So that was 2013, eh?

Here we are again, at the end of another year. Despite knowing full-well that we had to come back it still feels like quite a marvel to be writing another year-end post in Uganda. Nevertheless, here I am under the mosquito net listening to the Jon Hopkins album I promised myself I’d spend more time with and thinking about just what came to pass in 2013. 

I spent a month in Africa, of all places. And what a month that was! We travelled, preached, pushed ourselves to the limit and beyond (hyperremesis is awful, don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise). That visit left a lasting impression and gave me inspiration for what I can do with my talents in 2014. 

Studies went well. Despite having a child and losing a grandparent I managed to keep up an A- average, which is something to smile about, which is not to minimize the fact that I became a father this year. That may be my greatest achievement to date! Sylvie is a great wee girl and although she tends to cry more often than not when I’m holding her she seems to like me too. I hope that lasts. She has my eyes. 

Sadly, the life of my grandfather, Professor Leonard Robinson, drew to its inevitible close on Independence Day this year (not that any Americans really read this blog). He was a wonderful, wise upright, generous and faithful man who has left a huge hole in our family with his passing, but after a 14-month battle with bowel cancer he is in an exponentially better place than he was when I said my goodbyes to him. I look forward to seeing him again.

2013 marks the end of a decade of change for me. I was actually remarking to my wife earlier that between my baptism in October 2003 and now I have become a husband, a father, a sax player, a writer and much more besides. It will be interesting to see how 35 year-old me has progressed. 

As I have already alluded to in earlier posts, 2013 was an awesome year for music and I shall be listening to releases I missed well into 2014. Being able to resurrect my other grandfather’s old hi-fi has definitely revitalized my home listening and my attachment to vinyl as a format. Long may that continue! Technology was interesting to watch (no puns intended) with the rise of such gadgets as the smart watch, Google Glass, the smart ring and the Oculus Rift. I wonder how long it will be before these are superseded by implantable computing. Think I’ll stick with a Pebble watch, thanks. Oh, before I shift off technology, it’s been nice to see Nokia regaining a bit of mindshare these days. I plan to get both my parents onto Lumia phones in the coming year.

So what else do I plan to do with 2014 other than get my parents hooked on Windows Phone? Well, I plan to graduate, I plan to try my best at fathering, I plan to do more music writing (watch this space) and I plan to cycle further than I ever have in my life (quite a feat for someone who doesn’t currently own a bike). But I am still a Christian and one thing that Christians know is that God doesn’t stick to the plans of men. Now if you’re an atheist or agnostic or a capitalist you can write that off as rubbish. As for me, I would not be the man I am today without God in my life. Bearing that in mind I pray the same prayer for New Years every year, but slightly altered; that this new year leaves me a better person than last year did and that 2015 will leave me better still.

See you in 2014.

(…he writes knowing everyone in GMT+12 is already there.)

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And my Album of the Year 2013 is…

Screw it.

 

I can’t decide anymore.

 

2013 was such a ridiculously good year for music that I have had no choice but to name what I have named, but first, let’s have a wander back down memory lane…

 

 

The Flaming lips pushed deeper into double figures with their 13th album The Terror. A sonic masterpiece exploring the sadder sides of the human condition. Grandiose and spectacularly off-beat, the Lips record was a keeper.

I have to level with you here, I didn’t get to spend as much time with Jon Hopkins’ Immunity as I wanted to, but what I heard made for a very engaging, involving album littered with details one might only hear on headphones or in a quiet room. I’m definitely going to spend more time with Immunity over the summer, but as for now Jon Hopkins gets the dubious honor of being my overlook of the year. One I feel like I really missed that I shouldn’t have.

 

 

Every year The National have released a record lately one of my grandparents has died. We lost my first grandfather in 2010, the year High Violet was released and England was the soundtrack to his funeral for me. In 2013 I lost my second grandfather to bowel cancer and the song above was playing on my phone as we placed lilies on his casket.

 

 

Boards of Canada marked 2013 with a triumphant return to the electronic music scene in the form of Tomorrow’s Harvest. An album that exemplified how to create good hype. The cryptic records, the numbers station sounds, the hidden codes on the BoC fan site, the listening party at Lake Dolores, all of it built up to an album that initially felt like a letdown, but became so much of a grower I bought it twice. On iTunes and on double vinyl.

