Music Monday Top 5: Favorite Albums of 2011

Of all the different forms of media I have consumed in the past year, music was right at the top. (Well, probably podcasts were first and then music. Comic books round out the top three.) A lot of it was finding things that I had missed out on – Sufjan Stevens’ albums, Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Anamanaguchi, Fitz and the Tantrums, and the much-beloved M. Ward, for example. But some of this year’s music was actually from this year, and some really struck me.

I do want to note that three rap albums – Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, Childish Gambino’s Camp, and Das Racist’s Relax – were all considered for this list, but each missed the cut for different reasons. I really enjoyed Watch The Throne, though not to the same degree I liked Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and certainly not to the degree the gravitas of the project seemed to demand; that said, it’s probably number 6 on the list. I’ve only heard the first half of Camp so far, though it’s pretty damn good. Finally, Relax didn’t seem to jive with me as much as Das Racist’s first mixtape, Shut Up, Dude, did – it wasn’t the kind of album where the rapping was particularly remarkable, at least not as much as their debut.

With that said, here’s my five favorite albums of 2011:
5. Alabama Shakes – Alabama Shakes EP

I belabored quite a bit over including this on the list, because it’s only four tracks, but the Alabama Shakes’ debut is the kind of production where you want the band to get back into the studio and record a full album right now. Band leader Brittany Howard has an incredibly emotional, powerful voice – and some pretty substantial guitar skills (as seen here), to boot – and the country-rock band works really well together. The Alabama Shakes have the talent to be pretty big in the next couple of years.

My favorite song on the EP is the second track, “I Found You”:

4. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Bon Iver reminds me of how ridiculous the Grammy Award for Best New Artist has become. Among this year’s field for the award are The Band Perry, whose hit single “If I Die Young” was first released in June 2010 and whose album squeaked in under this year’s Grammy purview by only a month; Skrillex, whose third solo album came out this year (to be fair, it is kind of awesome that a dance music artist like Skrillex was nominated – I suppose the only thing more surprising than that would have been for Girl Talk’s album All Day to have been nominated for a Grammy); and Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver, which began in 2008 with For Emma, Forever Ago, an album that received fairly widespread critical acclaim.

In any case, Bon Iver’s second, self-titled work is a remarkable shift from For Emma. Now featuring an actual band (instead of Vernon shacking up for a couple of months in a Wisconsin cabin, writing and multitrack recording), Bon Iver furnishes a fuller sound, but not without the emotional resonance For Emma exuded. Surprisingly, Bon Iver gave the band a slightly more melancholy sound, but still flecked with a few moments of happiness – a formula that has given Vernon a great deal of success.

Favorite songs on the album: “Holocene” and “Wash.”

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Week In Preface: 2011 In Review

Schott's Almanac

Back in July, I heard about Nick Felton, the creator of the Feltron Annual Report. In order to distill his life events of the previous year,   he qualitatively summed it up – from the amount of beers he consumed per diem to the total number of interactions with people. Much like Felton and the remarkable Ben Schott of Schott’s Almanac, I find it important to come to terms with and really analyze the past year – even though, unlike Feltron, I can’t fully create a whole report to the shareholders of my life (read: me), due to lack of the data and lack of want to compile them, and unlike Schott, I do not have the ability to sum up the year globally, nationally, or even locally.

I can only write what I fully (or at least mostly) know, which is my year. But I do want to first break down the numbers: I wrote and reblogged 971 posts on Tumblr, as seen by my 124 followers; sent over a thousand posts to my 145 Twitter followers (between the two follower-based schema, there’s a Venn Diagram of probably 20 to 25 mutual readers); went to twelve free concerts; visited the Museum of Modern Art for films approximately 20 times; wrote five letters to friends for birthdays and as general correspondence; gave blood five times, including once at Citi Field, at which there were the awesomest cookies I will ever have at a blood drive; read two John Green books (Paper Towns and Will Grayson, Will Grayson) each in one night, and am currently averaging 1.7 rides per day on the MTA.

This year meant so much more to me, though. I met an absurdly awesome group of people in the New York Nerdfighters, who (past the palpable homoeroticism amongst the females group, which is fine in its way, I suppose) represent the best of young America today: incredibly intelligent, incredibly thoughtful, incredibly passionate people who love conversation and making a difference. I became part of a great YouTube project in AccioNerds, and thereby formed what really is a great Internet family that goes across the country (and England, and Bulgaria). I not only appeared on a game show, but thanks to the winnings from the show, I more or less started a game show from my iPod.

I started watching Doctor Who and Arrested Development and sort of started watching Community, became a huge fan of Sufjan Stevens, Modern Skirts, and the Alabama Shakes; of This Nerdist, Radiolab, and 99% Invisible; and despite their respectively perpetually middling records, retained my allegiance to the Mets and Everton Football Club.

In short, this year, from the classes I took to the places at which I interned to the media I consumed to the products I launched (or am about to launch): I did the things that I love. I maintained and strengthened my existing passions (of history, of New York culture, of transit trivia) and added a few more. And I strengthened bonds and made new friends, with whom to share those passions and foment new ones.

