Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Best Music of 2008

It is the time of year when children and grown-ups alike are struck with the urge to take an accounting of numerical time. Thusly....

I’m just going to do some rough categories this year of some of the music I listen to most (see also the Best of 2007 here).

I had an odd year in music, filled with a lot of older Asian music – Thai pop; Indonesian gamelan-inflected psychedelic and prog (long live the great Guruh Gypsy’s 1974 masterpiece!); a revisiting of the legendary Cambodian Rocks and new discoveries in wartime garage psych from Cambodia and Vietnam and even Laos; some new Dylanesque folk coming out of China; Nepalese punk; old Chinese show tunes; and Korean and Japanese blues. Reiko Kudo, of the Japanese group Maher Shalal Hash Baz, produced some nice goodies on her own.

The great discovery of the year for me is nearly 40 years old: the Icelandic psych/prog group Óðmenn and their album of the same name from 1970. Awesome.

Latin. There was abundant Latin music on the plate exploring new ways of taking up traditional musical forms. There was the wave of old and new cumbia that washed over the more experimental outskirts of Latin music (check out Chicha Libre’s Sonido Amazonico, and Chancha Vía Circuito’s Rodante). But it came from all over Latin America: the Mexican punk band, Ratas del Vaticano (Mocosos Patéticos); the Venezuelan folk pop of Domingo en Llamas (Fledermaus); the new tango of Natalia Mallo and the Gato Negro Quinteto (Tango EP); the tejano cumbia of Grupo Fantasma (Sonidos Gold); Bronx River Parkway’s latin funk (San Sebastian 152); Banda de Turistas from Argentina (Mágico Corazón Radiofónico); and once again the Argentinean mashup artist Villa Diamante. Un Día by Juana Molina makes the main list – she’s likely to be on the list every year she makes a record. Oh, and the tune "Fala Tanto" by Open Foraina and Jack Quiñónez (from their 7") is one hot dance number - throw this one on and watch what everyone in the room does.

Brazilian. I adore Brazilian music as far back in time as recordings go, but it does seem collectively to go through creative phases. Although I don’t think we’re currently in a waxing phase, there were bits and pieces this year worth exploring further: Marcelo Camelo (Sou); Eddie’s Carnaval No Inferno is one of the best from the country; Márcio Local’s samba soul (Samba Sem Nenhum Problema); Rogério Skylab’s Brazilian rock (Skylab 8); DJ Tudo’s hip hop/house (Garrafada); the indie rockers, Júlia Says (self-titled EP); and the off-center psych-funk instrumentalists, Burro Morto (Varadouro).

French. Although there will be disagreement from the club crowd and from Filles Sourires, France had a slow year overall. The standouts, however, made the main list. Cherbourgienne Françoiz Breut can do no wrong and A l’Aveuglette once again proves it. The equally lovely Marianne Dissard, expatriatedly of Tucson, also produced fine work in L’Entredeux. Barbara Carlotti’s L’Ideal also did it for me. And one of the best-of-the-best is Mathieu BoogaertsI Love You.

Classics. Some of the older crowd came up with terrific, fresh work. The Pretenders (listen to the knockdown “Almost Perfect”), for example, as well as The Legendary Pink Dots, the great Al Green, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, and Alejandro Escovedo. And I’m really glad to see the tragic French powerhouse Noir Désir back with a new single and apparently an album to come in 2009.

Pop. Pop was a mixed bag this year and, for me, most of the indie stuff runs together into a murky slosh of musical conformism, however much the music earnestly tries to say otherwise. But… Deerhoof made another fine album with Offend Maggie and they make it onto the list, up near the top in fact. I also agree with the cool kids that Shearwater’s Rook is indeed a great record. Lykke Li made the catchiest pop album of the year in Youth Novels. I even like the much-ballyhooed Santogold and her self-titled record. A number of lesser-known bands show great promise for the coming years: Rocket Surgery; Tame Impala from Australia; Zoo Animal (try the stripped-down “My Lord"); Scotland's Eagleowl; Snake Flower II; the psych folk of Finland's Lau Nau; Spain's Cuchillo; and Colourmusic. On the electronic side of pop, Portugal’s Gala Drop and the Egyptian-Italian breaks of Mutamassik demand serious headphone time.
Miscellaneous. And then for oddities, try Thiaz Itch's stuff (get it free here). Or Ergo Phizmiz's neo-Dadaist Handmade in the Monasteries of Nepal /Eloise My Dolly. And, of course, the masterpiece: the digital 7" via WFMU, People Like Us & Ergo Phizmiz' Music to Run Fast By, which sounds exactly like the title (more freebies here). That'll take care of you.

