Változatosság

1. This Saturday, I was pleased to watch my beloved Midshipmen beat the Black Knights for the 13th straight year in the 115th Army-Navy Football Game. Army played a fine game, and it was closer than I’d like it to be, though in the end, Navy got the job done. Much respect to both teams. I root for Army every day of the year except for this one, and I admire their tenacity during a long, tough stretch in this storied rivalry for the Cadets. I had two minor annoyances during the game this year. First, I really do not like that Navy has joined the Oregon-inspired fad of changing football uniforms multiple times in a season, and I thought Navy’s uniforms in the Army-Navy Game bordered on being a distracting eyesore. I wondered if the Mids seemed a bit out of sorts in the first half because they didn’t like looking at each other, either. Please, sirs, can we return to the classic Navy Blue jerseys and solid Gold helmets, without additional adornment, next season? The second annoyance came when I went to the gym before the game and picked up our local alternative newsweekly, which contained a really obnoxious preview of the Army-Navy Game, which you can read here, if you want to. The piece was so misguided, so disrespectful, and so lacking in broader perspective that I actually sat down at halftime to write a letter to the editor complaining about it. Harrumph! Take that! Today, though, I received an e-mail informing me that my editorial e-mail was being returned unread, because the newspapers’ inbox was full. Really? Wow, I guess that’s kind of a counter-harrumph. So I’ll publish my thoughts here, instead, just for the record:

Dear Sirs:

Darren Tromblay previewed the Army-Navy Game this week as “the meaningless one that takes place every year” where “all people in the stands are dressed in long coats and wearing hats,” before offering “Don’t care? Join the majority.” I’d respectfully like to note that every player on the Army-Navy field — and all of those young men and women in the coats and hats (they’re called “uniforms”) — will be serving their nation on active duty within the next four years, and that many servicemen and women around the world (and their families at home without them) will pause on Saturday to watch the 115th edition of this great sporting tradition. While those of us who have taken an oath to support and defend our Constitution (including all of Army and Navy’s student athletes) may never comprise the majority of the local football-watching population, dismissing the Army-Navy game and all that it represents as “meaningless” displays a somewhat stunning lack of perspective. Cyclones vs Hawkeyes may be a big, meaningful deal in Iowa (though not elsewhere, sorry to report), but Army-Navy is a truly national sporting event, and it represents the best that college sports has to offer, year after year after year. That’s enough meaning for me.

Sincerely,

J. Eric Smith, Navy ’86
Des Moines
2. I’ve been binge-listening to The Stranglers and the Damned lately. Both emerged in the initial flushes of U.K. punk, though The Stranglers were a bit older and lot more musically adept than most of their peers, The Damned included. Both bands grew by leaps and bounds in the ’80s and ’90s, eventually crafting some really smart, creative rock music with some killer hooks and chops, both featuring great, forceful, baritone vocals. I don’t know why, exactly, I tend to listen to them in tandem, but when I get in the mood for one, I usually quickly jump to the other. Since I blew up my 2014 playlists, they’ve been the twin anchors of a new year’s listening (along with the excellent new AC/DC album, I should note). Here’s a preview of one of my favorite Damned songs, and then a favorite Stranglers song, in case you want to listen along:

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3. A few months back, the Salisbury House Young Professionals group asked me if I would consider having the House host the 18th gathering of Pecha Kucha Night (PKN) Des Moines. I had never heard of PKN before, but I like new opportunities, and I like our young professionals, so I said “sure.” The concept of PKN is that a group of speakers give spoken presentations using 20 images, with only 20 seconds to talk about each image, for a total talk time of 6 minutes and 40 seconds, so you can get a taste of a lot of topics over the course of an evening, and if you don’t care about one, hey, well, there will be a new topic in about seven minutes, so just sit tight. As host, I was asked to serve as one of the PKN speakers, and I decided to tailor a longer talk I’ve done many, many times about James Joyce’s “Work in Progress” to the event. It went well, but, man, it was a whole lot harder than I thought it would be, and I ended up speed-speaking most of it. I link the live video of my 20 slides and my 6:40 talk below, and you can obviously hear me struggling a bit to get my pace down when the slide advances before I’m ready to move on to the next thought. I would not endorse my talk as anything approaching a “how to do it” example of a good Pecha Kucha presentation, but if you like James Joyce, or you like the idea of watching my normally glib and overly loquacious self being forced to adhere to someone else’s speaking rules, this might be for you. Bottom line: if you have an opportunity to participate as an audience member of presenter at a Pecha Kucha Night, in Des Moines or elsewhere, I highly recommend that you go.

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Most Played Songs of 2014

Today is the day that I reset the play counts on all of the Smith Family iPods after a year of data gathering and consolidation. I used to wait right until December 31st, but I’ve found that Marcia and I almost always want something fresh through various holiday trips and hectic work season, so early December has become iPod playlist reprogramming time.

The most interesting playlist to clear is the collection of “most played songs” for the year. Since we synch all of our gadgets to one computer and one iTunes account, this “most played songs” list in our household represent the aggregated play counts from my car, my gym, Marcia’s car, Marcia’s gym, and the collaborative family iPod that stays in the house’s stereo dock and is played by Marcia, Katelin and I.

So the “most played songs” of the year are often interesting and unexpected, since they represent the points where our family’s musical tastes and listening habits most closely overlap, even though each of us individually may listen to very different things than the other family members. My love for Napalm Death, for example, will never likely result in any of their songs making this list, since Katelin and Marcia both immediately skip them anytime they come up on any iPod. And we all listen to music a lot, so that’s a lot of skips, offset by a lot of listens to the things that everybody actually does like.

