Runner Up Albums – 2016

December 23, 2016

Welcome to part two of my year-end music recap. This isn’t much of an article as it is a list of things that didn’t make my top 10 list. You can check out that list or other parts of this thing by clicking something below:

  1. Top 10
  2. Runners Up (You are reading this, right now. No need to click anything)
  3. Stats, Data & Trends, 2006 – 2016
  4. Music Piracy & Discovery

Things that were really close to making my Top 10:

Conor Oberst – Ruminations

Listen on Spotify
One of my favorite songwriters singing songs like Bob Dylan, by himself with a piano and harmonica and sometimes a guitar. Quiet and nice

Oh Pep! – Stadium Cake

Listen on Spotify
This band opened for the Mountain Goats, who I saw two nights in a row this year. They were a great opening band and I checked out their album and it turns out it’s great also.

case/lang/veirs – case/lang/veirs

Listen on Spotify
Women indie super group. Niko Case, K.D. Lang & Laura Veirs. I was worried it would be a letdown, but it’s actually great.

Things that were less close, but still really good:

Okkervil River – Away

Listen on Spotify
Okkervil River’s best album in a long time, even though the band broke up and Will Sheff found some new people to play with him and call Okkervil River. Nice and acoustic and good.

of Montreal – Innocence Reaches

Listen on Spotify
Not of Montreal’s best work. Still pretty good. See them in concert whenever you can.

Wolf Parade – EP 4

Listen on Spotify
With the exception of their incredible 2004 debut, “Apologies to the Queen Mary”, I have always loved the side projects of Wolf Parade’s members more than I have loved Wolf Parade themselves. But it’s still exciting when they are doing things together. This album is fine.

Islands – Should I remain Here At Sea?

Listen on Spotify
Islands other album made my top 10 list. This came out on the same day, and may have made my top 10 list if it was the only Islands album that came out this year. But I like the other one more, so I listened to this one less and we’ll never know for sure.

Beyoncé – Lemonade

Not on Spotify
Yeah. I like this album.

Operators – Blue Wave

Listen on Spotify
Here’s a Wolf Parade side project. Dan Boeckner’s Operators released this album. If you like his other projects (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, the Divine Fits) you’ll probably like this too.

Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing

Listen on Spotify
Twee as fuck.

Moonface & Siinai – My Best Human Face

Listen on Spotify
Another Wolf Parade side project. Spencer Krug can do no wrong in my eyes. This is kind of boring though. If I don’t love this, I’m not sure who will. Still worth a listen if you like his stuff though.

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Music Piracy & Discovery

December 23, 2016

A remembrance of what.cd

Remember Napster? I sure do. I was 12 when it came out. I was just getting into computers and I was just getting into music and Napster basically changed my life.

On our family’s 56k modem, I downloaded songs I heard on the radio that I liked. Here are some early downloads I vividly remember: Papa Roach: “Last Resort”, Limp Bizkit: “Rollin” (both the Air Raid & Urban Assault versions), O.P.M.: “Heaven is a Halfpipe”. Absolute garbage that 4th graders who are just getting into music might be interested in.

It wasn’t a straight upward trajectory, but things got better for me musically. My big obsession in middle school was Weezer (and also a lot of punk rock music we don’t need to talk about). I used Napster (and when Napster got shut down, services like Limewire, BearShare, Kazaa and all the rest) to find rare tracks, tons of bootleg concerts, radio show appearances and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on. It took 15 minutes to download a song and it was amazing.

Eventually, I got on Weezer message boards to learn more about Weezer and also to read about music that other Weezer fans liked (Hereae’s retrospective from the heyday of Weezer’s message board). I’d read a thread about an artist, then head over to whatever music pirating program I was using at that point and download an album to figure out if I was interested in them also.

The quality of these downloads were often terrible. There were low bit-rates and weird bleeps and cutoffs. Sometimes you’d have to download different album tracks from different places, and sometimes it took days to get the rare file you were looking for. But for a young person with an abundance of time, an insatiable interest in discovering new music and a satiable budget, it was incredible!

When I found an artist I liked, I tried to download as much of their stuff as possible. And eventually I’d buy the CDs. As I grew older, I’d attend more and more concerts.

To this day, I buy 10-20 physical albums (some CD, some vinyl) a year and probably attend on average a concert a month. I love music, and I spend money on music.

I really believe that one of the catalysts for me loving my music the way I do today was the ability for me to discover, hunt down and acquire (steal) music on my own at a young age. (The other catalyst is my father’s love of music.) The idea of knowing bands’ whole catalogues, finding bands that my friends had never heard of, or finding weird recordings of bands my friends loved but had never heard… all of it was wonderful.

Eventually, Napster, Limewire, Kazaa and BearShare all got shut down, or became too much of a hassle, or just weren’t that great.

Then eventually I learned about torrents.

Getting music through torrents is like getting music from Napster, but better in almost every way. On a peer to peer (P2P) service like Napster, when you downloaded a file, you were downloading it from 1 person. If they logged off of Napster, your download would stop. With torrents, you download from multiple sources as the same time, sometimes tens or hundreds. When one person logs off… it doesn’t matter! It just redirects and starts downloading from elsewhere.

Another amazing thing about torrents: You could download whole albums at the same time. No more searching for the last track of an album, or getting things from a ton of different sources and bitrates. Everything was right there in one folder.

But some things still sucked: Sometimes music was mislabeled and you’d download a virus. Sometimes the quality was garbage. Sometimes there were no seeders (that’s the term for the people you download music from) and you couldn’t download anything at all. It was tough to find a good torrent site and you’d spend a good amount of time searching for one.

Then, I started to hear about the amazing world of private torrent sites. These were invite-only sites that had rules in place to make sure that the user wouldn’t experience any of the problems above: Music wasn’t mislabeled or a virus, because you could get banned from uploading mislabeled music. Quality wasn’t garbage because they set minimum standards for that, and they were all labeled so you knew the quality of file you were downloading before you started. There were always seeders because you were required to keep a certain ratio of content downloaded to content uploaded.