Alas, I’m babbling. Time to commit to the best. These are in no particular order since I have no idea how to rank them numerically, and I also can't say that many of the above albums shouldn't also be on this list. Nonetheless, here’s my stab at...

The Best of 2008

This unassuming fellow made one of the best records of the year:

* This is Joose Keskitalo from Finland. The album, which I highly recommend, is Joose Keskitalo ja Kolmas Maailmanpalo, a simple work of gorgeous little folk pop melodies. They're in Suomi. I hope he’s not singing about axe murderers or cheez whiz. Good luck finding the record outside of Finland.

* James Hunter, The Hard Way. The song that has stayed with me much of the year is the Englishman ’s lovely “Carina." I’ve hummed this beautiful piece of northern soul since July and have never once wanted it out of my head. Cheers, James.

* Mathieu Boogaerts, I Love You. Mentioned above, this is a fine work of French pop with a modestly experimental side. Really enjoyable, constantly interesting, and non-coying, despite his goofy imagery.

* Françoiz Breut, A l’Aveuglette. I think it is now clear that Françoiz is the true musical heiress of the beauty and brilliance of Françoise Hardy and Brigitte Fontaine. Françoiz will be touring in the US in 2009 with Marianne Dissard opening. The best of France right there.

* Juana Molina, Un Día. Perhaps an acquired taste, but to acquire it is to adore it. The labels applied to her music don't do it justice. Pop unfolding wintry psychedelic trances.

* Larkin Grimm, Parplar. Anarchist folk, somehow crossing into "a Tolkienian spaghetti western." Maybe. One of the most interesting voices of 2008.

* Pierre Bastien, Visions of Doing. Can we call these jazz compositions? The French composer and his electronic robots create a musical world detached from the known universe. Brilliant and strange. For more, see here.

* Dungen, 4. The Swedish garage-psych rockers create a more melodic album than their previous records. I think it works just fine. It was always going to be difficult to top Ta Det Lugnt, but I've really enjoyed 4.

* Daniel Melingo, Maldito Tango. I'm not big on tango, but when I heard Melingo's skewed Tom Waits-ian take on the tradition, I was ready for long, malbec-fueled dinners with the artist and whoever makes up his inner circle. This is life-grabbing music that adores life-grabbing music.

* Deerhoof, Offend Maggie. One of these days, we might just call Deerhoof one of the great rock bands of our times. Oh, maybe not. But who else would it be?

* Shearwater, Rook. The Austin-based folkish rock indie dabblers something or another (spun off from the band Okkervil River) - toss in an ornithologist - are justifiably praised for this perhaps unintentionally symphonic record.

* Toumani Diabaté, The Mandé Variations. The aging Malian kora player makes another beautiful record, a history of African music and hommage to his peers built into each song. This is Grammy-nominated, which might normally imply that this is insipid "world music." It's not. A nice review from Audiversity here.

* Don Cavalli, Cryland. The Parisian gardener makes a stunning little record of swamp blues filtered through tilted Parisian pop. Oh, happiness.

* Flying Lotus, Los Angeles. This is what post-hip hop looks like. And it turns out to be a fascinatingly complex piece of experimental electronica.

Support and enjoy. Happy New Year.

Israel's Gaza Bombings

Rocket fire from the Gaza Strip has killed twelve Israelis over the past two years (four in the past day in the wake of the first round of Israeli bombings). Israel has killed nearly 360 Palestinians over the past three days. Although the numbers game is pointless, and Palestinian rockets basically suicidal, isn't Israel's assault on Gaza genocidal?

Juan Cole has more on the reactions throughout the Middle East.

