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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: January 9-January 23, 2005

Sunday, January 9, 2005:

First things first: at work, Juli told me that she'd found a digital camera's memory card on the ground while working at The Ark, and since no one claimed it and it didn't fit her particular camera (which is a bummer because Juli is a notorious shutterbug), she thought I might be able to use it. There was one picture on the card when I put it into my camera, and Juli and I agree that it's totally hilarious in its randomness. So here it is:

(I suppose, on the off-chance that you can identify the guy/house in that picture, let me know and I'll see if I feel like giving the memory card back.)

On another matter, does anyone know of a good portable digital recorder that I could purchase? This week, I'm eligible for a $500 technology credit from Math Reviews which I can use to purchase any sort of computer-related product for my personal use that I desire. I want to get some sort of digital recording thing that I can carry around to make field recordings and stuff, which I can then transfer to my computer (ideally via a firewire cable) for use in songs without losing any sound quality. Preferably, this would be something that utilizes a memory card rather than a minidisc recorder or anything like that, because memory cards strike me as much more cost-efficient. (This is assuming a product exists with these features.) I have no idea where to begin looking, though. Does anyone have any suggestions of brands, specific products, etc? I'd appreciate it.

Okay, now that I've got that business taken care of, it's time to announce my best-of-2004 mix album that I've painstakingly assembled in lieu of a top ten albums list again this year. The mix is entitled There's Tuppence on Me Thruppence! The Best of 2004.

A couple comments before we get into the tracklist: First, 2004 was an incredibly good year for epic songs, none of which made the list. I could very easily fill up an additional CD with half a dozen excellent songs that are between ten and twenty minutes long (i.e., "Piso Mojado Redux" by The Other Leading Brand, "Elephant" by Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, "The Tain" by the Decemberists, "McCauley Street" by Chris Stamey and Yo La Tengo, "Quay Cur" by Fiery Furnaces, "Aster" by OOIOO, and "Willie Deadwilder" by Cat Power- assuming all those would fit on one CD), but I simply didn't want to take up that much time on this here disc.

Secondly, there's my usual disclaimer that I obviously haven't heard every album that came out in 2004, nor have I even heard every album I want to hear from the year. Still haven't heard those albums by High Water Marks, Neko Case, The Arcade Fire, Nick Cave, and so on. So in a few months or perhaps weeks, I'll surely hear some song that I will kick myself for not having included here, much as I'm kicking myself for not including, say, "Synthesizer" by the Electric Six on last year's comp. Can't be helped, though. These are just my current favorite songs; not an unimpeachable list of the year's objective best.

But anyway, here we go. I frankly think the mix's flow is a little uncomfortable and lumpy, so you may want to fiddle with the sequencing when you inevitably assemble it yourself. That said, though, behold!