The first one of these sites, and certainly the most popular at that time was Oink’s Pink Palace. This ugly site had rules like the ones listed above and also silly ones like “You have to have a cute avatar” (almost everyone had pictures of cute puppies). I got into Oink (I think from an invitation from someone on a Radiohead message board) about a year before it got shut down, and even though I had only been a member for a short amount of time, it was devastating when it happened.

Out of its ashes came an incredible site called What.cd and I rushed to get access as soon as I could. For the last 9 years, until it was shut down last month, What.cd has been my source for music discovery.

Not only did they have the best organized library of music known to man, quickly surpassing Oink’s selection, but they got everything the moment it became available (legally or otherwise), and they also had incredible tools for discovery.

There was a top 10 page where you could easily see the most downloaded torrents that had been uploaded in the last day/week/month/year. Easily visible for each release was the artist, the title, the type of release and the file file format. And even better, each upload was tagged with a smattering of genres: indie, indie.pop, indie.rock, garage.rock, etc. And when you clicked on a torrent’s page, you could participate in a discussion about the release and see what others were saying about it.
It was from this Top 10 page that I downloaded countless releases from artists I had never heard of before… and so many times I was rewarded with incredible music. So many of my new artists on my top 10 lists over the years have been a direct result of a random download.

A lot of times, I wasn’t able to get into whatever I had downloaded. But the cost of downloading was so low and the payoff for finding something great was high, so I kept going.

And just as I did with Napster, when I found an artist I liked, I bought their CDs and went to their concerts. From fourth grade until last month, while my musical tastes have evolved, my general habits of music consumption have not changed.

So it hit me like a punch in the gut a few weeks ago when What.cd was shuttered, its servers taken by some government agency in Europe. Like Napster and Oink before it, I knew that illegal music sites are never long for this world. But it felt like this was different. This site felt like it would be around forever.

Now I’m lost and confused. I’ve been depending on something for so long and now it’s gone. I don’t have a plan of attack for music discovery going forward and it is a little scary to me. Do I look for the “next What.cd”? Do I trust a combination of Pitchfork reviews and Spotify Discovery playlists to encourage my music growth going forward? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I am not ready to stop listening to new music. I will not give up on finding and supporting new artists I like. When I have children, I will play current music for them that they think is weird in various ways. And I will keep putting together these stupid top 10 lists at the end of every year as long as I can stand to write them. I don’t think I know that I am not a good music critic, but I know the joy that music brings me and that I will keep doing my part to share that joy with others.

Other 2016 Year-end music posts:

  1. Top 10
  2. Runners Up (You are reading this, right now. No need to click anything)
  3. Stats, Data & Trends, 2006 – 2016
  4. Music Piracy & Discovery

Music Data & Trends – 2016

December 23, 2016

Here’s updated data from 2015. Not tracking any new metrics, but you can read last year’s post for more context here.

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Other 2016 Year-end music posts:

  1. Top 10
  2. Runners Up
  3. Stats, Data & Trends, 2006 – 2016 (You are reading this, right now. No need to click anything)
  4. Music Piracy & Discovery

Top 10 Albums – 2016

December 23, 2016

You know what was great in 2016? The music was great. This is the hardest time I’ve ever had whittling my list down to ten albums, and there are a few that break my heart to not have made the cut!

This list is full of new-to-me bands with a wide variety of genres, moods and perhaps accessibility. Old friends like Bon Over come back with exciting new sounds, my favorite band of all time is back with their first great album in almost twenty years, and Chance the Rapper literally changed my year for the better just by existing.

This year’s music review comes in four parts… I guess I’ll break these up into four blog posts. Let’s dive in.

  1. Top 10 (You are reading this, right now. No need to click anything)
  2. Runners Up
  3. Stats, Data & Trends, 2006 – 2016
  4. Music Piracy & Discovery

Here we go.

10. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine

Listen on Spotify

Hamilton Leithauser was/is the lead guy for The Walkman, a popular indie rock band that I was never able to get into. Rostam Batmanglij is a side guy for Vampire Weekend, a popular indie rock band that I love. He’s also in Discovery, another band that has made an appearance on this list.

Hamilton Leithauser + Rotsam is a beautiful rock band that is more Walkman than Vampire weekend, but I love it none the less. Excellent rock music for any time. For awhile, I only listened to the first song over and over again and wasn’t that impressed by the rest of the album… but it grew on me.

9. Islands – Taste

Listen on Spotify

Nick Thorburn (Or, Nick Diamonds) is the lead singer of Islands. He is also the lead singer of indie pop legends, The Unicorns. But YOU probably know his work best as the guy who wrote the score for the smash hit podcast Serial That’s fine too.

Islands has been a mixed bag of musical output in terms of quality, never bad but not always inspiring. Taste, which they released simultaniously with another album, “Shall I Remain Here at Sea”, is their best work since their 2006 debut “Return to the Sea”. Shall I Remain Here at Sea was also very good, but not good enough for this list. Clever pop music and clever lyrics. Exciting song structures. Not cumbersome.

8. Frank Ocean – Blonde

Listen on Spotify

Did I ever really taken the time to get into Frank Ocean before this year? NO, I DID NOT. Does that make me a bad person? MAYBE. But man, this album is excellent.

This album, which might be most generally characterized as R&B, has so much feeling and intention in every bit of it. Perhaps if I listened to it more, this would be higher up on this list.

7. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake

Listen on Spotify
Chill pop rock. Falsetto singing. Fun for all occasions but this wins the distinguished award of “brunch album of the year”.

6. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Listen on Spotify

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five freaking years since Bon Iver released his last album, “Bon Iver, Bon Iver.” That album, and his 2007/2008 debut “For Emma, Forever Ago” have never really left pop culture, from their placements in movies & TV shows to YouTube covers. It’s rather remarkable for such soft spoken music.

It is easy to hear 5 years of growth in “22, A Million”. So much growth that it’s a bit startling on the first few listens if one goes in expecting more of the same. This album is sparse and weird, at the same time melodic and beautiful. I like it more every time I listen.

5. Chairlift – Moth

Listen on Spotify

This band announced they are breaking up today (December 16, 2016) which is a bit of a bummer, considering I just found out they existed in January of this year.

