Top Albums of 2009

Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Domino Records

The true test of a great album is longevity–can the record be revisited a year after year and still pack the same punch that you get during its initial run? Merriweather Post Pavilion was released just six days into 2009 and has been the one album all year that has given listeners more than ample time to soak up what it has to offer. As Collective’s eighth studio album, the hype surrounding the album’s release was high. In the end the group delivered.

The music seems to be the culmination of the band’s musical progression, which in the past featured records with moments of brilliance, sandwiched between harder to handle filler. The past albums, while excellent, never sufficed as being singular masterpieces (the group’s 2004 album, Sung Tongs comes closest to perfection but suffers from carrying on for too long with not as much deviation).

Post Pavilion’s “My Girls” was the perfect first single and easily one of the top tracks of the decade. “Summertime Clothes” floats along on a sea of processed sounds but manages to be the album’s most catchy and fun tune. On “Daily Routine,” rising vocalist/multi instrumentalist in the group, Panda Bear, muses on the daily grind of being a father set to sprinkles of keyboard swirls and pounding drum and bass rhythms. The record’s closer, “Brother Sport” is the one arena rocker on the disc that could truly bring the house down at the real Merriweather Post Pavilion outdoor arena in Maryland. The dreamy “Bluish” may be the band’s most beautifully lush song to date, overtaking Sung Tongs’ spine chilling opener, “Leaf House.” Comparisons to The Beach Boys have been made when discussing Animal Collective and in particular Panda Bear’s solo endeavors, however, the band has gone beyond mere imitation.

Through its impressive career thus far (eight studio albums, four EPs in ten years!) the group has continued to create a sound that is entirely their own. With Merriweather Post Pavilion their importance in the lexicon of modern music is completely realized. Now we wait for what’s next.

St. Vincent

Actor

4AD Records

Rising from the cult shadow of Polyphonic Spree, a fairly kitchy group that never managed to find their relevance in my humble opinion, Annie Clark put out one hell of a twisted record. Actor is at times truly like the Disney movie soundtracks she quoted as being influential. At the other end of the spectrum the album has moments that are truly frightening, both lyrically and with her use of screeching distortion and eerie background vocal walls. The music is puzzling at time. The lyrics range from tender, “I lick the ice cubes from your empty glass” to the macabre, “We’re sleeping underneath the bed / To scare the monsters out / With our dear daddy’s Smith and Wesson / We’ve got to teach them all a lesson.” The album may be the prettiest dark album of the year or the darkest pretty album of the year. Clark leaves you to decide.

Songs like “Save Me From What I Want” open with a suspenseful crescendo of electro string notes which then burst into a steady and terribly catchy back beat set to Clark’s ethereal pipes. “The Neighbors” finishes her musings on “psychotropic Capricorns” with a mighty closing stanza that could serve as the album’s unofficial manifesto on who Clark is, where she fits in the arena of indie rock, and what this album is all about.

How can Monday be alright

Then on Tuesday lose my mind

Tomorrow’s some kind of stranger

Who I’m not supposed to see

Were it not for Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and Animal Collectives Merriweather Post Pavilion, Actor would be the clear victor for album of the year. It’s a triumphant sophomore release from an artist to keep an eye on. When she sings on the harrowingly titled, “Laughing With A Mouth of Blood,” “And I can’t see the future / But I know it’s got big plans for me,” one can’t help but think she’s right.


Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

ANTI- Records

To say that Neko Case can do no wrong would be a bit unfair but throughout her solo career she continues to release masterful albums that showcase her lovely voice, which seems to only improve with age. Middle Cyclone, along with most of Case’s past efforts is the perfect album for driving on a warm summer’s night, windows open and the air tickling your dangling hands.

“This Tornado Loves You,” a song that truly swirls into motion like a cyclone, opens the album with a bang. The song showcases a funnier and wilder side to Case until the following stanza brings home the true Case: a poetic lyricist, in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and Carole King who wants nothing more than to write tender love songs.

“Cause I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

How you’d sigh yourself to sleep

When I’d rake the springtime

Across your sheets”


“People Got A Lotta of Nerve,” is a masterpiece (joining the ranks of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood’s “Star Witness” as essential Case) and contains a moment that brings Case’s vocal range to the forefront and has the ability to induce a surge of the shivers with every revisit. Even on the record’s two covers, Case manages to add her own touches, with Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” taking an otherwise cautionary tale and fusing it together with bubblegum pop.

“Magpie to the Morning” is an oh-so-tender lullaby with Case’s vocals shining bright. “I’m An Animal” makes best use of the album’s various notable guest musicians, including The Band’s virtuosic organ player, Garth Hudson.

