Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Economist: Human evolution - Why music?

Why we love music. Biologists are addressing one of humanity's strangest attributes, its all-singing, all-dancing culture.

“IF MUSIC be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it.” And if not? Well, what exactly is it for? The production and consumption of music is a big part of the economy. The first use to which commercial recording, in the form of Edison’s phonographs, was to bring music to the living rooms and picnic tables of those who could not afford to pay live musicians. Today, people are so surrounded by other people’s music that they take it for granted, but as little as 100 years ago singsongs at home, the choir in the church and fiddlers in the pub were all that most people heard.

Other appetites, too, have been sated even to excess by modern business. Food far beyond the simple needs of stomachs, and sex (or at least images of it) far beyond the needs of reproduction, bombard the modern man and woman, and are eagerly consumed. But these excesses are built on obvious appetites. What appetite drives the proliferation of music to the point where the average American teenager spends 1½-2½ hours a day—an eighth of his waking life—listening to it?

Well, that fact—that he, or she, is a teenager—supports one hypothesis about the function of music. Around 40% of the lyrics of popular songs speak of romance, sexual relationships and sexual behaviour. The Shakespearean theory, that music is at least one of the foods of love, has a strong claim to be true. The more mellifluous the singer, the more dexterous the harpist, the more mates he attracts.

A second idea that is widely touted is that music binds groups of people together. The resulting solidarity, its supporters suggest, might have helped bands of early humans to thrive at the expense of those that were less musical.

Both of these ideas argue that musical ability evolved specifically—that it is, if you like, a virtual organ as precisely crafted to its purpose as the heart or the spleen. The third hypothesis, however, is that music is a cross between an accident and an invention. It is an accident because it is the consequence of abilities that evolved for other purposes. And it is an invention because, having thus come into existence, people have bent it to their will and made something they like from it.
She loves you

Shakespeare’s famous quote was, of course, based on commonplace observation. Singing, done well, is certainly sexy. But is its sexiness the reason it exists? Charles Darwin thought so. Twelve years after he published “On the Origin of Species”, which described the idea of natural selection, a second book hit the presses. “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” suggested that the need to find a mate being the pressing requirement that it is, a lot of the features of any given animal have come about not to aid its survival, but to aid its courtship. The most famous example is the tail of the peacock. But Darwin suggested human features, too, might be sexually selected in this way—and one of those he lit on was music.

In this case, unlike that of natural selection, Darwin’s thinking did not set the world alight. But his ideas were revived recently by Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary biologist who works at the University of New Mexico. Dr Miller starts with the observations that music is a human universal, that it is costly in terms of time and energy to produce, and that it is, at least in some sense, under genetic control. About 4% of the population has “amusia” of one sort or another, and at least some types of amusia are known to be heritable. Universality, costliness and genetic control all suggest that music has a clear function in survival or reproduction, and Dr Miller plumps for reproduction.

One reason for believing this is that musical productivity—at least among the recording artists who have exploited the phonograph and its successors over the past hundred years or so—seems to match the course of an individual’s reproductive life. In particular, Dr Miller studied jazz musicians. He found that their output rises rapidly after puberty, reaches its peak during young-adulthood, and then declines with age and the demands of parenthood.

As is often the case with this sort of observation, it sounds unremarkable; obvious, even. But uniquely human activities associated with survival—cooking, say—do not show this pattern. People continue to cook at about the same rate from the moment that they have mastered the art until the moment they die or are too decrepit to continue. Moreover, the anecdotal evidence linking music to sexual success is strong. Dr Miller often cites the example of Jimi Hendrix, who had sex with hundreds of groupies during his brief life and, though he was legally unmarried, maintained two long-term liaisons. The words of Robert Plant, the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, are also pertinent: “I was always on my way to love. Always. Whatever road I took, the car was heading for one of the greatest sexual encounters I’ve ever had.”

Another reason to believe the food-of-love hypothesis is that music fulfils the main criterion of a sexually selected feature: it is an honest signal of underlying fitness. Just as unfit peacocks cannot grow splendid tails, so unfit people cannot sing well, dance well (for singing and dancing go together, as it were, like a horse and carriage) or play music well. All of these activities require physical fitness and dexterity. Composing music requires creativity and mental agility. Put all of these things together and you have a desirable mate.
Improve your singing…

A third reason to believe it is that music, or something very like it, has evolved in other species, and seems to be sexually selected in those species, too. Just as the parallel evolution of mouse-like forms in marsupial and placental mammals speaks of similar ways of life, so the parallel evolution of song in birds, whales and gibbons, as well as humans, speaks of a similar underlying function. And females of these animals can be fussy listeners. It is known from several species of birds, for example, that females prefer more complex songs from their suitors, putting males under pressure to evolve the neurological apparatus to create and sing them.

And yet, and yet. Though Dr Miller’s arguments are convincing, they do not feel like the whole story. A man does not have to be gay to enjoy the music of an all-male orchestra, even if he particularly appreciates the soprano who comes on to sing the solos. A woman, meanwhile, can enjoy the soprano even while appreciating the orchestra on more than one level. Something else besides sex seems to be going on.

