Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for December, 2011

Future Nostalgia

The end of every year is filled with top ten lists, a canned story about champagne and a certain amount of sentimentality. In the spirit of that, these are seventeen records I really enjoyed this year, each with a short summary of my thoughts.

 

Bon Iver — Bon Iver

From a Wisconsin log cabin to woking with Kanye West, Justin Vernon made an significant cultural leap in the last few years. Bon Iver separated the band from the reputation they’d built with For Emma, Forever Ago without removing what is quintessentially theirs. Mellow, beautiful and haunting, Bon Iver’s latest effort is just so.

 

Ego/Mirror — Burial & Four Tet feat. Thom Yorke

Burial and Four Tet have previously collaborated, and each has remixed a Thom Yorke song. The three working together produced just two eight-minute songs, but they’re both tremendous. Ego sounds most influenced by Burial, whereas Mirror edges closer to Four Tet’s sound, but both have the immediacy and depth of their distinct atmosphere mellowed with the addition of Yorke’s falsetto, hushed vocals.

 

Neverendless — Cave

I must confess that I’ve only listened to Neverendless twice in full. It’s exquisite, but like fudge, it’s hard to consume great amounts in a single sitting. Curious noodling combines with drones to produce something like Wilco, The American Analog Set and Brian Eno in a blender. Strangely satisfying.

 

Instrumentals — Clams Casino

Clams Casino’s mixtape is as significant as DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… was 15 years ago. Both were produced using similar plunderphonic methods, but whereas DJ Shadow used physical records acquired from the dusty depths of his local store, Clams Casino chose Limewire and arbitrary searches. In many cases, he wasn’t even aware of the song he was sampling from, but his collaging of these pseudonymous sounds is fascinating. A tremendous listen.

 

Cults 7″ — Cults

I chose Cults’ EP rather than the full length because I think it’s a tighter group of songs with far less filler. The EP has their poor-pun-intended cult hit Go Outside, along with two other playful, lo-fi songs. Very simple, yet supremely joyful.

 

Looping State of Mind — The Field

Super simple, often unbelievably repetitive, yet satisfying in the same way that the Caves record is. Warm-feeling chill-inducing tracks lay here. Can something this deep have such an ostensibly opaque surface? Whatever it is, it works.

 

Nostalgia, Ultra — Frank Ocean

The new king of smooth hip-hop is here. This is another mixtape on the list, yet it’s ever so good. Novacane is probably the most recognisable track from the album, but it’s all worth a listen. Bitches Talkin’ and Songs for Women is a sly, witty and elegant one-two punch. The former features a sample of Radiohead’s Optimistic, with a woman grumbling about Ocean’s repetitive over-playing of it, and in the latter, Ocean relents that his women can listen to whatever they want. Since I also have that choice, I’ll keep listening to this record.

 

Deep Politics — Grails

A few years ago, post rock became the thing that every new band was doing. Very few did it well, but nobody’s done post rock this well or this cooly for quite some time, likely because Deep Politics isn’t strictly post rock. It’s a molten, ever-changing mix of a wide variety of influences, culminating in an exciting, fizzing kind of record.

 

Watch the Throne — Jay-Z & Kanye West

I know, I know: Watch the Throne isn’t the revolutionary, game-changing record everyone was predicting. But it’s an hour-and-a-bit of fun. It’s grotesque, ostentatious and vulgar, sure, but it’s so self-aware that those attributes are almost a benefit. There are a couple of filler songs, and I didn’t care for Niggas in Paris as much as everyone else did, but it was one of my favourites from 2011 because of Otis. In under three minutes, Jay and Kanye spit verses back and forth like the most amazing rap battle you’ve heard. Other notable tracks include No Church In the Wild and Illest Motherfucker Alive, the latter of which is probably the closest rap has gotten to sounding like it’s been dipped in gold, covered in diamonds and served on a bed of caviar.

