Friday, 18 December 2009

My Top Albums of 2009

Looks like it's getting towards the end of the year, so maybe its time for the obligatory top lists of 2009. Never having been a slave to tradition, here's my top eight albums of the past twelve months.

8) Hazards Of Love-The Decemberists

This one is an album that is as much an annoyance of mine as it is a love. I'm a big sap for any music so much as hinting at prog-rock which I think is why I listened enough to get past Meloy's whiny annoying vocals. Once I was past that, I was left with an album I fell in love with, grew tired of, stopped listening to, put back on a month later and realized why I loved it so much in the first place, a pattern which repeated through most of the year.
The builds are glorious, the guitars sound fantastic and the musicianship is pretty faultless. The lows are monotonous and the soppy sections are over sentimental.
Still, the peaks more than make up for the troughs and perhaps wouldn't seem as glorious without the arduous slog up hill to get to them.

7) Riceboy Sleeps-Jonsi and Alex

I'm gonna say from the top that I adore Sigur Ros, and that anyone who doesn't like their breed of Icelandic post-rock is going to loathe this release by their lead singer Jonsi and his boyfriend Alex. It sounds an awful lot like Sigur Ros, but even more so, with a whole lot more of the tranquil soundscapes and less of the actual "music". It's gorgeous, its meandering, it's what helped me concentrate on most of my essays this year and it's got me very excited about Jonsi's debut solo album "Go" which sounds all together more like you would expect it to sound. If you love Sigur Ros and you haven't already, you owe it to yourself to give Riceboy Sleeps a good listen. If you're not sold on Sigur Ros yet, give the free track on Jonsi's home page a listen.

6) Octahedron- The Mars Volta

This is by no means ground breaking stuff, I remember reading reviews of this album saying that The Mars Volta had drastically changed their style and being reluctant to listen to it. It is true however that this is a much quieter album than all of their previous efforts. In my opinion, this is a nice middle ground between Omar's meandering solo guitar doodle albums and classic Mars Volta.
All of the slow quiet numbers like Since You've Been Gone make for more intense crescendos into the fast loud tracks and sections such as Cotapaxi.
After two albums that struggled to hold my interest, its nice to see The Mars Volta trying a new direction, even if it did upset a few. There's nothing more boring than a band scared of taking risks

5) Far-Regina Spector

This is an album that, if I had heard earlier in the year, would no doubt be way further up this list, its growing on me like some beautiful voiced fungus.
The simple enchanting melodies sung over a minimal backdrop of mostly drum machines and piano, beautifully arranged and recorded. It makes me feel guilty for not listening to this earlier.
Anyway, listen to this.

4) Backspacer-Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam are an interesting band in that they are one of the only existing grunge bands, due in no small part I'm sure to the fact that they haven't made a grunge record since Vs in 93. There's nothing more embarrassing than middle aged men screaming their teenage angst out (I'm looking at you Green Day) which is why the idea of PJ returning to their punk rock roots worried me.
But that isn't what this album is like at all, it's not all fast, it shows PJ's full range of sounds, from the corny pop-rock, to a few ballads, and yet, those few fast, loose punky tracks which are the best tracks on the album.
It isn't a bunch of old men trying to be hip, as with all of their releases, this is good intelligent American rock music. If their last album hadn't been twice as good this album would likely have been my number two choice this year.

3) Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix-Phoenix

Yet another album I heard too late in the year. Catchy hooks, tongue in cheek lyrics, its much deeper than you might expect from the first listen, but from the first listen I was stuck on this album. Something truly unique, yet pleasingly familiar. Just a well written indie rock album from France.

2) Resevoir-Fanfarlo

A lesson should be learned here by artists struggling to shift units, you're not gonna make a fortune until people know who you are. When I found out that the digital copy of this album was on sale for $1 at their website, it caught my interest, and after some listening I realized that it is a glorious album worthy of a full price purchase (which by the way, their album is selling at again now).
This is an unmistakably British rock album with some really interesting instrumentation and some thoroughly well written songs. Horns and strings are as big of a part of the sound as the guitars and they are used very tastefully. I simply love the atmosphere of this album, from emotional low to dramatic highs. I wish these guys all the luck in the world.

