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I compared my favorites from this year with my list from halfway-through 2012. A year ago, I thought the first six months of 2012 produced a lot of great releases.

This year is even better. I love the first five albums on this list more than anything I listed in June of last year.

On a familial note, I’m starting to encounter a backlash of resistance to the JAMS I play around the house. Specifically, my otherwise extraordinary daughter is rebelling against her father’s good taste because she gets a forlorn reaction from him. It won’t be long before I’m shouting upstairs to her, after she slams the door and blares One Direction or some such nonsense, to “TURN THAT LOUD MESS OFF.”

I fully understand that one reaps what one sows, and that life is like a boomerang, and what goes around comes around, and so on, but that probably won’t make it any easier.


Vampire WeekendModern Vampires of the City
It feels a little weird, but I can admit it — they might just be the best all-around rock band in the world. Who’s better? The National? No less than FOUR songs from this album are flat-out wonderful.

Simply the best dance-pop album I’ve heard since maybe Hot Chip (The Warning) or Junior Boys (So This Is Goodbye), both released in 2006.

WaxahatcheeCerulean Salt
There’s something unabated and magnetic about Katie Crutchfield’s music, and she has moments of lyrical genius.

FoxygenWe Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of blahblahblah
Has there ever been an album with a more stupid title by a band with a greater name? It doesn’t matter…this is good stuff. And, don’t give me that “it’s too derivative of the ’60s” stuff because I wouldn’t care even though you’d be right.

No, black metal is not exactly my wheelhouse, but I agree with the predominant Sunbather narrative: this is a black metal band that makes powerful, crossover-ready music that defies categorization.

Mount KimbieCold Spring Fault Less Youth
This record is number five on my list, but it fills an important role in my listening habits; I find that when I don’t have anything in particular that I want to hear, I play this. And, King Krule = bonus points.

Camera ObscuraDesire Lines
Another underrated album…I’ve read positive reviews of this one, but nothing glowing. Perhaps that’s because this band has been around the block, and critics have begun taking them for granted. I like this one better than My Maudlin Career.

James BlackOvergrown
The title track is close to perfect, and I’d say this is second to the Mount Kimbie album in the “anytime, anyplace” go-to listen.

Thee Oh SeesFloating Coffin
My favorite Thee Oh Sees record of all, because there’s a larger variety of sound here that I really appreciate.

My favorite Deerhunter record of all, mainly because Bradford made it dingier and more fun that their past recordings.

Honorable mention

Other notable releases include Local Natives, Mikal Cronin, The Men, Toro Y Moi, Classixx, Rhye, Frightened Rabbit, Ghostface Killah, and Daft Punk.



Best Show I’ve Seen This Year

Tame Impala – Cat’s Cradle, February 21


If parents use one cliché more than any other, it must be this one:

They grow up so quickly!

Before I had children, I was tired of hearing this because it seemed so trite. It is trite, but now that I have children, I am tired of hearing the cliché because it’s redundant. My expectation of the things that my children can do is continually exceeded by them actually doing those things (before I expect them).

Some days, it seems that if I stare at my nearly three-year-old daughter, I can see her brain development in-process. The evidence is usually a slightly different action than the day before. For example, I’ll notice that she looks at her breakfast a little more critically than the morning before, or maybe she suddenly wants to know our family plans for the next two days instead of just tomorrow.

Our bi-weekly painting sessions are one of my absolute favorite ways to spend an hour. They also provide many glimpses of Jackie’s development, and early signs of what I like to think are her artistic talents. For one thing, the child has laser focus when she commits to an activity. Instead of scribbling with her brush, she uses long strokes with directional purpose. Jackie also likes to cover the entire surface of the paper that we use. Here are a few of my favorites from our sessions.

I’m really excited that Jackie is learning to paint before she learns to draw. I think sometimes that the transition from drawing to painting is like the transition from a baseball swing to a golf swing. The ingrained practice of drawing (or hitting a baseball) is really hard to suppress when you start painting (or hitting a golf ball) because the learned activity is similar enough to the new activity to contaminate or hinder it.

