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Best of 2014: Music February 1, 2015

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media.
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I’m awfully late posting my “best of,” so I’ll get right to it. More or less in order, the following were my favorite new releases of 2014:

  • D’Angelo “Black Messiah” – smooooove
  • Wovenhand “Refractory Obdurate” – my favorite quasi-Christian rocker is still full of fire and brimstone
  • St. Vincent “St. Vincent” – doesn’t sound like anything else, esp. when she plays guitar
  • The Choir of Gonvill & Caius College, Cambridge “In Praise of St. Columba” – if Celtic monks didn’t sound like this, they should have
  • Sturgill Simpson “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” – ignore the title: he’s got some Hank Williams in him
  • TV on the Radio “Seeds” – my obligatory “catchy, quirky alterna-pop” for this year
  • Run the Jewels “Run the Jewels 2” – actually makes some political points
  • Prince’s twin releases: “Art Official Age” and “Plectrumelectrum” (with 3rdeyegirl) – he’ll always be the best funk rocker
  • Robert Plant “Lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar” – obligatory “old geezer who hasn’t lost it”

There were 3 or 4 good singles on the Pixie’s two EPs, Lucinda Williams’ double album was about one-album’s worth of solid, and everybody should listen to “Primus and the Chocolate Factory” at least once.

I bought 29 albums or EPs — 7 from the back catalog. That’s about the same as in 2013, and half of what I bought before streaming caught on. I don’t think I’m the industry’s worst nightmare, i.e., a former heavy-album buyer who switches over to $10/month. No, that would be the never-buyers who get all their music from YouTube. Mark Mulligan is right: though $10/month is a fabulous deal for fans,we’re going to need another price point before it’s mainstream. And Aram Sinnreich seems to have been on to something back in the Jupiter days: it took mobile streaming to take adoption beyond the niche aficionados.

Pals who work in and around the industry and I agreed it was pretty mediocre year. When I look back at what I liked best over the last few years, I’m struck by the relative lack of sure-to-be-standards. I won’t fall back on the “no unifying cross-audience genre” argument, nor the idea that YouTube, iTunes, and Spotify have killed the album. (Singles are the native format for popular music; albums were an unnatural phenomenon of the ’70s.)

I’ll just say that, compared with the last 5 years, I didn’t hear any breakthroughs in my favorite genre to match Parquet Courts, Japandroids, Titus Andronicus, Surfer Blood, Black Keys, or Savages. “RTJ2” is no “Yeezus,” “1989” can’t touch “Pure Heroine” or “Bangerz,” The War on Drugs is a poor man’s The National, and please, FKA twigs vs. M.I.A? no comparison.


Best of 2013: Music December 21, 2013

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media.
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My favorites of 2013 line up better with Rolling Stone’s than with Pitchfork’s. Must be getting old.

This year I bought about 30 albums, all digital downloads. I don’t go for singles often, even if that is the natural medium for pop music.  (The modern version of the EP is appealing.) That number is a little less than last year, and again this year, almost all new, rather than back catalogue. I’ve got to discover some new “old” favorites.

My downloading may be down due to my use of music streaming services, just like Mark Mulligan and the ex-Jups and I have been forecasting for so long. I still like Rhapsody’s curation and info, but Spotify’s catalogue is starting to be noticeably better. I like Spotify’s apps, especially the ones that link me to reviews from professionals at media like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. I wish This Is My Jam were better integrated, and I usually forget that Facebook aggregates a lot of music info.

Anyway, roughly in order, the following were my favorite new releases of 2013:

  • Parquet Courts “Light up Gold” – easily – predictably? – my most-played. Incredibly catchy stoner punks from Austin via Brooklyn
  • Kanye West “Yeezus” – hurry up with my damn croissants. Pushes a lot of envelopes
  • The National “Trouble Will Find Me” – drones engagingly, and with some feeling
  • Lorde “Pure Heroine” and Miley Cyrus “Bangerz” – two pop divas craft some great singles. Miley might bear more listens; Lorde has more promise
  • Queens of the Stone Age “….Like Clockwork” – heavy-ish rock, not too many power ballads
  • Robyn Hitchcock “Love from London” and David Bowie “The Next Day” and Richard Thompson “Electric” – a trio of old geezers deliver the goods: near-Beatles, near-“Scary Monsters,” and near-guitar god
  • Savages “Silence Yourself” – stunning debut even if we’ve heard it before from Erase Errata
  • Steve Earle “The Low Highway” – one song’s called “21st Century Blues.” That about sums it up
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Push the Sky Away” – minor-key Cave still pulses and throbs
  • M.I.A. “Matangi” – the only kind of world music you should listen to

Best of 2012: Music December 23, 2012

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media.
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I may be an old geezer – early GenX, please, not late Boomer – but I listen to and actually purchase new music. This year I bought about 35 albums, a little fewer than last year, but only 4 from the back catalog. All downloads, 99 percent from Amazon. Most of my listening is from stored files on my Zunephone or a docked iPod.

