An Inauguration Playlist

Unlike many of my fellow Americans, I am not super-excited about the upcoming Obama presidency.  I'm very happy to be done with the W years, but it's fairly obvious we're not going to the get the crazed liberal socialist that right-wing radio promised us, and that I actually wanted.  I'm totally into things like universal health care, environmental protection & sensible energy choices, and a sustainable national food policy. So while I'm happy that things will no doubt be less horrible than they have been, I don't really believe that I'm going to wake up Wednesday morning to a world filled with rainbows, unicorns, and a federal budget surplus.

All that aside, I'm still moved to celebrate the inauguration of our first African-American president and our latest (nominally) liberal one with a playlist.  (Props to Mrs. Creative DC for the idea). Please enjoy some songs that I think have special relevance this week, as we welcome to DC (well, he was already in DC, but whatever) the man who may not save the world, but is no doubt going to change it forever, as most American presidents do.  Let's hope it's for the best.

Explanations of my song choices below.

Cinderella - The More Things Change  In addition to taking me back to the days when I used to watch Headbanger's Ball every Saturday night on MTV, this song sums up how the cynical side of me (it's a big side) views the whole "Change" meme.  I guess I'm a change agnostic:  I'll believe it when I see it.

The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again  "Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss."  OK, that's probably not remotely fair, given who the old boss was, but let's face facts:  Obama is still an American politician.  They're not all that different from each other.  [Editor's note: gross generalizations brought on by several days of frozen pipes at my house turning me more cynical than usual.]

Alice In Chains - Down In A Hole  Not one of my favorite songs of theirs, but I think it adequately sums up the position in which our country finds itself economically and in other respects.  I don't want to be down in the hole, I just think that's where we're at at the moment.  

Nas - Black President  One of the few recent Obama-themed songs I can stomach.  Seriously, I can't handle that will.i.am song.  I like Nas's line "America, surprise us, and let a black man guide us."  It still strikes me as sad that most of the news coverage in 2008 was more or less "Wow, a black man or a female might be President!  Ain't that some shit!"

The Magnetic Fields - Washington, D.C.  This song is not really about DC at all, it's about love.  But given that my city is considered cool for the first time in the nearly 9 years I've lived here, I felt it deserved a musical shout-out.

Extra Golden - Obama  This band is made up of members from Washington, DC and Kenya, so it seemed perfectly appropriate that they compose an ode to the Senator who lived in DC and had Kenyan roots in his family tree.  Obama also helped some of the band members obtain visas so they could enter the U.S. a couple years back, so this song was their way of returning the favor.

Super Furry Animals - Presidential Suite  This song is about the excesses of those in power; in particular Clinton and Yeltsin get name-checked.  It's not really relevant for Obama (yet) but I love the romance of the chorus:  "You know that we belong/In a presidential suite/Armed guards in the street/Waving back at crowds who greet." I blogged about a great remix of this song a while back.

Eric B. & Rakim - Eric B. is President  Truth is, I just wanted to include this song.  But I'm willing to go the extra mile for my readers and come up with a thin justification for its relevancy.  I think these lines actually do seem like Obama in both his seeming unflappability as well as his ability to draw and motivate giant crowds of people:  "I don't bug out or chill or be acting ill/No tricks in '86, it's time to build/Eric B easy on the cut, no mistakes allowed/Cuz to me, MC means move the crowd."

They Might Be Giants - James K. Polk  A bit of presidential history, and a good reminder for us cynics that sometimes presidents can surprise you.  Sometimes.

Billy Bragg & Wilco - Christ for President  This just in from every media outlet in the world:  Obama walks on water!  Obama raises the dead!  Obama turns water into wine!  Etc.  [Editor's note:  there may be some sarcasm going on here.]

David Bowie - Changes  I've never been able to decide if this is an optimistic song or a pessimistic one, so it seemed a perfect fit for my ambivalence at this time.  Either way, it's a great song, and it's about change, so it makes the list.

Cloud Cult - Hope  A beautiful song, even though it doesn't make a ton of sense.  However, the optimist in me (I actually am an optimist, just a cynical one) loves the line "Just hoping makes me better for it."  It's important not to let the cynic run the show all the time, or it gets really boring (see: middle seasons of Six Feet Under).

Pavement - Harness Your Hopes  The cynic's back, and he brought a friend!  "Harness your hopes/On just one person/Because you know a harness/Was only made for one."  I sincerely hope that everyone else is right and I'm wrong on this one, and at this time next year we'll all be talking about what a kick-ass president we have.  That's my hope.  This song also features the line "The freaks have stormed the White House/So I moved into a lighthouse," which makes me laugh.

Changes - 2Pac  It seemed only right to include this, since without this song Nas wouldn't have his song, and so it goes.  I've always loved this song, because it manages to be both deeply pessimistic and somehow hopeful at the same time, and sometimes, I can relate.