1. A.C. Newman: "Miracle Drug" (2:19) The best album opener of the year, and therefore the only possible option to open this compilation. Newman slightly puts the brakes on the head-spinning 20-hooks-in-one extravaganzas that mark his work with the New Pornographers, instead unleashing a straightforward power-pop classic that's nothing less than a paragon of rock efficiency. In just over two minutes, Newman casually and good-naturedly swipes the "reincarnation of rock" crown from beneath the noses of all those disdainful, humorless, overrated "garage-band" hacks that everyone else is fawning over. From The Slow Wonder.
2. Of Montreal: "Lysergic Bliss" (4:04)
A newly-wed Kevin Barnes sings an infectious ode to the life-altering joys of true love, whose tight, precise indie-quirk-pop arrangement (the ode, not the love) manages to find room for a multitracked a capella breakdown, a swooning flute outro, and a hilariously gratuitous rhythm change from the tune's lightweight shuffling to a jerky 4/4 beat that lasts for only one measure. Due to the fact that Barnes mostly recorded this album himself without his bandmates, the taut "Lysergic Bliss" might come as a shock to fans used to Of Montreal's free-spirited psychedelic interplay, but you'd have to be pretty hard-hearted not to give yourself over to its disciplined weirdness. From Satanic Panic in the Attic.
3. Mouse on Mars: "Spaceship" (4:58)
With sputtering, clattering percussion loops, a huge bassline that whirls about like an unmanned firehose, and vocals from Niobe that are cut up and reassembled in the same entertainingly creepy fashion as Madeleine Stowe's voicemail message at the end of 12 Monkeys, "Spaceship" is the most danceable (and trippy) electro-sci-fi track I've ever heard. Though Mouse on Mars's sudden conversion from a mostly instrumental cartoon-IDM outfit into an idiosyncratic-yet-accessible parody of Basement Jaxx-style house music was one of the year's biggest musical surprises, songs like this made it one of the year's most pleasant ones as well. From Radical Connector.
4. Magnetic Fields: "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" (4:24)
One of the most trenchant and sour relationship post-mortems Stephin Merritt has ever penned, this tune also happens to be one of his catchiest. With an insistent rhythm section and a pleading piano line to keep things as sad as possible, Merritt's accusatory melody glistens the way only fresh bile can. As the icing on the cake, the bridge in which he moans, "I wanted you to know, I walked around a lot, wishing you were here to keep me from sleeping with anyone who might want me... or even not/Some guys have a beer and they'll do anything" is so naked in both its attempt to make an ex-lover jealous and its self-loathing that it not only cuts to the bone, but it hacks the limb clean off. From the otherwise disappointing i.
5. Joanna Newsom: "The Book of Right-On" (4:29)
I'll admit that I haven't yet heard the entire album from which this song is culled, but lots of people seem to think this is the best song from it, and I'd be surprised if the actual case were otherwise. "The Book of Right-On" doesn't consist of much more than a slinky, thumpy bass, an expressively understated acoustic guitar, and Newsom's singing, but she actually manages to make the combination seem novel in a year that's been full of indie-folk savants. It takes a minute to get used to Newsom's weird, pinched voice, but it's certainly self-assured, not to mention addictive in the song's befuddling beauty. From Milk-Eyed Mender.
6. Air: "Alpha Beta Gaga" (4:39) It's difficult to think of many great songs whose main draw is the sound of someone whistling. I can think of "Generals & Majors" by XTC and "Mother's Milk" by the Meat Puppets and that's about it (though I know I'm missing some obvious ones). Well, this is another one. When you add in the violin doubling the whistling hook and the contrapuntal banjo, this loping instrumental may forsake some of Air's usual electropop suaveness, but it's replaced with unpretentious, memorable charm. I think it was used in a Starburst commercial, actually. From Talkie Walkie.
7. Camper Van Beethoven: "Might Makes Right" (2:46)
After a 15-year hiatus, CVB's pre-apocalyptic-but-post-Bush concept album about a thoroughly splintered America finds the band as razor-sharp and musically interesting as ever. This ska-based weirdo-folk song not only manages to come up with the year's most indelible chorus, but by filtering it through the point of view of a soldier disillusioned by his duties ("Might makes right/They say that God is on our side/I don't believe them"), the song achieves a truly chilling juxtaposition of catchy sloganeering and unsentimental acknowledgement of the human cost of a selfish, xenophobic war... Sound familiar? From New Roman Times.
8. The Northern State (feat. Har Mar Superstar): "Summer Never Ends" (3:38)
This is the great, breezy, old-school-styled hip-hop celebration of the summer months that DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince wanted "Summertime" to be. With Har Mar Superstar singing the soulful refrain and the State girls nonchalantly rapping about the unfettered joys of the season- to say nothing of fun lyrics like "Don't let the feeling fade/We gotta take it higher than my bangs from eighth grade"- it's the rare song that can make you feel the vibe of joyfully cruising down the street from party to party with your friends, windows down, and feeling strangely free... even if you're listening to it while driving alone down a slush-filled Ann Arbor street to return $18 worth of empty beer bottles to Meijer. From All City.
