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Houston Dining Index by Mike Riccetti (2013), Tempus Fugit Press.180 pages.(Author Website)

Ebook Edition: $3.99  (Buy at Amazon, and  BN)

Summary: great restaurant review book with lots of useful lists (such as restaurants near Metro Rail stops), but it is somewhat  difficult to browse by neighborhood or region.

The author is a Houston native who has been reviewing Houston restaurants for a long time.  He and I went to high school in Houston together, and I have fond memories about his taking classmates to an obscure and crazy Asian jazz restaurant where he ordered all kinds of crazy and delicious things for the table. Mike’s enthusiasism for food and fine dining is evident in his book which collects lots of information about Houston’s amazing restaurant scene. In addition to writing regular restaurant reviews for the Examiner and Houston Press, Riccetti has already written one Houston culinary guide. This volume  updates and improves upon the previous one.

The book seems to be targeted to the out-of-town traveller. He gives three dollar figures under price: average dinner cost (including 20% tip), entrée price range and average entrée price. Also, he begins by talking about restaurants in areas frequented by out-of-towners (the airports,  downtown), I have looked up about 30 restaurants I know very well and found that his reviews are succinct, fair but not overly positive and  good at capturing what is unique and interesting about the restaurant in question.  Most of the listings include its neighborhood and/or its culinary type, but this is not always done consistently.

The  excellent introduction gives an overview about Houston restaurants and trends.  This book has some incredible “extras”: a listing of local pubs and microbreweries, a review/list of Bistros (I didn’t know Houston had so many!)  a review/list of restaurants in hotels,  a listing of restaurant without walking distance of the Metrorail (! — this will be even more useful after Metrorail is expanded even further in 2014). There is a section for “restaurant rows” (small pedestrian-friendly areas full of restaurants). Perhaps the oddest section was “Seen on TV” (restaurants which were reviewed or featured on various food shows).

I like the fact that this book covers a lot of budget restaurants and that it contains a lot of lists (Late Night, Sunday Brunch, Uniquely Houston Restaurants). Its coverage of Vietnamese restaurants was  particularly good.  But it can be hard to browse the book by location. The book highlights certain areas (e.g., “West Houston — Energy Corridor and Katy”) but for the most part you have to browse by culinary type and then look at individual listings to see where they are located. Also, there was not a special section for Galleria (where I live, a common destination for visitors). There is not an index  but a section for “Location” near the end (which is useful but easy to overlook). It would have been even more  helpful for the Location section to actually link to the place in the book where the restaurant was  reviewed.  As a practical matter, you will have to use the ebook search feature to find a specific restaurant.  One tip I have is creating ebook bookmarks for the most useful sections (which I found to be “Metrorail”, “restaurant rows,” and “Locations” ) so you can access them later  more easily.

This raises question about whether restaurant books still matter in an age of Yelp and B-4-u-eat. Although raw feedback from  review  websites are great, they can overwhelm you with extraneous information  In contrast, restaurant guidebooks like this are more practical and concise and give you a better overview of what’s here. Houston has some incredible restaurants, and books like this help the visitor and  longtime residents to discover new and wonderful places.

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Disclaimer: Mike and I were high school classmates. More on Disclaimers and Reviewing

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Emusic: (Personal Music Finds) By Robert Nagle

Jan 2018  Update. After emusic.com changed from a download only site to a download/stream hybrid site, I am happy to report that it’s still a good deal — despite the fact that albums are slightly more expensive, booster packs are less remarkable and some albums have disappeared.  The website is a lot easier to use and more powerful. Many album links I listed below are now broken; about 50% of the albums are still available though.  2014 was when emusic lost a lot of the major labels, focusing on the less expensive indie labels. With new ownership and site improvements,  Emusic has promised that the new site will gradually attract more labels, but I haven’t seen this yet, but they sell so many box sets at single album prices and single albums at 99 cents that it still provides an incredible value to me.  The mobile streaming component works reasonably well — plus you can upload your own mp3s (but not other formats).

MUSIC Recommendations Sites. Through reddit and emusers.org I’ve learned about many amazing deals.  Emusers has a  thread about bargains on the new emusic site (mostly classical and avante-garde stuff). A Closer Listen reviews classical/experimental/ambient/jazz albums primarily.  Ted Goia’s Music Criticism site contains a lot of long-form articles and listicles.  Musicisgood has some detailed reviews about jazz, ambient, pop and classical, and one of the contributors follows emusic pretty closely.   Bird is the Word Music Review blog has some good recs (see esp the best albums of the year listed on top). For brevity’s sake,  I’ll just say (for example)  “Bird Best 2014“.   Some other places I go for obscure recommendations include: Nine Bullets Essential Listening page (the blog is interesting too), Tom Hull’s On the web blog (Hull is the ultimate music geek; he has developed a database for gathering and storing ratings , Acclaimed Music’s list of best-rated albums by year; see also Pitchfork’s album reviews and popmatters music reviews.  a list of current labels and linernotes for emusic albums. See also my online database of music reviews from 2014 to present. Finally, I strongly recommend daytrotter, a music download service that lets you stream and download thousands of  unofficial performances in studio environments … sometimes before the material is officially released. At $2.99 a month with unlimited downloads, it’s a steal! (March 2018 Update: Daytrotter does free streaming now).

May 2018. Buying only 99 cent albums in my poverty.

  1. Dance Moderno by Sergio Mendes
  2. s/t, Man Made   6 tracks, 36 minutes.
  3. Greatest Hits, by Claudio Villa, 20 tracks, 66 minutes, 99 cents.
  4. Remastered Hits and Remastered Hits Vol 2 by Zaccarias e sua Orquestra.
  5. Alice and Wonderband by Alice Babs. 11 tracks, 36 minutes. Midcareer jazz songs by a Swedish jazz sensation.
  6. Inde du Nord – Sanjeet Trio Live. 3 tracks, 66  minutes  99 cents

April 2018. I bought a $5 booster and was prepared to spend it on lots of 99 cent albums but alas, that will have to wait another month.

  1. Sings for Playboys, etc . 41 tracks,  107 minutes $6.99 by Beverly Kenny. Part 2 of a 2 part compilation series contains 3 jazz albums. These are gems by a jazz singer who died early in life.
  2.  Mariss Jansons Live: Radio Recordings 1990-2014.  97 tracks, 16+ hours  $6.99. Great magical interpretations of many standards, plus a few unfamiliar ones thrown in. I was struck by the clarity of the audio (which may have more to do with improving audio standards than the performances themselves).
  3.  Funky Rob Way (Analog Africa Limited Dance Edition Number 2). 6 tracks, 35 minutes, 99 cents.
  4. Hannibal s/t. 6 tracks,  99 cents. This unpredictable album merges several different styles. rock/funk drums, frantic jazzy guitars, dizzy sax, downbeat blues vocals. I’m not normally a fan of jazz fusion, but I thought there’s a lot of interesting musical themes here amidst the anarchy.
  5. Powell to the People, Massimo Colombo, Maurizio Quintavalle, Enzo Zirilli. 11 tracks, 47 minutes, 99 cents.
  6. Onuka: individual tracks. (I spend my remaining credits on Onuka and Sofi Tukker when the amount goes under 99 cents!)

 

March 2018. I totally can’t afford it, but I bought $10 in extra credits to buy the Pauline Oliveros compilation

  1. Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1961-1970. by Pauline Oliveros. 35 tracks, 11.5 hours, $7.50. Oliveros does avante-garde music which sound electronically strange, but always interesting, and not too dissonant. Fun fact, she was born in Houston!
  2. Ovation 3.  Various Canadian Composers (Beecroft, Pentland, Kenins, Beckwith, Tremblay). 54 tracks, 344 minutes for $6.99. Ovation is an album series which publishes one album per Canadian composer. Emusic has  all 3 volumes, but only this one is at the bargain $6.99 price.
  3. Classic 1958-1962 Recording (with Israel Crosby & Vernel Fournier)[Bonus Track Version]. By Ahmad Jamal Trio. 94 tracks, 387 minutes, $6.99 The key thing to know is that the Ahmad Jamal Trio’s Argo Sessions are very highly regarded, and that this misnamed compilation contains about 2/3 of those tracks for a bargain price.
  4. Песни любви (50 Best) 2018 edition , 50 tracks, 174 minutes, 4.99. Here’s another Moon Vinyl s.r.o compilation of pop love songs from Ukraine. I love the national pop style so much (a cross between dance pop, rap with some folk thrown in) that I tolerate some repetitive melodies. I am careful to notice if these Moon Vinyl compilations repeat the same song. I’ve been downloading about half of their compilations, and I noticed 6 overlaps in this 50 track album.
  5. Cluster 71 by Cluster. 3 tracks, 99 cents.  This critically acclaimed album by two German electronic musicians flows smoothly and slowly, with the third movement being particularly intense and serene.

February 2018. I’m buying only 99 cent albums this month! I’m honing in on albums and compilations from BBE Record label.  You can generally stream them for free off youtube or bandcamp. SAD UPDATE: All of these albums have jumped up to $6.99 (also true for some of the January purchases as well!)  All these are still good albums though.

  1. Live ‘n Well by Bert Myrick. 4 tracks, 99 cents.
  2.  TAITU Soul-filled Stompers from 1960s and 1970s Ethipia.  by Various artists, compiled by Ernesto Chahoud, 25 tracks, 99 cents
  3. John Armstrong presents Afrobeat Brasil. Various Artists.  14 tracks, 73 minutes, 99 cents.  Recent African tracks.
  4. Keb Darge & Cut Chemist present The Dark Side: 28 Sixties Garage Punk and Psyche Monsters, 28 tracks, 99 cents. I thought I already had enough 60s, garage/rockabilly stuff, but this stuff is rare and phenomenally good.
  5. Dragon Soul by HKE, 12 tracks, 99 cents, 58 minutes,
  6. Influences Vol 2 by collected by DJ Marky, 99 cents, 21 tracks, 120 minutes, lots of tropical dance/EDM,

January 2018. After spending the bonus credit (see below), I have realized that 1)I am obsessed with Indonesian music (even free Indonesian music), 2)emusic has a lot of ultra-budget albums

  1.  Live in Tokyo (Continuous Mix) by Mark Farina. 1 track, 72 minutes, 99 cents. Famous “Mushroom Jazz/EDM” dj/remixer. The full album with separate tracks is also available for a normal price.
  2. Automatone by Jonathan Kusuma (EP), 4 tracks, 28 minutes, 99 cents. Indonesian EDM guy. Plan to buy more.
  3. 2 Albums by Brock Van Wey (bvdub): All is Forgiven and A History of Distance. BVDUB is a prolific ambient composer. 2 of his dozen + albums can be bought for 99 cents each. (Reviews here).
  4. More Dronarivm Releases: These are usually 99 cents for 40 minutes of ambient music.  Day  Has Ended by Aaron Martin and Christopher Berg.  (review).
  5.  Rotational Templates by Travis Reuter. Experimental jazz/avant garde classical music which is actually listenable.  (Read this review)

December 2017. I received a bonus credit over a customer service problem. Spend away!

  1. Before During After by Woodtops, 52 tracks, 227 minutes, $6.99. Compilation of a short-lived   80s British synth band, with one third of the tracks being live performances, remixes and outtakes. Great stuff!
  2.  Various 99 cent compilations of Art Tatum piano pieces from Resurfaced Records.  (such as here).  I bought 7 totaling about 8 or 9 hours. A bargain!
  3. Various Indonesian pop albums (50 minutes for 99 cents each) : Album Emas: Tetty Kadi, Album Emas: Titiek Sandora & Muchsin AlatasAlbum Emas: Broery Pesulima, Album Emas The Mercy’s, Seleksi Album Emas Panbers Vol 1. Most are recordings from the 1960s and 1970s more or less. (Sound quality is fairly low for the decade it was recorded in). Think of the Indonesian equivalent of Doris Day, Tony Bennett, etc. Even the more “expensive” compilation albums cost $3.99 or less. Update: Very Best of Grace Simon (15 tracks, 52 minutes, 99 cents),  Very Best of Lex Trio (20 tracks,  78 minutes, 99 cents). I really am liking Lex Trio!   I’m buying several more albums for “full price” — see below.
  4. Various Ukrainian Pop compilations: ЛЕТНЯЯ ДИСКОТЕКА 2017 (50 tracks, 3 hours, $4.99),  Свежачок, Ч. 12 (21 tracks, 78 minutes, 99 cents), Pokemon Party (30 tracks, 102 minutes, $3.99) , Spring Music Hits 2017(Best Woman Voices) (25 tracks, 90 minutes, $3.99)  . Moon Vinyl label publishes most of the Ukrainian pop music, and they do moderately priced samplers  on emusic (about 5-10 per year). The same 20 or 30 singers appear on these samplers, which is fine by me. Some of the pop is formulaic dance pop, but a lot of the songs are bold and zany, well worth taking a chance on.
  5. Various Dronarivm albums: Expanses by Green Kingdom . All of these are about 50-60 minutes and priced at 99 cents each.
  6.  Beverly Kenny Compilation albums (6.99 each, 50+ tracks, 120 minutes):  Sings for Johnny Smith Etc and Sings for Playboys, etc . (Update: how embarrassing; forgot to buy the latter album).
  7. The Best Koes Plus:  Vol 1, Vol 2, Vol 3 and Vol 4. (Each costs $3.99, about 20 tracks, 60 minutes). These guys are deservedly called the “Indonesian Beatles.”
  8. Philosophy Gang by Harry Roesli Gang, 7 tracks, 28 minutes, $2.99) Progrock Indonesian Pink Floyd.
  9. Johnny Hallyday Anthology (All Tracks Remastered) (28 tracks, 68 minutes 99 cents). The “French Elvis” who sang American style rock and roll songs. He died a week ago.
  10. 18 Greatest Hits of God Bless by God Bless. 18 tracks, 90 minutes, $7.99. Compilation of slow 70s Indonesian prog rock. Normally more than I would pay, but I found this music greatly appealing
  11. Best of Fariz RM. 17 tracks, 100 minutes, $4.99.
  12. Drink Me by Vicky Shu.  99 cents, 8 tracks, 33 minutes. Indonesian Techno Dance Pop.
  13. Better by Haley Reinhart $4.99, 11 tracks,  40 minutes). Man, I just love this album by one of the finalists for “Voice” Music competition.
  14. Legend Collections: Don Ho Johnny BondSolomon BurkeGerry Mulligan,
  15. George Russell Sextet and Septet: Complete 1960-1962 Decca and Riverside Recordings. $6.99, 316 minutes,  46 tracks. Really sophisticated stuff.
  16. Take One. Hallelujah Chicken Run Band.  18 tracks, 64 minutes, $4.99 Thomas Mapfumo’s early Zimbapop  band.
  17. 1974-1975 by Hamad Kalkaba and the Golden Sounds.  6 tracks, 27 minutes, $2.49.
  18. Resurrection Los Vol 1 by Los Camaroes. 6 tracks, 32 minutes, $2.49.
  19. 1st Album 1973 by Orchestra Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. 4 tracks, 33 minutes, 99 cents.
  20. Very Best of Titiek Puspa. 69 minutes, 24 tracks, 69 minutes. More Indonesian classic pop.
  21. Haas: In Vain by Klangforum Wien. 63 minutes, 1 track, 99 cents,
  22. Soft Animals by Sofi Tukker. 26 minutes, 6 tracks, $2.49 (Selected tracks)

November 2017. Okay, I paid $5 extra for the Two for Sale.

  1. 100 years of Eddie Rosner. (41 tracks, 140 minutes, $6.99). Trumpeter Rosner was called the “Polish Louis Armstrong” and toured in West Europe and USA in the 1930s. The Jewish Rosner was persecuted under the Nazis and Stalin, but in the 50s and 60s he led a big band that toured around the U.S.S.R. He later said, “In 1939, it didn’t help being a Jew playing Negro music, even if your name is Adolf,” (It’s true, his first name was actually “Adolph”). About 1/2 of the album is low fidelity, and all of the tracks are interesting — even though they don’t fit neatly into traditional musical categories. Lots of the jazz number have violin and violas — giving everything a folk/gypsy feel. There are some wacky Western homages — like the “Cowboy” song (Kovboyskaya). It features several Soviet singers mostly unknown to me.
  2. Luminous Group (Compilation album) by Robyn Hitchcock. (90 tracks, 335 minutes, $6.99). A sequel to the I wanna go backwards album I bought a few months ago.
  3. Tartini: Complete Violin Concertos Box Set . 389 tracks, 29 hours! 6.99. “lArte Dell’arco.

October 2017. Account no longer on hold. Buying lots of cheap stuff.  Still on a tight budget.

  1. 80 Aching Options: 45 Years of the Residents.  80 tracks, 270 minutes, $4.99.
  2.  Ote Maloya: Birth of Electric Maloya on Reunion Island 1975-1986. 19 tracks, 73 minutes, 99 cents. Pretty damn obscure African stuff from near Madagascar.
  3. Complete Parisian Small Group Sessions 1956-9. Lucky Thompson. 74 tracks, 300 minutes, $6.99 Great jazz tunes by an underappreciated artist.
  4. L’Oevre electronique by Luc Ferrari.  95 tracks, 570 minutes, $3.99 Avante-garde experimental composer.
  5. Imagine. Martux, Fabrizio Bosso, Bearzatti Aarset. 6 tracks, 49 minutes, 99 cents.
  6. Burhan Ocal Box Set 48 tracks, 270 minutes  $7. Several albums with the versatile Turkish instrumentalist paired with other  notable musicians.
  7. La Legende d’Eer, composed by Iannis Xenakis.  1 track, 45 minutes, 99 cents. Mathematical composition style that this Romanian composer is famous for.
  8. Piano and String Quartet by Morton Feldman.  79 minutes, 1 track, 49 cents. Very slow and restrained.
  9. Under Burning Skies by Souljazz Orchestra, 10 tracks, 45 minutes, 99 cents.
  10. Melatu of Africa by Mulatu Astatke, 14 tracks, 99 cents, 57 minutes. (Update, only 28 minutes, because it includes mono and stereo versions of each track. Still a good deal.
  11. Salone Konde Band. 12 tracks, 47 minutes, 99 cents.
  12. Fantnawa Experience by Fanga & Maalem Abdallah Guinea. 6 tracks, 59 minutes, $2.49
  13. Будет тепло . (Budet Teplo). 23 tracks, 77 minutes 99 cents.  Various. An unusually feisty compilation of Ukrainian pop songs at an  at  unbeatable price.
  14. Onuka by Onuka.  Ukrainian folk-electronic made a splash as the intermission act at Eurovision 2017 (watch the amazing video of their performance).  The studio recordings are not as exciting or as pulsating, but pared down.

July 2017. Too poor to afford booster credits, but I am getting some great deals on classical/modernist albums! All about a dollar!

  1.  Music from Azerbaijan by Gochag Askarov. (5 tracks, 60 minutes, 99 cents).
  2.  Inscriptions by Wil Bolton (5 tracks, 47 minutes, $1.99).  This was number 1 on David Smith’s Top 20 of 2015 list, calling it “especially captivating, a cohesive suite of carefully textured ambient soundscapes of great warmth and delicacy.”
  3. Tiento de las Nieves by Thomas Koner (1 track, 68 minutes,  50 cents). Also highly recommended by David Smith.
  4. Avifaunal by Pausal (6 tracks, 46 minutes, 99 cents).
  5. Nirvana Haze by Alonefold (1 track, 63 minutes, 49 cents).
  6. Patterns in a Chromatic Field by Morton Feldman (1 tracks, 80 minutes, 49 cents).
  7. Lo-Def Pressure by Bill Laswell.  (2 tracks, 48 minutes,  49 cents).
  8. Mausoleum / Hoketus by Louis Andriessen (2 tracks, 57 minutes,  49 cents). 2 minimalist rhythmic pieces from the 1970s. The first contains lots of rattling brassy orchestration, with dissonant choral protests (it’s an homage to Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. The second piece is just percussive chamber music which despite the fast rhythm varies very slowly. Both startling and provocative pieces, but hardly inspiring.

May 2017. Now the site has been redesigned, with lots of new deals, broken links and albums which are missing or new.

  1. I wanna go backwards Box Set. Robyn Hitchcock. 102 tracks, 336 minutes, $6.99. 3 early acoustic albums, with 2 albums worth of rarities. I have my eyes on Part 2 of this box set, Luminous Grooves, which contains albums from the mid to late 1980s
  2. Vasks: Sala / Musica appassionata / Credo, Liepaja Symphony Orchestra & Atvars Lakstigala $1.99, 3 Tracks , 59 minutes 37 seconds. 3 Contemporary compositions by this Latvian composer. Romantic, full orchestration, dissonant, beautiful. (Read liner notes).

April 2017.  Unsuspended my account again…. Hopefully for the last time.

  1. Box Set by William Onyearbor (37 tracks, 272 minutes, $6.99).
  2. 69 Love Songs by Magnetic Fields. (69 tracks, 172 minutes, $6.99).
  3. Eccentric Soul: Omnibus, Various (88 tracks, 288 minutes, $6.99)
  4. Kinks: Anthology 1964-1971. (140 tracks,  374 minutes, $6.99)

January 2017. (I forgot to suspend my membership, but ended up with a winner anyway).

  1. Cooking Vinyl 1986-2006 (compilation). (67 tracks,  276 minutes, $6.49).  Nice and ample collection of A-list talents by a European label. (A good mix of American and European pop stars).

December 2016. Won’t be able to upgrade my account for a while, but managed to buy one album. In the meantime, I’m listening to one-off recordings by Daytrotter Studio (I downloaded 7000 sessions that I need to listen to).

  1. I’ve Got a Way by Kelsey Waldon.  (11 tracks, 38 minutes, $5.39). Also selected songs from her earlier album The Gold Mine. Young rising country star sings slow, heartfelt and almost gothic blues ballads;  it definitely feels more personal than prepackaged; Kelsey has a distinctive rugged voice which in its rock carnation kind of reminds  me of Courtney Barrett. But what makes it special is the quiet dignity she gives to many of the songs.

November 2016.  Back from a hiatus to do some purchases — mainly from the incredible stack of artists I discovered from 2016 SXSW.

  1. Julius Eastman: Unjust Malaise. (8 tracks, 193 minutes, $6.49). Eastman was a minimalist avante-garde composer who wrote complex orchestral pieces for piano and voice. He was unappreciated even by other composers and died homeless and penniless in 1990. This collection of longer pieces are sometimes discordant or hard to enjoy, but they are interesting and expressive (and really, not that different from what Glass and other people were doing in the 70s) But recently several critics have been championing his works. See this longish piece in the Guardian .
  2. United Crushers by Poliça (sale – 12 tracks, 43 minutes, $4.99)
  3. Down to Believing by Allison Moorer (13 tracks, 46 minutes, $6.37). One of my greatest finds this year was the achingly beautiful album “Crows” by Allison Moorer which was released a few years ago. Because I had listened to a library copy, I vowed to buy an A.M. album to show my support and gratitude; as it happens, “Down to Believing” is just as lovely as “Crows” and as well regarded — and it’s a bargain on emusic.
  4. Place Called Bad by Scientists (80 tracks, 269 minutes,  $6.99).  The Scientists are a well-known Australian rock-punk group from the 70s and 80s. This band sounds fresh, punk and still relevant.
  5. Mutant Disco Volume 1 (12 tracks, 74 minutes, $5.88). I was watching a hilarious 1989 Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder comedy called “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.” As the credits rolled, I heard this amazing disco melody, which led me to investigate the group “Was (Not Was)” which sang it. This group was produced by Ze Records, who has several emusic compilations. I will probably buy more compilations by Ze Records, but to start out with, I purchased  this  album, which  was positively reviewed by the emusic staff and includes several reviews by emusic fans. There are 4 volumes in this series (and each group is represented by at 4 or 5 songs in the entire series). As enjoyable as the Mutant Disco volumes are, Soul Jazz Records also has two also wonderful disco compilations on emusic which are longer and have more tracks.
  6. Watermelon Summer by Annabelle Chairlegs (10 tracks, 30 minutes, $4.90). Chairlegs is a Austin girl indie-rock album which doesn’t disappoint.
  7. Classic FM by Andy Clockwise. (30 tracks, 133 minutes, $6.49).  This first album by versatile Australian rocker Andy Clockwise  has been scandalously ignored by critics — even in Australia — though everyone seems to have a high opinion of Clockwise and his more recent projects. “Classic FM” is a concept album that tries to juxtapose a dozen different musical styles in one album — as though you were scanning the FM dial on a car radio. Sure, you may not like everything here, but it’s all different, interesting and original. (I would compare this to double albums like the Beatles’ “White Album” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” which were initially criticized for being sprawling messes, but were later appreciated for what they were). By the way Clockwise lives and performs in the US, and his earworm song Open Relationship has an entertaining and bizzare music video.
  8. You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009 by Tommy Keene. ( 41 songs, 192 minutes, $6.49). Amazingly I bought this a year ago and never listened to it!
  9. Soul Jazz Records Presents VENEZUELA 70: Cosmic Visions Of A Latin American Earth – Venezuelan Experimental Rock In The 1970s.   (16 tracks, 62 minutes, $6.99) Intriguing genre, and the album pretty much delivers. See this PopMatters review. BTW, because of the current economic chaos in Venezuela, now is as good as any time to show your support for musicians for that country!
  10. Back to Venezuela by Billo’s Caracas Boys. (41 tracks, 128 minutes, $6.49) Billos Caracas Boys is an immortal Venezuelan dance orchestra fronted by Billo Frómeta and lasted from the late 1930s to the 1960s or 1970s. The band is pretty amazing — jazzy/samba with vocals. Personnel changed from year to year, and unfortunately there is not good documentation for this album about when these songs were originally released (or if they are simply re-releases from other albums). But many of the songs here sound like original stuff — probably from the 1940s or 1950s. I want to emphasize that this album merely scratches the surface of what is out there — and doesn’t include many of the tunes which are considered signature songs. Emusic has about 100 albums by Billos Caracas Boys, and this the best and cheapest of the “greatest hits compilations” which I was able to find.