I don’t force painting on Jackie, and she can quit at any time she wants after we get started. I took Jackie to the Rembrandt in America exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art last weekend. I’ll be the first to admit that the greatest of the Dutch Masters wasn’t the greatest for a toddler, but we still enjoyed ourselves. As we skimmed a Rembrandt book the week before our visit, I explained to Jackie what a portrait was. After 15 minutes walking through the exhibit, Jackie gave me a serious look and said, “Daddy, all of these pictures are portraits.”

Other museum-goers gave us you’re-being-noisy-in-a-library-type looks as we talked loudly about the paintings on the walls, which reminded me why people perceive art exhibits as stuffy (because they are). I even got scolded by a museum proctor when I pointed to Rembrandt’s signature on a painting from his Leiden period and my finger got within a few inches of the canvas. However, the exhibit was fantastic, Jackie was a good sport, and I think she enjoyed it (although not quite as much as she likes the modern area of the permanent collection).

And one day soon, when she or McLain creates something amazing that makes me proud, I’ll probably be surprised. After all, I was ready to cut up an apple for Jackie’s snack this past Monday, and she told me, “you don’t need to cut it Daddy…I’ll hold it and eat it.”

The Carrboro stop of the “Classic Lineup Reunion Tour” did not disappoint me. Going into it, I knew that 80% of what GbV would play at Cat’s Cradle a couple of weeks ago were songs from Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. Provided that Mr. Pollard was sober and coherent for the show, how could I have been disappointed?

The two aforementioned albums were recorded about the time I was finishing high school and leaving Burke County once and for all, so you can imagine how much the band and its fans have aged. I’d guess that the average show-goer was around 35. But, when Bob did the Roger-Daltrey-style kick, he still could get his foot up around eye-level, and there were several fans who were partying and throwing stuff like it was 1995 (don’t worry…I kept a safe distance from them).


Highlights of the 30-some song, 3-encore set included Quality of Armor, My Valuable Hunting Knife, Shocker in Gloomtown, and Don’t Stop Now. Bob and the boys were energetic and their sound was tight. I’m glad to have had a last opportunity to see one of my favorite acts of all time.

Note: Baby-related posts will resume in a few days. Here are some words about a whale of a book I read.

Last night I finally turned the last page of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I firmly believe that I was not ready to read this novel until now (at the age of 33), and when I read it again two or five or twenty years from now, I will probably believe that I was not ready to read this novel when I read it first in 2010.

It’s a novel about pain, mostly, and how we Americans and some Canadians experience it and deal with it. The pain that characters’ deal with in Infinite Jest is the pain that accompanies life – from the most superficial physical pain (and band-aids) to the most abysmal emotional pain (and suicide) and everything in between.

Parts of the nonlinear story are so ugly they are literally nauseating. It’s also a brilliant work of comedy. I might recommend it to three people I know, but no one else.

What qualifies the title as truth in advertising is that the novel could have been 3,000 pages, or pages, instead of a mere 1,079 pages. If anyone could have pulled it off, Wallace could have (he hanged himself in 2008). He had literary super powers.

This is what I took away from Infinite Jest:

  • A need to read this novel again, if only for the unanswered philosophical questions and the sheer fun of reading Wallace’s prose.
  • 112 vocabulary words, not including medical terms, pharmaceutical terms, mathematical terms, and words I thought I knew but looked up there on the spot and realized I didn’t know exactly. The list also excludes some optics jargon and maybe a couple of Boston-area slang terms that I didn’t take the time to comprehend.
  • A spectator’s understanding of Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • A heightened awareness of solecisms, whether others’ or my own.
  • An enhanced appreciation for linguistics, and a broadened view of how the English language can be peppered, scattered, browned, chopped, diced, chunked, smothered, capped, and covered.
  • A diminished appreciation for film and movies.
  • A greater love for dogs.
  • A feeling that I am a good father, at least compared to the derelict dads in the novel.
  • A reminder that even a satirical prediction of technology one decade into the future can be utterly ridiculous. Maybe actual futurists deserve a little more credit for choosing such a dangerous career path.
  • A reminder of the plot of Hamlet.
  • A desire to play tennis again.
  • A discovery that an online book club is a great idea for the right novel, even if I only used it as a reference because I was a year late to the party. Thanks to Infinite Summer for providing a supplement to the text.
  • A new favorite fictional game: Eschaton.
  • A disdain for endnotes.
  • A reinforced belief that almost everyone deserves second, third, fourth, and fifth chances in life.
  • We have a way of making life complicated, don’t we?

