Tunequest Year in Review 2008

This year’s end summary is going to be a little shorter than in the past, for two principle reasons: 1) 2008 was a lot busier for me than recent years, so my opportunities to explore and listen to new music were more limited, and B) I spent a lot of the free time I did have listening to audiobooks and podcasts rather than music. Indeed, 2008 saw only 510 new songs added to my library (with 103 of them largely unlistened because they were added in the last two weeks), compared with 2051 new additions in 2007.

And looking back over the numbers and trends, it is clear that my musical year for the most part ended toward the end of summer, since that’s when the new additions and activity begin tapering off.

Let’s not mistake quantity for quality though. 2008 was not without its highlights. Here’s a look back at the best music I discovered in the past year:

Kelley Polar: Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens (2005); I Need You To Hold On While the Sky is Falling (2008)

love songs of the hanging gardens

In December 2007, I heard my first Kelley Polar song. In January 2008, the album that song appeared on (Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens) rocked my world. I wrote on tunequest:

it pulls at you with pulsing with heady rhythms, ass-shaking grooves and a surprisingly high level of singability. The aspect that strikes me the most however, is how the music simultaneously seems to sound sparsely populated yet vast and teeming with activity. A bit like the seeming emptiness the heavens above, which when looked at closely is full of magnificent detail.

i need you to hold on while the sky is falling

Following shortly on my discovery of Love Songs, Polar’s second album, I Need You To Hold On While the Sky is Falling, was released on March. While I was less ecstatic about it than I was toward Love Songs–it’s darker tone and more intimate feeling weren’t quite as compelling–I still found the album quite enjoyable. It’s even grown on me a bit since the original review.

Together, the albums made a significant mark on my musical year.

Ratatat – LP3 (2008)

ratatat lp3

It should be of no surprise to long-time readers that Ratatat’s third LP made a big splash around here. Released in early July, LP3 rocked up my charts, becoming the most played artist, album and songs of the year.

With its simultaneous expansion of both guitar and keyboard sounds, the album pretty much ruled my summer.

The Breeders – Mountain Battles (2008)

mountain battles

After six years since their last album, The Breeders typified the idea of pent-up demand. The band has consistently ranked near the top of my favorites, which makes it frustrating that it spends long hiatuses between releases.

It’s made all the more frustrating by the album’s short length, approx. 36 minutes. But those 36 minutes are pure gold. As I said in my original review, the band’s “low-key, basement fuzz brings with it an inviting warmth.” The buzz and good feeling I got from this record’s release was capped off by finally, after 14 years, catching the Breeders in concert in June.

Stereolab – Chemical Chords (2008)

Stereolab is another perennial favorite around tunequest and a new album is sure to be listened to with much delight. Chemical Chords was no exception. The groop took a slightly different approach to this album, consciously creating shorter, simpler, more poppy songs than in the past. The result is a refreshing buoyant, dare I say happy, feeling from a band that has traditionally been cool and detached. Happy looks good on them, as I noticed when the band swung through town in September.

Junior Boys – So This Is Goodbye (2006)

Before picking up So This Is Goodbye, Junior Boys had long been on my radar. It was the opening band at a show I went to four years ago and they piqued my interest then. But it wasn’t until I happened across the record on eMusic that I finally checked the band out.

I was not disappointed. So This Is Goodbye is fantastic album. Expertly produced and crafted, the smooth electronic tones have an intimate, downtempo feel that borders on melancholic. It’s almost a rainy day album, except that it’s got too much shine behind it.

Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble – Music for 18 Musicians (2007)

This album arrived late in the year, just before Thanksgiving, but it packed quite a wallop.

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is a notoriously hard piece to perform. So it is something of a shock to see this, and pardon the bluntness, “no name” orchestra release what is probably to best rendition of it ever recorded. Written in 1974-1976 and focused largely on Reich’s fascination with harmonics, Music for 18 Musicians creates cyclical, trance-inducing soundscapes that mesmerize and fascinate the ears and mind. Grand Valley State’s recording is the first made in surround sound and it is a thing of sublime beauty that is quite an accomplishment.

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There you have: tunequest highlights from 2008. There’s always great music out there and although 2009 is shaping up to be just as busy as last year, here’s hoping I have to to discover some of it.

