My Top Albums Of 2019

Wow… so you’re probably wondering why it took me until almost April to get out an article that I normally do in December, or, at worst, the first week of January.

To be perfectly honest, it’s because 2018 was such a ridiculously strong year for music that it didn’t really stop until late 2019 for me. The top 4 albums from 2018 – Pastel Ghost’s Ethereality , The Perfect Kiss’ Filter, Therapie TAXI’s ass-kicking debut Hit Sale, and You Drive’s eponymous debut – yeah, I just kept on listening to them non-stop until last November. As of Thanksgiving, there was only one 2019 album in my Top 20 “most listened to” stats. It took until the past couple of weeks that I found ten 2019 albums to make a list!

As always, below are my ten favorite albums of 2019. The list comes directly from my Last.fm stats; I have, however, tinkered with the order a bit, perhaps even a bit more than usual. After the list are a few honorable mentions, followed by the raw data from Last.fm.

My Top Albums of 2019

10) Wy – Softie – This Swedish band’s second album is a “solid, if a bit samey” experience. They’re more of a straightforward pop band than the lovely dream pop of Postiljonen and similar Swedish bands I’ve cottoned to in the past. But that’s OK – I love them anyway! It’s a good album to listen to on a sunny day at the beach with an ice cold beer:

9) Clairo – Immunity – 21 year-old Claire Cottrill shows lots of promise with this debut album… if she can resist the temptation to let producers have their way with her music. I agree with Pitchfork that there are many songs on this disc that have been tweaked within an inch of their lives, and that any more edits would ruin them. Still, “Bags” is a great tune, and I’ll be sure to stick around for her next album!

8) Graveyard Club – Goodnight Paradise – They make cool music in Minneapolis? Who knew? Just kidding, folks. Graveyard Club is a strange mix of 80s-style pop and Perry Como style crooning, as evidenced by the album’s lead-off single, “Witchcraft”. But that’s actually one of my least favorite tracks on the album: “Red Roses” and “William”, for example, are much better songs that the slightly gimmicky “Witchcraft”. But it’s an entertaining album, one of those where you kind of get lost and suddenly realize you’re on track 12.

7) Carla dal Forno – Look Up Sharp – This Australian lady is a singer, composer and music experimentalist, not unlike Julianna Barwick or Julia Holter. And this isn’t my first go-round with her, either: 2016’s You Know What It’s Like just barely missed the cut for an honorable mention in that year’s “best of”. Look Up Sharp is more of her swirly, dreamy, hazy music she’s known for. She doesn’t make “bangers”, but then she doesn’t flirt with ambient music as much as, say Barwick, either. So maybe something you won’t throw on during a rager, but something excellent for reading a book on a rainy day!

6) Electric Youth – Memory Emotion – Toronto-based Electric Youth are yet another in the seemingly endless supply of synthpop duos. They’re not the best, or the most original, or most memorable… but they’re nice. This is a really good album, even if it doesn’t break any new ground or won’t set the world on fire. Bronwyn Griffin and Austin Garrick have created a tight, yet dreamy sound that’s certainly a winner!

5) Clio – Déjà Venise – Clio is a French singer-songwriter, originally from Besançon, now living in Paris. Her music is infectious, each song a pretty little gem just waiting to be discovered. It’s also one of those albums where your “favorite song” keeps changing. First it was the hit “T’as vu” (below). Then it was “Amoureuse”, a classic French-style pop song. Then it was the title track. No matter which you settle on, they’re all good!

4) Minuit Machine – Infrarouge – Last year I discovered the French darkwave band Minuit Machine via their banger “Everlasting” from their 2015 album Violent Rains. 2019’s Infrarouge doesn’t really cover any new ground… but then, it doesn’t really need to. The opening track, “Chaos” gently draws you in to their beautiful, yet arctic world. And yeah, sure, lines like “The more I try, the less I exist” seem a bit sophomoric to my almost 50 year-old ears. It sounds like something “deep” I woulda scribbled in my journal as a teen. But the music – and the vibe – is still fun. There’s something about this band – not just the lyrics – that screams 80s angst, and in a good way. If you listen to just one of their tunes, make it “Everlasting” or the remastered version of their 2013 tune “I am a Boy” on this album.

3) Tempers – Private Life – This is a band I know very little about. They’re based in New York City and have two members: Jasmine Golestaneh and Eddie Cooper. Golestaneh was allegedly born in Florida and grew up in London (allegedly, because all the information I can find on her seems highly exaggerated). Whatever the case, Tempers’ newest album is one of those that snuck up on me. I didn’t notice it until much later, but I added a couple of their tunes to my “Discovered” playlist in Spotify. I guess because of that, the song “Leonard Cohen Afterworld” showed up in a Discover Weekly playlist. And from there I was hooked. And that’s weird.

