My “Top Music of 2013” List

Without any further explanation or unnecessary chit-chat, here are my TOP ALBUMS OF 2013:

ImageArcade Fire, Reflektor
Any follow-up to an “album of the year” release, such as Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” a few years ago, is likely to face either overwhelming praise, or more likely undue criticism.  Showing their mettle, however, Arcade Fire did what any great band ought to do: release an album that they enjoy.  They’re clearly in this as musicians and artists first — not for gaining notoriety, fame, and so forth.  It begs the question, though….is Reflektor as good as their last album?  Probably not.  But there are a lot of great songs on this record, and it is very clearly an Arcade Fire album.  They made the record that they wanted to, and I applaud them for that.  Notable favorite tracks:  Reflektor and We Exist

ImageThe Civil Wars, The Civil Wars
Another band following-up an incredible smash-hit album, The Civil Wars hit some interesting speed bumps.  Although the full story is not really known, there has evidently been some disagreement between Joy and John Paul.  They speak to each other rarely, if at all, which casts an interesting cloud over this entire album.  It feels sad.  Even the more upbeat songs feel somewhat forced, and it has a way of breaking your heart when you listen to it.  I’d be curious to know if folks who do not know the backstory get the same vibe.  I’m guessing they would.  Regardless, this album is wonderfully and beautifully made.  Compared to their last album, it feels less “catchy” from beginning to end, if you ask me, but is *technically* even more mature and fascinating.  Notable favorite tracks:  Dust To Dust and From This Valley.

ImageThe Dear Hunter, Migrant
This band continues to live under the radar, as far as I can tell, and I’m not really sure why.  My wife and I saw them open for one of our favorite bands, mewithoutYou, a few years ago, and we were blown away.  I had to grab their album.  Since that time, they’ve released a handful of records, including Migrant earlier this year.  It sounds less like a stage musical than my previous favorite of theirs, Act III, but there is a genius to this album that shows how talented their primary singer/songwriter really is.  They manage to write songs with an undeniable maturity, including lyrics that come across as meaningful without being preachy.  I love to see some real success happen for this band.  Notable favorite tracks: Whisper and Shame.

ImageEditors, The Weight Of Your Love
Given their last album, that I absolutely loathed, I was about ready to write these guys off.  Maybe a lot of folks felt that way, or maybe they got the hint that their last album was lacking in a number of ways, but the Editors of old have returned with “The Weight Of Your Love”, and it sounds great.  Evidently the line-up of the band has changed since their last release, but I’m not sure I would’ve noticed.  The lead singer’s voice is so unique, I think a backing polka band would still sound like an Editors album.  I mean that in a good way.  Whatever the recipe is, I hope it continues.  This is a great album.  Notable favorite tracks: Sugar and The Phone Book.

ImageLorde, Pure Heroine
I’m reluctant to admit that I only found this album about two weeks ago, but whatever……I really like it a lot.  I also can’t quite put my finger on what it is that I enjoy so much.  It feels a void, I suppose, of artists like Lana Del Rey (whom I also enjoy) that tend toward a style of music that I really don’t listen to.  It feels like hip-pop, but with a dark alternative twist.  Regardless, there is a simplicity to this album that I respect.  The music seems to fill only 40% of the speakers, but wonderful melodies fill up the rest.  It’s catchy, enjoyable, and even fun.  I don’t lyrically relate to a teenager from New Zealand, but she writes better than many artists I’ve heard.  Notable favorite tracks: Ribs and Buzzcut Season.

ImageThe National, Trouble Will Find Me
Although I was looking forward to a new album from The National, my expectations were fairly low.  Sure it’d be good, but it would par-for-the-course for this great band.  I was both wrong and right.  “Trouble Will Find Me” took me by surprise by being immediately incredible, and has since then continued to grow on me even more.  It’s at times heart-wrenching, haunting, foot-tapping, and even laughable.  For an even better experience, put on a pair of good headphones and enjoy the sonic bliss.  Want higher praise that that?  My Mom has since declared this as a “second favorite album of all time” for her — just after U2’s “The Joshua Tree”.  High praise indeed!  Notable favorite tracks:  Demons and Don’t Swallow The Cap.

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS
Normally I’d write a small something for each of these albums, but I can lump them all together, in this case.  Each of these releases was highly anticipated for me, and instead became a huge let down.  Are they horrible?  No, not really, but they’re not very good either. 

The Head And The Heart, Let’s Be Still

Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

Phoenix, Bankrupt!

My “Top Music of 2012” List

Here it is…my top music list for 2012.  Enjoy!

Of Monsters And Men, My Head Is An Animal
I really wish I could remember how I heard about this band.  I don’t listen to the radio, watch MTV (as if it even had music), and I don’t use radio-like services such as Spotify, Pandora, etc..  It must’ve been word of mouth, I guess, but I’m glad it happened!  They strike me as a cross between the Sugarcubes (do all Icelandic females sing like that?) and Mumford & Sons.  It’s peppy, fun, artistic, clean, and just very enjoyable.  Definitely one of my top albums for the year.

