Sunday, December 26, 2010

10 Albums I Liked in 2010

As usual, I don't purport to know the top 10 albums of the year since I didn't listen to them all. These are the 10 albums that came out in 2010 that I was most into. I'm glad the forces that brought them to my ears did!


1. Judgement Day - Peacocks/Pink Monsters. You might have heard of Apocalypitica. They're a band that plays mostly metal covers on cellos. It's pretty cool, but inviting guest vocalists Gavin Rossdale and the dude from Shinedown on their latest album is just, wow, totally not. Enter Judgement Day, a violinist, drummer and cellist and from Oakland, who, on their second full-length, play original, passionate, furious string metal that gallops like Maiden, breaks down like Mastodon, and out-shreds all guitar-based metal that came out this year. Plus, their “Violin Hero” music video is hilarious:

2. Agalloch - Marrow of the Spirit. For a band with a global cult following, Agalloch doesn't hesitate to take risks and evolve. Their last full-length, 2006's Ashes Against the Grain, put post-rock at the helm of the “grey metal” ship they sailed to notoriety despite practically never touring. On their Profound Lore debut, the band successfully draws on straightforward black metal, merging it perfectly with the acoustic ambience that gives their records a wind-swept feel. Read my review for The Oregonian.

3. Cool Nutz - Incredible. The only flaw on Portland's best and best-known hip-hop artist's latest is the repetition of lines touting maturity in every other song such as "I'm a grown man with grown man ways." But the record's strength is that Cool Nutz is absolutely right--after 20 years in the business he is a veritable craftsman who never lays a stray syllable as he pulls in magnificent metaphors to rap about mothers and crime. Read my Oregonian feature and see my Ebaby! interview.

4. Gabriel Mintz - Volume One. His voice, my god his voice! This young Seattle folk singer has a voice that just comes out of the speakers and hangs around like smoke. He's also nutty and sweet, giving his songs an irreverence that makes them easy to get into. Mintz is my favorite discovery of the year.

5. Past Lives - Tapestry of Webs. After the 2006 demise of Blood Brothers, one half of the band's frontman duo, Johnny Whitney, was quick to form Jaguar Love with a similarly neon, jagged aesthetic. It took several years for Jordan Blilie, the lower-pitched half of the duo, to give the world its first clear look at him as a songwriter in Past Lives. Tapestry of Webs, the band's debut LP, is essentially a straightforward post punk record, but a youthful creative touch summoned by the experienced singer makes it magical. Songs like "Deep in the Valley" and "K Hole" are a like a teen's grayscale take on Where the Wild Things Are. Read my Oregonian feature.

6. Bad Religion - Dissent of Man. As far as recent Bad Religion albums go, Dissent of Man is no Process of Belief, but the songwriting core of this veteran punk band is so talented, that it would be hard for them not to achieve some new height on each new album. “Wrong Way Kids” is a thoughtful rock song about starting a band as a teenager and then growing up and playing to teens. Its sound is so punk that it's actually just rock--its whoa-ohs would fit right in between Cock Sparrer tracks at the pub. See my Ebaby! interview.

7. Foxtails Brigade - The Bread and the Bait. Classical guitarist and vocalist Laura Weinbach creates songs that sound like they could be coming from a magic music box found in an old hollowed out tree. She's accompanied by fiddler Anton Patzner (Judgement Day, Bright Eyes). This album reminds me a lot of Vashti Bunjan's Diamond Day in its cunning and space, but you don't have to been in such a particular mood to listen to it.

8. Die Antwoord - $0$. Die Antwoord makes bad music. But boy, is it ever of the moment. The South African rap web phenomenon is the pinnacle of irony culture--the ultimate joke that may or may not be a joke. If you think hipster culture accomplished nothing this decade, compare $O$ to Vanilla Ice's To The Extreme. The former is so much more complex--the thin beats from DJ Hi Tek up the ante on Souja Boy's laptop culture. The strangely Juggalo over tones in the violent imagery and use of the word "ninja," along with Prodigy-esque high-pitched female backing vocals and exotic accents make a cultural organism so twisted it can only have originated in the wild. Artificial irony has spawned a captivating and horrifying new species.

