Overlooked Records of 2008

This is a highly unscientific, highly subjective look at some records which, in my opinion, were overlooked. This is not to say that they did not receive critical praise: it’s just that these records somehow were not talked about as much at the annual “end of the year” retrospective pieces.

1) Sigur Ros – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

I don’t know why album is not talked about more in critical circles. Sigur Ros changed their sound on this album, especially in the first half, to a more accessible, poppier sound, while the second half of the album retained the epic/cosmological/prog/spiritual aspect of their older albums. This album sounds great, as it mixes both the new and the old, and usually critics fall over themselves praising Sigur Ros. Nevertheless, this is an excellent album.

2) Aimee Mann – @#%&*! Smilers

There are not many other people working in the industry today that can write a song better than Aimee Mann, not to mention her impeccable voice, which, in this album, has acquired a deeper tone that complements her usual lilting phrasing. Plus, no one can write concise but insightful character studies of people in various stages of defeat and resignation quite like Aimee Mann. Also, this album has a different sound, as it heavily focuses on keyboards and rhythm, with almost no electric guitar. I guess this album was overlooked because consistency does not wow, but these songs stay with you. Is it her best album? No, that title belongs to Bachelor No. 2, but this album has some very strong songs.

3) Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun

I think no one will disagree with me that Fleet Foxes are the critical darlings of this year, but ask yourselves this: would there even be Fleet Foxes if not for Brian Wilson? The answer is a definite no, because Fleet Foxes’ sound is the direct progeny of Brian Wilson, and pretty much all indie pop albums in general. Therefore, I find it ironic that Brian Wilson’s album this year did not receive a lot of attention. Sure, it’s not as monumental as Smile, but then again, what can possibly be? Nevertheless, Brian Wilson remains a genius of melody, and he shows the youngsters a thing or two about musical arrangement.

4) David Byrne and Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

What do you get when you put two eccentric musical mavens together? A secular gospel record, that’s what! While not as radical as their earlier collaboration, this record possesses a self-assured grace. And of course, with David Byrne, the lyrics are never what they seem. And Brian Eno can still twist knobs like it’s nobody’s business. Plus, applause for both of them to embrace the new distribution model by allowing fans to pay a small fee for the digital copy of the album while the hard copy is being pressed.

5) Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst

This is Conor Oberst’s “mature” album, as it finds himself settling nicely into his niche: that is, writing lyrically smart, melodically engaging songs about heartbreak, personal liberation, and social commentary. And hey, his singing voice even improves compared to before. It’s not an opus, but it is a very well executed record.

6) Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV and The Slip

Getting clean and sober has done wonderful things for Trent Reznor’s productivity, as he released two albums’ worth of material in a single year, a feat that in the old days would take at least a decade. I lump these two together not only because of their chronological proximity, but also because they are experiments for Reznor to test out his distribution model. Freed from his major’s contract, Reznor decided to pull a Radiohead and release Ghosts for free with an option to purchase the hard copy, and he released The Slip for a very small fee. Ghosts show that Trent Reznor has tremendous skills in the studio, while The Slip remains solidly enjoyable. They won’t match The Downward Spiral, but these two albums should definitely satisfy your noise cravings.

7) Spiritualized – Songs in A&E

This album isn’t quite as expansive and epic as Ladies and Gentlemen, but its more stripped down sound better reflects its creator’s near death experience. So if you feel like contemplating Life, Love, and God, and if you prefer to contemplate these things at the same time, listen to this album. This is the spiritual cousin to the David Byrne album, as both deal in large, spiritual themes. Another secular gospel record, if you will.

Again, all of these albums received pretty good critical appraisals, but somehow they are overlooked at the year-end retrospectives. And sometimes, the only way these records are heard is through those retrospectives. While none of these albums is a masterpiece, they are nevertheless highly enjoyable. And if you like music, you should check them out.

Where Hast Thou Gone, Steve Nash?

The Huffington Post posted a wide-ranging interview, ranging from his experience with the new Phoenix management, his point-guard playing style, and also his ballet (?!) abilities.

