2013 was a good year. Not only for the barrage of good albums - there were many - but it marks yet another year in a row that we're finally over the nu-metal and post-grunge that dominated the rock world for much of the century so far. 2011 and 2012 mark some of the strongest years in new album releases I can recall in my life. While part of this may be me simply being older and paying more attention to the industry, it's still hard to say that we aren't going through something of a renaissance right now. Of course, trying to keep up with a glut of "must-listens" while juggling several day jobs and my own hectic personal life is a challenge. I spent much of 2013 on a ten thousand mile road odyssey that stretched from Alaska to Florida, and the trip was marked by releases of many of the albums I'm about to mention, so it's something of a personal list for me. Still, this list has been a long time coming. It seems even with trying to keep up with the latest releases, something always escapes my grasp, and even now I'm not quite comfortable putting this concrete account of 2013 down to press. (I'm still haunted by forgetting to mention Dead Sara's debut in the 2012 list.) The past two months have been spent in a daze on Spotify and collecting recommendations from friends to see what I missed, but with March soon upon us, it's time to bite the bullet: Here's some of my favorite albums from last year, as well as an accompanying 35-track Spotify playlist to rock out to.
Lusine's A Certain Distance is his 2009 magnum opus; a swirling reminder of everything right in the world and right with electronic music. Isis frontman Aaron Turner once thought of his band's style of music as "the thinking man's metal," and the same could be said of Lusine being "the thinking man's trance."
To say it has a "carrying" quality would be an understatement, as if I just tripped and fell onto a barge that's heading for that all-important Final Moment. A sense of direction is key, and we can get totally lost in the wonders of this barge without fear of losing track of where we'll end up. After this, I want to hold the biggest bonfire party in the Pacific Northwest, and if that involves buying a plot of land in the woods just outside Seattle and building a massive structure out of shipping containers so Lusine can DJ for us, then so be it. We will fuel the fire in front of the stage with lesser albums from Skrillex until the electronic world learns the art of subtlety. During the day, the structure can be used as a garage for even bigger projects. Recording studio? Mayhaps. The future can bring anything.
What is the meaning of life? If you were to ask God himself, he'd probably just shrug his shoulders. Why did he create us? Why do we, in our leisure time, strive to create things of our own? If we see the lives we live and the relationships and stories we create with them as a work of art in themselves, who is to say God doesn't justify his own existence in the same way? We invent our own meaning to life, and the universe is our canvas. To paint on this is to become God.
Broken friendships can be mended and all your dreams can come true. Or at least most of them. The reasonable ones. But if it's your life's dream to spend your night dancing around fires with a belly full of whiskey and a freezer full of the best seafood caught fresh from the swamps of Florida, well then make it happen, and drag whoever you can along for the ride. If Lusine created A Certain Distance, then it makes all our own dreams seem so much more attainable.
To say we've entered the territory of 'paradigm shift' isn't entirely unreasonable. The radio could declare tomorrow that Air Force One crash-landed during a storm into a Mississippi bayou, and cannibal hillbillies cranked out on crystal meth descended upon the airliner to devour President Obama's charred corpse in front of shocked cabinet members while Rush Limbaugh furiously masturbates behind the microphone. That's entirely possible, too. Nothing can be ruled out at this point. Not anymore.
I've been gearing for this one for awhile now. STS9 may have wowed me with displays of what's possible in this world, and Boards of Canada and Tycho can paint vivid narratives across our minds, but this is the Real Deal. We're here now. Clarity. Where are we going from here? No more questioning, we know what to do now.
The beautiful thing about beauty is you can always make something even better.
Hempfest is Seattle’s annual celebration of, well, you can probably guess what it celebrates. Hot on the heels of the 2012 elections that saw Washington and Colorado become the first states to legalize possession of marijuana, Hempfest organizers wasted no time in making sure that they became the first hemp festival to take place in a state where marijuana was legal. From August 16th through 18th, they would commandeer the Myrtle Edwards Park to set up a bunch of stages and space for vendors, and on top of that it would be free. Being in a city where possession of marijuana was now legal, this was bound to be a riot. After spending Friday night drinking whiskey and hotboxing my car to prepare my body, I was ready Saturday afternoon to hit the festival myself.
Everyone in downtown Seattle seemed to be going to Hempfest, as small groups of people walking down the streets could be seen merging into larger groups of people and eventually a solid line as I made my way closer to Myrtle Edwards Park. Getting into the park required taking the West Thomas Street pedestrian overpass, which festival organizers had renamed, “The Stephen Colbert Bridge to Somewhere, Maybe?” We were heading somewhere alright, though there was no time to ponder the foreboding uncertainty of the name as we were immediately assaulted at the entrance of the bridge by a crazy middle aged man handing out pamphlets...
