Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bank It: Money Tracks from 2008

A Short Note


For the fourth time, I have put together a modest recap of what I consider to be the year's best music.  This year's mix is calledBank It: Money Tracks from 2008 (thanks, Catie).  Whereas many mixes like these arbitrarily rank tracks, I have instead focused on artists and albums that are worth seeking out and supporting.  So if you like the song I chose from The War on Drugs' Wagonwheel Blues, for instance, I urge you to check out their MySpace page, go to their shows, and most of all, get their album(s).

There are only about a half-dozen tracks on here that I consider strong "singles" from weak records; most of these can be found on Disc 2, the pop disc.  Otherwise, the bulk of the albums listed below are at least very good if not excellent.  So give something new a try.

Like last year, I've organized the mixes by genre.  You can view the tracklists for all five below and download them with the links I provided elsewhere (links will not be posted here for security reasons).

I hope you enjoy these.  Happy New Year,



DISC I -- INDIE-ROCK -- 1:12 -- 111.5 MB

1. "Freeway" // Kurt Vile (from Constant Hitmaker)

2. "Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur" // Sigur Rós

    (from Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust)

3. "Party Barge" // Silver Jews (from Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea)

4. "Strange Overtones" // Brian Eno and David Byrne

    (from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today)

5. "Lost Coastlines" // Okkervil River (from The Stand Ins)

6. "Ragged Wood" // Fleet Foxes (from Fleet Foxes)

7. "Family Tree" // TV on the Radio (from Dear Science)

8. "Islands in the Stream" // Constantines and Feist

    (from the Islands in the Stream Single)

9. "Too Drunk to Dream" // The Magnetic Fields (from Distortion)

10. "Glue Girls" // Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

      (from Pershing)

11. "Walcott" // Vampire Weekend (from Vampire Weekend)

12. "Soldier's Grin" // Wolf Parade (from At Mount Zoomer)

13. "Weekend" // The Sea & Cake (from Car Alarm)

14. "Soul on Fire" // Spiritualized (from Songs in A&E)

15. "Featherbeds" // Oxford Collapse (from Bits)

16. "Arms Like Boulders" // The War on Drugs

       (from Wagonwheel Blues)

17. "Dark Leaves from a Thread" // Destroyer (from Trouble in Dreams)

18. "The Hunter's Star" // Shearwater (from Rook)

DISC II -- POP / HIP-HOP / R&B -- 1:10 -- 109.5 MB

1. "Another Day" // Jamie Lidell (from Jim)

2. "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a

    Shaker Hymn)" // Weezer (from Weezer)

3. "Don't Stop the Music" // Rihanna (from Good Girl Gone Bad)

4. "Lights Out" // Santogold (from Santogold)

5. "88" // The Cool Kids (from The Bake Sale)

6. "Swampy (Summer Jam)" // Food for Animals (from Belly)

7. "RoboCop" // Kanye West (from 808s & Heartbreak)

8. "Hands in the Air" // Girl Talk (from Feed the Animals)

9. "Swagga Like Us" (feat. Kanye West, Jay-Z, & Lil Wayne) - T.I.

    (from Paper Trail)

10. "In Search of the Youth Crew" // Cadence Weapon

       (from Afterparty Babies)

11. "The Kramer" // Wale (from The Mixtape About Nothing)

12. "Soldier" // Erykah Badu

       (from New Amerykah Part One (4th World War))

13. "Touch My Body" // Mariah Carey (from E=MC²)

14. "Untouched" // The Veronicas (from Hook Me Up)

15. "No Can Do" // Sugababes (from Catfights and Spotlights)

16. "American Boy" (feat. Kanye West) // Estelle (from Shine)

17. "Lay It Down" (feat. Anthony Hamilton) // Al Green

       (from Lay It Down)

DISC III -- ROCK -- 1:12 -- 107.9 MB

1. "Living Well is the Best Revenge" // R.E.M. (from Accelerate)

2. "Waving Flags" // British Sea Power

    (from Do You Like Rock Music?)