The Breeders – Live in Atlanta

the breeders rock out live in atlanta

I just pulled in from midtown Atlanta, The Loft, specifically, where The Breeders just put on a hell of a show. I’ve been a big Breeders fan since the Last Splash days (14 years ago). Yet due to the band’s somewhat sporadic history, tonight was my first opportunity to see them play live. And what a great performance they put on.

The band was in good form and in good spirits, clearly having a good time.

This was the last show of the tour (or as Kim Deal said at one point “the last tour of the show”). Maybe it was just road exhaustion, but the band was positively loopy. Or maybe everyone was just in a good mood. Jokes were told, funny faces were made and anecdotes were shared. At one point, Kim introduced the band’s third guitar player Cheryl, mentioning that she was from Florida and asking who else in the audience was from there as well. In response to a number of “whooops” that erupted from the crowd, Kim said “We’re from Dayton Ohio, so we got you there” and merriment ensued.

The show itself covered the gamut of Deal-related material, including songs from The Amps side project. In fact, the show opened with Tipp City, which happens to be one of my favorite Amps songs. Last Splash got some good treatment, with renditions of New Year, No Aloha, I Just Wanna Get Along, Divine Hammer, a sublime version of Drivin on 9 and of course Cannonball. A house-collapsing performance of Saints closed the first encore.

The Breeders latest album, Mountain Battles, was also well represented. Bang On, We’re Gonna Rise, Here No More, Night of Joy, German Studies, Walk it Off and No Way all made appearances.

Noticeably absent though was much of the material from Title TK. Huffer was brilliant, but other than that I don’t remember the band playing any other song from that album. Similar story with the songs from The Breeders’ debut album, Pod. Only a handful from there as well: Iris, Happiness is a Warm Gun (Beatles cover) and one of my most favoritest songs ever Fortunately Gone, which closed out the second encore, the show and the tour.

A perfecting end note for a wonderful experience.

Given just how great a band The Breeders are, the sporadicness of its output can be quite frustrating. But going to bed now on a natural musical buzz, I can say that after seeing the band perform live, I have accomplished a life goal that’s been with me for nearly one and half decades.

I leave you with Bang On, from Mountain Battles, performed Live in Atlanta, June 13, 2008:


The Breeders – Mountain Battles: Slow burn to perfection

Sorry for the relative quiet around here lately. I’ve been on a bit of a holiday. Here’s a review posted from a small island ~10,000 miles from home.

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After nearly six years in the musical wilderness, alt-rock godfathers The Breeders are back with a disc called Mountain Battles. And boy is it a good one, but its quality may not be readily apparent on the first few listens. The record, only the group’s fourth in its twenty-year career, slowly reveals itself after repeated exposure, its melodies and rhythms becoming lodged in one’s subconsciousness.

While the Breeders have never been known for precision production quality, Mountain Battles feels especially lo-fi–almost like a follow-up to Kim Deal’s 1995 side-project The Amps. (though The Amps might as well have been a Breeders project, given the personnel involved and Kim’s control). In true Breeders fashion, however, that low-key, basement fuzz brings with it an inviting warmth.

It’s a borderline tragedy then, particularly given the long span since Title TK, that Battles runs quite short, clocking in at just more than 36 minutes. Spread out over thirteen songs, the music barely gets started before it ends. Then again, that is also true Breeders fashion: always leaving you wanting more. Hopefully we won’t have to wait so long before the next album.

Free Listen: Bang On:

Breeders Digest.

iTunes Report: High Impact Artists

I’ve spent the past couple days playing around with Alex King’s iTunes Stats program. It’s written in PHP/MYSQL and requires a web server to run. With the MAMP one-click server running on my PowerBook, I had little trouble installing the program (though I did have to substantially increase the PHP timeout setting so it could handle my large library).

iTunes Stats reads XML files, one can load an entire iTunes library or export playlists for more selective examinations.

The program also comes with a number of built-in reports, such as Most Played Albums, Most Played Artists. Top Rated Albums/Artists and the option to weight by number of rated songs and play counts. The engine supports adding custom reports, so if you are motivated enough, you can create new methods of analyzing your music.

My PHPMYSQL-fu is not very strong virtually non-existent. Still, I was able to cobble together my own metric: Artist Impact.

