Monthly Archives: December 2009

We Are the New Archeologists

Since I’m on vacation this week, I decided to hit the BuzzUp downtown at Chacarero. Only one person, Guido Stein, showed up, but we had a fun hour chatting about our lives, our jobs, social media and this wacky digital world we inhabit.

We were talking about communities at one point, and he said something really interesting. Nowadays, everyone talks about community management and building community. But as Guido put it, what we’re really doing with social media is rebuilding community. As a people, we’ve become more numerous, more spread out — we no longer live a stone’s throw from the village square, and we no longer squat around the same fire. Social media helps make the world around us smaller. It brings the fire to everyone. To borrow a metaphor from one of Guido’s pastimes, we are knitting the community back together.

As I was thinking more about our conversation today, I realized that we are not only rebuilding and reclaiming communities; we are discovering communities we didn’t know we had. For instance, in the course of conversation (and post-BuzzUp tweets) Guido and I learned that we had two mutual friends — folks outside of the local social media sphere, at that! But for me, the even stronger case in point is the group of folks in the higher ed web marketing world in whose orbit I have been lucky enough to find myself. This community existed long before I came around, our field and interests overlapping unbeknownst to myself. But thanks to Twitter, we can find each other and knit ourselves together more closely. Some things feel so natural, it is hard to believe they are new.

Tim Nekritz’s post about the community-building power of Twitter really resonated with me — partly because it was the antidote to my “Social Media is Soylent Green” post from a couple weeks back, but mainly because it echoed one of the highlights of my year — connecting with this new group of people, both online and in person. I am happy to not only have expanded my network of contacts and colleagues, but also to have made some excellent new friends.

So maybe social media isn’t so much about creating something new. It’s also about discovering (or rediscovering) something that has always been there. Perhaps we are like archeologists, brushing away the dust to reveal the rich worlds around us.

Photo by Farther Along/Flickr Creative Commons

This is a Not a Year-in-Review Post

Over the past week or so, it feels like every other blog post I’ve read has either been a year-in-review or a list of goals for 2010.

This is not one of those posts.

I’m tired of reading them, to tell you the truth. Not because they’re not interesting, especially if they are by my friends, or don’t have valuable bits of insight or advice. Often, they do.

Maybe it’s more than I’m just not ready to read them, so I’m tired of seeing nothing but.

I know that right now is the time I am supposed to be tying up loose ends, putting 2009 to bed and planning in earnest for the year ahead. But I’m not thinking about my three words. I’m not thinking about anything. There is a time for planning, but I’m not there yet. Right now, I am on vacation. I am running errands, going out to eat, seeing friends and family, working on some personal projects, going to the movies and sleeping in. That’s about all I can, or want to, handle.

Let me tell you something: A year ago today, my grandmother died. That set the tone for 2009: tumult. Many good things happened this year, of course, but overall it was a difficult one. So allow me to indulge myself, for this week, in not thinking beyond my next meal or social engagement. Allow me to say good riddance to 2009 by not even giving it the privilege of incubating my dreams for the year to come.

This evening, I made a playlist of songs about how awesome 2010 will be, and that is the extent of strategic planning that I can handle right now.

Call me next week. I will be sorting out my life and planning my life, both personal and professional, in earnest. But right now, I am neither reflective nor academic. Right now, I am done.

Why I Love Riding the Bus

Jonathan Richman has a great song called “You’re Crazy for Taking the Bus.”

It’s more of an ode to long-distance bus travel (which I do love), but it also comes to mind when I think of my affection for public transit, which centers around the bus. I feel like a lot of people utter that song title when considering my transportation habits. In fact, I only have a bus pass, not a subway pass, since my office is just one short bus ride away. This means that often, even when traveling between two locations along the same subway line, I will take the bus if I have the time to spare. I not only save $1.70 by doing so, but I get the pleasure of a bus ride.

But why do I like the bus so much? This question — and its answer — came to mind on Wednesday evening. I was attending a friend’s performance at 10PM, and I had a couple of hours to kill between dinner and then. I bummed around Harvard Square for a while but eventually decided just to get on the No. 1 bus, which would take me to the establishment in question. But as I approached the bar, I just stayed on the bus. In fact, I rode through Cambridge, past MIT, across the Mass. Ave. bridge, all the way to the Christian Science center.