Middle Cyclone has been tagged by Case as an homage to nature and the singer’s fascination with its mysteries and beauty. With any other artist fifteen songs devoted to mother earth (including an unnecessary 31-minute track of birds chirping) might seem silly or predictable but it suits Case. This is Case’s best record to date. It’s funny, beautifully romantic, deeply saddening, but is all together candy to the ears.

Phoenix

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

V2 Records

The feeling you get after listening to a completely awe-inducing record from start to finish for the first time is what music enthusiasts yearn for. It’s what keeps us listening. It’s our drug of choice and is potent enough to make a junkie out of us all. French electronic pop band, Phoenix’s album Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a perfect drug.

The record is short at just over 35-minutes but still manages to assault the ears with a sound that borrows and references damn near every rock genre–pop, prog, synth, rave, Kraut techno, indie. The songs are often of the historical nature with the band alluding to classical music obscurities (“Lisztomania’s” Franz Liszt), but lyrics aside, the must is what counts here.

Make no mistake, this is a pop album, but it’s one with surprises. The back-to-back album changers, “Love Like a Sunset Parts 1 & 2” come at nearly the album’s halfway point and are remarkable exercises crescendo. While lacking lead singer Thomas Mars’ signature squeaks and high notes, the first part is a Kraut rock-inspired groove instrumental that is at times menacing and at times hypnotic as it trudges along. It’s the album’s most surprising moment and easily the one track that sets this album apart from being, “just another French pop effort.”

“Lasso” might be the catchiest pop song of the year, and “Girlfriend” is a tender lament to loosing someone close.

Arising from the same French town that gave us Air, Phoenix is officially on par with its country cousin. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a flawless record, albeit a concise one. It takes the best elements of the aforementioned electronic genres of yesteryear, and sheds a new light on the familiar.

This is an album that begs you to seek out Phoenix’s past efforts and one that has remained timely well into 2010.

The Best of the Rest

Maxwell

BLACKsummers’night

Columbia

The return of neo-soul? How about simply put: the hottest R&B album of the year. “Love You” weaps. “Pretty Wings” channels Prince in his prime. While “Phoenix Rise” brings back the long-honored tradition of featuring one solid synthesizer instrumental track, the “Contusion” to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.

Sonic Youth

The Eternal

Matador Records

Fans who commented that 2006 Rather Ripped showed a mellower, more conventional side to Sonic Youth were shaken from their lament with The Eternal. Raw, visceral, pounding, loud, and most importantly, laden with the band’s signature guitar butchery, are just a few ways to describe Youth’s newest opus. At 56 Kim Gordon still knows how to bring the sexy with “Anti Orgasm’s” pulsating guitar waves and primordial vocal grunts. By the time you get to The Eternal’s nearly ten minute closer, “Massage the History” the record has taken on through Youth’s lush musical history and back to the present, showing us that these New Yorkers’ sound is eternal.

The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

Capitol & Rough Trade Records

The return of the truly weird progressive rock record. While its previous album, The Crane Wife, told a similar story, its music tended to be more on the cute side than Love’s hair-raising tracks. With church organs, an accordion, strings swells, and probably a lute or two thrown into the fold, Love’s mythical love story sounds like a joke gone terribly wrong on paper, but is fully realized when listened to thanks to Colin Meloy’s lyrics and notable guest vocal appearances from Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the latter actually stealing the show on the folk rock album’s only arena rocker “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.”

Moby

Wait For Me

Little Idiot/Mute

Surprised? Yeah, me too. After the breakout hit, Play, it seemed like Moby was on that oh too familiar trajectory into musical irrelevance. His 2008 club album, Last Night was a terrible let down, and past attempts to be the leader of a rock band rather than being the maestro at electronic symphonies that he truly is didn’t pay off. Sure Wait For Me follows the exact formula that Moby used on Play and its underrated follow-up, 18, but it still manages to sound fresh. Moby could be written up as ambient, since Wait For Me is a cool record to leave lingering in the background at the end of a long day, but really the best way to describe this album is: it’s Moby, but done well.

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52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK EIGHT

Week 8: What A Day That Was
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Talking Heads

Album: Stop Making Sense

1984

Sire Records


The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song.

They play it once again, play it all night long.

-“Heaven”


1984 was a good year for music. The Smiths recorded its album debut, Prince unleashed Purple Rain, Bruce made a splash with Born in the U.S.A., The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime was released, as was Zen Arcade from Hüsker Dü, and Let it Be by The Replacements, to name a few. Then there was the Stop Making Sense soundtrack.