3. "Trans Canada" // Constantines (from Kensington Heights)

4. "Nothing Ever Happened" // Deerhunter (from Microcastle)

5. "Always Wanting More" // Jay Reatard (from Matador Singles '08)

6. "Arms Against Atrophy" // Titus Andronicus

    (from The Airing of Grievances)

7. "I Admit My Faults" // Eddy Current Suppression Ring

    (from Primary Colours)

8. "Bright Tomorrow" // Fuck Buttons (from Street Horrrsing)

9. "Ghost Town (Pt. 1)" // Dan Friel (from Ghost Town)

10. "The Rest of My Days" // Gentleman Jesse & His Men

       (from Gentleman Jesse & His Men)

11. "The Package is Wrapped" // Marnie Stern (from This is It and

       I am It and You Are It and So is That and He is It and She is It and

       It is It and That is That)

12. "We Call Upon the Author" // Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

       (from Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!)

13. "In the New Year" // The Walkmen (from You & Me)

14. "(My Head)" // Times New Viking (from Rip It Off)

15. "Things I Did When I Was Dead" // No Age (from Nouns)

16. "Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts" // The Gaslight Anthem

       (from the Señor and the Queen EP)

17. "Gardenia" // Stephen Malkmus (from Real Emotional Trash)

18. "Slapped Actress" // The Hold Steady (from Stay Positive)


1. "A&E" // Goldfrapp (from Seventh Tree)

2. "You Belong With Me" // Taylor Swift (from Fearless)

3. "A Ghost to Most" // Drive-By Truckers

    (from Brighter Than Creation's Dark)

4. "Runnin' Your Way" // Sera Cahoone (from Only as the Day is Long)

5. "Wildflower" // Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

    (from Rattlin' Bones)

6. "Saro" // Sam Amidon (from All is Well)

7. "The Butcher" // Final Fantasy

    (from the Spectrum, 14th Century EP)

8. "I Was Made for You" // She & Him (from Volume One)

9. "Unnamed (This Song Makes Me Happy)" // Leona Naess

    (from Thirteens)

10. "Sax Rohmer #1" // The Mountain Goats (from Heretic Pride)

11. "Bag of Hammers" // Thao Nguyen & the Get Down Stay Down

       (from We Brave Bee Stings and All)

12. "Borrowing Time" // Aimee Mann (from @#%&*! Smilers)

13. "Alicia Ross" // Kathleen Edwards (from Asking for Flowers)

14. "You Swan, Go On" // Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron

       (from Lost Wisdom)

15. "The Captain and the Hourglass" // Laura Marling

       (from Alas, I Cannot Swim)

16. "Tell Me Something True" // Tift Merritt (from Another Country)

17. "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving" // Justin Townes Earle

       (from The Good Life)

18. "Armageddon Song" // The Dutchess and the Duke

       (from She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke)

DISC V -- ELECTRONIC / DANCE -- 1:05 -- 96.4 MB

1. "Say Whoa" // A-Trak

    (from Running Man, a Nike+ Original Run Mix)

2. "Lights and Music" // Cut Copy (from In Ghost Colours)

3. "Air War" // Crystal Castles (from Crystal Castles)

4. "I Told Her on Alderaan" // Neon Neon (from Stainless Style)

5. "Which Song" // Max Tundra (from Parallax Error Beheads Us)

6. "Heaven (Narctrax Rmx)" // HEALTH (from HEALTH//DISCO)

7. "Hercules' Theme" // Hercules & Love Affair

    (from Hercules & Love Affair)

8. "The Rip" // Portishead (from Third)

9. "Ready for the Floor" // Hot Chip (from Made in the Dark)

10. "Graveyard Girl" // M83 (from Saturdays = Youth)

11. "Grand Ideas" // Lindstrøm (Excerpt from Where You Go I Go Too)

12. "Techno Dread" // 2562 (from Aerial)

13. "Positif" // Mr. Oizo (from Lambs Anger)

14. "Planisphère (Final)" // Justice (from the Planisphère EP)

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Milk is a newish biographical film directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Elephant) about the life of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. Spoiler Alert: don't read on if you don't want to know what happens in this film. This movie was a pretty massive let down for me. Here's why.