Depending on who you ask, "Hesitation Marks" either refers to a series of cuts made in one's flesh to test the effectiveness of a blade before attempting suicide, or the start of an actual fatal cut that's been paused. This morbid definition is crucial to the understanding of the latest Nine Inch Nails album, also titled Hesitation Marks, which hangs on the same brink of tension as the act it gets its name from.
Fresh off a series of film scores and his other band, How To Destroy Angels, Trent Reznor and his producer buddy Atticus Ross teamed up for the first Nine Inch Nails album after an extended hiatus. Along the way they picked up help from Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac), Adrian Belew (King Crimson), and Eugene Goreshter (Autolux), amongst others. The resulting album is one a bit more restrained and ambient than what Nine Inch Nails fans are used to, but at the same time one of the darkest in Reznor's career. Let's take a look.
Somehow I fell out of the loop on this one. I recently caught Hank 3 playing a show in Santa Ana, CA, and while not nearly as violent as the one I saw in Austin, TX last year, it was still up to the usual Hank 3 standards. However, when he played a ton of material I hadn't heard before, I was confused. Had a new album come out? Turns out there wasn't one, but two that had slipped totally under my radar this fall.
Besides the cowpunk A Fiendish Threat, he also dropped a new country album, Brothers of the 4x4, and the title sets the tone for the bulk of the album: Lots of songs about lifted trucks, going out hunting with his dog, and other thoroughly explored country clichés. Lyrically, it feels like the most uninspired Hank 3 album yet, at least on the first few listens. Some of it grows on you, like "Possum in a Tree," a bluegrassy ditty that's about exactly what it says it's about. Other tracks, like "Held Up," are absurdly fun tracks musically, until you realize he's literally closing out chorus lines with tacky nonsense like "and I love the sweet southern smell of Virginia's vagina." Or there's "Outdoor Plan," where he fills in gaps with vocal imitations of guitar lines. Hank 3 has never exactly been a poet, but coming off of 2011's absolutely epic Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town, this one feels a little half-assed.
Getting this project going required some research. After all, my sole "experience" in journalism until now has been in the gaming industry. So, to get in the mindset necessary to get this off the ground, I spent several weeks pretty much living in various public libraries reading.
During my delve into the history of the trade, I stumbled across Infamous Scribblers by former Fox and NBC News correspondent Eric Burns, which documents not only the birth of American journalism, but how it played so closely into how the country was formed.
Even the most amateur of American history buffs can tell you about the incendiary Sam Adams, and how he utilized the Boston Gazette to stir up opposition to the Crown. However, Infamous Scribblers also documents more forgotten characters of the era, such as Jemmy Rivington, who started out running a pro-Crown publication known as the New York Gazetteer in the days leading up to the war. Eventually, he served as the Crown's official printer in New York during the war where, unbeknownst to most of his peers, he was actually playing the role of double-agent and passing secrets to Washington's army.
A few weeks ago, the internet was abuzz with a viral marketing campaign staged by Warp Records to announce the long-awaited newest album by electronic music duo
Boards of Canada. Their first full-length album since 2005, entitled Tomorrow's Harvest, is due June 10th. And while their fans are going nuts, one thing the stunt has brought attention to is the mystique that surrounds the group.
Started in the mid-80's by brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin,
Boards of Canada has built a reputation for being secretive - usually releasing albums with very little advertising and few interviews given to the press. This coupled with a painfully slow release schedule (seven years have passed since the release of their last EP, Trans-Canada Highway) has created an incredible demand for any material or news from the group, which when released is immediately jumped on by the Twoism fan forum and catalogued by the bocpages wiki. Safe to say, Boards of Canada fans are a seriously devoted bunch, but it leads a lot of people outside these circles of fans to wonder, "Why?"
Your basic law of supply and demand snowballs to an almost exponential level with these guys. It's a well known open secret that the group has roughly half a dozen unreleased albums that nobody can seem to get a copy of. These are things that fans dwell on during seven years of silence, and why they start placing bounties on them being found. This is what drives fans to start concocting theories on entities related to the band like the "Hexagon Sun" collective, which depending on who you ask, is either the duo's recording studio or some kind of mysterious Scottish cult.
Of course, the intrigue wouldn't be there at all if it wasn't for the music the duo produces.
Boards of Canada is known for their relatively unique production style amongst electronic music artists, foregoing synthetic sounds in favor of old-fashioned analog equipment. Taking in lots of field recordings, samples of 70's media, documentaries, and numbers stations, and running them all through heavy distortion and electronic manipulation, their sound is usually described as "warm" or "nostalgic." So while we wait for the release of Tomorrow's Harvest, I figure now is as good a time as any to run through some of the biggest landmarks of their discography.
