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.


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.

Ratatat – LP3: Expansive and diverse sounds

In the past, I’ve taken issue with the tendency in some circles to lump Ratatat’s music in with that of the 8-bit crowd. I can understand the temptation, what with the band’s programmed, electronic beats, screaming guitars and ample keyboarding. But while their tones may sometimes sound similar to those produced by the Nintendo Entertainment System, their origins are much more organic.

So it surprised me to see that Ratatat appears to be overtly embracing the 8-bit sound while simultaneously diversifiying its non-electronic sound on its latest record, the straight-forwardly titled LP3. This record is a virtual homage to the keyboard. Indeed, the album cover features three of them. The effect is that just about any sound that can be produced by playing the keys finds its way onto this record somewhere. Indeed, one of the lead tracks, Mirando, mixes the bright and clean upper register of a grand piano with the laser beam-like sounds of an 8-bit system near its crescendo.

Don’t fret though, the duo haven’t thrown their guitars away. In fact, Ratatat seems to be well on their way to finding world peace and ultimate truth, the wailing guitar, Wyld Stallyns way. But even there, the stringed instruments shows some surprising variety. Again, the cacophonous Mirando mixes Ratatat’s thrashing riffs and slide guitars with the interjection of a banjo.

Other standout tracks include the disc’s opener, Shiller, which spends most of its time as a contemplative, baroque-style dirge before exploding into a high-flying spaced-out waltz. From there, LP3 hits overdrive with Falcon Jab further demonstrating the band’s new-found commitment to diversity. The guitars talk Peter Frampton style, the percussion is accented by shakers, and the keys of a harpsichord and baby grand trade expressions.

Mi Viejo has a distinct world-music flare, like a caravan moving up and down over the crests of sand dunes. Likewise, Mumtaz Khan shows a distinct Middle Eastern flavor, like what you might expect to find in a Turkish nightclub. Meanwhile Shempi, another highlight, is a wurlitzer-powered merry-go-round spinning through hyperspace. Gypsy Threat takes on the atmosphere of a Scooby Doo chase through an abandoned carnival.

Of the thirteen songs presented here, there’s only one that could arguably be referred to as a “typical” Ratatat song. With its mid-tempo beats and harpsichord melodies, Dura would almost feel at home as the backing track for one of Ratatat’s infamous remixes if it weren’t such a compelling track on its own.

With three albums under their belt, Ratatat has consistently shown themselves to be on the top of their game. But that game keeps expanding, with each successive album adding a new layers of complexity and textures to the band’s modus operandi. LP3 shows that whatever sights they set for themselves, they’ll reach them with gusto.


Note, the Amazon MP3 store offers a exclusive bonus track: Shempi [E*Rock Remix].


Mirando video:

Infographics, nuclear weapons and Ratatat

While perusing the Internet this morning, like you do, I stumbled upon this very compelling video at YouTube. I was drawn to it initially because the song used for the soundtrack is Ratatat’s Gettysburg, and I’m a sucker for anything Ratatat related.

The video is a taut and thorough overview of the current state of nuclear weapons technology and proliferation in the world. It showcases all the nations that currently possess armed-and-ready weapons as well as the number of weapons that are operational (Russia has the most with 5830 active). It goes on to simulate a 150-kiloton detonation centered on the Empire State Building.

It effectlively crams a lot of information into a scant three minutes and the somewhat frantic beat of the music impressively augments the visuals. There is no advocatcy message however. The video is strictly informative and the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions.

The video was produced by GOODmagazine, which has a number of similarly styled videos on it’s own YouTube channel. GOODmagazine describes itself as a non-profit media outlet for “people who give a damn.”

You can pick up Gettysburg, here:
ratatat classics ratatat gettyburg at itunes

Yeah, What They Said 8/25

Links to interesting stories. This edition is long overdue.

Medialoper: 5 Ways to Improve eMusic
I love eMusic. At ~$0.25 per song, it’s easily one of the best values in the digital download arena. While generally functional, parts of the site could use some overhauling. Medialoper leads the discussion on how.

Cognitive Daily: Even the musically untrained respond differently to new symphonic movements
“A new study of brain responses to music has found a striking difference in brain activity when a symphonic movement ends and the next one begins, compared to other parts of the musical work.”

Fredflare: Rad Chat with Ratatat
Fredflare talks it up with Evan Mast of Ratatat, one of the greatest bands of the current millennium. Amongst other things, he explains the origin of the band’s name:

The band was originally called Cherry, but there was conflict with other bands using the same name so we had to change it. We just sat down and brainstormed for a few days. It was slow going, but then the name just popped into my head and it was the first idea we’d had that we didn’t absolutely hate. After a while we even started to LIKE it. Now I really like the name Ratatat and I don’t like Cherry much anymore. Cherry” made us sound like sissies! “Ratatat” makes us sound tough, right?

Hollywood Reporter: Unique stories lie behind every licensing deal
A series of anecdotes about the various licensing deals a number of artists have entered into and the effect those deals have had on their careers.

A lot of people claim that they can’t hear the difference between a 128kbps file and a 256kbps file. This video proves that there is indeed a difference.

I think every English speaking person in the world should read this story all the way to the end. It’s a life-changing experience. After you’ve finished, you’ll probably want to die, or kill, or both.

Have a non-iPhone phone or PDA with audio capabilities? Out-of-the-box, iTunes doesn’t offer much in the way of getting audio files onto them. SyncTunes however, might be your savior.


And finally, a RatingQuest update: As of 8/25 6:30PM EDT, I have rated 8,050 out of the 15,865 songs in my iTunes library. That’s 50.7% completion, a 2.6% increase from when I started.