2) Cannons – Shadows – Cannons are a band from the worst place on Earth: Los Angeles. But don’t it against them: they make really good music! It’s kind of a slightly funky synthpop affair with lead singer Michelle Joy’s waify vocals on top. Their cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is all the introduction you need, but I think it’s unfair to judge them on a cover song. I love almost every song I’ve heard from them, from 2017’s Night Drive to 2018’s In a Heartbeat EP to 2019’s Shadows. Shadows kicks off with “Baby”, a good preview of what’s to come. But then there’s “Fire for You”, an infectious low-key banger that’s guaranteed to get stuck in your head. Then ya got “Talk Talk” (below), and next thing ya know the album’s over and you’re like “awwww, man! Is that IT? There should be MORE!” Seriously – check it out!

1) Chromatics – Closer to Grey – So see, here’s the thing: this album came out on October 1, and I liked it. Well, I don’t like the “The Sound of Silence” cover that opens the album, but that’s because I hate Simon & Garfunkel (having said that, Chromatics cover of “I’m on Fire” made me like a BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN song, so that could change). Anyway, the point is: I was looking through my Last.fm stats in December and was like “well crap… Closer to Grey is the only 2019 album in my Top 20 listened to albums”. So I kind of figured this one would win Album of the Year by default. And that bugged me. In 2018, my Top 4 albums duked it out in a fight to the death. You Drive ended up as album of the year, and deserved it. So as much as I like Chromatics, would they win album of the year just by showing up?

Well, yeah. A big part of it was seeing Chromatics (and Desire, and In Mirrors) live in Atlanta last May. That was absolutely an all-time Top 10 concert, maybe even a Top 5 show. I’ve got a framed picture of Megan Louise I took at the show on my wall. 2019 was, in so many ways, “The Year of Chromatics”. And, truth be told, no other album was really better than Closer to Grey last year.

It’s stunning at how often Johnny Jewel hits it out of the park. Between Chromatics, Desire, Glass Candy and all the other bands he works with, and all the soundtracks and solo projects… and the remixes he does, you wonder how he finds time to sleep!

I genuinely recommend heading over to Jewel’s record label site – Italians Do It Better – and picking up a copy of Closer to Grey, and all of the other fantastic tunes they have there. As far as I know, digital versions of all releases are available in WAV or MP3 format for $1, and they even accept Amazon Pay if you don’t want to give your credit card number to an unknown website.  They even have the massive, 47-track “Deluxe Edition” of Closer to Grey for ONE MEASLY DOLLAR! ONE DOLLAR! That’s 2.12¢ PER SONG! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? DO IT NOW!

Honorable Mentions

With the usual stipulation that “EPs and singles aren’t albums”:

Bon Entendeur – Aller-retour
Trevor Something – Bots Don’t Cry
Delphine Dupont – French Pop Attitude
L’Impératrice – Matahari
whenyoung – Reasons To Dream
Anteros – When We Land
Mexico City Blondes – Blush
Methyl Ethel – Triage
Pure Bathing Culture – Night Pass

Continue reading “My Top Albums Of 2019”

A BandsInTown Hack

BandsInTown is a service that tracks bands on tour. You download the app for iOS or Android, sign up, then enter a list of bands you want to track (or give the site permission to scan your Spotify or Apple Music\iTunes libraries). That’s it! You’ll get notifications (and emails, if you choose) any time a band you like is playing a venue near you!

There’s one problem with the service, though, and that’s that you can only choose one “home city”.  The concert scene in Charlotte has come a long way in the past 20 years, but if your music tastes could be described as “cutting edge” or “up and coming”, you may find yourself driving to Atlanta or Chapel Hill more often than you’d care to admit. So you can switch your BandsInTown home city to Atlanta… but then you miss out on local shows.  What to do if you’re in a situation like this?

While BandsInTown only allows you to have one home city, the app will allow you to expand your search radius to 150 miles. So in my case, I chose Greenville, SC as my home city and expanded the search radius to the max 150 miles. This way it covers Charlotte, Atlanta, Athens and Asheville:

Bands in Town

Bands in Town
(click to enlarge)

Hope this helps!

