Favorite albums of 2008

It’s been almost a year since my last “best of” list, so it must be time for another one. Amidst the death spiral of the big music companies, there were a lot of good albums this year, so as before this includes more than a “top 10”:

21d34tcce7lShe & Him, Volume One. Okay, so it’s Zooey Deschanel. But it’s also M. Ward. And the two of them together make some pretty beautiful music. The cover of the Beatles’ “Should’ve Known Better” is one of the nicer surprises on the album, but some of the originals (“Sentimental Heart”) in particular are quite good, and if Zooey’s singing voice is occasionally a little mawkish, her self-harmonies on a few of the tracks are worth the price of admission.

11puaiaefnlNada Surf, Lucky. It wouldn’t be a top ten list from me without a Nada Surf album. This one doesn’t reach the heights of The Weight is a Gift or Let Go, but there are gems nonetheless, like the bizarre polka of “Ice on the Wing” and the yearning pull of “Beautiful Beat” and “Are You Lightning?”

517yq33iftl_sl160_My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges. There aren’t enough good Southern fried jam bands led by falsetto vocalists with undeniable funk tendencies in the world, and this is the best of them. I love the two-parter “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream” for the name and the music, and “Highly Suspicious” and “I’m Amazed” combine to ensure that the band will never be mistaken only for a bunch of left-wing Skynyrd impressionists.

55332s50Okkervil River, The Stand Ins. This band earns their presence on this list both for this album and their previous, The Stage Names, which I just discovered this year. Hat tip to my college classmate Darius Van Arman of Jagjaguwar for signing these guys.

61lilxzuxcl_sl160_Gemma Hayes, Hollow of Morning. A welcome return to the US market by the big-voiced wistful Irish vocalist. Her second album was never released stateside–I have yet to hear it–but her first, Night on My Side, was one of my favorites a few years ago. The new album takes the voice to some familiar places but also some quieter ones; Hayes seems both stronger and more fragile after a rough few years, and it makes for gripping listening.

45826s50Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago. Hard to avoid this album this year, even if you’re consciously trying to listen to fewer angsty indie rock boy music. This album avoids being only angsty indie rock boy music by dint of its rough isolation and its complete bitter sincerity–a bracingly honest musical statement that can’t be listened to in a noisy room.

61oap4rqc9l_sl160_aa115_David Byrne/Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. It sure isn’t My Life in the Bush of Ghosts II, and it didn’t have to be. There are some really brilliant songs on the album, David Byrne is in fine voice, and Brian Eno’s musical textures are as squelchy/crunchy/sweeping as ever. So what if Byrne doesn’t touch his guitar nearly enough and Eno’s beats are as white as ever? Well, actually fixing those two things would have made the album a lot better, but it’s still good enough to be on this list.

49317s50Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Momofuku. Put Elvis Costello into a room with a solid bunch of musicians and turn on the mikes and this is what you get–a searingly raucous set of new tunes that tear the status quo a new hole and rock their way into your jeans.

51vixffxrvl_sl160_The Fireman, Electric Arguments. WTF is Paul McCartney doing on this list? Showing the youngsters how it’s done, mostly–some soaring electric moments, some amazing (but not saccharine) ballads, and a healthy dollop of experimentation. Much nicer than his Starbucks release from last year.

21eg6jnaynlCat Power, Jukebox. If Chan Marshall keeps releasing records like this, she’ll make a strong case that she’s this generation’s leading interpreter of popular song–an unlikely successor to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald or even Dusty Springfield, but a strong contender nonetheless. As in Springfield’s case, the backing band doesn’t hurt either. Nice slice of Memphis-ized greater and lesser known songs.

51t8uq6xiql_sl160_Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: many artists would kill for songs as strong as the stuff Dylan throws away. Tell Tale Signs is effectively a direct sequel to the first three Bootleg volumes, which covered the period up through the mid-80s, and while it mines leftovers from a far smaller proportion of his sessions (Oh Mercy, Under the Red Sky, World Gone Wrong, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times), the result is a compelling set of tracks that prove Dylan’s continued vitality.

51822s50Beck, Modern Guilt. After a lightweight party album (Guero) and a disposable “serious” album (The Information), I was skeptical about the new recording, and bringing Danger Mouse to the party felt like a desperate grab for relevance by an artist several albums past his peak. Well, I was wrong–Danger Mouse was an inspired addition to the party (though the one non-DM track, “Chemtrails,” is one of the best on the album), and the album is tighter than anything Beck’s done in years. It hits you in the dance bone and gets out of there in 30 minutes. What more could you ask for?

