I’ve Had Better: Some Thoughts on Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Vol 1

Nymphomaniac, Volume 1 doesn’t leave you satisfied.

Nymphomaniac, Volume 1 didn’t reach any climax.

Nymphomaniac, Volume 1… pulled out too soon? Okay, I’m done. Sorry.

I don’t know if a film lends itself better to quippy, punny reviews better than Lars con Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Volume 1, yet my friend and I couldn’t stop talking about how we felt about it when we walked out of the theater. It’s an incredibly bleak, tonally confused film that leaves you feeling not emotionally devastated, but completely hollow. For a film about a nymphomaniac with buzz for its explicit sex scenes, I don’t think it’s even particularly about sex. If there’s anything it does well, it’s a film about emptiness that makes you feel its emptiness rather than actually say anything about emptiness, which is actually really cool in a modernist kind of way.

Now for what it doesn’t do well.

"Coming" soon. See? The jokes just write themselves.

“Coming” soon. See? The jokes just write themselves.

1. The Nymphomaniac Herself Is Incredibly Boring And Has No Character

For those of you who’ve read this far and don’t actually know what I’m talking about yet, Nymphomaniac is a film about a woman named Joe who is a sex-addict. You probably could have figured that out. Over the course of the film, we see her go from a teenage girl taking part in a contest on a train to see how many men she can have sex with before it reaches its destination, and by the end of the film we have a young woman juggling eight or ten different sexual partners a night.

And yet for a character so sexually promiscuous, I’ve rarely found the lead of a character-driven film so mind-numbingly boring. Her dialogue is stiff and simple and always delivered laboriously. Not that the amount of sex this woman is having means this is an especially believable plot, but I find it very difficult to buy how a character without any character is supposed to be so seductive. The fault probably lies in both the acting and the writing. Stacy Martin feels bland, has no chemistry with anyone (and it’s not like there’s a shortage of opportunities), and – like I said earlier – literally stumbles through every line of dialogue. Maybe I’m too much of a romantic, but I see nothing desirable about this.

And it’s not like she has anything particularly complicated to say. Save for one hilarious and fantastic line of dialogue leading into the first sex scene (“If I asked you to take my virginity, would that be a problem?”, which was priceless), nothing she says has any substance. The writing is so on the nose and simple that it creates a character with no depth. And speaking about depth and writing…

2. The Frame Story Analyzes the Story For You, So No Thinking Required

Nymphomaniac is a frame story. Old Joe is found lying injured on the ground by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), whom she then tells her (disjointed) life story to. For some reason. Where Joe’s character is insufferable, Seligman’s is irritating. He doesn’t just listen to her story, he analyzes it. To be fair, there are moments where this is necessary and where it does work very well, such as when he draws a parallel between a specific fly fishing lure – called a nypmh – on his wall that has caught Joe’s attention and her story. While it’s a little hand-holding, it’s a pretty central idea to the story, so it’s fine. But then he just never shuts up and he analyzes the movie for the viewer.

It’s one thing to have him simply draw a parallel between Joe’s story of seducing men on the train and fly fishing, it’s quite another for him to constantly interrupt to go on long explanations for how any particular detail from the story is just like fly fishing. And he doesn’t just do this for fly fishing, but through the entire movie with a wide variety of metaphors, and this doesn’t always work or even serve any purpose. The film stops while he goes on a second explanation of what Fibonacci numbers are, and you really just want him to shut up already.

The problem with this is that it gives the viewer so little space to analyze the film themselves, or even think about what they’re watching. It’s like the movie is too scared to leave an interpretation to the viewer and provides a constant running explanation of what’s going on the whole time. The film is so terrified by the notion of any individual metaphor escaping the viewer that it slaps them in the face with it, and speaking of each individual metaphor…

3. This Really Couldn’t Have Been Any Shorter?

Why is this a two-part movie with a total running time of five and a half hours? That’s half of the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy, except with a much, much, much smaller scope. What necessitates this? What about this concept required a five and a half hour story? Was there really nothing that could be cut from this movie?

The narrative is split into eight “chapters” between the two movies, but rather than feeling like eight essential parts of a story, it feels more like von Trier simply came up with eight metaphors about sex and sexuality and loosely connected them around a central character. Like I’ve already said, this character is incapable of maintaining the viewer’s interest, and it’s likely at the cost of needing to be enough of a blank slate to support these eight disparate sex metaphors. First we’re talking about fly fishing, then we’re talking about polyphony, and at no point do we know why we’re talking about any of this.

Somewhat cynically, my friend and I came to the conclusion that the only real reason may just be a fascinating marketing ploy. It’s an interesting gambit to give your viewer the choice to walk in the middle of the story, because it demands a much stronger hand than Nymphomanic, Volume 1 actually has to play with. But at the same time, the anticipation of a second film released a month or so after the first one will keep you talking about it and thinking about it.

Overall, Nymphomaniac, Volume 1 is underwhelming and unsatisfying, but is intriguing enough to draw you back in to try to make sense of what’s going on, which might actually be the brilliant meta-statement about sex that you might have gone into this movie for in the first place.

nypmh part 1

Intriguingly, the single, solitary reason why I’m genuinely interested in seeing Volume 2 (as opposed to simply feeling obligated to finishing the story) is because of a combination of all three of my complaints. The only moment of Volume 1 that intrigues me about a direction this story might go in is when Seligman calls bullshit on Joe’s story. When Jerome (Shia LeBeouf) shows up in her life story a third time against astronomical odds, Seligman interrupts to say he can’t believe that really happened. For me, this is the only interesting thing Nymphomaniac does, and a direction I really hope – but really doubt – Volume 2 will explore further. There has to be something necessitating a frame narrative, and rather than explaining the whole thing to the idiot viewer, it would be way better if this all turned out to be done simply to question the way we construct identity and sex at all.

Checking Privilege: So My Other Blog Asked Me To Make A Feminist, Anti-Slut Shaming Mug About Blow Jobs

Over on my better known blog, Bad Books, Good Times, we’ve been reading the first in the House of Night series by Kristin and P.C. Cast. For the first time since we started the blog, we decided we had finally reached a large enough readership where it made sense for us to simply ask our readers what we should read next. We got a number a suggestions, which we then narrowed down a few times until we settled on Marked, the first House of Night book. We read the free sample on Amazon before choosing the book, and – filled with phony teen-speak and nonsensical pacing – it was one of the most unintentionally hilarious things I’d ever read.