The “Smart” Bulb Conundrum

For years, most home and SOHO routers kept 2.4 and 5 GHz networks separate. In fact, you can probably open the Wi-Fi settings on your phone right now and see SSIDs like “Pretty Fly for a WiFi 2G” and “Pretty Fly for a WiFi 5G”.

I recently moved to a new house. Although I hadn’t planned on creating a “smart home”, I kind of did. See, I already owned a couple Google Home Mini speakers when my missus told me that she wanted some kind of “digital” thermostat at the new house. Right on cue, our power company sent us an offer for a Nest thermostat, along with another Google Home Mini and a GE Smart Bulb, for a very reasonable price. So we took them up on the offer, and now had a Nest and several Home Minis.

Due to the layout of my new office – that is, the furniture and power outlets within – the best option for me, lightwise, was to put a lamp on top of a tall bookcase. But it would have been a pain for me to reach up to turn the light on and off, and my missus would have to get a step ladder every time she wanted to turn the light on or off. No worries – we have that smart bulb Duke Energy sent us, right? I can just put the lamp on top of the bookcase then say “Hey Google, turn the lamp on”, yeah?

I could. But the light put out by the “C by GE” bulb is ugly. I’ve always preferred daylight bulbs over traditional “soft white” bulbs, but the “C by GE” light looked more like an interstate rest stop sodium vapor bulb than soft white light. So off to Amazon to buy some new bulbs, and when that failed, off to Home Depot… which almost failed, too.

Why the failure? Well, most modern routers – especially mesh routers – treat 2.4 and 5 GHz bands as the same. My network has both, but only has one SSID, and most devices can automagically switch from 2.4 and 5 GHz, whichever is the best fit at that moment. My Roku TV, for example, typically uses 5 GHz because it needs the bandwidth when we watch The Crown or Jack Ryan in UHD. My phone defaults to 5 GHz, but might switch to 2.4 GHz when I’m out in the yard because 5 GHz won’t travel that far, and 2.4 GHz is better than zero GHz.

Here, at last, is the problem this whole post addresses: it seems like all – or almost all – smart bulbs are 2.4 GHz only. This makes sense, because 2.4 GHz is better at penetrating walls and appliances, and such devices only send small bits of data occasionally. But guess what? Neither the LOHAS bulbs I ordered from Amazon nor the Philips bulb I bought at Home Depot would connect to my mesh network.

One option would have been to go to the router’s settings and have it separate the Wi-Fi signals into discrete 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. You know, the traditional “My WiFi 2G” and “My WiFi 5G” situation. And when I did that, it worked. But I didn’t want separate bands. It’s almost 2020!

So… what to do? Well, I had an old TP-Link range extender – model TL-WA855RE – lying around. Fortunately, the range extender can connect to the mesh network, despite being 2.4 GHz only. And since it’s only 2.4 GHz, the smart bulb can connect to it… and, by extension, the rest of my network.

Setting it up is pretty straightforward:

– If your smart bulb and\or extender requires an app, go ahead and install them from your app store before doing anything else.

– I reset the extender to its default settings, then logged in to its Wi-Fi network with my phone. I believe the SSID is just the model number: “TL-WA855RE”.

– I then used the extender’s app to connect and initiate the setup process. This is basically just “let it scan for networks, then login to the target network”. Keep all other settings at default, unless you want to: a) use a more complex password for this extended network (which I did); b) hide the new SSID (which I didn’t, because the password I gave the extended network looks like I smashed my fist on the keyboard); and c) this extender also has a “power level” setting which I turned to LOW, because I only need to broadcast the signal a few feet. ‘Cos the neighbors can’t steal your Wi-Fi if the signal never reaches them!

– By default, the new network will have the same SSID as the “mother network”, but with “_EXT” added to the end. So: “My Wi-Fi_EXT”. I logged in to the “_EXT” network on my phone and went through the setup wizard for the WiZ software I had to download for the Philips bulb. The WiZ software inherits the Wi-Fi settings from your phone and sends them to the bulb, which is why you have to do this step.

– Once the WiZ setup was complete, I switched my phone back to the regular Wi-Fi network and added the WiZ service to Google Home. That way I can say “Hey Google, turn on the lamp”.

– Finally, just to be safe, I reserved the internal IP addresses of both the extender and the bulb. That way, now that it’s working, there’s no reason it won’t keep working.

So… if you find yourself in a similar situation, you can buy the same model extender from Amazon here for $14.99, or Netgear’s EX2700 2.4 GHz extender here for $24.99.

