock bands of the decade, the northern plains answer to the rural southern gothic of R.E.M. This record, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams (the title is cribbed from the Rolling Stones' "Shattered"), was a promising start, contributing yet another left field release to the coincidental critical mass of country-influenced rock releases that found their way onto record store shelves in 1986. They were virual unknowns when they were signed by Slash Records, mostly playing weekly gigs at the bars in the hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who just coincidentally happened to be a part-time member of the Golden Palominos. The record has very clean production but with an earthy, rootsy feel that is perfect for the subtle touches of country that work their way into the song structures. The critics loved it, rightly so: the songs were eminently hummable, and thanks in large part to the singers' voices, the BoDeans sounded like nothing else. (Kurt Neumann, the more familiar-sounding of the two, sounds a little like a more ephemeral Jackson Browne. As for Sammy Llanas...well, he's really hard to describe——it's what you would imagine an angry midget on helium would sound like. But somehow their voices worked for the band, solo or in harmony, adding that unique touch that made them stand out.) They tried to pull a half-assed Ramones, listing the band members as Bob, Guy, Beau, and Sammy Bodean, but that gimmick didn't last long——I think they were treating it as a bad joke even before the album hit stores.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to cult status: music magazies like Rolling Stone and Spin drooled over them, and even non-music magazines like Time and Newsweek devoted a page or two to the band. This didn't really help them sell tons of copies of Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, but it did make the band and their record company start to believe that if they could just tinker with the BoDeans formula a little bit, they could sell lots and lots of records and get their songs on mainstream radio. For their next record, the group reduced Llanas' singing time, choosing to make Neumann's more traditional (but far less interesting) voice the official voice of the BoDeans; added more ballads and keyboards; and in general wrote material that was more accessible to a mass audience. And I guess it worked: the resulting effort, Outside Looking In, earned them an opening spot on the American leg of U2's Joshua Tree tour and was so well-loved by Rolling Stone that they were declared Best New Band (even though Rolling Stone knew full well that they weren't really a new band; they were just new to the morons who listened to top 40 radio).

But that record also sucked: the songs were bland, overproduced, and totally lacking in the charm that makes Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams such a pleasure to listen to. I bought it, and I tried to love it because I loved the first one so much, but I knew it would never work when I was playing it for my lame-ass roommate Alan at NCSSM: the worst song on the record, a sappy, treacly, radio-friendly ballad——I think it was called "Runaway Love"——came on, and Alan, who up until that point had hated everything I had put on the stereo, said, "I really like this." And that was the end of the BoDeans for me. I listened to their next release, Home, but it was even worse than Outside Looking In, and I never bought another record by the band. Maybe they did eventually return to their roots and fulfill the promise of this first beautiful album, but I'll likely never know.


1.5.04
Back when I launched the site, I also gave you a list of songs that I would have put on a mixtape to represent the year 1986 as I heard. That was then accompanied by an in-depth look at each of the songs on the mix. I never actually made it to the end of the mixtape, though, but now I will. You should have a look back at the mix and the earlier commentary if you need to remind yourself what I've written so far, and I'll finish it over the next couple of weeks. Below is the next entry. Enjoy.


1.6.04

Mixtape: 1986

Track 17
"Graceland"
Graceland
Paul Simon

I don't have anything against Simon and Garfunkel. Like most people my age who didn't grow up with them, they have nevertheless been a constant presence in my musical explorations, a background noise that I encountered time and again as I got to know the most fertile period of the generation that came before mine, the 60s. Their soundtrack made The Graduate into a better movie, I still remember what a fuss their Central Park concert caused back in the 80s, and I am genuinely moved by many of their songs. Having said that, I don't actually own and Simon and Garfunkel records, nor do I own any of their solo works.

Except Graceland, Paul Simon's mid-career masterpiece that may well outshine anything he did in his folkie days with Garfunkel, no matter now important those are in the history of rock. After the initial wave of praise and success generated by this record, there were a slew of accusations that Paul Simon hadn't fairly credited a number of his co-creators, most notably the African musicians with whom he played. The group Los Lobos, who were critically but not commercially well-known, even claimed that the song they work with Simon on, "All Around the World (The Myth of Fingerprints)" was a fully written song that Simon merely laid his own vocal melody and lyrics on top of but which he then claimed was wholly his own creation. We may never know the whole truth about its authorship, but Graceland will always remain an undeniably great album, and no matter what his collaborators might have contributed, it certainly would not be the record it is without Paul Simon's touch.

