Monday, July 28, 2008

Pierogi and More Hipster Music

If you've never heard of a pierogi, then I'm very sorry, because they're absolutely delicious. Recently, I had the good fortune to attend the Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Indiana, where I ate a whole pile of them (not to mention some Polish sausage and potato pancakes). Wonderful experience, particularly because I could look around and think "these are my people." American descendants of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and others of that ambiguously Slavic central European heritage descended on the town my dad was born to delight in the world's best stuffed dough food. Pictures are available. Note the pierogi-shaped foam hat.

I've been writing again. This installment is called The Hustler, and it's entirely dialog. I mentioned before how I'd taken to having dialog speak for itself, and didn't like to include a lot of "he remarked" or "She answered,". This is the extreme end of that, with the dialog not only speaking for itself but telling the entire story. The format was inspired by an excellent story my dad wrote, "Your Own Personal Jesus". The setting is mostly drawn from personal experiences. And the characters are very loosely based on real people.

I promised a discussion of some decidedly non-mainstream indie music. The first is a band that I've become quite the advocate of lately, This is Ivy League. A bit of background: two guys from Cobra Starship (of Snakes on a Plane fame) decided to get together and play some indie folk/pop. Mellow, but not in a boring Jack Johnson style. More like catchy yet relaxing. The duo describe themselves as "tropical" sounding too, and I see where they're coming from there. I immediately thought of Kings of Convenience, with their relaxing close harmonies, but their music has just a bit more tempo to it than the Norwegians'. The album might lose a little of its interest, but certainly none of its quality, toward the end; personal favorite tracks are "The Richest Kids" and "London Bridges", which non-coincidentally are the first two I heard. Ah, primacy.

Now, I'm not necessarily a Cobra Starship fan--I don't dislike them, but I'm not into them the same way I might sing the praises of Rilo Kiley. More like I'm just not familiar enough to give an informed opinion. I came to like the band after hearing them on the Paste Magazine Culture Club podcast. They were alongside similarly bafflingly obscure bands that if you said you'd heard of, you'd be lying. Such hyper-indie bands are a mixed bag at best: in many cases, there's a reason the bands are so unknown, and that reason is they're not distinctive, or not interesting, or just not that good.

But every once in a while, there's a hidden gem there that makes the whole podcast worth listening to. And This is Ivy League is one of them. Check out their self-titled CD. (If you were thinking of bootlegging it off some sweet torrent, don't bother. Nobody has it. You're better off just shelling out the ten bucks, and it's worth every dollar.)

The other band came from a very different source: MTV. I was relaxing and preparing to suffer through the commercial break between episodes of Next when I was shocked to hear... music that didn't suck! In fact, it was so good that I rushed to my computer to download the rest of it. Shocked as I was to hear something on MTV that was not "Bat Guano and Lime", I wanted to make sure this wasn't a musical mirage, and that this "Carolina Liar" band was actually worth listening to.

It was. As far as I can tell, this guy might be from South Carolina or from Sweden. The internet has been uncharacteristically spotty with its information about the band. You can tell it's a young band; there are vocal miscues, one per song on average, but they don't make the music on a whole unlistenable. And I'm not sure if there are two singers, an overlay of two vocal tracks, or just some really well faked harmony, but there's some second dimension there. They have a pleasantly creative use of unconventional instruments: synthesizers and otherwise electronic effects and chimes recall Mae in both The Everglow and Singularity modes.

The song on MTV turned out to be the first track off the CD, "I'm Not Over", and after I bought into its peppy and just slightly emo rock, I wondered if that track's appearance on MTV wouldn't turn the band into a one-hit wonder. The rest of the album is sufficiently strong that they shouldn't be; hopefully MTV recognizes that as much as I do. That strength really hits its stride toward the middle of the album. From "Simple Life" on we get baroque pop sensibilities of multiple tracks of multiple instruments doing different things at the same time, and that works very well.

There's nothing special in their lyrics, except for a couple humorous bits about Myspace, and choruses are repeated a little too much. Despite the handful of weaknesses, the strengths are much more pronounced. Comparisons, especially vocally, to Keane and the Killers is apt, but the band has a sound unique and separate from either of them. Rather, their alternative-ish sound proves (along with Kings of Convenience, just to bring things full-circle) that Scandinavian influence in music is a good thing.

Oh, and does Pineapple Express look funny? I can't really decide. I'm pushed toward "yes", because the last collaboration between Seth Rogen and James Franco was Freaks and Geeks, which was absolute genius.

Currently listening: "Close Call", Rilo Kiley

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Trash on TV and Annoyances in Alton

I didn't even realize how well that alliteration would line up until after I typed it.

I was about to remark a couple of weeks ago that I turned on MTV and couldn't find any trash. Forget one world government or the conversion of Israel into a giant garden, there would be no surer sign of the apocalypse. Now, I'm not saying there wasn't anything trashy on MTV at all. There was plenty of the Real World, which you could argue was in fact the original "trash on MTV" show. And "America's Best Dance Crew" is less trashy than just irritating, maybe a dumbed-down version of American Idol. (I really don't understand "dance" as a culture at all. It would never occur to me to want to watch people dancing in the same way that I might want to watch people acting or playing music. And I have to confess to having no idea what a "master mix" is.)

I wanted to find something entertainingly trashy, though, something along the lines of "A Shot at Love", which is Tila Tequila's bisexual dating show. Or "The X Effect". So I was pleasantly surprised to find "Parental Control" and "Next" shown right after one another. The former is a show where two parents hate the guy or girl that their child is dating, and fix her or him up on two blind dates in an attempt to rectify that. And the latter is the sleaziest speed-dating situation ever devised: when a guy or girl doesn't like a potential suitor for whatever reason, he or she can yell "next" and another douchebag emerges from the bus without fail.

"Douchebag" is the operative word here too. I have a theory that you can tell exactly how much of a douche a guy is by the angle of his hat. Forward is not inherently douche--it might be baseball player or white trash or old-school rapper. Backwards is not inherently douche either--maybe frat boy (which indirectly might imply douche) or gangster-era rapper. Even sideways might or might not be. When you can spot a clear sign is when the hat is slightly oversized, slightly cocked to either the right or the left, maybe plus or minus fifteen or twenty degrees. I'd estimate that a third of all the males on these two shows have this douche giveaway. (The rest of them have other tells.)