One month before I was born, Jonathan Demme’s concert film, “Stop Making Sense” was released. Its soundtrack, released the same year, was one of a handful of records my parents so wisely schooled my sister and me with. It was played at home, in the car; through headphones and speakers, and eventually out of the shoddy mono speakers of my household’s vintage Sony Trinitron when I finally saw the actual film.


For the record, the Stop Making Sense soundtrack was my gateway to Talking Heads’ music and to the film. But really, one couldn’t ask for a better introduction.


What else can be said about Stop Making Sense that hasn’t already been written before. It’s one of the most beloved concert films and albums of all times. It captures the Heads in its prime, serving as a retrospective of sorts of the band’s musical evolution up to that point. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time, taken from one of the greatest films of all time.


Need one more bold statement? How about this: Talking Heads is the greatest American rock and roll band. Don’t you think?


Think about Heads’ transformation from stripped down, quirky new-wave punk outfit (as seen on ‘77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food) to the experimental, genre bending band it ceaselessly morphed into (from Fear of Music onwards). At only eight studio albums released, the band’s discography is concise, but one could say that the players said what they wanted to say, played what they wanted to play and then cleared the stage, ahead, ultimately paving the way for equally rewarding solo careers from each band member.


The music has influenced so many of its contemporaries and future acts, and “Stop Making Sense” the film changed the way filmmakers and viewers viewed the concert film genre–one will notice early on that the audience is hardly seen during the film and the stage is bare-boned, going against the flashy trends of bigger bands of the time.


David Byrne is one of rock’s true geniuses. An ambitious, almost mad visionary who has never slowed down in his quest to change how we experience music, which he’s long seen as platform best suited for all of the senses, not simply the ears.


Heads’ rhythm section is one of the great collaborations in music, with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (real-life married couple) bringing an almost mathematically calculated sense of timing to the band. The bass line in the band’s mega hit, “Once in a Lifetime” alone is one of the great moments in musical rhythm. One bass line, played in repetition like a metronome, but capable of bringing the groove.


Keyboardist and rhythm guitar player, Jerry Harrison, had already come out of the equally influential Modern Lovers outfit before joining Byrne and gang, adding the final essential piece to the band.


Production wiz, and possibly the only other musician at the time with the brains and visions to keep up with Byrne, Brian Eno, would later play a key role in the band’s progression. And the backing musicians on Stop Making Sense, most of them spawns from George Clinton’s funk factory, managed the remarkable feat of taking beloved songs and not only shedding brand new light on them but at times improving on them (the non-Heads track, “What a Day That Was,” originally drawn from an obscure Byrne solo effort, being the perfect example).


I currently have three copies of Stop Making Sense on CD: one “borrowed” early on from my parents, another expanded Special Edition version bought later, and yet another rescued from a garbage bin my college roommate had put together, the latter thus becoming a permanent fixture in my car’s glove compartment. I own its LP and have long dreamed of pulling off the film’s signature “Big Suit” for Halloween. The film is the one DVD I own which I watch on a monthly basis and it has traveled with me to Spain and here in Taiwan.


It’s hard to pick a favorite track on the album, or in Heads’ catalogue for that matter.


The aforementioned “What A Day That Was” is pretty terrific. But so is “Making Flippy Floppy,” “Heaven,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” and of course the album’s tried and true mission statement of an anthem, “Burning Down the House.” When Byrne shouts to the seen but not seen audience at the end of “Life During Wartime,” “Does anyone have any questions?” The answer is always an unanimous: no, no we don’t.


I remember not really understanding what Stop Making Sense was all about when I first heard the album. Having not seen the film yet and being only slightly familiar with Talking Heads, made the experience all the better. For me, like my introduction to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the music just sounded great and it pulled me in.


The African percussion was flawless, bringing on the dance grooves. The rhythm guitar was tight and polished, and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell’s sparingly executed synthesizer notes sounded futuristic in a surprisingly interesting way. As a budding drumming growing up, the tom-tom fills on “Burning Down the House” inspired many a table/chest drumming fits. Once I finally had a drum kit of my own I often reenacted these moments, much to the neighbors’ dismay.


Really, what else can be said about Stop Making Sense. I’ve listened to this album over a hundred times and it only improves with age. The world is a better place because of this film, this album and Talking Heads contribution to music. When you realize how much is going on within each song–the sonic complexities, nuances and how much of the attention to detail was undoubtedly calculated down to every individual note and beat–reverence is the only proper response. Rock/dance/funk/pop nirvana.


Does anyone have any questions?

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK THREE


Week: Three

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Miles Davis
Album: Sketches of Spain
1960
Columbia Records


M
iles Davis’ Kind of Blue will always be his most accessible record to date, and easily the one quintessential jazz album that even non-jazz enthusiasts own or are at the very least familiar with. Around the same time that Davis was getting blue, he and composer Gil Evans worked out the arrangements that would make up Sketches of Spain, which I’m happy to say was my first foray into Miles’ canon.