The title track is very representative of the album as a whole: lyrics that deftly weave larger themes into the personal stories of individuals; a catchy pop melody inflected with subtle ethnic, usually African, touches; and Simon's voice anchoring it all. No matter what your taste in music, it's hard to deny the perfection of this record and this song, and it would have been a crime to leave it off this mix.


1.7.04
Finally.


1.8.04
So, iTunes for Windows has been out for a couple of months now, and given the soaring sales of the iPod during the holidays and Apple's recent introduction of the new mini iPod, it's probably a good time to review Apple's foray into the world of digital music distribution. The one thing I think everyone can agree on is that Apple is the one responsible for making downloading music easy and sensible, creating a system that gives the customer what they want instead of forcing them to either be locked into a restrictive, overpriced, limited library of music or risk breaking the law by search for music on file trading networks. As is usual in the technology world, their competitors have been scrambling to introduce copycat devices and services, and as usual, they are but a poor imitation of Apple's superios industrial design and intuitive, easy-to-use interfaces.

Creating a Windows version of iTunes, the first application that Apple has ever written for that platform, was a good and necessary thing for both Apple and the Windows users who will now be able to access the iTunes music store. Up until now, Windows users, the vast majority of all computer users thanks to the Microsoft monopoly, have been forced to endure the restrictive licenses and crappy software that has passed for legal digital music distribution. I've downloaded and played with a copy of iTunes for Windows on my machine at work, and it is pretty much a carbon copy of the Mac version (even down to the brushed metal finish that has become ubiquitous on the Mac with the release of Panther).

So far Apple hasn't told us exactly how many Windows users have downloaded the new app, signed up for accounts on the music store, and purchased songs, but since they only sold 13 million songs in the first six months of the iTunes store's existence as a Mac-only product and they've sold an additional 17 million in the three months since the Windows version was introduced, I'm sure that a substantial number of Windows users now have the app on their hard drive, along with more than a few AAC-encoded songs. Apple has stated their goal to sell 100 million songs by the first year anniversary of iTunes, which will be difficult even with the expanded user base that a Windows version of iTunes gives them. But it's not impossible: they'll get a big push from their deals with Pepsi and AOL——AOL will allow its 25 million users to purchase songs from the iTunes Music Store through the AOL music center, and Pepsi is going to give away 100 million songs in the two months leading up to the first anniversary of iTunes.

These giveaways won't count in their sales totals, but to redeem the free song, you'll have to install iTunes on your desktop and establish an account for the service, and that's the hardest part of getting people to buy stuff online. Once they've taken the time to create a customer relationship with you, the odds are that they're going to purchase something. And the fact that Apple's iPods were hot sellers during the holiday season won't hurt either. There are rumors that Apple also has a deal with McDonald's to give away a billion (that's right, billion with a "b") iTunes songs, but that likely won't happen until the summer, well after the first anniversary of the iTunes music store.

Releasing iTunes for Windows does more than give Apple a stronger foothold in the digital music market, however. Whenever a user installs and downloads iTunes, they also have to install and download the latest version of QuickTime, Apple's multimedia software that doesn't have the advantaged of being pre-installed on Windows machines like Microsoft's own (and inferior) Windows Media technologies. This sets the stage for possible future forays into digital video distribution online, and gives Windows users one more opportunity to see the superiority of Apple's technologies.

There are still some features I'd like to see in iTunes——a truly minimal version of the app the can fit in the narrow strip of real estate in the Mac menu bar or the Windows application bar, the ability to create folders for playlists, and a couple of other little things——but all in all it's a great app that I am more than happy to use as my default music player (Apple's Safari browser is the same way——it has become my default browser despite nagging little annoyances like the inability to turn off link underlining in the preferences).

The iPod has some similar little quirks——one of the features I like the most is the ability to build an "on-the-go" playlist, but it's overly difficult to do when you are listening to a random playlist with thousands of songs in it——but it, too, is a great device the continues Apple's tradition of excellence in UI and industrial design. I'm not sure about the wisdom of the mini iPod——it seems to me that the price point needed to be significantly lower given it's relatively low capacity and the fact that it's not really that much smaller than the full-sized iPod models——but then again, you can never underestimate the hipper-than-thou mentality of Apple's core market, who have always been willing to pay a little more for quality and style.

The next few months should be interesting. Several competitors, like a reborn Napster and Real Network's Rhapsody, have already been launched and been smacked down by the iTunes music store (Apple claims that 70% of all legal music downloads are done through their service), but there are several more in the wings for 2004, most notably services from Microsoft and Wal-Mart. But those are likely to have the same drawbacks and the cheap, imitative feel of iTunes' current competitors, and I don't think it's a stretch to think that Apple will continue to dominate this market for at least the next couple of years, both in terms of downloads and devices for playing back those downloads.


