Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Top 10 Albums of 2012

For the last few years I've written top ten lists of my favorite music. While I usually keep this blog focused on the web and librarianship, I'm going to detour for this post and relate my 2012 favorites. Back to your regularly scheduled programming in the new year.
cover of the Kindred EP
  1. Kindred / Burial - Anthemic electronica from the best dubstep producer ever. After Kindred came out, I listened to nothing else for a week. Burial shifts focus a bit, selecting sub-bass & texture over the usual manipulated vocal samples & rimshot snares. It's such a gray album. Music for long drives, rainy days, loneliness. At three songs, it's technically an EP, but together they stretch over a half-hour.
  2. Kings and Them / Evian Christ - I stumbled across "Fuck it none of y'all don't rap" on a blog & was instantly blown away. Evian Christ made the most sophisticated album of the year out of a single rap song's worth of vocals, tinny snares, & haunted minor intervals. The hyper-repetitive raps (let's repeat the word "back" for a minute, shall we?), vocal pitch-shifts, & eery background dissonance of wind chimes somehow come close to a mixture of Salem & Dälek, but with a better sonic sensibility. Christ's beats are simple but deeply enmeshed with the vocal samples & mood. The album feels idiot savant in its execution, putting together repetition & atmosphere in a way that the idiots somehow missed.
  3. Quakers / Quakers - I admit it, other than Guilty Simpson, I haven't heard of any of these rappers. This is always already the best album of rappers you've never heard. This album is like twenty Busdrivers on top of twenty MadLibs just fucking killing it. The brevity of the tracks actually makes it easier to digest such incredible variance in beats & voices. I cannot understand how good Quakers is.
    cover of the Shrines album
  4. Shrines / Purity Ring - Electro-pop without too many frills. The music is synth-heavy, its only distinguishing element the occasional staccato vocal samples. But the lyrics & singing are spot on: a mousey female voice sweetly reciting disturbing lines like "cut open my sternum & pull my little ribs around you." The bodily lyrics & voice-in-the-machine production combine to make a stunningly consistent album where every other song is perfect.
  5. The Seer / Swans - When I discovered Swans last year, I promptly listened to their entire back catalog. Their impressive trajectory (from brutal industrial to something resembling art rock) is complete with The Seer, which is epic noise rock on an almost unparalleled scale. Despite a two-hour runtime, the music never drones on too long. The scraping metal of 93 Ave. B Blues becomes atmospheric ballad The Daughter Brings the Water. The title track could stand to be its own album.
  6. Sorrow and Extinction / Pallbearer - metal is at its best when it is unapologetically bleak. Pallbearer's debut album lives up to its title, as huge, molten sludge buries some faint, rare vocals. The album accomplishes a rare combination of consistent atmosphere & heavy riffs. Good black metal typically relies on atmosphere, rarely displaying interesting guitar riffs such that their music begins to drone on repetitively. More riff-based metal, such as Torche, often has captivating guitars but without the gravity of black metal's atmosphere. Pallbearer combine both effortlessly, making almost the entire album (with the exception of the first few minutes of acoustic guitar, unfortunately) compelling.
  7. WIXIW / Liars - An album that grew on me quickly. I think the idea of an electronica Liars album turned me off, but the truth is this album is little more synthetic than the unsurpassable Drum's Not Dead. The better songs (Flood to Flood, Brats) are near the end. Liars took their strong but scattered album about Los Angeles depravity (Sisterworld, which reminds me of Hail to the Thief in that the songs are excellent individually but fail to amount to much in sum) & remade it. The wreckless songs & the redemptive ones both shine brighter now.
  8. G is for Deep / Doseone - This album also disappointed me on first listen, not because it was bad but because Doseone has entirely eschewed rapping. I became obsessed with Dose because of his raps; he's one of those rare rappers who not only has unparalleled skill but also a unique artistic vision. His lyrics are closer to poetry than braggadocio. G is for Deep has its occasional bits of rap—mostly quick refrains, rarely full verses–but for the most part Doseone sings. However, the music is solid (much of it reminds me of bright synths of Radiohead's "Worrywort" b-side), the lyrics surprisingly catchy (the "Last Life" chorus gets stuck in my head easily), & Doseone frequently uses mini-song outros to great effect. These outros aren't completely new fare for him–Subtle's "The Mercury Craze" single features a commercial jingle parody as it fades out. But on G they're more essential, in fact they're often the highlight of the songs.
    cover of the Visions album
  9. Visions / Grimes - Grimes is weird. Her songs almost ring as normal electropop & she tends to (convincingly) imitate R&B diva melismas. But there's all this inexplicable zaniness: why is the album cover heavy metal artwork? what the hell is going on in the Genesis music video? what are the lyrics to any of these songs? Visions strides the line between pop catchiness & alienating oddity in a way few others can match.
  10. Held / Holy Other - the "With U" EP blew me away with its lonely trances. It felt like Burial but from another angle: slower, breathy, codeine-dependent. Held didn't quite live up to the EP's promise but it's still very good & remarkably consistent; each song maintains the same emotive thrill without wearing the listener out.