Fortunately, I was able to really enjoy their last album, “Moth”, and see them in concert before they broke up. This album is an infectious bit of dance pop and the album is a joy to listen to, dancing around your house and cleaning up or doing dishes or whatever. I guess they are touring a bit more in the spring before they break up, so if they’re coming to your area, go check it out.

4. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

Listen on Spotify

You already have an opinion about Kanye West and I’m not going to change it. This album is great.

3. Weezer – Weezer (The White Album)

Listen on Spotify

Who would have thought that Weezer would find its way up this high on any top ten list ever again? I sure didn’t. I didn’t think they would even make it onto my Top 10 ever again. Their most recent effort, “Everything Will Be Alright In The End” was a step in the right direction, but it didn’t seem like they had enough in the tank to make a full album of really enjoyable music again. I have never been happy to be so wrong.

Weezer (The White Album) is EASILY the third best Weezer album. It it closer in quality to their two classics (Blue (1994) and Pinkerton (1996)) than it is to any of the pretty decent to irredeemable garbage albums that they’ve released this millennium.
Don’t miss this album, and if you only listened to it once, listen to it five more times. This is great California pop rock. It never takes itself too seriously, and it’ll make you laugh or be confused without rolling your eyes/pulling your hair out. It’s weird and it’s fun and it’s great.

2. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

Listen on Spotify

Apparently this has band has been around awhile making pretty great rock music with a small following. But they seem to have picked up steam and coverage this year with their incredible rock album, “Teens of Denial” as they’ve finally reached my ears.
This album is as packed with guitar riffs as it is with clever lyrics that are at times both self-defacing and outwardly eviscerating to their subject. See this stand-out line from one of many standout tracks, Cosmic Hero:

And if you really wanted to be kind,
You’d have forgiven them a long ass time ago.
And if you really wanna know how kind you are,
Just ask yourself why you’re lying in bed alone.
If you believe in rock music, you are doing yourself a huge disservice by not checking this one out.

1. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

Listen on Spotify

When everything else was busy going to shit this year, Chance the Rapper was out there saving the world. “Coloring Book” is the happiest, most uplifting, most life-affirming, most wonderful album of the year. The joy is infectious.
This album came with a teaser of sorts, as Chance blew up the first track of Kanye’s album, delivering the only gospel verse (and the best verse) on Kanye’s self-described “Gospel Album”.

Coloring Book is a bonafide gospel album, with choirs, hymns and God throughout. It’s also a rap album, with thrilling verses from newcomers and veterans alike.

I haven’t wanted to stop listening to this album since the moment I first heard it and I know that I’ll be listening to it for years to come. Thank you, Chance the Rapper for everything you’ve done.


10 Years of Top 10 Lists: Data

January 10, 2016

I’ve been writing Top 10 Albums of the Year lists for over 10 years now, but this year marks 10 years of lists which are published on the internet. If you’d like to take a walk down memory lane, go for it:
2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015

One of the most amazing parts about this, to me, is that all the links still work, across Facebook Notes, Tumblr and for the last 6 years, this very website here. Things have broken though: images embedded from elsewhere on the web, all download links, and who knows what else.

Well, I like data so I decided to take this 10 year milestone as a chance to draw as much as I can out of these top 10 lists. So I made a Google Sheet and I went to work.

Here are some charts. Some have some explanation and others should be more self explanatory. Click on the charts to see bigger versions with interactive data in a new tab.

Does my list contain popular opinions?

Are the opinions on my list widely held? This first chart aims to find out. I put in the Metacritic scores for all 100 albums on my list (when available) and averaged them out for each year. Some years 2-3 albums weren’t available so there are less than 100 data points to work with here.

My list is pretty steady from year to year with my “least popular list” at an average score of 76.1 and 3 of my most popular lists all topping out just above 81.5. Metacritic states that a score of 81-100 is “universally acclaim” and 61-80 indicated “Generally Favorable Reviews”. I put a trend line in there as well which seems to indicate that things are getting more popular:
List's Average Meteoritic Score

Some other trends

Here I took 5 different data points and put them all on one confusing chart.
RandomData
The red line indicates how many artists made their first appearance on my list that year. Obviously, the first year, that would be all 10 of them.
The blue line indicates how many new artists have showed up on my list that year. This line is troubling because it’s definitely trending downward, meaning I’m listening to less new artists. Boo Jon.
The other three lines are demographics: How Canadian is my list? How female is it? And how many entries on my list are by eponymous artists?
That first chart was a little cluttered, so I made another one that is a 3 year average (one year before, one year after, when data is available):
Data3YearTrend

The Regulars

The last 3 charts attempt to visualize some of my favorite artists of the last 10 years by documenting how frequently they show up on my list, how they rank in the top 10 and finally if they are in multiple bands throughout the years.
Here are all the bands that appear more than once:
RepeatListAppearances
Here are how bands with multiple appearances usually rank (shorter bars are best here):
AverageScoreofRepeatArtists
And finally here are the individuals who are leads or co-leads in multiple bands that appear on the list:
MultiTaskers
For clarification:
Panda Bear is in Panda Bear & Animal Collective.
Dan Bejar is in Destroyer, The New Pornographers and Swan Lake.
Dan Boeckner is in The Handsome Furs, Divine Fits and Wolf Parade (though Wolf Parade never appears on this list!)
Britt Daniel is in Divine Fits and Spoon.
Rostam Batmanglij is in Vampire Weekend (though probably a bit of a stretch to call him a lead) and Discovery.
Spencer Krug is in Sunset Rubdown, Moonface, Swan Lake and lots of other bands that aren’t on this list.
John Darnielle is in The Mountain Goats and Extra Lens which I think was a 1-off project.
And Tim Kasher is in The Good Life, Cursive (not on any of these lists!) and of course, Tim Kasher.
There were a couple surprises for me in this chart:

  • Conor Oberst, despite being one of my favorite artists and in a ton of bands like Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos and Monsters of Folk only has 1 top 10 spot over the last 10 years
  • There’s only 1 Spoon album in my last 10 years of top 10s? That’s crazy
  • Anyway. That’s all for now. The data is available to anyone who’d like to look at it on Google Drive!