Lana Del Rey, Born To Die
So…why on earth is Lana Del Rey on my top music list for 2012?  What can I say – I like this album.  I knew nothing about her when I saw this album advertised in the window of my local Easy Street Records shop.  The cover intrigued me, and I definitely expected something…well…different, which it certainly is.  But I liked what I heard, I enjoy her voice, and it was a nice segue from my usual musical tastes.  It was a couple of weeks later that I heard gripes about her as a person, about her boring performances, and so on.  No matter.  I was sticking to my guns, and it is definitely a favorite of mine album for this year. 
(NOTE: this is not a “clean” album, for those who care)

Metric, Synthetica
This is one of those artists that I’ve listened to from the sidelines.  I’m neither disinterested, nor am I a rabid fan.  I like their music, and Synthetica continues that trend for me.  It doesn’t sound as ‘genius’ as their previous release, Fantasies, but others may disagree.  They simply put out solid music, and I wonder why this band isn’t a worldwide phenomena.

mewithoutYou, Ten Stories
It was with some trepidation that I awaited the release of mewithoutYou’s newest album, Ten Stories.  Although I enjoyed much of their previous album, It’s All Crazy!, it felt like a step backward to me – and I do consider myself to be a fairly rabid fan of this band.  Ten Stories doesn’t quite harken back to their 2nd and 3rd albums (my favorites), but it does showcase how talented this band is – both as a group, and as individual musicians.  In some ways, this may be their most “commercially plausible” album, but as always it will be heard by far too few.

Mumford & Sons, Babel
It’s no secret that Mumford & Sons’ previous release, Sigh No More, was a surprise commercial smash hit.  Although their sound is polarizing to some, this group appeared to be able to do no wrong.  That usually makes for a worrisome sophomore release, which often makes or breaks a band.  When I heard the first single from Babel, I wasn’t sure what to think: it sounded good, but it sounded “safe” – just more of the same.  Is that necessarily a bad thing?  Truth be told, if you didn’t like Mumford before this latest album, this one isn’t going to sway you.  If you were already a fan, however, you’ll find new genius with Babel.  It’s just a tremendous album from a very talented group of guys.

Silversun Pickups, Neck of the Woods
Very few bands had as high of expectations with me as did the Silversun Pickups.  Their previous release, Swoon, wasn’t just a favorite from that release year, it was actually a favorite of mine for that decade.  Yeah…a lot to live up to.  Thankfully, Neck of the Woods does not fail to impress.  It’s definitely the signature Silversun Pickups sound, but with a darker (perhaps more electronic) flavor.  If Swoon was an instant classic to my ears, then Neck of the Woods was a bit of a slow burn that eventually flared up.  Seeing them in concert earlier this year was just icing on the cake!

The Shins, Port of Morrow
I don’t necessarily set out to have an “album of the year”, per se, but the thought crosses my mind.  Some years, such as last year’s favorite Love & War & the Sea Inbetween by Josh Garrels, are obvious choices for me.  Other years are more difficult.  This year, however, I think I can honestly say that Port of Morrow by The Shins is my absolute top pick for the year.  Having already perused several “top albums of the year” lists for 2012, I’ve already seen this album on many of them.  It’s just very, very good.  But it was also a bit of an unknown quantity upon initial release, seeing as this is a completely new line-up of musicians, save for the primary singer/songwriter, James Mercer.  Their previous release, Wincing The Night Away, is another favorite album of mine, but fans of that album may not necessarily enjoy this one in the same way.  Port of Morrow is decidedly less strange, less experimental-sounding, and (in many ways) more commercially acceptable – but not in a “these guys sold out” sort of way.  Not at all.  It’s just great song writing, and the track “Bait & Switch” is probably one of my favorite Shins songs ever.  What really put it over the top for me, though, was a realization that I felt happy after listening to it – almost like slipping on a favorite sweatshirt or pair of slippers.  It has a vibe that’s difficult to find these days.  Great work!

                                           – HONORABLE MENTIONS - 

Starflyer 59, IAMACEO
Nothing ground-breaking here.  Just classic, very good Starflyer, though I probably prefer My Island or Changing Of The Guard a bit more.

Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel
As a self-proclaimed Fiona Apple fan, I was anxiously awaiting her new album, and I was not disappointed.  I also wasn’t totally blown away either.  The Idler Wheel is probably her strangest song writing to date, but there’s a lot to enjoy on this release.

Atlas Genius, Through the Glass (EP)
We first heard about these guys as they were opening up for Silversun Pickups during their most recent tour through Seattle.  But we really liked what we heard, and subsequently grabbed their EP, Through The Glass.  Definitely anxious to hear their full release, whenever that comes out.