I’ve got 12,000+ songs on my computer right now, and we only played about 5,000 of them at least once in 2014. So now is the point where I look at those other 7,000 songs and start making lists of things we haven’t heard in over 365 days, which is always a fun process.It’s like shopping my closet, only louder.

With all of that as preamble, here are the 40 most played songs in our household in 2014. I offer some links for exploration of some of the more obscure numbers, if you’re inclined to hear what it sounds like in our dining room at night, while Marcia beats our asses down at whatever game we’re playing:

1. “Midnight Sky” by Can

2. “Opiate the Masses” by Dälek

3. “Meliora Sequamur” by Ian Anderson

4. “Back in the Laundromat” by Wall of Voodoo

5. “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC

6. “Heavy Metals” by Ian Anderson

7. “Choir of Wolves” by Vulkano

8. “Bricks Crumble” by Dälek

9. “Law of the Bungle, Part One” by Jethro Tull

10. “Scavenger, Invader” by The Locust

11. “Lovely Anita” by The Gods

12. “A Head Bronco” by Japanther

13. “Time Loves a Hero” by Little Feat

14. “Cuyahoga” by R.E.M.

15. “Simpletons” by The Bats

16. “A Strange Day” by The Clay People

17. “Florentine Pogen” by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

18. “Lullaby for a Sadist” by Korn

19. “For Pete’s Sake (Closing Theme)” by The Monkees

20. “Five Lions” by Japanther

21. “Love and Meth” by Korn

22. “Nothing Will Be The Same” by Renaldo and Michael Alan Alien

23. “Rock Man” by The Phones Sportsman Band

24. “Never Been to Spain” by Three Dog Night

25. “Misleading Colours” by The Gods

26. “Spratts Medium” by Renaldo and the Loaf

27. “Rock n’ Roll Train” by AC/DC

28. “Bands” by Andy Prieboy

29. “Sofa, No. 2″ by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

30. “Lime Jelly Grass” by Renaldo and the Loaf

31. “Somebody Somewhere” by Andy Prieboy

32. “Baby Blue” by Badfinger

33. “Sticking Wings on Flies” by The Gods

34. “Rock n’ Roll Dream” by AC/DC

35. “More Than the World” by FREEMAN

36. “War Machine” by AC/DC

37. “San Ber’dino” by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

38. “The Turnpike Inn” by Ian Anderson

39. “Ever Somber” by Dälek

40. “Easy to Slip” by Little Feat

Top 20 Albums of 2014

I’m not quite sure how this happened, but amazingly enough, it’s December 1st already, and that means it’s time for the 23rd annual installment of my Albums of the Year report to fall out of my brain, and onto your screens.

For the record, I don’t wait until the very end of the year to do my list, since I think it takes at least a solid month of listening before I feel comfortable that something meets both the “strong first impression” and “stands up to repeated listening” tests that I apply in rating albums. Discs issued in December 2014 will be eligible for 2015’s Top 20 List, accordingly. I expect to see brand new discs from Max Eider and AC/DC ranking highly there, since they missed this year’s deadline.

If you’d like some preview perspective on what you might expect to see on the 2014 roster, here is the complete list of my “Albums of the Year” from 1992 to 2013, as reported in a variety of print and digital outlets along the way. I don’t know what I was thinking in some of those years, but I stand by my picks as historic facts, for better or for worse:

1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream

1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese

1995: Björk, Post

1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi

1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch

1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac

1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip

2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya

2001: Björk, Vespertine

2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone

2003: Wire, Send

2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)

2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything

2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom

2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight

2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics

2011: Planningtorock, W

2012: Goat, World Music

2013: David Bowie, The Next Day

On a macro basis, 2014 felt like a very invigorating musical year for me, with old favorites and newcomers alike challenging me with bracing, exciting, interesting tunes and textures from places expected and places heretofore unexplored. I consider it a good sign when I have to work to cut my first list of contending albums back just to get 20 finalists, and when my Top 20 contains one or more (preferably the latter) artists who I had never even heard of 12 months ago. Both of those criteria are met in my 2014 Top 20 List, so I feel very good about that, indeed.

I’m going to repeat last year’s approach and do an inverted countdown from my 20th favorite album of 2014 to my Number One (With A Bullet), just to build suspense for you and me alike, since I’ve got a couple of possible contenders rattling around in my head for Album of the Year, and it’s helpful for me to sneak up on them from behind, rather than shooting them dead up front and then fleshing out the appetizer courses. I’m also going to provide a link to what I consider to be the best, signature and/or most representative song from each album, to help you consider them more completely. If you like what you hear, please support these artists by buying the albums reviewed, and not just chasing down free copies.

Though I shouldn’t have to note this, I know from prior experience that I do: the list below is obviously based on the things that I actually listened to in the prior year, and as musically omnivorous and curious as I am, there are some genres of music that I just don’t choose or get to experience much, and they’re generally not going to be represented in my year-end list. So please resist the urge to write me a scathing comment or e-mail telling me that I am a cultural imperialist bastard whose taste is all in my mouth because I do not recognize the overwhelming genius of your favorite Bolivian queercore free jazz ukulele and church bell skronk collective. I am glad to know that their latest album will top your own list when you write it. Thank you.

Those preambles completed, let’s get on with the list!

