Thursday, February 18, 2016

2015 Albums of the Year

If you read my top 50 singles list for 2015 you know that bad-ass country music and big dopey unapologetic pop music were both recurring themes for me through the year. That's probably not unusual for me, except maybe I heard more better country music.

20 Kasey Musgrave Pageant Material
When I was working on my top 10 list I knew this wasn't strong enough--it doesn't hold up as well as Same Trailer, Different Park, but was sufficiently rewarding to stay in personal rotation for me for months.

19 Mumford & Sons Wilder Mind
Will I compare this album to Kings of Leon? Of course I will. I just did. But that's meant lovingly--that's a celebration of a sound that's more rhythmic, more urgent. They've always been tight (my first exposure to the band was turning on the TV late one night, something that helps me fall asleep and, hearing them I had to sit up and pay attention, that's how instantly taken I was with their sound) but this sound seems tighter. Like condensed. Potent.

18 Lana Del Rey Honeymoon
It was probably my haste to write her off that has cursed me to find her music more and more compelling (much like St. Vincent). She's making the same music but somehow she's making that music more appealing. Maybe the fact that she avoided a promotional barrage that would have me rolling my eyes at every encounter gave her a "playing hard to get" vibe that piqued my curiosity. Good call on her part.

17 Alabama Shakes Sound & Color
I was one of the few who didn't seem taken by their debut, but I definitely warmed to their sophomore outing. It felt looser, almost a bit chaotic, which made it seem so much fresher.

16 CHVRCHES Every Open Eye
You can tell I am still enamored with the band because I continue to indulge their stylized spelling. I was pleasantly surprised that they released an album this good so quickly after a debut that really stole my heart. In 2013 I thought they were the artist I thought most likely to fade in my esteem, to be faddish... I may have been wrong.

15 Stornoway Bonxie
I'm not sure what they did (I have a vague sense they were disenchanted with their record label, or vice versa and may have crowd funded the album) but they seemed to find their musical bearings again. It's an album that feels like a work for the love of the music, not for commerce.

14 Elle King Love Stuff
With the epic charm of "Ex's and Oh's" I would have been satisfied to find the rest of the album unremarkable (as one does). It's actually a bit daunting to find a lot of new artists producing solid albums (singles are so much easier to deal with). Had this come out 4 years ago I would have relegated her to the rash of post-Winehouse signings. The timing's wrong, but the sound, the mood, the lyrics... they qualify.

13 Eric Church Mr. Misunderstood
Church was a big part of why country music seems so vital to 2015's music. Mr. Misunderstood is a great fucking album. Let's not overanalyze it.

12 Father John Misty I Love You, Honeybear
It's the non-country country album. It has all the trappings with none of the tropes; but sufficient snark to always make me smile... "save me white Jesus".

11 Meghan Trainor Title
Confusingly titling both her debut EP and her debut LP Title didn't sit well with me, but it didn't use up much of the esteem she'd built up with me. She is a big part of the big dopey pop music I loved so much in 2015.

10 My Morning Jacket The Waterfall
The thing that stands out for me about this album is the sonic landscape it paints so joyfully. Chris Wilson celebrates every national park he visits in part through the music that accompanies his inaugural visit. If he hasn't heard this he should save it for a big, vast park, not waste it on the fucking Dry Tortugas.

9 Jason Isbell Something More Than Free
While not purely country, this is another part of the excellent country music from 2015. The album earned Isbell a Grammy for Best Americana Album and "24 Frames" a Grammy for Best American Roots Song (or something like that... Non-Classical).

8 Courtney Barnett Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
She received a lot of acclaim, including an out of left field Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, yet I didn't take to her immediately. But she's got enough jangly guitar spirited musical energy shit going on that I wouldn't last long. Ask your doctor if Courtney Barnett is right for you.

7 Florence + the Machine How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Breakup albums are the best. I mean, someone ELSE'S breakup album. If someone wrote "Walking on a Wire" about me, well, that would be insane because I'm always a fucking joy to be around. I don't even care if this is genuine breakup album or if it's just hypothetical. It's good.

6 Ashley Monroe The Blade
Holy crap, this was love at first sight. Only not sight, but sound. This rekindled whatever fire I've ever had with mainstream country, and stoked it. It's got the best quality of Shelby Lynne's reboot album without the excessive focus on her ass. 

5 Carly Rae Jepsen E-MO-TION
She may never achieve the greatness of "Call Me Maybe" again, but with work this solid she shouldn't feel disappointed. This is the album that 1989 tries to be. It also concludes my references to the greatness of pop music for the year.