Sketches of Spain is a record that is just soaked in cool sounds. Castanets and other light percussion notes wisp through the five arrangements, Davis carries the music along with his signature, restrained muted trumpet and Evans’ classical instrumentation gives the album a sound that could be best described as jazz meets legendary silver screen composer Ennio Morricone.

The album opens with a mesmerizing rendition of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a song I have sought out in many various renditions. It’s one of those rare and beautiful compositions that is taken to new heights with Davis’ weeping trumpet. There is something about the delicate use of harp and the song’s crescendo at the end that gets me every time.

Sketches of Spain is not the ideal gateway to jazz as it steers clear of the improvisational language of the art form. The album is more of a fusion side project that arose from the Columbia Records/Gil Evans sessions that resulted in this album along with Miles Ahead and Davis’ Porgy and Bess.

On Spain, Davis is the only musician seemingly attempting to stray away from the compositions at hand, making the album an interesting bridge between the classical and the jazz world.

Side B of Sketches of Spain features the record’s three original compositions, culminating with the incredibly moving “Solea,” a cut that instantly brings to mind visions of my time in Iberia.

Even before I finally made it to Spain this album (and this cut in particular) fashioned an imaginary Spain in my head, a place drenched in mystery and exoticism. The real Spain, while not as enthralling as the utopia in my head is still the perfect backdrop for this album.

Part of this association must be attributed to the fact that while living and studying in Salamanca, Spain I often deliberately walked the streets at night on my way home listening to Sketches of Spain through my ear buds. A later marriage of music and celluloid would further the link between “Solea” and this exotic place.

An entire column could be written on what the films of Pedro Almodóvar mean to me. Besides being one of the greatest storytellers working today in cinema, his films are windows into life in Spain, even if his film’s stories tend to depend on the melodramatic. His use of colors, emphasis on regional Spanish dialects, love of Spanish culinary traditions and a truly unique sense of how details can shape a scene, make his films time capsules of life in Spain. In 1995s The Flower of My Secret, a weaker installment in Almodóvar’s gamut, there is a scene in a ballet theater (a popular locale in Almodóvar’s cinematic world) that is set to Evans/Davis’ “Solea.” It’s the perfect fusion of two art forms and one that left me speechless when I first saw the film, recognizing the tune instantly. To this day I still keep the video clip below in my web browsers’ favorites folder.

Sketches of Spain, like so many of Miles Davis’ records. is the perfect capper to a long and tiring day. It’s an album best paired with a nice red wine, preferably from the Rioja region. I’ve found that it goes well with most novels. During college it spiced up even the most mundane of homework and study sessions. It’s atmospheric, often appearing more as a soundtrack to a David Leanesque film epic that was never filmed, with its soaring orchestration and Davis’ high marks. It’s an album that remains an essential in my jazz collection. Hell, even the cover art is memorable, with Davis’ now infamous trumpeter silhouetted behind a mock-up of the Spanish flag, with a raging torro and classic Old English typeface. As I write this I’m about to play the record again before, as its sounds bring up visions and memories from the past of a truly wonderful and one of a kind place.

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TWO

Week: Two

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

“Release”
Pearl Jam
Album: Ten
1991
Epic Records

I am a child of the grunge generation; if that’s the label we’re sticking with twenty years later. While music enthusiasts will argue about the true pioneers of the alternative rock wave–for the record looking back on the progression of music at the time, it’s hard not to side with the “Pixies were the true forefathers of the movement” argument, over the more universally recognized credit to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana–my gateway to the genre was through Pearl Jam.

I was too young to fully appreciate The Pixies during its heyday (though my dad’s friend’s offering to me of Doolittle at the tender age of eight always intrigued me, what with lead singer Black Francis’ screeching vocals and obscure choice of terrifying lyrics). While I wish I could say I discovered Nirvana’s Nevermind instantly upon its release along with the masses, it was Pearl Jam’s debut Ten that was my first real musical obsession.

I remember one summer in particular listening to the song’s on Ten over and over again through a pitch black Sony boombox by day, and through a matching black Sony Walkman from a audio cassette ripped from said boombox by night–those were the days, weren’t they? The liner notes on my original CD copy of the album have been unfolded and refolded countless times (those in the loop will remember the notes unfolding to form a poster of the band members standing in a circle, hands raised high and joined in a badass high-five of sorts). And I can clearly remember looping the opening moments of “Porch,” since it was one of the few songs with cool sounding curse words–the opening line verbatim, “What the fuck is this world”–that I had managed to slip by my somewhat censoring parents.

