Friday, December 26, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008

10. DeVotchKa : A Mad and Faithful Retelling

Folksy, punky, and full of Slavic, Iberian, and Balkan influences, DeVotchKa's fifth album is as spectacular as the last. One song can jump from Spanish influences, the next can be an entirely instrumental Ukrainian ballad. Amazing that it's only a quartet, as opposed to Beirut's similarly themed 7+ person ensemble. The top track is of course their polished Head Honcho, while Comrade Z adds a certain playfulness. Undone and Strizzalo are romantic and accordion-heavy, evoking provincial France and Italy. Definitely a perfect travelling album.

9. Ratatat: LP3

I can't me more enthusiastic about this album, and the only reason it is no.9 as opposed to 3 or 2 is because of its slight inaccessibility (no lyrics and slightly ADD). Regardless, every song is powerful and has a particular spirit of its own. One is Indian influenced, another Japanese, a third electric-guitar heavy, a fourth drums. The compilation is brilliant, the "hits" spread out evenly rather than lumped into the beginning like with many well-established bands (this is, alas, the fate of the Raconteurs). And as I've said before, Ratatat are best appreciated live, as loud and vibration-heavy as humanly possible. Top tracks: Schiller, Mi Viejo, Mirando, Shempi, Mumtaz Khan.

8. Flogging Molly: Float

You can't go wrong with Celtic Punk! Float succeeds by floating (PUN!) on the strength of two incredible tracks: Paddy's Lament and Float. Which is of course not to say that other songs aren't fantastic as well: Requiem for a Dying Song, Lightning Storm, and Punch Drunk Grinning Soul are just a few of the amazing tracks in this album. If Flogging Molly learned anything from their long career, you can't beat long ballads about Irish nationalism, anti-government sentiments, general melancholy, and of course getting drunk drunk drunk. A toast to fiddles and electric guitars!

7. The Black Keys: Attack and Release
Guitar heavy and formed of only two members, the Black Keys sound like a divine indie rock combo of Jack White and Led Zeppelin. Perfectly packaged, Attack and Release-- their fifth album-- got intense radio play and is undoubtedly one of the best albums of their career. Strange Times and I Got Mine are powerful hits. Other great songs include Same Old Thing and He Won't Break. Attack and Release is the ideal chilling out-music, a type of blues-for-beginners for the indie rock world. Plus, it was produced by Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley fame). Cool? Most definitely.

6. Coldplay: Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends

Hold your criticism, folks: Coldplay came out with a fantastic album! No, I'm not kidding! And the songs don't sound exactly the same for once (the cruel fate of the poorly viewed X & Y)! Before you commence with the scoffing, think about this: Rolling Stone recently wrote that Viva La Vida was the first Coldplay produced by Brian Eno, who proceeded by telling Chris Martin that his songs are monotonous, simple, and conform to the same basic hit-making structure. Thus, Coldplay added bells, violins, more complex melodies, and more profound (and thus less gay) lyrics. And thus Brian Eno has saved another band! Viva la Vida is a veritable wonder. My favorites are the haunting Cemeteries of London, and of course major radio hits Viva la Vida and Violet Hill. And yet every song on this album is unimitatable and just grand; just give Lost, 42, or Strawberry Swing a listen. Plus, I saw Coldplay play this live, and it is just plain magical.

5. The Raconteurs: Consolers of the Lonely

Jack White's 2nd band the Raconteurs have yet another album under their belt, and quite a good one at that. A 2nd album, but no sophomoric attempt. Many think Consolers of the Lonely is even better than the first, Broken Boy Soldiers. The Raconteurs are also no longer hidden under the irresistible aura of Jack White; in concert, White shares the spotlight with his bandmates, and especially Brendon Benson, with whom he originally formed the band. Best hits: the catchy Consoler of the Lonely, Salute Your Solution, and especially the epic The Switch and the Spur. Somewhat Western-influenced, and filled with the sound of trumpets and tambourines, there's nothing better to compliment a hot summer day. Or a blustery Chicago winter, for that matter.

4. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend

A debut album at number 4? Get outta town! And no, I'm not putting Vampire Weekend up here just because I go to Columbia, although it often seems as if Vampire Weekend is just one enormous reference to college life. Just look at the lyrics to the song Campus and you'll see what I mean. Point of the matter is, Vampire Weekend is undoubtedly one of the most original bands to surface in the ubiquitous land of indie pop in years. And the arrangement of the tracks is quite perfect for a stroll around NYC. Even the song M79 is named after the NY bus. The only problem (or perhaps it isn't a problem but a solution?) with Vampire Weekend is its lack of enormous hits; all songs are catchy, from the sweet Oxford Comma to drum-heavy I Stand Corrected. A very cute and very simple album, but there's nothing wrong with being cute in the world of indie pop.

3. MGMT: Oracular Spectacular

Another debut! Nobody-- and I mean nobody-- can possibly say that MGMT isn't one of the most exciting new acts of the year. Time to Pretend was an enormous hit, but I actually prefer electronica-heavy Kids and Electric Feel. The lyrics to The Youth say it all: This is a call of arms to live and love and sleep together/We could flood the streets with love or light or heat whatever/Lock the parents out, cut a rug, twist and shout. MGMT is very conscious of its status in modern hipsterdom, and seems at times a manifesto of modern youth. Of course, this might all be over-analysis, and in that case MGMT's (previously named The Management) Oracular Spectacular is fun, danceable, and totally idiosyncratic... and totally weird. But hey, nothing wrong with being weird.

2. TV on the Radio: Dear Science

This fourth album by TV on the Radio was named the year's best by Spin Magazine, and the only reason I don't put it at #1 is my current obsession with the Fleet Foxes. In any case, Dear Science has some of my favorite tracks of the year, and a gorgeous and highly sentimental compilation. Favorites include Halfway Home, Family Tree, and Love Dog (although I don't quite understand Rolling Stone Magazine's obsession with the bizarre song Golden Age-- they ranked it as one of the best songs of the year!). In my opinion, this is one of the most romantic of all TV on the Radio albums. Especially Love Dog, with its melancholic and adorable lyrics.

1. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes

I LOVE THIS ALBUM. Yes, it is a debut, but it is brilliant. Listening to the Fleet Foxes is akin to running through the woods in autumn, something like Henry David Thoreau mated with a Grimm's Fairy Tale. Just look at the cover art-- a Bruegel illustrating children's games. For a debut, it is definitely refined, and extremely lyrical. Your Protector is my favorite track-- haunting and full of longing and desire. Ragged Wood is remarkably upbeat for its somewhat bizzare and enigmatic lyrics, while White Winter Hymnal is just spectacular. The music video shows a claymation of three bearded men spinning the Wheel of Time. Can this band be any more poetic? I advise any indie devotee to buy/download this album pronto, and spend an evening sipping tea and daydreaming about summer and love.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Top 10 Songs of 2008

10. The Hush Sound: Medicine Man

Chicago-based catchy indie pop band the Hush Sound have come a long way: Greta Salpeter's soulful and polished voice soars, and Bob Morris's guitar explodes at just the right moments. But really it's the drums that make this track so head-boppingly good, a tempo worthy of the Black Keys or the White Stripes in their best moments (no cracks about Meg White, please).

9. The Republic Tigers: Buildings and Mountains

Somewhat melancholy, somewhat sweet, this title track from the Republic Tigers's debut album glides along effortlessly. It didn't get much radio play, but is slowly becoming more well-known via iTunes, and for good reason. Its sweetly sad lyrics and acoustic twang make it perfect for a solitary drive, or whenever a mellowing-out is in order.

8. Portishead: Machine Gun

Trip-hop is back! Yes, even after the '90s. Darker and somewhat more sinister, Machine Gun is what happens when discotheque music becomes a poetry of its own. Overwhelmingly powerful, especially combined with the passionate sincerity of Beth Gibbons's soprano (the youtube video does not do it justice). Download Portishead's "Third"! Now!

7. Sigur Ros: Gobbledigook

Icelandic post-rock gets playful! And nude. This title track from Sigur Ros's latest album sounds like Animal Collective running through a fjord of sheer sincerity. Simply adorable, simply... simple, and in the best way possible. And yes, there are naked people in the video, just deal.

6. Fleet Foxes: Your Protector

Fleet Foxes are arguably the best new band to come into the scene of 2008. This song in particular is a chilling and expressive anthem of love, depression, and devotion. It isn't one of the title tracks, but it's perfectly magical, and my personal favorite. Imagine running through the northwesterly woods, a copy of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in the palm of your hand. "As you lay to die beside me, baby, on the morning that you came..."