#20. Carla Bozulich, Boy: Bozulich earned “Album of the Year” honors from me in 1997 with the extraordinary Geraldine Fibbers, and since that time, she’s continued to make raw, literate, discomforting music with a plethora of collaborators in a variety of creative configurations. Bozulich refers to Boy as her “pop album,” though woe unto he or she who is misled by what that phrase might mean to someone as creative as Carla. I would simply cite Boy as the best thing she has done since the Fibbers’ masterful Butch, full props scored for highly effective and creative writing, playing, singing and arranging throughout this strong solo disc. Best Track: One Hard Man.

#19. Noura Mint Seymali, Tzenni: Noura Mint Seymali is a new artist to me in 2014, with her wonderful third album Tzenni offering a great blend of pan-continental North African melodies that highlight her Mauritanian griot-trained voice, her work on the ardine (a nine-string harp), and the awesome guitar of her husband, Jeiche Ould Chigaly, who adapts his axe to the tunings and phrasings of the traditional Mauritanian tidinit. Few blends of Western rhythms and African melodies work as well as this one does by embracing the best facets of multiple musical traditions. Best Track: Tzenni.

#18. Triptykon, Melana Chasmata: The erstwhile Tom G. Warrior (now generally using his real name: Thomas Gabriel Fischer) has moved on from Hellhammer to Celtic Frost to Triptykon over the past three decades, but his stock in trade remains fairly constant: smart, potent, theatrical death metal, leavened with enough experimentation and ornamentation to keep it consistently interesting, both in terms of any given albums’ arc, and across the full spectrum of his career. The second full-length release under the Triptykon moniker is one of Fischer’s best works ever, perfectly suited to the H.R. Giger biomechanoid adorning its cover, with equal blends of sheen and squalor restlessly set aside each other, squirming. Best Track: Tree of Suffocating Souls.

#17. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2: This is one of those rare albums that seems truly, madly, deeply larger than life, in all measurable (and some unimaginable) ways. Its narrative is epically lurid, for example, with its stories spat in language that could make Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, Andrew “Dice” Clay, and Millie Jackson blush. Its beats are huge, chewing up 808s and guitars and sirens and cement mixers and shotgun blasts and concussing them back out at General Noriega-torturing levels. Legacy and provenance are utterly impeccable, with Killer Mike and El-P bringing their genealogical connections to the best of both Atlanta and New York underground hip hop, and guest spots by the likes of Zack de la Rocha, James McNew, Ikey Owens and Matt Sweeney expanding the family tree to include most everything that mattered musically in American for most of the past two decades. Oh, and it’s also incredibly, unbelievably, over-the-top fun, it has a good beat that you can dance to. Sold! Best Track: Close Your Eyes (And Count to F*ck) NSFW.

#16. TEEN, The Way and Color: TEEN take their name from singer-guitarist-songwriter Christine “Teeny” Lieberson, who made her mark with indie hotshots Here We Go Magic before heading out to form this band with her two sisters to play her own songs. TEEN evoke a 2010-take on the sorts of loop-based funky femme-friendly pop that Luscious Jackson once offered, though the songs on The Way and Color tend to be a bit richer and more satisfying than their forebears’ work, grabbing your attention first on surface shine alone, then unexpectedly impressing you once you peel the price tags off and take ‘em for a serious spin. Best Track: Rose 4 U.

#15. Xiu Xiu, Angel Guts: Red Classroom: Following his surprising 2013 Nina Simone tribute album, Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart returns to his usual self-penned theatrical psychodramas on this disc, delivering the goods at something close to the top of his game in terms of material consistency, creepiness, creativity and claustrophobia. And as if the graphic narratives of his best songs aren’t already chilling and explicit enough, Stewart supplemented Angel Guts: Red Classroom with a series of expository videos, some of which could not be released through traditional musical outlets, rather finding their hosted homes on hardcore horror or pornographic websites. As odd as it is to follow those sentences with this sentiment, this record actually constitutes one of the most musically accessible and consistent collections in the Xiu Xiu canon, so if you’re new to the Stewart milieu, this is a very good place to start exploring this terrifically difficult, monstrously rewarding artist’s efforts. Best Track: Stupid in the Dark NSFW.

#14. Thurston Moore, The Best Day: Man, oh man, did I want to hate this album before I’d heard it! I had given up on Sonic Youth after Sister circa 1987, I can’t stand Thurston Moore being trendily trotted out to offer his often insipid insights in every rock documentary about every band who recorded anything, ever, in the ’80s and ’90s, and the tawdry other woman tale that ended Moore’s too-hip marriage to Kim Gordon read like a road map to everything I hate about many men my own age. So when the title track of this disc first floated out online, I hit “play” to give myself something to be happily unhappy about . . . except that I ended up being unhappily happy with what a great song I heard instead. Dammit!! Don’t do that, Thurston Moore!! That’s just not right!!! And then the rest of the album came out, and, oh man . . . it was great too, like Sonic Youth with all the annoying bits edited out!! God, I hate it when that happens! Grrrr! Best Track: The Best Day.

#13. Sleaford Mods, Divide and Exit: This very English duo sound like a cross between The Streets and Can, or Suicide with a sense of humor, or Mark E. Smith soloing with a Casiotone, with heavily accented (East Midlands, according to Wikipedia, though this subtlety was lost on me), often hysterical, highly observational lyrics being spouted atop minimalist metronomic grooves, creating a whole that’s far more entertaining than you’d expect from the sum of the admittedly limited parts. A little of this sort of thing normally goes a long, long way, but Sleaford Mods are so good at what they do (and so prolific!) that whole afternoons can disappear in a haze of grumpy grooves, hey presto, before you know what hit you. Best Track: Tied Up in Nottz NSFW.