Watching the interview, you can tell that Steve Nash is an intelligent person; I mean, you have to be right, given that Steve Nash is probably the best pure point guard in the league right now. He’s also extremely articulate, probably the best spoken athlete in the NBA. And most importantly, the man actually has an opinion. Read Chuck Klosterman’s profile of him in Esquire from a while back, and you realize that Steve Nash is honest about his opinions, but not arrogant. This is a refreshing change, given that the league discourages players from airing their opinions in order to avoid potentially offending fans, which results in players’ self-censoring and saying nothing whatsoever in order to retain their market appeal (*cough* LeBron James *cough*)

Thus, it is really hard to see the Steve Nash of old, he of 7 seconds or less, have to force himself to slow down in order to accomodate Shaq, who slumbers his way down the lane. The current Suns offense have very little rhythm, and Nash’s talents are seriously mis-utilized. Steve Nash is a playmaker, not someone who just passes the ball down the post and see what the center does.

And from the interview, it doesn’t sound like Nash wants to stay in Phoenix after his contract is up in 2010. There is an intriguing possibility that he might go back to play for D’Antoni in New York. Now, the Knicks have enough cap space to sign two free agents in 2010. They are definitely going after LeBron, and assuming that they can get him, the prospect of playing with a guy who has the potential to be the best player in the history of the league has surely crossed Nash’s mind. I can totally imagine a scenario in which an Nash would be willing to take a pay cut in order to play together with LeBron, which frees up cap for the Knicks to potentially sign another all-star caliber player. This scenario makes a lot of sense: Nash gets to play for D’Antoni again, that offense would pretty much be unstoppable, and if they surround that team with athletic wing players, tough big men, and sharp shooters, I can guarantee that that team will be contending every year, in and out.

But unfortunately, the Steve Nash of the old Suns is nowhere to be seen right now, and it’s sad to see one of the most brilliant players of his generation wasting the next 18  months away in a system that does not utilize him.

Musical Tastes in 2008 Examined

It’s time to settle the age-old question once and for all: who is the arbiter of good taste in music? Critics or consumers? Before I can answer that, let’s actually compare the two, and the comparison has been made very easy because of the Internet.

The Critics: I use Metacritic‘s aggregated scores for all albums released in 2008. Metacritic has aggregated various “top 10” lists from various mainstream and alternative musical publications. At the end, Metacritic ranks the album according to which album is listed as number 1 the most frequently?

I use Metacritic to represent the critical consensus because that’s the inherent function of the website: it aggregates critical opinion and quantifies them.

The Consumers: I use Last.fm’s best albums of 2008 list to represent the taste of consumers. This list quantifies consumer preference because the list is ordered by the number of listens that each album has received from the users of Last.fm. Given that Last.fm has millions of users worldwide, I take the sample to be fairly representative.

Very Important Statistical/Methodological Qualification: Obviously this is not the most rigorous method for a variety of reasons. For one, Last.fm does not publicly publish its own counting method. But I think the comparison, though not rigorous from a purely methodological perspective, can give us a crude approximation of the critical consensus and consumer preference.

The Comparison Begins (from number 10 to number 1): it’s formatted so that the critic’s choice goes first, followed by the consumers’ choice.

Number 10: M83 – Saturdays = Youth || Sigur Ros – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
There is no clear cut winner here, as a reasonable person can make the case that both albums are good pieces of music. So in a sense, there is no divergence.

Number 9: She & Him – Volume One || Jack Johnson – Sleep Through The Static
Okay, the critics has really nailed one: Jack Johnson sucks.

Number 8: MGMT – Oracular Spectacular || Hot Chip – Made In The Dark
I would call this one a tie because again, there is no dramatic distance between the two as far as artistry goes.

Number 7: Kings of Leon – Only By The Night || Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Again, a tie.

Number 6: Hercules and Love Affair – Hercules and Love Affair || The Kooks – Konk
Tie, again.

Number 5: Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III || The Ting Tings – We Started Nothing
This one is actually a hard call, because these two albums are aimed at very disparate audiences. I’m not going to make a call this one, which essentially makes it the same as a tie.

