Monthly Archives: December 2006

Favorite Albums of 2006

My final year-end list: my favorite five albums of 2006. As with last year, the number 1 choice was easiest and the number 5 choice was hardest. Somewhat unsurprisingly, these albums contributed the top five songs from my previous list (in a slightly different order). The criteria here are a little different though: a good average song quality is necessary, but I also weight coherent themes and the ability to enjoy playing the record all the way through, as opposed to just adding the best few songs to my iTunes playlist. This knocked Pretty Girls Make Graves’ Élan Vital out of the top five, since it had a lot of great songs but didn’t hang together as well as the others.

5. Asobi Seksu, Citrus
This was the year I fell in love with noise pop and shoegazing music, as I looked at classic albums from the ’90s, and I was delighted to find that Asobi Seksu is keeping the genre alive, and putting their own stamp on it. I picked “New Years” for the top songs list as the best example of their fuzzy, dreamlike songs, but all the songs on the album have these textures without sounding alike. The best tracks, “Goodbye” and “Miso Asobi” along with “New Years”, bring a warm and happy feeling out of the noise and distortion, but everything in between is interesting in its own way. It’s one of the most seamless albums of the year.

4. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
This is a highly acclaimed album among rock critics, but unlike Justin Timberlake’s, it’s for a good reason: it’s original, inventive, and excellent. It’s hard to come up with something to compare it to, since the sound is so unique—it doesn’t even really sound like TV on the Radio’s earlier work and represents a major step forward for the band. Perhaps a good metaphor could be drawn from one of the best songs on the album: this record is a dirty whirlwind of music. The maelstrom approaches ominously with “Hours”, reaches peak speed at “Wolf Like Me”, slows to a calm center for “Method”, and then picks up again. Not all the tracks are as good as “Wolf Like Me”, but nothing is filler.

3. The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls In America
The Hold Steady topped last year’s list with Separation Sunday, and so it is not a surprise to see them on the list again this year. Their latest album is more song and less story than its predecessor, presenting short vignettes instead of an overall arc and with lead singer Craig Finn taking a more melodic approach. This was initially a little disappointing, but I warmed up to it since the songs are very good indeed. Their Springsteen-esque hard rock rocks harder than just about anything else from this year, and with “Citrus” they showed they could do acoustic ballads too. Even though it’s not the equal of Separation Sunday, it’s still one of the best albums of the year.

2. Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
This will also be an unsurprising choice, since regular readers know that I hold Belle & Sebastian in high regard. However, this is a standout album even in their catalog, the best since their 1996 release If You’re Feeling Sinister. After several albums that felt like poor copies of Sinister, they’ve tried some new directions starting with Dear Catastrophe Waitress and now, with great success, in The Life Pursuit. The new songs are bright, polished, and sunny (sometimes literally), as well as catchy and infectious. While the pervasive melancholy of their early albums has been left behind, Belle & Sebastian can still write songs that are heartbreaking (“Dress Up In You”) or wistful (“Funny Little Frog”). But the best songs here are simply fun, like “The White Collar Boy” and “The Blues Are Still Blue”.

1. Islands, Return to the Sea
I’m not seeing this album on very many other year-end lists, but it was definitely my favorite of the year. Maybe their quirky blend of indie-rock and tropical music has limited appeal (ok, probably), but I love it. The first couple of songs are epic: “Swans (Life After Death)” is a metaphorical account of how the band was formed after the dissolution of the Unicorns, something I only discovered after I bought the Unicorns’ last album and could decode the references. “Humans” is more straightforward, telling the story of refugees fleeing an (alien?) invasion. After this they move to shorter songs, but no less variety in topics: anorexia, the diamond trade, environmental disaster, and with “Jogging Gorgeous Summer”, a simple and beautiful love song. All these disparate themes are tied together with island and ocean metaphors, which tie in perfectly with the musical style. I never got tired of listening to this album and felt like I noticed something new and interesting in the music every time.