    Top 10 Albums – 2015

    January 10, 2016

    2015 was almost the year that I switched from my time-honored tradition of buying & illegally downloading music to buying & legally streaming music… but alas, it was not. I tried Apple Music for the whole 3 month trial and while I found it pretty nice in a lot of ways it couldn’t break my old habits. I still torrent whatever I want and buy whatever I like. So it has always been, so it will probably always be.

    What other things didn’t change in 2015? I still can’t find a way to get interested in EDM, I never stopped listening to Run the Jewels 2, and I still am writing a list of my top 10 favorite albums of the most recent year. Spoiler alert: this list is not that exciting. There’s only 1 artist on here that hasn’t appeared on previous Top 10 lists. Yikes. Will 2015 be an anomaly of will it mark the start of me being an OLD PERSON?

    Oh well, let’s get to it.

    10. Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi

    Listen on Spotify
    Death Cab for Cutie - Kintsugi
    Death Cab’s guitarist quit sometime between their last album and this one, but Ben Gibbard is still pretty much doing the same thing he’s always done. I find the sound of Death Cab albums comforting even when I don’t think the songs are quite as good as they have been in the past, so here’s this album with a top 10 spot.

    9. The Good Life – Everybody’s Coming Down

    Listen on Spotify
    The Good Life - Everybody's Coming Down
    Tim Kasher (Cursive, The Good Life) is a regular on this list, but The Good Life haven’t put out an album in a long time. Everybody’s Coming Down checks all the regular Kasher boxes (drinking & breakups) but I think this is his best work since his untouchable 2000-2004 run. This has a bigger, louder sound than previous Good Life records and I think it works well. Bonus tip: If you ever get the chance to see any of his bands live, I think you should do so.

    8. CHVRCHES – Every Eye Open

    Listen on Spotify
    CHVRCHES - Every Eye Open
    CHVRCHES 2013 debut The Bones of What You Belive took me awhile to warm up to but ended up being one of my favorite albums of the year. Once you’ve warmed up to that, their 2015 followup Every Eye Open should take no time getting used to, because it’s very very similar.

    That said, It’s still very good. Poppy tunes, fun beats, etc… They definitely didn’t reinvent their sound for their sophomore album but that’s probably a good thing. What’s going on here works.

    7. Holy Sheboygan – THREE

    Listen on Spotify
    Holy Sheboygan! - THREE
    If you haven’t heard of Holy Sheboygan, you are forgiven. However, there are no excuses for not checking them out if you’re reading this list and especially no excuse if you read this list last year. Their latest release (or at least most of it?) is even on Spotify!

    This CD (probably an EP?) is a big winner for me and my wife. If you’re looking for some chaotic but accessible pop music check this out. It’s endearing and beautiful and happy and sad. Special standout track: Swim with me.

    6. Destroyer – Poison Season

    Listen on Spotify
    Destroyer - Poison Season
    Easily in my top 3 Canadian musicians, Dan Bejar’s Destroyer is back with another tale of mystery and intrigue. This album contains beautiful string and horn arrangements and melodies which serve as backdrops for Bejarian classic lyrical contradictions like “The writing on the wall wasn’t writing at all”.

    The album’s thematic core, Times Square/Poison Season (not sure what to call it) is particular beautiful, with different versions at the beginning, middle and end of the album.

    5. The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ

    Listen on Spotify
    The Mountain Goats - Beat The Champ
    Becker Family Favorite™ The Mountain Goats did not disappoint in 2015 (they never do) with their 2015 release, Beat The Champ, a concept album about professional wrestling at the time when it was still a regional affair.

    I’ve never been a huge wrestling fan, beyond a brief stint with N64 classic “WCW vs. NWO Revenge” but as always, lead singer/songwriter (of our generation) John Darnielle finds ways to find the humanity in stories and people that you don’t think you care about.

    4. Joanna Newsom – Divers

    (Not on Spotify… hates streaming. Purchase on iTunes here.)
    Joanna Newsom - Divers

    Otherworldly enchantress, wife of Andy Sandberg, “the world’s most famous harp player”, Vicoria’s Secret Commercial Music Contributor, second cousin twice removed of former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom… these are just some of the ways to describe Joanna Newsom.

    Divers, her first album since 2010’s overwhelming triple album Have One On Me, is a compact logical evolution from that ambitious event. The strengths of this album are the strengths of all Newsom albums: clever use of a uniquely beautiful voice, lyrics which may require a dictionary, and thoughtful arrangement of an ever-growing bag of instrumental tricks. While this might not be her strongest work, if you were just starting with Joanna Newson, this is perhaps your gentlest route into her beautiful world.

    3. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

    Listen on Spotify
    Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly

    Thank God for Kendrick Lamar. Rather than remaking Good Kid, M.A.A.D. city (which would have been awesome!), this Compton rapper started from scratch to create something completely different. Kendrick, who is almost certainly the most lyrically proficient rapper making popular music right now, is pushing himself on every level here. The music is challenging, the lyrics are challenging and the story line is ambitious.

    This album is asking and addressing questions that I have the luxury of never having thought about as a white person in America. It is good to be challenged, to think, and to have perspectives broadened. It is good to listen to voices other than your own.

    2. Natalie Prass – Natlie Prass

    Listen on Spotify
    Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass

    Welcome to Natalie Prass, the lone newcomer on this list. This was one of the first albums I listened to in 2015 and it stuck with me throughout the year. It’s short, there are repetition of motifs and themes throughout, and the melodies and arrangements are seeping in a vaguely familiar nostalgia.

    Prass’ voice is breathy and beautiful. And she writes lyrics which are immediately simple and memorable. One point of consternation: album closer “It Is You” is too much for me.

    1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

    Listen on Spotify
    Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
    What is there to say about an album that speaks so clearly and with such focus for itself? Carrie and Lowell is an album that Stevens wrote about his complex relationship with his mother (Carrie) and stepfather (Lowell) following his mother’s recent death.