43196s50Radiohead, In Rainbows. The album so nice they released it twice–digitally and physically–and so wonderful that they earned a place on my best list two years in a row. This year’s release of the live recordings of the material on the “Scotch Mist” video podcast gave me renewed appreciation for the soundcraft behind the sonic textures.

57005s50Shannon Worrell, The Honey Guide. I’ve written about the album at length, so I’ll just say that (a) there’s a reason that it’s been in my sidebar for months and (b) “If I Can Make You Cry” may be one of the strongest individual songs of the year. Shannon, when are you going to come up to Boston?

54044s75Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend. A candidate for fun party-music album of the year, this album features a bunch of white kids playing Afropop music and totally pulling it off. That their lyrics are about trust-fund kids from the Cape is a precious conceit, but the songs are fabulous nonetheless.

You can also see the list at Lists of Bests.

Putting it in perspective

I don’t have the energy or time to write the summary of how I feel about the election, except to note that others have already done a pretty good job of summarizing for me.

From a campaign strategy perspective, 2008 will be discussed for many years, but a few things I found interesting in looking at what worked this time around are below:

Outperforming past Democratic candidates: Obama versus Kerry and Gore – War Room – Salon.com. By the numbers, it’s an impressive performance, but it’s more impressive if you visualize it, as one poster in a thread on Politico.com did:

the red states are states in which obama did worse than kerry
The red states are states in which Obama did worse than Kerry.

The red states are the states where Obama did worse than Kerry. That’s a pretty good illustration of the heart of social conservatism in the US.

That aforementioned thread suggests that there was some interesting gamesmanship going on in the end to bring the McCain campaign so deep into Pennsylvania, a state that it ultimately lost by a double digit margin.

Interesting that even after a blowout, there’s pressure from the media saying Obama needs to move to the center.

Both McCain and Obama’s campaign systems were hacked and compromised, and Palin took runaround money meant to buy three suits for the convention and bought enormous quantities of clothes for her family and herself, including some items that have apparently been lost.

Threats to Obama, as monitored by the Secret Service, were directly correlated to Palin’s feral rallies.

New mix: Funky President

  1. James Brown, “Funky President (People It’s Bad)”
  2. William S. Burroughs, “When Did I Stop Wanting to Be President”
  3. The Cure, “Primary (Morgan Studio Outtake 9/80)”
  4. Max Roach, “Freedom Now”
  5. Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come”
  6. Virginia Glee Club, “I shall not die without a hope” (Testament of Freedom)
  7. Jay-Z and Danger Mouse, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”
  8. Youssou N’Dour, “Hope”
  9. Branford Marsalis, “Freedom Suite: Interlude”
  10. The Flaming Lips, “Suddenly Everything Has Changed”
  11. Arcadia, “Election Day”
  12. Extra Golden, “Obama (Live, KEXP)”
  13. Funkadelic, “One Nation Under a Groove”
  14. Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed”
  15. Parliament, “Chocolate City”
  16. Lou Reed, “Voices of Freedom”
  17. Miles Davis, “Freedom Jazz Dance”

Fired Up, Ready to Go

I voted this morning at around 8:25 am. I was number 325 at my precinct; a line about 100 people long had been there at 7 am, so I was catching things at a brief resting point. There was a PTA bake sale on the way out. It was a traditional end to a most untraditional election.

This has been the most amazing presidential election I can remember. I followed 2004 closely but wasn’t too plugged into it–went into the general election behind Kerry but was never a huge fan. As I drove cross country the week of the Democratic National Convention listening to podcasted speeches on my iPod, the one that impressed me most was Barack Obama’s, and I didn’t know who he was then. I think we all do now.

Now we’ll see what happens. I’m “fired up, ready to go” but I’m also nervous as hell. It’s been too long a road and there have already been too many notes about dirty tricks for me to relax now. But we knew it would be a long road and I’m ready for a long night tonight if necessary.

There are things I can think of to pass the time–like a little online competition to see who guesses the electoral college split–but I don’t want to jinx the outcome. So for now, to work, and we wait.

And watch the early returns. By all indications this will be a huge turnout election, and it’s already breaking some precedents–like Obama becoming the first Democrat to win in Dixville Notch, NH since 1968.

By the way–when did they stop handing out “I voted” stickers?