And with this in mind, here’s this week’s posts and a brief announcement about the blog after the jump: Continue reading

Music Monday: Symphony of Science

I’ve already stated how awesome Auto-Tune the News is (for the record, I am insanely jealous of the people that saw the Gregory Brothers perform at the StarKid shows this weekend, albeit glad that I didn’t have to be surrounded by teenaged, rabid Glee fans for four hours), but to be honest, their videos have been fairly lacking as they extend themselves into touring and their actual job of being intentional singers. But a nice alternative to the Gregory Brothers has sprung about in its place: Symphony of Science.

Released by the YouTuber John Boswell, under the username melodysheep, Symphony of Science is less funny and more inspiring; slightly less entertaining and slightly more educating; and it is chock full of physicists and other scientists in the public sphere. It began with “A Glorious Dawn,” featuring the late Carl Sagan (who’s kind of become the mascot of the project, like Einstein to mental_floss or George Washington to George magazine) and Stephen Hawking, an unintentional song so intentionally beautiful it caught the ear of Jack White, who released it on his record label, Third Man Records:

The project – which takes from Sagan’s Cosmos, TED Talks, NOVA, and other science series – grew in terms of the number of scientists featured to a sort of ensemble cast, like here with my personal favorite, “The Poetry of Reality,” one of the pieces Boswell’s put together that not only has resonant subject matter (it makes me want to go out and join the ranks of the 12 scientists featured, however impossible that may be) but a really great melody (albeit one that sounds a bit like this Hank Green song):

And finally, the latest Symphony of Science track, “Onward to the Edge,” which for whatever reason almost made me cry.

This Week’s Musings

Hope y’all enjoyed Thanksgiving; I certainly did. It’s a podcast week – more on that in a bit – and here’s the rest of what I’ve got cooked up for this week:

  • Music Monday: This week I talk about the awesomeness that is Symphony of Science.
  • Wednesday Top 5: My five favorite skyscrapers in New York City. (The fact that it’s New York City keeps you from having to read another 900 words gushing about Marina City.)
  • Thursday Trivia: Five facts on primates.
    On the ThursTriv Podcast this week, a Grilled Stuft Podcast with 10 questions on Taco Bell and two songs. 
  • Friday Stuff & Things: This Friday, a Required Listenings Top 5 on Tom Lehrer songs.

I’ll see you all later for Music Monday, for now, enjoy Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National with the American Composers Orchestra.

Music Monday: Songs from “Arthur”

As someone who grew up in 1990s North America, Arthur holds an important place in my general complex of nostalgia. I’m actually kind of shocked that it’s still on today, almost 15 years since it premiered in 1997, with Arthur Read, Buster Baxter, Francine Frensky, The Brain, et al. still in Mr. Ratburn’s class. Looking back, though, a pretty good amount of the shows don’t hold up for 19-year-old me as much as they did with, say, 7- or 8-year-old me.

One of them that does by far, though, is the musical episode, “Arthur’s Almost Live, Not Real Music Festival.” Part of the third season of 1999-2000, the episode had two songs that still resonate for me and those in my age group today: “Library Card” (which I invariably reference when talking about libraries) and “Jekyll and Hyde.”

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This Week’s Musings

As I noted last week, it’s going to be a somewhat abbreviated week here on the blog; I’m taking all of Thanksgiving weekend off, so no Thursday Trivia this week. (The podcast will return next week as well, with 5 questions on Taco Bell.) But here’s what I’ve got cooked up for the next couple of days:

  • Music Monday: This week, music from the much-beloved children’s show Arthur.
  • Tuesday Stuff & Things: Since I didn’t get around to it Friday, I reflect on The Show with Ze Frank.
    Also, due to a quirky schedule tomorrow, it’s a very early end to my day, so I might go to the Library to see the “Know the Past, Find the Future” exhibit again and write about that as well. Either that or I’ll just go home and hang around on Tumblr.
  • Wednesday Top 5: My five favorite TV episodes of the past year.

And of course the usual Tumblr/Twitter/AccioNerds madness.

I’ll see you all later tonight for Music Monday; until then, enjoy Aloe Blacc.

Thursday Trivia (on Friday!): “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh”

The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh is a funky movie, in every sense of the world. Starring Julius Erving as Moses Guthrie, star player on the then-struggling, then-Pittsburgh Pythons, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh is an out-there basketball film with a few touches of astrology and a downright fantastic soundtrack back from the days of funk and disco. But one of the coolest scenes is in the final throes of the film, when the Pittsburgh Pisces, the team renamed after wild success for a lineup centered around Moses’s astrological sign, when the team enters the Pittsburgh Civic Arena through its retractable roof via hot air balloon.