Ratatat – Loud Pipes single: Another smooth creation

ratatat loud pipes

I don’t know how I missed it, but Ratatat quietly released Loud Pipes as the third single from Classics a couple months ago. The record is out on vinyl only and, in addition to the title track, it features three attractive and compelling b-sides:

  • Loud Pipes (Outtakes).
    Bears only the slightest resemblance to its namesake. The beat and instrumentation are there, but otherwise, it’s a whole other song.
  • Kennedy (e-rock remix).
    E-rock is Ratatater Evan Mast’s brother. He turns in a competent re-working of Kennedy (also from Classics). His version sounds a little repetitive, but it has got some big sound behind it. There’s also a nifty breakdown around the 5:20 mark.
  • Goose.
    New track. Rhymes with Noose, the b-side from Germany to Germany. The song is the least-stated in all of Ratatat’s repertoire. In stark contrast to the band’s enormous sound, Goose is barely there. A simple baroque-esque melody over a quiet, high BPM thud-thud-thud. At less than two minutes long, the song is over before it gets started.

All in all, another fine release from Ratatat. Now when can we expect that next album?

Loud Pipes: $7.00 from Turntable Lab

Listen to Loud Pipes (Outtakes):

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Magnetosphere: Awesome iTunes Visualizer

One of the lesser-used features of iTunes is its visualizer, the colorful animated display that accompanies any music that’s playing. The visuals are a fun little distraction, but once the novelty wears off, the usefulness of the function tends to be limited. Though, in college, a PowerBook and an LCD projector made for a pretty rockin portable party system.

g-force shot
Ol’ trusty G-Force

iTunes, from version 1.0, has shipped with a default visualizer: G-Force, which was originally a plugin for SoundJam (the app that iTunes was initially derived from). It was groundbreaking at the time of its release and it still has some appeal, but at seven years old with no major updates, the plugin shows its age.

Enter Magnetosphere, a brand-new visualizer that was recently released as a beta. It’s not the first third-party visualizer, but it is the best one I’ve seen yet.

Magnetosphere features excellent music response, smooth animation (even on my aging G4 PowerBook), a variety of visual themes, and best of all, lots of pretty colors. One could stare at it for hours (assuming they have nothing productive to be doing with their time) and I’m even tempted to throw a party just to show it off.

This thing is awesome, but don’t take my word for it. Here’s a video I made of it in action:

Magnetosphere, iTunes plugin, in action

The best part starts around 1:50, but really, just watch the whole thing. And if at all you’re curious, the song is Nostrand, the sleeper hit from Ratatat’s Classics.

Download Magnetosphere from Barbarian Software. Mac OS X and Windows versions available. Requires iTunes of course.

Update 5 Sept 08: There’s a rumor going around that the Magnetosphere visualizer will be included with the also-rumored iTunes 8, which itself is rumored to be released mid-September 2008.

Update 9 Sept 08: Yep, looks like the rumor mill had it right. Magenetosphere is now a part of iTunes by default, as of version 8, which is available for download from Apple.

Yeah, What They Said 4/17

Yeah, What They Said, links to interesting stories that I don’t have time to write about. Some people call it “link sharing.”

In television and movies, “sourced” music is music that is heard by the characters in the scene. That’s opposed to the underscore, which is heard only by the audience. StarTrek.com has a series of articles on the source music used in:

Need to identify a song? Play it for Tuniac.

For something cool, spy these intricate and detailed models made entirely out of paper.

Also, here’s a chimpanzee playing Pac-Man. Seriously.

Finally, since both Ratatat and Nine Inch Nails have made appearances recently, here’s a video mixup. It features Ratatat’s Wildcat played to the video of NIN’s The Hand That Feeds. Enjoy:

Ratatat in Atlanta: The ringing in my ears

The ringing in my ears serves as a reminder that I have permanently lost a portion of my hearing, but I’m telling you it is worth it. I just got home from Ratatat’s show in midtown Atlanta and I have something to admit to you:

Seeing Ratatat perform live is one of my favorite things in the world. This show marks the third time I’ve managed to catch a performance and each time has been simply mind-blowing.

ratatat in atlanta april 10 2007

In studio, Ratatat’s synthesized beats are phenomenally addictive and their guitar melodies rock oh so much. But live, man, there’s this power and richness of atmosphere that creates a unique kind of sonic ambrosia that’s rare in modern popular music.

If I had the means, I would totally follow them around on tour.

For a good explanation of the Ratatat sound (and better photos of the show), check ohmpark’s write-up. Though I hesitate to lump Ratatat in with the 8-bit sound crowd. In fact, I think the band could hardly be farther from it. 8-bit operators rely on the primitiveness of early game music as the source and inspiration for their sound, whereas Ratatat is clearly coming from a traditional rock background (whaling guitars!) spiced with a danceable groove and almost baroque composition style.


Ratatat will play a few more date in the U.S. and U.K. throughout April. Go see them if you can.

For a taste of the Ratatat live experience, check out this crappy cameraphone video clip I shot during Lex, one of the rockin’ist songs in the repertoire.

For a better experience, try this video of the band performing in Seattle in September 2006. The songs are El Pico and Wildcat:

Ratatat in 60 seconds

ratatat in 60 seconds

So I was itching for something to do this evening, and inspired by WFMU’s recent 10 Albums in 10 Minutes contest, I decided to cram the 45 minutes of Ratatat’s self-titled debut album into a 60 second playing time.

Here’s the result. It’s a pretty smooth overview:

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