1) Veckatimest-Grizzly Bear
This album grabbed my attention like no other this year. If I love the atmosphere of Fanfarlo's album then I adore the atmosphere of this. Big four part harmonies, dirty bass tones, massive drums, subtle use of strings, and loads of gorgeous reverb. Great dynamics, great musicianship and most of all, terribly ambitious.
All of this note perfect arrangement around a thoroughly interesting and catchy set of songs that I've been listening to religiously since the day it was released back in May. Each song is so very different from the one before it and yet these album sounds very cohesive.
This is very different and utterly brilliant. Couple that with the brilliant videos the band has released for the singles from this album and you have hands down, my album of the year.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Microsoft and the BBC are both stubborn arses.

So it seems that the reason PS3 and Wii users get iPlayer but us 360 owners don't is down to an argument which has ended in stalemate. Apparently, Microsoft want the iPlayer on Xbox Live, but only to gold subscribers, but the BBC has decided that people shouldn't have to pay a premium to get iPlayer as it's license fee funded. So what about people like me who already pay both fees? I couldn't care less if people could get it for free if they were silver members, and I also wouldn't care if it was only available to us gold subscribers. I see why Microsoft want to add value to their gold subscription, although you can already make this work for free with a bit of tweaking if you have a Windows machine (not that I can test that), and I do see the Beeb's problem with people having to pay a subscription to watch it, but what about what their customers want? I cant see any 360 owners getting angry at getting what the PS3 and Wii has had for a while now, and I can't see license payers getting angry at having to pay a gold subscription to use a free service.
The only person looking stupid here (apart from us saps that give both of these companies our money) is Microsoft. If i was looking for a games console now, and I wanted games rather than keep fit activities and gimmicky kids games, I'd have to get a PS3. It wont break, I don't have to pay a subscription to play online (although I would have no friends to play with), it has a Blu Ray drive (not that I'm interested in buying any Blu Rays), built in wifi, cheap HDDs, and it's essentially a DVR for the BBC (and what other British networks ever make good TV anyway). And now after a price drop (at last) its not much more expensive, much cheaper if you factor in however much you will pay for gold subscription, and repairs once it goes out of warrenty.
Its reasons like this that the PS3 is gaining back market share, and why I feel less and less happy paying my TV license. I'm not moving from my Xbox for a while though, I need to play Mass Effect 2.

Monday, 9 November 2009

3 Strike Madness

I'm sure if you keep up with the news in any way you're heard of the new three strikes copyright law. This is where if you are caught filesharing (or rather if an IP address linked to you is accused of filesharing) you are given three two chances, then your bandwidth is capped, essentially cutting you off from any bandwidth intensive activities.
The first thing that springs to mind from that, assuming that it is in any way possible, is that this will not stop people file-sharing, as it will just take longer to download stuff. What it will hurt is streaming, video and audio on demand. That is the stuff that is generally legal, it's going to mean that if you get caught downloading music or TV, you then can't move to a legal alternative such as Spotify or SkyPlayer. This isn't just a problem for the ex-filesharers, its a problem for the companies trying to forge new business models, and as an extension, its bad for you, the people who want to use these new legal alternatives.
I shan't talk too much about how impossible it is to track down and prove that you have accurately tracked down someone who is in breach of copyright, because there are a million and one people better mentally equipped to talk about that, but I will talk about what really makes me angry which is a sentence completely ridiculous compared to the crime being committed.
Cutting off someone's internet because they download content illegally over the internet is like cutting off someone's electricity for the same reason. This becomes even more relevant when you consider that the Constitutional Council of France has recently referred to the internet as a fundamental human right.
To remove someone from the rest of the world for committing a crime is a bizarre punishment, The reason I suspect France considers the internet such an important utility in the modern world, is that it is difficult to do business without it these days. And is alienating people from the job market a good way to ensure that they pay for media?
Never mind all the evidence which shows that file-sharers are the entertainment industry's best customers. Or the fact that that the film industry had a record breaking year last year. Or the fact that an awful lot of filesharing happens because things are not available, not because the filesharers refuse to pay for them. Lets just scare everyone into behaving. They'll like that. That'll make them want to fork over your ridiculous prices. Fuck you Peter Mandelson. If there's a party with the balls to oppose this, I'll vote for them at the next election. Yes even if that party is the Conservatives.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

