Thursday, December 29, 2011

The 2011 Okapi Sampler!

I didn't have a lot of friends when I was a kid.  I didn't live in a nice subdivision or a neighborhood like all the kids at school did, and there wasn't anyone under 50 who lived anywhere near me.  So, I had to find ways to keep myself out of the the constantly threatening boredom vortex.  I explored the woods behind our house, and mapped out my discoveries.   I collected animal safari cards and couldn't wait to be old enough to leave Pennsylvania for my destined life as a scientist-explorer deep in the Amazon. 

And, I obsessed about music.  Mostly Disco, Funk, and then, New Wave music.  I spent hours every Sunday morning listening to Casey Kasem count down the week's Top 40, and I would plot and graph and make predictions for next week.  I could spout off pop music trivia and chart positions the way just some boys can recite number of hits and home runs in a season  I did this for years, and the music nearly completely shielded me from my loneliness.  Well, I am 41 years old now, and I still find refuge and inspiration in music, and I'm still enough of a nerd to want to organize my favorites in to the annual Lair of the Okapi Sampler - my 10 favorites tracks of the year.    So, here it is...

Last year, I noted that the most notable music of the year seemed to address the tension between escapism and melancholy - well-suited to an era of conflicting feelings and opposing dreams.  In 2011, indie music delved even deeper into murky overlap of joy and hopelessness.  In a year of Tea Parties, Occupiers, and an Arab Spring, it just didn't feel right to have one feeling without the other.  But, what is remarkable this year, compared with last, is the way in which women's voices came to the forefront.  After over a decade of women nearly exclusively in the musical roles of novelty rappers, rock accessories, and artificially flavored pop tarts, it's so refreshing to see (and hear) women taking control of their perspectives, stories, and voices - and oh, what damned good voices there were this year.  

So, without further ado, here is the 2011 Okapi Sampler!  

 # 10  tUnE-yArDs - "Bizness"

tUnE-yArDs is the musical creation of Merrill Garbus, a native New Englander with a truly global sense of rhythm.  "Bizness" seems, at first listen, an odd tune to receive the critical acclaim that it did in 2011.   East African beats, socially-conscious loops, and a roaring androgynous voice coming from a woman who isn't afraid to look anyone in the eye, don't normally add up to a warm welcome in the United States.  But, 2011 hasn't been a normal year, and the joyous rage and commitment to freedom in this track is just what the world needed - or maybe I've just been spending too much time in Ethiopian restaurants.  

 # 9  KING - "Hey"

You know how that first warm day feels after a long cold winter?   That sweet joy is KING - a trio of beautiful electro-soul queens from Los Angeles who've come to save us from ugly music.  "Hey" is smooth and sticky like honey - no artificial sweetness here.  These ladies have, somehow, figured out how to deliver the best elements of classic soul without that "retro" feeling that sometimes feels a little empty.  I'm not sure if this is the next step in neo-soul, or a new genre of future soul - but either way, I cannot wait to see where they take this soul train next.  

# 8 Canyons - "See Blind Through"

In the mid-80s, something magical happened in Chicago, and House Music was born and from this groove came the groove of all grooves.  This duo from Perth, Australia understands House Music - it's a spiritual thing, a soul thing, and "See Blind Through" is like a walk down House Lane.  There is a definite flirting with Hercules and Love Affair's 2007 hit, "Blind" that makes the past and future painfully clear, but with all of it's nods to 25 years of House landmarks, "See Blind Through" is still fresh enough to become a landmark of its own.  

# 7 James Blake - "The Wilhelm Scream"

James Blake bubbled up late last year from the British underground with the sound of the future.  He's hard to categorize - Post-Dubstep?  Glitch-Blues?  Experimental Broken-Beat?  Whatever it is, James Blake's music will be looked back upon by future music geeks as a turning point.  It will influence much of what is to come - in the way that Joy Division did in the late 70s.  "The Wilhelm Scream" sums it up nicely and wraps us in a murky haunting rainy-day dream that comforts in a way that no music has since Depeche Mode's masterpiece, "Violator" in 1990.  