Pearl Jam is one of the few groups from the era that has survived and is still relevant in modern times (hell, its latest album Backspacer was a breath of fresh air in the band’s canon). Part of its success is based on its loyal fans like me who were mesmerized by Ten.

The album remains the band’s masterpiece. It’s a flawless execution of a budding sound that was, with all respect to the band members, all due to Eddie Vedder’s soaring vocals, which somehow meld gritty and epic into a style that remains unrivaled.

It’s also one of the few albums out there with a flawless flow that begins and ends on two perfect notes. Even for this project entry I was torn between going with the album’s slow-burning opener, “Once,” a completely unassailable way to kick off the album, or its more restrained, dare I say beautiful closer, “Release.” Ultimately I had to go with the latter.

I don’t know how many mix tapes and CDs I’ve capped off with this song. It’s an epic. Like “Once” it takes it time to build, allowing Vedder to test his deep vocal tones in front of a wall of rising guitar crescendos. Of all the songs on Ten this is where Vedder really shows he’s a musical force to be reckoned with.

His vocal range alone is enough to send chills down the spine especially towards the song’s magnificent closing moments when he carries the line, “release me” through an onslaught of distortion and commanding use of the ride cymbal from drummer Dave Krusen.

Even the song’s instrumental outro that is linked to the song (a continuation of the intro to “Once”) is worth the time on the record, adding an eerie finish to the already perfect closer.

Lyrically this song is very much akin to John Lennon’s shockingly personal, “Mother” off Plastic Ono Band LP. Both songs are heartbreaking laments about a lack of strong or loving parental figures. In the case of Vedder, it refers to the two father figures during his childhood and coming to the grips with the passing of his true father. He was apparently raised by a cruel stepfather and never got to know his real dad on a personal level before his passing. He realizes that he carries a piece of his real father but he’ll never know how or which part of his makeup. It’s this realization that makes the songs truly heartbreaking.

Oh, dear dad, can you see me now
I am myself, like you somehow

Casual interpretations of the song can be linked to the lines,

I’ll ride the wave
Where it takes me
I’ll hold the pain
Release me

which could reference escapism through drugs or simply, the release of stress in life. Letting go and living how you want to live is very much the unofficial manifesto of the grungers (it’s also the message I take away from the song since it’s difficult for me to relate to Vedder’s personal story). Hell, even surfers could relate to this song since the lyrics remain intriguing in their simplicity no matter how you perceive them. When matched with the song’s grandiose music, it’s also easy to just focus on the elevating line, “release me.”

Mention must be made of the rumor that this song was written during the studio time in about 20-minutes while the band was doodling through possible riffs. If this legend holds true, then this backs the theory that some songs are just meant to be written and can arise in an almost spooky fashion. Artists have often commented on moments of brilliance coming out of nowhere during unexpected moments.

“Release” is a song that I can remember falling asleep to as a child and as an adult, one that I remember imagining in my head during daydreams. It’s a staple cut from a one of the greatest debut records out there and one that instantly made me a lifelong devoted fan of Pearl Jam. During the 2003 tour for Pearl Jam’s Riot Act the band opened its masterful set at Chicago’s United Center with “Release,” catching most of the audience off guard and cementing the song’s importance for me as I was carried away by its strength.

It will always be a headphone song, or the kind of tune that must be played through a car stereo at full blast while driving alone, preferably at night, with the windows closed to create the perfect sonic environment to ride the wave.

Stray Observations

Stray Observations From An Amused Foreigner #3

Coming to a foreign place ensures a certain level of culture shock. While I embrace the hundreds of new sights and sounds I come across on a daily basis here in Taipei, I feel it my duty to share some of the more out-there cultural differences.

ON THE LOCAL ZOO

–A while back I took a trip to the Taipei Zoo with the intention of seeing Taipei’s pair of Pandas. It’s hard to deny the cuteness factor of a Panda Bear and I’m pretty sure I had never seen one in person before this trip. The two bears, Yuan Yuan and Tuan Tuan (which according to Wikipedia means ‘Reunion’) have their own indoor and outdoor habitat and even on a rainy day draw lines of onlookers. The queue that can form to see the two bears is on par with the lines waiting to see Pope John Paul’s body at the Vatican a couple years back, which is to say you are shuffled in an out and are lucky if you catch the Pandas doing something interesting like scratching themselves or taking a dump.

–The Giant Panda also warrants its own gift shop, which proves that you can in fact churn out a panda into every kind of chotchkie imaginable. Panda plush toys. Check. Panda notebook. Check. Vile of concentrated Panda breath for good luck charm necklace. Could happen.