July 2016. Back from hiatus to take advantage of  another double credits sale.  I have a backlog of things to purchase and have some wonderful picks from this year’s South by Southwest torrent.

  1. Best of GEM 2008-2012. By G.E.M.  (24 tracks, 95 minutes, $5.99).  Earlier this year I heard the remarkable Heartbelt album by G.E.M. which immediately made me want more. This compilation album seems equally fun and ethereal — certainly not callow forgettable tracks.
  2. Final Wild Ride. by Long Ryders ( 48 tracks, minutes, 170 minutes $6.99).
  3.  Glacial Glow  (and other selected tracks)  by Noveller. (8 tracks,  34 minutes, $3.92). Known for New Age ambient with guitar, all of her tracks are interesting. I found two other albums from another service (“No Dreams” her best known and “Fantastic Planet” her most recent). I plan to obtain all of her wonderful albums eventually.

March 2016. After a hiatus, I have started buying again.

  1.  Заждалась by Анастасия Приходько. (15 tracks, 53 minutes, $5.99). Lots of great pop singles by this Ukrainian-born singer who was popular in Russia. Interestingly, after representing Russia in the Eurovision song contest, she has vowed never to perform in Russia again.  This and other Ukraine gems come from the fantastic Moon Vinyl S.R.O. label .

February 2016. Ok, I bought $10 of double booster credits to buy some great compilations.

  1. I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America, 1950-1990 . (20 tracks, 132 minutes, $6.49). A good collection of early New Age/space music, from quite a few well-knowns. A Popmatters review of the album writes, “This is new age music before it became a commodity, before it evolved into aural wallpaper and background music. When it was the domain of outsider artists, eccentrics and experimentalists. As evidenced by this collection, the music’s goals were often lofty.” (My minor complaint is that 5 of the 20 are excerpts from longer pieces, but it’s still a good value).
  2. Juke Joint Blues Black Cat Rag (54 tracks, 154 minutes, $6.49). Here’s a good collection of blues tracks with reasonably high fidelity and lots of performers I have never heard of (and I have heard of a lot!) Though the first few tracks didn’t particularly impress me, the overwhelming majority of the tracks were keepers. Sadly, this seems to be part of a larger series which never made it to emusic. (The album shows it as “Juke Joints 4 — Volume 2”). Still, what we have is pretty special. Lots of Southern bluesy stuff, with harmonica, a good fast beat and a variety of voices).
  3. Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia Presents PZYK Vol.1 by Various Artists.  (31 tracks, 147 minutes, $6.49) paraphrasing from Piccadilly Records website where the album made their best of 2015 compilations list, is “a deluxe triple vinyl compilation celebrating the current neo-psychedelic underground. Featuring a mix of exclusive tracks, re-mixes, rarities and album cuts, the compilation spans and charts the global PZYK diaspora, with artists from around the world contributing to an international selection comprising 30 of the current movement’s key noisemakers.” I really loved this collection. Lots of electronic which sounded more psychedelic than trance or techno.

January 2016 (skipped December 2015).  I suspended my subscription, renewed it, received $10 in courtesy credits because the site has been down a lot, and then for two weeks my account was available! It’s all behind me, and more importantly, emusic has added in the cost of subscription an ability to stream your purchases. That’s a cool feature!  They have also updated the android and apple app so that you can hear it from cell phones. The semi-permanent double value booster sales have officially ended, thus relieving me of any temptation to buy more music until I get a steady paycheck!.

  1. A Badly Broken Code by Dessa. (15 tracks, 47 minutes, $5.99). Filipino Dessa did a remarkable album Parts of Speech which consisted of lots of adventurous rap songs with excellent and expressive lyrics (no profanity), magnificent arrangements and a variety of styles (though the slow rap song seems to be her  default).  Her albums seem a tad overproduced; I wish we can just enjoy the melodies apart from the lyrics or the strong emotions. Despite my nitpicks, this album – like Parts of Speech —  are absolutely  first-rate and bring additional rewards with repeated listens.
  2. Baroques (Remastered). by the Baroques. (25 tracks, 82 minutes, $5.99). Very obscure Milwaukee psychedelic music group from the 60s.  Although labels from that time were pretty open to experimentation, I think the Baroques abandoned the pop sensibility, lost their record deal and broke up. Sad story, but the songs they made are incredible and fun.
  3. O Vertigo by Kate Miller-Heidke (12 tracks, 42 minutes, $5.88). I’m going to be selecting tracks from this album and others to zero out my balances. Miller-Heidke is this unbelievably talented Australian opera-trained singer who first came to my attention by doing these wild cover versions of well-known songs (like this one and this one and this one ) . Turns out she and her husband write and perform lots of original songs and most recently an opera! A lot of her best stuff is not on emusic though O Vertigo is pretty great).

November 2015. Wow,  it seems that my unemployment will once again reduce my purchases (after months of indulging). I may even suspend my membership temporarily.  Fear Not. I have lots of listening to catch up on.

  1.  Best of Old School Hip Hop. Various. 20 tracks. 93 minutes, $3.89.  Upbeat urban rap from the 90s. Heavy beat, kind of silly and juvenile and not too raunchy or violent. Plus, the lyrics are actually comprehensible!  Everything feels like the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and at least the lyrics are interesting and tell a story. These are not great tracks, but the musical arrangements are all interesting.
  2. Best of 00-10 by Ladytron. (17 tracks, 68 minutes, $5.99). Hits compilations by one of my alltime fave bands. They know how to write catchy pop songs with hooks and occasionally rock it up (Blue Jeans, Destroy Everything You Touch). The singer Helen Marnie  is great and stylish, but the synthesizer parts are also fantastic! Updates: Silly me. I forgot I already bought individual tracks, and had accumulated another album’s worth of tracks through samplers, etc. Also, it appears that Marnie has started to go solo.  So much as I loved this album, I totally did not need it!
  3. Boom Tic Boom by Allison Miller (8 tracks, 58 minutes for $3.92).  This awesome jazz drummer put together a multi-talented jazz band which put together the zippy album No Morphine, No Lilies which I thought was outstanding.
  4. Boddie Recording Company: Cleveland, OH. (64 tracks, 190 minutes, $6.49).  Multi-decade compilation by a lesser known Cleveland recording company. Not as polished as the Motown stuff, but still very interesting.
  5. Fats Navarro Collection 1943-1950 (39 tracks, 140 minutes, $6.49). Feisty trumpet recordings by a jazz virtuoso who died at a shockingly early age (26) from a combination of TB and a drug overdose.

October 2015. I finished listening and rating my 2011 SXSW torrents and have been amassing things to buy for it. Here are some other purchases:

  1. Bird Call! The Twin City Stomp of the Trashmen. 80 tracks, 224 minutes, 5.99. Lots of variant recordings and live recordings
  2. Hits, Hits, Hits Vol 1 and Hits, Hits, Hits Vol 2 are two huge compilations of 70s disco/early 80s hip hop music from P& P Records. Each volume is more than 530 minutes!  (Read this Guardian critic’s review of this series).  It’s true that both volumes are padded with instrumental versions and extended versions (you have a 13 minute disco  version of the Charlie’s Angels theme — and trust me, it’s great!)
  3. Terry Farley Presents Acid Rain Deep House 1985-1991 61 tracks, 387 minutes, $6.49). Great collection of hard techno/early EDM stuff.
  4. Northern Soul — Soundtrack– Extended Version  (54 tracks, 146 minutes, $6.49)is  a collection of “Northern Soul” (British-based soul plus a lot of semi-obscure American stuff thrown in)This comes from a movie about the time period.  I am especially loving this one.
  5. Weekender: (Music from the Movie & Further Inspiration).
  6. Traxbox (Trax Records Remastered). 226 tracks, 1200 minutes, $6.49. It’s true that there are 2 and maybe 3) versions of each song
  7. Northern Soul 60s Mod. 45 tracks,  128 minutes, $5.99
  8. Dark Tree by Horace Tapscott.  (9 tracks, 127 minutes, $6.49).  Widely praised Live Double jazz album from 1989.
  9.  Guillaume Du Fay: Motets, Hymns & Chansons BLUE HERON. (16 tracks, 73 minutes,  $5.99). Recommended early classic music, and it is fantastic.
  10.  Blues and the Abstract Truth. Oliver Nelson. (12 tracks, 77 minutes, $6.49). Highly recommended jazz album.
  11. Welcome to the Country by Gram Rabbit (10 tracks, 39 minutes, $4.90). Outstanding collection of strange psychedelic country by a group known for shifting genres often. (They do heavy metal, punk all with a psychedelic twist).
  12. Sanremo in the Fifties. (43 tracks, 170 minutes, $6.49) Italian  pop music culture revolves around the annual Sanremo festival which started in the 50s (and is still active). This compilation  contains a lot of the contest winners (and more importantly, the ones which didn’t win but are still great songs.) Most of the recordings are decent quality
  13. Sapore di Sale (100 tracks, 307 minutes, $5.99) has many of the same singers from the Sanremo collection, but different songs released in the 60s. (Some are live recordings, possibly from later Sanremos). You have to overlook the Sedaka, Paul Anka and Petula Clark here, but there are multiple songs by quite a number of singers, including Quartetto Cetra, Gino Paoli and Peppino di Capri.
  14. Great Greek Composers (123 songs, 360 minutes, $6.49) which seems to be a wrong name for it, because all the songs are simple pop songs from several decades and the song metadata doesn’t contain any useful information on the songwriters. (Strangely it lists the musical genre as “reggae” — go figure). Someone mentioned that it sounds like Schlager music (that light-hearted folksy stuff that seems old-fashioned to our ears), and I don’t think that’s offbase. Sound quality is mostly decent, and a few songs are standouts, though all are generally pleasant.
  15. Duo Chrisses Fones – Two Golden Voices: ROZA ESKENAZI & RITA ABATZI (45 songs, 145 minutes, $5.84) is definitely older and more folksy stuff (we’re talking 1920s-1940s). Sound quality could be a lot worse, but it’s about what you’d expect for the time. Roza Eskenazi has the more interesting and melodic voice, while Rita Abatzi sings more emotionally and wistfully. They sing in a rebetiko style, which uses various Turkish song elements. This album is more a musical time capsule than something which feels modern, but I found it interesting still.

September 2015. As luck would have it, there was an “accidental” Double the Value Booster credit sale and I went ahead and spent $50 to obtain $100 in credits. I have lots of things on my list but probably won’t be buying anything until early October. (For the record I’ve been listening — and rating — the 1100+ free mp3 downloads from the 2011 SXSW music torrent — which will eventually result in lots of purchases of favorite band discoveries).

  1. Trilogie de la Morte by Eliane  Radigue. costs $5.99 here for a total of 168 minutes.  It’s drone/ambient, very meditative, but interesting enough to keep your attention. The allmusic review said “it is based on the composer’s complete immersion in Tibetan Buddhist teaching, and takes its title from Thomas Merton’s Trilogy on Death.”
  2. Hot French Chicks in the Garage. (37 tracks, 91 minutes, $5.99).  Compilation of French female singers from the 60s and 70s.
  3. Perfect Lives by Robert Ashley. (7 tracks, 174 minutes, $6.49).   Avante-garde opera project from late 70s, consisting of long, extended arias in English which consist of nonsequiturs, strange poetic pronouncements and pop culture. Ashley intended this to be “opera for TV” (and indeed, there is a DVD version of the performance which makes this intent apparent).  and it resembles the ramblings in Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.
  4. Bunny Striker Lee Story. (101 tracks, 316 minutes, $5.99), Giant compilation of  60s and 70s Jamaican reggae by a noted music producer.

August 2015. I bought another booster credit, so the buying spree continues (at least for the next month). I’m still buying things from my SXSW and the Russian Music  stack (see below). Because I’m out of work again, I couldn’t max out on booster packs, but these 2 for 1 booster pack sales are coming every 3 months, so that gives me time to catch up on listening.

  1.  50 Tunes of Jazz from Venus Records.  (50 tracks, 239 minutes, $6.49).  Compilation of a jazz label from Japan. Generally great stuff.
  2. Deep Soul Moments: Sometime, Someplace, Somewhere. (27 tracks, 67 minutes, $3.24) Outstanding collection of 60s soul. Slow melodies and vocals.
  3. Illinoise by Sufjan (22 tracks, 74 minutes, $4.99).
  4. Cecil Gant Collection 1944-1951 (52 tracks, 143 minutes, $6.49). Bluesy vocalist and pianist with some boogie woogie inclinations.
  5. Jailhouse Blues & Murder Ballads (180 tracks, 570 minutes, $6.49).
  6. Mose Allison Collection 1956-1962 Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Each costs $6.49 and consists of 146 minutes). Jazzy blues singer and pianist who collaborates with Stan Getz and Zoot Sims.   His band plays many jazz standard here.  Great stuff, relaxing, joyful, Still alive today!
  7. Complete Singles A’s and B’s 1949-1962 Vol 2 by B.B. King.
  8. Dark Light Up by Eleni Mandell. (12 tracks, 39 minutes for $6.99). Eleni Mandell is not known for  mainstream pop, but this album tries to do that — and mostly succeeds.
  9. The Peregrine by Lawrence English. (34 minutes for $3.43) Recent ambient recording.
  10. Margaret Whiting: Collectors’ Edition 1942-1960.  (87 tracks, 236 minutes, $5.84) Whiting sang a lot of vanilla jazz standards in the 1940s, but her interpretations are so lovely and charming that I forgive her for not venturing outside familiar territory.
  11. Girl in a Coma. Tracks from all of their albums, especially Trio B.C.  This is a fiesty girls punk band from San Antonio, headed by singer Nina Diaz. They famously met up in MIDDLE SCHOOL! Apparently Diaz and the rest of the band are going off on separate projects, but their Coma stuff is great. Although their original stuff is great, I wanted to point out that their album of cover songs is particularly juicy (though I checked it out of the library instead of buying it).
  12. Music for Airports Live  (Music by Brian Eno) by Bang on a Can All Stars. A music group does the impossible: perform a live performance of something originally written not to be performed. This is a classic of the New Age genre, and the live performance is faithful to the original recording –though it feels softer and more human.
  13. Unremembered. Composed by Sarah Kirkland Snider, performed by Shara Worden and others. (13 tracks, 54 minutes, $5.99).
  14. Earl Bostic Collection 1939-1959. (50 songs, 145 minutes $6.49) Really great jazz. Often compared to Sidney Bechet, this is smoother and more elegant.
  15. Complete Aristocrat and Chess Singles A’s and B’s (Volume 1 of 2) by Muddy Waters. (49 tracks, 141 minutes, $6.49). I ran out of credits, so I bought Volume 1 for now.
  16. One Hundred Hits of Bing Crosby. (100 songs, 299 minutes, $5.99) Bing Crosby had numerous hits in the 40s, and this mega-compilation gives you a better idea of his variety of styles. Lots of random oddball tracks (such as “Road to Morocco”) make this one always delightful.

July 2015. Note that even this month I am still adding a substantial number of albums to other lists below (like the Russian and Ukrainian compilations under June 2015 and SXSW picks under March 2015). In fact, about 95% of my purchases by rising bands come from my SXSW stack.  Even though I bought them this month, they are not listed under the month I bought them. I am starting to list some jazz albums reviewed and praised by Bird is the Worm.  He reviews them faster than I can listen to them!

  1. Cosmopolitan Classics: George Jones. (98 Tracks, 249 minutes, $5.19) An amazing collection of songs for the price. I ended up liking every song!
  2. Dub Side of the Mule Deluxe Edition  (34 tracks, 227 minutes, $6.49).  Recording of  a live musical “happening” by the remnants of the Allman Brothers and some guests (Toots Maytal, according to this review). Apparently they release a lot of these things built around a certain theme, with them all priced pretty low on emusic.
  3. La Sortie by Low-Res. (7 tracks, 49 minutes, $5.99).  Bird Best 2014. This set of jazz pieces don’t overwhelm, but really flow well together.
  4. Wurm Series No. 1. by Oophoi. (1 track, 65 minutes for 49 cents!). Great ambient track.
  5. Enter  by Fire Orchestra. (4 tracks, 53 minutes, $3.30).  Bird Best 2014. Great choral jazzy thing which is full of emotional power and energy. Wow!
  6. Exclusively for my friends (live) by Oscar Peterson (37 tracks, 236 minutes, $6.49).
  7. King of Highlife Anthology by E.T. Mensah and the Tempos.
  8. Figs: What Keeps me up at Night and The Figs. Two interesting albums by Louisiana blues band  with Jillian Johnson (who recently was killed in a shooting in Lafayette LA).
  9.  LAVINIA MEIJER Glass: Metamorphosis, The Hours. (12 tracks, 63 minutes $1.40). Amazingly these Glass-approved transcriptions for harp are terrific!
  10. Vivaldi: 12 Violin Concertos – “La Cetra”, Op. 9  (36 tracks, 117 minutes, $1.40). HOLLAND BAROQUE SOCIETY. Well-reviewed album of lesser-known Vivaldi violin pieces.
  11. The Graham Bond Organization – Wade in the Water – Classics, Origins & Oddities. (96 tracks, 308 minutes, $6.49). Outstanding early 60s British pop/jazz. Very influential on British invasion bands and others.
  12. Absolut Duke Ellington (157 tracks, 529 minutes $6.49).
  13. Dimensions Live by Daniel Schlappi, Jorg Bucher & Colin Vallon (14 tracks, 107 minutes, $6.49).
  14. Minimal Piano Collection, ( 93 tracks, 615 minutes, $4.54). performed by Jeroen Van Veen.  This huge collection features generous performances from Glass, Arvo Paart, Nyman, Adams, Cage, Riley, etc). I spent all morning listening to the Aarvo Paart, this evening listening to the Glass and can happily report that it is generally excellent and an extraordinary value!.

June 2015. Not only did I purchase $150 of double-booster credits, I discovered some great Russian music compilations which I’ll note below.

  1. Boys can be Mean.60 tracks – $5.84. Fun thematic 60s  compilation about girls complaining about boys.
  2. Nigeria 70 Lagos Jump.16 tracks, 77 minutes for $5.99
  3. Nigeria 70 Sweet Times Afro-Fun, Highlife and Juju from 1970s Lagos. 79 minutes, 13 tracks, $5.99
  4. I Hate CDs: Norton Records 45 RPM Singles Collection Vol 1.
  5. Roadrunner 1955-1962 Original Chess Masters (Remastered Edition). Bo Diddley.
  6. Complete Chess Singles As & Bs 1955-1961. Chuck Berry.50 tracks for $6.49
  7. Complete Soul Essentials by Ike and Tina Turner. 75 tracks for $5.84. The version of some of the signature songs is different (and probably inferior), but the vast collection covers the range of songs Ike and Tina used to sing.
  8. Various songs of Novecento. C’ E’ Un Mondo Che… (complete album) and 4 songs each from these albums: Dreamland, Necessary and Secret. Novecento is an Italian band that started out in 1980s Euro-disco pop and gradually migrated into Jazzy Easy Listening pop. Perhaps it seems way too mellow for the modern ear, but it is extremely relaxing and pleasant to listen to. Female singer Dora  Carofiglio was the “real” Jessica Jay in the 90s dance pop band (which I wrote about at length here).
  9. Two famous multidisc recordings by jazz legend Hampton Hawes: All Night Sessions! 1-3 with Jim Hall (17 tracks, 123 minutes, $5.84) and  Trio: Complete Albums (featuring Red Mitchell & Chuck Thompson).  (35 tracks, 156 minutes, $6.49).
  10. Tristeza / Poema / Canto / Images On Guitar. BADEN POWELL . Classic 60s albums by a famous 60s Brazilian guitarist.
  11. Chavela Vargas. Sus 40 Grandes Canciones. (40 tracks, 134 minutes, $5.84).
  12. Buckle Up by Steve Krase. (10 tracks, 39 minutes $4.90) Great electronic blues/rock band led by Krase who plays a mean harmonica.  I saw him perform with Trudy Lynn last night; they were fantastic!
  13. Royal Oaks Blues Cafe by Trudy Lynn (with Steve Krase).  Trudy sings some rowdy libidinous blues even though she’s in her 70s. Direct, comic and slightly outrageous.
  14. 40 Successos de samba & Bossa Nova. Elis Regina. (40 tracks, 110 minutes, $5.99). Great collection of songs by the famed bossa nova singer who died in her thirties.
  15. 25 Years of Brazilian Beats (Mr. Bongo Presents) Part 1 and Part 2.
  16. Jelly Roll Morton — Complete Congress Recordings.
  17. Digital Collection Vol 4. Noor Jehan. Here are the Punjabi language songs.
  18. 100 Anos de Historia Musical Vol 3. Lucho Bermudez. (20 tracks, 57 minutes $6.49). Wish it had more tracks, but the ones here are dynamite.
  19. Louisiana & The Old New Orleans Sound. (100 tracks, 285 minute, $5.84).
  20. Amara Toure 1973-80.  (10 tracks, 63 minutes, $5.99) Influential 70s Senegal singer with a Cuban/Afrobeat feel.

Special Russian and Ukrainian Compilations. As strange as it sounds, I finally found some reasonably-priced Russian/Ukrainian albums on emusic.Typing the words Grand Collection produces a list of double size compilation albums by several well-known Russian pop singers. Also try searching for  “Коллекция”in the search engine.  Unfortunately the links of titles with Cyrillic letters doesn’t work too well, so most of these links will not link. Often copying the Cyrillic names into the emusic search engine will work, or sometimes just searching google can help.