9. and 10. Sufjan Stevens - All Delighted People EP and Age of Adz. Of all the genres mixed in popular music these days, new age has generally been left to rot in its neglected corner of the record store. It took the work of Louisiana outsider artist Royal Roberston to inspire folk singer Sufjan Stevens to make new age rock that is cool and aesthetically valuable. Robertson was nuts--images of UFOs and strange machines fill the two albums Stevens made this year, which, despite their lack of choruses and song structure, are filled with memorable moments and sounds both relaxing and expansive. Read my concert review for The Oregonian.

Friday, December 24, 2010



I write on a deadline all the time as a journalist. But as a songwriter, I'd never had an assignment I had to complete by a particular day until I got invited to be on the 4th edition of Willamette Week's holiday compilation this year. It's raising money for p:ear and you can download the whole thing for $5 (recommended) or just my track for $1 (or stream it for free).

After waiting all week for inspiration, I found myself with the song due Monday, a recording session scheduled for Sunday and virtually nothing as of Saturday at midnight. Usually when I write a song, I know where I want it to go and what I want it to say. This time, I only knew I wanted it to be about luminarias, the traditional southwestern Christmas decoration. So I tried an experiment and just let the song write itself. I didn't know what was happening or where it was going, I just tried to picture the story happening in a waking dream.

I was pretty happy with how it turned out, but the next day I was even happier when Michele Wylen and Randy B helped me out with some production and backing vocals that I think really make the track. Michele, who normally records dance music and has recently been guesting on a lot of hip-hop tracks, was challenged to sing a fairly cheesy, straightforward part in a high register. I mean, she seemed to think it was challenging--she nailed it all on the 2nd or 3rd try like I knew she would since she has perfect pitch and an amazingly versatile voice.

Anyway, this is the first bona-fide country song I've recorded so let me know what you think!

With rain on Christmas in Portland, this is the best I could do at my house this year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Going Against the Grain with Greg Graffin

Back in 2007, I got to interview Greg Graffin, the singer of Bad Religion, over the phone for Harp Magazine. Recently, I got to meet him in person for the latest in English, baby!'s Celebrity English Lessons series.

I just waited in the book line and asked him to do the interview when he signed mine. I also had him sign one for my friend Mark. He was writing "Good luck!" in most of the books, but when I told him Mark and I once drove all night without tickets to Phoenix from Albuquerque to see the Process of Belief tour (we successfully scalped) he said, "Sounds like Mark deserves a 'thanks!'" So that's what he wrote.

Though I was certainly more passionate about them at age 16, Bad Religion remains my favorite band. Singing along to it is kind of like what I imagine reciting prayers and singing hymns would be for religious people. Greg's book has a whole section describing his life as a teenager and it sounds pretty similar to mine and probably most punks--except that he was already writing lyrics that were better than what most lyricists will ever write. Like these:

A modern man, evolutionary betrayer
A modern man, ecosystem destroyer
Modern man destroy yourself in shame
A modern man, pathetic example of
Earth's organic heritage

Pretty good for a high school sophomore, and pretty indicative of how Greg merges punk and science in his book. It's a good read even for a non-scientist like me. I recommend it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mellowing Out with Melo

When I discovered that Carmelo Anthony was making a movie in China last summer, I set out to try to get him to do an English lesson for English, baby!

With all the trade rumors surrounding him this season, I was surprised how chill he and the whole Nuggets squad was when I attended their practice. It was the most relaxed NBA practice I'd ever been to. Someone farted and everyone made fun of it. Chris "Birdman" Anderson ran off holding his nose.

Luckily, Melo was on the other side of the court and totally cool with chatting with me for a minute while he put his shoes on.

After we sent them this video, a couple of the Nuggets PR people made the Ebaby! chime sound-logo their ringtone. I think they have a lot of fun in Denver.