–Rocky the Raccoon, Chinese. It makes sense that an East Asian zoo would have a Raccoon habitat. These arguably cute but rather annoying creatures are common in the nocturnal suburban scavenger subspecies of North American vermin but over here they are only alluded to in children’s storybooks and the 1995 Disney film, “Pocahantas,” which featured Meeko the playful pet raccoon. It was quite a surprise to see that their display at the Taipei Zoo was not only bigger than, say, a lesser animal’s exhibit (some monkeys seemed to be living in squalor though it’s hard to say if a monkey would comprehend squalor, what with the penchant for dung-tossing and all). It turns out that when Raccoons are allowed to just lounge around and don’t actually have to clumsily scrounge through your trash can at all hours of the night, they can be quite playful and charming to watch, as seen in this Taipei Zoo Raccoon enthusiast’s amateur Youtube video.

–Anything advertised as, “The Luxury and Trendy Finger Food” has to be anything but. Even this hungry zoo patron seemed puzzled by the prospects of pizza served in a cone. NOTE: the bonus sprigs of fresh basil featured in the display photos (a nice touch). Brova!!

–I still argue that the Ocelot is truly underrated cat–beautiful and mysterious, while still sporting baadassss claws that could mangle a jugular.

ON MY NEIGHBORHOOD

— I share a flat on a fairly unassuming street. Our place is close to a grocery store, seven convenience stores, a riverside park, and numerous warring clans of stray dogs mark their territory outside my window.

— There are many noises in my neighborhood. For a while we would all wake up to the sounds of ripsaws and a pneumatic nail guns at the construction site one building over. At night we can hear the dogs howling and barking at said construction site, usually trying to put the scare into a stationary piece of heavy machinery.

— Every once and a while I can hear the sound of what must be a howling man of sorts across the way from my window. While at first I figured it to be a dog, the howls have become more nuanced in their tones and range. After recording a sample on my camera’s video feature I spent some time pondering what the sounds might be. The following is a shortlist of perfectly feasible explanations:

a) said noise is from a dog, albeit a rather unhappy, dare I say depressed pooch.

b) said noise is from an old man, possibly someone bed-ridden.

c) said noise is from a waking gimp, possibly being exuded from its cage or cabinet dwelling.

d) said noise is the result of some bizarre Tai-Chi ritual that I am not yet privy to.

e) said noise is from a zombie going through a self-identity crisis.

— Open letter to the neighborhood lady on her bike who feeds the local stray dogs and cats scraps of meat: Thank you for being such a kind soul. You go above and beyond my feeble attempts at feeding the animals store-bought treats.

— Open letter to the hungry/scared/impatient/impish kitten who cried all night long last Monday. If you had just waited till morning the bike lady would’ve have taken care of you. Also, if you want something and feel the need to whine at least make your presence known visibly. My housemate Antoni and I spent a good thirty minutes out searching for you, tracking your sounds to various possible hiding spots. NOTE TO READERS: The following night said cat was neither seen nor heard. While it could’ve gone elsewhere are been cared for by its owner I suspect the aforementioned gimp had something to do with the cat’s sudden disappearance.

ON CHRISTMAS

(NOTE: The following are merely observations regarding a recent Christmas fair hosted at my English school. For those curious, I was in charge of a Christmas dart game with a Robin Hood theme. Also included at the festivities: face painting (which morphed into hand painting when the quality of the paint brought to light suspicions that pain might leave certain kids with nasty face rashes), Christmas stocking-making, a fishing pond (don’t worry, more on that to come), indoor soccer, pinball, and for those not interested in games there were two back-to-back screenings of the 2009 classic Christmas film, “Terminator: Salvation.” The opinions displayed are of the curious and sarcastic nature and by no means show my dissent for my employer’s choices and practices in the arena of teaching English to Taiwanese children. Another column would suffice for that.)

–Look, I understand Christmas is not widely celebrated everywhere in the world. Even the Westernized commercial aspects of Christmas are only hinted at here. Taipei has a couple trees up in public spaces, some of the department stores are slinging holiday-themed items, generally presented with tinsel and ornaments. At a recent concert I attended the Midori Liquor girls were pushing the green libation from a tree of under lit green bottles. Still, if you’re going to claim to hold a Christmas party for a school full of curious minds, you must refrain from doing the following:

1) Grilled sausages and deep-fried onion/chicken circles are no doubt tasty but are about as Christmas as Bob Dylan singing “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

2) If you give a wild child a bag of live fish, there will be blood. Teacher Elle, one of my Chinese co-workers hosted a fishing pond game where students paid actual money for paper fishing nets and were given the chance to scoop up as many terrified little fish as they could. While cute in a carnival kind of way, a number of children were clearly not ready for the responsibility of caring for living things, even if said creatures were of the minnow variety. I had to rescue three different sets of fish that were spread across the floor of classroom 304 when my students carelessly dropped the bags. Student Jerry, who is truly a menace to society, was caught poking and squeezing a number of his fish. When I confronted him about his cruelty he belted out a sugar drink induced screech, the likes of which might give an Apache war party a run for their money. Give a student a life and their true colors come out.