#12. Ought, More Than Any Other Day: This is a surprisingly weird, unique, and effective album that belies its perpetrators’ relative youth and musical inexperience. The Montreal-based band’s debut album offers a fascinating blend of seemingly unmixable elements, ranging from Television-style guitar noodling through to atonal rhythmic lurches of a This Heat variety, from itchy funk fugues that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Talking Heads’ early albums through to Velvety violin drones, and from speak-sing sermons cut from Violent Femme fabric through to straight-up gorgeous Big Star-style songs with catchy choruses and oddly anthemic overtones. And they do all of that in the space of but eight songs. Impressive! Best Track: Around Again.

#11. Aloe Blacc, Lift Your Spirit: I had picked Aloe Blacc’s Good Things as one of my best albums of 2010, and I kept listening to that engaging disc for the ensuing couple of years, having no idea that Blacc went on to achieve a significant level of creative and commercial success as a singer, songwriter and producer in pop circles, where I rarely dabble. Imagine my (very pleasant) surprise when I was watching the Super Bowl in early 2014, where two of the biggest commercial roll-outs of the broadcast featured his songs. Huh! Go figure!  Someone I like got popular! Hooray! Lift Your Spirit builds on the many strengths evident on Good Things, with strong, often-inspirational songs framed in gorgeous arrangements all but guaranteed to render them ear worms in single listens, and favorites upon repeated spins. It’s nice to like something this nice sometimes, you know what I mean? Best Track: Wake Me Up (Acoustic).

#10. Goat, Commune: Two years after they earned my Album of the Year honors in 2012 for World Music, anonymous Swedish septet Goat return with their one-of-a-kind blend of voodoo magic, psychedelic grooves, shrieked female vocals, and absurd Arctic Circle back story intact, creating another wonderfully loopy record in the process. There’s a bit more percolating programming on Commune than on World Music, as well as some jolly fun Jim Morrison-style male vocals adding variety to the deliciously delirious mix. While the element of surprise in their music could never be as strong on their sophomore disc as it was on their debut, Goat certainly demonstrate that they’ve got the chops and the chutzpah to stick to their musical guns, and are happy to aim them at new targets in 2014. I’ll take that, happily. Best Track: Gathering of Ancient Tribes.

#9. Pere Ubu, Carnival of Souls: I’ve been writing rave reviews of Pere Ubu albums for as long as I’ve been writing about music, period, so I was particularly amused by Ubu guitarist Keith Moline’s “Review of Pere Ubu Reviewers,” which was published shortly before Carnival of Souls was released. As a very experienced Ubu critic, I’m pretty much guilty again and again of everything that Moline observes, so with no small amount of shame (or is this pride I feel?), I will duly note that this new Pere Ubu album is the best album they’ve done since the last best album they did, and also make reference to their first best album, The Modern Dance, and their best best album, Dub Housing, and then conclude by noting that I mean all of this more now than I have ever meant it before, when I had yet to experience this last best Ubu album, because that is what we very experienced Ubu critics do. My work here is done. Excelsior! Best Track: Golden Surf II.

#8. Melvins, Hold It In: I noted in last year’s Best Albums report that Melvins regularly win perversity awards for doing things like, oh, say, bringing back their original drummer and pushing their brilliant current drummer over the bass for a collection of reinterpretations of early materials (which they did last year) or, say again, bringing in the guitarist and bassist from Butthole Surfers (Paul Leary and Jeff Pinkus, respectively) and letting them write and sing a majority of the songs on a new album — which is what they’ve done with their latest, Hold It In. This fluid approach to band membership works weirdly well, once again, though in shockingly unexpected ways, many of them surprisingly poppy and accessible, when casual expectations would have indicated this one was gonna be a massive sludge fest. Paul Leary is among my Holy High Trinity of Lead Guitarists (along with Robert Fripp and David Gilmour), and Jeff Pinkus is one of the most under-appreciated bassists currently slinging an axe, so getting to hear their exquisite talents alongside the always-appealing Buzz Osborn and Dale Crover’s fare was one of the most exciting musical developments of 2014 for me. I literally got goosebumps the first time I heard Leary’s distinctive shriek atop the quartet’s rumbles on teaser single “Brass Cupcake,” and was also happy to hear how much Pinkus added to the mix as both vocalist and riff-meister, leading a lot of this album to sound like his own wondrous band, Honky. Pinkus is touring with Melvins this year, while Leary is staying home, hopefully to pen another set of songs for the next Melvins/Surfers album, though I doubt their perverse natures will allow it to come to pass anytime soon, until long after I’ve forgotten that I wanted to hear it, leading to more squeals of unexpected surprise and delight when it finally sees the light of day. Best Track: Brass Cupcake