  1. Коллекция лучших альбомов. Анна Герман (Anna Hermann) (8 hours for 120 tracks, $5.99). Hermann was a much beloved Polish singer who died early but was widely beloved in the 70s and 80s by the entire Soviet Union. Sound quality on this collection varies, but it contains a lot of her hits which made her famous.
  2. АЛСУ – GRAND COLLECTION / ALSU (known also as Alsou). (28 tracks, 101 minutes, $5.99).  (listen on youtube). Alsou is a beautiful singer and was predicted to appeal to Western audiences. That didn’t happen as much as it should have; she did win 2nd in a Eurovision contest for an utterly forgettable song, but make no mistake; she’s a major talent, and her tracks always sound great!
  3. Grand Collection. DIDULYA (ДИДЮЛЯ). (79 minutes, 19 tracks, $5.99).  Great guitar-driven pop by a Belorussian guy who likes to infuse folk and  Middle East elements into melodies.
  4. Коллекция легендарных песен.  ГРАЖДАНСКАЯ ОБОРОНА (Grazhdanskaya Oborona). (85 tracks, 260 minutes, $5.99).  Oborona is an early Soviet punk-psychedelic singer (and I do not exaggerate when I compare their early stuff to Sex Pistols   or the Ramones or the Residents). I like how the wikipedia article describes the band’s lyrics as progressing from the political to the metaphysical.  (Alas, if only my Russian were good enough to understand them! — But I find the literary references mentioned in the wiki page reassuring).
  5. Коллекция. АНДРЕЙ ГУБИН. (Andrey Gubin). (42 tracks, 167 minutes, $6.49). Upbeat dance pop, full of catchy numbers.
  6.  Я не скажу “прощай”  by Татьяна Овсиенко.  (17 tracks, 65 minutes, $6.49). A good Ukrainian pop singer. Very sophisticated dance pop with some slow ballads thrown in.
  7.  Большая коллекция, Часть 2 by “АЛЁНА АПИНА” (Elena Apina).  This is only part 2 of a box set, but this part contains 50 songs  and 184 minutes of dance and disco fun by one of the leading Russian pop singers in the 90s. (She is also one of my fave singers too).
  8. Grand Collection: Леонид Агутин. (Leonid Agutin). 112 minutes 28 songs. $5.99..  Agutin has a smooth almost Latino singing style which won me over when I first heard him in the 90s. This compilation contains the songs from those albums and more recent stuff as well.
  9. Skryabin. Selections from Various Albums. Ever since the lead singer died a year ago, I wanted to revisit this Ukrainian band which I used to listen to while living in Ukraine. Despite the fact that it cost more (about $20 in credits), I ended up buying selected songs from various albums. Their eclecticism of styles reminds me of Talking Heads  (although Skryabin is definitely cooler, darker, moodier). If I were to single out some albums, I would have to pick Mova Ryb (very upbeat and pop) and the 82 minute compilation album Balady.
  10. Grand Collection: БОЖЬЯ КОРОВКА (“Lady Bird”).  Zany light hearted pop from a male-female singing duo.
  11. Grand Collection: Vitas. (28 tracks, 105 minutes, $5.99). Ukrainian-born Russian pop singer with an operatic voice, crazy appearance and who sings techno-dance songs. This reminds me a lot of Ukrainian singer El Kravchuk (whose album I also bought on emusic).
  12. Коллекция ФИЛИПП КИРКОРОВ (Collectsya by Phillip Kirkorov) . 952 minute 246 track album for $6.49. Phillip Kirkorov is a major presence for the last few decades in Russian pop (kind of like Elton John or Neil Diamond for the English-speaking world). An awesome deal. A lot of these tracks are winners!
  13. Valentina Levko: Star of the Bolshoi is a (176 tracks, 676 minutes, $4.54 fascinating 10 hour collection of arias and classical songs by a Russian singer. I have only sampled some of the tracks; the ones I know sound excellent.
  14. Большая коллекция by СУРГАНОВА И ОРКЕСТР. (129 tracks, 490 minutes, $6.49).  Pop band headed by Svetlana Surganova. Really interesting sound; it combines folk, jazz and classical elements to produce a nice pop sound.  Her singing is gentle and relaxed, and the melodies and productions are always interesting.
  15. МИХАЙЛ ШУФУТИНСКИЙ – GRAND COLLECTION. MIKHAIL SHUFUTINSKY. (28 tracks, 109 minutes, $5.99). This zany album consists of a lot of live traditional tracks. They sound a lot better than the two studio albums I have by him.
  16. Лучшее by  ИГОРЬ ТАЛЬКОВ (Igor Talkov).  (50 tracks, 252 minutes, $5.99). Collection of a Russian music icon. Parts of it sounds rough and downbeat, but remember, this was the 80s and 90s. Most of the hits I already know were here — and then some. Curiously missing was my favorite song “Летний дождь” (Summer Rains) which you can download separately from the Моя любовь album. potap
  17. Все пучком by ПОТАП И НАСТЯ (Potap i Nastya) (23 tracks, 56 minutes, $5.99). Outstanding upbeat pop/rapping duo from Ukraine. This group produces so many fun and amazing songs (and vids!) that it’s a wonder they are still unknown in the West. Also, highly recommended was their earlier album  Не люби мне мозги  which was just as amazing (though I didn’t buy it from emusic; I checked it out of the library).
  18. Время и Стекло by Время и Стекло (Vremya i Steklo , or Time & Glass)  (18 tracks, 58 minutes, $5.99). Very young and telegenic Ukrainian dance pop duo from the same label as Potap i Nastiya.  They sing more dancey/EDM; Less clever than Potap i Nastiya but more stylish.
  19. Verka Serduchka: (ВЕРКА СЕРДЮЧКА) Selections from various albums such as Do Re Mi and Tralli Valli .Serduchka gained notoriety with his outrageously fun song in a 2007 Ukraine  Eurovision performance.  Though his comedy songs are great (and make great vids),  the more mainstream songs are good too. Let’s give him credit for reinventing the folk pop song.
  20. Irina Bilyk (ИРИНА БИЛЫК). Selections from various albums.  By the way, I saw Bilyk perform at a concert in Lutsk, Ukraine in 1997 with a similar Russian singer, Linda. Bilyk’s songs are pleasant, moody, lightly arranged. Fast techno dance track often combines with a slow downbeat (almost whispering)  style of  singing. (which reminds me a little of Suzanne Vega).  Her 1995 album Нова consists of mainly dance-techno songs  and has lots of great moments. The 1996  Так прост doesn’t have as many memorable melodies, but lots of good vocals and arrangements. Later albums are more lyrical (and not as successful). I ended up loving her slower  2014 album Рассвет. This singer has definitely grown on me over the decade.
  21. Благо дарю by ОЛЬГА ГОРБАЧЕВА (Olga Gorbacheva).  (43 minutes, 12 tracks, $5.88) Cute young blond who sing serious/sincere songs in the same vein of Irina Bilyk (indeed this album shares a track with Bilyk’s 2014 album which I mentioned above).
  22. НЕАНГЕЛЫ: Selections from two albums Best of and Роман. I would describe this as dramatic but unostentatious  pop with a  slow and slick techno sound. It’s fast and danceable but not particularly memorable; at the same time, it’s pleasant enough to listen to.
  23.  Live Шоу “Каролина” by Ани Лорак (Ana Lorak).  (25 tracks, 103 minutes, $5.99). Spectacular  concert by Ukraine’s music superstar.  This concert (which is fully available on youtube) has lavish sets, a full band and chorus and several surprise guests. The songs are not as amazing as the electrifying way they are performed. In fact, I’m at a loss to provide an American equivalent. Perhaps Jennifer Lopez or Diana Ross or Shania Twain or Tina Turner. She’s not rap or really EDM, but more traditional singing which really soar when she’s in a duet with frequent guests.
  24. Коллекция легендарных песен by ОЛЕГ МИТЯЕВ (Oleg Mityaev). (50 tracks, 171 minutes, $5.99). Megacompilation by Russian bard/folk singer who got started in the early 1980s. His style is traditional folk (and frankly the melodies can get  monotonous). About half the tracks are live recordings, and most consist of some combination of piano, accordian or acoustic guitar. Some of the slower ballads are gems. Fun fact; he hails from Chelyabinsk (near the Ural Mountains). In late November as I write this, its temperature is 17 degrees F below zero!

May 2015. I have been winnowing my list of SXSW performers and will soon buy albums by new talents (see April 2015).

  1. Milton Hopkins and Jewel Brown. (41 minutes, 12 tracks for $5.88). Jewel Brown was the main singer when Louis Armstrong was touring overseas  in the 50s and 60s. Jewel Brown is no Ella Fitzgerald, but she has some great songs — most of which are hard to find because they were recorded under the name of Armstrong’s band at the time. Brown retired in 1971 for personal reasons, living in Houston, running a hair salon and doing the occasional concert. In the last few years she has been performing with local blues legends, and this album is one of these collaboration. This album combines a bluesy guitar with Jewel Brown’s lively singing. It’s more bluesy than jazz, but it’s still a worthy album and a lot of fun.
  2. Blade Runner: 30th Anniversary Celebration (Music from the Motion Picture). Apparently there has been no full release of the actual mysterious  Vangelis soundtrack, but this musician decided to reconstruct the soundtrack in its original form as best as he could.  It sounds great and apparently has satisfied most of the people who were complaining about the previous soundtracks.
  3. All Your Love by Siti Nurhaliza. (10 tracks, 42 minutes, $4.90). Nurhaliza is an amazing (and beautiful to look at) Malaysia singer who I discovered during my yearlong period of downloading all sorts of pirated albums from Audiogalaxy in 2001.  I loved her stuff to death. Fun, pop and catchy in an Asian way. This English album probably isn’t her best, but it’s in English, has some good songs and is the only thing emusic has by her. Which is fine (for now at least).
  4. Grandes voces melodicas. Leonardo Favio. (30 tracks, 93 minutes for $5.99). Longest compilation of this versatile Argentine singer, actor and director. Mainly love ballads and random stuff; some very catchy stuff here which when combined with Favio’s brooding and poetic voice make this a winner.
  5. Best of Ho Ngoi Ha. (23 tracks, 101 minutes, $5.99). I first heard this woman sing the traditional part on a great and funky duet on Suboi’s rap album. This is also a good collection (though the arrangements are fairly minimalist and the songs slow and bland).
  6.  Live in 67 (by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers). (13 tracks, 77 minutes for $6.37). Outstanding but low-fidelity live performances of John Mayall and the three founding members of Fleetwood Mac. Amazing stuff.
  7. The Yardbirds Story by Giorgio Gomelsky. (89 tracks, 290 minutes for $6.49). Amazing 4 CD collection of Yardbird stuff between 1963 and 1966.
  8. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. Music Soundtrack. 20 tracks, 68 minutes, $5.99).
  9. Acadian All-Star Special: The Pioneering Cajun Recordings of J.D. Miller. 78 tracks, 209 minutes for $7.50) . Pioneering is a fine word for this great compilation of early Cajun stuff. Apparently JD was a collector of old 78s, and these haven’t been heard in a long time.
  10. Ondatrópica by Ondatrópica. (Soundways Recording). (19 tracks, 77 minutes). Multigenerational collaboration of Columbian singers (old and new), featuring cumbia mixed with a variety of  contemporary styles.
  11. Predestinación by ARIES VIGOTH. 12 tracks, 47 minutes for $6.49.
  12. 20 Exitos De Cristina Maica CRISTINA MAICA. 20 tracks, 60 minutes for 5.99.
  13. Ekstasis (Expanded). Julia Holter. (15 tracks, 92 minutes for $6.49). Experimental mood music.
  14. Various  80s Ital0-Disco compilations, starting with this double-disc one: The Best Off Disco 70/80, Vol. 2 (30 tracks, 174 minutes, $5.99). Other volumes in the series go about 110-120 minutes.  which all have about 110-120 minutes: Best of Italo-Disco Vol 1, Best of Italo-Disco Vol 2 (not to be confused with the double compilation listed above) and Best of Italo-Disco Vol 4. Personally I liked Vol 1 the best (maybe because it’s the first of the series I listened to). The vocals don’t particularly stand out, but the retro disco instrumentals can go to remarkable places. This  label has  a limited number of artists in its stable — and these are NOT the well-known ones in Italo disco, but these are lively and mindlessly fun.Here’s a Pitchfork article about the phenomenon: “Who on earth ever thought that these were good ideas for songs, or that they could become hits? And why, ill-fitting as it is, do I still find some of these strange songs stuck in my head? There will always be something a bit off about Italo but that might be what makes it so pliant, so resilient. It’s failures become its strengths. Its sexiness is like a mannequin posed for a hug, its futurism like a cyborg soaked in seawater, trying to pass as human.”

April 2015. I now have $300 worth of credits to my name. Time to do some serious music shopping. For the next few months, I can stop going for the compilations and start buying newer artists and even fit in some jazz artists (thanks to the smart reviews of the latest jazz releases on the birdistheword blog).

  1. Sun Rockabilly Meltdown, (103 tracks, 236 minutes for $5.84). Besides the familiar Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, a lot of new new names to me.
  2. Snake Box by Harvey Mandel (47 tracks, 236 minutes for $6.49). Famed blues player in a gigantic box set. Incredible compilation!
  3. Boleros: Volume 1 and Volume 2 are both hefty albums, weighing in at 180 minutes each for $6. Boleros are slower, gentler songs, and both volumes contain lots of classic singers like Olimpo Cardenas, Los Ponchos, Julio Jaramillo, Los Dandys and Daniel Santos.
  4. Grandes Exitos Vol 3 and Vol 4 by Las Hermanas Calle (each are 16 tracks, 45 minutes for $6.49) Emusic didn’t have volumes 1 or 2. This sister duet from Venezuela has some lovely ballads and boleros dating over several decades. (Bio in Spanish here). Traditional but engaging stuff.
  5. (On bandcamp, not  Emusic — but worth mentioning anyway because of the bargain aspect, 250 substantial  tracks for  minimum $18 donation). Touched Two compilation of ambient/electronic music. Quality varies (and I heard some glitchy things which I removed), but for the most part it sounds like ambient/New Age music by lots of electronic artists. (I assume that they are British/European, because the money benefits cancer research in England).
  6. (On Amazon, for $5 – $1 credit). Greatest Hits: Lean on Me by Bill Withers. (18 tracks, 74 minutes for $5 make this one a steal).
  7. Everything I do Gonh Be Funky  By Allen Toussaint. (40 tracks, 107 minutes for $6). Compilation of greatest 50s, 60s and 70s arrangements of this famed Louisiana-based musical producer.
  8. Happy Times in New Orleans ( Early Sessions: 1958-1960) By Allen Toussaint. (20 tracks, 40 minutes for $6). Lively minimalist jazz piano pieces with occasional vocals.

Special SXSW List I am keeping a separate list of SXSW finds which are priced normally — but still good deals considering the booster credits. This list will incorporate more than one month. Update: I am still only about 1/3 into my 2015 SXSW picks, and I started listening to great tracks from 2011 SXSW. For convenience I will be mingling all SXSW discoveries on this list.

  1. Walk by Suboi (9 tracks, 32 minutes for $4.41). Suboi is a Vietnamese rap singer whose songs are peppy and bilingual and fun.
  2. It’s Alive by La Luz. (11 tracks, 33 minutes $5.39). Good upbeat girls surfer rock by a featured Los Angeles group at SXSW 2015 with hints of anarchy throughout.
  3. Bernhari by Bernhari. (11 tracks, 46 minutes, $5.39).  Energetic Canadian instrumental band with elements of dream pop. Absolutely original.
  4. Your Old Droog by Your Old Droog. (18 tracks, 59 minutes for $6.49). It is rare when I stumble upon a rap album which 1)is not laced with profanity, 2)has nice musical elements and clever lyrics. This album is the pleasant exception. Ironically the singer (who was initially mistaken for NAS) is actually a young Ukrainian-American living in NYC.
  5. Total Strife Forever (Deluxe Edition), East India Youth. (12 tracks, 107 minutes, $8.99). This great electronic album also contains the 54 minutes “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.”
  6. Kalaboogie and the Prosper Project by Doomsquad. (Each about 45-55 minutes for $5.99). Electronic/percussion Toronto-based band with moody hypnotic effects — including the occasional vocals. Think Yo La Tengo with a dance beat.
  7. Another Way to Live and the World You’re Living In by Amber Digby. (35 minutes for each $5.88  album). This Houston native sings unassuming and winsome country songs which remind me a lot of Willie Nelson.
  8. Hanging Spoons by Gina Chavez. (12 tracks, 55 minutes, $5.88)  Eclectic half-Mexican Austin singer-songwriter who alternates between the Latino sound and Texas country — a little like Rosie Flores.
  9. Ways Over Water. Fritz Kalkbreiner. (13 tracks, 72 minutes, $5.19) Berlin electronic artist.
  10. Obsidian Spectre by  Crosss. (8 tracks, 42 minutes for $5.99). Grandiose and Symphonic-sounding heavy metal.
  11. Solstice by the Heaters. (8 tracks, 26 minutes, $3.92). Fierce surf-psychedelic garage rock by a Michigan band. A hard pounding drum beat ensures that you don’t get lost in the haze. This band has become one of my fave discoveries from this year’s SXSW.
  12. Life as a Dog by K-Flay (11 tracks, 44 minutes, $5.39). Gnarly and Arty rap by a San Francisco girl.
  13. Unorthodox by Sno that Product. (17 tracks, 49 minutes, $5.99). Latin rapping  by a tough-talking California girl. Think of Eminem, but it’s a lot more danceable. Actually she’s the Latino M.I.A. with lots of electro-pizzazz  underneath the lyrics. Some pottymouth-ery, but generally there’s a social purpose behind it.
  14. Ninety Thirty Thirty by Fielded. (11 tracks, 36 minutes, $5.39). fieldedLyrical self-produced album by Lindsay Powell, a girl with a voice like Blondie, clever arrangements, surprising space melodies and deliberately slow tempos.
  15. Fantastic Negrito Deluxe EP. R& B with guitars. (7 tracks, 26 minutes, $3.43).
  16. Everyone you love will be happy soon.  by Quiet Company (15 tracks, 60 minutes, $5.99). Plaintive country rock.
  17. Loose Ends by Francisco the Man.  (10 tracks, 50  minutes, $6.99)
  18. Insides by Fort Rameau. (8 tracks, 52 minutes, $6.99).
  19. Under the Surface by Marit Larsen. 11 tracks, 37 minutes, $5.99.  Larsen is a Norwegian pop sensation and songwriter who seems like a less angrier version of Alanis Morissette.
  20. Where We All Live EP by Wheelchair Sports Camp. 6 tracks, 24 minutes for $2.94. A  sort of rap/jazz/punk band from Denver fronted by a rapping girl in a wheelchair. Sounds like a freakshow, but it’s actually good music — and also very fun.
  21. Black Hole Lace. by Kemp & Eden. (9 tracks, 30 minutes, $4.41)  Slow and Arty two-part harmony dream pop by two cute girls with offbeat lyrics.
  22. Selections from Analog Rebellion. Texas Songwriter  Daniel Hunter writes a lot of off the wall songs with bizarre themes and lyrics, but the music is always remarkable. Hunter’s band is prolific, and I ended up picking songs from all his albums.  The albums I took the most songs from included: Ancient Electrons, Evaders,  and Cavanaugh, Something.
  23. 1993-2003: 10 Years of K’s Choice. Compilation. 18 tracks, 64 minutes for $5.99 Laid back 90s grrl rock. It probably needs to be rowdier, but a good restrained Greatest Hits album.
  24. Waving at the Sun by K’s Choice.  12 tracks, 34 minutes, $5.88. More recent album by the band which is absolutely ethereal.
  25. You can’t take a bad girl home. Fabulous Ginn Sisters. (10 tracks, 33 minutes, $4.90).
  26. Collection 1: An Embarrassment of richard. by Richard Barone. (15 tracks, 63 minutes,  $5.99). Volume 1 compilation album of Richard Barone, singer for the Bongos and music producer who writes  slow catchy pop songs. Update: I also bought Collection 2: Before and Afterglow (22 tracks, 76 minutes, $5.99) which I liked even better. It’s slower, more interesting and still fun.
  27. 2 Albums by Secret Colours: Peach and Positive Distractions.
  28. Selections from Extra Classic. (From Showcase and  You Light like White Elephants).  This San Francisco group plays a lot of easygoing dub/reggae (more). The songs are somewhat interchangeable, but the girl’s singing and the jamming guitars makes it refreshing to listen to.

March 2015. Wow, another booster credit sale! Although I will be scoping out the mega-compilations,  I want to grab some by newer artists, especially discoveries from SXSW.

  1. Boston by Fleetwood Mac (30 tracks, 213 minutes for $11.80).  Great and expansive blues track by early Fleetwood Mac when Peter Green was fronting it.

Feb 2015. Finishing off the credits and returning to normal. But I still have a lot of megacompilations to buy! Over the last 3 months I seem to be getting most of my emusic recommendations from a single forum post about multidisc compilations. Indeed, I’ve added a lot to this thread as well.

  1. Rare Soul and R&B Masters. (100 tracks, 263 minutes for $6.49). Wonderful collection of singers and songs I have never heard of. I had expected to recognize a few names, but with the exception of Tony Orlando(!), Brenda Lee (!)  and  Gloria Gaynor, none of them ring a bell.  Like other compilations, these are digitalizations of  “needle-drop recordings” from the 60s,  but they are  still  lively and good-sounding.
  2. Mag All Stars Vol 1 and Vol 3 are compilations of lively 50s Peruvian nightclub gems. Lots of salsa/mambo/nutty jazz stuff by unfamiliar names. Each about 71 minutes for $6.49, both are great deals which come from Repsyched Records.
  3. Lucho Gatica. (107 tracks, 350 minutes).  This A to Z collection is a grabbag, but it contains the major hits of this Latin American singer.

Jan 2015. Continuing to spend the booster credits from last month.

  1. Five Album Set & Bonus EPs. (72 tracks, 291 minutes for $5.99). The American Dollar. Great rock instrumentals which have a symphonic quality. Engaging, exciting (like early Rush).
  2. Petula Clark Legacy. (57 tracks, 150 minutes, $6.49).This generous album contains mainly minor tracks, show tunes and cover tunes– before Petula Clark hit the big time and started producing great 60s rock songs.  But the songs here show an earlier style; they are fascinating, very hummable and entertaining. The good news is that there is virtually no overlap between this album and the more conventional compilation Petula Clark  albums. See also the practically identical compilation It Had to Be You. Unfortunately the best compilation of her rock period (Ultimate P.C.) used to be on emusic, but was taken off during last year’s exodus of  big labels.
  3. Ibiza’s House of House (Compilation 52 tracks, 323 minutes, $5.99). This excellent and long compilation of recent progressive trance has many high moments, plus the songs are all unedited, so you get the full versions.
  4. Countrypolitan Classics by Eddie Arnold (44 tracks, 121 minutes for $5.19).  This Great series contains long compilation of country legends for bargain prices.
  5. Lo mejor de Julio Jaramillo (78 tracks, 224 minutes for $5.84). Great compilation by the great Ecuadorian singer.
  6. Cuba Cubaneando by Benny More (91 tracks, 273 minutes for $5.84). Great combination of old tracks by this Cuban crooner.
  7. Best of Caterina Valente. (52 tracks, 151 minutes, $6.49).Really outstanding compilation of 50s and 60s showtunes/Latino and early rockish sounds by an Italian singer who also made it very big in US and other countries. I loved almost every song. Some of them were just wacky!
  8. Indie Psyche Rock: Rare Recordings from the Attic (58 tracks, 176 minutes $5.84) This is a great, energetic and zany compilation. Really one of my favorite emusic purchases!

 

December 2014/January 15. Another 2 for 1 Booster Credit Month. This time I bought $75, so I’ve been buying a lot of stuff.

  1. Celia Cruz la Reina de Cuba. (45 tracks/126 minutes for $6.49).
  2. Scared to get happy (Compilation of British punk hits — 50 tracks/149 minutes for $6.49). Update: Further listening to this album makes me less than impresed.
  3. VA – Kerrville Folk Festival – The Early Years 1972-81 ($6.49, 518:08, 135 tracks)and VA – Kerrville Folk Festival – The Silverwolf Years ($6.49, 397:56, 95 tracks)
  4. 100 Años de Historia Musical, Vol. 1  and Vol 2 by Lucho Bermudez (each 60 minutes for $6.50). Latin America’s equivalent to Benny Goodman and Big Band. Great stuff.
  5. Los Reyes del Merengue by CHAPUSEAUX Y DAMIRÓN (12 tracks for 30 minutes). A really fun and elegant album by the great merengue masters. Appearances by vocalist Sylvia de Grasse and flautist Gilberto Valdes really balance it all out and make it feel like a magical combination.
  6. chapuseuxDiscos Fuentes Guillermo Buitrago Collection (25 tracks, 74 minutes for $5.99)
  7. Discos Fuentes Pedro Laza Collection PEDRO LAZA Y SUS PELAYEROS (25 tracks for 68 minutes for $5.99)
  8. Wartime Years — Wartime Memories, (200 tracks, 596 minutes for $6.49)
  9. Moochin’ Abouts Stateside Hitlist 1962 (292 tracks,  760 minutes for $6.49).
  10. Moochin’ about Bossa Nova, (70 tracks, 217 minutes for $6.49).
  11. Various psychedelic compilations: London Underground ,(46 tracks, 156 minutes for $6.49), Rare Tracks (89 tracks, 256 minutes for $4.40), 100 Psychedelic Trips (Stoner Rock, Garage Rock, Acid Rock) (100 tracks, 328 minutes for $5.84).
  12. Wussy, Attica. (11 tracks, 42 minutes for $5.39). Rated A+ by Robert Christgau
  13. Retrospektive Deluxe Edition by Nektar. (38 tracks, 194 minutes for $5.84). Great symphonic rock.
  14. Girls, Girls, Girls, Vol 1. (174 tracks, 421 minutes). Random grabbag of unknown female tracks from 50s and 60s. I recognized almost none of them!

November 2014. OMG 2 for 1 Booster Credit Month. Time to go crazy!

  1. City: Works  of Fiction (Expanded Edition) by Jon Hassell. (202 minutes for $8.60) Phenomenally interesting free form ambient jazz soundscapes by a well known avante-pop artist who frequently collaborates with Brian Eno. This totally wowwed me and I am looking forward to picking up Fourth World: Volume 1, which is a classic work which should be available in digital form very soon.
  2. Grandes Exitos de Tete Montoliu . More of the great Spanish jazz pianist (See my comments below).
  3. Kenya Special: (Selected East African Recordings from the 1970s and 1980s). Another great Soundways compilations. Unfortunately overpriced at 11.98, I can afford it with my booster pack credits.
  4. Blind Troubadour of Oaxaca . Alonzo Cruz. Damn those overpriced high-quality Smithsonian Edition recordings. Here’s a 42 minute compilation from the 1960s which is great, spare and memorable.
  5.  Myaskovsky: Selected Symphonies. 204 minutes for $6.50
  6. Two Marimbas from Oaxaca, Mexico . by FAUSTINO GONZÁLEZ RIVERA AND SILVERIO PASTELÍN NAVARRO
  7. Salmanov: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 (Live). 115 minutes for $6.50
  8. Various Punk 45 Compilations from the 1970s. “There Is No Such Thing As Society: Get A Job, Get A Car, Get A Bed, Get Drunk! Underground Punk in the UK 1977-81”, Sick on You ! One Way Spit ! After the Love & Before the Revolution ” and “Kill the Hippies! Kill Yourself! The American Nation Destroys Its Young“. Amazing and jarring compilation of rowdy songs by various underground bands and one hit wonders. Opened a new musical world for me.
  9. Still Some Light by Bill Fay (123 minutes for $6.49). Soulful and almost spiritual ballads with a New Age sound. Bill Fay is an overlooked gem.
  10. Afrosound of Columbia Vol 1 (158 minutes, 43 tracks for $5.84).
  11. 2001-9, Durutti Column,  (329 minutes for $11.96).
  12. Jazz on Film (New Wave) Vol 1-7. (385 minutes for $6.49). Great stuff from European 60s films
  13. El Barrio: Ultimate Collection of Latin Boogaloo, Disco, Fun & Soul (Fania Records). (240 minutes for 6.50). Good collection by a major U.S./ Latin label from the 60s. This label brought us a lot of names which we regard as household names in Latin music now.
  14. Clair Denis Film Scores 1996-2009 by Tindersticks. (189 minutes for $3.89).
  15. Moochin’ about Stateside Hitlist (1961). (853 minutes for $6.49).
  16. The Bats: Volume 1. (169 minutes at $6.99). Great compilation of a leading 90s Australian punk band.
  17. Jazzactuel: Collection of avante-garde/free jazz psychedelia from 1969-1971 (223 minutes for $5.99). Pretty trying  cerebral tracks, but a good change of pace.

October 2014. Classical music time:

  1. Complete Symphonies by Shostakovich , 700 minutes for $6.49, conducted  by KIRILL KONDRASHIN. See this laudatory article about this cycle.
  2. Cantares de la Revolución Mexicana y Canciones Norteñas, Various. (117 minutes for $6.49). This random 2 disc compilation of songs from the Mexican Revolution period (1910-1920) stands out as containing a fair number of well-known singers and unknowns, not terrible sound quality (though not great), a variety of songs and really beautiful melodies.
  3. Music for Anna by Tete Montoliu. Excellent bargain-priced  ($3!) jazz session in the later part of Montoliu’s career. This Spanish jazz pianist seems to be little known, and yet his career  spans decades. Next month I will definitely be grabbing the Grandes Exitos de Tete Montoliu  (105 minutes for  5.84) which takes from several different albums.