3) Fact: A 6 oz plastic Hello Kitty juice tumbler can temporarily hold approximately 12-15 fish comfortably depending on size and girth.

4) Fact: Cold water from the school water cooler may stop fish hearts.

5) Nothing says Christmas like a giant inflatable giraffe head and neck, which I suppose could be used as a riding toy like the classic wooden pony head and stick. Still clearly the better choice is to hit tall Teacher Warner with said apparatus of mischief.

6) When Christmas trees, ornaments, Santa Claus’ and other red and green colored drawings are simply not enough to please naughty students for simple face/hand painting, one can always resort to safer themes like snakes, rats, spiders, and sharks.

7) Though probably an overlooked mistake, the paper vampire bat decoration (a leftover from Halloween, another misunderstood holiday here in Taiwan) on the windows of the teacher’s lounge/staff bathroom/kitchen was a fitting extra touch.

8) Nothing says ho-ho-ho like giant cyborgs battling it out in the future for survival of man after Judgment Day. Teacher Steffi was in charge of renting a movie for the screening classroom to keep the older kids occupied during the festivities. While I could think of at least a hundred charming Christmas films (hell, if you’re going the guns, explosion and cursing route why not settle on Die Hard, which actually was set during the holidays) Terminator: Salvation was ultimately chosen.

Jerry, our school’s resident problem child, watches cyborgs shoot humans
during the Xmas “Terminator: Salvation” film screening, the sugary contents of that
red bottle circulating through his system.

9) The total number of pleads to universal problem child Eason to put down the darts and to stop: 11

10) Eason: 11, Teacher Warner: 0

ON TAIWANESE MTV

— On a date of sorts a couple weeks ago I was introduced to Taiwan’s version of MTV, which has nothing to do with the American Music Television cable network. MTV is essentially akin to East Asian KTV, which, if you recall, are venues where you and your friends can rent a room equipped for Karaoke. MTVs take the same concept of renting a room (a seedy sounding diversion if you ask me) and incorporate film to the equation. You and your friends can show up, pick from a selection of DVDs, and get a room with a surround sound system and a digital projector. Pretty cool concept and one that I always envisioned in the States but I knew would never be profitable. Why watch a movie on your dinky home TV when you can rent a large high-definition screen with surround sound for less than the cost of going to an actual film house?

— In Taiwan MTVs were largely successful for many years, catering to young teenagers wanting to watch movies and make out. It takes the concept of the drive-in movie and brings it indoors. I learned that due to internet movie downloading these establishments are a dying breed.

— I was invited to an MTV by a girl I met who told me that if I liked movies (which I do) then I would love MTV. Of course when it came time to make the film selection I knew instantly that my usual insistence on snooty art films wouldn’t fly. For starters the film library was limited to big Hollywood action and romantic comedies, many of which starred ponytail wearing white ninja Steven Segal (who apparently is quite respected over here). Setting aside my film pretensions, I allowed my friend to choose the film. She, without hesitation I might add, went for the teen vampire soap opera, Twilight, which is all the rage here.

Having not read any of the books of which the Twilight Saga is based on, I can’t accurately comment on its importance in the lexicon of American literature and film but it does seem to follow a fairly basic formula: Take one pasty white skinned, semi EMO teenage girl (Kristen Stewart, who was quite good in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild), send her to the Pacific Northwest, introduce the Romeo to her Juliet (who is part of a mysterious family of pasty-faced vampires), insert some hipster indie rock music, have a scene where said vampire love interest rescues her from a car accident and possible attack/rape from Oregon gang members, and finally, add a pinch of voice-over narration about the complexities of loving a vampire, all of which is said to be a metaphor for keeping one’s virginity sacred–give in to your lust for sex (with a vampire) and you might end up with two holes in your neck. Watch out girls!

— The whole experience was odd, to say the least.

— MTV summed up: A place to relive middle school.