Every summer, I compile my favorite tracks of the year so far and force the compilation on the people I know will give them a listen or two. Sometimes they hit, sometimes they miss. I don’t know the adoption rate, or catchiness quotient, or conversion statistics for the stuff I share with friends and family, but I do know that I like the idea of collecting, sorting, and imposing subjective evaluation on new music.

For me, I can attest as of August 20 that this is the year that the album was resurrected. I’ve purchased 18 complete new albums this year so far, and if you break down those acquisitions into individual tracks, I’ve picked up and broken in about the same number of song downloads here and there, thanks mostly to Peel and the blogs that provide the mp3s. By the way, if you have a Mac and love music, Peel is the best $15 you will ever spend on anything in your life (I don’t care if the code is three years old).

Here’s a rundown of what stands out to me so far in 2010. You might notice that hip-hop, R&B, and electronic are missing, and conspicuously so, but it’s only because the new recordings I love from those genres don’t have standout tracks. I can justify those omissions; I limited this list to 18 songs, and like I said before, the album has made a comeback this year in my estimation.

Note: An asterisk in the list below denotes one of my daughter’s favorite dance tracks.

I Was Thinking… — Gauntlet Hair
Heart to Tell* — The Love Language
Odessa* — Caribou
The Suburbs — Arcade Fire
Mouthful of Diamonds* — Phantogram
Marathon — Tennis
O.N.E.* — Yeasayer
Round And Round — Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
Albatross — Besnard Lakes
Promises — The Morning Benders
Empire Ants* — Gorillaz
Lucidity — Tame Impala
Gold Skull — Miniature Tigers
Walk in the Park — Beach House
Shadow People — Dr. Dog
Bloodbuzz Ohio — The National
That’s Some Dream — Good Old War
Sinister Kid — The Black Keys

The most popular of the tracks listed above contains a close-to-home-hitting verse:

So can you understand
Why I want a daughter while I’m still young?
I want to hold her hand
And show her some beauty
Before all this damage is done…

A couple of years ago, pregnant Katie and I went to see R.E.M., Modest Mouse, and The National at Walnut Creek (or whatever corporate name it has now); Jackie’s first prenatal concert experience showcased some of the best (R.E.M.), most innovative and raw (Modest Mouse), and worthwhile contemporary (The National) alt-rock.

A couple of weeks ago, pregnant Katie and I went to see My Morning Jacket with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary; McLain’s first prenatal concert featured the pre-eminent live experience of Jim James and company, preceded by the mostly-Dixieland style of a New Orleans jazz institution.

Pooch displays the set list from the Cary show

The show was also one of the biggest conventions of Triangle friends and family I’ve seen in years. My brother and his wife, Katie’s sister and her husband, as well as five college friends and other acquaintances. We really appreciate the baby sitting services of the Grandparents Jones.

Katie and Mindy

I’ve been waiting about six years to see MMJ, so my expectations were probably a bit inflated. As Katie and I walked to the car after the show, she asked me how I would grade it. I told her that I gave it a B for two reasons. First, the town of Cary has a noise ordinance that limits the volume (and therefore, limits the fun); there were four or five times when I was consciously irked that there wasn’t more output resulting from the band’s hard work. Second, they played too many songs from their most recent (and my least favorite) album. Even worse, the heart of the encore was the one MMJ song I detest: Highly Suspicious. So, count me among the curmudgeons who are old enough to complain about wanting to hear more of the “old stuff” from the “good old days.”