5. Weezer: Pork & Beans

What Best of '08 list can be complete without this veritable radio phenomenon? However mediocre the Red Album was, Pork & Beans is Weezer at their most genuine and most hilarious, even after Rivers Cuomo's bizarre and unprecidented turn towards acetic buddhism. But hey, anyone with a youtube video that ingenious is OK by me. They even have Charlie the Unicorn in there! And the dude from Shoes. Of course.

4. Vampire Weekend: Mansard Roof

Freshly graduated Ivy Leaguers with post-colonialist tendencies play guitars and keyboards! Mansard Roof, the title track of their self-titled debut album, is a delicious nugget of Cape Cod preppiness and nerdy sincerity, marked by hints of Congolese pop music. Disclaimer: can only be appreciated by slightly indie college kids who like to bask in sunshine and discuss literary theory. 99% of their hardcore fan base are probably or have once been ivy league hipsters.

3. Death Cab for Cutie: I Will Posess Your Heart

This over 8-minute long anthem was shortened quite a bit for radio play, but is still fantastic. Death Cab have become much more developed and are thus (hopefully) never lumped into the same category as Fall Out Boy anymore (anyone who believes otherwise shall soon be pummelled into submission). Even Spin Magazine named Narrow Stairs as one of the best albums of the year. At first listen the intro is a bit overwhelming, but the almost painfully slow build-up only enhances the sweet and obsessive quality of the lyrics.

2. MIA: Paper Planes

A political manifesto sung by a daughter of a Sri Lankan revolutionary leader, hidden in the context of what is undoubtedly the best dance/hip hop song of the year? Count me in! Sampling the Clash's "Straight to Hell," politico MIA has created the anthem of every club and dorm party for the next 10 years. Caution: song may elicit bizarre reactions like finger gun pointing and ka-ching noises. Consider yourself warned.

1. MGMT: Kids

Ah, MGMT, lovechild of hipster apathy and electronic goodness. It is absolutely impossible to resist "Kids," one of the biggest college radio hits of 2008. Ambiguous and bizarre lyrics, but one damn good beat. "Kids" is one enormous bubble of happiness, and it only gets better with each succeeding listen. Hands in the air, kids! This is one amazing track. Beware, may induce awkward dancing and/or head-pobbing in subway stations: play on iPod with caution.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Musee d'Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne

It isn't often you encounter a suburban museum with a substantial art collection, especially one positioned in the banlieues of Paris. In America, suburbs (french: banlieues, or faubourgs) are known for being the "white flight" centers for their impoverished city counterparts. In Paris, however, the "banlieues" are famous for being in fact the poorest areas in and surrounding Paris, particuliarly the banlieues of the west side. (Remember that one short film in Paris, Je t'aime where the guy gets stabbed? Yep, close to the "bad" banlieues).

[for another oh-so-politically incorrect view of the banlieues, check out Justice's extraordinarily controversial video for Stress]

It is thus even more impressive for a substantial art museum in the suburbs (the suburb of Val-de-Marne, to be exact) to rival the Palais de Tokyo and several other contemporary art museums in Paris. It is no Centre Pompidou, of course, but I was quite charmed by it. The layout of exhibits was incredible; the current temporary exhibit of Nathalie Talec was eerie and exhilirating, completely transforming, for me at least, the idea of what an art exhibit could entail for its viewer. To go into the exhibit, you walk into an enormous dark room and see four long walls, connected in a rhombus-type shape and made out of silver and gold material. You walk inside the walls and see eight miniature rooms set up, each demonstrating various artworks by Talec of many different media. I remember one room with photographs, another with drawings inside of a book, and a third with a video and sculptures. The theme was "artist as explorer," and the entire room was made to produce an imaginary voyage to the north pole, something I believe the artist accomplished remarkably well. I was suddenly compelled to fill an entire room with knickknacks and make a pretentious artistic "journey" of my own.

Another incredible element of this museum is its portrayal of a single theme throughout, similarly to the Palais de Tokyo I talked about in a few blog entries back. The theme this particular season was the "voyage," a leaving and returning to home. I was touched, a bonafide "exploratrice" myself. It was a bizarre experience: I became overwhelmed by a type of melancholy only truly good art can produce, a melancholy that related so well to my state of mind as an international traveller. When one talks about voyage, one talks about adventure and excitement, but more often than not, one talks about solitude, depression, and a returning home. All of the contemporary art in the musee du Val-de-Marne contributed to this strange sentiment of traveller's melancholy.