But first, the good.  The acting was absolutely top notch. As most reviews have said, Sean Penn gives perhaps his greatest performance yet. Besides just nailing the mannerisms of the real-life protagonist, the way Philip Seymour Hoffman did in Capote, the most emotional scenes in the film are lifted to new heights because of his acting. The love he shows for Scott early in their relationship, the anguish in his cry when he finds Jack's strung up body, and that final and perfectly helpless "no" muttered as his hand is trivially waved in front of Dan White's gun--all of these were tremendous.

The supporting actors were equally excellent. I was most impressed with James Franco who, up until now, I had only seen play the horrendous role of Peter Parker's roommate. Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch were also very good. Best was Denis O'Hare in the role of Senator Briggs who absolutely excelled for the second time this season as an antagonist (also wonderful as the mad "doctor" in

On acting alone, I'd give
Milk an A.

Unfortunately, there were so many points in this film when the direction and editing really hindered the storytelling. On the whole, I felt the movie moved much too quickly in the first half, yet often seemed to be too slow in making any real headway plot-wise. I was bothered by the fact that the first impression we are given of Milk in the "present" is picking up a stranger in a subway stairwell. Next thing, they're in California and he's got a camera shop. Next thing, he's running for office. Viewers are more or less asked to sit through a series of bullet points.  Things move much too fast, yet nothing seems to really happen; oh, he lost again?--darn. Thanks Gus Van Sant for the character montage to catch us up: "There was Ronnie J. the hip Asian, John Stine the smart guy, and of course Mark T." 30 minutes later, John pops up with a map of San Fran and his first speaking lines, and I'm thinking, "Who the hell is this guy?" It's just sloppy character development and storytelling.

There are too many examples of careless editing to remember them all. At one point, I turned to my girlfriend to see if she too saw a boom mic bob below the screen's top edge (she did). More frustrating, however, was the number of times a seemingly random shot, or series of shots, was sporadically placed between scenes with no regard for its importance to the story.  One example finds the young Cleve Jones doing sit-ups in the Castro Camera storefront window; there is absolutely no point to this five second interlude, but we shot it, so we might as well use it... tsk tsk.

The movie's biggest failure is that despite its wonderful performances, there are very rarely opportunities to be moved. I felt very little while watching this film, perhaps only upon viewing the death's of Milk and his lover Jack. Much of this has to do with directorial choices. For instance, when Jones mobilizes thousands via telephone calls, I did not feel the excitement or the build that I could have.  Instead, Van Sant decides to amateurize the film with a downright stupid split-screen montage of men calling men calling men. It looks like the Village People doing the Brady Bunch. Similarly, when Milk finally wins in his third election attempt, it's as simple as that: he wins. Sure, there's a rousing party in the streets, but practically no momentum is built up to the victory. It just kind of happens, again, giving viewers no opportunity to be moved. One final example would be the movie's apparent climax, the defeat of Prop 8, whose story is told by pans across a cheap green/red color chart of the state of California. Again, momentum of Prop 8 failing is crushed by a cheesy directorial choice.

There are more examples. The script foreshadows Milk's death three times in the first five minutes, first by depicting Milk making a recording in case of his assassination, then by showing actual footage from the 1978 murder, and finally with Milk's "if I make it to 50" line in bed with Scott. Yet for some reason, we are asked to re-watch this final scene in bed at the end of the movie. It's borderline insulting; like, "Hey, see what we did here with this bit of foreshadowing??? Pretty smart, huh?!"

I should mention that the second example--real footage being spliced into the film--is one of Van Sant's finest artistic directions to date. In particular, the decision to use only original footage of Anita Bryant instead of having an actor play her role was smart and worked very well. I loved how seamlessly actual news reports, speeches, and videos from the 70s were mixed into the movie.

At the end of the day, the story wasn't told as well as it should have been by the men and women behind the camera, not in front of it. For that reason, I was disappointed, I was left uninspired, and I believe some rather fine acting was squandered.