As always, when I'm watching trashy shows, two things amaze me. The first is the contestants'/actors' vocabularies. Every time I hear a white kid saying something is "real" or "tight", I shake my head--and I end up shaking my head a lot. Every time a guy describes a girl as "totally hot", you'd think there was no other adjective in the English language to describe attractiveness. The second is the fact that these people are evidently doing nothing with their lives. These people are my age, give or take maybe three years, and I swear the most ambitious thing I've heard is "I'm going to college for TV marketing." I'm not expecting everyone to be a doctor or architect or businessman, but honestly? "I work at an In-n-Out Burger"?

And MTV... it doesn't matter how many times you play that "Corona and Lime" song by Shwayze. It does not make it any more listenable.

One thing that I really miss about Atlanta is Publix. It's no secret that I kind of like grocery shopping, and I've gotten comfortable doing it at Publix. They're always clean. Well-lit (heck, the Spring Street location even has windows, one of the only grocery stores I know to include such amenities). High-quality produce and store brands. Fine selection of anything from wine to deli. And the local stores just don't compare. I've grown to prefer Shop-n-Save over Schnuck's, for no good reason other than the layout is better and the volume is more impressive. But the environment is just not as accommodating in either store as I've grown to expect.

Another thing is the roads. "You have to be crazy. You miss driving in Atlanta?" Well, no, not really. But the roads here have their own special character to them. There are way too many motorcycles, like packs of a dozen of them that just show up on your street every Saturday and Sunday, making it impossible go go faster than 30. Worse, stop signs predominate. I'm not talking, there's the occasional stop sign that you might inadvertently miss. I mean practically every intersection, from the seemingly inconsequential one of two residential streets, to what actually turns out to be a major one of multi-lane commercial highways, are regulated by stop signs. And it serves as a reminder about why the stop light is superior. Specifically, people do not know how to navigate stop signs. They don't like to take turns, and they sure as hell don't find it necessary to stop for pedestrians.

Currently listening: Coming to Terms, Carolina Liar

"An Historian": Bad English

Generally, I have pronounced prescriptivist leanings when it comes to language. For instance, I don't care how thoroughly "ten items or less" has entered common usage. I still believe that "less" is inherently continuous, and "fewer" is discrete, for a reason. There's sufficient linguistic justification for keeping these words separate and distinct. I still observe the distinction between "who" and "whom", at least in writing. And I don't believe that "effort" should ever be a verb, or that "thusly" is a word at all.

However, there seems to be some idea that "historian" (as well as "historical" and occasionally other related words as well) needs to have the article "an" attached to it. That is ludicrous. It defies all the conventions of modern English. Say you were talking about one mathematician. How would you say that? Clearly, it would be "a mathematician". Now, your pronunciation of that might change depending on your intention. If you're talking about any old guy (or girl) who professes math for a living, then you might schwa the "a", as in "uh mathematician". You might do the same thing, if you want to emphasize the fact that you're talking about a mathematician as opposed to a biologist or a chemist. Or, you might use a long "a", as in "ay mathematician", to emphasize one of them, as opposed to two or three or five or eight.

Would you ever use "an mathematician"? Of course not. That's because "mathematician" starts with "m", and "m" is a consonant. In English, we use "a" as the indefinite article for words that begin with consonants. Another example: do describe one surgeon, you would say "a surgeon", again pronouncing the "a" differently depending on your intention. And finally, you'd say "an economist", because "e" is a vowel.

Any kindergarten teacher would agree with me that there are five vowels in English: a, e, i, o, u. Sometimes "y" us added to the vowel list, or more accurately, it's always added to the "sometimes a vowel list". In some languages, the "w" sound is also a semivowel. But you know what's never a vowel? The letter "h". Therefore, it never makes sense to use "an" for any word beginning with "h".

Now, before anyone says "but there's a reason for that!", I know the linguistic justification. I don't believe it's a very good one. The word comes from French, from "histoire" or "historien". French has this lazy habit of not pronouncing their leading "h" on words, probably because they don't like how it sounds. In English, we do pronounce the leading "h". All the time. It's not "otel", it's "hotel". It's not "air", it's "hair". We would say "an air", true. And if "istorian" were a word, then "an istorian" would make perfect sense. But it's not. The word is "historian", with a pronounced leading consonant. That means it's completely incorrect to use "an": a false analogy from a language we do not speak.

Currently listening: "Colors", Kira Willey (you know that Dell commercial, "I am green today," etc.? That song)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chicago's "lost album" and something about the Arctic Monkeys

Review: Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus

Chicago fans will note that the title track sounds awfully familiar. It's been "out" for about fifteen years, in stages of dubiously varying legality. It was actually released about five years ago, on Chicago's "The Box", which contains five CDs of their very best and well-known music. Apparently there was an album attached to the orphaned Stone of Sisyphus, one that had been hanging around since 1993, and only now is it getting released. Drama with record companies ensues.

It, along with Chicago XXX, mark a weird fourth era in Chicago's music. First, we had the brilliance of Chicago's first two or three albums, characterized by some sort of brassy edge and influenced by the Windy City itself. Sometime in the 70s, you could almost hear the band saying "okay, let's take the edge off, and start playing power ballads." ("After all, it's the 70s, and that's what all the cool kids are doing. It's either that, or we subject you to a decade of disco." Whatever they think of the power ballad era, the fans thank you for picking the former.)

Inevitably, the musical graveyard of the 80s had to roll around, and bring us Poison and Whitesnake. (Tangent: if you're this guy, how are you supposed to take yourself seriously? It's two thousand freaking seven, and you're joining Whitesnake. You're their seventh drummer.) By that time, Chicago moved to stage 3, when Chicago changed their tune (so to speak) to "all right, now we play adult contemporary." That label's vague enough, but like alternative rock and pornography, you know it when you see it.

XXX and now Stone of Sisyphus are the fourth era, which basically translates into some weird amalgamation of the first three. Power ballad... power ballad... brass chorus! Or brass intro, giving way to some soft rock later in the song. Or any combination of the three. As I always say when I'm talking about this band, I'm inherently biased toward the more brass-heavy songs, mostly because I'm a trumpet player. "Stone of Sisyphus" is probably the band's strongest track because of that. I also like "Plaid", which has a sort of "Kalimba Story"-era Earth Wind and Fire inspiration to it. That makes sense, given the bands' collaboration over the past several years.