Freddie Hubbard

Freddie Hubbard died yesterday. The recordings I think are worth seeking out are his early Blue Note bop sessions, rather than his later fusion works with CTI (for which he's probably most famous). Hubbard played with most of the great jazz musicians on some of their most important records of the late 1950s and 1960s (John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, etc.). But Open Sesame (1960), Reddie for Freddie (1961), and Hubtones (1962), all on Blue Note, are great records as a leader. I'm fond of one of his rarer records, 1969's The Hub of Hubbard, originally only a German pressing (MPS Records). It's a fine piece of retro-bop through the lens of the free jazz experimentation of the 1960s. Accessible and wise at the same time.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Philosophy of Bar Identity

Photo: David Goldman, NY Times

If a familiar bar moves to a new location, does it retain any of its identity from its prior incarnation? The NY Times asks a philosophical question this morning.
But if drinking and dining have always been a moveable feast in New York, is charisma cartable? Can the character of everything from venerable pubs to palatial eateries migrate with their names and owners? This portability issue has gained new urgency in a season of economic disarray, when property owners are less willing to extend the leases of even the most beloved old-timers.
Setting aside the important cultural ramifications to the current economy, I think it's a set of questions with a fairly clear answer. A bar or pub is not solely its food and drink menu, its ownership and employees, and its clientele. It's also the place itself. Good bars become habituated and build a history of this habituation over time - that's their talent. Much of this history is physically manifested. Right? It seems that, once the basic requirements of food and drink are taken care of, it's the physical place itself and how its habitués have worn into the place over time that matters most to bar identity.

But, on the other hand, if a friendly and familiar bar, while remaining in the same physical place, suddenly took on a completely different clientele - say, shifting from a clientele of academics and artists and musicians to a clientele of club kids, or from long-term locals to the latest wave of hipsters - would we still say that it has retained its identity?

Maybe it's that the physical place must also have a relatively non-transitory clientele, at least in part, and that this combination of place and regularity gives the bar the core of its identity?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Guantánamo Detainees

Brookings does something interesting. Two researchers attempt to document and describe the individual detainees at Guantánamo.

21st Century Slavery

This quick piece in Foreign Policy about contemporary slavery is really worth a read.
Human rights activists may call $1-an-hour sweatshop laborers slaves, regardless of the fact that they are paid and can often walk away from the job. But the reality of slavery is far different. Slavery exists today on an unprecedented scale. In Africa, tens of thousands are chattel slaves, seized in war or tucked away for generations. Across Europe, Asia, and the Americas, traffickers have forced as many as 2 million into prostitution or labor. In South Asia, which has the highest concentration of slaves on the planet, nearly 10 million languish in bondage, unable to leave their captors until they pay off “debts,” legal fictions that in many cases are generations old.

One Man, One Wolfman

The Onion:
SACRAMENTO, CA—Activists on both sides of the gay marriage debate were shocked this November, when a typographical error in California's Proposition 8 changed the state constitution to restrict marriage to a union between "one man and one wolfman," instantly nullifying every marriage except those comprised of an adult male and his lycanthrope partner. "The people of California made their voices heard today, and reaffirmed our age-old belief that the only union sanctioned in God's eyes is the union between a man and another man possessed by an ungodly lupine curse," state Sen. Tim McClintock said at a hastily organized rally celebrating passage of the new law. But opponents, including Bakersfield resident Patricia Millard—who is now legally banned from marrying her boyfriend, a human, non-wolfman male—claim it infringes on their civil liberties. "I love James just as much as a wolfman loves his husband," Millard said. "We deserve the same rights as any horrifying mythical abomination." On the heels of the historic typo, voters in Utah passed a similar referendum a week later, defining marriage as between one man and 23 wolfmen.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Surinam Cherries

Your Papers, Please

Send me all of your papers. Now. I have a new status and that is paper grader into infinity. If you send me your paper now, I can probably grade it by October 2010. Don't bother to spell-check or proofread or anything like that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bruce Lee plays ping pong with a nunchuk

Via T.S. at All Intensive Purposes

Infernal Return

Karl Rove, who refused to answer questions for years on the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA official, criticized Barack Obama on Monday for not being more forthcoming in the Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) scandal.

Rove, a former top White House adviser to President Bush, said on Fox News, “[Obama] should have, right from the beginning, been more forthcoming.”

(Via Balloon Juice)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Half-way House Reality TV

Somebody has probably suggested something like this in the form of a joke, but I'm not sure it isn't a good idea: Half-way House Reality TV. Or Reality WebTV with ads. This would be capitalism-meets-voyeurism-meets-exhibitionism being used to recruit and pay for group-therapy-meets-drama-therapy-meets-self-help as an alternative social assistance program. Not to mention the community building, public education and prevention that might come out of it. What's not to like?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mp3 Discovery of the Day

Maus Haus produces a fun, unique combination of punk, psychedelic, and electro operating at the fringes of what counts as pop. That is, they almost make you want to dance, but not really (or you can't without looking like Elaine Benes). Pick up a couple of mp3s at RCRDLBL from their new album, Lark Marvels. The SF Weekly describes them nutshellfully,
Everything feels unhinged on Lark Marvels; there's a jokey nonchalance to the vocals, and the percussion often manifests as a confined clatter. This is pop bent through the surreal lens of krautrock and cosmic psych.