Number 4: Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago || Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV:
Gonna have to give this one to Bon Iver, not only because I think he made the better album (though NIN is no slouch there either), but also because of stat inflation. Ghosts has 36 tracks, while Bon Iver’s album has something like 11 to 13.

Number 3: Portishead – Third for both
Again, it’s tie.

Number 2: TV On The Radio – Dear Science || MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
Gonna have to go with the critics on this one: as fun as the MGMT album is, it’s not a serious artistic statement as TVOTR, which is reflected by the fact that both albums show up on critics’ and consumers’ lists, though the critics place it lower.

Number 1: Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes || Coldplay – Viva La Vida
No question here: Fleet Foxes stump Coldplay’s ass.

Summary of Results:
Ties: 6
Critics: 4

The Last Time I Checked, God is Still Dead

Alex Byrne wrote a pretty good article in the Boston Review going over the two kinds of popular arguments for the existence of God: the ontological and the teleological arguments. Byrne’s article gives you the basic overview of these kind of arguments, although if you want more technical details, you can read their entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

After providing an overview of the ontological and the teleological arguments for the existence of God, Byrne concludes, unsurprisingly, that neither argument offers persuasive evidence of God’s existence. However, I really liked Byrne’s way of putting the conclusion in the broader context of belief:

“If a persuasive argument for the existence of God is wanted, then philosophy has come up empty. The traditional arguments have much to teach us, but concentrating on them can disguise a simple but important point. As Anselm and Paley both recognized, the devout are not exactly holding their collective breath. For the most part, they do not believe that God exists on the basis of any argument. How they know that God exists, if they do, is itself unknown—the devout do not know that God exists in the way it is known that dinosaurs existed, or that there exist infinitely many prime numbers. The funny thing about arguments for the existence of God is that, if they succeed, they were never needed in the first place. “

In drawing this conclusion, Byrne shifts the discussion from the metaphysical/ontological (whether God exists and what properties he has) to the epistemological: that is, how do believers know that their God exists? If, as Byrne argues, that believers’ epistemology do not rest on logical arguments, then the whole enterprise of proving God’s existence through logic is doomed to futility.

Note, however, that Byrne’s conclusion is not that no one can prove that God does not exist: his conclusion is that God’s existence can’t be proven using logical methods of argument. It’s also important to be aware of the scope of the argument: the refutation of the ontological and teleological arguments only prove that God, as characterized by Abrahamic religions, does not exist. Refuting the ontological/teleological argument does not entail the non-existence of non-Abrahamic deities.

Highly Recommended: The Original Position, Re-Written

Samuel Freeman probably devotes more time than anyone else, in a field that has already become its own cottage industry, to analyzing, compiling, and defending the ideas of John Rawls. I think one of the indispensable secondary literature on Rawls is Freeman’s intellectual/critical biography of Rawls. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who takes seriously Rawls’ body of thought, itself an impressive ouevre and already a bona fide monumental classic in the history of political philosophy.

Thus, I also highly recommend Professor Freeman’s re-write of the entry on “the original position,”  a cornerstone concept in Rawls’ philosophy and contemporary political philosophy in general, on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This re-write has been long in the waiting, as the last substantive revision on the topic dates back to 2003. I personally can’t think of a better person with more academic authority to write on this topic. I would recommend this to anyone who is even remotely interested in contemporary Anglophone political philosophy, because you pretty much cannot engage with the topic without having some kind of grasp on the concept of the original position.

The entry is well-written, with lucid prose that does not dumb down an important and nuanced concept. This is about as good of an overview of the concept as you are going to get, if you are not going to read through the primary sources. After having read this entry, you should be versed enough to have a meaningful discussion about the concept.

But really, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an invaluable resource: pound for pound, its entries are written by some of the best people in the field, and although the level of lucidity/complexity varies, a careful reading of the entries should at least provide you with the amount of context you need to make sense of it.

Dick Cheney and Justice

My standard procedure for reading anything written by Bill Kristol is to dismiss it, but even I can’t dismiss this claim he made about Dick Cheney in today’s New York Times:

“You gotta love Dick Cheney.

O.K., O.K. … you don’t have to. But consider this exchange with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday”:

WALLACE: Did you really tell Senator Leahy, bleep yourself?

