My 2018 Mixtape

It’s that time of year once again… time for an endless parade of year-end best-of lists! Here is my contribution to the morass, along with a Spotify playlist featuring a song from each album. It was a tough call deciding on the top five, as it was basically a five-way tie for number one, and how I rank them will probably shift with my mood on any given day. Feel free to chime in with your own year-end lists in the comments!

  1. The Essex Green, “Hardly Electronic”
  2. The Limiñanas, “Shadow People”
  3. Superorganism, “Superorganism”
  4. Young Fathers, “Cocoa Sugar”
  5. The Beths, “Future Me Hates Me”
  6. Shakey Graves, “Can’t Wake Up”
  7. James Hunter Six, “Whatever It Takes”
  8. Fantastic Negrito, “Please Don’t Be Dead”
  9. Jeff Tweedy, “WARM”
  10. Rhett Miller, “The Messenger”
  11. The Decemberists, “I’ll Be Your Girl”
  12. Arctic Monkeys, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”
  13. Holly Golightly, “Do the Get Along”
  14. Cat Power, “Wanderer”
  15. Hiss Golden Messenger, “Virgo Fool”
  16. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, “Years”
  17. Wussy, “Getting Better” (EP)
  18. M. Ward, “What a Wonderful Industry”
  19. Courtney Barnett, “Tell Me How You Really Feel”
  20. Elise LeGrow, “Playing Chess”
  21. Thievery Corporation, “Treasures from the Temple”
  22. Cupcakke, “Ephorize”
  23. Superchunk, “What a Time to Be Alive”
  24. Mazzy Star, “Still EP”
  25. Belly, “DOVE”
  26. Holly GoLightly and the Brokeoffs, “Clippety Clop”
  27. Poster Children, “Grand Bargain!”

Product Review: Prezi

A while back someone on Twitter alerted me to a new web app called Prezi, which bills itself as a tool to “create astonishing presentations live and on the web.” I finally had a chance to use it for my recent presentation to the Law School’s entering students on managing online identity, and I could not be more impressed with the product.

Like PowerPoint, Prezi is intended to help you communicate the key points of your presentation through visual reinforcement. Unlike PowerPoint, Prezi has jettisoned the boring, linear, bullet-point structure we’ve come to expect from such programs and replaced it with a user experience in which the viewer feels as though they’re flying above and zooming into a giant map of your presentation. You can even change the structure of the presentation on the fly in order to react to your audience’s questions. It really has to be seen to be believed.

Prezi’s user interface for creating presentations is equally as innovative. Instead of a standard toolbar, the tool menu items are presented as bubbles attached to a larger bubble that rotates when clicked upon. When you place an object onto your map, a set of concentric circles is overlaid, and each circle does something different: one allows you to drag the object through 2D space, one allows you to resize, and one allows you to rotate.

I do have a few quibbles with the product, of course. While you can change the basic look of your presentation, you can’t choose custom colors or fonts, or change the shape of your frames. A great deal of precision is needed to select multiple objects in editing mode which sometimes means performing the same action three or four times before you get it right. Also, while you can embed many different types of media, from still images to video, there is no way to embed links to a live website, which make for a much more dynamic presentation than simple screen shots of a website.

Prezi should prove useful to designers in several ways. Of course, if you give presentations or make client pitches, the benefits of Prezi’s ease of production and its added “wow factor” will hook you right away. But the unique interface should also prove inspirational to designers as it illustrates the power of rethinking design elements that we tend to take for granted. Finally, it should be useful to information architects as a mind-mapping application. I’ve tried several such applications over the years and Prezi beats them all for ease of use in actually getting your ideas down on the screen and illustrating the relationship between them.

Like most web apps, there’s a three-tiered pricing scheme; the free version includes the Prezi logo on all of your presentations, while the next level removes that and provides more storage, and the most expensive level allows you to edit your presentations offline (all versions include the ability to play presentations offline). The free version is more than worth a trial run.