I subscribe to Rhapsody, and use Spotify and MOG. The music streaming services are great for try-before-you-buy listening, and for stringing together ad hoc playlists. (So is YouTube, of course, which often has a deeper catalog.) Making and keeping playlists is hard work, and makes you appreciate DJs. I trust artists, and albums.

The music streamers can be great for music discovery. I prefer Rhapsody’s  curated content, and band and genre info, to Spotify’s sharing orientation. Rhapsody’s recommendations are only okay, possibly because I’m not using it as my primary listening platform. But that’s a problem all discovery tools face. There’s a reason iTunes Ping flopped. (Well, a lot of reasons.) Aggregating usage signals across devices in support of recommendations and programming remains a big potential market opportunity.

An easier problem to solve, but a smaller opportunity, is blending discovery means. That would suit what we at Jupiter Research used to call “digital music aficionados,” that relatively small group of fans (15 percent of online adults) who are big music spenders as well as digital users. I also use Pandora “radio,” online music reviews from Pitchfork and traditional media, Amazon recommendations and reviews, and, of course, friends’ advice. It’s fun to see what people listen to via Spotify or Facebook, but that is just one input. Spotify is smart to integrate Pitchfork content via an app.

Best New Albums of 2012 

I realize I’ve been mis-titling this annual post. “Best of” is awfully judgmental for a list of personal favorites, but what the heck, there is probably more SEO juice in the headline. Roughly in order, just barely in time for stocking stuffing, the following are my faves of the year:

  • Japandroids “Celebration Rock” – indeed it is
  • Swans “The Seer” and Godspeed You! Black Emperor “Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!” – I especially like it when the guitars drone like bagpipes
  • Various Artists “Chimes of Freedom” – the country Dylan covers work at least as well as the punk ones on this massive Amnesty International compilation
  • Killing Joke “MMXII” and Metz “Metz” – the world didn’t end but KJ is back to form, while Oh, Canada can these Metz guys make noise
  • Chromatics “Kill for Love” – lush Italo disco with a killer Neil Young cover
  • Divine Fits “A Thing Called the Divine Fits” and Metric “Synthetica” – who said the ’80s were over?
  • Dum Dum Girls “End of Daze” – showing no-longer-surprising depth on this EP
  • Fiona Apple “The Idler Wheel…” and Cat Power “Sun” – both are raw and emotional; Fiona’s stripped-down approach works better for me
  • Heartless Bastards “Arrow” and Murder By Death “Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon” – rockin’ Americana: HB channels Janis better than MBD does Cash
  • Shearwater “Animal Joy” – with no Decemberists this year, I had to have one pretentious but catchy indie rocker on the list

Best of 2009: Music January 13, 2010

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media.
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It may not be in time for Christmas, but here’s my “best of” list. You’ve been warned.

I didn’t make as many new discoveries this year as last, but for some reason, I bought a lot more. Probably had something to do with getting a new Mac with more disk space, and even more to do with Amazon’s $5 album sales.

I bought about 65 albums (and only a few singles), for prices ranging between $1.99 and $11 or $12. My mix was about 40% new versus back catalog – same as last year – and only 15% physical versus digital. My total spending and digital changeover rates are way above that of the normal American. Count me among the 15% or so of US adults that Jupiter calls “aficionados” – heavy spenders ($300) and active in digital music activities. And now, in no particular order:

Best Albums of 2009

  • Girls “Album” – Eclectic alternative hit-machine
  • The Decemberists “Hazards of Love” – Prog-rock concept album
  • Wilco “Wilco” – A little mellow but very catchy
  • Phoenix “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” – French hipster pop
  • Tegan and Sara “Sainthood” – Canadian post-feminist pop
  • Ben Harper “White Lies for Dark Times” – (Mostly) rockin’ blues
  • U2 “No Line on the Horizon” – Not a bad comeback for the nth time
  • Dead Weather “Horehound” – Indie super-group
  • Muse “The Resistance” – Picking up the mantle of…Queen?
  • Japandroids “Post-Nothing” – Fierce

I almost squeezed in We Were Promised Jetpacks’ “These Four Walls” – how could you not love that name? – but they’re a little too much like Frightened Rabbit wannabes OD-ing on U2. Chuck Prophet’s “Let Freedom Ring” is also a great rootsy effort. And dear god, I am turning indie, aren’t I?