I wrote this last winter for submission to several local area blogs and papers in Southcentral Alaska. Nobody wanted to take it, and it kinda settled to the depths of my hard drive. Looking back on it, my thoughts on this subject still haven't changed, and the topic of content monopolization is still relevant, even if it's old news for ADN specifically. So, here you go:
On December 4th, visitors to the Anchorage Daily News' website were given a rude awakening: Beginning on the 18th, readers would be expected to pay for subscription access to read online content, with ADN publisher Pat Doyle stating "We can no longer expect only advertisers and print subscribers to shoulder the complete burden of supporting news-gathering and distribution ... Having all our readers share that cost is an essential and important step toward preserving the foundations of a free and independent press for future generations of Alaskans."
Curiously enough, Doyle makes no mention to Alaskans that online paywalls are part of a nationwide initiative by McClatchy, their parent company, to introduce these paywalls to all their newspapers. Not only is failing to disclose this exceedingly misleading, but Doyle's claims are virtually meritless. McClatchy posted roughly $54.4 million in net income and a sheer $1.3 billion in revenue for 2011. Of that revenue, $956.3 million was attributed to advertising and $262.3 million to circulation. However, in a press release on their third quarter earnings, McClatchy president Pat Talamantes declared the paywalls "could add more than $20 million" in new revenue for 2013. $20 million compared to the $262.3 million they make in circulation screams either unenthusiasm or bad idea or both. It also trivializes the supposed necessity of the paywalls, considering the number of readers they're likely to upset with them, if not lose entirely.
Doyle tries to appeal to the audience with straw man arguments, saying "Our industry and our customers are realizing that the news and information we produce has real value, regardless of how our readers choose to access it." Clearly, the content they post has "value," otherwise they wouldn't be pulling so much revenue on advertising. McClatchy is already getting something for the value, so maybe this is really about something else.
When the Internet got popular, it did a wonderful thing: It made information free. No longer did newspapers and television stations hold a monopoly on the news. The Internet has not only made it easier for journalists to get news out faster, but gave it to readers for free, as they found new revenue streams through advertising that entirely negated the need to charge for content. Companies like Gawker and HuffPo who took advantage of this new environment have been thriving ever since, but McClatchy failed to adapt, applying the old-media model of attempting to hold information at a premium, bleeding out a further few drops of precious "value." The only problem is, as we enter 2013, this really pisses off consumers.
McClatchy is well aware of this with their unenthusiastic financial expectations, and charging more isn't going to improve the shoddy state of affairs at the Anchorage Daily News. What Doyle calls "the fairest, most accurate and most professional news report possible" will continue to be recycled AP wires and unedited press releases, and the fact McClatchy is going to be charging for it is an insult to journalism as a whole. Much like the little boy that throws a temper-tantrum when he can't stay up until 4 a.m. on a school night playing video games, online paywalls are a screaming and childish last-ditch attempt to keep the Old Ways relevant in the 21st century. But as Hunter S. Thompson put it in The Rum Diary, "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but to those who see it coming and jump aside."
For those who remember, 2011 was a big year for me. Rock music has been going through a crazy revival ever since the demise of post-grunge and nu-metal, and that year is one of the strongest in recent memory for albums. From Jane's Addiction to Mastodon to Mike Doughty, Robbers on High Street, Opeth, Rich Robinson, Tycho, multiple albums from Hank Williams III, and countless other gems, 2011 was fantastic. So what are the odds the trend of AAA+ releases would continue a second year in a row? As it turns out, pretty good. I'm not going to do a definitive "Top 10" list, nor am I going to attempt to catalogue every great album I found, but there are a handful I'd like to shine a spotlight on. Read on to check them out.
If there's one band that I credit the most with shaping my musical tastes as they stand today, it's Soundgarden. Pioneers of the Seattle grunge scene, they ironically entered my life years after the popularity of grunge had waned. I was in middle school, going through an embarrassingly shameful nu-metal phase, when I first stumbled upon their 1994 magnum opus, Superunknown. That album was all I needed to start using the internet to track down other artists of the scene I had either forgotten about or missed entirely, leading me to research and make notes of any band I came across and turn into the bitter music critic that I am today. So yeah, I hold a bit of a soft spot in my heart for Cornell and the gang. Unfortunately they broke up long before I really had the chance to get into them, but times have changed, it's now 2012, and Soundgarden is not only back together and touring again, but they just dropped a whole album of new material for the first time in sixteen years. I bring you, King Animal.
Reunion albums are a fickle category. The Eagles got back together and were promptly forgotten about. Jane's Addiction bombed through their first reunion album only to get it right with their second one. Chris Cornell has been avoiding the idea of a Soundgarden reunion for years not wanting to tarnish the legacy, and I can agree with his artistic integrity. Regardless, fans have been demanding this one for awhile, and while maybe I'm a bit biased after sixteen years of nothing, I can safely say that King Animal throws aside any fears of this being a cash-in: This is as strong an album as the band has ever done in the past.