Concert Review: Frightened Rabbit

For Christmas this year, I was given a copy of the video game “Rock Band.” I guess the thrill is a little less vicarious for those of us who are actually in rock bands, but there is still something about strapping on that plastic guitar and pounding out the power chords to classic rock songs while the (virtual) crowd sings along. And aside from not having to carry your own gear, the best part of the game is the fans — they consistently go crazy, pumping their fists in the air and engaging in call-and-response choruses without a hint of self-consciousness. “Wow,” I thought the first time I noticed this, “when was the last time I went to a show where people had that much fun?”

At the Empty Bottle on Saturday, I got a pleasant reminder of what it’s like to be a fan at a show like that. Frightened Rabbit are four guys from Scotland who I first heard about last year on Sound Opinions; their album The Midnight Organ Fight was one of my favorite albums of 2008. In concert, they manage to be both achingly sincere and exceedingly funny, and give the impression that there is nowhere else they’d rather be, and nothing else they’d rather be doing — an attitude that is truly infectious to a crowd. Take a listen to this encore, for which lead singer Scott Hutchison came out with an acoustic guitar and perched atop a speaker, singing with no amplification. The crowd may not have been pumping their fists during this number, but they were certainly hanging on every word.

Concert Review: The Decemberists

No band I’ve ever seen has more fun on stage than the Decemberists. I’ve seen them four or five times over the last couple of years, and it’s always obvious that they are having an absolute ball. I had the chance to see them twice over this weekend, at Wheaton College on Halloween and then the next night at University of Chicago.

The Halloween show was a classic. It opened with a reenactment of “The Shining,” with singer Colin Meloy pedaling a Big Wheel onto the stage to be met by the creepy twins of drummer John Moen and bassist Nate Query (whom Meloy noted were likely the first two cross-dressers ever to appear on stage at famously conservative Wheaton College’s Edman Memorial Chapel).

With a setlist tailored to the evening, the highlight of the night was a version of “Shankill Butchers” featuring Jenny Conlee playing the chapel’s massive pipe organ. If you listen to the recording, you’ll hear the band launch next into “Culling of the Fold,” but I wasn’t able to record the whole thing, since during his frenzied stalking of the stage, Meloy reached out and grabbed my iPhone as I was trying to take a picture of him (my wife made me promise I’ll never wash it again).

The following night’s show was a bit less inspired — maybe it was the crowd of “Where Fun Comes to Die” students, or maybe it was just that we had to sit for part of the show instead of being right up at the front of the stage — but it was still great. The highlight of the U of C show was when Meloy grabbed a fan’s video camera and created an on-the-fly Public Service Announcement (the PSA starts about 5 minutes in). And they finished with a rousing — and inspiring — version of “Sons and Daughters” that had everyone in the crowd singing along.

Esta un Perdedor: Beck at the Aragon (10/2)

(Last Friday I published a review of the 10/2 Beck show on the Lost Cartographers’ blog — figured I’d cross-post it here.)

For your average rock show, last night’s sold-out Beck show at the Aragon Ballroom was pretty damn good. There was an energetic crowd, a mix of old hits and new material, and very loud guitars. The thing is, Beck is not your average rock star. As one of the most consistently innovative artists of the last 15 years (Jesus, I feel old writing that), when you go to see Beck, you expect the unexpected: maybe some puppets, or entire songs played on dinnerware, or at least a little break-dancing. But aside from a three-song acoustic break and a slightly embarrassing borderline minstrel-show hip-hop bit in which all five band members grabbed head sets and drum machines and did everything but tell the lily-white crowd to throw their guns in the air and wave ’em like they just don’t care, last night’s show was essentially a straight-ahead stadium rock extravaganza. The only accoutrements in evidence were a giant projection screen in the background (featuring what appeared to be someone’s senior thesis in abstract expressionist film) and some nifty lights not unlike those Tom Petty brought to the United Center a couple months ago. Hell, Beck is even starting to look a little like Tom Petty. Don’t get me wrong: I love Tom Petty, and it was fun hearing rocked-out versions of old favorites like “Loser” and “Where It’s At,” but I expected more interesting stage antics — or at least a little amusing banter — from someone I’m not embarassed to refer to as a visionary. Of course, this hard-rock minimalism may just be the latest in Beck’s endless stream of transformations — but it’s certainly the least interesting one yet.