Devices and Platforms: Special-Purpose vs. General-Purpose January 8, 2010

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Two articles in the Journal today – both CES summings up, on e-books and on Internet TVs – along with that looming product announcement from Cupertino, got me thinking about the pros and cons of general-purpose versus special-purpose devices and platforms. When you’re evaluating the evolution of things like PCs vs. netbooks vs. tablets vs. e-books vs. game consoles vs. TV sets vs. smartphones – you’re all doing that, right? – don’t forget a few planks for your frameworks:

  • General-purpose doesn’t always beat special. See consoles vs. PCs for gaming
  • “Open” doesn’t always beat closed-loop. Ditto, and TV set-tops and phones, so far
  • GP advantages: flexibility, leveraging existing bases of apps or other ecosystem elements
  • Special-purpose advantages: optimization

Let’s dwell on that special-purpose device optimization angle for a few bullets:

  • User interface/experience: a Tivo is a better video program guide than a PC, but it’s pretty lousy for managing your music collection. And look how well Windows works on phones
  • Cost: some things are better off without the Wintel tax, and hardware and software licensing and costs can aim for optimal tradeoffs
  • Form-factor: some things need to fit in your pocket; and do you really need an 11″ color screen to read a book?

Does this mean I think e-books will beat tablets or smartphones? Not necessarily. I’ve been a Kindle user for over 18 months, and I’m a huge fan. I occasionally use my iPhone to read Kindle books, but will never default that way. But I doubt $250 e-books are ever going to be mainstream consumer products. And as James McQuivey tweeted earlier, there’s still a lot of innovation coming.

Likewise, Michael Gartenberg correctly tweeted that we should all remember that e-books aren’t just about devices, but their surrounding ecosystems. Regular readers will remember the old “platform” definition.

JupiterResearch defines a “platform” as a set of core technologies and services that other applications and services, from other companies, can use. These core technologies often include application-programming interfaces, file formats, user interface elements, and, these days, syndicated Web services. Google extends the notion of platform to include revenue streams or business models – for example, paid search and keyword-based contextual advertising – that partners can plug into. Platforms spawn economic ecosystems and feedback loops, and are solidified by habitual usage. Successful ecosystems must offer value to all links: user, partner, and platform provider. Paid search epitomizes that kind of win/win/win situation.

Here’s a behind-the-paywall link to an oldie but goodie on Google’s platform approach back in the day. And Barry Parr applied the concept to understanding online media networks.

What do you think? Am I all wet on the value of specialization?

A Prodigal Returns February 4, 2009

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media, Microsoft.
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Ah, good, Michael’s back. (Added to blogroll.) Michael Gartenberg and I worked together at Jupiter Research. He’s a smart consumer tech analyst; we would argue productively over whether Microsoft should buy Yahoo, etc.

I’ll quote his three laws:

1. You can sell 50,000 of anything.

2. If Gartenberg sees a product at a demo and doesn’t offer his credit card for purchase immediately, the product is doomed.

3. Even if Gartenberg does offer his credit card, the product may well still be doomed as Gartenberg is part of the 50,000 that will buy anything.

Who Says Middle America Hasn’t Joined the 21st Century? December 16, 2007

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech.
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You can buy e-book readers from kiosks in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. And iPods, too, even with all that Sony branding.


Who Needs Another Browser…Oh, I Get It June 11, 2007

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech.
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Ah, the irony of one of the world’s greatest phat-client software companies telling developers that server-side apps are the way to go. Of course, that makes tremendous sense when you’re talking about apps for phones.

More important, Apple, like any good platform company, is trying to create developer lock-in a virtuous-circle ecosystem for the iPhone. Make no mistake, that’s why Safari is being ported to Windows. If you want to run on the iPhone, build to Safari. And we’ll get you an instant user base, not that Safari has that many users (even Jobs only claims 5 percent share). ‘Cause we’re sure not letting you actually run on our device, or get distribution for some core technologies and services, not like Yahoo and Google get.

As a Safari user at home, I can assure you that I get better AJAX, Javascript, whatever you want to call Web 2.0, app support on Firefox running on my Mac than I do on Safari. Web apps that suffer on the current version of Safari include, umm, Yahoo Mail and Gmail, just for instance. Not that I’m saying anything. (But oh, does Safari boot fast and render fonts prettily…) But perhaps that app support will improve, since the iPhone is today’s hot device. It’s all very virtuous, you see.

Colleague Michael Gartenberg connects all the dots, and suggests Safari will become part of the iTunes distribution (just like QuickTime). iTunes, now that’s a platform with some users. The NY Times’ John Markoff, seemingly alone among MSM, makes the Safari-iPhone-developer connection explicit, though he buries his lede.

Here’s Hoping Some Rumors Are True June 11, 2007

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech.
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If only. Gee, maybe this will fix the fact that Gmail hasn’t been POP-ing my mail to Apple Mail for, oh, about the last 3 months. I mean, come on, that — and practically unlimited storage — is the only reason I use Gmail….

Colleague Michael Gartenberg is holding down the frontline.

What Every 15-Year-Old Wants in His Bedroom May 30, 2007

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech.
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Not what I’d call “social,” but still…

    Genevieve Bell, an Intel senior researcher and anthropologist who studies how different cultures view technology, says many designers haven’t caught up to the way PCs are increasingly used for entertainment and networking. “People are inherently quite social,” she says. “The challenge is, how do we make designs that echo that.”

Oh well, Microsoft’s making tables. UPDATED And colleague Michael Gartenberg calls it magic