The fifty state strategy in action

A piece in the Las Vegas Sun about Howard Dean caught my attention. After the “Dean Scream” got played into the ground by the media, Dean has largely been ignored by the popular press, but I think his actions at the DNC have been substantial in positioning the Democrats in 2008. And it’s instructive to take a look at the actual speech which preceded his “scream”:

Not only are we going to New Hampshire, Tom Harkin, we’re going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we’re going to California and Texas and New York … And we’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Yeah!

I linked to electoral poll results for each of the states Dean called out. It’s interesting to see that while many red states have stayed red, Arizona, North Dakota, and Michigan are all clearly in play, while New Mexico has moved solidly into the “safe Democratic” column. And geez, look what’s happened in Virginia and North Carolina.

I think that the overplaying of the Dean Scream may have been one of the biggest injustices ever done to a presidential candidate by the media, but in the long run, maybe the party is better off for having him in the internal role that he’s excelled at.

The really interesting question, raised by Kos this weekend, is: who will the right find to rebuild the party? Who will play Howard Dean for the GOP?

Unfortunate camera-mugging

Thanks to John Gruber for pointing to Austrian coverage of last night’s debate, complete with this bizarre picture of McCain. I think the caption says that he was reacting after he mistakenly turned the wrong direction to shake hands with the moderator. But there couldn’t be a worse image to sum up his debate performance last night:

Voter registration vs. voter suppression

What does it say about our politics that one party regularly tries to engage new voters and the other regularly tries to suppress them? If you believe the complaints from the GOP, they’re just trying to stave off widespread vote fraud. But study after study has shown that there is no widespread vote fraud conspiracy, which surely the Republicans know full well. Salon’s article Behind the GOP’s voter fraud hysteria covers some of the studies, including the fact that from 2002 to 2005 only one person was found guilty of registration fraud, 20 were found guilty of voting while ineligible and five people were found guilty of voting more than once, while the GOP worked to ensure that thousands more were disenfranchised.

And that’s really what the voter fraud suppression efforts are about: disenfranchisement on a massive scale.

Hey, Republicans: how about you go out and register your own voters rather than suppressing newly registered ones?

Nasty moments in Presidential debates

The commentariat are going to love this moment, because it sums up some things that the conventional wisdom has been saying about McCain — cranky, really angry, hotheaded — and surfaces some new memes. Like disrespectful. Like borderline racist. Like, can’t believe he’s losing to this guy.

I think this is McCain’s “heavy sigh” moment.

YouTube – McCain Calls Obama “That One”.

VP debate, the morning after

I livetweeted the debate last night (start, end) and was reminded of a few things in the process. First, writing about anything as it happens means you’re paying much closer attention to what’s said. I got more of a substantive understanding of Biden and Palin’s positions, a closer awareness of both of their stumbles and gaffes, and a much deeper engagement in the process than if I had simply been watching it.

Aside: why did I ever try to do liveblogging before there was Twitter? Even if each post is 140 characters or less, it’s still a superior user experience to a heavyweight blogging CMS.

Now, the downside of liveblogging the debate. I didn’t have my eyes on the TV very much and so missed some of the nuances–I had to see someone else’s tweet to realize that Joe Biden spent much of his time looking at the moderator rather than the camera when he answered his questions, for instance. And I think that there was a downside to paying such close attention to individual exchanges, namely: I came away without a feeling about how the debate had played overall. Oh sure, I thought Joe took it on substance, but as I tweeted late last night, I’m not 100% sure that’s what matters to the American undecided voter. And I can certainly see a scenario (reinforced by the GOP spin from last night) where Palin and McCain get a bounce because her performance wasn’t a miserable failure and because she came across as a folksy, relatively human person.

I kind of hope, though, that we don’t hear any more “maverick” after last night.

Update: Doc has the same concerns about the debate performances that I did. That doesn’t mean, btw, that I think that focusing on personality is right; just that the pragmatic view is to ask how well each debater played in Peoria.

Keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times…

…because something tells me this race is going to be a rollercoaster for the next few weeks.

Screenshot below from the excellent Election ’08 iPhone App, from Pollster.com and Slate. For a more nuanced view, look to the fine folks at Electoral-Vote.com, which shows Obama’s lead 338 to 185 electoral votes, with 15 ties. This high margin is pretty new in the race–back in early September, the lead was only about 100 electoral votes.

For more context, check out the historical trends on Electoral-Vote.com, where you can see what happens if you don’t count the states with a less than 5% margin of victory (answer: we don’t have a clear winner yet).