9. The Other Leading Brand: "Desk Drawer" (3:34)
Of all the gifts possessed by electronic genius Mike DeFabio, one of the coolest is his ability to make music that's funny in such a subtle, genre-tweaking way that it's impossible to explain to someone who hasn't heard it, or even to someone who has heard it but doesn't quite get it. The quintessential example may be this fantastic little ambient-IDM track, whose anchor is a boppy little keyboard line that could've come from one of To Rococo Rot's happier moments, but all the background percussion consists of the sampled and programmed sounds of items from Mike's desk drawer. Scissors, a protractor, tearing paper, the sounds of a Tic Tac or something being dropped and bouncing a little, etc. are all expertly arranged in a way that's designed to offend electronica purists by simultaneously goofing on their artistry and beating them at their own game by being such a solid composition. And those are the best kind of tricks. From Milkshake x Infinity, which happens to be the best album of the year.
10. They Might Be Giants: "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" (1:38)
The best thing They Might Be Giants released this year was definitely not on their horrid album The Spine, but was rather this cool little recording of what was apparently one of William Henry Harrison's presidential campaign jingles. I don't know how faithful they are to the melody of the original, but it's kind of ominous in its own way, from John Flansburgh's detached singing to the sick-sounding horn samples. (And what the hell is with the line "With them will be little Van, Van/Van is a used-up man"?) Though it may well have been a cornball novelty song at the time, TMBG presents it as a bizarre statement of determination that may well be some sort of comment on the ever-more bizarre pageant of presidential politics. Either way, it's as addictive and darkly comic as any of their best work. From the Future Soundtrack of America compilation distributed by MoveOn.org.
11. The Fall: "Portugal" (3:37)
Kind of like the bratty kid brother of Sloan's "Penpals," this is a churning, midtempo indie-rocker with delicious harmony "doo doo doo" vocals and a great, chanted refrain... except in The Fall's case, rather than making lyrics out of cute fan letters, we are treated to the recitation of a series of angry correspondence between frontman Mark E. Smith and a promoter over an agreement gone bad. So in addition to being a catchy stomper of a tune, you get hilarious interplay like the promoter remarking, "Words fail me at how offensive a human being you are," which is shortly followed by Mark's accusation that the promoter's crew passed the time by hurling snotballs, to which the rest of the band joyfully shouts, "Snotballs!" in full-on pub style. I don't know about you, but this kind of piss-take absurdity is always welcome in my stereo. From The Real New Fall LP.
12. Sufjan Stevens: "The Dress Looks Nice on You" (2:32)
...And at the other end of the spectrum, the brittle sincerity of this song is enough to make you cry. Surrounding his vulnerable voice with snowflakes of repeated acoustic guitar and banjo lines, Stevens barely breaks a whisper as he sings, "I can see a lot of life in you/I can see a lot of bright in you/And I think that dress looks nice on you/I can see a lot of life in you." Like most of his songs, this one nails a feeling of crushing disillusionment and regret without being at all whiny, specific, or even explicitly sad. It's all there in the music, though: dreams deferred, innocence lost, all those poetic cliches made effective because they're shown and not told. From Seven Swans.
13. Andrea Maxand: "Cassie's Song" (3:56)
One of America's best undiscovered indie-rock talents, Maxand should've landed on best-of-2004 lists nationwide if only on the strength of this song. Nothing less than an expert construction of hooks and dynamics, "Cassie's Song" opens with an instantly gripping pairing of Maxand's soaring vocals and ringing guitar, plunges into a more aggressive couple minutes (with her voice run through an effective bullhorn effect) and then eases up for a gentle, snarky bridge before hitting the accelerator again. Nothing earth-shatteringly inventive, but it's all assembled with a lot more care than most artists would take. Great, supple work from Death Cab for Cutie's rhythm section, too. From Where the Words Go.
14. David Byrne: "The Man Who Loved Beer" (2:40)
2004 wasn't a great year for either David Byrne or Lambchop, whose releases (Grown Backwards and the simultaneous release of Aw Cmon and No You Cmon, respectively) were frustratingly uneven, but this cover of a song from Lambchop's great 1996 album How I Quit Smoking encapsulates the best of both artists' talents. Byrne maintains the open-aired grace of the original, even as he substitutes a sweeping string arrangement for Lambchop's humble Nashville sound and his own distinctive lilt for Kurt Wagner's charming mutter-singing. When Byrne coos the line "And the violent man has come down on everyone" like the ending to a lullaby, it becomes evident what a truly perfect match of source material and performer this interpretation really is. From Grown Backwards.
15. Mike Doughty: "Laundrytown" (1:40)