Honorable Mentions

Advaitic Songs / Om
Years Past Matter / Krallice
My Story / Volor Flex
Empyrean / Mutilation Rites
R.I.P. / Actress

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In Defense of Anonymous Proposals

Recently, the Code4Lib community has been working to write an anti-harassment policy and combat gender discrimination. One proposal (full credit: coming from JSConf EU's excellent strategy for increasing diversity, which I in turn learned of from the ever-vigilant Andromeda Yelton) was to have anonymous conference proposals but it was quickly shot down on the C4L listserv. I don't mean to pick on C4L but I wanted to discuss briefly why I think that's a mistake.

Anonymous proposals aren't just one measure among others to increase diversity, they're vital. JSConf EU notes "This is crucial. Even if you don’t think you are biasing against anything or anyone, unless you anonymise CFP submissions, you will apply your personal bias." (emphasis in original) Why? Anonymous proposals circumvent most of the latent biases we all have: gender, race, culture, etc. are difficult to determine from an abstract. What's more, underrepresented parties are more likely to submit without fear of judgement or judgement's liberal sibling, tokenization. Anonymization shields selectors from their biases and proposals from discrimination.

The Counter Arguments

Few people disagree that anonymous proposals have benefits. But do their benefits outweigh their disadvantages? Anonymity's detractors tend to argue that knowing someone aids in evaluating speaker quality. I find that more of an excuse to reify bias than a legitimate contention. To run down the list:

A) Obviously implicit bias is still at play,
B) The subset of people you know or have seen speak echoes previous biases–if a disproportionate number of men tend to speak at Code4Lib, then the people you've seen speak is going to be disproportionately male and thus your supposedly informed selections make for a poor representation of the full community,
C) If you know someone but haven't seen them speak, you may be inclined to vote for your friends and not necessarily on quality.

It was also mentioned that anonymous proposals go against the "openness" of Code4Lib. But the end result of openness is more important than some deontological essence attached to our actions; if openness in this instance supports bias, then we should be closed. In some ways, one can be more "open" when anonymous than when afraid of discrimination. Also, my identity as a voter is not revealed; how come that is not considered a threat to the openness of the community? Anonymous proposals do not damage openness if they allow a more representative population of a community to present.

All this said, are anonymous proposals always the right choice? Maybe not. I'm part of a conference planning committee that isn't evaluating talks anonymously. I'm not entirely clear why but we did at least discuss it. You wouldn't want to select keynotes anonymously. But for most sessions, anonymous proposals have proven to yield more diverse speakers. I have yet to see reports from conferences indicating that anonymous proposals lower speaker quality. That contention appears to be more hypothetical than real. In the end, what is more important? Making a real commitment to diversity or ensuring we can vote for people we know over strangers? I'd argue that allowing anonymous conference proposals is beneficial even if it decreases the quality of speakers a little.