4 Tame Impala Currents
Where the fuck did this album come from? Either this has been building slowly and I haven't noticed or something magical happened with them. Regardless, the band finds a sound that balances blue eyed soul, psychedelic, electro pop and another four or five genres that rarely warrant their own major heading in a musical taxonomy (they're down at the very specific level with things like math rock or pirate metal).   

3 Chris Stapleton Traveller 
It's as much southern rock as country, and its entry here concludes the greatness in country music thing I keep babbling about. Stapleton's been part of the staff songwriting machine in Nashville for some time, so forgive me if I don't find the songs as genuine as I hoped they'd be based on the reviews. A few too many references to whiskey, daddy, and prayer, as if dispensed from a country cliche generator. Still, somewhere between a work genuinely inspired by the death of his dad and Tim McGraw's Live Like You Were Dying (a hollow shell of an album allegedly inspired by the death of McGraw's dad) falls this album. Closer to the former than the latter.

2 Jamie xx In Colour
I found the album thanks to its inclusion in the Mercury Prize short list. I didn't expect to instantly engage with it, nor for it to last so long with me. Which just goes to show, my expectations are stupid as shit.

1 Sufjan Stevens Carrie & Lowell
This was possibly, probably inevitable. While Stevens isn't actually planning to release albums celebrating all 50 states, this one is the Oregon album that would never be, recollecting summers in the state with his titular mother and stepfather in the wake of her passing. It's nostalgic, melancholic, smart, pure, and poignant; drawing on his core musical strengths. Pay attention Chris Stapleton and Tim McGraw, this is what heartfelt sounds like.

2015 Not Quite Albums of the Year

In narrowing my list to 20 (up from 10) there were 6 that I found myself hating to exclude from my final list. There's greatness to be found in each of them, but never as completely fulfilling a musical experience as I got out of the 20. In no particular order they are...

Joe Jackson Fast Forward
For me this was the first album of new material from him in nearly 25 years (it's possible there was a release a few years ago that stayed under my radar) and, in my digital consumption of the album I missed some of its structure. It's an amalgamation of 4 works, recorded in New York City, New Orleans, Berlin, and Amsterdam. That context helps make his cover of Television's "See No Evil" make so much more sense. Also seeing him rock it live helped because it was my favorite of the new material. Even at its least it's got lyrical bite but as the sum of its parts it's good, not great.

Rhiannon Giddens Tomorrow Is My Turn
The album landed on a few "best of" lists and earned Giddens a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album (she lost, as one does, to Bela Fleck, picking up his 48th award in his 32nd category [actual numbers may vary]). It's easy to see why she'd garner acclaim: the voice is astounding. But her voice also trips me up. I think it's her background in opera and classical music that keeps me from flat out loving her. It's a problem I have with Audra McDonald who has a similar background in opera. She earned a spot on my single's list with a Dolly cover. Her cover of "She's Got You" is technically proficient but it seems to lack an emotional connection. But maybe that's just me.

Telekinesis Ad Infinitum
If I'd heard their prior music in a linear progression, and not as a binge consumption after delighting at them opening for The Both, this might have commanded more attention from me. I have the sense that the thing keeping it from my top 20 is that I haven't given it sufficient direct attention. That it isn't served well by playing the background with 20 other things going on. But that's my life, so suck it. And if this is supposed to be Kid A then no thanks. I just can't anymore...

Adele 25
I have always liked, but never quite loved, Adele's music. Adele the person? She's the fucking bomb. But the music never quite got me there. I'm not sure I can demarcate songs from 19, 21 or 25 easily and I'm still not sure if Glee's mash-up of "Rumor Has It" with "Someone Like You" makes my point or is genius. Can it be both?

Frank Turner Positive Songs for Negative People
The title alone portended good things to me. And good things it delivered. I feel a connection with Turner, musical, addictional (that's not a word, shut up), confrontational (whut?). He's out there orbiting me (or me orbiting him) in one of those "too early to tell" parts of courtship. God I need a hobby.

Belle & Sebastian Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
After becoming one of my favorite current bands in the mid and late aughts, Belle & Sebastian's 5-year hiatus was poorly timed as far as I'm concerned. Why any musical act would fail to consider me in these decisions is hard to fathom. Rude. Their return, classic B&S infused with soul and disco is rewarding (evidenced by two songs among my top 50 singles) but as a collective work, not quite cohesive enough for my taste (or not sufficiently diverse).