Actually, I do have one more music list to post: at the beginning of the year I made a resolution to fill out my collection of ’90s albums, and promised to post my favorites a year later. So that list will appear next week.

starbucks nighthawks



starbucks nighthawks, originally uploaded by arcanegazebo.

Here’s the Starbucks decoration I blogged about yesterday. The photo quality is a little poor because I apparently broke the LCD screen of my camera a couple days ago, and have to take pictures in automatic mode without knowing what the flash or focus settings are. This is exceptionally bad timing since I’ll be starting the photo-a-day project on Monday.

Year-end Miscellany 2006

I usually name a favorite book, movie, and game of the year. This year none of the books I read were recent enough to qualify, so I’ll just do the other two:

2006 Movie of the Year: Brick
There wasn’t a standout film in this category, but I think Brick was my favorite of what I saw this year. (There are many reportedly excellent movies that I haven’t seen yet as well, such as The Departed.) Brick puts a classic detective noir in a high school setting, and does an excellent job of blending the two genres, much as Buffy did with horror. (The movie is definitely influenced by Buffy and works in a subtle but unmistakeable reference.) All the elements of the classic noir movies are present, from the convoluted plot to the familiar character archetypes to the eerie soundtrack. The juxtaposition with high school students is sometimes funny, sometimes striking, but never cheesy or over-the-top.

2006 Game of the Year: Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria
I didn’t play a large number of video games this year, but there was a clear winner, the sequel to one of my all-time favorite games. The original Valkryrie Profile was a great dungeon crawler with beautiful visuals and complex and interesting characters. It only suffered from somewhat repetitive combat, which was completely reworked in the sequel to one of the most interesting and engaging systems I’ve ever seen in an RPG. The signature side-scrolling dungeons (hence “Profile”) were preserved with a couple new twists—the ability to switch places with monsters, and sealstones that alter the mechanics—that gave the puzzles more depth. Overall I found the gameplay addictive in a way that I hadn’t seen in years, and the only flaws I found are by comparison to the original Valkyrie Profile (mainly in the aesthetics and the character development).

Later this weekend, I’ll post my favorite albums of the year.

2007 March Meeting Abstract

The program for the 2007 APS March Meeting is now up. I have an invited talk this year; unfortunately it’s in an early morning session. Here’s the abstract:

Session N2: Progress in Superconducting Quantum Computing
8:00 AM–11:00 AM, Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Colorado Convention Center – Four Seasons 4
Sponsoring Units: GQI DCMP
Chair: Robert Schoelkopf, Yale University
Abstract: N2.00002 : Solid State Qubits with Current-Controlled Coupling
8:36 AM–9:12 AM
Author: Travis Hime (University of California, Berkeley)
The ability to switch the coupling between quantum bits (qubits) on and off is essential for implementing many quantum computing algorithms. We have demonstrated such control with two, three-junction flux qubits coupled together via their mutual inductances and via the dc SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) that reads out their magnetic flux states. The flux in each qubit was controlled by an on-chip loop, and the chip was surrounded by a superconducting cavity that eliminates fluctuations in the ambient magnetic field. By applying microwave radiation to the device, we observed resonant absorption in each of the qubits when the level splitting in the qubit matched the energy of the microwave photons. With the qubits biased at the same frequency, the interaction produced an avoided crossing in their energy spectrum. At the avoided crossing transitions to the first excited state were suppressed and transitions to the second excited state enhanced, indicating formation of singlet and triplet states in the coupled-qubit system. The observed peak amplitudes were consistent with calculated matrix elements. When both qubits were biased at their degeneracy points, a level repulsion was observed in the energy spectrum. A bias current applied to the SQUID in the zero-voltage state prior to measurement induced a change in its dynamic inductance, reducing the coupling energy controllably to zero and even reversing its sign. The dependence of the splitting on the bias current was in good agreement with predictions. This work was performed in collaboration with P.A. Reichardt, B.L.T. Plourde, T.L. Robertson, C.-E. Wu, A.V. Ustinov, and John Clarke, and supported by NSF, AFOSR, ARO and ARDA.

