Thursday, March 28, 2013

Best of 2012

(Hey guys, sorry for the excessive length of this post, which grew much longer than I intended. This is what happens when I get an opportunity to express my opinions. To make matters worse the whole thing is bloated with annoying embedded vidoes in case you want to check out the actually music referenced. Also, some of those videos are NSFW due to bad language, and at least two contain naked boobs. Also: butt shot preview below. Thanks for humoring me.)

You know what I've never done before? Compile a best-of-the-year list. Everyone does those nowadays, right? The web is flooded with these things. Even your mom posted a Youtube countdown of the best ten guys she picked up behind the bowling alley this year.

I didn't blow any guys in bowling alley parking lots in 2012, so my options for best-of lists are a bit more limited.  Best videogames? Well... what did I play last year? Most of my game time has been taken up by Skyrim, which is a really fantastic game. But those lying bastards on Wikipedia claim it came out in 2011.  Before that I was playing Kirby's Epic Yarn, which is fun, but it was released in 2010.  This was the year that I finally got around to playing Braid, which is even older. I did receive a free copy of Far Cry 3, a game that made numerous end of the year lists. However, Skyrim continues to dominate my non-Chrontendo gaming time; thus FC 3 remains unplayed. I also want to play Dishonored, but this won't be happening anytime too soon.

The situation might not be so bleak for 2013. Excited by the voluminous and near-universal praise heaped on Bioshock Infinite, I've got a copy on order.

The film situation is just as bad. I've heard about all these cool sounding movies: Holy Motors, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zero Dark Thirty. But I'm so behind of my movies right now, I'm still trying to catch up with 2011. I haven't even seen the fucking Dark Knight Rises yet.

Supposedly very good, but how would I know?
 The only category I'm even remotely qualified to create a list for is music.  As a reminder: Dr. Sparkle used to work for a large online music retailer. I used to read music magazines, subscribe to email lists from hipster music stores, go to tons and tons of shows... all that crap.  Nowadays, I'm sort of out of the scene. Certain genres, like classical music or jazz, I haven't been following (believe it or not, in the 2000s I would tear through classical review mags like Fanfare as they came out.) I've also lost touch a bit with the avant-garde music scene. So my familiarity with the music of 2012 is somewhat limited.

The very idea of a "best music of 2012" list is pretty ridiculous. With all the music released that year, how can we choose the best? Who's listened to anywhere near enough music to decide what "the best" music of 2012 is? Have you listened to enough albums to make an education decision? How many great albums from 2012 will you discover in 2013, 2018, or 2023?  The great British improvisational guitar player Derek Bailey put it best: when asked to put together a list of music from the previous year, he replied to the effect of "2003? I'm still trying to figure out 1963!"

There are quite a few albums from bands I love that I haven't had a chance to explore yet. The new albums from Swans, Thee Oh Sees and Godspeed You Black Emperor! are supposedly terrific, but I've haven't heard enough of them yet. That said, here's my list of best/favorite/whatever music of 2012.

I'd be traitor to my hometown if I didn't mention Death Grips' The Money Store. The bizarre rise of Death Grips is the most unlikely story in the music world in 2012. Formed by longtime Sacramento legend Zach Hill (of Hella/Team Sleep/a hundred other projects) and a neighbor of his, Stefan Burnett, Death Grips released a mixtape of noisy, skronky "rap rock" in 2011. Last year they: were suddenly signed by Epic Records; personally received by L.A. Reid, who told them that Death Grips reminded him of Mariah Carey (?!) They then released their debut album, which somehow got reviewed by the likes of the BBC and Robert Christgau; booked an international tour; announced they were canceling the tour on their Facebook page; recorded a second album; remixed songs for Bjork; created a cover for their new album which consisted of a photograph of an erect penis with the title written on it with a Sharpie. They then released this album online themselves, which angered Epic. The band then leaked the angry emails from Epic, which resulted in them being dropped by the label.

The Money Store made various critics' "best-of" lists last year. The music is certainly not for everyone, but the fact that Death Grips had an album released and promoted by a major label is pretty baffling. It just shows you how insane the music biz really is.

Onto my own personal favorites for 2012. Two albums really stood out for me:

The Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan

Of all this year's albums, Swing Lo Magellan is the one that has grown the most on me.  At first it seemed too mellow, too acoustic, and less weird than their previous records. Yet every time I listened to it, I liked it a little bit more.  The basic Dirty Projectors template of Africanized guitars and bleated background harmonies is still present, though their music now sounds less archly eccentric and more warm and humanistic.

Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music

Hip-hop might be dead, but that doesn't mean great rap albums don't come out from time to time. R.A.P. Music dispenses with the references to jewelry, cars and expensive champagne, and features almost no guest vocalists. It sounds nothing like typical top-40 rap music, thanks the chilly, minimalistic production from El-P. This is hip-hop music at its purest, without relying on a fake "old school" sound. It's just wall to wall lyrical technique.

Other Cool Stuff I liked:

Frank Ocean - Channel Orange

I thought for sure Frank Ocean was going to sweep the Grammys this year. Frank Ocean was the dude everyone was talking about in 2012. The record was the critical darling of the year; it topped the R&B charts, and it received tons of Grammy nominations. I thought there was literally no other serious contenders for Best New Artist, Best Album, etc. Yet every year, the Grammys prove that they are somehow even worse that you thought they were.

(Oddly, Frank Ocean's shut-out was only the 2nd biggest WTF Grammy moment this year. The weirdest moment came with the nomination of in the Dance category of a song by an artist that absolutely no one had ever heard of, Al Walser. The fact that Walser's song was an amateurish Rebecca Black type number that had been released only a week before the nominations were announced deepened the mystery. It turned out that Walser was a member of the Recording Academy who schmoozed his fellow members into voting for him. [The funny thing is, this happened the year prior as well, when a complete unknown named Linda Chorney scored a nomination by personally entreating lots of voters.])

Anyway, I sort of hate Frank Ocean, as he made me love a song that features John-fucking-Mayer.

Gojira - L'Enfant Sauvage

The French have an undeserved reputation of not knowing how to rock. They are the nation that produced Metal Urbain and Magma, so their rock credentials are in perfect order. More proof: this new record from French metal dudes Gojira. Fantastic drumming on this record.

Wolves in the Throne Room - Celestial Lineage

"Cheater! This album came out in late 2011!"  I don't care. I guess my taste in metal leans towards the weird-o end of the spectrum. Stuff like this, or Blud Aus Nord or Nachtmystium, whose Silencing Machine should also be on this list. WITTR might be called "pastoral metal," perhaps? It also has about the best looking packaging/cover/interior photos I've seen lately.

Bat for Lashes - The Haunted Man

2010's Two Suns is one of my absolute favorite albums of this decade, so far. The Haunted Man is not as good, and is not nearly as wild, mysterious or baroque as Two Suns. But it is pretty damned nice. This album actually landed in the top 10 in the UK, which proves the British are really weird.

Alcest - Les Voyages de L'ame

These guys are also French?! Somehow two French bands ended up on this list! As uber-hispter SF music store Aquarius Records states: Alcest is not a Black Metal band, yet Black Metal fans love them.  Their stuff is like chill-out music for metal fans. They might remind you of Opeth's more gentle moments.

Ty Segall - Twins

Scuzzy psyche-rock is a genre that will never die. The current king of this type of music seems to be Ty Segall. Twins is exactly what it should be: primo scuzzy psyche-rock.

High on Fire - De Vermis Mysteriis

Dr. Sparkle has a weakness for Sleep spin-off bands. I've been lucky to see both High and Fire and Om live (and both seriously rocked, in very different ways.)  I haven't heard the new Om record, but De Vermis Mysteriis is awesome. They're pretty damned high on the doom/stoner rock totem pole. Also, Sleep's Jerusalem/Dopesmoker album was reissued again this year, in what is supposedly, its final, perfect form. If you've never heard Dopesmoker, grab a copy and some drugs to go along with it, and get busy.

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats - Blood Lust

More groovy stoner rock. I guess I really like drug-related music.

El-P - Cancer 4 Cure

Sort of the companion album to R.A.P. Music. El-P produced the Killer Mike record, and Mike appears on Cancer 4 Cure. I don't think anything in El-P's solo career will ever reach the heights of  what he did on Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus, one of the best hip-hop records ever made. Cancer 4 Cure is still the best stuff he's done in years, however.

I've had a hard time following hip-hop lately. I haven't included any mix-tapes in this list, but it seems that mix-tapes and free online releases are becoming the preferred distribution method for the genre. Here's a disturbing pattern I've been noticing: a rapper releases mix-tapes online, makes a name for themselves, and starts making lots of guest appearances on others' songs. Everyone says this artist is super wonderful and awesome. Once the hype has reached a fever pitch, the official major label debut album appears. But that official album turns out to be pretty lame, and then said artist is suddenly over-exposed and everyone hates them. This has happened over and over again in the last few years. I'll tell you what: this phenomenon has become so common it needs a name. And, as a favor to the music world, I'll give it a name right now: "Nicki Minaj Syndrome." She's the most obvious and high-profile example I can think of, and perfectly embodies the underground=loved  > mainstream = hated career arc. To any music journalists out there: I hereby authorize you to refer to this as Nicki Minaj Syndrome.

