Top Ten 2009 Albums to Play for Your Parents

The last of the Super Secret Space Base posts. Links were to dead streaming site lala.

There comes a time in your life where you run out of time to pay attention to all of the different things that were so interesting in your youth. Very often, this time comes right around the time you have children. Thus, most parents have tastes in music frozen in time around the arrival of their bundles of joy. They’re often, but not always, unwilling to appreciate any new developments in music. Unfortunately, the new developments in music that they are receptive to are the most unchallenging (this is why American Idol is popular–it’s basically mass participation karaoke).

For my baby boomer parents, while some touchstones include early Zeppelin, early the Who, mid-period Beatles (specifically the McCartney songs), most of their go-to tunes can be graciously described as “easy listening”. My dad likes classic rock but doesn’t like that it now includes early U2 and Van Halen. For my mom, it’s either schlocky R&B/Motown with any edge carefully buffed out or Billy Joel and his ilk. I have some of their old records and can testify that they used to have good taste in music (Mom’s Steely Dan got sold before my time, but Dad handed down some ELP and Jethro Tull). Your parents are probably similar–the most recent cds they own are probably an American Idol alum like Kelly Clarkson or a soundtrack for a movie targeted directly at their demographic. Now, while not all parents are in this boat (Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s kid is the luckiest alive in this regard), most of them probably have similar touchstones of their frozen music taste. Here are ten albums released in 2009 which will pass through their Music Defense Shield and might have them open their mind a bit.

Richard Swift – Atlantic Ocean

This album is best if your parents ever liked seventies high-art pop songwriters like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and ELO. It’s got some synth, but it’s mostly played the way synth was played in the seventies: as a funky keyboard. There’s a lot of perfect pop songwriting, with piano and falsetto. Come to think of it, this album might work really well during a late party where a board game is being played with some intensity, but everyone has had a bit to drink. Also, watch out–there’s some swears–nothing severe but you might want to know.

Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk
There’s a lot going on in this album. It features the frontmen of My Morning Jacket (Jim James, who released an album of hushed George Harrison covers as Yim Yames this year–Parent Approved) and Bright Eyes (warbly-voiced Conor Oberst) as well as singer-songwriter (and Zooey Deschanel collaborator) M. Ward (who also released a Parent Approved album this year called Hold Time) and Bright Eyes producer/guitarist Mike Mogis. The best approximation is southern rock like CCR and the Allman Brothers (without the all the guitar fireworks), though there’s some Neil Young and some Prince thrown in for good measure. There are a couple of clunkers on this album (thanks, Conor!) but it’s mostly hushed folk mixed with nice rocking songs complete with guitar solos, and a couple of funky butt-rock songs. Monsters of Folk will work best in a loud setting, either a talkative car or a boisterous party.

The Decemberists – Hazards of Love
This is a slightly risky inclusion on the list, but I think it is a worthwhile one. What we have here is a full-on rock opera, with a specific story and structure and everything. The Decemberists have finally taken that literary nerd rock they love and fully integrated with the Led Zeppelin sound. (Don’t think they go together? What about Misty Mountain Hop? The song’s about hobbitses, precious.) Your dad will love the monster Zep (or Sabbath or Rush, whatever his touchstone is) riffs, your mom will love the quiet duets about love. If your mom’s like mine and was a singer in a past life and is always complaining that all the lady singing she hears you listen to is all whispery and not nearly strong enough, then Shara Worden (as the Forest Queen–see what I mean about rock opera?–and also from the band My Brightest Diamond, which is quite a bit more challenging than this) will knock her off her feet. This is probably best as car trip music, provided you’re driving. Plus you can mention their lighthearted feud with Stephen Colbert as either serious or joking depending on their political leanings.

Music Go Music – Expressions
Everybody likes Abba. Everybody likes the Top Gun soundtrack. Everyone likes a little bit of Yes. Especially your parents. Rock on!

Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
Every baby boomer has a soft spot for Simon and Garfunkel. Some might prefer Paul Simon’s solo work, but the duo have a classic pop-folk sound which is still relevant and popular. Great for quiet evenings, it boasts syncopated acoustic finger-picking and great singing in harmony, featuring Erlend Øye’s butter-smooth vocals. Just, uh, maybe don’t mention that they’re Swedish?

Cotton Jones – Paranoid Cocoon
A blues- (but not blooz-) soaked folk album, this might remind your parents of their hippie days, before it was commodified and sold back to them in a high-priced special edition. It’s got a great hazy Sixties feel, with warm organ and lazily strummed vintage guitar. It’s sure to warm an afternoon and it’ll go just as well with tea as with wine.

