Archives for January 2018

January 29, 2018 - Comments Off on About Ursula

About Ursula

I've been thinking about the death of Ursula K. Le Guin and her affect on me. I discovered her books—specifically The Wizard of Earthsea—at a relatively young age. What age exactly I don’t quite recall, but certainly in that formative period of between 10 and 12 years old. While at the time I didn't really have any knowledge of Le Guin's work, the book resonated with me a way that few did from that period of life. After I had finished the book, I strongly call a feeling of, this is good, this is different.

What I loved about The Wizard of Earthsea was its humanity. Ged, the protagonist of the first book in the series, is of very humble origins. Throughout the book he struggles with purpose and ambition, greed, selfishness, and ultimately a path to personal redemption. Far removed from typical mythological or fantastic tropes, he follows a winding path that returns as often to internal conflict as it does external forces. In fact, all of the Earthsea books that I've read don't have a typical MacGuffin like so many fantasy and science fiction books. Instead Le Guin uses the tool of fantasy to focus in on the human condition, as all of the best genre writers have done before and since.

After finishing The Wizard of Earthsea, I moved on to other authors. I don't recall why, whether it was ignorance of other books in the series or even if I had not thought to see what else Le Guin might have written. Three or four years ago, however, I picked the book up again and read it absolutely enthralled. It seemed like an entirely different book; one with so much more depth and subtlety than I recalled. After finishing it, I move on to the second and third books in the series. Each was different but fascinating in its own way.

In reading some other's impressions of Le Guin's writing over the past week, I'm realizing the tremendous impact that she had by being an incredibly outspoken champion of female voices in genre fiction. She also wrote nuanced stories that centered around non-white characters and stories that explored gender. I wish that I could say that her writings had impacted me in that way. In truth, I haven't read the books where those issues are central themes but I'm looking forward to doing so. Regardless, it speaks to the myriad ways in which Le Guin challenged assumptions and spoke out for under-represented groups.

The world is certainly a less magical place, having lost the voice of Ursula K. Le Guin. Now is one of the times when we could most use her. With any luck, the people that have been influenced by her will rise to the challenge of shaping this world into a greater place in ways that we can't imagine.

Note

I created the image at the top of this post for my New Years card last year. It's one of my favorite lines from Le Guin, and remains extremely relevant and poignant. If I learned nothing else from Ursula K. Le Guin, it's how to imagine ways in which things might be different from how they are now. If you've made it this far, I hope you'll also do the same.

January 17, 2018 - Comments Off on Top 10 Albums: 2017 Edition

Top 10 Albums: 2017 Edition

Look, I know what you're saying. No, you don't need another top 10 list. And yes, I am pretty late in getting this thing out the door. Here's the thing though: I do this mostly for me. It's really fun to look back at the music that I really enjoyed from the past year. If there are others out there that enjoy the list and discover new music, that's great.

White Reaper - The World's Best American Band

Let's be clear about this one: despite the braggadocios title, this album isn't going into the annuls of rock history any time soon. The lyrics aren't clever sonnets laid over virtuoso finger picking. Despite this, it's such a fun record to listen to. Over it's roughly 30 minute run time, it stacks one toe-tapping track right after the other. Before long you're nodding to the rhythm and pumping your fist during the chorus. Good times start to finish.


Hanni El Khatib - Savage Times

You might look at this album as a bit of a cheat. It is—after all—a collection of 5 EPs that Hanni El Khatib put out over 2016. If you look at it with the perspective of 2015's Moonlight however, it holds together as complete album. And like Moonlight, it's somewhat all over the place. From straight ahead, bluesy garage-fi tracks to others driven by synths and disco beats. That pattern has become El Khatib's modus operandi, so it is less of a distraction and more like the variety bag of jelly beans. Even though you get a few black licorices, the variety is the point. And some of those combinations? Quite tasty.


Gorillaz - Humanz

The first of two albums on this list that I never thought would exist. I've been a fan of Gorillaz since I saw the video for Clint Eastwood back in the day. I'd read that the Albarn/Hewlett relationship had soured a bit, so the possibility of a follow-up to the solid Plastic Beach seemed rather doubtful. I'm so glad that it happened, though, and Humanz delivers on so many levels. It's both a continuation and an evolution of the Gorillaz sound, bringing some great new collaborators into the fold. In all, the album seems a bit more weighty when compared to the allegorical high watermark that was Demon Days, but Albarn and crew manage to weave danceable beats through lyrics that confront our troubled times.


