Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013: The year in music!

As I have started reading all of the 2013 best-of-the-year lists posted around the internet, I have resigned myself to the fact that I'm not really an active "Music guy" anymore. I still listen to music, and I'm still aware of most of the artists that I follow, as well as the trends and popular stuff (I have to be up-to-date as a teacher), but I'm just not at the level I was five years ago. I have not even written a Year in Review for music since 2010; I always said I would get to writing them eventually, but I think I knew deep down that I just didn't have it in me anymore the same way I once did. After all, it's not really possible to compose a top ten list if you only listen to a dozen albums in a year.

I suppose the evidence has been there for a few years, but I'm just finally publicly admitting it now. After all, I went to one show this year, I have not even bought a half-dozen albums in the past twelve months, and when people ask me what I've been listening to lately, the list is getting shorter and harder to generate each time. I'm now adding maybe a dozen albums in a year to my listening rotation (though I still usually at least listen to twice or thrice that amount), and usually only really adding a half-dozen new artists to my list (this year those artists were The Lumineers, The Lone Bellow, Of Monsters and Men, Whitehorse, and The City Harmonic). It has been a clear trend for the past three or so years; but the question I then had was why this has been happening. I thought of five possible reasons, all of which I think are partly to blame for my descent.

Five reasons for the change in my music habits

1. I got married, so I have less disposable income and time to spend on music. It's not that my wife is opposed to music; it's more that she is very deliberate about all purchases, and while a $10 album is nothing to me, it's a big deal to her. Also, I just don't have the time to listen to as much music now, and I need to share my experience with her. It's probably no coincidence that my peak years (2003-2007) were the years that I was on my own, and that the music I still listen to the most is the music that she also enjoys. I might have once listened to 3-4 hours of music each day (if not more); now I listen to 1-2 at most.

2. The rise of digital music has resulted that fewer and fewer albums are available secondhand. One of the ways I built my collection and my listening rotation was in buying albums at thrift stores, but that's just not a feasible way to do it anymore. There's more music available for sampling digitally, but there's just something about the physicality of an album that makes it easier to focus on.

3. My overall allocation of time has had to change, so I just don't have the time to make for music as much anymore. Between work, marriage, church leadership, life, friendships, and my own interests and hobbies, I just don't have as much time for music. I suppose if it were really important to me that I would make the time, which just demonstrates that it's probably not as big of a deal that I don't spend the hours I used to on investigating new artists.

4. I do not have the same kind of intensity in my community regarding new music. Music, like all forms of media, is an inherently social exercise, and I do not have people in my immediate space who are consumed by music. I still have friends who enjoy music, some at that higher intensity, but it's not nearly as pronounced or as defining a factor as it was even a few years ago. Victoria itself is also a really hard place to be a music fan, as many artists do not cross over to the island.

5. There are just not many new artists and albums that interest me. I know that this point will be more contentious for some, but I think that it's more than just a personal change; I just honestly think that there are fewer albums being released now that are worth my time and energy or even perhaps worth it on a wider scale. Maybe it is entirely that my windows of interest are narrowing as I age, but there is a great irony that as music is more plentiful and accessible than it ever has been that I am less and less interested in the breadth and scope of the entire industry.

Just to clarify, it's not that I'm bitter or frustrated about this change; it has just taken me three years to finally admit it. But in the end it's actually kind of a relief to transition to a different style of music fandom. I find that my tastes are narrowing, but they are doing so in a way that allows me to invest more into and ingest more of each album. Rather than finding something new every week or two, I am able to really listen to an album fully before moving onto something else. I'm less focused on the flavor of the moment and more open to only listening to music that really widens and enriches my experience. I'm also continuing to narrow my scope of genres, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I've written before about how the metal/hardcore end of the spectrum is just not of particular appeal to me anymore, and my overall tastes are a lot more mellow.

