Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)

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It’s time for another video game reflection! I’ve been enjoying my 3DS lately, and I’m making my way through a number of games. Zelda is always on recommendation lists, and usually for good reason. This one’s no different… well… except that it’s very different. In great ways. You’ll see. The Zelda franchise has enough praise already, and I can hardly make a contribution to the conversation. Let it be known anyway: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is a good reason to buy a 3DS. The basic idea hasn’t changed: you take the role of a green-clad hero (usually named Link). Some kind of crap happens in a kingdom (usually called Hyrule). You’re tasked to find a sword, get other magical or mythical tools, destroy a bunch of low-level baddies, then work your way up to vanquish the head evil. The appeal in most modern Zeldas isn’t the combat or the story, but the journey and the puzzle-solving in dungeons along the way. You’ll need to figure out how to open doors (by switches, or through finding keys), and you’ll have to discover the best ways to defeat enemy characters. What makes Link Between Worlds so special? The game knows that you already know the formula. In that way, it’s rewarding to the Zelda veteran (which is almost anyone owning a Nintendo system, after all). And accordingly, Nintendo decides to turn things a bit sideways. Continue reading

Review: Super Mario 3D Land (3DS)

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Look, it’s a second game review/reflection! Yes, I know this game came out in 2011. No, I don’t care. I only just played it and I loved the heck out of it. Here’s what I thought about this platformer.

2D Mario games, at their best, are tight platformers. These games are built on careful level design, striking a balance between fun and frustration. Control and mechanics are essential: the response and weight of Mario’s leaps must be precise to keep the immersion (unnatural though it may be). 3D Mario games translate these concepts by adding freedom and exploration to the mix. Though 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy may have central hubs, individual levels leave room to wander and reach goals by a player-selected path. Both styles are among my favorite in all of videogames. In Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo decided to blend two directions into one delightful whole.

This seems an odd task, as we’ve just defined 3D Mario as an evolution of the 2D. By playing 3D Land we see just how far apart things have been, and how pleasantly everything meshes together.

If you’re already versed in 3D Mario, consider the “secret” levels in Sunshine, the pure platform challenges without the waterpack. That’s the central idea here: you’re in a 3D space, you have freedom of depth. You are restricted to move “forward” in the way the game wants, albeit with all three dimensions available for your problem-solving pleasure.

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Best Albums of the Half Decade: 10-1

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Decade Albums 10 to 1

Last week, I posted part one of my Best Albums of the Half Decade list. Today: it’s the more important half!

Don’t forget: this only considers 2010-2014, so Sufjan and S-K will have to wait until December to get their listed praises (this aside excepted). Also: if you would rather read this as “Matt’s Favorite Albums,” you wouldn’t be wrong. I don’t have an averaged poll from a staff of people.

Related to that: what did I leave out? I’m sure I missed something (like that Girls record in 2011). What incredible music should I put on my Decade list in 2019? Is there a good reason to discredit a pick on my list?

Go yell in the comments, or find me on Twitter! I love to see other people excited about music, I want to find more great sounds!

Thanks for reading, and here’s the list!

10. The Unfazed by Dolorean (2011)
“Quiet confidence” is probably an overused trope in music reviews. It feels apt with Dolorean anyway. The songs on The Unfazed never yell, operating in a mid-volume area. Guitars are acoustic, clean, or slightly twangy, pianos are plentiful, and drum fills skitter along without distracting. It’s hard to pin genre exactly here; you could do worse than saying “classic-, folk-, country-rock” and then triangulating. The album takes the best notes of each to form a beautiful whole.

Everything is bound nicely by the earnest tone of bandleader Al James. His smooth voice cuts even the most cynical of ears, and brings you into his storytelling style. There’s enough specificity in his tales to make them come alive, to let them dig under your skin. It’s a shame the band ended after this album. Hopefully we’ll get to hear more from James in the future.

09. The King is Dead by The Decemberists (2011)
Do you like Colin Meloy? Do you like REM-style ringing guitars? If you answered yes to both questions, you already own The King is Dead and love it. It is that combination suggested that makes the album so enjoyable. The Decemberists continue to ply their charming, bookish trade and augment things with a dose of universal guitar delight. Heck, three of the songs even have Peter Buck around to bring his authentic tone.

Douglas Wolk of Rolling Stone called the sound here “rustic,” and I think that’s a perfect descriptor. King feels as close to pure folk as the band had been, pushing away from the prog indulgence of The Hazards of Love. The style is simplified, but not simple and fits the band well.

08. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey (2011)
Anger and nervous disappointment in equal doses form the core of Let England Shake. It’s an anti-war album throughout. It also avoids any sense of pretentious self-interest by being devoutly earnest and musically ambitious.

Haunting moments make England stay long after its 40 minute playtime. “The Glorious Land” opens with the bugle call “Assembly” and then examines the horrors of war atop the militaristic tone. “The Words That Maketh Murder” ends with a twisted reference to “Summertime Blues.” Harvey asks, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” It’s done pitifully, as if all options are exhausted and problems never solved. “Bitter Branches” ends with faux-anthemic repetition. “Wave goodbye” is shouted over and over. With closer listening, you realize the waving bitter branches belong to wives of soldiers, spouses of the men sent to die. It’s stark and effective messaging.

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Best Albums of the Half Decade: 20-11

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Decade Albums 20 to 11

It’s time to copy the same idea everybody had in the middle of last year! Why bother chatting about the past 5 years? I like lists. I know: they’re everywhere already. I don’t care. Most of my music-observation happens on Twitter lately, and this is a better way to share things in a considered manner (more than “just #watch this YouTube video”). Plus it’s a fun time capsule of my opinions right now. Who knows what music I’ll enjoy down the road!

We’ll start out with Albums #20-11 because that seems fun. Think these picks are crap? Go yell at me on Twitter, or drop a comment!

Thanks for reading!

20. RTJ2 by Run the Jewels (2014)
It’s impossible to separate the social and societal messaging behind RTJ2 from the music. Luckily, the commentary doesn’t come across as preachy because the sound, the rhythm, and the lyricism are so strong. The incredible chemistry between El-P and Killer Mike makes this better than what either could offer alone. They bounce off each other, building the kind of rapidfire storytelling and anger that makes RTJ2 exhilarating.

19. Swing Lo Magellan by Dirty Projectors (2012)
This is the streamlined version of Dirty Projectors. That doesn’t mean they’ve lost the quirky charm that made previous releases so special. Instead, it means first-time listeners will have an easier time latching onto melodies, remembering songs. And when you give it a chance, you’ll find the real reason to listen to Swing Lo: swelling, beating emotion. “Dance for You” is an absolute classic.

18. Epic by Sharon Van Etten (2010)
Van Etten’s well-travelled voice gives gravity to the songs presented here. They’re songs about decaying love, distrust, personal discovery, and suicide, all heavy topics to be sure. The singing makes everything hit with the weight deserved. At the same time, the instrumentation pulls you in closer. Sometimes that’s a trance, sometimes your head bops along to the tempo. Oh, there’s also the best song of the half-decade. That’s a good trait, I’d say.

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Review: Animal Crossing New Leaf (3DS)

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I’ve never really done video game reviews before. Recently I got a 3DS and now I have a huge back-catalog of (supposedly) fantastic games to catch up on. I figured I might drop a review or reflection from time to time, switch it up from the music and hockey things for fun. Here’s my first one on the latest Animal Crossing, originally released in the US in 2013.

If you’re familiar with Animal Crossing, here’s the big takeaway: New Leaf is the same premise, only you’ve been given more control over the town’s direction and the pacing is perfect for a handheld system. If you’re new to the series, that sentence made no sense at all. Let’s try to explain what’s going on.

In essence, Nintendo was right to call the first Animal Crossing a “communication game,” and it’s a label that sticks in the latest version. You’re an adorable human character placed in a vibrant village inhabited by friendly anthropomorphic animals. You’ll wander past a river, around a beach, and between plenty of trees.

The goals of this game are similar to those in The Sims. That is to say, there really aren’t set benchmarks. You can earn in-game currency by participating in various subgames (using a simple fishing and bug-catching mechanic and then selling those at the in-game store). You can use that money to buy decorations for your house, to upgrade said house, or to improve the town in some way.

But all that “earning” isn’t the soul of Animal Crossing. Instead, it’s the interactions with the inhabitants where you’ll find the core of it all. You get a chance to “befriend” the residents by chatting with them, sending them gifts, helping them with errands, playing games. That’s the communication aspect. The rewards? Witty text in conversations, return gifts, even the knowledge that you’ve convinced someone to stay in (or move to) your town. Continue reading

Best Songs of the Half Decade: 10-1

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Best Songs Decade2

Here’s the conclusion to the Best Songs of the Half Decade list I started 2 weeks ago. You can find the first part of the list here, and you can find a Spotify playlist with all the tracks here. You don’t even have to read this stuff if you’d rather just listen!