An Artist’s Impact is measured by the total number of play counts they have received divided by the number of songs that artist has in the library. For example, Artist A has 20 songs in the library and those 20 songs have been played a total of 100 times. Thus, 100/20 = 5. That’s Artist A’s Impact. Basically, it tells you, the avergage number of times a song by that artist has been played.

This formula is a way to compensate for the bias present when some artists have significantly more tracks than others. In my case, I have 329 songs by film composer Jerry Goldsmith. He has an inherent advantage over say, The Breeders, who have 63 songs in my library. By virtue of being so prolific, Jerry is naturally going to have more play counts.

After playing around with it a bit, I’ve made some interesting observations. Firstly, the top 21 most impactful artists in my library, with one exception, have only one or two songs. In cases where an artist has a low number of songs, each play count is “worth more” in relation to other artists. A single play by an artist with only one song nets that artist a full “point,” whereas as single play by an artist with 20 songs would only gain .05 points.

Fortunately, I’m able to set a threshold for display, keeping outliers from being counted. Here’s my top ten High Impact Artists. The artist must have at least five songs in my library. Additionally, this list only takes into account “popular music” (excludes classical, live shows and film/tv scores).

Artist # of Songs Plays Impact
(avg plays / song)
1 Jet 7 73 10.4286
2 Rilo Kiley 55 512 9.3091
3 Glitter Mini 9 7 65 9.2857
4 National Skyline 10 92 9.2000
5 The Strokes 47 426 9.0638
6 String Theory 5 38 7.6000
7 Mercury Rev 34 257 7.5588
8 mouse on mars 154 1116 7.2468
9 Cex 37 264 7.1351
10 Bran Van 3000 34 228 6.7059

I’m very surprised to see Jet in the number one spot. That’s because my affinity for the band has waned to virtually nil. Still, it’s hard to argue with the dent Are You Gonna Be My Girl? made in my listening habits back in ’03. The ironic part is that overall, I didn’t care for Get Born, so I ended up deleting five of the thirteen songs on the album. Those weaker songs aren’t there to dilute Jet’s Impact by lowering the ratio of play counts to songs, so the band’s number seems artificially inflated.

Overall, I’m having quite the enjoyable time playing with iTunes Stats, even though it’s a little rough around the edges. I’m working on a couple of new reports and have even figured out how to get it to tell me which albums are missing ratings and how many ratings need to be completed.

Fun times ahead!

It’s the Orpheus Express and we’re heading right down to Hades, ladies

japanic

One cold night, during the very cold December of 2000, I found myself at the original Handle Bar myspace warning in downtown Pensacola. Dilapidated doesn’t even begin to describe the place, but its rundown condition gave it the perfect character to be a favored destination for the town’s surprisingly robust hipster set, until it burned down in 2001. don’t worry, the handle bar was rebuilt in a new larger building in the same location that’s actually a much better music venue.

The venue was, and continues to be, an iconoclastic home to PBR drinkers and is one of the handful of places in town where independent, unsigned and local musicians can perform their music. On this particular winter’s night, I and a friend from high school (as well as some of her friends) were in attendance of this band who were touring in support of their debut album. Their name was Japanic, a strong enough band name, though I had never heard of them. That night, I wasn’t all that interested in live music, as I was enjoying a mellow hang out with friends. So I was a bit irked when the band started playing and my companions started moving away from the corner Gauntlet machine and toward the stage. Though, the performance space was so small that it was only a matter of steps from the arcade to the stage.

The band rocked pretty well, a quintet producing a kind of keyboard/synth-laden funk rock, like if The Breeders were new wave and danceable with perhaps a hint of Pink Floyd sprinkled into the delivery.

At one point during the set, while the band was breakin’ it down, Tex, the singer, hopped down from the stage and started dancing among the 20 or so gathered people. He also happened to be dancing right next to me. The beat was infectious, and so was the fun he seemed to be having. But I can’t dance, at all. So I upheld the dignity of us both by maintaining my “stoic music appreciation” headbob-and-stare.

All in all it was a very good show, but as is the case with so many upstart bands, I expected to never hear of them again. Thus, it came as quite a surprise that, a week later, I was riding with another friend and discovered Red Book, Japanic’s album, while flipping through the CDs in her car. She was bummed when told her that they’d been in town and she had missed the show, but she let me borrow the CD, a favor for which I am infinitely grateful.