The end of Run Thru

Now that I have the negative out of the way, I want to say that the band was extremely tight considering that they didn’t really tour at all in 2009 or the beginning of 2010. The final song included the PHJB in a moving (literally for Rich and me) rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s Move on Up. What’s more, they played about six of the 15 or so songs that I really wanted to hear. That’s a pretty good batting average, and it included my Jim James favorite, The Way That He Sings. Why does my mind blow to bits every time they play that song? It’s just the way that he sings, not the words that he says or the band.

Dondante was one of several highlights

In one of my fantasies of the future, McLain will come to me one day and ask about the virtues of Southern Rock and who killed it (when it needed to die gracefully). Or maybe he’ll want to know how powerful a voice can be under the command of good songwriting. Perhaps he’ll just want to know what constitutes a great live rock and roll show. We’ll listen to It Still Moves or Z and I’ll remind him that he was in attendance, sort of, in Cary of all places.

You know what would make a great contest?

The Brad Mehldau Cover Challenge. Music students and/or music lovers would write a brief essay suggesting and justifying a list of 10 pop songs for Brad Mehldau to cover. Four basic rules would apply:

  1. The songs would have to be worthy of reinvention and should inspire something more from Mehldau than the novelty of a familiar melody in a different style
  2. The songs would have to suit the musicality of jazz piano (that would probably rule out most hip-hop and some electronic)
  3. The songs would have to be “popular music” (or music recognizable to at least one-quarter of the American population)
  4. The songs cannot have already been covered extensively by other artists (Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races” comes to mind…Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” are more poppy examples of songs that have been covered to death)

Aside from those criteria, the sky would be the limit. Prior to the submission of these essays, Brad Mehldau himself would choose the winner and create an entire album and name it in honor of that person. It would be the ultimate jazz-cover mixtape. As for my own cover choices, I haven’t fleshed out a complete album. Here’s a partial list:

  • Say It Ain’t So, Weezer
  • Maps, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  • Diamonds and Pearls, Prince
  • A Tear for Eddie, Ween (I know…I’m already breaking rule three)
  • Here You Come Again, Dolly Parton
  • Imitation of Life, R.E.M.
  • God Only Knows, The Beach Boys (now I’m breaking rule four)
  • If I Had a Boat, Lyle Lovett

I discovered Mehldau several years ago. It was a cover of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android that introduced me to his intensity (check it out if you don’t believe me), dexterity (he can play different melodies with each hand), and overall genius. The Brad Mehldau Trio released Brad Mehldau Trio Live (Nonesuch Records) a few months ago, an album recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York in the fall of last year. Live is Mehldau’s fourth album recorded there. It’s so good that I’ve dropped other music I’ve purchased recently and started going back through Mehldau’s earlier live recordings.

Brad Mehldau Trio Live

Of course, Mehldau and his current trio, which includes bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, are much, much more than a cover band. They also play Mehldau’s original music and an equal percentage of their live sets is devoted to classic jazz standards.

When I read that Mehldau’s group recently covered Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun on their lastest live recording, I had to pick it up. Ironically, Black Hole Sun is the only throw-away track on the two-disc set; the song is good for a round of “name that tune” with your friends, but a bit tedious at more than 23 minutes total. Now that I have my one negative comment out of the way, I can gush uninhibited about the rest of the album.

The album opens with its other pop cover, Oasis’ Wonderwall. As with any successful cover, it’s what Mehldau’s trio subtracts and adds to their version that really makes the song wonderful. The Mehldau trio’s rendition is void of the Gallagher delivery and attitude that annoyed me so much. The trio’s enhancements include a bossa nova-like rhythm, staccato and stride piano interpretation of the song’s lyrical notes (as opposed to Noel’s nasaly moans), and a bluesy-sounding, hard-driving Mehldau solo. Throughout his wandering improvisation, one of Mehldau’s hands remains true to the song’s melodic theme while the other hand explores the rest of the keyboard.

