Matt’s Favorite Albums of 2015

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Best of 2015 Template Album

In the same spirit of my Favorite Songs list (click that link), I’m opting to go for “my favorite” instead of “best” albums. As I’ve shifted more and more to consuming music via singles, an albums list gets harder and harder. Luckily, there were some very good collections of songs, and at least one Great Album. You’ll see in just a bit.

Thanks for reading (and let me know if I forgot anything or should listen to other stuff).

Honorable Mentions: In Colour by Jamie xx, Predatory Headlights by Tenement, Undertow by Drenge, Star Wars by Wilco, Complicated Game by James McMurtry

10 Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance by Belle & Sebastian
Why I Like It: I finally came around on Belle & Sebastian in 2015, so Girls in Peacetime followed in the Sinister wake. Luckily for Peacetime, I also liked this album! I love Stuart Murdoch’s voice. I like the perfect ring of the guitars. And, oddly, I also like when the guitars take a step back and let the synth lines run. I think I simply like the musical sensibility of Belle & Sebastian.

09 What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World by The Decemberists
Why I Like It: I like The Decemberists. This album, if nothing else, is right in the band’s wheelhouse. I adore almost all of their past work, so Terrible/Beautiful being similar is good for me. In a way, this is a retread in the same way that the newest Modest Mouse was (more on that later). The highs aren’t as high, and that’s perfectly fine. The folksy guitars, the abundant persnickety verbiage, the Colin Meloy are all here. And I like all of them.

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Matt’s Favorite Songs of 2015

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Best of 2015 Template1

Our planet has take another spin around its star. Happy New Year! That means we’re also at the tail end of Year End Music mode. It’s that time to take stock and remember, “Oh year, The Decemberists record came out in January 2015! Wow!” This will matter soon enough.

For me, 2015 was a year of both expansion and isolation. Addressing the expansion: I was introduced to many new and fascinating sounds. I’m not sure Holly Herndon should count as music, but then what would you call it? I heard more electronic, rap, and country music than I had in the past.

On the flip side, I reacted to some of the world by pulling inward. I kept coming back to comfortable indie rock. Spoon was never far away, and Japandroids kept me thinking positive. 2015 was the year that opened me to Belle and Sebastian, and If You’re Feeling Sinister in particular. It’s 19 years old at this point, and maybe the best thing I heard for the first time in 2015.

Today, I choose to start remembering the sorta-best music of 2015. But instead of outright saying “best,” I’ve decided to go with “my favorite.” I can’t take ownership of the entire culture, and Lord knows I haven’t heard everything out there. This year, it’s the music I loved most. These lists were always that way, only now the distinction is formalized.

There’s a Spotify Playlist at the end if you’d rather listen that way. Your choice!

(Some arbitrary, self-imposed rules: only one song per artist, and if songs are part of a proper album, the release date must be in 2015. That means we can use Sleater-Kinney now! Hooray!)

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The Clinch and the New York Mets

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When you stop paying close attention to a sport for a few years, you lose the feeling of its rhythm. I’d forgotten the tension of great baseball. The game is a balance between a slow build, and the instant release. Over the course of an at-bat, an inning, a game, a season, I can consider the back and forth at small and grand scales. No matter the prior, success can be raised (or razed) in the snap of a bat, or the flick of a ball.

In the top of the first inning, in Cincinnati Ohio, the visiting New York Mets had two men on base. The hometown Reds had earned two defensive outs. As I sat in the stands along the first base line, a man to my left donned a light windbreaker on torso and a Mets cap on head. “I’ve been a fan of the Mets since 1962,” he shared. Then he offered a fan’s ultimatum to the Cincinnati team. “Load the bases with Duda coming up. See what happens.” I heard it to be half-joke, half-threat.

And so the Reds took on the man’s challenge (however unwilling or unknowing they may have been). Cincinnati’s John Lamb walked Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud, and the bases were loaded.

After all the work on both sides, the game was at a minor turning point. This moment, this plate appearance by Lucas Duda would validate someone. In a second, the ball flew from Lamb’s hand and struck the swinging bat. By the time the sound of the crack hit my ears, by the time my eyes gathered the evidence and delivered their report to my brain, the game was different.

The man on my left stood to applaud and reflected on his glee. “See! What did I tell ya?” Lucas Duda had hit a first inning grand slam home run in the National League East clinching game.