The second hypothesis for music’s emergence is that it had a role not just in helping humans assess their mates, but also in binding bands of people together in the evolutionary past. Certainly, it sometimes plays that role today. It may be unfashionable in Britain to stand for the national anthem, but two minutes watching the Last Night of the Proms, an annual music festival, on television will serve to dispel any doubts about the ability of certain sorts of music to instil collective purpose in a group of individuals. In this case the cost in time and energy is assumed to be repaid in some way by the advantages of being part of a successful group.

The problem with this hypothesis is that it relies on people not cheating and taking the benefits without paying the costs. One way out of that dilemma is to invoke a phenomenon known to biologists as group selection. Biologically, this is a radical idea. It requires the benefits of solidarity to be so great that groups lacking them are often extinguished en bloc. Though theoretically possible, this is likely to be rare in practice. However, some researchers have suggested that the invention of weapons such as spears and bows and arrows made intertribal warfare among early humans so lethal that group selection did take over. It has been invoked, for example, to explain the contradictory manifestations of morality displayed in battle: tenderness towards one’s own side; ruthlessness towards the enemy. In this context the martial appeal of some sorts of music might make sense.

Robin Dunbar of Oxford University does not go quite that far, but unlike Dr Miller he thinks that the origins of music need to be sought in social benefits of group living rather than the sexual benefits of seduction. He does not deny that music has gone on to be sexually selected (indeed, one of his students, Konstantinos Kaskatis, has shown that Dr Miller’s observation about jazz musicians also applies to 19th-century classical composers and contemporary pop singers). But he does not think it started that way.
…and your grooming

Much of Dr Dunbar’s career has been devoted to trying to explain the development of sociality in primates. He believes that one of the things that binds groups of monkeys and apes together is grooming. On the face of it, grooming another animal is functional. It keeps the pelt clean and removes parasites. But it is an investment in someone else’s well-being, not your own. Moreover, animals often seem to groom each other for far longer than is strictly necessary to keep their fur pristine. That time could, in principle, be used for something else. Social grooming, rather like sexual selection, is therefore a costly (and thus honest) signal. In this case though, that signal is of commitment to the group rather than reproductive prowess.

Dr Dunbar thinks language evolved to fill the role of grooming as human tribes grew too large for everyone to be able to groom everyone else. This is a controversial hypothesis, but it is certainly plausible. The evidence suggests, however, that the need for such “remote grooming” would arise when a group exceeds about 80 individuals, whereas human language really got going when group sizes had risen to around 140. His latest idea is that the gap was bridged by music, which may thus be seen as a precursor to language.

The costliness of music—and of the dancing associated with it—is not in doubt, so the idea has some merit. Moreover, the idea that language evolved from wordless singing is an old one. And, crucially, both singing and dancing tend to be group activities. That does not preclude their being sexual. Indeed, showing off to the opposite sex in groups is a strategy used by many animals (it is known as lekking). But it may also have the function of using up real physiological resources in a demonstration of group solidarity.

By side-stepping the genocidal explanations that underlie the classical theory of group selection, Dr Dunbar thinks he has come up with an explanation that accounts for music’s socially binding qualities without stretching the limits of evolutionary theory. Whether it will pass the mathematical scrutiny which showed that classical group selection needs genocide remains to be seen. But if music is functional, it may be that sexual selection and social selection have actually given each other a helping hand.

The third hypothesis, though, is that music is not functional, and also that Dr Dunbar has got things backwards. Music did not lead to language, language led to music in what has turned out to be a glorious accident—what Stephen Jay Gould called a spandrel, by analogy with the functionless spaces between the arches of cathedrals that artists then fill with paintings. This is what Steven Pinker, a language theorist at Harvard, thinks. He once described music as auditory cheesecake and suggested that if it vanished from the species little else would change.

Dr Pinker’s point is that, like real cheesecake, music sates an appetite that nature cannot. Human appetites for food evolved at a time when the sugar and fat which are the main ingredients of cheesecake were scarce. In the past, no one would ever have found enough of either of these energy-rich foods to become obese, so a strong desire to eat them evolved, together with little limit beyond a full stomach to stop people eating too much. So it is with music. A brain devoted to turning sound into meaning is tickled by an oversupply of tone, melody and rhythm. Singing is auditory masturbation to satisfy this craving. Playing musical instruments is auditory pornography. Both sate an appetite that is there beyond its strict biological need.

Of course, it is a little more complicated than that. People do not have to be taught to like cheesecake or sexy pictures (which, in a telling use of the language, are sometimes also referred to as “cheesecake”). They do, however, have to be taught music in a way that they do not have to be taught language.
Words and music

Aniruddh Patel, of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, compares music to writing, another widespread cultural phenomenon connected with language. True language—the spoken languages used by most people and the gestural languages used by the deaf—does not have to be taught in special classes. The whole of a baby’s world is its classroom. It is true that parents make a special effort to talk to their children, but this is as instinctive as a young child’s ability (lost in his early teens) to absorb the stuff and work out its rules without ever being told them explicitly.

Learning to write, by contrast, is a long-winded struggle that many fail to master even if given the opportunity. Dyslexia, in other words, is common. Moreover, reading and writing must actively be taught, usually by specialists, and evidence for a youthful critical period when this is easier than otherwise is lacking. Both, however, transform an individual’s perception of the world, and for this reason Dr Patel refers to them as “transformative technologies”.