Of course, being vampire young adult fiction, we were briefly concerned that maybe House of Night was too easy a target – who would actually expect it to be any good? Is there any point in tearing apart such low-hanging fruit? We decided to go with it anyway, because even if that were the case, we could use a sillier book that would require less effort to tear apart, since our dual reading of Jamie McGuire’s parallel novels Beautiful Disaster and Walking Disaster was proving rather taxing.

So we weren’t expecting much. Then Marked suddenly became the most homophobic, racist, and slut-shaming book we had ever read on the blog.

Calling you out! Again.

Calling you out! Again.

Obviously, I’ve gone into plenty of detail into this over on Bad Books, Good Times, which is presumably the only reason why you’re reading this post right now. But the offending passage that set us off – and, even more so, our readers – was the scene where Zoey walks in on a girl performing oral sex on a guy:

Yes, I was aware of the whole oral sex thing. I doubt if there’s a teenager alive in America today who isn’t aware that most of the adult public think we’re giving guys blow jobs like they used to give guys gum (or maybe more appropriately suckers). Okay, that’s just bullshit, and it’s always made me mad. Of course there are girls who think it’s “cool” to give guys head. Uh, they’re wrong. Those of us with functioning brains know that it is not cool to be used like that.

Once you adjust to the terrible quality of writing, there’s a really terrible message in here as well. Smarter people than myself have written plenty about healthy sex, but really all it comes down to and all I’d like to say here is that, between two consenting adults communicating properly about what they want and do not want, then what’s the issue if they’re both doing what makes them happy?

(There is, of course, another issue here in that the book zeroes in on fellatio as it decries moral decay vis a vis oral sex, whilst completely ignoring cunnilingus. The dearth of representation of female sexual pleasure and exclusivity of male sexual pleasure in the media is ironically on full display in this female-penned book, demonstrating how patriarchal social constructs are such an encompassing pitfall. Of course, this particular issue is also beyond the scope of the post I want to discuss right now, but worth taking note of and striving to learn more about. I’m unfortunately rather uneducated about this issue myself, and don’t know any readily available resources I can refer you to at the moment since I’ve only ever learned about this from lectures or panels that I very well can’t just share online.)

But getting back to my point, if Ariel and myself reacted angrily to this scene, it was nothing compared to the comments we got from our readers. People commented on that post and many posts to come about the absurdity of the novel’s message that oral sex is always bad (Ariel probably put it most succinctly in a response to a reader comment with “It’s such an insane blanket statement to say all blow jobs = being used”), to the point where our criticism of the slut shaming in Marked became a running joke (which sounds a little weird, but on Bad Books, Good Times, all things we hate simultaneously exist as jokes). It didn’t take long before one of our readers made this suggestion:

I feel like you should make a mug or a shirt or a bag that says “Proud Supporter of the Right to BJs!”

Ariel and I loved this idea and immediately set plans in motion. There were some problems with the creation process. Ariel does not know how to use Photoshop, so I typically do most of the designing for the blog – which covers the mugs. However, this was in no way my mug to make.

As a white, cis-gendered male who identifies as straight, I try very hard to check my privilege as much as I can, and to always learn more about how to identify when I’m not. Designing and selling a mug that said “Proud Supporter of Blow Jobs” as a man immediately struck me as more than a little problematic, and could very easily turn into just the worst thing ever.

Like this. This is what I was just TERRIFIED of accidentally making.

Like this. This is what I was just TERRIFIED of accidentally making.

I don’t necessarily feel like there is something inherently problematic about including a male voice in feminist discussion (which I’ve done previously for NPR), but given the sensitivity of this topic and that my own pro-blow job opinions are rooted in something somewhat distanced from the purpose of the proposed mug, I felt like my role in the mug design needed to be as minimal as possible. While Ariel didn’t think I really had all that much to be concerned about, ultimately I felt like this was my privilege that it was my responsibility to check (God, isn’t that just the worst idea ever? Non-privilege privilege). So I made sure that, via Facebook chat, we carefully discussed exactly what this mug might say. And by “carefully”, I mean “a lot of out conversation is usually just making jokes”.

Ariel:
I got you I’m just thinking if there was an image along with the words what could we show that would show it’s snarky but also feminist

Matthew:
Yeah, that’s the thing. It has to be super obviously feminist. And anti-slut shaming.

Ariel:
Is there a line we could add like along the lines of “proud supporters of blow jobs if that’s what you want to do”? Like something in parentheses? Proud supporter of blow jobs and female empowerment.

Matthew:
It is a tricky one. Something conveying the “if that’s what you want to do” angle.

Ariel:
Exactly.
Proud supporter of blow jobs, grilled cheese, and other things that are your choice.
Proud supporter of blow jobs, presents and other things that are your choice to give and receive

Matthew:
Wait, dang, between those two I’m really liking this.

Ariel:
Haha, Jeremy just took my phone and laughed so I think were in the right direction.

Matthew:
AHAHAHA I just thought of a terrible one. Since this all started by criticizing House of Night, the top of the mug: Proud Supporter of Blow Jobs. Middle: stick figure human and stick figure vampire. Bottom: “Suck what you choose to suck”
This is exactly why I should not be allowed to design this damn thing XD

Ariel:
Hahahaha I love it. I was originally going to say proud supporter of all blow jobs from human to vampyre but wasn’t sure it solved the feminist issue.

I decided to post these first few ideas on Bad Books, Good Times for some feedback, to ensure we were going in the right direction with this mug. I couldn’t resist including my own joke in there two. I admit I was a little bummed when the feedback for the mug didn’t mention my joke at all (although that’s probably more to do with the fact that that entire blog is hoping my jokes get good feedback), but ultimately that was exactly why I wanted to put it up there. I cut it from the process and focused it around the language that the community responded well to, and ultimately ended up with this:

Once again, actually including an image of a grilled cheese sandwich on there was Ariel’s idea after I wasn’t happy with my first mock-up (although this had nothing to do with checking, say, sandwich-privilege; comedy duos just have to turn to the other for jokes when they’re struggling sometimes). I’m really excited that we’ve finally got this thing made (and available for purchase hint hint).

So what’s the point of my story? Just a small, simple reminder that, really, it does not take much effort to bother to check your privilege. You’re not always going to get it right, but just stopping and thinking about whether there’s a perspective other than your own goes a long way, which is a good lesson in general.

Also that somehow I’ve become a person selling a feminist, anti-slut shaming mug about blow jobs on the internet. High school me would be befuddled.

Reading, Watching, Playing, Doing – 2/17

Whoops. Haven’t done one of these in forever. I know you’re disappointed.