That day, Sunday September 26. It was the first Mets game I’d ever attended in person, and it just happened to be at Great American Ballpark. At this point it’s still the only one I’ve seen in the flesh. People will write odes to the season, to the Wilmer Flores game, to the fire-hot run from Yoenis Cespedes. They’ll probably focus on the reemergence of the Mets franchise, how the team finally found the bats to go on a tear. They may even reflect on the abundance of hair and skill from the pitching staff.

For me, the afternoon in Cincinnati was the high point. With Duda’s mighty swing, I witnessed nine years of futility wash away. I can’t speak for others, so I’ll only give my own hyperbolic interpretation: the fraction of a second when ball hit bat, all the the human torque and blunt force applied at once. As the ball ricocheted out into right field, it was the validation of a trip to southwestern Ohio, of my hope turned around in the second half of the Mets’ season.

The moment didn’t happen all at once, of course. The weeks of great play from New York (and some mediocre play from the rival Washington Nationals) led to this single instance. And yet it took a single game for the season to officially turn, for the Mets to clinch the division.

From that point, there was no turning back. However stressful I wanted to make the game, however much I was trained to anticipate a collapse, this specific version of the Mets was uninterested in my expectations. Matt Harvey rattled off more than six innings of great pitching. David Wright, my favorite Met, struck metaphorical hammer to nail with a triumphant home run. And Jeurys Familia completed the coup, finishing the Reds in the bottom of the 9th.

Tonight is Game Five of the World Series, and possibly the final game of the Mets season. For me, the release of that Duda grand slam will be what I remember most about this year. The abrupt end to the dream ascent is sad. The moment it all turned, the pitch that changed it all? I’ll keep that.

Ear it Myself: Favorite Podcasts, Part 1

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On a semi-regular basis, I see people on Twitter urging others to follow an attractive mantra: share good content, ignore the bad.

Like so many others, I fall behind on promoting things I like and fall victim to the troll trap. I’m trying to be better (rule #1: never read Steve Simmons), and I’m making a conscious effort to RT articles that I enjoy or that come from good authors.

This post is an additional penance effort to make up for some (but not all) of my e-content sins.

Now that I’m 24 episodes into helping the Buckeye State Hockey Podcast, I thought this would be a good time to share the shows and episodes that I enjoy. These are the podcasts I hope Union Blue Radio can learn from.

There are two broad podcast types that I follow. The first features themed or distinct episodes. Here, a guest or a theme/topic will last the entire audio length. This varies from the other type “Daily/ General Chat” that operates like a talk show. Take this example: I can quickly recall a good episode of Maron’s WTF based on a guest. I have a harder time remembering which episode of MvsW is which (although I can relay individual stories or jokes from an episode).

For today’s post, I’m going to stick with the themed/distinct shows, and I’m going to pick specific episodes.

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One Year with Buckeye State Hockey

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About a year ago, Sam Twitter DM’d me from the BS Hockey account. I’m notoriously unresponsive, so it took me a day (and a prod from Mark @RedditCBJ) to get me moving. I finally replied, and decided to join BS Hockey (now Buckeye State Hockey) as a contributor.

One year, 38 individual articles, and 24 podcast episodes later? I’m quite pleased I made the move.

I am a chemical engineering PhD student. I’m in the lab most days, thinking about nanoparticles, electron microscopes, journal articles, group meetings, and design of experiments. Music, hockey, and video games are my escape. Blogging is what I do for fun after-hours, a way to communicate and think critically (sometimes logically) about other stuff just because I can and I like it. In that way, I view blogging as half escapism, and half open-ended conversation.

Maybe that sounds silly. Why would you yell into the vacuum about random stuff?

It’s easiest (and pleasant) to dismiss this question when you get feedback and when you’re interacting with others. Buckeye State is that outlet for me. And it offers the best of both worlds: I get to babble about the niche hockey things I enjoy, and I get to share in the experience with other bloggers under the same tent.

The people of Buckeye State Hockey are incredibly supportive, and have made invaluable contributions to the Blue Jackets blogging community. It’s easy for me to say they’re the best in the CBJ blogosphere because I’m biased. It’s also easy because it’s true.

In the spirit of all this reflection, I’ve decided to share three of my Buckeye State articles. I think I’m proudest of these over the others. You’ll find them below with some thoughts a bit removed from their publication.

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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

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