On a related subject, I still intend to write a post about the results in our Science paper, but I haven’t got around to it yet.

Back east

Ok, so I took an unannounced blogging vacation. I’m now in Connecticut. A couple travel notes:
I shared an airport shuttle with a guy in an MIT baseball cap. He gave directions to the driver in the form “if the light is red, it’s faster to go right; if it’s green, it’s faster to go left”. The driver apparently didn’t have gambits turned on, so this had to be abbreviated to “go right”.
At a Starbucks in Ridgefield, CT I saw a disturbing piece of corporate art: a reproduction of Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks in which the diner had been turned into a Starbucks (and the patrons were noticeably less depressed). I wish I had taken a picture of this since I can’t seem to find one with a Google search.

Other top music lists

If you’d like some other indie-rockish lists of top songs of the year, there’s Stylus’s top 50 singles and Pitchfork’s top 100 tracks. There’s some overlap between their lists and mine; “Wolf Like Me” and “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” appear on all three. Also some respectable alternate choices from some of the same albums I drew from. However, both publications appear to have a case of the crazies: Stylus puts Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” at #6, and Pitchfork names it the #1 song of the year. So approach these lists with some skepticism.
They also have top albums lists up; I’ll do one myself closer to the new year.

Kip Hawley is still an idiot

I’m flying to Dallas tomorrow for the Newton’s Birthday holiday, and right now I am packing my quart bag of three-ounce bottles of liquids and gels. This, of course, is because of TSA’s ridiculous rules about carrying liquids on airplanes. Now would be a good time to recall that the supposed terrorist plot that inspired these rules was basically just made up by the British and Pakistani governments to scare people. The case against the main suspect was recently dropped due to lack of evidence. Here’s an article about just how plausible the explosive mechanism is. Here’s the Wikipedia page about the “plot”.
If this was all bogus, why all the silly rules about three ounce bottles of liquid on planes? Maybe the government just likes to see us line up complacently for arbitrary, inconvenient, and humiliating searches in the name of security. It’s not working though—I just end up being really angry by the time I’m through the checkpoint.
Tomorrow I’ll post on what happens when the TSA reads your blog and flags you for the “thorough” search.
[Post title is a reference to this.]

Favorite Songs of 2006: Year of the Wolf

Today is mix CD release day, so here’s my ranking of my favorite 20 songs of 2006 (which, in a different order, comprise the tracklist of the CD). The CD is entitled Year of the Wolf, copies of which are available upon request. (If I see you during the holidays I’m going to hand you a copy even if you don’t request one.) This naming scheme (following last year’s Year of the Phoenix) may or may not continue in the future, but since it worked again this year I went with it.
The rules: Only music released in 2006 (or December 2005) qualifies, and no more than one track is selected from a single album. Generally records which were released earlier in other countries (typically the UK) before a 2006 US release are disqualified, but I have been inconsistent in applying this rule.
Special congratulations to the Decemberists and The Hold Steady, who are returning from last year’s favorite songs list.
20. “Help Us Out” by the Futureheads (from News and Tributes [US release])

This was a bonus track on the US release (and a B-side to one of the British singles), and the runner-up for Best Bonus Track of 2006. (The Art Brut bonus track named there was disqualified from this list due to an earlier British release.) Maybe it’s the way it captures the energy of the Futureheads’ superior debut album, but I liked this track more than any of the non-bonus tracks on the record. A wonderfully frenetic song that races through its two-and-a-half minutes.

19. “I Bet You Looked Good On The Dance Floor” by Arctic Monkeys (from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not)

The Arctic Monkeys were one of the most hyped bands of the year, but this, their key single, lives up to its reputation. A gem of Britrock in the line of the Libertines or Pulp, with clever lyrics and terrific guitar riffs.