Review: “The Laws of Simplicity” by John Maeda

John Maeda’s “The Laws of Simplicity” has been popping up on a lot of the best-of-design-books lists I’ve seen lately (see Speak Up, for example). I received a copy for Christmas, and recently buzzed through it during a couple of commutes (Maeda tells us the book was purposefully limited to 100 pages to allow just such quick reading — a prime example of form following function, I suppose).

The book is intended as a primer in the merits of simplicity for not only designers but also technophiles of various stripes and business leaders as well. The wide range of intended audiences also results in a style that is rather jarring for those used to a different style of writing about design — the book often feels like a mix of design criticism, personal anecdotes, and the often-mushy self-help language of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”-type bromides intended for wealthy executives.

Another consequence of the wide range of audience is that many of the laws are fairly obvious to anyone with a basic grounding in the theory of design — groupings help communicate (Law 2, “Organize”), whitespace is good (Law 6, “Context”) — and they can all be effectively summed up (the ultimate in simplicity) in the final law: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”

The one idea that did resonate with me in a way that had never struck me before was the idea that simplicity requires complexity (Law 5, “Simplicity and complexity need each other). He uses musical rhythm as an example: the simplest rhythms have their place, but are rendered far more effective in contrast with more complex ones. This is, of course, the very essence of something I am very passionate about: the writing and arranging of pop music. What makes a great pop song is often, the establishment of a pattern which is then suddenly changed (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, BRIDGE), or stood on its ear (building up to a chorus only to go back to the verse).

All told, “The Laws of Simplicity” is an interesting book if for no other reason than that it may give designers something to recommend that their clients read as a justification for why they really don’t need to make the logo bigger; most designers, though, will already have internalized most of these “laws” already.

Bollywood Review: Yuva

As I mentioned in my first posting, I’ll occasionally be delving into Bollywood news and reviews on this blog… I just can’t help it. Once you go Bollywood, you can’t go back.

Last weekend we watched Mani Ratnam’s 2004 flick Yuva (the title means “Youth”). It was playing during the summer I spent in India, but I never had the chance to see it. As a big fan of Mani Ratnam (I spent a lot of time watching Bombay over and over for a research project back in the day), I was looking forward to this one, despite the lukewarm reviews I had heard from friends who did see it.

The story begins with an assassination attempt on a bridge in Kolkata, and most of the movie is told as a flashback of the stories of the three young men involved in the incident. Ratnam is no stranger to politics — his films have addressed political terrorism (Roja, Dil Se..) and communal violence (Bombay), and he was himself the target of a terrorist bomb after the release of Bombay — and in Yuva he uses the three main characters to comment on today’s Indian youth and their political engagement (or lack thereof). Ajay Devgan is Michael, a student organizer who attempts to rally the local populace against a corrupt politician. Vivek Oberoi is Arjun, a happy-go-lucky recent graduate who wants to go to America to find good times and his fortune (Ratnam describes him as “the most MTV-ized” character in the film in an interview with, erm, MTV India).

The big surprise to me was Abhishek Bachchan’s amazing channeling of his father Amitabh‘s Angry Young Man role from the 1970s, but with a much darker and more disturbed air. His character, Lallan, is a petty thug who works for the politician that Michael is trying to defeat (he managed to win the Filmfare Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role AND a Special Mention from the critics who vote for that award as Best Actor, but did not win “Best Actor in a Villainous Role;” even Bollywood’s awards ceremonies are dramatic). As in many of Ratnam’s films, the female characters are barely developed, though Rani Mukherjee does an excellent job bringing out the pathos of her role as Lallan’s abused wife (she too won a Filmfare award).

Much of the film (aside from the songs, which Ratnam had originally intended to omit) avoids the sumptuous color of usual Bollywood fare, in favor of a gritty, grayish patina. The songs, by frequent Ratnam collaborator A.R. Rahman, unfortunately fall far short of his previous work. He stretches for dance club hits and eschews the slightly more traditional elements that have always been his strength. Like the film as a whole, the music compares favorably to much of the Bollywood standard, but suffers by comparison to its creators’ earlier efforts. I suppose there are worse things to be cursed with than greatness.