Watch the trailer:

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

TED Talk on Education

First, if you haven’t spent a significant amount of time on, you need to. Technology Education and Design (TED) is an annual event in California where some of the world’s leading thinkers share ideas about practically everything. All of these talks are available for free online.

One particularly riveting and hilarious TED talk (watch here) was given by Sir Ken Robinson on the topic of how schools kill creativity. Robinson argues that public education systems were designed at the dawn of the industrial revolution and governments structured the curriculum to meet the rapidly growing needs of the industrial system. This way of thinking about the purpose of education is still with us today, as evidenced by the consistent hierarchy of priorities in public education; math and languages at the top with music, art, and dance at the bottom. In other words, the skills most useful and marketable are the ones that are prioritized and rewarded at the expense of more creative pursuits.

Robinson goes on to say that in our rapidly changing world, creativity is as important as literacy and ought to be treated that way by our institutions. He states that all children are born artists and are relentlessly educated out of their creativity. Robinson asserts that if you are afraid of being wrong, you cannot come up with an original idea, which is the most basic component of creativity. Our current system is built on the stigmatization of mistakes, thus slowly deteriorating our willingness and ability to think creatively. I prefer a “fail often, fail early” approach.

I think Robinson is correct on two big points: 1) kids are typically not rewarded for creative endeavors early on and 2) the current education system is designed to churn out middle managers in major corporations. I have no problem with corporations as such, they are perfectly appropriate vehicles for doing business. What I am not sure of is whether our schools should be categorically designed and structured to meet the needs of industry.

What do you think? Do we need to seriously rethink the aims of education and institutionalize new priorities? Should we treat creativity as seriously as we do literacy?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Faith in Action

My good friend Becca Hartman gave me this poem and I was particularly taken by it:

I was hungry
and you formed a humanities club
and you discussed by hunger
Thank you.

I was imprisoned
and you crept off quietly
to your chapel in the cellar
and prayed for my release.

I was naked
and in your mind
you debated the morality of my appearance.

I was sick
and you knelt and thanked God for your health.

I was homeless
and you preached to me
of the spiritual shelter of the love of God.

I was lonely
and you left me alone
to pray for me.

You seem so holy;
so close to God.

But I'm still very hungry
and lonely
and cold.

So where have your prayers gone?
What have they done?
What does it profit a man
to page through his book of prayers
when the rest of the world
is crying for his help?

As people of faith (in God and humanity), we cannot settle for the publishing of more papers to collect dust, the hosting of more convenings and conversations that don't lead to sustained action, or believing in a faith that continues to be disengaged from radical living for the life of the world.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with King in Selma, AL during the height of the civil rights movement. When reflecting on his experience, he said, "I felt like my legs were praying." I am, unfortunately, a person of faith that has preferred to consume my religion rather than live it out in service to others. I am both nervous and exhilarated to see what it might look like to take this poem to heart.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler

I have been at odds with the formal study of economics for some time, especially when applied to individual human behavior. In my college microeconomics courses I was taught that human beings have fixed interests; they always maximize utility, respond to incentives properly, and make rational choices. I found microeconomic theories useful for explaining behavior in the abstract, but they didn’t help me make sense of reality as I experienced it. What about sacrifice? What about thoughtless actions, or irrationality? Why do so many people make choices that are not in their best interest, even when they are aware of the risks, costs, and alternatives?

Now, after a few years of disillusionment with the field, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have gently re-humanized economics in their recently published book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler offer a fresh perspective, informed by law, behavioral economics, psychology, and political science, about how private institutions and government can “nudge” people toward choices that will make them healthier, wealthier, and happier. This book is the Freakonomics of behavioral economics. Further, the authors include plenty of repartee and interesting factoids (like neck-ties were originally used as napkins!) alongside high-quality and compelling analysis.

