@Rest: aaron rester's blog

Monday, December 21, 2009


My Top Albums of the Decade

Generally, I tend to think that things like "Best of the Decade" lists are ways for lazy editors (and bloggers) to fill space, though that never stops me from doing my own year-end lists.

However, reading Paste Magazine's take on the topic led me to reflect a bit on how much my musical life has changed in the last ten years. If the 90s were the decade when I discovered music -- when the power of melody, rhythm, lyrics and live performance were first revealed to me, and I made my initial tentative stabs at writing, performing, and recording music -- then the '00s were the decade in which I began to live it. In the last ten years, I've recorded three solo "bedroom" records, as well as a full-fledged studio record with my band The Lost Cartographers, played dozens of gigs, seen hundreds more, and increased the size of my music collection by a power of a power of ten. iTunes changed the way we buy music, and made it possible for me to listen to that entire collection shuffled together (making the album itself a somewhat archaic way of organizing lists like these). And my iPhone allows me to take a large chunk of it with me wherever I go, as well as find and download new music from anywhere.

Through all these changes, the albums listed below are the ones that I most enjoyed over the past decade. I make no claims that these are the best albums produced in that time frame, but they are the ones that I would take with me to that other critical cliche: the desert island.

The Runners-Up:
The Finalists: 

5. Main Hoon Na (2004) - Main Hoon Na is the Bollywood movie I recommend most often to those who have never seen one: it's funny and smart, worldly and rooted in an ancient mythic tradition (it's based on the ancient epic Ramayana), and the music is great. The soundtrack takes the something-for-everything approach of masala films to a global level, mashing together styles as diverse as qawwali devotional music, American 1950s rock, and Latin pop just for the sheer joy of it, and it provided a big chunk of the soundtrack for my summer in Jaipur.

4. The Avett Brothers, Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions (2006) - While 2007's Emotionalism and 2009 major label debut I and Love and You get most of the critical attention, Four Thieves Gone gets my vote as the Avetts' best, as it's one of the few studio albums that manages to convey the frenetic joy of a great live band in all its jagged glory.

3. Solomon Burke, Nashville (2006) - The larger-than-life "Legendary King of Rock and Soul" returns to his country roots on an album produced by Buddy Miller, and featuring collaborators from Patty Griffin to Dolly Parton. The result is an incomparably beautiful mix of soul and country, a truly American sound.

2. Old 97's, Blame It On Gravity (2008) - Currently my favorite band of all time, the 97's had an up-and-down decade, getting dropped by Elektra after 2001's 60s-pop-influenced Sattelite Rides, returning to their alt.country origins on 2004's Drag It Up (which unfortunately obscured some pretty good songs with muddy and orerdone production) and coming back with six-guns blazing for their last album of the decade, an accomplishment that rivals their excellent late 90s albums for country swagger and pure melodic bliss.

1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)  - In the summer of 2002, while driving north from San Francisco in a rented car to visit friends and family in the Pacific Northwest, I stopped at a roadside mall to buy some CDs for the drive (this was a good four months before I got my first iPod). I had never owned a Wilco CD before, but the critical buzz over their new album was deafening, especially in my new hometown of Chicago (whose iconic Marina Towers also graced the CD cover), and I had heard enough bits and pieces of it to be intrigued. At that moment, driving away from the ruins of a failed relationship and toward a future that was thrillingly uncertain, the insect hum of homemade electronics, off-kilter drumming, and half-drunken piano plinking of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" held out the promise that, for all its heartbreak, the world remained a strange and beautiful place. By the end of the achingly lovely "Jesus Etc." I knew that this would be one of my favorite albums of all-time.

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Monday, December 7, 2009


In Which I Land on Boagworld

This past week's episode of Boagworld featured yours truly doing an audio version of my review of Prezi.com (originally featured here). Boagworld is the only web design podcast I listen to religiously and I've highly recommended it before; aside from being quite informative, the hosts, Paul and Marcus, are very entertaining and exceedingly funny... maybe it's the British accents? It's a pleasure to be associated with such a great resource for the web design community.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Moving Pictures

While I've always had a healthy (or maybe less unhealthy than some?) appreciation for comics and animation, I've never been an obsessive fan. Lately, however, it seems that these related media have been popping up in my consciousness quite often. First, my friend Charles gave me as a birthday gift the comic adaptations of two of the Indiana Jones movies, films which we were both deeply enamored with as kids (he found them at a flea market in Michigan). My friend Kim just wrote an excellent blog post about what The Watchmen loses in translation from paper to the big screen, and I listened to an engaging and hilarious conversation between cartoonists Marjane Satrapi (whose graphic novel Persepolis was turned into an excellent film) and Chris Ware, who designs incredibly elaborate comics that defy the standard conventions of movement across panels. Finally, I learned that Nina Paley, who created an amazing retelling of the Ramayana using Flash animation and old blues songs, will be appearing on campus at the University of Chicago to discuss her work.