#7. FREEMAN, FREEMAN: I have an embarrassing confession to make: when Gene Ween (Aaron Freeman to his wife and mother) left the mighty Ween a few years back, then issued press statements citing his search for sobriety and dedication to detox as deciding factors in said decision, then released a wan cover album of Rod McKuen songs, I found myself thinking he was really just being a wuss, and rooting mightily for his former partner in crime, Dean Ween (a.k.a. Mickey Melchiondo) and the other live members of Ween to carry on their band’s awesome legacy of substance-fueled, hilariously observational, brilliantly played rock and roll, despite that damnable defection. Then this album by Aaron Freeman and his new band came out, and I sort of consciously realized that (a) Freeman was the primary songwriter for Ween, and (b) most of their awesome vocals were his, and (c) it’s actually not very wussy at all to walk away from something huge to get healthy, if that’s what has to happen to get the job done. So now I kind of find myself feeling bad for Deaner, since based on the brilliance of FREEMAN, I think he’s probably lost his meal ticket, and he seems like such a fun, good dude and righteous guitar player. Hopefully his own Dean Ween Group can make an album as good as this one, and then I’ll have two great bands to root for . . . but I’m regretfully not optimistic about that happening, alas and I’m sorry. Oh well. If FREEMAN is all we get, post-Ween, then it’ll be enough, since it’s a wonderfully accessible disc of great songs, played and sung well, and Aaron Freeman gets a Gold Star for Huge Clanking Man Stones for explicitly tackling his final days in Ween with the harrowing “Covert Discretion,” one of the best getting-clean songs ever written, period. Well played, Gener . . . errrr, Aaron. Well played, indeed. Best Track: Covert Discretion NSFW.

#6. Protomartyr, Under Color of Official Right: Protomartyr are a Detroit-bred and based quartet who manage to make a standard rock vocal-guitar-bass-drum lineup sound like something much bigger, far scarier, more complicated, and wildly colorful than 98% of their similarly-configured peers. They achieve the leap from stock post-rock fare into transcendent music making on the strength of their songs, the creativity of their lyrics, and the forcefulness with which they ply their knotty musical waters, with baritone belter Joe Casey shouting into the darkness around them, while his bandmates triangulate complex navigational passages from the strength of his echoes. Protomartyr’s music is dark, yes, and reflective of the dying urban environment in which they live and work, filled as it with damaged characters who become fascinating via the myriad ways in which they’re broken. Under Color of Official Right ultimately feels like an album of anthems to anomie and atomization, and the clarity and consistency of its creators collective visions makes it one of the finest American rock albums released this year. Best Track: Ain’t So Simple.

#5. Krankschaft, Three: I wrote a long review of this album a few weeks ago, so rather than regurgitating (much), I’ll just point you to it, here. At bottom line: this is rock and roll music the way it used to be (and is probably meant to be), with great riffs, stellar arrangements and production, catchy singalong songs, superb packaging that’s integral to the musical experience, and slamming four-on-the-floor grooves from a three-piece band that knows how to steer well clear of power trio tropes and their related pitfalls. I love the BLANGA style, and this album delivers it by the bucketful. Aces, all around. What else can you ask for? Best Track: Silent Witness.

#4. Vulkano, Live Wild Die Free: It was apparently a very good year in Sweden for the types of music I like, as this is the second group hailing from that nation to make an appearance on my Top 20 Albums of 2014 list, with one more yet to come. Vulkano are an eccentrically weird, yet oddly earnest, pair of young women named Lisa Pyk-Wirström and Cissi Efraimsson, who make drum and keyboard intensive music that evokes the not-quite-right whimsy of early Sugarcubes, complete with quirky vocals, cheesy synth pads, and delightfully garbled English lyrics. They’re apparently charming and magnetic enough to have already inspired a feature-length biographical film treatment called All We Have is Now, and their online presence makes it clear that they have the drive — and the talent — to make it in the big world beyond Scandinavia. I’m a believer, for sure, as I’ve been rocking this record hard since its release — and watching pretty much everyone who hears it stop, pause, and ask me to tell them more about it. That effective blend of the appealing and the eccentric can be magic, and I look forward to hearing their next steps, while wholly appreciating the one they took this year. Best Track: Choir of Wolves.

#3. Ian Anderson, Homo Erraticus: With his latest solo album, Ian Anderson officially put Jethro Tull to bed as a band, while continuing to make music with the quarter of musicians who have accompanied him on most of his tours and studio outings for the past decade. He seems to have found that freedom creatively liberating, as Homo Erraticus is easily the best album he’s produced under any name since at least 1982’s The Broadsword and the Beast. The new disc builds on the Gerald Bostock mythology he mined on 1971’s masterpiece Thick as a Brick and its 2012 sequel, with a former child poetry prodigy allegedly writing the lyrics of an exposition on Britain’s past, present and possible future histories, all culled from the loony manuscript of a perpetually reincarnated English country gentleman. (If you’re keeping score, this is the second concept album on this year’s list, joining Krankscaft’s Three, which also rocks a time travel angle). The sound is exquisite throughout, and the album features all of the acoustic and electric flourishes and filigree that we expect from our old one-legged flautist, with knotty passages and dense wordplay dancing in a surprisingly spry fashion atop crunchy rock underpinnings. Recognizing that his voice isn’t what it once was (what is, though, really?), Anderson protege Ryan O’Donnell provides sympathetic and empathetic support to the proceedings, both live and in the studio, and the blend of their voices is quite charming, evoking that magical era in Tull history when Anderson and the late, great John Glascock once sang together. A wonderful, late career highlight — and hopefully a sign of still more possible musical futures, yet to come. Best Track: Meliora Sequamur.

#2. Godflesh, A World Lit Only By Fire: Justin K. Broadrick was an early, influential member of Napalm Death, who I will generally cite (along with Jethro Tull) as one of my all-time favorite bands, if queried. After leaving Napalm, he worked with Head of David (as a drummer) for a spell, then founded Godflesh, which took Napalm’s grindiest moments and merged them with Swans-like dirge-metal, all mounted atop drum synths that would have given Big Black’s Roland a headache. While ancillary members came and went (including former Swan Ted Parsons), Godflesh was primarily built around the pummeling patterns crafted by Broadrick and bassist G.C. Green, and they forged a formidable catalog before imploding under the weight of their own heaviness circa 2002. Broadrick remained active, generally issuing his best late career work under the Jesu banner — until this year, when he re-teamed with Green and issued a monster of a comeback Godflesh album with A World Lit Only By Fire. It’s amazing how much the evolution of musical technology in the past decade has benefited the Godflesh sound, as it seems studios are finally able to capture the full onslaught of their attack, made all the more forceful by Broadrick’s ministrations on his new custom-made eight-string guitars. This is easily the best, most riveting extreme music album of the year, and it is kind of amazing to me how much I find I have missed Godflesh, although it took a long sabbatical and a stellar, unexpected return to make me fully appreciate that fact. Best Track: Shut Me Down.