FUN PLACE: Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Saint Pierre and Miquelon are two tiny islands off the northeastern coast of Canada. But they’re not Canadian: they belong to France, and they are the last tiny bits of French North America.

saint-pierre-and-miquelon-north-america

The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Year’s War (sometimes called the “French and Indian War” in the US). The terms dictated that France give up all her claims to land in North America. But, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, the British gave Saint Pierre and Miquelon back to France a few weeks after the treaty was signed.

Due to the way the French constitution works, the land that makes up the islands isn’t “a piece of land owned by France”, it’s a “piece of France itself”. The people who live there aren’t “colonials” – they’re French citizens. They belong to the EU and use Euros. If you get a passport stamp there it says “France”. Although it’s 2,373 miles (3,819 km) from Saint Pierre and Miquelon to Brest (the nearest point in Metropolitan France) it’s only 478 miles (770 km) as the crow flies from Hamlin, Maine to Saint Pierre and Miquelon. So if someone asks you how far France or the EU is from the US, you can win a bar bet with that little bit of trivia!

So… what’s so “fun” about it?

Well, aside from having a tiny bit of France just 1,307 miles (2,103 km) up the coast from me, it’s kind neat that street names generally aren’t used on the island. It’s a couple of tiny islands of a few thousand people whose families have lived there for generations. It truly is the kind of place where people say things like “yeah, turn left at Andre’s gas station, then make a right at Florian’s farm, then make a hard right after Gaston’s old treehouse. If you see the old red pickup truck by the side of the road, you’ve gone too far.” Only it’s in French.

Also, some islanders got filthy rich during Prohibition. Canadians sold plenty of Canadian whiskey to Americans. But it was, in fact, illegal under Canadian law to sell alcohol to Americans in quantity. But you know what wasn’t illegal? For Canadians to sell whiskey to French people. In 1931, the islands imported a total of 1.8 million US gallons of whiskey from Canada … for population of around 4.300 people. Almost all that liquor was bought by American smugglers who’d sailed up from New York or Massachusetts  or even Virginia. Prohibition was a golden time for the island.

But there’s dark stuff, too. Saint Pierre and Miquelon was the scene of the only known execution by guillotine in North America. A man named Joseph Néel was found guilty of murdering a Mr Coupard on Île aux Chiens on December 30,  1888 and executed 8 months later.  He probably would have been executed earlier, but the guillotine had to be shipped from France’s Caribbean outpost of Martinique. And it was damaged in transit, so authorities had to find someone to fix it. A few more weeks then passed as no local wanted to do the actual execution part of it. A recent arrival was coaxed into it on August 24, 1889. The whole sordid story is the subject of the 2000 film The Widow of Saint-Pierre starring Juliette Binoche. The guillotine still exists and is now in a museum on Saint-Pierre.

OMD

View this post on Instagram

OMD

A post shared by Jim Cofer (@jimcofer) on

View this post on Instagram

Andy McCluskey looks and sounds FANTASTIC, y'all!

A post shared by Jim Cofer (@jimcofer) on

Random Fact #1604

As you probably know, the Internet works because of something called DNS. Computers only communicate via a numerical IP address, like 64.233.177.113. People are, of course, terrible with numbers. DNS acts as the Internet’s phone book, translating human-friendly domain names like “google.com” into the IP address your computer needs to connect to a site.

While domain names have been around longer than you might think, the idea really isn’t new, though. When telegraphs were the thing, a company, person or organization could set up a telegraphic address. Like a domain name, people could address telegraphs to FORD or STDOIL and they’d be passed down the telegraph lines until someone who knew the actual address sent it to its final destination. Just like domain names and trademarks, telegraphic addresses were a valuable property, and were fought over when companies split up. Competitors even bought addresses similar to legit ones, like COKECOLA or COCOCOLA.

A few companies and organizations are named for the previous telegraphic address.

Interflora rose to fame by using telegraphic (later, telephone) lines to send flower arrangements anywhere in the country. In the pre-Internet days, if your uncle on the other side of the country died, it was difficult to find a florist on in that area on your own. Instead you’d send the order from a local florist via Interflora, who’d telegraph an in-network florist near your uncle’s funeral home… for a cut of the money, of course. Which is kind of a good example of how this whole system worked.

Interpol, the international crime-fighting agency founded in Vienna in 1923, was originally known as the International Criminal Police Commission. It later changed its name to its telegraphic address. So if you wanted to squeal on someone, you just send a telegram to INTERPOL.

Oxfam, a charity founded at Oxford University, but with independent branches all over the world, was founded as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief in 1942, initially to help fight the famine in Greece due to its Axis occupation and the Allies’ retaliatory blockade during the war. OXFAM was, of course, it’s telegraphic address.