Best Of 2013

This brings me to my year-end list. My list of albums from 2013 is very short indeed, as I can only think of around a dozen albums that have made any kind of impact on me whatsoever. And really, if I were to give the actual list of albums I've enjoyed the most in 2013, it would include several albums from previous years, including the self-titled debuts from Whitehorse and The Lumineers, as well as Of Monsters and Men's My Head Is An Animal. But despite a small pool of albums, there are still a few that stuck out to me as released in 2013. I know that these are not the "best" albums released in 2013, but they are ultimately the albums that mattered most to me in the past twelve months. Here then, in no particular order, are my top five albums of 2013.

Honourable mention: Daft Punk - Random Access Memories. I really liked a good portion of this album, but I still did not buy it. Maybe I pick it up at some point in the future and really get into it then. It's a great dance album, and "Get Lucky" is one of the best pop tracks in recent memory.

The Great Gatsby - Music from the Motion Picture. I spent a good portion of the summer enjoying this eclectic album. It has some great dance tracks and it really captures the spirit of the film, which remains one of my favourites of the year. There are a half-dozen tracks that have been my favourite at one point or another, but I think the standout tracks are still Florence + the Machine's "Green Light" and Fergie's "A Little Party Never Hurt Nobody", as well as Jack White's cover of U2's "Love is Blindness."

The City Harmonic - Heart. The Canadian group released their second full-length album, and I immediately loved it. This is powerful worship-oriented music that evokes comparisons to Coldplay, among others, though it transcends any mere comparison. The City Harmonic are one of the most creative, effective groups making worship music today, and I cannot get enough of this album.

Dustin Kensrue - The Water & The Blood. The former lead singer of Thrice has been leading worship at Mars Hill church in Seattle, and this album is almost exactly what you would expect given the nature of the church as well as Kensrue's career thus far. It is theologically deep and very liturgical in its orientation; he at times presents a very Calvinist point of view, but it never gets too consumed with these ideas, leaving these modern hymns accessible to everyone. The musical composition is varied, and it includes some tracks that evoke Kensrue's country leanings, as well as one or two that sound an awful lot like Thrice (and that's a good thing). This has immediately become one of my most significant worship albums, and I am looking forward to what more Kensrue will produce.

The Lone Bellow - The Lone Bellow. The Brooklyn-based trio is part of the crowded folk-country wave that has emerged over the last few years to include the Avett Brothers, The Civil Wars, Mumford & Sons, and The Lumineers, among many others. What sets The Lone Bellow apart are their incredible harmonies and their rich songs, especially "Bleeding Out". If you like any of those other artists, check out The Lone Bellow.

The Civil Wars - The Civil Wars. The second album from the estranged Americana duo is even more heart-breaking than their debut, especially with the context of the separation of the singers, John Paul White and Joy Williams. This album is another incredible collection of intertwined harmonies and poignant moments, and the worst part of it is that it might be their last album. It includes several songs that the pair has performed live for up to two years, and although some of the live versions are better, it's still great to have a studio recording. This is probably my favourite album of the year.

In addition to those five standouts, there are a handful of other albums released in 2013 that I think may eventually earn a similar place in my heart. These albums will probably rank among my favourites with more listening, but I wanted to make sure that I mentioned them here.

Avett Brothers - Magpie and the Dandelion
The Civil Wars & T-Bone Burnett - A Place at the Table Original Soundtrack
Fiction Family - Fiction Family Reunion
Gungor - I Am Mountain
The Head and the Heart - Let's Be Still
The National - Trouble Will Find Me
Sigur Ros - Kveikur

So there you have it: my top albums of 2013 as they stand right now. I'm looking forward to the chance to catch up a bit on some of these albums I have missed, as well as maybe reflecting on albums from 2012 and 2011 that I may have missed. I'm also looking forward to the new Switchfoot album, Fading West, due to be released in mid-January, as well as a new U2 album sometime in 2014. Maybe there's hope to regain some of the musical momentum I've lost in the last couple of years after all.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A rubric for evaluating Oscar season