Here Lies Man - s/t

I don't quite remember how Here Lies Man came onto my radar. What I am sure of, however, is that their sound grabbed my attention immediately from the first listen. Their sound has been described as Black Sabbath playing afrobeat, which isn't the worst characterization but does gloss over the intricate repetitive rhythms that underpin each track and support distorted vocals that have little relation to Ozzy's theatrical delivery. Their sound is certainly heavy though, and it's wrapped around a rich tapestry of noisy fuzz that much more closely brings to mind psych rock than metal.


B Boys - Dada

Everything that B Boys put out sound like a love letter to punk. Not punk now, but punk the way it was in England in the late '70s and early '80s. Dissonant music played by kids who went to art school and still believed that a song could change the world. That's the sounds that led me to fall in love with punk, and I do again every time I listen to this record.


Wavves - You're Welcome

If B Boys are playing nostalgic punk chords, Wavves typifies the modern archetype of a punk auteur. Despite being the solo project of Nathan Williams, at no point does this release become monotonous or one-note. It's both fun and personal, with a lo-fi garage aesthetic that belies a layered structure. In short: really good stuff.


Guerilla Toss - GT ULTRA

Guerilla Toss are kind of a weird one. They popped up on my radar originally when they were still based out of Boston, but I can't say that I spent too much time listening to them until this album. And the more that I listen to them, the more I draw connections to late-era Devo with the use of quirky synths and dancier rhythms. Depending which track you listen to, there's also an undercurrent of post-punk's disco-fueled disillusionment.


Algiers - The Underside of Power

Every year I have that one album that I keep hearing about, but that takes a while for me to "get." That award this year definitely goes to Aliers' The Underside of Power. If you heard about this one and slept on it, I really recommend giving it some more spins. From the start, every track is a sonic assault. It's fast, heavy, distorted and angry, but it's also passionate, visceral, and extremely compelling. Politics are driving force behind so much of the music and the band isn't shy about voicing their opinions. While some won't appreciate the mix, I say bring it on and know that I'll be listening.


Death From Above 1979 - Outrage! Is Now

I'm glad that the guys in DFA patched things up, because I'm really enjoying these post-reunion releases. I was absolutely obsessed with The Physical World when it came out a few years ago so Outrage! Is Now had a pretty high mark to measure against. It falls a bit short though, without a ballad like "White is Red" or an aural assault on the level of "Turn it Out," but there are still plenty of great hooks and fantastic overall heaviness. [ASIDE: Is that really the best they could do for cover art?! Yeesh.]


LCD Soundsystem - american dream

As with the Gorillaz release, I was pretty sure that album would never come into existence. Then when I heard about it, I was also pretty sure that I wouldn't be into it. Mr. Murphy has been up to some unusual side projects since LCD Soundsystem called it a day, so whether this album would bear any resemblance to previous albums was an open question. It turned out that answer is, "Yes…sort of." Long gone is the pure energy and raucous fun of the early albums. Instead the tracks have been cut down to their barest elements, leaving the dance beat with trademark James Murphy vocals and only the most necessary accompaniment. It's as if the LCD Soundsystem formula has been distilled to its most essential and intentional elements. I'm certainly hoping that there are more releases to come.


Closing Thoughts

On a personal level, 2017 was marked by a lot of uncertainty. I became a father a little more than 7 months ago, and I knew that my priorities would shift but I didn't know how. Music has been important to me for quite a while, and I was afraid that I wouldn't have time for it. It's not easy to find new music by new artists and dedicate enough time to give that music enough thoughtful attention that you can decide if you like it or not. One thing is for certain: time has become a precious commodity. Thankfully I've still be able to carve out some time to find and listen to new music. There were some really fantastic releases this year, and I'm glad that they didn't pass me by.

I'm also thinking about how to share my passion for music with my daughter. I don't want her to like the same things that I do, I just want her to like her own things in the same way. She hasn't really started to pay much attention to music yet, but I'm really looking forward to when she does. Maybe we'll talk about the our favorite music.

Postscript: Other Albums That I Liked But That Didn't Quite Make The Cut

  • Ty Segall - s/t
  • Beastmaker - Insider the Skull
  • Songhoy Blues - Résistance
  • Antibalas - Where the Gods are in Pease
  • The Beaches - Late Show
  • Hüsker Dü - Savage Young Dü

Post-Postscript: Spotify Playlist with The Top 10