In this instance, the bus served two purposes: one, I got to take advantage of some free time to ride one of the MBTA’s better bus routes into the city and back to visit one of my favorite spots (on a listless evening, seeing the Christian Science Center and the Boston skyline at night will perk you right up); two, I got to enjoy being ferried through Boston and Cambridge, taking in the people around me and the sights along the way.

The bus lets me down, it’s true. Like Saturday, when I stood outside in the cold and bracing wind waiting 30 minutes for a late bus to Davis Square. Or when humanity’s quirks and eccentricities extend beyond good people-watching fodder and either begin to annoy or cause discomfort. Or when it inevitably speeds past juuuuuust as I get to the stop. It’s for those reasons that I can understand why many people dismiss the bus as weird, dirty, not dependable, inconvenient, etc.

So, why does my love of the bus persist?

1. The aforementioned people- and city-watching. Sure, you can observe characters and assess people’s reading material and peer at your neighbor’s iPod and speculate wildly about the backstories of the people around you on any mode of transit. But the bus trumps the subway in my book mainly because you can see what’s happening beyond the vessel. No matter how familiar the route, I can still lose myself in gazing at storefronts and intersections and landmarks. Dark tunnels have nothing on the outside world.

2. Making the city bigger. One of my favorite routes is the No. 8, which I used to ride nearly its entire length from my workplace at JFK-UMass to Kenmore Square, because as a 22-23 year old, it provided a great look at the city beyond the Copleys and Faneuils. The bus also empowers me to go on epic urban adventures where, moreso than driving on the highway or riding the subway, it’s about the journey as much as it’s about the destination. I like having to do nothing more than pay attention to where I need to get off, and I can extend my reach beyond the spokes of the subway and get to some pretty cool places. And it’s not just about the MBTA. I take a certain amount of pride in conquering the above-ground public transit options of any city I visit. This year, I’ve done it in both Brussels and San Francisco. In the latter, I took the bus all the way from the Castro to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was almost as much fun as visiting the bridge itself.

3. The bus is my mobile office. It’s where I do a significant amount of my reading, music listening, web browsing (hooray for the Blackberry) and social planning. It’s amazing how much I can get done on the 10 minute bus ride to work.

4. A sociological exercise. If you get on the bus by yourself, you’re likely going to immerse yourself in some activity for the duration of your ride, whether it’s reading, reading e-mail, chatting on the phone or simply gazing out the window or getting lost in thought. Riding the bus is a very solitary experience. But at the same time, it’s also extremely communal. Yes, you’re having a private experience, but so are the 20 other people sharing this small confided space on wheels. Whether in passing or in greater depth, chances are you have sized one another up or at the very least taken note of each other’s presence. Think about “Lost.” That series addresses the question of what would happen if you somehow became inextricably bound up in the lives of the people with whom, by chance, you are sharing a transportation experience. It’s a fascinating idea. I admit to having thought, while riding the bus, about what would happen if I was suddenly thrust into a shared experience with my fellow passengers, a la “Speed.” Though hopefully with less Keanu Reeves.

5. A feeling of peace. Call me weird, but when I get on the bus — particularly when I am settling in for a ride of some duration — I am filled with a sense of calm. I feel fortunate for having an accessible, affordable means of crosstown transit, not to mention one that (most of the time) affords me a seat with a view and the time to catchup, daydream or nap. It feels like a luxury. Perhaps for someone like me, who sees public transit as more of a right than a privilege, it is dangerous to admit that. But spaces where we are allowed to be quiet and left to our own devices feel few and far between nowadays, and they should be treasured.

I was having dinner with a friend the other evening and was telling her about this post. (It was this same friend who found the above pin at a local vintage shop a couple of years ago and gave it to me as a gift.) She recalled how when she moved to Boston 15+ years ago, she liked it fine, but it was on the bus — watching the city unfold around her as she advanced toward her destination — that she fell in love with it.  And that sums it up more perfectly than I ever could.

Musical Leftovers

In the wake of a barrage of lists, countdowns and obsessive recapping of the year/decade/century/millennium in music, allow me to offer a few — just a few! — leftover, but important, nuggets.