With the announcement of the Golden Globe nominees this week, the Oscar season entered its second-to-last phase, the one in which the overall awards gather more clarity, the critics' circles announce their picks, and the final contenders are finally released to theaters over the next few weeks. The entire process culminates with the wide releases of the final films, the Golden Globes being announced, and the Oscar nominees all in early January, after which point it's the final sprint through two months of buzz and Oscar-baiting. So far, this year's awards race has been fairly interesting, and it seems like it will continue to be compelling over the next three months until the final Oscar winners are announced on March 2. But it made me wonder what makes an awards season interesting in general, and why some years are better than others. So I decided to do what any good teacher would do and to create a rubric to evaluate Oscar seasons.

Let's imagine that the Oscars in general could be evaluated on 6 criteria, with 1 extra outlying criterion to encompass any other variable factors. (In case you're wondering, I've loosely based this on the 6+1 traits of writing methodology that I use to teach writing and to evaluate essays.) Imagine that each of these criteria could be measured from 1 to 5, with 1 being the worst and 5 being the best. I'll explain each of the criteria, followed by some examples.

1. Quality films. It should seem obvious, but the slate of films need to be worth watching in general. A year with many good films - 2009 or 2010, for example - can elevate the season, whereas a weaker year - 2006 or 2011 - will make the overall season less enjoyable. Oscar junkies like me who feel the need to watch many of the nominated movies are a lot happier if we can actually appreciate and enjoy the movies rather than endure them.

2. Actual competition. The most interesting seasons are the ones in which there is genuine competition for several of the major awards; this often goes along with quality films, but it is slightly different, as there can still be quality films and one frontrunner (ie. 2007, No Country For Old Men). It's not nearly as interesting to have a frontrunner that is destined to win as a foregone conclusion, particularly if most of the major categories go that way. There are usually a few categories that are well-decided (particularly Actor and Actress), but it's better to have several films competing across the board. The worst example I can remember was 2008 (Slumdog Millionaire), in which almost every category was predictable; in fact, of my predictions that year, the only one I missed was Sean Penn for Best Actor, and even that was because I was playing the odds that the Academy might have taken a less traditional route with Mickey Rourke.

3. Meaningful omissions. There have to be some worthy nominees omitted in order to validate the films that were included, but the omissions have to be reasonable and justifiable. Of course, there will always be some people who advocate for the most random films, so I'm not counting every omission as a "meaningful" one. That said, there needs to be a sense that the nominees earned their nominations, not that they were the default picks. But with that in mind, there needs to be valid evidence that the snub was warranted or at least justified by the overall quality of the nominees (much like Best Actor will be this year). An unjustifiable snub can drag down the season; the best example of this was 2008, in which both The Dark Knight and Wall-E were omitted for Best Picture. TDK had its faults, of course, but there was no reason for it not to be nominated as the first comic book movie for Best Picture (as far as I can recall, anyway). TDK's omission has been directly linked to the expansion of the Best Picture category to include anywhere between five and ten nominees, which has had the effect that there have perhaps been too many inclusions and not enough omissions to validate the overall season.

4. Surprises, upsets, and underdogs (or at least the possibility of such). This is connected to "actual competition", but it is slightly different. There needs to be a sense that anything can happen and that at least one award might be given to someone unexpected and (arguably) legitimately qualified to win: Juliette Binoche or Marcia Gay Harden or Tilda Swinton or Charlie Kaufman, to cite recent examples. If the entire exercise seems like a fait accompli and there is no room for artistic merit, it plays into the cynicism that many pundits (myself often included) harbor toward the Oscar process.