In difficulty of learning, music lies somewhere in between speaking and writing. Most people have some musical ability, but it varies far more than their ability to speak. Dr Patel sees this as evidence to support his idea that music is not an adaptation in the way that language is, but is, instead, a transformative technology. However, that observation also supports the idea that sexual selection is involved, since the whole point is that not everyone will be equally able to perform, or even to learn how to do so.
Do they know it’s Christmas?

What all of these hypotheses have in common is the ability of music to manipulate the emotions, and this is the most mysterious part of all. That some sounds lead to sadness and others to joy is the nub of all three hypotheses. The singing lover is not merely demonstrating his prowess; he also seeks to change his beloved’s emotions. Partly, that is done by the song’s words, but pure melody can also tug at the heart-strings. The chords of martial music stir different sentiments. A recital of the Monteverdi Vespers or a Vivaldi concerto in St Mark’s cathedral in Venice, the building that inspired Gould to think of the non-role of spandrels, generates emotion pure and simple, disconnected from human striving.

This is an area that is only beginning to be investigated. Among the pioneers are Patrik Juslin, of Uppsala University, and Daniel Vastfjall, of Gothenburg University, both in Sweden. They believe they have identified six ways that music affects emotion, from triggering reflexes in the brain stem to triggering visual images in the cerebral cortex.

Such a multiplicity of effects suggests music may be an emergent property of the brain, cobbled together from bits of pre-existing machinery and then, as it were, fine-tuned. So, ironically, everyone may be right—or, at least partly right. Dr Pinker may be right that music was originally an accident and Dr Patel may be right that it transforms people’s perceptions of the world without necessarily being a proper biological phenomenon. But Dr Miller and Dr Dunbar may be right that even if it originally was an accident, it has subsequently been exploited by evolution and made functional.

Part of that accident may be the fact that many natural sounds evoke emotion for perfectly good reasons (fear at the howl of a wolf, pleasure at the sound of gently running water, irritation and mother-love at the crying of a child). Sexually selected features commonly rely on such pre-existing perceptual biases. It is probably no coincidence, for instance, that peacocks’ tails have eyespots; animal brains are good at recognising eyes because eyes are found only on other animals. It is pure speculation, but music may be built on emotions originally evolved to respond to important natural sounds, but which have blossomed a hundred-fold.

The truth, of course, is that nobody yet knows why people respond to music. But, when the carol singers come calling, whether the emotion they induce is joy or pain, you may rest assured that science is trying to work out why.

The Canadian Music Industry - views from Larry Leblanc

Here's an interesting article from Exclaim!. Larry Leblanc is one of the most experienced music industry journalists and commentators in Canada.

Larry LeBlanc
Publisher of the LeBlanc Newsletter
By Allison Outhit

Larry LeBlanc has been a leading figure in Canadian music for four decades. Canadian bureau chief of Billboard magazine from 1991 to 2007, Larry was also the co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He is currently publisher of The LeBlanc Newsletter.

What’s going on in the retail sector?
Despite the loss of A&B, Music World and Sam’s we still do have a traditional retail base here but they have competition from the big box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco, and they have lost the ability to sell a lot of catalogue with good margins. On most leading product, the retailer isn’t making all that much money. After all the pricing plans, the retailer might be buying for $10.35 and selling for $13.99. That’s not much of a margin. In the past they could buy catalogue items at $10 and sell them for $24. So this puts pressure on all the record companies when HMV and Archambault are saying they only want product they can sell under $18. And artists who were getting $9 or $10 per CD from their distributor are now getting $5 or $6. That’s the new math.

How is this affecting independent artists?
Well, DVD pricing is also driving music prices down. If you can buy Fargo at $10, you’re not going to buy the Weakerthans for $18. Also, a major is going to sell the retailer two pretty big titles at $8 a piece, but they’re being charged $13 for an independent product that may turn over once or twice while the two major titles are going to turn the first week they are in the store. It doesn’t take much to figure out how retailers are going to choose. So, the pricing has gone down and the opportunities have gone down for independent artists. This year we’ve seen more concentration on trying to get internet sales and more sales bounce out of live appearances. More bands are relying a lot more on the revenue they’ll make on the road and have almost given up on physical retail.

Will digital sales make up the shortfall?
As much as the industry keeps talking about the shift to the internet, for mainstream product overall we haven’t seen the big sales numbers. We’re seeing it in terms of individual tracks that are downloaded, but it hasn’t replaced the revenue that we’ve lost in sales over the last few years. I don’t believe anyone’s making a lot of money from that other than iTunes. We do know that 92 percent of most revenue from album sales still goes through retail in Canada, partly because we have a lower penetration of high-speed internet. But also I think it’s because there’s a lot of crappy music out there. The day when people would buy the whole album for that one song is over. Give them an album they want, and they will buy it. We’ve just seen that with AC/DC — it was the highest sales entry in seven or eight years.