And with those 19 as preamble, it’s now time to name my 2014 Album of the Year. Drum roll please (with brushes, not sticks) . . .

#1, 2014’s Album of the Year: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold:

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As noted earlier, I found myself listening to a lot of music from Sweden in 2014, and the best of the year’s crop was this wonderful album from sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, recording as First Aid Kit. The pair make gorgeous, country-flavored music with soaring sibling harmonies, sweet melodies, unexpected song twists, and surprisingly poignant and evocative English-language lyrics. This was an album that grabbed me before I knew anything about the artists who created it — and that’s probably a good thing, as their back story (e.g. their dad was in Lolita Pop, they got their “big break” on MySpace, Conor Oberst played a role in bringing their music to America, and one of their first semi-hits was a paean/tribute to Emmylou Harris) likely would have been so off-putting to me that I wouldn’t have bothered listening to them. So it’s a testament to the glorious strength and vigor of this album that it overcomes a lot of deep seated preconceived notions on my part about what I like and what I don’t like (see also Thurston Moore above . . . dammit!), and this is also another record that inevitably caused people trapped in my car or house to inquire as to its provenance whenever any of its delightful songs aired on the stereo. With a little luck, I could see these incredibly talented sisters crafting the sort of career that Kate and Anna McGarrigle mastered, earning respect and adulation for both their songwriting and for their singing, creating a body of work that will grow in time to become simply accepted as part of the canon of great songs, capable of being eagerly covered by artists from a wide range of disciplines and sounds. I’m glad I discovered them when I did, and I look forward to hearing and seeing what the future holds for them. Best Track: Cedar Lane.

And that’s it for this year, huttah! As always, I welcome your thoughts and observations on these or any other of the year’s great releases. I’m always happy to learn about things I’ve missed, even after I complete my list! Happy listening!

BLANGA: It’s Krankschaft!

Some years back, English singer-songwriter-guitarist Steve Pond created a brilliant online reminiscence of The Glory Days of British Glam Rock, to which he was a first-hand observer and participant as a music-loving youngster. While he certainly recognized and appreciated the visual and sartorial excesses of the era, he also nailed a key tenet of what made the music itself so special, and I quote him on this topic, below:

[Glam’s] main identifying mark wasn’t the clothes worn or the name of the singer (Larry Lurex anyone?) but the rhythm of the music. A very basic tribal four on the floor pervades glam rock, sometimes played on the floor tom tom a la Gary Glitter/Suzi Quatro, sometimes the whole band just stomped along on the beat like Slade or T-Rex, but this was rock n’ roll, pure and simple.

That same type of stomping mighty tribal beat — amplified by amphetamines — also underscored the work of pioneering space rockers Hawkwind, who at the peak of their powers merged thunderous, monolithic rhythms (courtesy Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister on bass and woefully under-appreciated drummer Simon King) with science fiction storytelling and free-form squalls of synths and horns and guitars, creating a style that’s come to be known, in certain musical circles, as BLANGA. (Full disclosure: Steve Pond and I both played long-ago roles in the creation and dissemination of that descriptive musical term, documented here).

While glam largely shifted into the purview of mildly embarrassed nostalgia in the aftermath of the punk cataclysm of 1977, Hawkwind soldier on to this day, still dishing out the BLANGA, still widdling the synths, still in search of space. Steve Pond himself went on to craft a fascinating musical career that orbited between the twin touch poles of Glam and BLANGA, working for many years with erstwhile Hawkwind frontmen Nik Turner (in Inner City Unit) and Robert Calvert, whose Pond-fortified backing band was called Krankschaft. And now, long after Calvert’s untimely death in 1988 and a long series of personnel-driven fits and starts (documented in this brilliant Pete Frame-style family tree), 2014 finds the former glam kid and space-rocker fronting a new three-piece incarnation of Krankschaft, and issuing the band’s excellent third album, fittingly called Krankschaft Three.

The album’s brilliant artwork (courtesy one Dr. Foxon; see example below) explicitly makes the BLANGA connection in an apt onomatopoeia inspired by two fist-fighting robots, and Krankschaft Three should no doubt appeal to the unreformed, badger-loving, caravan-camping crusties at the heart of historic Hawkwind fandom. (I count myself as an honorary member thereof, so that’s in no way an insult!) But, oh, there’s so much more to this album than just the BLANGA, and I hope that it gets a fair hearing from fans of, as Pond wrote, long ago, “rock n’ roll, pure and simple,” because this is a shining example of the form, delivered with style and zeal.

Bassist Alex Tsentides and drummer Kevin Walker both make their Krankschaft recording debuts on this disc, and they are a crackerjack rhythm section throughout, driving each song with their propulsive playing, often creating a sense of some sentient perpetual motion machine, hammering against its housing in a display of pure kinetic enthusiasm. Pond serves as quadruple threat here, rocking the guitar riffs, laying on rich layers of synth and sequencer squiggles of all shapes, sorts and sizes, leading his comrades in the shouty singalong choral bits while taking the lead vocal turns on the verses, and penning six of the eight great songs on the album. The trio work fantastically well together, and the clarity and punch of the recording puts you smack in the center of the formidable energy they create, front row for the riffs, middle seat for the melodies, strap in, hold on, blast off!