Ironically, or perhaps completely expectedly, the album is at its strongest when it does draw from its past three eras of music. And it's at its weakest when it starts screwing around. The funk of "Mah-Jong" is interesting, but I have no idea what the song is talking about. And the chorus is repeated far too much. As for "Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed"... let's just say that Chicago should never, ever, ever rap. On a whole, "Middle of the Bed" seems an apt metaphor for this album. It's far from Chicago's best work, but then they've been far from their best work since 1973. And it's by no means the worst. For a Chicago fan who's been starved for new material for the last who-knows-how-many years, it's better than nothing. But, on the other hand, a Chicago fan who's been waiting that long has probably been spoiled off the first five or six albums.

General discussion and semi-review: Arctic Monkeys
My friend Melody recommended the Arctic Monkeys to me when I had the good fortune to hear "Phantom Limb" by the Shins when we were having lunch. "Wait a second!" you're saying. "What does a Shins song have to do with the Arctic Monkeys?" Nothing, except for the fact that it got us talking about good music. Blindly, I downloaded Your Favourite Worst Nightmare [sic on the "u" in "favourite"--they're British] and gave it a listen. I'm not sure if I like it yet. I don't know what I expected, but it was a lot faster and louder and more dissonant than I thought it might be. Very Franz Ferdinand, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Again on Melody's advice, I downloaded their less recent Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. I listened to it, and I'm not sure it's necessarily any better. The most salient quality the band has is that all its music sounds approximately the same. Sure, it has some variation to it. At best, the music is energetic and driven. At worst, it's frenetic and jumbled, disorganized. Of course, I think that fans of the band would probably find that another strength, a reason to listen. The dissonance is not local to Your Favourite Worst Nightmare, there are perplexing and inexplicable changes of key and mode more or less without warning.

The influences on this band are unambiguous and uncompromising: unlike the American indie and alternative scenes, Arctic Monkeys take more than a few pages from British punk. One disturbing trend that's shown up from across the pond, though, is the practice of muffling and muddying vocals, seemingly intentionally. It almost seems in vogue to sing too close to a bad microphone, then feed the result through some manner of filter that degrades the sound quality even further. I don't ever think it's a good thing to make your music sound worse deliberately, but then again I like my classical music tonal too.

Bottom line, Arctic Monkeys aren't a bad band, I don't think. But I don't see me suddenly renouncing Shinsism and converting. If you don't need all of your songs to sound any different from each other, then you're not going to have a problem with the Arctic Monkeys. If you like your songs fast and loud and under three minutes on average, then you'll like them a lot. And if you wish the early-2000s "pop-punk" movement did more to honor the "1980s London" half of its roots, then you might just have a new favorite band.

Coming up, a couple of indie reviews that aren't at all "mainstream indie".

Currently listening: "Hungarian Dance No. 5 in D minor", Brahms

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: The Aftermath

New to the Accidental Mix Tape discussion? Start with the introduction and go from there.

Finally, all 20 songs are out in the open, and I promised looking at some trends. The most obvious one is genre. Ten of the songs--fully half of the CD--are what I'd classify as "indie". That's music by Rilo Kiley, the Decemberists, the Postal Service, the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, the Dandy Warhols, Sufjan Stevens, Eisley, Stars, and Neutral Milk Hotel. I don't care for the label, mostly because of it's ambiguity, but I think I'm about to use it correctly: I'd call five of the bands represented "alternative". Specifically, that's Something Corporate, Mae, Guster, Weezer, and Snow Patrol. Two are going to be "pop rock", KT Tunstall and Coldplay. Two are classics, Chicago and the Beatles. And Rammstein? Call it industrial, or tanz-metall, or "Neue Deutsche Hart", it's miles away from anything else on the CD.

That's not to say those boundaries are rigid though. Rilo Kiley is now signed to a major, as are the Decemberists and Death Cab, so who's to say they're still "indie"? Often, that particular label more closely refers to a band's heritage, or its sound, than what label it's currently on. That's a confusing practice to say the least, but after a while in dealing with the culture, it begins to make sense. And Coldplay and Snow Patrol have a whole lot in common, but I've chosen to put Coldplay into a completely separate category mostly because of their huge exposure and popularity.

Plotting this into a theoretical visual representation, it shows that my musical tastes are somewhere in the intersection of indie pop, indie rock, and alternative rock, if those things truly intersect at all. Perhaps they're all subsets of some greater "music that Matt likes" group. Because, naturally, the entirety of musical organization is based on my tastes. An important point, though, regarding this "indie" music: it's what I refer to as "mainstream indie". That might sound like a hideous contradiction, so allow me to explain.

I tend to listen to music that's just obscure enough that the mainstream won't touch it. Sure, I came to KT Tunstall through the radio, and you hear Coldplay and Weezer and even Guster and Death Cab sometimes. But when was the last time you ever heard the Shins or Eisley on any Top 40 anything? Sadly, it just doesn't happen. The other side of the coin, however, is that the music I listen to isn't something that real indie kids haven't bothered with for the past four years. Sure, Oh, Inverted World was cool, back when it was first released and nobody knew about it. Once they got popular, well, time to move on to another band that nobody's heard of.

Six or seven tracks--that is, a whole third--of the CD were by bands that my friend Nick introduced me to, so he's a clear influence on my musical tastes. Two came from my parents, and the rest were either products of personal musical searching, recommendations from other friends, or some combination of the two.

The release dates span more than 40 years, from November 1967 to June 2008. One is from the 60s, one from the 70s, three from the 1990s, and the lion's share of fifteen from the 2000s. Half of the tracks, ten in total, come from 2005 or later, which makes sense--that's when I started to develop a musical aesthetic of my own and finally decided what I actually liked.

Perhaps the weirdest trend comes in track placement on the original CDs. Half of the songs are either the first track or the second track--five of each--on the album they came from, plus a third, a fourth, and two fifth tracks. That could be any one, or possibly a few, of three things: a primacy effect, in that the first thing I heard off any given album subconsciously becomes my favorite. It could be a reflection of front-loading, in that the bands deliberately put their best material at the beginning of the album. Or it could be total coincidence.

There were a few notable omissions from the CD. As I already mentioned, anything classical; that might be coming up later. I might have liked to have added something by the Killers, particularly something off their first album Hot Fuss. I'm a huge fan of "Foux de Fafa" by Flight of the Conchords, because I've taken exactly enough French to understand it all.

I wouldn't call myself a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan per se, but Stadium Arcadium is really good, and I think "Dani California" and "Desecration Smile" are particularly strong tracks. And I'm really not at all a Goo Good Dolls fan, but every time I listen to Dizzy Up the Girl I'm pleasantly surprised at how good it is. Same with Augustana and Can't Love, Can't Hurt (which is exactly as emo as it sounds). Perhaps tracks by Jimmy Eat World, Incubus, or the Juliana Theory might be in order, and I've recently become quite a fan of This is Ivy League, too.