 

Destroyed — Moby

Destroyed has, unfortunately, the usual three or four throwaway songs that are standard for just about all Moby records. But somehow they make more sense when the record is listened to as Moby recommends: very late at night when almost everyone else in your big city is asleep. It is a record of the night, of loneliness and isolation, and yet doesn’t sound dreary. On the contrary, it sounds hopeful and excited. That is until you get to Stella Maris, which is probably the point where you will start remembering those you’ve loved and lost. But all is mended in your heart with the arrival of Lacrimae a short time later. Give solitude a spin.

 

Days — Real Estate

As if you didn’t already have enough sixties-throwback indie pop in your library, Days was released this year. It’s a really great interpretation of the genre, if nothing spectacularly original. It’s worth a listen on a lazy Saturday, when the sun is shining and with a glass of iced mint tea. For some reason or another, that combination works well with this record.

 

Inni — Sigur Rós

Sigur Rós released their first live album this year, yet it was also their second performance film. These guys are known to eschew the conventional approach and forge their own path. I’m a massive fan of live records, as they often allow subtle details and nuances in an artist’s music to surface. Inni is a spectacular double disc performance, showcasing the band’s career so far in a most intimate way. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I hear it’s also excellent.

 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

Three hours of a sparse tundra-esque soundtrack spanning three discs shouldn’t be listenable. For some reason or another, this is. It is Reznor’s signature sound, but it isn’t Nine Inch Nails, nor The Social Network. It is its own entity. Like Inni, I haven’t seen the corresponding film yet, but with Fincher, Craig and Mara, it can’t go wrong, especially not when aided by such a haunting, cold soundtrack. If you don’t want three hours of atmospheric soundtrack, at least grab Karen O’s cover of Immigrant Song, and the other cover, Is Your Love Strong Enough?, as performed by Reznor’s other band How to Destroy Angels. It’s the right thing to do.

 

Within and Without — Washed Out

Cute and charming as only Washed Out can do, Within and Without is also essential for that proverbial lazy Real Estate Saturday. I didn’t find it to revolutionise Washed Out’s past work, but it builds on that history with a delicate balance. Warm and engaging like so many records this year, but with a suave sense of style few can match.

 

House of Balloons — The Weeknd

What would you do if you had a voice like Michael Jackson’s at age 20? You’d make one hell of an R & B record. I did a full review of the Weeknd’s Balloons trilogy and as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed all three. But House of Balloons is still the strongest and is still the one I reach for. I can’t wait to hear what happens next.

 

The Year of Hibernation — Youth Lagoon

What do you get if you bury vaguely nostalgic lyrics and tinny bedroom recordings under gobs of reverb? You get most modern indie pop, actually. Youth Lagoon chose this well-trodden path, but his effort is one of the better ones. Astonishingly simple production with the requisite Tumblr-ready artwork? By the indie pop playbook, yes.

 

Conatus — Zola Jesus

Sounding kind of like the music of Nine Inch Nails hooked up with Florence and the Machine, the latest Zola Jesus record is a triumph. Supremely engaging and dangerous melodies combine with ethereal vocals and smothered in echo. The result is strangely beautiful and beautifully strange.

 

If you can’t grab all seventeen of these records, you should at least collect the following playlist. Songs are available on iTunes or, in the case of The Weeknd and Clams Casino, in a free mixtape.

  1. Svefn-G-Englar – Sigur Rós
  2. Hikkomori – Zola Jesus
  3. Novacane – Frank Ocean
  4. Before – Washed Out
  5. Afternoon – Youth Lagoon
  6. Municipality – Real Estate
  7. The Curse – Cults
  8. Towers – Bon Iver
  9. Adam Roberts – Cave
  10. Ego – Burial & Four Tet feat. Thom Yorke
  11. After – Moby
  12. Otis – Jay-Z & Kanye West
  13. Loft Music – The Weeknd
  14. Corridors of Power – Grails
  15. Motivation – Clams Casino
  16. Then It’s White – The Field
  17. Is Your Love Strong Enough? – How to Destroy Angels

Beyond Oblivion Shuts Down Before Launch

The startup aimed to take on Spotify by offering an unlimited music streaming service with no monthly fee. Instead the service came baked into smartphones, adding around $60 to the cost of each device,

Seems like our doubts were well founded. The Financial Times is reporting that [it] has shut down before it even launched.