Reading

The Disaster Artist - Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

I finally started a project I’d wanted to do for a very long time over on Bad Books, Good Times: a “reading” of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, going as in-depth as I possibly could tearing apart every single thing about what makes this movie simultaneously terrible and amazing. Almost immediately, BBGT readers started asking me if I’d get Greg Sestero’s book about it yet. I had been waiting for this book since it was first announced three years ago, but didn’t actually bother getting it immediately when it came out for various reasons (I have too many books). Eventually, I caved, and oh man. He doesn’t quite explain everything about the making of The Room (he noticeably skips over the much-discussed four sex scenes, and – with it – any of the somewhat terrifying rumors about what filming them was like), but this book really does convey that making The Room was even more horrible than you could have ever imagined. This is a must-read for any fans of The Room.

The Summer Is Ended And We Are Not Yet Saved - Joey Comeau

I read Bible Camp Bloodbath back when Joey Comeau put it all up for free online three years ago, and I loved it up until the actual bloodbath started happening, because there was just all this beautiful characterization that got immediately thrown out the window when it became entirely about a madman killing people. Comeau’s rewrite (btw, he wrote a particularly interesting blog post about his authorial motivations behind rewriting one of his novels) fixes every single problem. Is it a little bit of a let down that (spoilers) the rewrite has more or less the exact same ending? Only if you’ve read the first book and get caught up in the immensely improved tension in the final act of the rewritten version, but I maintain that drowning is a fantastic ending. Also, only Joey Comeau could make a line like “Stop stabbing yourself!” work.

A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

It’s a 1474 page book. I can’t take it anywhere to read it because it hurts my wrists. If there was ever a book that I would have bought as an eBook without a second thought to its omission from my actual, physical bookshelf, it would have been this one, but it is not available as an eBook. And lo, my wrists fucking hurt.

Orange is the New Black - Piper Kerman

So I figured this wouldn’t be exactly like the Netflix tv show, mainly for the reason that Piper would 100% still be in jail if it were. I’d be fascinated to know how they took the Piper from this book and came up with the Piper in the tv adaptation, because that Piper is crazy. And they do a really good job with it too. But this Piper is (perhaps not surprisingly) more real. Because – fucking duh – it’s a memoir. So it’s fascinating seeing things that did become elements of the tv show (surprisingly many!) and also remembering why this story was told in the first place – because America has a seriously useless prison system. The tv show is great social commentary, but the memoir is important for completely different reasons.

Watching

Sherlock

I still haven’t bothered finishing this season, and everybody’s already talked about how goddamn fanservicey this season was, but no seriously. I’m pretty sure this is the first season (or series, if you’re in the UK) of a television show to be made with the creation of animated gifs being the primary goal. There’s a lot of great humor and heartwarming moments in the first two episodes (because lol haven’t bothered watching the last one yet), but it is all humor and heartwarming moments to the point where it has the exact same effect as just scrolling through Tumblr for a few hours. I don’t have Tumblr, Sherlock. I LIKE FUCKING MYSTERIES. Too bad there weren’t any mysteries in 2/3 of this highly-anticipated season of the best modern adaptation of one of the most famous detective stories ever written. Can’t imagine how that formula made any sense to anyone.

How I Met Your Mother

It occurred to me the other day that I’m actually dreading watching new episodes and just want it to be over already.

Archer

I haven’t watched any of the fifth/totally-changes-the-premise-of-the-show season yet, but the idea intrigues me. The first four seasons of this show are pretty much perfect, so why change it completely? Is it because there’s such a thing as too much perfect? Can all that perfection be simply wearying? *strokes beard thoughtfully*

Peep Show

I finally caught up to current and this show actually gets really depressing as it goes on. It’s one thing when they’re twentysomething losers, but another thing entirely when they’re thirtysomething losers.

New Girl

…yes I started watching New Girl. Which is weird, because I thought this was a show about Zooey Deschanel, but it’s actually all about this Schmidt guy.

Breaking Bad

I was watching this with my sister, but then moved to Brooklyn and only just recently resumed watching it by my lonesome. Which has been awful so far because the season three minute goes on the list of tv shows that has seriously made me cry. Although the fourth season is seriously dragging. I’m not entirely certain how this show is so acclaimed. It has some not-exactly unnoticeable issues with pacing.

Playing

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

This game is so so so much fun. I think I’m finally over the hump where you’re struggling with resources and underdeveloped troops and actually have a lot of great skills to play with. Or I would if it would stop giving me goddamn Assault soldiers all the time. I have TWO support troops! And SEVEN ASSAULTS. SEVEN. Even if I can name them after my favorite fictional characters and/or celebrities and send out a team of Ron Weasley, Zoe Washburne, Haruko Haraharu, John Grady Cole, and Pablo Sanchez into turn-based combat with terrifying aliens.

Bioshock

So I’m super late to the party and finally playing the first Bioshock and I’m kinda of feeling like I’m not remotely enjoying it? I felt underpowered (because of the Big Daddies, naturally) until I realized there’s no real penalty for dying so I didn’t even feel like upgrading my character once I finally had access to a Gatherer’s Garden because why bother? I get that Bioshock is supposed to be one of the most philosophically interesting video games in recent memory, but I didn’t think it would be because induce existential nihilism.

Breath of Death VII: The Beginning

I was hoping this would be more of a spoof of traditional JRPGs in typical JRPG settings than an undead-fantasy spoof (which I’d have known if I read the description, but whatever), and it’s not really as funny as I was hoping for – not even particularly close. Except the gameplay is actually way more fun than I anticipated. So it’s two misses in what I was hoping for and one hit in something I didn’t even consider. Strangely. I also just got the French zombie and somehow combining two tired jokes (French accents, everything re: zombies) into random declarations of “LE BRAINS” just kills me.

Scribblenauts Unlimited

Scribblenauts is basically Grand Theft Auto for more imaginatively-fucked up people. When I get all the Starites on a level, I tend to start unleashing hell, throwing in, like, “flying invincible flaming zombie” and just seeing how long it takes it to destroy everything. There was a mission where I was told to stop a zombie (lots of zombies) outbreak advancing on a castle, and the game gave me a mech suit, and I was so unsatisfied with a mech suit that I threw a Medusa into the fray just to have someone do my work for me.

Doing

Listening To All The Unlistened-To Music On My iPod More Systematically

After my girlfriend made fun of me for not listening to my music for “efficiently”, I had to admit she had a real point. Before I was poking about more or less at random, giving albums a few days between listens to not wear myself out on it and let it sink it. I have now determined this is really stupid, and I’m just approaching music like everybody does all media these days: binging. And it might be way better. In about a month I have a pretty thorough understanding of the entire output of The Pixies, Pavement, the Sonic Youth I do have (for whatever reason I also decided to do this with iconic 90s alt rockers), Spoon, Massive Attack, Elliott Smith, and a fair amount of Kate Bush. Sure.