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

You're Either With Us, or You're With the Terrorists...

...or you're smart enough to know that reducing things to those extremes is something most people do around 9 years old. The thinking of a child, unable to imagine nuance or context.

Like he was.

Actually I'm far too harsh when I talk about George W. Bush. It must have been difficult to be the biggest pawn in a massive false flag operation that upended the world's largest and "most advanced" economy(if that's even a thing). Oh no, he's one of those 9/11 Truthers... First, get out of my head you stupid voices. Also, yes, here are some quick reasons I am skeptical about the official story on 9/11:

  • The official story leaves no room for questions, doubt or variance
  • Tower 7
  • Mohammed Atta's passport and his revised will kept in a suitcase that was supposed to be on a plane that would erupt in a ball of flame
  • The difficulty an amaetur pilot would have trying to bring a Boeing 757-223 down to just above ground level to hit the side of a 5-story (above ground) building while not disturbing any of the cars in the parking lot
  • The complete absence of any security footage from around the Pentagon
  • The complete absence of anything resembling debris from a plane at the Pentagon
  • Tower 7
  • Tower 7
  • The limitless potential for evil that is Dick Cheney

In the wake of 9/11 we (Americans that is) went apeshit crazy and, craving protection from the big bad, we gave up our rights; our privacy; liberty. Take it, just don't let us get attacked again (ironically turning over these things to the very people who orchestrated the attacks).

The Patriot Act... more specifically the USA Patriot Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001). Hello digital America, everything you've done or said via connected device is now on file. Which is awesome and totally keeping us safe and also never abused. Except for all the exceptions.

It was also super cool to learn all about how the wireless carriers were just turning everything over without a warrant and then they got retroactive immunity. All awesome all of the time.

So it's a bit of a cool thing that Apple is doing by standing up to the feds with respect to weakening encryption in their devices. The letter from Tim Cook is pretty interesting (formatting and emphasis mine):
February 16, 2016 
A Message to Our Customers 
The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand. 
This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake. 
The Need for Encryption
Smartphones, led by iPhone, have become an essential part of our lives. People use them to store an incredible amount of personal information, from our private conversations to our photos, our music, our notes, our calendars and contacts, our financial information and health data, even where we have been and where we are going. 
All that information needs to be protected from hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission. Customers expect Apple and other technology companies to do everything in our power to protect their personal information, and at Apple we are deeply committed to safeguarding their data.
Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk. That is why encryption has become so important to all of us. 
For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customers’ personal data because we believe it’s the only way to keep their information safe. We have even put that data out of our own reach, because we believe the contents of your iPhone are none of our business. 
The San Bernardino Case
We were shocked and outraged by the deadly act of terrorism in San Bernardino last December. We mourn the loss of life and want justice for all those whose lives were affected. The FBI asked us for help in the days following the attack, and we have worked hard to support the government’s efforts to solve this horrible crime. We have no sympathy for terrorists. 
When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it. Apple complies with valid subpoenas and search warrants, as we have in the San Bernardino case. We have also made Apple engineers available to advise the FBI, and we’ve offered our best ideas on a number of investigative options at their disposal. 
We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone. 
Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.
The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control. 
The Threat to Data Security
Some would argue that building a backdoor for just one iPhone is a simple, clean-cut solution. But it ignores both the basics of digital security and the significance of what the government is demanding in this case. 
In today’s digital world, the “key” to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge. 
The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable. 
The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe. 
We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack. For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption. Doing so would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data. Criminals and bad actors will still encrypt, using tools that are readily available to them. 
A Dangerous Precedent
Rather than asking for legislative action through Congress, the FBI is proposing an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority.
The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by “brute force,” trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer. 
The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge. 
Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government. 
We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications. 
While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect. 
Tim Cook

Google is doing the bidding of the feds and it's unlikely any would be terrorists use a Windows phone since, well, is super unlikely anyone uses a Windows phone.

I wonder if they need snacks.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Song of the Month: "Formation"

I love a little overreaction...

Beyoncé - Formation (Dirty) from Michael Wells on Vimeo.

Song: "Formation:
Artist: Beyonce

The Day Beyoncé Became Uppity

SNL distills the strange reactions to Beyoncé's "Formation" perfectly with "The Day Beyoncé Turned Black." The best parts: Vanessa Bayer's "I know he's black" and Cecily Strong on Kerri Washington "she can't be black, she's on ABC."