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Music of 2012 [F]
Jan 9th, 2013 by Dan

Colorful Dream

They’re not a real band, but I think you get the idea.

The biggest change in 2012 for me was the rise of Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Sure, I still bought plenty of music from Amazon or Google, but an increasing amount of the stuff I picked up came from the individual himself. I mean, why would I expect the Fez soundtrack to occupy a spot in Amazon’s mp3 store? Thanks to Bandcamp, I can just pick it up almost directly from the artist.

2012 also marked the year that genre walls were officially smashed for me. I think the only stuff I can’t really tolerate is noise metal. Just about everything else can penetrate my cold, black heart and move me to sing and dance.

I certainly never would have guessed that I’d be listening to so much hip hop and R&B back when I started this blog in 2008. It was all punk, rock, and ska, but now I cast a much wider net.

Top Artists of 2012

1. The Beatles (409)

This has been a mainstay of every list since the catalog re-release back in 2009. There’s not really much more to say about how incredible this band is so I’ll instead comment on the fact that I listened to them ~1,100 fewer times this year than last. I really spread out my music time this year…

2. The Weeknd (333)

I can’t remember what month it was when I discovered the trio of mixtapes just waiting for me online, but I will say that The Weeknd opened my eyes to R&B in a way I would have thought impossible. Without him I guarantee you that Frank Ocean would not be on this list. Everything about his music is simultaneously sleazy and sexy and so wrong it almost feels right. “High For This”, “Wicked Games”, and “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” are all stunners.

3. Sambomaster (サンボマスター) (326)

Another mainstay ever since my Japan trip. My understanding of the lyrics approaches zero, but I feel like I understand everything Takeshi Yamaguchi is trying to say with that heartfelt, almost mournful, sandpapery voice. As cheesy as it sounds, it speaks to my soul, man.

4. Frank Ocean (270)

Think about this: I didn’t get channel ORANGE until November. Everybody’s talking about this record, I know, but allow me to say that Ocean penned and crooned the best album of the year. Nothing tops this in 2012, guys. Nothing.

5. Jonathan Coulton (269)

Some people would have you believe that Coulton is a novelty singer best enjoyed in small doses. Some people are wrong. Coulton’s earlier work may lean on a geeky, nerdy motif, but, like I said last year, Artificial Heart really takes him to a new level.

6. Disasterpiece (240)

I listened to a lot of game sountracks this year thanks to the ubiquity and ease of Bandcamp. Disasterpiece’s moody, quasi-ambient work on Fez proved spooky, lonely, and mournful while also igniting that spark for adventure. It’s all synth-y, but the notes never feel quite right, which is pretty much what Fez is all about.

7. Yoko Kanno (202)

I bet you’re thinking that this is all Cowboy Bebop music. You’d be wrong. Kanno’s work on the jazz tunes in Kids on the Slope opened my eyes to a genre I’d ignored for most of my life. That medley in the culture festival? Pure. Magic.

8. George & Jonathan (184)

One of their tunes was the theme to Polygon’s podcast, The Besties, and the album, Beautiful Lifestyle, struck just the right balance of playful and fun without getting obnoxious.

9. Regina Spektor (152)

I fell for What We Saw from the Cheap Seats as hard as a person could for an album. “All the Rowboats”, “Firewood”, and “How” are all so stunningly beautiful that I want to be listening to them right now…In fact, I think I’ll go put them on.

10. Rodrigo y Gabriela (151)

The first entry that confuses me about being on this list. I still dig their stuff, but I don’t really remember listening to it that much this year.

11. The Civil Wars (136)

I’m really worried about the state of this band now that they’ve canceled their tours. What will I do without Joy Williams’ beautiful voice? I hope they figure it out.

12. Kanye West (129)

The current king of hip hop, as far as I’m concerned. Yeezy goes big. Even though I haven’t loved his collab stuff as much as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I can’t help but come back to this guy time and time again.

13. Fall Out Boy (126)

So few bands know how to craft a tune as instantly catchy as these guys. Too bad they broke up.

14. Eirik Suhrke (119)

You may be wondering who this guy is. He did the music for Spelunky, a genius take on the Mega Drive soundchip that gives me that extra push to hit retry on the off chance that I get that sweet sax tune in the Ice Caves.