Helado Negro – Awe Owe
This is perfect music to play for your abuela and your tias while they whip up their famous batch of tamales (make sure to save me some). Sure to be a hit with anyone who owns an album by someone named Gilberto, Roberto Carlos Lange takes the traditional Latin touchstones and mixes in some ambient atmospherics. This works perfectly as background music–the more “challenging” sounds fade into the background, but the samba and other elements jump out when the time is right.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Have your parents ventured into the wasteland that is country music? My dad spent a morning at a country station talking up one of his clients, and later mentioned to me that country music is great! I assured him that most of the time, country music is actually the opposite of great. Neko Case is one of the fantastic exceptions. She writes incredibly solid, twangy pop songs with singable choruses and vital lyrics which tell vivid stories. They’re often sad, even, keeping in line with the classic country stereotype.

Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics – Inspiration Information 3
Do your parents like jazz and funk music? Do they listen to jazz and funk music that is antiseptic and overproduced to the point that it’s practically elevator music? Here is their antidote. This is another great quiet evening soundtrack, perfect for listening while your yearly game of Monopoly rages ever onward.

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Okay, let’s be honest. This album, while definitely one of the best of the year, is pretty difficult. But it’s worth it. Your parents may be unsure at first, so why not start with the single version of While You Wait for the Others featuring every baby boomers’ favorite crooner, Michael McDonald? They use mostly conventional instruments, and write gorgeous pop songs. Don’t call them experimental, just call them a pop rock band. This album might be the most difficult connection to make, with little to connect to Approved music. But just let the songs sink in over dinner and hope for the best. The payoff will be worth it.

For best exposure, play these subtly in the background while driving with them or enjoying a meal. Don’t jump on your parents when they ask who it is. Give the name, and maybe mention them in conjunction to an artist on their Approved List. For best results, shuffle with a complementary Approved album or two–you’ll likely get a “sounds like you finally have good taste in music” backhanded compliment. Let it slide.

5 Reasons I Love The Fifth Element

Yup, another one from Super Secret Space Base.

1. Design
The movie looks great. It’s dominated by colors–each set has its dominant color, which permeates the scene. The shots are carefully balanced but not static. Even though the movie is almost 15 years old, the effects work doesn’t look that dated. Sure, some of the rubber masks are obvious, but even they have the Henson charm. Most of the CG work is unobtrusive and, while looking slightly dated, it fits into the cartoony aspects of the world the film creates. The costume design is great, too! It looks clearly futuristic in an almost impractical way that most other movies set in the future (Star Wars and Trek, for instance) don’t even attempt. Plus there is the object design in the film. Jean Girard (Moebius) was one of the main artists for the film. He has a long history of doing great art that gets involved in film–from designs for Alien and TRON to classic comics that inspired movies like Blade Runner.

2. Story
The Fifth Element is a space opera. It’s an action-adventure. It’s a thriller. It’s a comedy. It’s a drama. It’s well thought out, pretty unpredictable and definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously. It shows, not tells. It gives each character enough depth to make them interesting but not more than they need. At the same time, it’s not clearly delineated into Autobots and Decepticons–while it’s pretty simple to tell which side a person is on, it’s not black and white. Motivations are gray and not everything is explained (and it doesn’t need to be). We know that there is some history and some crazy things happening, but we never have to sit through a massive block of exposition.

3. Action
Flying car chases. Explosions. Kung-fu. Gun battles. Explosions. Pretty ladies. Aliens. Robots. Military might. Did I mention all the explosions?

4. Humor
Unlike so many science fiction films out, this one purposely avoids taking itself seriously. Sure there’s some talk about the end of the world and the body count is relatively high, but it’s done with a cartoon smirk that flushes any serious repercussions out with the refuse. Chris Tucker acts as the main comic relief, with his fast-talking, famous-but-cowardly radio host, but every character, even the antagonist, deliver their performance with a wink of humor that makes the whole thing so much easier to swallow and more enjoyable.

5. It’s a Comic Book!
The movie looks great, it’s story is fun and pulpy and doesn’t take itself seriously, it has great set pieces, and it doesn’t expect too much from it’s viewers. It’s not some jingoistic action rah-rah flick, but it’s a more subtle look-at-this-isn’t-this-cool adventure. Plus, the colors! The acting! are both so stylized that this movie oozes comic book sensibilities, second only to Tank Girl in terms of frenetic madness.

Highly recommended.

Mary Poppins – Still Great for Kids

Another originally posted at Super Secret Space Base.