Somehow Designing a Feminist, Anti-Slut Shaming Blow Job Joke Mug for Bad Books, Good Times

I’ll go into this more later.

Trying Very Hard To Get Myself To Start Writing Again

As it would turn out, writing half a verse and a chorus for two different songs and one hundred words of a novel that is not the novel you’ve been pretending you’ve been writing for the past five years does not feel particularly productive.

Attempting To Buy An Acoustic Guitar On Amazon

I know exactly what I want and usually the price is way out of my price range, and then it’ll magically be in my price range for two days, but every day I’ll be like “but what if it goes down a little more!” and then it shoots up about $100-175 for the next three weeks. I am also doing this same thing with a pair of Converse, because I am an idiot.

Here’s a Lorde Cover on Ukulele Because You Probably Wanted That In Your Life

Because anything played slowly and acoustically can become a sad “man with feelings” lament.

I finally listened to a Lorde song other than “Royals” and realized that there is definitely something to the hype and that Pure Heroine was a terrible exclusion from my Favorite Albums of 2013. So I’m officially a huge fan now, and really wanted to record a cover of “Ribs”.  It’s definitely the sort of song I wish I had when I was also growing up and scared of every second of it. It’s a beautiful song and the lyrical accessibility really lets you sink into the inscrutable emotions it stirs up.

It also got me thinking about another thing about lyrics: what effect does it have when you hear them wrong? I thought for certain the line was “We’ll laugh until our ribs get sore” – which was kind of cuter and more carefree – when I guess the line is actually “We’ll laugh until our ribs get tough”, which I have no idea what that means. It’s certainly more ominous and shares the same awful taste that “building character” does, which probably makes more sense with the song. So my original understanding of the song saw it as more escapist (laughing until it hurts and that brief reprieve it offers you from your problems) while the actual lyrics are more downtrodden and mired in inevitability.

Naturally, I sang it with my misheard version of the lyrics, because eh.

I Bought Some New Headphones, or How I Lose My Mind Every Two Years Or So

Last week my earbuds broke after two years of use. This week I had a subsequent revelation about how even objective scientific information can be socially constructed. There were a few steps in between.

Let’s start with the earbuds. For the past two years I’ve had Sennheiser CX 270 earbuds, which were my favorite pair I’ve ever had. For earbuds, I felt like they were reasonably sound-isolating and had good bass, so when they finally broke I was quite upset to see them go, like an old friend.

Incidentally, this will not be a very visually interesting post.

Incidentally, this will not be a very visually interesting post.

I was also horrified because the process I went through to end up with those earbuds was an infuriating saga. In the few months leading up to it, I went through five pairs of earbuds. I was previously using a collection of cheap earbuds I’d gotten free with other stuff until they suddenly all broke at the same time and I had none. Now that I had to actually buy myself a pair, I got curious – what if I bought a nicer pair than the cheapest I could find? (In retrospect, this is really where all my trouble started.) And so I shelled out $40 for a pair of Skullcandy Titans, partly because I had had the brand before and partly because, frankly, Skullcandy makes really cool looking stuff. Naturally, I lost them in about a month and a half.

Also, they sucked, but LOOK. SO PRETTY.

Also, they sucked, but LOOK. SO PRETTY.

But when I tried out my first pair of headphones that didn’t cost somewhere between zero and ten dollars, I was… not disappointed. More like confused. Music sounded different, certainly, but I wasn’t convinced it was for the better. I’d later come to realize that the word I’d have used to describe the sound they made was “tinny” and maybe required something else I’d later learn about called “burn in” which may or may not even exist. But at the time I was just confused. Why didn’t it objectively sound better? Of course, I didn’t have long to dwell on this question with this particular pair because, as I said, I lost the pair in a hotel in London. But while the earbuds were gone, that question remained.

Reeling from the loss of a $40 pair of earbuds after I only had them for a month and a half (ironically, now that I think about it, I lost them on my birthday for which they were an early birthday present), I went right back to buying the cheapest thing I could get my hands on, and I wound up with another pair of Skullcandy earbuds that cost maybe $7 (not pounds, but dollars – these were cheap). I honestly don’t remember what they sounded like, because they broke two to three months later. Swearing off Skullcandy forever for my combined misfortunes (and also because they’re a rather rubbish brand, really), I spent like 45 minutes staring at maybe ten different options in an HMV before deciding to get the Sennheiser CX 270s. I’d done a bit of research beforehand, since all I really wanted by this point was something that wouldn’t have to be replaced and I could leave that hell behind forever, and recalled some varied praise for Sennheiser.

On the bus back, I tested the Sennheiser CX 270 to see how good they were, which basically meant – to me, at that time – to see how well they could handle dubstep. I recall being pleasantly surprised by the bass. This will become very important later; note that that was what I was listening for when judging them.

Anyway, they just broke last week after two years, and being a complete music junkie, I decided it was high time I get myself some serious headphones. Although it also occurred to me that the earbuds would still need to be replaced, as it wouldn’t be practical to wear giant headphones around everywhere, and I’d certainly look like a bit of a putz wearing giant-ass headphones over Skype or something. After asking friends for recommendations and learning that they were also Jeph Jacques’ personal favorite headphones (the guy who does Questionable Content, who is also a music fiend and audiophile, so that seemed like a fantastic recommendation to me), I went on Amazon and ordered myself Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones.

Although it's not exactly the prettiest girl at the bar.

Although it’s not exactly the prettiest girl at the bar.

And do I notice a difference? Probably? Certain, completely random things have grabbed my attention in the few days since they came in the mail. Random bits of percussion sound very striking (sorry), and the horns on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ “Moanin'” sounded beautiful. (Note the difference in what kind of music I’m using to test headphones now, by the way – this will actually become important when I get to my point(s) soon.) However, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed by the bass. Hearing that booming, upright bass on that song really got me to feel the jazz on my old earbuds, and I found it confusing that somehow it was less noticeable on a pair of headphones, which I was under the impression was supposed to be a particular advantage of headphones over earbuds.

In the meantime, however, I needed to replace the earbuds while I was waiting for those to come in the mail. Since I was getting another pair of Sennheisers and felt like it’d be boring to get even more Sennheisers (and despite how much I like that brand, I didn’t want to fall into a pit of brand loyalty like with Skullcandy from way back in my foolish youth), I decided to branch out and get something at roughly the same “level” (read: cost and generally good reviews) as the CX 270, and ultimately decided upon a new find: Sol Republic Jax.