This swaying acoustic gem is an outtake from Doughty's 1996 Skittish sesssions, and the only possible reason I can think of that it might have been left off the original album is because its arrangement, though minimal (apart from the guitar and Doughty's unique nasal rasp, there's an unintrusive bass and the sounds of a pick running tunelessly across some strings to serve as percussion- you can think of it as a New York subway chanty), still sounds fuller than anything else from that record. So maybe he thought it would've seemed out-of-place. Or maybe because including it would've meant that Skittish had too many heart-stoppingly beautiful songs, of which this would've been a particularly bright highlight on an album that's basically nothing but neon-yellow brilliance. As it stands, it's a bonus track from the new two-disc set containing Skittish and Rockity Roll.
16. TV on the Radio: "Don't Love You" (5:31)
A dark, hypnotic kiss-off, "Don't Love You" plays out with a sublime mood of gritted-teeth restraint that never quite allows you a good glimpse of the bitter passion lying beneath, but makes it perfectly clear anyhow. Even if Tunde Adebimpe didn't get his point across in his understated melody, the minor-key swarm of the music- droning organs, pizzicato guitar stuttering, and one gigantic, looped bass drum thump that runs throughout- would give you the hint. From Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, whose title really irritates me because bloodthirsty is one word, dammit.
17. McLusky: "Forget About Him I'm Mint" (1:46)
McLusky's admittedly clever mixture of noise-rock, black humor, and strangely precise sloppiness generally doesn't click with me personally (though I'd still recommend it more highly than, say, the Liars' undercooked aggro), but I've got nothing but love for this marching postpunk anthem. The whole song is one giant, vaguely Middle Eastern-influenced hook, spruced up with some inspired trumpet/guitar cooperation, hilarious backing vocal exclamation points, and memorably silly lyrics like "Everywhere I go I want to travel by X-Wing/Thorazine given in your food will stop the headaches." From The Difference Between Me and You is That I'm Not on Fire.
18. Robyn Hitchcock: "We're Gonna Live in the Trees" (3:24)
With help from Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and NRBQ's Joey Spampinato (evident not only in the backing vocals, but in the thumpy bluegrass bassline and the amusing one-note slide guitar in the background), Hitchcock sounds like he's having more fun than he has in years as he belts out this simple-though-typically-crooked folk-pop number about... humans transmogrifying into birds or something? Maybe? Well, it's a big pile of homespun joy, at any rate. From Spooked.
19. Frank Black : "Nimrod's Son" (3:01)
Andy Diagram and Keith Moline (the Two Pale Boys) assist Frank Black in transforming what was once an okay Pixies song (from the overrated Come On Pilgrim EP) into a spooky dirge whose tuba-and-trumpet backing, deliberately overblown synth breaks, and overuse of echo effects underscore the bizarre car-crash-and-incest lyrics in the most wonderfully trippy way. (Not "trippy" psychedelic, but more like "trippy" Brian Dewan-goes-to-New Orleans.) Screw the Pixies reunion; this was the most genuinely enjoyable nostalgic surprise of the year. From disc two of Frank Black Francis.
20. The Go! Team: "The Power is On" (3:13)
My initial reaction upon hearing this song was wondering whether someone had gone and made a recording of some high school cheerleader competition and then pulled a Moby and built a song around it. This does not appear to be the actual case, but that's the effect, and it's really invigorating. Particularly when the '70s-cop-show horns kick in. It occurs to me that if you're the sort who actually exercises, this would be a good exercise song. From Thunder Lightning Strike.
21. Comas: "Moonrainbow" (3:15)
When I picked up this Comas album, it struck me that it's been awhile since I've heard such a thoroughly great Britpop band (even though they're from Chapel Hill). No gimmicks or pretentiousness or tiresome pilfering from Radiohead, just the sort of great, glam-rock-without-the-glamour melodic instincts of the Boo Radleys or a less arrogant Spacehog. "Moonrainbow" is the most instantly lovable of the bunch, with an ebullient arrangement, the best boy/girl interplay since the last album by Stars and a vocal line that does that sad-sounding downward-sliding trick that never fails to thrill me. From Conductor.
22. Kasey Chambers: "Pony" (4:42)
I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't know who sings that song "You Give Me Fever" (which may not be the actual title, but you know the one I mean). At any rate, this country-styled reworking of that song is less outright theft than a smirky retooling- kind of like how Ween's "Falling Out" borrows elements from "Secret Agent Man," or, um, how Ween's "I Saw Gener Crying in His Sleep" borrows elements from Melanie's "Brand New Key." Underappreciated Aussie country star Chambers takes the teasing sexiness of that song and adds her own, additionally sexy twist, by ironically singing it through the eyes of an ingenue who wants nothing more from life than to be a Wild West hausfrau. What initially seems like a step backward for feminism reveals itself as a really clever parody when you realize that the narrator lusts after an old-fashioned life that never existed in the first place. Heh. From Wayward Angel.
23. Devendra Banhart: "Autumn's Child" (2:40)
For all the buzz Banhart received this year, his burnout-folkie-as-Billie Holiday act can get really wearisome over the course of an entire album. Luckily, he was kind enough to gift us with this facedown-moper of a song that's so simple and gorgeous in its unhappiness that it sounds like Mark Linkous singing for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and it totally makes up for his album's many twee missteps. A few simple, sad piano chords, an even simpler, sadder vocal line... one incredibly hopeless nugget of beauty. From Rejoicing in the Hands.