    The songs buck Stevens trend of plunging headfirst towards musical decadence and pulls everything back as far as it can go here. There are no more instruments or words than necessary. Stevens has always felt like an artist on the verge of quitting and becoming a recluse, but albums like this show what a tragedy that would be. He has a unique way of reaching into the soul of a personal experience and making it universally powerful.


    21 Netflix Christmas Movies, Ranked

    December 23, 2014

    Christmas movies, right? There are so many to choose from, and there are tons of new ones being made every year. So how do you know what’s good and what’s garbage? It turns out, most of them are garbage. High budget or low budget. TV specials or blockbuster releases. Big name actors or nobodies. It doesn’t really matter much.

    But if you sit down to watch a ton of them, as my wife and I did this Holiday season, you’ll find something to like about almost all of them. And something to hate about almost all of them. But I have to say that this exercise did put me in the Holiday spirit. We picked movies, pretty much at random, by what sounded good to us at the moment and was also available on Netflix. We ended up getting through 21 movies, only 2 of which I’d seen before

    Lots of these movies are pretty much the same. If you’re looking for some clichés to incorporate into your next Holiday film, here are some that we noticed:

    • Single moms with kids trying to find them a new husband
    • Plays at the end
    • Women who are in their mid-twenties and are too busy with their careers to find the right man
    • Terrible people from any walk of life can be visited by 3 ghosts

    Anyway, we hardly made a dent in the Netflix Christmas collection, but here’s my incredibly arbitrary ranking of the movies I did watch:

    21. Christmas with the Kranks

    NetflixIMDB

    Bad. A couple decides not to celebrate Christmas, and does a poor job communicating the reasons to their neighbors who are crazy. There’s a twist, but it isn’t interesting.

    20. Snowglobe

    NetflixIMDB

    Bad. Girl can’t find a relationship and falls in love with a dude in a snow globe. Non-hilarity and annoying family dynamics ensue.

    (Snowglobe and Christmas with the Kranks were the first two movies we watched on this marathon. I wonder if they were actually the worst, or if I just wasn’t in the Bad Christmas Movie Spirit yet)

    19. Happy Christmas

    NetflixIMDB

    Lena Dunham and Anna Kendrick. What’s not to like? For me, the answer to that question is almost always Lena Dunham. And also, Anna Kendrick’s character is kind of unlikeable in this film. But everyone learns something in the end, and this movie isn’t really about Christmas. It might be a decent movie, but it probably won’t bring you the Christmas spirit.

    18. Christmas Cupid

    NetflixIMDB

    The girl from Snow Globe is back … well, not her character, but the same actress (and Cash Money Records Recording Artist). Also an ABC Family Movie. It’s the worst version of the Christmas Carol on this list. (There are 4.)

    17. All I Want For Christmas

    NetflixIMDB

    Fine. Two kids get their parents back together for Christmas and it works. I wasn’t really paying attention during this one.

    16. Holidaze

    NetflixIMDB

    Not a stoner holiday movie, unfortunately. This movie tells women they shouldn’t pick careers over marrying and having children. Or tells them they can do both. Or something. Also, Walmart is bad. Small town businesses are good.

    15. I’ll be home for Christmas

    NetflixIMDB

    Meh. JTT is at a boarding school in California. He has to be home by Christmas Eve at 6pm to get his Dad’s Porsche. Along the journey, he finds out that some things are more important.

    14. A Christmas Kiss

    NetflixIMDB

    An artsy type, but also up & coming decorator or something accidentally makes out with her boss’s boyfriend. Love trumps career or something.

    13. Dear Santa

    NetflixIMDB

    A 30 year old woman who didn’t graduate from college and has been mooching off her parents and living in Manhattan for 8 years, I guess, doesn’t have a job. Under the threat of being cutoff by her parents, she finds a man. It turns out well. Kind of cute.

    12. All American Christmas Carol

    NetflixIMDB

    Wow, another Christmas Carol… who cares? YOU WILL, when you watch this terrible white trash version. There are 3 ghosts, and the ghost of Christmas Past is a 17 year old girl who gets wasted at a party when she’s supposed to be teaching a lesson. What’s not to love?

    11. The Nightmare Before Christmas

    NetflixIMDB

    What’s the bigger sin? That I had never seen this movie before, or that I didn’t really pay attention while it was on? Either way, this seemed pretty good. Had some good musical numbers. Maybe will watch again some time. Sticking this in the middle of the list.

    10. Love, Actually

    NetflixIMDB

    I used to argue that Love Actually wasn’t a Christmas movie, but after watching so many Christmas movies this year, I take it back. It is at least as Christmasy as most of the movies on this list. I also used to not like this movie, but I take it back. It’s at least as enjoyable as half the movies on this list. It is also the only movie on this list with nudity, including the one with Lena Dunham.

    9. Scrooged

    NetflixIMDB

    Bill Murray plays a modern-day scrooge as a TV executive… the catch is that they are putting on a live TV musical of A Christmas Carol. It’s pretty good, but not as good as you might hope Bill Murray in a Christmas movie would be.

    8. 12 Dates of Christmas

    NetflixIMDB

    Speaking Of Bill Murray, this is a Christmas take on Groundhog Day. Also, not as good. But plenty cute enough, I think. A girl eventually finds love on Christmas and learns a life lesson or something.

    7. Holiday Engagement

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    A girl’s fiancé dumps her right before Christmas, and she hires an actor to play her fiancé. It’s fun. Things work out.

    6. 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue

    NetflixIMDB

    Some stuff happens. They put on a play and save a dog adoption place and keep dogs from getting killed or abused as race horses. It takes place in the 30s maybe, but they do a poor job keeping the piece in the right time-frame. There’s a cute play at the end.

    5. Christmas Angel

    NetflixIMDB

    This is a cute one. A little girl finds that the Christmas wishes of her friends are magically coming true. Also, just like in a lot of these movies where there’s a kid, there’s a single mom who finds a new husband.

    4. Holiday in Handcuffs

    NetflixIMDB

    This is the campier lower-budget version of Holiday Engagement. Naturally, I liked it more. Clarissa Explains what it’s like to kidnap a dude to impress your family, and have it all work out in the end. Good.