 

 

The Tuareg guitarist who has taken the world music scene by storm (with help from the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach) Bombino’s debut Nomad needs to be heard more widely. Like, by everyone. Audio people need to listen to it for the production, guitar lovers need to listen to it for the chops, synth lovers need to listen to it to prove guitars are not as bad as all that, world music lovers need to get their more mainstream friends to listen to it so you both have a talking point. While I’m at it, I heard most of this album on a show called Portil Presents before buying it through Portil itself (yay for local record stores!!). If you want to widen the geographical boundaries of your music listening, check out that show, then go to that shop.

 

 

Richard Mellville Hall has changed a lot since I started listening to his music at the turn of the century and Innocents feels like an album that reflects his move to LA and his desire to live a little more quietly than he has in the last decade (despite the mass of collaborators that have come in and worked with him on the new album). The Innocents tour consisted of a handful of shows at a small theatre within walking distance of his apartment. That’s a big change from the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 10 years prior. Innocents isn’t just an album, it’s a piece of a puzzle. Like all Mobys previous albums it’s a glimpse into who he is as a person and where he’s at in life at the time.

Somewhat of a contrast to the album above. Zach Saginaw’s new album, No Better Time than Now under his moniker Shigeto is seeing him get some serious attention. Despite the fact that I’ve given it some serious listening time, No Better Time than Now still defies simple description. A showcase in drumming, textures and the art of chilled beatmaking, it’s the kind of album you want on your device for Summer.

And then the are the countless albums I haven’t been able to get to yet. Jinx, Tim Hecker, Kiln, Shapehsifter, King Dude, Sigúr Rós, the sophomore release from Poliça (all of which are on my phone to listen to while I’m away in Uganda again). 2013 was so full of great music that deciding my album of the year was an absolute nightmare. So much so that I simply decided to stop deciding and choose the one I planned to be Album of the Year in the first place.

So in 2013, my Album of the Year is Lusine’s The Waiting Room.

I finally settled on this album for three reasons. Reason the first, I was looking forward to this album for years. I had it on pre-order before I’d even announced last years AotY. Ever since discovering Seattle-based Texan Jeff McIlwain and his many ventures into the world of electronic music I have been enraptured, so much so that every new release leaves me wanting to hear more and more from his expansive discography. The Waiting Room captures the essence of McIlwain’s sound from albums past, and stirs that sound into a new, more aged mixture. Like new wine in an old bottle. The big highlight for me is By This Sound, which instantly stuck with me, and I have gone back to it throughout the year.

Second reason, this album was my solace when I needed it. When I arrived in Invercargill for my second year studying Audio Production, I found the flat I had signed up for had been rented out from under me leaving me homeless. Happily, I have some real stand-up classmates who were kind enough to host me on a mattress on their floor for a fortnight while I resolved said accomodation woes, but the experience was still pretty disheartening. When Ghostly International emailed me to say The Waiting Room was… err… waiting in my inbox I couldn’t have downloaded it fast enough. The album gave me something to smile about (although objectively I have nothing to complain about, full disclosure here) in a time where I needed cheering up.

On that subject, my third reason for picking this album is that it is devoid of most of the abject melancholy of most of my picks in 2013. With the exception of No Better Time than Now, most of the years music was rather sad, especially when it comes to The National. I’m not saying sad or melancholic music doesn’t have a place in my life, how could I? The guy who bought two copies of Tomorrow’s Harvest. It’s just that The Waiting Room will make me smile when I think of 2013.

 

So that’s it for this year. Parenting and preparing for our next African adventure have left me without the time to cover Stuff of the Year like I usually would. Hopefully 2014 will be a little more relaxed since I’m only planning to cycle over 200km from Mt. Cook to Oamaru. That’ll give me heaps of time!

 

Song of the Year 2013!

Well, I still haven’t picked an album of the year yet (and this time I can only pick one winner) but my song of the year came pouring into my headphones one night on the bus from Invercargill to Dunedin as it was pulling out of Mataura.

NPR’s Robin Hilton and Bob Boilen, by way of their All Songs Considered podcast, introduced me to a London-based half Jamaican dancer/singer/bartender who goes by the name of FKA Twigs. Someone who grew up in the English hinterlands of Gloucestershire, then moved to the British Capital to further pursue a musical career. She originally just went by ‘Twigs’ but had to add the acronym after another artist of the same name asked her to change it. Why ‘FKA’? Because that’s the sounds her bones make when she cracks them. That should give you a bit of an idea of her personality.