Recently I sat down to watch Mary Poppins with my daughter. She had really enjoyed The Sound of Music (aka the greatest musical ever made) and I thought I would subject her to some more of Julie Andrews’ singing, this time augmented with some Disney magic. I was struck while we watched the film–Disney’s live-action fare has changed dramatically since its heyday in the 60’s. I stand by Mary Poppins as a movie, but it’s hardly the scientifically-maximized-for-kids entertainment compared to most stuff available now.

I’ll start with why it doesn’t measure up to today’s kid movies:

1. Length. The movie is just under 2 and a half hours, which, as anyone with a child under 5 knows, is waaaaay too long to sit still.

2. Pacing. There are some great, fanciful, exciting parts of the movie. Unfortunately for a child, they’re broken up by plot. While I am not complaining about plot (I’ll talk about liking it below), it’s pretty easy for a toddler to get bored during these sections.

3. Dick van Dyke’s accent. It’s terrible. Doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s just comically bad.

But what makes it superior to whatever Nickelodeon/Disney Channel-promoted flick out now?

1. The songs. These songs, unlike those in most kids’ shows (Sesame Street and Yo Gabba Gabba! excepted) are timeless. Chim-chim-chiree and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious got me and my 18-month-old daughter singing along and having fun. They aren’t dumbed down or overproduced. They’re stone-cold classics.

2. The sense of whimsy and fantasy. The magic that happens is never explained or even really questioned. Not to say that a lack of skepticism is positive, but, as with JJ Abram’s mystery box, a lack of explanation can make some things more interesting and more exciting. We don’t know how much of this movie actually happens to the Banks children, if they really go into that chalk painting or dance on clouds of smoke above rooftops, and it isn’t important. Neither is HOW it happened. The world is magical for the children in the movie and should be for the viewers as well.

3. The story’s sense of realism. This might sound completely opposed to the previous point, but hear me out. There are very real issues in the story: the children are out of control, their parents are hardly involved in their lives, and their dad is a workaholic. There are no magic revelations in the movie, everyone goes through experiences that change them as people (or children, as the case may be) and they end up better people and a better family. There is real crisis, too, with the run on the bank, George Banks’ firing and subsequent not returning home (initially). The crises develop each member of the family in ways that are implied throughout the film rather than stated, bringing the movie to a satisfactory (okay, and whimsical) end.

So, sure. This movie will not completely occupy your children for its entire run time like the perfect electronic babysitter.* But, viewed as a family, it’ll give you great joy (the songs! I had to find my soundtrack record after we watched this), a chance to discuss things with older children, and even an opportunity to teach the younger ones (“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Find that fun and *snap* it’s a game!”). Plus, Julie Andrews’ voice is perfect.

*Your best bet for viewing is to watch the first half before naptime and then put them down immediately after the “Stay Awake” lullabye. The second half can be viewed later in the day. Both halves have an extended song and dance number and kids can be brought up to speed quickly.

Primer: Daft Punk

This was originally posted to Super Secret Space Base, a now defunct blog that I tried to start with an internet pal. I’m reposting some of my random internet posts here to keep them all in one spot. Most of the links in this post go to a dead music streaming site called

Daft Punk Photo

Primer is a fantastic film about the interpersonal consequences of time travel. SSSB’s Primer feature is intended to take you “back in time” and prime you with background and commentary on a cultural phenomenon.

Daft Punk is, I believe, one of the greatest music duos of the twenty-first century. While they are immensely popular, they’re almost criminally neglected in the “mainstream” of the music industry. It’s easy to lump them into the “techno” bucket and ignore or indulge based on your proclivities with that genre. Daft Punk are masters of recontextualization; they take dried-up old snippets of music and make them monoliths of pop perfection. But where to start?

Daft Punk is a French electronic music duo. People who concern themselves with genre labels will say they’re French House or Filter House or French Touch.  Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have released three full-length albums, two live albums, a remix compilation, a greatest hits album, a music video compilation, an animated movie, and a film since forming in 1996. They have ties to French bands Phoenix and Justice (who, some argue, stole their sound from Daft Punk). They prefer not to have their pictures taken and typically wear their customized, LED-embedded robot helmets with Hedi Slimane-designed leather biker suits.

There are two obvious points of entry to Daft Punk’s catalog. The first point of entry is one that will not only help you love Daft Punk, but will help you understand electronic dance music (particularly the kind that doesn’t go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus) as a whole.


