January 3, 2014

My favorite songs of 2013, Honorable Mentions: Lockets, Jensen Sportag, Savages & more

My favorite songs of 2013, Honorable Mentions: Lockets, Jensen Sportag, Savages & more

Here are 9 more songs from 2013 that I really liked, listed in no particular order. And if you haven’t already, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2, too.

1) “Surrender” by Lockets

It’s the first week of January, and Lincoln has been in a pretty solid icy grip. As such, the words I wrote back in May for this song still hold as true now as they did back then: “Surrender” is “the summer song that I really needed right now.”

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January 2, 2014

My favorite songs of 2013, #8-14: Club 8, Sigur Rós, Infinity Shred, Makeup and Vanity Set, and more

My favorite songs of 2013, #8-14: Club 8, Sigur Rós, Infinity Shred, Makeup and Vanity Set, and more

Don’t let the numbers fool you: These songs aren’t necessarily being presented in any real ranking or heirarchy other than the order they take in my iTunes playlist. And if you haven’t already, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 3, too.

8) “Hot Sun” by Club 8

When I think about the duo of vocalist Karolina Komstedt and multi-instrumentalist Johan Angergård, the one word that comes to mind is “immaculate.” Their pop is absolutely perfect, in the way that only Swedish pop seems capable of being. Their melodies and harmonies are so catchy as to be uncanny, their production as polished as silver, their vocals effortless and affecting. Also impressive, they’ve accomplished this with a truly diverse sound that ranges from folk to disco to, in the case of “Hot Sun,” dub-influenced tropicalia. The shimmering tones and beats might make you yearn for beachside drinks in warmer climes, but the lyrics about romantic ambiguity and confusion — as delivered by Komstedt’s wispy voice — imbue the song with a poignancy belying its effervescent sound.

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January 1, 2014

My favorite songs of 2013, #1-7: Arcade Fire, Mary Onettes, My Bloody Valentine, Daft Punk, and more

My favorite songs of 2013, #1-7: Arcade Fire, Mary Onettes, My Bloody Valentine, Daft Punk, and more

Don’t let the numbers fool you: These songs aren’t necessarily being presented in any real ranking or heirarchy other than the order they take in my iTunes playlist. And if you haven’t already, be sure to read Part 2 and Part 3, too.

1) “Reflektor” by Arcade Fire

Coming off three album’s worth of massive critical acclaim and an “Album of the Year” Grammy, Arcade Fire was surfing a wave of hype, making Reflektor one 2013’s most anticipated releases. But like many, the album ultimately left me conflicted. On the one hand, it’s too long and self-indulgent; there’s no reason it had to be a double album. But then you listen to “Reflektor” and it becomes clear that Reflektor also contains some of Arcade Fire’s most exhilarating material to date. The title track blends the pulsing electronics first heard on “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” (one of my favorite songs of 2010) with Talking Heads-style tribal rhythms. Meanwhile, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne sing of modern technology, romance, and alienation. Oh, and David Bowie makes a guest appearance. It’s a monster of a track that seems like too much on paper, but it succeeds wonderfully. Almost too wonderfully, in fact; much of the rest of Reflektor is never quite able to get out from under its shadow.

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Elsewhere: Social media dangers, ancient computers, “Attack on Titan,” and “Gangnam Style”

Elsewhere: Social media dangers, ancient computers, “Attack on Titan,” and “Gangnam Style”

A digest of interesting, entertaining, and otherwise worthwhile reads collected from around the web-o-sphere.

1) As my kids grow up and spend more and more time online, I will make sure they have this blog entry memorized:

Type up a Facebook status update — and it can be radioactive forever. Don’t be fooled by your keyboard: the Internet doesn’t have a delete button. Screenshots can make your words have a half life of eternity. Social media is exactly that — social. It impacts you socially for as long as you are a member of society.

2) Zach Hoag has made a New Year's resolution for 2014: he’s quitting the “Progressive Christian Internet”:

In the name of “feeling all the feels” and “being angry at my oppressors”, the Progressive Christian Internet justifies unhealthy affect, arrogance, and aggression as normative, totally fine, and DON’T SILENCE ME. Being an online asshole is now not an accidental slip — it’s a virtue. And ever tighter ideological circles are drawn until rigid cliques are formed, and everyone outside (like, the rest of the Internet) are The Patriarchy or The Racists or The Oppressors. Often, strange Survivor-esque alliances are made to fight common online enemies, with bedfellows collaborating on badgering and intimidating their foes despite glaring contradictions in their own respective positions. Love for God and neighbor are nowhere to be found, overwhelmed by pharisaical posturing.