One such victim this year was Mr. Muthafukin' eXquire, who followed up his awesome mixtape Lost In Translation with a rather lame major label debut called Power and Passion. At least we still have his insanely great "The Last Huzzah" video, which features a who's who of contemporary rappers, including El-P and Killer Mike, standing in the background. I love the way El-P seems to be transforming into Ron Swanson as he gets older. Once again, this came out in late 2011, but I'm calling it for 2012.

There were have it. Please feel free to tell me how absolutely full of shit I am. With any luck, the next post will be announcing Chronturbo 4.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

St Paddy's Day Mini Post

Seeing as St. Patrick's Day falls on a Sunday this year, there will be no wild debauchery for me tonight. If any of you are also staying in tonight, please celebrate by listening to the greatest Irish song ever recorded, as sung by the greatest Irish band.

Many a modern day hipster would fall to the ground weeping if they gazed upon those beards. What's the second best Irish song ever? According to my calculations, it must be Thin Lizzy's "Whiskey in the Jar." After that? I dunno.... maybe "If I Should Fall From Grace of God" by the Pogues? Does "Gloria" count as an Irish song?

If you have some free time to read up on old arcade game manufacturers, I strongly suggest you check out this exhaustive, 12-part history of Cinematronics on the Golden Age Arcade Historian website. Cinematronics were formed in 1975 by two players in the San Diego Chargers and became a specialist in vector graphics arcade games. Their most famous vector title was Star Castle, which they followed up with a series of flops. After flirting with insolvency for a few years, they ended up with another massive hit: the laser disc game Dragon's Lair.  Then Cinematronics had another fallow period, and were eventually bought by Tradewest in 1987. The series is meticulously researched and illustrated, though there are some weird formatting issues like changes in fonts sizes. Also, there are no tags or indexes that allow you to pull up all the entries, so you'll need to pick them out of the archives listing. The final entry was posted in February. The Golden Age Arcade Historian is a really great and informative site, so check it out if you're not already familiar with it. Some serious research goes into this guy's posts.

Star Castle. This probably looks familiar.

Also, please don't call it Saint "Patty's" Day.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Beer and Loathing

My Goodness! I'm sincerely sorry for the long delay between updates. I've been a little preoccupied lately with various things, and I've also been just a little lazy. To make up for it, here's a mega-post.

Last week was "Beer Week" in my hometown, and as wonderful as that sounds in principal (for the most part it is quite wonderful) in reality, Beer Week can be quite frustrating. The explosion of interest in beer that has occurred over the last couple years means that beer-related events are now drawing huge crowds. While it used to be possible during Beer Week to walk into a place, sit down, have a bite to eat, and drink some quality beers, this year it was common to people lining up to get through the door. It takes a bit of the fun out of Beer Week when you are packed into a bar like sardines at all times.

My greatest disappointment, however, involved one legendary beer: Pliny the Younger. Here's the back story behind the beer: I've discussed its sibling, Pliny the Elder, before. It's sort of difficult to find in bottles, but, at least in my town, it's readily available on tap. The Elder is considered to be one of the best beers in the world, but its cousin, Pliny the Younger is an even more rarefied beast. The Younger is brewed in extremely small quantities only once a year, in early February, and is not available in bottles. On Beer Advocate, it was once the highest rated beer in the world, and currently sits at the number two spot. The brewer, Russian River, serves it in their brewpub and a few kegs are shipped out to small number of lucky bars and pubs around the country. When it goes on sale, things tend to look like this.

Dr. Sparkle is visible in this photo. I suppose that if you can pick me out I should offer some sort of prize?