15. Tsunku (つんく♂) (114)

If I had properly tagged my Rhythm Heaven Fever music earlier in the year this number would be much higher. Academically I understand why other people might not love all the music in Rhythm Heaven, but in my heart I can’t understand why any awesome person would hate it.

16. Childish Gambino (113)

Part of that hip hop kick this year. Donald Glover is pretty awesome.

17. Nintendo (98)

You know what? I think that this 98 is supposed to be added to the Tsunku tally above. Hear that, Tsunku? You should be 7th.

17. Jim Guthrie (98)

The composer to the Superbrothers soundtrack knows how to make a sweet groove. Seriously, go check it out.

19. OK Go (97)

“Needing/Getting” will always be a favorite of mine because I’m a hopeless romantic (emphasis on hopeless).

20. Jasper Byrne (95)

The Lone Survivor soundtrack is responsible for this play count. It was equal parts creepy and beautiful and I couldn’t stay away last winter/spring.

21. Alex Cuba (91)

Man, that afro is cool, isn’t it? There’s a clarity and richness to his voice that soothes me and makes me feel funky.

22. Hannibal Buress (88)

Is your name really Hannibal? These plays are thanks to two of my favorite stand-up albums that I got this year. That Buress dude is pretty funny, y’all.

22. Ana Tijoux (88)

Saw her live this year. That was awesome. Her ability to spit rhymes in Spanish is mind boggling to me.

24. Juan Luis Guerra (85)

I wonder what percentage of these come from “Niagara en bicicleta”? (Answer: ~26%)

25. Kendrick Lamar (84)

I picked up good kid, m.A.A.d city at the same time (or close to it) as channel ORANGE and figured that it would definitely win, play-wise. Didn’t quite go like that, but trust that Kendrick Lamar’s rhymes are equally awesome. Definitely check out that disc.

Top 10 Tracks of 2012

1. The Weeknd – “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” (23)

It all sounds so drug-addled and sexy, but in a dirty way. This was the first track I heard by The Weeknd and the rest is history.

2. Juan Luis Guerra – “El Niagara en bicicleta” (22)

Quite possibly my favorite song ever? I honestly have no idea how it didn’t make the list last year.

3. George & Jonathan – “Little Marcus” (21)

The aforementioned former theme to The Besties. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and it’s super pleasant. A great little tune.

4. Carla Morrison – “Compartir” (20)

I would have expected “Una salida” to have this spot, but this is also a fantastic love song by a beautiful vocalist. Carla Morrison has this sweet, delicate voice that just breaks your heart while you listen to her. I absolutely love her and this song.

4. Neon Indian – “Polish Girl” (20)

I think I own two Neon Indian songs, but this chillwave track puts me in a spaced out place where I can’t not love it. Put a gun to my head and I wouldn’t be able to describe what makes this song so special, but I think it really does speak for itself.

6. Regina Spektor – “Small Town Moon” (19)

It probably ended up with the most plays by virtue of being the first track on her new album, but “Small Town Moon” is no slouch. It perfectly sets the mood for a thoughtful, beautiful album.

6. George & Jonathan – “Street Monsters” (19)

There’s really no good explanation for how this track got up here. It’s funky and it’s quick and I guess it got lucky compared to the rest of the album.

6. Frank Ocean – “Bad Religion”, “Pilot Jones”, & “Pyramids” (19)

And the list closes out with my three favorite tracks from channel ORANGE. All three of these are perfect in their own way. Be it the soulful poetry of “Bad Religion”, the simple hook of “Pilot Jones”, or that sexy electrofunk of the first half of the epic “Pyramids”, they all land so unbelievably perfectly on my ears that I’m shocked they’re not higher up on the list.

Artificial Heart Review [Feedback]
Sep 13th, 2011 by Dan

Jonathan Coulton

JoCo performing an acoustic set

Big surprise
It doesn’t care about second tries
You’re afraid whatever choice you make
Won’t be exactly the right mistake

-“Fraud”

Jonathan Coulton’s latest release, Artificial Heart, represents a much larger step that a lot of people might realize. After about eight years of pure solo effort, AH is Coulton’s first effort with a band and produced by someone other than himself. It also breaks with his comfort zone and explores many deeper themes and constants without using the nerdy/comedy song hook that made him internet famous.