Sunstein and Thaler spend the first part of the book breaking down the “economic man” model of understanding human behavior. They are constantly differentiating between how rational “econs” are expected to act versus how humans behave in reality. In making their point, they state:

"If you look at economics textbooks you will learn that the economic man can think like Albert Einstein, store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue, and exercise the willpower of Mahatma Gandhi. Really. But the folks we know are not like that. Real people have trouble with long division, forget their spouse’s birthday, and have a hangover on New Year’s day (pp. 6)."

Thaler and Sunstein call themselves libertarian paternalists, or choice architects. They in no way seek to limit peoples’ choices, but instead hope to merely nudge people toward choices that are more in their best interest, as judged by themselves. The way choices are presented to people can drastically change their behavior, and by thinking creatively about choice architecture, libertarian paternalists can help people move in directions that will improve their lives.

A great example of what they call a nudge comes from a high school cafeteria. In this case, a school official realized that, by simply re-arranging the order of the food in the lunch line and which items were at eye level, she could drastically change the nutritional quality of kids’ meal choices. While these kids faced no less choice, the context in which they made their choices changed and thus so did their behavior. It is these types of nudges that Sunstein and Thaler find so promising, the minor shifts in social situations that have the power to greatly alter peoples’ behavior.

They offer several different types of nudges that can be employed by private and public institutions to help people make better choices, here are a few examples:

1) Utilize Defaults and Status Quo: Padding the Path of Least Resistance
They show that people, on average, avoid making difficult choices by consistently sticking with the default or status quo. Typically, if people do nothing, then nothing changes. However, by structuring default options differently, such as automatically enrolling employees in a sensible health insurance or 401(k) plan unless they opt-out, leaders can drastically change peoples’ well-being.

2) Provide Feedback
The best way to help people increase their performance is by giving them consistent feedback. One case of creative feedback comes from slightly changing the presentation of customers’ energy bills. In this case, people consuming above average amounts of energy received a frowny emoticon on their energy bill, whereas people using below average amounts were rewarded with a happy emoticon. Those who received negative visual feedback drastically cut their energy usage over the next three months, whereas low users maintained their rates. Even though economic or environmental incentives didn’t change for these consumers, a simple emoticon feedback tool affected their behavior and the environment at large.

3) Understand “Mappings”: From Choice to Welfare
Simply put, this means making information about various options more comprehensible. Sunstein and Thaler examine how this could impact education in America. They found that, when information about school performance was made more comprehensible and relevant to low-income parents, those parents overwhelmingly chose to put their children in better schools. School choice by itself is not enough, people must be nudged with well-mapped information for them to make optimal school choices.

There are many other forms of nudging that Sunstein and Thaler articulate, but the main point they make is this:

"The sheer complexity of modern life, and the astounding pace of technological and global change, undermine arguments for rigid government mandates or dogmatic laissez-faire. Emerging developments should strengthen, at once, the principled commitment to freedom of choice and the case for a gentle nudge (pp. 253)."

Nudge helps us move beyond the “economic man” model and realize that humans are fallible (and often predictable) creatures. By understanding and utilizing patterns of human behavior, governmental and private actors can help people make more optimal choices for themselves and the world around them.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Taylor Swift - Fearless

Among other admittedly derivative adjectives, I'd use gusty, youthful, and honest to describe Taylor Swift's 2006 eponymous debut.  If nothing else, it distinguished Swift as an anomaly in the pop world: almost all of the album's songs were penned alone, with the only aid coming from the guitar she actually plays, and--to top it off--she did it all before obtaining a driver's license.  Justifiably, she was honored with the 2007 Country Music Association's Horizon Award (previous winners include the Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, and Garth Brooks), yet didn't seem to garner much attention in the mainstream pop world.

Two years later, Swift has returned at the still-shocking age of eighteen with Fearless, an album that has quickly earned her a spot on the cover of Rolling Stone, somewhat ironically sandwiched between The Boss and Bono.

The verdict?  Fearless is precisely the album Taylor Swift needed to make: it's far more "pop" than "country," it's every bit as genuine and youthful as her self-titled, and it's her ticket to becoming America's next big star.  In short, like the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Faith Hill before her, Swift has made her move to crossover into mainstream stardom.