3) If you’re a Mac user of a certain age, then Jeff Keacher’s account of introducing his 27-year-old Mac Plus to the Web will bring up some serious nostalgia.

Yes, in a certain sense, my Mac has already been on the internet, first via BBSes and later via Lynx through a dial-up shell sessions. (There’s nothing quite like erotic literature at 2400 bps when you’re 13 years old.) What it never did was run a TCP/IP stack of its own. It was always just a dumb terminal on the ‘net, never a full-fledged member.

How hard could it be to right that wrong?

4) Speaking of computer nostalgia, the Ars Technica staff recently took some time to remember their first computers.

Being a bunch of technology journalists who make our living on the Web, we at Ars all have a fairly intimate relationship with computers dating back to our childhood — even if for some of us, that childhood is a bit more distant than others. And our technological careers and interests are at least partially shaped by the devices we started with.

My first computer was a Commodore SX-64, a 23 pound “portable” version of the venerable Commodore 64. I spent many an hour staring at that 5” color screen, playing games like Murder on the Mississippi, Lode Runner, Temple of Apshai, and F-15 Strike Eagle — and it was magical. Computers have never seemed to advanced, so futuristic, so powerful.

5) Attack on Titan was one of 2013’s most acclaimed anime titles, but not one without controversy. For starters, it’s a very violent and gruesome series. But, as Charles Webb points out, it might also celebrate pre-WW2 Japanese expansionist thinking.

Who would have thought that an anime about naked giants attempting to use the last of humanity for their own personal buffet would evoke World War II, Japanese imperial thought, and advocate the individual's sacrifice to group-think?

Or maybe over its 25 episodes, the opposite is true: that Production I.G.'s adaptation of the Hajime Isayama manga is a sly critique of the all of the above, and that one season in, the audience hasn't yet been exposed to the line of thinking which upends what would seem to be a sustained celebration of the kind of expansionist thought that led a militarized Japan to look to the Philippines, Korea, and China and begin licking their chops.

For what it’s worth, here’s my review of Attack on Titan.

6) You probably saw Apple’s “Misunderstood” commercial a couple of times around the holiday season (it’s been viewed over 6.6 million times on YouTube to date). I thought it was a charming and thoughtful commercial, but there are some who, strangely enough, saw it as something far more pernicious.


7) You might remember “Gangnam Style” as that crazy silly video with the horse dancing. However, Sungyak John Kim argues that PSY’s big hit is an exemplar of our post-modern age.

One of the most-discussed issues in music theory today is the relationship between language and music, whether one qualitatively compromises the other, or whether there is a balance to strike between text and tonality, etc. “Gangnam Style,” I believe, is a resounding conclusion to this debate, at least at the popular level. The text has yielded to tone. Meaning has been lost. Perhaps this is what people have always said about pop music – that values like meaning, coherence and virtue have long been exiled into the “old, rich people who attend operas” category. Well, “Gangnam Style” has put another nail in the coffin. No longer is meaning merely absent. In our postmodern culture, absence of meaning is celebrated.

8) Wired presents a photo gallery of the AK-47, arguably the most well-known and influential assault rifle of all time.

9) Roger Ebert wrote this piece on movie language and morality back in 1992, but it’s just as relevant and insightful today as it was then.

The most fundamental mistake you can make with any piece of fiction is to confuse the content with the subject. The content is what is in a movie. The subject is what the movie is about. Word counters like Medved are as offended by a Martin Scorsese picture as by a brainless violent action picture, because they see the same elements in both. But the brainless picture is simply a form of exhibitionism, in which the director is showing you disgusting things on the screen. And the Scorsese picture might be an attempt to deal seriously with guilt and sin, with evil and the possibility of redemption. If you cannot tell one from the other, then you owe it to yourself to learn; life is short, and no fun if you spend it disowning your own intelligence.