And look at those things! They’re like adorable, cheap-looking, “I wanna be Beats by Dre too!” earbuds! As it would turn out, the similarities don’t end at physical appearance – these things definitely have an emphasis on the bass, just like their exponentially more expensive brethren. Once again, I’m not actually sure how they compare to the Sennheiser CX 270s, but two songs I tested them with – Streetlight Manifesto’s “We Will Fall Together” and The Stroke’s “Is This It” (again, note what I’m using) – definitely sounded like they had more low-end than usual.

Speaking of Beats by Dre, my younger sister asked me why I wasn’t getting a pair of those. I told her that (based on what I had read) they overemphasize the bass at the expense of the mids, and (based on my own perceptions) they are ridiculously overpriced status symbols. Except that’s actually sort of the selling point, isn’t it? That they have really powerful bass. Except no one really describes Beats by Dre headphones as having “powerful” bass. They say “good” bass.

Now, see, this is something I pay attention to a lot these days, as a college graduate with an English major with another English major girlfriend who wrote her senior thesis on the insufficiency of language. To summarize (or totally, totally bastardize) her thesis, language has different inherent limitations in the things it can communicate. For an extreme example, Vietnamese doesn’t have a subjunctive tense, which means it is inherently a language in which hypotheticals and possibilities are more difficult – if not impossible – to communicate. On the flip side, Spanish has two different words for “to be”, each with completely different meanings. One (“ser”) is used for more permanent states of being, while the other (“estar”) is used for things that are temporary that have no particular permanency about them. English has no ability to convey this, and you would need a whole other string of words – entire clauses – to communicate these ideas that another language can communicate with a single word, and even then you’re only approximating it. It’s an inherent limitation in the language in what you can and cannot communicate, and when you can’t communicate something, does it really exist?

What the fuck does that have to do with me deciding if I like my new headphones? FUCKING EVERYTHING.

Think about how often “good bass” is used as a selling point – if not the selling point – in musical equipment. Think about how two years ago when I wanted to test my new headphones, I put on dubstep – a genre of music pretty much centered around the low end. There’s a cyclical relationship between the music we make and what we play our music on, and right now the trend is towards the bass. Except, again, people say “good” bass, not “strong” bass. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s an important one, because it signals a shift from the objective (“strong”) to the subjective (“good”). How “good” our music-playing device is is determined by how it produces this one particular element of it.

In short, bass is a social construct.

“But, Matthew,” you might ask. “I’ve bothered to read this far into your post, but for some reason I don’t know what a social construct is!” Well, dear reader, according to Wikipedia:

Social constructionism, or the social construction of reality, is a theory of knowledge in sociology and communication theory that examines the development of jointly constructed understandings of the world. It assumes that understanding, significance, and meaning are developed not separately within the individual, but in coordination with other human beings. The elements most important to the theory are (a) the assumption that human beings rationalize their experience by creating a model of the social world and how it functions and, (b) that language is the most essential system through which humans construct reality.

And what that basically means is that society influences how things are perceived or defined. You may have heard “race is a social construct” or “gender is a social construct”, which basically mean that these are things that have come to be defined by collective societal expectations of them, for better or (usually, e.g. racism, heteronormativity, homophobia) worse. Of course, you may note that I’m writing an article about sound, so the stakes aren’t really that serious. But still. Social constructs. Take note.

And what do I mean by that? Well, what I really mean, when I put it less radically (oh, how Buzzfeed of me, tsk tsk), is that somehow sound – an objective scientific phenomenon – is socially constructed. I learned while I was researching these headphones that – due to the limitations in tiny headphone speakers being able to create true bass sounds (this is especially so with earbuds) – all headphones have a specially crafted sound profile, which is basically what all the small numbers and graphs on the back of the boxes mean. Except while those numbers and graphs are scientific data, what they’re crafting is socially constructed, and (at least at the moment) the construction is that the louder the bass, the better the quality. This can be seen with Beats by Dre, which have purposefully exaggerated levels of bass, and why that’s viewed as a “good” thing. This can also be seen from both ends with how I tested my headphones then and now. Back then I tested headphones for how “good” the bass was with bass-heavy dubstep music. Even now I tested my new headphones thinking of the bass first, but I tried to be more objective about it. A recent discovery of mine is electronic music artist Shed, whose album The Killer begins with a song whose intro “tests” your headphones, as a robot voice says “If you cannot hear this… or this… you will not feel it” while playing some really low frequency noises. So while my first thought was still to see how it handled the bass, I at least had some pretense of scientific study about it.

Although I still can’t actually tell whether either the new headphones or earbuds objectively sound “better” or not. There are times when I listen to the new earbuds after using the headphones, and I’ll think, “Oh, I definitely notice this isn’t as good. It’s less dynamic and more mushy”. But then there are other times when I listen to the headphones after using the earbuds, and I’ll think, “I’m not sure if I like this that much more. I think the bass is weaker and it’s overall not crisp-sounding.” And then I’ll think, “Wait, they can’t both be less crisp-sounding. That’s not how comparisons work. Unless… I’m so used to the last two years of using my old earbuds that these both sound weird and therefore not as good to me?” And then I’ll think, “Maybe I just need to get used to them,” which is immediately followed by, “If I have to get used to something that’s scientifically, objectively better, then what the hell is the point?”

This ultimately brings me to my point about why looking for new headphones can be so maddening. Because (a) different headphones play music in different, sometimes barely perceptible ways (the scientific, objective point), and (b) sound is socially constructed (the non-scientific, subjective point), this means that whenever you move on to a new pair of headphones, you literally have to relearn what music sounds like.

And that is why I hate replacing headphones.

A Haiku About Every Movie I Watched in 2013

Fun fact, this is this blog’s 400th post! It took a lot longer to get from 300 to 400 (just over two years) than it did to get from 200 to 300 (just under one year) because, basically, Bad Books, Good Times happened. Now, I always did some sort of fun, celebratory post about what’s happened with the blog over the last hundred posts, but basically this time around, it got replaced. BBGT is more fun to write, actually has an audience, and a decently sized audience at that. It’s actually successful. It sells mugs. And none of this is to say that I don’t like Angry Postcards From Nihilist Penguins anymore. This has been my first blog and it’s still a good place for me to do whatever, and this time over the course of the last hundred posts, it became something else, so it’s fitting that this time around, the milestone post isn’t really a celebration of self. It’s just more of what it is: my blog.