ON MUSIC IN THE CLASSROOM

The songs written by Hess, my school’s parent company, are offered to teachers as a tool for helping to teach key grammar points and increase vocabulary comprehension. The majority of them lack any sort of catchiness and often drive the students (and the teacher) insane. My American Curriculum Program class (ACP) meets four days a week and is one of the few that actually enjoy singing the songs offered. While I’m gradually trying to supplement the material with classic English songs of my childhood–The Beatles “Octopus’s Garden” and Bowie’s Labyrinth film era “Magic Dance” are two that I’ve attempted (other song suggestions are welcomed!)–my class still seems to enjoy the text book offerings. Take for example, “Rock and Roll Days,” a wall of sound Hess production referencing the days of the week and featuring female backup singers, which the girls in the class love.

–The students also can’t get enough of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” even after Christmas has come and gone.

— I’m toying with the idea of introducing the students to Prince’s “Starfish & Coffee.” Thoughts? Concerns of introducing his Purpleness to these innocent minds?

Those who doubt me just take a look at the lyrics:

It was 7:45, we were all in line 2 greet the teacher Miss Kathleen (Practice telling time)

First was Kevin, then came Lucy, third in line was me (Time adverbs)

All of us were ordinary compared 2 Cynthia Rose (Cynthia’s a fun name to say)

She always stood at the back of the line, a smile beneath her nose (Incorporates smiling)

Favorite number was 20, every single day (Favorite + (nouns) are big in our class)

If U asked her what she had 4 breakfast, this is what she’d say

Come on….

Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam (Food vocabulary)

Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine, and a side order of ham (Food Vocabulary)

If U set your mind free, baby, maybe U’d understand

Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam. (Starfish are funny.)

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK ONE

Week: One

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

“Graceland”
Paul Simon
Album: Graceland
1986
Warner Bros. Records

Graceland was released two years after I was born but was a critical part of my musical upbringing. Early memories of car trips through Northern Michigan are filled with the lyrics and sounds of this eclectic record. A full comprehension of the album’s cultural importance during Apartheid-plagued South Africa would come later, of course, not to mention its feat at bridging the gap between mainstream pop and what was perplexingly called, “world music,”–a truly Westernized label that ignores the obvious fact that all music is worldly since the language of music is universal.

The music of Graceland is diverse in its instrumentation, with Simon drawing from influences from all over the globe, but for a boy at four or five years old, it simply sounded great. As kids I can distinctly remember joining my sister and cousins in trading vintage-style tennis rackets, which we fashioned in our minds as the funky guitars and the slap bass that we heard blaring through the stereo speakers. There were countless hours of dancing to “You Can Call Me Al,” the album’s breakaway hit, and the soothing A cappella words from Ladysmith Black Mambazo was enough to lay our tired heads to rest after a long day of innocent play.

My naïve age made the lyrics of Graceland hard to comprehend. Lines like, “the bomb in the baby carriage,” “the automatic earth,” or “staccato signals of constant information” off the album’s triumphant opener, “The Boy in the Bubble” meant nothing to me in a social manner but were nevertheless intriguing sounding. The manner in which Simon delivered words like staccato, or combinations like cinematographer’s party curled off my tongue with ease that first summer and for many years to follow.

If I had to pick one song off Graceland that truly sums up what this album means to me in turns how I appreciate and listen to music today it would be the record’s title track. I knew that “Graceland” was referencing Elvis, who was an artist who, even if I wasn’t entirely familiar with, I understood was important, much like how I understood the importance of The Beatles long before I ever seriously listened to its music.

There is a level of sadness to “Graceland” that even the youngest of minds can pick up on. Sure lines like, “there is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline,” sounded silly to a boy with a primitive understanding of vocabulary and wordplay, but the way Simon sings on “Graceland” is full of sorrow.

Listening to the song then I can recall thinking that Graceland was this mysterious and foreign place, almost biblical. “Pilgrims with families / and we are going to Graceland” is a line that particularly stood out.

Many years later I often come back to Graceland. I make it a habit of listening to it at least once a month in its entirety. During my sophomore year of high school one of my favorite history teachers, Owen Hein, would start each day off with a song from his collection of music from around the world (he also introduced me to the french duo, Deep Forest). On one particular morning he launched into his lesson with Graceland. I remember feeling proud that I knew all the words by heart and instantly gained a new appreciation for the record when we discussed South Africa’s rocky past.

A single listening of Gracelenad is usually followed by several repeats of its title track. It’s probably the album’s most restrained and atmospheric sounding offering. With its ghost like echoes of background singers, tender electric guitar riffs and thunderous percussion and drum interludes, there is soul to the sound. “Graceland” is also easily one of Simon’s greatest songwriting achievements and clearly one of his most personal explorations of love and loss thereafter. It’s a song that will undoubtedly stay with me for the rest of my life. It’s a heart song, a song to take to a desert island, one that can comfort a soul and also make a soul weary of the highs and lows of true love. It’s a masterpiece in every definition of the word.

And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you’re blown apart,
Everybody feels the wind blow