Around the World by Daft Punk and Michel Gondry

This is one of Daft Punk’s early singles. It’s got a great beat, a catchy bassline, and that robotic vocal hook. If you didn’t guess from the picture up top, Daft Punk has a thing for roboticity. Anyway, the key to this song is actually the video, where director Michel Gondry lays bare the working of the song my synchronizing a group of dancers with each part of the song. Granted, the song is repetitive, but it’s also constantly evolving, as is the dance of the various players in the video. If this video doesn’t hook you on Daft Punk, it’s okay. You probably need to watch it again.

The second introduction into the world of Daft Punk is the first four songs of their second album, Discovery.

These first four songs (One More Time, Aerodynamic, Digital Love, Harder Better Faster Stronger) are the cornerstone of electronic pop in the twenty-first century. They’ve influenced a huge amount of the music you’ll hear on the radio, proving that music can be danceable, electronic and impossibly catchy all at the same time. Also, witness the early introduction of what eventually became the auto-tune obsession in pop music. These songs fit perfectly on any dance floor. Your mom can appreciate the vestiges of disco, your older brother can remember dancing to New Order, and your little sister can just not get that beat and that hook out of her head. And that’s only One More Time.

Aerodynamic is included if for no other reason to showcase the greatest rock guitar solo in an electronic dance song ever. Behind the barely-there robot guitar chant of the song title, this song is a solid funk track. And then comes that modulated, filtered and still killer guitar solo. As one Steve Jobs would say, boom. (And then and then there is a baroque breakdown out of Wendy Carlos’ so retro-futuristic Tron soundtrack. Speaking of which, Daft Punk has been drafted to provide the soundtrack to the Tron sequel coming out next year. It’s both a sign that the producers know what they’re doing and that Daft Punk are the preeminent electronic music producers of the age.)

Digital Love is pure pop music. Easily singalongable with the verse-chorus structure and an undeniably catchy chorus, this song trades in smiles and fun times. Any two-people-fall-in-love film montage would be made better with this song on top. Musically, it has more in common with early Elton John than any single from a musician with “DJ” in their name. And, wow, another hott guitar solo!

Harder Better Faster Stronger is the pinnacle of this song-cycle. It’s Daft Punk’s signature song–the one Kanye sampled, and the one it seems like everyone has heard. It’s a great song, and addictive to listen to. But let me give you the straight poop on this song: It features a sample so prominent that you might feel like Daft Punk is ripping you off. (listen to Edwin Birdsong’s Cola Bottle Baby on Okay, let’s look at this for a second. Clearly Daft Punk use this sample pretty heavily. They paid Edwin Birdsong for the use of his song, so no harm there. But, did you listen to Cola Bottle Baby? Did you get bored after a couple of minutes? Here is where Daft Punk showcase their talents. They lifted a sample so significantly it’s like they cut their song out of the whole cloth. But Harder Better Faster Stronger is so much catchier and enjoyable than Cola Bottle Baby that it’s mind-boggling. Where Cola Bottle Baby drags, HBFS is propulsive. Where Cola Bottle Baby repeats, Harder Better Faster Stronger switches it up, including with (another!) guitar solo, this time hidden inside of the vocals. There’s a reason Harder Better Faster Stronger is an internationally well-known hit and Cola Bottle Baby is a musical footnote.

The rest of this album is Daft Punk at their best. They touch on several genres, from early hip-hop style electro-funk to smooth R&B to even more straight up disco (the album is called Disco-very). The Barry Manilow-sampling Superheroes is a great throwback to their first album, Homework (which they recorded in High School), which I recommend you check out after enjoying Discovery.

After reveling in the stellar, addictive grooves from Homework (standouts are the aforementioned Around the World and killer jam Da Funk). Try out Human After All, though it was their least critically-successful album, it ended up growing on me (and a lot of people). Start with Robot Rock, which takes all the touchstones from Harder Better Faster Stronger (prominent sample, repetitive robot-voiced hook, guitars) and pushes them to 11. Human After All can be grating at times, but there is enough good there to get to know the album.

The pinnacle of Daft Punk listening, however, is their most recent live album, Alive 2007. Unlike a lot of electronic music producers, who, for a live show, simply push play and pantomime on their turntables, Daft Punk actually controls all of the individual elements of their songs live. They also have a tendency to mash-up elements from multiple songs rather than play single tracks. Looking at the Alive 2007 tracklist is enough to convince you that it will sound very little like one of their cds. So, if you want to solidify your Daft Punk fandom, jump into the live album. Start with the Around the World/Harder Better Faster Stronger track (that’s right, two great tastes, taste great together) if you need convincing and only have 5 minutes.

Daft Punk are the past and the future of music. They have probably either been influenced by or influenced some of your favorite music. You owe it to yourself and to the future to check them out.