Anyway, the song. It comes from her second EP, the unassumingly-titled EP2 on Young Turks and was produced in conjunction with Arca (yes, the guy from the new Kanye album Arca). I’m getting ahead of myself so before I start explaining why I’m so into it you should hear it. I say “hear it” because the video may freak you out a bit. Not that it’s Japanese horror film-scary, it’s just that a woman with bug-eyes could prove unsettling to some, so you might want to just set it going and scroll down.

Disclaimer done, here is my Song of the Year for 2013; FKA Twigs’ Water Me

The layers and layers of vocals are what make this for me. I am, as some may already know, a sucker for harmonies and reverb. This makes Water Me almost perfect for my ears to start with and then there’s the low-end. Crisp, but firm. Powerful in it’s sparseness, it holds the piece together like a tango from the future. The whole track brings to mind images of snow-capped mountains being whipped up by wind and torrents of spillway water being let out of dams (at least it does to me). It’s a sensational, spare delight.

The rest of 2013 was not without great music though. Feel free to have a listen to a year in music via my Spotify playlist below.

Oh, also a special mention goes to this track, which wasn’t on Spotify but was still special in 2013

App of the Year 2013

On the face of it, this year’s app of the year decision has the potential to be horribly skewed since I made the switch to Android in August. Any iPhone-exclusive app I’d have recommended would have been somewhat voided by the fact I jumped platforms and any Android app I chose would be negatively biased since I hadn’t used it for a full year. Happily though, the app I’ve chosen is cross-platform, one of the reasons it has won this year. 

So which is it? Just because it’s available on both iOS and Android doesn’t necessarily narrow it down, right? Well…

First, I want to talk about Tunable.

Seth Sandler, creator of the intuitive music making app Nodebeat released this instrument tuner app in 2013. Like Nodebeat, Tunable has an intuitive, feature rich design. The feature set includes a fully-featured tuner with a mass of options for tuning temperament as well as scale and root note.

You can set it up to tune notes to within 2 cents of their ideal frequency. You also get tone and chord generators, a sound recorder with options to export your sounds and a very legible and usable metronome which will handle a bunch of different time signatures and provides great visual feedback as well as clicks. The sound design of the app is very mellow and not at all in-your-face. 

As a sax player I have used this tuner as my go-to tuner both live and in studio since I first installed it and I was super-pleased not to have to leave it behind when I put down my iPhone 4 and picked up an HTC one, but it wasn’t the only app that made the leap with me.

Australian developers Shifty Jelly have had a banner year in 2013. Their first app, Pocket Weather, quickly took off in their home country (for which it was developed. If you want to know what the weather is like in Melbourne, Pocket Weather is the hit.) but they were also toiling away at their other Android app, Pocket Casts.

A fabulous, powerful, flexible podcast player. In our autumn (your spring, northern hemisphere) they brought the same fancy design and powerful filtering to the iPhone, so I decided to put my previous podcast app of choices on the back burner for a while…and I didn’t end up going back to it.

 

I’m a sucker for nice design and while my previous podcast app was feature-rich it wasn’t exactly a looker. Pocket Casts offered more in terms of discovery, episode sorting and design.
Playlist creation is a breeze if you want to do it manually and if you have the time to set up the filtering (you should if you’re a creature of habit) the playlists can create themselves! Right down to downloading the latest episodes and slotting them in.

The icing on the cake that came with buying the iOS version back in the Autumn before buying it again on Android was that in the spring Pocket Casts became universal, so I now get it on my iPad and the podcast subscriptions sync between both my phone and my tablet.

The only downside to Pocket Casts that I have observed is its battery drain. On both iOS and Android it does use more juice than other podcast clients I’ve tried. Not enough to keep me from using the app though.

So which of these was my app of the year? I can’t decide. Both of them have been incredibly useful and I have been so pleased to find them on both iOS and Android. There are no rules saying I have to pick one over the other (unless I set one myself) so in 2013 I’m going to take the lazy way out and award App of the year to both of these. Maybe next year I will attempt to have a bit more decorum.

Congratulations, Seth! Congratulations Shifty Jelly!

My Artist of the year 2013

Ok, Artist of the year time. The way this is supposed to work is that I choose an artist or band who have come up since the choosing of the last AotY award which went to the saviors of autotune; Polica. In 2013 the award goes to a producer who really blew up over the summer when I was (typically) nowhere near the action. Hailing from Redtown, NSW , his self-titled debut has taken the world by storm (or at least this part of the world). The guy shows no signs of slowing down and frankly, he sometimes makes me wonder what I’m doing with my life. My artist of the year for  2013 is none other than Harley Streten. Better known as Flume.