1.9.04
I love my iPod in the car. Instead of only being able to access one CD at a time from a limited selection of 24 albums, I can choose from any of the hundreds of records that I have loaded on the machine. And there's never any skipping, despite the terrible condition of the roads in Baltimore. The only thing I'm not sure about is how to compile a list of albums for the rotation page, since that section is meant to be a reflection of the albums in my travel CD case. But that's a small price to pay for having a significant portion of my library at my fingertips.


1.12.04
I'm starting to compile the songs for the 1987 mixtape, and while I initially thought it was going to be a really strong year——some of my all-time favorite albums came out that year——so far it's feeling like 1986 is going to have a more consistently good selection of songs. We'll see, I guess.


1.13.04
Another thing I really like about the iPod is that I can load CD singles and other effluvia onto it without carrying around the whole piece of media on which the songs reside. For example, a long time ago I bought the Smashing Pumpkins' The Aeroplane Flies High, a box set that collects all the CD singles from their masterwork Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but I never really listened to it because I didn't want to take up 5 CDs worth of space in my CD holder for what amounted to two albums worth of material. But now I've been able to load all 33 songs from the box set onto the iPod and have been happily listening away for the past couple of days.

I've paired these tracks with the official album cuts from Melon Collie, so I've created a playlist that captures the band at what was obviously the peak of their creativity, and it's really stunning to remember just how good and prolific they were back then. The biggest surprise: a 23 minute track called "Pastichio Melody" that is basically a nonstop barrage of thundering guitars from abandoned songs that have been thrown together in a continuous jump-cut collage of sound (it reminds me of a less subtle version of a similar experiment from Game Theory's Lolita Nation with an unbelievably long title that pasted together pieces of songs culled from Game Theory's extensive back catalog of songs). It's nearly 25 minutes of pure bliss, all hooks and bombast, that hints at another dozen great songs that Billy Corgan probably left on the cutting room floor from the Melon Collie sessions. In light of the strength of the material from Aeroplane, I'm officially adding the Pumpkins to my very short list of bands whose b-sides are worth owning.


1.14.04

Mixtape: 1986

Track 18
"Reflecting Pool"
Big Plans for Everybody
Let's Active

Let's Active started out as a trio, but by the time their second full-length, Big Plans for Everybody, was released, it was really a showcase solo project for legendary producer Mitch Easter (in addition to working on albums by groups as diverse as Game Theory, Dinosaur Jr., the Waxing Poetics, the Connells, Superchunk, Suzanne Vega, the dBs, Love Tractor, Pavement, and Wilco, Easter also produced R.E.M.'s first three efforts along with fellow southern pop icon Don Dixon).

It's really hard to describe this record. It's been a favorite of mine almost since the minute I started listening to it, but it's a hard record to sell. Easter's voice borders on elf-on-helium, but it really works in the context of the songs, which are a mix of the southern rock leanings of R.E.M.'s Reckoning and the 80s pop-rock of Game Theory, all tinged with an indefinable gothic sense of loss. It was a great record for an overly thoughtful kid from the south who always dreamed of leaving home but knew he never would.

This is one of those albums that works so well as a single entity that it's hard to pry any of the songs away from its brothers to use on a compilation like this, but "Reflecting Pool"'s graceful catchiness is a good transition from Paul Simon's world pop sensibilities and to the Athens, GA sound of R.E.M. and Love Tractor. Every now and then you can still find this CD lurking in the used bins of the better independent record stores; don't hesitate to pick it up if you get the chance.


1.15.04
While looking through my CD collection in Excel format (yes, I know I'm a total geek), just poking around for curiosity's sake, one thing that struck me was how consistent my purchasing has been over the years. Starting with 1986, when I was a sophomore in high school, I purchased around 50 casettes, meaning that, even at the bargain prices of $7.99 from that era, I was spending most of my allowance/income on music. I expected that, as the years went by and my income increased, I would purchase more and more CDs annually.