  • Where do I find out about all of this stuff? I mainly learn about new music from two sources: MP3 blogs and the radio. The two radio stations I listen to are WERS, the Emerson College station based here in Boston, and KEXP in Seattle. I listen to WERS early in the morning, and I listen to KEXP streaming online in the office. I highly recommend both stations.
  • Relatedly, WERS has exposed me to (or reminded me of) a host of artists that I either missed the first time around or never full appreciated how awesome they were — The The, Pete Townshend, The Band and Squeeze, to name a few. A site that has been extremely handy for picking up the back catalogs of these artists is YourMusic. It’s more or less the heir to the Columbia House/BMG mantle, but their model is more like Netflix nowadays: set up a queue, get a CD every month for $6.99, shipping included. You can also make one-off purchases for the same price. They present the same limitations of artists and labels we all enjoyed with Columbia House and BMG back in the day, but if you’re looking to pick up a greatest hits comp or fill out your collection of a popular artist, it’s a great, affordable resource. Just the other day, in the wake of the Top 100 project, I added Nine Inch Nails’ “Year Zero” to my queue. Recent WERS-inspired purchases from YourMusic include Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” the best of The Jam and Joe Jackson’s greatest hits.
  • In my 2009 in review post, I mentioned my outlook on what might be the top 10 albums of 2010. But Stereogum has a far more comprehensive roundup, with several selections I hadn’t known about that made my mouth water.
  • And yes, yes, everyone was right. Metric’s “Fantasies” is super-good 😛

Top Songs of 2009

The other day, I posted my top 10 (and then some) albums of 2009. While I remain steadfastly pro-album in a music culture increasingly revolving around the single track (thanks, iTunes), a rabid consumer of MP3 blogs such as myself can’t help but amass a thorough collection of individual tracks. Sometimes, they lead to a complete album purchase or full artist immersions, but sometimes they stand alone. For this list, I did not include tracks by artists included in my top 25 albums of the year. These are the lone rangers of 2009.

I used tinysong.com (thanks, Andrew) to pull song links for most of the tracks listed below, since apparently Myspace just bought Imeem. So, no downloadable MP3s directly linked below, sorry to say.

Without further ado…

  1. Baby Dayliner – You Push, I’ll Go (This song is only available as a demo; I learned about it from KEXP)
  2. Bell X1 – The Great Defector
  3. The Decemberists – The Rake’s Song (I didn’t even bother putting “Hazards of Love” on my Biggest Disappointment of 2009, though I suppose I should have. This song, though, was exceptional.)
  4. St. Vincent – Marrow (Check out the awesome video)
  5. Roman Candle – Eden Was a Garden (One of my early morning WERS discoveries)
  6. Dirty Projectors & David Byrne – Knotty Pine
  7. Chris Isaak – We Let her Down (A WERS discovery)
  8. Phoenix – 1901
  9. Thunderheist – Sweet 16
  10. Discovery – Orange Shirt
  11. The Very Best – Warm Heart of Africa
  12. Wintersleep – Weighty Ghost (Scrounged this from the SXSW free MP3 downloads)
  13. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down – Know Better, Learn Faster
  14. Sea Wolf – Wicked Blood
  15. The Felice Brothers – Run Chicken Run (Another WERS find.)
  16. Paper Moon – What Are You Going to Do With Me?
  17. Nickodemus – Sun Children
  18. The Mary Onettes – Dare
  19. Iron & Wine – Belated Promise Ring
  20. The Hush Now – Hoping and Waiting (Couldn’t find audio, so here is their song “Sadie Hawkins Dance,” also rockin’)
  21. Elvis Perkins in Dearland – Shampoo
  22. Yacht – The Afterlife
  23. Fanfarlo – Luna
  24. Ruby Isle – My Girls (Animal Collective cover far preferable to the original; couldn’t find a link so here is their cover of “Solsbury Hill“)
  25. Phantogram – Mouthful of Diamonds

Social Media is Soylent Green

It’s easy to get excited about social media — it’s fun! innovative! shiny! — but there’s a dirty secret behind every tweet, comment and “like.”

The secret? Social media is made out of people.

People are wonderful, to be sure. But we are also bound up in ego, ulterior motives and passive-aggression. We are flawed creatures.

At first glance, the social media world seems full of shiny, happy people — personalities, really. We put our best face forward because we know it is being indexed in real-time search.