What’s happening with major labels?
These companies have been either pared away so badly that they are running on shoestring and oil, or they’ve been in play [sold and resold] for so long and gone through chaos. Those things have affected A&R [artist development] in the industry overall. To get an artist to star status probably takes two or three albums. Five years ago no one would have gone to an EMI because the company was in turmoil. The same is true for Sony BMG and Warner. The only company that escaped that was Universal, so at least they’ve got something in the A&R pipes.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Book Review: Ubuntu For Non-Geeks, 3rd Edition by Rickford Grant

Even if you're a pretty good user of Windows or Apple's OS X, you can still be intimidated by the prospect of learning Linux if you dive in too deeply with the wrong book for your level of understanding. The trick for most hobbyists who are reluctant to give Linux a try is to know where to safely begin, where one won't get overwhelmed with so much technical jargon that one will get turned off by the experience.

For those new to the Linux experience, Rickford Grant has written a series of books for No Starch Press entitled Ubuntu For Non-Geeks, now in its third edition. I would strongly urge the medium or expertly skilled Linux users to pick up this book, if only to recommend it to their friends who are at the beginner level and for the beginners to pick it up without hesitation. This is a beginner's book and the author makes no bones about it, but you will be surprised at how much you will be comfortable with towards the end.

For years now, computer users have been hearing about Linux and its various distributions. In the last few years, Linux has made the jump from the domain of server operators to users' desktops, replacing Windows. If you work in an office environment with a version of Linux, you already have a leg up on the curious multitudes of people who are still a little too intimidated to give Linux a try.

One of my relatives works in a office with Novell's Suse Linux instead of Windows on the desktop. Another one works with a Linux desktop and Linux Terminal Server Project on the back end. With LTSP, if a terminal computer fails, you simply unplug it and plug in a new system, connect to the server and carry on working. My point is, Linux is more popular in both the home and work environments than most people realize.

Canonical Ltd. is the UK-based sponsor of Ubuntu, currently the most popular Linux OS on the desktop. With Ubuntu being open source, programmers in and outside of Canonical contribute to its development. In fact, every six months, a new version of Ubuntu is released. Every two years, a Long Term Service (LTS) version is released, which is supported by Canonical for three years. The most recent LTS version is Ubuntu 8.04, which arrived in April of 2008 and is known as Hardy Heron (each release is given a snappy title named after an animal that also loosely describes the advancements of the OS.) Hardy Heron is the focus of Ubuntu For Non-Geeks, 3rd Edition.

So, how do people learn the best? From my experience in the computer world, as someone who is constantly trying to keep up with new technologies, both out of personal interest and to benefit my work responsibilities, I learn best when I actually combine reading with hands-on. The major benefit of this book, if it isn't the non-threatening language the author utilizes, is the inclusion of several hands-on exercises.

What if you don't have a copy of Ubuntu handy? Fortunately, the author includes a copy that you can use so long as your computer meets the minimum technical requirements. By and large, if you running a regular 32-bit version of Windows, on a computer that is a Pentium III or greater, you should be just fine. You can run it on some older systems, but for a good experience, you'll want to have as much RAM as possible.

Using the included Ubuntu 8.04 cd-rom, you can install the OS right from the Windows desktop. When you turn the computer on, you will see a menu which will allow you to choose between Windows and Ubuntu. Any time you decide to delete Ubuntu, you remove it from Windows just as you would any other Windows program, with the Add/Remove program.

The other way to run Ubuntu is to boot your computer with the Ubuntu disc in the optical drive. It will install only into your computer's RAM, so it never touches your hard drive. Until you turn your computer off, you can use this install, known as the Live CD, to get on the Internet and poke around Ubuntu.

Ubuntu utilizes the third-party desktop known as GNOME, whereas the other major desktop environment, KDE, shows up in Kubuntu, another Ubuntu variation. You'll learn how to customize the GNOME panel with things like shortcuts to applications like OpenOffice.org's Writer (very similar to Microsoft Office's Word) and utilities like Force Quit, which allows you to quickly close non-responding windows.

Not surprisingly, you won't find Microsoft's Internet Explorer included in any Linux distribution, but you will find Mozilla's open source browser, Firefox. There are exercises that will show you how install add-ons for Firefox so you can do cool things like blog, watch Youtube videos with the Flash plug-in, set up an e-mail client from a choice of the default Evolution client (similar to Microsoft's Outlook) or download the popular Thunderbird client (more similar to Microsoft's Outlook Express.)

The mere act of searching for and downloading an application through the Synaptic Package Manager program will have the added benefit of showing where to get access to hundreds and hundreds of free programs to customize and enhance your system. Instant messaging capability is included in the Pidgin Internet Messenger, which is compatible with virtually all the existing messenger programs, including MSN Messenger, ICQ, etc., and has the added benefit that it can communicate with all of them simultaneously. Internet telephoning is also discussed, including instructions on how to install Skype.

The book discusses the Advanced Package Tool (APT), the engine for downloading applications, updates and for removal of programs. The Synaptic Package Manager is one of a few of the graphical front ends for the APT's command line interface. Update Manager is also covered as it updates the overall operating system and should be run before downloading any applications.