Josh Garrels, Love & War – B Sides and Remixes
I can’t say that remixes and b-sides typically excite me much, but Love & War & the Sea Inbetween was such a powerful album for me last year, I jumped at the chance to grab more of this material.  What can I say?  The remixes are great, and the b-sides – songs left off of last year’s album – are as powerful as ever.   Will it make new Josh Garrels fans?  Probably not, but it certainly rewards the fan base he already has.

Thanks for reading.

My “Top Music of 2011” List

Here you are: my list of the Top Music of 2011…and in no particular order, save for one.  You’ll know it when you get there.

The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow
This album came completely out of left field for me.  Someone (somewhere) mentioned it — probably on Facebook — and the “duet” factor sounded interesting.  I listened to an early release of the title track, Barton Hollow, and it sounded great to me, so I waited patiently for the full release.  Strangely enough, the title track (and first single) is not necessarily representative of the rest of the album, which may put some folks off.  In fact, the remainder of the album is considerably more mellow.  That said, this is a great album if you’ll give it some time.  Would I like to hear more of their upbeat stuff?  Sure.  Maybe next time.  But this is definitely one of the best albums to have been released this year.

Death Cab For Cutie, Codes & Keys
Let me be clear on this point: I’m not really a fan of Death Cab For Cutie.  I have nothing against them, of course, I’m just not part of their fan base.  Still, I heard the first single from this album, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  I decided that the rest of the album needed a good listen-thru, and I’m glad I did.  It just sounds like typical “Death Cab” stuff, if you ask me, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.  Is it ground-breaking?  Not really.  But it is very good.  Funny thing is… I don’t feel like Death Cab ever really writes any choruses into their songs – it’s just one verse after another.  Good stuff, though, and very enjoyable to listen to.

The Decemberists, The King Is Dead
This album was released very early in 2011, so it’s likely to be overlooked by some.  That said, it was also the first album of the year to truly capture my attention – and I’m not necessarily a long-time listener of The Decemberists.  What can I really say about this album, though?  It’s just a strong release thru and thru.  Some favorites include: “Dear Avery” and “This Is Why We Fight”.


Jane’s Addiction
, The Great Escape Artist

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be including a Jane’s Addiction album on my Top Music of 2011 list.  It seemed impossible, but here it is.  For some background, I’ve been a long-time Jane’s Addiction fan – dating back to their “Nothing’s Shocking” release – but their most recent releases have not necessarily captivated me.  Good?  Yes.  Great?  Not necessarily.  So, it was with some skepticism that I grabbed The Great Escape Artist and gave it a listen.  (I’m so happy for subscription music services!)  Quite simply, I was blown away.  Perry Farrell sounds great, the songwriting is top-notch, and (surprisingly) the album is very clean.  On the downside?  It’s probably one of the worst album covers I’ve seen in a long, long time…

Manchester Orchestra, Simple Math
Having arrived late-to-the-game with Manchester Orchestra, I was very much looking forward to their latest release, Simple Math, and it didn’t disappoint.  In fact, I easily consider this to be their strongest album yet.  It seems that Manchester Orchestra is growing up in many ways: lyrically, most of all, but also musically.  There is still an experimental/indie vibe to their songwriting, but it totally works.  Some personal favorite tracks include: “Simple Math”, “Apprehension” and “April Fool”.  Just a solid album.

Josh Garrels, Love & War & The Sea In Between
I wouldn’t normally choose a “best album of the year”, but in this case I feel absolutely compelled to name one: Josh Garrels’ “Love & War & The Sea In Between”.  There is no doubt in my mind.  What started as a mere suggestion from a friend of mine (thanks, Tim!) was followed up by an email from NoiseTrade.com with a link to this album.  I figured that I might as well.  The first song caught me off-guard.  It was more haunting and mellow that I figured it would be.  It also sounded a lot like Damien Jurado, which wasn’t a bad thing in my book – but could certainly be polarizing to some.  By the end of the third song, I was absolutely sold…and hooked.  This is not only the most solid album I’ve heard all year, it’s probably one of the best I’ve ever heard.  Seriously.  Even better?  You fall in love with the first half of the album, and then quickly realize you’ve only partially tapped the beauty of this release.  Your favorite tracks shift on a daily or weekly basis.  But nothing has struck me more about this album than the lyrics have.  Beautiful.  Challenging.  Heart-wrenching.  Encouraging.  And everything in-between.  If you’re still reading this paragraph and have not yet downloaded this album, then do yourself a favor: head over to NoiseTrade.com and download it for free.  You can thank me later.  And thank you, Josh Garrels, for what is easily the best album I’ve heard in years…

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Mutemath, Odd Soul
A very solid release from Mutemath, and I definitely prefer this to their last one.  Still, not as strong as their self-titled album.  I’d like to see the old spark rekindled with these guys.