After that, the rest is history. I never did hear anything more of Japanic. At this point, it’s incredibly hard to dig up info about the band, but Space City Rock’s Houston Band Graveyard tells me that the group broke up sometime in 2003, after releasing a second album titled Social Disease. i’ll have to track down a copy of that.

Still, these six years later, that short-lived band continues to fascinate me.

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Presented for your enjoyment, Japanic’s signature tune: Orpheus Express, which sounds like the funnest damn trip to hell and back there ever was:

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Download a live version of Orpheus Express, found on Austin’s KVRX’s “Unlimited Bandwidth” Local Live Vol. 6.

Red Book at Amazon
The Social Disease at Amazon

The Breeders – The She: This song is meandering funk

aka “rhythm by arithmetic”

title tk

The Breeders disappeared for a very long time, taking nine years to release a follow up to their 1993 breakthrough Last Splash. But when they returned, they did with gusto, submitting a stellar album that proved that Kim Deal could still write some compelling music.

The following is a mellow groove, its steady rhythm demands your attention. It’s unlike anything the band had attempted before and, I gotta say, it works. For your consideration, from Title TK, The She.

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title tk on amazon
the full thing on plastic at amazon

The Breeders – Fortunately Gone: A Short Case of Sublime Perfection

the breeders - pod

One minute and 44 seconds worth to be precise.

And the subject of this perfection is The Breeders’ Fortunately Gone from their 1990 debut record, Pod. The song is a paragon of simplicity, with a gentle, upbeat, bobbing rhythm and seductively playful singing that doesn’t hesitate to draw you in.

My only complaint is its length. It is so perfect, yet so tantalizingly short, that I can’t help but want to hear more. So, for the one time since the tunequest began this year, I made an exception and listened to a song twice. In fact, I think I blew out a car speaker on the drive home doing just that.

It won’t help though; this song will be stuck in my head for days.

It would be impolite of me to not share such a wonderful song, so here it is in all its glory:

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pod at amazon

April 18-20 : 135 songs played. 34 removed.

so i broke the 3000 mark recently (which incidentally was the posies ‘open every window’ from the legendary dgc rarities compilation), and it occurred to me just how big a project this is and just how large, in practical terms, my iTunes library is. yeah, i know 14,000 songs is a lot, but really, in my head, it’s just been a number. though i am prepared to complete this project over the long haul, it seems daunting when i hit a milestone such as 3,000 (a respectable number by itself) and still see that i have more than 11,000 to go.

today’s entry:

  • deletron 3030 [deletron 3030]
  • christopher franke [babylon 5: a late delivery from avalon]
  • nine inch nails [demos and remixes]
  • yo la tengo [and then nothing turned itself inside out]
  • elastica [elastica]
  • oslo philharmonic performing tchaikovsky’s no.1
  • masamichi amano [battle royale]
  • dusty trails [dusty trails]
  • christopher franke [babylon 5: chrysalis]
  • marseille philharmonic live at the opera de marseille conducted by lalo schifrin

elastica, in my mind, never seemed to reach the point of appreciation where i would be like "yeah, elastica rules!" even though i’ve owned their debut album for almost 11 years. on the flipside, in those 11 years, i’ve never had a period of time when the band fell out of favor; there’s just been a consistent mild respect and liking for the music. and it continues to this day. elastica’s first album is really quite enjoyable, inventive and catchy. •

there is a lot to like about yo la tengo and if i had to name the preeminent band that carry’s the "indie rock" torch, they would be a top contender. and while their body of work is extensive and all of it is above par, none of their albums are as brilliant as 2000’s and then nothing turned itself inside out. it is a departure from the band’s earlier work, the kind of diversifying album rockers start to make as they get older. mellow and gently meandering, it takes a mostly moderate tempo and incorporates a wide range influences, creating a beautiful and relaxing collection of tunes. it was the song ‘madeline’ on this album that turned me from a casual listener to a real yo la tengo fan. and, of course, the song titles taken from troy mclure movies earn this record extra points. •

quickies:

dusty trails, the side project of former breeders and luscious jackson members, has a similar sound and feel to and then nothing turned itself inside out, but with a more 60s cinematic atmosphere to it. simply elegant it is.
nine inch nails demos and remixes is a bootleg that features some disconcerting early versions of now-familiar standards. if nothing else, it’s interesting to hear how the songs progressed before landing on an album.