Instant karma

There are some moments of karma that are just too good not to post. This is one of them: GOP delegate’s hotel tryst goes bad when he wakes up with $120,000 missing. An attendee of the RNC convention who argued that the US should “bomb the hell” out of Iran and seize its resources to pay for the invasion picks up a woman in the hotel bar, who … makes him drinks, gets him bombed, and seizes his resources:

In an interview filmed the afternoon of Sept. 3 and posted on the Web site LinkTV.org, Schwartz was candid about how he envisioned change under a McCain presidency.

“Less taxes and more war,” he said, smiling. He said the U.S. should “bomb the hell” out of Iran because the country threatens Israel.

Asked by the interviewer how America would pay for a military confrontation with Iran, he said the U.S. should take the country’s resources.

“We should plant a flag. Take the oil, take the money,” he said. “We deserve reimbursement.”

A few hours after the interview, an unknown woman helped herself to Schwartz’s resources.



Meta campaigning: what to do when the other guy won’t talk straight

American representative democracy is based on some non-intuitive principles–that we the people should care enough about how we are governed that we develop an informed opinion on it, that power is best when dispersed and checked–and on some non-obvious assumptions. The one assumption that is absolutely key is that the people will have access to enough information on the candidates to make an informed decision.

This election is testing that assumption. With one side, we had a bitterly fought primary that lasted almost eighteen months and went right down to the wire, a candidate who has written two books and multiple detailed position papers about his views and policy proposals, who has said all along that he wanted to get above politics as usual to address core issues. On the other side, we have a ticket that has played fast and loose with the truth about themselves, particularly about Palin, and about their opponent. In this environment, there’s information asymmetry and the voter loses.

So how do you get back to the point where a balanced and fair exchange of views is possible? Well, maybe you run an ad that calls the other candidate on the lies he’s been telling, and you do it by summing up all the independent press coverage across the political spectrum that’s been written about it. An ad something like this:

Will it move the base, who are hoping against hope that McCain and Palin, against all odds, will actually embody the small government principles they want to see in Washington? I don’t know. I just hope it moves some independent voters. But I’m happy to see the campaign going on the attack about this.

Preparing for the Obama backlash

Though the AP has called the Democratic nomination for Barack Obama based on its own private delegate counts, I think it’s too early–or maybe too late–to celebrate. Cause the weirdness is just beginning.

Aside: An email list I’m on recently sent out an article advising blog authors to focus on one thing only, and I’m about to break that rule in a big way by writing about the Democratic nomination. But it’s because of other things that I do–namely, genealogical research–that I have the perspective I’m about to share.

I have a distant relation who sends information about the family from time to time. We’ve never met, and aside from the family connection six generations or so back we have nothing in common, which is made abundantly clear from the right-wing emails bashing Obama (not HRC) that he regularly sends out. But getting his email is an interesting opportunity to see how the unofficial smear machine will take on Obama’s candidacy, because every one of them that pops up is getting forwarded.

Last night he sent one that consisted of a collection of supposedly inflammatory quotations from Obama’s books closing with this line and editorial:

And FINALLY the Most Damming one of ALL of them!!!

From Audacity of Hope: ‘I will stand with the Muslims should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.’

Now, it’s hard to imagine how this is supposed to be damning. To begin with, it’s incoherent as a standalone quotation, and it’s only damning if you think that standing with “the Muslims” is unequivocally bad. But if you put it into context, it’s even more puzzling. Here’s the quotation from the book, as sourced by “Right Truth”:

Of course, not all my conversations in immigrant communities follow this easy pattern. In the wake of 9/11, my meetings with Arab and Pakistani Americans, for example, have a more urgent quality, for the stories of detentions and FBI questioning and hard stares from neighbors have shaken their sense of security and belonging. They have been reminded that the history of immigration in this country has a dark underbelly; they need specific reassurances that their citizenship really means something, that America has learned the right lessons from the Japanese internments during World War II, and that I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.

Now, I have some basic reading comprehension skills, and I have no problem parsing this: concern that the nation’s xenophobia unfairly penalizes immigrants during national emergencies, remembrance of overreactions of the past, and a recognition that immigrants want national leaders to help them and safeguard their rights. The quotation does not say “I will stand by the Muslims,” but that he sees that the immigrants want their adopted country to stand by them.

I sent an email back to the author pointing this out. He replied,”Thank you so very much for this statement. It does say that he will stand with the Pakiasttani and Arab Americans if the Political winds shift etc.”

Um, WTF? Not at all what it said, or I said. But this is the sort of “logic” that opponents of Barack will use to try to block his campaign for the white house.

We all need to be alert to this and help put out these smears as they come up. The stakes in this election are too high for our reason to be led astray by those who would manipulate our fears.