The author covers The Linux Command Terminal with commands that illustrate why it is not to be feared and how it can be useful and even fun. Yes, you can run some Windows applications by using a program called WINE, which stands for “WINE is Not an Emulator,” including Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Ubuntu is based on the Debian distribution of Linux and uses DEB packages to install programs and updates. Some Linux packages exist only as RPMs, packages for Red Hat, Fedora and some other Linux distributions. The author shows you how to utilize a program called Alien to convert RPM packages to DEB packages so that they can work on Ubuntu.

Linux operating systems are packaged with what could be considered thousands of dollars worth of productivity software, from OpenOffice.org to photo editors to financial management software. Several of the popular applications are discussed.

Multi-media has become a big part of what we use computers for, and this topic is covered, as well. Due to licensing issues, MP3 playback and creation software is not included in Linux, but the author shows you to download free software for those purposes, as well as how to connect to your iPod. Digital cameras, DVD playback, connecting peripherals like scanners and printers, are also covered.

Finally, one of the most important topics for any computer user is discussed. Many people have switched from Windows to Linux due to the multitudes of security flaws which appear in Windows computers. While every operating system has its security flaws, there are fewer of them for Linux systems simply due to the fact that there are far fewer users of Linux than Windows. Also, most Windows users are running in a privileged mode with grants rights to malware to cause problems that restricted user accounts don't have rights to perform. Most Linux systems are run in a restricted mode.

If Windows systems are built for the ease of exchanging data on networks and for installing programs, Linux systems are more secure since they have no open ports for incoming traffic turned on by default. Nonetheless, the author shows you how to install a firewall (that ships with Ubuntu) and explains the anti-virus programs available for Linux, including some free ones, that will help prevent a Linux system from inadvertently transmitting viruses that affect Windows systems. Throughout the book, Grant freely states his biases but lets you see what the choices are, for things like anti-virus software and e-mail clients.

The vast amount of free support is what makes Ubuntu a smart choice. Yes, Canonical makes its money by selling support contracts, but unless you are running a company, you are most likely going to get help from the multitudes of free sources, which the author lists, including magazines and other books you can check out.

This is as good as place as any to begin your Linux journey. The exercises cover topics that are simple at first, but before you know it, you will delving into tasks that you would have guessed would have been way outside of your comfort zone. In a nutshell, that is the overall strength of this excellent book.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

review - Guns'n'Roses - Chinese Democracy

This album has been several years in the making and cost millions of dollars to produce. It's easily the most anticipated album in years.

I haven't heard any of the unofficial tracks from this album that have apparently been all over the Internet for years now. My first exposure to the CD was when I popped into my car player a few days ago.

I've listened to it non-stop, to and from work, which is about 40 minutes each day, so I believe I have a good feel for the album.

Unfortunately, I'm not all that impressed with it. If this were an album by a new band, I don't believe it would get the positive attention its getting. It's essentially an Axl Rose solo album.

You could say the album has a variety of styles or you could say that it doesn't have a cohesive sound. I'm hearing Nine Inch Nails and nu metal influences, and with the Martin Luther King snippet, you would think Axl has been listening to U2.

I suspect when they (he) tours, the fans will be more into the Appetite material than anything from this album. Don't get me wrong, there are some decent tracks on here, but nothing that really sounds like the raw, rock and roll metal of their first album. Sure, I suppose Axl being a artist, didn't want to repeat the past, so he tried new things. I can respect that. But when I think of G'n'R, I think of no-holds barred rockin' metal, simple but effectively to the point.

I'll keep in listening to the album. It's growing on me.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Some top-rated pop albums from the Sunday Times (UK.)

From The Sunday Times
December 7, 2008
The 100 best records of 2008
Our writers choose the best CDs of the year, from Fleet Foxes and Kanye West to Buika and Magdalena Kozena

Sunday Times critics

Rock and Pop

1 Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes (Bella Union) Usually, when an album’s reviews has references to the Beach Boys or CSN&Y, it simply means that more than one person in the band sings at the same time. But in the case of this uplifting, timeless yet fresh debut, comparisons with the peak of West Coast pop are entirely justified.

2 Cut/Copy: In Ghost Colours (Modular) The Melbourne trio made the most haunting and beguiling electro album of the year, awash with beauty, melancholy, rapture and updated 1980s-new-wave magic. An instant classic.

3 Paul Weller: 22 Dreams (Island) The sharp-dressed man’s back catalogue is full of ups and downs, but this is very much an up: a dazzlingly eclectic album that shows Weller, at 50, can still match the thrilling inventions of his early days.

4 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (Mute) Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, last year’s Grinderman project, and now this: a snarling, feral, self-deprecating, libidinous, hilarious work of genius. As an album, it’s extraordinary. As a 14th studio release, it’s miraculous.

5 Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago (4AD) This album had the best back story of the year — man splits with girlfriend, falls ill, retires to remote log cabin to recover, hunting his own meat, chopping wood for the fire, and all the time conjuring up this unique, hauntingly lovely, multitracked folk.

6 Aidan John Moffat: I Can Hear Your Heart (Chemikal Underground) The former Arab Strapper, one of Britain’s greatest lyricists, excelled himself on this part-book, part-audio spoken-word masterpiece, which forensically examined his drink-fuelled inadequacies and self-disgust, along with the absurdities he witnesses or sets in motion.