But that wasn't the case: in 2002, a year when I had ample funds to purchase as many CDs as I wanted, I only bought 47; in 2003, 48. In fact, almost every year from 1986 through the present, I have purchased an average of 50 albums, with a couple of outliers in the 35 and 65 range (I'm just going by the year the record came out for these numbers, even though I sometimes I don't get a record the same year it comes out. But I figure it all balances out in the end). And although I generally purchase fewer than five CDs each year that I don't consider to be at least good, I would also only characterize about half of the remaining purchases each year as very good or great. I'm not sure what all this means, but it's interesting to see how predictable the numbers are each year given both how much my income has increased since I was a student and how much turmoil and change has taken place in the music industry over the past fifteen years.


1.16.04
I love, love, love "The Fitted Shirt" from Spoon's Girls Can Tell. Just an amazing song. Easily the best thing on that album, and maybe better than anything on their minimalist masterpiece Kill the Moonlight.


1.19.04
Picked up a bunch of new stuff with my annual Christmas music gift certificate from my parents-in-law. Three came from the Pitchfork best of 2003 list: Deerhoof's Apple O', TV on the Radio's Young Liars, and Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It In People, all of which I liked a lot. I also looked for Ted Leo's Hearts of Oak, but it wasn't in stock, so I settled for a used copy of Rufus Wainwright's Want One (even though it was priced as used, it was still sealed, which means it was probably a promo copy for a radio station). For my final selection I picked up Belle and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister, which I've been meaning to grab for a while.

All in all, not too bad for a time of year when there aren't any new releases on the horizon (other than the Cure box set due out in two weeks, I have to wait until March before new records I want are released). Unfortunately, it complicates my 2003 top 10 compilation, because four of those five records were released last year, and I think at least two of them deserve a spot somewhere on that list. So it might be a couple more weeks before I figure out who belongs where and post my final top 10.


1.20.04
The iPod finds new ways to be great every day. The other night we went to see my friend Alisa perform in a new opera called Super Double Lite that is focused on the modern world (it was set in off-track betting parlors, shopping warehouses, etc., and featured a clone), and uses guns and bullets as a main theme. I was really wanting to compare it with Tom Waits' 1994 opera project, the Black Rider, which also uses bullets as a primary metaphor, and since that record was loaded on the iPod, I didn't have to wait until I got home to dig up the CD. I just selected the album, hit play, and was able to immediately think about the contrasts between the two works while the performance was still fresh in my mind.


1.21.04
I don't think I've ever heard a singer sound more adorable than the girl from Deerhoof when she sings "Flower".


1.22.04
When my wife and I met our friends Jeff and his wife Andrea and Greg and his wife Angie for dinner after Christmas, he gave each of us a mix CD called the Andrea mix as a gift. Here's the tracklist:
  1. The New Year——Death Cab for Cutie
  2. God Put a Smile Upon Your Face——Coldplay
  3. Any Little Town——Push Stars
  4. Novocaine for the Soul——Eels
  5. Mexico——Cake
  6. Real Emotions——Los Lonely Boys
  7. Stray——Calexico
  8. I Met a Girl——Wheat
  9. Fight Song——Appleseed Cast
  10. There There——Radiohead
  11. Garry Gilmore's Eyes——Armsbendback
  12. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart——Wilco
  13. Drown——Son Volt
  14. Georgia——Audra Kubat
  15. Niagara Falls——Sufjan Stevens

I knew several of these songs already——Wilco, Eels, Death Cab, Radiohead, Son Volt, and Sufjan Stevens——but most of them were new to me, so I was really interested to see what Jeff came up with.

After listening to it several times, it seems to me that the mix can be broken down into four distinct themes, each of which contains about four songs. The first four songs are all kind of indie guitar pop, led by the current flagbearers for the genre, Death Cab, and rounded out by the Eels, the guys who paved the way for the others with their 1996 hit "Novocaine for the Soul".

The next three tracks could be loosely thrown together as latin-flavored bar rock, with Cake's "Mexico" providing a nice segueway from the indie pop portion of the disc. Los Lonely Boys' "Real Emotions" sounded a little like Los Lobos with Carlos Santana sitting in on lead guitar, and it was a little too slick for me on its own, but it works in this sequence. Calexico's "Stray" was a little long, clocking in at over 10 minutes, but it's not a bad song.

The third section seems more focused on edgier, tougher rock, although the Wheat track would have fit in well with the indie pop stuff at the beginning of the disc, but the studio sheen worked okay with this portion of the mix. I didn't care so much for the Appleseed Cast and Armsbendback tracks——they veered a little too close to nü metal territory for me——but Radiohead's "There There" does a nice job of providing ballast and holding the mix together through what is easily my least favorite sequence on the mix.