Anyway, here’s the list. Thanks for reading!

10. Brill Bruisers by The New Pornographers (2014)
Do you enjoy explosions of jubilance? Oh good, then this song’s for you. “Bruisers” bursts into being and never lets up. Everything about it distills the delightful essence the New Pornographers. Vocal harmonies, sing-along sections, and booming drums combine to a wonderful pop concoction. At the center of it all is Carl (AC) Newman’s wonderful singing and ear for melody, something underrated in a band with Neko Case and Dan Bejar.

09. Is this How You Feel by The Preatures (2013)
For the thousandth time since I first heard the song: it’s the chorus. There hasn’t been a refrain this explosive since Kelly Clarkson turned Interpol guitars into a pop volcano. The difference? The Preatures’ track takes a different emotional direction from “Since U Been Gone.” Instead of relief and freedom, Isabella Manfredi’s story explores the tense anticipation of future love. In that way, the release in “How You Feel” is a more distilled form of pure bliss. This isn’t a weight being lifted, it’s new joy being formed.

08. Heavy Feet by Local Natives (2013)
I like to imagine that Local Natives are indie engineers. They’ve managed to design a song that features many indie rock hallmarks, assemble them in a sensible order, and pull it off without any feeling of false manufacturing. Consider the checklist: chiming guitars, soaring (and harmonizing) vocals, general emotional resonance, handclaps, a memorable chorus. You’re almost tempted to dislike “Heavy Feet” for shooting so directly at the audience. And then you hear it again and remember how much you like it.

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Best Songs of the Half Decade: 20-11

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Best Songs Decade

It’s time to copy the same concept everybody had in the middle of last year! Why bother chatting about the past 5 years? Because lists are so much fun (shut up), and because most of my music-sharing is done in 140 character bursts these days. This is a space without such constraints and becomes fun (also, easier access) preservation for 5 years down the road. Maybe my tastes won’t be the same and I’ll think Japandroids are garbage! (Unlikely.) Maybe I’ll reconsider placement and give songs different levels of love! (Pretty likely.)

Anyway here are 10 of my favorite songs from 2010-2014. The other half will come in a few days. If you’re clever, you already know exactly where to find the full 20-song list and you needn’t even read this junk. Or maybe you will anyway. It’s up to you.

20. I Want the World to Stop by Belle & Sebastian (2010)
It’s all about that locked-in beat. The groove is the beginning, the end, the core of this song, one of the best standalone tracks in the impressive Belle & Sebastian catalog. The hallmarks of the band do make the journey here (charming guitar, careful orchestration, beautiful singing). The earworm this time is that bass, shifting and dancing atop that fabulous drum. You’re rewarded most when the strings and horns cut out around the 2:30 mark and the band rebuilds from nothing. The payoff is pure bliss.

19. It’s Real by Real Estate (2011)
Would that we could all have a love so simple and wonderful as this. “It’s Real” is sweet and tidy, ringing guitars echoing the singer’s straightforward bliss. While Real Estate would move on to an even better record, the complex sadness felt in Atlas never holds the same sunny nostalgia of the band’s best song.

18. Ain’t That The Way by Divine Fits (2013)
Britt Daniel is the greatest singer in rock today, and his throat gives “Ain’t That the Way” the soul needed to reach its heights. In a way this could be an excuse to toss another Spoon song on the list. In actuality, the influence of Dan Boeckner makes this a very different animal than Daniel’s other band. It’s here (and in partner song “Chained to Love”) that Divine Fits find confidence in their own sound, a promise for future work that’s grounded in rewarding rock right now.

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Best Live Show Moments of 2014

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Best of 2014 Live

To close out my Best of 2014 series (feel free to read the Songs Part 1, Songs Part 2 and Albums lists), here’s a reflection on my favorite moments from live shows. 2014 was my biggest concert year ever at 12 shows. That’s hardly a world-shaking number, but it does represent the huge ramp-up from just 3 or 4 years ago.

3 of the 5 events here are at (fairly) big venues. One of my new year’s resolutions? Make it to smaller places and see smaller artists. Columbus secretly has a tremendous music scene beyond the Promowest venues, and I hope to check that pulse in 2015. Now for the list!

