The Best Music of My 2015
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Thus, I’ll keep my writing to a minimum.
I listened to ~500 new albums and ~5000 new songs this year.
This means that I wasn’t paying enough attention to most of the music. But to make this list, a song had to catch my attention and keep my thumb on the replay button. Some of the best songs did for me what I imagine powerful drugs do for other people.
When Adele Sings in the Shower
It must be very strange to be Adele.
Whenever Adele sings anything, even in the privacy of her own home, she is singing “an Adele song”. When she sings “Can’t Buy Me Love” in the shower, she is singing “Adele covers The Beatles”.
Dubstep in Vienna: Or, Craving Things That Don’t Exist
Reading time: 8-10 minutes, plus one short song.
A collection of musings around the topics of art, yearning, and synthesizers.
How I learned to love music
Most people worry about the future. Some people worry about the past. I worry about alternate histories: things that never happened, but what if they had?
One of those what-ifs has been on my mind lately:
What if I’d been born early enough in history that I never got to hear electronic music?
* * * * *
I still remember the first time I knowingly heard a synthesizer. (Whatever electronic sound effects Britney Spears and Nelly were using had escaped my notice.)
I was 12, and riding in the car of my good friend Peter Andrews. His mother was driving, and we were listening to songs from the 1970s. Most of them were background noise, and held no interest for me.
Skrillex Visits His Hometown Barbershop
I’m fond of thinking about stuff that must have happened, even if nobody ever saw it—probably for the same reasons as the good people of Cracked. Famous people and people in the past lived real human lives! They lived those lives for many years. And they all got their hair cut at some point, which is the inspiration for this short screenplay.
Here’s the story. I still need to work on my dialogue and character development before I make any short films, but for a conversation that happened in my head over the span of a single shower, it could be worse.
Partly inspired by B.J. Novak’s One More Thing, perhaps the best book of short stories ever written by a well-known television actor. Lots of celebrities in that book—though I guess B.J. knows them all personally.
I do not know Skrillex personally, but I’d love to meet him: He seems like a really nice guy.
Recent Work: Fall/Winter 2013
Unschooled: CT’s Most Radical Homeschoolers (in the cool surfer sense of “radical”)
Review: Janelle Monae, Electric Lady (the album was good, this review isn’t)
Interview: Chris Stedman, author of Faithiest (part of the launch of the Yale Humanist Community; I’m on the board of directors)
Making Believe: Religious Conversion at Yale University (includes this companion post)
“Witt’s religious awakening was outside my realm of understanding. I wondered if it was really a coincidence that her new relationship with Jesus began at a retreat where she’d begun new relationships with a few dozen Christian friends. Why would God wait to find her on a dock in the woods when she’d been going to church her entire life?”
Yale University Commencement Address, May 2014 (Yale jokes)
“As I look upon this crowd—with your narrow shoulders, your pimply foreheads, your dumb, bovine gazes—I almost pity you. You must have been overwhelmed when Yale opened its gates to you, for some inexplicable reason. Perhaps you were Australian, or a mediocre synchronized swimmer. Perhaps your mother was an especially talented applications-essayist.”
Levels of Hell Left Out of Dante’s Inferno
Indiana Jones and Printing at Bass Library (Yale jokes)
A Playlist for Your Worst Moments (Yale jokes, pop music, fourth essay down)
“Heaven has a plan for you, and the plan is that you will grow old and die, like everyone else.”
Long Day’s Journey Into Cambridge (Yale jokes) (alternate universes)
Profile of a Coffee-Shop Owner Who Bans the Internet
Gourmet Heaven, Wage Theft, and the Convenience of Indecision (warning: angst)
SXSW Chronicles: Moon Hooch
Though I went as a music journalist, at the tender age of 19, I had no hope of entering most of the clubs of Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest. Acts I would not see over the course of the festival include: Paul Oakenfold, the Crystal Method, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Autre Ne Veut, Deadmau5, and (this one broke my heart) Snoop Lion.
But that’s alright. Instead, I saw these guys:
I’d been taking 30-second videos of street performers up to this point, but found myself rooted in place, unable to move save to capture the reactions of various dancers. I’m far from a skilled videographer, but I think the crowd’s joy comes through. Austin’s reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World aside, most of the buskers I saw were competent instrumentalists, but without much flair for showmanship or a catchy repertoire (though there were other notable exceptions). Who’d have thought two saxophones and a drummer were the magic recipe for success?
Once the band finished their set, I turned to leave. I dropped my pen, however (I’d been taking notes), and when I rose from picking it up, I saw that some new musicians had entered the scene.
I don’t know what those white tubes are called, but these guys were clearly veterans. (I saw them playing on the streets, often with other musicians, three of the next four nights.) You might not be able to tell from the video, but that drummer is grinning ear-to-ear behind his hair. How often does one get the chance to improvise a jam with two skilled strangers who play the same instruments as your friends, when your friends are both saxophonists? I wish my audio had been better: you could feel the brass in your bones if you stood close enough, and the rhythm was even catchier in person.