A few alternate choices:
"All God's Children" by the Finn Brothers.
"Sorry Entertainer" by Calvin Johnson.
DJ Shadow's remix of Radiohead's "The Gloaming."
"Home Again Garden Grove" by the Mountain Goats.
"No es Tan Cierto" by Juana Molina.

Oh, and also? No one go see The Life Aquatic. It's no good.

CURRENT MUSIC: Green Imagination by The Sunshine Fix.
Half-empty Brita pitcher, half-empty jug of Ocean Spray cranberry juice (27% juice), half-empty carton of Silk brand soy milk, half-empty packets of Sargento shredded mozzarella, colby jack, and cheddar cheese, nearly empty package of Kraft Singles, one sad little bottle of Killian's Irish Red, small jar of Inner Sanctum brand artichoke hearts, full carton of Meijer large curd cottage cheese, tub of Parkay margarine, half-empty jar of homemade applesauce that Bev's mom sent me, four single-serve boxes of Silk brand chocolate soy milk ("Not to be used as infant formula," the package reads), mostly full package of Smart Choice ground beef-style soy crumbles, mostly full package of Smart Choice bologna-style soy lunch slices, unopened carton of Trader Joe's extra-firm tofu, mostly full bag of quickly spoiling potatoes, half-empty bag of onions, one wad of celery wrapped in wax paper. Not counting all the stuff in the door, I mean.
4:42 PM.

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