CHENEY: I did.

WALLACE: Any qualms, or second thoughts, or embarrassment?

CHENEY: No, I thought he merited it at the time. (Laughter.) And we’ve since, I think, patched over that wound and we’re civil to one another now.

No spin. No doubletalk. A cogent defense of his action — and one that shows a well-considered sense of justice. (“I thought he merited it.”) Indeed, if justice is seeking to give each his due, one might say that Dick Cheney aspires to being a just man. And a thoughtful one, because he knows that justice is sometimes too harsh, and should be tempered by civility.”

I just couldn’t believe what I was reading: did Bill Kristol really set out to defend Cheney as a man aspiring for justice? Surely even someone as preposterous as Kristol cannot write something this preposterous?

Let’s break this thing down. First of all, it’s really incredible that Kristol claims that Cheney has no spin and doubletalk because, for crying out loud, Dick Cheney claimed that the Vice Presidency belongs to neither the legislative nor executive branch, but is instead its own fourth branch of government! How is this not doubletalk?

Second, just because Dick Cheney thought that Patrick Leahy deserved to be verbally abused does not make so that Patrick Leahy actually deserves to be verbally abused. Dick Cheney merely made an assertion about what Leahy deserved without justifying that assertion with any kind of evidence. How is that a display of a “well-considered sense of justice?”

…unless what Bill Kristol assumes is that whatever Dick Cheney thought is just, is in fact just.

This is just too much to accept. It kind of reminds me of Nixon’s assertion that whatever the President does, it is not illegal. Similarly, Bill Kristol seems to be attributing to Cheney this kind of power: whatever Cheney thinks is just, is just. In this respect, both Nixon and Cheney operate outside and above law and justice: they dictate what is legal and what is just.

This, in fact, seems to be Kristol’s overall argument in writing this column. In the last part of his column, Kristol quotes Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If“:

“If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;”

In quoting this poem, Kristol seems to suggest that Dick Cheney somehow possesses wisdom that is unknowable to other people who disagree with him, like on Iraq, like on the surge, like on pretty much everything that Cheney has had a hand in (which is a lot).

It’s actually kind of scary how much Kristol is towing the line for the Bush Administration here. The central Bush doctrine, one that isn’t even about foreign policy, is far more dangerous: it’s the doctrine of unlimited executive power. Somehow we, as citizens, are supposed to give up our democratic process and delegate all power to an all-powerful, well-intentioned executive, and trust that he’ll protect us and do the right thing.

This is patently bullshit, but it’s bullshit that has been perpetrated throughout the eight years of this Administration. Cheney doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that maybe the Administration is wrong, that maybe the dissenters actually have good points to make, that disagreement isn’t treachery. But no, Cheney assumes that whatever the executive does, it is just and it is legal, even if it goes against existing laws and morality (like torture, like illegaly wiretappings, like starting a war on false pretext).

And somehow the Adminsitration and its cronies, among whom Kristol is a prominent member, still think that history will redeem their doctrine of unlimited executive powers.

To defend Cheney in the name of Justice is to sully the very concept. Sometimes, and it’s becoming most of the time, I’ve stopped having any kind of faith in the New York Time’s ability to have a real columnist (aside from Paul Krugman).

Something’s Not Right with the Auto Bailout Bill

I was reading the draft of the auto bail out bill (PDF), and I noticed something that blatantly does not belong there:

Section 17(b):

“Pursuant to section 140 of Public Law 97–92, justices and judges of the United States are authorized during fiscal year 2009 to receive a salary adjustment in accordance with section 461 of title 28, United States Code.”

That is a weird language to insert into the auto bailout bill: my guess is that some group lobbied really hard for this. This is a classic Congressional move: insert a completely unrelated provision into a bill that no one can afford to vote against. But really, judicial compensation?! Really now?

A deal was struck somewhere, but I’m just trying to figure out who had an incriminating picture of whom such that this completely unrelated language is inserted.

People should really think about whether they want to allow legislative riders: my intuition is that they should not. Maybe I’ll insert the language into the next bailout bill…