It's been a fun project, and any further Accidental Mix Tapes, while probably less accidental, will get a full documentation here.

Currently listening: "Shining Star", Earth Wind and Fire

Friday, July 04, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Part IV

Continued from part III.

Track 16: "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One" by Neutral Milk Hotel, track 1 from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, February 1998

The last track on the CD I came to directly though Nick, "King of Carrot Flowers Part I" is the beginning to Neutral Milk Hotel's maybe-masterpiece. I say "maybe" because it's some of the densest, most obtuse music you'll ever listen to. The quote I like the best about this album is "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is undoubtedly a major statement, but just what it's saying is anyone's guess." Even today, I still don't know what I think about this album. I'll listen to it, not know whether I'm sincerely enjoying it, or merely making fun of it. So I'll listen to it again to try and figure that out. I might listen again immediately, or wait a few days or weeks or months, but the outcome is always the same: I still don't know what I thought of it. And if someone chances to mention Neutral Milk Hotel, I can't help but grinning and proclaiming "yeah! I love Neutral Milk Hotel!" But whether I love them, or love knowing who they are, is, well... anyone's guess.

The fact remains that, no matter how tongue-in-cheek the admiration for this band may be, hearing (or hearing about) a track on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea always makes me smile. Andrew has a hypothesis that the entire album is about incest; I don't know about incest necessarily, but the sexual innuendos are rife throughout. And no track gives more smiles or innuendos than "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One". In case you're wondering, there is in fact a Pt. 2, and a Pt. 3, and for whatever reason, they're the same track. If that's not obtuse, I don't know what is.

Honorable mentions: open to pretty much anything here. This was pretty much a last-minute addition to fill a few minutes.

Track 17: "My Name is Jonas" by Weezer, track 1 from the Blue Album, May 1994.

My recent review of Weezer's Red Album was so thorough and comprehensive as to cover pretty much all of my sentiments toward and history with the band. So I'll keep this one short. The Blue Album just slightly edges out Green for "best Weezer album in my book", but that's probably out of a nod to its historical significance rather than it necessarily being better music.

And what better song than "My Name is Jonas" to represent the album, and the band as a whole? It has insistent guitar riffs and a singably simple structure that assures it'll remain a concert staple and fan favorite as long as the band continues to play. And that's not even to mention impromptu concerts in the form of Weezer Sing-Alongs that are undoubtedly going on in someone's car even as you read this.

Honorable mentions: "No One Else" and "In the Garage" from the Blue Album, "Photograph" from the Green Album, "Keep Fishin'" from Maladroit

Track 18: "Strawberry Swing" by Coldplay, track 9 from Viva la Vida, June 2008

I've also delved into Coldplay, and specifically Viva la Vida recently. It's tough to recall how I first came to Coldplay, but the first friend I can remember who actually vouched for their goodness was a guy named Chris. Chris and I were pretty good friends in late elementary and early middle school, eventually going our separate ways when we went to different high schools. But in that turn-of-the-century time, he was a pretty effective in his avocation of Parachutes and his anticipation of A Rush of Blood to the Head. Now that the band's taken on a different--and in my opinion much better--sound, I wonder if he still listens?

"Strawberry Swing" is one of the band's most relaxing, though managing not to be boring, songs they've ever written. "Strawberry" evokes a certain flavor right away, that sweet pinkish-red inexorably associated with relaxing during the summer. Plus, the song features an intriguing pentatonic countermelody that doesn't necessarily add anything to the song's meaning, but at least makes it really pleasant to listen to.

Honorable mentions: "Talk" from X&Y, "Cemeteries of London" and "Violet Hill" from Viva la Vida

Track 19: "Hands Open" by Snow Patrol, track 2 from Eyes Open, May 2006

Personal history with Snow Patrol dates back to an indeterminate time in high school, more likely than not senior year. And it was in one of my friend's cars, but exactly whose I can't honestly recall. The band is nominally indie, though certainly not in the Decemberists-Shins mode of the genre. I'd put them a lot closer to the "alternative" of Coldplay and Keane and the Fray. That is, the sort of music that can either be immensely entertaining, but has to face the constant danger of falling into lullaby-falsetto mode.

Fortunately, Snow Patrol avoids that trap more often than not. As has become sort of a trend in the Mix CD, "Hands Open" is by far the hardest, most energetic track off a CD that's not exactly known for its hard rock. The song contains a few surprisingly insightful aphorisms, like "it's hard to argue when/ you won't stop making sense." And it of course features what's possibly the most wonderful allusion to an indie song ever: "Put Sufjan Stevens on, and we'll sing your favorite song./ 'Chicago' bursts to life, and your sweet smile remembers you." If "Chicago" is Snow Patrol's favorite song, or Snow Patrol's girlfriend's favorite song, that's good enough for me.

Honorable mentions: Relationally, something from Dizzy Up the Girl by the Goo Goo Dolls, perhaps "Broadway". Granted, that's a stretch, but you can make it work.

Track 20: "Penny Lane" by the Beatles, track 3 from side 2 of Magical Mystery Tour, November 1967

Of course, "roll up" in the title track has nothing at all to do with marijuana. It's a tour bus. Honestly. If Revolver is recognized as the Beatles' most triumphant album stylistically and technically, then Magical Mystery Tour is the most salient example of their psychedelic influences. The Beatles on a whole need no introduction, except for me to reaffirm the mantra that anything good we seen in popular music today is in some way, directly or obliquely, thanks to the Beatles.

This is a startlingly impressive album. "I Am the Walrus", "Strawberry Fields Forever", "The Fool on the Hill", and of course "Penny Lane", plus several more very strong tracks, all in one release? Only the Beatles could pull that off. "Penny Lane itself" has anything you could want. Personal, expressive lyrics that don't necessarily need to be about anything or proving a point. A piccolo trumpet solo, which was an incredibly innovative touch for the time. Imagery to rich as to make us believe we're actually in an English suburb, and sound effects to help us get there too. A work of brilliance by the greatest band of the 20th century to close off the CD.

Honorable mentions: "Yellow Submarine" from Revolver, "Strawberry Fields Forever" from Magical Mystery Tour, "Let it Be" from Let it Be

Tomorrow, we take a look back at these twenty songs and see what interesting patterns emerge.