It's Been a While

It's been a pretty long while since I wrote anything on this, which is a shame as I've been pretty super busy. Since I've last written I've gone back to uni for my final year which is getting pretty hectic now, but lots of exciting projects coming up. I've also gone back to work at Bucks Student Union as one of their in house engineers, which is pretty fun.
So far as projects go, I've got a big studio project coming up. My group is still going through the tail end of the A+R section of it, but I'm pretty enthused about working with Darwin and the Dinosaur. I got introduced to them by my good friend Sunny from In An Emergency Dial. They're basically pop-punk, but that I enjoy somehow. Anyone who's spoken to me about music for any length of time about music will know that I'm not a lover of most pop-punk, I guess I just don't get it, something to do with whiny American voices and simplistic song structures. Probably a direct result of me spending most of my late high school/college years listening almost exclusively to prog-rock.

But I love these guys, and I'm really enthusiastic about working with them, especially as they seem so dead on and professional. Anyway, go to their MySpace and check out the cheerfully titled "And Hope To Die" and I'll keep you all posted on how the recording goes.

I've got an excuse (as if I needed one) to re-do my website again, I'd link you to the old one but it's pretty god-awful, as I need to write an essay and a presentation on marketing something for my Applied Content Distribution class, I figure I may as well do it on the wishy washy topic of marketing myself as an audio engineer. So that should be coming along in the next few months as a hub for all of my online presence that's currently scattered all over the interwebs.

Work's going pretty great. Scott and I have now officially taken over as the in house audio engineers. It's lots of work, lots of fun, and I'm lots of grateful for this opportunity. We've already had some truly awesome bands, artists, and comedy come to the venue, including Lethal Bizzle, Dinosaur Pile Up, Bleach, The Pharaohs, Kid British, Little Boots, Pulled Apart By Horses, Chew Lips, Ou Est Le Swimming Pool, Master Shortie, Ebony Bones, King Blues and Flamboyant Bella to name but a few.

Last night was a fantastic night, unfortunately left virtually punterless due to Guy Fawkes night. The openers Wojtek Godzisz were awesome, totally the kind of music I've always been utterly in love with since high school. It was a mixture of grungy sounds and more progressive arrangements and they were an utter joy to work with. I'd never listened to them except for a brief checking out session before the gig, but I would thoroughly recommend people check them out if they come to a venue near you. The Bookhouse Boys headlined and were also pretty spectacular. I've always had a thing for trumpets and weird instruments, and this was my first encounter of an omnichord. There were two lead singers, a woman and a man, the man sounded an awful lot like Nick Cave, and the woman reminded me of Beth Gibbons (of Portishead fame). They sounded pretty spectacular and I would thoroughly advise anyone who is into that kind of americana/folk-rock to check them out.

Stuff has calmed down a lot now, schedule wise and I'm gonna keep updating my blog more often, at least weekly, at least until stuff gets hectic.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Augmented Reality and E-Book Readers.