On Twitter, I follow a lot of perfect strangers, many of whom are some of the movers and shakers in the Boston-area social media and web marketing world. I find many of them interesting, and I find their work interesting. Is the interest returned? Maybe, maybe not. But as we are wont to do in this realm of ambient intimacy, you get attached and you follow along with their lives, both personal and professional. It’s pretty easy to trace the dotted lines connecting the people in that sphere. And when it comes to some of Boston’s bright lights in social media, it seems those lines are more solid than dotted. It’s a tight group, with a few obvious ringleaders. And that’s fine. They’re all nice people doing good work.

But on Monday, I picked up on a bit of a disagreement between one of the main organizers of the tweetup scene in Boston and another prominent social media personality who happened to be organizing a tweetup for this week, one that was drawing the usual suspects (and I had considered attending). I was only able to infer the existence of the conflict through a series of cryptic, passive-aggressive tweets (and retweets). What’s the underlying issue? Hard to say. Maybe it’s about trust, genuineness, perceived disrespect, or all of the above. There’s drama there, for sure, but no one’s explicitly talking about it. Just around it.

To me, the outsider aspiring to connect with these folks and their community, seeing these exchanges is confusing and off-putting, on multiple levels. In a medium that prides itself on openness and community, it was frustrating to see sniping and passive-aggression between some relatively popular folks — leaders, really — in this scene. When this becomes transparent, the illusion of social media is shattered. It’s not that this inner circle is way cooler than I am; they’re subject to the same crap I have to deal with in my friendships and work relationships and on the bus. They’re just people, no better.

I don’t exclude myself from this. I’ve certainly hopped on bandwagons ill-advisedly, piled on unwarranted criticism and tweeted before I’ve thought. It’s not how I like to carry myself in a mostly-professional forum. I try to be self-reflective and not behave that way, both online and off. But, being human, I’ll screw up from time to time.

Even in what professes to be the most free and open mode of communication, we still have our human foibles to contend with. We still have our rivalries, attitudes and dramas. It’s inavoidable. Everyone does such a good job at putting their best foot forward, it stands out even more when they stumble — especially to an observer like me.

I surprised myself with how disappointed I was by this particular exchange. A higher bar had been set, and I hadn’t realized that until someone fell short. Perhaps I had been naive or starry-eyed — these folks are like mini-celebrities after all. But in the end, it was just the emperor’s new clothes.

Being reminded of the ugly truth — that social media is made of people — is actually refreshing, and makes me feel less covetous and more complacent. I should be more content to simply do my own work, find my own way and let the tweets fall where they may.

The Top Albums of 2009

The earliest of my annual top 10 albums of the year lists I can find is from 2002, where my No. 1 album was Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” — also my top album of the decade. Since then, I’ve compiled a musical year-in-review each year, expanding to include honorable mentions and a host of (somewhat quirky) subcategories. I have a lot of fun at the end of each year looking back on the music shaped it (it helped to do a mid-year review — thanks, Dave!), and hopefully this list is fun for those of you taking the time to read it. Some of the best compliments I’ve gotten are when people say they look forward to it each year. That means a lot to me. I also love hearing people’s reactions — in agreement or otherwise! So please, comment below. And stay tuned later this week for a top songs of 2009 post, as well!

Without further ado…

Honorable Mentions

20. Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come

I have to admit that I don’t think this album has fully sunk in enough for me to appreciate it fully or perhaps even rank it fairly, but with John Darnielle, I’ve come to assume a certain level of awesomeness. So I’ll take that gamble here.

19. The Hidden Cameras – Origin: Orphan

I feel like these guys are one of the greater sleeper bands of modern rock. They continue to release inventive, charismatic and delightfully lewd music.

18. Girlyman – Everything’s Easy

I was hoping this would be in the top 10, but the studio versions of some of these tracks fall far short of the live versions I’d heard previously. Some of the sameness in the album’s sound dissipates over repeated listens, but still a bit of a disappointment.

17. Wilco – Wilco (the album)

It’s amusing that this jokingly self-referential album (along with the song therein) comes from a group that has quietly become one of the most influential and important in the American rock music world.

16. Mike Doughty – Sad Man Happy Man

I keep on hoping for another “Haughty Melodic” or “Skittish,” but this is still another quality record by Mr. Doughty. Some elements of his Soul Coughing days creep back to the fore, which is intriguing.

15. Bob Mould – Life and Times

It’s a treat to have a second Bob Mould just a year after the fantastic “District Line,” though this perhaps could have been seasoned a bit more.

14. The Swell Season – Strict Joy

They may be broken up, but Glen and Marketa show they will know how to do something right together.