The Dear Hunter, The Color Spectrum
Having first heard them when I saw them open for mewithoutYou, I was very impressed.  Their last album, Act III, is one of my recent favorites.  Still, this latest release is actually a combination of nine EPs that they released in 2011.  It may be a great album, but I just can’t make it thru it the entire way…

Switchfoot, Vice Verses
Just a great album all-around.  Not mind-blowing, necessarily, but very good.

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS

Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto
I’m actually a bit of a Coldplay fan, so I was very much looking forward to their latest release, Mylo Xyloto.  I heard a few early tracks and I began to get concerned.  Then I heard the full-release, and…well…I basically had no desire to listen through it again.  That’s a bad sign.  Perhaps in a few months it’ll “click” with me, but I doubt it.  I don’t know what happened here…

Lyrics o’ the day: Josh Garrels, “Revelator”

It’s difficult to relay *exactly* what type of impact the latest album from Josh Garrels has had on me.  I would say the best word to describe it is “profound”, and I don’t use that word lightly. 

I’m rarely moved by new artists musically, and much less often moved by them lyrically.  Almost never, in fact.  I am *extremely* critical of lyrical content, which is a frustrating bent to have.  That said, finding an artist that moves me musically, vocally and lyrically nearly never happens.  I was moved to the point of tears on several occasions.  Truly.

Up until a couple of months ago, Josh Garrels was absolutely unknown to me.  While working alongside a friend that I attend church with, the conversation turned to music.  I was surprised to find that he and I had such similar musical tastes.  As we discussed “what artists or albums were currently floating our respective boats”, he mentioned a guy named Josh Garrels that had a powerful mix of lyrical content, vocals, and musical aptitude.  I told him that I would have to check it out, which typically translates to “I’ll forget about it within 24 hours or so”.

Enter NoiseTrade.com

A couple of days later, I received an email from the fine folks at NoiseTrade.com.  As it so happened, the artist spotlight was on the newest release from Josh Garrels, “Love & War & The Sea In Between”.  I took the hint, downloaded the album, and began to listen.

Wow. 

Here’s a link to one of my favorite tracks.  Lyrics below.

Had a dream I was alone
A vast expanse of complete unknown
Sea of glass so clear it shown,
Like gold

Then a voice like thunder clapped,
As a dead man I collapsed
I am the first, I am the last,
Now rise my son

Then behold ten thousand kings,
And every creature worshipping
Every eye was on one thing,
One man

He’s like a lion like a lamb,
As though slain he holds the plan
To make war and peace with man,
And reign on earth

Holy, Holy, is the One,
Who was and is, and is to come
In a robe as red as blood,
He comes forth

Ride like lightning in the sky,
Upon the war horse he draws nigh,
The same one we crucified,
Will come again

I’m not just impressed by this album, I’m actually thankful for it.

“Thank you, Josh Garrels, for using the gifts you’ve been given in such a powerful, obedient way.  Consider me blessed.”

Removing The Veil (A.W. Tozer)

This is one of the most profound, moving, and (hopefully) life-altering pieces I’ve ever read.  From A.W. Tozer’s classic work, “The Pursuit of God” (chapter 3).

Here is an excerpt from the last portion of the chapter:

The answer usually given, simply that we are ‘cold’, will not explain all the facts. There is something more serious than coldness of heart, something that may be back of that coldness and be the cause of its existence. What is it? What but the presence of a veil in out hearts? A veil not taken away as the first veil was, but which remains there still shutting out the light and hiding the face of God from us. It is the veil of our fleshly fallen nature living on, unjudged within us, uncrucified and unrepudiated. It is the close-woven veil of the self-life which we have never truly acknowledged, of which we have been secretly ashamed, and which for these reasons we have never brought to the judgment of the cross. It is not too mysterious, this opaque veil, nor is it hard to identify. We have but to look in our own hearts and we shall see it there, sewn and patched and repaired it may be, but there nevertheless, an enemy to our lives and an effective block to our spiritual progress.

This veil is not a beautiful thing and it is not a thing about which we commonly care to talk, but I am addressing the thirsting souls who are determined to follow God, and I know they will not turn back because the way leads temporarily through the blackened hills. The urge of God within them will assure their continuing the pursuit. They will face the facts however unpleasant and endure the cross for the joy set before them. So I am bold to mane the threads out of which this inner veil is woven. It is woven of the fine threads of the self-life, the hyphenated sins of the human spirit. They are not something we do, they are something we are, and therein lies both their subtlety and their power.

To be specific, the self-sins are these: self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration, self-love and a host of others like them. They dwell too deep within us and are too much a part of our natures to come to our attention till the light of God is focused upon them. The grosser manifestations of these sins, egotism, exhibitionism, self-promotion, are strangely tolerated in Christian leaders even in circles of impeccable orthodoxy. They are so much in evidence as actually, form any people, to become identified with the gospel. I trust it is not a cynical observation to say that they appear these days to be a requisite for popularity in some sections of the Church visible. Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice.