Anyway, the actual post part. I did this last year and just kind of got used to it so I thought why not do it again. Except this time I thought it’d be really fun to write a haiku about every movie I saw in 2013. Probably because I’m crazy.
(* denote movies I had seen before)

  1. The Hunger Games*
    There’s something soothing
    About watching teenagers
    Murder each other
  2. Salmon Fishing In The Yemen
    Must every movie,
    Every plot, every story
    Be a love story?
  3. Iron Man 2*
    It was on tv
    And I thought, “Oh, what the hell.”
    A glowing review.
  4. The Cabin in the Woods*
    Here’s a drinking game:
    Drink every time somebody
    Does something stupid
  5. Les Miserables
    No, seriously.
    Why the fuck did they add in
    A Santa sex scene?
  6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
    SO MANY FEELINGS
    I LOVED THIS SO GODDAMN MUCH
    COHERENT HAIKU
  7. The Hangover*
    I like this movie.
    I also like pretending
    There are no sequels.
  8. The Cabin in the Woods*
    No, seriously.
    I really like this movie.
    You probably guessed.
  9. Spaceballs*
    Holds up really well
    If you’ve already seen it
    One time post-childhood
  10. An Ideal Husband
    A Valentine’s Day
    For bitter single people:
    Oscar Wilde, pizza
  11. 21 Jump Street*
    I thought it was good
    Second half is def. better
    Not much else to say?
  12. The Princess Bride
    I went to college
    Before I saw this movie.
    Inconceivable.
  13. Stop Making Sense*
    One: Watch this movie
    Two: Obtain pizza and beer
    No, wait, reverse that
  14. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist*
    I love this movie.
    I don’t care. I think it’s cute.
    Really, really cute.
  15. Alien
    So, did the robot
    Never go to the bathroom?
    How’d they not notice?
  16. Blazing Saddles
    Loved this movie, but
    Didn’t like meta ending.
    Seemed kinda lazy?
  17. Stepbrothers
    Well, you know, I mean
    I guess it has its moments.
    I… guess I recall?
  18. Up*
    Underneath your porch
    I hid because I love you
    (It’s a Dug haiku)
  19. The Hunger Games*
    Take a drink each time
    Katniss draws bow, shoots arrow
    Or somebody dies
  20. Mean Girls*
    As it would turn out
    That Hunger Games drinking game
    Really messed us up
  21. The Rocky Horror Picture Show*
    As it would turn out
    That Hunger Games drinking game
    Really messed us up
  22. Final Destination 2
    Would you be surprised
    If you haven’t seen the first
    You’ll still follow plot?
  23. The Room*
    You cannot enjoy
    The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie
    Even if you’re drunk
  24. Horrible Bosses
    As it would turn out
    This is insanely funny
    Surprisingly good
  25. The Notebook*
    Found roommates watching
    And decided to join them
    All of us were men
  26. The Incredibles*
    Honey. Greater good.
    The city is in peril.
    Where’s my super suit?
  27. Casablanca*
    Of all the gins joints
    Of all the bars in the world
    She came into mine
  28. Monty Python and the Holy Grail*
    What is your first name?
    What is the quest you are on?
    What’s yr fav color?
  29. Howl’s Moving Castle
    “No reason to live
    If I can’t be beautiful.”
    “Oh, shut the fuck up.”
  30. Scott Pilgrim vs The World*
    Words cannot describe
    How bad I wish Sex Bob-omb
    Was a real-life band
  31. Rear Window*
    It’s in my top five
    For unparalleled suspense.
    And Grace Kelly, tho!
  32. Murder By Death*
    It’s a lot like Clue
    Except it’s a parody
    You should check it out
  33. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
    Better than I thought
    But you still can’t Hollywood
    A postmodern book
  34. The Impossible
    So uncomfortable
    That main characters in film
    Were white (or who’d care?)
  35. Brave*
    I’m very sorry
    But I still think, for Pixar,
    This film disappoints
  36. The Avengers*
    Plot hole bothers me
    Agent Phil’s death unites team
    But Hulk never knows?
  37. The Perks of Being a Wallflower*
    Since I first watched this,
    I saw Arrested Dev., and
    I have to think, “Her?”
  38. Star Trek Into Darkness
    I cannot decide
    If this is really stupid
    Or, instead, dumb fun
  39. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
    This is overhyped
    This wasn’t as funny as
    I thought it would be
  40. Argo
    I don’t get the hype
    It was a good popcorn film
    That won best picture?
  41. The Cabin in the Woods*
    One more drinking game:
    Drink each time you like this film
    And it makes you smile
  42. The Naked Gun
    Full-body condoms
    Just… just full body condoms
    I’ll never forget
  43. The Bling Ring
    Felt uncomfortable
    Despite really good soundtrack
    And Hermione
  44. God Bless America
    I think I liked it
    Because the main characters
    Were right and they failed
  45. The Room*
    You are a liar.
    You are tearing me apart.
    Why, Lisa? Why? Why?
  46. Much Ado About Nothing
    Fuck yeah. It’s Shakespeare.
    It’s Joss Whedon. It’s so good.
    (Also Britanick?!)
  47. The Rocky Horror Picture Show*
    Saw with shadow cast
    Body postivity
    Wrote for NPR
  48. Hercules*
    “Zero to hero”
    Is a good euphemism
    For when you have sex
  49. Mulan*
    Get down to business.
    We gotta defeat the Huns.
    No daughters. Sons plz.
  50. The Avengers*
    We watched this movie
    Pre-gaming Room at midnight
    (Look up drinking games)
  51. The Room*
    I see this a lot.
    Can’t say why. Can’t tell you that.
    How is your sex life?
  52. The Amazing Spider-Man*
    Much less amazing
    Upon a second viewing
    Still pumped for sequel
  53. Thor*
    Weird watching after
    Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,
    Because Agent Phil
  54. Stand Up Guys
    Why’d no one tell me
    Walken, Paccino, Arkin
    All in one movie?
  55. Serenity*
    Take my love, land, stand
    You can’t take the skies from me
    As long as- *Wash dies*
  56. Avatar*
    Have not seen in years
    It really doesn’t hold up
    Sequels gonna suck
  57. The Emperor’s New Groove*
    It kind of holds up?
    Either that or by this point
    All jokes memorized
  58. Pretty In Pink
    ’80s James Spader
    What else do you need from life?
    ’80s James Spader
  59. The Breakfast Club
    Wait. So at no point
    Does anyone in this film
    Get any breakfast?
  60. District 9
    Really cool concept
    Really stupid narrative
    It’s disappointing
  61. Silver Linings Playbook
    Wait, Bradley Cooper
    Can actually act so well
    That was surprising
  62. Django Unchained
    It is very strange
    How the first half of this film
    Was so heartwarming
  63. Carrie
    So I am confused.
    Do people seriously
    Think this is scary?
  64. Aliens
    Well, that’s fucking great.
    Game over, man. Game over.
    The fuck will we do?
  65. Good Will Hunting
    Finally saw this
    And thought it was great, if not
    A bit “white guy trubs”
  66. Apollo XIII*
    I was not alive
    When this happened; I’d have been
    Freaked out if I was
  67. Y Tu Mamá También
    It is possible
    To do a “high art” film of
    Teen sex comedy?
  68. Ghostbusters
    This isn’t funny
    Don’t get why people love this
    It’s FX nonsense
  69. Star Trek: Into Darkness*
    I watched this film twice
    And still cannot decide if
    I like it or not
  70. Brazil
    Brilliant ending
    Great world-building, even though
    Middle meanders
  71. The Watsons Go To Birmingham
    Read book long ago
    Yet somehow I’m pretty sure
    This wasn’t the same
  72. Behind the Candelabra
    How’s a real story
    More fucked up than these other
    Movies in this post?
  73. The Great Gatsby
    Film adaptation
    Of grand heavy-handedness
    That thinks it’s Tumblr
  74. Seven Psychopaths
    Starts great, ends okay
    Gets very lost in middle
    (When characters lost)
  75. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
    It is difficult
    To count “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN” for syllables
    It’s still only one
  76. When Harry Met Sally*
    It’s an exercise
    In heteronormative
    Sexual ‘tudes, man
  77. Warm Bodies
    So much more boring
    Than I could have expected
    It being at all
  78. Wild Strawberries*
    My younger sister
    Doesn’t like “smart” movies yet
    If in black and white
  79. The People Vs. George Lucas
    Don’t know they’re talking
    ‘Bout authorial intent:
    English major’s plight
  80. Back to the Future*
    Why’s everything
    So heavy in the future?
    Gravity ok?
  81. Now You See Me
    Really fun set-up
    With a really dumb ending
    Dumber CGI
  82. Enigma
    Does everything wrong
    Including not realizing
    That Hester is gay
  83. The Conjuring
    BEST. SCARY MOVIE.
    THIS WAS SO TERRIFYING.
    ARGHABLARGHGUHBLUH
  84. 1408
    Scary ideas
    Do not necessarily
    Make scary movie
  85. Psycho*
    That second stabbing
    Still scares me shitless each time.
    Every. Single. Time.
  86. The Blair Witch Project
    I liked the ending
    So I can only assume
    Nobody likes me
  87. Signs
    Some quite funny lines
    And some rather forced horror
    So it’s comedy?
  88. The Haunting
    ’60s horror film
    With lesbian character
    Not stereotyped?!?!
  89. Time of Eve
    If they don’t want men
    To think robots are sexy
    Don’t build sexy bots?
  90. Thor: The Dark World
    Why get Ninth Doctor
    To play an antagonist
    With no character?
  91. Ender’s Game
    The final battle
    Was actually beautiful.
    Although rest was dry.
  92. Happy Gilmore
    It was on tv
    And I used to play golf
    So there’s that, I guess
  93. Sharknado
    I could spend my life
    Writing Sharknado haikus
    And have things to say
  94. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
    Calling it right now
    Best entry of the franchise
    Books, films included
  95. How The Grinch Stole Christmas*
    College has ruined
    “Somehow or other it came”
    And I’m still choked up
  96. what.
    Bo Burnham tells jokes
    Tells experimental jokes
    Songs still the best parts
  97. How The Grinch Stole Christmas*
    Somehow or other
    (Get ready for a sex joke)
    It came just the same
  98. A Charlie Brown Christmas*
    Aluminum trees
    Were apparently a thing
    Or so I am told
  99. Kung Fu Panda*
    No. There is no price
    For awesomeness. Nor is there
    For attractiveness.
  100. This Is The End
    There should be more films
    Where celebs playing themselves
    Make entire cast
  101. The Maltese Falcon
    Being a white dude
    In 1941 was
    A pretty good call