RANDOM THOUGHT #608

In college I knew a girl from Baton Rouge. When she was sober she had a “general Southern Accent”™. My best friend and I used to take her to this bar for Guinness pints. After the first pint the Louisiana twang would start coming out. By pint three she sounded like Justin Wilson:

By beer five it was half Justin Wilson, half backwoods French, and neither myself nor my best friend – nor anyone else for that matter – could understand what the fuck this girl was saying.

Spotify vs. Apple Music

So… back in June Spotify released a new version of their Android software. At first glace, it didn’t look so bad – mostly a huge PODCASTS tab added to the “My Library” page. Which makes sense: Spotify is pushing podcasts hard because they don’t have to pay royalties when you listen to them like they do with music.

Come to find out, it was way worse than that.

A quick refresher: in Spotify when you “save” an album to your library, you’re basically just saving a link to the music files on Spotify’s servers, like a browser bookmark. And Spotify’s Android app used to have a “My Library” page which had tabs for “Artists”, “Albums” and “Songs”. So if you saved 10,000 Maniacs’ In My Tribe album to your library, “10,000 Maniacs” would then appear under “Artists”, In My Tribe would appear under “Albums”, and the songs from that album would appear under “Songs”. If you deleted the album, those entries went away. Simple, yes?

Spotify also has a “follow artist” feature. When I first joined the service in 2015, following an artist was how you got notifications that they had released new music. But Spotify’s notification system never worked that well, so they removed most of it. But they kept the “follow artist” feature, which folks in the Spotify Community said was for “shaping” the music in Spotify’s playlists. If the artists in your Discover Weekly or Release Radar playlists weren’t to your liking, follow a bunch of your favorite artists, they said, and your playlists would get better. And that seemed to be true.

So – here’s what Spotify’s June update changed:

– The “Artists” tab now only shows artists you follow. So if you add 10,000 Maniacs’ In My Tribe to your library now, 10,000 Maniacs no longer appears under “Artists” unless you specifically tapped the “Follow” (or “Heart” icon), too. It’s effectively as if your iTunes install from 2008 suddenly lost the ability to sort music by artist, as if artist information was completely gone. There are lots of people who had been with Spotify since the service rolled out here in 2008 who never used the “follow” feature… and they were pissed that Spotify, without telling anyone or giving any advance notice, emptied their “Artists” lists. These poor folks had to recreate their “Artists” lists by hand. It took some people days.

– The “Albums” tab still works as expected, but for reasons only God and Spotify’s developers know, they removed the alphabetical scroll bar. It used to be, if you wanted to listen to U2’s Zooropa, you’d tap “My Library”, “Albums” and “Z” to get pretty close. Now you have to scroll all the way down manually, like a medieval French peasant!

– It also used to be possible to save only some tracks from an album. So if you liked the sound of The Cars’ remastered Candy-O album but didn’t want all the demos and outtakes that come on that version, you could save just the album tracks but not the outtakes. No more – it’s all or nothing now.

– The “Songs” tab went away entirely, replaced by a “Liked Songs” playlist with all the songs from your old “Songs” tab, but now in totally random order! And since the songs are now in random order there’s no use for an alphabetical scroll bar, so they got rid of that, too. So instead of tapping “W” to get to Roxy Music’s “While My Heart is Still Beating” I now have to scroll through 3,719 songs listed in random order until I find it. Terrific!

– They also moved the “Recently Played” list from the My Library page to the Home page, and they removed all actions from it aside from “open”. It used to be that you could tap on an album or playlist in Recently Played and several options would appear: “Remove from this list” was great for hiding any trace of your secret Def Leppard obsession, “Queue” or whatever. By moving and neutering it, Spotify effectively got rid of a feature that tons of people used.

*     *     *

Needless to say, many users were pissed about all this. I was pissed enough to give Apple Music a try.

So… signing up for Apple Music seemed simple enough. But then I installed and opened the latest version of iTunes on my laptop… and now what? Spotify is a stand-alone app. You open it, and there’s Spotify. Apple Music is… buried somewhere in iTunes? Even though I was signed in to iTunes with the correct account there were no “Hey, we see you signed up for Apple Music! Here’s how it works in iTunes for Windows” prompt. Nothing. It took a few clicks, but I found it. And when I did, the selection was as expected. I looked through several of my more “problematic” artists, and Apple Music seemed to have the same library holes Spotify does: early Saint Etienne and Dramarama albums were missing from Apple Music, too.

Continue reading “Spotify vs. Apple Music”