One should suppose that proper instruction in the doctrines of man’s depravity and the necessity for justification through the righteousness of Christ alone would deliver us from the power of the self-sins; but it does not work out that way. Self can live unrebuked at the very altar. It can watch the bleeding Victim die and not be in the least affected by what it sees. It can fight for the faith of the Reformers and preach eloquently the creed of salvation by grace, and gain strength by its efforts. To tell all the truth, it seems actually to feed upon orthodoxy and is more at home in a Bible Conference than in a tavern. Our very state of longing after God may afford it an excellent condition under which to thrive and grow.

Self is the opaque veil that hides the Face of God from us. It can be removed only in spiritual experience, never by mere instruction. As well try to instruct leprosy out of our system. There must be a work of God in destruction before we are free. We must invite the cross to do its deadly work within us. We must bring our self-sins to the cross for judgment. We must prepare ourselves for an ordeal of suffering in some measure like that through which our Saviour passed when He suffered under Pontius Pilate.

Let us remember: when we talk of the rending of the veil we are speaking in a figure, and the thought of it is poetical, almost pleasant; but in actuality there is nothing pleasant about it. In human experience that veil is made of living spiritual tissue; it is composed of the sentient, quivering stuff of which our whole beings consist, and to touch it is to touch us where we feel pain. To tear it away is to injure us, to hurt us and make us bleed. To say otherwise is to make the cross no cross and death no death at all. It is never fun to die. To rip through the dear and tender stuff of which life is made can never be anything but deeply painful. Yet that is what the cross did to Jesus and it is what the cross would do to every man to set him free.

Let us beware of tinkering with our inner life in hope ourselves to rend the veil. God must do everything for us. Our part is to yield and trust. We must confess, forsake, repudiate the self-life, and then reckon it crucified. But we must be careful to distinguish lazy `acceptance’ from the real work of God. We must insist upon the work being done. We dare not rest content with a neat doctrine of self-crucifixion. That is to imitate Saul and spare the best of the sheep and the oxen.

Insist that the work be done in very truth and it will be done. The cross is rough, and it is deadly, but it is effective. It does not keep its victim hanging there forever. There comes a moment when its work is finished and the suffering victim dies. After that is resurrection glory and power, and the pain is forgotten for joy that the veil is taken away and we have entered in actual spiritual experience the Presence of the living God.

Lord, how excellent are Thy ways, and how devious and dark are the ways of man. Show us how to die, that we may rise again to newness of life. Rend the veil of our self-life from the top down as Thou didst rend the veil of the Temple. We would draw near in full assurance of faith. We would dwell with Thee in daily experience here on this earth so that we may be accustomed to the glory when we enter Thy heaven to dwell with Thee there. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Amen indeed.

My “Top Music of 2010” List

It seems to me that 2010 was an interesting year for music – at least as far as my (personal) musical tastes are concerned.  This year felt more “tame”, if you will, as compared to the very powerful albums that were released in 2009 – including Silversun Pickups’ “Swoon” and Neko Case’s “Middle Cyclone”.  Perhaps more interesting is the fact that several new-to-me artists are on this year’s list.

Having said that, here is my Top Music of 2010 list, in no particular order.

___________________________________

Jakob Dylan, Women + Country
I confess that I would never have grabbed this album if it hadn’t been for the mention of Neko Case as part of the project.  In fact, the earliest accounts of this album sounded like a collaboration between Jakob and Neko, but that wasn’t the case.  Instead, we have a very Jakob-focused album with Neko (and her backup band, it seems) providing most everything else.  The result, it turns out, is really quite fabulous.  With the infamous T Bone Burnett at the production helm, Jakob has released a collection of songs that is arguably the strongest we’ve seen since the first Wallflowers release – and perhaps even stronger.   The “twang factor” is very high with this album, but that’s bothering me less and less these days, it seems.  All in all, a wonderful release.

Broken Bells, Broken Bells
Evidently The Shins are on an extended hiatus since releasing their last (and very successful) album, Wincing The Night Away.  In the meantime, front man, James Mercer, has fruitfully collaborated with producer Dangermouse to release a surprisingly non-Shins and yet very entertaining album under the name Broken Bells.  Mercer’s unmistakable vocal-style mixed with the slightly hip-hop-flavored undertones of Dangermouse’s production, Broken Bells is at times sparse, electronic, spacey, and moody.  Quite honestly, I love it.

New Pornographers, Together
I’ve had very little time to enjoy this album, thanks to the lack of accessibility via the Zune Pass after the album’s initial release, but as you already know, anything involving Neko Case is probably ok with me.  I’ll confess, though, that the band name has been a turn off for me (and likely others, I would assume), but there’s no denying that this is a powerful release from a talented group of individuals. Pop-inspired folk tunes, is probably the best way to describe it.  Favorite tracks include “Crash Years” and “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”.