The thing that I lust after the most is shiny new gadgets. I love them but I can never afford them, and two things that I want but can't afford are an e-book reader, and a better phone.
The big new thing in mobile phones seems to be augmented reality. This is where by holding your GPS equipped device and aiming the camera at something, the device will overlay useful information. If you cant picture that picture the scene from Terminator where it cuts to his vision and says "Target: Sarah Connor" but then imagine when the terminator is on holiday and wants restaurant reviews "Target, dodgy Greek restaurant, Average rating: 1 star". Or you could get lost and point your camera phone at the street and be told where the nearest tube station is. The really great application that I heard discussed in Cnet UK was restaurant related again, How about ending up with some text in a foreign language in your hands, such as a menu, and holding your phone up to translate it. This really is the future and you can get it on your phone is you've got an iPhone or an Android based phone, but don't expect too much, it's no terminator vision yet, just some very clever tech. Get some more info over at Wired.
Another piece of clever tech but this time being done completely wrong is e-book readers. David Byrne talks about his experiences using the Kindle DX, explaining that it's a beautiful device (not that us Europeans would know, it being US based and everything) ruined by DRM. Now as far as I can tell, the only reason that book publishers think they can get away with crippling their users experience with DRM is that, unlike with music, you cant rip a book to your computer like you can a CD. You can scan it, but then it will be a crappy photocopied book. But as Byrne points out, the big rub is going to come when you buy a new e-book reader (such as the new Apple tablet perhaps) and you have to bu all your books again! Either that or you are locked in to Amazon's kindle range because they're the only ones that support this particular DRM.
The Sony readers are looking more enticing, as they support the more accepted if still DRMed e-pub format, and Google has announced that you can get all of its public domain books for free, as well as the option for institutions, libraries, and schools to pay a subscription to get unlimited access to all of Google's books.
I assume what will really get people buying e-books is the same thing which made people decide that an iPod was good value for money- Piracy. Would you pay £100 for the opportunity not just to save some book shelf space, and save your back from lugging text books around, but also to never have to pay for a book again? I would bank on yes, and if this apple tablet becomes a success, then the stores that sell the books are no longer as closely linked to the devices, and they might just become a hit. Who knows, those people might just start paying for books again one day.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

How Much Longer Does Twitter Have?

There is little argument that Twitter is expanding ever rapidly. It has come to the point now in fact where, according to a YouTube video, Ashton Kutcher and Ellen DeGeneres have more Twitter followers than the entire population of Ireland, Norway and Panama. I am a moderate twitterer/ tweeter/ twit/twat or whatever the word is but I have never seen the point in following celebrities. Do people really want that kind of intimacy from some second rate actor or a chat show host? That said, just because they follow them doesn't mean that they ever come back, a massive proportion of Twitter's members tweet once then leave, perhaps they follow one of these people just before they leave? Or maybe people really do have more free time than I give them credit for.
But recently twitter doesn't seem to be holding up very well. Never have I seen a service with so many ways of fining out if it is down or not, and this can't just be down to the fact they they seem to be a target of DDoS attacks, they just don't have the facilities to cope with the volume of traffic they receive at the moment. Then today I read about their security problems, where, for those of you who don't like to click links, simply receiving a tweet would allow someone to take over your account, TechCrunch's advice is to stay away for the next couple of days. The other big problem is the same problem that killed MySpace, that of spam. I'm sure that any people out there who use Twitter have noticed the ever increasing numbers of spammers, and it is really annoying.
The problem, as do so many, comes down to money. I'm sure they'd love to upgrade their servers, employ enough programmers that a problem like this can be patched in a couple of hours, and employ people to hunt out and delete spam accounts but they are slow to fix things and making no money and these things are not unrelated.
The thing is, people seem increasingly fed up with Facebook in a similar was to how people were fed up with MySpace, I hear more and more people talking about how fed up they are with facebook, and the logical next place to go is Twitter. But are they ready? Not yet.
Unless Twitter finds a business model soon, I think it will collapse as people move over to a different social network, or perhaps just back to Facebook.
An option that I liked that was being discussed on a CNet podcast, I forget whether it was Buzz out Loud or CNet UK, but the idea of opening up the protocol, in the same way the blogging is implemented. This way the load could be shared amongst all of the different providers. They pointed out that Twitter would not do this until they have worked out how they are going to monetize Twitter.
An option that I don't understand for monetizing twitter is the only option they seem to be discussing, that of keeping it free (right move) but charging for analysis tools and other professional tools. I know that people like dell make money (reportedly $3 million) by posting up special offers on twitter, direct to their biggest fans, but would Dell pay extra for extra tools? how would these tools help them sell more computers?
I'm not gonna pretend that I am any kind of expert on this, I just read a lot, and I know that social networks get replaced when the public gets fed up with them. And I like Twitter, I just hate the service.