    3. Coming Home for Christmas

    NetflixIMDB

    Surprisingly good. Though, if you’re picking it because there’s a dog on the cover, you’re going to be a bit disappointed. Two sisters have a big falling out, and 5 years later they decide to start talking to each other again, to fix their parents marriage at Christmas time.

    2. Switchmas

    NetflixIMDB

    Favorite new (to me) Christmas movie of the year. Two kids who kind of look alike and get shipped off by their parents to visit other relatives meet in O’Hare, and decide to switch destinations. One is Jewish and celebrating Hannukah. One is Christian and celebrating Christmas. There’s a play at the end.

    1. The Muppet Christmas Carol

    NetflixIMDB

    I almost feel bad including this on a list. It is in a league of its own, especially amongst the other crappy Christmas Carol stories on this list. Funny, touching and brilliant. Almost makes me want to read the book, which I’ve never done.


    Top 10 Albums – 2014

    December 17, 2014

    Welcome, one and all to my top 10 list! Sorry if this one takes awhile to load… got a lot of embedded Spotify playlists and things this year. If you’d like something to listen to while you read, I’ve even created a “Mangosquash’s Best of 2014” playlist right here for your listening pleasure. It features a track from my honorable mentions as well as every artist on the top 10, except one who isn’t on Spotify (No, It’s not Taylor Swift.). Anyway, you can check that out here:

    It’s tough to find a theme in my list this year, and perhaps even tougher than in previous years.. There’s a lot of poppy stuff here, but my two favorite albums of the year were definitely not pop, definitely pretty serious, and definitely very very different.

    Here’s some cool stuff: 5/10 of the artists here have never made a top 10 list of mine in any form, and I was not familiar with them before this year. Also 5/10 of the albums have a female as at least one of their lead singers. 2/10 Artists have released their own coffee this year. 1/10 Artists is remaking their whole album with cat noises in 2015.

    I will say, at the time of writing this, I haven’t read Pitchfork’s Top 50 yet, but through the Twitter grapevine, I have found out that we do have the same #1 album. So that’s something. Enough with the chitter chatter. Let’s dive in:

    10. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers

    Prior to Brill Bruisers, The last time the New Pornographers released a CD was 2010’s Together and it featured at #5 of that year’s top 10 list…. 4 years might seem like a lot of time between albums, but I think at least 2 of the leads of this group would consider the band a “side project.”

    Since the last release, Dan Bejar has released 2 EPs and an LP as Destroyer, and Neko Case and AC Newman have both released solo CDs as well. Other singer, Kathryn Calder, who’s taken an even more active roll in the band on this album, also appears to have released some work. What I’m saying is, these folks haven’t been idle

    Every New Pornographers album is good, and this one is no exception. This release could be the band’s most raucous ever. Standout tracks include the opener, Brill Bruisers, and War on the East Coast. Perhaps the reason this album didn’t rank higher on the list is that the Dan Bejar tracks, my favorite part of most of the supergroup’s output, aren’t particularly strong here. It’s a good listen none the less!

    9. Ortolan – Covered in Black

    Here’s something new! Ortolan was the second band ever to take the stage at St. Louis’ new venue, The Ready Room. They were touring with Of Montreal at the time, and when I wrote-up a review of the show, they got but a single paragraph of mention. Fortunately, I followed through and picked up their CDs because hey, they are really good.

    These ladies are on Sounds Familyre records, which I always assume means that they get to hang out with Sufjan Stevens a lot. This assumption draws me to make comparisons that may or may not be there. But the songwriting seems to share themes of spirituality and allusions to religion that may be missed if you aren’t looking for them

    I think that there’s a wide appeal with this album, perhaps if you enjoyed my previous year’s recommendation of Tristen as an artist to watch out for. Standout tracks on this CD include “Votes are In” and album closer, “Miles”.

    8. Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain

    I’m pretty sure Conor Oberst isn’t making albums as Bright Eyes anymore, but I can’t seem to find a source for that information. Either way, whether it’s his former main vehicle, Bright Eyes, his punk band Desaparecidos, his folk supergroup Monsters of Folk, or his self titled releases, for me, Conor Oberst is always worth checking out.

    Upside Down Mountain is my favorite Oberst release, perhaps in 10 years. No, I don’t think it is as good as Wide Awake/Digital Ash era Bright Eyes, but I do think it really finds Oberst making the best of his adult self. The songs here are well developed, have big hooks and are fun to listen to.

    Standout tracks include: “Governor’s Ball”, “Hundreds of Ways” and “Enola Gay”

    7. tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack

    So, I missed tUnE-yArDs’ first two releases and I still haven’t listened to them yet. Don’t know why. But Damn, is Nikki Nak a fun album. This might be the second poppiest thing on this list, but in a very world-music type of way

    There’s an incredible dichotomy between the fun, loud and crazy instrumentation on each track, and their often incredibly serious subject matter. Every song contains some kind of blunt social commentary.

    If you like crazy pop music and appreciate an enthusiastic eccentric vocal style, check it out!

    6. Spoon – They Want My Soul

    Don’t you just sometimes wish that Spoon would release something that wasn’t so solid?

    I mean solid in a lot of different ways. In stark contrast to the songs on the previous album on this list (tUnE-yArDs) which often feel on the verge of falling apart, each spoon song is built on a foundation that could support a skyscraper. Spoon songs and albums sound solid, and are of solid quality and are predictably good. They’ve done this shit for 8 albums since 1993!

    This album, They Want My Soul, is even more solid than usual and I don’t mean that to sound boring. This is probably my favorite Spoon album since 2007’s “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga”, and more than any other album on this list, it’s just a solid rock album.

    5. Holy Sheboygan – TWO

    Want a good funky folk album about love and life? You’re going to want to check out this release (It might be an EP? I’m not sure.) from Holy Sheboygan. I saw them perform this year at 2720 Cherokee, where I was going to check out music and art from my friend Lawton Hall who was in town touring from Wisconsin. I was really impressed, so I bought their cassette tape. Only later that day did I find out my cassette player no longer works, but it came with a free download code, so I was in the clear.