Obligatory Favorite Albums of 2013 Post

Given how obsessive I get about music (my iTunes library currently clocks in at 49.3 days of music), you’d think I’d be all over the annual top ten albums post. I generally do enjoy reading them. Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content is always a favorite of mine, and then – lest you forget that I interned at NPR and this makes me cool – NPR’s jazz albums list has been one I look forward to. Although I tend not to delve into many other lists – strangely, the ones that seemingly have more in common with my musical tastes. The AV Club generally piques my interest, as do the personal lists from NPR’s Stephen Thompson and Bob Boilen, as I once again feel the need to brag about how I actually vaguely know them because I interned at NPR that one time.

But I think the main reason why I fall back on some lists and not others is because they’re the sort of stuff I generally won’t go looking for on my own. I’m new to jazz and know nothing about new jazz. I’m a little further along developing my ear and personal taste for electronic music, but going to Jeph Jacques’s list where there’s already some choice selections speeds up the process some. Would it make more sense for me to read some top ten lists from people who primarily listen to the same sort of music I do? Hell no. I already know what I like.

That being said, you’ve probably gathered that I’m making a post of my favorite albums of 2013. Even if it’s not the sort of thing I’d get any particular use out of, maybe someone might.

Of course, I’m still not so full of myself that I think this is the best stuff released in 2013 – I haven’t heard most of what’s come out in 2013. So it’s not a top ten so much as… a thing…

Favorite Album By A Band That Seems To Only Get Better and Better

Cage the Elephant – Melophobia

Maybe my favorite rock band at the moment, I honestly think these guys are getting better with every release. Their eponymous debut was really good rock and I was totally thrown off when their followup Thank You Happy Birthday was actually really smart, in much the same way that Nevermind is certainly very good but then In Utero is an alienating, mind-blowing masterpiece. The comparison is definitely appropriate given how Cage’s lead singer Matthew Shultz is definitely trying his hardest to look like Kurt Cobain. Melophobia only disappoints in how strangely short it is (this is also the loudest mixed album I’ve heard in years), but it uses its brevity well as a full-on sonic assault. I don’t think there’s a single dud track on this. It’s great.

Favorite Album That’s Just As Good As The Band’s First Few Albums

Arctic Monkeys – AM

Not that they have released a bad album yet, but there’s certainly a gap between the brilliance of their first two releases (the indie 101 Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and jarring and moody followup Favourite Worst Nightmare) and their third and fourth (the over-criticized Humbug and blissfully hazy Suck It And See). Their fifth album, AM, certainly lands closer on the side of the brilliant first two albums, even though falling on the other side wouldn’t have been so bad since they haven’t had a dud yet.