My professor was interested in this analysis, but somehow didn't feel the same thing. "Perhaps," she said, "I've listened to the audioguides too much." And in fact the audioguides are quite the hilarious distraction: in order to draw the "uneducated" suburban crowd to this random-as-heck contemporary art museum, they have given out audioguides that, instead of simply describing the artwork, present a funny little skit. One person in the skit, a man, is an uneducated boor who hates modern/contemporary art ("what anoooother video? Ugh!" "What is this piece of wood? I don't understand it at all!" "I could never imagine this in our living room, what a travesty!"), and another is his more educated and suave art historical-buff girlfriend, who is the one actually describing the artwork to the viewer. Cute, yes, but also incredibly distracting.

Overall I was quite charmed by the museum, which seems so plain and unassuming from its industrial/contemporary exterior:

Frankly I am incredibly impressed that the regional government of Val-de-Marne has actually produced a successful contemporary art museum (as opposed to a mini-Louvre). Most people begin their art historical knowledge with Monet or Van Gogh, rather than contemporary art. In the States at the very least, contemporary art has a tendency of being reserved for the upper "educated" classes, the New Yorkaise bourgeois academia we all know and love. But in the museum (free for students! Vive la France!), children run free and actually seem to enjoy the exhibits! If anything, the country of France disproves the oft-said socialist assumption that art, especially contemporary art, is a bourgeois and relatively useless activity. France proves that contemporary art can, if done correctly, be infused with the essential cultural upbringing of each country's citizens, like the kids of the Val-de-Marne banlieue.

If anything, Val-de-Marne gives this artist-in-the-making a vague hope that art can one day supercede the boundaries of Chelsea (in NY) or the Gold Coast (in Chicago) and present itself, sans capitalist tendencies, to be loved and admired by the citizens of the state. My personal hypothesis is similar to Marx's: art can be used to mold the proletariat. And yet it is also different: art can be used to bring the common citizen to a greater understanding of his or her humanity (via a sort of Stendhal's Syndrome), and to infuse the citizen with a greater appreciation and sense of connection with the human experience at large.

...Or, of course, I may be giving France too much credit. As I usually do.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Daily Dose of Beauty

Just a few inspirational things currently getting me through finals week:

THIS VIDEO of "White Winter Hymnal" by the Fleet Foxes.
Extraordinarily poetic. Makes me want to run through the woods in my boots and flannel.

Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle directed by Jean-Luc Godard (1960).

Some art from WoosterCollective

My old printmaking teacher Dasha Shishkin's stuff, especially this drawing/print:

I've missed making art.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Deal with Blagojevich

Dec. 17, 2008: A federal grand jury charges former Governor Ryan with corruption, alleging that over more than a decade in public office, he granted lucrative state contracts and leases to old friends in exchange for gifts, cash and luxury vacations for himself and his family, and with covering the deals up when quesioned by the authorities... (NYT)

It seems that Illinois can never get beyond its reputation. Of course, this is not to say it isn't true; just think of the Daley's! Indeed, Chicago is the city where dead people vote and people are angrier at the non-plowing of side-streets than a 10.25 income tax (not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.) But after the events of this week, Chicago has been greeted with a veritable slap in the face. Here we are, simply overjoyed by Obamarama (One quote in the New York Times today: "This is Presidential City, dude"), and our governor-- the first democrat to grace the gubernatorial seat in over three decades-- goes and does one of the most idiotic (and least subtle) acts of political corruption in the history of the state.

As a measure of the pride in this city’s connection to Mr. Obama, The Chicago Sun-Times printed extras of its Nov. 5 issue, the one whose front page declared, “Mr. President.” Oprah Winfrey, who broadcasts from here, waved a copy on her television show. In contrast, the front page of Wednesday’s Sun-Times carried the word “Shame.” (NYT)

When I tell Parisians that I'm from Chicago, two things immediately come to the mind: "OBAMA!" has been predominant since mid-October, but before then it was: "Al Capone, eh? Bang! Bang!" followed by appropriate gesticulation. It also doesn't help that the New York Times, in one allegedly objective article, described all Illinois voters corrupt and greedy by nature:

Ms. Smith, the nurse, said she was a “glass-is-half-full girl,” determined that politics would improve, even in Illinois. Besides that, she said, she hoped it was going to be helpful to have a local man as president.
Then she spoke like an Illinois voter.
“Let’s hope he doesn’t forget about Illinois when he’s in the White House,” she said. “Think of all the perks.”

