a primal scream

First week of Couch-to-5k is in the books! I didn't even cry once.

I still can not, for the life of me, find a way to program 30 second intervals into the treadmills at my gym. Three different people take a look at it and we were all stumped.  I'm going to have to do some serious Google-Fu and figure out how to get the time I want programmed in, because controlling the treadmill's speed mid-run is - for me - a feat equal to flying a helicopter blindfolded.

This will probably be the only time along this journey that I say this, but I am actually looking forward to things getting harder next week. The hardest part about week one was having to start and stop so much, my knees are a bit sore, but there was no point during the week where I felt like I couldn't run another minute or two if I wanted. If anyone stumbles into this blog along their journey to become a better runner, I wish you all the best, and feel free to share your stories of running joy and/or woe!

TL;DR: I'm feeling great. Bring on week two. Treadmills, how do they work?

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There's one more best-of sort of thing I wanted to write about before I fully leave 2013 behind. This is perfect because getting all the 2013 thinking out of my head will help me not sign all my checks 2013. Let's put last year to rest. I'll be happier, the tellers at my bank will be happier, and we can all move on with our lives.

So, how about last year in music? That was a thing, right?

Actually, some background first. The first job I had as a writer on my college newspaper was doing music reviews. This means I spent a lot of the mid-aughts in dark room, headphones on, listening to indie rock. I came to really appreciate albums as a cohesive work of art, which was really poor timing on my part given the proliferation of iTunes/Spotify playlists. That's fine though, there are still a ton of bands putting out really interesting, amazing albums. Sometimes a band will even get as bold as to release a double album!

So here are my five favorite albums from last year, in some kind of order. It's really hard to narrow down my favorite albums at any given time because, like everybody, I listen to different genres/styles of music as the mood suits me. When I'm lifting weights I don't listen to a lot of Bon Iver, and I don't listen to Girl Talk when I'm feeling melancholy. That said, there are some albums that I kept returning to this year:

5. Repave - Volcanic Choir

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vvp305B9FoQ

I love me some Justin Vernon. Whether the Eu Claire native is melting my heart in Bon Iver or kicking out the jams in the Shout Out Louds, the man is a workaholic who seems to have an endless amount of creative juice. He also has a fantastic singing voice, which is on display throughout Repave.

What I love about Repave is the textured quality of the songs. This is one of those albums that you can hear dozens of times and still get something new on every listen. The songs have a great density in the same way that a lot of the songs from the last Bon Iver album did. This is definitely one of those dark room, headphones albums, that I like to listen to before I go to bed. It demands the listeners full attention.

4. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5EofwRzit0

I actually have a lot of problems with this album. At times it feels uninspired, and I'm don't really buy into the whole, we have to get back to the roots of what makes dance music great. Your Daft Punk. You toured around the world playing electronic music comprised mostly of mash-ups, and you did it in a giant electronic pyramid! Also, the collaborations with Panda Bear and Julian Cassablancas felt forced and unnecessary. If you are going to bring in really talented people to collaborate with on the album it would be nice if they got to show off their talent's a little more on the songs they worked on.

I'm sure when the robots decide to do another mash-up, tour/album they will create some really incredible anthems with the bits and pieces of greatness on this album, but it does feel like the high points on RAM are too few and far between.

So why is this number four on my list? Look, I'll be honest. I listened to a lot of better albums in 2013 than Random Access Memories. But for all my misgivings with RAM, it is still one of my most played albums of the year.

Why?

Because "Get Lucky" is on this album.

Enough said.

3. Arctic Monkeys - AM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQH8ZTgna3Q

One of the reasons I mentioned my college writing career earlier is that the first album I reviewed for the prestigious Highland Chronicle was the Arctic Monkeys first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. I remember liking the album so much that it made me nervous. Was the album really that great, or was I just coming at this whole criticism thing with rose colored glasses on. After my editor told me, in no uncertain terms, to stop being a pansy and write how I honestly felt the record - I gave it a glowing review. I'd like to think I was right in my assessment of that album, I still think it's great. It shows the strengths of the band, namely Alex Turner's ability to turn a phrase.

In the proceeding seven years the Arctic Monkeys have put out three decent albums, but failed to live up to the promise of their first LP. They remained a popular and completely adequate rock band, but I sort of lost interest.

When news came that they were recording AM in the deserts of California, with the help of Queens Of The Stone Age frontman, Josh Homme, it got my attention, and for good reason. There's a swagger to AM that was missing in the band's earlier records. The influence of Homme is immediately felt in the sleazy, drugged out, sound of "Knee Socks" and "Arabella". This is an album that is equally danceable and lyrically interesting, an intoxicating mix that made me fall in love with the Arctic Monkeys all over again.

2. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires Of The City

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oG6lTQNW04I

I always thought Vampire Weekend was amazing at writing pop songs, but a little light on substance. Boy-oh-boy has that changed. I'm not sure what Ezra Koenig was up to between the release of Contra and the release of this new album, but after my first listen to MVOTC I felt like I had just read a great collection of short stories. Every song has it's own feel, it's own setting, and interesting characters. Just take these lyrics from the song "Finger back":

Sing next year in Jerusalem You know – the one at W.103RD and Broadway. 'Cause this Orthodox girl fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop and why not? Should she have averted her eyes and just stared at the laminated poster of the dome of the rock?

There's enough imagery in those lines alone to warrant at least a week of attention in a songwriting course. The albums full of interesting references to other artists: notice the reference to Nick Cave's brilliant "Red Right Hand" in "Worship You." This is a band that has clearly grown into it's own, having fully absorbed their influences to create an album that sounds uniquely their own.

1. Kanye West - Yeezus

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuhl6Ji5zHM

Listen guys and gals, I know what you are thinking. Kanye is crazy. Kanye is an asshole. Kanye is the butt of half of the dumb memes on the internet. He's absolutely all those things. But here's the thing: he's also a genius.

When Kanye talks about popping a wheelie on the zeitgeist, he's not wrong. Has there been a person more influential in popular music the last decade? Remember when we were all making fun of 808's and Heartbreak? I do. Then Drake happened. Then every pop artist started using a vocoder and tried expressing their emotional side. For an album that was't reviewed all that well critically, 808's made a lasting impact.

Then Kanye made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which I - and just about every music critic on the internet - regard as one of the greatest rap albums of all time. In a lot of ways this record feels like an epic Greek tragedy set to tape. From the sheer ethos of "Power" to the lament of "Runaway" and the decent into hades for "Hell of a Life", MBDTF is an album that is perfect in both its conception and production.

In a lot of ways Yeezus feels like the answer to both 808's and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Gone are the sweeping orchestral arrangements and angelic choirs, replaced with pounding drums, screeching synthesizers and a whole lot of demonic screaming. There are absolutely no rounded corners on this record, everything is twisted and angry feeling. It's a stripped down, abrasive album, in a way that puts a lot of stripped down, abrasive acts to shame (I'm looking at you Death Grips).

But it's the little moments of harmony in the otherwise volatile, hurricane of sound that is Yeezus, that makes all the difference. I'm talking specifically about moments like the Frank Ocean bit in the middle of New Slaves that sounds like a frayed Late Registration sample, or Justin Vernon's cut in at the end of "New Slaves". They are rays of sunlight in what is otherwise a dark skies album. This dichotomy of sound is what elevates Yeezus to more than just a, "I'm angry at the world, fuck everything" record - which would have great in its own right - and makes it an interesting work of art.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9os5qNv_RI

When Kanye samples "Strange Fruit" on a song that has nothing to do with lynching, he knows exactly what kind of statement he is making. Yeezus is an album about slavery in all of it's forms, and the "Strange Fruit" sample serves as a reprisal of his thesis statement. It's all too easy to become a slave to our desires. We are all capable of terrible things, and given the right circumstances become horrible people.

I'm not going to sit here and try to argue that Kanye is a great rapper, he's not. In fact there are not a lot of interesting lines in Yeezus. I find it interesting that West decided to tour this album with Kendrick Lamar as the opening act. Lamar is the quintessential lyricist. In fact it's his ability to paint such a vivid world in his songs that made last years Good Kid, Maad City the best rap album of the year. The difference between the two is the musical arrangements are the star of Kanye's albums. The themes and emotional backbone of his albums come from the instrumentation and he uses lyrics only in service of the music, whereas Lamar uses the music as a canvas to etch his words into. The instrumentation is just along for the ride. I think it says a lot that Rap music as a genre has grown to a point where we can have masterpiece albums from an impressionist and lyricist in consecutive years.

It feels like this Yeezus was made after Kanye spent a whole lot of time being a hermit in a Paris apartment (this really happened), reading every word anybody ever wrote about him on the internet (highly plausible), and then got in front of a microphone and let out a primal scream. If there was a word I'd use to describe this album it would be: catharsis. Kanye West is northing to himself if not a modern martyr, which is silly, but is also what drives him to create such interesting, avant-garde music.  Even if Mr. West is just screaming at phantoms, what a wonderful howl it is.

TL;DR: I like music. Kanye is a dick, his music is awesome.