The final portion can be generally labeled alt-country/indie folk, starting off with two tracks by the two bands that descended from the seminal No Depression band Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and Son Volt. Audra Kubat's track has a weird kind of feel to it, shuffling backbeat under plaintive, urgent guitar pluckings and nonchalant vocals. But I think I like it. Jeff ends the mix with my favorite song by one of my favorite new artists, Sufjan Stevens' "Niagara Falls".

I generally don't like mixtapes that other people make——Regan has been the only person ever to make me one that I really, really loved, and it took me some time to grow to love it——but this mix isn't too bad. I've got it loaded on my iPod, and I'll definitely listen to it in the future. But I might have to skip over the Appleseed Cast and Armsbendback.



1.23.04
The best Arab Strap song is called "Whodunnit?", and it's actually on the Reindeer Section's second record, Son of Evil Reindeer (love that title). See, the Reindeer Section is actually an amalgam of musicians from around the Glasgow area that includes members of Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian, Snow Patrol, Teenage Fanclub, and of course Arab Strap. I really liked a lot of Arab Strap's last album, Monday at the Hug and Pint, but "Whodunnit?" is the perfect mix of their signature style: bitter lyrics, gorgeous melodies, and vocalist Aidan Moffett's drunken Scottish slur.


1.26.04
Even though I wasn't anticipating buying much new music before March, when the next big wave of releases hits (including the new one from Modest Mouse that I've been waiting years for), I have added three more CDs to my every-expanding collection: Underachievers Please Try Harder by Scottish twee-poppers Camera Obscura, Hearts of Oak by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and Echoes by the Rapture. All of these came courtesy of a Pitchfork recommendation, which is fast becoming my primary way of finding out about new music, the same way the college radio top 10 in the back of Rolling Stone turned me on to new bands back when I first started developing some test.

I still don't trust their recommendations fully——they named the Rapture record best overall for 2003, and it's just not (even though it is pretty good), and they recently gave the Camera Obscura release a 8 out of 10, and I don't think that's right, either (I like twee/chamber pop as much as anyone——in fact I've recently been purchasing Belle & Sebastian's early catalog becaue I've been in the mood to hear more of it——but after a couple of listens, I would rate this no better than a weak Belle & Sebastian ripoff). But Pitchfork is way better than Rolling Stone or Spin or any of the mainstream print music review magazines, and I'd say that since I've started reading the site on a daily basis (probably about a year now), they've probably been responsible for adding about ten new CDs to my collection that I might not have heard about otherwise.


1.27.04
Even if you don't like/haven't heard of the bands that are the subject of VH-1's new show Bands Reunited, you should watch at least one episode just to see if it does something for you. I didn't think I would be that interested in seeing how the members of Romeo Void and Berlin, bands I never had any interest in, were doing these days, but I'm hooked now. Flock of Seagulls, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Klymaxx——it's all good.


1.28.04
I love Ted Leo. He is exactly how this century's version of the politically charged punk of the Clash or Elvis Costello should sound. "Hearts of Oak" should be a rallying cry for angry young men (and women) everywhere.


1.29.04
Beck is giving away his bunny. Yes, it's a real live rabbit, and no, this is not a joke.


1.30.04
I was planning to post my top 10 of 2003 by the end of the month, but a lot of my recent purchases are from 2003 and are really good records, but I haven't gotten to know them enough to decide where they belong in the rankings. But instead of leaving you with nothing, I'm going to post an alphabetical list by artist of the top 20 or so, and then winnow it down and post a finalized top 10 in the next couple of weeks. So here are the nominees:

Yoko——Beulah
Think Tank——Blur
Master and Everyone——Bonnie "Prince" Billy
You Forgot It In People——Broken Social Scene
The Ugly Organ——Cursive
Her Majesty the Decemberists——Decemberists
Apple O'——Deerhoof
Decoration Day——Drive-By Truckers
Movement——Gossip
Sumday——Grandaddy
Shine——Daniel Lanois
Hearts of Oak——Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
Give Up——Postal Service
Hail to the Thief——Radiohead
Chutes Too Narrow——Shins
Room on Fire——Strokes
Phantom Power——Super Furry Animals
So Much for the City——The Thrills
Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?——Unicorns
Elephant——White Stripes
Send——Wire
Meadowlands——The Wrens
Fever to Tell——Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Mary Star of the Sea——Zwan

This list doesn't even include noteable efforts by TV on the Radio, British Sea Power, the Rapture, Arab Strap, the New Pornographers, Broadcast, the Books, and the Raveonettes, among others. All in all, I'd have to say this was a pretty good year for music. It's always a good sign when it's this hard to pick my top 10.