Report on Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody

Here's the link to the Report on Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody, released on Thursday. It's not much, really, in the larger scheme of things. It's rather late. And it was released at the end of a week not far from the holidays. For now, perhaps the report's most significant message is this,
The abuses at Abu Ghraib, GTMO and elsewhere cannot be chalked up to the actions of a few bad apples. Attempts by senior officials to pass the buck to low ranking soldiers while avoiding any responsibility for abuses are unconscionable. The message from top officials was clear; it was acceptable to use degrading and abusive techniques against detainees.
But this is only really significant if we assume that context in which some rather uncomfortable actors - much of the media, Congress, and the Bush administration - all agree to pretend that we're getting to the bottom of some difficult topic where we first have to figure out (deliberately - we'll get to the bottom of this!) the terms of debate and the language of investigation. Again, those terms are not really in dispute at all in the real world. Just for reminders, here's Mary Ellen O’Connell in an interview with Scott Horton, discussing the real context:
The prohibition on torture is absolute in all circumstances—it is a jus cogens or peremptory norm of international law. There are no exceptions to the prohibition. This is clear in the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, and the International Civil and Political Rights Covenant. The United States is a party to all three. It is true that Israel’s Supreme Court in a very powerful decision upholding the prohibition on torture and cruel treatment did suggest that an individual interrogator might be able to mount a defense of necessity, but this part of the decision is against the clear weight of authority. It clashes with the fundamental reason for drafting the 1984 Convention Against Torture (CAT)–at that time no one doubted that torture as sport or cruelty was prohibited. The CAT was intended to clear away any last doubts that governments had the right to use torture or cruel measures to seek information for national security or to combat crime.

Gore Wins!

The Onion:
In an unexpected judicial turnaround, the Supreme Court this week reversed its 2000 ruling in the landmark case of Bush v. Gore, stripping George W. Bush of his earlier political victory, and declaring Albert Arnold Gore the 43rd president of the United States of America.

The court, which called its original decision to halt manual recounts in Florida "a ruling made in haste," voted unanimously on Wednesday in favor of the 2000 Democratic nominee.

Gore will serve as commander in chief from Dec. 10 to Jan. 20.

"Allowing this flaw in judgment to stand would set an unworkable precedent for future elections and cause irreparable harm to the impartiality of this court," said Chief Justice John G. Roberts in his majority opinion. "Furthermore, let me be the first to personally congratulate President Gore on his remarkable come-from-behind victory. May he guide us wisely into this new millennium."

Added Roberts, "The system works."

Water Berries

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Australians say Christmas belongs around summer, not winter solstice

SYDNEY , Dec. 9 (UPI) -- An Australian astronomer says the Christmas star that led the three Wise Men to Jesus appeared in June, not December.

Dave Reneke, former chief lecturer at the Port Macquarie Observatory in New South Wales who now is news editor of Sky and Space magazine, said complex computer software was used to map the night sky as it would have appeared over Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.The research pinpoints the date of Christ's birth as June 17 rather than Dec. 25, The Times of London reported Tuesday.

"Venus and Jupiter became very close in the the year 2 B.C. and they would have appeared to be one bright beacon of light," he said. "We are not saying this was definitely the Christmas star -- but it is the strongest explanation for it of any I have seen so far."

Probably we should wait for the equatorial astronomers weigh in on this one.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Common Descent of All World Nukes

All nuclear explosives owe their origins to know-how and materials passed down from the multinational effort that was the Manhattan Project, according to two new books reviewed in Tuesday's Science Times section of the NY Times. William J Broad relates a few of the eye-widening tidbits that the authors reveal about how the current distribution of nuclear technology came to pass, and about who and what really ought to worry you. A.Q. Khan? The man's a "used-car dealer"--clients of his will be lucky to make it around the block with what he gives them. Former Soviet scientists? No wanderlust. Wait until you hear about the Afrikaners. But have you been kept awake by the likelihood of some Boy Scout in Yemen working out how to make an H-bomb from materials at hand? For you this looks to be soothing reading.