September 2014. Amidst the scary announcement that emusic is dropping lots of titles by the big labels, there is still lots of good indie stuff to get into:

  1. Deep in the Shallows by The Church.(154 minutes for $6.49). Outstanding compilation of 20 years of hits by this Australian jangle rock band. One reviewer called the songs on CD 2 to be amazing, and I agree. As the album winds down, the sound is more balanced and moodier. Less about trying to rock you, more about trying to grasp at something unfathomable.
  2. Спасибо by Zemfira (ЗЕМФИРА). Zemfira is a female singer who hit the Russian pop scene in the 1990s with her self-titled debut album. All my students liked her, and I did too. 15 years later, I can’t help but wonder what she has done  in the meantime.  Here’s the answer! Although some of her intervening albums were forgettable, this one had lots of great moments.

August 2014. I upgraded my membership so I had $16.99 of credits per month by paying $134 for the year. On another note, I made a major purchase of used CDs from half.com, including a bunch of ultracheap imports of jazz box sets and all sorts of random 90s stuff. So I haven’t been wanting for music.

  1. RCA 100 Anos de Musica by Tony Camargo.  (107 minutes for $11.10) As tempting as the RCA 100 Anos de Musica compilation albums are,  I’ve resisted because they are so damn expensive. Instead, I have been downloading for free  from Freegal select songs by Pedro Vargas, Roberto Jordan, Armando  Manzanero, Los Churumbules de Espana (awesome!),  Emmanuel and other collections. But I couldn’t resist the Camargo collection; it sounds like early Tito Puente or 1940s Big Band; almost every track is fun and fresh.
  2. Self-Titled by  Ultimate Spinach, (9 tracks, 36 minutes for $4.41). Good 60s psychedelic music from Boston. In September I also bought the excellent sequel  Behold and See soon.

July 2014. They had their 2 for 1 emusic credit special, so this month will have some intense purchases. (Also I checked out some amazing things from the library and bought several amazing used CDs. Many titles were inspired by this great list of emusic albums (which is further evidence that great evidence are everywhere if only they can be noticed).

  1. Car Wash OST by Rose Royce (73 minutes for $5.19). A terrific album with lots of funkiness and soul. Great jazzy instrumentals too.  I saw the movie for the first time a few months ago and couldn’t believe how awesome the background music sounded.
  2. В Добрый Час (Good Luck) (1986) by Time Machine (Машина времени).  Some light-hearted songs with a folk feel but also keyboard and guitar and hints of rock and roll.  This 38 minute album from the 80s capture the early adventures of the group. Stylistically it reminds me of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine phase — frivolous, lackadaisical and a good kind of weird.
  3. Speak No Evil by Wayne Shorter (48 minutes, 7 tracks for $3.89).
  4. Wattstax: The Living Word, VA. (Live Concert). (47 tracks, 224 minutes for $11.10). Classic blues concert (which was later made into a blues documentary). Also, I added a few extra tracks from Wattstax: Highlights from the Documentary which were not included in the main concert album.
  5. Live at the Summit Club by Johnnie Taylor. (10 tracks, 64 minutes for 5.19, but you can skip the first track, which is just an  introduction).  This concert was recorded for inclusion in the Wattstax documentary, but only one of the songs ended up being used. Here’s what was left on the cutting room floor.
  6. Hello  Avalanche by Octopus Party. ($6 for 43 minutes). This Austin avante garde electronica band is fun and soothing and silly. All their albums can be streamed on their bandcamp site, but the albums are cheaper to purchase on emusic.  It’s worth noting that their band site has several free downloads.
  7. Lift Your Skinny Fists like Antennas to Heaven by Godspeed you! black emperor. ( 4 tracks, 87 minutes for $5.84). Symphonic space rock composition which is purely instrumental, gradually building up and exciting.
  8.  Greatest Rhythm and Booze Collection by Amos Milburn.  ($6 for 77 minutes).  Outstanding and fun 50s R&B tracks by a Houston singing legend. Update:  Apparently songs from this album and other songs can be downloaded for free from archive.org . (See here and here). A cursory listen to the free tracks  indicates that they  don’t suck.
  9. Best of Perception & Today Records compiled by DJ Spinna and BBE Soundsystem (154 minute compilation for $6.50). Double album compilation of 70s funky NY ethnic  soul. Lots of horns, instrumentals and yelling. I liked it more for the overall  “sound” and the instrumentals than the vocals.
  10. Rock-a-billy: Boogie Woogie Blues Man. By Roy Gaines. (37 minutes for $6).  More R&B stuff by a Houstonian I hadn’t heard of. (Actually I guessed correctly that he was related to Grady Gaines of the Upsetters).
  11. Feel the Heat by Henry Paul Band.  A recent Southern blues rock band with lots of power. Great mainstream kind of sound.
  12. Come Again by Even. Surprisingly engaging Australian pop band from the 1990s that has a 60s like Beatles sound (along with occasional dissonances and wit).
  13. Irish Tour by Rory Gallagher. (Live concert: 71 minutes for $4.54).  Highly regarded concert of Irish blues guitarist Rory Gallagher when he was in his prime.
  14. Mark-Almond ’73 by Mark-Almond. (40 minutes for $2.94). Unclassifiable downbeat rock.
  15. Black-top Blues-o-rama Volume 4, by Various Houston blues artists performing at New Orleans (I think).  Some great and powerful stuff, especially Grady Gaines and Big Robert Smith.
  16. Live by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. (48  minutes for $5.39). This album was dinged on allmusic for bad acoustics, but I didn’t notice it. This album shows how exciting Gatemouth can be in person (I saw him once and can attest). He floats effortlessly between genres, and this particular recording emphasizes the more energetic jazz stuff.
  17. Soul Makassa by Lafayette Afro Rock Band. (Plus 1 or 2 tracks extra from other albums including the great Ozan koukle)
  18. Rosie Flores by Rosie Flores.  (30 minutes for $5). Great 1987  debut album by this  Texas country singer . Traditional country with a strong guitar presence and hints of rock and roll.  She sticks to  the genre pretty closely, and I personally prefer the more soulful songs like “Somebody loves, somebody wins” than the more upbeat numbers.
  19. #7885 Electropunk to Technopop 1978-1985  by Cabaret Voltaire. (77 minutes, 19 tracks for $7). A fairly accessible collection of CV’s midcareer works, and a good introduction to what this avante pop/electronica band was  all about.
  20. Full Gain by Grady Gaines and the Texas Upsetters. (Selected tracks at 49 cents each). I spent the rest of my balance on this classic Texas saxophone-led blues band. Although the fast-paced stuff is fun and funky, the slow numbers (like If I loved you a little less and Miss Lucy Brown) are really where this band shines.

June 2014. I’m still on the basic plan (hopefully I can upgrade in 1 or 2 months). But I found 3 great low-cost LA punk compilations.

  1. Beach Blvd. Compilation (30 tracks, 65 minutes for $1.95). Here’s a Posh Boy compilation of 70s Los Angeles punk, including Negative Trend (with Rik L Rik), etc.
  2. Posh Hits #1. Compilation (20 tracks, 49 minutes for $1.95). More of basically the same genre, with Pariah, Redd Kross, Simpletones. Etc.
  3. Four Days in a Hotel Room by the Nuns (24 tracks, 72 minutes for $1.95). A really fun and versatile female-led punk group which is always sly, seductive and naughty.  Liked this a LOT!

May 2014. I downgraded my membership to the basic while I look for a job (Remember I went on a buying spree last month, so don’t worry about me!). But I bought something amazing:

  1. Francophonic 2.   (13 tracks, 148 minutes for $6.49). Volume 2 of the Franco compilation featuring tracks from the last decade of Franco’s short life.  Francophonic 1 (which is the same price and duration, but covers the early years) is also unbelievable.  I bought 3 other Franco collections below for low prices as well: Roots of OK Jazz, Very Best of 1960-2: Franco and Lisanga Ya Banganga. By Grand Maitre Franco, all of which are terrific. Although there are dozens of Franco CDs, these 5 budget compilation albums have probably no overlapping songs (well, maybe 1 or 2).

March -April 2014 (combined). I took advantage of the 2 for 1 booster credits to gain $100 of credits for only $50. Just in the nick of time because my To-Buy list is growing incredibly large.

  1. El Kravchuk. Luchshye pesni – 15 let.  (18 songs for $5.99) El Kravchuk is a Ukrainian singer with an almost  operatic voice who sings tunes with a techno pop. Some of the pieces seem low-key, lyrical, soaring, danceable. This is a compilation from the last 15 years and truly wondrous.  I didn’t warm up to it immediately when I first heard it in Ukraine, but now I can’t get enough of it.
  2. Chess Blues Box Set. (101 tracks/290 minutes for $26)  I’ve been salivating over this box set for years, and it bugs me that I haven’t been able to get it from ILL (interlibrary loan). Because the price of the digital box set is steep even with the discounts, I can only justify buying this when I have bought 2 for 1 credits.   But it is great! (I am eagerly awaiting from ILL  another blues box set called Juke Joint Blues which contains no overlap with this one).
  3. Anti 2010 Fall Sampler and Anti 2010 Spring Compilation are each about 50 minutes and cost only $ 1.99.
  4. Samantha Stollenwerck, Carefree. I’m a huge fan of this  Los Angeles singer who seems like a funkier version of Sheryl Crow with J.J. Grey’s rip-roaring bluesy style. Note that you can download some of her live concerts (legally!) for free.
  5. Dual Mono by the Greenhornes. Rowdy, traditional rocking, with almost every song a winner.
  6. Distant Earth Remixed by ATB. Really exhilarating EDM,  starting with the song accompanying the incredible Hulafantastica video.
  7. Awaara/Shree. An album which combines 2 well-known soundtracks from Bollywood movies. A bargain! (Update: Just listened again to it.  What a great collection of songs!)
  8. Noor Jehan Collection in Urdu Volume 3.
  9. Advisory Committee by Mirah. Very well-received moody shoegazing female songs.
  10. Elegancia Tropical by Bomba Estereo.
  11. Lo Mejor De Lo Mejor de RCA Victor by Libertad Lamarque. (Compilation: 40 tracks/112 minutes for $11.10) Great compilation of an Argentine singer who became wildly popular in Mexico. This stuff contains lots of songs from her Argentina days in the 1930s-40s and her later stuff for Mexican films in the 50s and 60s.  The songs are good and gushy romantic, but her voice is outstanding and very expressive. Update:  I still like this album, but very few songs really stand out as great.
  12. Originales — 20 Exitos by Jeanette. Great 20 track compilation of Jeanette’s best songs from the 80s. Lots of hidden gems here. Jeanette has a soft coy soft  like Suzanne Vega, and these tunes are catchy, pensive and very sweet.  Like a Bacharach song, these songs seem deceptively simply and formulaic, but after you unpack the lush orchestration and crescendos, you realize that there’s a lot more here than you expected. (Note: “Originales 20 Exitos” is a generic title for single artist compilations from previous decades (most are smaller than the RCA 100 Anos de Musica). Often you can choose the single CD compilation titled “Originales 20 Exitos”
  13. RCA 100 Anos De Musica – Segunda Parte ( Grandes Baladas De Los 70s) (Compilation: 36 tracks for 120 minutes at $11.10). Outstanding compilation of  Top 40 Easy Listening Ballads of the 70s by all the Mexican greats. Honestly, I wish I could buy every single of the 50+ titles — even though they were rather expensive. Unfortunately, the Mexican music business don’t have low cost compilation CDs, so this is all you’re stuck with.  In addition to single artist compilations, there are some good 2 disc compilations by multiple artists. Honestly I was torn between 3 different compilations and this one won…
  14. Slave Ambient by War on Drugs. Great guitar rumblings and electronic background to a man who sings like Bob Dylan. I can’t for the life of me understand what this singer is saying (the guitar strumming drowns it out), but the music is exciting and at the same time low-key.
  15. Snakebite by Eleni Mandell. I’ve been following Mandell for years. She writes quirky, dangerous and off-the-wall songs. Great lyrics, lots of dissonance and crazy melodies. Sure, she’s mellowing out with her later albums, but this albums comes from her I’m-still-crazy stage. Check out this awesome review of this album.
  16. Tele by Pjusk.   ($4.41) Slow subterranean ambient music that moves at a glacial pace. It’s made by two Norwegian guys who say their music is influenced by the natural landscape — living in the mountains in the snowy winters. A nice change of pace and a genuinely beautiful soundscape (dare I call it music?)
  17. Adams Effect by Pepper Adams. Last recorded performance of jazz great Pepper Adams in a cheap ($3.43) recording. This album has been on my list for over a year, and I finally got around to buying it. Lively perfection and a historically important recording.

February 2014. What luck! I posted the Refer a Friend $50 Credit and Earned $50 more credits to my account.  (PS, If you want me to send you the $50 offer, email me).

  1. Various Polyvinyl Samplers. To take advantage of the 2 week Polyvinyl sale, I’ve started downloading a number of free and very cheap ($1.50) Polyvinyl samplers. After listening to those I’ll purchase some  actual albums. Polyvinyl samplers are everywhere, so here are some links: Free samplers on  emusic: PV Digest, Hey Girl Hey, Polyvinyl SXSW 2013Winston’s Essentials. Free samplers on Amazon (but not emusic): PV 15 year anniversary, Sells for $1.40 on emusic: PV 2005 Sampler, PV 2004 Sampler, PV Summer/Fall 2005 Sampler, Simple Mental Math (2009), PV 2002-3 Sampler, PV 2009 Sampler. There’s usually 1-3 duplicates on each album,  but considering that I spent only $8.40 for about 150 unique indie tracks from an edgy label (about 4 or 5 per artist!), that’s a great deal!
  2. 100 Hits Lounge (456 minutes for $11.98). Probably a frivolous choice, but a good value and I had LOTS of fun listening to it on rdio. The concept is simple: 100 mainstream pop songs are reinterpreted  and rearranged by mostly South American jazz/lounge DJs. So almost every tune is familar, but the reinterpretations (often with jazzy vocals) are fresh, unusual and surprising. I listened to and enjoyed another 100 track lounge compilation for $5.99  called Lounge Top 100 (listed below) which contains unfamiliar tunes and I see that there’s  a low-cost sequel called Lounge Top 100 Vol 2 which I have yet to buy, but almost certainly will do so eventually.
  3. Roots of OK Jazz (59 minutes for $5.99). Early musical offerings by the legendary Congolese jazz band led by Franco. This tracks feature more of the band and less on individual stars (like Franco himself). Just as good as I’d imagine it.
  4. Very Best of 1960-2. Franco and L’Orchestra OK Jazz. (121 minutes for $6.49). Both of these albums are great; this album is a double set. Significantly, with the exception of one track, there is virtually no overlap between this album or Roots of  OK Jazz or the Francophonic 1 compilation.
  5. Places like This.  Architecture in Helsinki. ($5 for 31 minutes) . Peppy rhythmic Australian band with lots of weird sound effects and vocals.  Reminds me of Talking Heads or B52s, with a healthy dose of silliness.
  6. Fluorescence by Asobi Seksu. Great hazy electronic band by a Japanese-American artist. Shoegazing,  meditative, flighty stuff with lots of unusual beats that leave you off-balanced. I actually prefer her earlier work Citrus which was really moody, Goldfrappy  and stirring in a bold way, but Fluorescence was on sale by Polyvinyl, so I decided to get this first. Still an excellent album to contemplate by.
  7. I need you bad. Various. (Sale $5 for 15 tracks at 48 minutes).  Random collection of West Coast garage bands. No single track stands out, but there’s a variety of styles and a lot of  slow/whispery/underwater-sounding tracks. Though I loved it at first listen and like being exposed to these kind of bands, nothing really wowwed me.
  8. Noor Jehan Digital Collection in Urdu Volume 2. (73 minutes for $5.99). Sounds like Bollywood with some individual flourishes. I generally love her voice.
  9. Cartagena! Curro Fuentes & The Big Band Cumbia and Descarga Sound Of Colombia 1962 – 72 (Soundway Records). 68 minutes for $5.99. Not a bad track in the bunch. Really amazing stuff and no overlap with my other compilation albums (such as Diablos del Ritmo below).
  10. King Of History – Classic 1970s Benga Beats From Kenya. (84 minutes for 5.99). This music is characterized by fast jumpy  beats, and call and response by the chorus and the jumpy guitars . A critic writes,” the songs normally start off with a snappy guitar riff as introduction, followed by voices over lulling guitar work. Then, with the singing out of the way, the instruments get down to the serious business, galloping into double time as the guitars trade short, frantic phrases.” Love it overall, but there doesn’t seem to be any musical climaxes, just lots of rapidfire beats.

January 2014.  Still trying to figure out what to get.

  1. Noor Jehan Digital Collection Volume 1. (72 minutes for $5.99) Jehan is Pakistan’s most famous singer who sang in movies and as a playback singer. She appeared in a number of Bollywood movies as well. She has recorded over 10,000 songs (compared to 26,000 songs each for Asha and Lata).  This is the first of 9 volumes. Unfortunately this digital collection doesn’t have any sort of organization (chronological or otherwise), but the songs are great.
  2. 1992-2012 Anthology by Underworld. A 3 1/2 hour anthology for $6.50 certainly seems like a good deal, especially because the compilation of tracks by this legendary 90s techno group provides highlights of many famous albums, including their early 90s stuff. This sells for almost 3x the price on Amazon and itunes. Update: The price recently doubled on emusic. Shucks!
  3. 100% Hits der 60er 70er 80er.  (53 tracks/ 153 minutes for $4.50). I was browsing through many random compilations and came across this ultra-budget compilation of upbeat  German folk hits from previous decades. This hoaky Lawrence Welkish style (called Volkstümliche Musik) was popular among a certain class of German society — but almost certainly not German’s youth; it is roughly analogous to U.S. country, but with oompahs and occasional yodeling. I’m aware that these tracks are easy to mock,  but when I learned German at college, the music teacher used to play these songs occasionally — and it never really occurred to me that real people actually listened to this kind of music outside of an academic setting.  There is not even a whimper of rock and roll here, but a few drops of classical music. In favor of this album, most (or even all of it) seems to be by the original artists. A great glimpse into a European musical style that was buried by rock and roll and disco.

December 2013. I have since found lots of interesting things, but can’t decide what to spend it on.  Indeed, I have found several double albums and box sets available here which though cheap exceed my monthly credit. Good things will have to wait, I guess.

  1. Angola Saudade 60*70. (194 minutes for $.4.40). Apparently someone at emusic goofed, and the 4 CD version is as expensive as each individual cd. Update: This album has been removed altogether from emusic, but it is still available on Amazon. Each of the 4 CDs cost $6.99 in digital form on Amazon. It’s still a fun and remarkable album.
  2. Diablos del Ritmo 1960-1985: The Colombian Melting Pot (Afrobeat – Puya – Cumbiamba – Terapia – Mapalé – Caribbean Funk. (108 minutes for $11.98 — note: This was available on Amazon for 10.49)). I wasn’t pleased at having to pay “full price” for this album, but this album is so smooth and fun when I listened to it on Rdio that I know I will play it to death. The compiler wrote a nice long intro to the songs and how he came to know about them.  This double album ranks up there with the Soundways Original Sound of Cumbia 1948-1979 which is one of my alltime favorites. (note: this second album is also   $2 cheaper on Amazon than on emusic. What’s the deal with Columbian music being cheaper on Amazon?)

November 2013.  Using more of last month’s credit. Overdosing on Cambodian pop and neo-pop. One interesting historical fact is that about Cambodian musicians were very influenced by Western rock and dance styles; about 20% of them were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

  1. Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia. Dengue Fever collects some of their favorite Cambodian pop from the 60s and 70s. Pretty rocking stuff. Highly recommended.
  2. Cambodian Psych Out. Another Cambodian song compilation with an emphasis on psychedelic guitar rock.
  3. Dengue Fever Presents: Dancing through the Mekong. This half-compilation also features DF themselves playing some classic and original tunes.  All very good, but I should add that I fully expect to buy a DF only album next month.
  4.  Not Easy Rock and Roll.  by Cambodian Space Project. Apparently another group from Australia also is trying to squat on this Cambodian/world beat space. Surprisingly modern and  cool.
  5. Now Hear This! Winners of the Independent Spirit Award (Free sampler). A surprisingly cool collection of song winners, most of which I enjoyed. 66 songs total.
  6. Vida Mia and Very Best of Lydia Mendoza   are two dynamite compilation albums by the Latino/Tejano singer from Houston who later lived in San Antonio. Born in 1917, most of Mendoza’s  songs are from the 1930s and are absolutely boffo. mendozaMost consist of simple lyrics (all in Spanish),   solos with acoustic guitar. Yet they have a lot of vitality and heart. They are sweet and relaxing, full of Latin strumming, danceable rhythms and soulful vocals.
  7. Dandelion Gum by Black Moth Super Rainbow. Experimental arty rock by a Philadelphia band. I listened to their other incredible album Eating Us . Each song tries something different. Sounds like downtempo  dream pop with almost a cooing Yo Lo Tengo vibe. These songs are individually so interesting that I find I can relisten to these two albums a lot.

 

October 2013. Still recovering from last month’s listening and buying orgy.

  1. Lyadov Complete Piano Works, performed by Marco Rapetti (248 minutes for $6.49). (Liner Notes). 19th century Russian composer Lyadov wrote a lot of very short romantic programmatic pieces. Insubstantial, but colorful, complex. Hilariously uninterested in sonata-allegro forms, his music is reminiscent of  Scriabin and Schumann. Apparently a lot of these pieces are performed here for the first time, so for $7 in emusic credits, you can get an outstanding deal. Please note that this and other recent classical music acquisitions (aside from Argerich)  are re-releases from Brilliant Classics, a budget but high-quality label. Highly recommended, if only for historical novelty.
  2. Prokofiev. Symphonies Number 1-7. Zdenek Kosler, Czech Philharmonic. 248 minutes for $6.49.  (Long outside  Review here).
  3. Nouela. Chants. Nouela Johnston is a Seattle singer and pianist who has played with a variety of alternative bands, including Say Hi and Mon Frere. She also recorded the solo album People Eating People which I think is great. Chants is basically Nouela with a piano; it  shows  versatility, a mastery of the jazz genre and heaps of soul. I love it.

Sept 2013. Took advantage of the Double-the-Value of your booster pack. I added $50, which meant a whopping $100 of emusic credits.  I gave my nephew $30 of the music credits, that that let me still have $87 of credits which I put to good use quickly. I’m still in Africa, although I’m starting to venture into Classical Land and 80s Land. (Update: I ended up spending those $30 in credits meant for my nephew — sorry, Dylan!)

  1. Lisanga Ya Banganga. By Grand Maitre Franco. This is a collection of duets by Congolese singer Tabu Ley Rochereau and singer-guitarist Franco. I’m continuing my obsession with the Congolese jazz guitarist and singer Franco which started with the amazing collection Francophonic 1 compilation which I bought a year ago. I will certainly buy Francophonic 2, although interestingly, Amazon has lowered the price of both compilations to be $2 cheaper than emusic’s prices. This collection emphasizes singing more than instrumentals; it is very slow, tropical, laid back, and neither singer dominates any of the pieces.   The album actually combines two albums — one of them “Omana Wapi” was called by Robert Christgau one of the best albums of the 80s. Actually, though, I liked the 3 pieces not in that album called “Suite Lettres” which are softer, faster and  more contemplative. This album didn’t wow me as much as Francophonic did, but it definitely will grow on me. Highly recommended.
  2. Martha Argerich — The Collection 1. (liner notes). I was tempted to blow my entire credits on the 4 volume set, but this volume costs $14.40 and contained 374 minutes, and so I know that would keep me happy for a while. This volume contains the “solo recordings” and the selections seem to come from her remarkable and iconoclastic early performances. Next I’ll be buying Volume 2: The Concertos, but I already knew some of her early concerto performances already, so it wouldn’t exactly surprise me.  By the way, I realize that now she’s in her 70s, but some of the photos from her early days (which appear on all her album covers)  are really sexy. 600x600Update: It now appears that the encoding rate for this compilation  is substandard (ie., 160 bps VBR compared to 256CBR  on Amazon.com). This is both puzzling and disappointing. I have notified emusic about this, and hopefully this can be resolved. Update 2: They gave me a credit which I applied to volume 2 — which I am assured is high fidelity quality. Everybody is happy.
  3. Martha Argerich — The Collection 2. The Concertos. (461 minutes for $16.30 — liner notes) I am happy to report that sound quality on this volume is perfectly fine. It includes her early concert of the Ravel concerto in G and Prokofiev #3  (which are electrifying and great, the definitive recording for each piece). Included also are standard works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schumann. These are all a delight; highly recommended. One note: there are duplicate recordings of the Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven #2, so the total time is somewhat deceptive.
  4. Next Stop…Soweto is a compilation of works from South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Volume 1:  Township Sounds From The Golden Age Of Mbaqangwa contains lots of happy stuff .Volume 2: Soultown. R&B, Funk & Psych Sounds from the Townships 1969-1976  is (oops, I haven’t listened to it yet!). The tracks from  Volume 3:  Giants, Ministers and Makers: Jazz in South Africa 1963-1984 are twice as long as the other two volumes, and contain lots of interesting world jazz numbers.
  5. Singles and Sessions 1979-81 by Delta 5. Delta 5 is a British girls punk band I had never heard of (and frankly was flummoxed to learn that they even existed).  But their rowdy smartalecky lyrics  was accompanied by genuine musical ideas and unexpected transitions. I heard about them on an NPR radio show about The 80s: Were they really that bad? and even though I never heard them until 2 months ago, they’re practically my fave 80s band now. Highly recommended.
  6. Nigeria Rock Special: Psychedelic Afro-Rock & Fuzz Funk in 1970’s Nigeria is another Soundways album which I nearly bought 2 months ago.By now I know a lot about what was going on in Nigeria in the 1970s, but there were some excellent tracks not anywhere else.
  7. Shout: The Very Best of Tears for Fears.  I was vaguely aware of this 80s band and never really cared for them, but while listening to one of their songs in that same NPR radio show, I began to really like the moody synth sound and the pulsating rhythm permeating almost all the songs. I still am not a huge fan of the genre or the time period, but I have to concede the brilliance behind the music on this album.
  8. Kokomemedata by Komeda. I just love this Swedish band to death. It’s always dizzyingly fun, inventive lyrics backed by traditional rock sounds and slight electronic effects. I bought the very early Pop Pa Svenska a few months back and loved it with reservations. This album is more mature, a lot more fun and solid. Ironically I haven’t listened to their middle (and most famous) album The Genius of Komeda, but I’ll be hitting that next. This album is fun, fast and  brilliant.
  9. Electro Perfecto by Mike Viola. I found out about Mike Viola from Willfully Obscure’s Top 100 albums of the decade.  Ironically I didn’t buy the 2 albums this blog recommended, but this one is very clever and well-put together. Unconventional lyrics, catchy melodies. I’m definitely going to check out his other works, especially the Candy Butchers stuff he did in the 90s.
  10. Lil’ Golden Book by Princess Chelsea is more slow dreampop, this time from New Zealand. It’s moody, electronic and full of keyboard, child-like melodies and really memorable singing styles. Sounds more like crazy kids lullabies than pop songs though.
  11. Czech String Quartets by Stamitz Quartets  903 minutes! (liner notes here) contain quartets by Dvorak, Smetana, Martinu and Janaceck.