Are Illinois residents really like this? Is the New York Times just being fascitious? Can it be true that after 14 years of Chicago residency that I let the midwestern goodwill cover up what is avaricious and rotten at its core? I think not! Corruption in politics does not equate personal moral corruption of the populace, thankyouverymuch.

Regardless, many facets of this whole debacle just don't seem real to me. Doubtlessly they are, but blatantly saying "I need to make money" over the telephone, while conscious of being under numerous federal investigations, is nothing less than... well, sheer stupidity.

(stolen from Nora's site)

There you have it. Illinois went from being the center of the world on election night to the laughing stock of the USA, and all in one month's time!

Perhaps the most depressing thing about all of this is the fact that Blagojevich was elected in the spirit of "change" and "reform" (ring a bell, anyone?), and yet ended up as corrupt as the rest, and in fact far less clever about it (at least George Ryan had the common decency to be subtle and conniving).

What can I say, Obama? You've got quite a home-state to fix, if such a thing is even possible (and Illinois residents are definitely known for their cynicism).,0,6937546.cartoon

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Palais de Tokyo

What is street art? What is contemporary art? In my opinion, street art is a subdivision of contemporary art, whether or not it is commissioned, whether or not the artist is trained, whether or not it is legal. Graffiti is temporal contemporary art, however rarely we see it in museums. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, for example, has to my recollection never housed a street art exhibit; those you find on the south-side, hidden in warehouses. I remember going to one in high school, a hipster haven complete with noise rock and an impromptu fashion show.

It is perhaps in street art that the gap is bridged between the punk and the hipster, between the world of consumerist productivity and anti-establishment tendencies. This is where Paris's Palais de Tokyo comes in, quite possibly the most fascinating museum in Paris and certainly one of the most unique museums I've ever had the pleasure of visiting.

The Palais de Tokyo is Paris's contemporary art museum, and yet are not presented with a capitalist market the way you would in, say, MoMA, or the New Museum, or even the MCA. The most fascinating thing about it is its centralization around a theme, rather than an artist in particular. In fact, many times the artist isn't listed. The theme was "folklore," although what I perceived was less folklore and more revolution (in fact, the website titles it "from one revolution to another"). It treated the "folk" of four countries: the US, the UK, France, and Russia. What is meant by "folk" is often misconstrued, but in general, "folk" refers to the lower classes, and the traditions surrounding them. Folk is community, and folk is kitsch.

Folk, however, is also anger and rebellion. So we are presented with the Russian Revolution and its avant-garde, thriving from 1917-1930. We are presented with Rock and Roll in France. We are presented with the punk and glam rock movements in the UK (the Sex Pistols and David Bowie, respectively). We are presented with multiple communities in which the working classes attempted an art devoid of consumerism, an art simply for the act of creation. One of the most moving pieces was a series of photographs of things the artist "happened upon" in the UK-- a poem abandoned on the street, a letter written in chalk on the sidewalk, graffiti. And it is here where street art comes into play: the ultimate working class expression of the desire to create.

I discovered a few years ago, and was hooked. Since then I've been constantly on the look-out for beautiful street art. One of my favorites in Paris was by "Miss Tic," a graffiti artist who uses stencils of sexually appealing brunettes paired with enigmatic philosophical, cultural, or just plain cool statements: "Je suis la voyelle du mot voyou," "Je prête a rire mais je donne à penser," "Idéaliste devenez idéal,"et cetera (translations: I am the vowel of the word punk, I am ready to laugh but I am given to thought, idealist become ideal).

The effect of seeing street art in a contemporary art museum (not the street art itself, but depictions of it and artworks that relate to working class ideology) was overpowering, and magnificent. Somehow I felt that the rest of my Paris Museums class was less than inspired. I, on the other hand, was ready to grab a can of spray paint, buy a leather jacket, and go out into the world. Even the architecture of the museum enhances the "folk," as they call it, or the polemic inherent in the museum. Here's a photo I found online of the ceiling:

It immediately brought to mind the street art show on the South Side, complete with warehouse brick. See how the ceiling, purposely left bare, purposely left with wires hanging in a haphazard manner, immediately brings to mind all things urban, and how the very walls mimic the look of cement?

Magnificent show. I wish it was permanent.

More details at the Palais de Tokyo website