# 6 Lykke Li - "I Follow Rivers"

Oh Lykke Li.   Thank you for reminding us all of who we were when the whole adventure was in front of us, when passion and the thrill of life defined every thought and action.   "I Follow Rivers" with its could-only-be-from-Sweden quirkiness finds the exact meeting point of The Cardigans and The Knife - then adds a quick pinch of Stevie Nicks.   It's the sort of song that's so full of life, it makes you want to get out there and change the world, or at least fall in love again.  And, I suspect a lot of folks have fallen in love with Lykke.  

# 5 Neon Indian - "Polish Girl"

There's been a lot of talk about Dubstep as the current musical rage, but I'm predicting hipster history will more remember 2011 as the year that Chillwave was accepted as the sub-genre of choice.  The new New Wave has been marinating for a few years now with Chromeo, Cut Copy, and Holy Ghost, and this year Neon Indian from Denton, Texas and Toro Y Moi from Columbia, South Carolina brought Chillwave out of their suburban bedrooms to the forefront of indie music.  With dreamy synths and bouncing melodies, it's the perfect escape from a mad, mad world.  And, who doesn't need a danceable escape once in a while?   

# 4 Goapele - "Play"

After so many years of watered-down, commercial-ready, soul-less R&B, I'd almost given up hope.  With Goapele, there is hope again.  Goapele Mohlabane, from Oakland, California, was blessed with a voice so rich and smooth and seductive - it just cuts straight to the core of the human experience.  Add to that, a slinky, writhing, arrangement, and it's impossible not to feel like she's taken you to a higher plane.  And that is what soul music is supposed to do.  

# 3 Toro Y Moi - "Still Sound"

"Still Sound" conjures Polaroid Insta-Matic memories of windows rolled down on country roads, basking in the sunshine and the crisp early autumn air.  It's music for a generation that needs to learn how to not be so serious all the time.  Toro Y Moi, aka Chaz Bundick, makes music that would work as the soundtrack to your earliest adult years - free and promising, without a care in the world - far away from the teenage angst that has ruled the music scene for so long.  But, to be clear, the Toro Y Moi sound isn't artificial fluff.  It's a smart and insightful road trip going who knows where for who cares how long.  

# 2 Lana Del Rey - "Video Games"

Lana Del Rey was born Elizabeth Grant in Lake Placid, New York, and in 2011, she became this century's Patsy Cline.   Her voice is just extraordinary, with a rare smokiness that makes hair stand up.  There's a mystery and an intimacy that's impossibly alluring - like a Tarantino movie about a rich girl gone astray.  "Video Games" is a timeless hopeless honky-tonk love story for the digital age.  

 # 1 Adele - "Rolling In The Deep"

Anyone who knows me, at all, would never expect a # 1 pop chart smash to be mentioned anywhere near my top ten of the year.   Well, sometimes, even I have to shelf the musical snobbery and accept that absolutely everyone loved the best song of the year.  There just can't be one person out there who didn't put their whole being into singing that chorus with Adele, in private, at a long stoplight.  She summons the ghosts of bluegrass, gospel, and soul, and belts that shit out  - it's startling and beautiful.   And the best song of the year, hands down.   

There was a lot of great music this year, and a lot of honorable mentions...

M83 - "Midnight City"
Florence and the Machine - "Shake It Out"
Foster The People - "Pumped Up Kicks"
Hercules and Love Affair - "My House"
Destroyer - "Kaputt"
Atlas Sound - "Te Amo"
Clams Casino - "I'm God"
Ursula 1000 - "Mondo Beyondo"
Burial - "Street Halo"

Monday, November 07, 2011

Occupying Wall Street: A Guide For The Rest Of Us

Cody ChesnuTT - "Where Is All The Money Going?"

On September 17th, the national conversation took a sharp left turn.  That morning, the Tea Party's obsession with dismantling the social safety net, busting labor unions, destroying environmental regulations, and giving even more tax breaks to the ultra-wealthy had been the only media game in town for over two years.  Pundits and editors talked endlessly about the power of the Tea Party movement, and gave right-wingers 24 hours a day of exposure.  That morning, the rest of us, the vast majority of Americans, had no voice, no power, and many of us had lost all hope of promised change. 

But on September 17th, the rest of us, the 99%, found out we do, indeed, still have a voice.