Bye Bye Big Brother.

Today, Channel 4 confirmed that Big brother will not be returning for another year. Now I'm pretty sure someone related to it had already said this. Now I am not a BB fan, or hater really but this made me really happy when I first heard it, disproportionately so in fact. A lot of people on the comment boards on the guardian article have been saying one of two things, either that Big Brother is responsible for the terrible TV we seem to have at the moment and that now finally T can get good again, or that Big Brother is responsible for the terrible TV we seem to have at the moment, but the fact that it has been on for ten years means that the damage has already been done.
Now obviously the guardian readership is not BB's target audience, but it has always surprised me how much negative feeling this show stirs up in people. When it first debuted onto our screens, I seem to remember it being heralded as ground breaking television, A psychological experiment that would be explained weekly by a top psychologist, explaining what being trapped in a house was doing to these people, and why it was happening. Eventually down the road the producers decided that it would be much more exciting if they filled the house with idiots that could be more easily manipulated, this I believe was probably their down fall, because people don't like to be irritated.
Along the way though, there were some truly great TV moments, we had Nasty Nick, the bizarre roller-coaster that was Jade Goody's celebrity life, we had a transgendered woman finally feeling like she had been accepted by the public, and the kind of romantic drama that you would expect from putting a bunch of young adults in a confined space.
Of course when a show receives massive viewing figures, it will be emulated and it did play a massive part in the reality TV that litters our screens today, some of which is terrible, some of which is fantastic (I'm looking at you dog the bounty hunter). At it's very core though, Big brother was just the next logical step from game shows (which is essentially what it is) and chat shows. People like to watch people, and you rarely get to see so much of anyone's life than you did in BB. People who look down their noses at people who enjoy this kind of television are snobs, and in this world of the internet, where viewing figures are plummeting, you will not be catered for, because there are not enough of you turning on the telly.
It was fascinating, entertaining, real, depressing, and a great dirty pleasure. It was the show that you had to watch to not be left out of your friend's conversations at school. It was pretty ground breaking TV that has been dragged through the mud for short term viewing figures and it should have stopped long ago.
But all the same, goodbye BB, thanks and good riddance.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

A pretty eventful few days for pirates.

Sometimes it seems like how ever many times people say it, the people at the top just don't understand that you can't put the genie back in the bottle.
Yesterday after a long struggle the pirate bay seems to have been taken down although for how long is a different matter [edit: it's back up]. I'm sure there was a ten minute dip in piracy as people found new torrent search engines. I noticed a lot of people desperate for Demonoid invites on Digg yesterday. And this is what happens every time of course, a fairly recent example of which was oink. I'm sure that closing oink down has had relatively no impact at all on it's users habits, as will TPB.
On a closely related note, I read in music week today that the idea of banning people from the internet is being considered for cases of piracy (presumably focused on music piracy as all of this has come back into focus after Mandelson's talks with the head of Geffen the other day.) Now correct me if I'm wrong but did the European court of human rights not decide the last time this was being discussed that internet access in this modern age is a human right? The other ridiculous side of this idea that seems to be being batted around is fines as large as £50,000. Never mind the morallity of all of this, which countless people have talked about, have the majors seriously not learned from the PR disasters of the past? Suing your customers will not make them loyal to you, and your sure as hell can't sue them all.
Talking of retracing your own mistakes, another story I read in Music Week this morning was about the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) suing companies that publish song lyrics online. Now note that getting lyrics for legitimately purchased songs online for free (the only price I would ever pay to read some lyrics) is not a service that as far as I know is even offered by the NMPA, or any of the people it represents.
This news today made me decide to start a blog because I need to write this stuff down or I may very likely explode with frustration.