To be honest, that’s really the best part of Artificial Heart. People love songs like “Re: Your Brains”, “Skullcrusher Mountain”, and “Code Monkey”, but there have always been greater depths to Coulton’s oeuvre that seemed almost hidden in his back catalog. Artificial Heart hides its comedy/nerdy songs at the tail end, almost as bonus tracks with a haunting rendition of “Still Alive” by Sara Quin, the Coulton version of “Want You Gone”, and the only real clunker on the disc, “The Stache”, a song about, well, mustaches.

The real meat of the album explores Coulton’s professional insecurities, maturing and dealing with the responsibilities of family life, suburban loneliness and despair, and, yes, a silly song in French. I’ll be going into detail, track-by-track, below:

1. Sticking it to Myself

The benefit of the increased production is rocketed right to our ears with this first track. It’s not really miles beyond the complexity of Coulton’s more flashy songs prior to this date, but it feels so much richer than anything that came before. It makes sense for this to be the first track of this new direction Coulton’s taking. It’s brash and loud and Stan Harrison kills on saxophone while Jonathan Coulton himself shreds on electric guitar.

It’s all apt for a sharp statement that Jonathan Coulton refuses to be classified in a specific way. I’m sure the Planet Money profile aired long after this song was done, but I can’t help but hear Coulton’s response in his lyrics.

The references to hostage situations could be interpreted as his perceived shtick holding him back while he also recognizes that said perception was partially created by the music he decided to put out. Still, he still feels that his career is in his own hands.

2. Artificial Heart

Paul and Storm regularly joke about Jonathan Coulton always writing melancholy songs about metaphysical creatures. Both may be true, but my point is that Coulton is a pro at writing the sad song. “Artificial Heart”, like “Not About You”, is a song about a breakup, only it’s a lot more obfuscated than “Not About You”.

His more subtle lyricism is brilliantly at play here in a song that tries to capture the aesthetics of a beating heart. There is a regular and prominent beat throughout the whole thing, but when it all ramps up we’ve got a strong bass drum keeping time.

I’m also rather fond of the piano/keyboard work in this song. It’s a fun song, but I think it’s mid-tier on this album.

3. Nemeses

One of the few Jonathan Coulton tracks headed by not Jonathan Coulton, John Roderick takes lead vocals here while Coulton harmonizes. Of course, not three tracks into a record I describe as less reliant on geeky topics, “Nemeses” is about a hero trying to get a villain to be his arch-nemesis.

Only it’s deeper feeling than it normally would be. Instead of hovering on the concept like he might have done with humorous lampshade hanging and trope highlighting, Coulton just lets this song be. Roderick’s vocals are smooth and sweet and Coulton’s harmonies add tremendous depth to a song that is as much about a hero who needs a villain as it is about professional jealousy, rivalry, and living up to your potential.

The Japanese seem to almost fetishize the concept of the rival in their anime and video games as a not-necessarily-antagonistic figure who is the motivation and catalyst for realizing your full potential. Here we see something similar in a hero attempting to get the attentions of a villain to make them both better. It’s interesting and I wonder if this is yet another way for Coulton to work out his professional insecurities toward other larger acts as he seeks to grow and expand.

4. The World Belongs to You

On the forefront we have this wonderful song whose main draw is the delicate sounding banjo work about a god whose star has begun to fade as its decisions, ambivalence, and handling has caused his believes to become disillusioned with it.

It’s definitely a stretch, but the themes are also applicable to the kind of meteoric rise to success that some stars have. Their initial success brings them into the spotlight and they can do no wrong. Of course the egomania from fame begins to take shape and while the creative mind of the artist pulls him one way, the demands of the people go another. Our “god” cannot reconcile this with his vision of what is right and sort of writes them off.

“The World Belongs to You” is a really grim and depressing song. I love that Coulton is so skilled at hiding them within really upbeat ditties. The arrangement in here is sparse and delicate, but it doesn’t feel precious. It’s one of the good ones on this album.