13. AC Newman – Get Guilty

His second solo effort shows greater definition of what Carl is outside of the Pornographers.

12. A Camp – Colonia

Not sure if this means the end of the Cardigans, but if these lush melodies are the new vessels for Nina Persson’s sweet songs, I’ll take it.

11. Bishop Allen – Grrr….

This album was actually in my top 10 before I remembered Tegan and Sara. After what I felt was a disappointing follow-up to their EP-a-month project with “The Broken String” (many of the EP versions of songs outshone their more polished album versions) this is a thorough return to form for one of the best classic pop bands out there.

The Top Ten

10. Wild Light – Adult Nights

My friend Dave introduced me to these guys, and it’s been an album I’ve found myself turning to over and over again this year. Its placement here surprised even myself, but this is simply a fun, engaging record to listen to.

9. Langhorne Slim – Be Set Free

One of the most dynamic live performers you can ever hope to see, I am glad this guy is gaining additional listeners. A few commercials help, sure, but nothing works like a delightful, engaging album. His voice has a twang that makes me sit up and pay attention.

8. Tegan and Sara – Sainthood

This dynamic duo continues to mature, and this album adds to a growing edge and sense of urgency in their compelling indie rock.

7. Passion Pit – Manners

This Boston group shone leadman Michael Angelakos’ falsetto like a spotlight to show the way to stardom, spewing dangerously infectious beats and melodies along the way.

6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz

What can be said about Karen O. and co. except that they are among the best at what they do? They continue to prove themselves as one of the defining rock bands of the decade.

5. Hello Saferide – More Modern Short Stories from…

As I wrote in July, “My favorite quirky Swedish chanteuse spins more tantalizing yarns.” It takes real talent to combine quirkiness with solid songcraft, but that’s what she does, time after time.

4. Eels – Hombre Lobo

This album was a grower, but once it settled it, it wouldn’t leave. It’s a desperate, romantic, heartbroken album, but it seems that’s how Mr. E is the most comfortable. Good news: he’s got another album coming out in just a couple of weeks.

3. John Wesley Harding – Who was Changed and Who was Dead

I just discovered this guy this year, and it turns out that he makes exactly my favorite kind of music—the kind dripping in early 90s melody and story. Luckily, he had a new release this year. It’s like 1992 all over again (in a good way).

2. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone

Whether she’s covering an obscure band like Sparks or taking on the personality of a weather phenomenon, Neko Case reminded us that she is more than a musician; she is a force of nature.

1. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You

This album snuck up on me with a song. That song tied a loop around my heart that pulled me toward the full album, which proved to be just as delightful. And that album led me to a promising back catalog full of similar country-tinged ballads and romps. The best discoveries are those that only lead you to even more.

Certificate of Participation

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – s/t

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeux Phoenix

M. Ward – Hold Time

Islands – Vapours

Built to Spill – There Is No Enemy

Biggest Disappointments

Works Progress Administration – s/t

I’ve hard Glen Phillips and Nickel Creek independently, as well as their collaboration as the Mutual Admiration Society, so I was pretty excited for this so-called “supergroup” effort. But—as with most supergroup efforts, in my estimation—this album fell short. It lacked verve and fell flat.

Stars of Track & Field – A Time for Lions

Their first album, “Centuries Before Love and War,” was a masterpiece, so perhaps I had irrationally high expectations. This album is fine, but not nearly as magical.

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

I really, really just don’t get it.

Best Albums I Didn’t Buy… (though I perhaps downloaded many free MP3s from)

St. Vincent – Actor

Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

Discovery – LP

Elvis Perkins in Dearland

Sea Wolf – White Water, White Bloom

Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

Telekinesis! – Telekinesis!

Thao with the Get Down Stay Down – Know Better Learn Faster

The Very Best – Warm Heart of Africa

…or Bought but Did Not Hear Enough Of (the Underlistened)

Brendan Benson – My Old, Familiar Friend

Hallelujah the Hills – Colonial Drones

White Rabbits – It’s Frightening

Metric – Fantasies

Asobi Seksu – Hush

Best Albums of 2010

Laura Veirs

Vampire Weekend – Contra

Spoon – Transference

Watson Twins – Talking to You, Talking to Me

Eels – End Times

Elbow

Freedy Johnston – Rain on the City

Yeasayer

New Pornographers

The Shins