Inconceivable.

Driving Has Lost Its Cool

Lisa Hymas:

The decline in driving by younger Americans is fed by many factors: the high cost of gas and insurance at a time of economic insecurity; tighter restrictions on teen drivers in many states; and roads that are more congested than ever, making driving less fun than ever.

These are the same reasons I cite when asked why I don’t have my license. It’s just too damn expensive. Hymas also notes that people from my generation wish to live in the inner-city, within walking distance of their daily needs. Combine this with the points Jane Jacobs is most noted for, and the result will be stellar city planning which will reveal itself in a few decades.

100 Devices

Developers on iOS have long petitioned Apple for a less-restrictive annual provisioning limit. A hundred devices simply isn’t enough for ad hoc distribution. Craig Hockenberry is one of the most vocal critics, though he’s by no means the only one. He summarises the problem neatly in UDID Not, a post from nearly two years ago:

As developers, we want to maintain a pool of testers, not devices that they test on. Devices are ephemeral: they change as new hardware is introduced and replaced. The thing that remains constant are the people who test our products.

In this linked Wall Street Journal article, Jessica Vascellaro writes about the ways developers are working around the limitation:

Instagram registered for another $99-a-year developer account, nabbing 100 additional testing slots. A person familiar with the matter says Apple doesn’t encourage such a move but that it doesn’t violate the company’s terms of service.

Developers are having to resort to buying multiple accounts just to allow for ad hoc beta testing. It’s a bit ridiculous. It also requires users to submit their UDIDs to the developer, a key that most users don’t even know exists.

But this very limitation has created TestFlight, a smart service which allows developers to distribute their app for beta testing much more easily than Apple’s own tools do. M.G. Siegler notes that Apple should buy TestFlight or create their own version of it.

It makes the development experience better, it makes beta testing easier and it saves frustration when it comes time to launch in the App Store.

Bullshit

Marco Arment:

Everyone has their bullshit. You can simply decide whose you’re willing to tolerate.

I’ll Tell You Why Movie Revenue Is Dropping

The always-excellent Roger Ebert:

The message I get is that Americans love the movies as much as ever. It’s the theaters that are losing their charm.

I wholly agree with this. The theatre used to be somewhere that offered an intimate escape from reality, but it has become a clinical, depressing, expensive experience.

Not Even Considering Android or Windows Phone Devices

Matt Alexander:

That might sound like my life has been dumbed down, but that’s incorrect assertion. My life has just been made easier. There’s that much less in my digital life for me to be considerate of. No longer must I verse myself with codecs and conversion techniques in order to enjoy my media, or with firmware hacks and overclocking to get the best features and performance out of my hardware. My technology just works, and it does so in the background. I enjoy applications that help me work and live, and I no longer have to focus on the underlying mechanics that facilitate that.

This, in a nut, is the chasm between Apple’s ecosystem and that of their competitors.

Resolutions

I’ve spent the past week with friends and family, enjoying some great baking and coffee while playing Scattergories and giving Acquire a try. It’s a comfortable environment worthy of contemplation. As I was drifting into a deep slumber in the wee hours of this morning, this atmosphere paid off with a couple of short pieces of writing. One will be published next year, but the other follows.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve never made a New Year’s resolution. As the clock strikes midnight on Saturday night, I will not be thinking of a single, specific way to change the life I’ve built. Where I am at is not nirvana, but it is a fossil layer in my constant evolution.

If you’ve made a however-small change to your life in the last few months, you are proof that the change of a date means nothing in the big scope. It is an arbitrary time in which many make the choice to give up smoking while improving family relations. The page is flipped in your Gregorian, but aside from being inebriated, you are no different than you were the day prior.

The priorities that are most valuable to you are those which you will act upon. You don’t need numerical change to motivate yourself. The changes to your life you will be making on January 1 don’t have greater significance then than they do now.

