Best Albums of 2005

  1. Stars – Set Yourself on Fire
    I’m so glad these songs were recorded. Thank you, Canada, for yet more beautiful, perfect moments. This is an album so flawless and so enthralling that every time I listen to it, I always have to start over from the beginning and hear it all over again.
    • One great track: “Your Ex-Lover is Dead”

  2. Eisley – Room Noises
    Eisley hooked me with their 2003 Marvelous Things EP and I resolved to keep an eye on these kids. And, lo, 2005 arrived and so did an album of (mostly) new material from Eisley which did not fail to amaze. Heard just once, pieces of these songs will dwell in the head for ever more.
    • One great track: “Telescope Eyes”

  3. Death Cab for Cutie – Plans
    We all know Death Cab signed to a major label. Who cares. Let Ben and that balding man and the rest of them do what they want, just as long as they continue to release stuff as good as this.
    • One great track: “Different Names for the Same Thing”

  4. Shout Out Louds – Howl Howl Gaff Gaff
    They come from a cold place, and I guess this album was originally released years ago in that cold place, but to me it was shiny and new and haunting when I first saw the “Very Loud” video (and, uh, the setting for the video is a cold place too). The song burrowed its sweet self right into my chest and stayed with me for days. There are many other moments of clarity and greatness on this oddly- but fittingly-titled album.
    • One great track: “Very Loud”

  5. The National – Alligator
    I still don’t understand all the fuss about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and I will now go on record saying, as many others have said in a more timely fashion, what the hell? They toured with the National, and I happened to catch one of those infamous shows at which most of the audience left just prior to Matt Berninger’s appearance on stage. I watched CYHSY. I thought to myself, hmm, I don’t get it. The National followed. My eyes rolled back in my head with happiness. To the people who left Neumo’s way too early: what the hell?
    • One great track: “Abel”

  6. Beck – Guero
    I always liked Beck but I never loved him until this year. Granted, I love him like a friend, it’s not like I want to kiss the guy. But he’s still deserving of inclusion at a respectable slot in my Top 10.
    • One great track: “Girl”

  7. Dungen – Ta Det Lungt
    I can’t understand what they’re saying and that drives me halfway to madness. Swedish sounds to me like a language almost as inscrutable as Hopelandic. The music it’s set to, however, is as accessible and catchy as anything else I’ve heard this year.
    • One great track: “Panda”

  8. Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene
    I heart Canadia! After wowing me with You Forgot It in People (especially that ditty about an underage girl) BSS have stuffed my stocking with some additional unforgettable songs, and album cover art that reminds me of German Expressionism.
    • One great track: “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)”

  9. Pelican – The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw
    I had to include one album that just rocked. Rocked like nobody’s business and burst everybody’s eardrums. Pelican delivered the best entry of the year and boy is it epic.
    • One great track: “March to the Sea”

  10. Explosions in the Sky – How Strange, Innocence
    I apologize for including a reissue in this list. But dangit, How Strange, Innocence is great material that very nearly approaches the quality and depth of their later compositions. Which is to say that it is better than all but nine other albums released this year.
    • One great track: “Remember Me as a Time of Day”


Ever since the move, my CD collection had been in utter disarray. Last night it was finally time to re-alphabetize. This was an operation that consumed over three hours of my time, but that was so worthwhile; my searches of the archive are far more efficient now. An interesting and unexpected side effect of the sorting process was this beautiful 3-D visualization of the frequency distribution of artist names:

So what are the outliers? We can see that four letters — B, C, M and S — tower high over the others with approximately 60 CDs per letter. The letter S wins with a record 66 discs, and as if to prove this point beyond doubt, while I took this photo I happened to be listening to the Stars. At the opposite extreme, O has only seven CDs associated with it, while the unlucky letters Q, V, X and Z are not even represented at all. Can anyone think of worthwhile artists in those categories that I should add to my collection?

Best Albums of 2004

  1. The Arcade Fire – Funeral
    Perhaps I’m not extraordinary amongst music lovers in our year 2004 when I place The Arcade Fire here, at the top of my list. But if ever there was a more deserving recording, I am not aware of it. The Arcade Fire’s album is every bit the epiphanic, monstrous achievement of genius that it’s been claimed to be. And hopefully you’ll have an opportunity to see this band live, at which point your limbs will quiver with joy and your jaw will hang slack, because these Canadians may know how to write songs, but they were fucking born to perform on stage.
    • One great track: “Rebellion (Lies)”

  2. Snow Patrol – Final Straw
    A very solid piece of work is Snow Patrol’s offering. They have given us a whole album’s worth of melodies that stick with you paired with fairly intriguing lyrics, and enhanced it all with great production. I never became especially enthralled with any of their earlier stuff, but looking back it seems like they’ve been working towards this, and it’s nigh perfect. But — question: After achieving the goal, where to go from here? It’ll be interesting to see if Gary Lightbody can top Final Straw.
    • One great track: “Somewhere a Clock is Ticking”

  3. The Plastic Constellations – Mazatlan
    While it can’t claim much substance, Mazatlan is certainly the most fun of all the albums who’ve lined up for and been awarded a spot on my 2004 Top Ten. Catchy guitars, vapid lyrics, and a definite college alt-rock feel may not appeal to everyone but I think there’s always a place for simplicity and lightness in my musical world.
    • One great track: “Mazatlan”