Starflyer 59, The Changing Of The Guard
Although I’ve listened to Starflyer 59 off and on since the mid-90s, I wouldn’t have considered myself a “fan” until recently.  In fact, it was probably their My Island album that I fully enticed me to embrace their impressive catalog of  work.  Having said that, I find that their more recent work appeals to me much more than their earlier stuff, which is likely quite opposite of the long time Starflyer fans, of which there are many.  In any event, The Changing Of The Guard is probably my favorite release from Starflyer, with the incredible track, Cry Me A River, as one of my favorite songs of theirs.  I’m sure that this album is not shoegazer-ish enough for the hardcore fans, but a release this strong may just usher in a whole new era of Starflyer fans.  If you haven’t already, give it a listen.

Interpol, Interpol
In my opinion, Interpol has been releasing stronger and stronger albums with each release – and this album is no exception.  Although I still consider this band to be an ‘acquired taste’ – primarily due to the droning vocal style – this may be their most commercially acceptable release yet.  Interpol remains, as always, moody and melancholy, but they have a very ‘indie’ feel about them that I really enjoy.  “Always Malaise” and “Memory Serves” are among my favorite tracks.

Spoon, Transference
How do you follow up an excellent previous album?  Well, if you’re Spoon, then you probably attempt to alienate a portion of your new found fan base with an album that is at times genius, eccentric, and (perhaps) entirely purposeful.  I say that because I get the feeling that Spoon intentionally held back on this album – perhaps in an attempt to not dig too deeply into the Top 40 lists – and in the process limited their commercial appeal with Transference.  Don’t’ get me wrong: there is some absolutely genius material on this album, but it never seems to reach the magnitude of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.  Maybe that’s exactly what they were hoping for…… or maybe this album just isn’t as good.  I don’t really know, but I still like it.

The National, High Violet
My good friend, Ken, recommended The National to me a couple of years ago.  Again, due to inaccessibility via the Zune Pass *and* my lack of interest from the 30 second audio clips of the album, I passed on this band time and time again.  For whatever reason, though, when I saw that High Violet was available, I snatched it up like a Christmas morning toy.  I’ve not been disappointed.  I would definitely consider The National to be an acquired taste, mainly due to the melancholy overtones and uber-low vocals, but for fans of Editors, Joy Division, or Interpol, this album is likely to hit the spot.  Bloodbuzz Ohio is definitely one of my favorite tracks.

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Strangely, previous releases from Arcade Fire did little to excite me.  I enjoyed the song Keep The Car Running just fine, but the rest of the album felt pretty lackluster to me – and certainly not worthy of the hype that it received.  Just my opinion, of course.  I wanted to like Arcade Fire, but it just didn’t do it for me.  The Suburbs, then, was met with fairly reserved expectations, but there was an undeniable sparkle to this album.  I’ve found it engrossing, artistic, and challenging.  Quite honestly, this is a very good album.  The biggest surprise to me?  The fact that this artistic, quirky band receives so much commercial success.  Most of the “good” music goes largely unnoticed by the general public.  Anyhow, this album is well-worth your time.


Over The Rhine
, The Long Surrender
As my wife recently reminded me, the very first music I ever played for her (aside from my own music, of course) was Over The Rhine’s Patience.  Needless to say, I’ve been listening to this band for a long, long time.  Not only that, but I considered their album, Ohio, as my top album of the decade for 2000 – 2009.  I like this band a lot.  I will confess, though, that as they’ve moved toward a more “jazzy” sound, I’ve probably been less enthused with their releases – the difference being “really good” vs. “incredible”, in my opinion.  We had the opportunity to download The Long Surrender as part of a pre-release purchase, which is why I’m including this album in my 2010 list, even though the general release is set for early 2011.  In any event, this album is probably closer to their last release, The Trumpet Child, than any previous release – and that’s exactly what you’d expect.  Having said that, The Long Surrender is slightly less jazzy than their last, and has all of the genius elements that you expect from Over The Rhine.  My wife and I were also fortunate to have seen them “live” very recently, which featured much of their newest album, so we feel more intimately acquainted with this release and the stories of the songs it contains.  Not my favorite OtR album, but a very good album nonetheless.

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As always, thanks for reading.

T-Mobile Vibrant: basically a lousy device

Back in the early 90s, I purchased a red Yamaha 750 Special motorcycle.  You can read about my vehicular history here, if you so desire. 

Anyhow, this particular purchase is noteworthy because it’s one of the first times that I can clearly remember having strong, nagging doubts about a major purchase, but then I balked and went through with it anyhow.  Aside from the fact that the bike looked very cool, I more or less hated every moment that I had with that vehicle.  It was a “lemon”, plain and simple.  When I finally sold it off to another sucker buyer, I had that overwhelming feeling of ‘whew! I finally got rid of that piece of junk!’.