August 2013. Finishing the low price but  gigantic Middle Eastern singer collections.

  1. Mohamed Fawzi Complete Works. (176 tracks for 904 minutes).
  2. Layla Mourad Complete Collection (90 tracks for 369 minutes).
  3. Mughal-e-azam. Movie Soundtrack. Songs by Naushad Ali.  Voiced by playback singers such as Lata Mangeshkar and classical music artists such as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (who sang some qawwalis songs).  Unbelievably good (and famous soundtrack) which features uplifting and philosophical songs. Highlights (for me) include Mohammad Rafi’s Ae Mohabbat Zindabad and Teri Mehfil Mein Kismat,  qawwali duet where two women battle over the heart of the Prince (and the nature of love itself).  Each song costs 49 cents and there’s no album discount, making it good to use when you have extra credits.
  4. United Breaks Guitars (and the two  sequels) . Dave Carroll.  The two sequels to the original viral video song are just as good and fun…plus they only costs 49 cents each.  Love the fact that the songs immortalize United Ms. Irwig (what a name!).
  5. Free Sets. Various.

July 2013 (includes a $20 booster which I paid for). I’m taking advantage of a great sale of Soundway Albums.  All these albums were $4.99 until the end of July.

  1. 24 Hours in a Disco 1978-1982. Kiki Gyan. This album came from nowhere. It is as good as disco gets. KIKI GYAN joined the well known Afropop/ Worldbeat band in the 70s at the age of 16, They performed in UK, came in contact with lots of American pop luminaries, until Gyan decided to try his luck in the US. This album bears an uncanny resemblance to the Donna Summer/Disco Inferno sound. My fave track is Disco Dancer (great jivin’ keyboard!), but Disco Train did somewhat well. Highly recommended ( though there are only 7 tracks).
  2. A Nigerian Retrospective 1966-1979 (Double CD Album). Tunji Oyelana. Some of the tracks are more artsy/expressive than fun, but for a double album, it’s a great buy. Highly recommended.
  3. Nigeria Afrobeat Special: New Explosive Sound in 1970s Nigeria. Highly recommended. This album really rocks. I love almost every track
  4. The World Ends: Afro Rock & Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria (Double Album).  Some of the tracks are so-so,  but highly recommended because it’s a double album and still has a lot of obscure winners.
  5. Dancing Time, the Best of Eastern Nigeria’s Afro Rock Exponents 1973-7  Funkies. I downloaded selected mp3s here. (I had two of their songs from other compilations). Great stuff.
  6. Soundway presents Ghana Soundz (Afro-Beat, Funk and Fusion in 70s Ghana). Highly recommended.
  7. Ghana Soundz Vol. 2: Afro-Beat, Funk and Fusion in 70s Ghana
  8. Afro-Baby: Evolution of the Afro-Sound in Nigeria 1970-9. A good album, but I didn’t have enough credits to buy the whole thing. Instead I bought the rare Fela Kuti track.
  9. Soundway presents Nigeria Special Vol 2 (Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds and Nigerian Blues). I bought Volume 1 on Amazon (for twice the price), and I’m assuming Vol 2 is just as good.
  10. Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-1980. T.P. Orchestra Poly-Rythmo. Highly recommended.
  11. Emusic Hidden Treasures 2013 Sampler (38 tracks/157 minutes! for free! A great compilation of tracks from hot artists from various genres. With the exception of  one death metal track (ugh!), all the tracks are delightful.

June 2013: (includes a bonus “Thank You” credit of $20 from Emusic)

  1. Sabah. Complete Collection (146 tracks — 868 minutes! for $6.49) Sabah is a great Lebanese singer who sang and appeared in many movies in the  1940s and 1950s.  Definitely more upbeat and pop than Kalthoum. Also, the songs are shorter, more dramatic and energetic — many came from movies. For this reason, I think Westerners would find her music more than palatable. This and the other “complete collections” have a few recordings of subpar quality, but most are listenable. For the record, Sabah has recorded thousands of songs, so I’m assuming that this is a good sample.
  2. OUM KALTHOUM. Complete Golden Collection (Remastered) (60 tracks — 2276 minutes for $5.84). Kalthoum is a famous classically trained Egyptian singer who was famous for singing numbers which lasted as long as an hour or two.  This comprehensive collection includes her beloved Enta Omri song/concert as well as lots of other extended numbers. She usually sings with a full grand  orchestra, and her extended songs sound more like symphonies alternating between the orchestra and her intense solos.
  3. Mohamed Abdelwahab (Complete Collection)  (249 tracks — 1957 minutes for $6.49) Mohamed Abdelwahab is a classically trained singer/composer and contemporary of Kalthoum. He was known for his Western influences and for the songs he wrote for Kalthoum and other people.
  4. Farid El Atrash (Complete Collection). (111 tracks — 980 minutes for $5.84) Farid El Atrash is a Syrian-Egyptian singer and composer who performed in many movies in the 1940s through 1970s.
  5. Shadia (Complete Collection) (137 tracks — 784 minutes for $6.49). Shadia is an Egyptian actress and singer who was features in many films between 1940s and  1970s.
  6. Abdel Halim Hafez (Complete Collection) (115 tracks — 1429 minutes – $6.49). Abdel Halim Hafez is a legendary Egyptian singer who sang a lot of uplifting and patriotic songs. He was also a protege of Mohamed Abdelwahab (listed above).
  7. Mark Bernes. Song “Cranes”. A gorgeous song written and performed by Bernes a month  before his actual death. The words come from a famous poem about soldiers who died in World War II.  I’ll buy the rest of the album later. Update: I bought about 5 other Bernes songs, all of them good but not as good as Cranes.
  8. DJ Rap. In the Lazers EP. is a cheap dance-techno EP which cost only $1.96. I basically bought it to spend my remaining balance, but  I’m  a big fan of it too.

May 2013:

  1. El Inolvidable by Tito Rodriguez is a great and almost comprehensive collection of vocal hits by the Puerto Rican mambo singer (i.e., the other Tito). Note that this album is identical to another album Anthology which is slightly more expensive. The 12 minute intro number introducing each performer is rather insufferable but quaint too, but even so, 107 minutes for $6.50 is an amazing deal.
  2. Ima by BT  is an early 1990s trance album by BT with some great soaring moments (Loving You more) and a sampling of Tori Amos which was wildly popular (Blue Skies).  The first album ESCM is also legendary (though somewhat New Age dreamy by contemporary standards). Unfortunately the album itself is not for sale digitally, but I made a youtube playlist of it.
  3. A certain smile, a certain sadness by Rocketship is a vivid and retro mellow electronic album in the style of Stereophonic.  This album (their only one) first came out in 1996.

Now here’s the rest of the albums which I had been purchasing since December 2012.

  1. Best Of Mushroom Jazz, Vol 1 – 5 by Mark Farina.  Farina makes these slow and funky jazzscapes full of random samples and spoken words.  It blends together very well, and actually it’s soothing enough that it doesn’t distract.  I have fallen asleep to many of these unending mixes.  I would have rather bought each volume separately, but this is a good sampling. Sometimes things sag and slow down, but  like  Gong’s soundscapes  (see below) it’s always headed  to interesting places. Ultimately, I bought this more for novelty’s sake than any other reason, but I was not disappointed.
  2. One Day I’ll Be on Time by The Album Leaf. I have no idea why I bought this ambient instrumental album other than it had a dreamy meditative quality and it still had vestiges of a rock band  (drums, guitar, etc). It’s more mood music than anything melodramatic, but almost every track has a rhythmic energy that keeps things chugging forward.
  3. Selections from Hotel Hell and Stand Up and Fight by Richard Lee Wilson.  Richard Lee Wilson is a great blues guitarist  whose rough and roaring melodies will remind you of his idol, Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Highly recommended even though some of his tracks have an uncanny resemblance to Stevie Ray. Hey, sometimes it’s ok to be derivative!
  4. Call the Doctor by Sleater-Kinney. Shrill 90s Grrl band. This album was highly recommended in multiple places, but I couldn’t get into it except for maybe 2 or 3 songs.
  5. Pirates Choice by Orchestra Baobab. I have become a sucker for anything by this Senegalese band. They combine many styles: mbalax jazz with danceable Cuban rhythm.  A saxophone is front and center of almost each performance, and singers alternate between Spanish and Oolof.  This was a one-session album from the 1980s (“Pirate’s Choice “ ironically refers to how often their albums were being bootlegged). Highlights include   bluesy Ndiaga Niaw and the slow and deliberate Ultrus Horas. Highly recommended.
  6. Selected Ambient Works by Aphex Twin (1985-1992): This early electronic album has been called an early groundbreaking work of electronic music. Personally I found it too minimalist for my liking. Not bad, but it had a tinny and cheap techno feel sometimes. It’s certainly a good listen, but it doesn’t compare to the richer symphonic creations of Tangerine Dream (see below).
  7. Pragamatic by Praga Khan. Praga Khan provides the turbocharged electronic energy behind the ground-breaking underground band, Lords of Acid. All of his 90s albums are great (I have them as CDs).  Classify under hard-hitting /house/dancey band with a European feel.
  8. Rehearsals for Departure by Damien Jurado. One emusic editor recommended this acoustic singer-songwriter, and  for the hell of  it I decided to buy this early album.  Jurado has a distinct and fragile voice, and his  country  songs are rich, tightly written and arranged with traditional harmonica and guitar. I think the poetic  lyrics are more interesting than the melodies (which are slow, lilting and heartfelt). But the whole package is so pleasant and sincere that I am able to overlook the fact that the songs aren’t particularly hummable.
  9. Best of Douglas Sahm & Sir Douglas Quartet (1968-1975) .  Tom Moon of 1000 Recordings to Hear before you die ranked this Texan singer’s compilation CD  as one of his fave recordings. Doug Sahm plays a lot of downhome country songs with a slight Tejano and polka  feel. A pleasant addition to the  traditional mix  of instruments is a jazz sax; however, the songs demonstrate a variety of styles and instruments  ranging from rock blues (I’m not that Kat anymore), country ballad (Texas Me), funky pop, and even 50s rock and roll. Everything feels simple and  old-fashioned (even for 70s music) but I think his best songs are these slow, understated  upbeat country songs like Mendocino and Sunday Sunny  Mill Valley Groove Day.
  10. Tangerine Dream: The Virgin Years (1974-1978). I was only vaguely familiar with Tangerine Dream, but I heard that their early electronic  stuff was more interesting and intense. This double set includes 4 complete early albums; that’s enough to get an idea about the  ground-breaking stuff they were doing.  The music has enough  momentum and keyboard crescendos to take your breath away.  It’s exhilarating, eerie, perplexing and spacey without sounding too abstruse. Highly recommended.
  11. (Real Love) (Optimo Remix)  by Factory Floor.  Here’s a dynamite single track recommended by the NPR music editors.
  12. Nothing but the Blues and Texas Swings by Herb Ellis.  Herb Ellis is an easygoing jazz guitarist who plays lovely melodies. His rendition of “American the Beautiful” is one of the most beautiful I’ve heard, and he has collaborated with many immortals (Getz, Hampton, etc). I bought Texas Swings a long time ago, and it was one of my favorite easy listening tapes. Nothing but the Blues is  one of his best  collaborations.
  13. Rough Guide to Psychedelic Africa  Rough Guides are a steal (especially on emusic). They usually contain 2 CDs worth of music, and are impeccably chosen. I check out a lot of them from my public library, but this one was conspicuously missing. The featured performer is Nigerian Victor Uwaifo, whose 10 tracks here show the jazzy highlife sound. Other highlights include great tracks by Orchestra Baobab and other performers unknown to the west. Noteworthy about Uwaifo was the prominence of the flute in his mostly guitar-driven songs. By the way, you can subscribe directly to Rough Music albums. 2 albums per month at 10$ a month (minimum 12 months).
  14. Submarine Bells by The Chills. Wonderful 80s New Zealand band who play these incredible soft rock ballads. This album is just perfect – lots of different styles, most of it lowkey synth rock with laid back qualities. I’m thinking of the Eagles/Fleetwood Mac/Police, but really I don’t think the US has any real equivalent. Highly Recommended.220px-Submarinebells
  15. Shoes – 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012.  I heard a piece on NPR about how the Shoes have basically been ignored by the public despite being loved by music critics. When i heard an excerpt of their  “easy listening” sound,  I thought, “that’s just like The Chills!” I didn’t immediately love this compilation; the sunniness of the songs can grow tedious after a while, and the singer’s voice doesn’t have a lot of emotional range. Songs like Too Late, Girls of Today, Curiosity,  Feel the Way I do and Three Times are interesting  (and catchy) songs, but they feel a little meandering. Over time I have come to appreciate  the fine textures of both the vocals and instrumentation. These songs are not supposed to overwhelm you, but they have surprisingly intricate rhythms and melodies; I just wished the songs were more memorable.
  16. Best of “Rock El Casbah” by Rachid Taha. This Algerian singer does a variety of rock and dance styles while preserving the Middle East feel.  I didn’t love this album as much as I thought I would – it seemed too mainstream and pop, but it still had great moments.
  17. Classic Titles by Boubacar Traore  Traore is a great singer from Mali, and I forgot why I bought this man’s music.  He sings these  slow and  gorgeous ballads with a solo guitar. His voice is always plaintive and yet the expressive guitar counterbalances the melancholy.  Aside from the fact that the songs from this album all seem to resemble one another,  they are powerful, intense and by far my most remarkable find on emusic. Highly recommended.traore
  18. Live at the Old Quarter by Townes Van Zandt  This live recording is supposed to be Van Zandt’s best album, and it has some interesting qualities – the small talk in between songs for example. Van Zandt has a great voice, and his songs are earnest and gentle – more country than blues. But no particular song stood out in my mind. Contrast that with Steve Goodman’s comedy songs (see below)  whose songs always made me  say, “Wow.” I realize it’s unfair to compare comic songs with serious ones and that I’m supposed to love this intimate presentation of Van Zandt songs.  But to tell the truth, I don’t think any of the songs came close to “moving” me.  Let’s  compare and contrast Boubcar Traore with Townes Van Zandt. They both have beautiful voices and a soulful style; unlike Van Zandt  (who gives the guitar a mostly accompanying role), Traore integrates the guitar deeper into the song and uses it more expressively.  Traore’s guitar almost overshadows his voice in importance to the songs.
  19. Very Best of Toot and the Maytals. Imagine Ray Charles or James Brown singing reggae songs. The songs on this compilation album are funky but also seem laid back for reggae; perhaps one could call slower songs like Never Get Weary or In the Dark  gospel or soul. Toot knows how to rock with fast songs like 54-46 That’s my number or Monkey Man or Pressure Drop or Pomps & Pride.  It’s hard to imagine a reggae singer not being overshadowed by Bob Marley’s memory, but these songs seem less political, more about faith and good feelings. To some, this underlying message might seem bland, but at least it shows that Toots is not simply trying to head down the same path Marley did.
  20. DJ Rap Presents Propa Classics Volume 1 . I’m a big fan of DJ rap’s stuff from the 1990s, but this isn’t my favorite album of hers.  I really dug Deep Inside and the downtempo Spiritual Aura 2001 (which ended the album). But the faster version of Aura was really fun too, and so was Diggable Bass. Hardstep was funky and good dance stuff. But I thought there was way too much chitter-chatter on tracks in the middle, especially Your Mind and The Lickshot. (Update: I am really liking some of her more recent stuff, including the $1.96  In the Lazers EP).
  21. World of Daevid Allen and Gong CD 1 and CD 2  So far I’ve bought 2 CDs of the 3 CD collection which contains the best of Gong from the early 1970s. When I first listened, I admit I wondered if this freeform jazzy/prog stuff was pulling my leg – it just sounds like a long drug trip. But the slow and emerging melodies always go to interesting places. It sounds like a more colorful and less dark Pink Floyd. Highly recommended — just for the experience.
  22. Steve Goodman Anthology.  Goodman is a legendary folk singer who sings these fun songs about baseball, TV,  sex, food.  This great compilation album includes lots of great live performances and  hilarious songs with guitar accompaniment. The songs are catchy, upbeat, and clever. This double album costs 11.98 on emusic vs. 17.98 on Amazon.  Highly recommended.
  23. Curve EP by Last Charge of the Light Horse . I used to know one of the performers from high school, so it was a treat to hear this album. Jean-Paul Vest has an interesting voice, and the jazzy instrumental touches really make these songs for me. The best and most accessible song is the lyrical Lately track…a real winner. The other pieces are moodier and less about the lyrics or the singing than about the winding instrumentals and silences.
  24. Pop På Svenska + Plan 714 Till by Komeda.  Komeda is a great Swedish electronic/punk band that combines dazzling special effects (a la Stereophonic) with strange rhythms and beeps, and lovely warblings by its lead female singer. Their later stuff was more palatable for the masses (one song even was played on a Powderpuff Girl cartoon). But this album (actually 2 albums re-released later ) consists of their juvenalia when they were still experimenting with styles and forms (oh, yes, the singer sang only in Swedish).  This album isn’t perfect, but it is bold and dazzling and even mind-bending.
  25. 100 Jazz Essentials  by John Coltrane.  This amazing collection of Coltrane includes both the familiar and unfamiliar. At the low price of $6, it’s a must buy.
  26. 100 Disco Hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s .  ($6) Some have criticized this  (and other) collections for not including original recordings. A number are  “one off recordings” (By that, I mean “different recordings of the same song by the same artist). Let’s not split hairs. 75% of the time, I couldn’t tell the difference, plus I enjoyed the grabbag of stuff from three decades which combines the well-known with the obscure.
  27. 100 Greatest Gospel Classic.  ($6) I totally loved this collection for $6, although it seemed to emphasize African-American gospel a little too heavily. Sound quality is ok considering that it contains lots of stuff from 30s, 40s and 50s.
  28. 100 Greatest Motown Hits . ($6) A lot of “one-off” recordings, plus a lot of singers I’ve never heard of before mixed with Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, etc… Still, I enjoyed it.
  29. 100 Original Blues Kings.  ($6!) Some of the specific recordings sound terrible, but there’s enough variety and stuff from little known artists to make up for it.
  30. Lounge Top 100 ($6) This is my favorite big compilation, especially because I haven’t heard of any of the musicians. Lounge/downtempo jazz is a genre totally unknown to me, populated by lots of South Americans and Europeans. Highly recommended.
  31. Number 1 Latin Jazz Album Ever!  (6$) This compilation  of 100 Latin jazz tracks has a lot of odd selections – quite a number from 1940s and Big Band era and Desi Arnaz?  and I suspect that these are quite a few one off recordings. Still it’s a lot of fun.
  32. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Original Soundtrack by John Williams. One late evening I awoke from bed and felt various melodies from Close Encounters flowing through my head. Aside from the amazing interplay of the musical motif  between spaceship and humans in the final scene, there is a lot of good incidental music along the way. This soundtrack was nominated for an Oscar for best musical score, but lost to John Williams’ Star Wars soundtrack (which I consider a lesser work by Williams). Of course, these are programmatic symphonic works, but it’s fun to compare and contrast with Holst, Debussy, Ligeti… Highly recommended.
  33. Wild Ones by Flo Rida. (recommended by nephew).  This collection of middle-of-the-road  techno-rap tracks   has sweet spots  (especially in the Sweet Spot starring Jennifer Lopez samples, Good Feeling  and Let It Roll tracks).  Clever instrumentals and good and catchy dance tracks, but its repetitive format gets old very quickly. Also,  it seems a victim of the loudness wars; everything is at a constant volume and can be exhausting on the ears. I think the duets between Flo Rida and females work especially well, and as long as you don’t listen too often to these tracks, they will seem great.
  34. Overexposed by Maroon 5 (recommended by nephew). These songs are described on allmusic as “soul groove,” and that’s as fair a category as any (although it inevitably includes some electronic kicks).  Highlights include: Daylight and Lucky Strike  and Sad (an interest  slow number). This album sounded a little too fashionable and prosaic for my tastes and really didn’t leave much of an impression on me.
  35. Some Nights by fun.(recommended by nephew).  I was pleasantly surprised at how engaging this pop album is.  The main vocalist Nate Reuss reminds me of Freddy Mercury — naked, boyish, expressive, full of attitude (though not as histrionic as Queen). The songs are catchy, never overproduced and always have interesting lyrics.  The sunny Why am I the one? sounds so much like the Afternoon Delight/Sara Smile  easy listening of the 1970s that it’s refreshing to hear something so unapologetically retro.
  36. Various albums by Sergent Garcia.  I saw French-born Cosmopolitan singer perform at a Brazilian international festival in Houston. He and his band sung in so many genres that I had trouble catching up. I ended up buying $8 of his 49 cent songs from 3 different albums, and got some great stuff especially from the Mascaras album. He fuses reggae with salsa and cumbia and everything else and a rapid rapping vocal accompaniment. They were amazing in live performance. Highly recommended because of the band’s  versatility.
  37. Nortec Collective Presents Clorifila: Corridos Urbanos is a great and funky  series of electronic jazz pieces with occasional cameos from horns and accordians. Everything has a tribal/ industrial/synthesized feel to it, but the occasional vocals (Naked Ladies), and the dreamy  downtempo songs (Nicole Ya No Baila Aqui and 4:15) make it clear you can’t categorize this album very easily.  This complex pieces are actually collages of Mexican folk with electronic bursts and lots of percussion (almost too much at times).  Highly recommended if only because of their ground-breaking sound.
  38. Politico by Mexican Institute of Sound

I want to mention some other titles which I bought on Amazon, Google Play and other indie sites. Generally, emusic has everything cheaper, but Amazon has some amazing prices on compilation albums and occasionally “flash sales” for 1 day on Top 40 albums.

  1. Anthology by The Clean. I bought this amazing double album for $7 on Google Play when it was on sale. (now it’s selling for $11.50).  The Clean is an important New Zealand alternative band who at times  resembles  a good rowdy grunge/garage band (Side On, At the Bottom), and at other times sounds like 60s  psychodelic pop. Try the mind-blowing Outside the Cage, Point that Thing Franz Kafka at the Zoo.  I guess they’re a kind of Velvet Underground, only smarter and more  obsessed with producing good guitar riffs than meaningful vocals. I liked this album so much that I listened to it continuously for 3 or 4 days and did not feel bored once.  Highly recommended.

(Below is a series of prefaces about emusic and their recent changes of album offerings. It used to be at the top of this post, but eventually I decided to move it off the top — because I refer to this web page so frequently).

Oct 2 2014  Update.  Last Week Emusic announced major changes to its services which is really gutting emusic’s catalog. (I suspect that emusic’s agreements for discounting prices with the major labels ran out, and now they are all refusing to renew). Some of the titles which are purchased below may not be available.  At the moment, it’s unclear whether emusic is still a good deal. I’ll post my thoughts prominently when I figure things out. In the meantime, I still have about a year’s worth of credits to spend…. Update 2. I checked the links below. About 30-40% of the links no longer work.  I’m leaving the links here despite going nowhere because of the possibility that the titles may be retored to emusic, and maybe later I’ll delete them. No longer active links include: The Martha Argerich collections — which were incredible deals  –, the RCA 100 Anos de Music (excellent but overpriced even on emusic), John Williams’ Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind,  compilations by Caberet Voltaire and by a few non-US singers, some of the Bollywood soundtracks, some hits from the 90s like Sleater Kinny, Carwash OST and top 40 crap like Flo Rida and fun.

In preparation for my book on music collecting, I signed up for emusic and  starting downloading (and paying for) digital music.   At first glance it’s hard to get what emusic is all about. Its website is  slow, you can’t stream  easily, plus there’s a membership fee. You may initially not see what the big deal is (especially because as a non-member, you only see non-member prices). But look further.