Once the jam ended, the young drummer stood to shake hands with the veterans, and his bandmates joined him. I stuck around to watch the conversation. Couldn’t make out what was being said, and eventually left. Then, heard a riff from behind me. The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”. It stopped. Then, another riff, this one perhaps even more familiar to my generation. I turned around and began recording.
Ladies and gentlemen, for your viewing pleasure, “Thrift Shop”, as covered by four saxophones and one drum set.
I approached the drummer after the set to thank him for what was, after all’s said and done, one of the five best concerts I saw in my time at one of the world’s largest music festivals. He told me that his name was James Muschler, and that the band’s name was Moon Hooch. They met at the New School, a college in Manhattan, where James picked up a BA in jazz performance before bandmates Mike Wilbur and “Wenzl” McGowen left school with him to play full-time (Mike and Wenzl also graduated, though I’m not sure if they were performance majors). Though they started out as buskers in subway stations, they were discovered by solo artist Mike Doughty and found themselves “playing above ground” and even opening for bands like Lotus and They Might Be Giants.
Wait, They Might Be Giants? Then what are you doing out here?
James ignores the question’s rudeness and gives me a straight answer, plus a big winning smile: “We started out on the streets. And now we’re bringing our music back to the streets.” Handshakes all around.
In short: These guys are wonderful. I just bought their album on Bandcamp. If you like funky dance music with a good story behind it, you’d be well-advised to do the same.
Music Review: Iceage, You’re Nothing
“For most of the album, Bender’s lyrics and delivery bring to mind a man clinging to the side of a lifeboat while a giant squid tries to pull him off.”
Article up at the Yale Herald.
The Floodgates Open: Out of Order Edition
My work thus far for Out of Order, the hip magazine for college students and twentysomethings founded by Yale’s own Dorian Grinspan (but featuring the work of writers from all over the place).
Robert Adams: The Place We Live
My review of a show featuring photographer Robert Adams at the Yale University Art Gallery (now closed, but appearing in many other cities for the next year or so).
“Adams shoots stunning landscapes, often with miles of visibility, but despite the title of the exhibition, you don’t feel as if you could live there. His houses are mostly abstractions, claustrophobic, while his forests are dense and wild or slashed apart and scattered over barren mountainsides. In one of the many segments of the exhibition, “Summer Nights,” he closes in on suburban life, capturing happy parents and children, as well as cars and stores that provide a sense of plenty rather than imposing themselves on the landscape. But even Adams’ vision of the standard American Dream can feel disconcerting. A tilt-o-whirl spins without a rider in sight, looking very alone in the wide, gray night; tree shadows envelop a house and block out the windows; another home is shot in a cloud of what could be fog or smog. ‘We call that one ‘Murder House’,’ Chuang notes.”
Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
“Strange to say, I liked this verbal movie most when Chbosky’s voice is stilled. There are a few marvelous depictions of Charlie on drugs, embracing a soft and wobbly world, and when tragedy sharpens his perspective, scowls and bruises speak louder than words. When Charlie falls in love, cinematography and Emma Watson’s eyes do more work than any voiceover possibly could. Unfortunately, the last third of the movie leaves too much unsaid—which seems to be the fault of the source material.”
Review: Calvin Harris, 18 Months
“Harris has a signature sound when you hear his work plastered together.Trouble is, that sound is nothing to write home about—and the further you get from the dance floor, the more certain aspects of his method confound you. Listening to 18 Months alongside his first two albums, I Created Disco (2007) and Ready For the Weekend (2012), you might think they’re in reverse chronological order. His present melodies call to mind Philip Glass getting drunk and discovering Ableton Live, banging out repetitive chord structures while forgetting to add new ideas after the first minute.”
Spin NYC: A Visit to Another World
I lounge awhile in the Big Apple’s fanciest ping-pong club.
“I can’t compete with the stars of my college basement, but my slice is on today, giving me an edge over my girlfriend, who sends balls sailing in every direction. At first, we give in to the urge to run for them, but soon it becomes clear that our bucket will never empty. An employee wanders the floor, using an ingenious basket-on-a-stick device to grab what rolls away, dumping his collection into customers’ buckets from time to time (even in the mid-afternoon, there are a few other players; mostly tourists, I’d guess). I ask Gordon whether anyone’s ever slipped. ‘Not in three years. The balls crush under the pressure before you lose your balance.'”
The Floodgates Open: Yale Herald Edition
My collected work for the Yale Herald up to this point, in reverse chronological order, including the cover story “Always Outnumbered, Never Outplayed”.
In this collection, I cover grade inflation, sports recruiting, poker with post-docs, Bjork, online journalism (meta!), Yale president Richard Levin, and other assorted subjects. Keep an eye out for my terrible prediction regarding the course of my school’s 2012 football season.