Speaking of morality and movies and art, I recently posted this on Facebook:

I don’t have any plans to see American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street, for various reasons, but I have enjoyed reading what various friends have posted regarding these two movies — precisely because the opinions have been so varied.

Some people have loved these movies, and some people have hated them. Some have seen them as vile and exploitative whereas others have seen them as insightful and thought-provoking. And here’s the thing: regardless of their stance, people have posted perfectly valid and thoughtful defenses for their view.

That’s how art works… and it’s a beautiful, and frustrating, thing. Different people can see the same movie, and come to very different conclusions, and both can be “right.” This is not to say that art can’t be evaluated or critiqued, or that we can’t declare one work to be better or clearer or more well-made than another, or that we shouldn’t hold up certain titles as exemplars or standards.

But it does mean that art, and our reactions to it, are all complicated things. And when we’re discussing art, and our reactions and impressions, there needs to be grace and humility for each other, and for the art in question.

Or, as one of my favorite critics, Jeffrey Overstreet, put it: “Please, be generous with each other. Don’t judge a movie you haven’t seen. Don’t judge others for their responses. And don’t judge artists for painting pictures of what they see happening in the world around them.”

Amen and amen.

December 27, 2013

“Kung Fury” aims to be “the most epic ‘80s adventure this world has ever seen”

Or at least that’s the goal of David Sandberg, the writer, director, and star of Kung Fury. And he’s pulling out all of the stops. The trailer above features over-the-top martial arts, superpowered skateboard gangs, a flying Lamborghini, Power Glove-enabled time travel, Vikings, and even a Tyrannosaurus rex for good measure. Oh, and Hitler makes an appearance, too. The Kung Fury trailer plays out like one crazy pop culture fever dream, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it certainly put a grin on my face.

Sandberg has already shot the 30-minute film, but he’s started a Kickstarter campaign to raise $200,000 to complete the film’s extensive post-production. He’s also promised that if the Kickstarter campaign raises $1,000,000, he’ll work on converting Kung Fury to a full-length feature.

As cool as that sounds in theory, I hope the film remains a 30-minute short. Not because I don’t want Sandberg to succeed — he’s obviously a talented guy, even with a low budget — but this sort of tongue-in-cheek title always seems to work better in a shorter, sweeter format, otherwise the joke starts to run out of steam. (Remember The FP, anyone?)

December 26, 2013

Train up a child, #16: Lil’ MythBusters

Train up a child, #16: Lil’ MythBusters

We spent part of Christmas Eve watching a MythBusters marathon. Shortly afterward, I came around the corner and found this little collaboration well under way. I don’t know who was Adam and who was Jamie, nor do I know what they were designing (my guess: something to do with explosions), but I did hear my five-year-old announce “We’re doing math here for science.”

Well done, Messrs. Savage and Hyneman. Well done.

December 22, 2013

December Photo Project 2013 #22: Maneuvers

December Photo Project 2013 #22: Maneuvers

One rule in our household is that it’s verboten to climb up and sit on the kitchen counters. However, they were planning some pretty complex strategic maneuvers, so I didn’t want to interrupt. And they got even more complex. Shortly after I took this photo, a stealth bomber, a Transformer, and a dragon — to name a few — were added to the ranks.

Note: No DPP entry was taken yesterday, 12/21.

December 20, 2013

December Photo Project 2013 #20: Tracked Down

December Photo Project 2013 #20: Tracked Down

When we moved into our new house, my wife and I made a concerted effort to box up as much stuff as possible — and this was doubly true for all of our kids’ toys. And even after moving, we’ve spent several evenings going through the toys and storing away those that our kids hardly ever use, in order to declutter as much as possible. But never underestimate a kid’s “toy memory.” Be it weeks or even months, they will remember their toys… and they will find them.

December 19, 2013

My faith in “Community” season 5 has been revived

After the underwhelming mess that was Community’s fourth season, I’ve been looking forward to the show’s fifth season rather half-heartedly. The news of Dan Harmon’s return was encouraging, to be sure, but the fourth season was so bad and so misguided that a part of me felt like Harmon’s return was akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Not even the initial teasers did much to reignite my fanboy-ishness. And then I watched this glorious trailer. And I watched it again… and again.