  4. Mono – Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined
    Requires the modifier “(from Japan)” in all references. These guys obviously pilfered a few sheets out of Mogwai’s book of tricks when they were coming up with a signature sound. But since Mono (from Japan) do the Mogwai thing as well as Mogwai themselves do it, I shan’t complain. In fact, Walking Cloud is a more interesting and consistent listen than Mogwai’s latest, anyway. Thus it is all good.
    • One great track: “Ode”

  5. Elliott Smith – From a Basement on the Hill
    Poor Elliott — you are dead, and your survivors squabble relentlessly over the pieces you left behind. Yet it’s a grand testament to your songwriting skills that this album is so strong regardless of everything. Simply put, it’s a fine listen, and while it’s playing one can pretend for a short while that Elliott Smith is still living and breathing and writing his tortured songs. (Meanwhile, I know who killed Elliott! It’s all so obvious, you see…)
    • One great track: “Shooting Star”

  6. M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts
    M83 somehow manage to bring an epic warmth to electronica. That’s not to say Dead Cities lacks its share of creepy moments and alien beeps, but it all adds up to something more than just electronica. And it’s lovely.
    • One great track: “Noise”

  7. Drive-By Truckers – The Dirty South
    Are these ‘billies for real? Or are they just a bunch of crazy poets who have the appropriate accents and have read the appropriate books and can therefore fake it? I don’t really get it but I do enjoy it.
    • One great track: “Tornadoes”

  8. The Legends – Up Against the Legends
    This band of Scandanavian mystery musicians has given the world a nice present. The songs are a bit raw and garagey but contain an undeniable grace that just pleases me.
    • One great track: “Nothing to Be Done”

  9. Adem – Homesongs
    It’s an introspective record, sure, and it does lack some of the energy and catchiness of the other records on my list this year, but Homesongs has dug itself deep into my skull and it won’t budge.
    • One great track: “These are Your Friends”

  10. The Killers – Hot Fuss
    The Killers are definitely somewhat cheesy, but I can’t lie. This album rocks! It makes me bop my head and sing along with artificial emo, just like the lead singer does.
    • One great track: “Mr. Brightside”

Crop Circles

Wiltshire, England, is seemingly the crop circle capitol of the world. It is perhaps the only place one can visit on any random summer day and see at least one crop circle on a hillside or in a vale. Wiltshire is also quite close to the town in the Southwest of England where my mother’s family lives. So during my recent trip to Great Britain we hopped into the car, my aunt in the driver’s seat, with no particular plan or agenda other than to see some crop circles.

A couple of miles outside Avebury, we spied a line of people trudging up a hillside wheat field across from Silbury Hill. We knew right away there must be a crop circle up at the top of that hill, although it wasn’t visible from the road below. And so, cameras in hand, we joined the procession, an interesting mixture of new age types, hikers, and tourists. Sure enough, when we got to the hilltop we found ourselves standing inside a crop circle. The wheat stalks were just taller than waist-level and had been neatly bent at the ground into a shape that was quite beautiful to behold, even from close up. It was roughly 50 yards across with a circular perimeter and a multitude of different patterns inside. Parts of the circle were crisscrossed into a sort of maze, while elsewhere there were circles within circles. It seemed to be exactly symmetric, and the precision of the craftsmanship (or would that be craftsalienship?) was simply phenomenal. We spent nearly half an hour wandering through the circles and pathways, and my cousin struck up a conversation with a hippie woman who gave her a four-leafed clover and directions to the Crop Circle Cafe, where we were told we could find more information about the “freshest” crop circles. More recently-flattened circles are less trampled and, according to this woman, that’s where visitors are most likely to “feel” things. On our way out of the field, we dropped a couple quid into the donations barrel set out by the owner of the field in an attempt to recoup losses caused by the appearance of the crop circle.

At the Crop Circle Cafe, we examined a wall of photos from the 2004 summer crop circle season. Many of the circles featured complex geometrical patterns, but some were simple solid circles. All appeared to be of high quality. Also in the Cafe was a map of the Southwest, pins stuck in where crop circles had appeared. About 95% were within the boundaries of Wiltshire County. Why? Explanations range from the skeptical (the farmers and crop-circle makers have an agreement to share profits from tourism) to the mystical (the area has sacred powers, thus the ancient Avebury stone circle, barrows, white horses, and, today, crop circles).

Despite the fact that we didn’t purchase anything, the kind proprietors of the Crop Circle Cafe directed us to another site where we could get a view of some circles from above. We followed her directions to a hill with a public right-of-way leading up its side. From the top we were able to see two distinct crop circles in the fields below. These were just as beautifully made as the circle we’d seen up close, and from a distant vantage point it was even easier to appreciate the symmetry of the circle designs. Looking at these circles, we came to a consensus that we’d consider the crop circles “unexplained.” In other words, they could be otherworldly, or they could be the artistic product of a group of talented people — we’d accept either explanation but are meanwhile just happy to revel in the mystery of the whole thing.

My photos of the crop circle tour are here.

Microsoft Security Summit West, Day 2

Below is another extended text summarizing the talks from the second and last day of the Summit. Some interesting stuff here, to be sure. Unfortunately I was compelled to sign an NDA before the most interesting talk of all, so my notes from that one are not included. It may come later if I remember in a few months.

I took home a somewhat surprising impression of many of the Microsoft employees presenting the material. They seemed unabashedly humble at times, saying things like “We really don’t have any idea what the best way to do this is.” It was almost as though they were admitting that they’re learning how to write operating systems as they go. Perhaps that’s why Longhorn’s release is still so far out on the horizon. Anyway, I found this candidness oddly charming and really appreciated it.

Continue reading Microsoft Security Summit West, Day 2