The two cuts not penned by Pond include a previously-unrecorded Robert Calvert number called “The Day of the Quake” and a reclaimed ’70s gem from the long-forgotten Nebula called “Come Fly With Us.” These two lost lambs are seamlessly herded into the sonic and lyrical arc of the record, which loosely chronicles the tale of three friends who travel in time from the early ’70s to the future, bringing “rock n’ roll, pure and simple” with them, much to the dismay of the Engrish-spewing multinational marketing and manufacturing conglomerate, Kranky Corps. For those of you who remember how much fun it was to purchase albums in the ’70s to relish all of the posters, stickers, and other swag that fell out once you tore off their shrink-wrap skins, I heartily encourage you to buy a physical copy of this disc, because Krankschaft remember those days fondly, too, and they’ve been more than generous with the masterpiece graphic design goodies you’ll receive in exchange for your hard-earned dosh.

What ultimately makes this record so absolutely successful are the ways that Krankschaft deftly weave disparate elements together in ways that clumsier, less accomplished bands are never likely to achieve. There are crunchy riffs by the bucketful on Krankschaft Three, but they’re balanced by equally memorable melodies. There’s a well-developed narrative arc that links the songs, but every one of them stands strong alone, completely realized works in their own right. There’s evocative, soaring synths sparkling across the open spaces above the dense metronomic rumble of a nuclear-grade power trio magneto. And there are some serious social themes (is it surprising that the three mates from the idealistic ’70s find themselves thinking “I hate this future we’ve been sold?”) that are delivered with such a sense of good will and flat-out fun that you just want to put this thing on endless repeat and relive the journey, over and over and over again.

At least that’s what I’m doing today. And probably tomorrow, too. And then for some time after that. And then some more. If you’re a fan of “rock n’ roll, pure and simple,” (and who isn’t, really?), then you owe it to yourself to strap on your jet back and zip over to the nearest Kranky Corps outlet near you to score a hot-off-the-press copy of Krankschaft Three. We may hate the future we’ve been sold, but this album celebrates and modernizes the best of our musical past, and that makes the present a much better place to be.

Click on the battling BLANGA Bots to score your own copy of "Krankschaft Three."

Click on the battling BLANGA Bots to score your own copy of “Krankschaft Three.”

Concision

Rob Madeo has long been one of my favorite bloggers, first at Albany Eye (although I didn’t know it was him writing at the time), then when we shared column space at a certain Upstate New York newspaper blog portal (both of us left on unhappy terms), then on his current Keyboard Krumbs blog. I don’t read newspapers anymore (alas), but I click to him every morning while I drink my coffee to see what he’s got to say.

Why do I like his writing so much? Well, first, I guess, is that as he documents “the fascinating world of a middle aged American man,” I see a lot of things that have relevance in my own life, as a U.S.-bred gentleman of a certain age. We also have some shared experiences in the pros and cons of being public bloggers, and we both lived in Central Nassau County, Long Island in the ’70s and ’80s, so we did some of the same stupid things in the same stupid places during our stupid teenage years.

But more important than that, I have always admired Rob’s ability to say what he wants to say effectively, yet concisely. As a writer, I find his brevity to be inspiring, as he communicates in terse, active prose, getting in, getting it done, and getting out. And that’s not easy: the famous saw about “sorry for the long letter, I did not have time to write a short one” is true, especially for someone like me, as I’ve never met a subordinate clause or parenthetical phrase I don’t like, I tend to write with rhythm and alliteration in my head so will actively add words to accent a verbal riff I’m enjoying, I love semi-colons and adverbs and qualifiers, and I’m rarely content to use one word where seven will suffice.

This is a problem in blogging, because for the most part, we are all our own editors, and we like to let things fly before our keyboards have cooled down from the frantic pounding required to get words from brain to screen. When I wrote for newspapers, I grew to appreciate the discipline associated with word counts, as it forced me to chop and shape things differently, and to seek the keeper nuggets embedded in the matrices of my florid, verbose flow.

I was a slow and late adopter of Twitter as a result, since I can barely say “hello” in fewer than 140 characters most of the time. (I am trying, though, as evidenced by my 1,550+ tweets here). When I launched my “Five by Five Book Review” series a few months back, it was with something of a conscious intent to make them brief(er) by forcing them into a 25-sentence rubric that lent itself to more frequent posting. But as I look back through the six pieces in that series that I’ve written to date, I note that the mean length per article is about 950 words (the longest was 1,200 words), which means my average sentence in the series has 38 words in it!

38 words per sentence?!? That’s kind of obscene, isn’t it, verging on James Joyce territory? (Probably no surprise that I love the Irish madman, and have enjoyed satirizing him). I think as a course of discipline in 2015, I might have to create a new series of short articles, intentionally writing with punch, forcefully cutting to the chase, and deftly editing the extraneous from my usual epic verbal emanations.

I’ll know where to go, at least, when I need a look at how it’s done. So thanks, Rob, for the regular reminder about where the soul of wit really resides!