Swift's greatest asset is her uncanny ability to relate to her audience via a bevy of--what skeptics will inevitably call "immature" or "childish"--teenage experiences she unabashedly crafts her songs around.  The tremendously catchy opener "Fearless" tells of a "flawless" first kiss with a new beau who is "just so cool."  Sound stupid?  Ask the millions of young girls who remember a night of driving just like Swift's what they think.  Similarly, "Fifteen" is the most unambiguous description of a high school experience you'll likely find outside of High School Musical.  She effortlessly describes her freshman year, the first boy who ever told her, "I love you," and the ultimate realization that, "In your life you'll do things greater than/ Dating the boy on the football team."  Again, Swift's story may initially seem juvenile, but imagine her primary listenership and the moral that's shared and your perspective may change; it's awfully encouraging to know that there are still musicians who have something to teach their audience.

I'll take a cue from Swift and acknowledge that my audience does not, to my knowledge, consist of any fifteen-year-old girls.  So while newcomers may similarly find Swift's lyrics sweet and endearing, it is admittedly unlikely that her typical subject matter will do much to entice them to give Fearless a try.  On that note, Swift's melodies are enough to make her worth your time. In a day and age when a surprisingly small sample of middle aged men in studios write a giant percentage of our biggest pop hits (see: this guy or that guy), it's borderline inspiring to think a teenager from Pennsylvania could come up with hooks this goddamn good.  Pick a song, any song, and it could be a chart-topping single.

If you're the standard "everything but rap and country" music fan, Fearless' production will do little to convert you.  Unfortunately, most of the songs are smothered in radio friendly, bright-as-all-hell Nashville drums and the Kenny G equivalent of a bass tone.  Yes, Swift is a "country" star, but most of the genre's traditional instrumentation (e.g. the fiddle and pedal steel) are almost entirely excluded.  This can be frustrating, especially on the album's ballads, such as the lovely duet with Colbie Caillat, "Breathe," in which a graceful mandolin might initially remind listeners of Nickel Creek--that is, until the drums kick in.

Look: for better or worse, this sound is marketable, and it's hard to fault Swift for sticking with what works.  After all, she's a pop star of the Faith Hill strand, not a Kathleen Edwards or a Neko Case.  It should also be mentioned that despite the bright production and her less than booming voice, Swift always manages to stay front and center in the mix, an impressive testament to her maturity and vitality.

Besides the mix, the only other weakness of Fearless is its length.  It has become an all together confounding tradition in the mainstream pop world to cram as many recordings as possible onto albums, with seemingly no regard for the art of record-making.  Practically, it makes sense: very few mainstream pop fans listen to CDs in full anyway, so why leave off another potential hit single?  Swift's self-titled avoided this pattern; clocking in at just 40 minutes over 11 tracks, it was a delightfully listenable album.  But Fearless is a bit more beefed up: 53 minutes and 13 tracks.  A bit of restraint--leaving off the out of place and oddly militaristic "Change" as well as the Joe Jonas breakup inspired "Forever & Always"--would have been nice. "Change," however, hit #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, so again, it's hard to call its inclusion outright wrong.

As for its strengths, Fearless has a number of high points.  On the playful "Hey Stephen," the rhythm section takes a back seat, while a Hammond B accompanies Swift's adorable mmm mmms.  There are very few moments of subtle production, but this is certainly one where the guy behind the glass deserves some credit.  Same goes for "The Best Day," a song written by Swift for her father that should do for daddy-daughter dances what Green Day's "Good Riddance" did for high school graduation ceremonies.  A lightly strummed acoustic guitar allows Swift to do exactly what she does best: sing a simple, pretty song about something she genuinely cares about.  Needless to say, it works as well as anything on the album.