There's little I can say about the power of these media that hasn't been said better by others, but it did make me realize that this a form of both graphic and narrative design to which I should be paying closer critical attention.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Bollywood 101

As regular readers of this site know, in a former life I was something of a scholar of Bollywood cinema (I promise this will be my last Bollywood-related post for a while!). A couple of years ago a friend asked me to compile a list of my favorite films, which I recently happened upon and decided to reproduce here.

For the most part, these are the films that I would include in an introductory class on post-Independence Hindi cinema and the historical and cultural contexts that produced it. I make no claim to comprehensiveness -- this list skews heavily toward my interests in religion and nationalism in India and towards more recent films. But if you're thinking of diving into Bollywood, you could do worse than starting with these films.

1. Shree 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955) - Kapoor, the Chaplain-esque king of early Bollywood became an international hero in the Soviet Union for this condemnation of greed and capitalist corruption.

2. Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) - Perhaps the most well-known film in India, and an ideological endorsement of Nehru's industrial-developmental socialism over the traditionalist feudalism portrayed as pervasive in village India.

3. Mughal-e-Azam (K. Asif, 1960) - One of the finest "historicals," this period piece is best known for its lyrical Urdu dialogue and beautiful cinematography.

4. Jai Santoshi Maa (Vijay Sharma, 1975) - A throwback to the early "mythologicals" (most of the early Indian movies were stories of gods and saints), JSM basically established a nationwide cult for a previously little-known goddess; a prime example of the interaction of media and religion in Indian culture.

5. Deewaar (Yash Chopra, 1975) and
6. Sholay (G.P. Sippy, 1975) - The movies that turned Amitabh Bachchan from a star into a god; great examples of the "angry young man" genre that featured disenfranchised and dissatisfied young men as their heroes, reflecting a growing disillusionment with the ineffectiveness and corruption of the government in the 1970s.

7. Amar Akbar Anthony (Manmohan Desai, 1977) - My personal favorite, for reasons ranging from the excellent music to the ridiculous costumes; also ground zero for my study of the intersection of religious and national space in Bollywood cinema.

8. Disco Dancer (Baabar Subhash, 1982) - THE Bollywood movie to watch for camp/kitsch, it is a remake of "Saturday Night Fever;" unexplainably, also one of the most popular movies in West Africa.

9. Tezaab (N. Chandra, 1988) - A terrible movie, but a perfect example of the state of Bollywood in the 80s; also helped launch the career of Madhuri Dixit with the song "Ek, Do, Tin."

10. Khal Nayak (Subhash, Ghai 1993) - A reimagining of the Ramayana as a police drama; most notable for the song "Chole Ke Piche" and the incredibly absurd outfits worn by Sanjay Dutt.

11. Hum Aapke Hain Koun (Sooraj R. Barjatya, 1994) - Not a single fight scene to be had, Bollywood begins turning away from the angry young man and back toward the love story/family drama; as economic liberalizations begin to transform India, conspicuous consumption starts becoming a family value.

12. Bombay (Mani Ratnam, 1995) - A beautifully shot and acted film about the aftermath of the 1992 Ayodhya conflict and the riots in its wake.

13. Pardes (Subhash Ghai, 1997) - Not really a good movie, but interesting in its depictions of the conflicts in Indian social life as more and more Indians go abroad.

14. Dil To Pagal Hai (Yash Chopra, 1997) - A fun, goofy, infectious movie, with Shah Rukh Khan at his best (i.e. before people started thinking he was a dramatic actor)

15. Dil Se (Mani Ratnam, 1998) - Mani Ratnam does it again -- and with maybe the best soundtrack ever by A.R. Rahman.

16. Dil Chahta Hai (Farhan Akhtar, 2001) - MTV starts making its presence felt in this coming of age drama about three hip young friends.

17. Devdas (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2002) - Maybe the most beautifully shot Bollywood film ever, and fantastic music; Shah Rukh really can't pull off the dramatic lead, though.

18. Main Hoon Na (Farah Khan, 2004) - post-modern, self-referential and ironic, yet loving tribute to the masala film; ridiculous plot but funny and technically perfect -- and great songs, of course.

19. Swades (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2004) - Something of an answer to "Pardes," addressing the question of what happens when NRIs return to India.

20. Rang De Basanti (Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, 2006) - A sensation in India at the time of release, it mixes together the stories of anti-British Indian revolutionaries with the political awakening of a group of young friends.

Did I leave off your favorite movie? Of course I did. Let me know in the comments!

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008


iPhone = design porn

Yes, I'm coming to this party rather late -- if I'm going to drop several hundred bucks on a gadget, I want to be sure that all of the bugs have been worked out before I do so. But about three weeks ago, armed with an Apple gift card that my wife gave me for my birthday, I finally took the plunge. And I have to say that -- despite all the geeky hype and the fact that I've been a Mac user for fifteen years, and thus should no longer be surprised by anything they do -- the iPhone has blown me away.