Favorite “Fucking Finally” Album

Streetlight Manifesto – The Hands That Thieve

It’s amazing this album came out at all with the band-label disputes that sound more like a fight scene from Lord of the Rings than the music industry. But given how long a wait it’s been since their last “proper” album (the delightfully downtrodden Somewhere In The Between), I’m glad we managed to get new material from these guys at all. Equally wonderful is the Toh Kay folk version of the album, The Hand That Thieves, although you have to look around pretty carefully to find it, as its official existence was one of the casualties of their war with Victory Records.

Favorite Completely Out Of Left Field Album

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

I didn’t “get” Homework or Discovery for a really long time, so Random Access Memories really threw my understanding of Daft Punk for a loop. Eschewing their House origins and trying to do the same thing with a live band and an absurd cast of guest musicians, I really don’t know how to process Random Access Memories. Except it’s probably my most listened to album of 2013, so that probably says it all. My favorite song off of it was, of course, “Get Lucky”, but I figure everybody and their cat has heard that song a billion times by now, so this is another favorite from the album.

Favorite Working Music Album Because I Have A Strange Definition of What Constitutes “Working” Music

Sleigh Bells – Bitter Rivals

It’s high-energy and noisy and the lyrics don’t really matter, so, hey, that sounds like music you can do work to to me. Although I’m also the only person on the planet who thinks Reign of Terror is their best album, so my opinion probably doesn’t matter.

Favorite Album By An Artist I Thought For Certain Wasn’t Going To Release Another Good Album

Kid Cudi – Indicud

Man on the Moon was one of my first hop-hop albums, but Man on the Moon II didn’t grab my attention, despite having my favorite Kid Cudi song “Erase Me”. Indicud, however, immediately blew me away like the first album did, nailing that strange combination of uplifting and incredibly depressing (see the song, “Unfuckwittable” for more or less what I mean by this).

The High School Version of Me’s Favorite Album

Less Than Jake – See The Light

Less Than Jake was my jam in high school. Which makes sense, they’re a very high school kind of band, what with their punk rock and their catchy lyrics and how they always sound like they’re having fun despite sounding kinda miserable. I liked how they knew how to wallow in regret in a way that, as I previously stated, was punk rock and catchy and sounded like they were somehow having fun anyway. See The Light is way better than it has any right to be. Having strayed from their ska roots into more mainstream pop-punk over the past few albums, See The Light sounds like way more natural ska/punk, like they’re not forcing themselves to sound like their old selves. They just got it this time.

Favorite Album That Is Yeezus

Kanye West – Yeezus

Because everybody’s gotta have something to say about Yeezus. As I explained it to my friend in a bar yesterday, Yeezus is Kanye’s White Album. Groundbreaking master of the genre though he was before, this is where he really goes crazy. Much like how The Beatles’ White Album was rock saying “you have to learn the rules before you can break them”, Yeezus feels like it does the same thing for hip-hop. It’s jarring, alienating, and so strange that the only possible visual that could accompany it is a blank CD (much like how the White Album is just white). I think I’m onto something there, although I’m certain better critics than myself have already said it.

Favorite New Album By An Artist That Hasn’t Released Any New Material In A Very Long Time Although I Only Just Started Listening To Them So That Didn’t Really Mean Much To Me

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

I hear it was quite surprising.

But, No, Seriously, Actual #1 Favorite Album of the Year

The National – Trouble Will Find Me

Because I just had to throw in one more brag about how I interned at NPR, I was at this Tiny Desk Concert for the release of their new album Trouble Will Find Me (of course, I can’t find myself in the video, and based on where my friends are standing I think I’m behind the pillar), and it blew my mind. I can’t think of many albums that are as perfect as this, where all the songs are so beautiful without sacrificing simplicity, sorrowful without sacrificing a certain sense of levity. Lyrics like “Remember when you lost your shit and/Drove the car into the garden/And you got out and said I’m sorry/To the vines and no one saw it” carry humor as well as distress. It’s hard to sound concerned and soothing at the same time, but Trouble Will Find Me pulls it off.

Runner-Ups

Albums that didn’t make my top ten, appearing here ranked, even though my top ten wasn’t even ranked, but whatever:

  1. Pillowfight – Pillowfight (It’s like Gorillaz’ Demon Days, but with a female vocalist! Awesome!)
  2. Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart (Only just got around to listening, but I think it’s one of his stronger ones)
  3. The Strokes – Comedown Machine (It’s no Is This It or Room on Fire, but it’s probably their best after those)
  4. Broadheds – Broadheds (Lo-fi reggae/punk. Deserves to be better known.)
  5. James Blake – Overgrown (Mellow and lovely)
  6. FaltyDL – Hardcourage (More upbeat than Love Is a Liability, which wasn’t quite my cup of tea)
  7. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Possibly my favorite Neko Case album?)
  8. And So I Watch You From Afar – Bright Futures (Not as big a fan of this one as Gangs, but it’s fun enough)
  9. Haim – Days Are Gone (Didn’t like on my first listen, but second listen really piqued my interest, so probably a grower)
  10. (TIE) Arcade Fire – Reflektor / David Bowie – The Next Day (Because I can’t wrap my head around them in a way that makes me feel dumb)

Dishonorable Mention

Reel Big Fish – Candy Coated Fury

I saw Reel Big Fish live around the time long-time multi-instrumentalist (he played backing roles as a second trumpeter and guitarist, but was most essential as a backing vocalist) Scott Klopfenstein left the band and was replaced with Matt Appleton (saxophone and backing vocals). This was just the most musically significant of the many, many line-up changes Reel Big Fish has experienced over the years, but at their concert, everything seemed as good as ever. Incredibly capable musicians playing a bevy of much-loved songs, I got the impression that Reel Big Fish was sliding quite comfortably into existence as a legacy act. And then came a new studio album. Given that almost all of their songs have always been about self-hatred in some way or other, Reel Big Fish has still managed to never sound like they hate being Reel Big Fish so much as they do on Candy Coated Fury. They diligently march through Reel Big Fish tropes, sounding incredibly tired and bored. What’s frustrating is that there are moments on Candy Coated Fury that come so close to being enjoyable – the singalong chorus of “Your Girlfriend Sucks”, the intro and pre-verse chorus (and general concept) of “I Know You Too Well To Like You Anymore”, the cowbell on “I Dare You To Break My Heart” – but everything is ruined by lazy songwriting (you may notice that all of my examples are songs about poor romantic relationships – if you listen to this album, get used to that). The fury on Candy Coated Fury carries no weight, but sounds instead like going through a checklist. The fury isn’t candy-coated like it was on their old albums where their lyrical misery was masked by upbeat music. The fury on Candy Coated Fury IS the candy coating: artificial and saccharine.