Friday, November 27, 2015

Dr. Spin's Top 20 for 2015: The First Half

Ah, November – the newsfeeds are jammed with daily thanks, moustaches, holiday recipes, and shopping deals. It also serves as the deadline for my annual top 20 list. In my pre parenthood days, the blog had monthly roundups and November would feature selections 11-20. In recent years, this has devolved into just the latter.  I start working on this list at the beginning of the month, but I usually have time to compile it during my annual Thanksgiving Day holiday to South Padre.

In contrast to having a small dinner with some friends, Thanksgiving at the beach is a quite different affair.  My in-laws generously rent a condo on the beach and fill it with their extended family and friends.  With the Little One functioning as a very precocious 4 year old, she's gotten swept up in the kid culture of the group.  This includes, of course, significant amounts of beach time.

Sand drives me nuts, so I am not a huge fan of sand castles and the like.  That's the Little One's domain.  I am, however, a big fan of the aesthetic of the beach.  I can stand for an interminable amount of time letting the waves hit my feet while I take in the vastness of the ocean.  I usually get my fix during Thanksgiving, but this year was different.  When I got beachside, I was greeted by a huge, rusty pipe running as far as the eye could see.

It didn't do much to soothe the environmental anxiety that I have been suffering with this year.  I hope that the Little Two gets to remember seeing beaches without such a post-apocalyptic aesthetic.

I say it every year, and every year I get criticism: my Top 20 is not constrained to albums with a 2015 release date. Although albums released this year do have some degree of favor, inclusion on the list has much more to do with how an album comes to mark the time for a given year.  There are other rules, which I have stuck to since the first year I did this.  They are posted here.

20. Balmorhea – Stranger: This one entered the picture in late 2014, but grabbed my attention when I revisited it earlier this year. Tortoise’s It’s all Around You was a favorite of mine in another life, and Stranger speaks the same dialect.

19. Mew +/-: I really wanted to put +/- at the top of the 2015 list. While I will say that the return of bassist Johan Wohlert brought back the band’s soul, the album is ‘merely excellent’ rather than ‘phenomenal’ like their earlier work.

18. BattlesLaDiDaDi: LaDiDaDi harkens back to the unapologetically dense days of EP B/C EP. It is a step forward for Battles as a trio, but still doesn’t reach the heights of the classic Mirrored.

17: Spock's Beard - The Oblivion Particle: Without any direct input from Neal Morse, this year's offering from Spock's Beard rakes anoter step towards solidifying the current lineup.  Ted Leonard fronts the band without taking over, allowing the group's unique personality to shine through.

16. Death Grips – The Powers that B: Although Death Grips have released several albums since The Money Store, their media antics have been more compelling than their music. The much-hyped The Powers that B actually delivers on the braggadocio that they have been delivering for the past few years.

15. East India Youth – Culture of Volume: Despite a dismal set opening for Mew at SXSW, I had a hunch that the studio might be a better vehicle for his vision. I was pleased to find that I was correct – I only wish that he was using a live drummer!

14. Other LivesRituals: While it may not cast the same spell as its predecessor, Rituals definitely weaves a similar magic. It is similarly orchestral in its scope, however, with generous use of bassoon and hints of minimalism.

13. The New Pornographers Brill Bruisers: It is incredibly tricky to make multiple albums of outstanding power pop music without becoming formulaic. The New Pornographers navigate this issue by giving each album its own subtle character without reinventing the band’s essence.

12. Original Soundtrack - 13 Assassins: Thanks to the Superhero Theme Project, I have had a lot of soundtracks in rotation for the past couple of years. 13 Assassins was a totally accidental find in the research for Wolverine's theme, but its distinctive character immediately grabbed and held my attention for months.

11. Circa: - HQ: Regular followers of my blog know that I have engaged in an ongoing exploration of Yes’ identity. Listening to HQ was part of the research for this examination, but it came to have a life of its own early this year.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Layers of Thanksgiving: "Junun" Over Dinner

I was really looking forward to having a full week for Thanksgiving this year. I would have some quality time with the wife and kid before I went down for the big annual event on Padre Island with the extended family. Inevitably, having a lot of free time with the Little One eventually results in a little Netflix-for-Kids, and I was very surprised to find that there were absolutely no thanksgiving specials up. Not a one. There were, however, lots and lots of poorly animated b-rate Christmas features. The best I could find was a grainy, third-party posting of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving on YouTube. It has been up for a couple of years, as if no one cares enough to challenge its legality!

I think that this, along with the scads of Christmas sale ads popping up in my feed early in the week, caused me to be a little defensive about Thanksgiving this year. I have always felt that it is its own holiday with its own feeling, and I dislike the sense that it is increasingly becoming subsumed by consumerism related to a totally separate holiday.  I am starting to get the feeling Thanksgiving has devolved into nothing more than some time off to let the public get some shopping done.

Taking matters into my own hands, I organized my own little informal Thanksgiving dinner and invited my bandmates from Ethnos over. We are all super-busy, and as we get closer to the end of the semester it is safe to assume that we would only get to be more so. It seemed like a good opportunity to hang out before the holidays scatter us to the wind.

One catalyst for our conversation was Junun.  I acquired this album with the intent of listening to it on beach walk like I did with Barrett a few years ago.  Long before its recent release, a brief article about the cross-cultural collaboration that produced Junun generated quite a bit of personal excitement.  Its authorship is so complex that it took the whole staff at Waterloo Records to figure out where the CD was filed.

The most visible contributor is Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame, and going into the store I was aware that he was working with an Indian ensemble called the Rajastan Express. The surprise, however, was Shye Ben Tzur, an Israeli musician who is trained in Indian styles.  Although a superficial listen to the album doesn’t bring traditional Jewish music to mind, his songwriting contributions placed the album in the “Israel” section of the international music.

The album as a whole is really quite incredible - perhaps even compelling enough to be considered a very late contender for album of the year.  Superficially, it is easy to indulge in the exotic aspects of the album, but the harmonic environment provided by the guitar work and the subtle electronic atmospheres frame Junun’s “Indian-ness” within a decidedly contemporary field. Even more layered is Shye Ben Tzur’s Hebrew lyrics performed in ecstatic Indian styles. Certainly, with the current state of the Middle East, his identity structure makes a political statement that should be read as particularly relevant.

This statement was not lost on us. My bandmates are a very diverse group, with members from India, Taiwan, and Pakistan, and each of us had different perspectives about the way the various contributions of Junun fit into a cohesive statement. I was enthusiastic about its textural overlap with Kid A, while our tabla player nodded his head in approval to its roots in Indian street music. The exchange was as layered and engaging as the music itself.  As I have said many times in the past, I am very grateful for the opportunity to know and create with these outstanding individuals. Spending time and conversing with them, however, reminded me of just how thankful I am for having such open-minded and diverse friends.

Oh, and shameless self-promotion: The band's website is right here.  Check us out....