Scorpions - Wind of Change  Yes, at this point, I'm just getting silly.  But there was a time when I would have talked your ears off about how meaningful this song was.  Seriously.

Jesus Jones - Right Here, Right Now  Remember when we all thought the future had arrived and history was over and everything was going to be cool from now on?  I feel some of that sentiment going on in America today, though a very different version of it.  Still, this song never sounds outdated to me.

Steely Dan - Change of the Guard  Yes it's a (relatively) terrible song, but the optimist in me is insisting that I end this thing on a high note, so here goes:  
"If you listen you can hear it
It's the laughter in the street
It's the motion in the music
And the fire beneath your feet
All the signs are right this time
You don't have to try so very hard
If you live in this world
You're feelin' the change of the guard"
So, what are you listening to for the Inauguration?  Are you hopeful?  Cynical?  Bit o' both?  Tell me in the comments.


Best Albums of 2008

Since I already blogged about my favorite songs/artists that I heard for the first time in 2008, it seemed only right that I A) add some more that got left off the list, and B) give some credit (in blog form) to the best albums that came out in 2008, regardless of when I first heard of the artists. Once again, this list is incomplete, very subjective, and has changed the last 4 or 5 times I tried to narrow it down to 10 albums. So I guess this is more like "today's best albums of 2008 list" since I know I'll change my mind tomorrow.

First, here's a playlist of a track from each album.

And now, some reading material:

This album had a hold on me from the first time I heard it. Their blend of punky high-energy pop, ridiculously clever and complicated lyrics, and immensely catchy hooks just grabbed me and hasn't let go yet. Last time I said I was torn between "Death to Los Campesinos!" and "My Year in Lists," but it turns out the song I really wanted to showcase is "This is How You Spell 'Haha ha, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of A Generation of Faux-Romantics'," which earns points both for being a great song, and for having one of the longest song titles I've ever seen.

Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
I already gave my friend Kate a shout-out in my other "best of 2008" post for introducing me to this band, but she deserves another one. This album showcases some of the best of what this band is capable of, namely intelligent lyrics, wonderful percussion, great multi-tracked vocals, and a wonderful instrumentation that manages to be both spare and lush at the same time. This song, "The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver," has almost the exact same tune in the background of the verses as Leonard Cohen's "Dress Rehearsal Rag." Coincidence? You decide.

Mother Mother - O My Heart
How could I have left this band off of my other list? It's a toss-up between this album and Los Campesinos! for "album Jordan listened to over and over again way too many times in 2008." This album has it all: pop hooks, syncopation, clever-but-somewhat-dadaist lyrics, bright shiny production, and incredibly catchy songs with nicely layered vocals. Like Los Campesionos!, Mother Mother makes great use of male & female vocalists for a fantastic sound reminiscent of the Pixies (some would replace "reminiscent" with "derivative," but whatever). I had a hard time choosing a favorite song off this album so I went with the one I found most often repeating itself in my head, "Ghosting." This one doesn't sound a lot like the rest of the album, actually, so it's kind of a terrible choice in terms of representing the whole thing, but it's still a great song, especially the lyrics. Musically it really gets going around 2 minutes in. EDIT: I couldn't pick just one song from this album, so please enjoy "Burning Pile" as well.
Girl Talk won my heart back in 2006 with Night Ripper. I was disappointed by almost everything else I heard from him after that (i.e. his earlier records), but Feed The Animals picks up where Night Ripper left off, and continues his brilliant streak of mixing hip-hop, 70s hits, 80s pop, and a host of other stuff together with mathematical precision and an ear for hooks. "Play Your Part" is the album opener, and I think it's the best track on here, but the whole thing is worth a listen. No need to make a fancy playlist for your next house party, just throw this album on and let Girl Talk do the work of finding something for everyone. Check out the samples used in this track alone.

Plants and Animals - Parc Avenue
This album can sound at turns rambling, expansive, jam-bandy, and occasionally focused, but it's always listenable and usually fantastic. I find a lot to like here, which is easy because they play with several genres at once in any given song. This track, "New Kind Of Love," sounds to me like what Fleet Foxes would be if they lived up to their hype. [Editor's note: they don't.] They have a knack for a catchy chorus that sounds more or less accidental, like they kind of fell into it during a jam session. But that's deceptive; there's obviously a plan at work here, which is why this album works so well.

School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms
I didn't know what to expect when I heard that Secret Machines guitarist Benjamin Curtis had formed a new band. I guess I expected Secret Machines-lite, which is kind of what I got from the last couple of Secret Machines albums. Instead I got this riveting electro-dance-pop album [Editor's note: there's probably some real sub-genre that the hipsters are using for this sort of thing, but I don't know the name of it.] that really rewards repeated listenings. This track, "Connjur," is one of the lighter numbers on the album, but nicely showcases the vocal abilities of twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza as well as the general dancing-in-a-weird-80s-dream vibe of the whole album.