Currently listening: "In the Chess Court", soundtrack to Hero

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Part III

Continued from part II...

Track 11: "Many Funerals" by Eisley, track 1 from Combinations, August 2007

If KT Tunstall was the radio's greatest success, then Eisley is certainly's. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, here's a quick rundown. As you listen to music, a small and non-intrusive program collects data on what you're listening to. It sends this data ("scrobbles" it) to a server. Then, based on that information, you can get recommendations of what else you might like. Conveniently, there's even a recommendation radio station, where you can sit and listen to exactly what the server thinks you might be interested in.

Some of these recommendations are so obvious as to be frustrating: just because I'm listening to Miles Davis doesn't necessarily mean I want every jazz musician ever to show up in my recommendations. Some of them are so prescient as to be useless: after listening to Hot Fuss by the Killers, got really excited in encouraging me to check out Franz Ferdinand. I already know of Franz Ferdinand and already have some of their music, but I hadn't listened to it in a while, so naturally assumed that I had no idea who they were. And some are based more on common listenership than any stylistic similarity: I fail to see the resemblance between Bright Eyes and the Decemberists, no matter how much insists they're connected.

But happily, some of the recommendations work beautifully. After listening to a bit of Rilo Kiley and some Beatles, I noticed this "Eisley" pop up more than once, both in the list and the radio station. So I listened to what the radio station had to offer (namely "Memories" and "Telescope Eyes" if I remember correctly), and I was pretty much blown away. Turns out Rilo Kiley and the Beatles described a perfect Venn diagram to generate Eisley, too. Eisley lists the Beatles as one of their influences (as should every band dating from 1970 or later, as far as I'm concerned). And Eisley and Rilo Kiley sound a lot alike, at least superficially. Both bands feature girl singers with incredible voices, both have an indie-ish sound despite being signed to Warner Brothers, and both are unafraid to take a page from unconventional genres like blues or country.

The similarity stops there, mostly. Rilo Kiley prefers to sing about any manner of situation gone horribly askew, from bitter rejoinders against ex-lovers in their earlier music to the more recent tales about dangerous sexual practices. Eisley has this tendency to sing about happy things, like love that actually does work out, and people that genuinely miss each other. Some critic might complain that this "isn't addressing the entire range of human emotion" or something similar, but Eisley departs from that when they feel the need. "Invasion", the first single off Combinations, is about aliens. And "Many Funerals" is about someone's parents who died at sea. The subject matter isn't as uplifting as in most of the rest of the songs I've put on the CD, but the music more than makes up for that: energetic, spirited, and lively. Plus, lead singer Sherri DuPree's incredible soprano is contrasted with sister and backup singer Stacy's alto to create the best form-fits-function for a sea tale since Vaughan Williams.

Honorable mentions: "Memories" and "Marvelous Things" from Room Noises; "Invasion", "Taking Control", and "Combinations" from Combinations

Track 12: "Someone Else's Arms" by Mae, track 3 from The Everglow, March 2005

This one comes as no surprise. I came to Mae through Nick, when he burned their first CD (Destination: Beautiful) for me. "This music is really happy," he told me. "It puts you in a good mood." And so it did, and still does. Independently, we purchased The Everglow, and agreed that it's one hell of an album. I'm not sure where it ranks on Nick's top ever, but I'd guess that it's at least somewhere. It sits at the top of mine, no questions about it. I even hold the possibly slightly presumptuous opinion that if you don't like The Everglow, you probably don't have a soul. Of course I don't mean that literally, but this is one of those albums that really should mean something when you listen to it.

Mae takes a cue from some of the later prep rock bands, like Motion City Soundtrack, but that doesn't define their sound. They definitely elicit an emotional response, but they're by no means an emo band. And the music is deeply spiritual in many places, but they don't resort to preachiness or becoming overtly a "Christian" band. A big criticism of Mae, and especially The Everglow, is that they use too perfect structure—I forget the exact quote, but it had something to do with resenting their inability to go beyond what a music theory class would tell them to do. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: all that music theory makes their music sound really, really good. It's not modern, it's not edgy—and it doesn't need to be, and they're not trying to be. It's sincere and genuine.

The Everglow is, on a high level, about a young man's journey to find out what's actually out there, and what it means to love. That sounds incredibly cheesy unless you've heard the music. But the progress of the story is almost Shakespearean, from the first act of "love makes you feel happy" through the climax of "love is needing someone" and finally to the resolution of "love overwhelms any selfish thought." And there's a story, and a reflection, and a good chance at finding something very personal at every turn. "Someone Else's Arms" is from the very beginning of the story, when out hero is still in the "I want to feel good" mode. It's very straightforward, about feeling sort of desperate and wanting to wake up lying next to someone. And by the end of the album, the definition of love has progressed far beyond that notion. But it remains one of the most fun songs to listen to, with the youthful exuberance appropriate to such subject matter.

Honorable mentions: "Embers and Envelopes", "All Deliberate Speed", and "Sun" from Destination: Beautiful, and literally any other song from The Everglow

Track 13: "Barrel of a Gun" by Guster, track 2 from Lost and Gone Forever, September 1999

One afternoon, back in late high school, a friend and I faced a long drive. So she grabbed a CD, telling me that it was "really good" and that I'd like it. It was something by Guster—I don't remember what album exactly, but it did turn out to be really good. And it provided quite the pleasant soundtrack to a trek out to Stone Mountain Village and Norcross, for various acquisitions. I'm thankful for that, because I don't know that I would have come across Guster any other way. Possibly may have thrown a heroic effort my way, but it's doubtful, once it figured out that I like the Shins and Death Cab.

This band is less indie and more college band/garage band that just sort of took off. The sound is very acoustic and features lots of creative uses of percussion, including the trademark bongos. Vocally, Guster uses lots of harmonies; not just conventional harmonies, but interesting counterpoint too. Instead of just singing the same words at a specified interval apart, Guster is known for changing up those intervals on the fly, and even singing completely different lyrics from each other. The entire repertoire over Guster's almost fifteen years as a band is remarkably consistent, with excellent quality taking hold on the second release, Goldfly, and not letting go since. Choosing "Barrel of a Gun" was more or less random, except that it was probably influenced by its presence at the legendary Wasch Studios the same way "Jacksonville" was. It tracks a fanboy's obsession with a movie star whose love for him is so perfect, it's as if "she already knows me." That sort of tongue-in-cheek pastiche is yet another reason to love the band.