The trio’s chemistry is excellent throughout the album, but certain instances, where they nail typical jazz transitions (from a solo to the song’s head, from one solo to another solo), are remarkable and even spine-chilling. Secret Beach (a Mehldau original) really stands out to me.  B-Flat Waltz, Buddha Realm (I wish my name had a cool anagram) and John Coltrane’s Countdown are other highlights. As the band leader, Mehldau and his solos loom large over most of the tracks; he covers a wide spectrum of tempos and styles. Grenadier and Ballard also shine on the rare occasions when they get the spotlight.

More importantly, all three musicians excel at conversational improvisation, whether call-and-response or a less formal kind of interplay. I’ve found that whenever I listen to any of it, I continually have to remind myself that the performance is live. Oh, and considering our weakened American economy, I have to point out that you can’t find a much better value; the two-disc set, with two and a half hours of music, has the same price point as a single album.

Playing and improvising popular music written by someone else is inherent to jazz. When a pop song is accommodated by an artist in a different genre, for a different audience, the result can be a powerful hook that draws listeners in. Some of Mehldau’s pop covers are so good, they could legitimately replace other, more dated standards.

The Mehldau contest may be my own personal fantasy, but I share my appreciation for Mehldau’s recordings with many different types of jazz fans. So, come for the familiar and stay for the new and fantastic.

Tuesday night was Baby Jones’ first concert. Katie and I splurged on good seats to see R.E.M., Modest Mouse, and The National at Ever-Changing-Corporate-Sponsor-Blah-Blah-Something-Blah-Pavilion at Walnut Creek in Raleigh. I don’t know if her/his budding ears captured any of the night’s sounds, but I like to think the experience was something like a prenatal alt-rock primer.

The National opened with a decent short set. Their sound, at least what I’ve heard on the one album I own (Boxer), relies too much on Matt Berninger’s barritone vocals, changing instrumentation, and overall melancholy to really take over in an outdoor arena. One of the guys played the fiddle like a mandolin, but I couldn’t hear it at all. They sounded almost like a heat-withered, too-sad-to-be-angry Interpol. To be fair, anyone playing music at 6:45 p.m. in 98-degree heat has a right to be withered.

The National, June 10, 2008.

The National – persevering in the heat

Modest Mouse was on at dusk, and I knew what to expect before the band took the stage; there would be much less screaming (unfortunately for us) from Isaac Brock than when I saw them at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta in 2001. Back then I would never have guessed that Johnny Marr (formerly of The Smiths) would be beside Brock onstage, but there he was, looking closer to a spry 24 than a seasoned 44. Their set included only a couple classics from their two Up Records releases. I can’t complain though, because Isaac did gnaw on his guitar strings for awhile during “Here it Comes”. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but the music snob in me was pleasantly surprised when they finished without playing “Float On”. Of course, some of the whipper-snappers in attendance acted like they deserved a refund because they didn’t hear it.

Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse – quieter than last time

After the sun set on south Raleigh, R.E.M. began with “Harborcoat”. Michael Stipe’s theatrics changed to match each new song. Mike Mills, wearing the same shirt (or so it seemed) that he was wearing when Katie first met he and Stipe in Athens, was stationed house left. Peter Buck was audible, but not really visible because he roamed a dark part of the stage most of the night. Everyone in the band, old members and new, gathered ’round the piano for a sing-along rendition of “Let Me In”.

Katie particularly enjoyed “Find The River”, “Electrolite” and “Orange Crush”, while the highlights for me were “Bad Day”, “Welcome to the Occupation”, and “Pretty Persuasion”. The only disappointments were songs I don’t really like in the first place — “I’m Gonna DJ” and the title track from Accelerate. They finished with an outstanding encore, and brought Marr, Don Dixon, and Mitch Easter on stage for a couple of songs. They closeded with “Fall on Me”, “Sitting Still”, and “Man on the Moon”. All in all, the band played like they were genuinely happy to be back in the South. The result was a memorable show for Katie and me, and probably just some vibrations for baby Jones.

R.E.M. - \

R.E.M. – “Bad Day”

R.E.M. - \

R.E.M. – “Let Me In”

R.E.M. - \

R.E.M. – “Fall on Me”

Image from Raleigh

Urban dirt-biking

I took this post-apocalyptic picture outside Jones Barber Shop in Raleigh last year.