7 Al Green: Lay It Down (Blue Note) Guests including John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, ?uestlove, the Dap-Kings horns and other neo-soul luminaries join with one of the old-school greats as he recaptures his finest form. If you love the man’s 1970s hits, you will love this too.

8 Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak (Roc-a-Fella/Mercury) Mourning his mother, and heartbroken by a failed relationship, West forsook rap in favour of a minimalist electro approach, emerging as a singer (his voice heavily treated) who mined poignancy from the sparest of lyrical and musical sources.

9 REM: Accelerate (Warner Bros) For the first time since the departure of their drummer, Bill Berry, 11 long years ago, REM have created a really excellent album. The secret? Lose the languorous synths, turn up the guitars, rock out.

10 My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges (Rough Trade) The mutation of Jim James’s band from country-tinged guitar-rockers into genre-bending experimentalists continued apace on this superb fifth album, as prog, space-funk, acoustica and 1970s soul and soft-rock joined the blend — with wondrous results.

11 Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan: Sunday at Devil Dirt (V2) The only downside to this duo’s superb debut, Ballad of the Broken Seas, was the thought that such an unlikely collaboration would prove a one-off. But no: here’s another instalment of Lanegan growling and Campbell whispering through a set of songs Hank Williams would have been proud of.

12 The Killers: Day & Age (Mercury) Ignore Brandon Flowers’s protestations about superstar ambivalence: on this third album of immaculate, radio-conquering pop, the front man and his Las Vegas colleagues sound not just hungry for the next, stadium-filling stage of success, but gagging for it.

13 Little Jackie: The Stoop (S-Curve) Imani Coppola reinvents herself as the missing link between Macy Gray and Lily Allen, with a sassy mix of pop, R&B, hip-hop and smart lyrics, including the You’re So Vain complexity of “I liked you better before you knew me” and the admirable honesty of “The world should revolve around me”.

14 Sigur Ros: Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (EMI) A blissful, devastating album from the Icelandic ambient-rockers, full of sonic sorcery and glacial expanses, and containing, in Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur, 2009’s most euphoric pop moment.

15 Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid (Fiction) To be honest, it’s no better than their earlier albums, but — for whatever reason — this was the year when Elbow’s thoroughly human take on rock finally reached the tipping point and deservedly turned them from “criminally underrated” to “much loved”.

16 The Dears: Missiles (Dangerbird) Stripped down to just a husband-and-wife duo, the Canadians came up with their best album to date, using Pink Floyd, Radiohead and pre-Midge Ure Ultravox references as a springboard to a sublime example of ethereal indie.

17 Emiliana Torrini: Me and Armini (Rough Trade) The Icelandic singer — whose CV includes writing for Kylie — created a perky pop album that joins the dots between Björk and Nancy Sinatra.

18 Roots Manuva: Slime & Reason (Big Dada) Rodney Smith’s sixth studio album found the preacher’s son ducking and diving through alternately self-lacerating and dextrously witty wordplay, to a musical backdrop so mongrel that it defied categorisation — and was all the more absorbing and riveting for that.

19 Peter Broderick: Home (Bella Union) Best known for his work with the intriguing Danish outfit Efterklang, Broderick this year revealed himself as a songwriter of beguiling depth. Home’s layered vocals and finger-picked guitar create a quiet, yearning world that lives up to the warmth and comfort suggested by the album’s title.

20 Lindsey Buckingham: Gift of Screws (Reprise) If this were by Fleetwood Mac, people would have gone: “A classic Mac mix of soft rock and experimental excursions.” As it was by the man chiefly responsible for that mix, not the band, it was largely ignored. Mad, mad world.

Mark Edwards and Dan Cairns

New Artists

1 Laura Marling: Alas, I Cannot Swim (Virgin) Under cover of musical lightness, the teenager crept up on listeners with a nu-folk masterpiece that, amid the sing-alongs, tackled love, death and depression with startling candour.

2 The Last Shadow Puppets: The Age of the Understatement (Domino) Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner teamed up with the Rascals’ Miles Kane for a Scott Walker- and Lee Hazlewood-indebted album that brimmed with some of the sharpest, most haunting melodies of the year.

3 Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles (Different) Toronto’s Alice Glass and Ethan Fawn made a debut that sounded like an army of Space Invaders running amok on crack. It was as violent as music gets.

4 Wild Beasts: Limbo, Panto (Domino) With Hayden Thorpe’s lurid falsetto to the fore, the Leeds band concocted a sort of musical/satirical cabaret noir, heavy on melodrama, wit and weird. The most original debut of the year.

5 Eugene McGuiness: Eugene McGuinness (Domino) McGuinness made good on his promise with a record that nodded to Rufus Wainwright, Byrne, Albarn and Merritt, but triumphed on its own eccentric terms.

6 Nicole Atkins: Neptune City (Red Ink/Sony BMG) From the Jersey Shore, Atkins crooned her way into contention with an album of vocal melodrama and restraint, her voice an Orbison/Cline stunner.

7 Lightspeed Champion: Falling off the Lavender Bridge (Domino) The former Test Icicle Dev Hynes retreated from the hype and tore songs from his chest, with melodies that could never mask the torment of their birth.