Honorable mention: "Red Oyster Cult" from Keep it Together; "Satellite" from Ganging Up on the Sun

Track 14: "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" by Stars, track 1 from Set Yourself on Fire, March 2005

Recall for a moment the legendary Graduation Night iTunes Gift Card Debacle, in which I managed to lose two graduation cards handed to me, containing $30 worth of iTunes gift cards. These gifts were generously replaced, leading me to purchase some Decemberists, plus Your Ex-Lover is Dead on Jenny's advice. She promised me they were sort of like the Postal Service, which is reasonably accurate, though I've refined my personal description of the band since then. Stars are generally lumped into what might be referred to as "indie pop", though where exactly the line is between that and indie rock is beyond me to try and pinpoint.

What I can say for sure is that they have a pleasantly peppy sound in most of their music, whether the subject of the song is indeed peppy or something far more sinister. Frontman Torquil Campbell is a talented multi-instrumentalist, and any doubts I may have had about the band (brought on mostly by their over-expressed political leanings) were more or less mollified when Campbell busted out a trumpet and played all the solos at the band's concert.

I went with Set Yourself on Fire because it's on a whole a better CD than its successor In Our Bedroom After the War. Now, I have my opinions on In Our Bedroom After the War, and succinctly, that opinion is it's not by any means a bad album. It just suffers from too much filler that can swing from "excellent" to "awful" depending on your perception of the rest of the album. And its songs aren't structured correctly to provide enough support to the less strong tracks. Set Yourself on Fire doesn't have that problem; it's solid throughout despite a bad song here and there. Like In Our Bedroom After the War, though, it starts off with one of its best; in this case, that's "Your Ex-Lover is Dead", filled with winds and strings and nostalgia.

Honorable mentions: "What I'm Trying to Say" from Set Yourself on Fire, "The Night Starts Here" and "Take Me to the Riot" from In Our Bedroom After the War

Track 15: "Feuer Frei!" by Rammstein, track 5 from Mutter, April 2001

Just as Leaving Through the Window became a soundtrack to sophomore year of high school, Mutter was every bit as much to freshman year. It was marching band camp in August 2001 when I was first acquainted with Rammstein, thanks entirely to my man Andrew van Devender. He played this curious CD for me called Live Aus Berlin, which featured German men singing angrily in baritone registers and the hardest rock music that I'd ever actually enjoyed. I went out and bought Live Aus Berlin myself, and Mutter not long after that.

To put it in a genre, Rammstein is most generally "industrial", though I sort of like the German appellation "tanz-metall" ("dance-metal") better. And what an odd dance party it would be, featuring songs about air base tragedies and hermaphrodites and gasoline. Mutter is maybe a little softer than the rest of their music—it's not the "music to invade Poland to" that I've heard the first album described as. But it's distinctly Rammstein, no doubt about it.

I decided to go with "Feuer Frei!" out of sentimentality as much as anything. It recalls the good old days of spending countless afternoons and evenings and weekends at Andrew's place, playing Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64. (All you thirteen year old kids out there that think your precious Halo 3 is revolutionary? You'd have nothing if it weren't for Goldeneye and Perfect Dark.) Of course we needed music for our matches. More often than not, that was Rammstein; when it was Rammstein, it was usually Mutter; and every time we played Mutter, we were always sure to hit "Feuer Frei!". It's a perfect fit to a shooter, of course, translating as "fire freely!" or "fire at will!", and having the angry industrial metal to back it up.

Honorable mentions: "Links 2 3 4" from Mutter, "Moskau" from Reise, Reise

Tomorrow, the last five tracks, and the analysis and conclusion comes over the weekend.

Currently listening: "The Final Countdown", Europe

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Part II

Continued from part I...

Track 6: "Cath..." by Death Cab for Cutie, track 4 from Narrow Stairs, May 2008

Death Cab needs no introduction to many people. They're probably the most successful and well-known exemplar of the contemporary "indie" tradition, even though they, like the Decemberists, have now made the lemming-jump to a major label. Or so the most hardcore fans thought would happen, and a few probably still insist did happen. Death Cab's style is emo first and foremost, but an honest and genuine emo, never turning to whining. Their instrumentation is especially solid, doing well to avoid the screaming and intentional, misplaced dissonance that some of their peers rely on.

Narrow Stairs promised some drastic changes from Death Cab's earlier music, and while it is a lot different, we still have the same band. Death Cab's songs have never been particularly optimistic on a whole. Perhaps they weren't as clearly melancholy as Narrow Stairs turned out to throw at us, maybe they didn't come right out and say there was "No Sunshine", but objectively it was more a refinement than a departure. "Cath...", like the review of the album mentioned is widely agreed to be the best song on it, and I agree with public opinion here. "Cath..." is absolutely classic Death Cab, a pleasant little story of a girl who unwisely ends up with a man who doesn't love her.

Honorable mentions: "The Sound of Settling" and "We Looked Like Giants", Transatlanticism, "Marching Bands of Manhattan" and "Soul Meets Body" from Plans

Track 7: "Get Off" by the Dandy Warhols, track 7 from Thirteen Tales form Urban Bohemia, August 2000

I proclaim myself to be a Dandy Warhols fan on the strength of this album alone--without having heard any of the band's other music. I've been assured that the rest of their music is way different from this one anyway, and honestly, if this album were the band's only one ever, that would be more than enough for me to consider them masters of the craft. I suppose you could call it "psychedelic" rock, if for no other reason than the multitude of drug references and the insistent dreaminess of many of their songs.

The lyrics on this album range from introspective to satirical, from self-satisfying to insightful, from boorish to sublime. And they do some remarkably creative things with structure and instrumentation, ranging from totally conventional 4/4 guitar-driven rock to ethereal, drifting experiments. "Get Off" is about exactly what it sounds like it's about. And it's wonderfully fun to listen to.

Honorable mentions: Practically anything from Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, particularly "Godless", "Bohemian Like You", and "Big Indian"

Track 8: "Make Me Smile" by Chicago, track 2 from side 2 of Chicago II, January 1970

Along with the Beatles, Chicago is one of two bands on the CD that I first came to through my parents. Musical originality is a big thing with me, and Chicago exemplifies that brilliantly. I can't think of another band that so completely integrates a horn section into their music. Cake tries, and puts up a good show. But one trumpet, while it is the cornerstone of any good horn section, just doesn't compare to the Loughnane-Pankow-Parazaider triad that's given Chicago its unique sound for four decades. Perhaps not until Norah Jones did we have an artist that was so completely accepted in the pop scene but also gave jazz bands something interesting to play too.