Sure, there are problems -- AT&T's Edge network really is as slow as people say, and if your fingers are larger than an eight-year-old's you will spend a lot of time backspacing over typographic errors. But overall, the device is a joy to use. When you work with computers all day every day you constantly bump up against applications and devices that were obviously designed by programmers or engineers of some sort, and that are thus designed FOR programmers or engineers. The all-important empathic act -- transporting yourself out of your own head into the head of a user with entirely different experiences and goals -- is usually the missing step that could have made these products great.

But with the iPhone, as with most of its products, Apple puts the user experience first. It takes an extraordinary problem -- how do you provide much of the functionality of a personal computer on a tiny mobile device? -- and provides simple and elegant solutions. For this reason alone, the user interface is beautiful. But the real magic, as with all good design, happens in the details. Just as one example, consider the way the screen appears to bounce a little bit if you scroll quickly to the top or the bottom of the screen. This tiny detail, which on the surface seems gratuitous, pulls you into the tactile world of the interface, giving you the impression that you are interacting with a physical object rather than pixels on a tiny screen.

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Friday, February 15, 2008


Lost & Lonesome

Last Saturday, fellow Lost Cartographer Gabrielle Schafer and I played a short three-song acoustic set at the Charleston as the guests of the Long Gone Lonesome Boys. Aside from being incredibly nice guys, the Boys put on an amazing show, and the LGLBs' John Milne was kind enough to give me a copy of their second cd, "Lonesome Time." While the disc doesn't quite capture the fun and energy of their live set, you should check it out if you enjoy 50s and 60s country along the lines of the Louvin Brothers or anything from Sun Records. Like fellow Chicagoan Robbie Fulks, the LGLBs provide this classic material with wicked wit and a decidedly 21st-century twist (e.g. one of their songs is called "www.lonesome.com," and features the line "tired of Googling porn/and playing with my flugelhorn"). If you can catch them live, by all means do so -- but if you can't, you should pick up this record.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008


My Top Five Albums of 2007

Ok, it's about a month too late for "best of " lists, and the idea of "best albums" seems so 20th-century in this Age of Shuffle. But I still wanted to note some of my favorites from this year.

Surprisingly, some of my favorite bands' eagerly anticipated new albums didn't make the cut (Arcade Fire, the Shins, Wilco). Instead, my list is headed by two bands I found out about just this year:

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Monday, January 21, 2008


How To Stay Sane On The CTA

My Roscoe Village apartment and the University where I work are only about 8 miles apart, as the crow flies. Somehow, though, I manage to spend nearly three hours a day trapped in the belly of the beast known as the Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA. In between doomsday scenarios and derailments, I've used my daily public transportation sentence to get a fair amount of reading done. In the last couple of years, though, much of my commuting time has been spent listening to podcasts. Here's a quick guide to some of my favorites, listed by topic:


Paste Culture Club
- Paste is almost my perfect music magazine: heavy does of alt.country/americana and indie rock, with occasional forays into underground hip-hop and the just-plain-weird. While they may throw in a few too many earnestly mediocre singer-songwriters, I'll take that any day over the Frankenstein's monster Rolling Stone has become -- the reanimated corpses of Boomer nostalgia acts steered by the criminally insane brain of top-40 teen-pop (shudder). Paste's biweekly podcast features full-length songs, interviews, and news about new releases.

Sound Opinions - Featuring Chicago's own major-paper rock critics, "The World's Only Rock-and-Roll Talk Show" was on WXRT when I moved to town, and has since moved to Chicago Public Radio. I'm pretty sure it's one of the only shows on public radio where you'll ever hear people wax on about the talents of Ghostface Killah.


Design Matters - Sterling Brands' Debbie Millman (she designed the Burger King logo, among others) interviews some of the top designers in the field (Steven Heller, Milton Glaser, etc.), along with other cultural luminaries like Malcolm Gladwell.

Be A Design Cast - A group of young designers from (of all places) Omaha puts together this entertaining bi-weekly podcast. They too interview design big-wigs (including Debbie Millman), but don't take themselves (or much of anything, except Mountain Dew can redesigns) too seriously.

Freelance Radio - Not really a design show, but applicable to those like myself who do freelance design work. The hosts discuss things like contracts, time management techniques, and client horror stories.

Web Design:

Boagworld - Hosted by two Brits who run a web design company called Headscape. The dynamic between old friends Paul, the often-cranky designer type and Marcus, the ex-pop-star salesman/project manager is itself worth listening to the show. The fact that it's full of interesting news, reviews, and interviews is just icing on the cake.


This American Life - Single-handedly responsible for making me a member of Chicago Public Radio, TAL is the most popular podcast on iTunes. I actually listened to all 300-plus episodes on the web before they began podcasting, which means I wait with baited breath each week to see if the lastest podcast will be a new episode or a rerun.

The Story - Kind of like TAL, but daily.

Savage Lovecast - "America's only advice columnist" Dan Savage is even funnier live than he is in his weekly column. Warning: anyone who doesn't find hilarity in the idea of elderly grandmothers inadvertently pleasuring their pet parakeets probably shouldn't listen.

So -- any suggestions for ones I should absolutely add to my list? I'm all ears.

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