5. Today With Your Wife

From the hidden melancholy of “The World Belongs to You” we dive face first into the morose sounding, “Today With Your Wife”. It doesn’t go where you think it might from the title, but it’s more depressing for it.

Even sparser than the last track, this is a pensive piano track. The only other sound, beyond Coulton’s longing voice, comes from brass tones. It creates an empty sound that emphasizes the gap in the situation. Our song narrator is lamenting the fact that someone, probably Coulton, “should have been there” in this nice, soft, touching, close moment he had with his wife.

I see this song as Coulton expressing anxiety over the fact that his touring keeps him away from his home and his family. Being gone so much has to put a strain on them as he is missing these tiny, tender moments. The small moments that really make up real life. It’s touching and sad and precisely the kind of song I love from Jonathan Coulton.

6. Sucker Punch

It’s actually pretty appropriate to have “Sucker Punch” follow “Today With Your Wife” as both deal with responsibility.

“Sucker Punch” is one of those songs that feels obvious on the surface on what it’s about, but I can’t quite see any levels beyond that. It’s a short song, clocking in at under two minutes, and I think it’s about not wanting to grow up, mature, or accept responsibility as everyone else around you does.

There are some neat percussive parts in here that feel more complicated than pre-band Coulton percussion, but not to a highly noticeable one. It’s just the kind of small touch that I feel a dedicated drummer (rather than drum loops) can add.

7. Glasses

“Glasses” is another of my favorites on this album. With all the songs about longing for lost loves and suburban depression, it’s good to see a happy song about the people he loves.

It’s not super sweet sounding, since it’s got some hard drumming and guitar work, but it’s sweet in tone. This is a song that celebrates the tiny moments in life and how it’s the tiny things that bring people together, not the grand gestures or moments.

Like I said before, great drums and guitar work in this song and the vocals are sneakily poetic. My favorite section from the song:

“There’s water in the walls
The stairs make waterfalls
Down in the basement the soft sound of a river digging deep”

It’s just a beautiful reflection of the way that water moves and is such a huge element of change, but it’s always so gradual and slow and hidden. Little bits of water able to make rivers able to dig canyons.

8. Je Suis Rick Springfield

This song has got this real lounge singer style to it and it’s perfectly in line with the ridiculous French. I love the xylophone.

I read the English translation of this song and it seems like it may be poking fun at him for the French “Re: Vos Cerveaux”. It’s not meant to be taken that seriously and it’s full of poor French and a hilarious Greek chorus-esque part where the French listeners mock his French. The other great thing about it is that Rick Springfield, assuming he’s talking about the same guy, is Australian, not American.

9. Alone at Home

This song is a lot like “Shop Vac” in its exploration of the vapid, consumer-driven, hidden unhappiness of the American suburban ideal. It’s been done by him and done better thanks to “Shop Vac”‘s haunting news stories in the background.

It’s not a bad song, just not a great one. Got solid band work, just not that interesting to me.

10. Fraud

The bass line to this song carries the whole song, but the real beauty comes from the fantastic acoustic work. “Fraud” has a soft sound that belies its message about professional doubt (as I see it).

It’s not the deepest reading of the lyrics, but it certainly seems like it’s about those personal demons that gnaw at you from inside making you think that you’re a fluke and that your success is accidental. Could be that Coulton is making a statement about his doubts in expanding his operation, adding a band, and growing his sound. Is it too coincidental that this song feels most like it could have been an old Coulton song?

“Fraud” has got a great hook in the chorus that I absolutely love. This song ranks among my favorite on the album.

11. Good Morning Tuscon

This feels like the way more happy and mature spiritual sequel to “Code Monkey” in the sense that it’s a song about working and the way that goes, but not in the computer science or romantic way. “Good Morning Tuscon” is a good six years later from “Code Monkey” and the insecurities of youth have given way to a guy who is a lead in his morning show. The protagonist of the song is weary and shocked at how old he’s become, but he’s still able to do his job well. There is a hint of the Coulton melancholy in here too with that line from the chorus:

“I throw to you before I throw the rest away”

It’s definitely a catchy song and I can see why it was one of the first cuts that JoCo released online in advance of the album.