That pretty much sums up my experience with the T-Mobile Vibrant (a.k.a. Samsung Galaxy S).

It went like this: having owned the iPhone 3GS for a few months, I finally couldn’t take being “yet another iPhone owner” any longer.  The T-Mobile Vibrant had just been released, so I stopped by a store to check one out.  It was lightweight, fast, bright, and the camera was snappy.  It seemed like a good purchase at the time, and getting a (mostly) current version of Android – version 2.1, though a few phones were on 2.2 already – promised that my previous Android frustrations would likely be appeased.

Or not.

I don’t want to inter-mingle my frustrations with Android and my frustrations with the Vibrant too much, but they are entwined in a few ways that are worth mentioning.

HARDWARE

One of the notable features of Android is how “open” it is.  The OS is presented to developers and manufacturers with only a few caveats regarding minimum hardware specs, screen dimensions, etc..  Otherwise, it can be slapped on low-end phones, high-end phones, with cameras, without cameras, big, small, with physical keyboards, on-screen keyboards only, and a slew of other options.  Case in point, Verizon is currently listing ten different Android phones for sale on their website – pre-owned and tablets excluded.  The market has gone from just a few Android phones available at all, to (in my opinion) being obnoxiously over-saturated with them. I’m fine with having “choice”, of course, but a large number of the Android phones out there are flat-out awful.

verizonAndroidHandsets

Samsung made a very interesting move with their Galaxy S line of handsets: basically, design a good “core” device, and then release concurrently on every major carrier, with only mid-to-minor tweaks between them.  The Vibrant (on T-Mobile) is probably the most “stock” as far as hardware goes, and then got bundled with a bit of extra memory and the movie Avatar.  The Captivate (on AT&T) differs quite a bit on the overall look, but otherwise has little else to offer vs. the stock hardware.  Note: I personally like the looks of this phone the best.  The Fascinate (on Verizon) features a front-facing camera, but otherwise looks nearly stock.  Finally, the Epic 4G (on Sprint) is probably the best-of-breed with a front-facing camera, 4G data speeds, a slide out keyboard, and a camera flash.  Now, Google has released the Nexus S, which is basically a Fascinate running stock Android 2.3 and little else to get excited about. 

You know what else?  Samsung has sold like a bajillion-million of these phones.  Their gamble with the Galaxy S appears to have paid off in spades.

Aside from the Super Amoled screen – which, by the way, truly looks great – I can’t get very excited about this phone. 

Let me explain. 

1) It’s very light.  Probably too light, in fact, because it ends up feeling like a toy instead of a quality phone.  It seems like Samsung could’ve easily just replaced the back plastic cover with a metal version and improved the overall weight/feel tremendously.

2) The phone creaks in an unnerving way – you can hear and feel it – even when you’re just holding it up to your ear during a phone call.  It gave the impression that the phone was cheap and that it could easily shatter if you dropped it from any distance.  In fact, no one ever commented to me that it felt like a premium-quality device.

3) The volume rocker is a slow, “clicky” button that’s a hassle to use.  It just doesn’t feel right.

4) While we’re on the subject, the Vibrant earpiece was never truly loud enough for me – even at the max volume.  I don’t need ear-blisteringly loud, by any means, but it shouldn’t need to be maxed out for a ‘passable’ amount of volume. 

5) The capacitive buttons are lousy.  Not only did the Search button require a concerted effort to trigger, the capacitive buttons needed to be ‘activated’, if you will, before they could be used.  That meant double-pressing, in many cases, if the button backlight ever turned off.  Not sure if this is typical of capacitive-button phones, but I’m guessing not.  Just a feature of these fine phones.

6) The battery life was ‘ok’ at best, abysmal at other times, and not at all consistent.  Some days I could easily get through the day with 40% of my battery remaining (using the stock battery gauge, which was off by a good 10-15%), while other days I’d be tanking by the early afternoon – and this with a couple of short phone calls, light email checking, and not much else.  I just never knew what battery life I was going to get from day to day.

7) If the battery life was abysmal, the performance of the phone was, at times, maddeningly poor.  Despite the fast processor and abundance of RAM, Samsung somehow managed to cripple these devices through some poor file system choices.  You might find the phone generally speedy, and then come across an application that was almost too slow to be useful.  The mail program, for instance, could barely move from message to message in less than 3 seconds – it would just lag.  After a 3rd party hack to move part of the app storage to RAM, those programs started behaving normally.  Not exactly a fix I would suggest for your average joe user, though, and not something that anyone should HAVE to do for reasonable performance.  Otherwise, the performance of the phone was frustratingly inconsistent – much like the battery life.  At times it was snappy, and at other times laggy as all get out.  In fact, this has generally been my experience with Android phones.  Maybe I’m just uber-sensitive to phone lag or something.