Comparison of Prices for Digital Music Albums

Name of AlbumEmusic (member price)ItunesAmazonGoogle Play
Francophonic by Franco Vol 16.4917.9911.9816.49
Call the Doctor by Sleater-Kinney5.889.999.99Not found
Some Nights by fun6.499.995.999.49
Close Encounters of the Third Kind Soundtrack6.499.999.999.49
Rough Guide to Psychedelic Africa6.499.999.499.49
World of Daevid Allen and Gong CD 15.999.999.999.49
Truth about Love by Pink8.2410.997.9910.99
12 Bit Blues by Kid Koala6.999.998.9911.49
Grace by Jeff Buckley6.499.995.006.99
Revolution by Miranda Lambert7.1410.995.00 10.99

 About the prices listed on this table. I wanted to show the dramatic price differences between emusic and everybody else. I picked these albums here at random — making sure to include a mix of Top 40 (Pink, fun) with some rather obscure new works (Kid Koala), obscure semi-oldies (Sleater-Kinney)  classics (Francophonic, Close Encounters) and some series (Rough Guides). As you can see, member prices for emusic are dramatically lower than most other  music sellers. Top 40 and “hot artists” are somewhat lower on Amazon. In addition to these “normal” lower prices for popular albums, Amazon will occasionally offer 1 day sales on bestselling albums for $1.99 or $2.99 which are definitely worth watching.  Google Play store does this occasionally too.  Also, Amazon has a special section for select golden oldies/best sellers  with regular prices of  $5 (“Dolly Parton’s Greatest Hits”,  Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”,  Black Keys’ “Magic Potion”, ) which beats emusic and all the others.  Each  store will have its special sales and promotions, but on the whole, unless the album is currently “hot,”  you can find it on emusic for 10-20%  less than anywhere else.  Emusic has lots of  low-priced compilation albums (see below for my recommendations), and so does Amazon, although not the same ones.  Amazon has a good number of budget classical music compilations, while emusic has more and cheaper  pop music compilations.  Both services offer lots of free samplers,  with Amazon.com probably offering slightly more.

For emusic you pay a membership fee which applies to your purchases. Usually when you sign up, you receive some kind of introductory gift certificate (mine was $25).  You are given several membership tiers, but you shouldn’t worry worry about that too much. Just decide how much want to spend, then sign up for the appropriate membership level. You can downgrade or even cancel later. I’ll let you in on a secret. If you do cancel, they will dangle a free month worth of credits – how awesome is that?  If you sign up for higher tiers of membership, you get bonus credits.  If you prepay a year for a Basic $12 membership or a Plus $16 membership, you receive a 30% discount. So when I pre-paid  for  one year  a Plus membership, I paid a one time fee of  $134 for credits totalling $204 ($16.99 per month for 12 months).  (Here’s a complete breakdown of emusic’s prices on their site).     Emusic’s member  prices are almost always 10-20% lower than itunes and Amazon, and sometimes even more. (Its non-member prices are basically the same as Amazon and itunes).  Besides having cheaper prices, emusic also has a higher percentage of music-savvy consumers. Emusic staff write a lot of  reviews, and these are often great picks – not only for new releases but also  obscure music and jazz stuff.

Here’s the downside.  You don’t get particularly good deals with Top 40 stuff, and you can only download it once or twice. Emusic’s website kind of sucks and it lacks a  cloud solution and doesn’t even stream music well.  So when you download, you must backup your files to Amazon cloud player or Google Play cloud player. Also, there are holes in emusic’s music catalog —  though most of the time it’s only compilations. One customer pointed out that emusic doesn’t list the bit rate for the mp3s — which is also a bummer, but I have to assume that the mp3s for sale are almost always high enough quality.

Two other interesting things worth pointing out: There’s an emusic  free daily download which changes every day.  Generally a good deal.  Plus — although the interface sucks, here’s links to various emusic  lists of bookmarked albums which I’m considering buying.

For yuks, I decided to do a comparison with Amazon prices for the things I bought in March-April 2014 (see below):

The Amazon list price for these albums amounted to $191.43
The emusic member’s price for the same albums is $124.54.
If I subtract from the total my monthly bonus credit of $5.82 and the 2-for-1 credits ($50), that means that the total I paid was $68.72 for albums which I could have gotten from Amazon for $191.43

If you add that to the fact that every day on emusic you get free tracks from random bands and that every two months or so you get a free music sampler, that adds up to a tremendous value proposition. Heck, I know I sound like a commercial for emusic, but despite its warts and all, you can really get a great value here.

Before I describe my emusic purchases, I want to make three  general observations about my music collection habits.

First, the things I buy on emusic are things I couldn’t obtain cheaply as CDs.  Hey, music labels, if your digital  prices were cheaper than the cost of used CDs on half.com or Amazon, I would stop buying used CDs altogether.

Second, because of the lower price, I take a lot more chances with the things I download/buy. I’ve made some mistakes (see below), but I’ve also found some amazing things.

Third, I also pay $5 per month to use RDIO’s streaming music service. I can often stream entire albums and later decide whether I want to buy them on emusic.     One might ask if the album is available already on Rdio, why not just listen to Rdio and never  buy anything? The answer is simple: streaming services pay shit to artists!

Each month I get $17 worth of credits, so I’ll tell which ones I get each month.  My main rule for buying is that I need to buy at least one album by a living/still performing artist — it’s easy to focus on the old stuff, and it’s important to put money into the hands of artists now so that they can perform and record tomorrow.  I won’t list half-albums below if I have already bought portions previously.

Note: Since I’m generally loving to death every single thing I buy, it’s no longer necessary to mark an album as Recommended or Highly Recommended.

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I am linking to it casually (and making only superficial comments), but this  professional code of ethics I have developed about working for the energy industry is one of my most important (and most expensive personally). 

I live in Houston, which is basically the center of many energy companies, most of which deal with fossil fuels. I would estimate that 80% of the technical job opportunities in my field (Technical Writing and Instructional Design) are in the oil and gas field. I have turned them down without exception – no matter how lucrative or promising. I generally have to explain myself to HR people and recruiters; usually people’s response to my declaration that I could not work for any oil and gas companies is absolute amazement – and almost hilarity.  “Is this guy crazy?” they must think.

I would love to remain in Houston, but it’s becoming harder to make a living here and stay true to these core ethical principles I have articulated on that page.  The irony is that I genuinely enjoy the field of technical writing – plus I think I am really good at it,  but if most   of the jobs in your city are in an industry you find abhorrent,  then what does it matter that a particular type of work is interesting or well-paying? 

I have been working on a much longer blog post about the ethical question, “Is it ethical to work for an oil and gas company?”  Stay tuned!

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Linkdump from Facebook 2

Here’s some dumping from Facebook onto my blog.  (Warning: very long!)  (This is the 2nd installment. See the first linkdump)

[click to continue…]

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Brief Book Reviews 3

Here’s my next batch of capsule book reviews.  Now that I’ve figured an easier way to lay things out, I hope to post book reviews more frequently. Next batch will have more indie ebooks, I promise! Here’s an index to my other book reviews.

DeadZone Stephen King

The Dead Zone by Stephen King. After viewing the sci fi TV series based on the novel, I decided to read the original source material. Many original elements from the TV show are here (albeit in smaller form). The book did a good job of bringing the plot to a personal level; the book called more attention to the struggle between John Smith and his parents. Because the book used fewer supernatural effects, it was actually more plausible and inward-looking. At the same time, the heavy emphasis on plot and dialogue made this story ready for TV. Aside from the protagonists, none of the characters seemed compelling or seemed to have complex struggles. This book was a train wreck, and even though I'm not a fan of Stephen King's works in general, I feel sure he must have done better than this later on. (I thought Misery was brilliant though overdone and needlessly sadistic). The premise here was great -- and so was the research about brain function, but I don't think the plot or the characters rose above cliche. As a book, it didn't work; however, some of the pop culture details from the 1970s were fun enough to make the book occasionally tolerable.

The Failure by James Greer. Great comic novel about an ill-fated attempt to rob a Korean check-cashing store and one brother's attempt to make a bundle off some Internet scam. The plot is outrageous, and full of strange characters and comic diversions and narrator long-windedness. The "Korean check-cashing fiasco" is announced to be a failure from the start, but it was delightful to hear it in excruciating detail. The book consists of many short chapters with funky titles ("Marcus, Guy's Brother, Contemplates what might have been, standing at the window of his office in Cambridge, the same day as the Korean Check-Cashing Fiasco") and lots of hilarious asides (See the one in Chapter 47 about the "plight of the underappreciated writer."). The book is about the vagaries of wealth and success and how the Internet-driven economy only makes everything more unpredictable. It's just as hard to know whether the check-cashing scheme has any chance of success as the latest Internnet technology which no one quite understands. As zany as it seems to pair a California novel with Irish narrator Tadhg Hynes, the audio book published by Iambik Press works because Hynes easily can adopt a tone of derision, pettiness and cynicism. Hands down, the audiobook was one of the funniest things I'd heard -- it ranks up with Rob McQuay's narration of Bill Bryson's "Walk in the Woods." Highly Recommended. (Also: Here's a revealing interview between Miette Elm and the author.)

Cooler, Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living by the Union of Concerned Scientists . This nonfiction reference guide provides good consumer information about how to reduce your carbon footprint. Out of the 300 page book, 30 pages are end notes, 20 pages are resources and author bios (!?), 50 pages are an introduction to climate change (unneeded by now, I think). That leaves about 120-150 pages of good stuff about home heating, food production transportation, electronics, and bringing green living to the workplace. I thought the food section had good and new information, and the home heating/utility contained useful information for home-owners. I would have liked to see more discussion about the value of organic products and more formulas for calculating footprint; for example, how do you estimate the carbon footprint of an ipad produced overseas? How do you estimate the carbon footprint of bus travel? How do you convert between different measuring units and scales? How does recycling lower your carbon footprint (if at all)? The book is the best on the market, but there really needs to be a better and more comprehensive guide on the subject. Related: I highly recommend No Impact Man (the book) by Colin Beavan and Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard.


Yu Hua brothers

Brothers by Yu Hua. This remarkable picaresque and satirical novel about the rags-to-riches tale of two Chinese brothers against the backdrop of modernization has a lot going for it. An engaging style, two well-drawn out characteristics, and a lot of political and social subtexts. It brims with scatological humor and lots of episodes and hilarious dialogue. I listened to the audiobook and confess that parts were electrifying -- either sad or humorous or both. Yu Hua's satire is so caustic that one is almost shocked to find something so daring from China. (Its far-flung reach is reminiscient of Journey to the West). One critic described it as Rabelais Meets Horatio Alger, and I think that's fair. The central character is Baldy Li, an aggressive, blunt boy whose effrontery translates into being a good businessman. His older brother Song Fanping is more modest and enlightened; at the same time he is crippled and even emasculated by his willingness to follow the traditional paths to success. The novel is more about Baldy Li's outrageous behavior and how it helps him to succeed. I liked Book 1 (which describes how the two brothers were orphaned as a result of the Cultural Revolution and how they both fall in love with the same girl). As the book goes on and focuses more on Baldy Li's business success, the plot becomes more ridiculous -- whores and incurable diseases and opulent living. I read the book as Chinese society's naive introduction to business success. The rags-to-riches fairy tale; is often unrealistic and maudlin. Many characters aren't quite sure how you make money in a privatized system, and only Baldy Li's shameless pursuit of wealth seems to be working. My favorite moment comes when Baldy Li seeks investors for his new business. Several people buy shares on the basis of Baldy Li's bluster. But when it appears that Baldy Li may not be bringing a return on their investments, suddenly these ordinary Chinese realize that capitalism itself might be a scam. This novel was ostensibly written for laughs -- and it's probably unrealistic to hold it up to a standard of realism; at the same time, I suspect that the larger-than-life character of Baldy Li doesn't seem plausible to most readers; more people probably identify with this older brother who would be in the grips of poverty were he not connected to Baldy Li. The book ultimately takes things to ridiculous heights -- to the point where I no longer cared about the outcome. I don't particularly like this novel as a whole, but it did reveal the variety of attitudes (both naive and sophisticated) that oridinary Chinese had towards privatization and dreams of prosperity. Baldy Li is really a horrible person, but the book never really hints that Baldy Li's life may not be the paradise it seems. And Baldy Li's foil (his older brother) is too impotent and bland to stand out as a credible alternative. Everyone loves a funny and boorish literary character, but I have to wonder if the author loves Baldy Li too much. The audio narrator, Louis Changchien, does an outstanding job at bringing the book to life. It's just too bad that the novel becomes a ridiculous concoction.

PuddnHeadWilson

Puddnhead Wilson by Mark Twain. This funny postbellum novel about a nitwit and a wealthy white man who learns unexpectedly that he was actually born black. I liked the early chapters , but as the plot became complex and the Negro dialect became thicker, it became harder to follow. The story proceeds haphazardly; it almost seemed thrown together. Twain's style and humor is unmistakable, but I would have preferred a more focused novel.

1000 Recordings You Must Hear before you Die by Tom Moon. At first glance, this nonfiction book seems to be a typical reference guide of best albums. But the book contains lots of unusual recommendations, lots of connections between musicians in different genres. Reading this book is pure delight. Succinct, full of collector's notes and recommended recordings and great layout for easy browsing. Every time I flip open the book, I learn some new thing both about the artist and the context in which the album was released. Even the indices are useful (they even have a "mood index" where you can find music in categories like "Music to inspire Reflection" and "Cardio Workout" and "Headphone Journey.") Unlike Dimery's book (which actually aims to be a boring reference guide), Moon's book feels more personal and less inclined to list historically important albums. Unfortunately some albums listed here are not easy to find, and Moon -- anticipating this -- does a good job of describing what you're missing. You can download a PDF listing all the recordings, and the website/blog for the book has lots of related commentary. Such a reference guide will by definition go out of date quickly, but it still will be a delight to peruse long after. Highly Recommended (though avoid the ebook edition -- which isn't as browsable or as well laid out).

1001 Albums You must hear before you die by Robert Dimery can easily be confused with Moon's classic, but they are like night and day. Dimery's book tries to be a chronological reference book, and even though the choice of albums are predictable and not particularly interesting, it is still useful to have this reference guide as a counterweight to Moon. This is the kind of book you'd want to give to your son or daughter to give them a conventional introduction to pop music from previous decades, but it won't open your eyes to much. This sounds like I'm knocking this book, and in a way I am. But as long as you don't expect cutting edge recommendations here and simply a timeline of famous albums, you'll be fine. Still, read Moon's book before this one.

Rock Snob's Dictionary by David Kamp and Steven Daly . This slim mock-reference book sounds fairly easy to write, but I wanted to mention how well the authors manage through the format of a glossary to discuss many overlooked musical styles and persons. It explains a lot of cultural terms which even well-informed listeners might miss. Also, some of the glossary items are satirical. Example: "Plangent" is a "standby rock-crit adjective used to lend a magical aura to any nonaggressive guitar-based music (even though the word's primary meaning is"loud and resounding. Perhaps this guide might merely amuse those knowledgeable about music, but I found it very informative as well. Highly recommended.

Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s . (also Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s and Rock Albums Of The 70s: A Critical Guide) By Robert Christgau. Christgau has been reviewing albums for a long time and has perfected a manner of writing of writing capsule reviews of most of the major musicians. Many of Christgau's reviews seem peremptory or missing the point of the music; on the other hand, Christgau does seem to get British punk and rap/hip-hop and is generally good at identifying duds. Despite the fact that I disagree with a lot of Christgau's reviews (he overlooks or belittles some gems), often his snap judgments can give you a sense of where to place individual albums. I'm happy to report 2 things. First, Christgau wrote a great introduction to his 90s edition which is worth reading for its own sake. Second, reviews from all of Christgau's books (and even ones published later) are easily accessed from Christgau's website. His essays are a lot more sympathetic and consumer-oriented. Finally, although Christgau covered the 90s pretty well (despite being generally unsympathetic to alternative music), I've noticed how many titles never get reviewed by Christgau. We have to be grateful that Christgau tried to review as much as he can, but the 2000s, the music world had become too large and complex even for Christau.

Hitler's Last Secretary: A Firsthand Account of Life with Hitler . By Traudl Junge. This autobiographical account of Hitler's final days became the basis for the magnificant German film "Der Untergang" (aka "Downfall." ) This book gives even greater detail, starting with the lavish parties Eva Braun used to throw in various summer houses. Junge writes long after the fact, so she occasionally throws in postscripts about what happened to some of the major and minor actors. Generally though, she writes through the naive eyes and ears of her younger naive self, describing everyone's foibles and predelictions in this typical awestruck way. This of course is a stylistic conceit, because Junge has spent the rest of her life trying to atone for her blindness, but it was important to convey without a guilty tone both logistics and the smaller events that intruded on German politics and war-planning. Probably most fascinating about the book is the afterward by Melissa Muller which describes her life post-Hitler. (For about 10 years she labored under the cloud of her past, and later, she became well known as a liberal-minded editor and publisher). She describes horrifying events (such as the various suicide pacts and the disappearance/death of her friends) with matter-of-factness. She even does not go into detail about her marriage (encouraged by Hitler) to a soldier who falls in battle. One book review mentions that Junge almost never witnessed Hitler's emotional outbursts, and in fact towards his staff he was considerate and paternalistic. I saw the movie first, read the book, and then insisted on watching the movie again. I recognize that a secretary's account of Hitler and the Nazi Party is likely to be blind to many ugly realities, but if anything it dramatized how for incurious people inside the reassuring bubble of Naziism, work and family life seemed perfectly normal ... except perhaps for secondhand reports of casualties. Ultimately, the plight of Traudl Junge is more important than that of Hitler; it's eye opening to read about how ordinary and basically good people become caught up in a totally evil system. Highly recommended. (PS, I read this book in 2 days!) Note: This is available as an ebook for $1.99. Great buy!

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I am embarrassed to admit this, but one of the reasons I haven’t posted book reviews in a while is in wordpress it is difficult to make tables well.

A good 2 column table is the perfect format for displaying capsule book reviews. The left cell contains the cover art; the right cell contains the actual review. In my previous capsule book reviews, I did put everything in a table; it looks ok (but rather crappy). At the same time, it was tedious and confusing to make just a two column table. The rich text editor strips paragraph tags and puts br tags in strange places.  In the source html you can format things perfectly, but if you want to edit it in the rich text editor, you can only edit the table stripped of paragraph tags. You’re constantly trying to guess what the rich text editor will do to your original source.

The other problem is proper styling. It’s not easy to make css for just that table, especially if your class declarations are rather complicated. Also, it is hard to add images in the rich text editor for a table you are editing on the desktop. It also provides a decent preview mode

I’ve just spent the last hour testing Tablepress, a wordpress plugin which is designed to solve precisely these problems and more. It provides a better table wizard (and some cool javascript tricks for sorting rows and colunns). It also gives you option for importing tables (HTML or CSV)  and for inserting images or accessing the rich text editor from the table editor.  I think its primary use is to display tabular data, but it also is a time-saver for making simple tables whose function is simply to display text more efficiently.

My method now is to create the table offline, import the file into the Tablepress plugin, and then within Tablepress table to manually insert the images. All this looks relatively easy to maintain, with the only down side being that the tables aren’t actually included in posts, but inserted as shortcodes into posts.  I suspect that will cause migration issues if you are migrating into another CMS, but then again, I’m almost feeling that wordpress will be here forever.

Two weeks ago I was horrified to discover that creating the simple three row table in the middle of this blog post took hours to get right. Partly it had to do with the fact that the theme I was using had messed up CSS, but it was also cumbersome to test properly. I still need to update the shopping cart page, and preliminary efforts ended up breaking the original table.

You wouldn’t think that HTML tables are very important any more, especially not ones you have to make manually. But having the ability to make boxes and two columns really makes layout easier, and wordpress just makes simple tables impossible to do right. One underlying problem is that WordPress expects bloggers to use the rich text editor inside the browser instead of a special desktop client.  Tiny MCE is good and powerful, but there are many times when I want to use neither the visual editor or even the text editor within the browser. Tablepress lets me import code directly, and that is good.

Anyway, expect much more book reviews (and something very soon!)

Update: I did produce the book review page, and it was very easy to do, but I noticed some oddities. First, Tablepress translated line breaks literally instead of ignoring them within a P tag.  So you need to make sure you eliminate all carriage returns. (My Oxygen XML Editor does a “pretty formatting” for XML which apparently enters carriage returns). Second, importing tables into Tablepress ignores the custom classes. Third, Tablepress has a button to open the Advanced Editor, and I ended up doing this a lot. Fourth, I didn’t bother to make code for images in my table before importing. I just added the graphics to Tablepress (which was pretty easy).

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Getting back to Ubuntu (Again!)

I thought I’d do a quick post detailing my return to Ubuntu.

I installed 12.04 LTS Precise Penguin last June  and experienced a variety of small issues. Mainly I experienced crashes related to memory dumps — often with mounting file systems or loading music libraries. I thought it might be related to my ATI video card or just with the fact that Ubuntu was still receiving bug reports. My main goal in using Linux was to have a test server environment for  a new CMS for my Personville Press site.

I managed to fix most of my user issues (mainly with dropbox) , while I had to live with several others: Oxygen XML Editor was incredibly slow, and I still had not found a decent desktop blogging editor.

Let me define what the problem is: Bloggers need a desktop client for linux which has a preview mode, an  offline mode which you can save  (if necessary) and the ability to withstand a browser crash.  Optionally the  Windows Live does this well (although over time I have noticed some deficincies  — crappy code). The greatest thing about Windows Live is that it was very reliable and did all of these things. (Update: I just checked Live Office 365 which I paid for…Its blog client incorporates most of Live Writer’s elements, while leaving out some important things — like the ability to position an image in terms of pixels instead of inches).

Because Windows Live produced good clean code (basically), had a preview mode and a save/restore mode, it was basically better than MS Office itself….. I tried several linux blogging clients. The best so far I’d seen is blogilo, which has a lot of Live’s features, but just isn’t as reliable (it also hasn’t been updated in a while). More importantly, I lost some work…and I don’t think I ever lost work in Live Writer.

At someone’s recommendation, I am trying Scribe Fire (a browser plugin). This doesn’t really solve the offline mode problem, but it is better than nothing. On the other hand, the WordPress rich text editor is so good and reliable that you might as well do that from another browser. WordPress does autosaving, so if the browser crashes, you are protected generally (thanks, Matt).

Last summer, just as I was getting comfortable and productive in Linux, I had two major projects in MS Office, so I had to live in Windows Vista for a long while. Then I started learning about some Windows music tools and  and then was already comfortable using Oxygen in Windows (it had all my settings configured).  Then, I started doing a lot of music-related research for my upcoming ebook on music collecting  that involved Windows tools. Despite my resolution to have a working Linux desktop, I spent almost all of it in Windows.

Finally, I’m ready to return to Ubuntu, first having to do some updates. Here are some things I discovered:

  1. Ubuntu and specifically Unity  is much more stable than before. Horray! Also, more apps are built into the Unity framework. I know Linux people have been ragging on Unity, but I loved it from day 1.
  2. The Firefox flash plugin still causes problems — especially for Youtube. This firefox plugin lets you set the Youtube default to play the HTML 5 video player.
  3. The Clementine music player (which was the fork from Amarok 1.4 before they ran it into the ground) is awesome and stable. It even makes me less inclined to try Foobar2000 on Wine.
  4. There is an linux client for Evernote called Everpad.
  5. Music streaming program Rdio now has official linux support for their client.
  6. It wasn’t too hard to find, but gpodder podcast client for linux seems to work well.

Another thing. I noticed that Ubuntu works significantly better on my dual boot machine than Windows Vista (which has lots of Firefox-related memory problems and Flash memory problems). Vista is just slow and especially slow to boot.  (Ubuntu by contrast boots in record time). Windows Explorer is ridiculously slow.  Despite the fact that my HW is  6+ years old, its specs are still good:  4 gigs of RAM and lots of HD space. So a new 64 bit OS will have to work much better and faster than an OS several years old which has been patched to death.

So I’m generally happy with my Ubuntu machine and don’t expect to have to revert to Windows (especially because my Win 7 laptop is several feet away). On that laptop I have several indispensable  programs which simply must run on Window: dbpoweramp, Camtasia, Sony Vegas, MS Live Office 365.

Postscript: One very annoying thing is that Firefox is continuously showing a Flash plugin error whenever a website (like my blog) requires flash. Need to figure out how to turn that message  off because (on my system at least) the player and Youtube does work, so the error message is in fact mistaken.  (Solution found: go to about:config, set value for plugins.hide_infobar_for_missing_plugin to True).

Update #2. I’m about ready to give up again on the Unity Window Manager. Really, I had high hopes. I like the interface a lot; I can get things done  quickly, and everything is intuitive. The problem is that it always crashes catastrophically. Whenever I have an application crash (Firefox, etc), the windows manager crashes and then Ubuntu needs to be rebooted. I’ve been rebooting an average of 5 times a day at least.

Here’s a thread I started last summer about alternative window managers. Unfortunately, from a usability point of view, none of the other window managers came close. Now that I’ve decided to ditch Unity 2D, I’m going to have to try again. Here’s a more recent discussion about Ubuntu stability issues. What would be interesting (and sad) is if these random crashes still occur in other windows managers. Then, I  would be in bad shape.

(PS, I am typing this in Windows).

Update #3. My computer crashed and I re-installed Ubuntu on a slightly newer PC.  I learned a few important things. First, with a decent video card, I could use the 3-D Unity. In terms of performance, my PC handles Unity much better, but more importantly the application darkens whenever the app uses too much CPU or memory. When I used Ubuntu before, I think I had tried the 2-D Unity, which apparently didn’t have this feedback feature. I don’t think I’ve had to reboot once. Ironically on my new machine I have only 3 gig of RAM (I had 4 gig before), but because of the better video card and the darkening window, I have avoided any catastrophic crashes. Sometimes a specific app will hang (I’m looking at you, Firefox!), but most of the time it’s just a matter of waiting for the memory usage to decline to more manageable levels.

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sphinx-cover-web

My ebook publishing company recently released a delightful audio play by Jack Matthews.  I even was the narrator who read the introduction (P.S. I was the worst part of the play).