05. “Is This How You Feel” by The Preatures, 6/17 at The Basement, Columbus – The incredible confidence of The Preatures’ recorded work made a powerful translation to stage. The small-yet-enthusiastic crowd bought in immediately as Isabella Manfredi augmented her excellent live singing with true frontwoman intensity. She strutted, danced, and stared down the audience, turning the massive refrain of “Is This How You Feel” into a cathartic moment for everyone in the venue.

04. “Hornets Hornets” by The Hold Steady, 2/3 at A&R Music Bar, Columbus – “Hornets” wasn’t specifically the best song of the night (the Boys and Girls in America stuff was incredible). It does steal the show as the most important, the opener of The Hold Steady set. In particular, the very start of the song established the tone of the 22 picks to follow. The delayed intro (stretching the pauses as far as possible), the playful (drunken) attitude of Craig Finn, and then the explosion of guitar sound. The Hold Steady knows exactly what they’re doing.

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Best Albums of 2014: 10-1

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Best of 2014 Albums

It’s Best Albums time! Honorable mention to The Bug, St. Vincent, The Hold Steady, Nothing, and The Men (which may be something like 15-11, or maybe not). Here we go…

10. We Come from the Same Place by Allo Darlin’ – Lately I find it so easy to fall for quiet, charming pop. My working rationale: it serves as counterbalance to the (often) high-energy and aggressive sounds of my usual favorite groups. British group Allo Darlin’ hooks and adores right into your heart with beautiful guitars, cheerful singing, and an airy sense of forward motion.

It’s their light percussion that I’m most fascinated by in retrospect, almost completely opposite of recent love The National (a drums-first kind of band). Here, the rhythm operates behind the scenes, brushed and skittering along. It’s an essential choice, giving the ringing guitars room to move and the cooing vocals places to fill.

09. LOSE by Cymbals Eat Guitars – For me, the inroad to LOSE was the wonderful guitar aggression. The one-two opening punch of “Jackson” and album highlight “Warning” are as powerful a pure rock performance as you’ll find in 2014. After you’ve been hooked, you’re in line to enjoy the rest of the album-long ride.

Cinematic centerpiece “Laramie” ebbs and flows with changes in instrumentation and tempo. “Place Names” builds slowly before crackling to life in a blaze of energy. Closer “2 Hip Soul” lets Sonic Youth noise give way to a solitary piano. While I come back to the guitar pieces most often, the rest of LOSE is a fantastic car ride.

08. Manipulator by Ty Segall – Do you like rock music? Do you like raw, aggressive, potent, fuzzed out, psychedelic guitar rock music? Are you willing to overlook a bit of excess to get that in one album? Oh good, then this is exactly the thing for you! No doubt fans of the genre will find a ton to love here, and fans of Segall himself are probably over the moon and back a few times. Segall’s spacy voice and guitar heroics are in fine form yet again. Also nice? The sonic palette covers some decent territory while staying self-consistent over the album (the bassy tracks, occasional strings, and slower songs help keep up variety).

The main drawback? The length of the collection. At just under an hour, Manipulator drags. It’s hard to pinpoint any exact weak point. Instead, the issue is fatigue factor. You could probably take any 10-12 of the 17 tracks and make a superb record. Of course, if you’re into this sound, the massive boost to your collection is more than reason enough to jump at Manipulator.

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Best Songs of 2014: 10-1

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Best of 2014 Template 2

Here we go with Part 2 of the Best Songs list! You can find everything here in one convenient Spotify Playlist if you’d like. Thanks for listening and reading along. The Albums list comes next!

10. “I Miss Your Bones” by Hospitality – The main hook here must be the most complicated expression of 4/4 time to come from a power pop track. That intro is mesmerizing with its onetwothreefourfive snare eruption (guitar and bass right along in time, too) out of nothingness and driving right into the heard of the song.

Once you’re aboard with that sleight of hand, Hospitality are left to breathe. The meandering, quiet final half is maybe just as intoxicating as the opening. Less flashy, sure. In its place is a Spoon-like guitar and a hypnotic repetition of the title. “I miss your bones, I miss your bones, I miss your bones,” she sings over and over until you believe.

09. “Coffee” by Sylvan Esso – It’s all about the strange electronic pulsing and sparse bells. That’s the core of the song’s music, and such limitation is remarkable. “Coffee” seems just a note or two away from collapsing entirely, and the minimal construction pairs nicely with the unexpected instruments. Amelia Meath’s singing flows smooth atop the light sounds.

The song’s best moment comes in the final chorus, a victory lap with accordion-like hums changing the chord and giving a real sense of triumph. Meath coos, “Get up, get down,” and even I can’t help but dance along.

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