There Is No Next Facebook

Alex Madrigal, for The Atlantic:

We tend to think of social networks in terms of lifecycles. One rises and flourishes, then it is killed off by an insurgent competitor. We draw neat diagrams showing MySpace started to die as Facebook sprang to life, etc.

But the reality is more complex. The social applications out there now build atop each other and tens of millions of people belong to several networks, even if they don’t really notice.

Different social networks can exist at the same time, just like different operating systems. The trick is what the user gains from each.

There’s No Such Thing as Android, Only Android-Compatible

Tim Carmody for Wired:

Not every Android app will work or work perfectly on every Android device or OS flavor, but the vast majority will; others still can be easily tailored to work well or even better.

This is why I say that we have a huge number of Android-compatible devices. We’ve never really had anything quite like this before in mobile. That compatibility is incredibly powerful.

This is true, but the flip-side of it is equally true: consumers can’t be sure to what extent the device they’re buying is Android. It’s not black and white, but a gradient of devices that work as Google wrote, to those that barely work at all. This problem exists not just for app compatibility, but for system updates as well.

Whereas in the past software updates were important, on Android devices they’re seen by manufacturers as unnecessary and burdensome. It doesn’t matter that they may include significant new features or security patches because it’s just too much work to implement.

Carmody concludes by pointing out that this approach has been good in the short term, because it’s allowed Android’s user base to grow rapidly, but that it presents a long-term problem. I think we’re already seeing those long-term consequences with the Ice Cream Sandwich update imbroglio, and it will only get worse as the code drifts farther away from Google’s control.

Concept: Redesigning the Update UI for Mac Apps

This is very clever, but it still doesn’t remove the most intrusive aspect of updating apps. The main problem with Sparkle and system updates is that they’re interrupting you as you’re using the application or your computer. The way Chrome and Firefox fix this is that they download the update in the background and install it the next time the app is launched. That’s the smartest, least-intrusive way to install updates.

The TV Store

Horace Dediu looks at the global availability of apps, music and TV shows. The takeaway here is that Apple is the sole distributor of their apps, whereas they are merely one of many licensed to sell music and TV shows. I didn’t realise that there were so few countries where one can buy TV shows on iTunes, though.

Launching the Kindle Fire Was a Mistake

Andrew Munn, former Amazon engineer:

Work on much of the Fire software began in May 2011. The device launched in November. Six months is not enough time to design, build, and iterate on an OS design. Six months is just enough time to build a technically functional version.

Scathing.

Time to End the War on Drugs

Richard Branson:

The paper, published by Cato in April 2011, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.

I’m not a drug user, but there’s no denying the sheer mass of money that’s wasted every year at the municipal, provincial (or state) and federal levels on this pointless exercise. Portugal is simply a better country with less of a drug problem, fewer incidences of HIV and less theft as a result of their drug policy efforts.

“Everyone Realized Buying a Blazer Without Trying It on First Is Stupid”

Last week, I linked to a Monocle article commenting on the slightly lacking experience of shopping online. Mihalis Vitoroulis offered his take on Twitter:

I can’t imagine Mr. Porter is doing all that well compared to net-a-porter. It isn’t because the site sucks (it’s great), it’s just that buying menswear online was cool for about a year. And then everyone realized buying a blazer without trying it on first is stupid. Browsing through the sale and seeing a dozen shirts/coats I would buy in store but wouldn’t waste my time buying online only to return later.

Vito’s Twitter feed is protected, but I received permission to re-post these. A really smart take on the deficiencies of online stores.

The Momentum of Steve Jobs

Craig Mod wrote a beautiful essay regarding the passing of Steve Jobs in October, but he only recently published it. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve seen regarding that news.

The hagiographic accounts after the passing of Steve this year understandably cast his accomplishments in an otherworldly light. But in my mind, he will be, as he became to me in this past year, that guy over there also eating brunch at Calafia. The neighbor in a comfortable neighborhood who happened to posses a beautiful, driven mind. Not a saint or a god but simply a someone who had a vision and executed, methodically and consistently and unrelentingly.