12. Now I Am An Arsonist

“Now I Am an Arsonist” is an absolutely beautiful song that is layered so deep that I can’t quite decipher its meaning. It’s full of imagery about heat, height, flight, construction, and destruction. I mean, it’s pretty much a story of a relationship that didn’t seem to work out with neat shifting perspectives, but, like I said, I can’t quite parse out all of the imagery. I can say that even the somber talk about an astronaut burning up in the atmosphere is absolutely beautiful.

Suzanne Vega does most of the heavy lifting on this song, with JoCo harmonizing and singing only one verse. Her voice is haunting and beautiful, which appears to be the two qualities Coulton is looking for in his duet partners, but that haunting aspect is helped along by sparse instrumentation (ie: little to none). I love this song. I don’t think I get it yet, but I love it.

13. Down Today

Both chipper and bitter, “Down Today” centers around a dude who is rubbing his new relationship in his ex’s face. Rather like “Not About You”, we’ve got contrasting lyrics with Coulton singing about not “coming down”, but all the time that he’s up he’s obsessing about ridding himself of his ex. It’s the kind of contradictory lyric that Coulton does reasonably well and it doesn’t feel that old.

Unfortunately, “Down Today” is stuck between two far better songs so, despite how much I dig this song when I hear it, I rarely remember it compared to “Now I Am an Arsonist” and “Dissolve”

14. Dissolve

A lot of this album seems to move in phases about similar topics. This relationship phase kind of ends with “Dissolve”. Where “Now I Am an Arsonist” feels like a relationship in progress, but headed toward failure and “Down Today” feels like a guy who has recently ended a relationship, “Dissolve” seems to be long after that relationship has ended. In fact, it appears to end with the character breaking up with a new person. Throughout the song we see how the character has learned from his failed relationship, but that while the changes seem to have made him stronger, he’s not above doing the same thing to someone else.

This song is my favorite one on the entire album. It resonated with me from the first listen onward. Everything about it is so great and I think it’s where the entire band concept congeals best. The bass line is wicked, the drums are hot, the guitars are sharp, and JoCo’s lyrics are perfect. This is the song that makes it happen. I especially love that last verse with its sparse bass and drum portion. So much fun.

15. Nobody Loves You Like Me

The most popular interpretation of this song is about an aging musician dying of throat/lung cancer resulting from too hard a life. It’s supported by the constant references to death, breathing, lungs, even an overt reference to smoking. The theory is even supported by the heavy vocoder use that makes Coulton’s voice sound like it’s coming from one of those throat vocoders for throat cancer patients.

It’s also readable as an embittered lover at the end of a relationship with its references to divorce papers. Let’s just say it’s a nuanced song.

There’s barely any instrumentation aside from the heavy vocal processing and it does create a sad, lonely feeling. It’s a good song, but it feels like it’s over before it starts because of how quickly it moves.

16. Still Alive

This version is sung by Sara Quin whose petite voice contrasts pretty deeply with Ellen McLain’s GLaDOS. There’s spooky theremin work and it makes for a sweeter, but sadder version of the song. Quin doesn’t quite hit the emotional notes as hard as McClain does in the game, but it’s different and good enough that you’ll like listening to it even though you’re probably sick of “Still Alive” by now.

I’m not sure I like Coulton harmonizing in this, but it’s relatively inoffensive. Just feels a little unnecessary and like it’s stronger with only Quin’s voice to guide us.

17. Want You Gone

This is my favorite of the two Portal songs and it’s interesting to hear Coulton’s voice versus McLain/GLaDOS. It’s almost a bummer that it’s from Portal 2, because the elements stand on its own…aside from the Caroline reference.

The instrumentation is almost identical to the game version minus one or two touches that I particularly loved from the original. Still, it’s a good song and I was happy to see the non-game versions on the disc instead. I think “Want You Gone” works better in Coulton’s voice than “Still Alive”, so I’m glad to see that he got Quin for that too.

18. The Stache

My least favorite song on the disc. Maybe I don’t fetishize mustaches enough, but it’s kind of dumb and I don’t like it. The music is fine, but the lyrics are too stupid for me to love.