All of the pieces fall into place--the youthful songwriting, the tremendous knack for melody, and a less formulaic production style--on what might be the album's best track, "You Belong With Me."  A song sure to resonate with tomboys everywhere, Swift sings about "dreaming 'bout the day" when her friend, a guy dating a high-heel clad cheerleader, will "wake up" to realize he's meant to be with Taylor.  "You Belong With Me" is a monster single (it hit #12 on the Billboard Hot 100), led by a confident and feisty Swift and assisted by a banjo, fiddle, and (yes!) a pedal steel that give the track a Dixie Chicks feel.  Yet there's a moment in the last verse of the second stanza when Swift treads new ground, singing "Hey what you doin' with a girl like that?" in a lovely falsetto that sounds more akin to Joni Mitchell than Shania Twain.  And just then, in the subsequent pre-chorus, she adds a touch more emphasis to, "She's cheer captain/ and I'm on the bleachers," that is so magnificently cute, it's difficult not react with a smile.

And that's the crux of it: I love Taylor Swift because she makes me happy.  I could launch into a rather boring discussion about how the ability to download mp3s has turned music into an industry of consumption, but suffice it to say that she manages to invoke within me the rare and primitive emotion of joy.  That alone should provide enough impetus to give Fearless the chance it deserves.

Listen to "You Belong With Me":

More Taylor Swift here.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Framework for Human Flourishing

There is a wide array of terms that attempt to get at what I want to call “flourishing.” These include concepts of flow, fullness, being fully alive, self-actualization, and many others. It seems to me that all of these conversations are attempting to answer the more foundational question: what does it mean and look like for human beings to flourish? As I posted before, this question is on my mind more than any other.

Over Turkish coffee and hookah in Hyde Park the other night, two friends and I came up with a vision of what it might look like for us to flourish in community together. While the discussion was mostly geared toward our travel plans together, I think the framework we established might be more widely relevant. It’s essentially a five-point vision:

1) Exposure
We want to be continually exposed to other peoples’ realities. This could mean sleeping with the homeless, understanding a place’s politics, dining with the marginalized, and being seriously embedded in real relationships with people whose lives have the ability to fracture our perspective.

2) Intellectual growth
We must be exercising and stretching our intellect, forcing ourselves to think in greater nuance about more things. I want to be able to see the world sociologically, anthropologically, poetically, musically, economically, politically, and scientifically.

3) Celebration
This may sound cheesy, but we have good reason to celebrate all of the good things we have been given and entrusted with. From dancing all night to being engaged in the beauty of music and artistic expression, we need to continually counter the gray and sleepy humdrum of modernity with an engaged and hearty spirit of playfulness and foolishness.

4) Creating
My boss once told me that leaders need to ask themselves two questions: 1) What am I creating? and 2) Do people believe me? While this is bent toward entrepreneurial leadership, it speaks strongly to my desire to not only critique, but create. However informal or subtle, we need to hone our ability to translate ideas into reality, as Adam has with this blog.

5) Discipleship
Regardless of one’s faith or moral tradition, we are becoming a certain sort of person as. How are we surrounding ourselves with sources and creating habits that enable us to move toward ideality. My personal ideal is the person of Christ, but yours could be King, Nietzsche, Gandhi, or Dylan. The question remains, how are we becoming the disciples of our heroes?

I realize that this is an unscientific, somewhat vague, and idealistic vision of human flourishing. What are your thoughts on this? Is flourishing an entirely personal venture or, as the field of positive psychology asserts, can we come up with frameworks for understanding fullness? In your experience, where does this framework miss the mark?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Pop in '08

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, mashup artist Gregg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk) was asked to defend the quality of the music he samples.  Here's the Q&A with interviewer Mark Richardson:

Pitchfork: What about the role of irony in your music, if there is any? What is your actual relationship to the tracks you draw from? Which of them you think, "Oh, this is amazing; this is genius," which of them you think, "This is silly," and which of them you think, "This is a cheesy guilty pleasure."

GG: At this point I feel like I've graduated beyond guilty pleasures. I sample everything on this because I like it. Going back to my high school band experience, the bitter teenage years, back then I would sample the music almost to mess it up. Even on the first Girl Talk album, I don't want to say I was approaching it ironically, but I was taking songs that I maybe didn't listen to as much, like [Joan Osborne's] "One of Us", and completely mangling it. But [now], that's not really interesting to me.