Chairwalkers. Ass-crack bandits and butt mouths. Meta references to the actors personal lives. It’s a mess, but the sheer wall-to-wall zaniness that marked the best of Harmon’s earlier seasons does seem to be present, and that is reason for hope. Also reason for hope is this quasi-review of the fifth season’s first episodes. Jace Lacob writes:

In their own way, these episodes harken back to the Community pilot episode (there are concrete callbacks thanks to Abed, of course) and to the progression of events of the last few seasons to reflect on the journey that these characters have taken; how did Jacobs’ Britta go from anarchist rebel to the gang’s resident “airhead”? How many breakdowns did Abed have on campus? Who is using Jeff’s Netflix account? Why are these seemingly disparate individuals still bound together by such strong invisible threads? With these episodes, there is a sense that a restart button has been pushed just as much as there is a combustive leap forward.

I was always planning to watch the new season’s premier on January 2. Now I’m actually looking forward to it.

Elsewhere: Arcade Fire & porn, NASA goes warp, HealthCare.gov, Jesus’ skin color, and David Bazan

Elsewhere: Arcade Fire & porn, NASA goes warp, HealthCare.gov, Jesus’ skin color, and David Bazan

A digest of interesting, entertaining, and otherwise worthwhile reads collected from around the web-o-sphere.

1) I’ve been meaning to write something about Arcade Fire’s Reflektor since it came out, and so last week, I wrote this piece about one of the album’s deep cuts… and pornography for Christ and Pop Culture.

Throughout the song, Butler laments the damage done by pornography — both to women, whom pornography reduces to mere sexual objects, as well as men, who grow increasingly confused and damaged in their thinking regarding women and sexual performance. (Or, as Butler puts it, “And boys, they learn some selfish shit.”)

Regarding Reflektor as a whole, I think it’s a very mixed bag. The good stuff, like the title track and “Porno” (the song I write about), ranks among the best songs Arcade Fire has written to date, but the album is also too long and too self-indulgent at times.

2) It’s one of the most famous concepts in all of sci-fi, and one NASA physicist is claiming that the warp drive could become reality:

A few months ago, physicist Harold White stunned the aeronautics world when he announced that he and his team at NASA had begun work on the development of a faster-than-light warp drive. His proposed design, an ingenious re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive, may eventually result in an engine that can transport a spacecraft to the nearest star in a matter of weeks — and all without violating Einstein's law of relativity.

3) Long-time Opus faves Wovenhand are recording a new album titled Refractory Obdurate that will be jointly released by Deathwish Inc. and Glitterhouse Records in early 2014. In related news, Glitterhouse Records will releasing 16 Horsepower’s The Glitterhouse Years Collection, a digital-only compilation featuring four of 16 Horsepower’s acclaimed albums, including Olden and Folklore.

4) WordPress is still the dominant blogging platform, but 2013 saw the rise of several interesting and promising contenders.

You’re going to hear the words “clean,” “minimalist” and “modern” tossed around a lot. Those terms run rampant throughout blogging’s bold new premise — a means of writing with less complication and more focus on text, readability and simplicity. At first glance, the naked eye will have a hard time telling these platforms apart, but closer inspection will reveal that they are each on to something wonderful.

One of the platforms reviewed is Medium, which I wrote about back in August.

5) Mark Driscoll has been accused of plagiarism, but Andy Crouch thinks there’s something more dangerous at work here:

Mark Driscoll is a human being, created in the image of God, with great gifts, real limits, and very likely a genuine calling to ministry. But "Pastor Mark Driscoll," the author of "literally thousands of pages of content a year," the purveyor of hundreds of hours of preaching, is in grave danger of becoming a false image. No human being could do what "Pastor Mark Driscoll" does — the celebrity is actually a complex creation of a whole community of people who sustain the illusion of an impossibly productive, knowledgeable, omnicompetent superhuman.

The real danger here is not plagiarism — it is idolatry.

6) Forbes’ Loren Thompson argues that the development of HealthCare.gov broke every rule of project management:

Having made my career in the field of defense analysis, I have seen many such foul-ups in military acquisition projects. It’s a rare weapon system that gets delivered on time, on budget, and with all performance specifications satisfied. The contractors always get blamed when weapon programs go awry, but usually it’s the government customer who is really at fault, and that looks to be the case with HealthCare.gov too. The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) overseeing HealthCare.gov appears to have violated every principle of sound project management.