Remember H.M.

In 1953, he underwent an experimental brain operation...only to emerge from it fundamentally and irreparably changed.


For the next 55 years, each time he met a friend...it was as if for the first time.

And for those five decades, he was recognized as the most important patient in the history of brain science.

- NY Times

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Life Photos

Photo: Bernard Hoffman, 1948
Very cool images from Life Magazine now online, courtesy of Google. WFMU links.

Nigeria and India

(Via Blattman) Kate Cronin-Furman notes that local conflict in Nigeria killed 400 people last week, and nobody in the West noticed.
...preliminary election results in Plateau State, Nigeria led to clashes on Friday between Muslim and Christian communities in and around the provincial capital, Jos. The city sits in Nigeria's "middle belt" at the point of contact between the Muslim north and the Christian / animist south. It had apparently been doing a good job living up to its nickname "the Home of Peace of Tourism" for the last few years, following riots in 2001 during which over 1000 people were killed. (Guess they'll have to reset the "Jos: 2630 days without religious violence" counter...)

Last week's rioting began after rumors spread that the largely Christian-backed People's Democratic Party had defeated the Muslim-supported All Nigeria People's Party in state elections. Several hundred people, some of whom were probably even the parents of young children, were killed and several thousand were displaced in the ensuing violence.

The gangs also burned down homes, schools, and religious buildings, demonstrating once again the universal truth that angry mobs - no matter their race, religion, or creed - love to set shit on fire. Isn't it nice to know that deep down we ARE all the same?

The Magic of Money

Chris Blattman and commenters discuss why some African countries do not accept US currency from certain dates (and certain denominations). It's actually a bit of a mystery, and an interesting one since it seems to be partially a matter of rumors hypostatized in the form of bills. That's pretty much what we do with money anyway, as Marx pointed out, lending profound social significance to what is essentially paper or metal with some images and numbers on them.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

How far is Pune from Mumbai?

Our household is preparing for a move next year to Pune, India -- in Maharashtra state, about 90 miles from Mumbai (I'm working on the Hindi for "barba de chiva"). Naturally, we've talked to many friends, family members, and colleagues about the Mumbai attacks last week. That many of them knew that the lady de chiva had been at the Taj Palace -- albeit not as a guest -- just a week or so before the attacks only added to their concern. I keep answering the same questions: aren't you afraid, now? Don't you all regret the decision to move to India? No, no.

But above all, people have repeatedly asked -- and people I love and respect, so I mean no criticism in making a trope of the question -- "How far is Pune from Mumbai?" It's about 90 miles, a three-to-four-hour drive, I say. I say "four hour drive," making it clear that an inflatable dinghy probably wouldn't quite cut it. But that question -- how far will you be from the site of these attacks -- doesn't fit the problem. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I've been reading the excellent recent translation of War and Peace, but the "how far" hasn't been the right question for a long time. I mean, it mattered how far Smolensk was from Moscow. Such things mattered to so many people for so long that the question probably comes to us from some Jungian depth. But a small group of trained attackers exploiting security holes one could find practically anywhere in the world is not an invading army. Mumbai is not itself a hot zone of ethnic or religious conflict; it's pretty much the opposite of that. It's just a great big city on the edge of a great big country.

So, over the past few days, what I have been saying is that what matters, what we're watching closely as we pack our things, is how India decides to address what happened: clearly, the attackers and their sponsors dislike the growing cooperation and commitment to dialogue between India and Pakistan. Will this attack derail that? Worse still, will it manage to provoke India into a state vs. state response against Pakistan? Can the Congress Party avoid taking "a tough stance" in the face of BJP criticism with elections approaching? Can India prove that it knows -- unlike the Bush administration -- that this is the twenty first century? These are the questions I'm preoccupied with now.

So I was pleased when a friend this morning passed along a link to the Juan Cole piece in Outlook India, as he, as usual, gets quickly to the heart of the matter:
The Bush administration took its eye off al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and instead put most of its resources into confronting Iraq. But Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Eventually this American fickleness allowed both al-Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup.

Likewise, India should not allow itself to be distracted by implausible conspiracy theories about high Pakistani officials wanting to destroy the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai. (Does that even make any sense?) Focusing on a conventional state threat alone will leave the country unprepared to meet further asymmetrical, guerrilla-style attacks.
Now I'm worried by the obvious: Juan Cole and many others made these same points after 9/11. Will India hear them?