Kind of taking a step back, I appreciate almost every form of music. If I'm not really getting it, oftentimes [it's because] I don't like something on the surface. There's probably a fan base for it, but I just don't understand why they're into it. There's a crowd out there who hates everything Pitchfork reviews, and there's a crowd who hates every jam band release out there. No one's really right or wrong in my mind, it's just a matter of your influences and your experiences growing up. All that factors into my never wanting to sample anything ironically-- I'm totally behind everything. Especially pop; it's so sincere and up-front, making a song everyone's going to enjoy. It's impossible for me to hate on that.

This quote immediately brought to mind two occurrences: 1. After Girl Talk's breakout album Night Ripper was released, my brother Joel said to me, "It makes listening to really bad rap fun"; 2. Dave once asked me if my inclusion of R. Kelly's "I'm a Flirt (Remix)" on a mixtape was "a joke."

Defending an entire genre of music is a difficult prospect because stereotypes are so prevalent, more often than not, for good reason.  I'll refer you to an article I wrote on the merits of country (see pages 12-14), because most of the same arguments can be slightly altered and applied to pop.  But I think ultimately, Gillis hits the nail on the head with that last line.  Trace the history back through Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Elvis, and pop has always been about simplicity and fun, and not a whole lot more.

Most of my days are spent in the library and not tuned into the car radio, and as a result, I haven't a clue what today's number 1 hit is.  That said, I have been lucky enough to catch a handful of gloriously unabashed pop singles this year.  Here are a couple I've particularly enjoyed and a couple more that have me salivating for a future release:

First: Sugababes - "No Can Do"

I have no explanation for why some groups simply don't make it across the pond (example: probably the decade's best pop album, Robyn's 2005 self-titled, finally saw an American release in April of 2008--what the hell?).  Sugababes have six albums to their name--their most recent, Catfights and Spotlights, is their "lowest charting in eight years," despite hitting #8 on the UK Albums Chart--and yet I'd never heard their name before moving to England.  Their album, like most pop records nowadays, is simply not all that good: it's not at all cohesive, it's front-loaded to death, and much of it is downright boring.  But there are a couple of singles that just scream perfect pop.  Case in point, "No Can Do," which borrows a Sweet Charles Sherrell sample originally produced by James Brown, glimmers with a modern Motown feel.  This is the kind of track that would put Christina and Britney to shame if it ever made it onto American airwaves.

Second: Taylor Swift - Fearless

I promise to give this album a proper review sometime soon--it deserves it.  But for now, I'll just post my current-favorite-tune, "Hey Stephen," from what's hands down the best pop album I've heard in 2008.

Third: Kid Sister  - "Family Reunion"
Dusted Magazine posted what I believe is the first proper review of Kid Sister's upcoming Dream Date today.  One of the first singles out is this Diplo-produced number with a killer bass line and a funky guitar lick.  In the middle of November, Kid Sister treats us to the perfect summer single, complete with a chipper chorus: "Quit your boohooin'/ Sun be shining, barbecuing/ It's about to be a family reunion."

Fourth: Rox - "My Baby Left Me"
I'll let Pitchfork's Eric Harvey handle this gem:
Ah, ooooooooo-uu-oohh yeah!
The soul beneath Rox's sweet shout sounds like the product of peak-era Motown labor division--each piece molded with micro-level human care and macro-level cold precision. The excerpted vocal above is no exception: it only distantly exhibits characteristics that one would instantly recognize as "human." Like the studio-constructed self-choir Stevie Wonder made of his own impossibly keening falsetto on the middle eight of "We Can Work It Out" (2:08 to 2:15), this background holler is chrome. Most crucially is the break in the middle of the "Ah, oooooooo" part. It's the quick-hiccup sort of modification that most would identify with record-scratching, but there's no "scratch" sound present. Just a frozen microsecond of space, like gleaming side-panel detail work temporarily interrupted by the gap where the door opens.
Listen to "My Baby Left Me" here, or visit Rox's MySpace page.