5. Interesting personalities. Part of the whole process is having the personalities involved be at the forefront. Sometimes, that means the big stars like Clooney or Bullock or DiCaprio; sometimes that means the auteurs like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Joaquin Phoenix or Amy Adams; sometimes that means the unexpected personalities who come to prominence like Roberto Benigni or Jean Dujardin; sometimes that means the young actors finding their way like Jennifer Lawrence or Jennifer Hudson. Either way, the type of stars involved in a year can distinctly sway the overall quality of the year.

6. Satisfying results. Again, it should be obvious, but the entire process needs to be validated by the results, regardless of the specific merits or demerits of a film or cohort of films. Whether a film was the best film of the year or not, there needs to be a sense that, in some way, it deserved to win; Argo in 2012 was not the best of the year, but it earned its victory. 1998 and 2005 could have been some of the best years for Oscars based on the other criteria, save for the fact that Shakespeare in Love and Crash won, respectively, invalidating much of the accomplishment of the season otherwise.

7. Intangible variables. This is the "+1", the extra things that can sway a season; these are factors that might not make or break a season on their own, but they can make a good season great, or even redeem an otherwise blasé season. They might include a wide variety of possibilities: an historic film (Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King); a controversial nomination or omission (ie. Ben Affleck and others for Best Director in 2012); or any other extraneous narrative strands that contribute to the whole picture (ie. James Cameron against ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow and Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker in 2009).

For the two decades I have been "covering" awards season (I start with Schindler's List in 1993 as the first year I really was able to pay attention to the process), I could go through each year and apply the rubric in each category and rank them accordingly - but I just don't feel like going through all of that work right now. But the reality is that I probably already know by intuition which years will end up on the bottom and which will come out on top. The worst years are most likely 1996 (The English Patient) and 2008 (Slumdog Millionaire); the best I can think of are probably 2007 (No Country for Old Men) and 2009 (The Hurt Locker); the rest are somewhere between those extremes. It would be possible, I'm sure, to further apply this rubric to all 85 years of the Oscars and to generate a master list; if I were a paid columnist writing for a site with significant traffic, I would probably attempt to do so, but I'll leave that for another time. Still, I would imagine that 1972 (The Godfather) would probably be near the top of the list.

Now, as to 2013, and where it seems to sit. There is a strong slate of quality films that will contend for nominations. At this point, there is no clear frontrunner (though many critics attempted to pre-emptively name 12 Years A Slave as the presumptive winner), and there looks to be distinct competition in 5 or 6 of the 9 major categories. There will be some omissions, particularly in the Best Actor category, and it seems like this might be a year for a surprise or two (Her?). Many big personalities are looking to be nominated for acting, including a couple of awards-season newcomers in Matthew McConaughey and Michael Fassbender, as well as personalities behind the camera like Martin Scorsese. It's too early, obviously, to comment on the results, but there are a number of intangibles that could swing the entire season over the top, including the discussion of racism from 12 Years a Slave, for example. It seems most likely that 2013 will be a solid year from what we have already seen, and I'm looking forward to how it unfolds over the next three months.

Films I need to see over the next couple of months (in order): American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years A Slave, Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska, Captain Phillips.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On existential malaise

I have been thinking about writing this post for a month, but I was either too busy, too sick, or too disengaged to write it. But I think that writing, as I have observed innumerable times in the past, is part of my therapy. (It probably helps that I'm reading some Donald Miller right now, and his writing always pushes me to reconsider engaging with my own.) I write this post knowing that it's more for me than for anyone else reading it, but I hope that in my giving voice to some of these thoughts here that it might not only help you understand me but also yourselves. I also write this post knowing that it could be misconstrued as a self-pity party or a cry for help or a flippant attitude toward my life, and I want you to know that it is none of those things (at least by design). This is my attempt to capture the moment, so here goes; I will mostly be writing this as a "stream of consciousness" without much self-editing, just so that I (and you) can really get a picture of me at this moment (or, at least, what I'm choosing to project).