I've had first hand reports that the lines at Russian River got out of control this year, with waits up to eight hours.  I've always wanted to go to Russian River during Pliny the Younger season, but decided it might be saner to find it locally. Here in town, anyone who gets a keg will tap it during Beer Week, though the where and when will always be kept secret until the last moment. On Saturday, a local faux-British pub announced they would be selling it that evening. This was bad timing: I was having my car worked on that day, and needed to available to pick it before the shop closed. Then, on Sunday, a local beer and burgers place I frequent was going to tap a keg. We arrived about an hour early, and while a line was already forming, it didn't seem to be outrageously long. Ironically, I was standing next to a lady who said she lived a block or so from the brewery, but couldn't deal with the lines at Russian River. By the time they opened the keg and started pouring glasses, the line had stretched around the corner, and as we moved forward, we were pretty confident that we would be drinking some Pliny the Younger soon.  So everyone was quite shocked when, as we were about halfway to the door, a staff member informed the crowd that the Pliny was sold out.  We ended up eating lunch there anyway, since the place still had an astonishing line-up of rare beers on tap that day. This will mean nothing to folks who aren't beer fanatics, but: Firestone Walker Double DBA, Black Butte Porter XXIV, Flying Dog Barrel Aged Gonzo, Dogfish Head Burton Baton, Ballast Victory at Sea, Sierra Nevada Ovila Double Barrel Aged, and several others. It was the sort of line up of beers you rarely experience and I wish I could have had one of each. As a bonus, while leaving, the owner grabbed me and we discussed the Pliny situation. He explained the "keg" of Pliny they received was extremely small, and as a consolation, he dragged me back in and poured me samples of the Black Butte and Double DBA. Both were frickin' delicious, and since I am currently cellaring bottles of both, I was quite pleased to know how great they were. (Its also worth noting that while many places charge $5.00 or $6.00 for a glass of the Pliny the Younger, or even bundle it into expensive beer flights, this place was practically giving it away at either $2.00 or $3.00.)

In summary, this is both a wonderful and frustrating time to be a beer fanatic in this country. So many wonderful beers are made, but they are getting harder and harder to find. Certain limited beers hit the shops and sell out the same day. A fellow beer drinker, Dan S, mentioned "the chase" in the comments a while back. You will read about certain beers but you never find a bottle. You haunt the beer stores, scanning the shelves for anything new. Frequently, you'll see guys in the aisles, talking on their phones: "They just got in four or five boxes..." A few years ago, I never had problems getting certain once-a-year beers like Deschutes' The Abyss. In 2012, I never saw a bottle. Just too many people getting into beer nowadays....

(Just a reminder, this is video game blog, not a beer blog.)

A couple weeks ago I was complaining about the future of videogames, when, as if on command, we got the clusterfuck known as Sim City. EA releases a highly anticipated game, but requires players be continuously logged in to the EA servers. The next thing we know, the servers are overloaded and people can't play the game, even in single player mode. EA tries to alleviate things by removing some features from Sim City.  Maxis claimed that the online only requirement could not be dropped, since the core features of the game required connection to the servers in order to function.  Then, it turned out this was simply not true. The final result: everyone hates Maxis and EA just a little bit more than they already did. User reviews are currently averaging one star on Amazon and 1.5 out 10 on Metacritic. Perhaps after Diablo 3 and this, publishers will finally get the hint?

On a positive note, the long awaited, long delayed first episode of Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women in Video Games has been released. You might recall there was a bit of an online dust up over this a while back. Sarkeesian announced a Kickstarter to fund a series of videos about sex stereotypes and the role of women in videogames. The troglodyte set of the internet proceeded to freak out at this idea, and began a pretty concerted, vicious attack on her. The low point of all this was probably a flash game someone created which simulated disfiguring Sarkeesian by punching her in the face.

This will launch around 100 fuck-tons of online butt hurt.
A year later, and the first video is finally up.  It's a reasonably well made look at the "damsel in distress" motif in classic gaming, copiously illustrated with clips from many games. There's nothing too deep here; it will be obvious to anyone who played games at all back in the 80s that one of the most common plot elements was "girl kidnapped/rescued by hero." This figured heavily into many Nintendo games of the era and just about every 8-bit/16-bit beat-em-up. Sarkeesian provides numerous examples of this as well as several counter-examples in which male characters "rescue" themselves, without outside help. Connoisseurs of internet drama will want to keep an eye out on Youtube for future video critiques, responses and "rebuttals" of this video, a good number of which will be virgins-with-rage yelling at her for saying Shigeru Miyamoto is sexist or something.

My main complaint with the video (other than some questionable handling of the damsel in distress motif in the pre-videogame era) is the excessive repetition of the word "trope" in its contemporary, internet-y sense.

I don't have an exact release date for Chronturbo 4, but quite a bit of progress has been made. I actually finished editing Valis II right before posting this! In the mean time, I'll leave you with my current  favorite German 70s progressive Jazz-Rock video, "Uranus" by Klaus Doldinger's Passport. German TV technicians of the era were pretty creative, and here they spice up the performance by splicing together footage from different pefermormances using split screen, so it looks as if the Doldigner is duetting with himself. It's pretty ridiculous and awesome.