I'm partial to Chicago's earlier stuff for just that reason: it features the horn section the best and the most creatively. Another reason is that I really like the city Chicago, an influence on the band and particularly the earliest few albums. The reason I like "Make Me Smile" in particular is that I have personal experience with it; a few weeks back in middle school jazz band. Even though it was sort of a hokey arrangement, that was the first song I ever played that I'd heard of before I played it.

"Make Me Smile" is actually the first part of a seven-song cycle, "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon", that also includes the slow-dance staple "Color My World. The version I have actually includes the first three or four parts of the cycle on the same track, which is all the better. But "Make Me Smile", which showcases Chicago's mastery of dynamics and of course has a memorable trumpet solo, steals the show.

Honorable mentions: "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" from Chicago Transit Authority, "25 Or 6 To 4" from Chicago II

Track 9: "Suddenly I See" by KT Tunstall, track 9 from Eye to the Telescope, February 2006 (US)

Where most of the artists featured on the CD are either products of direct recommendation or a bit of self-directed musical digging, KT Tunstall comes from the radio. The Atlanta radio station, which is usually pretty decent, provided it's not on a weird 80s kick, or a streak of several overly mellow songs in a row, in the vein of Jack Johnson. In fact, browsing their recent playlist, "Suddenly I See" was played not half an hour ago, along with "Sweet and Low" by Augustana, "Californication" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, and "Imagine" by John Lennon, all in the past few hours. (Though they do have a penchant for that irritating "Mercy" song that seems to be in vogue lately.)

I listened to the radio a lot in the summer of 2006, a time of teaching Koreans to speak English and staying at Andrew Hood's old house until the wee hours of the morning at least a few times a week. And whenever I turned on the radio, whether it be leaving for work at 8:30 am, or leaving work at 2 pm, or even coming home at 3 am, I had a better chance than not of hearing "Suddenly I See". And it really grew on me. I like the driving, energetic guitar, and Tunstall has a great voice (if maybe not as good as Jenny Lewis's). The song, of course, is a feminist one, but that doesn't make it any less musically sound. Plus, Tunstall looks really, really cute on the cover for the iTunes version of the single.

Honorable mentions: "Other Side of the World" and "Another Place to Fall" from Eye to the Telescope

Track 10: "Jacksonville" by Sufjan Stevens, track 5 from Illinoise, July 2005

Back in the grand old days of Folk Hall, quite the music community flourished on the local iTunes network. And an enterprising individual could take advantage of this with the OurTunes client to appropriate any sort of shared music onto his own computer, to the tune of possibly several gigabytes. I'd actually read about Illinoise in the Atlanta Fish Wrapper of all places, when it was first released, and thought "hey, that sounds cool." When I did appropriate it, it was more than cool. This album earned laudatory remarks like "best album of 2005" by many critics, and who am I to argue with that?

Those same critics will also probably say that "Chicago" is the album's standout track. It is good, no doubt. But the song that caught me when I first listened to it was "Jacksonville", which is actually quite a moving song about sympathy toward abolitionists. It, like many of Stevens' other songs, features folk melody and vocals against a symphonic background, and crams in allusions to the great Land of Lincoln. And even more than his other songs, there's something fundamentally uplifting, positive about it. Besides, I heard it at the legendary Kate Wasch Studios, which means it has to be of the highest quality.

Honorable mentions: "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!", "Decatur", and "Chicago" from Illinoise

Tune in tomorrow for part III.

Currently listening: "Lost Underworld" from Mother 2 - Giygas' Counterattack

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Part I

To read the introduction to the Accidental Mix Tape project, click here.

I'll now delve into each of the tracks that made it onto the CD, giving possibly-relevant facts like album and date of release. I also aim to give a one-paragraph synopsis of the band—it might stretch into two—and a quick chat about why I chose the particular song that I did. I'll finish off with a few "honorable mention" tracks that also could have been good choices for the CD, and might well make it onto Mix Tape Part 2.

Track 1: "Close Call" by Rilo Kiley, track 2 from Under the Blacklight, August 2007

Rilo Kiley is one in a proud line of bands that I was first exposed to thanks to my friend Nick. For a while back in high school, it seemed that every time I saw Nick, he had a new CD packed to the brim with his latest favorite bands. Some of these bands I just couldn't get into, and sort of let fall by the wayside; some of them, I keep coming back to even now. Rilo Kiley is definitely in the second group, I want to say introduced to me in June 2005. Their lyrics are creative and clever, lead singer Jenny Lewis has a gorgeous voice, and the instrumentation takes cues not only from rock and pop, but also from folk and country.

I would put Under the Blacklight in my personal top five albums of 2007, ranking behind Wincing the Night Away (which is also represented on the CD), but maybe not much else. We’ve seen incredible development since the days of Take-Offs and Landings. The band's sound has progressed from lo-fi and indie to refined and produced, and Lewis's voice has transformed from girly and almost coquettish to mature and approaching sultry in places. The thing that's striking, though, is that both CDs are remarkably good. In the end, I went with the recency of Under the Blacklight over the primacy of Take-Offs and Landings. "Close Call" is one of three or four excellent tracks on the album; in the end, I thought it had a little more energy than "Silver Lining", and I wanted to give something besides the title track a try after it had been my ringtone for several months.

Honorable mentions: "Plane Crash in C" from Take-Offs and Landings, "Paint's Peeling" from The Execution of All Things, "Silver Lining" and "Under the Blacklight" from Under the Blacklight

Track 2: "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" by the Decemberists, track 2 from Castaways and Cutouts, May 2002

The Decemberists, even after their dreaded Migration to a Major Label, remain as indie-workhorse as ever. A massive vocabulary, songs about Japanese geishas and crooked French-Canadian bootleggers, and immensely entertaining live shows have given them a well-deserved place near the top of the indie heap. It's tough to remember the exact first time I heard of the Decemberists, but the references just kept piling up in April and May of 2005. By the time I finally broke down and listened to one of their songs, I had just eaten dinner at Dante's Down the Hatch, a wonderful Buckhead fondue place with an 18th century naval theme. And I had just finished reading Neal Stephenson's The System of the World, the final volume in the Baroque Cycle, a delightfully epic historical fiction trilogy. The first Decemberists song I heard was "The Infanta", which tied into both of those cultural experiences and made me instantly appreciate the band.