Now, less than 7 weeks later, over 900 Occupy protests have taken place, spreading all over the world into a truly global movement.  Tensions and altercations with police and city leaders have intensified, the City of Oakland was shut down by a massive general strike, and the media can't get enough of it.  Television's political pundits and radio's talk show hosts are arguing non-stop about the pros and cons of massive income equality.  Suddenly, everyone knows that "too big to fail" multi-national corporations nearly always pay a lower income tax rate than the average middle class worker, and that many pay nothing to the system that supports them.  And the biggest banks abruptly backed away from their promise to institute monthly debit card fees, when the newly empowered American middle class and working class moved their money into small local banks and credit unions in droves.  America has become Occupied, and the Koch Brothers astroturfed Tea Party is over. 

A few "dumb hippies" camping in a park really did change the world.  And, now it's time for the rest of us to do our part.    At this point, most Americans now support the general sentiment of the Occupiers.  Most Americans are tired of unchecked corporate money and influence in our government.  Most Americans want a system that benefits those who play by the rules, not those who are above the rules.  But, the fact is, that most of us aren't able, or willing, to sleep in a park, or get tear-gassed, or get arrested for civil disobedience. 

The time has come for the rest of us to Occupy the system.  The time has come to be conscious of the power of our daily spending and financial habits, and speak out by altering the ways we speak with our money.  The Wall Street barons depend on Americans' continued acquiescence in the funneling of wealth out of our communities, and into their offshore bank accounts. They depend on us to continue to buy cheap foreign made products in big box corporate stores that kill local economies.  They depend on Black Friday shoppers, all year long.  We need to stop feeding their system, and start supporting our communities and our nation.  

Here are a few suggestions for how to Occupy the system, from the comfort of your own neighborhood...

1.  Move Your Money!  -  The "too big to fail" banks relied on the American public for their very survival in 2008 and accepted billions of dollars in taxpayer bailout.  Then, they turned around and gave jaw-dropping bonuses to the very executives who crashed the American economy, outsourced departments and laid off American workers by the thousands, and then began an aggressively arrogant campaign to nickel and dime their customers into 6.2 billion dollars in quarterly profits.  They thought we would recognize their power and just accept more fees.  Occupy the mega-banks by moving your money to a small local bank or credit union.   By moving your money from a Wall Street mega-bank to a local bank or credit union, you'll be making your voice heard in the only way that matters on Wall Street, and you'll be supporting a local institution that contributes more to your local economy. For a little guidance on moving your money, check out

2.  Shop Independent and Local! -  Every time you make the choice to shop at a local "mom and pop" store, you are contributing to your local economy.  Studies have shown that for every $100 spent at an independent business, $68 stays in the local economy.  For every $100 spent at a local corporately-owned national chain store, only $43 stays.   Chain stores funnel money out of local economies and into usually far-away corporate headquarters.  Independent stores are owned and operated by your neighbors.  And, communities that support independent stores and restaurants enjoy a unique diversity of options, as opposed to generic big box warehouses of cheap stuff "made in China," and bland chain restaurants serving homogenous processed garbage. 

3.  Avoid Online Shopping! - There is no more direct way to funnel your dollars out of your community than "shopping" online.  You might save a dollar, or two, by shopping through an online retailer, and the convenience is definitely tempting, but you're sending your money to a "store" that doesn't hire local workers, doesn't pay local taxes, doesn't support local charities, and doesn't contribute in any way to the prosperity of your community.

4.  Buy American! - Right-wingers love to wave their (Made in China) American flags and call themselves "real" patriots, then get into their gas-guzzling SUVs and head directly to Wal-Mart to fill their shopping carts full of cheap junk made in sweatshops in China, Pakistan, and Myanmar.  Wall Street's multi-national corporations have no loyalty to the United States.  Their only loyalty is to their shareholders.  Be a real patriot and buy American-made products.  In doing so, you're supporting American jobs, American safety standards, American labor practices, and American environmental standards.  It can be difficult to find the American-made version of what you're looking for, but it's worth trying.  Here's a place to start...How Americans Can Buy American.

5.  Educate Yourself!  - There is an entire industry built on supplying a steady stream of misinformation to the American people.  It's hard to sift through all the inaccuracies and outright lies, but ultimately, it is your responsibility to educate yourself as to what is going on and how we got to where we are as a nation.  Do a little research and make sure you understand one of the main points of protest - the 2010 Supreme Court decision on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, and definitely know the big money players behind the corruption of our system...The Koch Brothers and ALEC (, and are great resources for checking the facts).

The time has come.  

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thank You.