Ok, ok, it has its moments. It’s not that bad, just not my favorite. That’s why I devised that bonus track idea about the album.

Artificial Heart is a bold step in a new direction for Jonathan Coulton. Purists might not dig the new production or the new direction, but I think it represents tremendous growth for JoCo and I hope to see much more along these lines in the future. Coulton has always been much more than the deceptively simple, geeky songs that made him popular and while I do love those, I’m happy to see him move away from being pigeonholed as a niche performer.

What I’ve Been Doing 05 Sept 2011 [FB/IB/F/BT/GO]
Sep 6th, 2011 by Dan

Wild Flag

Best NPR First Listen!

Movies

Tokyo Godfathers – I wrote at length about this movie here, but I just wanted to take a few words to say how truly fantastic it was. Great movie.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. – Tiffany and I were choosing between this and Our Idiot Brother (ostensibly because they were the only two “date” movies, but really because of my dual crushes on Emma Stone and Zooey Deschanel), but I think this would have been the better choice. Crazy, Stupid, Love. was sweet and funny. Only real downside was the C-plot being a little creepy. Easily the best romantic movie I saw this summer (Best comedy goes to Bridesmaids).

Super – James Gunn is a sick man, haha. The movie was middling to me, but it was much better at showing how sick and ridiculous everyone involved would have to be than Kick-Ass was, so I liked it more than that. Ever wanted to see an awkward sex scene/quasi rape of Rainn Wilson by Ellen Page? This movie’s got it and it’s just as off-putting as you’d think it would be. Ellen Page does a great job playing a quasi-psychopath in this. She’s fantastic.

TV

Weeds – I can’t believe I’ve missed what’s been in front of my face this whole time. The whole season has been about Silas and Nancy’s relationship with each other after he found out who his real father was. Things are really ramping up here.

Top Gear – What a fantastic show. Makes me think stupid things like that I want to buy a BMW, but it’s a lot of fun to watch. The segment where they tried to escape that Italian town was hilarious.

Dexter – Lent my mom Seasons 1 and 2 and ended up watching part of the first episode. Always neat to watch the pilot and see how the show has changed from its inception.

Better Off Ted – An adequate way to kill a half hour while I eat or need a break. The show wasn’t gonna break any funny records, but it’s better than some of what’s out there. Just no real place for it on ABC, I guess.

Retro Game Master – The affirmation section of The Wing of Madoola was really funny. This show is at its best when the Kacho is able to make all kinds of silly jokes. Also hilarious was the part where he called the game company to see if he could still win a raffle from the 1980s.

Music

WILD FLAG – NPR’s First Listen looks like might it’s still up. Go check it out. I listened to this disc all last week and loved it.

The Civil Wars – Really got into them last week. Joy’s voice is so sweet and John Paul harmonizes well with her. Delightful to listen to.

Jonathan Coulton – His new album, Artificial Heart, came out this week. Good times, good music. I really like “Dissolve”.

Books

Collected Stories – So far Márquez is obsessed with twins and death.

(Comics from here down)
Amazing Spider-Man – Spider-Island continues! Still lots of fun.

Spider-Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu – Felt just a little too stereotypically Asian for me. Good art, but the story was kind of boring.

Ultimate Comics Hawkeye – I can’t say I’m that interested in Hawkeye as a character, but Hickman’s writing remains really cool and the consequences on the Ultimate U are huge. To have the X-gene eliminated in all but one region is a tremendous tactical advantage. Wonder if it will stick.

Video Games

Bastion – I agree with most people, the Narrator is super awesome. This game is fun, but it couldn’t tear me away from TF2 and…

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Got in the beta. Can’t say anything else or I’d violate the NDA.

Team Fortress 2 – TF2 remains awesome. Playing with Dave and Lee this weekend was a lot of fun. Got a lot of new achievements, but Sentry Gunner continues to elude me. I will have it one day. Oh yeah, I also played with KENDRA. Killed her once too. She did not get me back…yet.

Dragon Age 2 – Still working on that second playthrough as a Templar supporter this time. Reminds me that I’ve gotta go back and fix my ME2 playthrough for ME3 in March.

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