    This release, at 22 minutes long (OK, so it’s probably an EP.), is so good all the way through. It’s also tackling some ambitious subject matter. Finding love, the purpose of life, materialism, indefinite detention of prisoners… everything you could want is all here.

    Also, there are fun instruments. They don’t have a “drummer” but on their Facebook page they do list two people playing “trash”. Milk jugs feature prominently. There’s also plenty of horns, saxophones and strings. TWO has a big full sound. I could be wrong, but I think many of the people in this band have some kind of advanced musical degree. But the music is accessible and fun. Anyway, be on the lookout for more from these guys. I think they could blow up!

    4. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

    Jenny Lewis is pretty great, right? Per her Wikipedia page, she made her acting debut in a Jello commercial and went on to play parts in TV shows and made for TV movies forming Rilo Kiley in 1998. She made, by my estimate, 3 great albums as Rilo Kiley and was a contributor to the Postal Service’s only album. More recently, though, she’s released some pretty but also pretty forgettable solo albums, and also a project called Jenny & Johnny which I’ll admit I haven’t listened to

    The Voyager is the first Lewis album to captivate me since Rilo Kiley’s 2004 release, “More Adventurous” and I think it shares a lot in common with that string of great Rilo Kiley releases. The hooks are big, the stories told in the lyrics are good, and Lewis’ voice is still as beautiful as ever. We’ll probably never get another Rilo Kiley CD, and that’s for the best, but this CD is a reminder of why I might still want one.

    3. Kishi Bashi – Lighght

    Kishi Bashi is a classically trained violin player who used to be in Of Montreal. According to his Wikipedia page, he’s also toured with Regina Spektor. If you haven’t listened to his albums, or heard of him, you may know his work from this Microsoft Windows 8 commercial

    Of all the albums on this list, this was the one I listened to the most this year. This was my album of the summer, driving to and from Michigan and it’s the best (and the last) pop album on this list. I can’t believe it didn’t get more attention. The track I included on the Best Of mix at the top, The Ballad of Mr. Steak, is the most infectious song of the year. If you’re looking for fun pop music, this is your album

    2. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

    People die. People die for strange reasons. People are in the process of dying. You are in the process of dying, right now. If you’re not interested in thoughts like this, this probably isn’t the record for you, because that’s about all that’s here. Sure, there’s a track about loving your mom. There’s a track about loving your dad. There’s a track about early sexual encounters. There’s a track about attending a Postal Service show. But even these are framed by death.

    But there is poetry found in death, and Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek is out to find all of it that he can. This premise is laid out in the album opener, Carissa. Kozelak’s second cousin, who he didn’t know that well, is 35 years old. She had 2 kids as a wild teenager, but turned her life around and is now an RN. She dies one night, because her trash explodes as she’s taking out. It’s hard to find meaning in a story of senseless tragedy, but these reflections on mortality are as interesting a way as any to tackle the topic.

    1. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2

    My city, the city of St. Louis, has had a lot of national attention on it since Mike Brown was killed on August 9. Protestors in Ferguson and in cities around the United States have been out daily to share their messages and questions of righteous anger and frustration. Why is our justice system so broken? Why do black people, in every neighborhood and in every economic and social class, get treated so poorly? Why do white people (like myself) get the benefit of the doubt? How have we allowed our country to remain in a state where so many people feel so hopeless from the time they are born?

    These are the types of questions I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lately, and I don’t have any answers. I’m trying to do my best to listen to what others are saying and Killer Mike, who makes up 1/2 of Run The Jewels, is one guy who’s saying something. While the biggest artists in Hip Hop have stayed mostly silent, Killer Mike has been out there. He’s written op-eds in USA Today and on Billboard. He’s been on CNN. And then, as fate would have it, on November 24, hours after the Ferguson Grand Jury decision came out, Run the Jewels took the stage at The Ready Room in St. Louis Missouri. It is my biggest regret of the year that I wasn’t here to see this show. Before the show, Killer Mike came out, and made this speech in tears. The audience doesn’t really understand what’s going on, but this is powerful stuff:

    Run The Jewels is two 39 year old Rappers who have come together after long solo careers. Killer Mike is from Atlanta, GA and first gained exposure as a part of Outkast’s Dungeon Family collective. He appeared on their 2000 record, Stankonia. El-P is a white dude from New York. Together, they are the most dynamic thing happening in hip-hop. Run The Jewels 2 is the band’s second album in as many years, and it is insane. These are two best friends doing what they love together. This collaboration plays well not only in music, but when they give interviews together. Check out this crazy piece about El-P’s Steven Seagal obsession in The Onion’s AV Club.

    Run The Jewels 2 is not for the faint of heart. It’s loud, vulgar, violent and should offend everyone. Social problems are addressed aggressively throughout the album, but most directly on tracks “Crown”, “Lie, Cheat, Steal” and “Early”. Killer Mike and EL-P are asking questions too, and these questions are uncomfortable.

    But damn, if it isn’t the most fun thing released this year. Amongst these tough questions are two friends just having a blast. The intensity and urgency with which both the beats and the verses are delivered makes for one wild right, from start to end in 39 minutes. If rap isn’t your thing, this isn’t going to be your thing either, but this is a really special album.


    2014 Honorable Mentions

    December 16, 2014

    It’s that time of year again where I remember that I have a blog and get to writing some year-end lists. Just like every year, I promise that I’ll make better use of this blog, but I probably won’t!

    Anyway, I’m putting together my top 10 list right now, and I’m not sure what the order is looking like in that top 10, but I am sure that these three releases aren’t going to make it. But it was really hard to leave them out so I’m going to write about them anyway. Two of my favorite artists’ releases didn’t make the list. What kind of world is this?

    Anyway. Here’s three great releases that weren’t in my top 10:

    Moonface – City Wrecker


    Longtime list-readers will know that Spencer Krug (Moonface, Sunset Rubdown, Wolf Parade) is maybe my favorite dude making music. I love everything that he does, including this EP.