I took a gamble on the Flume debut at a local record fair after hearing red-hot reviews from my classmates. From the moment I put it on the turntable I could tell it was going to be special. Not just the same old same old electronica that left me jaded and cynical about gambling on new artists. From the first note to the last the album reaks of production talent and summer vibes. The vocals, the slow-release compression, the low-end that isn’t so low you can feel it in your ribs but low enough to tickle your entire cochlea, all of it is brilliant. I’d almost go as far as to say Streten has captured the essence of a Sydney summer and pressed it into a 12″ slab of vinyl, but he’s done more than that. The 4-disc (yes, four) special edition is out now to buy and it consists of a second CD of his exemplary euphoric remixes (see video at the end of the post for an example) as well as a live DVD and a disc containing stems of his own tracks for budding producers to remix. He’s even managed to get Ableton on board to include copies of Live LE for those who don’t have a DAW of their own.

The kicker in all this? Flume is 22. He’s effectively just out of high school and he’s already got a dizzyingly-great debut album under his belt! No wonder I question what I’m doing with myself sometimes when talent this precocious comes along! So go ahead and pick up this album for summer, assuming you haven’t already. If you have a friend or a relative who wants to learn how to make music like this, splash out the $30 on the 4-disc set and gift it to them for Christmas. You know what they say, teach a man to fish…

The Return of ‘Stuff of the Year’

It’s that time of year already, the time where I start quantifying the music, the apps, and the gadgets That made my year, not that those things really made my year when compared to becoming a father (my ten week-old daughter is lying next to me at the moment asking what it is I’m up to…and telling me she peed. Anyway…) 

I’m going to start with my product of the year again because I’m still deciding the album of the year. While I have a few great condensers for PotY, it’s a much easier decision to make than picking an album this year. So what have I chosen as my product of the year in 2013? Well…

I could have chosen the HTC One, my first foray into the world of Android. A pretty beast of a device, this thing has changed (most of) my expectations of smartphones. The Ultrapixel camera, while great in theory, only really works with HTC’s camera software. There’s a visible difference between the Instagram photos I shoot with the built-in camera software and the photos shot within the app itself. I shouldn’t really complain, but it would have been nice if HTC could share the love with Android’s other popular camera apps. The camera wasn’t what kept me from choosing the One as my product of the year though. My product of the year is a bit closer to my person.

Which brings me to the House of Marley Zion in-ear headphones.

The top of the line until HoM released their $US200 Legend balanced-armature in-ear, the Zion model run a single 9mm dynamic driver in each side. The earphones themselves are made from FSC-certified wood and recyclable aluminum. The cable is still braided fabric and still has a three-button remote (whose volume controls only work on Apple devices, I do kinda miss that on the HTC), the plug is the same tough rubberized right-angle jack with a gold-plated TRRS jack. The sound difference when compared to my previous in-ears, the Marley Redemption Songs, comes across as more of a smiley-face EQ curve than the aforementioned model. Not so much so that mid-heavy music loses out, but more top-end clarity and more brain-stem tickling bass are present in the Zion model and make for an even more engaging listen. Engaging and entertaining enough that I may or may not have bought a second pair to keep for the eventual time when the first pair gives out. not sure when that will be though. These things have legendary build quality.

Despite waxing lyrical about the Zions, They aren’t my product of the year. My product of the year is even closer to my ears than that. 

It’s those squishy-looking blue bits on the end of the earphones that have won this year, the ComplyFoam ear tips.

I finally took the plunge on ordering a set of these in the winter and when I tried them on I knew I was having another Pink Floyd moment. I’d heard these things praised online for years but I didn’t want to fork out for a pair because I was still unconvinced They would fail my weird weird ears. When I got them though, and when I used them, I kicked myself for not trying them sooner. These things could have made the $180 I spent on Shure E2Cs when I was in high school worthwhile, for crying out loud! Granted I probably wouldn’t have the Marleys I have now if that were the case, but getting into Comply tips earlier would have kept me from missing out on a lot. Like a real lot.

Oh, I also have an honorable mention to give put this year, the TDK IE500 in-ears headphones. If you’re on a budget these things are pretty hard to beat. The ceramic housing does good things for the single dynamic driver and while the box comes with no frills, save for extra eartips, the sound is the icing on the cake for a pair of earphones that seem to sell for $35-$65. Only problem is that they’re rare. I picked up the last pair in Dunedin and the only other place I’ve seen them is Wellington airport, so good luck finding them.