I first heard Picaresque in its entirety, then Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty at the same time, later acquiring The Crane Wife when it was released. I think I made a mistake in not "cleansing my palette" in between listening to the two earlier albums, because they're not immensely stylistically distinct, and even now I have a hard time telling them apart. Both albums have about half mediocre filler and half sheer brilliance, such that if you combined the best half from each, you'd probably have one of the greatest collections of music ever. Alas, even the Decemberists can't pull together utter genius every waking moment. But the thing that distinguishes the Decemberists despite a handful of less-than-exciting songs (not bad, per se, just uninteresting) per album is that the "good half" is incredible. I said "sheer brilliance" and I don’t think that's an overstatement. "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" is in this half.

I liked the song already, but I began to truly appreciate it last summer in Europe. There's something indescribably wonderful about seeing the Mediterranean coast for the first time ever, passing over the Spanish border at sunrise, and hearing the lyric "and here in Spain I am a Spaniard" not half an hour later. The song features three evocative, imagistic vignettes about attempts at getting love to work out in fantastic circumstances. And it showcases the Decemberists' lyrical brilliance possibly better than any of their songs.

Honorable mentions: "July, July!" and "California One" from Castaways and Cutouts, "Billy Liar" and "Song for Myla Goldberg" from Her Majesty, "The Infanta" from Picaresque, "The Island" from The Crane Wife (though its scope and length might not make it quite right for the "mix tape" environment)

Track 3: "I Want to Save You" by Something Corporate, track 1 from Leaving Through the Window, May 2002

Unlike Castaways and Cutouts, which I first heard three years after its release, I've been listening to Leaving Through the Window since the day it came out. That's more than six years now, which is nigh unfathomable. The album became a soundtrack to my sophomore year in high school, a time that turned out to be huge in terms of maturation, all that wonderful "coming out of puberty" business. Appropriately, Something Corporate belongs to that genre that I've talked about before as having defined my high school musical experience, sometimes called "pop-punk" or "post-punk" or a label that I've taken a liking to, "prep rock". You know the sorts of band. New Found Glory, Good Charlotte, number bands like Blink-182 and Sum 41.

I didn't realize it at the time, but for a type of music to dominate the high school popular scene, that wasn't necessarily a bad trend. It came on the heels of insipid pop along the lines of Christina Aguilera, N'Sync, and Ricky Martin. And it was followed by the ascendancy of mainstream hip-hop: Kanye West, Usher, Nelly, Jeezy, and all the rest. Something Corporate wasn't the best-known exemplar of that trend in music, but I think they're among the most distinctive. They knew when to cool off and play at slower than 180 beats per minute. And they also made the most of unconventional orchestration, adding strings and piano to enhance their sound nicely. "I Want to Save You" doesn’t have any particular significance over the rest of the album, but I like its pacing and tempo.

Honorable mentions: "I Woke Up in a Car" from Leaving Through the Window, "Bleed American" and "Splash, Turn, Twist" by Jimmy Eat World from Bleed American. Usually I'll try to preserve the same artist in an "honorable mention"... this is more of a "relational" connection.

Track 4: "Such Great Heights" by The Postal Service, track 2 from Give Up, February 2003

The Postal Service is another one of those bands that's tricky to nail down an exact time I first heard them, or heard of them. I'm pretty sure Nick had something to do with it, but whether that "something" was introducing me, or merely burning the music for me, I don't remember. The band is relatively well known by this point as a collaborative project between Death Cab for Cutie's lead singer Ben Gibbard and some dude who does electronica that nobody can really remember. It's emo, sure, but intelligent emo, and a darn catchy beat in the background. This band is one of the most universally accepted among my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Nearly everyone who's heard of the Postal Service likes them, views them favorably, and reacts well to their music being played in a long car ride. Of course, there are people who don’t know anything about them at all, and whose personal spheres of music appreciation probably don't come close to including indie pop. But you don't have to be a green amoeba shirt-wearing Shins fan to think good things about the Postal Service.

They have but one full album, sadly, and I've gone with what's undoubtedly the most well known song from it. You can hear "Such Great Heights" in UPS commercials, Target commercials, and M&Ms commercials. It was even covered by another indie staple, Iron & Wine, prompting a huge and still-raging debate over which version is the superior one. (Of course, by its inclusion on this CD, I come down on the side of the Postal Service). Apparently it's "the only positive song" Ben Gibbard has ever written about love, and positive it is, and happy too, which is why I've chosen it for the CD.

Honorable mention: "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" and "Brand New Colony" from Give Up

Track 5: "Turn on Me" by the Shins, track 7 from Wincing the Night Away, January 2007

This is a direct Nick contribution, in the form of an actual CD, and it's his single greatest act of genius and philanthropy. What a fantastic collection of music. Perfectly paced and balanced, dramatically introductioned, gracefully concluded. No filler, except for the 54 seconds of "Pam Berry", which is just as easily overlooked—you want to listen to every song. Interesting instrumentation and outreaches to various genres. Witty and unconventional throughout, but nowhere near the point of becoming novelty—these guys are making music meant to be taken seriously but manage to have a lot a fun doing it. I got Wincing the Night Away for my birthday, February 2007, and almost instantly, it became one of my favorites. I was actually hesitant to listen to the band's earlier albums, because there wasn't any way they could be as good as Wincing the Night Away. Eventually I caved in. I was right, they weren't quite as good, but still excellent.

If I said that Rilo Kiley's sound has matured since their first album, then the Shins have accomplished a metamorphosis worthy of Ovid or Kafka. Oh, Inverted World, a darling of the indie community, was so lo-fi and poorly produced by comparison that lead singer James Mercer's vocals seem muffled and unintelligible. And Wincing the Night Away is so much more varied and original that after listening to it, all the songs on Oh, Inverted World sound the same—to a synesthete, it's almost like they take on the same weirdly drab blue of the album's cover. This isn't an indictment of Oh, Inverted World at all; merely an observation that next to Wincing the Night Away, even an earlier success pales in comparison. I don't know if I'm alone in the belief that Wincing the Night Away completely eclipsed Oh, Inverted World as the Shins' masterwork, but I'll stick by that belief as fervently as I need to. Picking a song was tougher, but "Turn on Me" has everything you'd want from the Shins: catchiness, imaginative similes, and the good old apathy that's become their trademark.

Honorable mentions: "So Says I" and "Saint Simon" from Chutes Too Narrow, "Australia" and "Phantom Limb" from Wincing the Night Away

Check back tomorrow for part II!

Currently listening: "Turkish March", Mozart