8 Ladyhawke: Ladyhawke (Island) The New Zealander Pip Brown first made electro-pop waves with her brilliant Paris Is Burning single. Its irresistible chorus gave only a hint of how packed with the things this superb debut would be.

9 Noah and the Whale: Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down (Mercury) Charlie Fink and co’s debut looked death, decay and self-doubt in the face, emerging with a chill in its heart but, musically, a lethally contrasting spring in its step.

10 The week that was: The Week That Was (Memphis Industries) Field Music’s Peter Brewis threw out his TV, immersed himself in Paul Auster and came up with a musical thriller, all choppy guitars and prog textures.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

DJ Buddy's best songs of 2008

Ballboy – We Can Leap Buildings And Rivers, But Really We Just Wanna Fly
Bodies Of Water – If I Were A Bell
Born Ruffians – Hummingbird
Bubblegum Lemonade – A Billion Heartbeats
Caesars – In Orbit
Cajun Dance Party – Colourful Life
Chairlift – Bruises
Conor Oberst – Danny Callahan
Cut Copy – So Haunted
Death Cab For Cutie – I Will Possess Your Heart
Deerhunter – Never Stops
Department Of Eagles – No One Does Like It Like You
Detektivbyran – Honkey Tonk Of Wermland
Donora – Shh
Dr. Dog – The Rabbit, The Bat And The Reindeer
Envelopes – Party
Evangelicals – Skeleton Man
Faded Paper Figures – Metropolis
Fleet Foxes – He Doesn’t Know Why
Franz Ferdinand – Lucid Dreams
Fujiya & Miyagi – Knickerbocker
Gentleman Auction House – The Book Of Matches
Headlights – Towers
Hello Saferide – Lund
Hercules & Love Affair – Blind
Infadels – Free Things For Poor People
Irene – Little Things
Jay Reatard – An Ugly Death
Lacrosse – You Can’t Say No Forever
Lambchop – National Talk Like A Pirate Day
Lightspeed Champion – Tell Me What Its Worth
Los Campesinos! – Ways to Make It Though The Wall
Love Is All – Rumours
Lykke Li – I’m Good I’m Gone
M83 – Graveyard Girl
Man Man – Top Drawer
Margot And The Nuclear So & So’s – My Baby (Shoots Her Mouth Off)
Mates Of State – My Only Offer
MGMT – Kids
Neil Halstead – Queen Bee
No Age – Here Should Be My Home
No Kids – Neighbour’s Party
Noah & The Whale – 5 Years Time
Of Montreal – Gallery Piece
Okkervil River – Lost Coastlines
One For The Team – Best Supporting Actor
Pelle Carlberg – Nicknames
Pete & The Pirates – Mr. Understanding
Portishead – The Rip
Primal Scream – The Beautiful Future
Ra Ra Riot – Can You Tell
Russian Red – They Don’t Believe
Sergeant – Sue Loves It
She & Him – Why Don’t You Let Me Stay Here
Sigur Ros – Gobbledigook
Silver Jews – Aloysius Bluegrass Drummer
Shocking Pinks – Emily
Someone Still Loves you, Boris Yeltsin – Dead Right
Sons And Daughters – Gilt Complex
Submarines – You, Me & The Bourgeoisie
TV On The Radio – Dancing Choose
Tapes‘n Tapes – Hang Them All
Teitur – Catherine The Waitress
The Apples In Stereo – Man You Gotta Get Up
The Bicycles – Once Was Not Enough
The Black Ghosts – Repetition Kills You
The Decemberists – Days Of Elaine
The Do – The Bridge Is Broken
The Dodos – Red And Purple
The Grates – Milk Eyes
The Kills – Tape Song
The Last Shadow Puppets – Blank Plant
The Little Ones – Morning Tide
The Lodger – The Good Old Days
The Ruby Suns – Tane Mahuta
The Sea And Cake – On A Letter
The School – I Want You Back
The Smittens – Half My Heart Beats
The Spinto Band – Pumpkins And Paisley
The Ting Tings – Great DJ
The Verve – Love Is Noise
The Walkman – In The New Year
Those Dancing Days – Run Run
Tilly And The Wall – Dust Me Off
Tokyo Police Club – In A Cave
Vampire Weekend – Oxford Comma
Van She – Cat & The Eye
Yves Klein Blue – Polka

Concert Review: Sarah Brightman - MTS Centre, Winnipeg, MB, 12/06/2008

About 6000 people braved the cold to take in Sarah Brightman's Winnipeg stop on her latest tour, in support of the just-released Symphony album and DVD.

Accompanied by eight young maidens as dancers, Brightman (April 14, 1960) led the show through sweet interpretations of some well-known songs, like Kansas' "Dust In the Wind," the "Phantom of the Opera," and several of her own songs, including the famous "Time To Say Goodbye," which wasn't sung in duet mode, despite having two sensational guest tenors in the show.

There were many costume changes. Brightman looked fabulous and sang beautifully in either her pop or operatic voice. The middle section of the stage was occasionally lowered to create a dip from which Brightman and her dancers would lie flat and with the huge movable Mylar screens above her. The reflection of the group on the screens made it appear as if they were floating.

