Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Gold Medal: 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields

After so many years of the Long Play format, it’s awfully rare to find an LP that does something new with the traditional structure. With this gargantuan record, the Magnetic Fields (aka Stephin Merritt) do just that. The title is exactly what the record is, split into three disks. Not every one of the sixty-nine is particularly enjoyable, but as a whole, this is an enlightening record. With this album, Merritt established himself as one of the truly unique songwriters of his generation. With his dark sense of humor and his brilliant wit, 69 Love Songs can teach you as much about love as any novel.

Silver Medal: When the Pawn... by Fiona Apple

Breaking on the scene at the ripe young age of nineteen with her debut album Tidal, Apple’s sophomore effort was as gutsy and sassy as they come. Helped by the stellar production of Jon Brion, this record is emotional without ever feeling overwrought. Pounding pianos and frightening vocals paint the picture of a young fiery woman in the mood for trouble. After all, in the album’s best track, she’s actually asking to make a mistake. Like most of Apple’s work, these songs make you feel a bit uneasy yet you can’t help listening to them over and over again.

Bronze Medal: The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips

Very few people can describe exactly what the Flaming Lips are all about, though I highly recommend the documentary Fearless Freaks for those trying to figure it out. With this, the Lips' seminal album, the weirdness somewhat restrained, but that doesn’t stop the record from sounding like it came from another planet. It’s spacey in a sort of retro way, if that’s even possible. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd discovered a mysterious society of spiders, Supermen and vegetables. Suddenly, everything has changed. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012


When I first started this blog over three years ago, it was a place where I mapped out some of my own hypotheses about music and its function. However, I haven’t written any such posts recently. I’m not sure why this is; perhaps being out of the university environment has taken my head out of the theoretical clouds. Regardless, I think of creating music, essays and other artsy entities as a lifelong pursuit so it’s time to churn out some recent thought dreams, as Bob Dylan might say. Let’s hope nobody puts my head in a guillotine…

In January of 2008, I proudly declared in my personal journal: “IT’S ALL ABOUT ART.” Perhaps “it” is not that simple, for eating, sleeping, loving others and making a living are all pretty necessary. But I still believe that being a part of artistic endeavors is one of the main reasons I get up in the morning. That and teaching Hong Kong babies their ABCs.

But as is the case with most things in life, there must be a balance in artistic participation. I could spend my whole life watching movies, looking at paintings, listening to music and reading books, but that would not be balanced. That is a purely internal experience and wouldn’t do much good for anyone but myself. Since I have the tools and the talents to put my own work forward, it’s my responsibility to do so and recognize this balance. To me, it feels only fair to do my part as a matter of respecting the multitude of artistic traditions I drink from on a daily basis.

This is a small-scale example of a more broad life philosophy I have in the importance of giving back what you get from the world. I personally love multi-billionaire Warren Buffett’s pledge to give 99% of his assets to charity and hope to do something similar when I’m older. If hard work, luck, and/or fate give you good fortune, you should eventually pass that on to others. This is also related to my extreme disdain for opulence in a world chock-full of poverty, but let’s not get too deep into this proletariat rabbit hole. 

I believe one of the best results of the modern boom of technology is the Internet’s ability to let anyone be a creator. And one of Facebook’s most useful functions is its ability to let people advertise their own creativity for free on a forum that’s widely used. Obviously this is exploited, like just about every good idea by anyone ever, but in theory, the Internet is supportive for people creating art.

So getting back to the idea of inhaling and exhaling art with a balance, I try to think like this to keep myself on track. Listening to a great album is enough of a satisfying positive experience in itself, but it has the potential for infinite inspiration. This is one of the countless reasons why art is so effing great. Not only was Pet Sounds an ear opening musical breakthrough for the Beach Boys; it also inspired Sgt. Pepper.

I had a lazy Sunday today and let my train of thought charge into this dark tunnel. It seemed appropriate to put my ideas out there for others and not be a hypocrite. I'll end with a lovely quote that's been going around the web lately. Perhaps a simpler, more eloquent explanation of why being creative is worth it. From an artist I revere, Kurt Vonnegut:

"If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Fourth

On this, the birthday of my mother country, it seemed appropriate to write something about the US of A. I’ve talked to a number of expats about how being gone has made them more patriotic, and this is definitely the case for me. It’s quite obvious really; you leave somewhere and then you realize how much you love it. But for me, a lot of my love for America is for musical reasons. You may ask, ‘Wait, what about freedom, democracy and diversity?’ It’s all related, just wait.

There’s a lot of rhetoric from politicians about how certain inspiring events "could happen in no other country on earth." Often I disagree, as rags to riches stories are far from uniquely American. But I do think the musical cornucopia within our borders is truly special.

America is mostly responsible for the birth of rock, American country western/folk, jazz, hip hop, soul, modern musical theater and infinitely more subgenres. Even in classical music, American composers have cut out a special crazy niche from Charles Ives to John Cage to Philip Glass. This means more to me than simply the fact that there’s a wide variety of music. It’s meaningful because American society has been a place for this multitude of different musical art forms to flourish and build a tradition.

In America, music is a central part of all socioeconomic, cultural and geographic groups. Maybe it’s a descendant of the freedom of speech in our constitution but it’s crucial for us to understand how much these creators are supported by the public, as there have never been royal courts to support the composers as there were in Europe. Even with all the negative types saying ‘Music just isn’t what it used to be’ there will absolutely always be amazing original music coming from America. Where there's truly innovative art being made, support will follow. And we are a nation that loves to innovate.

There are deep traditions of music from every corner of the globe but I would like to argue that there may not be another single country with as many musical streams flowing at all times. This is partially a product of America’s cultural diversity, and with today’s DIY possibilities thanks to our Sillicon Valley technology wizards, more and more talented musicians have the opportunity to put their music into the world. 

But I believe the key to the strength of American music comes from our unique history as a land of determined strugglers. The first settlers were escaping religious persecution while the founding fathers were escaping despotic laws imposed by the British. The Civil War freed the slaves while the Civil Rights Movement empowered the oppressed African Americans to seek equal treatment. As Americans, it’s natural to embrace those who stand up against the status quo, and music often goes hand in hand with this sort of mentality. Music is a central part of that wild passion that is the American Dream.

Here are a few songs/pieces that scream AMERICA to me (control-click or right click to open in a new tab):