Not all was completely lost, though.  As previously mentioned, the Super Amoled screen is very nice to look at – if a bit overly saturated, which didn’t really bother me at all.  The sliding cover for the USB port is nothing short of genius.  All manufactures should take note.  Finally, the right-hand side power button is, in my opinion, the most natural place for it to live.  Although I did accidentally hit it a couple of times, it’s no match for the times that I “didn’t quite hit” the top-mounted power button on most other phones.  Personal preference, I suppose, though it’s worth mentioning that most other users were quite stymied to not find the power button on the top edge.

All in all, the Galaxy S devices have a lot of work to do, in my opinion, before they can truly be considered high-end handsets.  They ooze “cheapness” and “cut corners”, which leaves the end-user feeling pretty uninspired.  Well, it did for me, at least.  It really surprised me that Google opted for the Galaxy S design for their next “Nexus-branded” handset.  Not a wise move, if you ask me (and you probably didn’t). 

SOFTWARE

Don’t be dismayed, though.  For however much the hardware lacked on the T-Mobile Vibrant, the software lacked just as much. 

Whatever advances are made via Google to the Android operating system, the manufacture can opt to replace most of those advances, if they so desire – at least the ones you can see with your eyes.  In this case, Samsung has replaced a major portion of the user experience with their own TouchWiz UI.  Essentially, they’ve gone out of their way to make this Android handset look and act as much like an iPhone as they possibly can. 

It’s as awesome as you think it’d be.  </sarcasm>

   

The third screenshot of the app drawer really shows off Samsung’s desire to make the TouchWiz interface an iPhone-clone.

Although the TouchWiz interface does offer a few enhancements that are nice to have – phone control in the drop-down shade, easily text or call a contact via a left or right swipe, decent calendar integration – the majority of it is a mish-mash of design decisions with little coherence.

The default home screen features four main applications at the bottom – a la the iPhone – that remain as-is no matter what screen you’re currently on.  Speaking of home screens, the Vibrant features a default of not 3, not 5, but 7 screens for you to swipe between – and many of them are pre-loaded with widgets that are (seemingly) designed to make your phone run as slowly as possible.  Removing extra screens is easy enough to do, if you know where to look, though I usually ended up with the wrong screen as my default.  I never could get that to work correctly.  Lastly, the dots at the top of the screen tell you which screen number you’re currently on.  Sadly, they have a jagged outlined circle around the numbers which, honestly, looks pretty poor.

Like many phones these days, the Vibrant came pre-loaded with a bunch of stuff that I didn’t ask for, didn’t want, and didn’t plan on using.  Some of them can be removed, while others require ‘rooting’ the phone to be rid of them – and those are at your own peril, since you can negatively affect the function of the phone if done improperly.  Here’s the deal: if you’re going to include extra applications with the phone, at least give us a clear-cut way to remove them, if we so desire.  The pre-loaded stuff shouldn’t feel like a punishment.

Another bit of frustration were the camera and gallery functions.  For whatever reason, the AT&T Captivate actually features a *better* camera application than the Vibrant, even though the camera hardware is the same.  Thankfully, you could browse the XDA forums and get the Captivate camera app to load onto the Vibrant, but this isn’t something that a family member is going to do (or a co-worker ,or most of my friends, to be honest).  The gallery application looked nice enough, but sorted my pictures exactly backwards so that I had to scroll through all of my photos before I could see the most recent one I’d taken.  Nice, eh?  Also, the photos remained lo-res even when you zoomed in.  I never could fix that issue either.

The one saving grace of all this?  There are easy-to-find launcher replacements for Android.  Though I personally used the excellent LauncherPro, there are others just as worthy: ADW, Helix, Zune Home, and the stock Google interface, to name a few.  Any of these is better than TouchWiz.  Trust me.

On the positive side, Samsung saw fit to include Swype, which is an incredible on-screen keyboard replacement.  Certainly the best keyboard on Android, and it might be the best virtual keyboard on any platform.

All that said, the default software experience on the T-Mobile Vibrant did very little to impress me.  In fact, I came away more frustrated than pleased.  Not exactly a glowing review.

IN CLOSING

The T-Mobile Vibrant, while initially fun and exciting, eventually became a continual source of frustration for me.  The stock experience was lacking in so many ways: camera application, gallery features, overall phone performance, home screen layout, too much bloatware, and so forth.  I eventually concluded that I couldn’t with a clear conscience recommend this phone to anyone, unless they were willing to root it, load a new home screen launcher, replace several of the default applications, use a hack to fix the file system performance, and then deal with the cheap feel of the device itself.  All of that made the phone useful, at best, but still nothing to write home about.

Bringing this full circle, owning the Vibrant was a bit like owning a boat: the happiest days were buying the phone and selling the phone.  Everything in-between was just frustrating.

Thanks for reading.