You can download the mp3s of the play for your listening pleasure. It’s 67 minutes total. Until April  7, I am keeping the price of the audio play down to $1.99, but after that, you should be able to buy it for $3.99 from cdbaby and itunes.  (For some reason Amazon prices it at $8.99 and I’m trying to rectify that).

 

Many, many people have told me that

  1. the economics of audio plays just don’t add up. It requires a lot of initial investment and production costs (You have to pay for multiple actors – not just one) , and is a tough sell just to break even.  It’s the reason why audio plays are so rare. Audible  has even  fairly small offerings in that category  (here are new releases) ; most are  audio versions of plays which were actually produced elsewhere or “original cast” recordings.
  2. you can’t make any money unless you sell through Audible.  Audible pretty much dominates the market and has a user-friendly app for the Kindle and other devices.

I find audio plays to be terrific, and BBC Radio featured lots of plays which I listened to when overseas.  They are fairly easy to produce, and don’t require elaborate sets or lots of rehearsal. Staged readings are a lot easier for the actors, plus they are fine for most audiences. I always remind people that “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy” began as radio series and later went to TV.

Paying the actors upfront is the biggest expense of production and adds to the risk. (I also offered mandatory residuals to the actors and author after 4 years even if I don’t recover expenses – something I considered very generous….)

One core value I have is an antipathy to Digital Rights Management (or DRM).  Audible is nothing but DRM. They make up for somewhat by deploying apps on all the major devices. But basically the digital files are never yours. (Some may actually prefer it that way – it can be a pain to maintain all those files).

The bigger problem is the pitiful royalties Audible give to audiobooks which are not exclusive to Audible. Look at this Audible graph about breakdown of royalties for content creators:

WhatsTheDeal_03

For audiobooks being sold on Audible  in low volume (i.e., 95-99% of all audiobooks), royalties are 25%  if nonexclusive and 50% if exclusive. The percentages slowly increase with more volume, but basically Audible is screwing the content creator.  One can argue about how much value Audible.com is adding. Granted, 10 years ago we wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation, but 50% is what I would consider to be the low end for the distributor’s split. And that’s what you get only if you grant Audible exclusive distribution rights.

To contrast, I can sell mp3s on cdbaby for $3.99 and make 91% if the consumer buys it directly from them. (CDbaby also distributes it to itunes and Amazon as well, but they charge 9% of whatever Amazon or itunes pay).  For this month’s  promotional price, I am using a DIY paypal shopping cart which – can also provide a 90% cut. I pay a one time fee to e-junkie for the shopping cart (usually $5-15$ a month).

That’s how the indie publisher can beat the big guys at their game. That assumes of course that you have a steady sales volume and that fans know where to find out about you.  These are big assumptions. One key advantage Amazon has is prominence in search results (which is even more prominent than the author’s own site). If people just go to Amazon, they will never find out purchasing choices which are cheaper and better for the content creator. Another advantage that Amazon and itunes have cloud solutions.  That saves the consumer the trouble of worrying about where the file is. (MY response  is to keep all ebook purchases in Dropbox – it’s that simple!)

If I had only one suggestion to give consumers, it’s to check the author’s or musician’s website for the best deals before buying from the majors. Sometimes the website can also point you to vendors which give the content creator the highest royalty percentage or even the lowest price. 

Another thing that worries me is learning that Amazon’s distribution system is trying to feature exclusive content. I was shocked to learn that some of its overseas ebook distribution deals only gave 70% if you agreed to give Amazon exclusive rights to sell the content (via Amazon Prime).

Amazon is a good company, and they offer a lot of good metrics and friendly tools and a user-friendly website, but if I faced the choice between being railroaded into exclusive contracts on DRM cloud  with Amazon and leaving Amazon altogether, I would probably have to consider other  options. 

On a related note, I have been buying from emusic – an outstanding music service. Most of its mp3  prices are 10-20% cheaper than Amazon’s prices, and if you get a subscription, you get even more discounts.  The only hitch is that emusic doesn’t offer a cloud solution, so if you lose the mp3 files after downloading them, you’re basically screwed.

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Linkdump from Facebook 1

(I’m going to try – and let me emphasize the word “try” to repost some of my facebook posts. Here are my FB posts from the last 2 weeks.)

Political/Economic

EPI Report on health care coverage:

For working adults in Texas, only 62% had Employer-Sponsored health Insurance (ESI). For all people under 65 (working & nonworking), 52% were covered by an ESI plan. Nationally, 68% of working Americans had ESI, and 58.5% of all Americans under 65 had ESI.

Here are the same stats for 2000: 68.5% of working Texans had ESI, 60.6% of all Texans under 65 were covered by ESI. Nationally for 2000, 75.4 of working Americans had ESI; 68.5% of all Americans under 65 were covered by ESI. For those without insurance (nationally), 17% had full time work and 27% had part time work.  (I wrote about this issue 2 years ago here).  See also my guide to purchasing individual health insurance.

KARL KRAUS: “How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read.”

Tiny Revolution compares Colin Powell’s UN speech about WMD and what his intelligence operatives were telling him prior to the speech. After reading this, it’s hard to maintain that Powell was simply receiving bad intelligence; he HAD received decent intelligence, but chose to hide or ignore it.

Climate Change/Science/Technology

Arguments about the Keystone/XL Pipeline are moot because Canadian Tar Sands producers are simply rerouting through the Seaway Pipeline. A few months ago Enbridge reversed the flow of oil from Galveston to Cushing, OK so that the Cushing oil could transfer Canadian tar sands oil from one pipeline back to Galveston.  (CP Comment) XL Keystone is bad enough, but Enbridge recently doubled the flow of Seaway, and is expected to double it again in a year. I find this both shocking and depressing. On the bright side, this will mean higher prices for gas because the oil companies can sell more sell internationally. Wait, is that a bright side?

PHYSICIST/NRDC ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTORY DAVID GOLDSTEIN:

The physics of climate change is implacable, absolutely implacable. We do not do ‘implacable’ very well, especially when it comes to a progressive political/legislative process unless we are perceived to be on a wartime footing. THIS is the real problem- though Obama may turn out to be more progressive on the climate then he has so far demonstrated, I would be EXTREMELY surprised if he proposes action that is commensurate with the urgency of the physics. I hear all who have comments that we must bring public pressure to bear to make this happen (and I agree)…but to be congruent with the physics, we are talking about 1) A full out, no holds barred deployment of non-carbon infrastructure AND a full out scale down of carbon output and 2)A likewise process in China and India and, etc. We are learning beings, but if we come close to accomplishing this I will be astonished (and astonishingly glad!). As I move forward with activism, I also move forward the grieving process that I have personally begun

(My response to Mr. David Golstein): The question boils down to how much of a difference that individual efforts to decarbonize one’s life can make and how quickly that can proceed. I was able to reduce my carbon footprint fairly quickly, and I think lots of like-minded individuals are trying to do the same for purely altruistic reasons. There is the tendency to think that government intervention is the ONLY way to fight this problem. I think that government intervention can do a lot of good, but so can the choices we make as consumers and employees. It’s clear that federal and international intervention is lagging far behind grassroots initiatives. Is that really surprising?  I see the problem as more attitudinal than legislative.

“Every day we use fossil fuels for energy, we steal $9 billion from future people who will need those fossil fuels for non-substitutable industrial uses.”  (source)

Climate Crock video clips of climate change coverage from the 1970s.  See also this Walter Cronkite/Paul Tsongas clip.

3 minute Greenpeace video explaining about how US coal mining companies are using tax dollars and cheap public land to export coal.

Here’s another reason why you should switch to renewable power for your electric provider: you kill fewer people!  The data looks stale (from 2008?) but it should illustrate general trends. i.e., Using coal/natural gas in the USA will kill 8-30 x more people than using solar/wind…..

In this cool video, a 13 year old launches a high altitude weather balloon and videotapes its trip. From the highaltitudescience.com website, I see that $500 is enough for a small group of students to buy a kit to build a balloon which is capable of going up 100,000 feet.

Comment seen on a blog post: “How many SEO experts does it take to change a lightbulb lightbulbs buy light bulbs neon lights sex porn.”

Vi Hart has produced some incredible and fun videos on math. Number games, Triangle PartyFibonacci Numbers and Fruit, etc. The Gauss Christmas special is clever on so many levels. It’s also beautiful in many dimensions.  Here’s a video about how she produces videos.

Pop Culture

The funniest article I have ever read in a long time. Man receives angry threats from people who wrongly use GPS to trace their stolen cell phone to him.

April Hamilton on Joss Whedon and JJ Adams:

Whedon doesn’t throw in a plot twist merely to shock or surprise the audience. He always knows exactly how he intends each subplot to develop and, most importantly, end. Where Abrams offers a bait-and-switch, Whedon offers a bait-and-fish. Abrams is the guy who trades the cow for magic beans; Whedon brings a steak dinner.

My response: The key to understanding JJ Abrams in Lost is that it’s like a video game with competing teams. You kill some, you turn some, you chase some. (Time travel and escaping the island were other aspects of the game). I think Joss Whedon in Buffy at least doesn’t think in terms of games or winning but in producing a climax and understanding the nature of evil/passion/etc. Both shows manipulated the audience mercilessly and engaged in lots of broadcast cruelty, but at least with Buffy there’s a lot of social satire thrown in. I enjoy Whedon’s TV shows, but I often feel cheated of genuine drama — only the vampirey, dollhouse kind. I actually thought the Lost ending worked, but the last 2 seasons were stretched out ridiculously with flashbacks, flash sideways and flashforwards that the actual final shows seemed anticlimactic.

April Hamilton is an accomplished author who writes frequently about publishing. On her website Digital Media Mom, she publishes regular columns about pop culture, technology and whatever strikes her fancy.

Alistair Cooke is a British radio commentator whose “letters from America”  was the longest running radio broadcast. BBC has put online a large number of previously unavailable radio shows.  Here’s an amazing broadcast about how 2 Hungarian refugees in 1939 had to deliver an extremely important message to the president.  (Here’s a copy of this message which FDR received – and acted upon – and here’s another letter also written by Szilard with loftier aims) . Here’s his review of watching American TV (after having watched it for only a short time – less than a year?) In addition to making the audio available, the transcripts are starting to be available.

Literary/Capsule Reviews

Jef Rouner on the Top 10 Funniest Novels ever Written. Strangely, I don’t find many novels to be hilarious (except for Voltaire’s Candide and maybe Nabokov’s Lolita). But for nonfiction, Bill Bryson’s travel books (esp. “A Walk in the Woods”) are delightful. Also, big fan of Andrei Codrescu’s short essays and his Cuba book ( Ay, Cuba! A Socio-Erotic Journey.). I do want to agree with the listing of  Mil Millington’s  famous website is hilarious on many levels.  A  commenter mentions Rabelais’ Pantegruel and Gargantua, and yes, I suppose that ought to be on the list (along with Good Soldier Schweik, Don Quixote, and Kafka’s The Trial). Goes without saying.

Music/Youtube

Wicked Witch of the West appears on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to explain why pretending to be a witch is fun.

2 videos  (here and here) to show the history of fashion (and dancing!)

Sonics: Psyche a Go Go. (Dance Dance Revolution for hippies!)

2 years ago Rocky Erickson produced an outstanding dark country album called True Love Cast Out all Evil. Here’s one song. Erickson was a founding member of the 13th floor elevators, a psychedelic 60s music group (here is their most famous song)

Fleetwood Mac does a wicked live performance of Rhiannon. They have almost all their live albums on Youtube (including the early Kiln House).

Patti Smith does a stirring, slow and expressive rendition of Smells like Teen Spirit. This comes from Patti Smith’s excellent 2007 album “Twelve” which basically gives a similar treatment to iconic songs from previous decades….. See also: Popdose Top 100 Cover Songs.

Patty Andrews, the last surviving Andrew Sisters died a week or two ago. The great thing about the Andrew Sisters (my fave group) is that you are constantly discovering new songs. Examples: Gimme some skin my friend and One Meatball. Besides Bei Mir Bist Du Schon (which I already blogged about), my fave song is Hold Tight.

I just bought a used Sony CD walkman off ebay. I just realized why I absolutely needed one: to preview CDs inside shops which sell used CDs. (Most do not have have equipment to help you listen to CDs inside the store anymore…..)

There is a shop down the street (Movie Exchange on Voss and Westheimer) which has a wall of a few thousand CDs — all at clearance prices for 99 cents each. Happily, I can report that about 95% of the CDs are by musicians I had never heard of. For a while I would just pick up random 2 or 3 CDs every time I stop, and keep my fingers crossed that the CD was any good. Today, for example, I lucked out with a classic CD by Brazilian Jorge Ben and with Howling Maggie and the Candyskins. Observation: it really is amazing how many alternative bands Geffen signed up in the 90s….

On the clearance CD racks, you will find TONS of 90s bands, some bands after 2000, and maybe a handful from the 1980s. Basically, used DVD/CD shops are wise to the fact that REALLY old stuff or recent releases have good resale value, while the 90s is that sweet spot where there was 1)overproduction and 2)tremendous variety of recordings and 3)lots of smaller and private labels and local bands putting out delicious stuff (but also lots of crap). Obscure stuff from 60s, 70s and 80s are now fairly rare and pricey (and pricey as mp3s) while the Top 40 (and their Greatest Hits) stay cheap. But for CDs produced in the 90s, you can find practically everything for practically peanuts (peanuts being defined as 30-40% of the cost of buying the mp3 from emusic or Amazon or itunes).

Amazed & Delighted to hear that Amazon has a mp3 cloud player app for IOS and Android. I’m now in the process of uploading my mp3s & m4a files into Amazon… For $25 a year, you can upload up to 200,000 songs, and stream on 10 devices (concurrently? I’ll check). You can also download songs you previously uploaded in batches (up to 100 at once?) to your PC or device. I recommend uploading only m4a and mp3 files because Cloud Player won’t accept uploads of oggs/flacs/etc EXCEPT if it matches the upload to something in their mp3 store.

Ever wished there was a way to be notified when a musician is performing in your town? Try Songkick.

Future of Music: Only 6% make money from music recordings — though it varies widely. Here’s another overview of the same research.

STUDY: Users of p2p (file sharing software) purchase 30% more music than people who do not. A person who uses p2p has a music library of 2000 songs (38% of which were legitimately purchased). A person who collects music but does not use p2p has a music library of about 1500 songs (45% of which were legitimately purchased).

There are methodological problems with any study of this sort, so the results could legitimately be questioned. Also, the specific survey question, ““What percentage of your [music files, movie/TV files] are downloaded for free from a website or file-sharing service?” allows for the possibility that someone may have downloaded something for free legally. (For me, creative commons music files are easily about 50% of my music collection. I would have to answer 50% to that question even though it would NOT be true that 50+% of my music files are pirated.

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Dear HISD Superintendent Grier

Hi, there. I read from the HISD superintendent’s speech that there are plans to start a
small magnet high school for energy and technology.

This is interesting news because that’s where most of the jobs and exciting new research will be over the next few decades. I realize that this magnet school may still be in the planning stages, but I was wondering. Would this be a good place to send a child who wanted to learn about renewable energy?

As you know, Houston is in a unique position because many fossil fuel companies are located here; these companies are very wealthy and have large philanthropic budgets. I would be concerned that if HISD opened this school, the fossil fuel companies would have inappropriate influence over faculty and choice of teaching material.

I am an environmental writer who writes often about climate change; for example, did you know that
electric plants in Texas (population 25 million) emit as much CO2  as electric plants in the COMBINED states of   New York, California, Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon (population: 86 million)

I hope that the charter of any such magnet school will contain the aim of avoiding fossil fuels and promoting renewable solutions.  I would also hope that any school will have sufficient oversight and controls  to prevent fossil fuel companies from exerting too much influence over the curriculum. There are already several well-known examples of fossil fuel companies "infiltrating" school curricula with educational material sympathetic to oil and gas.

I have 2 nephews and 2 nieces in HISD elementary and middle schools now. If this magnet school provided good preparation for a career in renewable energy, I would certainly encourage them to attend it.

One economic analysis of renewable energy  jobs found that "clean-energy investments generate roughly three times more jobs than an equivalent amount of money spent on carbon-based fuels."  Therefore, investing in education for renewable energy jobs would provide more bang for the buck than investing in education  for fossil fuel jobs.

On the other hand, if such a school were merely "neutral" about fossil fuels (translation: propagating the viewpoint that fossil fuels are still a valid solution in today’s world), then such a magnet school would be flawed at its core.

Ultimately, the current generation of students will experience more of the pernicious effects from climate change than people of our generation. It would be a shame if we equipped them with flawed tools of learning which only ensured that these kinds of problems get worse.

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Best Happy Birthday Songs: I am Super Psyched!

You may not be aware that Free Music Archive is running a contest to identify some excellent birthday songs. There’s a real need for restaurants,  moviemakers and radio people to identify a song which can be sung royalty-free at any time.

Out of the 137 songs, here are my 10 favorites. They are all great.

Some comments about the genre itself:

A birthday song should be memorable, easy-to-sing, short, inoffensive and slightly offbeat.  It’s a challenging song format. On the one hand, you want to make it as simple and short as possible; on the other hand, you want to make it memorable too. Just the lyrics are a challenge. The songs  needs to have direct rhymes; that means you have a lot of monosyllabic words ending with “ay” (yuck!). Ironically,  the bolder the musical ideas in a birthday song, the less functional the song actually becomes.

Out of all the songs,  the Danimals’ Super Psyched for your Birthday and Older than Dirt are the most memorable.  Every time I come to the moment where the Danimals scream, I laugh.

Older than Dirt and Chris Trapper’s “Birthday Song” have the best lyrics, although to be fair, many of the songs don’t even try to be clever or poetic. As a  compromise, the Rodger Rainono “Happy Happy Happy  Birthday” just uses a  refrain where you can add extra lyrics ad infinitum (and some of the lyrics in the recording they use in this recording are pretty damn clever). Who would have ever thought that a birthday song would inspire such humorous and poetic meditations on aging!!

For brevity, awards go to Monk Turner’s “It’s Your Birthday”, Jazzy J’s “One Year Older” and Caston  Deluca’s “Happy Birthday.”   Deluca’s song is minimalist and charming. Ironically, she is an avante-garde music composer of hazy music landscapes. ( I have already written a profile and interview about songwriter  Monk Turner).

For singability (i.e., singable by people with limited voices), Rodger Rainono’s “Happy happy happy birthday” and “Older than Dirt” are great.

For musical ideas, I thought Hendrik Left Engelmann-Löffler’s song had nice interweaving melodies, and Chris Trapper’s song had lots of nice touches (a tuba!). Both songs are too out there to win though.

The songs I want to win: Superpsyched for your birthday, Older than Dirt, and Chris Trapper’s Birthday.

Here are the songs that I predict will win: “Happy  Happy happy birthday!” Superpsyched for your birthday and one of the longer songs (either  “Older than Dirt”  or Chris Trapper’s Birthday).

The grand prize should go either to Superpsyched or “Happy happy happy birthday” because either song does exactly what a birthday song should do.  Interestingly, both songs have multiple verses (which is NOT something you would expect for a birthday song), but the chorus for both songs are easy to remember.

Finally, I should mention something interesting about the Danimals. Apparently they write and sing a LOT of different birthday songs. I think they write custom songs for people on special occasions. They have 2 versions of the same song: a clean version (“Super-psyched”) and a not-so-clean version (“F*****ing psyched”).

Believe it or not, I have boycotted the “Happy Birthday” song for several years now, so I am eager to get some new stuff to sing….. I am super-psyched!

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Chance Encounter with a Genius (or Two)

Surprised and saddened to learn about the suicide death of Aaron Swartz, hacker par excellence.

It just so happens that I met Aaron once. The meeting was short and trivial, certainly no big deal. I was at Bruce Sterling’s End of South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive party, talking to random people. I think it was 2005 (or maybe 2004). I had  been using a cocktail party question that year, “What’s your passion?” (or maybe it was “what’s your thing?”, I can’t remember).

At parties like this I pretty much end up talking to everybody for at least 3 minutes; I even ended up talking to Cory Doctorow – who, hilariously enough, had laryngitis! I was vaguely aware of the people who attend SXSW (who’s a blogger, who’s a coder, who’s a designer, who’s a business person, etc). I certainly knew who Mr. Swartz was; he was the guy who invented RSS feeds, python guy,  attending Stanford and helping Larry Lessig with various creative commons/political projects.

He also seemed horribly out of place there. Now SXSW can generally be intimidating, and half the people there are socially dysfunctional, so there is no shame in being a wallflower.  When you’re 18 or 19 (as Mr. Swartz was), you tend to be uncomfortable and resort to your geek  persona  (whether it be coder, music collector, political junkie, literary snob, etc).  Aaron wasn’t really socializing – perhaps he had merely run out of steam or was tired. Who knows? So I swept in, introduced myself and asked him my cocktail party question.

In response to this kind of question, most people would hem and haw and then say something off the wall. I didn’t care what kind of reply you gave; I just needed something to start the conversation. But with Aaron, after I asked the question, he just fell into silence. Clearly he was flummoxed; it was a combination of believing that the question was childish and thinking that it was hard to boil his passions down to a single statement. I started talking a bit, and then after a minute or so, he gave a reply that was abstract, but inelegant. Something like, “My passion is emergent technology and how to harness it for businesses and organizations.”

That sounded good enough to me (“emergent technology” was the buzz phrase of the conference, and I remember thinking that it wasn’t particularly original, although coding geniuses were never really known for being profound or eloquent). After that, the conversation just dwindled away; I tried to ask him some more questions, but he didn’t want to continue; maybe he didn’t like small talk, or perhaps wanted to talk to the girl next to him. No biggie, some people are like that. Besides, he was the youngest person in the room (and he looked REALLY young), so he gets a pass.

Aaron was adopted by the copyright reform group, and he soon found himself working with various projects highly visible in the geek world. He was also a moderately interesting blogger who was on the cutting edge of web technologies. And then what happened?

He dropped out of school to work for various Internet companies. He went into political activism (which I’ll be blunt – doesn’t come naturally for most geeks).  There comes that point where every wunderkind has to manage and survive and accept that his  personal world has limits. That’s called “learning about the real world.”  Before it happens and you have settled into some comfortable bit of manageable mediocrity, it’s easy to get into trouble.  It’s easy to do fun and stupid things (Yes, I had that phase  once upon a time too).

Some might call it a “fall from grace.” I would not be so melodramatic, but simply describe it as adapting to one’s circumstances.  But maintaining a full time job just doesn’t sound as cool as the things one did at the university. The youthful world of hacking and breaking a few rules no longer attracted attention. Even your peers (if they even knew who you were) regarded you as “old hat”.  Suddenly getting a salary and maintaining a full time job seemed uninteresting and pointless and also very hard.

Also, there were the legal problems. Aaron tried some wacky trick of downloading zillions of academic articles from a site behind a paywall. It’s the kind of thing you  know you shouldn’t do, but the challenge of doing so plus the certainty that professors don’t REALLY want their articles behind a paywall only encourages you to do it.  One thing ingrained in programmers is looking for ways to circumvent the system,  and that’s what he did. And succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

As it happens, the journal database and DA wanted to throw the book at him. Aaron was in a heap of trouble.  Surely, it’s likely that this thing would have been plea bargained to community service at some point, but the process can be grueling and demeaning. In a way, his infraction would command respect and awe; at the same time some of his friends might say he had gone over the deep end, and people who did not know him would automatically assume the worst. Things like filling out job applications and applying for credit cards and renting an apartment would require a complete disclosure. Suddenly you have a past that you ought to be embarrassed about.

I honestly have no idea what drive him to the edge. It’s likely that the charges aggravated his state of mind – though if he had reasonably good coping skills, he would have been able to deal with it.  Idealists tend to lose in a big and grandiose way.

The tragedy of his life is that he lacked perspective.  He was a brilliant programmer who had received lots of breaks early in life. He could learn new technologies effortlessly and was eminently employable.  He had lots of friends in big places and an overall good reputation. I tend to doubt that the charges drove him to suicide (although it must have convinced him of the utter absurdity of this world).  Perhaps his lack of perspective came in part from being a victim of his early successes and being trapped by his own high expectations.

This case reminds me somewhat of the death of  author Daniel Foster Wallace.  A philosophical postmodernist author with a generally good reputation and slightly older than myself. I was not in love with this author (I found his prose style ponderous), but I had read selected things he wrote and found them great.  This guy was manic-depressive, but at the same time had managed to win lots of awards. He had also gotten published, made some good money and found some tenure track jobs (which are practically impossible to find in the humanities, much less creative writing).  A few years before his death, Wallace  gave a pretty wild commencement address, and let me quote a significant part:

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

I’ll give Mr. Wallace the benefit of the doubt and say that he was exaggerating the horrors of mundane life to make a point  to his audience (as inappropriate as it was for a commencement address).  But  I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between his academic success and his sense of  suburban anomie.

Mr. Wallace, did you realize that many people are homeless? Many are out-of-work. Many have to struggle just to make ends meet. Many don’t have health insurance or even the ability to seek treatment for psychological disorders. Even among writers, many would kill for the opportunities Mr. Wallace received.     Many lone geniuses struggle with making ends meet and  winning a modicum of respect  in an indifferent or absurd world.

Both Mr. Swartz and Mr. Wallace  were sick and probably lonely people.  But both still had the intellectual potential and social resources to make a rich and fulfilling life. They had talent and good physical health, and yet they threw it all away for a runaway feeling.  What a loss! And what a waste!

Perhaps genius does not recognize or accept the urgent necessity of coping with disappointment. Ordinary people have to deal with disappointment all the time.  It  does not have to strike a mortal blow unless you are willing to realign your view of what you need to do to remain a part of it.