On a related note, the New York Times recently published a fascinating and disturbing look at the behind-the-scenes debacle that was HealthCare.gov’s development.

7) Micah Mattix raises a good point about reading difficult or offensive novels:

…readers can and should make moral judgments about books. That’s a central part of reading. But good readers should allow books to judge them, too. Otherwise, why bother reading? Of course, if you are offended at the smallest divergence from your own habits of thought and rather narrow worldview, it is going to be tough going.

8) Fox News’ Megyn Kelly recently told viewers that both Santa and Jesus are white men. Writing for The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt explains why insisting on Jesus’ white-ness is both bad history and bad theology.

Setting aside the ridiculousness of creating rigidly racial depictions of a fictitious character that does not actually exist — sorry, kids — like Santa, Kelly has made a more serious error about Jesus. The scholarly consensus is actually that Jesus was, like most first-century Jews, probably a dark-skinned man. If he were taking the red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York today, Jesus might be profiled for additional security screening by TSA.


Interestingly, the Bible is far less descriptive on the matter of Jesus’ skin color than we are. Christian scriptures say very little about Jesus’ physical appearance. They do not comment on his nose, eye color, skin pigmentation, or hair. The glaring exception is Isaiah 53:2, which prophesies that the messiah won’t be much to look at, another fact that places the Bible at odds with the “well-groomed surfer-dude Jesus” who's often put forth.

9) The Playlist compiles the 15 best action sequences of 2013, featuring Man of Steel, OblivionThe World's End… and Captain Phillips, to name a few.

10) Chris Marchand has posted a thoughtful review of a recent David Bazan concert, and discusses the tension he now feels while listening to Bazan’s music (emphasis his).

As a Christian a lot of Bazan's new songs are hard to listen to. I can enjoy them aesthetically both for their music and lyrics, but as soon as the aesthetics start to mingle with the meaning, the cognitive dissonance kicks in and I just go “Man, I’m sorry, but I can’t go there. I can’t rejoice in this with you. I’m just sad now…” In a Facebook conversation regarding the show I remarked to someone that I find Bazan's music particularly conflicting because I have journeyed with him so long in his story. It is not just typical “secular” music reflecting a typical “secular” worldview. I have no problem listening to music that does not espouse my belief system. Sure, I might sometimes react to a song negatively when I feel it goes against my core beliefs, but I also give artists who do not share my faith a lot of grace in this area. In other words, I do not require an artist to believe the way I do in order for me to listen to and enjoy them.

David Bazan is different though. He was once “one of us” and now he has very willingly exited the fold, if you will, and this has become the main focus of his lyrics for the past few years. This is painful and heartbreaking. Some might praise him for honestly expressing his doubts, for bravely admitting what others out of fear keep hidden, but this is not what he is doing with his art, at least not currently… A vast difference exists between writing a lyric from the perspective of a believer plagued by his doubts and a nonbeliever who is openly “cursing his branches” as the title to one of his albums puts it. Thus, he is not articulating doubt, he is advocating apostasy.

I can relate to this. There was a time when Pedro the Lion wasn’t merely my favorite band, but also a lifeline that helped me through an intensely dark period during which I was beset by doubts and skepticism. To hear another Christian sing so honestly of his own doubts and failings at a time when I perceived so many other Christians doing the exact opposite was incredibly helpful, even therapeutic. I no longer felt alone in my questions and anxieties.

My respect for Bazan’s obvious talent remains unchanged since those days, and I’m glad to hear that he’s still as engaging as ever at concerts. But Bazan’s recent material, as interesting as it is musically and aesthetically — Curse Your Branches contains some great songwriting, to be sure — leaves me saddened more than anything else. Saddened that Bazan has taken this path in life, that he feels such antipathy for the religion of his youth, that the doubts and skepticism have won. I can only nod in agreement with Marchand when he writes, “my hope is the sadness his music provokes in the Christian would lead them to prayer, prayer not only for Bazan but for a disillusioned, cynical, and wandering generation who wants nothing to do with God and his Church.”

Photo by Guy Aroch.