18. “I Feel Space” by Lindstrøm (from It’s A Feedelity Affair)

The title is an apt description of the song, gorgeous spacey electronica suitable for some retro-futuristic disco.

17. “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” by Camera Obscura (from Let’s Get Out Of This Country)

This bright-sounding pop-song was a striking opening track for Camera Obscura’s album, so striking that I kept it as the opener for my mix CD.

16. “Roka” by Calexico (from Garden Ruin)

A strong runner-up in the Best Bilingual Song category, Calexico mixes some Spanish vocals into their Southwestern-country style to great effect.

15. “Way Out” by Ellen Allien and Apparat (from Orchestra of Bubbles)

This European electronica collaboration produced some great tracks, none better than the ethereal “Way Out”, which feels like exploring an alien landscape.

14. “Conventional Wisdom” by Built To Spill (from You In Reverse)

Trading off between a spectacular guitar riff and catchy vocals, the first two minutes of the song are rock perfection. So we’ll forgive them the next four minutes of aimless jamming.

13. “Summersong” by the Decemberists (from The Crane Wife)

The Decemberists forgo their usual narrative-heavy songwriting to evoke a bittersweet summer’s day, and the result is the best song on the album.

12. “Set The Fire To The Third Bar” by Snow Patrol (from Eyes Open)

Gary Lightbody makes several attempts on the latest album to recapture the anthematic glory of Final Straw; this duet with Martha Wainwright is the one that best succeeds.

11. “Love & Communication” by Cat Power (from The Greatest)

A simply beautiful song which achieves a nice synthesis between Chan Marshall’s voice and the accompanying Memphis Rhythm Band.

10. “Glasgow Mega-Snake” by Mogwai (from Mr Beast)

If the title conjures an image of a gigantic snake eating Glasgow, it’s an appropriate one. Heavier than usual for Mogwai, a direction they should perhaps go more often.

9. “Pictures of a Night Scene” by Pretty Girls Make Graves (from Élan Vital)

PGMG members shuffle instruments among themselves and trade their usual aggressiveness for a tense and haunted atmosphere.

8. “Marble House” by The Knife (from Silent Shout)

Nearly eveything from The Knife’s eerie record was good, with this track edging out “We Share Our Mother’s Health” as my favorite.

7. “Black Flowers” by Yo La Tengo (from I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass)

A perfectly calm and comforting song that always leaves me feeling peaceful.

6. “Revolver” by Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan (from Ballad of the Broken Seas)

Mark Lanegan’s songwriting contribution to this album is the best Americana song of the year, a dark contemplation of life and death.

5. “New Years” by Asobi Seksu (from Citrus)

Somewhere between shoegazing and J-pop lies Asobi Seksu, and this is the best of their fuzzy, blissful pop. I don’t understand the (mostly Japanese) lyrics, but the song does somehow feel like New Year’s Eve.

4. “Hot Soft Light” by The Hold Steady (from Boys and Girls in America)

It was tough choosing just one song from this album, but this is the one I found the catchiest. Craig Finn takes the persona of a guy being questioned by the police, his story backed by the band’s most formidable rock.

3. “The Blues Are Still Blue” by Belle & Sebastian (from The Life Pursuit)

My most-played song of 2006 (it helps that it came out in February), it’s one of those perfect Belle & Sebastian pop songs that I can’t get enough of.

2. “Rough Gem” by Islands (from Return to the Sea)

Originally I thought this song a notch below some of the others on this amazing album, but after multiple plays it kept growing on me. Mixes commentary on the diamond trade with plays on the singer’s name and some thoroughly impenetrable lyrics, on top of Islands’ irresistible calypso-tinged pop, here at its most vibrant and coherent.

1. “Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio (from Return to Cookie Mountain)

This one astonishing song towers over everything else on an already excellent album. Filled with passion, energy, and primal desire, given powerful expression by Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals, it’s the best song about werewolves since Warren Zevon.