The Civic Arena is no more – the Consol Energy Center has since replaced it – but it’s important to note why, exactly, the arena had a retractable dome. (No, it wasn’t to play arena football outside for the stupidest oxymoron ever.) The arena’s original tenant was the Civic Light Opera, who used the retractable roof to perform  under the stars in good weather (which they did from their inception in 1946 to 1958), and in an enclosed theater in bad. They performed at the arena from 1961 until 1969 (in spite of what would seem to be downright atrocious acoustics), afterwards leaving the Pittsburgh Penguins and Pipers ABA team as the building tenants.

Four more facts related to The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh after the jump! Continue reading

Required Listening: “Has Been”

In 1968, William Shatner – well on his rise to success in his second season starring as James T. Kirk on Star Trek – released a musical album, The Transformed Man. Combining what were then brand-new songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” with Shakespeare and Cyrano De Bergerac, The Transformed Man was widely panned, in part because of Shatner’s unique style of spoken-word singing, and in part of the sheer ridiculousness and bombast of the performance.

Nearly four decades later, Shatner came out with a new album, called Has Been. What with his previous musical career being parodied time and time again, Has Been was looked down upon before it was released in 2004. However, the nay-sayers spoke far too soon, because Has Been is an album of sheer brilliance. Take the second track of the album, “It Hasn’t Happened Yet,” for example:

This track alone shows a whole lot of the difference between Has Been and Shatner’s previous musical oeuvre. First, gone is the over-the-top absurdity; in its place is genuine, raw emotion in the form of spoken word (well, with the exception of the title track, which is a campy, tongue in cheek Western song). Only one cover is on the album: Pulp’s “Common People” (we’ll get to that in a moment); most of the other songs are written by Shatner along with Ben Folds, along with other collaborators, like Nick Hornby, Brad Paisley (whose music video for the song “Online” featured Shatner), and Lemon Jelly, who did the music for this next song, “Together”:

But the song which brought the album the exposure that led to its acclaim was “Common People,” which really was what a cover should be – a performance that maintains the idea of the original while building upon it.

People snicker at me when I include a William Shatner album in my Top 10 favorites. But honestly, Has Been is kind of genius. With strong musical performance and an even stronger series of lyrics, Shatner, Folds et al. created in 2004 an album that will probably go overlooked but is really a diamond in the rough.

This Week’s Musings

I’m back after an unintended rest-of-the-week off for an abbreviated week of posts. (Next week’s going to be an abbreviated week as well. See a theme here?) It’s a podcast week – more on that in a bit – and here’s the textual posts I’ve got cooked up:

  • Required Listenings: Tomorrow, I discuss the surprisingly-genius William Shatner album, Has Been.
  • Thursday Trivia: Either 5 facts about the film The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, or a 5 facts and/or anecdotes on said film. Depends on how much I can find.
    This week on the ThursTriv Podcast, 5 questions centered around the theme “30 Days Hath…”.
  • Friday Stuff & Things: I reflect on The Show with Ze Frank, five years later.
Plus the standard Twitter/Tumblr/AccioNerds madness. And pesto! (Damn, I love pesto.)
I’ll see you all tomorrow for Required Listenings; until then, enjoy Mayer Hawthorne.

One Year Since “Millionaire”

A year and a day ago, as my friend Connie V. Chen reminded me, I cut class to appear on a game show. A year and five days ago, I woke up at an absurd 5 in the morning on the day off I had every Thursday last year.

Really, though, appearing on Millionaire was kind of an absurd experience. Thursday I spent holed up in ABC’s green room, with nothing to do but talk, pace, and eat roast bee sandwiches for 10 hours (for the record, I think I had four roast beef sandwiches). Monday was a sort of blur – in the green room, having run late, for about five minutes until they put makeup on me and brought me downstairs to the stage (well, first a cone of silence sort of isolation area, and then the stage). Really, I’ve expounded on the experience more than enough, but there are two things I’ve taken from the whole thing:

First, no matter how long it’s been since Millionaire was in its glory days and Regis was host and people actually won the grand prize, the show still has gravitas – and nearly universally at that. When I was being interviewed for my internship at the Museum of American Finance, they asked me about my time on the show. When I went to a pizza party a few floors above mine in my dorm over the summer, my friend Jane brought it up to a few of the French exchange students on the floor, piquing their interest and providing common ground (well, that and a love for cheesy foods). People still show up on my blog to see my Millionaire appearance and read my recounting of the adventure.

And second, Millionaire has created and sustained trivia-driven, cross-generational friendships. My friend Connie I mentioned earlier? I met her through Millionaire – our paths on the show were pretty similar: Thursday holdovers, Monday contestants, and eventually America’s Newest Thousandaires. Since then she’s moved to Austin and soon to Asia; her journey post-Millionaire has been decidedly different from mine. But that underscores the link shared among the contestants I knew and with whom remain in contact.

I still kind of regret not jumping that Burt Reynolds/Loni Anderson question. But I took a risk, a risk of which I was fully aware, and while it didn’t pay off monetarily, it’s a risk that’s part of something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life, and a risk that’s paid off in spades.