TV On The Radio - Dear Science
I didn't like this album the first several times I heard it. I wanted more horns, more bizarre vocal stunts, more a cappella, more of everything I loved about their first album. And then one day it just suddenly clicked for me, and I realized that this is a fine album by a band that's growing and trying different things. It's just that in TV On The Radio's case, they started out weirder and are getting (slightly) more normal, so progression for them is not what I'm used to hearing in terms of bands branching out and experimenting. But now I know they can make good, accessible songs and still showcase their unique talents, and I'm OK with that. I guess I'm growing, too. "Crying" could have been a Top 40 dance track in another era with a different singer.

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
Ah, Vampire Weekend. For the longest time I told myself you were just a flash in the pan, a band of limited talents who stood on the shoulders of giants and put in just enough songcraft to get the job done and pull the wool over the eyes of today's youth. Then I realized that I had inadvertantly memorized every track on this album because they are all so damn catchy. Why fight it? This is a wonderful pop album with some great influences. I like "The Kids Don't Stand A Chance" both because it sounds different than most of the other songs on the album, and because I love the title's modern update of the Who's "The Kids Are Alright" - whether it was intended to be that, I couldn't say, so let's assume it was.

Why? - Alopecia
2005's Elephant Eyelash was such a great album, I had very high hopes for this follow-up. The sound is a lot fuller and richer, with more instrumentation and fleshed-out choruses, but that overarching sense of dread and loss remains, which makes for a great album from a band (well, a solo act, more or less) to watch. "Good Friday" doesn't feature the higher-pitched nasal sound that is Why's trademark, but it does contain a reference to Houdini's death by an unexpected punch and the line "sucking dick for drink tickets/at the free bar at my cousin's bat mitzvah," so it made the list.
I used to think "One Pure Thought" was the only great song on this album, but that's not doing justice to the glitchy ballads that make up this album. Whether they're going overboard with the synthesizers on "Touch Too Much" or overboard with the drum machine on "Bendable Posable," Hot Chip does their best impression of really sad robots on this album, and while the results are mixed, they are usually great. "Wrestlers" is a robot's attempt at a Justin Timberlake song (seriously, I could hear Justin and [hot rap artist du jour] making a Top 40 hit out of this song) and it's deliciously weird. Word to the wise: skip the last track on the album, the robots checked out and the humans really weren't up to the task on that one.

Honorable Mention: M.I.A. - Kala
This album isn't consistent enough to make it into my official Top 10, but c'mon...Paper Planes! The Clash never sounded so good (with apologies to The Clash). Just to mix things up, I've included the "Scottie B. Remix" from Paper Planes: Homeland Security Remixes. For more on my love affair with this song, click here.

Well, that's my list. I've already changed my mind about it, but now it's written so I'm stuck with it. What were your favorite albums released in 2008? What are you looking forward to that's coming out in 2009? Tell me in the comments.


Finetune: Like Pandora, But With More Buttons

Thanks to a friend of mine, I recently discovered Finetune, a Flash-based music recommendation/playlist-creation site.  The site's been around for a while, but it was new to me, so I took it for a test drive.  At its most basic, Finetune is a music recommendation engine, not unlike Pandora.  Unlike Pandora, however, Finetune allows you to select individual tracks and add them to custom playlists that you can then share, tag, embed on your MyFaceSpaceBookBlogger profile, etc.  There are some crazy rules about the playlists (due to the oh so forward-thinking music licensing laws) but overall the experience was a good one.  Here are some hots & nots:

  • 30 second preview of tracks is very useful, and after the preview it takes you back to the previously playing track where you left off.
  • very extensive selection (they get music from most of the major labels + CD Baby and another independent retailer).
  • site design lets you surf around the site without stopping the music.
  • the recommendation engine seem pretty good; based on Elbow it gave me tracks from Muse, Beta Band, and some bands I'd never heard before, but they all matched the vibe I started with.
  • it lets you select individual tracks to add to a playlist - that's a huge leap over Pandora or Slacker.
  • auto-generated playlist doesn't show you upcoming tracks.
  • the interface is simple, but not very intuitive - you need to read most of the FAQ to understand a lot of the options available and also why it does certain things and doesn't do other things.
  • no ability to thumbs up/thumbs down a track/artist.
  • saving a playlist you create requires you to add a minimum of 45 songs from 15 different artists with a maximum of 3 tracks per artist - that's not entirely their fault, it's due to ridiculous licensing laws, but still.  45 tracks?  that's a lot of time to spend putting together a playlist.
  • at the moment, I can't figure out how to get recommendations based on multiple artists, like Pandora - but I'm sure there's a way.
  • the pop-out player didn't work for me (in Chrome).
All in all, it's a good site and I'm hoping to use it more to introduce myself to some new bands.  Anyone else tried it?  What did you think?