Some of you will have picked up on the fact that I have not been doing particularly well since mid-to-late September, especially if you have been in contact with me in that time outside of online interactions. I cannot point to any one or two events in particular that incited this "not-okayness", other than to say that it is a general malaise that has permeated all areas of my life: professional, emotional, intellectual, relational, spiritual, personal, existential. At various points over the past three months, any one of those areas might have been okay or even good, but my general state of being has been "not good". And for me, this is very out of the ordinary, as I can recall only two other previous periods in which I have had any kind of extended not-goodness: my fourth semester of university, just after I decided to change my program; and my twelfth (!) semester of university, when I was just kind of fried by life as a whole. In both cases, the semesters ended and I was able to move forward with life after a few months.

When I think about these two periods of life, there are a few similarities that carry forward through to these past few months. I had lost something, whether it was direction for a career or a relationship or hope for the future. I was not particularly engaged with my community, regardless of how supportive it may have been. I did not particularly like my physical setting, and I felt aimless and directionless in general. I did not sleep or eat particularly well, and I didn't really care. And if you're reading this thinking, "gee, it sounds like he was depressed", you're probably right.

I hesitate to use the "D" word because of the medical, psychological, and cultural implications and connotations it carries, but if you take away all of those "official" meanings, I would describe myself as "depressed" - as in flattened, weighted down, trapped, disengaged. I don't use it in the sense of "I struggle with depression", because I think that trivializes the struggle that people who actually struggle with depression have, but more in the metaphorical sense of feeling like all of the air has been squeezed out of me - maybe "deflated" is a better metaphor, one that does not carry the same gravitas as "depression". Either way, I think this gives a clear(ish) idea of how I have been feeling.

If it seems like I have an unusual amount of self-perceptive acuity about my current situation, it's probably because in some ways I do. Most of the time I know what's going on, even if I feel powerless to stop it or change it. I might understand cognitively what is going on (or, then again, I may be incredibly self-deluded), but I am still in the midst of having to feel the weight of the emotions of it all. The weight of four years of professional disappointment. The loss of relationships due to my own negligence. The weight of thirty years of expectations, all coming to whatever this is. The feeling that all of the talents and relationships and experiences and likes and skills and connections and things and hobbies and travels and passions and tidbits of information and blog posts and games and jobs and friends and memories and days and months and years all don't really add up to anything, or at least anything that will propel me forward.

It's not that I feel like everything is hopeless, or that life is meaningless, or that I have nothing to live for, or that this will never end. I know that this, too, shall pass, and that this is but a short season in my life. But I also know that more days than not that I don't have good days, particularly when I'm at home not working. I know the things I should do to change my circumstances, yet I often choose not to do those things. I have to-do lists and projects and all of the time I could ask for to do them, but I just don't do it most days. Usually, I have the willpower and the strength to push myself through the not-goodness, but I haven't lately, and I think that's by design. I think I'm supposed to really feel all of these emotions as I'm going through them, and that I'm supposed to allow myself to sit in it. Please note that this is not a resignation or defeat, but rather an honest admission that even in the midst of the past few months of feeling this way that I think that there is (and will be) a purpose in these experiences, and that I need to let them be what they are for now without trying to power myself out of them.

That is not to say that I can't try to make little changes or to set goals for myself. I'm going to try over the next month to accomplish little steps to rehabilitate myself emotionally, relationally, and personally. I'm going to treat this healing process with care and with candor, and I'm going to have to work hard to remember that it is going to take me some time to recover from these past few months. I'm going to have to remind myself that I will still have days of "not-goodness", and that I cannot measure myself by my failures (or my successes, for that matter), but rather by the overall progress I make, however incremental it might seem. I just need to take one day at a time and not judge myself by my usual norms, and I need to remember that I know, deep down, that everything will be okay - probably even good. And I need you to help me remember that when I don't (or can't or choose not to, whatever the case may be). Writing this post was one of my first steps, and it's funny how I feel better even now, knowing that I have put this out there for you to see and for me to give voice to my feelings. And that's all I can do is take one step at a time.


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