    But… this release, coming in at 5 songs long is definitely an EP, and it seems to be a “leftovers” release from the excellentJulia With Blue Jeans On LP, released last year. It’s in the same style of that release, featuring the piano and Krug’s voice nearly exclusively for its somber noisemaking.

    That’s not to say that there isn’t some good stuff on here. The first two tracks, The Fog and City Wrecker, are both exceptional tracks which highlight Krug’s skills as a songwriter. I try to save the top 10 for full-length releases, but this was definitely one of my favorites of the year.

    Ex Hex – Rips

    This CD is loud, melodic, and fun. It’s like a punk girl group from the 50’s. You might say that it rips. Standout tracks include: Hot and Cold and How You Got That Girl.

    This was the unofficial #11 on this year’s top 10 list.

    Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright In The End


    More words have been spilt on this website about Weezer than any other band, and that’s because I have a lot of sentimental attachment to them and consider them to be one of my favorite bands.

    And this is their 3rd or 4th best CD ever. Is it as good as their first two albums (The Blue Album & Pinkerton)? No. It definitely isn’t. Is it as good as their third, and third best album, The Green Album? It actually might be. Does it stand tall and proud as significantly better than Maladroit, Make Believe, The Red Album, Raditude and Hurley? It stands miles above these releases.

    So, it bums me out to leave it off this year’s top 10 list, but that’s just how it goes. I might find myself listening to this one in 2015 though, which is more than I can say about any other recentWeezer release the year after it’s come out. If you have any sentimental attachment to Weezer at all, this album is worth checking out.


    Mates of State, April 17, 2014, The Ready Room

    April 18, 2014

    Mates of State, October 31 2011, The Firebird

    On October 28, 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in absolutely astonishing fashion. My whole body was in a euphoric state for days afterwards, and so it was with an incredibly good attitude that I saw Mates of State at The Firebird on October 31, 2011.

    Being a show on Halloween, the band was dressed up. If I remember correctly, keyboardist, lead singer and only female of the band Kori was dressed up as a cop, and the rest of her band was dressed in pin stripes as criminals. It was a fun look, and it was an incredibly fun show. This was the second time I had seen Mates of State and I expected an up-tempo show, featuring the faster and poppier hits from though out their catalogue, and that’s exactly what I got.

    But at some point in the middle of the show, All the band members ripped off their costumes to reveal Cardinals t-shirts underneath, and the audience lost their shit. There often is not a huge overlap between sports fans and indie-rock concert goers, but for this city, at this moment, it was perfect.

    I will always remember this moment as one of extreme happiness in my life.

    Mates of State, April 17, 2014, The Ready Room

    Earlier this week, my wife and I were listening to the “Unless I’m Led” from Mates of States’ 2011 album, Mountaintops. It’s a pretty great song, but definitely on the quieter and slower side of the Mates of State catalogue. Each of their albums have songs like this, and I do sincerely enjoy them.

    It prompted me to pose this thought: “It must be weird recording songs for a record that you’re probably never going to play live.”

    This statement was based on logic from my previous Mates of State show experiences. They have a large amount of high-energy quality music to pick through, so inevitably some songs are probably never going to see the light of stage, right?

    On April 17 at the Ready Room, I saw a completely different Mates of State show, where they played “Unless I’m Led” as well as several other songs of this ilk, and while it wasn’t the show I was expecting, it was fantastic none-the-less.

    Mates of State is a primarily drums & keys band that tours with more musicians as they see fit. The two previous times that I’d seen them, they toured as a rock band. This show, there was a cellist, saxophone & trumpet. The arrangements that they came up with for the songs they played were great.

    The set pulled heavily from their 2008 album, Re-Arrange us, and while the energy was still high, it was definitely a more mellow experience.

    I loved seeing something a little different, and the audience seemed to as well.

    Speaking of audience, I didn’t expect Mates of State to come close to selling out this show, but I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t love them. They make incredible hook-heavy, relatable pop music. They are still adorable on stage together after all these years. There is nothing pretentious or difficult about their music. They are everything that pop music should be. Everyone should go to a Mates of State show to make the world a better place.

    One confession/apology: Some girl requested oft-crowd-favorite “Everyone Needs an Editor” several times, and I said, kind of loudly, “You need an editor.” She heard me and gave me a dirty look. I deserved that look, and I’m sorry. Everyone does indeed need an editor. Kori & Jason played the song by themselves as the first song of the encore right after I made my rude remark.

    Anyway, the show was great.

    matesofstate2

    Ready Room Revisited

    My last piece here was a review of the first night at the Ready Room under the guise of being a review of an Of Montreal show. This is a bit of the opposite. My primarily nit-picky complaints from the otherwise great first show were as follows:

    • Lighting & Sound were weird for the first band
    • Bar lines were excruciatingly long
    • It smelled too new.

    None of these items were problems. The opener, who I only saw the last 1/2 of their set, sounded good and the house lights were appropriately low. As I suspected, the audience seemed to be paying more attention to them.

    This wasn’t nearly as crowded as the Mates of State show, so I’m unsure how it’ll hold up at capacity, but I never waited more than a couple minutes for a drink, and I went at “busy” times in between sets. It also looks like they’re in the process of installing beer taps, so that’s great!

    It still smells new, but less new than last time. Everything still looks great, and I didn’t really notice too many other changes.

    I was a bit worried that the room was going to feel empty for Mates of State, a band that didn’t quite sell out the Firebird on their last visit to St. Louis. However the Ready Room did a great job making the space feel smaller by repositioning the tables. Previously they were in the back corners, but for the anticipated smaller audience, they moved them to the back-center, right in front of the soundboard. This gave people a place to sit and enjoy the show, and also provided plenty of room for people to stand in front of the tables. Because of the high tables and the relatively high stage, I think everyone could still see. Here’s how it looked during the opener when no one was standing in that space:
    matesofstate1
    I appreciated this detail greatly. I won’t say that I’m ready to crown the Ready Room as my favorite St. Louis venue yet (that distinction still goes to The Firebird) but I am thrilled with their booking so far, have enjoyed both my experiences there, and look forward to attracting more Mates of State/of Montreal quality acts to the St. Louis area.