Where the Turf Meets the Surf

Marcia and I made a quick trip to San Diego a couple of weeks ago. We had originally planned to travel there in March for her birthday, but the scheduled day of our arrival coincided with a rare monsoon-type storm involving 50 mile per hour winds, five inches of rain, mudslides and the like, so we made a quick adjustment to visit St. Petersburg, Florida instead at that time, and rescheduled San Diego for October. The weather was lovely this time, fortunately. We visited the USS Midway Museum (some excellent planes on the flight deck), spent time in and around the Naval bases at Coronado (we were there for the Navy-Notre Dame game, so got to watch that at an old school Navy bar called McP’s Pub), played golf at the beautiful Coronado municipal course, and spent a day driving up the coast to La Jolla and Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve, before eventually turning back south at Carlsbad. The only downside to our trip reschedule was that we found ourselves staying as a Gaslamp District hotel that was literally ground zero for the Monster Bash, a massive late-night Hallowe’en street party debauch of mostly twenty-somethings that had our hotel room literally shaking from the boom-thump DJ booth below us, and forced us to walk through large crowds of annoyingly-costumed drunks for a couple of days. Adult Hallowe’en is easily among my least favorite contemporary annual events, so I certainly could have done without that intrusion of trashiness. That being said, it was still great to spend time under beautiful sunny skies during the weekend of the first hard freeze in Central Iowa, and we got some fun photos of our travels, as is our wont when we go hither and yon. Click on the photo of Marcia at Torrey Pines (below) to see the whole album, which is guaranteed to contain no images of Sexy Ebola Nurses or Zombie Chambermaids or characters from Sons of Anarchy (among the most popular costumes we saw in San Diego, alas), but plenty of harbor seals and sculpted sand. Plus a scary seagull.

The cutest of the cute on the California coast . . .

The cutest of the cute on the California coast . . .

Verscheidenheid

1. While I’ve been quiet here in terms of new material, I’ve been fairly busy on a “back of house” basis putting Indie Moines into a retirement phase, sorting through over 1,000 blog posts (I figure there’s an equal number that were once online, but were dropped somewhere along the way), and preparing to re-launch this website as my primary online outlet. It feels good to reclaim my name: when I moved to the newspaper blog page in Albany in 2007, and then to Indie Albany, and then to Indie Moines, I never really envisioned letting this page go fallow, but things happen, and here we are. Hopefully by not splitting my market presence I will consolidate traffic more effectively into a single destination for the long form stuff I do on my blog, while also driving traffic from my increased activity over at Twitter (if you don’t follow me, you should). We’ll see!

2. Today is the third anniversary of my arrival in Iowa, after two horrible days on the road with two very unhappy cats. I shudder to recall it. I wasn’t really sure what to expect in a lot of ways when I got here, and I had some visions of what my possible futures in Iowa might look like, but as always happens in real life, the actual path taken is hard to foresee, difficult to predict, and filled with unexpected twists and turns, some of which are surprising and delightful, and some of which are not. At bottom line: I have a unique and interesting job in a field that engages me, we live in a wonderful house in a good neighborhood, both Katelin and Marcia are here in Des Moines with me and happy in their own work/life situations, and the cats remain the cats, happily in a house, and not in a car. It is interesting to compare and contrast where I was at my third anniversary in New York, circa 1996: I had left Naval Reactors and had no full time job (instead freelancing for the local alternative newsweekly), Marcia was just beginning her legal practice, we lived in a small rented townhouse, we were trying to make decisions about where Katelin would be going to Kindergarten and how we were going to afford our first choice private school, and we were still bleeding financially from a house we owned in Alexandria, Virginia that had not been the good investment we might have desired. It was a tough, stressful time, and if you’d told me then that I would still be in the Albany area 15 years later, and would happily consider it home, I probably would not have believed you. So it’s obviously just as hard to see what the future here in Iowa might bring, too, a point which was serendipitously affirmed for me this morning when I read the latest post on one of my favorite blogs, Amy Biancolli’s sublime Figuring Shit Out. Here it is . . . words to the wise, words to live by.

3. Watching the European Space Agency’s Rosetta-Philae Mission perform a soft landing on a comet yesterday was one of the most exciting space nerd days I’ve had in quite a while, made all the better by the vast out-pouring of interest and support from folks around the world. Special mention must be made of Randall Munroe’s live animated progress reports on his utterly geektastic and incredible XKCD website as the mission unfolded; you can view the whole sequence compiled here. (Note that it doesn’t quite tell the full story of how the Philae lander actually bounced and drifted a kilometer away from its planned landing site, and that it appears to currently be sitting on two legs up against a cliff . . . we didn’t know that until after the fact!) Planetary exploration is important  and worth funding — and it’s a red herring to compare/contrast it to earth-bound domestic programs at a dollar-for-dollar basis, so don’t take that tack with me, please and thanks. As I’ve noted before here many times, we’re really living in a golden era of planetary exploration, as best communicated by this excellent graphic showing all current and planned missions in (and beyond) the Solar System. I also frequently hear people express dismay because (a) we haven’t been back to the Moon since 1973, and/or (b) the Chinese are likely to put the next bootprints there. Keep in mind, for perspective, that 58 years lapsed between the first and second sea circumnavigations of our own planet, the first on behalf of Spain, the second under the British flag. It has only been 57 years since the Russians launched the first man-made satellite, and 43 years since the United States placed its flag on the moon. In relative terms, we’re making great progress, and if the Chinese are next to visit our fascinating sole natural satellite, then that’s just the natural order of how exploration unfolds. I’ll be rooting for them when they go — but just as avidly rooting for our own Orion mission when it makes its first unmanned test launch beyond our atmosphere in early 2015. Go Team Earth! Conquer the Heavens!

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