Postscript. I remain amazed at how much media coverage this person’s suicide has received (CNN, PBS, NYTimes, Slashdot, etc). Granted,  there was politics involved, and the crowd Aaron hung around with were tech-savvy and media-savvy.  I find it interesting how many people  have focused on the criminal charges and not on the aspect of personal tragedy. The question should not be: “Why did the DA’s decision to press charges cause this person’s suicide?” but  “Why did this well-liked and multi-talented individual decide — after getting a bum rap —  that there was nothing else to live for?” This is one live lost, but he is hardly the only person lost in this manner and hardly the most significant.  I have always felt that you don’t need to be a genius to have your voluntary exit from life be mourned by all.

Postscript 2 (the interesting one).  About two years ago I wrote a much longer version of this blogpost (like, 3 or 4 times as long) which I will publish eventually in full form. I just wanted to point out that when I wrote this in early 2013, I was really hurting financially and in a pit of poverty that would bring anyone into despair.  Things only become worse as the year went on. 2013 was absolutely hellish. That partly explains my anger — yes anger — I felt about these  two brilliant people who had so many gifts and privileges giving up so easily.  Aren’t humans made  of sterner stuff (even when we are grinding our teeth in despair)?

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Free short story collection by Jack Matthews

Regular visitors may already know that my small ebook publishing company (Personville Press) has been publishing several ebooks by the Ohio author Jack Matthews. I have actually been working hard on doing that (which explains why I post so rarely here).  I am actually working on several titles with Mr. Matthews now (the most recent of which is a great philosophical play called Interview with the Sphinx).

cropped-best-three-final-miniature Personville Press has published a great mini-ebook consisting of three short stories which Mr. Matthews published in the 1980s. And it’s free — free, free, free! (Mr. Matthews and I picked some choice cream-of-the-crop stories which show his range of storytelling).

I have thought long and hard about whether to offer freebies and whether it’s a viable marketing strategy.  My take is that it doesn’t really hurt and might possibly help, though you’d be surprised at how hard it is to persuade people to download a free title… You practically have to beg them to do it.

One issue is that many readers (even techno-savvy ones)  are unfamiliar with or inconvenienced by having to transfer ebook files to their device. If you are unused to doing it, I can understand why it could be a problem. But  really it’s easy. The Calibre ebook management software lets you do it via USB connection — but that’s only for DRM-free titles.

Another option for the Kindle is to email the ebook directly to your device (which I explain midway down on this page).  This is a nifty solution, but bizarrely, although Amazon can convert lots of file types, it apparently cannot convert epub files to KF8 files when sending via email. (Epub is the standard which all publishers use and which even Amazon’s own conversion tools know how to convert).If you have to do the transfer yourself, you need to be diligent about keeping backups. I’ve had ebook devices fail on me, and even if the titles I lost were only public domain titles and creative commons titles, it’s still lost if I didn’t make a list of which files  I lost. (If I had a list, I could simply download them again). For now though, I keep an "ebooks" folder in my Dropbox which is specifically for bought and free ebooks. I put ebooks I obtain there  first and then upload them manually to my device when I get the chance.

Making It Free: The Challenges

The other issue why it’s so hard to persuade readers to download free titles is that Amazon and Barnes and Noble make it so difficult to distribute free titles. You may see lots of free Kindle titles on Amazon.com, but that is totally an illusion. A large number of these  free ebooks are:

  1. public domain titles (they were already free)
  2. free ebooks from big publishers which are mainly genre books (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, erotica).  Mostly garbage.
  3. titles which were free only to subscribers of Amazon Prime program. (Amazon Prime requires that Amazon be the exclusive seller of this title– which is a really bad thing).

Amazon has been pushing the Amazon Prime in a major way. One inducement to indie authors is that they would allow any title submitted to Amazon Prime to be free for 5 days of every 30 days.  This is not being generous.

One workaround for authors is to publish the title for free on Smashwords, publish the same title for a price on Amazon and use Amazon’s price-matching guarantee to persuade Amazon to drop the price to permanently free. Although the process isn’t particularly smooth, if the ebook is formatted up to a certain standard, it can be distributed for free on Sony/Barnes and Noble/Kobo and Apple.  But this is enough to convince Amazon to match the low-price guarantee. So it basically took a month of waiting for Amazon to carry this title for free. So enjoy it, folks!

Why is  Amazon so stingy about allowing free ebooks? Mainly, it’s  greed;  the power to make something a freebie is  a carrot which Amazon can dangle before publishers. Besides, Amazon isn’t in the business of distributing free things; they want their digital distributions to actually earn some money. It also has to do with the fact that a lot of free titles on Smashwords and elsewhere are crap. Not merely in terms of quality (that can be  simply a matter of taste), but many so-called "ebooks" are not actually full-fledged ebooks. Instead they are simply 5-10 page stories….or less! People already have a built in sense that a book ought to be at least 150-250 pages. Perhaps that opinion needs revisiting, but when an online bookseller is selling lots of ebooks under 20 pages long, it becomes impossible to search or browse for any title you want.

Frankly, I use inkmesh and ereaderIQ for Kindle  to locate and download free titles onto my Nook and Kindle. I do this often — even if I know most of the ebooks are going to be crap — or outside the genre of things I normally like to read. But what bothers me  most is that many titles are short and don’t even have a description or reader comments. I learned the hard way why this happens; some booksellers don’t import the ebook description properly. Even if the free titles were easily available and searchable, the sheer number of amateurish titles would drown out all the ebooks that are finely written and produced.

Many new writers are discovering that publishing frequently is a strategy to get readers hooked.  The trend is for titles to become shorter (50-75 pages)  and for author to publish more frequently.  From a business point of view, this makes sense. If you an author, you can’t afford to spend 5, 10 or 20 years writing a book of unknown financial potential.   It makes sense to publish more frequently, so you get more immediate feedback (not to mention payback).

The problem becomes: how do you promote an ebook of only 50-60 pages?

Part of the problem is that ebooks are incorporeal and there’s no set expectation about how big they ought to be — it’s hard to read 300 pages of a seemingly unending book without being trapped.  Shorter titles don’t imprison you for as long; they provide more immediate gratification, and they require less commitment.

If Jack Matthews were a well-known author,  I might have been able to get away with charging 1 or 2 dollars for this mini-ebook (which consists of only 3 stories — excellent though they may be). But generally, I wouldn’t pay 99 cents for 3 stories, even if they  were written  by Kafka himself. At some point, a person says, just give me a compilation of all his stuff, so it’s no longer necessary to keep almost a dozen mini-ebooks.

Why read several works by the same author?

For a moment, leave  aside the intended purpose of this ebook — to introduce Mr. Matthews to a wider audience and make it easier for new readers to get a taste before they delve deeper.  Why would anyone want to read multiple works by the same author?  Literature students are taught about the “death of the author” and the importance of disregarding intentionality and biography when considering a literary work. (This conveniently overlooks the fact that authors are alive, they regularly visit the supermarket and drive their kids to drive to soccer practice). Serious readers have come to believe that it shouldn’t matter if you were a bestselling author or  an unknown one; the most important thing should always be whether the story was well told.

Why then do we continue to insist on reading several things by the same author?

Familiarity. One reason we do this is that it takes a while to adjust to the author’s voice: the cadences, the word choice, the emotional outbursts. I had been flipping past Mavis Gallant stories for years in the New Yorker without ever reading one of them. Then one day just to pass the time I devoted an hour to reading one of them, which happened to be great. Suddenly I understand what she was all about. IBID with Arnold Bennett, Gunter Grass and Henry James (to name a few other writers who initially didn’t strike me as accessible). I sudden had cracked the code of how to enjoy a Mavis Gallant story – at least on a superficial level. Motivating people to read your stuff is insanely difficult; authors have to resort to all kinds of gimmicks to get the reader started.  If you have practice reading a certain kind of story, it becomes easier to read similar stories later on.

Trust in the writer’s competence. Writing a decent novel is hard. Even writerly types don’t appreciate the true difficulty of the undertaking  until they have to wade through a novel whose narrative is neither seamless nor easy to digest.  All literature is fakery, and it is happy luck when a literary work can distract your from this fact.  At one level, it boils down to competence. Can a literary creation paint a world persuasive enough you to suck you inside before you start noticing the narrative crossbeams?

When readers have already seen  examples of an author’s competence, they are more inclined  to look past narrative jumps or plausibility issues or a clunky style for the next work.  Nobody  expect perfection from our writers – only plot twists and a certain amount of polish.

The Golden Touch. Readers naturally assume  that certain authors have a “golden touch” and retain the ability to conjure the same sort of magic they did on a previous literary creation.

There’s  truth in this, of course. But from the writer’s perspective, striking gold once provides no guarantee of doing it again.  The overall style in the second work may be practically identical to the previous one, but the writer may simply have chosen a character or incident which didn’t resonate as well.  Maybe the author  took the wrong approach.  Maybe the reader isn’t ready to appreciate the second kind of story.  For every great writer, I would classify a certain percentage of their literary output as “interesting failures.” Certainly not awful – a writer’s style often improves with age, so the prose is usually cleaner and tighter. Such failures are not necessarily bad things or signs of decline; indeed, they are proof that the author is willing to venture outside of his comfort zone – and that is probably for the best.

Even for interesting failures, the failure itself or why it failed can still be interesting.   Suppose it became known that Kafka wrote a bad sci fi novel about traveling to Jupiter. You’d better believe that critics would be all over this book – recognizing similarities to other Kafka stories and finding cultural references.  If anything, it would provide more insight into Kafka as a person: his interests, prejudices and possibly even his personal relationships.  A bad sci fi novel by Kafka would be worth reading just for curiosity’s sake alone, and my guess is that you’d still see hints of his perplexing and aphoristic style.  A writer may try to hide or disguise his writing style, but it’s hard to disguise it totally.

Affinity with the author’s  voice.  Never mind that  authorial voice is constructed or can change from book to book. When we read works by a known quality, we trust that the author’s sensibility and style will  be pleasing for its own sake.  We enjoy inhabiting certain  artistic sensibilities. It can make us feel grand  or profound or passionate or deeply spiritual. We may recognize a kinship between this author’s point of view and our own way of viewing the world – even though this one is wiser, more concise and more beautiful.

Everybody else is doing it.  I was once talking about Alfred Hitchcock with my movie critic friend, Michael Barrett. Mike said that for  film critics, Hitchcock films could be grouped into two tiers: the “greater greats” and the “lesser greats.”  He was being facetious, but the Hitchcock oeuvre is vast enough to offer  something for everybody.  When an artist or entertainer tickles the public’s fancy (usually through some award or controversy or stunt or novelty), a whole cottage industry can spring up to support that person.  A cult of personality forms to  endorse and promote  this artist. . The differences between a highly-regarded writer and unknown writer aren’t really that great; but fame continues to amplify itself while obscurity proceeds at its usual miniscule pace.

Limits to our Enthusiasm

Maybe readers are driven to seek multiple works by an artist. We may bemoan the arbitrary nature of fame, but there is another problem: just how many artists can a single person stay enthusiastic about?

I consider myself relatively well-read, but in truth, I only keep track of about 25 living authors (not including authors I already know personally). Let me throw out a list of my literary pantheon at the moment: J.C. Oates, William Kennedy, Barry Yourgrau, John Sayles, Jane Smiley, Mark Salzman, Milan Kundera, Stuart Dybek, David Grossman, Robert McLaim Wilson, Number 6 (a pseudonym), Andrei Codrescu, Nadine Gordimer, Denis Johnson, Steve Millhauser, Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m sure there are others which don’t come to mind (this list might help). I’m also leaving out lots of works by dead authors. For these people I make it a point to buy their latest works and follow their career and lives.

I probably recognize the names of 2000 additional authors and associate them with generally high  quality. Someday I hope to read them, but I won’t go out of my way to do so. It is humanly impossible.

Contrast this to music, where you can hear a complete album in 30-60 minutes. Maybe you don’t like everything you hear or can’t keep the bands or singers straight in your head. But it is still relatively easy and quick to expand your horizons.

I would love to say that I could follow 50 authors or 100 authors instead of 25. Certainly it’s not for lack of love or lack of trying.  We have to balance our love for the unknown with the need to maximize the use of our reading time. If given a choice to read another book by Kundera or read something by an unknown, what do you do? I’d like to say that I give every new author a fair shake, but I generally don’t. Reading a known quality like Kundera is just easier – even if  his subsequent novels never reach the magic of his previous novels. You want to read as efficiently as possible. Reading competes with other forms of entertainment – not to mention other crazy addictions like socializing, housework and even catching up on sleep. For me as a writer, reading competes with writing and blogging. (“Stop blogging and get back to Cancer Ward!”)   When I write, I feel guilty that I should be reading. When I read, I feel guilty that I should be writing.

Actually, I don’t feel that guilty about anything (it’s a personality flaw). Often I act spontaneously on the basis of what feels right. This morning, I ended up watching again a 1937 Shirley Temple movie. Probably not rational, and certainly not great art, but I often indulge in such nostalgia kicks. Most recently I have been trying to read Stephen King’s "Dead Zone” which is a horrifyingly written book. (I enjoyed the TV series and remain curious about the original source material).  I’m also reading Galina Mindlin’s Your Playlist Can Change Your Life” about psychology, music and moods. At least I can justify this diversion  because of the  book about music collecting which  I’m writing. As a 47 year old adult with all sorts of professional demands, I feel the constant pressure to read for a specific purpose. And I constantly rebel.

Bloggers (and more generally readers) are not simply promotional vehicles for authors.  They cannot be expected to blog about everything or even to like everything they read. There is no imperative to spread the word about a particular book, even if the book happens to be good. In fact, many great works of art come and go and the literary world hardly notices.  It’s hard enough just to notify potential readers that a book MIGHT be good.

For authors and publishers, this is both sad and frustrating. Surely, there has to be SOME payoff down the road. Surely, someone will notice and comment.  I think even relatively successful authors recognize that being ignored is the natural state of affairs for writers.  We may celebrate this new  ebook and self-publishing revolution, but  it’s hard to deal with the accompanying result that more authors will be overlooked while the less deserving will be praised to high heaven.

Now everybody is an obscure writer

Writers spend  a lot of time trying to promote themselves. Some do it well and not too excessively. At some point though, you have to recognize that rational self-promoting just eats away at valuable writing time.

Young writers were always taught that writing a book should be its own reward – that  recognition and commercial success are unpredictable and unjust. We all know that.  At the same time, we see that some authors are succeeding and winning prizes and cushy academic appointments.  Surely, it shouldn’t be that hard to persuade people to take a look at what you’ve written. Surely you could count on your small coterie of friends and family to read and love and publicize your work!

In my 20s, I noticed that people generally expressed admiration  if you said you were going to be a writer.  Now that I’m 47,  people barely notice.  I now understand that what people admire is not what you write, but your overall dedication to the activity of writing. Writing is a sensibility, a religious discipline, an attitude.

Before, the biggest  roadblock was getting past the gatekeeper (The Editor, the Publishing House).  With blogging and DIY publishing, that roadblock no longer exists. But other roadblocks are just as frustrating. Just dealing with the limited attention span of the American public is frustrating enough.  At the same time, eliminating these roadblocks to publishing  gives the writer more time and freedom to write. Now the writer can concentrate more on the act of writing. In a way, the rise of DIY publishing has a great equalizing effect.  An author of four books may have useful writing experience and a chance to gain a following, but that doesn’t give this author any inherent advantage over a novice in writing a great book.

That sucks for the experienced writer, but it’s  great for the junior one. When you get down to it, all ebook novels are just words on a page.  A reader is always taking chances with new writers, and now an even higher percentage of writers are unknown. During previous decades, readers had signposts to help them choose what to read: reviews, news stories, interviews,  author appearances.  Nowadays, though, these guideposts cover  an even smaller percentage of the ebooks out there.  You are basically flying blind.    That is not necessarily bad; it forces readers to make up their own minds about what they read — irrespective of what Michiko Kakutani thinks.  If every author you stumble across is unknown and under-reviewed and underpublicized, you really have to choice but to treat every title you encounter as the next potential  masterpiece.

That is actually a good thing.

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So bored with time travel

The sci fi thriller Looper will be released on DVD on December 31, 2012, but apparently Netflix mailed it to me 2 days early. I wonder: has someone got hold of a time machine?

Generally with a few notable exceptions, I am tired of any time travel movies or TV shows. Although paradoxes can be fun, they often seem annoyingly self-indulgent.

The main problem is that plots are too easy to manufacturer. They go like this:

  1. Character A  travels into the past and performs X.
  2. Oh, no! The space-time continuum has been disrupted!
  3. Character A must try to fix the disruption by performing Y (or Z, etc)
  4. Oh, no!  Performing Y has caused another disruption in the space-time continuum.
  5. Repeat step 3 as needed.

Pardon me for stating the obvious, but the movie genre by itself has no inherent chronology.  It’s just footage spliced and organized in an arbitrary fashion. I think actors have this sense as well. They say their lines out of order, and don’t think too hard about it. They just live for the moment.

To experience what it must be like to be a time traveler, all you need to do is to act inside a movie.

Postscript: Here’s another musical take on the issue.

Postscript 2: Now that I’ve seen the movie, I wish I could go back in time to warn myself never to see the movie. Seriously, it wasn’t a bad movie; it actually was pretty interesting, but I’ve seen so many elements of this movie already. I regard the movie as mainly  a love story between a man and his gun(s) where nothing can be allowed to come in its way — except an annoying child with powers greater than yours.  Here’s a challenge: make a time travel movie without a GUN anywhere. Or better yet: make a movie where a person travels in time for no apparent reason other than to have fun and meet  chicks (or watch a concert or two).

Postscript 3: It is decided: I will travel back in time and prevent myself from even writing this post.

Postscript 4. It is done. Any postscripts after this one will disappear after the time line has been fully restored.

Postscript 5: For reasons I cannot explain here, I need to undo my previous action.

Postscript 6: Any postscripts after this one are fake and can safely be ignored.

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Now we are metric!

It is a minor point, really, but by executive fiat, I have decided that from now on, this blog will follow the metric system. 

When I was in grade school, I was told that the metric system would soon replace this antiquated British system that was so hard to remember.  That did not happen. We still have pounds and gallons and yards. (I once helped my nephew do a science experiment about football kicking. I insisted – much to his chagrin – that all science obeyed the metric system).

Now this blog does too.

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Here’s a fast list of the most remarkable movies I have seen this year. There is no particular order here, though I put my two or three faves at the top of the list.  These movies come from several decades and I saw almost every film on Netflix Streaming.

Scene from Travelers and Magicians

  1. Travelers and Magicians  is a movie coming from Bhutan with beautiful landscapes, mythical plots and memorable characters. A young official yearns to leave his homeland  for the U.S.  and must confront what keeps him home. The director Khyentse Norbu is a Buddhist  lama who once worked with Bertolucci and now uses the landscape of his homeland to illustrate the inner conflicts between spirituality and the  modern industrialized life. Compare to Kobayashi’s classic film, Kwaidan.(Here’s an interview with the writer/director)
  2. Monsters is a haunting and beautiful sci fi movie about space aliens who have landed in Mexico and the American government’s attempt to fight these aliens and  prevent them from encroaching the U.S. Border. Both a thrilling monster movie and political allegory, the plot  followed an unexpected path and maintained the ambiguous aura until the very end.  I enjoyed this tremendously the first time,  but watched it months later just to make sure the movie was as good as it seemed the first time. It was. (Now Streaming)
  3. Encore (Movies inspired by Somerset Maugham). Also Quartet. Two films adapting Somerset Maugham short stories. These are lovely and delightful movies about short stories of Maugham. The film version of Gigolo and Gigolette (a husband and wife acrobatic team) is just amazing all the way to the end. (Now Streaming)
  4. Downfall & Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.  (2 separate movies) I never thought a film about the clueless administrative staff of Hitler  could be  so compelling. Ironically, by depicting Hitler as a lovable but temper-prone boss, the film conveys how easy and powerful groupthink can be.  At the start, the real person upon whom the movie is based admits that at 22 she was naïve, but that other people her age (like political martyr Sophie Scholl) had already figured things out; why hadn’t she? Indeed, that’s a good reason to watch both movies back to back. Sophie Scholl is a true biopic about a young college student jailed and put to death for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. In a way both movies are about youthful dedication – the good kind and the bad kind. (Honorable mention: Valkyrie, an unusually well-made film starring Tom Cruise about a futile assassination attempt).
  5. Blue State is a charming indie road trip romantic comedy about a leftie blogger who foolhardily promises  to move to Canada if Bush beats Kerry in 2004. When he discovers that others expect him to act on his promise, he takes a trip there  with a female acquaintance and has misadventures along the way. Lots of funny lines — it’s not that political a movie — but it kept me guessing and it raised some unusual questions about loyalty to your values and to your country. I thoroughly enjoyed it. (Now Streaming)
  6. Love Film. Szabo’s early film about love, communism and desire. I loved the film’s unpredictability and the way it jumped backwards and forwards in time (which was justified by the subject matter). The film had tragic and warm moments, and the arty style helped too.
  7. Muriel’s Wedding is a 90s Australian comedy about a misfit young woman who will stop at nothing to give up her dreams.  When considering  plausibility, morality and social messages, this  film is simply bananas. But thank goodness the character and the story is unafraid to try all kinds of crazy things to get what you want. (Now Streaming)
  8. Bolivia. This gritty film by Adrián Caetano depicts the precarious existence of illegal immigrants: the  poverty, vilification and scapegoating. Not an easy watch, but the movie stands up for the hordes whose tragedies remain hidden out of sight. (Now Streaming)
  9. The Dead Zone (TV Series)  I was vaguely aware of the original Stephen King novel  and knew what I was getting into: supernatural whiffs, crime-fighting and political intrigue. TV shows about superpowers often fall flat because they manipulate the viewer too much. But Dead Zone made the story not about the superpower of omniscience but individual stories of people who need help. First two seasons were dynamite. By Season 3 or 4 I saw repetition and credibility-stretching plots, but in the last season it recaptured some of its original magic.  This show was basically a detective show, and the revelation of the clairvoyance seemed to obey no rules other than to produce good TV.  (This show might have been perfect if it only lasted for 2 seasons, but what I saw was still provocative and visually-interesting).  Other TV series I watched and enjoyed over the year included: Wings (droll retread of Cheers by some of the same producers and writers),  Farscape (mind-bending Australian sci fi TV series which had original plots, unusual characters and a tad too much violence) and IT Crowd (nutty sitcom about a dysfunctional IT department).
  10. Last Train Home is a poignant documentary about Chinese families who travel home for the holidays. The problem is that many work at factories hundreds of kilometers away, and the mad rush to use the train system results in delay, aggravation and dismay. The movie focuses on one family in particular being torn apart by working away from home. (Now streaming)
  11. My Year without Sex is a nutty feel-good family comedy about a woman who has a sudden & urgent medical condition and has to chill out while she recovers. It’s not a particularly deep movie – it merely depicts the mundane craziness of living – and how hard it can be to take a break from it. What I love about this film (and Muriel’s wedding) is that the narrative rhythm is so different from U.S. films. Lackadaisical, jarring, quickly changing from comic to dramatic and back again.  (Now streaming)
  12. Wish Upon a Star . 90s Disney teen comedy about two sisters who change bodies. (Great for age group 10 and up). It’s a cross between Clueless and the Parent Trap. Formulaic & feel good comedy which is a lot smarter than it appears to be at first glance. I enjoyed it a lot.
  13. Ritchie Boys. Great  mainstream documentary about German Jews who emigrated to America and then enlisted to perform top secret intelligence work for the Allies. Each person interviewed describes the work they did, plus that bittersweet feeling of returning to the homeland they formerly loved.  (Now streaming)
  14. Lady Killers. Silly British comedy about an ill-advised bank heist planned by bumbling robbers such as Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. The thing is, the woman running the boarding house for one of the robbers is duped into thinking they are classical musicians. I was laughing the whole time.
  15. Winter’s Bone is populated with Ozark misfits and tough people who protect their own and punish outsiders. The main character – a struggling girl taking care of her siblings because of her mother’s mental illness – is on a mission to find out what happened to her father who had disappeared. The people (and the story itself) live on the edge of society where different rules apply (if there are any!).
  16. Hey Ram.  Great self-consciously arty  film about political engagement. Overdone, but the material and themes were utterly original. You really have to admire the cojones of an Indian who plots another assassination plot of Gandhi.
  17. Something like Happiness.  An extraordinary slice of life movie from Czech Republic about two friends who become involved in taking care of the woman’s mentally ill sister.  Some might call this movie (and this setting) to be dreary,  but I found the characters to be authentic and complex and interesting. This part of Europe has a certain ugliness (there were multiple shots of the power plant in the background, and I can’t tell how much many times I’ve seen the grimy inside walls of that apartment’s elevator). The main character has to decide how much she wants to get involved with her sister, knowing full well it might cause heartbreak at the end.
  18. Manito. Story of  2 Puerto Rican  brothers in New York City, one of which is an ex-con trying to earn a living, the other is a “good kid” about to graduate from high school.  But it really is about the milieu, the extended family, the neighbors, the coworkers, the students. The movie cuts quickly between scenes, conveying a sense of disorder and the complexities of relationships in this  small ethnic neighborhood.  The movie hurries through their lives so randomly that I began to wonder whether the movie was going to be simply another  slice-of-life movie or whether it actually was hurling to something. But by the end I realize the movie has raised some unsettling questions about victimizing and forgiveness.

 

Also: my favorite movie which I haven’t seen is “56 Up” the latest installment in Michael Apted’s epic documentary charting the lives of a dozen-plus British youngsters every 7 years.  56 Up came out last spring in UK, but the movie distribution system, in their infinite wisdom, has decided not to release it in the US.  The good news is that there are now plans for limited distribution at select movie theatres (including the Houston Museum of Fine Arts on March 15, 2013)

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