At times, the middle screen was lowered with Brightman standing behind it and stunning visual imagery was projected around her, like fields of grass with growing plants that would turn into trees, then really old trees with butterflies and shooting stars at night. In one memorable part of the show (a "scene", really), Brightman sat atop a bicycle while the video footage around her showed a dark road within a creepy forest at night whipping past her, giving the sensation that she was actually moving on the bike. Ghostly wolves also appeared on bikes and performed some wheelies while trying to get her to crash.

It was both creepy and cheesy at the same time. At the beginning of another scene, one of the dancers was unmistakably dressed up as Alice and while walking down the catwalk that jutted out to the middle of the floor, a large rabbit appeared from a trap door. This led to appearances by the Mad Hatter and dancers dressed up as playing cards.

Near the beginning of one of the songs, the audience was suddenly surprised to hear this amazing male tenor vocal and then the appearance of someone who looked and sounded like he was from Il Divo. He was introduced as Mario Frangoulis (December 1, 1966), a Greek, who received a ton of applause for his two or three appearances in the show. Also appearing was Argentine singer Fernando Lima (May 7, 1975), who has recorded with Brightman.

Visually, this show was a winner. The sound was also excellent, clear, and well-defined. The backing band looked like and sounded like polished heavy metal players. When the show first began, it occurred to me that Brightman's sound is sometimes like bombastic hard rock/ metal meets opera. The band sounded clean and heavy, ideal to back someone like Meatloaf. Formerly married to Andrew Lloyd Webber (22 March, 1948), Brightman has sold 26 million albums and is still the only artist to appear at the number one position simultaneously on the Billboard Classical and Dance charts.

I'm knocking one star since some of the songs she sang, usually in foreign languages, didn't seem like material that I would want to hear again. Like all artists, Brightman does her best with her signature talent - in this case, vocals - in spite of some of her unexceptional song choices.

My rating for this concert is 4/5.

Concert Review: Richard Thompson - Garrick Theatre, Winnipeg, MB, 12/05/2008

Around 500 people showed up to witness one of the world's most famous folk musicians perform an exhilarating 110 minute show.

Well, what can be said about the caliber of musician that Richard Thompson (April 3, 1949) is? Everyone who knows who he is, pretty much agrees that he is among the top singer-songwriter guitar players around. Rolling Stone ranked him as the 19th greatest guitarist in the world. Others list him as the finest guitarist not from the blues tradition. While such lists are very subjective, you'll never hear anyone say that he isn't among the best in the world.

There were many moments when I thought to myself that his acoustic guitar playing alone was well worth the price of admission. Thompson may very well be the finest acoustic guitarist who I've seen live. He's fluid, fast, mistake-free, damn near perfect without ever sounding sterile and machine-like. If you thought folk music was nothing but slow guitar playing, you'd be wrong and Thompson would be one of many examples that would impress even a thrash metal guitarist.

Despite being all by himself on the stage, there was never a dull moment. Like fellow Brit Billy Bragg, Thompson spoke quite a bit to the audience, providing the stories behind the songs and telling funny tales. It was entertaining, especially since he poses a keen intellect and a priceless wit. One of his songs, a decidedly fun number, was about how he prefers girls who wear glasses because they tend to be brainy, as the stereotype goes.

People were constantly laughing throughout that song as he made rhymed references to intellectuals and emotions (Krishnamurti and "dirty," anyone?)

Thompson opened the show with "I Feel So Good," a witty hit song from 1991's Rumor and Sigh. He introduced "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" from the latest album by discussing the various slang references that the US soldiers in Iraq utilize: "Dad" is Baghdad; "Ali Babba" refers to any Arab; "Frankenstein" refers to Humvees with special armor plating meant to thwart road side bombs. Also from his 1991 album was the most requested song on National Public Radio, the guitar finger picking sensation "1952 Vincent Black Lighting."

For fan favorite 1999's "Crawl Back (Under My Stone)" from Mock Tudor, Thompson would sing one part of the rousing chorus and step away from the mike to encourage and hear the audience chime right in. It was a vigorous workout and no less effective given that was playing acoustic guitar for the entire show. He introduced 1988's "Pharaoh" from the Amnesia album as being about when he wonders about the powerful companies and conglomerates who control the world.

His current album, 2007's Sweet Warrior was represented by "Needle and Thread", "Bad Monkey", "Mr. Stupid," "Sunset Song." For his second encore, he called out for requests only to be totally inundated with shouts from the audience, but he must have heard people calling for 1994's "Beeswing." Some songs were speedy, some were cheeky and clever, some were bittersweet but they were pretty much all songs that I would want to hear again.

Opener Dan Frechette, a twenty year (or so) veteran of the folk scene, put on a brilliant set. His first song was practically ripped from today's headlines, about the financial crisis in the US and the interests of Wall Street clashing with that of the average person. Frechette is one of those singer-songwriters who are the real deal, rather than being a wannabe. He's got the music in him and there's so much of it that much of his musical energy exits out of his right foot, which stomps the stage to provide a catchy anchor to his acoustic guitar and harmonica music. Towards the end of a song, the intensity of the foot stomping increases as Frechette's literally picks up his leg and lets it slam down with great force. He has a new album out and I can't wait to buy a copy. See this guy and you'll know that you've seen someone special.

My rating for this show is 5/5.


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